WrestleMania I: An Oral History

Keith Elliot GreenbergCorrespondent IIApril 4, 2013

Clockwise from top left: Liberace dances with the Rockettes; Mr. T spins Rowdy Roddy Piper; Andre the Giant tries to bodyslam Big John Studd; Cyndi Lauper celebrates a title with Wendi Richter.
Clockwise from top left: Liberace dances with the Rockettes; Mr. T spins Rowdy Roddy Piper; Andre the Giant tries to bodyslam Big John Studd; Cyndi Lauper celebrates a title with Wendi Richter.

Peeking through the tinted glass of his rented limo, "Mean" Gene Okerlund studied the lively crowd emerging onto the Manhattan sidewalks from the subway and Port Authority Bus Terminal.

On broadcasts for what was then the World Wrestling Federation—the company now known as World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE)—Okerlund was an animated pitchman, selling plotlines and upcoming events. But on this day in 1985, he appeared introspective.

Diverting his attention from the street, Okerlund looked over at fellow announcer Jesse “The Body” Ventura and his wife, Terry, as the car inched closer to Madison Square Garden for the first WrestleMania.

Both men had attended wrestling’s so-called super-cards before. At the time, there were more than a dozen regional territories in North America and, occasionally, a special show would feature names from various promotions.

But with WrestleMania, World Wrestling Federation head Vince McMahon was taking a very sharp turn. Instead of working in concert with his fellow promoters, McMahon was paying the best wrestlers to perform exclusively for him. And rather than remain in the Northeast region his father and grandfather promoted, McMahon was planning to expand not just around the country, but the globe.

At this stage of the game, many fans were unsure whether the finishes they saw in the ring were predetermined; some wrestling insiders feared that revealing the truth would kill the business. Now, McMahon was going for a new breed of spectator, attempting to attract people who appreciated the diversion for its audacious showmanship.

To draw them to WrestleMania, McMahon was bringing in celebrities. Cyndi Lauper, the Grammy Award-winning singer, would be managing Wendi Richter in her bid to capture Leilani Kai’s WWF Women’s Championship. Mr. T, who had appeared with WWF champion Hulk Hogan in Rocky III, would be teaming with him in the main event. Even Liberace, the sequin-adorned pianist so popular on the Vegas Strip, would be dancing in the ring with the Rockettes.

As the skyscrapers above them cast shadows on the limousine, Okerlund was still gazing at Ventura. “Jesse,” Gene asked after a few moments, “What are you thinking?”

The future governor of Minnesota rocked back and forth. “I don’t know what to expect,” he said.

Ventura wasn’t alone in his uncertainty. "Jesse’s attitude was the same as everyone else’s," Okerlund recalled in a recent interview with Bleacher Report. "No one knew if WrestleMania would fly, and it flew. It flew like nothing else."

This is an oral history of that first WrestleMania. But it doesn't commence on the afternoon of March 31, 1985. Rather, it starts about two years earlier—a year after McMahon purchased the company from his ailing father, at which point “the boys” in the World Wrestling Federation dressing room begin to sense that things may never be as they were before.

Grappling with Their Mission

Nikolai Volkoff: “We were all in a meeting and Vince asked, ‘How do you feel about changing wrestling into entertainment?’ The older guys, like Chief Jay Strongbow, said no. That was funny because Strongbow wasn’t really an American Indian. He was Italian. He’d even joke that he was a ‘Wop-A-Ho.’ But that’s what guys like him had in their blood. I had a different mentality because I grew up in a communist country and I knew how to adjust to a new system.

“Vince understood that people always want to see something new. Even if some of the wrestlers didn’t like it, Vince was going to take the business to a new level.”

Steve Taylor, Photographer: “Vince McMahon had started his own magazine, and he flew me up to Cape Cod for an interview to see if I wanted to be the photographer. We were having lunch and he was talking about going worldwide and making the World Wrestling Federation into a major media thing. I was thinking, ‘He’s a great salesman. He’s pretty persuasive. This really could be something big.'

“So I gave notice at my other job. But this is typical Vince: Before I left, I was already doing a shoot with Sergeant Slaughter.”

Hulk Hogan was the most charismatic “babyface”—or fan favorite—in the world. At the time, he was working for Minneapolis-based promoter Verne Gagne’s American Wrestling Association (AWA).

Under the pretense of generating publicity for the AWA in WWF Magazine, McMahon arranged for Taylor to attend one of Gagne’s shows.

Steve Taylor: “I got to Chicago and everyone was suspicious. They were watching me everywhere I went. Technically, we had a working relationship, but not really. Vince told me he was actually sending me there to slip his home phone number to Hulk Hogan. I had the piece of paper in my pocket and I managed to pass it to him when I shook his hand.”

Mean Gene Okerlund: “I’d been with Hulk Hogan in the AWA, and we were very tight. He was one of the reasons I also left for the WWF. Over the years, I’d really watched him develop. Because, boy, some of those early interviews we did, they were a struggle. But eventually, he developed that ‘Let me tell you, brother!’ style and never looked back.

“You can’t even compare his presence to any of the big stars the WWE had in the past. He was something hip—a Marvel comic book hero. Look, there had been mainstream people involved in the business before. Retired boxing champions like Jack Dempsey and Joe Frazier had been brought in as guest referees. But the demographics they drew would not include people like Andy Warhol, Diane Keaton and Danny DeVito. Those celebrities came to WWF shows to see Hulk Hogan.”

Hogan’s WrestleMania I nemesis had already joined the company after establishing himself as the industry’s best “heel”—or villain—in a number of territories. Rowdy Roddy Piper’s manic interview style was unparalleled, so much so that McMahon gave him his own WWF interview segment, "Piper’s Pit."

In one of the most memorable moments in WWE history, Fijian highflier Jimmy "Superfly” Snuka was brought onto the set. After a series of questions belittling Snuka’s Pacific Islander heritage, Piper suddenly erupted, battering Snuka with a coconut.

And he was just hitting his stride.

Roddy Piper: “Before I came into the WWE, Don Muraco had been the top heel, working with Snuka and (WWF champion Bob) Backlund and selling out buildings. But so much was on his shoulders and he was so tired. When I started with WWF, he looked at me and said, ‘Here, I hand you the torch.’ And he wasn’t joking.”

By early 1984, WWF champion Bob Backlund, a great athlete with a sincere, all-American boy persona that didn’t always translate to the company’s edgy audiences, had been dethroned by the Iron Sheik, a colorful Iranian whose career skyrocketed after Islamic revolutionaries invaded the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979.

Everything was now in place for Hogan to take the title from the Sheik on January 23 at Madison Square Garden—and usher in a new era.

Iron Sheik: “Without the Iron Sheik, there never be a WrestleMania, and let me tell you why. When I start in this business, Mr. Gagne in Minnesota was my coach. One week before my match with Hogan, he called me and said, 'Don’t drop the belt to that bleached-blonde jabroni. He’s a punk. I’ll give you $100,000. You get in the ring with him at Madison Square Garden, you break his leg, take his belt and bring it to the AWA. We put Vince out of business.'

“I have a lot of respect for Mr. Gagne. I don’t know what to do. So I said, 'I’ll call you back in 24 hours.' Then, I talk to Sergeant Slaughter. I said, ‘Oh, Mr. Sergeant, I have a problem.’ Sergeant Slaughter is also trained by Verne Gagne. But he says, '$100,000 is nothing. We’re going to make millions working with Vince.' So I told Mr. Gagne 'No.' I lose the match to Hulk Hogan.

“But I did it with pride and honor.”

Colossally big stars and colossally bad names

Having accomplished his goal of anointing Hogan, McMahon concentrated on other storylines that would eventually lead to WrestleMania I, arranging for Lauper to visit Piper’s Pit and get into an altercation with both Piper and Captain Lou Albano, the unkempt manager who played her father in her hit video for “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.”

On July 23, 1984, with Lauper in her corner, Wendi Richter won the WWF Women’s Championship from perennial titlist The Fabulous Moolah in Madison Square Garden. Albano was in Moolah’s corner. The show was given a name, “The Brawl to End It All,” and, because of Lauper’s involvement, was broadcast live on MTV.

But McMahon was thinking even bigger.

Vince McMahon (from WWE’s True Story of WrestleMania DVD): “Certainly it takes no genius to recognize there’s always this one big, huge event, whether it was sports or entertainment. So why not wrestling?”

Howard Finkel, WWE Ring Announcer (from WWE’s True Story of WrestleMania DVD): “He was trying to come up with a name for what we could call the event. And I said, ‘The Beatles, when they came to the United States back in 1964, their phenomenon was dubbed Beatlemania. Why can’t we call our event WrestleMania?’”

Retired wrestler George Scott was Vince McMahon’s booker, recruiting talent from other territories and helping conceive storylines.

George Scott: “At one point, Vince wanted to call the event The Colossal Tussle. I thought that was really stupid. So I started flapping my arms and skipping around the room, going, ‘Oh, the Colossal Tussle, the Colossal Tussle.’ I was doing a little imitation of (former Georgia promoter) Jim Barnett. He was a good friend but very effeminate. I skipped out the door and Vince yelled, ‘Get back in here. We’re calling it WrestleMania.’”

One of the storylines was tied to a Lou Albano babyface turn. During an in-ring ceremony presided by Dick Clark, Captain Lou was presented with a gold record for his contributions to the emerging “Rock ’n’ Wrestling Connection”—prompting a jealous Piper to bust the platter over his head. When Lauper rushed to Albano’s aid, she was also menaced by “Hot Rod,” inducing Hulk Hogan to save her.

As a result, Hogan and Piper met in the main event of a February 18, 1985, card dubbed “The War to Settle the Score.” Once again, the show was broadcast live on MTV. On the undercard, Wendi Richter dropped her title to Leilani Kai—but Lauper vowed her friend would win it back at WrestleMania. And to further enhance the intrigue building toward the biggest wrestling show ever, just prior to the Hogan-Piper confrontation, Mr. T sat down in the front row.

Mr. T (as told to the Daily Mirror’s Ringside blog in 2009): "Vince McMahon called me. See, not to be egotistical, you know, but they know what I bring. You know what I mean? I bring the excitement, I bring the fun. We discussed the money stuff and whatever, and after that, we discussed the plan. How you wanna work it? And that’s what we did. It was fun."

Roddy Piper: “They wanted me to take a dive and I said, ‘No.’ If Hogan and I were going to be in a tag team match at WrestleMania, why would he—the champion—beat me a month before? If anything, I’d beat him. Hogan would want his revenge. We’d have our match at WrestleMania, and after that, he’d beat me and get back the title.

“So I wouldn’t lay down for Hogan. It caused tension between us, but my reasoning was sound.”

Instead, the match ended in a disqualification. After Roddy’s confederates, “Mr. Wonderful” Paul Orndorff and Cowboy Bob Orton interfered, Lauper tried to assist. Piper saw her coming and appeared to kick her in the head. This deed apparently outraged Mr. T so much that he gave into his compulsion to hop the railing and join the fray.

Mr. T (as told to the Daily Mirror’s Ringside blog): “Being the manly man I am, I say, ‘What kind of stuff is that?’ And the crowd start hollering, ‘T. T. T.’ So then, I climb up on the ring apron, you know, ‘You don’t do that to no lady. You gonna get it now, fool.’ I walk in there, and I’m looking at this guy. ‘Don’t you never mess with a lady.’ And the other guy jump me from the back. Set up pretty good.”

Fans were shocked and overjoyed. Everything was in place for a WrestleMania main event featuring Piper and Orndorff—with Orton in their corner—against the Lauper-supported tandem of Hogan and Mr. T.

Nikolai Volkoff: “The wrestlers whose minds worked old-school, they didn’t like Mr. T. They felt he didn’t belong there. But, as entertainment, he was perfect.”

Roddy Piper: “There was a big difference between Cyndi Lauper and Mr. T. While Cyndi came into our business not to take anything out, Mr. T thought, ‘What can I do for Mr. T?’”

Mean Gene Okerlund: “Mr. T could rub anyone the wrong way. He was making a lot of money, and he was leading Hogan around by the arm, when it should have been the other way around.”

George Scott: “Mr. T ran up something like $22,000 in expenses in one week. I think that kind of freaked Vince out. He told me if WrestleMania wasn’t successful, he’d go bankrupt.”

Vince McMahon (from WWE’s True Story of WrestleMania DVD): “It was a huge gamble, the biggest gamble I’d ever been involved with. It was a roll of the dice. Would it work?”

Hulk Hogan (from WWE’s True Story of WrestleMania DVD): “I said, ‘This guy’s crazy. This guy’s going to piss everybody off, all these little territories. Vince is going to get everybody so mad that everybody who works on the WrestleMania card will be blackballed. And if Vince fails, I’ll never be able to go anywhere else and make a living.’”

Roddy Piper: “There was a press conference at Rockefeller Center leading to the event. Out of nowhere, Mr. T just dove on me. No discussion about it beforehand. He didn’t have any respect.”

Mr. T (as told to the Daily Mirror’s Ringside blog): “(Only) one guy knocked Mr. T out and that was Rocky. ‘Cause they paid me a lot of money and I needed it.”

Roddy Piper: “At WrestleMania, he wanted to treat our match like a cartoon and bang the heels’ heads together. And I laid the law down that I would not let Mr. T pin my shoulders. I wasn’t being difficult. I’m not going to let someone come into my business and treat me like a clown.”

To a degree, Hogan expressed the same sentiment four days before WrestleMania, when he and Mr. T were interviewed by Richard Belzer on his show Hot Properties. After some pleasantries, the comedian challenged the WWF champion to put him in a wrestling hold.

In the past, wrestlers would find themselves in this predicament often, usually in barrooms or gymnasiums. If the questioner appeared too cavalier or condescending to the business, the logic was to humble him by clamping on a front face-lock, instantly cutting off air to the brain.

Brutus Beefcake: “I’d been close friends with Hulk for a while, and I’d never seen him do that to anyone before. But Mr. T was prodding him: ‘Do it. Do it.’ And when Hulk let go, Belzer fell down and split his head open on the stage floor. If someone challenges your livelihood, you answer. I’m not sure if it was good or it was bad. If anything, it might have gotten a few more people interested in seeing WrestleMania.”

How to Steer a Plowed Yankees Skipper

Although the infant medium of pay-per-view was available in a few select locations, the World Wrestling Federation’s goal was luring crowds to venues around North America to watch the show on closed-circuit television. So they went outside the wrestling world in an attempt to draw even more fans.

Mean Gene Okerlund: “(Former Yankees manager) Billy Martin was brought in as a special ring announcer. I’d been given instructions to meet him in Newport Beach, Calif., to do some type of promo, and he was in a bar with an American Airlines flight attendant and didn’t know anything about the event. By this time, he’s plowed. I told him the names of the people in the main event, but he couldn’t remember. So we both went outside and put on dark glasses, so you couldn’t see his eyes. I told him I’d talk about the wrestlers, and he’d respond with a baseball story. And you know what? It all worked. It had to work.”

Roddy Piper: “Muhammad Ali was announced as the special referee. I'd done one thing with him before—in 1976, when he was building up his (boxer vs. wrestler) match with Antonio Inoki. We were in the ring in Los Angeles, and he whispered in my ear, 'Hip-toss me.' So I hip-tossed him. His shoes come flying off. All these guys with bulges in their pockets poured in. People thought I'd gone into business for myself and gave him a cheap shot. But he was such a great man, he decided to give a young kid the rub.

“I really wanted to work with Ali at WrestleMania. But as we were going through the paces to build up the event, we realized it could get very ugly—and he could get very hurt—without some control. So we made Ali a special official at ringside.”

Mean Gene Okerlund: “Before the show, Vince pulled me into his office and said, ‘We don’t have anyone to do the Star-Spangled Banner.’ I thought we’d have Billy Joel or someone. Now, I’d lived my whole life in this country and had my allegiance to the USA. But I couldn’t have sang that Star-Spangled Banner if I hadn’t written the lyrics on my hand.”

The Full Card

Prior to WrestleMania I, most major wrestling shows had featured a number of preliminary matches, as opposed to an entire card of main event talent. Following convention, Tito Santana was booked in the opening bout against The Executioner, who was masked.

The Executioner ("Playboy" Buddy Rose) was an unknown entity in the WWE, and Santana was insulted that he was being "wasted” in what he presumed was a forgettable skirmish. But McMahon explained that he needed someone who could excite the crowd in order to start WrestleMania properly. And by the time The Executioner submitted to Tito’s figure-four leglock, that goal had been met.

This was followed by a match centered around King Kong Bundy, a New Jersey native for whom the World Wrestling Federation had big plans. Officially listed as more than 450 pounds, Bundy pinned S.D. ("Special Delivery") Jones in what was heralded as a record 23 seconds. The World Wrestling Federation had done its job of introducing Bundy to its expanded audience as a monster.

The next match was something of a showcase for Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat, who would win the World Wrestling Federation Intercontinental title from Randy “Macho Man” Savage two years later at WrestleMania III, in a match many considered the best the company had staged on pay-per-view.

At WrestleMania I, Steamboat used a flying body press to defeat Matt Borne, a second-generation wrestler whose idiosyncratic personality enabled him to effectively create the Doink the Clown character in the early 1990s.

The one WrestleMania match that blended the old with the new pitted Brutus Beefcake against David Sammartino. Beefcake was accompanied by his manager, Johnny V. David Sammartino came with his father, “Living Legend” Bruno Sammartino, who first won the company’s title in 1963. Inevitably, Johnny V. and Bruno Sammartino both ended up in the ring, leading to the referee declaring the bout a no-contest.

In the first title match on the card, Intercontinental champion Greg “The Hammer” Valentine, a hard-hitting spark plug whose matches always had a touch of believability, was challenged by the Junkyard Dog, the most popular African-American wrestler in the United States. The Junkyard Dog won via count-out.

This was followed by a second championship match: the Iron Sheik and Nikolai Volkoff challenging Mike Rotundo and Barry Windham for their WWF Tag Team titles. According to wrestling insider terminology, Windham and Rotundo were “white meat babyfaces.” In contrast to the challengers’ anti-American ravings, the titlists were smiling flag-wavers who called themselves the U.S. Express. 

The villains won after the Iron Sheik legitimately busted a can over Windham's head. "I wanted to make it believable," the Sheik explained.

Nikolai Volkoff: "I never really wanted to be a Soviet heel because I escaped from a communist country and I thought communists were bums. But my manager Freddie Blassie told me, 'We’re in business to make money. You speak the language. And if you hate them so much, show people how bad they are.' The Sheik was really a bodyguard for the Shah and didn’t like the Ayatollah. But he could speak Farsi and play the character."

Iron Sheik: "To become the tag team champion at the biggest show at Madison Square Garden, it was pleasure for me. It was great. It was the No. 1 best feeling in the world."

As with other major wrestling shows, WrestleMania I contained a bout with a retirement stipulation. Andre the Giant pledged to leave the sport if he failed to bodyslam Big John Studd. Like Andre, Studd—who was listed as 6'10"—proclaimed himself a leviathan of the World Wrestling Federation. If he couldn’t bodyslam Andre, he promised to award Andre $15,000.

No one expected Andre to retire. Yet, despite the predictability, fans were immensely happy with the outcome of WrestleMania I’s “Bodyslam Challenge,” particularly when Andre slammed Studd, grabbed an athletic bag with a WWF logo and began to toss the contents—largely $1 bills—to ringside.

The next encounter was another example of what the people wanted to see. Wendi Richter not only captured the WWF Women’s Championship from Leilani Kai, but Lauper tussled with Kai’s manager, The Fabulous Moolah, on the arena floor.

The only thing left was the main event.

A Finale that Nearly KO'd Ali

Mean Gene Okerlund: “Liberace was the special guest timekeeper for the main event. He came out with the Radio City Rockettes and they linked arms and did a high-stepping dance in the ring. Now, the Rockettes probably wouldn’t mean jack s**t to someone today. But back then, man, wrestling had never seen anything like this, and it meant something. It’s like your first piece of a**. You just never forget it.”

Paul “Mr. Wonderful” Orndorff: “I didn’t like working with Mr. T. I thought he was a piece of s**t. He wasn’t that good of an athlete, and I had to go out there and make him look like King Kong. He didn’t sweat. I did.”

Yet, the crowd was enthralled as Orndorff and Piper clashed with Hogan and Mr. T—so much so that, at one point, Muhammad Ali seemed to become lost in the moment. From the dressing room, George Scott watched in horror, as the former boxing champion defied orders and climbed into the ring.

George Scott: “I had to run out to get him, take him by the arm and lead him back to ringside, where he was supposed to be.”

Roddy Piper: “I kept it to amateur wrestling with Mr. T. I wouldn’t let him throw a punch. At one point, he tried to get cute, and I got him in a front face-lock just for a second, to put him in his place.

“But when I saw him bend forward, I knew what I needed to do to make it look good. I told him to drape me over his shoulders and pick me up. He held me there, like a fireman’s carry, and stopped until I told him to spin me around. That’s the photo that went all over the world—me getting the airplane spin from Mr. T.”

The match ended when Piper’s bodyguard, Cowboy Bob Orton, sneaked up the turnbuckles and came off the top rope as Orndorff held Hogan in place. But Orton brought down his signature plaster cast on Orndorff instead, and he was quickly pinned by the Hulkster.

As Hogan and Mr. T celebrated, Piper and Orton abandoned Orndorff in the ring. His eyes darted as he looked out at the crowd, distraught. The crowd looked back sympathetically. The show was over, but the story would continue—with Mr. Wonderful in a new role as a babyface, battling Piper.

Paul “Mr. Wonderful” Orndorff: “I knew a lot of new fans were watching, so I didn’t make the match too complicated. They remembered the finish and they knew what it meant. That’s all that mattered.”

Roddy Piper: “When the match was over, Mr. T and Hogan were whisked off to a celebration function that had been preplanned. So Ace (Orton) and I shower, dress and go back to our limos, and there were no cars. We walk down the ramp and the only thing I see there to protect us is one policeman on a horse. I’d had death threats, and the crowd in New York was pretty wild. So we pulled a Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, opened the door, ran through the crowd, jumped in a cab and aggressively told the driver to go.

“To this day, I don’t think it was a misunderstanding. Somebody—I’m not sure who, because there were a lot of cooks in the kitchen—wanted to take a shot at me. We were left there on purpose because I didn’t cooperate. And it caused a lot of tension with me and the WWF.

“While Hogan and Mr. T were in the Rainbow Room, getting their picture taken, we went to the Ramada Inn, like it was just another night. We might as well have worked Poughkeepsie.”

The next morning, The Associated Press reported that one million fans had watched WrestleMania I on closed-circuit television. Even more importantly, the few who could receive pay-per-view appeared to have taken advantage of this new opportunity, enabling the World Wrestling Federation to become a leader during the medium’s embryonic stages.

Mean Gene Okerlund: “We weren’t just promoting wrestling matches anymore. WrestleMania tipped the scales purely into entertainment.”

Vince McMahon (from WWE’s True Story of WrestleMania DVD): “Having had the success of WrestleMania I, from an ego standpoint, I think we thought we could do most anything.”

Nikolai Volkoff: “WrestleMania I was very, very good for WWE. For everybody else, it was no good. It’s Mother Nature. The big fish eats the small fish. You cannot go against the laws of Mother Nature.”

Almost immediately, McMahon began planning the second WrestleMania, to be broadcast simultaneously the next year from New York, Los Angeles and suburban Chicago.

The idea of a recurring supershow was not unique to the wrestling profession, yet even McMahon's most loyal and optimistic employees couldn't fathom his longtime vision of WrestleMania as an institution that, in 2013, would fill New Jersey's MetLife Stadium and draw a live gate of more than $11 million. 

Keith Elliot Greenberg, a New York Times bestselling author and television producer, wrote for WWE’s publications for more than 20 years. He was at ringside for WrestleMania I.


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