Thirty years ago today, one of the most famous matches in professional wrestling history took place. At Madison Square Garden in the middle of New York City, Hulk Hogan defeated The Iron Sheik to win the WWF Championship for the first time, kicking off his run atop the wrestling world.
Hogan had first appeared in the WWF in late 1979 as a heel managed by "Classy" Freddie Blassie and made an impression by quickly dispatching of pushed babyface stars like Tito Santana (then half of the WWF Tag Team Champions), Ted DiBiase (who had recently lost the WWF North American Championship), Dominic DeNucci and Gorilla Monsoon. With the very patterned booking of the promotion back then, it was clear what was next for him.
He soon moved on to feuds with the biggest stars in the territory, Andre the Giant and WWF Champion Bob Backlund, both of which were notable for Hogan being protected in his losses: He only lost to Backlund by count out, while referees screwed him with bad calls in his matches against Andre. The Backlund feud was also kept out of Madison Square Garden, instead being featured most prominently in Philadelphia at the Spectrum. There were clearly big plans for him.
After leaving the WWF in 1978, he became one of the biggest attractions, if not the biggest, in all of wrestling, as top babyface in the AWA and top foreigner in New Japan Pro Wrestling. As beloved as he was by the AWA's midwestern fans, promoter Verne Gagne could never pull the trigger on him winning their world title. Contrary to popular belief, it had nothing to do with Hogan not being a great technical wrestler: The AWA Champion was booked into NJPW's rival All Japan Pro Wrestling for several tours a year.
In the meantime, Backlund, who won the WWF Championship in 1978, continued to hold his title with no end in sight. After finishing his feud with the Masked Superstar, his next challenger, set to get a title shot at Madison Square Garden on Boxing Day 1983, was The Iron Sheik.
While it may sound strange, Iron Sheik was not that big of a star back then. Yes, he lucked into being a legitimate Iranian in pro wrestling on the heels of the Iran hostage crisis, but he already had a reputation for odd behavior back then and was not much more than a mid-card heel in the major territories he worked. In 1982, when he was a regular in Memphis for a few months, he was usually in the second match on the card. With all of that in mind, it was a huge shock to the wrestling world when he won the title from Backlund.
In a promotion where big angles were rare, Backlund was given an excuse in that Sheik had severely injured his neck on the TV show that aired just two nights earlier on Christmas Eve. Sheik dominated the match, put Backlund in the Camel Clutch, and so Backlund could "save face" (before UFC, submitting was a sign of weakness), his manager Arnold Skaaland threw in the towel.
At the next TV tapings, Backlund brought out Hogan and endorsed him, as he would be replacing the "injured" Backlund against Sheik at the next Madison Square Garden event (Backlund kept wrestling for no adequately explained reason). Iron Sheik had a few successful title defenses in the interim, most notably against Tito Santana in Philadelphia.
The Iron Sheik was chosen because he was the right opponent for Hogan. He was an evil foreigner whom the giant blonde superhero could quickly destroy for daring to disgrace America. Hogan came out to Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger" when entrance music was rare, especially in the WWF, and the MSG crowd came unglued. A really short version of a Hogan formula match ensued: Hogan started strong, Sheik took over, Hogan powered out of the Camel Clutch and in less than six minutes, he won the belt that went to the highest paid wrestler in the business. The pop from the crowd is like few you will ever hear.
A new era of pro wrestling was kicked off that night. Thirty years later, with Hogan's return to WWE being more or less a formality, he's about to bring it full circle.
David Bixenspan has been Bleacher Report's WWE Team Leader and a contracted columnist since 2011. To learn more about the rise of the WWF in 1984, check out his article in the newly released issue #102 of Fighting Spirit Magazine, available worldwide online and in print in the UK. You can follow him on Twitter @davidbix and check out his wrestling podcasts at LLTPod.com.
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