WrestleMania has become the Super Bowl of Sports Entertainment, aka Pro Wrestling. Arguably, the World Wrestling Entertainment-produced mega-spectacle -- which debuted in 1985 -- rivals the global appeal of the NFL showcase, as WrestleMania airs in more than 160 countries in more than 30 languages.
The strategic placement of the date of the event has long gone overlooked, as it is nestled on the Sunday between NCAA men's basketball Final Four on Saturday and the championship game on Monday. No football ... spring training baseball ... no Olympics ... and the off day for college hoops proved perfect.
“There is nothing else like it,” longtime WWE creative member Bruce Prichard told me recently. “Imagine the grandest event you can think of and for a fan of wrestling, WrestleMania is the ultimate experience.
“It is the one weekend of the year where everyone can be a fan again and get lost in the revelry.”
When Vince McMahon created the concept, many pro wrestling promoters around the world thought that the brash -- albeit brilliant -- entrepreneur had essentially signed his own bankruptcy papers. WM I was the ultimate, calculated risk as McMahon has often said. In truth, the future of the WWE -- known as the WWF (World Wrestling Federation) during these early days -- was heavily mortgaged on WM being a huge hit.
If WM had failed, the future of WWE was bleak. Rival promoters were pulling for WrestleMania to fail.
That didn't happen.
The first WrestleMania was held in Madison Square Garden, the "World's Most Famous Arena," in New York City on Sunday, March 31, 1985. The special guests read like a who's who from entertainment and sports.
Those unique bookings allowed the WWE to receive amazing outside-the-box publicity, which the genre could rarely accomplish unless it was the media reporting a tragedy or controversy. The multi-media body slam created the awareness for fans to not only sell out MSG, but, much more importantly, to invest in the event in multiple closed-circuit locations around the country in the days before the proliferation of pay-per-view on cable TV.
Veteran ring announcer Howard Finkel actually gave McMahon's brainchild its name. For the main event, the WWE decided to go non-traditional with a unique tag-team match, which in itself was a gamble as it did not feature resident super hero and top star Hulk Hogan in a hyped singles match.
Rolling the dice, McMahon booked Hogan and popular TV action star Mr. T of the hit show “The A Team” to face the villainous duo of Rowdy Roddy Piper and Mr. Wonderful Paul Orndorff in a match "garnished" with celebrities. This included Muhammad Ali as a special referee, baseball legend Billy Martin as ring announcer and Liberace as guest time keeper.
“The way WM was pitched to me was the way things got done back in the day,” Piper recalled. “I was in Poughkeepsie (NY) doing interviews during the day! I got finished and headed down stairs to the dressing rooms. As I was walking away, George Scott said, ‘Hot Rod, how would you like to fight Mr. T?’ Without turning around, nor breaking stride, I said, ‘Book It!’ and I continued down the hall. It's the timing that’s important here. George asked me about T before ‘The War To Settle The Score!’
The first WM was dictated by the success or lack of success of the MTV's ‘War To Settle The Score,’ which was the first time Hogan and Piper went toe to toe.
Of course the Rock 'N Wrestling connection spearheaded by pop music star Cyndi Lauper was huge in the building of WM I. Lauper's interaction with Piper is still vividly remembered as one of the first “WrestleMania Moments.”
Many also speculate that being involved in WM truly thrust Lauper into the mainstream because of all the media she received for being engaged in an in-ring storyline of significance.
McMahon's right-hand man, veteran wrestler Pat Patterson, was the in-ring referee. He not only helped produce the match, behind the scenes, but was in the ring to see it went as planned, especially as it came to the inexperienced and nervous Mr. T, who was legitimately not well liked by his opponents. The villains, taking their role and profession with dead seriousness, would have been elated to have been able to legitimately injure Mr. T -- the street smart actor was keenly aware of such.
“Mr. T, who was the toughest bouncer in the world, according to him, wanted to come and play pro wrestling, bang our heads together, flex and go home laughing about the phony wrestlers,” Piper said. “Not on my watch! I started pushing T hard in the interviews, making a fool of him. People can say what they want, but if you’re going to challenge someone to a pro wrestling interview contest, Roddy Piper should not be the one you pick!
“Now, there's a press conference in New York with all the principals. From behind, Mr. T leg dives me and we both go off the stage on to the floor! Really ...
“I am a professional, and I know the line as far as pro wrestling. It was (supposed) to be a classy press conference and (that was) exactly what our business did not need.
“When I got backstage, I pulled T into a room, at which time he started apologizing as he was just trying to make a good show ... ‘I don’t need your help T, just listen and do what you’re told!’ Mr. T just kept getting more out of hand.
“Here's the truth. I've never spoke of it.
“‘I told my brothers in arms that I'm taking T out,’ I recall telling Hogan about five years ago. There was going to be a spot where T and I fell out of the ring onto to the floor. When T and I hit the floor, I was going to tell T to get me in a headlock. There were not any mats at ring side ... just floor. I was to back suplex T on the floor and hold on so I could drive his head into the floor and me land on top in hopes of breaking (his) neck. That’s how bad (we wanted to take T out).”
Some hardcore fans look back at WM I as an event heavy on “sizzle” and moderately built on “steak.” T’s success of the “Big Gamble” changed the face of the business and actually created a renaissance within the genre that McMahon's detractors, of which there were many, begrudgingly benefited and attempted to emulate to varying degrees by promoting their own major shows in their regions, aka territories.
“I realized with Cyndi Lauper and all MTV stars shouting my name, saying ‘Hogan’s going to get you, Piper,’ that we were getting a lot of attention,” Piper told me recently.
“But it was not until Geraldine Ferraro (who was running at that time for vice president) and Dr. Ruth Westheimer said, ‘Roddy Piper, you’re not fit to wear a dress!’”
That's when it clicked. Yeah, we’re mainstream.
McMahon's “Big Gamble” had worked and it helped fund his growing company, including footing the bill for WWE's continued national expansion and soon-to-be prolific global growth.