Friday, October 17, 2014

At Ringside: Wrestlemania (1985)

Tito Santana vs. The Executioner

With the 1993 WWF in a rut, I’ve decided to look at a few other events on offer on the WWE Network for the price of... uh... it’ll come to me. And really, there are few places to start better than the very first Wrestlemania, broadcast March 31, 1985 on closed circuit TV across the world. Wrestlemania wasn’t the first such special- Jim Crockett’s Starrcade had played closed-circuit PPV since 1983- but that event was strictly regional its first few years, whereas Vince McMahon and the WWF were aiming to take their show national. But apart from its historical significance as the event that made the company what it is today, the first ‘Mania holds up well as a well-paced collection of matches, with a nervous energy that later, more assured PPVs would lack.

One of the fundamental things that Wrestlemania was trying to do was to take pro wrestling mainstream; in order to make the WWF a truly national promotion, it had to appeal to at least some people who weren’t already wrestling fans. So it’s appropriate that the first ever Wrestlemania match, and its setup, act as a kind of Pro Wrestling 101. We’re introduced to The Executioner, a sinister masked man who has yet to be defeated, and to Tito Santana, a handsome and identifiable athlete. It’s a basic match with straightforward psychology- Tito hits some impressive moves to start, the Executioner starts to take over with some dirty tactics, Tito rallies, the intensity of each exchange ratchets up as the match progresses, and finally Tito slaps on a figure-four leglock to win. Good work by both men, and the match works both in that it sets the pace for the event and in that it serves as a lot of people’s first wrestling bout.

Throughout the commentary, Jesse “The Body” Ventura (future governor and all-time sexual tyrannosaurus) remarks that you can get a dead Super Bowl or World Series, but never a dead Wrestlemania. In the era where kayfabe held sway, he’s hinting at a good part of wrestling’s appeal- since the promoter controls the outcome of each fight, they can rig it so that it’s always a tense contest with plenty of drama and excitement. So it’s a bit curious that the second match is an absolute squash with the enthusiastic SD “Special Delivery” Jones being quickly slammed down and pinned by the massive King Kong Bundy. Matches like these were especially common in old pro wrestling, with colorful jobbers being quickly defeated to make someone look like a threat, but in a paid event it always feels like a cheat.

I also should mention Lord Alfred Hayes, who is on hand to provide recaps and announce upcoming matches, and who would make frequent appearances on commentary and other duties in WWF in the Eighties. Hayes delivers his lines like someone who has never been on camera before in their life, and who is only vaguely familiar with the concept. He seems to have been dragged in off the street and forced to read from cue cards with only the slightest idea of what the Hell is going on. It’s almost endearing, like watching a six year old child host the Oscars.

“Maniac” Matt Bourne and Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat cut a couple of slightly clumsy promos before their match together; neither of them are bad on the mic but it’s little stumbles like this that show there were still some things to iron out in the ascendant WWF. There’s still not a lot of story here; at this point the event itself was the story, and all the wrestlers are fighting to prove themselves on the largest possible stage. Steamboat dominates most of the match and picks up the duke, but it’s not nearly as one-sided as the last one so a step in the right direction. It’s definitely always fun to watch someone as good as Steamboat is at work, and his final flying cross body is particularly good.

The next match is a bit of a legacy- David Sammartino is the son of Bruno Sammartino, who was so popular in the original WWWF that he managed to hold onto their world title for nearly eight years in one run. Bruno is in his son’s corner for his match against then-heel Brutus Beefcake (who had yet to acquire the “Barber” moniker), who is represented by the sleazy Johnny Valentine. Beefcake and the younger Sammartino manage to put on a really solid show, a mix of grappling and faster exchanges that builds to a tense climax, but it’s all prelude to when Bruno, seeing his son attacked by Johnny Valentine, starts a fight with the manager, allowing the New York audience to pop for the legend. It ends on a double disqualification, but the Sammartinos clean house and the crowd goes nuts.

The one clunker of the night follows, an Intercontinental Championship match between champ Greg “The Hammer” Valentine (represented by a then-villainous Jimmy Hart) and perennial crowd favorite the Junkyard Dog. Valentine’s ring work can be really variable, whereas the JYD was always better known for his lovable personality and catchy theme song than any ability to actually wrestle. This one doesn’t build much momentum, but it’s over quickly, the Dog winning by countout and thus missing out on actually becoming champion.

“Classy” Fred Blassie leads a tag team of foreign heels, Nikolai Volkoff and The Iron Sheik, against current Tag Team champions Barry Windham and Mike Rotundo, managed by Captain Lou Albano. Despite some impressive aerial maneuvers by the champions, they- and the titles- fall when the Sheik uses Blassie’s cane to score a cheap pin. It’s good that at least one title changes hands on the WWF’s first nationwide show, and in the midst of Cold War mania two anti-American heels made for a good threat, even if they move a little sluggishly.

Andre the Giant and Big John Studd have an usual matchup, a challenge to see which of the two behemoths can body-slam the other first. Studd, managed by Bobby “The Brain” Heenan, has put up $15,000 dollars in cash against the friendly Giant’s career, and Andre also has to retire if the match runs to the time limit without a victor. While the match isn’t exactly a technical masterpiece it’s a fun little contest of strength with a good story element. If you know the history of the WWF you know that Andre is victorious, and it ends with him throwing the money to the crowd.

It’s important to remember that it really wasn’t clear that Wrestlemania would succeed. Down to a week before the show Vince McMahon had to do whatever he could to sell tickets and make sure people were paying to watch remotely in Shriner halls and movie theaters. (Pay-per-view technology was not yet widespread enough for wrestling to rely on it.) A big part of the marketing for Wrestlemania was done via the “Rock ‘n’ Wrestling Connection”, getting celebrities from music and movies involved in the WWF’s programming, and using this to get publicity on MTV and other outlets. Hence, Cyndi Lauper appeared with Captain Lou Albano and, under his tutleage, became the manager for Wendi Richter, throwing herself into the role with an admirable enthusiasm.  Richter is looking to win back the Women’s Championship from Leilani Kai, who is managed by the Fabulous Moolah, a legendary figure in the history of women’s wrestling despite being both a horrible wrestler and a pretty terrible person.

Fortunately both women actually in the ring know what they’re doing, and the match is pretty entertaining. There’s a lot of submission moves chained together along with some flipping around, and given that we’ve mostly been watching big man matches it’s a good change of pace. The end is a little botched, with Richter a little less than convincing as she reverses a pin for the victory and the title, but it’s quickly forgotten as Cyndi beats up Moolah and celebrates with the new champ. Women’s wrestling didn’t have a regular berth in this period of WWF history, so it’s nice to see it have as prominent a place here as it does.

Which brings us to the main event. It is, interestingly enough, a non-title bout, meaning the WWF Heavyweight Championship was not defended at Wrestlemania. Instead, it’s another celebrity match, as champ and growing media phenomenon Hulk Hogan teams up with Mr. T (his Rocky III co-star, though the two sadly never shared any scenes) to take on the dastardly Rowdy Roddy Piper and his partner, Paul “Mr. Wonderful” Orndorff. Piper also has at ringside his henchman Cowboy Bob Orton (father of Apex Predator Randy), who spent much of this time claiming to be out of action due to a broken arm so that he could hit people with the cast.

Even before the match begins it’s all about the showmanship, as Guest Timekeeper Liberace dances with the Rockettes in the middle of the ring. For all the times that the WWF would go to the celebrity well in the future, putting America’s favorite gay uncle center stage probably says the most about how broadly Vince McMahon was casting his net. Of course, dedicated sports fans probably responded more to the entrance of the Guest Referee, Muhammad Ali, who gets a standing ovation from the MSG crowd. But Liberace brought his own bell, and rings it to start us off.

There’s no two ways around it- the match is a mess. There’s a solid minute of staredowns and both men in the ring tagging out before finally somebody slaps someone. It quickly becomes utter chaos, brawling outside and inside the ring with little regard for who legally should be where. And yet it is hugely entertaining. Whereas something like Wrestlemania IX’s tag team semi-main falls apart quickly due to poor structuring and endless posturing, here the participants work the crowd and keep things moving. Eventually Bob Orton dives from the top rope in an effort to hurt Hogan, but ends up knocking Orndorff down, letting Hogan get the pin and the victory.

There are about ten minutes of post-game recap following before Ventura and Gorilla Monsoon sign off, and it was probably good to give the audience time to process everything. Wrestlemania is aptly named; it’s a crazed affair which relies on pure showmanship and enthusiasm to get us to overlook some amateurish qualities. It’s never dull, and there’s a lot of charm in seeing the WWF work out the kinks. There was no guarantee that Wrestlemania- and the great experiment it represented in taking wrestling national- would work at all, and some of that pressure and uncertainty comes through in the final product. While it’s interesting to watch as a time capsule, Wrestlemania’s $9.99 worth is in confirming that Vince McMahon seems to do his best work when his back’s against the wall.

Grade: A-

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