Every sport has to have that one event that every fan wants to see, every competitor wants to appear at, and every writer wants to write extremely long articles about. Wrestlemania fits every single one of those categories. Other wrestling companies may have tried to copy Wrestlemania but they’ve never succeeded. It’s time to look back at the history of the granddaddy of them all, Wrestlemania.
The story of Wrestlemania probably goes back to the day when Vince McMahon finally acquired the WWF from his father. The days of working alongside the many other wrestling companies in the States were at an end. Vince had big ideas for the WWF and if that meant wiping out the opposition by getting their TV deals and their wrestlers, then so be it.
Vince wanted to expand the WWF and that began with the signing of Hulk Hogan. He had a new vision of what wrestling should be, it was going to be sports entertainment, Vince was quoted as saying: “What we do is entertainment, and it’s the highest level of athleticism and entertainment you’ll ever see…..we have the athleticism of sport and the entertainment of a soap opera.”
With his chosen star now champion and his all-star roster in place, Vince had everything he needed to start those expansion plans. Wrestlemania I was held on March 31 1985 at Madison Square Garden. It was also on closed-circuit television (PPV wasn’t born yet). But Vince wasn’t just interested in staging a wrestling event, he wanted it to be something that would appeal to more than the avid wrestling fan. He wanted an event that was full of celebrities, big names like Muhammad Ali, Liberace Mr T and Cyndi Lauper.
If Wrestlemania I was the culmination of that dream, then MTV was the supplier of the qualifying matches so to speak. Cyndi Lauper was signed up to appear alongside Capt. Lou Albano (hence his appearance in her ‘Girls Just Wanna have fun video), Roddy Piper, Wendi Richter and The Fabulous Moolah. A feud began and when shows were placed on MTV programming the ratings went through the roof. ‘The War to Settle The Score’ was at that time the highest rated programme ever seen on the channel.
The success of the MTV shows proved to Vince that he had a potential goldmine on his hands. It was Howard Finkel who came up with the name, creating a brand name that would become known all over the world.
Madison Square Garden just had to be the venue. The McMahon family had been promoting there for decades. The show was promoted like never before, there were press conferences and the shows stars appeared on every talk show on the air. Headlining the card was Hogan and Mr T against Rowdy Roddy Piper and Paul Ordnorff with Muhammad Ali as a special referee and Liberace as time-keeper. But success wasn’t guaranteed, early ticket sales were slow and the WWF had a lot of money to pay to the 200 theatres that would be showing the event. One appearance by Hogan almost single-handedly ensured the event would be a success. He appeared on the talk show ‘Hot Properties’ and put host Richard Belzer in a headlock, a headlock that caused him to lose consciousness and cut his head when he fell to the floor. It might have cost the company a few damages to pay later but it put the WWF in the headlines and that ensured a successful debut for Wrestlemania.
There were nine matches on the card. Andre The Giant beat Big John Studd winning $15,000 by body-slamming the huge wrestler (who hated the way his sport was now being promoted). The Iron Sheik and Nikolai Volkoff ensured racism was present at the Garden, David Sammartino made an appearance but could never live up to his father’s reputation. King Kong Bundy squashed S.D. Jones in a minute and Wendi Richter (managed by Cyndi Lauper) won the women’s title from Leilani Kai (managed by The Fabulous Moolah). Valentine, JYD, Steamboat, Windham, Rotundo and Santana guaranteed an all-star card but this was all about one match and one man. Hogan and Mr T won their match against Piper and Orndorff and a legend was born.
Creating a legend isn’t easy, maintaining its reputation is even harder. The success of Wrestlemania ensured there’d be a follow-up in 1986, but Wrestlemania 2 was a very different event.
Vince came up with the idea of holding Wrestlemania in three different cities across the States. Each would have a one-hour show with two hours from the other venues shown on a big screen. LA, Chicago and New York were chosen for the venues and the number of celebrities being involved was even larger this time around.
Again Hogan was in the main-event, this time defending his WWF Title in a cage against King Kong Bundy, managed by Bobby ‘The Brain’ Heenan. Making his debut at Wrestlemania was Randy Savage, the IC Champ defended his title against the crazy George ‘The Animal’ Steele, who was madly in love with the late Miss Elizabeth. In perhaps Britain’s greatest Wrestlemania moment The British Bulldogs beat Valentine and Beefcake to win the tag titles, while the legendary Moolah retained her Women’s Title against Velvet McIntyre, it was her only in-ring match at Wrestlemania despite still being with the company to this day.
There were 12 matches this time around and the celebrities were everywhere you looked in each of the three cities holding the event. Mr T returned to Wrestlemania for a boxing match with Roddy Piper, not that Piper stuck to boxing. Joe Frazier and Lou Duva were in the competitor’s corners. The 20-man Battle Royal was won by Andre but the big interest was in the use of players from the NFL – perhaps that’s a way to get Lesnar back next year?
Also appearing were Joan Rivers, Susan St James, Cab Calloway and even Ozzy Osbourne! But despite all the stars, the focus was again on Hogan. His ribs sore, he took a battering but face it he was never going to lose was he? Over 50,000 people saw the event live, and over 300,000 watched on close-circuit TV and PPV but the idea of splitting the event into three arenas was never to be repeated again.
Wrestlemania III had the logo ‘bigger, better and badder’ and it certainly was. The use of roman numerals began, mimicking the Superbowl. The main event was probably the most eagerly-awaited wrestling match of all-time. Andre the Giant was a great fan favourite but had never held any titles in the WWF. He was Hogan’s best friend but this is wrestling and friendships never last. Influenced by Heenan (yes him again), Andre turned heel on Hogan and demanded a WWF Title match. Andre was way past his best and his back needed surgery but this was a match guaranteed to sell tickets by the bucket load.
It was decided to hold Wrestlemania III at the Pontiac Silverdome in Michigan. The attendance was given as 93,173, the largest ever indoor attendance. The fact that fans in Michigan weren’t able to see the match on PPV certainly helped fill the arena. 11 matches on the card this time, all totally over-shadowed by Hogan v Andre and there were a few notable disasters that have to be recalled. There was the midgets match with Bundy and Hillbilly Jim. Poor Bundy, from main-eventer to being attacked by midgets in a year!
Roddy Piper had a retirement match, or as it should have been put ‘I’m off to Hollywood and I won’t be back.’ Piper was back and even appeared at Wrestlemania XIX. There was one classic match on the card with Ricky Steamboat winning the IC belt from Randy Savage. That started a phase where wrestlers lost IC belts then won the big one the next year, Warrior did the same the following year. There were managers left, right and centre with Mr Fuji, Jimmy Hart, Slik, Miss Elizabeth and Heenan in three matches. The celebrities were back as well with Alice Cooper alongside Jake Roberts, Aretha Franklin and Mary Hart. Vince wanted Arnie to appear but it didn’t work out.
There were a whole host of problems with the venue though. It was 55 yards from the dressing rooms to the ring hence the use of ‘scissors cars’ to get the wrestlers to the ring. The use of the big screens could have been a disaster, only poor weather allowed them to be seen for the first hour and a half of the show.
But Wrestlemania III was one of the most successful events of all-time. Andre jobbed to Hogan and even allowed himself to be bodyslammed. But by the time Wrestlemania IV came around, the title scene was very different.
How on earth was Vince going to top an event seen live by over 90,000 people? Would the fans put up with another card dominated by Hogan? The Hogan v Andre feud carried on all year round, The Million Dollar Man Ted Dibiase changed the feud by getting more influence over the Giant. Thanks to the Hebner twins, Andre won the WWF title and then tried to give it to Dibiase. That was against the federation’s rules and the title was declared vacant. For the first time ever, Wrestlemania would see a new champion crowned with a one-night 14 man tournament.
The event returned to a smaller arena and forged links with Donald Trump with Wrestlemania being held at the Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City. Other matches on the card saw plenty of tag action with teams such as Demolition coming to the fore and Bobby Heenan getting in the ring with The Islanders against the British Bulldogs and Koko B Ware. The Honky Tonk Man retained his IC Title against Beefcake and The Ultimate Warrior made his Wrestlemania debut beating the recently departed Hercules Hernandez. Bad News Brown won a Battle Royal.
Celebs included Vanna White from ‘Wheel of Fortune’, Robin Leach, Gladys Knight and Bob Uecker But this was all about the WWF Title tournament, could Hogan get his belt back? He had a bye through to the Quarter-Finals where he had to meet Andre (how surprising), a double DQ eliminated both from the tournament, Hogan wasn’t going to be the champ!
It all boiled down to a final between Savage and Ted Dibiase. Hogan was in Savage’s corner, Andre in Dibiase’s. Thanks to Hogan’s interference Savage won his first WWF Title, but the seeds were already being sown for Wrestlemania V.
This was the year of the big publishing cock-up. We hadn’t quite reached the age when we all knew the results were pre-determined so imagine the outrage when the WWF Magazine came out before Wrestlemania instead of after it and had Savage on the front page described as WWF Champ
Over 600,000 homes purchased Wrestlemania IV on PPV and despite a much smaller attendance it still made more gate money than Wrestlemania III, no wonder they returned to the same venue the following year.
Hogan and Savage spent most of the year tagging as the Mega Powers but Savage became jealous of Hogan. He thought he wanted Miss Elizabeth so the feud was on. Hogan had his chance to become WWF Champion again at Wrestlemania V.
This was the biggest card to date with 14 matches plus Piper’s Pit with the famous fire extinguisher routine with Morton Downey Jnr. Run DMC appeared at the event. The card wasn’t that bad, Andre was now feuding with Jake and definitely scared of snakes! There was the IC title feud between the Warrior and Rick Rude, Bobby Heenan was back in the ring against the Red Rooster, Beefcake met Dibiase, Owen Hart made his Wrestlemania debut as The Blue Blazer against Mr Perfect and Shawn Michaels arrived on the Wrestlemania stage as part of the Rockers tag team with Marty Jannetty.
PPV figures continued to climb as wrestling approached another peak, Sean Mooney was a roving reporter but again this was all about Hogan, he regained his title, cue cheers.
Wrestlemania VI was the first time the event ventured outside the States with the card being held at the Toronto Skydome in front of over 67,000 fans. It was headlined by a Champion v Champion match with the WWF Champ Hogan up against the IC Champ, The Ultimate Warrior, was the torch about to be passed?
Again there were 14 matches on the card. Andre made his last in-ring appearance at Wrestlemania losing the tag team titles then turning face by bashing Heenan. Ted Dibiase now had his Million Dollar Belt defending it successfully against Jake Roberts, Piper was back (the films were crap then) with the most bizarre make-up seen at Wrestlemania (even beating Luna Vachon) as he was half white and half black in his match against Bad News Brown. Beefcake beat Mr Perfect and Dusty Rhodes was in the WWF tagging with Sapphire against Savage and Sherri. Celebs present were Steve Allen and Robert Goulet who had trouble remembering the words for the Canadian National Anthem.
Wrestlemania VI went well, just one problem though; Vince gave the belt to The Ultimate Warrior. Could he be the man who would keep the fans happy? He lasted as long as the following year’s Royal Rumble.
It just wasn’t working, Warrior was not a success as champion but then again neither was his successor! The first Gulf War was on the horizon so Vince decided to turn Sgt, Slaughter into an Iraqi sympathiser with General Adnan as his manager, looking oh so like Saddam. He won the title at the Rumble relegating Warrior to a feud with Savage. Who was to be Slaughter’s Number one challenger? None other than the All-American Hulk Hogan. But this was to be the most controversial Wrestlemania ever held.
As the war began and American soldiers began to return home in coffins, the bad taste of the storyline began to hit home. Plans to hold Wrestlemania VII at the LA Colliseum were changed when it became apparent this wasn’t going to sell out a big arena. It moved indoors and fans had to exchange their tickets even on the night of the card itself.
Again there were 14 matches. Notable debut was The Undertaker beating Jimmy Snuka. Jake Roberts met Ric Martel in a terrible blindfold match, The Hart Foundation lost their tag titles to The Nasty Boys setting Bret Hart free for a career in the singles division that would dominate Wrestlemania for years to come. Andre appeared on crutches for his last appearance at Wrestlemania helping the Big Bossman try unsuccessfully to win the IC Title from Mr Perfect. The British Bulldog made his solo debut at Wrestlemania beating The Warlord but this was to be his only non-tag match at the biggest event of the year. Celebs were Willie Nelson, Chuck Norris, Henry Winkler, Lou Ferrigno (Hulk watching the Hulk) and Macauley Culkin.
Best match of the night featured the Warrior (how many times do you write that?) in the retirement match against Savage. Warrior won, Elizabeth got back with Savage and many a bucket was filled by all this love crap.
Of course the night ended with the Iraqi’s beaten and Hogan champion for the third time. All a bit predictable?
Fans had craved for years to see Hogan fight Ric Flair but even when the latter finally arrived in the WWF the pair didn’t have that classic PPV match, we had to wait until Hogan joined WCW for that and it was about five years too late. But Flair did make an impact, he caused Hogan to lose the title again with the Undertaker getting his first title run. But days later at Tuesday in Texas, Hogan was champion again only for the title to be declared vacant by President Tunney. The title was to be decided at the Royal Rumble and this time it was Flair who got the belt. Hogan was left to feud with Sid but this was to be a special Wrestlemania.
Wrestlemania VIII was held at the Hoosier Dome in Indianapolis in front of over 62,000 fans. For the first time ever there was a double main event. Flair defending his title against Savage (didn’t he retire? This is wrestling you know) and Hogan meeting Sid in what was billed as his retirement match. Hogan was leaving the WWF to pursue his movie career and the WWF milked it to the very last.
Only 9 matches this time, Bret Hart won the IC Title against Roddy Piper, Money Inc kept their tag titles, Undertaker, now a face beat Jake and Shawn Michaels was in the singles rank beating Tito Santana (just how does a man who jobs so much at Wrestlemania get in the Hall of Fame or is this please Mexico month?). Owen Hart was now ‘The Rocket’ beating Skinner, but this was a card built around the two main events. Flair lost his belt and the Hogan v Sid match ended with the return of The Ultimate Warrior but with a lot less muscles! Hogan was gone, what would happen next?
A lot changed in the year to come. Warrior got his run at the title losing to Savage at the Wembley Summerslam but then Flair regained his title only to lose it to Bret Hart, a new kid was at the top but there was a new heel causing havoc.
Yokozuna was the new top heel and thanks to the new rule that whoever won the Rumble got a title shot, Wrestlemania IX became Hart v Yokozuna at Caesar’s Palace. Then it got interesting. Beefcake had been out of the ring for years after suffering serious facial injuries but he made his comeback as wrestlers do. After falling foul of Money Inc, his best mate came to his rescue. Hogan was back with Jimmy Hart as a face manager. A tag title match was set for Wrestlemania IX but that wasn’t the whole story.
It wasn’t the greatest of cards, Shawn Michaels retained his IC Title against Tatanka, The Steiners made their Wrestlemania debuts against the Headshrinkers, Undi beat Giant Gonzalez in one of the worst Wrestlemania matches ever, Lex Luger was in town against Mr Perfect and Razor Ramon beat the returning Bob Backlund, oh and we had two Doinks against Crush.
Hogan nearly didn’t make Wrestlemania, he had facial injuries after a sailing accident but he wouldn’t miss Wrestlemania and Vince definitely didn’t want his biggest star off the show because of the effect it would have on PPV rates. Hogan and Beefcake didn’t get the tag belts so that was that or was it? Thanks to interference by Mr Fuji, Yokozuna became the first heel to win a WWF Title match at Wrestlemania but it didn’t last very long. Hogan came out and challenged the champ to a match, of course he won in a matter of moments due to Fuji’s salt throwing tactics going wrong. Hogan was champ again, would you believe it!
Hogan wasn’t champ for very long, he never defended the title until losing it to Yokozuna at The King of Ring. The heel kept the belt until the landmark Wrestlemania X which returned to Madison Square Garden. Again there was controversy at the Rumble. Luger, now the new All-American hero and Bret Hart jointly won the Rumble, cue decision time from President Tunney. Both would get title shots at Wrestlemania X, after a toss of the coin won by Luger, he got first shot with Mr Perfect as ref. Bret Hart would have to meet the now heel Owen Hart before his title match, to be refereed by Roddy Piper.
There were ten matches on the card and some right stinkers. Doink and Dink against Bigelow and Luna, a one minute match between Earthquake and the squashed Adam Bomb and Men on a Mission in the tag titles match. The women’s title was competed for, the first time since Wrestlemania 2. Alundra Blayze (Madusa Miceli) beat Leilani Kai who also had a title shot at the first ever Wrestlemania. There were however two absolute classics. Owen Hart beat Bret Hart in a fantastic opener and then there was the legendary Ladder match for the IC belt with Razor Ramon beating Shawn Michaels.
The two WWF Title matches weren’t exactly classics. Yokozuna kept his belt thanks to Perfect’s refereeing setting up a feud with Luger that never got off the ground but then Bret Hart got his second WWF Title ending the reign of Yokozuna. Owen Hart remained outside the ring looking on enviously.
The Hart brothers feuded for months, including a Cage match at Summerslam but by Wrestlemania XI there was a new champ, a really crap one. Owen cost Bret his title at the Survivor Series giving Bob Backlund his second WWF Title. He didn’t last very long as Diesel won the belt in a minute at MSG.
At the Harford Civic Center, Diesel defended his title against the man who he used to bodyguard for, Shawn Michaels. Everyone thought Michaels would get the belt, especially with Sid as his new bodyguard, but amazingly, stupidly, Vince let Diesel keep the title. He was spending too much time thinking of the upcoming Michaels v Sid feud.
The other big match on the card, which only had seven bouts, saw ex-NFL player Lawrence Taylor beat Bam Bam Bigelow. Such importance was given to this match it was the final match on the card! Yokozuna returned as Owen’s mystery partner to get the tag titles off the Smoking Gunns. Undi was stuck in a crap feud with the over-the-hill Bundy, Davey Boy Smith was stuck with Lex Luger as tag partner and Jeff Jarrett feuded with Razor Ramon over the IC Belt. Bret Hart finally ended his feud with Backlund with Piper again a ref. Celebs included Pamela Anderson and Salt ‘n’ Pepa.