How WrestleMania Made The WWF: Hulk Hogan And Mr. T On Wrestling's Biggest Stage
On March 31, 1985, Madison Square Garden played host to one of the most historic nights in professional wrestling. With the gamble that was the first WrestleMania, Vince McMahon and the WWF (now WWE) proved that sports and entertainment could mesh, that audiences didn't really care if the matches were predetermined, and that there was a lot of money to be made in what was seen as working class entertainment.
Getting to the actual event was half the battle. McMahon had to convince larger than life performers like Hulk Hogan, Rowdy Roddy Piper, and the Iron Sheik to do business and share the ring with performers like Mr. T, Cyndi Lauper, and Liberace, and then there was the question of how audiences across the country would see this groundbreaking event.
By the time the curtain fell on WrestleMania I, the doubters, the naysayers, and the real life heels were proven wrong and the industry was changed forever. Today, WrestleMania makes close to $15 million in one weekend and wrestling is a multi-million dollar business, but in 1985 things were just beginning to get hot.
The road to WrestleMania
When Vince McMahon took over the WWF from his father, Vincent K. McMahon, in 1982 he had dreams of growing the regional northeastern territory into a global empire. It was all in the name: World Wrestling Federation. He started running down the dream with a two pronged approach. He brought in well known territory stars like Hulk Hogan and Rowdy Roddy Piper for exclusive contracts, so if you wanted to see these guys who ran roughshod over the AWA and NWA territories then you needed to start watching the WWF.
Then, McMahon moved in on syndication with shows like WWF Championship Wrestling and Tuesday Night Titans on USA. By putting Hogan, who appeared in Rocky III in 1982, onto syndicated programming McMahon insured that there were plenty of eyeballs on his product which was vastly different than the rest of what wrestling had to offer at the time.
In the 1980s the WWF was just one of many wrestling territories in America. These companies were competition in the vaguest sense, and many of them shared the same performers. They protected the secretive nature of the industry and put on a performance that was meant to be taken seriously. None of that really interested McMahon. He cared about entertainment first and wrestling second, which is a great business model for a global entertainment company but it didn't make him any friends in the territories.
As McMahon focused more on the entertainment aspect of professional wrestling he still looked to the territories for ideas. After witnessing Starrcade, a massive show first put on by Jim Crockett promotions in 1983, McMahon had the idea to do something similar with the WWF. He correctly believed that if he brought in talent from outside the wrestling industry, a super show could turn the WWF from a regional territory into a worldwide entertainment brand. And thus, an event McMahon planned to call "The Colossal Tussle" was born.
No one thought WrestleMania was going to work
Thank God for Howard Finkel, the company's long time ring announcer. The story goes that after McMahon came up with the name "The Colossal Tussle," Finkle suggested "WrestleMania," a play on Beatlemania, as an alternative. With the name in place McMahon had to convince his performers to work with him on a wrestling show that would be broadcast across the country, something that the territories really didn't want to happen.
At the time the territories were making all of their money off of live shows. The fear was that no one would shell out five or ten bucks to see a show in Memphis or Portland if they could watch wrestling on television, especially a wrestling promotion that had stars from Hollywood and MTV. Even Hulk Hogan was reticent to go along with the first WrestleMania. He explained:
I said, ‘This guy’s crazy. This guy’s going to piss everybody off, all these little territories. Vince is going to get everybody so mad that everybody who works on the WrestleMania card will be blackballed. And if Vince fails, I’ll never be able to go anywhere else and make a living.’
It wasn't just wrestlers like Hogan who worried that they might never work again. The guys running the territories were certain that by leaning into the more entertaining aspects of the business that McMahon would poison the well for everyone.
The Iron Sheik Goes Down
The Iron Sheik was lured out of the AWA in Minnesota to the WWF, but he says that promotion's founder, Verne Gagne was happy to pay the Sheik to sabotage the WWF. On January 23, 1984, he was set to take on Hulk Hogan -- and lose -- at Madison Square Garden. The Sheik claims:
One week before my match with Hogan, [Verne Gagne] called me and said, 'Don’t drop the belt to that bleached-blonde jabroni. He’s a punk. I’ll give you $100,000. You get in the ring with him at Madison Square Garden, you break his leg, take his belt and bring it to the AWA. We put Vince out of business.' I have a lot of respect for Mr. Gagne. I don’t know what to do... I talk to Sergeant Slaughter. I said, ‘Oh, Mr. Sergeant, I have a problem.’ Sergeant Slaughter is also trained by Verne Gagne. But he says, '$100,000 is nothing. We’re going to make millions working with Vince.' So I told Mr. Gagne 'No.' I lose the match to Hulk Hogan.
Hogan's defeat of the Iron Sheik in January 1984 was the beginning of the new champ's reign as the face of the WWF. Hulk Hogan's popularity became known as "Hulkamania," and it would make him the biggest wrestler of the latter half of the 1980s. With the wrestlers playing along with McMahon's style-over-substance brand of action, it was time to bring out the big guns.
Rock n roll wrestling
Standard professional wrestling, with its boastful characters and basic storylines, is really only going to bring in wrestling fans. There might be a few rubberneckers in the audience but to really get people on board with WrestleMania the WWF had to think outside the box. McMahon brought in pop singer Cyndi Lauper to work with popular female wrestler Wendi Richter, Mr. T to work with Hogan, and Liberace to... well to be Liberace.
If anyone had a problem working with Lauper they didn't say, but Mr. T was an entirely different story. The guys in the locker room didn't feel like T belonged with them. He was too professional, to showbiz, and not keyed into the business. Roddy Piper explained that everyone felt that T, a movie star thanks to Rocky III and D.C. Cab, just wanted to make whatever money he could from professional wrestling and not help grow the business.
Ready to rumble
The build to WrestleMania saw the WWF partner with MTV for The Brawl to End It All, aired on July 23, 1984, and The War to Settle the Score, which aired on February 18, 1985. Both shows did more than set the stage for the nine intersecting storylines at WrestleMania; they made the WWF relevant to the larger world of pop culture. By aligning themselves with MTV the WWF was saying: if you like Cyndi Lauper, Billy Idol, and the bright pop art world of music videos you're going to love what we do.
Watching the show today, it feels incredibly old school. There are some pretty standard matches to open the show. The Junkyard Dog wins a match due to a count-out and Andre the Giant wins a "Body Slam Challenge" match. It's pretty standard for a wrestling show up until Cyndi Lauper starts throwing hands with Wendy Richter's rival the Fabulous Moolah. Once she's in the ring it's all spectacle from there on out.
The final match of the night has Muhammad Ali refereeing a tag team match between the duo of Hulk Hogan and Mr. T against Roddy Piper and Paul Orndorff. It's very much a clash between the "entertainment" brand of professional wrestling and the world of kayfabe (unacknowledged fakery). At the end of the match Piper, forever an old school wrestling hero, is spun around on Mr. T's shoulders before Hogan and T win the match to send the audience home satisfied that good has triumphed over evil.
Closed circuit TV brought WrestleMania to the nation
When WrestleMania premiered on March 31, 1985, there were 19,121 people in attendance, but there were another million people watching over closed circuit television. This precursor to pay-per-view allowed a program to be broadcast to a specific place on a small njumber of monitors. At the time, wrestling wasn't an event that people traveled across the country to witness in person, so the show was brought to different venues where the audience paid to watch the action on TV.
This plan to draw in more fans mostly worked, but in Pittsburgh something went wrong with the signal the 11,443 fans who paid around ten dollars apiece to watch WrestleMania from the Civic Arena ended up watching a lot of snow. Tom Rooney, vice president for advertising and promotion at the Arena explained:
We were scrambling up to the very last minute to get the thing on. It got to the point of no return. It looked like there was a problem in decoding the signal. We had a scrambled picture and we were unable to unscramble the signal.
Fans in Pittsburgh had to wait two full weeks for the show to be broadcast on local ABC affiliate WTAE-TV.
WrestleMania didn't just change the WWF, it changed wrestling
Pittsburgh's technical difficulties aside, the sheer amount of eyeballs on WrestleMania turned the WWF into a viable entertainment operation overnight. The success of the event paved the way for the company's primetime series Saturday Night's Main Event, and it solidified the model for pay-per-view sports programming throughout the '80s and '90s. Even with the clear success of the evening, for many of the performers involved it was just another night. While speaking about the milestone that is the first WrestleMania, the late Roddy Piper reminisced:
While Hogan and Mr. T were in the Rainbow Room, getting their picture taken, we went to the Ramada Inn, like it was just another night. We might as well have worked Poughkeepsie.
Piper's statement foreshadows the growing pains that the WWF/WWE would experience as a regional entertainment that suddenly went national (and eventually global). There was a Roddy Piper action figure on shelves at Toys R Us, and he'd soon join the rest of the WWF stars on The Wrestling Album (singing "For Everybody") and the Saturday morning cartoon show Hulk Hogan's Rock 'N' Wrestling. This was the big time -- was McMahon's operation ready?