I was driving down Michigan 59 when I saw the sign—PONTIAC SILVERDOME.
I got a chill. That was the place. That was Agincourt.
At least it was for wrestling fans.
March 29, 1987
93,173 fans set North America's largest indoor attendance record for a sporting event. The gathering that night was the third installment of WWE's pay-per-view supercard, WrestleMania.
Since Gorgeous George had first charmed audiences to the point where more Americans could identify him than the sitting president, professional wrestling was part of the mainstream.
However, the thing itself evolved from carnival traditions, and the mindset among the wrestlers remained that unless someone was part of the magic show, they should not be privy to the tricks.
That adherence to kayfabe caused the industry and its fans considerable grief over the years from critics and sports fans who bitterly decried and dismissed pro wrestling for not being the “real” competition it claimed to be. Such was the vitriol that those same bleating hearts would not even acknowledge the wrestlers for the amazing athletes they were.
Today, thankfully, the veil has been lifted and wrestling is finally being recognized as one of the great American art forms.
In 1987, however, the kayfabe era reached its zenith when a worldwide PPV audience tuned in to see Hulk Hogan defend the WWE Championship against his former friend Andre the Giant.
Arguably, the main event is what drove ticket sales, but what made WrestleMania III the perfect card is that emotions were peaked on so many of the undercard feuds leading into the show.
There were 12 matches that evening (consider this: four of the last six WrestleManias have only had eight matches per card, while WM 26 had 10, and WM 24 had nine), and it seemed like every contest had something going for it.
Hercules and Billy Jack Haynes had both been using the Full Nelson as their finisher, and this match was going to settle who was the master of it.
The legendary Harley Race, christened the “King” of wrestling after winning a tournament for that right, battled fan-favorite the Junkyard Dog in a loser must bow match. JYD stated in a promo his mother told him to only bow to God, but when he lost the match he honored what he agreed to and bowed to Race—before clubbing the King and crowning himself, to the delight of the fans.
It was not advertised as such, but when the high-flying “Birdman” Koko B. Ware locked up with the immense “Natural” Butch Reed, it was the first WM match where both opponents were people of color.
On paper, it was a strong card, but some moments defied all expectations, such as the attraction that pitted two of WWE's biggest men, Hillbilly Jim against King Kong Bundy, alongside little people tag team partners.
Bundy, who main-evented the show the year prior and defeated Special Delivery Jones in record time at the inaugural event, created another WM moment when—to the audible gasp of the 93,173—he splashed his 400-pound body on to the prone little people.
There was also the unexpected face turn of Brutus Beefcake, who was abandoned by his Dream Team partner Greg Valentine for Dino Bravo. Beefcake appeared later in the show to shear the golden tresses off Adrian Adonis, and began a popular run as the “Barber.”
The showcase of the immortals
“Rowdy” Roddy Piper was one reason people started tuning in to WWE, and when he announced his retirement, it felt to many like an era was ending.
Piper's coconut smashing escapades had made him one of the most hated men in wrestling. A few years ago, Wizard Magazine, which covered the comic book industry, compiled a list of the greatest pop culture villains, and Piper was the only wrestler to make the cut, appearing in print alongside fictional evil luminaries such as the Joker.
For months, though, Piper had been absent from WWE while filming They Live. I still recall the broadcast where he made his return. Vince McMahon and Bruno Sammartino advertised Piper's appearance with the same wary disdain they reserved for all the heels. Yet, when Piper's music hit, the crowd erupted in joy to have the icon home.
The reaction on Piper's face and the timber in McMahon's voice expressed bafflement at the reception. By the end of the brief encounter, Piper had already keyed in to the phenomena and embraced it.
His final opponent would be Adrian Adonis, who had transformed from a New York biker to a transvestite, openly saying on 1986 television that he had “come out of the closet” and was proud of it. That would be a courageous thing to say on television in 2013, let alone 1986!
What made the character a success (he even had his own LJN action figure) was that 1. Adonis was a rare talent, 2. it was just one aspect of his character, and 3. the other wrestlers and commentators just went with it. Regardless if Adonis came to the ring wearing a Homer Simpson muumuu, he was still a threat because he had the skills to back it up. Only in professional wrestling, this brotherhood of outcasts, could such a statement on LGBT inclusion be made.
The storyline was that prior to Piper's departure, he had entrusted Piper's Pit to Adonis' care, who turned it into the Flower Shop. Even Piper's “Ace” Bob Orton became Adonis' second, sporting a pink cowboy hat without irony. Piper was not pleased, and the turf war escalated into pull apart brawls and destroyed sets.
Behind the scenes, Piper later revealed to Celebrity Ghost Stories that the two were dear friends. Adonis could be counted on by the Hot Scot to be a calming influence and help him see the bigger picture.
In 1988, Adonis (Keith Franke), like too many of his colleagues, died in a car wreck on the way to a show. That same crash also claimed the lives of Victor "Pat Kelly" Arko and Dave "Wildman" McKigney.
According to Celebrity Ghost Stories, Piper received a phone call from his son about a man in their living room, rushed home and encountered his old friend's spirit.
The genuine emotion of Piper's retirement, as well as the connection between the two men made Piper/Adonis one of the highlights of the event.
Another behind the scenes story informing the drama was the Dynamite Kid's debilitating back injury a few months prior. He and partner Davey Boy Smith formed the British Bulldogs, who had won the tag team championships in front of a raucous Chicago crowd at WM II.
Dynamite had been a standout in every promotion he wrestled in, and WWE was no different. Unfortunately, a routine running of the ropes during a house show match aggravated something in his back to the point that by Jan. 1987, he could barely walk.
Bret Hart recounted in his autobiography how Dynamite was insistent on being there to drop the belts to the Hart Foundation. The storyline had the match being called by the crooked referee Danny Davis.
In one of the more shocking moments on WWE TV, the Hart Foundation blindsided the Bulldogs along the entranceway—which knocked Dynamite out of the match and of harm's way. The Hitman and the Anvil double teamed Davey Boy in the ring and scored a tainted victory to become the champs.
In Hitman, Hart wrote that Dynamite received a standing ovation from his peers on his painful return to the back area.
After weeks of recuperation, Dynamite was able to return in time for WM III in a Bulldogs/Hart six-man tag match alongside Davis and Tito Santana. The former stars of Stu Hart's Stampede Wrestling demonstrated why they were some of the brightest talents of their generation.
A decade later, partial paralysis would confine the former Dynamite Kid, Tom Billington, to a wheelchair.
But don't pity greatness.
In a recent interview, George “The Animal” Steele, who was the cornerman for Ricky Steamboat in his bout against Randy Savage, remarked how sick he was of hearing those two talk about their match in the weeks leading up to WM III.
All that planning paid off, though, as Steamboat/Savage was a watershed match for WWE, and is, in the eyes of both fans and professionals, on the short list of WM's greatest matches.
The intensity that Randy Savage brought to arenas created a tempestuous and unequaled dynamic with fans who hated him, but loved and wanted better for his valet, Miss Elizabeth.
Ricky Steamboat, by contrast, was a beloved babyface who never in his career wrestled heel. It is doubtful anyone would have believed him. Steamboat's natural charisma only amplified that being genuine was his best attribute.
When those personalities collided, it made for terrific theater. Savage granted Steamboat an Intercontinental Championship opportunity for the television audience, but the match never got under way. Instead, Savage Pearl Harbored Steamboat, draped his throat over the guardrail and leaped from the top rope, landing a patented double axe handle on the back of Steamboat's neck.
Fans were told Steamboat may never wrestle again, let alone talk, and were apprised of his recovery each week.
Adding fuel to the fire was the involvement of Steele, who had been feuding with Savage since the prior WM, due to the Animal's Beauty and the Beast designs to win the hand of fair Liz.
A hero coming back from the brink, unrequited love, a long-promised title match against a hated champion? It had all the makings of an epic, and the determination, craft and professionalism of Steamboat and Savage surpassed all the hype.
Not even the main event was immune from behind the scenes concerns. Both Bobby Heenan and Hulk Hogan have said in separate video interviews that the only person who knew for certain that day if Andre was going to lie down was Andre. As late as match time, Andre still had not made his decision known.
The Giant was promoted as being undefeated for 15 years, but never having been granted a WWE Championship match. It also marked the only time in Hogan's four-year title reign that he went into a match under 300 lbs.
In the end, of course, Andre passed the torch, and, according to the wrestling hotline at the time, Hogan got backstage and promptly passed out.
To fans, Hogan and Andre had been teaming up to do battle against the Bobby Heenan Family as far back as their stint in the AWA. In what WWE Home Video would later dub The Giant Betrayal, Hogan, Andre and Heenan played their parts perfectly across Piper's Pit segments, week after week.
Andre was appropriately surly and menacing, a side of him fans had not seen before. Heenan brought the intensity only he could generate and provoke, and Hogan used his considerable skills to draw the audience's empathy over the loss of the friendship, then whip them into a frenzy to see the battle met.
It made for damn compelling television.
Part of the brilliance in the promoting of the match was that Hogan and Andre—who long-time fans knew had locked horns in the late 1970's—were kept out of the ring with each other, except for the electric tease when the two had a staredown during a Saturday Night's Main Event battle royal.
If the gate is any indication, the strategy paid dividends.
Viewers also had a vested interest in the feud between two of WWE's most bankable characters when, during an episode of the Snake Pit, the Honky Tonk Man leveled Jake “The Snake” Roberts with his guitar. It was supposed to be a gimmicked prop, but the blast caused Roberts legitimate neck injuries.
It was a brutal act of violence WWE viewers were not accustomed to and garnered immediate sympathy for the Snake, who was already proving to be such an intriguing villain that crowds had begun cheering for him anyway.
People in the know, such as Jim Ross, have often called Roberts one of the finest wrestling minds in the business. His searing promo style sometimes overshadowed his innate ability to elicit emotions from the fans during his matches—whether they be hope or horror.
The Honky Tonk Man has the distinction of being the longest-reigning Intercontinental champion in WWE history, at a time when it was regarded as the second championship, and the holder was expected to headline house shows in one city while the Hulkster was headlining another across the country.
It is a credit to the man's talent that audiences could be so enraptured by his character that they could see a pompadour, sideburns and flashy jumpsuit and see the Honky Tonk Man, not Elvis Aaron Presley.
Like Jake the Snake, Honky may not have had the cookie cutter Muscle Beach look, but he knew how to work a crowd. His gruesome attack on Roberts, and one, months later, on Savage, proved to the WWE Universe just how merciless a competitor HTM could be, and fans paid to see him get the receipt.
In his DVD match commentary, Roberts mentions to Ross how Honky was employing the “Memphis style,” engaging the crowd throughout the contest. The opponents not only had great timing with the fans, but with each other. It is a breathless moment when Jake props Honky against the ring post, picks up the guitar and swings for the fences. Honky ducked without a second to lose and the guitar splintered to toothpicks.
Even though Roberts lost the match and mercifully didn't connect with that swing, fans were thrilled when his cornerman, rock legend Alice Cooper, draped Roberts' pet python Damien on to HTM's shrieking, squirming manager, Jimmy Hart.
Wins and losses certainly have their place in pro wrestling, but from a career standpoint, neither man lost that night.
The Grandest Stage
Earlier in the article, I referred to pro wrestling as a great American art form. The perfect card of WM III is an example as to why.
The artists of this craft literally work on a blank canvas. Just as one's bookshelf might have Chaucer aside Mickey Spillane, or a music playlist shuffling from Beethoven to Mary J. Blige, these athletes employ a variety of storytelling, but it all fits because it is all wrestling.
On this card, Roberts/Honky Tonk Man told their story through ring psychology. The Bulldogs/Hart Foundation and Steamboat/Savage told it through pure wrestling action, while Piper/Adonis and Hogan/Andre offered grand spectacle.
Most promoters do their best to consistently offer diverse cards, but on March 29, 1987, everything worked.
As I drove past the Silverdome, I wondered why WWE hadn't purchased the dilapidated building when it came up for sale a few years ago, and made it the permanent home of WrestleMania.
Perhaps the answer wasn't in the rear-view mirror, but in the road ahead.