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Wrestling's Greatest Moments
By Mike Rickard
ECW PRESSCopyright © 2008 Mike Rickard
All rights reserved.
THE GREATEST MOMENTS
All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players: They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts ...
—As You Like It, William Shakespeare
When the principles play their parts well, professional wrestling is a thing of beauty, as much an art form as anything else seen on stage, television, or in the cinema. Professional wrestling elicits strong emotions, whether it's hatred for a heinous act committed by a heel (wrestling slang for villain) or delight in a babyface (the wrestler playing the hero)'s hard-fought victory. That, combined with the amazing displays of athletic ability makes professional wrestling unique. Whether it's called performance art, soap opera, or sports entertainment, wrestling is a complicated art form that has entertained people from all walks of life for generations.
In The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, Christopher Booker posits that all of the world's narratives can be broken down into any one of seven categories (such as overcoming the monster, rags to riches, and the journey/quest). While this may be true, storytellers have had no problem keeping things interesting. By the 1980s, film critics proclaimed the western dead, only to see a resurgence in the genre with movies like Silverado, Young Guns, Tombstone, and Unforgiven. People weren't tired of westerns; they were just tired of the bad westerns Hollywood had been producing for so long.
With wrestling, it's easy to see that there are classic storylines, angles exploited time and time again — the quest for a championship, revenge for being wronged, and the friend-turned-enemy (or the enemy-turned-friend) are just some of the most obvious. Anyone who has watched wrestling for a while has seen the same stories played out time after time, but they can still be entertained — as long as each new story is told well. That's the secret of good storytelling and it's the secret of good promotion. The same fans who watched Paul Orndorff turn on his friend Hulk Hogan could be entertained years later when Shawn Michaels turned on his partner Marty Jannetty. The story was essentially the same, but it was just as fun to watch because of how it was told.
While what goes on inside the ring is important, the story behind the match is just as crucial. Before a wrestling card or program can take place, the stories and angles that establish the motivation for the confrontations in the squared circle have to be put in place. Two wrestlers can put on an excellent in-ring exhibition but, with few exceptions, the best matches are the ones with compelling storylines driving them. A match does not have to be a five-star classic to succeed. Some of the weakest matches in terms of workrate or technical prowess have been considered classics because of the buildup behind them. Consider the showdown between Andre the Giant and Hulk Hogan at WrestleMania III. While the match itself was nothing special in terms of the action (nor was it, as it was billed at the time, their first meeting), the buildup was so strong the WWF sold out the Pontiac Silverdome and made millions off pay-per-view buys. The story of Hogan defending his WWF belt against his former friend and mentor, the undefeated Andre the Giant, became the stuff of legend.
What follows are the very best wrestling stories from the last thirty years. Every one changed the industry and the people involved and around them. These angles took wrestlers to new levels of fame and in some way transformed the industry.
When there was not enough whale oil or coal oil, there were not enough lamps to go around. Some said that what was needed was social engineering, to move more people to the lamplight available. What was really needed was one Edison.
—R. Buckminster Fuller
Inspired by the success of a rival, Jim Crockett Promotions (JCP), and its big wrestling show Starrcade, and driven by his dream of transforming the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) from a regional promotion into a national one, Vince McMahon met with advisors in the fall of 1984. Under discussion were plans for a show he hoped would make Starrcade look like the high school gymnasium cards the WWF ran in small venues for fundraisers. Starrcade had brought in over half a million dollars of additional revenue by airing on closed circuit television in arenas across three states. McMahon was going to outdo JCP by broadcasting his show across the country, and in the process establish the WWF as a national brand.
While he's often referred to as Vince McMahon Jr., the WWE chairman's full name is Vincent Kennedy McMahon, while his father was named Vincent Jesse McMahon. For convenience sake, Vincent K. McMahon is referred to as Vince McMahon while his father is referred to as Vince McMahon Sr.
Pay-per-view technology had been around since the 1970s, but it was not really commonplace until the mid 1980s. Until then, wrestling "pay-per-views" typically referred to those fans watching events broadcast on closed circuit television at remote locations.
McMahon's advisors were not as confident; and in reality, they had every right to be worried. The last time someone had attempted a national wrestling show it had failed miserably — and not coincidentally that promoter's name was also Vince McMahon. To make matters worse, McMahon's failure was a case of lightning striking twice. His first venture into pay-per-view (as closed circuit events were known before technological advances made the home viewing of pay-per-view commonplace) was a disastrous showing of stuntman Evel Knievel's ill-fated attempt to cross Snake River Canyon. Undeterred by the Knievel fiasco, McMahon tried a second run at a closed circuit promotion by airing the much maligned boxer vs. wrestler matchup involving Muhammad Ali and Antonio Inoki. Like the Knievel event, this too failed.
Still, this time around, McMahon had every reason to believe that a wrestling pay-per-view would work. Not only did he have one of the hottest acts (Hulk Hogan) but he had worked hard to get the WWF broadcast into homes across the United States. McMahon had established a national presence via weekend syndication of WWF programming, along with a weekly show, Tuesday Night Titans, which aired across the country on the fledgling USA Network. The last piece of the puzzle fell into place when McMahon entered into a partnership that catapulted the WWF into the national spotlight: a venture with singer Cyndi Lauper.
Lauper, a rising pop star, first became involved with the WWF thanks to the machinations of her manager/boyfriend David Wolff. Wolff, a wrestling fan, initially recruited WWF manager Captain Lou Albano to participate in the music video for "Girls Just Want To Have Fun." The success of the video (in part due to the crossover audience garnered by Albano's appearance) caused the two to realize the sky was the limit when it came to a partnership with the WWF. Wolff met with McMahon and proposed a match between a wrestler managed by Lauper and a wrestler managed by Albano. It didn't take long for McMahon to set up an angle where Albano claimed the lion's share of success for "Girls Just Want To Have Fun" and insulted Lauper and women in general. An enraged Lauper then challenged Albano to a battle by proxy, selecting Wendi Richter to represent her against Albano's wrestler, WWF legendary women's champ the Fabulous Moolah. Thus was born The Brawl To Settle It All, where Lauper's charge battled Albano's in Madison Square Garden and MTV aired the clash to record ratings.
The success of The Brawl To Settle It All demonstrated just how big wrestling could be with the right mainstream publicity. But McMahon understood publicity was just one part of the equation. In order to build WrestleMania up as a must-see show, the WWF kingpin knew he had to have a red-hot angle. Drawing upon the success of The Brawl To Settle It All, McMahon staged an angle around an awards ceremony in Madison Square Garden, once again involving Lauper and Captain Lou. The event was supposed to honor the duo's fundraising work for research into multiple sclerosis and featured a presentation by TV and radio personality Dick Clark. In true wrestling fashion, the celebration broke down thanks to the unwanted arrival of "Rowdy" Roddy Piper, the WWF's number one heel. Piper took Albano's award and smashed it over the Captain's head, knocking him senseless. The carnage continued as Piper powerslammed Lauper's manager David Wolff and kicked Lauper in the head. Only the timely arrival of Hulk Hogan saved Lauper and her friends from further punishment. Happy to capitalize on the ratings of The Brawl To Settle It All, MTV vee-jays reported on the incident in Madison Square Garden, treating it as the equivalent of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
The angle generated tremendous publicity for Lauper, and more importantly, for McMahon's WWF. It couldn't have come at a better time either, as the WWF was then facing the very real possibility that WrestleMania was going to be a failure. As discussed in the book Sex, Lies, and Headlocks, ticket sales for WrestleMania had been so slow that there wasn't enough money to cover the cost of renting the 200 theaters scheduled to carry the pay-per-view. McMahon purchased the services of Bozell and Jacobs, a New York public relations firm in his bid to save the event, but that was just part of his strategy.... The WWF was putting all of its eggs in one basket with WrestleMania, and it couldn't afford anything less than a complete success.
Bozell and Jacobs' efforts helped, but the success of the MTV angle was the catalyst that drove WrestleMania into high gear. After the ratings brought in by The Brawl To Settle It All, MTV eagerly agreed to air The War To Settle The Score, a sequel of sorts involving WWF champion Hulk Hogan battling Roddy Piper to avenge the honor of Cyndi Lauper. The hour-long special aired live, and while the actual match didn't begin until late in the program, viewers were enthralled by the larger than life theatrics of the wrestlers (including an unforgettable interview by Piper in which he mocked rock and roll music and said MTV stood for "music to vomit by").
Legend has it that rival promoters contemplated hiring notorious tough guy Bruiser Brody to attack Mr. T before the main event. No one has ever said how the promoters would have had anything to gain, given that the tickets to the show would already have been bought.
The short match was nothing special until the referee was inadvertently knocked out and Piper's partners in crime, "Cowboy" Bob Orton and Paul "Mr. Wonderful" Orndorff, arrived on the scene. Lauper raced to the Hulkster's rescue but the fans knew she was nothing more than a guppy facing off against three sharks. Fortunately for Lauper and Hogan, television tough-guy Mr. T was also in the audience, and he quickly made his way toward the ring to help the Hulkster. While T got beat down for his efforts, he gave Hogan enough time to recover and rally against Piper and his allies.
The War To Settle The Score outdid The Brawl To Settle It All in the ratings, and the mainstream publicity for the WWF was just as impressive. Before long, the buzz began to build; it was like the chain reaction of a nuclear explosion, each event feeding off the previous one and growing stronger. An appearance on Richard Belzer's Lifetime television show Hot Properties saw Hogan knock the host out with a headlock, earning additional publicity for the Hulkster as well as a lawsuit from Belzer for injuries sustained during the headlock demonstration (rumor has it that Belzer purchased a lavish farmhouse in France with the proceeds of his settlement and named it Chez Hogan). But unquestionably, the piece de resistance in the WWF's WrestleMania publicity campaign was Hulk Hogan and Mr. T guest-hosting NBC'S Saturday Night Live the night before the big show.
Thanks to these high profile appearances, people swarmed to see Wrestle-Mania. Just weeks before the show, WWF officials had considered canceling some of the closed circuit venues to cut their losses, but virtually overnight defeat had turned to victory. WrestleMania became a resounding success and it completed the transformation of the WWF from a northeastern territory promotion to a national juggernaut.
But still, the road to WrestleMania was not without potholes. The WWF faced challenges from both outside and from within. Foremost were the grumblings of certain wrestlers: that Mr. T was unworthy of a main event spot. "Dr. D" David Schultz, in particular took umbrage with T being featured at the top of the card. Stories vary, but Schultz reportedly tried to attack Mr. T before the show, either to knock T out of the event or to create such a buzz for himself that he would take Paul Orndorff's spot as Piper's tag team partner.
Mr. T himself proved troublesome. The bad blood between Piper and T wasn't limited to the squared circle. Behind the scenes, it seemed as if Mr. T and Piper couldn't wait for WrestleMania to lock horns. Things got off to a bad start during a press conference at Rockefeller Center when Piper squeezed Mr. T's head and commented that it felt soft. Unbeknownst to Piper, that was a big no-no as far as T was concerned. This led to a second press conference at Rockefeller Center — and this time the TV star tackled Piper off a stage and security had to be called in to separate the two.
The problems with Mr. T continued right up to the day of the big event. Two hours before the show, Mr. T was nowhere to be found. When he finally showed up, his celebrity entourage was barred from entering Madison Square Garden; this caused T to threaten to walk out. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed and everything was smoothed over.
The main event saw Hulk Hogan and Mr. T defeat the team of "Rowdy" Roddy Piper and Paul Orndorff after interference from Piper's bodyguard "Cowboy" Bob Orton backfired. Despite the bad blood, Piper and the star of The A-Team wrestled the match without trouble (T and Piper would meet in a boxing match the following year at WrestleMania 2). Mr. T carried his weight in the ring, despite concerns about his lack of experience, and the main event was well received.
WrestleMania also saw the return of fan favorite Tito Santana (Santana's real-life knee injury was incorporated into a storyline that saw him suffer an injury at the hands of the much-hated Greg "The Hammer" Valentine); the shocking defeat of the U.S. Express (Barry Windham and Mike Rotunda) at the hands of the foreign villains Nikolai Volkoff and the Iron Sheik; a wild brawl between Greg Valentine and the Junkyard Dog; the impressive debut of King Kong Bundy; and the career-saving victory of Andre the Giant over arch-rival "Big" John Studd (Andre had put his career up against Studd in a special match that could only be won by body-slamming your opponent). The card also saw rising women's wrestling star Wendi Richter (accompanied by Cyndi Lauper) regain the WWF woman's championship from Leilani Kai; a win for newcomer Ricky Steamboat (defeating Matt Borne); and a bout between Brutus Beefcake and David Sammartino that ended in a no-contest.
The show also featured a number of other celebrity appearances, from guest ring announcer (legendary New York Yankees manager) Billy Martin, to guest timekeeper Liberace. WrestleMania was an eclectic combination of showbiz and wrestling and it would herald the arrival of "the Rock and Wrestling Era," a period dominated by the WWF. While other promotions differed in their style of wrestling, the WWF's larger than life characters featured in short matches would become the product the public thought of as wrestling.
Professional wrestling was now a mainstream phenomenon. While the Rock and Wrestling Era might be called a passing fad, wrestling enjoyed a popularity that enticed new, more casual fans to the sport. It also led television networks to the industry once more, with NBC eventually airing Saturday Night's Main Event. The larger audience meant additional revenue from ticket and merchandise sales. WrestleMania also demonstrated that pay-per-view was no flash in the pan. It would quickly become a major source of revenue for promoters, and over time, one of the biggest sources of income. Wrestling was no longer limited by how many seats an arena or stadium held: the industry had been transformed.
Excerpted from Wrestling's Greatest Moments by Mike Rickard. Copyright © 2008 Mike Rickard. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
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