This is Eddie Mac Underexplains, where I take events and stories in wrestling and give a basic as possible explanation for you to pass along to your non-wrestling fans.
It's Wrestlemania season, you guys! Who's excited?
Ok, I admit it. It doesn't feel like Mania season, but this is the most wonderful time of the year where the eyes of the wrestling world are trained upon its biggest show. This year, it'll be under more scrutiny than it has in recent memory... maybe ever. But there'll be plenty of time to break that down.
So why is Wrestlemania such a big deal? Well, one only has to look at its history, a history that for the next few weeks I'll break down in its simplest form. In essence, I'll be underexplaining every Wrestlemania ever. This week I'll focus on the first six, or the Wrestlemanias of the Hulkamania era.
Eddie Mac Underexplains... Wrestlemania
To fully understand why the original Wrestlemania was such a big deal, you kind of have to understand where wrestling was before 1985.
Mostly wrestling on television took place in small television studios or dimly lit (and sometimes smoke-filled) arenas. The days of Gorgeous George were long over, and the NWA was quickly losing its stronghold on the business. And by the early 1980s, so was the AWA, once upon a time the biggest wrestling promotion in the country. Verne Gagne's insistence on not pushing a red-hot Hulk Hogan (he had a cameo appearance in Rocky III) was enough for Hogan to leave the WWF...
...starting a chain of events that would forever alter the wrestling landscape. Hogan (who had a previous stint with the company under Vince McMahon Sr.) would be the centerpiece of a new WWF. Just a month after his arrival, Hogan was the WWF Champion. But it was only the beginning: the WWF began buying not just television time on stations across the country to syndicate their weekly shows, but wrestlers and rival promotions themselves. Compared to wrestling most everywhere else, WWF shows were basically a live-action comic book. It was bright. It was colorful. And for young people, it was awesome. This wasn't their daddy's wrestling.
By embracing the entertainment aspects of professional wrestling, it was more popular than any time before it. With fledgling cable network MTV along for the ride, the Rock 'n Wrestling era of the WWF reached its apex in Madison Square Garden on Sunday, March 31, 1985. It wasn't just another house show; it was Wrestlemania.
At the time, it was the biggest card the WWF had ever put on, and any chance of the company's risky gamble to expand nationally rode on what happened that afternoon in the Garden. And by that, I mean the show's final two matches: the women's title match between Lelani Kai and Wendi Richter, and the tag team main event pitting WWF Champion Hulk Hogan and Mr. T (yeah, THAT Mr. T, he of the B.A. Baracus of The A-Team and the night elf mohawk) against Roddy Piper and Paul Orndorff.
Never mind the arena was dimly lit like most wrestling shows of the time. Never mind there wasn't the huge production that today's wrestling shows are. Never mind the matches weren't spectacular from a workrate standpoint. The crowd of just over 19,000 had the energy of one ten times its size. They were up for everything. And with appearances from celebrities including Liberace, Billy Martin, and Muhammad Ali (yeah, THE Muhammad Ali), to say that the original Wrestlemania was a huge success would be an understatement. At the time, it was the most watched event in the history of closed-circuit television. The WWF, down three with the bases loaded with two outs and the game on the line, hit one that not only cleared the fence, it might as well have cleared the stadium.
Eddie Mac Underexplains... Wrestlemania 2
By the end of 1985, there was a clear #1 and a clear #2 in the wrestling world. The WWF had cemented its place in the top spot, and everyone else was fighting for second. At the moment, the distant #2 belonged to Jim Crockett Promotions, the largest subsidiary of the National Wrestling Alliance (thanks in part to being broadcast on TBS, regarded as America's first "superstation"). Late that year, they put on Starrcade from the Greensboro Coliseum in North Carolina and the Omni in Atlanta, Georgia. Perhaps in response, the WWF decided not only were they going to try it, but they were gonna do it better.
Just because you can doesn't mean you should.
The WWF ambitiously decided to broadcast the sequel to the biggest show ever from three venues, one from each of America's biggest cities: the Nassau Coliseum in New York, the Rosemont Horizon in Chicago, and the Memorial Sports Arena in Los Angeles.
They doubled down on the celebrity cameos (and why wouldn't they? They were quite popular at the time). They invited NFL players for a battle royal. And yet, the show's often seen as a step back from the original (looking at you, Susan St. James on commentary). For all three venues, the crowds were on their hands for 2/3 of the show (unlike Starrcade, where they alternated venues as the show went along), meaning a lot of downtime for those that bought a ticket. Like most sequels in life, it wasn't as good as the original.
Eddie Mac Underexplains... Wrestlemania III
Despite the hiccup, Vince McMahon still had plans for world domination. As one story went, when travelling the Silverdome with Hulk Hogan and a Pontiac Silverdome official, when asked how many seats did he want to do for Wrestlemania III, McMahon said the whole building. Mind you, that building held about 80,000 for football. How was he gonna possibly fill every seat in the house when he could only sell out one out of three venues for the previous Wrestlemania? (I'll give you three guesses as to which venue sold out, and the first two don't count).
Yeah. That's how. Hulk Hogan versus Andre the Giant, the two most popular wrestlers in the world since the days of George, Verne, and Bruno. Maybe ever. Actually, pretty much unquestionably ever. Add in a story as old as time (one friend is jealous of another friend's success), combined with the little white lie that was Andre the Giant had never been defeated in a match (mind you, pro wrestling wasn't as big in the 1970s as it was at this point, so unless you were like the 1% of fans at the time that really knew, the story might as well have been true), and you have yourself an epic encounter the size of a summer blockbuster.
And yet, it would be more than just that one match that would be the talk of the wrestling world by the end of the night. Randy Savage's blood feud with Ricky Steamboat over the Intercontinental Championship culminated the same evening, and minds were blown. For the first time--at least to this degree--many people saw that wrestling doesn't have to be all about brute force. It can be quick, technical, and a damn beautiful ballet. In the nearly 15-minute bout, Savage and Steamboat averaged more than a pin attempt per minute. Oh, and did I mention the match was really, really, really, really, really good? Like all the fire emojis good. MANY SNOWFLAKES! POSSIBLY NOT ENOUGH STARS IN THE GALAXY GOOD! And it did a damn good job in telling a story too.
You know, like the main event. Except that it sucked from a technical standpoint. It was awful. But that crowd of 93,173 (some say 78,173; let's just say a lot of people were there and call it good, okay? I mean, the record's since been broken) were up for EVERYTHING. People wanted Andre the Giant to BURN. They were having none of his shit on that day (seriously, look at his iconic entrance). Basically the story was this: Hogan went for the big body slam again, and again, and again. Hell, he went for one less than two minutes in and nearly lost. Once he got Andre off his feet (which took a good 11 minutes), the puzzle was solved. One earth shaking bodyslam and running leg drop later, and Hulk Hogan won what was the signature match of the 1980s.
After the stumble that was Wrestlemania 2, Wrestlemania III delivered on all fronts. You had blood, midgets, the retirement of Roddy Piper, two of the ten or twenty most important matches in wrestling history, Bob Uecker, and 1987 Mary Hart. What more do you want in a wrestling show?
Eddie Mac Underexplains... Wrestlemania IV
Seriously, how do you follow up THE GREATEST WRESTLING SHOW EVER?
With a tournament. Obviously. Wait... what?
Due to shenanigans, Hulk Hogan lost the WWF title in early 1988 to Andre the Giant, who then proceeded to sell it per a pre-match agreement to Ted DiBiase, which the WWF didn't like. Not. One. Bit.
Jack Tunney, WWF's then on-screen authority figure, took the belt from DiBiase and declared it vacant, to be awarded to the winner of a one-night tournament at Wrestlemania. I get why they did it. Topping Wrestlemania III was simply not possible. So if you can't do something better, do something different. And at the time, this was different, at least for the WWF. After all, the WWF never had their top championship vacant for a significant amount of time ever. But they have done a tournament before (The Wrestling Classic in late 1985)... and it was a disaster. Surely they would do better the second time around.
Arguably, their second ever one-night PPV tournament may have been worse.
Despite it being, oh, only for the WWF Championship, the evening had the energy of an insurance seminar, which was only made worse by (1) Rick Rude and Jake "The Snake" Roberts going the full 15 minutes, eliminating each other, (2) Ricky "The Dragon" Steamboat going one and done, and (3) Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant, ironically, in their final one-on-one television bout, going to a double disqualification. About the only redeeming quality from the night is Macho Man winning four matches to become the WWF Champion. And look who's there to congratulate him. Get out of the shot, Hulk.
Eddie Mac Underexplains... Wrestlemania V
Despite not being the WWF Champion, Hulk Hogan managed to hang around the belt an awful, awful lot. After all, Hulk was world champion for four years. FOUR. YEARS. That title might as well have been family to him. Yet, for much of Macho's run as WWF Champion, Hogan was the focus. And that drove Macho crazy. He became increasingly unhinged, especially when his supposed BFF allegedly began having eyes for Macho's manager Elizabeth (which may or may not have bled into the locker room).
The Mega-Powers, the greatest BFF relationship of the 1980s split up, and thus we have our hook for the main event of Wrestlemania V, which would take place in the same Boardwalk Hall that housed Wrestlemania IV (no, it wasn't at the Trump Hotel Plaza & Casino; Trump just got naming rights for the show... or something). Like Wrestlemania IV, this show suffers from being too long. Like Wrestlemania IV, all the eggs were on one match: Savage vs. Hogan. And that one match is good. Really good. Like really, really good. Like a top five Hogan match ever good.
Of note: Shawn Michaels, Mr. Perfect, and Owen "The Blue Blazer" Hart all make their Mania debuts on this show.
Eddie Mac Underexplains... Wrestlemania VI
Like Wrestlemania V, it was too long. It was built around one match. And that one match was pretty good. Like top five Hogan match ever good (and if you don't believe me, do yourself a favor: watch their sequel from Halloween Havoc 1998). This time, that one match was Hulk Hogan vs. The Ultimate Warrior in a winner-take-all match for the WWF Intercontinental and World Heavyweight Championships.
Two men who were very limited in the ring put on an all-time classic with the energy that rivals to this point one, maybe two matches tops despite having 2/3 of the audience Wrestlemania III had. In fact, this might be Pat Patterson's magnum opus. Did I mention that crowd was up for EVERYTHING? It was an epic battle between two giants of the wrestling world, with Warrior barely surviving (thanks Hogan for kicking out at 3.00004, you selfish, selfish prick) to become the WWF Champion. Unfortunately, he couldn't be double champion--stupid, stupid WWF rules at the time--but Warrior would be the man to lead the WWF into the 1990s. You know, if Hogan can just get the hell out of the way. Seriously, Hulk. Get out of the shot.
At least that was the plan.
But that's a story for another time.