By Jim Phillips, Senior Editor
Welcome back Bruthas and Sistas, as we delve once again, into the history of the WWF. We left off as the company was building to WrestleMania II, with Hogan at the helm of the company and carrying it on his shoulders into 1986. Vince had successfully pulled off the biggest wrestling event in recent history, and the only obvious choice was to make it a yearly extravaganza and, to do it bigger the next time. Coming off the heels of the Wrestling Classic tournament, Vince knew that Mania II had to be something the wrestling world had never seen before, and he thought he had the idea to pull it off in grand style.
WrestleMania II is one of the shows that leaves me a little torn as far as the show itself went. I remember watching it on Coliseum Video after its release and the matches were strong, but I wasn’t totally sold on the use of a triple main event, in three different venues. This was the idea that Vince thought would revolutionize the idea of the PPV, even though it was still in it’s infancy. He planned simul-casting the event from the Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale NY, the Rosemont Horizon in Chicago, and the end of the show with the biggest advertised main event would herald from the Los Angeles Sports Arena. Even now, it’s an idea that has encompassing details wrapped around a daunting logistics nightmare. Vince had to have faith in his 3 teams to be able to make it all come off without a hitch and everything mesh cohesively.
The New York team consisted of Vince, and his co-host Susan St. James presiding over the show there. While the main event of the New York portion of the show was Roddy Piper -vs- Mr. T in a boxing match, it was the rivalry between Randy Savage and George Steele that stole the show in NY. Everything Randy touched in the WWF then turned to gold and the storyline with The Animal was no exception. If you look back at those years, it may have been Hogan selling the merch and getting the big pops, but it was Randy that was driving the machine with his quick, snap style and innovative ideas. While it was Hogan that had the sizzle, the Macho Man and the Intercontinental title holders were the workers that brought the red meat to the ring. Orndorff and Muraco also put on one Helluva match, with Jake the Snake also making a memorable appearance and short work of George Wells.
The Rosemont Horizon is steeped in historical shows put on by the WWF(E), and it goes back to Mania II. Right hand man, Gino “Gorilla Monsoon” Morella was left in charge of the Chicago end of the production, and with Mean Gene at his side, he pulled it off beautifully. It was highlighted by two title matches and the WWF -vs- NFL Battle Royal, which I was particularly marking for because the Bears were coming off a Super Bowl winning season, and just so hot in the country at that time. The heat between Big John Studd and Bill Fralic is something I remember well, along with Refrigerator Perry tackling the shit out of everyone, with his red shirt that was tucked in for what seemed a city block of fabric. Andre fought down to the last two men, which was the young new tag team of the Hart Foundation, who had managed to stay in to the end together. We all know that even the Foundation were no match for a still lumbering Giant, and Andre sent them over the top one by one to win. The original blue on black of the Hart Foundation were my choice over the pink that would come later. (They looked more like heels in the blue, just my thoughts.) Moolah also defended her title against Velvet McIntyre, while Nikolai jobbed to Corp. Kirchner in a flag match, but it was the Tag Team Title match that had me ready to go and begging for more.
The Dream Team, of Greg Valentine and Brutus Beefcake were always something special to me, and I don’t know if it was because they were such great heels, or if it was because of the third ingredient in the mix, Luscious Johnny Valiant. The three men together were bottled lightning for charisma, and drawing heat with the fans. We will be talking about the plethora of tag team wealth shortly, but it was these guys leading the way in the tag team renaissance that was to follow them. While they lost to the up and coming British Bulldogs, who were managed by Lou Albano at that time, and escorted to the ring by the Prince of Darkness himself, Ozzy Osbourne. This was the big push for the Bulldogs and they would take the titles from the Dream Team, ending their seven months with the gold.
Big Blue. That’s all that needs to be said about the event, and this portion of the show. The biggest and baddest steel cage ever erected in this journalist’s opinion. It just looked like it was going to hurt you and not give an inch, and it lived up to every stiff square inch of that reputation. I would LOVE to see Big Blue get brought of storage in Stamford, and make a comeback at the next big WrestleMania show. The only cage that is more menacing than Big Blue may be the Punjabi Prison Cage, but it was Blue that made the show for me. The under card matches for the L.A. show built to the main well with Tito and the JYD facing off against the Funks, and Adrian Adonis taking on Uncle Elmer in a mismatch of styles in unforgettable proportions. I laughed all the way through it, but Adonis worked his ass off as usual and it was bumps all day for him, but he took home the victory. Ricky Steamboat took on newly arrived Hercules Hernandez and fed him up the loss to welcome him to the big show. I always liked Herc, and thought he should have carried the Intercontinental Title for a bit, even as a placeholder champion. He was over enough for it.
Now we all know, that Hogan won that cage match, but King Kong Bundy and Heenan sold that match, and Bundy was the perfect man for that. The two men went to war with each other, and Big Blue, and it left them bloodied and bruised. Hogan had sold the rib injury, being all taped up from the attack by Bundy and Muraco in the weeks leading up to the show. The Red and Yellow had said his prayers, taken his vitamins, and defeated Bundy in grand fashion, while getting a receipt in on Heenan as well by pulling him off the top rope to the mat as he tried to escape Hogan by crawling out of Blue.
If Mania, I and then II didn’t cement his banner into the battlefield, then the three years that followed would leave no doubt that it was McMahon’s sandbox and everyone else was the catshit, so to speak. The years of 85-86 saw not more talents broach the company, but the tag team ranks began to flourish more than they had in a decade, and some may argue, ever. I want to take a look at a few of these teams that kept us on the edge of our seats, as well as some of the singles talents that showed up that year.
We spoke briefly about Vince acquiring Stampede Wrestling from Stu Hart in the previous chapter, but we didn’t really expound on the talent that came along with that, namely the British Bulldogs, and the Hart Foundation, along with several other Canadian prospects. These two tag teams brought their knowledge of each other and ability to carry the dance to another level in the ring when they competed against one another. There are/were certain people and teams in the business that made others better when they worked them. Whether it be by teaching them, or just bringing the best out of them by making them raise their game to meet the challenge, both of these teams were shining examples of this. They set the bar and made every other tag team for a decade reach for that standard or dare to surpass it.
The Bulldogs, Tom “Dynamite Kid” Billington and David “Davey Boy” Smith were first cousins in real life and came from a small town in the United Kingdom. Dynamite was a few years older than his cousin, but both trained and came up together. Brett Hart and Jim Neidhart were synergy personified in that ring and left nothing behind when that bell rang. I loved to watch them work and still turn back to those matches online when I get jaded with today’s product. Sadly Brett is the only one left with us, as more and more of our wrestling legends pass on. Davey Boy died at the young age of 39, with Dynamite following him at the age of 60, and most recently The Anvil passed away in August of 2018 at 63. Rest in Peace Road Soldiers!
Another team that as turning the heads of fans as well as keeping the heads of the officials on a swivel, was that of B. Brian Blair, and Jumping Jim Brunzell. I shouldn’t need to say more than that but if you still aren’t up to speed, I’m talking about the Killer Bees. Born in White Bear, Minnesota, in 1949, Brunzell is the older of the two Bees, with Blair coming along a decade later in 1959 Gary, Indiana. The two men would receive their wrestling training states apart but both from reputable schools of the old garde. Jim broke in under the watchful eye of Verne Gagne in the AWA, and had success there with Verne’s son, Greg as the High Flyers. The two were set apart by their acrobatic style in the land of the ground and pound AWA, which was well known for it’s technical approach to matches. I grew up on a healthy weekly dose of the AWA, and I remember the High Flyers well. Brian Blair also had a sound background, by cutting his teeth in the CWF, which had such great teachers and mentors in their locker room. He was trained by Hiro Matsuda, and worked throughout the Southeast territories and Japan before making his way to NYC. When they did, it wasn’t long before they were put together, and the idea of Masked Confusion was born. While used in the territory days by the Invaders, and Super Destroyers, the Killer Bees took this gimmick to the next level with tandem offense, and quick moves to dodge the eyes of the officials. It was babyfaces pulling heel tactics, and I really enjoyed watching them.
Jumping Jim wasn’t alone in his pilgrimage from the AWA that year. The man that had been their champ, and is so deserving of an HOF nod, also made his way to the Big Apple, and when Rick Martel saw the push towards tag teams in the company he got ahold of his friend Tom Zenk, and the pair brought their Can-Am Connection to the table. They had used the gimmick in the past in Canada when Martel was working matches there, as well as in the AWA for a short while. It was an easy fit and addition for Vince and the pair was off to the races in the Fall of 1986.
The abundance of tag talents that broke into the scene weren’t alone in 1985-86. Several singles stars were emerging on the landscape and making a name for themselves. We’ve discussed a few of them already but let’s pick out a few of the standouts that helped to advance the company in the next five years.
Born Aurelian Smith Jr. in Gainesville, Texas just before Memorial Day 1955, the boy who grew into the man that would become Jake the Snake, had a big shadow to try and grow out of, both figuratively and emotionally in that of his father Grizzly Smith. His life has been chronicled in the films Beyond the Mat and The Resurrection of Jake the Snake, but his contributions to the business are many fold. Master of the soft-spoken evil promo, he could send chills up your back with the low hiss of a few words, and then explode like the cobra he carried to the ring, in a quick and lethal manner. He was one of the best EVER in the psychology of the business and how less is more. He cut his teeth in the Texas and Louisiana territories, and made his debut in the WWF in March of 86, shortly before his Mania II appearance. Though his personal life has seen it’s fair share of demons and defeat, his in ring prowess and game changing persona from those days cannot be questioned nor disputed.
Like waves crashing against the beach at high tide, the droves of workers continued to roll in as 1986 progressed. Raymond Fernandez, had worked his way through the Southwest and into Jim Crockett Promotions, before the Tampa, Florida native finally made his way to the WWF. The thirty year old changed his ring name to Hernandez, and took to swinging the chain of the mythical Hercules, and the gimmick was born. More of a dismemberer or stomper type character, Vince realized that the powerhouse Hercules would need a mouthpiece to get his thoughts across to the fans. He decided on pairing him with Classy Freddie Blassie, but that didn’t last as Blassie soon retired from active work in the ring. Hercules dropped the Hernandez, and picked up a new manager, in the form of the Jive Soul Bro who was taking the managing scene by storm himself.
Most wrestling fans that aren’t into the history of the business don’t realize that Kenneth “Slick” Johnson was a second generation worker. Fans were so quick to hate his heel persona, they didn’t take time to find out who he was. A true wrestling fan knows that he is the son of Rufus R. Jones. Known as the Freight Train, Rufus had competed on the NWA circuit in the decades prior, and had made quite a name for himself in the process. Slick, born in 1957, had grown up in the business and it was like breathing to him, it just came natural. He worked the Texas and Kansas City territories and with his tall slender stature, he lent towards the role of manager as opposed to that of wrestler. Again, it was like a duck to water, or a pimp to the stroll, and he worked his gimmick into the big time with the WWF in the Summer of 86. He took on the roll of mentee to Blassie and eventually took over his stable of workers when Fred left the company. This included Nikolai and the Sheik, as well as Hercules and another man that came from the Louisiana area, who would also prove to be a Natural.
Born Bruce Reed, in 1954 Kansas City, Missouri, Butch had started his sports career out as a football player and took his college status on to the Kansas City Chiefs and played linebacker there for a short time. He took up training to be a professional wrestler in 1978, and flourished when he went to the land where stars were made, Mid-South Wrestling. He built his Hacksaw persona there, and drew both the hatred of the fans and the dollars at the ticket booth. He went through Bob Geigel’s Central States and teamed with Rufus R. Jones to form the Soul Patrol, managed by a young Slick. Reed split with Jones and had the required feud with his partner afterwards, and when he lost a Loser Leaves Town Match with Bruiser Brody, he headed to the WWF and was signed in a package deal with Slick. They took their heel game to the big city and made names for themselves that remain to this day, along with Reed’s bleached blond look. He worked with Tito, and a few other good guys, but the program he worked with another new arrival took up their time into beginning of 1987, and towards WrestleMania III.
We all remember the “Birdman” Koko B. Ware, and his sidekick Frankie the blue and gold macaw, but the bright lights were a long way from the Union City, Tennessee upbringing that James Ware was used to. Born in the Summer of 1957, James got into the business in the late Seventies in Jarrett’s CWA out of Memphis. He cut his teeth there and worked with Jarrett and Lawler for several years before he got his “big break” with the WWF in 1986. Taking from Morris Day and the Time’s pop hit, The Bird, Koko took to dancing to the ring and had adopted the B. Ware gimmick while he was in CWA. He added Frankie to the recipe and his Birdman gimmick was complete. He was immediately a fan favorite and his feuds with Harley Race, Hercules, and Butch Reed gave him the platform he needed to shine. His work on the Piledriver album is also still remembered to this day, and believe me, you don’t want an argument, cause you may just get a PILEDRIVER!!!!
The Memphis area was one of the WWF’s richest pools for future talent, and Vince fished it clean. Two of the men that came up from the CWA caused not only controversy at times, but gave us some of the biggest memories and stories of the late Eighties. One became know as the dirtiest referees the WWF would ever see, until Nick Patrick of course, and the other showed up with long sideburns and his hair slicked back.
I love a dirty referee better than most, and Danny Davis was at the top of that game. Born in Boston, 1956, Davis became enamored with the business early on, and took up his training in his twenties. He broke in for the WWF in 1981 as a referee and wrestler working under the mask as Mr. X. He worked for nearly five years this way until he got an angle that would move him up the ranks and get him his first real push. He became involved in several controversial finishes and quick counts that went the way of some of the heels of that time, and started to get him heat from the fans. They fueled this fire, and his bad guy referee character was born. He soon parlayed that into work with the Hart Foundation and the stable of Jimmy Hart and he dropped the mask, and donned the black and white tights of the heel ref, Dangerous Danny Davis. One of the matches that stands out as his dirty refereeing job is linked back to Big Blue and the match on the Christmas 1986 SNME when Hulk Hogan and Paul Orndorff hit the ground opposite sides of the cage with Joey Morella raising Hogan’s hand, and Davis raising Orndorff’s. They worked that angle so well, and it is another of the great cage moments involving the blue beast.
Our last wrestler of note to look further at came out of Memphis and took the WWF by storm. Wayne Farris was born in Bolivar, Tennessee in 1953, and took up his professional wrestling career at the age of twenty-four, with his friend and future foe under McMahon whom we spoke about earlier, Koko B. Ware there in Memphis. He moved onto CWF where he was teamed with Larry Latham as the Blond Bombers. We talked about the various Bomber incarnations earlier in the series, but this pairing was particularly nasty, with both men having a mean streak. He bounced around the country working different territories, as it was done in those days, until he found himself headed to NYC and the WWF. He brought with him a unique idea for a new type of heel, that would enrage the fans more than most. On a Saturday morning edition of Wrestling Challenge Farris donned his jumpsuit, slickered up his hair, and headed to the ring to debut one of my top five heels of the WWF Golden Era, the Honky Tonk Man. With the Mouth of the South by his side, and the classic tune penned by John Maguire that he sang everywhere he went, HTM was on a rocket propelled trip to the top, and we all got to enjoy the ride.
I spoke earlier about Saturday Night’s Main Event and the cage match between Hogan and Orndorff. The power of SNME is not something that I want to brush over lightly, and dismiss with a tongue-in-cheek mention in this installment. It was without a doubt the drawing power of that show and the storylines that they built over the course of 1986 that laid the foundations for one of the biggest, and some still say THE biggest wrestling pay-per-view of all time WrestleMania III.
Piper’s Pit was also a launching pad for at least two of the story lines going into Mania III. The most famous was when Andre’ turned heel and ripped the shirt off Hogan and tore his gold chain, leaving him bloodied and stunned. As Piper picked up the pieces of the Hulkster’s shattered reality and asked him if he was going to face Andre at Mania, Hogan sold the angle with his face scowled into a teeth gritting grimace, and screamed, “YESSS!!” It was also the impetus for Roddy’s hair versus hair match with Adrian Adonis as well. The Pit was hopping in the Spring of 1987.
Vince and his braintrust knew that they had to do something bigger than the previous year’s WrestleMania in both scope and scale, with everything being huge, all the way form the main event to the venue. Nothing would be left amiss as everything was going to be put behind the event. WrestleMania III was chosen to be held on March 29, 1987, and Vince picked his spot carefully to maximize his profit potential. He focused his gaze at the Pontiac Silverdome near downtown Detroit, and all their efforts were pinned on that day.
It was a risk spring day in the Motor City when the WWF circus came to town. The show had a strong line-up of matches with only the Intercontinental and World Titles on the line, surprisingly. The card had a little something for everyone, but I was surprised to see the Tag Team Title match forgone in the face of a six-man tag match. Nevertheless, lets get into the card and discuss it’s relevance.
Some of the stellar tag team matches we did see however, consisted of the Can-Am Connection besting the team of Muraco and Bob Orton Jr. Even with Mr. Fuji at their side, the fan favorites took the day. The classic combo of Nikolai Volkoff and the Iron Sheik won by disqualification when Slick got the Killer Bees caught up in the act of Masked Confusion. The Dream Team, with Luscious Johnny V and turncoat Dino Bravo at their side beat the Fabulous Rougeau Brothers, yet another good tag team of note in those years. We also saw a pair of six-man tag matches, in the aforementioned Tag Champion Hart Foundation teaming up with Danny Davis against the Bulldogs and Tito Santana. The heels took the match, and left the Bulldogs and Chico licking their wounds. The other six-man tag match was the goofy gimmick, comedy match of the show, with King Kong Bundy, Little Tokyo, and Lord Littlebrook facing the team of Hillybilly Jim, the Haiti Kid and Little Beaver. Now Bruthas and Sistas, let me tell you right now that I can VIVIDLY remember laying in the floor of my Grandmother’s house hooting and howling when King Kong Bundy started splashing them midgets. I will sit here with unabashed shame and tell you that I loved every second of that heel-tastic performance by the big man!!!
The singles matches were nothing to sneeze at either, and it can be said, and I am in full agreement on this one, that it held possibly the best match of that era and possibly of all time, when Randy Savage and Ricky Steamboat tore the roof off the Silverdome in a fourteen minute masterpiece of professional wrestling perfection. It had everything that you would expect and should have form a match claiming that distinction. Great story building up to the match, with equally intense and crisp mat work to accompany it. Both men shone through on the microphone in the interviews, and put the asses in the seats. While everyone may have tuned in to see Andre and Hogan, it was, is and will be(sorry Brett), the most talked about match in WrestleMania lore. And with that, all I have to say on that subject is…..(clears throat, and manipulates index fingers in mid-air)…..FREAK OUT, FREAK OUT, OOHHHHH YEAAAAHHH!!!
We also got the pleasure of watching Roddy Piper and Adrian Adonis work, and see Adrian’s hair get butchered, when the Rowdy One won the hair match. Then, in what was an odd thing I noticed in the stats of the show, anyone that was associated with an animal lost their match that day. Butch Reed and Slick de-feathered Koko and Frankie with a loss, the King Harley Race made the Junkyard Dog bow to him when he beat him as a stipulation of their match, and Honky Tonk Man got the victory over the newly turned babyface version of Jake “the Snake” Roberts. You thought I was kidding but there it is kids. Hahahahaha.
Steamboat took the Intercontinental Title, and in one of the under-card matches, Billy Jack Haynes and Hercules fought outside the ring to a double countout. That leaves us with the main event, the one to end em all, Hulk Hogan versus Andre the Giant for the World Wrestling Federation Heavyweight Championship.
This match was one of the passing of the torch moments in this business that is singled out as a milestone. Andre was the biggest and most over thing in the wrestling business until Hulk came along, and Andre knew that it was time to give Hogan that rub and make that official in the business, to their peers, and in the eyes of the fans as well. That one slam, while it wasn’t the first time Hogan had up-ended the Giant and put him on his back, was what gave Hogan the stamp as “the guy” in the WWF, and the one who would carry the company into it’s future in the decade to come. Andre did the thing man, and he did it with pride and respect to protecting the business, the way it should be done. I can still close my eyes and see the big man riding to the back in that little cart he used because he couldn’t walk the exceedingly long entryway to the ring. He looked back at the ring, and swore at Hogan in character, but if you look into the eyes of the man, at that moment, you can see it. That glint of pride in the job that they had done, and that all the years he had given to the business were worth it. While he continued on with his program against Hogan in the two years that followed, it was in that instance that you saw what this business is really all about to the men that give their hearts and souls to it.
It is about so much more than rednecks and rasslin, Bruthas and Sistas. It’s about brotherhood and the sacrifice given of yourself in order to make your friend look better. Our wrestling history is gold Bruthas and Sistas…..DIG IT!!!!!!!