WrestleMania 3 (1987) – Pontiac Silverdome (Pontiac, MI) – Main Event: WWF Championship: Hulk Hogan vs. Andre the Giant.
After the comical carnival that was WRESTLEMANIA 2, the third installments of the premier WWF extravaganza puts the focus back on the ring and the connection between the wrestlers and the fans. With 90,000-plus packed into the Pointiac Silverdome, connecting with the crowd gets massive pops and failing to connect with them brings a cavernous silence.
What’s always fascinating about watching a series of events – whether it’s the World Series, the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, Dirty Harry, or WrestleMania – is the evolution of the product. WRESTLEMANIA 2 was a chaotic mess, favoring celebrity over wrestling for most of the night and spread over three locations. Vince McMahon clearly loves the spectacle aspect of WrestleMania that comes with having celebrities, but he’s also an incredibly smart businessman, willing to modify his product if he can be convinced that a certain aspect of the program can be done better. With WRESTLEMANIA III, it’s clear Vince (or someone) has decided it makes better business sense to put the focus on the wrestlers. Time wise, there’s not a huge difference between the official match times of 2 and III, but there’s a far greater emphasis on the ring: longer introductions and more post-match shenanigans.
It’s a smart decision – WRESTLEMANIA III, with the massive Silverdome crowd, the epic Savage vs. Steamboat match, and the undeniable anticipation of Hogan vs. Andre – is infinitely more memorable than WRESTLEMANIA 2. Instead of relying on the likes of Cathy Lee Crosby, Susan Saint James, and Elvira to help give the program a boost, WRESTLEMANIA III allows the wrestlers to be the stars. I’m not saying using celebrities is a mistake – maybe McMahon and the WWF needed them to get mainstream attention in the previous two years, but by 1997 wrestling (both WrestleMania and the individual wrestlers) had become mainstream enough to sell itself. Certainly, hearing the big pops from the crowd for wrestlers like Koko B. Ware and Junkyard Dog (two mid-carders) is a good indication that the WWF had achieved a definite place in the American consciousness.
(By the way, is there any better evidence of McMahon’s ability to change than the small but clearly not accidental number designation for WrestleMania? I’m not being inconsistent; I’m following the WWF’s convention by calling them 2 and III. And if you think that’s strange, wait until we get to WrestleMania X-Seven.)
One thing that’s readily apparent this time around is the increase in color on the wrestler’s outfits. Last year, the Hart Foundation (Hitman and the Anvil) were in the Battle Royal in plain blue and black tights, but this time around, they’re in their now-iconic pink and black, leading Mary Hart to wonder, “Do they work out in those hot pink numbers?”
I don’t know Mary, but that’s a great question.
Almost every match has some color in the outfits this time around, as it’s clear that the WWF is making a clear attempt to sell individual personalities and brands at a much higher level. Colorful personas have long been a part of pro wrestling, of course, but WRESTLEMANIA 3 is bringing this concept to a much higher level: the Bulldogs now have the British flag on their tights and an actual bulldog in tow, Koko B. Ware has a parrot on his tights and an actual parrot on his arm (notice a trend?), Billy Jack Haynes has a bright yellow coat and shorts, highlighting that he went to Oregon, to add some flash to his flashless in-ring ability, the Rougeau Brothers have sparkly fleur-de-lis jackets to highlight their Quebecness, and even the Dream Team of Greg “the Hammer” Valentine and Brutus Beefcake have flashy new duds, and are accompanied to the ring by a bright red Canadian maple leaf jacket-wearing Dino Bravo. Gorilla Monsoon even comments on Hammer’s new flashy duds. This is also the first WrestleMania where Ricky Steamboat is announced as Ricky “the Dragon” Steamboat, giving him a character to help connect with the audience.
There’s only four celebrities this time around: Aretha Franklin to sing “America the Beautiful,” Bob Uecker and Mary Hart to float in and out through the evening, and Alice Cooper in Jake “the Snake” Roberts’ corner during his match with the Honky Tonk Man. It’s a welcome change from the celebrity indulgence of the past two WrestleManias, and Uecker and Hart are both ideally suited to this kind of thing. Uecker’s self-deprecating style keeps things light and Hart comes from Entertainment Tonight, so she’s used to making pointless banter sound effortless. She’s at her worst when they have her doing match commentary, which is what leads to her question about the Hart Foundation’s “hot pink numbers” and wondering why the ref allows the wrestlers to fight outside the ring.
I have to admit – whenever a celebrity asks a question like this (and someone made a similar remark during WrestleMania 2) I have to wonder if they honestly think what they’re watching is true sport instead of sports entertainment. I know we didn’t have “sports entertainment” as a term, yet, but was Mary Hart not in on it? When she was trying to interview Miss Elizabeth and Macho Man interrupted them, did she really think her actual interview was being interrupted, or did she know that was the point of the skit?
It’s kinda fascinating for me to wonder about this – was the WWF so committed to pushing realism that they didn’t tell Mary Hart that her interview with Miss Elizabeth was actually a worked bit? Because if she wasn’t in on it, then suddenly Galaxy Quest seems a lot more believable to me. And if she was in on it, then that means she was actually performing as someone who didn’t understand that sometimes wrestlers fought outside the ring and the refs had no control over it.
Gah – what Mary Hart did or did not know about wrestling is now one of the most pressing unanswered questions in my head. I honestly care more about this then whether Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.
Vince has also greatly diminished his own role in the proceedings. He welcomes everyone to start the show, introduces Aretha Franklin, and then largely disappears for the rest of the night. We have the bizare occurrence of wrestlers being driven to the ring, and then being unlocked from their wrestling ring cages with the Federettes (it will be better if you don’t ask). I especially love how the matches start out in daylight but end in the dark of night.
The event gets off to a solid start with a tag team match between the Can-Am Connection (Rick Martel and Tom Zenk) and Cowboy Bob Orton and The Magnificent Muraco (with their manager, Mr. Fuji). It’s a solid match with a great finish: Muraco slings Martel into the ropes and steps over Zenk, who gets up to his hands and knees, so when Martel jumps into a high cross-body block, Muraco is knocked over Zenk and pinned. Pity Bob Orton, who is clearly the biggest WrestleMania loser at this point. After being in the losing corner of Roddy Piper in the first two events, he actually gets a match this time around and loses.
The night’s two worst matches follow. First up is a Full Nelson match between Hercules and Billy Jack Haynes that just sort of happens. It’s certainly not the worst match ever but there’s little speed and if it wasn’t for Haynes bleeding at the end, there’d be nothing memorable at all. This is followed by the clear nadir of the night, a six-man tag match between Hillbilly Jim and King Kong Bundy, with each man teaming up with two midget wrestlers. It’s just awful stuff.
Two solid matches with 1980s mid-carders follows, each using some non-match storytelling to help get over with the crowd. Junkyard Dog vs. the King Harley Race is a classic character match, with the popular JYD battling the King in a Loser Must Bow match. What I love about this match is how expertly JYD, Race, and the WWF work the audience into a frenzy. JYD is the face and Race comes to the ring with both the Fabulous Moolah and Heenan to add some extra heat. They brawl effectively, and then Race gets the win, forcing JYD to bow to him. It’s an unpopular outcome, of course, but then JYD gives the crowd something to go wild about as he belts Race with a chair and steals the King’s purple cloak, leaving with it to the delight of the crowd and disgust of Jesse Ventura.
Another tag match is next, as the Dream Team (Greg “the Hammer” Valentine and Brutus Beefcake) take on the Rougeau Brothers (Jacques and Raymond). It’s a solid match with the Dream Team getting the win after Dino Bravo interfered by jumping on top of Raymond as he was pinning Valentine, and then switches their positions, giving the Hammer the win. This upsets Beefcake, who protests at how they won, which means he gets left behind while Valentine and Bravo leave with their manager, Jimmy Hart.
Beefcake apparently decided to hang around because he ends up interfering in the next match: Rowdy Roddy Piper against Adrian Adonis. This is Piper’s last match and he gets to wrestle as a face. The crowd reaction for Piper before, during, and after the match is truly phenomenal as the 93,000 in attendance give him massive applause after massive applause to thank him for his years of service.
Piper is one of my favorite wrestlers, and he’s in good form here. It’s a bit of a shame that for his farewell feud and match they only gave him Adonis. The guy has main evented both previous WrestleManias and here he is in the mid-card, fighting a solid opponent but not one of the company’s main heels. It would have been much more fitting for him to go out against a Randy Savage. Still, it is what it is and Piper and Adonis put on a good show. Adonis thinks he’s won when he gets Piper locked in a sleeper hold, but he lets go before he’s fully one, giving Piper an opportunity to get back in the match after being revived by the now face Brutus Beefcakse, and winning with a sleeper hold of his own. This is a Hair vs. Hair match and Brutus Beefcake slides in to cut Adonis’ hair.
He tries to cut the hair, at least, but no one tested out the electric trimmers beforehand, apparently, so instead of shaving Adonis bald, they just chop bits of hair off.
After Adonis and Hart head to the back, it’s Piper’s chance to soak up the cheers of the crowd and the Silverdome crowd gives him a rousing send-off. My favorite part of the goodbyes comes when a smiling Piper gives ring announcer Howard Finkel a big kiss on the top of his forehead.
A really solid old school six-man match is up next with the Hart Foundation and Danny Davis battling the British Bulldogs and Tito Santana. It’s a good match between real pros, with just the right mix of extraneous stuff going on: Matilda the Bulldog attacking Jimmy Hart, Davis’ “crooked ref” angle, Hart giving Davis his megaphone to knock Davey Boy Smith out and get the pin. It’s a shame that this match gets lost a bit because it’s just good wrestling, and as an announcing bonus we get to hear Gorilla Monsoon refer to Hitman as the “Excellence of Execution.”
A so-so Butch Reed vs. Koko B. Ware match is 8th on the card, which is way too late in the program, to be honest. I like Koko B. Ware, but I just can’t get past how awful things must be for Frankie the parrot. This is another match where the heel wins but the face walks out as the victor as Tito Santana shows up post-match to help beat up Reed and his manager, Slick.
One of the greatest matches in pro wrestling history is next as Intercontinental Champ Randy “Macho Man” Savage and Ricky “the Dragon” Steamboat put on a match for the ages. It’s starting to become somewhat cool to diss this match in some circles, as if ripping this match for being “not as good as people think it is” seems to be cropping up here and there.
Let’s be clear – if you’re not willing to say this is one of the greatest handful of matches in WrestleMania history, then there will be no Slim Jim snapping for you. Oooooh, yeah.
Savage/Steamboat has everything. Everything. They’ve got a great backstory, giving this match that little something extra that comes with a solid feud, and they’re two guys at the top of their game. Together, they give a clinic in how to properly build and execute a match. They move incredibly fast and his incredibly hard. At 14.5 minutes, it’s the longest match of the night (only Hogan/Andre also topped the 10-minute mark and there wasn’t nearly as much action there) and the most intense match of the night. It feels like these two men actively dislike each other, and the pre-match package that the WWF put together to hype the match is really well put together.
There’s a whole host of moves and counter moves, action in the ring and out of it, and the two corners (Miss Elizabeth and George “the Animal” Steele) add a bit to the match but largely remain on the periphery.
This is Savage and Steamboat’s match and the two men are expertly matched against one another, with each man’s skill set complimenting the other. I love the ending. Savage accidentally sends Steamboat into referee Dave Hebner, knocking him out. He then pins Steamboat for much more than three seconds, but since Hebner is out, there’s no one to count Savage to victory. Savage gives Steamboat a scoop slam, but Steamboat expertly counters to pin Savage in a small package.
It’s just an awesome match from start to finish and is, without a doubt, the match of the night, and one of the best matches ever.
One sign that the match is something special is how Monsoon and Ventura elevate their game during the match. While the two announcers spend most of the night battling with one another, they’re nearly giddy during this match and it’s one of the few times they go out of their way to give both wrestlers credit. Monsoon repeats a few times how he dislikes how Savage got the Intercontinental Belt, which happened 414 nights earlier at a house show in Boston. During the match, however, Monsoon gives Savage plenty of compliments. He says that while he dislikes how Savage won the belt, he has no qualms with how Savage has conducted himself as champion: “He faced everybody,” Monsoon reminds us. “He has not been a closet champion by a longshot.”
Early in the match, Ventura gives Steamboat a compliment when he insists he’s never seen Steamboat so aggressive before, and deep into the match he blurts out, “This is one of the greatest matches I have ever seen!” He claims the Hogan/Giant match later in the night is the greatest ever, but that feels like hype where here it feels like respect.
There’s nothing that can look phenomenal in the shadow of Savage/Steamboat and while Jake “the Snake” Roberts and the Honky Tonk Man give a decent accounting of themselves, it just doesn’t measure up. An Iron Sheik/Nikolai Volkoff tag match against the Killer Bees is next, but the whole match is a waste of time because it only exists to get “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan over with the crowd through cheap jingoism. First, when Volkoff sings the Russian national anthem, Duggan runs out of the shadows to stop the singing. The crowd, of course, goes nuts, because f*ck the Soviets and all that. Then, during the match, for no real apparent reason, Duggan jumps into the ring to clock the Sheik in the back with his 2×4, giving the Sheik and Volkoff the win.
Volkoff and the Sheik take off and Duggan grabs the mic to tell them “if you’re gonna cheat, we’re gonna cheat,” and then insisting there’s a new feeling in America, which ends with him leading the “U-S-A! U-S-A!” chant.
We finally get to the much anticipated, highly hyped main event between Hogan and the Giant. It’s a really good match. Hogan and Andre don’t have a tenth of the moves Steamboat and Savage have, but the two men do an excellent job telling a story during the match. Andre has Heenan in his corner, and Bobby wisely stays mostly to the side during the match, likely knowing he’s not needed to get this match over with the crowd. Andre dominates much of the early action until Hogan uses the crowd to pump some extra life back into him during an interminable bear hug from the Giant. Hogan starts getting some offense going but on his third attempt to use the ropes to knock Andre down, it’s Hogan who gets knocked to the mat. A few minutes later, however, after Hogan’s illegal attempt to use the concrete floor to his advantage backfires, he does knock Andre down and then bodyslams him. It really is impressive. Ventura blathers, “I never thought it could be done, Gorilla! I never thought it could be done, Gorilla Monsoon!” and I’m not sure if he means the bodyslam or the win. (A minute later, he clarifies and says it’s the win he didn’t think Hogan could pull off, but the statement works better about the slam.) Andre and Heenan exit on the motorized platform the WWF used to get the wrestlers to the ring, and Heenan spends the ride with his head buried in his hand, looking stunned and sick to his stomach.
Hogan vs. Andre isn’t equal to the match that Steamboat and Savage, but it’s incredibly high drama.
WRESTLEMANIA III is a fantastic event. The WWF put the focus back on wrestling and most of the company’s performers did excellent work. This is the WrestleMania that made WrestleMania and even watching it now, over 25 years later, the event still stands up as one of the best in the WWF/WWE’s long history.
MATCH OF THE NIGHT: The Intercontinental Championship Match: Randy “Macho Man” Savage vs. Ricky “the Dragon” Steamboat.
STAR OF THE NIGHT: Unlike previous WrestleManias, there’s plenty to choose from here, from Piper to Steamboat to Savage to Heenan, but WrestleMania III will forever be best remembered for Hulk Hogan bodyslamming the Giant. Undeniably, the night was Hogan’s.
MOMENT OF THE NIGHT: Hogan bodyslams the Giant. What else can compete – this was a moment beautifully orchestrated by Hogan and Andre and remains one of the most iconic moments in pro wrestling history.
RUNNER-UP MOMENT OF THE NIGHT: The pop Roddy Piper gets before and after his retirement match. Pure respect for a wrestling legend who turned face for his last ride. Piper caps the moment off by giving Howard Finkel a big kiss on the top of his forehead. As a wrestling fan, this is my favorite moment of the whole event.
QUOTE OF THE NIGHT: “I didn’t think he could do it, but he did it!” – Jesse “the Body” Ventura, on Hogan beating Andre.
RUNNER-UP QUOTE #1: “I don’t deal with midgets! I don’t have anything to do with midgets! I hate midgets!” – Bobby “the Brain” Heenan, on why he didn’t come out to be in King Kong Bundy’s corner during his six-man match.
RUNNER-UP QUOTE #2: ”Can I clear one thing up? Jimmy Hart and I are not related.” – Mary Hart
Mark Bousquet is the author of several novels and collections, including The Haunting of Kraken Moor, Gunfighter Gothic, Stuffed Animals for Hire, Dreamer’s Syndrome, Harpsichord and the Wormhole Witches, and Adventures of the Five. He has also published a review collection entitled Marvel Comics on Film, which covers every cinematic and TV movie based on a superhero from the House of Ideas. A complete listing of all his work can be found at his Amazon author page.