In 2004, Vince McMahon gave die-hard wrestling fans their wish. Undervalued wrestlers, Eddie Guerrero and Chris Benoit were at the top of the mountain and fans were happy. But soon thereafter, both men who were at the top of their careers, were soon beltless. Guerrero lost the WWE Championship to JBL who was a good character, but not a wrestler of Guerrero’s caliber. Benoit would eventually lose his World Championship to Randy Orton in August of 2004. In Guerrero’s case, he wasn’t ready to be champ according to him. He wasn’t ready to handle the responsibility of being in the main event every week and being the most important wrestler on the Smackdown brand. Benoit’s reason for losing was a little different. Vince McMahon wanted to capitalize on a hot Randy Orton, even though it killed Orton in the process.
As Wrestlemania 21 neared, the two champions were Triple H from the Raw brand and JBL from the Smackdown brand. Vince was ready to use younger (not by age in Batista’s case, but by how long he’s been around) stars and see if they could become headlining stars. These men weren’t undervalued ring generals like Guerrero and Benoit. You could actually make a case of them being overvalued and overrated. But one thing was certain. Both guys were over with their fans. Dave Batista wasn’t supposed to be the guy in the role of future champion. That guy was supposed to be Randy Orton. But when Orton beat Benoit for the belt at SummerSlam, he was subsequently turned face, and Triple H came in, killed him dead and picked up his lost pieces (the championship) in the process.
Orton was no longer championship material, and he was thrown into a match with The Undertaker. When Orton was floundering after the reasonless face turn, Batista became “the cool one” of Evolution. Big Dave was now being booked in Orton’s spot and he was a cool heel. His angle with Triple H was becoming a huge box office draw, and Batista was on his way. But was he ready to take the strap at Wrestlemania?
In late 1986, the main event was already being set up for Wrestlemania III. I remember watching Superstars of Wrestling and they held an awards ceremony on the Piper’s Pit. I had never seen this before so it looked like a big angle. And it was one of the biggest. Throughout Hogan’s career on top in the WWF, which started in late 1983, he was the guy, but Andre was always treated as just as special of an attraction. Hogan was the champ, but Andre was just as unbeatable. I honestly don’t remember him losing by pin fall from the time I started watching. Even Hogan would constantly point to Andre as the big man. During the awards ceremony, Hogan received a big trophy for being the champ and Andre came out to congratulate him. Then Andre received his trophy for being undefeated and Hogan came out to congratulate him. Andre seemed perturbed as if Hogan was coming out to steal his glory. Later, Andre famously ripped the cross off Hogan’s chest that made viewers understand that Andre wasn’t going to be so lovable anymore. The turn happened and Andre was now an unstoppable bad guy.
The turn was helped even more by Bobby Heenan who became Andre’s manager. Heenen was always such a great foil for Hogan. He managed King Kong Bundy, Paul Orndorff, and Andre who were three of Hogan’s biggest money opponents. Heenan was masterful here, painting the picture as to why Andre would want to wrestle Hogan. Heenan would go on to say that Hogan never offered Andre a shot at the title, Hogan never respected Andre, and Andre was sick of it. At the same time, Andre would just sit there with this careless look on his face as Hogan tried to convince Andre that Heenan was evil. Much of what Heenan said made sense though, and that made the angle for me. I could see why Andre wanted a shot at the title.
The other angle that had a huge affect on me as an 10 year old was Ricky Steamboat vs. Randy Savage. Savage was tremendous in his portrayal as a win at all costs heel. They had a match where Savage draped Steamboat’s throat over the outside railing and jumped off the top rope and hit the back of his neck, thrusting Steamboat’s throat into the railing. He then used the ring bell to do the same thing, targeting Steamboat’s throat. Steamboat sold it like a champ as they carried him to the back while he was grasping for air. Vince McMahon was screaming and saying that Steamboat had swallowed his tongue. I hated Savage with a passion at the time.
Those were the two big matches for Mania III, but what also made this event was the fact that most of the rest of the matches were booked with some nice build. The Honky Tonk Man and Jake Roberts and JYD vs. Harley Race feuds ended with bad matches, but you remember the build. You remember Honky blasting Roberts with the guitar and JYD bowing and curtsying to Race before sucker punching him.
On March 31, 1985 Wrestlemania was born. It was born at Madison Square Garden in New York City. While history will try to say that this was a great, entertaining event, some near 30 years later, it’s not the best wrestling show you’ve ever seen. But for its time, it was built as something very special. It was glitz and glamor. The legend says that Vince McMahon put all of his money into the show and was either going to live by the sword, or die by it. As you can tell, they lived.
The show was an event that tried to make wrestling nationally mainstream. It had Muhammad Ali, Billy Martin, Cyndi Lauper, and Mr. T. It would be like Oscar De La Hoya, Joe Torre, Rihanna, and Vin Diesel being involved in a wrestling show today. It was Vince McMahon’s official statement that wrestling was no longer just a regional business. Vince was in New York City with Liberace playing the piano.
They worked with MTV to help with promotion. MTV was hip and on the up and up with pop culture America and it was the perfect launching pad. With Lauper in tow and MTV in their back pocket, they could market Hulk Hogan, Vince’s hand picked superstar. History may try to say that Hogan was the star of the show, but in reality, it was Hogan piggybacking Mr. T’s popularity to rise to stardom. Hogan was already a huge wrestling draw while working in the AWA, but his popularity there would be peanuts compared to what he was about to become. MTV and WWE put on a special show titled The War To Settle The Score which was recap of all the angles they did with Cyndi Lauper, Lou Albano, and Roddy Piper. Piper’s character felt that Lauper had no place in wrestling and the new Rock N Wrestling connection was ruining his business. It was an absolutely silly show. Kenny Loggins made fun of Roddy Piper’s skirt. Piper did not in fact get to make fun of his beard. Tina Turner thought Piper was wrong. Dick Clark thought Piper would get his. Hulk Hogan had to come and save the day. Hogan and Piper wrestled on the show, which set up the WrestleMania main event. It was set up as Roddy Piper and Mr. Wonderful Paul Orndorff against Hulk Hogan and Mr. T.
From a work rate standpoint, this was a bad WrestleMania, but Vince didn’t set out to shock the world with a wrestling show. He wanted to shock the world with a sports entertainment show.