This year’s WrestleMania is almost upon us, and as usual, the hype and hyperbole is running at a fevered pitch. WWE has been building up the WrestleMania concept for so long, it’s easy to forget that the show wasn’t always the legendary showcase of the immortals. The first WrestleMania was an uncertain proposition that could have easily sunk the World Wrestling Federation if it hadn’t gone just right.
Let’s sweep aside some of WWE’s myth making and take a look at some unembellished facts about the very first WrestleMania…
1. WrestleMania was conceived on a Caribbean beach. So, when did Vince McMahon have his WrestleMania “Eureka!” moment? It must have been backstage at particularly bustling Madison Square Garden show or while pouring over his finances, looking for that one solution to his company’s problems, right?
Nope. Apparently, the WrestleMania concept was born on some white sand beach as Vince McMahon sipped Mai Tais in his Speedo. Sorry for that image. According to most of the folks in power at the time, Vince and Linda went on a Caribbean vacation in early 1985, and he returned with wild-eyed ideas about putting on a supercard packed with as many celebrities as they could get. Nobody’s ever said this, but I like to imagine that it was actually Linda who thought up the idea. I guess only that Caribbean beach will ever know.
That Caribbean beach and Linda, of course.
2. Vince McMahon wanted to call the show “The Colossal Tussle.” Yup, Vince McMahon originally wanted to call his supershow The Colossal Tussle. I suppose WrestleMania is almost as silly when you really think about it, but… The Colossal Tussle. That was a close freakin’ call.
3. Howard Finkel came up with the name WrestleMania. Okay, so if Vince was stuck on The Colossal Tussle as the name, who actually came up with WrestleMania? Well, that was none other than beloved WWF ring announcer, Howard Finkel. Management gathered pretty much every office employee they could to brainstorm names for the event, and Finkel just happened to be the one who blurted out WrestleMania. Beatlemania had been pretty big, so why not WrestleMania?
So, now you know why Howard Finkel is WWE’s longest running employee, even though they don’t actually seem to like him that much.
Howard Finkel, the case for never ducking out of company meetings.
4. Vince McMahon put up his house to finance the show. Vince McMahon has often said the first WrestleMania was a life-and-death proposition for the WWF, but he doesn’t often get into just how serious the situation was. WWE won’t admit to it today, but the company was running in the red before WrestleMania, and McMahon had to put up almost everything he owned to pay the asking prices of celebs like Mr. T, Cyndi Lauper and Muhammad Ali. According to those close to the situation, McMahon even put up his house, so if WrestleMania had flopped, Vince wouldn’t have just been out a wrestling company, he would have been without a home.
5. WrestleMania was basically built on women’s wrestling. These days, WWE mostly credits Hulk Hogan and Mr. T with the success of WrestleMania, and no doubt, they were important pieces of the puzzle, but the first WrestleMania was primarily built around the Rock ‘n’ Wrestling Connection, which was the WWF’s crossover with MTV, although the word “crossover” is really a bit of a stretch. Cyndi Lauper was the only major MTV star to have anything to do with the WWF, and that was because her boyfriend and manager, Dave Wolff, was a big wrestling fan.
The first WrestleMania was set up by two special events that aired on MTV, The Brawl to End It All and The War to Settle the Score (I’ve always loved those goofy names). Each special only featured a single match, both of which involved Lauper. The Brawl to End It All was spawned by Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” video from 1983, in which Captain Lou Albano played her cranky, elastic band-covered father. This led to Wendi Richter with Lauper in her corner against The Fabulous Moolah with Albano in her corner, a match which saw Richter break Moolah’s lengthy title reign.
The Road to WrestleMania begins!
The War to Settle the Score featured Hulk Hogan vs. Roddy Piper, but the storyline leading up to the event was still very much focused on Lauper. Having reconciled with Albano, she was presenting him with a trophy when anti-Rock ‘n’ Wrestling ruffian Roddy Piper attacked them, bringing out Hogan for the save. Really, Mr. T just stuck his nose into Lauper’s storyline at the last moment.
The Brawl to End it All scored a 9 rating, making it the highest rated show in MTV and wrestling history. While Hogan and Mr. T vs. Piper and Paul Orndorff is the match most remembered today, Wendi Richter with Cyndi Lauper vs. Leilani Kai with The Fabulous Moolah was arguably just as important to WrestleMania’s success. Too bad WWE refuses to remember its own history because the one time the company really gave women a chance, it lead to some pretty big things.
Ladies and gentlemen, your real WrestleMania main eventers!
6. The “Rock ‘n’ Wrestling” WrestleMania featured Mean Gene Okerlund singing the anthem. Speaking of the Rock ‘n’ Wrestling Connection, who do you suppose sung the anthem on the big MTV crossover show? Was it Lauper? Nope. Was it Phil Collins who contributed a song to the show? Nope. Sadly, it wasn’t Rick Astley either.
For some reason, Gene “Tutti Frutti” Okerlund sung the anthem at the first Mania. According to Okerlund he was filling in for an unnamed celebrity who bailed at the last second, but still, was ol’ Mean Gene the best solution they could have come up with? Get Liberace a baby grand, get Cyndi Lauper a mic and make yourself another WrestleMania moment. Okay, sorry, I’ll stop getting angry about WWE’s 30-year-old booking of the national anthem now.
7. WWF wrestlers were legitmately beating up talk show hosts left and right leading up to the show. One of the stranger aspects of the build to WrestleMania was what was happening with WWF stars on the talk show circuit. McMahon was looking to thrust pro wrestling back into the mainstream consciousness, and with that came all the usual eye-rolling and leading questions about it being fake. WWF’s stars didn’t handle these questions particularly well.
Richard Belzer, now known for busting perps in various weekly crime dramas, briefly had a talk show in he mid-80s. Hogan and Mr. T did the show four days before Mania, and Belzer challenged Hogan to put him in a wrestling hold, implying strongly that he’d be just fine because wrestling is dumb and not real. Hogan was kind of between a rock and a hard place, so he put Belzer in a front facelock and cinched it in for real. Belzer, who wasn’t exactly a prime physical specimen, went out faster than Hogan was anticipating and flopped to the floor when he loosened the hold, cracking open his scalp. The sight of Hogan and Mr. T still trying to banter while a puddle of blood forms under Belzer’s head is actually pretty chilling stuff.
Belzer sued Hogan for $5 million, but later settled out of court. Unbelievably, this wasn’t the only instance of a WWF wrestler doing harm to a television host in the lead up to WrestleMania I. A couple months earlier, John Stossel of 20/20 was interviewing “Dr. D” David Schultz backstage at Madison Square Garden. Stossel mentioned that he thought pro wrestling was fake, and Schultz responded by hitting Stossel with multiple open-palm strikes to the head while shouting, “You think it’s fake?!” Stossel also sued WWF.
Guys, chill out. Everybody has known it’s fake for more than 100 years. No need to kill anybody over it.
8. Mr. T almost no-showed the event. Mr. T is a strange guy. Despite mostly being a comedy figure by the mid-80s, Mr. T was still very concerned about his tough guy cred, and from the sound of things, he wasn’t completely clued into the fact that pro wrestling was a work. According to various people involved in the show, this lead to Mr. T getting cold feet mere hours before the main-event because he was afraid that the wrestlers would take advantage of him and hurt his reputation (hey, they were beating up TV interviewers at an alarming rate).
Hogan, who was real-life friends with Mr. T from their time filming Rocky III, was sent on a frantic mission to retrieve the Pitier of Fools. In Hogan’s own words…
“We got the call that he was leaving because he couldn’t get his entourage in the building. He had started getting really sketchy. He was really getting kind of nervous. I knew if he pulled out of the Garden that close to showtime and copped an attitude we’d never get him back. [I convinced security] to let everybody in whether they have tickets or not. And I made sure I didn’t let T out of my sight.”
Probably should have just drugged his milk, Hulkster.
Note tiny baby Vince McMahon in the background making sure Mr. T doesn’t bolt again.
9. The feud between Roddy Piper and Mr. T was very real. Hogan and Mr. T may have been friends, but Rowdy Roddy Piper and T definitely weren’t. The two legitimately didn’t like each other, and it was touch and go as to whether they’d be able to work together. Mr. T, who didn’t seem to entirely understand the nature of the business, took exception to Piper’s insults and racially charged comments in the lead up to their match, and Piper wasn’t a fan of outsiders coming into wrestling or Mr. T’s extravagant lifestyle (T reportedly had more than $20,000 in expenses during WrestleMania weekend alone). It’s also entirely possible that Mr. T just mistook Piper for that crazy fool Murdock.
The Piper/Mr. T bitterness led to some issues with WrestleMania’s main-event. The unspoken rule was that Mr. T throwing punches was a thing to be avoided, due to the fear was he wouldn’t bother to pull them. If you watch the match, badass former boxer Mr. T does surprisingly little striking, instead mostly relying on amateur-style grappling. Not what you might expect from Mr. T, but there was a good reason for it.
Piper pities the Fool Pitier.
According to Piper, the hatchet wasn’t buried until last year’s Hall of Fame ceremony. Moved by T’s stories of his rough childhood and raising his son, Piper approached his old rival, congratulated him and gave him a hug, bringing to an end a three decade-long feud.
10. The show was barely over two hours long and featured less wrestling than your average episode of Raw. Looking forward to this year’s 14 hours of WrestleMania coverage on the WWE Network? If you don’t already find it all a bit excessive, you will when I remind you of just how brief the original show was. WrestleMania I only ran for two hours and 16 minutes, and it contained a mere hour and 57 seconds of wrestling. That’s actually less wrestling than you see on the average three-hour edition of Raw. Sadly, I doubt we’ll ever see a return to those leaner, meaner days.
Hopefully you learned a thing or two about the first WrestleMania. Do you know any facts I missed? Have any treasured WrestleMania I memories? If you’re too young to have watched Mania when it first happened, what are your thoughts on the show in hindsight? Let’s Rock ‘n’ Wrestle that comments section.