Thanks to Kris Zellner, Jim Zordani, Graham Cawthon, Matt Farmer, Tamalie, Dave Meltzer, Karl Stern, Brian Last, wrestlingdata.com, crazymax.org, prowrestlinghistory.com and the “Between the Sheets” podcast for the results and historical information I have used for this series. The Wrestling Classics and Kayfabe Memories message boards have also been invaluable in answering my questions on certain issues and angles.
I have to break up my usual format this month, just due to the sheer amount of info that the first Wrestlemania had surrounding it. The rest of the territories will be covered in the coming weeks.
The popular story the WWE likes to speak of is how Vince McMahon gambled his lot on “Wrestlemania” and in turn circumvented bankruptcy after the event came off as a major success. The truth of the matter actually makes McMahon come across even wilier. Even before one fan walked through the turnstiles to watch “Wrestlemania”, McMahon had three lucrative deals in the works to ensure the WWF would have a bright future.
The WWF had signed contracts with two major networks, CBS and NBC, for television deals. CBS was earmarked to air “Hulk Hogan’s Rock n’ Wrestling” cartoon, and NBC was geared up for at least one late night special, dubbed “Saturday Night’s Main Event”. The WWF had pop icons Mr. T and Cyndi Lauper set to help them draw eyes for the NBC special. NBC executive Dick Ebersol was a big fan of “Tuesday Night Titans” and that helped convince him to push for the WWF to get a special.
As far as the cartoon goes, the original line up was to include the exotic Mad Maxine, an Amazonian woman who made her WWF debut right before Mania. When she parted ways rather quickly with the company, the producers plugged the Fabulous Moolah in her place on the cartoon. Wendi Richter and Jimmy Snuka were fired by the WWF before the end of 1985, but both remained in the cartoon until it’s cancellation in 1987.
On top of the funds coming in from the network deals, the WWF also scored a million dollars from Jim Crockett, who bought out McMahon’s WTBS timeslot. In retrospect, this always seemed like a huge blunder to me by JCP. Ted Turner and McMahon had a bad relationship dating back to at least the previous July, when the WWF bought out many of the Georgia Championship Wrestling shareholders and began airing rehashed matches from other shows instead of producing fresh material for the 6:05 Saturday night staple. Turner was putting increased pressure on McMahon to do live TV at his Atlanta studios, meanwhile McMahon countered that he wanted a share of the advertising money his show was producing. Turner had Ole Anderson’s and Bill Watts’ promotions also airing on WTBS, so Crockett may have felt pressured to make a cash deal with McMahon, rather than trying to persuade Turner to boot the WWF in favor of JCP’s show. McMahon, wanting the national TV to bolster his home stretch push for Wrestlemania, finally acquiesced to Turner’s demands and taped fresh shows in Atlanta each Saturday morning. Once the final show aired before Mania, the WWF willingly sold the slot to JCP.
The build up to Maina included many segments airing on TV of Hulk Hogan and Mr. T training around New York City. This included stops at grocery stores and other places. I find these vignettes to be cheesy in the best possible way. I was a youngster when they first aired, so they serve as a ripe form of nostalgia for me.
Hogan and T appeared on several non-wrestling TV shows, including Richard Belzer’s “Hot Properties”. This segment quickly went down in infamy as Belzer questioned the legimacy of pro wrasslin’ and Hogan taught him a lesson by locking him in a very real choke and dumping him to the studio floor, where Belzner hit his head hard, ending up with a bloody gash that required 8 stitches to close. A lawsuit followed as Belzer sought 5 million dollars in damages. Hogan settled for around $400,000 a few years later.
The Hogan and Mr. T pairing also became last minute hosts of “Saturday Night Live” on the eve of Mania. This gave millions one final chance to hear the rap of the over the top super heroes.
Roddy Piper and Paul Orndorff had their own segments on WWF TV building up the main event. These included multiple racially insensitive comments towards Mr. T.
“Mean” Gene Okerlund taped multiple vignettes with special guests Liberace and Billy Martin to add to the buzz around the event.
Several entertainment and gossip sections in newspaper printed the rumor that actor and NFL great O.J. Simpson was in line to act as the special referee for the Mania main event. That would certainly have added and awkward element to the show in retrospect.
Jesse Ventura’s “Body Shop” interview segment debuted in the weeks leading to Mania. His first guests were Bobby Heenan and “Big” John Studd, who tossed threats towards Andre the Giant. Andre and Studd brawled on TV a few weeks later.
Ricky Steamboat debuted at the first WTBS studio taping. He was originally slated to face Don Muraco at Mania, but plans changed and Steamboat was placed against Matt Bourne at the event instead.
Ticket sales were soft across much of the country until the final week before the event. Ultimately 138 arenas showed Wrestlemania, with around 400,000 fans watching on closed circuit TV. 60 locations were canceled prior to the event due to ticket sales numbering below 100. Some places charged as much as $100 for premium seating. The WWF drew around 4 million dollars in one afternoon. The NWA sources had the time claimed the number was actually 2.5 million.
The WWF saw some fan backlash over their promotional tactics, as some fans felt they were led to believe that Wrestlemania would be held live in their home arena, and not on a closed circuit TV screen. Dallas had inadequate screens prepared and fans received refunds after being presented with a tube TV as their viewing option (four large screens had been promoted). On top of that, the sound system in Dallas made the commentary muffled. Pittsburgh’s Civic Arena suffered a technical issue that caused the Mania feed to not air. This led to the WWF putting the show on the local ABC station two weeks later as a make good to the local fans. The snafu cost the WWF $110,000 in ticket refunds.
Some locations in Boston, Philadelphia, and New York sold out their screenings. Other big crowds included 8,000 fans in Long Beach, 7,000 in St. Louis, 7,000 in San Diego, 7,500 in Los Angeles and 11,000 fans in Salt Lake City.
Mr. T did not win over many in the locker room. His conditioning was suspect, as he basically hyperventilated following some physical angles in the build up to Mania. Greg Valentine later joked in a shoot interview that T was sitting on an oxygen tank surrounded by handlers, while some of the wrestlers were smoking cigarettes after their matches.
T ran up a $22,000 hotel tab that the WWF was on the hook for as part of his Wrestlemania weekend in New York. T also tried to fire one of the WWF’s backstage hands after the person had annoyed T over something arbitrary. T had previously gotten into a heated exchange with booker George Scott during the WWF’s initial attempts to bring T into the world of wrestling.
Wrestlemania was originally penciled in to be called the “Colossal Tussle”, which is pretty weak compared to the “Brawl to Settle it All” and “The War to Settle the Score” that had gone down over the past several months. Howard Finkel is officially credited with coming up with the “Wrestlemania” name, however George Scott and David Schultz have both claimed to actually be the ones who coined the name.
The big card saw Hogan and T vanquish Piper and Mr. Wonderful in the main event, after Bob Orton accidentally bonked Orndorff with his cast. T received $100,000 for his efforts. Piper received $75,000, Hogan raked in a bit more than that, and Orndorff was given $25,000, which he was not pleased with. Orndorff had been told prior to Mania that his payday would be about $50,000. The match ended up being voted Pro Wrestling Illustrated “Match of the Year” by the fans.
Other action that evening saw Andre the Giant save his career by slamming “Big” John Studd to win a “body slam” match. The Junkyard Dog bested Intercontinental champ Greg Valentine by count-out. Valentine had originally been declared the winner after pinning JYD via nefarious means, but Tito Santana came out and told the ref what had occurred, leading Valentine to walk out as the match was restarted. Wendi Richter reclaimed her woman’s title by pinning Lelani Kai. WWF tag champions Barry Windham and Mike Rotundo fell to Nikolai Volkoff and the Iron Sheik. David Sammartino and Brutus Beefcake brawled to a draw after Bruno Sammartino and Johhny Valiant became involved in the action. King Kong Bundy smashed Special Delivery Jones in “9 seconds” to set a new record for the fastest win. Bundy stated in a shoot interview that Jones intentionally botched the timing to avoid losing in such a quick manner. Ricky Steamboat outfoxed Matt Bourne, and Tito Santana downed the “Executioner”, who was Buddy Rose under a mask. Rose later claimed he was given the mask gimmick for the evening because booker George Scott wanted to protect him for a planned feud with Steamboat. This doesn’t seem to hold much water though as Rose was losing to many people in under card bouts around the horn sans the mask.
At the Mania after party, Billy Martin got blitzed and walked around telling people he could beat up Hogan.
In non-Mania news: The WWF worked a large number of spot shows in smaller towns in New York and New Jersey. I suspect this may have been designed to help fend off Pro Wrestling USA’s Northeast “invasion”. More on that in my next article…
Bruno Sammartino did not win any fans in the office after he went on a radio show and belittled Hogan’s in-ring ability, as well as expressing his displeasure in Mr. T being presented as a talent.
When he wasn’t busy on his media blitz, World champ Hulk Hogan fended off Jesse Ventura, Brutus Beefcake, Mr. Wonderful, Ken Patera and Don Muraco as they all vied for his title.
IC champ Greg Valentine overcame challenges from Tito Santana, the JYD, and Tony Atlas.
Barry Windham and Mike Rotondo bested the Iron Sheik and Nikolai Volkoff many times in the weeks leading up to Mania.
Roddy Piper’s feud with Jimmy Snuka continued to draw fans in for their inconclusive brawls.
Andre took up the JYD, George Wells, Jimmy Snuka and David Sammartino as his partners in various towns in his continued efforts to avenge his pride against Patera and “Big” John Studd.
Dick Murdoch headed for Japan. His WWF run is over.
Davey Boy Smith and the Dynamite Kid began to get a push. I would assume with Barry Windham wanting to leave and the Briscos opting to retire, that the WWF needed to start building up a new babyface tandem.
Landover drew over 13,000 fans to witness Hogan down Muraco, as well as Windham and Rotundo upend the Sheik and Volkoff.
Boston was tapped into twice, with Snuka spearheading a sell out of 15,000 fans to see him battle Roddy Piper. A few weeks later the WWF returned with Hogan (seconded by Mr. T) besting Don Muraco. Santana and Valentine grappled on the under card.
Two weeks before Mania, the WWF ran MSG, drawing nearly 19,000 fans to see Hogan and Mr. T enter “Piper’s Pit”, plus Valentine and Santana fighting in a ring surrounded by “lumberjacks” and a mega six-man match with the JYD, Snuka and Andre butting heads with Jesse Ventura, Ken Patera and Big John Studd.
Much more news to come from the other territories, including: JCP running a closed circuit show that was supposed to compete with Mania, The Tonga Kid making quite the impression in his Pro Wrestling USA debut (for all the wrong reasons), Ric Flair getting robbed, legends dressing in drag, the Road Warriors causing another riot, Memphis fans witnessing a big heel turn, Florida running a tasteless angle, Mid-South headlining the Superdome with one of it’s most famous matches and much more!