WrestleMania I (1985) – Madison Square Garden – New York, New York – Main Event: Hulk Hogan and Mr. T vs. Rowdy Roddy Piper and Paul Orndorff.
“WrestleMania is living up to be everything I expected it to be.” – Jesse “The Body” Ventura, before a single match had even started.
Vince McMahon has never shied away from hype, and his army of announcers carried the “extravaganza” torch from start to finish: Gorilla Monsoon, Jesse Ventura, Mean Gene Okerlund, and Lord Alfred Hayes continually refer to WrestleMania as the “greatest spectacle in wrestling history” and while the presentation is relatively tame compared to today’s pyrotechnic blowout, WrestleMania really is an amazing spectacle, setting the PPV blueprint of gimmick matches, celebrity appearances, controversial finishes, returning legends, great promos, and thrilling action.
Like most wrestling fans of that era, it wasn’t until WrestleMania III that the event really took hold, but in watching the complete WrestleMania I for the first time, it’s surprising to me how many of these matches I’ve seen.
Or maybe I haven’t. Maybe I’ve simply seen so many highlights and so many matches over the years that these matches have a feeling of familiarity to them.
The event gets off to an admittedly slow start. Tito Santana and the Executioner put on a decent opening match, but there’s nothing memorable about it. Up next is King Kong Bundy taking out Special Delivery Jones in 9 seconds. Yeah, 9 seconds. Bundy is obviously a big, powerful dude but it’s a messy 9 seconds, and it’s not even 9 seconds. I guess this was a pre-determined angle to play up the 9 seconds which we immediately heard was a record victory. The WWF was so concerned in making this the all-time greatest extravaganza, I guess they figured they needed to break a world record at some point. After that was a plain match between Ricky Steamboat and Matt Borne which Steamboat takes with relative ease, though Borne does a decent job selling Steamboat’s moves.
What’s really interesting about these opening matches is all of them feature a non-white wrestler as the face and crowd favorite. The WWF – and pro wrestling, as a whole – has a problematic history with race, yet here we have a Mexican (Santana was actually Texan, but was billed as Mexican), an African-American, and Hawaiian (Steamboat was from New Jersey, but his dad was Hawaiian and his mom was Japanese-American) as the crowd favorites for these opening matches. I bring this up not to attempt to absolve the WWF of its racial insensitivities, but to at least raise the issue that even at the first WrestleMania – later in the night, the crowd prefers the French Andre the Giant over American Big John Studd, and Mr. T. wins the main event tag match with Hulk Hogan – there was evidence that connecting with the crowd was possible no matter one’s race or ethnicity.
The fourth match of the evening is a drawn-out affair that’s pretty boring until a spectacular finish. David Sammartino squared off against Brutus Beefcake, and this was the most surprising match of the night for me because I have no memory of Brutus appearing at WrestleMania I and no memory of David Sammartino, at all. The match is a weak clash of styles as Sammartino’s old school grind-it-out mat game just doesn’t work with Beefcake’s stand and fight set of skills. The match goes on and on until finally the two managers, Bruno Sammartino and Johnny Valiant get involved. Everyone is disqualified but what’s most telling is that it’s the Living Legend himself who brings the most energy to the match.
Fittingly, it’s the elder Sammartino who gets one of, and maybe the single biggest pop of the night. WrestleMania takes place in Madison Square Garden, the building Sammartino made his own during his long and legendary career, and it’s always great to see fans go nuts for a returning legend.
It’s the fifth match where I’m transported back to why I became a wrestling fan in the first place. Junkyard Dog and Greg “The Hammer” Valentine put on a fantastic, old school battle that has plenty of back and forth. There’s not a lot of high-flying, but there’s really solid brawling and great ring psychology, thanks in large part to Valentine’s manager, Jimmy Hart. Plus, it can’t be overstated how important it is that both of these guys have such great characters. JYD and Hammer don’t display a set of technical moves here to wow the crowd, but they both have real personalities and when you’re a kid watching these larger than life wrestlers going at it, character and personality are tremendously important.
There’s also a great, scuttled finish. Hart distracts JYD but steps out of the way as Valentine comes up from behind and the Hammer takes out Hart. Valentine eventually pins the Dog with both of his feet on the ropes. The ref doesn’t see it so he awards the match to Valentine, who defends his Intercontinental Belt. As Hart and Valentine are celebrating, however, Tito Santana decides he needs to butt into the match and runs out to tattle on the Hammer. The ref starts counting to restart the match but Valentine refuses to come back to the ring, which gives the victory, but not the title, to the Junkyard Dog.
The Tag Team Championship match is next on the card and here we’ve got some old school xenophobia. It’s the belt holders, the U.S. Express of Mike Rotundo (Syracuse is in the house, oh my god, oh my god!) and Barry Windham versus the Russian Nikolai Volkoff and Iranian Iron Sheik. The mere presence of Volkoff and Sheik is enough to get the crowd riled up to a ridiculous degree. Most of the matches have pre-recorded interviews with the opponents and they’re largely forgettable, but the Sheik really sells his mic work well. It’s a small thing, but I still love how he calls “Mean” Gene, Gene Mean. Toss in one of the great managers, Classy Freddie Blassie, with the heels, and Captain Lou Albano with the U.S. Express, and you’ve got a fantastic mix of ingredients to get the fans invested in the match before the action starts.
Sheik and Volkoff were so hated that I think every single empty cup in the Garden was rolled up and tossed into the ring during the introductions, and the decision to have Volkoff sing the Russian anthem was a thing of beauty. You can see one guy in the crowd flipping the ring off and yelling, “Fuck you! Fuuuuck You!” and another guy simulating tossing himself off. It’s the final cap in the great pre-match build-up, setting seemingly everyone in New York off and screaming for blood.
Sheik and Volkoff take the belts when Sheik uses Blassie’s walking cane to knock out Windham. Great match.
An interesting gimmick match is next, the $15,000 Body Slam Challenge between Big John Studd and Andre the Giant. Studd and his manager, the great Bobby “The Brain” Heenan have put up 15 grand (which they carry to the ring in a gym bag) to lure Andre the Giant in to a retirement match. The Giant has to body slam the 6’10″ Studd or he has to retire. The match is only so-so because Andre moves pretty slow and deliberately, but the most impressive aspect of the match to me is how normally sized Studd looks standing next to the 7’4″ Giant. This is another match that’s elevated, though, thanks to what happens before and after the bells are rung. Heenan is one of the best talkers and best managers ever, and he properly sells the match during the interview with Okerlund in the pre-taped segment. Then, when Andre wins and he starts tossing dollar bills to the crowd, Heenan steals it and runs away with his money.
Andre and Studd have the match, but it’s Heenan that makes the match truly memorable.
The penultimate match is the Women’s Championship, which seems to matter mostly because Cyndi Lauper was Wendi Richter’s manager for the night as part of the WWF/MTV “Rock and Wrestling” Connection. Even when the match is over and Richter has won, Mean Gene is more interested in interviewing Lauper after the match than he is Richter.
The final match of the first WrestleMania is an amazing, thoroughly engaging mess. Hulk Hogan and Mr. T take on Roddy Piper and Mr. Wonderful Paul Orndorff, and while the match doesn’t even officially last 15 minutes, there’s so much going on here that it always feels like the crowd is about to rip the roof off the Garden and go all post-Apocalyptic. Hogan and T are joined by Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka, and Piper and Orndorff have Cowboy Bob Orton in their corner. Pat Patterson is the match referee (and he does an amazing job playing ringmaster), but Muhammad Ali is around to play “outside the ring referee.”
Think that’s enough? Well, there’s more.
Billy Martin is brought in to be the special guest ring announcer and stumble around the ring looking lost. Poor Howard Finkel basically has to hold Martin’s hand through the entire proceedings as he’s literally holding the mic for him. As if Yankee legend Martin wasn’t enough, the WWF brings in Liberace – yes, LIBERACE! – to be the special bell ringer, and he gets the Rockettes – yes, the ROCKETTES! – to accompany Liberace to the ring.
When Hogan’s “Real American” entrance theme hits (he’s one of the few wrestlers using an entrance theme at this point), the crowd is ready to follow Hogan into Hell.
The match is a technical mess but thoroughly entertaining. Piper is clearly the best wrestler in the ring, understanding not only how to give and sell moves, but how to work the psychological angles, too. Constantly playing to the ground, Piper does an amazing job keeping them invested in the match. He really is the perfect heel binary to Hogan’s face in this regard. There’s plenty of back and forth and multiple occasions where everyone jumps in the ring to push each other around and it works splendidly here because it’s just total chaos. The match is won when Orton jumps off the ropes, trying to hit Hogan with his cast. He misses Hogan, nails Orndorff, and that’s the match.
WRESTLEMANIA I gets off to a slow start but by the end of the night the event really is the extravaganza all the announcers keep saying it is. A large part of that goes to Monsoon, Ventura, and Okerlund doing yeoman’s work building each of the matches and making the entire night feel important.
MATCH OF THE NIGHT: Hogan/Mr. T over Piper and Orndorff. The night was billed as an extravaganza, and this was the match that brought the house down.
STAR OF THE NIGHT: Rowdy Roddy Piper. Taking nothing away from Hogan, who has a great night proving why he’s the biggest face in the industry by expertly plays the crowd all match, but Piper is the glue that holds the chaos of that main event together. Special shout out to Pat Patterson for his work as the main ref in the main event, too.
MOMENT OF THE NIGHT: Hogan’s entrace. I still mark out for “Real American.”
QUOTE OF THE NIGHT: “Pandemonium about to break loose here, all six men in the ring! Eight men counting the referees and Billy Martin looking for somewhere to bail out!” – Gorilla Monsoon
RUNNER-UP QUOTE: “Roddy Piper is punching at ghosts!” – Jesse Ventura