Wednesday, March 13, 2019

The History of WrestleMania: I-III

Hello and welcome to this special blog, The History of WrestleMania!  This 12-part column will discuss and dissect all 34 previous installments of the annual supercard and determine what I feel were the highlights and lowlights each year.

WrestleMania season is usually one of my favorite times of the year, and I always find myself reflecting back on the storied history of this great spectacle.  I think about some of my favorite 'Mania matches, what makes a great 'Mania card, and why some shows were so successful while others really don't deserve to fall under the WrestleMania banner.  For the record, I'm writing this piece completely from memory, which should give you some idea of how sad and twisted I am.

So without further prattling on, let's get to it.

Madison Square Garden - 3/31/85

This of course was the show that started it all.  The great McMahon gamble that paid off not in spades, but truckloads of money.  This was one of the first truly mainstream wrestling events on a national scale, and the hype allowed the WWF to break into the pop culture vernacular.

Surprisingly though, the inaugural 'Mania card more resembled a house show than a true supercard.  For one thing, having a tag team match as the main event rather than a WWF Title match seems like such an odd choice.  Hulk Hogan's ongoing feud with Roddy Piper was such a draw it seems like a singles match for the belt would be the natural main event.  However the WWF put that match on MTV that February as a way to hype 'Mania.  Clearly it worked, but it made for kind of a watered-down main event for the supercard.  Hogan/Mr. T vs. Piper/Orndorff was fine for what it was, but I hardly consider it a classic.

I always dug this poster for some reason.
These two guys together would beat Rocky Balboa's ass!

This match also began the trend of celebrities getting involved in big money matches as actual competitors.  It occurs to me that the match would've been greatly improved by swapping T out for Jimmy Snuka.  But I suppose seeing T wrestle was part of the draw.  Mr. T certainly looked like he could hang in the ring with the actual wrestlers but I've always felt that having celebs wrestle damages the business somewhat.  More on that later....

The show was also not very stacked for such a marquee event.  To be fair, the WWF's roster would expand considerably after this show (Savage and Jake would arrive, the Hart Foundation and the British Bulldogs would form).  Elsewhere on the card we had Andre the Giant vs. Big John Studd in a bodyslam challenge (again, this felt watered-down since it wasn't a traditional wrestling match but ended when one man bodyslammed the other) which aside from the spectacle was just two nearly immobile guys plodding through a short match.

The first 'Mania also inexplicably featured several glorified squashes.  Tito Santana vs. The Executioner opened the show and was roughly the kind of match you'd see on Wrestling Challenge.  King Kong Bundy vs. S.D. Jones and Ricky Steamboat vs. Matt Borne also fell into that category.  Hardly worthy of the biggest show of all-time (at that point anyway).

First match in WrestleMania history

The real stinker of this particular 'Mania though was Brutus Beefcake vs. David Sammartino.  I guess Vince et al hoped David would follow in his father Bruno's footsteps and become a bona fide star.  This clunker lasted a good nine minutes and was totally forgettable.  Surely the real money would've been in having Beefcake wrestle Bruno, since Bruno was still a part-time active wrestler at the time.

While there was no WWF title match on this card, the other three championships were defended, with lackluster results...

Intercontinental Champion Greg Valentine had a fairly brief defense against the Junkyard Dog culminating in Valentine getting a cheap pin with his foot on the ropes.  But Tito Santana (with whom Valentine was feuding, begging the question "Why didn't they book Valentine vs. Santana on this show) ran down and explained the infraction to the referee, who restarted the match and counted Valentine out when the Champ failed to get back in the ring.

Women's Champion Lelani Kai, flanked by The Fabulous Moolah faced Wendy Richter, who was accompanied by Cyndi Lauper, one of the architects of the "Rock n' Wrestling Connection" that brought so many new eyes to the WWF.  This was a totally forgettable match, other than Richter's Title win.

The best of the championship bouts was for the Tag Team Titles, as Barry Windham and Mike Rotundo defended against The Iron Sheik and Nikolai Volkoff.  After seven minutes of solid action, Sheik waffled Windham with manager Freddie Blassie's cane to steal the belts.

Do it Barry!!

Overall this WrestleMania is really only enjoyable for historical purposes.  It's interesting to see how primitive the production values were (oddly they were considered first-rate at the time), and the near-embryonic stages of the 1980s boom period.  I liken this to the debut album of a great band who hasn't quite found their voice yet.

Best Match: Hogan/Mr. T vs. Piper/Orndorff
Worst Match: Brutus Beefcake vs. David Sammartino
What I'd Change: Make the main event Hogan vs. Piper for the WWF Title
Most Disappointing Match: Most of the show is underwhelming
Most Pleasant Surprise: I guess Tito vs. Executioner?
Overall Rating: 3/10

Nassau Coliseum/Rosemont Horizon/L.A. Sports Arena - 4/7/86

'Mania 2 was possibly the strangest of them all.  It took place from three different locations on a Monday(!) night.  The multi-venue format was clearly in response to Jim Crockett's Starrcade '85 being broadcast from two venues a few months earlier.  Three is bigger than two I guess, so Vince opted for a live one-hour card from three different time zones.  Unfortunately this made for a rather uneven show, and worse, the commentary suffered as the A-crew was split up and paired with B-level commentators and/or celebrities who knew nothing about the product. 

Each hour of the show featured a main event match, preceded by three undercard matches (some of which were oddly truncated to the point that their inclusion at all is rather baffling).

The Nassau portion of the show was easily the weakest, headlined by a worked boxing match between Piper and Mr. T.  There is little in the sports-entertainment business that is less exciting to me than pretend boxing.  It simply doesn't work, especially when neither participant is particularly good at it.  Neither of them looked like legitimate fighters and the match was little more than a barrage of pulled punches.  An actual wrestling match could have been much more entertaining. 

Wow, this stunk...

The first third of the show was notable for the WrestleMania debuts of Randy Savage and Jake Roberts, neither of whom really got to show what they were capable of.  The opening match on this show was probably the most disappointing, as on paper Don Muraco vs. Paul Orndorff looks pretty good.  Sadly they were only given about 4 minutes and they went to a rushed double countout.  Savage's match was by default the best of the Nassau portion, but it was little more than a comedic spectacle as his opponent George "The Animal" Steele was so uncontrollable.

The middle third of 'Mania 2 had two incredibly short, blink-and-you-miss-them squashes, but the other two Chicago matches were fun.  Andre the Giant won a 20-man battle royal featuring several NFL players, and the British Bulldogs took the WWF Tag Titles from Greg Valentine and Brutus Beefcake.  It was a solid tag team match, but their previous match three weeks earlier on Saturday Night's Main Event was actually better (track that one down on The Network).  Still The Bulldogs and the Dream Team pretty handily stole the show at 'Mania 2.

I think this was the first steel cage match I ever watched.  I think.

The L.A. section of the show was fittingly the strongest overall, opening with Ricky Steamboat vs. Hercules (Steamboat was originally penciled in to wrestle Bret Hart which surely would've outclassed everything else on this show - look for their March 8th, 1986 house show match and you'll see what I mean.), continuing with a quick Adrian Adonis squash, and probably climaxing with the forgotten gem of Terry and Dory (Hoss) Funk vs. Tito Santana & the Junkyard Dog.  It was an unruly, exciting brawl, and much better than it had any right to be.

The main event, which unlike its predecessor actually felt worthy of being atop a WrestleMania card, was Hulk Hogan vs. King Kong Bundy in a steel cage.  It was certainly no mat classic but it had that big-match feel and the cage gimmick made it stand out.  Bundy had attacked Hogan on Saturday Night's Main Event weeks earlier and "injured" his ribs, so the WWF added several hype segments on this show to build suspense over Hogan's match readiness.  For a WWF supercard in 1986 this was a fitting headliner.

The WWF still hadn't knocked one out of the park with 'Mania 2, but I still find parts of this show a lot of fun to watch.  It's a good time capsule of where the WWF was at the time and features a strong cast of characters.

Best Match: Dream Team vs. British Bulldogs
Worst Match: Roddy Piper vs. Mr. T
What I'd Change: Cut the abbreviated matches and add Bret Hart vs. Ricky Steamboat
Most Disappointing Match: Paul Orndorff vs. Don Muraco
Most Pleasant Surprise: Tito's match again!  Santana/JYD vs. The Funks is loads of fun.
Overall Rating: 5.5/10

Pontiac Silverdome - 3/29/87

Now we're talkin'.  WrestleMania III was, and probably still is, the biggest wrestling supercard of all time.  No single wrestling match has carried the sheer magnitude or mainstream appeal of Hogan vs. Andre.  There's a consensus among internet wrestling fans (i.e. the harshest critics in the business): When it comes to WrestleMania III, star ratings do not apply. 

Let's be honest, Hogan vs. Andre is a terrible, terrible match from an in-ring standpoint.  Had that been Dan Spivey vs. Big John Studd performing the exact same match, it would've been booed like X-Pac and ranked high on the all-time DUD list.  But somehow the mediocre Hogan and the damn near immobile Andre captured the imagination of everyone on that night, and delivered the best and most memorable awful match in history which climaxed with The Bodyslam Heard 'Round the World.

On the other end of the workrate spectrum lay the #2 draw of the night, Randy Savage vs. Ricky Steamboat.  What can I say that hasn't been said already?  It's an all-time classic; a near-perfect match that has stood the test of time and then some. 'Mania 3 is remembered just as much for this match as for Hogan-Andre, and it became the prototype for the WWF-style five-star match.  Sadly Steamboat's planned long-term Intercontinental Title run was derailed when he asked for a reduced schedule to focus on his newborn son, and this would be his last great WWF match.

Goddamn this match is 17 kinds of awesome.

The rest of the show featured the culminations of high-profile feuds: Jake Roberts vs. Honky Tonk Man was a pretty weak showing, Hercules vs. Billy Jack Haynes was an enjoyable brawl but the double countout finish didn't resolve anything, and the retiring Roddy Piper vs. Adrian Adonis in an ugly little match that was really more of an entertaining angle.

Also heavily featured on this show was the company's robust tag team division.  Recently crowned Tag Team Champions The Hart Foundation teamed with crooked referee-turned-wrestler Danny Davis against The British Bulldogs and Tito Santana, in a pretty damn good six-man bout, The Dream Team made short work of The Rougeau Brothers before Brutus Beefcake turned babyface due to his team's cheap win, The Killer Bees were disqualified in their match with Sheik & Volkoff thanks to the interference of newcomer "Hacksaw" Jim Duggan, and in the opener The Can-Am Connection got a fairly exciting win over Don Muraco and Bob Orton.

WrestleMania III was like a perfect sampling of everything the WWF was in 1987, displayed on the grandest stage imaginable.  The Pontiac Silverdome itself became one of the stars of the show.  No wrestling venue before or since has looked so spectacular or so enormous.  I was always struck by how the show began in daylight hours and gradually the stadium darkened as the show progressed.  The lighting shift always added an epic quality for me.

Probably the best bad match of all time

This was everything the WWF and we the fans hoped for, and was the first time the WWF truly nailed what WrestleMania was supposed to be about.

Best Match: Savage vs. Steamboat
Worst Match: King Kong Bundy/Lord Littlebrook/Little Tokyo vs. Hillbilly Jim/Little Beaver/Haiti Kid
What I'd Change: Very little, except cutting the mixed tag and maybe Butch Reed vs. Koko B. Ware
Most Disappointing Match: Beefcake/Valentine vs. Rougeau Brothers should've gotten more time
Most Pleasant Surprise: I guess JYD vs. Race
Overall Rating: 8.5/10

Well, that'll wrap it up for Part 1.  Click below for WrestleMania 4-6!

                                                                                                                                                         Part 2

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