WrestleMania V (1989) – Trump Plaza/Boardwalk Hall (Atlantic City, NJ) – Main Event: The WWF Championship: Randy “Macho Man” Savage vs. Hulk Hogan.
WRESTLEMANIA V reveals the WWF as a company in transition.
Transition has both positive and negative consequences in WRESTLEMANIA V, resulting in an uneven show that goes on too long and delivers a few too few thrills. On the positive side of the ledger, however, we witness the emergence of several superstars who will play a huge role in the next two decades of professional wrestling in the United States, both with the WWF/WWE and in other promotions. Making their WrestleMania debuts in 1989 are such future luminaries as Shawn Michaels, Curt Hennig, Owen Hart, and the Big Boss Man. On the other side, we see a curious, disconnected mix of wrestlers symbolizing how the WWF doesn’t know what it wants to be. There’s a toxic mix between the live-action cartoons (guys like the Bushwhackers, Ultimate Warrior, Hogan) and old school grinders (Dino Bravo, Ronnie Garvin, Arn Anderson, Tully Blanchard, Jake Roberts, and the like), and you can see that the most appealing wrestlers are the guys who can take the best of both styles and merge them together (Savage, Michaels, Hennig, the Hart Foundation, Rude).
Companies want a mix of styles, of course, but as the matches progress through WRESTLEMANIA V, it’s like the soul of the company is on the line with each match. Vince McMahon and all of his creative staff are smart folks, of course, but there’s too many boring wrestlers (and I include their personalities in that damnation) who are being propped up by weak gimmicks.
Looking the event historically, WRESTLEMANIA V is fascinating. Watching as a fan is a bit uneven, but it builds to big finish.
Our opening match features two competent wrestlers who have been given a soft gimmick to help get them over. The difference between Hercules and Haku is that Hercules is nearer the end of his run and Haku is nearer the start. I think Hercules Hernandez has been a solid contributor to the first five WrestleManias. He’s muscle-bound and lacking personality, but with the right opponent he can put on a good match. The bulk of his personality, though, seems to be contained in the big chains he brings to the ring with him. Here, he’s in the midst of the dreaded, long-time-coming face turn. When you’re big and have a tough guy gimmick (He’s Hercules! Son of Zeus!) and you don’t have a personality, the face turn is the equivalent of a long-running sitcom with sagging ratings adding a child to the show.
It’s almost over.
WRESTLEMANIA V is a nice reward for all of Hercules’ hard work (for the WWF, not for cleaning stables or anything) over the years. He’s been a solid pro who occasionally puts on really good matches but can’t advance past the midcard. If he was around in today’s WWE, he might get a run as the United States Champ. Or if Vince took a shining to him, he’d be Ryback, inexplicably booked higher than your talent and contributions seem to suggest as being possible. It’s clear that Hercules is on the way out and Haku is on the rise, evident by the addition of his status as “King,” taking over the title from an injured Harley Race. Hercules has split with his manager, Bobby Heenan, and it’s a nice reward for him to get the win here.
The second match is a tag match between The Twin Towers (Akeem and the Big Boss Man) against the Rockers (Shawn Michaels and Marty Jannetty). This is a pretty good match, but it’s pretty obvious right away that it’s the Boss Man and Michaels that are the stars. Akeem – the former One Man Gang who became Akeem when he decided to embrace his “African roots – is a big plodder and Jannetty is a very solid tag partner with little individual charisma. Boss Man is a heavy dude but he’s got a great ring presence: aggressive, mean, confident. He’s a perfect example of a gimmick that works to his strengths, as it plays to the idea of a prison guard being a tough, mean S.O.B. who’s not a body builder. If the WWF had given this identity to Hercules or Akeem, it would not have worked, but it’s perfect for Ray Traylor.
As for Michaels, the man who will go on to gain the nickname “Mr. WrestleMania,” doesn’t get the win in this match but he does put on a heck of a show, pulling Jannetty to a higher level and properly selling Boss Man as a proper heel. These two teams show the difference in assembling a proper tag team and a weak one. Michaels and Jannetty are fantastic together while Boss Man and Akeem just stand in the same corner and tag each other in intermittently.
Four of the next five matches are all sorts of blah, but the one exception is the second-best match of the night, and the best from a technical standpoint.
Brutus Beefcake and Ted DiBiase put on a decent match that ends in a double countout, then the Bushwhackers and Rougeaus come out for a completely forgettable tag match. These two matches are an interesting look at the transitional period the WWF finds itself in here in 1989. The Barber and the Million Dollar Man are solid identities in that they are simple, sellable ideas. When I was a kid, I never believed Beefcake was actually a barber, but I always believed DiBiase was a multimillionaire who also happened to wrestle, yet both ideas work to the strengths of the performers. The Bushwhackers had a nice little run as a popular face tag team but they’re cartoon characters and putting them in the ring against the Rougeaus, who are decent technical wrestlers with a really weak gimmick (They’re French-Canadian! And now they’re heels because they live in Memphis!) and the match never goes anywhere. The Buschwhackers get the win, seemingly because it’s the faces turn to win a match.
The second best match of the night is next, but it also highlights the transitional phase WWF is in as it seeks an identity as a company. Curt Hennig has been cast as “Mr. Perfect,” a highly technical heel. He’s a prime example of giving a wrestler an identity that matches perfect with their skill set. On the other hand, we’ve got Owen Hart stuffed inside the ridiculous Blue Blazer superhero gimmick. There’s nothing wrong with the idea of masked wrestlers and it’s nice to have some characters who are less serious than the rest of the locker room, but it’s hard not to look at the Blue Blazer and see it as not fully taking advantage of Owen’s abilities. Hennig gets the win but the two men do a great job putting on a solid match for the crowd.
The WWF Tag Team Championship is next, and The Powers of Pain (Warlord and Barbarian) with Mr. Fuji drop the belts to Demolition (Ax and Smash). Zzzzzzzzz.
Next is Dino Bravo vs. Ronnie Garvin. Zzzzzzzzz.
Then the Brain Busters vs. Strike Force. Almost Zzzzzzzzz. It’s pretty routine until the end, when things take a decided upturn. First, Rick Martel gets all pissy at Tito Santana and bails on him, setting up a feud that will continue after WrestleMania. Then the Busters deliver their finishing move, the Spike Piledriver on Santana. In this move, Anderson holds Santana up and Blanchard jumps off the top rope to drive Tito’s legs downward. It’s an incredibly awkward and dangerous move.
Look, I like Arn Anderson and Tully Blanchard and they are a solid tag team, but you just can’t give them a manager and a silly name like Brain Busters and expect them to get over. They’re two guys with similar skill sets doing similar things. Put them in a feud with younger, “new school” wrestlers and their old school approach would work much better than it does here. One only needs to look at the Rockers to see what’s wrong with all of these tag teams in the late ’80s. Where the Rockers get over because of their ability to blend wrestling with their flash, these other groups are similarly paired gimmicks: Demolition, Powers of Pain, Brain Busters, Strike Force, Bushwhackers, Rougeaus … it’s like someone in creative decided if a gimmick isn’t good enough to get one wrestler over, that must mean it’ll work fine getting two wrestlers over.
Right. Because I know when I was a kid and didn’t want to eat pork chops because pork chops are disgusting, I suddenly loved them when forced to eat two chops at the same time.
Jesse Ventura doesn’t often add the most insightful commentary (his job wasn’t to be insightful but to prop up the heels) but he’s dead solid perfect when we get to the Hart Foundation vs. Honky Tonk Man and Greg Valentine match later on and he says the best tag teams feature partners who compliment each other – like both of those teams manage to do. That match is everything the other tag matches lack – two solid teams with solid wrestlers who understand the difference between singles action and tag action. Hitman, Anvil, Honky Tonk, and Hammer all provide excellent work, and even though the Harts win (by stealing Jimmy Hart’s megaphone and bashing it over Honky Tonk’s head), all four men come out for the better.
In between the Brain Busters match, we get a silly Piper’s Pit between a returning Rowdy Roddy Pipper, Brother Love, and Morton Downey, Jr. Piper is one of my all-time favorites but this bit is painful to watch.
After that there’s a match between Andre the Giant and Jake “the Snake” Roberts. Here’s how this match works: Andre abuses Roberts for much of the match, then Roberts takes Damien out of the bag, which sends Andre running because he’s afraid of snakes. Storytelling wise, it’s fine, but it’s an obvious result played out in an obvious manner.
Next up is a decent match between Rick Rude and the Ultimate Warrior, which sees Rude winning the Intercontinental Belt and giving Warrior his first pinfall. It’s not a bad match. Both guys have distinct identities and even though I can’t stand the Ultimate Warrior, his cartoonish approach works for the crowd.
At this point, you may be asking yourself if there’s really more coming. Yup. Hacksaw Jim Duggan and Bad News Brown put on a snoozer that ends in a double DQ, and then the Red Rooster defeats Bobby Heenan in an actual match. That’s right, kids. The last two matches before the WWF Championship feature Duggan, Brown, the Red Rooster, and Bobby Heenan.
Wrestling, y’all. Wrestling.
This is silly and I genuinely liked the Red Rooster when I was younger. I dug that there was a guy whose gimmick was that he named himself Red Rooster, and had a red spike of hair on his head and clucked. Terry Taylor sold it, too, but that doesn’t mean we needed two palate cleansers between the Hart Foundation and the WWF Championship.
Finally, we make it to the main event, and really, it’s a great main event. At WRESTLEMANIA IV, it was the Macho Man who won the WWF Championship. In the year since, he and Hogan formed the Mega Powers and tore through the WWF. Nothing could stop them … except for themselves. The WWF built one of their all-time great storylines with Hogan and Savage slowly coming apart, with Miss Elizabeth the wedge between them. It wasn’t that Miss Elizabeth was doing anything untoward, but Savage’s jealousy over actions he didn’t understand brought out his dark side.
The key to putting on a good match with Hulk Hogan – and this is a great match – is that the opponent has to sell hard for Hogan because of the Hulkster’s limited repertoire and cartoonish superheroics. The more you can sell knocking Hogan down, the greater his inevitable rise will play. You can say the same thing today about John Cena. Put Cena in a match with the Rock (as they did at WRESTLEMANIA 28 and 29) and you’re going to get a dull match. Pair him up with CM Punk and you’re going to get an exciting match.
That’s what happens here. Randy Savage sells Hulk Hogan better than anyone. First, he expertly works the crowd over by avoiding a fight, then ramps them up by not only fighting, but kicking the crap out of Hogan. Watching the Savage vs. Hogan match it’s hard not to draw the Punk/Cena comparisons. When I was younger, Savage was my favorite wrestler but I didn’t understand the business like I do know. I just knew he was awesome, and he’s totally awesome here. Last year, Gorilla Monsoon proclaimed, “This is Macho Man’s finest hour!,” but he’s even better as the jealous heel who loses than he was the year before as the triumphant face who won the title.
WRESTLEMANIA V is too dull to be a great WrestleMania, but there are real quality moments here: the debuts of Shawn Michaels and Big Boss Man, the excellent match between Mr. Perfect and the Blue Blaze, the excellent tag team match between the Hart Foundation and Honky Tonk and the Hammer, and then the main event, which shows why Savage and Hogan – though not for exactly the same reasons – sat the top of the WWF Mountain in 1989.
MATCH OF THE NIGHT: The WWF Championship: Randy Savage vs. Hulk Hogan. Hate on Hogan all you want but just listen to the crowd when he performs. He might have limited skills but he knows how to work a crowd as well as anyone. Plus, with Savage doing most of the heavy lifting, it’s just an excellent match.
STAR OF THE NIGHT: Randy Savage. No one ever sold Hulk Hogan better than Macho Man does at WRESTLEMANIA V.
MOMENT OF THE NIGHT: Savage pointing at Elizabeth, blaming her for something or other, and then referee Dave Hebner sending her back to the locker room.
QUOTE OF THE NIGHT: Jesse “the Body” Ventura, on Savage: “He don’t want no friends. He don’t need no friends.” Gorilla Monsoon: “He doesn’t have any friends.”
RUNNER-UP QUOTE #1: “It’ll be a great time in the barnyard tonight!” – Red Rooster, to Mean Gene Okerlund, before his bout with Bobby Heenan.
RUNNER-UP QUOTE #2: “Mere words cannot describe what it feels like to be licked by a Bushwhacker.” – Sean Mooney
When he’s not reviewing WrestleManias, Mark Bousquet is doing some writing himself. He is the author of multiple novels and collections, including the recently released 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.