Reviews/CommentaryTelevision

Wrestlemania 1-5: An Appreciation

I never had the opportunity to see any of the WWF “WrestleMania” events as a kid. They always seemed like very mythical events.

Decades later, I was a lapsed wrestling fan since the “Monday Night Wars” of the mid-1990s and nostalgia for that early era of peak late-1980s wrestling made me curious about finally experiencing those events.

WWE has made the “WrestleMania” shows available on various media over the years and I finally dove in.

WrestleMania I (1985)

For some further context, it was weird after coming back to wrestling in the later 2010s and being struck by how slow and plodding the wrestling of the 1980s was with a majority (but not all) of the competitors. Also, many of the matches were surprisingly short when compared to later norms.

In fact, the entire “WrestleMania I” program was shockingly short… 9 matches in 2 hours. Most matches were only 5-6 minutes. The main event only ran 14 minutes long. So, about an hour of actual wrestling and an hour of quick promos and setups. The second longest match ran nearly 12 minutes between Beefcake and David Sammartino and ended in a wacky double-disqualification.

The 1985-era production values were expected but still jarring. The production was very much on par with what someone might expect from ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” at the time. That said, it’s a shame that I’m guessing none of these early events were shot on film rather than standard definition video of the era.

The national anthem being sung by Mean Gene Okerlund at the start was not at all what I’d imagined. Given his background, I thought that he’d actually try to sing it but he turned it into an audience shout-out.

Before each match, there were what appeared to be pre-recorded promos and they were all as nuts as one might expect from the era.

Things are just so unpolished and rough at times, at least compared to what they’d be a few years later. I mean, guys were flubbing in the pre-recorded promos and I don’t understand why Vince wouldn’t just do a new take.

Jesse “The Body” Ventura and Gorilla Monsoon were killing it as announcers. Early on, they welcomed ‘billions’ of people to the broadcast. For the record, one million people did apparently buy the pay-per-view. Not quite a billion, but still a great number.

The show opened with a mix of names of the time, with Tito Santana victor in the first match. Ricky Steamboat won the third match in under five minutes. Brutus Beefcake took on the Sammartinos in a quirky double-disqualification, the match having run nearly twelve minutes and claimed the title of the second longest in the show after the main event.

Perhaps the most notable early match involved King Kong Bundy, who was wrestling at a young age with a bald head to make him seem older, had a sort of stunt match. He had a supposed ‘9 second’ record pin in that early match but it was at least twice as long… Wikipedia had it at 23 seconds.

The Junk Yard Dog (JYD) was amazing. He was in the event’s firth match but I would argue that his match was where the event really kicked into gear. He had “Grab Them Cakes” playing as his intro music and just looked perfect in his vintage portly.

The big Iron Sheik/Volkoff tag team match would have been interesting but their opposition was the somewhat forgotten ‘U.S. Express.’ Volkoff singing the Soviet national anthem was the highlight, a fantastic heel moment.

Andre the Giant won a laughable $15,000 in a Body Slam match with Big John Studd. Big John Studd was so dang hairy and not at all in any sort of shape. I liked it though.

In terms of celebrities in the spotlight, it was nice seeing Cyndi Lauper as a manager for Wendi Richter vs. Leilani Kai in the Women’s Title Match. Lauper had obviously developed very public ties to the WWF at the time.

Out of left field though was Liberace (!?!) as the main event timekeeper.

The main event was pretty intense though, at least to start…. I had no idea that Mr. T. had wrestling skills and his in-ring action was a surprise. He was Hogan’s partner against Roddy Piper and Paul Orndorff.

Referee Muhammad Ali somehow got lost in everything around the buildup at the start of the main event… I barely recalled him even being introduced. Just the same, it was rather amusing having him randomly popping up as the ‘outside the ring ref.’ Ali’s role was fluid though, as it wasn’t long before he was inside the ring and in the middle of the action, taking shots at Piper! When the match did finally settle into being a real match the result was decent.

All told, it was interesting to finally see this foundational first WWF mega-event. Still, one thing really nagged at me and that’s how it was odd to me that there was never a ‘true’ Hogan-Piper main event at WrestleMania (note that in this tag-team match with the two, Piper didn’t lose that match for his team).

Piper would later reflect on that lack of a big showdown with Hogan in the 1980s being the great missed opportunity of the era. The context of his remarks was amid speculation of a “WrestleMania 30” match between the two but that never happened.

WrestleMania II (1986)

Some back story here… this was the first ‘Mania’ that I remember as a kid and it turned out that my memory of it wasn’t as flawed as I had assumed might be the case. I kept seeing the promo and confusedly telling my parents that I wanted to see a closed circuit of it being advertised in Rochester, Minnesota (home of the Mayo Clinic) but the Monday of the show I came home from school and, upon realizing that we weren’t going to the show, locked myself in a stairwell. My parents did seem to try to make sense of it all on the other side of the door and possibly would have tried to pull something together but it was an hour drive to Rochester and we weren’t sure on details.

Anyway, I calmed down and at least saw some highlights the next Saturday on the morning WWF syndicated show. Clips of the cage match with Hogan blew my mind and I was excited to finally see it all…

The event opened as one might have expected, featuring weird celebrity cameos – seemingly a “WrestleMania” staple. In particular, the actress Susan Saint John was introduced as the “Top Actress in the World.” Note that she was on the television show “Kate and Allie” and the time… not exactly box office gold but a respectably-rated show at the moment.

Vince managed to get Ray Charles (!) to sing the national anthem and the video production cut to a series of stills that were either bland (national monuments) or odd (cowboys and Vietnam-ish soldiers in action?). There was some sort of unfortunate sound feedback on Ray as he started singing.

The production value wasn’t much better than the first show but the logistics were pretty epic, with 3 different locations nationwide hosting a number of matches and 3 different main events. The first grouping of matches was out of the New York area, the middle set of matches were out of Chicago, and then a final set of matches were in Los Angeles.

This edition of “WrestleMania” felt like ‘classic’ WWF to me, with most of the longtime guys now being in place… you had Randy Savage and Miss Elizabeth in their first ‘Mania’ vs. George ‘The Animal’ Steele. Jake the Snake debuting. Bret Hart as a young up-and-comer.

The show opened with Magnificent Don Muraco (with Mr. Fuji) taking on Paul Orndorff and the match went poorly. The crowd chanted ‘Bullshit’ at the outcome of the first match ending in a lame count out.

The playing of “Pomp and Circumstance” when Randy Savage and Miss Elizabeth came out for the second match got me choked up. The match, with Savage defeating George “The Animal” Steele paid off a storyline where Steel had a harassing ‘crush’ on Elizabeth. On a light note, Savage’s ‘package’ was pretty damn apparent in several shots even in standard definition. The man needed more shorts coverage!

These couple of matches reminded me, yet again, how this time period showed the hints of a transition taking place from older grappling ‘strongman’ types to the more acrobatic wrestlers that would later be a norm. If a person today looked at Don Muraco, they might think that he looked like an out of shape Lou Ferrigno. You can see the direction evolving though, with more guys at least being a little athletic. I mean, Hogan at this time wasn’t a total slouch but he wasn’t really acrobatic. Piper moved pretty well but, again, had any number of physical issues. Ricky Steamboat was really an outlier at the time, looking more ‘modern’ than most due to his style being about jumps and such. Randy Savage moved a lot faster than most of the other guys… it’s quite striking seeming him vs. slow, fat oldster Steele… it was seemingly a problem that the old guys slowed down matches when paired with the faster young guys.

Mr. T. was, oddly, back again as an undercard vs. Piper (it was a main event at the East Coast location). Even stranger was Joe Frazier (!) being in his corner… no Ali in sight. Inexplicably, it was a boxing match. As of this writing, it was one of only 5 matches to ever earn a negative 5 stars from longtime wrestling pundit Dave Meltzer.

The Fabulous Moolah vs Velvet McIntyre match only lasted about a minute and a half. Moolah was around 50 years old but it was an out of nowhere high-energy bit of hair-pulling madness that was worth the minute or two to watch it.

Jake Roberts’ snake bit (pun not intended) was strangely just as uncomfortable as I remember insofar as today, we know that guys really did get mistakenly bit a little by his snakes, etc. It’s the kind of thing they’d never do today for multiple reasons. Just so weird to see him do as a sort of post-match humiliation.

Joan Rivers randomly showed up as a ring announcer midway through the show. Amid some mic feedback issues, she introduced another ‘celebrity’ in the form of a former NBA player known as ‘Chocolate Thunder.’

The Volkoff-singing-Soviet-anthem bit never got old. He fought some sort of poor-man’s Sgt. Slaughter named Corporal Kirchner and managed to lose the match. Kirchner went on tour with the WWE around this time but never caught on.

One important aside to call out: It was hard to understate how professional, polished, and full of presence Mean Gene was throughout the event. The crowd seemed to recognize as much.

There was a memorable battle royale with William the Refrigerator joining in and lighting up the Chicago site’s crowd. It wa fun to see other guys crowded in there too, like Hillbilly Jim and ‘The Killer Bees.’ Andre won it at the end by knocking out a young Bret Hart. Fridge stuck around for a while, despite what seemed to be a wardrobe malfunction where his @$$ was very nearly on a view. He did a nice move at the end to eliminate Big John Stud after having been eliminated himself.

Greg ‘The Hammer’ Valentine and Beefcake (as the ‘Dream Team’) were in the championship tag team match and it was a reminder of how entertaining Valentine could be. Those heels were defeated by the British Bulldogs with Captain Lou and…. Ozzy Osbourne (!?!). It was a solid match.

Elvira was one of the primary ‘celebrities’ at the Los Angeles-based finale. Unfortunately, she was straight-up awful as part of an announcing trio but thankfully didn’t talk much. Also of note with the announcing team involved a personal revelation that I was not much of Lord Albert Hayes fan.

Ricky Steamboat had a nice match against a guy named Hercules Hernandez, who I didn’t remember at all but who apparently lurked around WWE for a number of years and was later an early foil of the Ultimate Warrior.

Adrian Adonis (with Jimmy Hart) defeated Uncle Elmer; Elmer seemed to be a crowd favorite despite the crowd being in L.A. and being a straight up deep south character. I didn’t recall Elmer at all…. he was only around in 1985-1986 at WWF and this was his last major match. I’d guess that Hill Billy Jim kind of took over for him.

The main event with Hogan and King Kong Bundy was good, although I’m a minority opinion there. Dave Meltzer only gave it 1.5 stars though, so take my nostalgia with a grain of salt. One tidbit about the leadup to that match though… they played highlights from a then-recent “Saturday Night’s Main Event” where Hogan famously had his ribs broken/lower back injury by Bundy’s avalanche move… the key plop was very clearly a fake with absolutely no weight going down on Hogan. There was a definite poor camera angle choice before Bundy actually landed.

It was interesting how “WrestleMania II” tried to reach so much with staging three related venues across the country to pull off the show. I liked the idea quite a bit and the show seemed epic as a result. My many nitpicks aside, it was a solid event, building on the foundation of the first.

WrestleMania III (1987)

This was it, the big one (at least so far), considered by some to be the ‘pinnacle of the 1980s wrestling boom.’ This was the legendary Pontiac Silverdome edition with the highly-disputed record crowd claim of 93,000 fans. Suffice to say that the building’s ‘normal’ seating and floor looked full, despite later reports to the contrary.

Note that the dome’s roof let in a lot of light, so it was kind of a nice change of pace from the usual dark arena look of wrestling shows. The timing was back to the now-usual Sunday afternoon slot. One interesting bit to note was that the walk to the ring was so long that the performers were delivered to the ring via a cart for every match.

The ‘celebrity’ guests continued to be odd. Although WWF did score a decent Aretha Franklin “America the Beautiful” to open the show, they also had Entertainment Tonight’s Mary Hart as a commentator and Bob Uecker was lurking around too (the guy seemed to be everywhere in media at the time, with his baseball presence and a hit sitcom television show “Mr. Belvedere”).

An early 6-man tag team match went unexpectedly zany when King Kong Bundy was paired with two little people, one from the U.K. and the other from Japan. Hillbilly Jim was paired with two little people as well, one an African-American man and the other a Native American in headdress. The little people did wrestle in rather amazing fashion.

The tag-team match with the Dream Team (Brutus Beefcake and Greg “The Hammer” Valentine), with Luscious Johnny against The Fabulous Rougeau Brothers was a key turning point in the career of Beefcake. Through a misunderstanding involving Valentine getting struck by Beefcake, Beefcake was left in the ring after the match was done and would later turn face.

Rowdy Roddy Piper was in a supposed retirement match with “Adorable” Adrian Adonis, as Piper was moving toward his acting career with upcoming films like “They Live.” The match also had a haircut element in the end and it was the culmination of Adonis having angered Piper by displaying his “Piper’s Pit” segment. Strangely, Beefcake interfered with the match, leading to Beefcake doing the haircut himself on Adonis. Thus, giving birth to the Brutus “The Barber” gimmick. There was a genuine sense that Piper might be out of wrestling after this match and some emotion from the crowd, but obviously that was eventually not the case.

The Hart Foundation tag team match against the British Bulldogs was solid, with two classic teams settling a long-running feud. The announcers pushed Bret Hart has having been a fast-developer and a ‘master of execution.’

Koko B. Ware was beat by forgotten Butch Reed, although Ware’s parrot buddy gimmick registered well with the crowd.

The Intercontinental belt match between Randy Savage and Ricky Steamboat was perhaps the best of the entire event, a Dave Meltzer 4.5 rating and easy to see why it was viewed as a true classic. A subplot leading up to the match was George ‘The Animal’ Steele having a crush on Miss Elizabeth and he was present in Steamboat’s corner, hassling Miss Elizabeth as the match went along and causing a distraction for Savage.

That classic was followed up by Jake “The Snake” Roberts against the Honky Tonk Man. Two legends, with Alice Cooper (!?) in the corner the Snake. The match itself was not particularly remarkable, with Roberts losing amid interference but Alice Cooper and Roberts did break out Roberts’ signature snake on Jimmy Hart after the match, so that was something.

The final tag team match was Nikolai Volkoff & The Iron Sheik vs. the Killer Bees. While I was a fan of all of these guys as a kid, this match was pretty ho-hum. This was the last major high-card match for the Bees, as they would go from a loss in this match to a feud with the Demolition tag team before disappearing from the WWF a little over a year later. The most notable part of the match might have actually been at the beginning, when Volkoff tried to do his usual singing of the Soviet anthem and he was interrupted by “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan, a moment that announced Duggan’s arrival in the WWF and the start of a feud with Volkoff.

The Hogan-Andre the Giant main event had been built up around Andre turning heel after being insulted by WWF’s celebration of Hogan’s three years as WWF champion, seemingly overlooking the Giant’s longtime winning streak. Reviews of this match were largely quite negative but some of that reaction might be in that the match simply didn’t live up to the potential. That said, the prolonged bear hug moment was hilariously weak. The legendary body-slam by Hogan was the talk of the time, for sure.

As strong as everything leading up to it was, it’s ironic that the main event didn’t properly cap off the show. A viewer could definitely feel the momentum around WWF at the time though, with the foundation being much broader than two or three guys.

WrestleMania IV (1988)

Vince kept experimenting with the format for “WrestleMania” and this one was an oddity due to being a tournament-style event. With the multiple rounds though, the problem that resulted was too short of matches to properly fit into the 4-or-so hour show duration. There were some singles matches and tag-team matches to break up the tournament, although that did just further add to the runtime. Most critics would later observe that the number of tournament participants could have easily been reduced, resulting in longer matches for each round.

The poster advertising focused on a Hogan-Andre rematch from WrestleMania III but that was somewhat misleading in that their match was only one of several bouts, albeit with a second round ‘bye’ for the men.

The entire story gimmick that necessitated the tournament was rooted in the Hogan-Andre feud though, with an episode of “Saturday Night’s Main Event” having Andre take the championship belt from Hogan in a match that involved the ref’s evil twin erroneously declaring Andre the winner! The sanctity of the belt required a tournament to then crown the proper new champion.

WWF brought Bob Uecker back as a guest announcer, also adding Robin Leach as an in-ring announcer. The show was at Donald Trump’s Atlantic City Convention Center.

The show opened with a relatively fast Battle Royale with Bret Hart and Bad News Brown eventually teaming to eliminate the Junk Yard Dog, initially acting as if they’d ‘split the purse together.’ Bad News Brown double-crossed Bret though and the Hit-Man ended up losing… or did he? Bret climbed back into the rink and pushed Bad News out, then smashed the trophy.

The tournament then kicked off with Ted DiBiase defeating Jim Duggan due to interference by Andre the Giant (who was still in his heel role, aligned with the so-called Million Dollar Man). Another notable first round match one of the longer was Greg Valentine defeating Ricky Steamboat, with much made before the match of Steamboat bringing his infant son down to the ring (thankfully, his wife took the child away before the action started).

A running bit throughout the program was references to Vanna White, with guys like Bob Uecker seeming to lust for her (at least a little bit). Another running bit was shots of Donald Trump in the crowd, which decades later were downright surreal.

Bam Bam Bigelow made his first WrestleMania appearance but exited in the first round to the One-Man Gang. Rick Rude also made his WrestleMania debut, facing off early against Jake Roberts in a loss.

Hogan cut a promo before his match with Andre that was next-level, seeming to go off script into a wacky ad-lib into nonsense about destruction along the east coast.

Confusingly, the Ultimate Warrior showed up in a singles match against Hercules Fernandez prior to the second round of the tournament. This was the first WrestleMania for the Ultimate Warrior and he exited with a victory the match wasn’t for any sort of a title and the impression that he was an obvious up-and-comer.

The tournament’s second round started with the Hogan-Andre rematch and that began well but ended in an anticlimactic disqualification of both men from the entire tournament. A conspiracy theory was floated by Jesse Ventura that Ted DiBiase, as Andre’s contract owner, had fixed things such that the match would remove both men from contention to his benefit and the fact that DiBiase made it to the final match would seem to confirm as much.

Another break in the action, this time before the tournament’s third round, brought the Intercontinental Championship belt up for grabs with winner Brutus ‘The Barber’ Beefcake winning the match but not the title due to Honky Tonk Man being disqualified. Strangely enough, it was Jimmy Hart who got a haircut while Beefcake awaited the revival of an unconscious referee.

The British Bulldogs were in a six-man tag team match that was perhaps most notable for Bobby Heenan actually being in the ring as an official competitor alongside the Islanders team. Granted, Heenan didn’t have much in-ring action and wore an odd padded protection outfit due to fears of the Bulldogs’ actual dog mascot (which Heenan had angered when kidnapping it during a storyline earlier in the year). The Bulldogs did lose the match, crazy enough with Heenan scoring the win, but he did

In terms of wacky moments, a random moment with Jesse Ventura posing for the crowd from a precarious ledge high in the stadium had to rank near the top of the list.

Demolition (Ax and Smash with Mr. Fuji) faced Strike Force (Rick Martel and Tito Santana) for the Tag Team Championship and walked away with the belts. This was the culmination of Demolition’s rise in WWF over the prior year and they had certainly been a ‘thing’ at the time, with their distinctive black leather outfits that referenced everything from “K.I.S.S.” to “Mad Max” and horror slasher films of the 1980s.

Prior to that final match, a solid ten minutes was spent bringing out Bob Uecker to a lukewarm response something that Jesse Ventura actually mocked in his announcing. Uecker was joined by Vanna White, culminating a strange story that had developed throughout the show of Bob lustily trying to find Vanna at the event. Robin Leach was present as well… it was VERY 1980s.

The final match that ended the tournament wasn’t bad, as both Savage and DiBiase were solid performers. Andre the Giant was in DiBiase’s corner in place of Virgil, who had been injured earlier in the show and, not surprisingly, played a consistent role in the match with frequent leg-grabs at Savage.

One key tidbit was that The Mega Powers storyline kicked off during WrestleMania IV, with Hulk Hogan coming ringside to help thwart the pestering by Andre. It was quite the moment, with Savage sending Elizabeth back to the locker room area and the crowd erupting at the Hogan surprise. Their resulting partnership would be the defining storyline in WWF for the next year.

Randy Savage was undoubtedly the story of the event as he celebrated in the ring with the Championship belt, Elizabeth crying while riding on his shoulder and Hogan actually motioning the crowd’s attention on Savage. He worked his way through four matches to capture the belt in the main event that doubled as the finale of the tournament his “Pomp and Circumstance” theme song played every single time during his entrances. If this was the ‘announcement’ of Randy Savage’s arrival, I don’t know what else could have been…given events that follow, that ring celebration might have been the biggest high point of Savage’s career. It’s hard not to get a little choked up as a longtime wrestling fan to see such moments.

“WrestleMania IV” seemed to get panned by critics at the time but it has its modern fans and I can see the appeal of the tournament after having watched it. It would have been a fun afternoon of entertainment back in the day. As some have pointed out, had the number of participants involved been decreased to just the prime headliners of the time, the tournament might have been instead considered a classic… what could have been. As it was, the ending was a classic, which couldn’t really be said about the finales of the first three WrestleMania events. It was also the start of an epic year for the WWF.

WrestleMania V (1989)

I consider “WrestleMania V” to be an apex of sorts though in that it largely closes the chapter on the first big Superstar era by resolving the 2-year-long Hogan-Savage storyline. It was also the last of the decade, taking place in 1989 – the 1990s brought new storylines.

The venue for the fifth WrestleMania turned out to be the same Trump Plaza location as the prior installment. “America the Beautiful” was sung by the WWF women’s champion Rockin’ Robin and it wasn’t exactly the best rendition of that song, something that Jesse Ventura pointed out.

The action started fast with Hercules Fernandez taking on King Haku. Bobby Heenan tried to get everyone to bow to Haku and it obviously didn’t happen. The match itself wasn’t much to mention and Hercules’ career apparently started to stall out despite him winning the match and still being around for “WrestleMania VI” a year later. I was surprised that he had lasted this long in the WWF given that he never popped through like some of the other superstars of the era and I’d completely forgotten about the guy despite his seemingly constantly being pushed by WWF at the time.

Next up was a tag team match with The Twin Towers (Akeem and Big Boss Man) defeating The Rockers (Shawn Michaels and Marty Jannetty). It was odd that the Twin Towers had been a seeming big rival of The Mega Powers but they were basically demoted down into this opening tag team match. It was also important to keep in mind that Shawn Michaels was considered a young tag team guy back then, still a number of years away from becoming a main event star.

Brutus Beefcake vs. Ted DiBiase (with Virgil) was a good encapsulation of the time. Beefcake was in full fan favorite mode, with his usual wacky outfit, this time a gold variation, and his hedge trimmer handy for a post-match opponent haircut. DiBiase had his own ‘million dollar belt’ made up. Donald Trump at ringside got name-dropped quite a bit during this match, with Trump supposedly ‘eyeing’ DiBiase’s belt. The match was shockingly fast-paced with both men really working quick action, a real surprise. Despite being the second-longest match of the entire show, it ended in a draw with the rare ‘double count-out.’ Beefcake still ended up brawling after the match.

The Bushwackers appeared at their first WrestleMania and were becoming fan favorites; they defeated The Fabulous Rougeau Brothers.

Curt ‘Mr. Perfect’ Hennig made his WrestleMania debut and was a rising talent from the AWA but his match against Blue Blazer was forgettable.

Demolition, the noted tag team of the era, defended their tag team title against the Powers of Pain, the most notable part of the match being that Mr. Fuji had turned on Demolition and was in the corner for the Powers. Demolition had turned face and was in the midst of a record tag team run for the era. Fuji was actually part of the match and Demolition won on a pin of him.

Also forgettable was Dino Bravo beating Ronnie Garvin in a short match and The Brain Busters (Arn Anderson and Tully Blanchard) beating Strike Force (Rick Martel and Tito Santana). Strangely, the Bravo match was interrupted right before it began with Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka making a big entrance and coming into the ring. The whole point was to welcome him back after a 3-year hiatus in the AWA and he had no impact on the match that followed. That tag team match was at least made interesting by having Bobby Heenan ringside for The Brain Busters.

A fake “Piper’s Pit” segment starring Brother Love got the crowd jeering but Love’s mocking of Piper was amusingly spot-on. Things got even weirder when the crowd started chanting for Roddy Piper and… Morton Downey Jr. came out and smoked a cigarette while belittling Love. Roddy DID finally come out to take care of business, intimidating Love and then getting in an awkward war of words with Downey Jr. and eventually some antics with a fire extinguisher by Hot Rod. The whole aside was largely a waste of time though with little payoff.

The action didn’t return immediately to wrestling though, as there was next a promo to Hogan’s then-upcoming film “No Holds Barred.” And then a Donald Trump interview.

Speaking of Heenan, he also managed Andre the Giant in what ended up being a disqualification loss to Jake ‘The Snake’ Roberts. Big John Studd was around that match as referee. The highlight of the match was Jake getting Andre wrapped up into the ropes and playing up Andre’s fear of Jake’s snake.

The Hart Foundation (Bret Hart and Jim Neidhart) took on the interesting pairing of Greg Valentine and The Honky Tonk Man, with Jimmy Hart managing them against his old heel team. This was a solid match with some ‘name’ personalities of the era all the way around, solid working professionals. The match turned on a classic not-taking-advantage-of-the-moment situation where Honky Tonk Man wasted the chance to pin Bret Hart by having Greg Valentine tag into the ring to further ‘punish’ Hart.

Heenan was back again at ringside in the next match, this time to manage Rick Rude in his victory over the Ultimate Warrior with Heenan interfering at the end and getting beat around after the fact by the Warrior. This match came about due to bad blood between the men that resulted from Rude attacking the Warrior during a ‘pose down’ competition, using a steel bar that decidedly did not look like a steel bar (it had padding on it). In this match, Rude actually took the Intercontinental Championship belt off of the Warrior in that match with Rude foreshadowing as much by having a fake title belt printed on his tights. That was unveiled during Rude’s signature opening robe reveal and posing, which was undeniably amusing both then and now. Given the later popularity of the Ultimate Warrior, it’s strange to think that he lost the Intercontinental Championship to Rick Rude (with Bobby Heenan at ringside) at this WrestleMania. In his signature post-match move, the decided NOT politically correct Rude kissed a supposedly random woman from the audience.

Another double-disqualification occurred in the Bad News Brown vs. ‘Hacksaw’ Jim Duggan match, a match that ran short of only four minutes before being called due to Duggan and Brown eventually facing off with a wood board and a steel chair, respectively. It felt like a strange filler match given that it was this late in the card yet had no title on the line. Duggan was in his full flag-waving glory, described as a ‘police man’ of the WWF. Strangely, Bad News Brown attacked Duggan before he was even fully in the ring, the U.S. flag getting tossed down in the mix and hustled out of the ring by a WWF staffer all so strange with no apparently political message behind the action at the time. The whole Duggan as a flag-waver shtick was puzzling insofar was he was mocked by the announcers as an ‘idiot’ and was never regarded as a high-IQ character; if the WWF had been considered political in a more politically-sensitive time, the politics of the character seemed oddly snarky but the crowd was solidly behind Duggan.

A strange stunt match before the main event involved (yet again!) Bobby Heenan losing to The Red Rooster in a mere thirty seconds. The Rooster was a hoot of a character, largely forgotten today although the guy behind it, Terry Taylor, has had a long career in wrestling and worked years later in WWE talent training and development.

The main event was the big showcase of the entire event though and the product of a nearly year-long build-up. Miss Elizabeth, after cutting a rare promo with “Mean” Gene (and not being the most convincing actress) was in a neutral corner for Hulk Hogan’s challenge of Randy Savage with Hogan trying to reclaim the WWF Championship belt from Savage. It was interesting to recall that Savage had been WWF champion for an entire year, having held the title since claiming it in the WrestleMania IV Tournament. The announcers even acknowledged how odd it was that Savage, as champion, came to the ring first in a clear protocol departure. That said, the crowd was solidly behind Hogan. The in-ring action wasn’t bad, with Hogan getting a cut early on above his left eye this wasn’t a legendary match but it seemed to be above the norm for Hogan. Macho Man even resorted to dirty tricks, secretly choking Hogan more than once with some discrete use of tape.

Predictably, Miss Elisabeth (the ‘First Lady of Professional Wrestling’) was a major distraction during the match. Savage, in particular, took time to confront her outside of the ring, with the referee eventually having her removed.

The tide of the match turned after Hogan seemed done, following a Savage jump from the top turnbuckle. Hulk did his ‘hulking up’ routine and used his signature leg drop to end it.

Conclusions

It was insightful to work through this first batch of events, since I’m able to see what was going on business-wide/promotion-wise through adult eyes on an annual basis and connect dots of fragments that I remembered from a time when I was still very young.

As I worked my way up to “Wrestlemania V,” it was striking to me how Hogan was (essentially) the poster headliner/main event for the first 9 shows (!). One jarring bit related to this point was the realization that Hogan’s big matches in this era were basically not very good or forgettable.

Hogan cut good promos but it was a little baffling to me now how he made such an impression in that era. I think that he settled into a sort of ‘legend’ role by the mid-90s and mastered that stature, so that’s maybe what we remember and his place in wrestling was only further solidified. He was also very appealing to little kids due to his expressiveness and his unrelenting ‘good’ persona. Thanking God incessantly made him sort of like a trusted pastor on TV and reminding us all to take our vitamins so that we could be big like him! (24-inch pythons brother!). He was squarely marketed at kids and it’s hard to see his appeal as fervently as an adult… but as a kid I was 100% spellbound by the guy.

Any conversation of these events had to start with Hogan but if one were to dismiss Hogan, you next had to ask ‘Well, who DID pop out?” and I’d have to say that Macho Man was the logical answer (with an honorable mention to Ricky Steamboat). He cut promos that were as memorable as Hogan’s (maybe even more memorable today), certainly a different flavor. He had Elizabeth as a compelling manager and she was smoking hot, even with the 1980s hair. Savage could surprise you, and his in-ring skills seem to be unquestioned by the pundits.

Until this watch-through exercise, I had not realized how the Mega Powers storyline was basically THE definitive storyline of that first five-year WWF period. It acknowledged the ascension of Savage between “WrestleMania II” until “WrestleMania V” and basically re-played the Hogan-Andre ‘Best friends who fell apart’ angle but did it MUCH more believably.

All that said, Savage fell off after this 4-5-year rise was done, as he became a more of a caricature and a punchline (“Snap into a Slim Jim!”) in the 1990s and essentially dropped down a rung while Hogan settled into the aforementioned ‘legend’ position.

Eventful times were indeed ahead in the 1990s for many of those who had been prominent in these initial “WrestleManias” and interesting times were ahead as WWF (and WCW) moved toward their formal mid-90s showdown.

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