As of the time of writing this, WrestleMania has just finished its 38th edition. This is pretty astounding when you look back on the story and history of WrestleMania. This was an event that was a massive risk and could have easily backfired. Vince McMahon leveraged everything on WrestleMania and if it hadn’t worked, you wouldn’t be here reading this article today.
The story of WrestleMania is as much the story of the rapid growth of the then World Wrestling Federation.
I was a kid in the 1980s, so, of course, wrestling was my life. By the time the first WrestleMania came around, I was about 8 and just getting into it. This was a time when wrestling was “real” to all of us, and they would even print event results in the sports section of our newspaper,
But this is a look back on the event that capitalized on the rapid success of the then WWF and took everything to a whole new level. This is the story of WrestleMania.
The Early Territory Days
What era of wrestling did you grow up with? If you’re my age, it was the Hulk Hogan/WWF era. You may be a bit younger and only remember the Attitude Era. Or maybe you were in between eras and got on board during the awful “New Generation” years. Maybe you came in during Ruthless Aggression and the rise of John Cena.
But if you go back further than this, you know the origins of WWE come from the old territory days–and this is an important part of the story. Back in the 1970s, there was no WWF. There was, however, the World Wide Wrestling Federation run by Vince McMahon senior.
Wrestling at the time was made up of dozens of different territories. Some notable ones included New South Wrestling, Stampede Wrestling run by the Hart family up here in Canada, World Class Championship Wrestling out of Dallas, World Championship Wrestling or WCW out of Atlanta (they would obviously be a prominent organization a few decades later) Mid South Wrestling out of Georgia, and the AWA.
Each territory would stick to itself. Other territories wouldn’t cross over to run shows in another territory because they were all fiercely “territorial.” There would be the odd performer who would go from territory to territory as an attraction. Andre the Giant was the perfect example of this. Since there wasn’t any national TV, internet, or other ways to see him, the only hope was for him to visit your territory to take on your local champion.
This was a great way for someone like Andre the Giant to not wear out his welcome by staying in only one territory. But for the most part, each territory had its own homegrown stars.
One notable territory was the AWA. They were formally known as the NWA and had a lot of talents such as Mean Gene Okerlund, Jesse the Body Ventura, Wendi Richter, Adrian Adonis, Nikoli Volkov, Jimmy Superfly Snuka, and Sargent Slaughter among many others.
Back in the World Wide Wrestling Federation territory of the Northeast, Vince McMahon senior was about to sell his territory to his son, Vince. Vince Sr assumed his son would keep things as is, But Vince Jr. saw the changing landscape of entertainment.
The Rise of Cable TV & A New Star Emerges
It feels as if cable TV has always been around. But in the early 1980s, there was no such thing. As mentioned, you could only watch televised wrestling of your local–or closest–organization. With the advancement of cable TV, you could now broadcast shows around the country. Vince Jr. saw what was happening and knew it presented an enormous opportunity.
He had amassed a wide range of talent by bringing in other territory performers–mostly from the AWA–to join the newly named World Wrestling Federation. Vince knew he had a better product than the other territories and he wanted to take them all one. Cable TV would be the way to do this.
Everyone involved with Vince Sr. went nuts. This was absolute blasphemy and this sort of thing just wasn’t done. Vince McMahon says that if his dad ever had known what his plans were when he bought the World Wide Wrestling Federation, he never would have sold it to him.
And Vince Jr. didn’t want to stop there–there was the chance that this thing could be taken globally.
He had all the talent, but was still missing one piece of the puzzle: who would be the showcase performer to represent the WWF? Terry Bollea had started training to wrestle in the late 70s. He was a big, strong, good-looking blonde guy. Bollea would wrestle in Alabama with his partner, Brutus the Barber Beefcake. They would be known as the Boulder Brothers. They would move to the Continental Wrestling Federation in Memphis, where he would often go by Terry Boulder and sometimes Sterling Golden.
While appearing on a local talk show, Bollea was a guest with TV’s The Incredible Hulk, Lou Ferrigno. At 6’7, and nearly 300 pounds, Bollea dwarfed the incredible Hulk. On the show, it was pointed out that Bollea was “the real hulk.” Bollea quickly adopted the name Terry “The Hulk” Boulder.
Bollea would be part of the AWA and was in the group of wrestlers that would be snatched up by Vince McMahon sr. Vince Jr. immediately saw the star potential of Bollea. The blonder surfer look, matched with 24-inch arms, made him the perfect performer to take the WWF nationwide.
The WWF had various characters of different nationalities. They had Italian wrestlers, Polish wrestlers, and Russian Wrestlers. Bollea would represent the Irish. They dropped his real name, but kept the Hulk–and then just added Hogan to it. A new era of wrestling was about to begin.
The Rock ‘N Wrestling Connection
One of the first things they did was put the heavyweight championship belt on Hulk Hogan. He would defeat the Iron Sheik at Madison Square Gardens in 1984.
Hogan was larger than life. He was charismatic, and a physical specimen that people had never seen before. WWF programming was being beamed around the country, so what used to take years’ worth of promotion was being done in a few weeks. Kids like me were completely enamored with this real-life superhero. Not to mention all these other amazing characters that seemed straight out of the pages of a comic book.
Vince McMahon had moved wrestling away from smoked-filled armory rooms into full-blown sports entertainment. Hulkamania was soon running wild, and he was everywhere. He encouraged kids to say their prayers and take their vitamins. He appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated, which was pretty astonishing for an industry that was ridiculed by the regular sporting world.
Vince was right, his product was better. And it would only continue to grow. There’s no telling how this may have played out in a different situation, but the further growth of wrestling–and WrestleMania–might have come down to a chance encounter on an airplane.
Cyndi Lauper was one of the biggest pop stars of the time. On one of her many plane trips was a fellow entertainer. But he came from the world of wrestling. It was the legendary manager, Captain Lou Albano. The two hit it off, and it ended up with Albano appearing in Lauper’s video for the massive hit, “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.”
Vince had the idea of capitalizing on the explosive growth of another new medium: MTV. The WWF was like an athletic rock show, and it seemed like the perfect marriage. The WWF and MTV would put on joint wrestling shows that had celebrity involvement and would air on MTV. It would be dubbed The Rock ‘N Wrestling Connection.
The shows were all sell-outs, and the ratings were astronomical. Two events would make up the pinnacle of the Rock ‘n Wrestling Connection: The Brawl to End it All, and The War to Settle the Score. One of the events scored a 10.0 rating which, for a non-network, was insanely good.
The Rock ‘N Wrestling Connection created storylines from the “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” video but brought in a character with the goal of disrupting all the fun: Rowdy Roddy Piper
The Granddaddy of Them All
Every sport obviously has its massive main event. The Super Bowl, the World Series, and the Stanley Cup are all the culmination of the entire years’ competition. Maybe wrestling should have something similar.
Vince McMahon realized this was a no-brainer idea. Take all their best wrestlers and storylines–in conjunction with MTV–and create a one-night extravaganza filled with celebrities and the best of the WWF.
But what would they call it? Vince wanted to actually go with “The Colossal Tussle.” Legendary ring announcer Howard Finkel thought back to the early days of the Beatles and how that phenomenon was dubbed “Beatlemania.” WrestleMania was born.
The WWF was running hot, and all of this success had happened in barely a year. Would people be into a grand spectacle? And how were they going to broadcast it? The event would take place in the unofficial home of the WWF: Madison Square Gardens. But they needed to make money on this thing. After all, it would cost a fortune to put on.
They could air it for free on MTV, and get a massive rating, but that wouldn’t recoup their costs. The idea came to use a style of broadcasting that had worked for boxing: Closed-circuit television. If you’re under 30, that name probably means nothing to you, but it was the only way to broadcast the event and make money off it. There was obviously no streaming back then or the WWE Network. Pay-per-view would be years away, so closed-circuit was the only option.
Today, the WWE doesn’t even use the term pay-per-view. All the big shows; WrestleMania, Survivor Series, and the Royal Rumble, for example, are considered “Premium Live Events.” We can only see them on the WWE Network or Peacock.
If this is new to you, closed-circuit was paying to watch a live broadcast on movie screens but in sports arenas or big theatres. Would people pay to watch wrestling on TV at a hockey rink? And pay quite a lot to do so? How could you control the broadcast? What if it went dead? What if the image was terrible? What if the sound went out?
Vince McMahon was gambling a lot on this gigantic wrestling showcase. The costs were getting out of control and it got to the point of no return. He would put everything into WrestleMania. Not only had he leveraged the entire company to make it work, but unbeknownst to his wife Linda, he apparently mortgaged his house.
This was either going to work, or Vince would go bankrupt. The company was all-in on WrestleMania–but what would be the major draw to hook people in?
The WrestleMania 1 Card
Hulk Hogan would obviously be the major draw. And what is a great hero without an evil adversary? Rowdy Roddy Piper would be the opponent. But they needed to take it further than that.
Along with Cowboy Bob Orton, Paul Mr. Wonderful Orndorff would partner up with Piper. Hogan had Lauper in his corner, but she clearly would not wrestle. Who could they bring in to get even more eyes on the show?
If you grew up like me, there were several can’t miss shows that were required viewing each week. Transformers, Dukes of Hazzard, and the A-Team. Lawrence Tureaud was possibly just as big a star as Hulk Hogan, but we all knew him as Mr. T.
What better way to elevate this wrestling spectacle than by bringing in the biggest action star on TV? The WWF would create an angle where Mr. T would come to the rescue of Hulk Hogan to ultimately join forces with him to take on Piper and Orndorff. Now, you had the entire entertainment world fixated on this strange wrestling event.
McMahon would take a similar gigantic risk years later when he brought in the baddest man on the planet, Mike Tyson, to be featured in another WrestleMania featuring another performer that would save the company: Stone Cold Steve Austin.
The last match was set, but here’s how the rest of the first WrestleMania card shaped up:
- Tito Santana vs The Executioner (I’ve heard one story where Santana was borderline threatened by McMahon to set the tone with the opening match or the entire event could crumble)
- King Kong Bundy vs Special Delivery Jones
- Ricky Steamboat vs Matt Borne
- Brutus Beefcake vs David Sammartino (son of the legendary Bruno)
- Junkyard Dog vs Greg “The Hammer” Valentine
- The Iron Sheik and Nikolai Volkoff vs The US Express: Barry Windham and Mike Rotunda (Rotunda would go on to become IRS and is the father of the Fiend, Bray Wyatt.)
- Andre the Giant vs Big John Studd in the $15,000 body slam challenge
- Wendi Richter vs Leilani Kai
The Use of Celebrities
You can see how the use of celebrities in wrestling goes right back to the beginning. But it was more than just Mr.T and Cyndi Lauper. McMahon was pushing this as the greatest wrestling spectacle of all time, so he needed to cover all his bases.
Instead of only having the national anthem–which was sung by Mean Gene–McMahon had America the Beautiful sung before the event as “it sounded better.” Eventually, they would drop the national anthem and just stick to American the Beautiful to begin WrestleMania: a tradition that continues to this day. They would bring in the legendary Ray Charles to sing it.
Liberace would serve as the special guest timekeeper. Legendary baseball manager Billy Martin would be the ring announcer, the Rockettes would perform, and in a huge deal, the icon, Muhammad Ali, would be the guest referee.
Mr.T and Cyndi Lauper may have been enough, but McMahon went full-on with the celebrity inclusion to make sure that on March 31st, 1985, the event had as many eyes on it as possible.
Remember: even though it was gaining popularity, pro wrestling was still a very niche attraction. Cyndi Lauper, Mr.T, and the other celebrities would be what drew more eyes to the event, and it was the star power of Hulk Hogan that kept them and carried the business forward.
The Results and Real Life Drama
Wrestling is a weird business. It’s easy to call it fake, but predetermined is a more accurate phrase. But back in the 70s and 80s, wrestlers were fiercely protective of the business. They call the act of staying in character “kayfabe.”
Hogan and Mr.T even went on Saturday Night Live in character, just 12 hours before the event, to promote WrestleMania. This thing was getting so much attention that many were wondering if professional wrestling was, in fact, real.
The other thing wrestlers at the time were very protective of was not letting outsiders in. One of the most adamant about this was Roddy Piper. He hated the fact that a celebrity like Mr.T was going to be wrestling. He hadn’t paid his dues and traveled the country, learning the craft as they had.
Today, it’s a regular thing to see celebrities in wrestling matches. In the last few years, we’ve had Johnny Knoxville, Pat McAfee, Bad Bunny, and even Snooki all perform in matches at WrestleMania. Having celebrities at the event was ok in the 80s, but not in the match.
Piper planned on making it a living hell for Mr. T. Piper believed that Mr.T didn’t appreciate the business. Mr.T was tough, but Piper was also a former amateur boxer. Piper didn’t believe he was getting the respect he deserved for carrying the hype for this match. After all: a great good guy can only exist when a great bad guy is there to thwart him. Piper really was the unsung hero of the early days of the WWF and WrestleMania.
Piper, Orndoff, and Orton also didn’t like the direction wrestling was going into this “sports entertainment.” All of them–especially Piper–wanted to show Mr.T that this was no joke. As the lead-up for WrestleMania came, T was getting cold feet. He was legitimately concerned he would get hurt in the ring.
On the day of the event, he was nowhere to be seen. They eventually found him near Central Park with some homeless people. Hogan had to reassure him that things were going to be fine, and they just needed to get to MSG.
Eventually, Mr.T, with a huge entourage, made it to The Garden. While this is going on, WrestleMania is already underway. When it came time for the finale, the match went off without a hitch. Hogan and Mr.T would win. But the original plan was for Mr. T. to pin Piper. Piper refused, and that’s why we got Hogan pinning Mr. Wonderful.
Mr.T was in tremendous shape, but if you go back and watch the end of the match, he is so exhausted that he can’t even lift his hands over his head.
The Aftermath of WrestleMania
Obviously, this event was a massive success. The gigantic risk paid off. There was also another issue I haven’t covered yet. This was still the early days of the WWF and, as mentioned, all of this success seemed to have happened within a year. There was no guarantee that this was going to last. It very could have easily fizzled out and the wrestlers would just move on to new territories like they always had. Many promotors thought the WWF was a fad.
When the idea of a super event came about, some wrestlers were hesitant. Hogan has said that all the other promoters were already pissed off with Vince and Hogan for what they were doing. One promoter had allegedly offered the Iron Sheik $100,000 to break Hogan’s leg in that match back in 1984.
Having a super showcase may piss them off even more. A lot of them were worried that if they worked the WrestleMania event, they would be blackballed from other promotions forever.
There was no guarantee this thing would work and as far as they knew, there would only be one WrestleMania. It would not be a yearly event or anything like that. But the event was, of course, a success and the explosive growth of the World Wrestling Federation meant its performers would be well taken care of financially and would never have to go back to the old territory days.
In fact, the territory days would fade away. Many would still exist, but the WWF was clearly the dominant promotion. No one could compete with Vince’s star power, money, and television distribution. And then there was WrestleMania itself. More than a million people purchased a ticket to watch it via closed circuit. I remember it being promoted at the main hockey arena in my city. The place held 5,000 people and was apparently a sell-out. This was the case all over North America.
At the time, WrestleMania would be the most-watched, close-circuit wrestling event ever. The WWE/WWF has always been vague about their actual numbers, but a report in the LA Times said the event made around $12 million on those one million closed-circuit purchases.
Other reports are that it made around $4 million or $8.5 million when adjusted for inflation. But then the event would be re-broadcast in different markets to buy via cable TV. The event also made another $1.1 million in ticket sales at Madison Square Gardens when adjusted for inflation.
Who knows the exact final figure, but the first WrestleMania was a massive success and forever changed the landscape of professional wrestling.
Covering the WWF in the 1980s could take weeks. This is more of a quick snapshot of the rapid growth of professional wrestling, culminating in a unique event that continues to this day. WrestleMania remains the granddaddy of them all and the focal point for the entire year.
When WrestleMania 1 came around, the popularity of Hogan and the WWF was only just beginning. The company was going global, and it’s amazing to see what it developed into.
I’ve been lucky enough to go to a WrestleMania. It was WrestleMania 18 when the WWE came back to the Skydome in Toronto. I got to see the man who started it all as it was the iconic matchup between the Rock and Hulk Hogan. If you’re a wrestling fan, I don’t need to explain this moment to you. If you aren’t, it’s something I will never forget for the rest of my life.
What was supposed to be a one-off event turned into an annual tradition. The company would become truly universal and appeal to all walks of life. Some say that there was no greater period than pro wrestling in the 1980s. The money and attention it received weren’t even topped by the phenomenal Attitude Era.
Whether or not this is true isn’t really important. What is important is the massive risk that Vince McMahon took back in 1985. WrestleMania would be the beginning of a new era of professional wrestling, and there was no looking back.
If you want to read some more about wrestling in the 80s, here are a few more articles: