By Jim Phillips, Senior Editor – Classic Wrestling
Welcome back once again Bruthas and Sistas, to the next step in our look back into the history of the old WWF. As we close in on the end of this series, it’s leaves me taken aback to look at all the miles we’ve covered and the places that we stopped along the way. Let’s get right into it this week, and pick back up where we left off – 1983.
’83 was a year that marked significant change in several ways. The traditional guard that had kept the status quo of their world was put on notice as a new player was stepping out from behind the shadow of his Father’s business model and setting into motion, with a ferocity, his vision of where professional wrestling should be headed. Vince was no stranger to the members of the NWA, or the old promoters that dotted the country, who had heard about this kid from New York that had big ideas of the future. They wouldn’t have to go on believing the rumors however, because that year, he came calling on them all. Much like the famous character that he patterned partly after himself, Vince knew that everyone would have a price for him.
While many of them laughed in his face and told him where he could put his idea of national expansion, this was their chance to do things the easy way. Vince had no problems with giving them the stick, after the carrot had been refused. This was not just a wild-eyed kid stricken with the greed monster to take everything over, though many people years later, may argue that perception. The young and hungry Vince caw the ineffectiveness of the fragmented state that the territorial system was taking on. While the NWA was the needle and thread that held them together, it was also keeping them distant when they could be united, under one banner. Vince’s banner.
Leaving the NWA for the second and final time, the WWF began to set itself up as what Vince considered the standard bearer of the industry to be. He turned his focus from the blood laden matches, and began to look at what he saw as a cash cow that was beginning to expose itself to the wrestling world, along with other facets of the business world – the children of the baby boomers.
Many people know that Vince began turning his marketing and character development of his stars to meet this younger, child driven demographic, but few have taken the time to connect those dots. The purchase power of the kids of the largest generation to have ever been born in this country, was undeniable and it’s force was felt during the Christmas season of 1980 with the explosion of the Star Wars toy line. Just ask Kenner Toys about the purchase power of the children at that time. While it may be just supposition to correlate the two, let’s dig into the history of the business during this time to further exemplify this point., and show how McMahon had his chess pieces in place to do just that.
The All-American Boy was still proudly carrying the gold and representing the company globally, but unfortunately for him, he also represented the “old days” of the company and Vince knew he wanted to totally shake up the etch-a-sketch and start over fresh. He wanted a great villain to have the title in order for his ideal champion to be able to stand victorious over evil. He looked to the man from Tehran to fill that bill.
Hossein Khosrow Ali Vazir was born in Tehran, in March, 1943. He grew up destitute, in relative squalor but never let any of that deter him from rising above his station and making a name for himself. He grew up with a fire in his belly for wrestling and began setting himself apart form his peers. He tried out for the 1968 Iranian Olympic team, but that didn’t materialize for him. He moved to the United States shortly after and continued working with amateurs and Olympic squads. In 1971 he won the AAU Greco-Roman Championship in the 180lb weight class, and went on to represent the Unites States in the 1972 Munich Olympics as the assistant coach for the team. Verne Gagne reached out to him that year and invited him to come to one of his training camps in Minnesota. He excelled in the camp and began his career, there in the AWA.
It was while he was cutting his professional wrestling teeth in the AWA that he established his signature “Iron Sheik look”, and shifted to working the heel role that he was naturally suited for in those days of the strained relations we were having with the Middle East, and Iran in particular. He would cut promos against the other wrestlers and America in general that would have the live crowds and the ones watching on their console television sets standing up and screaming in protest. He also introduced the swinging of the Persian Clubs in interviews and as a pre-match “warm-up” to show his superiority as an athlete. Let’s be honest, anyone who can swing those sixty-plus pound clubs garners my respect, and would definitely strike the intended fear of said man who could do that.
While the Sheik was in the WWWF for a cup of coffee in the late Seventies, in which he got his first but unsuccessful shot at Backlund, he made his way to the NWA and toured the country with his moneymaking gimmick. It was in the Fall of 1983 that he returned and took his Persian Club challenge to the superstars of the WWF, specifically calling out Backlund as not being man enough to work the clubs. Naturally Backlund, obliged him and after a few attempts managed to work them for a few brief moments before the Sheik attacked him from behind, and parlayed that incident into a shot at the title in December of that year.
The match took place at the Garden and resulted in the famous finish with Arnold Skaaland throwing in the white towel when Backlund wouldn’t submit to the powerful Camel Clutch that the Sheik used as a finisher. This left Backlund in defeat by forfeit of the title to the Iron Sheik. McMahon had the hated villain he wanted, and moreover needed, to unveil the biggest face that the wrestling world would possibly ever see. As we learned in the last part of this story, he too was off making money off his new developing gimmick, and was called back to NYC by the McMahon brain-trust.
It was not only their lack of forward thinking, but the arrogance in the way they refused McMahon’s offer to consolidate that would be the 1000 cuts that preceded the dagger to the heart that eventually killed them. Vince sent out the word to all the major stars of the territorial promotions that he had guaranteed contracts, and national exposure for them. He was going to take their breadwinners, and make them watch, as he destroyed them with their own talent.
In September of that year Vince had secured the rights to present his WWF product on KPLR-TV in St. Louis, and he went to the Chase Hotel to tape some of these events for the Wrestling at the Chase program. For those of us that grew up with the NWA stuff on that show, it was on Channel 11 that we got our first look at what later would be called Black Saturday by fans. Yes, I just made that connection because it shows how Vince was sharpening the skills that would bring him his winning formula, all the way down to when he bought out WCW many years later, and put Shane on TBS to hammer the point home.
During his tapings at The Chase and Kiel Auditorium, he unveiled two of the stars that would make his company, Hulk Hogan and Roddy Piper. Roddy was coming off his dog-collar match at Starrcade with Greg Valentine and was able to work in the ring full time yet, as he was wearing a brace with an injured neck. He still had the amazing abilities on the microphone and McMahon saw the potential there, and he was given his now infamous interview segment, Pipers Pit. The golden moments that were born out of the Piper’s Pit segments go beyond the ability to explain their significance. They were, and ARE, the inspiration for any great interview show produced in professional wrestling since. I could spend an entire episode talking about the Pit, but there were so many things happening during this time that we must move on.
We all know that Hogan also made his way back to the company at this time, and he returned in December of that year in St. Louis at the Chase tapings. He made his turn from heel to face when he helped Bob Backlund, after he was attacked by the Wild Samoans. The fans now saw Hogan as the larger than life good guy that had saved their Champion. This was another subtle moving of pawns into place by the chess master. There was a man there that also made his debut in the company at this event, and his relationship with not only Hogan, but all the superstars lent him to become one of our favorites of the company’s history. Sadly, we lost him recently.
Eugene Arthur Okerland was born in Brookings, South Dakota in December of 1942. He grew up loving music and went on to study broadcast journalism at the University of Omaha. He worked in radio most of his early career and also sang for Gene Caroll & the Shades at the age of twenty. After eight years in radio he began to do side work for the AWA, which became a full time career by the early Seventies, when he replaced Marty O’Neil who was in ill health. Okerland maintained his spot with the Gagnes and honed his interview style. When Vince put out the word to the territories, Okerland was one of the first ones form the AWA to recognize it’s long-term potential and left for NYC. He was sent to the tapings in St. Louis to break into the company. Gene went on to become one of the faces that we associated the company with and was a key player during the Golden Years of wrestling that were to follow.
While Piper was reviling the crowds with his Pit segments, he was also serving as manager to some of the heels, which gave them an instant derision by association response from the fans. Just being seen with Piper made you hated, and got you over. One of these men went on to also become a key player for Vince in the years of his early domination of the business. He too arrived in the WWF at the end of 1983, and began to flex his muscle on the competition.
Born just before Halloween, 1949, Paul Orndorff Jr. was always one of my favorite heels in the old WWF. He always looked like he really hated the guys he was working against, and his aggression in his assault was one of his calling cards. When you watched Orndorff punch and stomp someone, it was beautiful in it’s precision of infliction. He earned fame at the University of Tampa and was recruited in the ’73 draft by the New Orleans Saints but failed his physical and attempted to join up with the Chiefs but was turned away again by the NFL. He didn’t let that deter him and shifted his interests to Jacksonville, Florida. He played for their Sharks in the World Football League in 1975, but he had already began to look to the world of professional wrestling for his vested future. He had strong runs in both Mid-South and Continental in Alabama before he headed on over to Georgia to work with Flair. He won the National Heavyweight Title in 1982 while there, and worked a strong program with Larry Zybszko before he left for a stint in NJPW in the Summer of that year. He arrived in New York in November of 1983, and took Piper as his manager. It was Roddy that him the nickname Mr. Wonderful in one of his unscripted shoot interviews. Some of the best things of the Golden Age came out of that unscriptedness in interviews, which is one of the things lacking in the quality of the product today. But THAT is another conversation for another time.
The Soul Patrol was also making waves in the tag team division that year, when in September the pair of Rocky Johnson and Tony Atlas won those titles form the Wild Samoans. Atlas made his debut in the WWF in 1982 at the age of twenty-eight, and feuded with Jesse Ventura in pose downs and weightlifting showdowns. It wasn’t until the big Virginian met and teamed up with Rocky Johnson that he found real title glory there.
Born in Summer of 1944, in Amherst, Novia Scotia, Canada, Wayde Bowles was a descendant of a group of slaves that escaped the south, and emigrated to Canada after the Revolutionary War. He took to the wrestling business at a young age, and began training at the age of sixteen. He used boxing to get his foot in the door of the local gym, but it was the wrestling ring that was his calling. After showing the required persistence needed to get in with the boys in the old school days, he made it to the NWA circuit in Canada. He wrestled as Rocky Johnson, and soon after changed his name legally to reflect his new identity. He worked the NWA through the Seventies, and had a successful run under the mask as Sweet Ebony Diamond in the MACW territory. He hit the ranks in the WWF in the Summer of ’83 and after a singles run he was paired with Atlas and the Soul Patrol was born. They took the titles from the Samoans on November 15th of that year.
The Iron Sheik rolled into 1984 as the Heavyweight Champion, but Backlund was still trying to win his title back. They were set for a re-match for the belt on January 23 in New York, and to the dismay of some and joy of others, Backlund was booked as unable to compete and was replaced by the man who had recently saved him from the Samoans. Backlund had, for all intents and purposes, passed the babyface torch along to Hogan with the promo he gave about Hulk saying that he had “changed his ways”. This opened the door for his new, “good guy buddy” to step into the match in his stead. Another movement of the chess pieces was taking place.
The Sheik accepted this replacement and the two went into battle. Hogan was the first person to escape the Camel Clutch finisher and went on to pin the Iron Sheik and take the title from him. While it can be said that Vince didn’t want a face to take the title off another face, so he moved the belt to The Iron Sheik and kept him as a placeholder champion, it has been said that the real reason was that Backlund didn’t respect Hogan’s style and would only drop the belt to someone that had legitimate amateur standing, such as the Sheik. However it played out, by politics or economics or the combination of the two, a new WWF Heavyweight Champion was crowned and McMahon now had the man that he could build his dynasty around. But, as I’ve maintained, a true babyface Champion can only be as great as the heel working him.
This could be said of any Championship though, and it was also the case in the Intercontinental title scene. Don Muraco had been on a long run with the title that started back in January of 1983. He had sent the best opponents packing, by hook or by crook. It was when Tito Santana came calling in Boston, Massachusetts that an end was put to Muraco’s near four hundred day title reign. This meant that all the major titles were being held by babyfaces, and McMahon had all his champions set into place, except for one. It was the Women’s Title, and it’s associated players that set into motion Vince’s play into pop culture. But before he was able to make this happen, he was rocked with the heartbreak of loss.
On May 24, 1984 Vince J. McMahon succumbed to his battle with cancer and died in New York City, the city that he loved. His passing struck a heavy blow to Vince, but ever the showman, he used the adversity to fuel his driven ambition to be the best and make the McMahon the pre-eminent name in professional wrestling promotion.
Vince Jr. had secured the talents he needed to start his push, but it was the happenstance meeting of Lou Albano and Cyndi Lauper’s manager, David Wolff that really put the WWF in the limelight of not only wrestling but the exploding world of the MTV pop-culture generation of thrift spending 80’s kids. Albano agreed to work with her, and he appeared in several of her music videos, including his classic appearance as her father in the “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” debut effort. McMahon immediately saw the potential of being on the wildly popular Music Television Network and began to make inroads with Lauper and the network to establish a partnership, one that simply became known as the Rock and Wrestling Connection.
Lauper appeared on Piper’s Pit, which added the heel fuel to the fire that Vince wanted. Piper’s natural attitude of distaste towards whole MTV experience, made him a perfect sparking point for controversy that would grab the attention of millions. Piper had Albano and Lauper on his show to let them air grievances and added his fuel to the fire that saw Lauper hit Albano, with a match unfolding out of that altercation. They both chose a champion to fight as a proxy in their stead, with Albano choosing the newly arrived Women’s Champion to the company, the Fabulous Moolah, and Lauper chose a young woman that was new to the company but was definitely familiar with Moolah.
Wendi Richter was born in Texas in September, 1961. She grew up a rodeo girl and worked on her parents ranch as a youth and was active in sports at her high school in Bossier. She had been exposed to wrestling at a young age in the hotbed of Texas rasslin’ and decided to take her hand at the business in the late Seventies, when she began her training at Moolah’s school in South Carolina. All women wrestlers of note of that generation either trained or had worked with Lillian “Moolah” Ellison in some capacity. The women’s wrestling scene was still in it’s infancy at that time, and is not widely recognized by the company even to this day, with the newly adopted Women’s Revolution that is getting so much acclaim. It was these ladies of the late Seventies that really set the stage for competitive women in the sport of wrestling long before the generation we have today that loves to take credit for everything – but again, another conversation for another time.
Richter got her formal training from women that would become her peers and competitors in the business. Women like the great Joyce Grable, Leilani Kai, and Judy Martin were her teachers, under the supervising eye of Moolah herself. This handful of women, along with ladies like Velvet McIntyre, and Princess Victoria toured the United States and were the Women’s Division for not only the WWF, but every major promotion in the territories. They would play a crucial role in the success of the implementation of Vince’s strategies.
With Albano and Lauper’s “champions” ready to fight for them, McMahon built the card that would become to be known as the “Brawl to End It All” to be aired in July of that year. It was a stacked card that saw Tito Santana defend his IC title against via draw, and Hogan soundly defeat Greg Valentine, with Albano in his corner. Adrian Adonis and Dick Murdoch, the newly formed North-South Connection defended the title they had just recently won from the Soul Patrol a few months prior. Antonio Inoki saw double duty in his defense of the Martial Arts Title against Charlie Fulton, and when he won a twenty man battle royal. The main event was to be aired on MTV, with Wendi winning the belt from Moolah after Lauper knocked Albano on his ass with her purse, which ended a near thirty-year undefeated streak, claimed by the WWF, to make Richter the Women’s Champion.
There were more wrestlers that were making the move back to the WWF, especially after the success of his MTV venture. One of these men was the large Russian, Nikolai Volkoff, who immediately aligned himself with the Iron Sheik to form one of the most hated tag teams of that era. The two went after the tag team titles that were being held by the pair of Barry Windham and Mike Rotunda, working under the name of the U.S. Express. They had begun working together in the CWF promotion and like so many others, had brought a successful gimmick up north to cash in during the Fall of 1984.
It was also during 1984 that one of the greatest managers in professional wrestling history made his way from Minnesota to the WWF. Once he arrived, he took the company by storm, and held a stable of wrestlers over the next decade that would rival any other manager’s…ever. We of course, are talking about the Brilliant One, also known as the Weasel, Bobby “the Brain” Heenan. We will hear a lot more from Bobby as we get into 1985.
1984 also saw the emergence of another man that would be pivotal in the success of Vince’s new marketing scheme directed at the youth of the country. With his big grin and country boy appeal, James Morris would become one of the most beloved men from that era by the fans, and his peers. Born in Scottsville, Kentucky at the height of the Summer of 1952, the man that became famous as Hillbilly Jim first got into the business in the Memphis based CWA promotion under the biker gimmick of Harley Davidson. His fan appeal and charisma caught the ear of Vince, who promptly sent out word for him to come have a tryout match. McMahon banked off of the “aww shucks” simple demeanor of the real man, to create a regular-joe type of a fan character that was seen to be sitting ringside at many of the televised events. Big Jim as he became to be known, was then taken under the wing of Hulk Hogan who was going to teach him to become a wrestler. Hillbilly was an instant fan favorite. He sticks out in my memory more than most from that time, mostly because of his run with Uncle Elmer and his prominence in being the WWF ice cream bar you were most likely to get in the Illinois, Missouri and Kentucky market, or at least it sure seemed that way. We will see much more from him in the years that follow as well.
After the success of the “Brawl to End It All,” McMahon sought to continue that roll and quickly moved to set up his next big venture with MTV. Early in 1985 he began putting the plans together for its follow event, “The War to Settle the Score.” Naturally, Vince wanted to ratchet up the hype level and hopefully the payday, so he got the top heel in the company involved, only to be bested by his greatest hero in red and yellow.
Piper ranted and raved over the Rock and Wrestling Connection, talking down Lauper, Albano, the MTV audience, and especially Hogan. The level of denigration and disrespect that he showed to and for Lauper and her scrawny boyfriend/manager David Wolff was, for me, friggin amazing. I loved Piper and the way he would just cut his adversary to the quick without any reservations about whether they, or the audience, liked it or not. He was, for lack of a better term – heel-tastic! For me as a fan, Hogan was the insipid foil to Piper’s greatness, but that’s just how a bad guy at heart sees the world. With Bob Orton Jr. at his side it was the perfect pairing.
A standout card was built, and the matches were set with Hogan and Piper for the Heavyweight Title (which Piper never needed to get over), and a match for the Women’s Championship pitting Champion Wendi Richter against one of Moolah’s best and number one protege’.
Patty Seymour was born just at the turn of 1960 in Tampa, Florida and she went right to training with Moolah out of high school. Moolah thought she had Hawaiian qualities in her appearance and urged her to change her ring name to Leilani Kai. She started off with an Alaskan tour, but as did most of her peers in women’s wrestling at that time, she set out on a tour of America. It was when she met Judy Martin in 1979 that things started really clicking for Seymour. The two would go on to become one of the greatest women’s tag teams of all time, and in my opinion, the best pair of ladies to ever lace ’em up. We will get into their monumental career in future editions, but in 1985, she was looking to avenge the honor of her teacher and put Richter in her place. Leilani worked the heel character to perfection, and could reel in any audience, and that was the case that night in MSG.
The two matches would be aired on MTV, like the main event from the Brawl For it All was. McMahon lined up everything and booked out the Garden for the event, to be held just four days after Valentine’s Day, 1985. He put his media machine behind the event, and they pushed it strong on all fronts. I remember it well, and we watched the event, but had to wait for it to come out on Coliseum Video, as we didn’t have any closed-circuit outlets at that time. That’s how we saw most of our WWF programming at that time, besides the Chase tapings and Black Saturday, that happened the previous year in 1984. Coliseum Video was a major money maker for McMahon, and I can still see the rack of videos at our local rental store in my mind’s eye.
Just at twenty-two thousand streamed into the Garden that Monday evening. Yes, it struck me as odd too to have an event of this caliber on anything but a weekend night, but I triple checked it through multiple resources, and it appears to be true as far as I could find. The War could have happened on a Tuesday afternoon at 2:30 and it would have drawn, just because of the storyline, and yes, the pop culture connections. The early matches featured Hillbilly Jim defeating Rene’ Goulet, Bruno’s son David got the best of Moondog Rex, and Jimmy Snuka beat Bob Orton Jr, and seriously hurt Bob’s arm in the process.
The U.S. Express retained their Tag Titles, but other matches of note had the heels coming out on top with the Hollywood Fashion Plate escorting Nikolai Volkoff to the ring to meet Swede Hansen, Paul Orndorff posed down against and put away Tony Atlas, and Don Muraco got the 1-2-3 over the recently passed Salvatore Bellomo…R.I.P. Brutha.
As the mid-card bouts came to a close, the television feed picked up on MTV and it was time for the Women’s Championship match. Challenger Leilani Kai went to the ring with the Fabulous Moolah in her corner keeping watch, while Cyndi Lauper danced her way to the ring in true Cyndi style with Wendi Richter at her side, to the “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” music on the overhead, which was still not something that every superstar had going to the ring yet. Only the top people had entrance music in those early days. The two worked a good match with Leilani working a great match, putting the crowd exactly where she wanted them, as well as Richter. The heels worked the pair of Lauper and Richter perfectly and came out on top with Leilani winning the WWF Women’s Title that evening.
The match between Hogan and Piper was as expected, embroiled in controversary, with Hogan winning by DQ, and Orndorff and Orton getting involved. This caused Mr. T, a friend of Hogan’s who was there as a fan watching the match to jump out of his seat and rush the ring apron. He was drawn into the fray in the ring when he came to help Hogan, but was attacked by Piper, and his henchmen. Vince used this media frenzy as the perfect launchpad for his idea of WrestleMania that he had been working on with Monsoon and Patterson. It was Gorilla Monsoon that can be credited with the catch-phrase, when on the night Hogan won the title form the Sheik, Gorilla exclaimed that “Hulkamania was about to run wild”. Little did he know how true that statement was. This event was the spark that captured the pop culture and wrestling world on fire with it’s storyline and Hollywood celebrity that would be attached to the cache’ that the event would generate.
Well will pick back up there next time Bruthas and Sistas. Thank you for sticking with this longer than most column and be sure to be back here in two weeks when we head into WrestleMania!!! Never forget, our wrestling history is gold…..DIG IT!!!!!