March 31, 1985
Venue: Madison Square Garden
Tagline: “The Greatest Wrestling Event of All Time!”
Runtime: 2 hours, 16 minutes
Here we go! Our first entry, for the original WrestleMania (1985) from Madison Square Garden. The atmosphere for this one is at an 11; it’s clear that the WWF felt it had a lot riding on this new venture, and they pulled out all the stops. Guest ring announcer! Guest timekeeper Liberace! Guest referee Muhammad Ali! Rockettes! An honest-to-God bagpipe band! And a stellar announcing staff, especially Gorilla Monsoon and Jesse Ventura on commentary, plus “Mean” Gene Okerlund and Lord Alfred Hayes backstage, and Howard Finkel in the ring.
Jesse and Monsoon, in particular, sell the hell out of every match and have terrific chemistry. They take turns bellowing “unbelievable!” at regular intervals throughout the night. Jesse, resplendent in a pink tuxedo, is more subdued than I remember, or perhaps he hadn’t yet evolved into the more cartoonish version of his character. He doesn’t once call Tito Santana “Chico” and doesn’t have anything sexist to say during the Women’s Championship match, though he does use “shuckin’ and jivin’” during Junkyard Dog’s match with Greg Valentine. He constantly calls Monsoon “Gino,” a reference to his broadcasting partner’s earlier ring name, Gino Marella (Marella being Monsoon’s real last name. His WWE Hall of Fame profile is fascinating reading, btw). Gorilla also tastefully throws in a few “Pearl Harbor” references for attacks from behind.
The first thing that struck me was the speed — this thing clips along at an unbelievable pace. The first four matches fly by before Jesse and Monsoon can take a breath to sum up what we just saw. After that it slows down a bit, but not by much — all told, only two matches (including the main event) run longer than seven minutes, with six of nine matches finishing between 4:39 and 6:55. I’d be surprised if WWE fits nine matches in a week’s worth of programming these days, never mind within two hours and sixteen minutes. The taped promos with Mean Gene before each match are like 30 seconds each, with one wrestler coming on while the other is still making their exit. (It is interesting that the broadcast openly says the promos are taped in advance. This is still a common practice but shows are typically edited to make them seem live.) I wish current WWE stars would watch this for lessons on how to cut a promo that is shorter than the typical State of the Union address.
After Mean Gene sings the National Anthem (with the lyrics on a note card!) Jesse opines, “I didn’t think Gene-o had it in him, but he rates right up there with Robert Goooo-lay,” Monsoon exclaims, “Unbelievable!” and we get down to the action.
- Tito Santana vs. The Executioner
RS: This was a great kick-off match. Both men cut standard promotions before the match to set up a little rivalry, then we are right in the ring. The speed, looks, and name recognition of Tito Santana makes him the perfect face to start the event. The Executioner is clearly a glorified jobber for this one. The first thing I really noticed was just how loose the ropes were. They were so loose that the guys needed to take an extra step bouncing off them. It was also genuinely scary to watch Santana climb to the top rope in the corner and see the ropes bending and shaking. Santana makes pretty quick work of the Executioner but there was plenty of action to get the crowd worked up.
TH: Agreed! This was a good match. Man, I loved Tito Santana back then, and still do. His figure four leglock to get the submission is textbook. My favorite parts, though, were the absolute bargain basement mask that Executioner (Terry Gordy) wears, and the pre-match promo where he announces his strategy: “I’m here to go after the leg and nothing else!” I’m gonna shout that at Thanksgiving this year when we bring out the turkey.
- “Special Delivery” Jones vs. King Kong Bundy
TH: Welp, I don’t have much to say. I laughed when Jesse says, of Bundy’s size, “They could use his back for the west screen at a drive-in.” Then it’s bear hug, corner avalanche, splash and pin, all in about 20 seconds. Props to Bundy for the elevation on that splash — I thought he was going to go through the ring when he came down. I weigh 200 lbs less than him and if I did that I would never walk again.
RS: Yeah, nothing much to see here. For the record, the match was 9 seconds long and claimed the shortest match in history for a while. The announcements were longer. I was reminded of when WWF needed Diesel to take the championship from Bob Backlund, so Diesel power bombed Backlund at MSG during a house show and beat him in 8 seconds. Anyway, how Bundy’s knees survived that splash bump, I don’t know. Bundy getting such a squash match on the “biggest wrestling show in the world” makes me think they were definitely already planning a big push for him. (Spoiler alert: WrestleMania 2!)
- Ricky Steamboat vs. “Maniac” Matt Borne
RS: The pre-match promos were straight from the playbook; you give shrouded praise for how dangerous or strong your opponent is, but then wrap up by saying what will give you the edge. I really haven’t seen Steamboat much besides a few of his epic matches against Ric Flair later in his career. I actually didn’t recognize him at first because his physique is so different here than he has in that classic rivalry. This is where it registered to me that the physique of wrestlers has changed so much, and Vince McMahon’s bias for ripped, muscular monsters is clear. Though Ricky looks different and isn’t “The Dragon” yet, you can see why he becomes a star. He’s fast, he’s creative in his spots and movies, and he’s got “the look.” I have no memory of ever seeing Maniac Matt Borne. He was a worthy opponent and really sold Ricky despite the exotic martial arts moves and moving at the speed of light.
TH: Ricky Steamboat was one of my favorites as a kid; I have vivid memories of the brutal fight with Macho Man where Randy hit him with the bell and Ricky “swallowed his tongue.” I may have been emotionally scarred by it. He was also my mom’s favorite, and watching him in his white trunks… I, uh, can understand why. Like Rich, I was also blown away by how huge and muscular he is here — I remember him being much slimmer, so I’ll be curious to see how he looks in future WrestleManias. Like Rich, I don’t remember Borne (who apparently went on to portray the first Doink the Clown!) but agree he’s a good foil for Steamboat. The flying cross-body that Ricky hits to end the match is a thing of beauty.
- David Sammartino, managed by Bruno Sammartino vs. Brutus Beefcake, managed by “Luscious” Johnny Valiant
RS: Boy, what a snore. The pre-match promos? Boring. Then the match itself is just a bunch of mat action. It’s very clear that this match was the birth of a WrestleMania tradition: rolling out a couple of old-timers to draw on the nostalgia from the older fans in the crowd. While the match was boring, the ending is possibly my “oh sh!t” moment of the event. That was when Bruno and Johnny finally went at each other when Johnny predictably interfered in the match. While it was fun to see Bruno still had some spunk and related to the fans, can we move on now?
TH: Ugh, total agreement. I zoned out for a bit, I think, and came back when Bruno and Johnny started going at it. No offense to the illustrious Sammartino family, but David is no Bruno, and he doesn’t have much ring presence. (According to Wikipedia, David is 60 and a personal trainer now, but only “semi-retired.” (!) He’s wrestled as recently as 2010.) Anyway, I was hoping for more from a pre-”Barber” Brutus Beefcake, and he looks great, but this one never really gets going.
- Greg “The Hammer” Valentine, managed by Jimmy Hart vs. Junk Yard Dog (WWF Intercontinental Championship)
TH: The first title match of the night, and one of my favorites. This is where the pace starts to slow just a bit (they announce a one hour time limit, lol). Overall an awesome, physical match with interference by Jimmy “Mouth of the South” Hart resulting in him getting laid out. The Hammer gets the pin by illegally using the ropes and walks off with the win, seemingly, until Tito Santana intervenes and actually gets the ref to reverse the call. This is the only time I think I have seen a pinfall reversed like that. The count-out ending that precludes a title transfer is a bit of a cop out, but Hammer and JYD really sell this one.
RS: What a great back-and-forth fight. Back in the day, the Intercontinental matches were just as engaging as the world championship matches. I have such fond memories of Jimmy Hart, I just love seeing him get into the mix and he was so good at doing that. I also loved Junk Yard Dog; he was my favorite in the WWF cartoon. This is a classic example of wrestling drama. While I love The Hammer, I would have loved to have seen a belt on JYD. The countout is definitely an interesting choice of finish, but, even then, WWF never felt the need to give a clean finish. Hammer and JYD sell each other well, but Jimmy Hart is the one that really sells the finish.
TH: You’re so right about the Intercontinental belt back in the day. Those were always some of my favorites. JYD is such a great character; he’s practically a cartoon already, so it is no wonder his animated version worked so well!
- The Iron Sheik and Nikolai Volkoff, managed by “Classy” Freddie Blassie, vs. The U.S. Express – Mike Rotundo and Barry Windham, managed by “Captain” Lou Albano (WWF Tag Team Championship)
RS: Man, you can still feel the heat almost 40 years later. With the Iron Sheik spitting on the USA and Nikolai singing the Soviet national anthem, MSG is at full rage with projectiles flying. Seeing Captain Lou brought back a ton of memories, from him and Cyndi Lauper to the Super Mario Brothers television show. The Iron Sheik is always over the top and I always liked him, even though he was a heel. I had the pleasure to meet him way back in the day at an indie show in Catonsville, MD. This match had all the standard tag team spots with trading energies and attacking partners. You can really see how different tag team wrestling has become, especially if you compare the style to the likes of the Young Bucks, or even “traditionalists” like FTR. This match really is like watching a series of singles matches, with very few cooperative moves. Great finish, and a shocker with the US Express dropping the belts to the heels. The boos echoed through MSG and probably down in the Amtrak tunnels of Penn Station below. Just to solidify the heat, the Iron Sheik gets back on the mic to bless Iran while holding the belts, before leaving in a shower of trash.
TH: The thing I couldn’t get over is how ripped Iron Sheik is here. He looks like a freaking stud. For some reason I remembered him as much pudgier. I agree with Rich that you could cook an omelet on the heat from these guys. Even as a kid, when I thought everything else on wrestling was real, I realized that Nikolai Volkoff singing the Russian National Anthem was a deliberate ploy to piss off the crowd. I loved it then and I love it now. (A friend of mine wrestled Volkoff on an indie show years back and said he was the sweetest guy IRL.) MSG sounds like it’s on the verge of a riot; seriously, I was worried for the safety of those two after the show. If I were them I wouldn’t have stopped to do the extra interview; I would have gotten straight into a cab and headed for the airport. Rotundo (who went on to wrestle as Irwin R. Schyster, aka I.R.S.) and Barry Windham are excellent, and create a ton of energy with the heels; Rotunda hits a beautiful suplex on the Sheik, and there’s a fantastic pop when a beat-down Rotundo finally tags in Windham. One of the highlights of the night, for sure.
- Andre the Giant vs. Big John Studd, with Bobby “The Brain” Heenan (Body Slam Challenge)
TH: I definitely remember this one: the set-up was that if Andre slams Studd, he wins $15,000; if Studd slams Andre, Andre has to leave the wrestling business. It’s always a treat to see Andre, even though he’s clearly approaching the end of his career here and his in-ring moves are limited. Huge pop for Andre’s entrance, and a big smile from the big man. Big John Studd was no small dude himself at 6’10 and 364 lbs and he works well with Andre here, who slams Studd easily for the win. Ventura dubs it “The slam heard ‘round the world,” which is probably a stretch, though you may have been able to hear it in Hoboken. Bobby Heenan, greatest heel manager of all time, doesn’t get to do a whole lot here, but is delightfully weasely as always. I wonder what was in that duffel bag of “cash?”
RS: You can definitely see the bag just had 1’s and 5’s. This was a fun gimmick match for the card, where it doesn’t end by pin or submission, but with a body slam. It’s also a gimmick to put two of the biggest men in the business together. At this time, Andre was still the biggest draw in pro-wrestling and couldn’t be nailed down to a contract with one promotion. He was always an independent, but he supposedly always took Vince’s call. Andre may only have three moves, but when a dude as big as him does them, they carry some power. I was always amazed by how well Andre sold despite never facing someone anywhere close to his size. It’s such a pleasure to hear Bobby Heenan cut a promo in his inimitable style: “For $15,000 and a haircut, we can get the Giant out of wrestling.”
- Wendi Richter, managed by Cyndi Lauper vs. Leilani Kai, managed by Fabulous Moolah (WWF Women’s Championship)
TH: Holy hell, if you bottled the 1980s as a perfume, it would smell an awful lot like Cyndi Lauper and Captain Lou Albano as managers at the same WrestleMania. This is a solid match, with Wendi Richter and Leilani Kai hitting some decent spots (particularly the cross-body to roll-up at the end) and Lauper and Moolah getting into it outside the ring. I was pleasantly surprised to hear the commentators (especially Jesse) play it straight, without condescending to women’s wrestling or the individual women in the ring. Cyndi’s post-match interview with Mean Gene, in her comical New York accent, is a delight.
RS: It was nice to hear commentary on this match pre-”attitude era,” still treating wrestling as a sport. They talked about the moves and skills of the women, not their appearance, hair, or references to them as “arm candy.” The match, though, is standard-fare women’s match for the time. It’s a bit sad that women’s wrestling hasn’t had as dynamic of a transformation as the men’s division. Also, when you bring in a celebrity to be in the corner, especially one as big as Cyndi Lauper, you’re totally telegraphing the finish.
- Hulk Hogan and Mr. T, with Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka vs. Roddy Piper and Paul “Mr. Wonderful” Orndorff, with “Cowboy” Bob Orton (Guest referees Muhammad Ali and Pat Patterson, guest announcer Billy Martin, guest timekeeper Liberace)
TH: Finally we get to the main event, and it’s… a lot. First there’s the parade of guest stars, even the Rockettes to accompany Liberace and do a kick-line with him at the center of the ring. (Side note: I wasn’t much of a baseball fan as a kid, and if I did watch it would have been the Orioles or Phillies, so I only knew Billy Martin because Mad Magazine was constantly making fun of him for (I gather) frequently yelling at umpires and getting kicked out of games.) Piper comes to the ring with a full complement of bagpipers. It’s awesome to see Paul “Mr. Wonderful” Orndorff here, who looks like he’s on his way to a bodybuilding competition. Mr. T and Hulk Hogan look magnificent, and it’s clearly their show. The action gets started and, honestly, is a bit of a mess. There’s a lot made of whether Mr. T will be able to handle actual wrestling, and he does seem to struggle a bit but eventually finds his pace and footing, even while Hogan handles most of the heavy lifting. In a scuffle, Piper gets punched by Muhammad Ali, and walks off in a huff, playing up his petulant persona, but of course Hulkster is able to taunt him back into the ring to finish the match. I really liked the finish to this one, with Cowboy Bob Orton trying to hit Hogan off the top rope with his arm cast, and knocking Mr. Wonderful cold instead. There’s some more after-the-bell shenanigans, and Orndorff eventually “wakes up” in the ring once the rest of his team is back in the dressing room. The after-match interview is exciting as hell, with Hogan approaching full Hulkamania mode. Overall, though, this is a weird main event, especially with no title on the line.
RS: Boy, I don’t know where to start. From a modern perspective, this main event always strikes me as an odd choice, but then again, I get it. You’re taking a huge gamble on doing a pay per view event in a sport that has always been very territorial. WWF at the time was mainly a mid-Atlantic promotion and they’re taking their product worldwide (to one million viewers on closed circuit tv, supposedly). Of course you need to stock your main event with the most popular pianist, the most famous boxer, a famous baseball player, a tv and movie star trying to be a wrestler, three wrestlers from Smoky Mountain Wrestling and the National Wrestling Alliance, and your champion and soon-to-be cash cow that you are hoping this national exposure will project you to a Scrooge McDuck level of wealth. Top strategic booking, if you ask me. The match went as predictably as can be and foreshadowed the chaos the WWF later became famous for creating. Piper takes an Ali right hand. Bob Orton with his perpetually broken wrist/arm using the cast as weapon. Hogan lands a big boot. Mr T lands a couple of bodyslams and a few holds and takes a bump. Heel interference ends up putting the seemingly long-shot faces over. Huge pop from the crowd. Good Night!
RS: I really enjoyed the Tag Championship match. While the moves and spots were a bit dated, even for then, the theater and story told in the match really sell it for me. The ability of the Iron Sheik and Volkoff to generate heat is unparalleled. While Lauper, Albano, Liberace, and Ali are a great time capsule of pop culture for the time, the pure hatred for the Sheik and Volkoff is a time capsule of the real American culture at the time. The 1980’s brand of American conservatism and patriotism were on full display and beautifully manipulated not just by wrestlers, but also by Vince McMahon in booking those two for that reason. Combine that with the brilliance of actually having them win the titles to keep the card balanced between faces and heels and *kisses fingers* muaaahh. Perfection.
TH: I’d pick Greg Valentine vs. Junkyard Dog for the Intercontinental Championship. This was an exciting, physical match, with a classic Jimmy Hart moment, and a unique finish with the assist from Tito Santana to reverse the pinfall. I loved JYD as a kid, and he’s still fun to watch, but watching now I’m so impressed by The Hammer. The Tag Team Championship match was great, too — that’s some Top Ten level heat generated by Iron Sheik and Nikolai Volkoff.
TH: David Sammartino vs. Brutus Beefcake. Sammartino is just not particularly engaging as a performer. He’s short, stocky, and a little awkward in the ring, and there’s no real energy between him and Brutus. This one is notable for the reception that his dad, Living Legend Bruno Sammartino, receives from the New York crowd. Bruno looks like he could legitimately kick the ass of every person in the ring; his ears look like something out of a plastic surgeon’s nightmares.
RS: I double Tim’s sentiments here. I really wanted to fast forward but knew I owed it to Tim to watch this. There’s a reason why you never really hear anyone talk about this match from the first Wrestlemania. That’s because there is nothing to really talk about.
“Oh Sh!t!” Moment
Rich: My “Oh Sh!t” moment was Bruno Sammartino getting into the fray. You always expect an old timer to maybe grab a running ankle or spit water or something, but Bruno started throwing haymakers and for a moment he looked like he could have jumped in the ring and challenged Hulk for the strap.
TH: For me this one lacks a lot of really big spots or surprises, but I said “oh sh!t!” when Cowboy Bob Orton clocks Paul Orndorff off the top rope with his cast. I got a kick out of Orndorff “waking up” after his whole team had left the ring. Runner up is the elevation that Bundy gets in that splash on poor “Special Delivery” Jones; I felt that one.
Tim: I’d give this one 3.5 out of 5 stars. Overall at least half the matches are good, a couple of them are great. The main event starts out rough but the ending is a lot of fun, even if the whole thing is clearly a promotional bonanza with no real narrative. Almost everyone is in great shape and bringing their best, the announcers sell everything, and the guest stars are a fun touch. Overall still worth watching for the history, and the chance to see Sheik, Orndorff, Windham, Steamboat, and others at the top of their game.
Rich: I’d give this 4 out of 5 stars. This is really where the madness starts. This is where WWF sets its tone and formula that they still use today for WrestleMania and storytelling. From rolling out celebrities, nostalgic returns, dramatic and controversial finishes, and Hulk Hogan in the main event. This is the event that moved pro-wrestling from a fringe sport to mainstream pop culture. I do think it’s interesting that instead of having Hulk Hogan defend his World Title, they put him in a tag team main event. WWE would never put the champion in a tag match as a pay-per-view main event today. It’s clear that this was still old fashioned booking, trying to cram as many big names as possible at the end of the card. There is an incredible energy around the event, from the audible nerves in Lord Alfred Hayes’ voice to the timekeeper not ringing the bell when cued multiple times at the end of the first match. It’s amazing to see how different the product was then than it is now, but at the same time, you can see the roots of what would become the first golden age of pro-wrestling, the eventual juggernaut of Hulkamania boiling up, and even some primordial soup of the Attitude Era brewing. I know that if I had been there, I would have been heading to the train hyped up and scouring the TV Guide to note every time that WWF programming would be on. Watching this also reminded me that back in the day, a suplex, a body slam or someone climbing to the top rope used to be a big deal.
Thoughts? Agreements or disagreements? Think we got something way wrong? Leave us a comment or shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Muhammad Ali, d. 2016
Andre the Giant, d. 1993
Captain Lou Albano, d. 2009
“Classy” Freddie Blassie, d. 2003
“Maniac” Matt Borne, d. 2013
King Kong Bundy, d. 2019
Fabulous Moolah, d. 2007
Howard Finkel, d. 2020
Terry Gordy (“The Executioner”), d. 2001
“Lord” Alfred Hayes, d. 2005
Bobby “The Brain” Heenan, d. 2017
“Special Delivery” Jones, d. 2008
Junkyard Dog, d. 1998
Liberace, d. 1987
Billy Martin, d. 1989
Gorilla Monsoon, d. 1999
“Mean” Gene Okerlund, d. 2019
Pat Patterson, d. 2020
“Rowdy” Roddy Piper, d. 2015
Bruno Sammartino, d. 2018
“Superfly” Jimmy Snuka, d. 2017
Big John Studd, d. 1995
“Luscious” Johnny Valiant, d. 2018
Nikolai Volkoff, d. 2018
15 thoughts on “WrestleMania”