Where It All Began: A Look At The First Wrestlemania
Introduction to Wrestlemania
On April 6th, professional wrestling’s biggest event of the year, Wrestlemania, will take place. Taking place at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana, this year marks the 30th time that World Wrestling Entertainment has brought us their showcase event. Wrestlemania has become one of the biggest live events in the country. Major cities bid for the chance to host it and millions worldwide watch it live.
However, before what is expected to be huge event, we are going to turn back the clock and look at the time when Wrestlemania wasn’t numbered.
The events leading up to March 31, 1985 actually got started nearly three years prior to that. Professional wrestling in the United States operated under a system in which promoters carved out their own geographical locations, or territories, in which they operated their business. One of the biggest and most profitable territories was in the Northeast area of the country from the state of Maine and down to Washington D.C. and Baltimore. This area was controlled by promoter Vincent Jess McMahon and his organization Capitol Wrestling. He promoted wrestling events under the name of the World Wide Wrestling Federation (later changing it to the World Wrestling Federation in 1979). In 1982, Vincent was approached by his own son, Vince Kennedy McMahon and his group of investors, named Titan Sports, with a deal to buy out the company.
Once he secured the company as his own, Vince had his ideas of how the business should be run. He ditched tradition when he started running wrestling events across the country instead of just in the Northeast. To help advertise these shows, Vince sold his company’s television shows to local stations around the U.S. as a better alternative to shows that were produced by local promoters, and often the stations themselves. Vince, in an effort to circumvent local taxes and sporting commissions, freely admitted his product was staged “sports entertainment” and rarely, if ever, used the term professional wrestling. Vince spent much of late 1983 and 1984 building a roster of the biggest wrestling stars from the various territories.
The biggest of these new stars was “The Incredible” Hulk Hogan, whom Vince made his champion and top star in early 1984. With Hogan firmly in place as the marketable face of the company, Vince brought the WWF to cable audiences with shows airing on the USA and TBS networks along with sports networks like the MSG and NESN. Vince worked out a deal with the popular new pop music star Cyndi Lauper. Famed wrestling personality and manager Capt. Lou Albano agreed to play a role in the music video for Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” and in turn Lauper began to appear on the WWF’s shows. She started a feud with the iconic wrestling personality and in the process created what was known as the “Rock N Wrestling Connection.” This story led to the live MTV special “The Brawl to End it All” in July of 1984, in which Lauper would manage wrestler Wendy Richter against the Albano managed woman’s champion, the Fabulous Moolah, who boasted that she had been champion for 27 years. Richter scored the win and the TV special scored big ratings for the WWF and MTV. Vince made professional wrestling and, more importantly, his WWF the “in” trend of the country amongst young audiences. But Vince wasn’t done yet.
McMahon knew the next logical step was a single big event, akin to the NFL’s Superbowl. Wrestling territories had long had annual big shows, usually on Christmas night. These shows would feature the big matches fans wanted to see and the end of story lines and feuds that had been building for months before. Vince’s closest competitor, Jim Crockett Promotions, had produced the big Starrcade events on Thanksgiving of 1983 and 1984. Those shows, however, were usually only limited to Crockett’s local promotional area of the Carolinas. Vince wanted something even bigger. He came up with the idea for an event that would be shown across the country, showcasing his company and its stars for a national audience.
The idea became known as Wrestlemania.
This March 31, 1985 event would be held at the famed Madison Square Garden in New York. It was not to be held on free or even Cable TV, but primarily to closed-circuit television locations with a smattering of locally airing pay-per-view broadcasts to home viewers.
The big draw to the show was the story surrounding Hulk Hogan and his hated nemesis “Rowdy” Roddy Piper. In late December Hogan, Richter, Albano, and Lauper were part of an award ceremony at MSG for not only Lauper’s work with the WWF, but also her and Albano’s work with the Multiple Sclerosis Society. During the ceremony, the hated Piper interrupted the show before smashing a gold record plaque over Albano’s head. Piper then kicked Lauper and assaulted her husband and manager David Wolfe before Hogan chased him off. This lead to the match in February of 1985 between Piper and Hogan that aired live on MTV called “The War To Settle The Score.” The match was a wild brawl and ended with Piper and his “bodyguard” Cowboy Bob Orton along with fellow bad guy “Mr. Wonderful” Paul Orndorff attacking Hogan in the ring, drawing Lauper, who had been in Hogan’s corner to come to the side of the ring. Piper and Orndorff tried to attack her but she was saved by 80s TV star Mr. T who also had been ringside. Things degenerated even further with the ring filling with not only WWF officials but also several New York police officers. In the month that followed, Hogan and Mr. T appeared on several news and talk shows, even hosting Saturday Night Live the night before the event.
So with the stage now set, we take a look at the happening: Wrestlemania.
The copy I am watching now is the original broadcast as it was in 1985. There have been several versions released over the years, but all have been edited to some degree or another. The show kicks off with the looped instrumental of Phil Collins’s “Easy Lover” as Vince voices a rundown of all the matches we will see, complete with pictures from the official program. It looks low tech compared to today’s slick video packages but at the time it showed just how big and important this show was. We are introduced to our commentators of Gorilla Monsoon and future Minnesota governor Jesse “The Body” Ventura, who is wearing a flamingo pink tuxedo, sunglasses, and a doo rag.
In a somewhat strange scene, famed wrestling interviewer “Mean” Gene Oakerland is introduced to sing the Star Spangled Banner and does a surprisingly good job of it. In recent years, Gene has stated, never saying who that person ever was, that they had someone pegged to sing the anthem but they had backed out. We then go to “Lord” Alfred Hayes who at the time was the co-host of the WWF’s TNT talk show program. His Lordship handled introductions to each of the matches, while standing just inside the entrance, for the home viewers. This makes for a unique view as, while he talks, the wrestlers have to walk around him to get in and out of the locker room. The actual ring and surrounding area should be noted as they have a very old school appearance. The ringside area is much smaller than today’s, with no mats outside the ring. It is also filled with a lot of people, making it look more like boxing match than the site we eventually became accustomed to for a WWF show.
Starting off the historic card, we have the popular Tito Santana squaring off against the mysterious masked Executioner. At the time, Tito was coming back from knee surgery after his leg had been “broken” by the intercontinental champion Greg “The Hammer” Valentine, and Tito was gunning for revenge. His opponent is actually a wrestler who was big in the northwest part of the country named “Playboy” Buddy Rose. Rose, in later years, recounted that the WWF wanted him on the show, but had future plans for him. They didn’t want him to lose, so he borrowed a mask and costume from a friend and he became the Executioner for the night.
We get comments from both wrestlers as Tito talks about how he wants Valentine and the Executioner talks about how he is going for Tito’s previously injured leg. The match itself gets underway and is a fairly one-sided showing, as this was more a showcase of Santana then anything else. Tito gets some quick offense early as he launches the masked man out of the ring within 30 seconds. The Executioner gets in some short flurries of offense, mostly going for the legs, but Tito is quick to counter him. Executioner even tries a leg lock on Santana, which ends with the masked man being launched over the top rope and right into a seating position in a chair at ringside. The crowd is not only very vocal, but reacting to every big move with an “ooooh” that is about as perfect a crowd reaction as you can get. Santana slams his opponent in the ring and hits his favorite move, the flying forearm, before making Executioner submit with Greg Valentine’s finishing move, the figure four leg lock.
Hayes then introduces us to the next match featuring the large 400+ pound King Kong Bundy, with his manager Jimmy Hart, against perennial WWF loser “Special Delivery” Jones. We get comments from both as Jones tells us to “Buy your hats, buy your things” while Bundy just yells. The match is the literal definition of a “squash match,” as Bundy flattens Jones and pins him in less than 30 seconds. The ring announcer says the time of the match is nine seconds, a fact the (now) WWE still uses today. (Though the match was closer to 27 seconds.) It is also worth noting that while he would be known for using a powered megaphone at ringside, Jimmy Hart hadn’t begun to use one at the time of this event.
On deck are Ricky Steamboat and Matt Bourne. Steamboat had just arrived from Vince’s top rival, Jim Crockett’s territory and had not yet gained the “Dragon” moniker he would later be known for. Bourne is a second generation star also from the Northwest part of the country. He was, at the time, used near the bottom of the card as he was a decent wrestler but often had issues behind the scenes with drugs and a quirky personality. He later on in his career would be better known as the original Doink the Clown. Here, he is just a generic tough guy with badly dyed blond hair. Once again, this was a showcase of someone Vince new would be a star for him in the future: Steamboat. Much like how the first match played out, Steamboat quickly overwhelmed Bourne with his quick offense while Bourne countered with cheating and some basic offense. Bourne finally shows off some real offense by trapping Steamboat in a bear hug before taking him down with an impressive belly to belly suplex, which he then followed up by punching Steamboat in the face. Steamboat, however, quickly regained the advantage and finished Bourne off with a flying body press from the top turnbuckle. Despite being largely unknown to the New York fans, Steamboat was given a good ovation from the crowd.
It’s worth noting here that the commentary given by Gorilla and Jessie is actually fairly straight forward. Despite being a loudmouth character as a wrestler and interviewer, Jessie calls these matches like a straight color commentator, not indicative of his bad guy persona. His more outlandish commentary style didn’t develop until later in the year. The back and forth banter with Gorilla Monsoon didn’t really begin until they called the Wrestling Classic event in November.
We get comments from our next match as it pits newcomer Brutus Beefcake with manager and former wrestler “Luscious” Johhny V. against David Sammartino, who was being managed that night by his father and former mega star wrestler Bruno Sammartino. This match is interesting more for the personalities involved than the match itself. Brutus had been Hulk Hogan’s friend and training partner when he was getting into wrestling, so when Hogan became the big star for the WWF, Brutus got a job as well. Unlike Hogan, however, Brutus lacked any interview skills. They got around this by making it a point that Brutus never spoke in his interviews with V. doing all the talking. Brutus wouldn’t hit his stride until 1987 when he became Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake, but here he is a somewhat bizarre bad guy with very subtle male stripper undertones.
David Sammartino was included more for his father than anything he had to offer. Bruno had been the top star and money maker for Vince’s father in the 60s and 70s before retiring in 1981. He sued the company in 1984 over some shady dealings when Bruno was champion in the late 70s. Vince settled with Bruno, bringing him in as a broadcaster and hiring his son, all with the hopes of getting Bruno out of retirement, as he was still a major name, especially in New York. David didn’t last long in the company, as he became unhappy. His unhappiness culminated with him famously submitting to a jobber wrestler against the planned finish of the match. He tried to make a return in 1988 but was fired for assaulting a fan. On this day, however both men’s lack of experience shows through as the match is mostly made up of basic holds like headlocks and arm locks that even for the time were boring. The crowd stayed mostly at a hush during the long holds and only reacted when either man got an actual offensive move in on the other. Brutus gained control by raking David in the eyes and unloading punches, forearms, and kicks that woke the crowd up a little more. David got the upper hand a second time and really woke the crowd up before being launched by Brutus to the ringside. Johnny V. then slammed David on the floor and the crowd exploded as Bruno ran over and beat the snot out of both guys, leading to a fight with all four men that spilled out into the ring. The match ended in a double disqualification. This match would lead to a tag team match the next month at MSG in which Bruno would make his in ring return after four years.
Alfred brings us to our first title match of the evening as Greg “the Hammer” Valentine with Jimmy Hart defends his Intercontinental Title against the Junkyard Dog. As was mentioned earlier, Valentine was feuding with Tito Santana at the time. There was no real feud or build up for this match other than some interviews from Valentine that were bluntly racist. Today that would have lead to a major feud (and a lot of protests) but, at this time, it just a mildly offensive thing for the bad guy to say and wasn’t given a second thought. The JYD was a huge star in the southern part of the country. He was also a long time record attendance holder at the site of this year’s event, The Superdome, in which in 1980 he faced off against Michael Hayes in a cage match, blind.
JYD was snatched up by Vince and, while he didn’t have a lot of technical wrestling ability, he had a connection with the fans. It has even been rumored that JYD was the back up plan should something have happened to Hogan. We got our first entrance with music as the JYD, as he was known, made his entrance to Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust.” The crowd was rabid for him. Unlike the last match, the actual holds are brief and fleeting as JYD utilized an offense of punches and his famed head butt, while Hammer used kicks, punches, and his favorites—the hard forearm shots. Greg worked the Dog’s legs over for a while before JYD got the advantage again with some punches. Hart jumped up on the ring apron, distracting JYD, but Valentine accidentally clobbered his own manager, sending him to the floor and smacking his head on the cement. Dog opened up some offense, but Valentine scooped up the Dog’s legs and put his own legs on the ropes to score the cheating win. As Valentine and Hart left, Tito Santana showed up and told the ref about the cheating. Referee Dick Kroll restarted the match and began to count Valentine out, who was furious at Tito’s meddling. Greg ended up losing the match, but with the loss being by count out, he remains the champion.
The Tag Team Titles were on the line as the champion team of Mike Rotundo and Barry Windham, managed by Capt. Lou Albano, took on the challengers of the Nikolai Volkoff and the Iron Sheik, managed by former wrestler “Classy” Freddie Blassie. There was no real build here, just a pairing of naturally opposing characters. After the attack by Piper in December, Capt. Lou turned good guy, citing a procedure to remove a calcium deposit in his brain as the reason for his change of attitude. He manageed a team that had been brought in from Crockett’s company in 1984. Windham was the son of 70s star Blackjack Mulligan, while Rotunda was his brother-in-law and would later be known to WWF fans as IRS in the early 90s. Here, they are all-American good guys and would later be given the name of the U.S. Express. Volkoff was a veteran wrestler and former professional weightlifter who defected from Yugoslavia in the late 60s. The Sheik was from Iran and had competed in Greco-Roman wrestling for Iran in the 1968 Olympics. He became a coach for the American team in 1972 before getting into professional wrestling. He was used as a top bad guy for the WWF in 1984 and was the man Hulk Hogan beat for the WWF Title. The Sheik had been feuding with Sgt. Slaughter until right before this event when Slaughter left the company. The pre match interview is notable for notoriously drunk Albano holding a beer in his hand right in front of the camera.
Volkoff started things off by singing the Russian national anthem on the house mike to rile up the crowd before the Sheik screamed about how Russia and Iran are both number one. The crowd responds by signing they are number one in a friendly New York manner. The Champions entered the ring to Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” (like so many others, completely missing the point of the song) and the crowd explodes. The match played out with the champions using their speed and technique while the challengers used their power. The crowd ate the match up, as all four men keep a fast pace and the advantage switched back and forth. Volkoff getting the advantage over Rotundo sends the crowd into a USA chant. Rotundo got beaten on a little more before Barry was tagged in and proceeded to clean house on the bad guys. Windham scoreed his big move, the running bulldog, and went for a pin, bringing in the Sheik and Rotundo. In the melee, the Shirk grabed Fred Blassie’s cane and cracked Windham with it behind the ref’s back to score the pin. The crowd went nuts and filled the ring with trash as the new champions left the ring. Gene Oakerland interviewed the new champions in the locker room and Blassie denies even having a cane at ringside.
The video then shows the interview for the next event, the Bodyslam Challenge match between Andre the Giant and Big John Studd with his manager Bobby “The Brain” Heenan. However, before the match happens, there is a commercial for Wrestlemania merchandise and then a 10 minute intermission. Don’t see those much anymore for their big shows.
After the intermission, it’s time for the slam match with Andre and Studd. These two men had a rivalry for years before this match. Things really got going when Studd, along with Heenan and fellow bad guy Ken Patera, attacked Andre during a tag team match and knocked him out before cutting his hair, all the while announcer Vince McMahon repeated the word rape a number of times. Studd, at the time, had a challenge going on that if anyone could slam him in a match, they would win $15,000, here represented with a small duffle bag of ratty-looking dollar bills. For this match, Andre was willing to put his wrestling career on the line if he couldn’t slam Studd. (In a hilarious moment where Andre gets visibly angry at McMahon for calling him a coward and grabs Vince by the neck, he makes the normally unflappable Vince visibly upset.) Unlike the last match, however, this match started fast but soon slowed down to a crawl. Neither of these men are known for their marathon wrestling. So, soon it turned into a slow and plodding contest.
Andre was a huge draw everywhere he went and Vincent Sr. often used him as a deal to other promoters in his day. By this point, Andre was heavier and had trouble moving around. Both guys smacked each other around and used chokes on one other. Andre is who the crowd is interested in, in this match, so they loudly chant “slam” for him in a match that, if it played out today, would be booed out of the building. Studd tried to slam Andre but didn’t even get the Frenchman off his feet. After clubbing Studd a few times Andre decided to end the match out of nowhere. He grabed Studd and slamed him, winning the match and $15,000. (Money that he begins to hand out to people at ringside before Heenan runs in, grabs the money, and bolts for the hills.) Backstage after the match, Gene talks to Andre for a while until he actually cuts Andre off as he’s still talking.
Alfred tries to introduce the Women’s Title match between Lei Lani Kai and Wendi Richter. As she walks by him, Moolah grabs Alfred and kisses him. As does Kai, which leaves Alfred befuddled. Cut to an interview with the champion, which Moolah shows us a pair of gold glasses with big jewel covered dollar signs on them. The story to this match was that after Richter had beaten Moolah the year before, ending her long title reign, Moolah went out and found a new protégée in Lei Lani Kai from Hawaii. Kai had won the title from Richter under nefarious means the month before when Moolah had assaulted Lauper, setting up this rematch. Lauper, Richter, and Davis Wolfe came into the ring to “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” and the crowd cheered big for it. Once the fight is underway, both women were trying to kill each other with hair pulling and punches. Kai kept Wendi under control with an arm lock. This was actually a change of pace for the time, as Moolah ran the only wrestling school to train women wrestlers at the time, so everyone wrestled the exact same way, making women’s matches pretty much the same. Richter, on the other hand—after being trained by Moolah—was retrained elsewhere, so she brought a slightly different style to the match. Wendi’s popularity at the time was on par with Hulk Hogan’s and she was probably the first woman wrestler pushed with looks in mind. Moolah tried to interfere in the match and Lauper went after her at ringside, which got a big reaction from the crowd. Kai dominated most of the match, but Wendi made a brief comeback. Wendi ran right into Kai’s knees. Then Kai climbed up to the top rope and landed on Wendi. Wendi awkwardly reversed the momentum and scored the pin. Ring announcer Howard Finkel nearly announced Moolah as the new champion before he gets it right. Richter and Lauper celebrated and danced in the ring while Moolah triped on the ropes and comically flopped into the ring. Backstage, they did an interview with Lauper and crew as Wendi showed that talking isn’t her strong point. She bungled her way through her lines. Sad to say, this was it for Wendi as, later in the year, she was turfed from the company in a famous double cross predating the “Montreal Screw Job” by 12 years.
Then they go back to the ring for our main event. Announcer Howard Finkel brought out the guest ring announcer, famed New York Yankees manager Billy Martin, who then introduced us to the guest time keeper, Liberace. Liberace comes out to the ring to “New York, New York” with some of the Radio City Rockettes for a brief dance number before Martin brings out the guest outside referee, Muhammad Ali. Vince had envisioned Ali being the sole official for the bout but, by 1985, the signs of his Parkinson’s disease were visible. Therefore, former wrestler and WWF official Pat Patterson became the in-ring official. Roddy Piper, Paul Orndorff, and “Cowboy” Bob Orton were brought to the ring by a Scottish bagpipe to a loud round of boos from the crowd. The opening cords of “Eye of the Tiger” played as the crowd erupted so loud that watchers couldn’t hear Martin announce Hulk Hogan, Mr. T, and their corner man “Super Fly” Jimmy Snuka.
Besides the events I mentioned at the beginning of the article, Orton was Piper’s henchmen and bodyguard who had been “injured” the month before and was now wearing a cast on his arm. Snuka had been feuding with Piper after Roddy famously smashed a coconut over his head during an interview, necessitating their involvement. The crowd was hot for this match and, surprisingly, Mr. T actually starts with Piper. T puts on a good show for a non-wrestler, and kept up using a mostly amateur-style offence while Piper and Wonderful cheated to get the upper hand. Snuka and Orton continually got involved inside the ring, bringing Ali into the match and taking a few swipes at people. The bad guys even left ringside at one point but Hulk stopped the count and waved them back to the ring. Once again things turned into a four-way fight.
Then things settled down with Hulk taking control. Piper was sent to the floor but Mr. Wonderful hit Hogan sending him outside where Piper hit Hogan with a chair. Ali comes over and tries to get control before everyone climbs back in the ring where the bad guys get control. Orndorff missed a diving hit as Mr. T was tagged in. The match degenerated into a wild brawl as the referee got distracted. Orton jumped into the ring but was met with a Snuka headbutt that sent him flying over the top rope. The ref finally turned around to chase Snuka out of the ring as Orndorff had Hogan in a full nelson in the ring. Piper went for the hit but was stopped by T. Hogan was spun around as Orton climbed the top turnbuckle and came down, accidentally blasting Wonderful in the back of the head with the cast. Then Hogan pinned him to win the match and the crowd went wild. Piper turned around and punched the ring referee, Pat Patterson, before he and Orton left the ring. T helped Orndorff up as Paul didn’t know what was going on before he left. Hulk, Snuka, and the celebs stay in the rings for the crowd before the video goes on to the replays of the match. Finally, the video goes to the back and Gene Oakerland interviews Hogan and crew. Monsoon and Ventura then wrap things up and it goes to the credits (One of the few times a WWF event featured full credits.)
This event is really an interesting one. Of course it has major historical significance for being the first Wrestlemania. Beyond that, what it has to offer depends really on your perspective. For newer fans, it’s a novelty, like watching the first season of a long running TV series or watching the first Superbowl. You probably won’t recognize a lot of the names and will marvel at the low key presentation. For a modern wrestling fan, it’s a look at the “=good ol’ days and a chance to see a lot of now WWE Hall of Famers doing their thing, without the soap opera-like telling of modern pro wrestling. My opinion, as an old school fan, is that it’s not that good of an actual show. The two hour run time and the less than stellar undercard matches in the beginning make it look like a bargain version of their regular monthly MSG shows at the time, only with celebs for a lot more hype. Comparatively, the first Starrcade event in 1983 is a much more stacked wrestling show in terms of people involved. Much like the WWE today, the actual wrestling wasn’t the point though. This served to showcase the WWF to a wide audience and show the world that they were what was going on in the world.
Regardless of your view, this show proved to be a big money deal for Vince McMahon. It started not just a WWF boom, but a pro wrestling boom that would last into the early 1990s. This event really got the ball rolling for the company and laid the groundwork for the event that we are witness to today. If you have an interest in seeing where it all started or seeing Hulk Hogan and his contemporaries in their heyday then track this down. However, if you are looking for a technical showcase or a wrestling clinic, then this show won’t have anything for you and you’d be better to look at either Starrcade 1983 or the much better presented Wrestlemania 3 instead.