By Jim Phillips, Senior Editor
Well, Bruthas and Sistas… it’s time to take on another chapter in the legacy of the of the WWF, and it may be the most important chapter in the saga.
Coming off of the success of both the Brawl to End It All, and the lightning rod that was the War to Settle the score, Vince had set forth his new ideal for the future of the business as it headed into the Eighties, and everyone took notice. While some of the established wrestling “system” scoffed at him and dismissed it away, the people that had the ability to see beyond themselves and their own egos to see the viability of his risky venture. Few promoters were willing to be associated with this bold move, but all of em wanted to sit back and see how it unfolded.
This was not lost on some of the younger generation of workers, as well as the established guys that could see the payday in what the McMahon kid was proposing. After the Black Saturday incident the Mason-Dixon for professional wrestling was plainly and firmly set, with everything south of Virginia being set in the NWA held territories that began to band together to compete, and ultimately, survive this rapid expansion from the arenas to to the national network of television stations that were also being consolidated into the various networks that would shape their cable infused futures. One thing that can not be disputed is a wrestler’s ability to sniff out a payday, and desire to get over. Vince was offering both at that time, and the flood gates of talent began to open more than they already were.
Vince and his war team at the WWF were turning over ideas on how to make the next show the mother of them all, and set the wrestling world off it’s axis. Vince’s home in Stamford became the seat of power, as well as the gathering place for his think tank. It is unsure where it happened, but it was the first full-time employee of the WWWF, that blurted out the name that stuck and still emulates the beating heart of the company, and the biggest show the year. It was Howard Finkel that had the spark of inspiration to call the show Wrestlemania, and it imbibed into Vince as if he had been sprinkled with golden dust.
Madison Square Garden was the church of the WWF, and had been for decades, so a more perfect place to hold the event could not have been found. While it has since taken on a life bigger than the sum of all of its parts squared, I feel that the Mania should be held every year at the Garden, in order to hold that legacy in place, and make a special event, even more so with the annual pilgrimage that would take place. But the business is built on revenue, and as long as their is the ability to draw on a grander scale, Wrestlemania will always be on the move and has taken its place alongside the SuperBowl, and the Olympics as a mega event, with cities vying for the rights to host the cash cow with each successive production.
McMahon put his media machine behind the promotion of the show, with Hulk Hogan and Mr. T doing media appearances prior to the event, including hosting Saturday Night Live the day before the show. This was the first of many business dealings and the beginning of a lone friendship with the then head of NBC, Dick Ebersol. Every piece was now in place on his chess board, and Vince started to bring the game to set and match. I cannot understate the acumen and little luck on the part of Vince to bring all these elements together and manage to stir then up in a big pot to create what they did. To go back and watch Wrestlemania today, it still holds the vibe of a house show, until the main events and then the electricity that he captured can easily be felt. You knew this was something special, and wanted to be a part of it.
Sunday March 31, 1985 was the date chosen, and I can only imagine the combination of exhilaration and dread that was welling up in Vince’s guts that day. Everything he owned was on the line, and even though we have the grace of hindsight to look back on it, at the time, if he failed he was through.
The first of the nine matches began with one of McMahon’s most charismatic stars, with Tito Santana taking on a masked Buddy Rose as the Executioner. This match really did nothing for Rose in the WWF, who was unknown to most fans of the territory, while under the mask. This match set the tone for the show and in my opinion aso set the mark for the “curtain jerk matches”, that have become so important in setting the tone for the whole show.
The second match was highlighted by a monster of a man who had just made his way to the area but was no stranger to in ring competition. Christopher Pallies was born in 1955, Woodbury, New Jersey, and most certainly grew up watching the old Capitol Wrestling product just across the river from the Big Apple. Trained by Larry Sharpe, he worked his first match in 1981, as Chris Canyon. He continued to work under that name until he started to go through a gimmick evolution that saw him adopt the Big Daddy persona and eventually morph into the King Kong Bundy that we remember. He worked his way through WCCW and Mid-South before Vince got wind of the big man and immediately saw his potential as an opponent for Hogan. Bundy came into the WWF just in time for Wrestlemania, and was put with Jimmy Hart, heel manager extraordinaire and they two made their to the ring to face Special Delivery Jones, in a then record time that they called at nine seconds, making his presence felt by the crowd, and definetly by S.D. Jones. The following year would be huge for Bundy, in every sense of the word.
Another star that would enjoy a long career with the company also traveled North from JCP in the Carolinas. It was during his tenure in the WWF that he picked up the “Dragon” gimmick as well. He faced Matt Borne, working a decent match, but I never really marked for Steamboat, even though he had great matches with Savage and Flair. I’m a heel guy and he was forever the good guy.
Lord Alfred Hayes was posted up by the end of the entrance-way doing post match commentary, as wrestlers were walking past and trying to stay out of camera shot. It is only a second or two of footage, but it shows the early beginnings of their production levels and how polished it became just a few years later. The fans came to their feet to cheer their great gladiator of the MSG arena, when Bruno accompanied his son David out for the next match against the protege’ of Luscious Johnny Valiant, and one of Hulk Hogan’s best friends
Born Edward Leslie in 1957 Tampa Florida, Brutus Beefcake rose to the height of his popularity in the late Eighties, and mirrored his carer path to follow that of Hogan’s, as did several wrestlers and back stage people at that time. He got his start in Mid-South, but wasted no time in heading to NYC when he saw the business they were doing, and the good word from Hogan didn’t hurt either. He arrived as a singles competitor, but it wasn’t long before he was put together with Greg Valentine to form the Dream Team. That is on the near horizons though, so let’s get back to Mania for the moment.
The next match on the card was one of my favorites of the whole show because it had Junkyard Dog, facing Greg “The Hammer” Valentine for his Intercontinental Title. It’s no secret that the IC title is my favorite belt, because it is the working wrestlers title. The best broadway matches came out of the hunt for that belt in the early Eighties, and it produced some of the greatest heel champs in the business to date, and The Hammer is in the top five of those title holders. He was like a pitbull terminator, that just kept coming at you with a relentless assault. I’ve often said that a tag team pairing the Greg Valentine and Paul Orndorff from this era would have been one of the best bookings of all time. It would have been a destruction fest that the likes of Demolition and the Road Warriors would have had a tough time dealing with. The Hammer cheated JYD out of the match, which led to disputes by his friend Tito Santana, who ran to ringside to try and tell the ref what Valentine had done. This will lead to a program with Santana having a run at Valentine later for that IC Title.
Another favorite of mine and heel fans the world over, was the team of the Iron Sheik and Nikolai Volkoff. The two became so hated and recognized together that is rare that u hear someone talk of one without mentioning the other. I loved to watch them work, and they went against the young and tenacious team of the US Express, Barry Windham and Mike Rotunda. Both of these young guys would bring so much to the business in the following years, and Rotunda would cement his legacy with both his sons following in his footsteps as well, in Bray Wyatt and Bo Dallas. The Express wasn’t good enough that night to beat the dissenters however, as Nikolai and the Sheik took their WWF Tag Team Titles from them, and held those belts for five months before the Windham and Rotunda reclaimed them the following June of that year.
Andre the Giant met one of his greatest foils in Big John Studd to not only determine who the real giant was, but also to lay claim to a sack full of fifteen thousand dollars, that never got far from the scheming mitts of Studd’s manager, Bobby “the Brain” Heenan. We all knew going into this on who was going to win, but it’s always fun to see Andre work Studd over and make him run. Big John got his licks in, but the Giant won the match. Afterward, when he tried to throw the money to the crowd, Heenan classically, ran in and snatched the bag away before scampering off just out of big Andre’s clutches.
The Womens Championship was to be decided next, as Champ Leilani Kai, with The Fabulous Moolah by her side, met the high-energy, and poor wrestling skills of Wendi Richter, and her manager Cyndi Lauper. Leilani is hands down one of the best women’s wrestlers to ever lace em up. Why that euphemism may be overly used in the lexicon of today’s wrestling publications, in her case it could not be more true. She had the ring knowledge to not only get her opponent over like a diamond, but she sold and bumped better than any other womens wrestler at that time, except maybe for Judy Martin. Watching Kai, or the pairing of the Golden Girls work, was like watching art in motion. It was the babyface’s night at Wrestlemania in this one though, and Richter carries out the gold, but was by far, the inferior wrestler in the match. All that would change soon enough however.
The main event was a spectacle in every since of the word, Bruthas and Sistas. From Liberace’ and the Rockettes high stepping it center ring, to Billy Martin fumbling his way through the announce, even with the Fink at his side, down to Pat Patterson coaching Muhammad Ali on his role as outside referee, it all seemed to be held together by a string at times. You could tell straight away that Liberace’ “got it”, while martin and Ali looked both lost, and worked by what was happening around them. As the match came apart at one point you actually saw Ali take a full swing at Cowboy Bob Orton, who was attempting to – and ultimately did – interfere, causing the end of the match. I have to say that Orton worked that spontaneous moment so well as he jumped on and back off the apron to avoid the shot. Everyone of the workers in that ring; Hogan, Piper, Orndorff, Orton, and even Snuka ran with the series of events and made it work to pattern, even if it had a few ragged edges. The real life loathing between Piper and Mr. T was palpable, which gave it even more of a big match feel, and sold the finish perfectly.
Vince McMahon had rolled the dice and came up money. There would be no doubt by the almost twenty thousand in attendance, or the one and a quarter million closed circuit/ppv viewers that the WWF was there not only to stay, but to lead the way.
In the year that followed Wrestlemania I, Vince continued to chart his course well ahead of his competition’s with several innovative ideas that came out of the wrestling minds of Monsoon, Patterson, and Vince himself. The talent team was still reeling in acquisitions that would allow McMahon to leave the rest of the wrestling world in his dust. One of his territorial buyouts included Stu Hart’s Stampede Wrestling in 1984, and this may have been his most lucrative move, purely from a wealth of talent standpoint. He harvested not only great workers, and tag teams, but tapped into a family legacy that he was able to foster, and build upon under his own WWF branding. Some may say his greed led to recklessness and hurt the family more than helped them, but that is another story for another time.
The British Bulldogs and the Hart Foundation had a run of matches that should be watched by anyone looking to work tag team wrestling. They are a clinic in timing, and tandem offense that are hard to beat. These four men lit up the tag scene in the months following Wrestlemania, and were always some of my favorites to watch work against each other because you always knew you were going to get something special.
Another man that has been considered controversial by some, abrasive by others, but undeniably transcendent in the business by everyone was the second generation star that I grew up watching in his father’s ICW “outlaw” promotion. Randall Mario Poffo was born in Columbus Ohio on November 15th, 1952. Three days after my own November birthdate of the 12th, for which I always watch a few Savage matches in celebration of the events….lol. He graduated from Downer’s Grove High School in Northern Illinois, and then spent a little time at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, Illinois. This is particularly interesting to me as I grew up not fifteen minutes from SIU, as we’ve talked about before. That little unearthed fact made me smile Bruthas and Sistas! His original love was baseball and he played in the developmental minor league systems of the St. Louis Cardinals, as well as the Cincinnati Reds, and Chicago White Sox, and was signed by the Cardinals, but only played for a short time. From there he went into wrestling and worked with his family promotion, as well as with Jerry Lawler in Memphis’s CWA.
His entry into the WWF was marked by a bidding between managers, with Randy being the “hottest free agent” going. This was in fact, a brilliant way to introduce his own wife, Miss Elizabeth, as his manager. His over the top jealous gimmick with her was a sad example where art ultimately imitated art with stories of him locking her away in rooms at arenas and not allowing other wrestlers to talk to her. The pair, as wrestling commodities, were gold with fans, and McMahon, who wasted no time in setting up a push for the Macho Man.
Building on his friendship with Dick Ebersol at NBC, McMahon once again made history with a risk when he launched his new idea onto syndicated network America. Saturday Night’s Main Event hit the air waves on May 11th, 1985 and made an instant impact. Ebersol, being a consummate business man willing to take a chance much akin to Vince himself, saw the falling rating of Saturday Night Live, and agreed to put on WWF content in it’s place on a recurring basis dependent on ratings. Well Vince knew he could put the America’s asses in the seats of their living rooms with no problems, and it was off to the races for the new program. His bevy of new talents fed the ever churning WWF mill, and he cranked out the product with several touring units of criss-crossing parades of wrestlers who were on the road for the majority of the year. The show became a rating giant in it’s time-slot and garnered record numbers on several occasions.
Vince wasn’t just finding success on the road with his shows and events. His wife, Linda, was at home in Stamford, at the helm of a company full of VCR’s that was cranking out the video-taped content. Coliseum Video was the only line for some of to see he WWF product, besides the few pay-per-views that were offered at that time. I remember my Uncle getting them from the video store and all of us watching em and roaring at the mayhem both on the big floor model console television, as well as what would inevitably unfold in front of it, as we rolled around emulating the stuff we were seeing. It was a special time to be a kid, and I’m glad I was right there for it all.
The summer of 1985 brought a pair of title changes of note that we need to touch on as well. Coming off his heat with Greg Valentine’s win over JYD at Wrestlemania, Tito Santana and Greg Valentine became embroiled in a feud that saw the fan favorite, Santana, unseat Valentine, taking the Intercontinental title for his first run, and dousing the fire of Valentine in the singles scene.
Greg Valentine would not be swayed in his possession of WWF gold, and when he was partnered with Brutus Beefcake by Luscious Johnny V, a new force in the tag team division was born. Several teams have adopted the Dream Team moniker, but aside from Valentine and Flair in MACW, this has to be the nest rendition of the tune. The two men complimented each other so well, and immediately went after the US Express who had regained their titles from the Sheik & Volkoff in June. They had it for thirty six days before the Dream Team hunted them down and took those belts for themselves. The Express tried to regain but it wasn’t meant to be and they split up not long after with Windham going back to his NWA roots, and heading for MACW. The new Champs co-main evented the October 5th broadcast of Saturday Night’s Main Event when then turned away challengers Lanny Poffo and Tony Garea. Hulk Hogan defeated Nikolai Volkoff in a Flag Match for the Heavyweight Title as the other main on that show.
It would mainly be the strength of the SNME shows, (which can all be seen in the Vault section of the WWE website now), that would carry Vince through to Wrestlemania 2. Vince was pushing his brand across all fronts, however, and trying to get every bit of that baby boomer money he could. To further entice us kids, in the Fall of 1985, McMahon gave us the Saturday morning cartoon, Hulk Hogan Rock’n’Wrestling with all the wrestlers we loved to cheer and hate. I never really got over on it, but my five-year-old brother loved the Hell out of it.
In true double-tap fashion we got The Wrestling Album a month later and it spawned a series of music videos, as inspired by the newly launched MTV, and his workings with Lauper. Vince was moving pieces across the board faster now than the rest of the promotions and territories had not only tome to realize, but react before he was out in front and they were firmly in his rear view mirror, chasing after scraps and left-overs. JCP was the only thing going that still had the drawing power to even try to keep up.
There was something that happened in November of 1985, that many have don’t even have on their historical wrestling radar, and no I’m not talking about ice cream bars. Hahaha. On November 7th of that year, the WWF traveling show landed in Chicago, and sold out the Rosemont Horizon with nearly fourteen thousand in attendance to see The Wrestling Classic. Now, why this may just seem like another show between Manias 1 & 2, with some of you pondering it’s significance. Let me break it down for you.
Broadcast on PPV, the Wrestling Classic was a bracketed tournament with sixteen participants competing in single elimination matches. Now for those of you paying attention, this is the exact same type of match that they used in Wrestlemania 4 to decide the winner of the vacated WWF Championship, as well as the very first version of the King of the Ring that was offered up in the company’s history in the PPV format. The only other match on the card was the WWF Title match between Hogan and Piper, keeping a fire under their feud, which was always a great draw. I happen to be under the opinion that it was the want of people to see Piper get his ass kicked by Hogan that drew Wrestlemania, and not the charisma of the Hulkster himself. You can’t have a victorious hero without an equally villain, as we talked about before, but I digress.
There was no Intercontinental or Tag Title match at the Wrestling Classic, but the teams of Sheik & Volkoff and the British Bulldogs participated in singles bouts. No match went over ten minutes, including the mains, and some were as short as Dynamite Kid beating Volkoff in nine seconds. Other first round results included Adrian Adonis over Corp. Kirchner, JYD beating the Sheik, IC Champ Tito Santana besting Don Muraco, Savage over Putski, Steamboat over Davey Boy Smith, and the surprise win in the first round, from my perspective, was Moondog Spot defeating Terry Funk in just seventeen seconds by DQ.
The second round gave us a glimpse at a future match of a generation when Randy Savage went against Ricky Steamboat with Savage winning that meeting. The two would light up the stage two years later at Wrestlemania 3. Dynamite Kid beat Adonis to seal his spot in the semi-finals against the Macho Man. The JYD beat Spot in the battle of the hounds…hahahaha, and Tito battled Orndorff to a double count-out, giving JYD a bye to the Finals. Savage proved his salt when he went the distance, but lost the Classic to the uber-popular JYD, after he was back body dropped off the top to the floor by the Dog.
Well Bruthas and Sistas, that’s where we’re going to call it for this week. I realize we only covered a little over a year, but it was the most pivotal year in the beginnings of the company, and the final transition to professional wrestling being set firmly in the Northeast, with McMahon at the driver’s seat. He had traveled across the country to amicably bring the promotions and territories into his fold, but had no problems squashing them when they refused. This is the point where the tide began to turn and wash wave upon wave of cash into the WWF coffers, allowing Vince to dream bigger, risk more, and crush his opposition. Join me back here next tie, when we head right into Wrestlemania 2, and witness the Hulk battle King Kong in the most glorious steel cage ever constructed, Big Blue.
Until then… Bruthas and Sistas, always remember; Our wrestling history is gold….DIG IT!!!!