WrestleMania IV (1988) – Trump Plaza/Boardwalk Hall (Atlantic City, NJ) – Main Event: WWF Championship: Randy “Macho Man” Savage vs. Ted “Million Dollar Man” DiBiase.
Wrestling tournaments are outstanding in theory and awful in practice.
It sounds like a great idea, of course, to put fourteen of your best wrestlers into a big tournament and let them go on and on all night. Who wouldn’t want to see Hulk Hogan or Randy Savage or Andre the Giant or Ricky Steamboat wrestle two or three or even four times in a night? If I’m paying for a ticket to the event or the PPV at home, and you’re telling me I don’t have to wait until the third hour to see the biggest names in the company wrestle, and that I might see them again and again, I’m psyched.
But whenever I watch a tournament, I’m usually disappointed. I think it’s a bad idea to have your wrestlers compete, then sit around, then compete again, then sit around and so on. It takes them out of their rhythm and it robs the event, to a certain degree, of unexpected outcomes. You know two of the bigger stars are going to make it to the final, because there’s no way midcarders like Jim Duggan and Butch Reed are going to main event WrestleMania. Maybe – maybe – one of them gets through but I think tournaments limit, rather than expand, storytelling options.
Tournaments can work – especially if you fill it with wrestlers from the same card position, but otherwise they usually leave me cold.
Such is the case with WRESTLEMANIA IV, which stuffs the event with short matches (eleven matches in all and only one goes over ten minutes while seven of them clock out at under six minutes, eight seconds) and almost obliterates three of the company’s biggest talents: Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant, and Ricky Steamboat. When you factor in wasting most of their tag teams in a pointless Battle Royal (easily one of the dumbest gimmick matches there is) and an unappealing Tag Team Championship between Demolition and Strike Force that lasts an interminable twelve minutes, WRESTLEMANIA IV is a disappointing event that nonetheless ends with one of WrestleMania’s signature moments, as the Macho Man wins the WWF Championship, hands the belt to Miss Elizabeth, and then hoists her onto his shoulders to bask in the crowd’s adulation.
I don’t know if this is, as Gorilla Monsoon exclaims, “Macho Man’s finest hour!,” but there’s no question that Macho Man was the star of the night and became a deserving champion.
WRESTLEMANIA IV kicks off with a twenty-man Battle Royal. I really hate Battle Royals because when you have a mass of bodies in the ring there’s no room for anyone to operate. I do love the Royal Rumble version where you start with two wrestlers and then continue to add a new man in every so-many seconds, because it builds drama and eventually works to a full ring, allowing wrestlers a chance to catch their breath before winnowing out the numbers for a dramatic finish, but when you start with twenty men in the ring … ugh.
The participants are largely made up of tag teams and forgettables: Bad News Brown, The Bolsheviks (Nikolai Volkoff and Boris Zhukov), The Hart Foundation (Bret Hart and Jim Neidhart), The Killer Bees (B. Brian Blair and Jim Brunzell), Danny Davis, George Steele, Harley Race, Hillbilly Jim, The Rougeau Brothers (Jacques and Raymond), The Young Stallions (Paul Roma and Jim Powers), Junkyard Dog, Ken Patera, Ron Bass, Sam Houston, and Sika. Brown wins the match by defeating the Hitman and it’s all kinda lame. I like that Brown won, but he wins by “turning” on Hitman after the two men team up to eliminate the JYD. Brown then “betrays” Hitman, as if sharing the trophy was ever gonna happen. It’s a lame match and Hart throwing a hissy fit and destroying the ridiculously tall trophy just emphasizes the silliness of that stupid trophy.
Six first round WWF Championship Tournament matches follow. Hogan and Andre get first round byes, and while that’s understandable for Andre (his age and size had been severely limiting his in-ring abilities for awhile), but there’s no reason Hogan couldn’t have come out for a short squash match with someone. I’m normally opposed to squash matches but can you imagine the buzz that would have been generated by having Hogan wrestle in the second match of the event? It would have built the anticipation for his second round match with Andre just a bit more, and sold the ending of that match better by refuting the common perception that Hogan was going to wrestle three or four times on the night.
There’s not a whole lot of memories contained in these opening matches. The Million Dollar Man takes out Hacksaw in five minutes, which is followed by the Rock (Muraco, not Johnson) getting a victory over a DQ’d Dino Bravo in five minutes. The best match of the opening round comes next, when Steamboat and Greg “the Hammer” Valentine go for a very solid nine minutes, and delivers an upset as the Hammer gets the win over the Dragon, who seems dangerously close to going heel a couple times in the match. The match’s most memorable moment, however, might well be Steamboat coming to the ring with his infant song, the “Little Dragon,” and while an upset is a good to result to foil audience expectations, it also removes one of your biggest wrestlers from the event early in the night.
Let’s not forget, either, that if Steamboat had won, he’d have been booked in a second round match against the Macho Man, which would have been a rematch of their epic WRESTLEMANIA III match. Upsets are fine and all, but there had to have been a lot of disappointed fans in the arena and at home.
Heck, it’s 25 years later, I know the result, I’m a grown-ass man, and I’m still disappointed. If the WWF really wanted to make this “Macho Man’s Finest Hour,” they would have given him a second round victory over Steamboat and had the two men shake hands afterwards. That would have sent the crowd into a frenzy and catapulted Macho Man into the PPV’s second half as the night’s true crowd favorite. Can you imagine how much traction Monsoon and Jesse Ventura could have gotten out of repeating, “And he’s still got two matches to go!” The two announcers spend a massive amount of time talking about the physical wear and tear as it is, but I think it could have been used even more effectively.
Instead, we get the Hammer’s upset and a face vs. heel match, which seems to be what the WWF wanted to set up as much as possible.
After the Hammer upset there’s a solid Savage vs. Butch Reed match that would have benefited from some extra time, a 3-minute One Man Gang vs. Bam Bam Bigelow waste of time where Gang wins by countout, and a timed-out fifteen-minute draw that saw Jake “the Snake” Roberts and “Ravishing” Rick Rude both eliminated. It’s all oddly paced and ineffectively rendered. The matches are only so-so and there’s no momentum being built for the event because of all the quick matches interspersed with some longer, less exciting action.
Rick Rude and Jake Roberts are solid pros but they shouldn’t get the longest match of the night, especially if it ends in a draw.
The Ultimate Warrior makes his WrestleMania debut in a quick match with Hercules (having dropped the Hernandez). If you like the Warrior, you’ll like the match. If you find his gimmick irritating, this match will do nothing to change your mind. I feel a bit bad for Hercules, who’s had a decent WrestleMania run and deserves better than to come out and help get the Warrior over.
Three Round 2 tournament matches follows. The most disappointing is the Hogan vs. Andre match. It’s five minutes and the result is a double disqualification because both men hit each other with a chair. There was almost zero chance this match would surpass their WRESTLEMANIA III match, but this outing is little more than a lead balloon in the center of the event. Anything would have been better than a double DQ, as it eliminates your two biggest stars at the event’s mid-point.
One thing that WRESTLEMANIA IV does very well, however, is the use of extended storytelling. As much as it sucks to lose Andre from the tournament, they fold this into the larger story of Ted DiBiase’s quest to buy the WWF Championship. The other extended story involves Bob Uecker, who’s back for his second Mania. I love Uecker because he’s willing to poke fun at himself, and he’s completely comfortable interacting with Ventura and the wrestlers. They even use him to conduct a few interviews, and this leads to one of the night’s best moments when he’s interviewing Andre and the Giant yells at him, “Don’t worry about Vanna White!”
Ah, only WrestleMania.
Uecker’s comfort with being here, however, only makes Vanna White’s lack of comfort more obvious. Repeating a favored WrestleMania tradition of acting a non-fan to break down matches, Vanna gets a couple of segments with Gene Okerlund where she’s asked her opinions on the tournament. What kind of expert analysis does Miss White provide?
“I like Hulk.”
“I like Elizabeth.”
And her best line, explaining why she doesn’t like the Million Dollar Man: “I don’t like anybody buying anything for anything. You have to work for it. I don’t like people trying to dish out money to win something.” Says Vanna White, a woman who makes her living on a FREAKING GAME SHOW where you win things by guessing partially-spelled words, and buy things based on the random spin of a wheel. Y_s, work for w_at you want, Am_rica. D_finit_ly do not tak_ s_ort cuts.
The rest of the Quarterfinals are largely forgettable: DiBiase over the Rock (Muraco, not Johnson), Savage over Valentine, and the One Man Gang in a bye thanks to the draw between Roberts and Rude. This whole middle segment of the show just sort of sits there – it doesn’t pay anything off or build anything up. It just is. No different, in hindsight, than what the middle third of the three-hour Raw has too-often become.
The Intercontinental Championship was next, pitting Brutus “the Barber” Beefcake against the Honky Tonk Man, which is noteworthy because it features one of my least favorite identities of this era (a barber) with one of my favorites (wrestling Elvis). Beefcake and HTM put on a pretty good match that doesn’t need the presence of Jimmy Hart and Peggy Sue (Sensational Sherri in a blonde wig) or a bogus DQ ending. Hart hit the ref with his megaphone, which gave Beefcake the match but allowed HTM to keep the title because a champ can’t lose his title by disqualification – a rule that is one of, if not the biggest single wrestling plot contrivance of them all.
A pointless six-man tag match is next between the British Bulldogs and Koko B. Ware against the Islanders (Haku and Tama) and Bobby Heenan. This match is most notable for the inclusion of animals, not for the Brain helping the Islanders to get the win. Poor Matilda the Bulldog has a look on her face that screams, “Somebody please adopt me. Please. Please adopt me. Please take me away from these screaming British men. The match itself is solid but the takeaway memory is the pre-match interview, in which Dynamite Kid says, with a straight face, “Matilda’s been through some special training. Vigorous training,” and Davey Boy, with an equally straight face, says, “She’s the only certifiable weasel dog in the world.”
Thanks to the Hogan/Andre double DQ, the only Semifinal match sees Savage winning by DQ over One Man Gang, who had enough time to walk a ring around the Earth between his two matches. If you’re counting along, that’s six matches that are won by DQ, draw, or count out, which always makes for exciting television …
The penultimate match of the night is the WWF Tag Team Championship, and Demolition and Strike Force come out and do stuff. They try to put on a good match and there’s some decent action but none of the four wrestlers involved (Ax, Smash, Rick Martel, and Tito Santana) have any real personality, and we’re already over three hours into the event AND these guys go for twelve minutes. When you have match after match and then you give us twelve minutes of Tag Team action that seems to go on just because they need to give Savage as much time as possible to recuperate to put on a decent finishing match, it just weights the whole program down. At this point in the night, I just want it to be over.
The WWF Championship match ends the night and we’ve got an exhausted Macho Man against an over-matched Ted DiBiase. Look, I love the Million Dollar Man, but his strengths are all outside the ring and not inside. He’s a decent wrestler with a great gimmick and his desire to buy the WWF Championship is an engaging thread that runs through the night. I wish they’d given it more time.
The match itself isn’t anything special, except that Macho Man wins thanks to Hogan’s interference. It’s bogus. As much as the night could have used more Hogan, it didn’t need any Hogan here. Full credit to Hogan and WWF creative for giving Macho Man the push tonight, but with Hogan coming out and interfering with the matched and then never leaving the ring, it feels more like the Hulkster trying to steal some glory for himself rather than giving Macho Man his due. To give Hogan the benefit of the doubt, he is congratulatory towards Savage, but there are also rumors that Hogan took the championship belt from Robin Leach (yes, that Robin Leach) and gave it to Savage himself instead of having Mr. Champagne Wishes do it, as scripted.
It’s actually better that Hogan gives Savage the belt, but then he shoulda done the right thing and got out of the ring to let Savage and Miss Elizabeth have their moment.
As it is, though, even with Hogan in the ring, he can’t distract too much from the moment. When Savage gives Miss Elizabeth the belt and hoists her up on his shoulder, it’s a magical moment. If you don’t feel something when she’s crying at their championship moment, you just ain’t human.
WRESTLEMANIA IV is not a good event, but Macho Man did have a legendary night. There was no singularly great match that compares to his work at the previous WrestleMania, but his ascension to champion is well-deserved, and his celebration is much less about winning the night as it is about finally reaching the top of the WWF mountain.
MATCH OF THE NIGHT: Not a great night for individual matches, but the Intercontinental Championship Match: Brutus “the Barber” Beefcake vs. the Honky Tonk Man.
STAR OF THE NIGHT: Randy Savage. This is the Macho Man’s night.
MOMENT OF THE NIGHT: Savage giving the WWF Championship belt to Miss Elizabeth and then hoisting her up on his shoulder.
RUNNER-UP MOMENT OF THE NIGHT: Andre the Giant choking Bob Uecker. Is it a cheeseball moment? Yeah, but it’s the perfect intersection of WrestleMania the wrestling event with WrestleMania the spectacle.
QUOTE OF THE NIGHT: “This is Macho Man’s finest hour!” – Gorilla Monsoon.
RUNNER-UP QUOTE #1: “When money’s involved, there ain’t no friends.” – Jesse “the Body” Ventura.
RUNNER-UP QUOTE #2: ”He’s got short arms and big pockets.” Gorilla Monsoon on Bobby “the Brain” Heenan.
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.