Retro Wrestling Re-Run: Wrestlemania 1

A detailed analysis of WrestleMania I and the events surrounding it, and the lives of the men and women who were there.

Retro Wrestling Re-Run: Wrestlemania 1

WrestleMania I, the grand daddy of them all. The one that started the monster, that took over the Wrestling world, was… in a lot of ways, just a standard show with a killer send off. In this series, I will be covering WWF PPVs, one by one to give you a sense of history, who came in, who went where, and what it meant for their careers, and WWF. We start here, at WrestleMania I.

It’s important before getting into the event itself, that we recognize the importance of a show like WrestleMania. As the opening line suggests, in a lot of ways it’s a standard wrestling card. But what makes it more important than a standard MSG show? It’s that it is a major show, telecast on Closed Circuit to a national audience.

Of course, we can’t ignore the fact that WrestleMania I was not the first closed circuit Wrestling Program on such a scale. Starrcade 83 and Starrcade 84 led the charge in the world of Closed Circuit. WWF, however, snatched that flag of glory and never looked back on the NWA. With one single show, they were able to catapult into the popular culture.

One of the reasons was their use of stars. Mr. T, Mohammed Ali, Cyndi Lauper, among others. Starrcade simply didn’t do that. They put on a wrestling show that was only about the wrestling. Fans might look back and say yes, that is the way to run a show, however… Vince McMahon was trying to capture the eyes of people who never watched a wrestling show. Just because an audience might like your show does not mean that they are going to watch it. Sometimes you’ve got to lead them to your show so that they can decide for themselves.

That’s what these stars did, and sure enough, they loved the show. An entire new crop of wrestling fans was born. Vince McMahon didn’t rip away the NWA & AWA’s wrestling fans, he created his own, and did so with this very show and the MTV shows of the previous year. It worked magnificently. Rock N Roll wrestling would set the wrestling world on fire. The concept of mixing wrestling stars like Hogan, Wendi Richter, and others with stars in the popular culture, like Cyndi Lauper would change wrestling forever.  

The first WrestleMania took place at Madison Square Garden, an arena that would be home to many more WWF/E PPVs, and three total WrestleMania events, which is more than any other arena, as well as other shows like Royal Rumble 2000 and SummerSlam 1998. Madison Square Garden, and New York as a whole, was Vince McMahon’s marquee location to run shows. Even before the era of Hulkamania, MSG was a stronghold of WWF where Bruno Sammartino would set a wrestling record, selling out MSG 187 times.

The first match in WrestleMania history, Tito Santana vs The Executioner. This is what I mean about being basically a house show on display for a national audience. There isn’t much reason for this match to happen, yet it does. It’s nothing special, just a match to warm the crowd. The Executioner is Buddy Rose in his only WWF PPV appearance in his entire career.

However, his opponent, Tito Santana would appear in nine straight WrestleManias, if you count a dark match on WM IX, setting a record alongside Hulk Hogan, as the only two men to appear on the first nine WrestleManias. Tito questioned why this match would open the show like this? He said that Vince had told him that he needed a reliable guy who could wow the crowd, to get them going. Tito won the match, being the first match winner in WrestleMania history.

The next match is King Kong Bundy vs SD Jones. Jones is just a jobber in WWF. He was just there to lose real quick to the big man. The match was over in the longest 9 seconds in history… it apparently took 23 seconds for 9 seconds to eclipse, so that King Kong Bundy could hold the record for the shortest match. Despite this being a clear line of crap, WWF stuck to their guns about this match, well into the modern era, with them mentioning it when the Rock beat Erick Rowan at WrestleMania 32.

King Kong Bundy was being built as the monster to beat. Say what you will about how long or short the match was, it did leave an impression with wrestling fans. King Kong Bundy became the top heel of WWF by the following year, leading to a match against Hulk Hogan at WrestleMania 2.

A match that isn’t all that important, but I feel should be mentioned is Matt Borne vs Ricky Steamboat. It’s short, under five minutes. Matt Borne, before he was Doink the Clown, had an absolutely fantastic match with Steamboat. This match is one of the best matches you can ever see that is five minutes or less.

Ricky Steamboat, along with Roddy Piper and Greg Valentine, have the distinction of being the only three wrestlers to have wrestled on the first Starrcade, and the first WrestleMania. Roddy Piper faced Greg Valentine on that Starrcade, in one of the top matches of his career, and Ricky Steamboat with Jay Youngblood won a tag team match against Jack and Jerry Briscoe.

Brutus Beefcake vs David Sammartino is an absolutely terrible match. The worst match on this show. Brutus can’t or won’t sell worth a damn. When David Sammartino has him in a hold, Brutus just lays there like a kid on the floor, watching TV. David Sammartino was the son of Bruno and was sort of getting a push. Except, that he was not very good, with some suggesting that even Eric Watts was a better wrestler. Not everyone can go into wrestling and be good at it… even if you are the son of one of the greatest legends of all time.

Greg Valentine vs Junkyard Dog was an ok match. This is an early example of 50/50 booking in WWF/E. Greg Valentine won the match, using the ropes to win… but Tito Santana explained to the referee that Greg Valentine held the ropes, leading the ref to change his ruling and restart the match. Greg Valentine of course simply took a count out and left.

Tito Santana and Greg Valentine would feud throughout 1985, eventually leading to Tito Santana winning the Intercontinental Championship, in what I consider the best match of that year in WWF.

Junkyard Dog was hugely popular. For a time, he may have been the second most popular wrestler in WWF after Hogan. So, naturally, they wanted the fans to be happy. However, this kind of finish plagued Junkyard Dog’s career throughout. He was often losing a match and then either suddenly winning, or just standing in the ring like he won anyway.

WWF always kept the meaningful wins away from him. I never understood that as he was so popular. I believe the crowd would have popped if he won the Intercontinental Championship here. Junkyard Dog would remain popular for a couple of years after this, but newer talent and his own aging body would eventually see him go down the card.

The next match is the US Express vs Nikolai Volkoff and Iron Sheik. This was the first title change in WrestleMania history. Nikolai Volkoff was WWF’s version of Ivan & Nikita Koloff. A “Russian” wrestler, who was actually from Croatia, which admittedly is closer to Russia than Minnesota, where Nikita Koloff was from. Iron Sheik was exactly where he was billed from… Iran. He was also a former WWF Champion, the very man whom Hogan won his title from.

Together, they took on the US Express for the WWF World Tag Team Championships. The US Express was Mike Rotunda, later known as IRS, and future NWA World's Heavyweight Champion, Barry Windham, who were the current champions. It’s the best match in terms of in-ring quality on this show.

Volkoff’s method of getting heat was very simple, yet effective. In the middle of the cold war, a “Russian” sings the national anthem in the middle of New York City. He’s lucky someone didn’t jump the barricade and try to kill him. It was much easier getting heat in those days. “Russia number one, Iran number one, America *spitting sound*." Iron Sheik gets his heat with that phrase.

Their victory over the US Express was the very first title change in WrestleMania history. When talking all titles, there have been hundreds of changes on WrestleMania, but this one was the very first.

The US Express would regain the titles later that year at a house show, but then soon lose them to Brutus Beefcake & Greg Valentine, and not long after that would be out of the company. For me, I’m glad Volkoff and Sheik won the titles on the very first WrestleMania. Sheik’s part in establishing WWF’s dominance is often forgotten. Without the monster to beat, WWF may have never achieved their level of success. Sheik earned his moment of glory on this show in recognition of his contribution in getting WWF to this point.

Andre the Giant vs Big John Studd in the $15,000 Body Slam Challenge. Well… that’s interesting booking. Telling two big men that they can’t slam one another, until you get to the finish is a bit like telling Rey Mysterio that he’s not allowed to leave his feet until he does his 619 finisher. It’s strange, to say the least!

As a result, it’s mostly “clubbing blows” and attempts to lift one another that don’t go anywhere. The crowd was into it though, and that’s what matters, and when the slam does finally happen, the crowd cheers. Andre, by slamming Big John Studd, won $15,000. He then starts throwing the cash into the crowd before Bobby can run in and snatch the bag of cash.

This is the first match where I feel that the show is more than just a glorified house show. This is a major point in Andre’s career in WWF. While still a face, he establishes himself to the new audience as a force to be reckoned with. From here, they are able to continue to build Andre until the day comes that he would face Hulk Hogan. Big John Studd would be on the wrong side of all of that. Andre had a real-life grudge with Big John Studd and he would basically throttle big John for the next couple of years until Studd finally left the WWF to avoid it.

Leilani Kai vs Wendi Richter for the WWF Women’s Championship. This is the first of two matches that centered around the concept of Rock N Roll Wrestling, and if you listen to the crowd, this was the most hyped a wrestling audience would be for a women’s wrestling event, until the modern era.

Leilani Kai is the champion, having beaten Wendi Richter for the WWF Women’s Championship at War to Settle the Score, the second of the two MTV specials. Now, Wendi Richter has her rematch clause. In Leilani Kai’s corner, is Fabulous Moolah, who is officially recognized as WWF Women’s Champion for over 10,000 days. However, realistically that title didn’t even function for most of her 10,000 days. It’s just another example of wrestling kayfabe at work.

The match is… kind of rough. It was just a quick match with a title change. A real lost opportunity. I think everyone wanted to see Cyndi Lauper and Fabulous Moolah fight one another. But instead, a simple cross body, and Wendi Richter is your new 2-Time WWF Women’s Champion. Still, it did its job… Cyndi Lauper put a lot of those butts in the seats in the first place and they were happy to see Cyndi’s wrestler win the title.

This match ended up being the peak of the WWF Women’s division for a while. WWF neglected the Women’s title and it declined quickly. It didnt help that later on Fabulous Moolah would screw Wendi Richter out of the title in the “Original Screwjob.” The title would eventually become inactive until the mid-90s.

We come to the main event, the final match, and the only time in the history of WrestleMania that the WWF/E World Championship is not up for grabs. Hulk Hogan and Mr T vs Roddy Piper and Paul Orndorff.

No one had more heat going into this show than Roddy Piper. Rock N Roll Wrestling was trying to run wild and Roddy Piper was the force that was standing in the way. Roddy Piper was a genius at generating heat. He made his presence felt when he attacked Lou Albano at an MSG event, and even kicked Cyndi Lauper out of the way when he was attacking Albano. Within an instant, Piper was probably the most hated man in New York.

With that kind of heat behind him, the match up with Hogan was inevitable. First, they met at War to Settle the Score, and as with many of Piper’s matches, this match ended in a DQ. With the Score not actually settled, this is the event that necessitated the first WrestleMania. Before it was an annual event, there had to be a reason to have a show, it seems.

Mr. T got involved because Roddy Piper helped instigate that fight. Mr. T quickly allied himself with Hulk Hogan, and they did a national tour to promote WrestleMania, including an infamous moment where Hogan accidentally dropped Richard Belzer on his head. They also did an episode of Saturday Night Live, together.

It had the makings to be a six-man tag match, but for whatever reason it became a regular tag team match. However, Jimmy Snuka was in Hogan’s corner, and Cowboy Bob Orton was in Piper’s corner, and they both would get involved in the match. Paul Orndorff was also an ally of Roddy Piper and he would be Piper’s teammate in this match.

Hulk Hogan was going to be the man to shut up Roddy Piper, to avenge Lou Albano and Cyndi Lauper and put Roddy Piper & Paul Orndorff in their places, and Mr. T was going to help him do it. You listen to the crowd when Hogan comes out, and you have no doubts that Hulk Hogan was already a major star with the audience. This match would only increase his star power.

Imagine for a moment that the entire fate of a major company, and every single person’s job rests in your hands. That’s Hulk Hogan here. The show was fine enough but if the main event failed, WWF might have gone under. Vince gambled everything on this show, and on the belief that Hogan was the man who could build this company. When Hogan made his entry, look closely, and you can see Vince McMahon in the hallway. Vince was going to see Hogan off, for success or failure in that main event.

Mr. T may have lacked sound fundamentals in the ring, but his character was excellent. If he got a little bit of training and decided to become a wrestler full time, I believe Mr. T could have become one of the biggest stars of the 80s. On this WrestleMania, and the WrestleMania next year, the audience was absolutely with Mr. T. His character was perfect for wrestling. But that wasn’t to be…

The match was a chaotic mess, but the good kind. Full of entertaining spots, and wonderful moments. Including Roddy Piper and Mr. T about to get real in the ring as tensions between them came close to leading the match into a shoot. Roddy Piper kept things in control however, and according to Piper, he acted as he did in the ring to cover for Mr. T’s lack of wrestling ability.

This organized chaos helped the audience to believe that these men really wanted to kill each other, and nothing sells in wrestling like an audience believing that the fight is real. This match, for all it’s chaotic mess, is exactly the drama that the audience wanted. That’s why it worked.

The finish was brilliant, Cowboy “Ace” Bob Orton would accidentally club Orndorff in the head with his broken arm cast, allowing Hogan to pin him, and then Piper and Orton would leave Orndorff in the ring, fleeing from Hogan and company. This moment would set up a story between Orndorff and Hogan that would payoff in a cage match about two years later. But for now, abandoned by Piper, and infuriated over it… Orndorff would become Hogan’s friend eventually.

Hogan, Mr. T, and Jimmy Snuka would stand victorious in the ring. The crowd was loving it and WWF’s fortunes were saved. The wrestling landscape would change, and Hogan would become the most famous wrestler in history. He would face Roddy Piper again at the Wrestling Classic Event, and it would be another chaotic mess with no real finish. WWF would seemingly lose interest in Piper leading him to one of his retirements, and Hogan would go on to main event WrestleMania eight more times.

WrestleMania I is a gamble that could have backfired. Vince invested all his resources to make this show work. Had it failed, it’s unlikely that WWF would still be around today, and wrestling may have never entered the popular culture. However, because it was a success, WWF would go on to greater successes, setting records for wrestling shows and going around the world.

WrestleMania changed the wrestling world, not just WWF, but also AWA and NWA as well. Both companies were suddenly trying to play catch up and neither would be able to do so. AWA would spend the next few years trying to replicate WrestleMania’s success, only to dwindle and die a very slow and painful death. NWA to its credit, would become a national success, to compete with WWF. However, money ran out and they would be bought by Ted Turner, an important step towards the Monday Night War.

WrestleMania I may be a glorified house show at times, but it’s importance to wrestling history can’t be overstated. Vince McMahon captured the hearts and minds of wrestling fans, and led to what some fans called “The Golden Age of Wrestling.” They would run better WrestleMania Events, but this show will always have a special place in history, as the one that made the others possible.

What did you think of WrestleMania I? This article will be the first of many as I plan to cover more WWF PPVs through the years. I hope you enjoyed it. Don’t forget to follow us on our social media pages!