Just how did the the brainchild of Vincent Kennedy McMahon become the global and pop culture phenomenon it is today? Ahead of New Orleans’ WrestleMania 34. HRH Mag’s King Of The Ring, Andy Spoors, delves into the history of professional wrestling’s crown jewel.
The Champions League Final. The Grammys. The Super Bowl. The Oscars. All represent the pinnacle of their respective fields. Each symbolises years of dedication, hard work and skill. These marquee events are beamed into millions of homes the world over but there is one phenomenon that transcends sport and entertainment and smashes the two together. It’s dubbed the ‘Grandest Stage Of Them All’ and ‘Showcase Of The Immortals’ for a reason. This is the story of WrestleMania.
We have the 80s to thank for so many of our favourite songs, TV shows and movies but it was in this magic decade that Vincent Kennedy McMahon dreamt of combining as many of those aspects as possible into one event. Taking over his father’s company (the previously named World Wrestling Federation, now WWE), Vince Jr. went toe to toe with rival wrestling company, Jim Crockett Promotions, for supremacy in the industry. Needing an ace in the hole to counter Crockett’s flagship annual event ‘Starrcade’, McMahon took several risks as well as calling on some of the most famous celebrities at the time to create the inaugural WrestleMania.
Capitalising on the flourishing success of MTV, McMahon developed a relationship with the music channel, collaborating to create two events named ‘The Brawl To End It All’ and ‘The War To Settle The Score’. Both featured Cyndi Lauper, whose boyfriend and manager at the time, David Wolff, was integral to cross promotion between the two companies.
To sell out Madison Square Garden and beam a Pay Per View extravaganza into millions of homes, WWE conducted a huge press tour with main event stars Hulk Hogan and Mr. T (yes, that one!).
One of the media stops saw Hogan appearing on Hot Properties four days before WrestleMania, putting host Richard Belzer into a submission move and cutting off the flow of blood to his brain. Belzer fell to the floor unconscious and began to bleed profusely. Far from faking it, his serious injury required eight stitches. The talk show host later sued Hogan for $5 million, eventually settling out of court. The press fallout boosted interest for the event in a way press junkets couldn’t.
On March 31 1985, a mammoth crowd of 19,121 flocked to MSG to witness the spectacle. WrestleMania itself had a number of celebrity appearances featuring Muhammed Ali as the main event’s special guest referee with Liberace and The Rockettes also featuring. The top billed match of the night saw Hulk Hogan and Mr. T team up to face Rowdy Roddy Piper and Mr. Wonderful, Paul Orndorff. The former, of course, picked up the victory over the bad guy pairing of Piper and Orndorff.
WrestleMania was a success. The pop culture concoction proved to be a game changer that would shape the wrestling (or sports entertainment) to this very day. It was, however, a mere springboard to bigger and better things. One of the biggest and most iconic moments in wrestling’s entire history followed two years later when a huge crowd of 93,173 fans packed the Pontiac Silverdome and witnessed Hulk Hogan body-slam Andre The Giant. WrestleMania III saw Alice Cooper and Aretha Franklin make guest appearances in an event that smashed records for the time, pulling in $1.6 million in ticket sales alone.
One of the fixtures of WrestleMania since 1991 has been the infamous Undertaker, whose undefeated streak at the annual event was coveted almost as much as any championship gold. His record stood all the way through until Brock Lesnar shocked the world by defeating the deadman at WrestleMania 30 in New Orleans.
Over the years 99 celebrities have appeared on the Grandest Stage Of Them All, with sportsmen (Mike Tyson, Floyd Mayweather Jr, Rob Gronkowski) movie stars (Pamela Anderson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mickey Rourke) and, of course, musicians (Limp Bizkit, Ozzy Osbourne, Living Colour and Drowning Pool). Then there have been the iconic live performances from Motörhead and more.
In recent years the Showcase Of The Immortals has morphed into an entire week’s worth of events. Alongside Mania, fans are treated to daily WWE fan conventions, NXT Takeover, a Hall Of Fame ceremony and popular tapings of the company’s weekly programmes Raw and Smackdown Live. In addition, most wrestling companies in the world converge on which lever city has the honour of hosting, putting on their own shows for the fans that have travelled from around the globe to create a wrestling style Mecca. Last year’s WrestleMania 33 managed to make the region of Orlando $181 million in tourism. As HRH Mag went to print, WrestleMania 34 was on course to top that figure for New Orleans.
Long gone are the days of Vince McMahon Jr. scrambling for last minute media appearances to boost ticket sales. Cities now fall over themselves to bid for what has become one of the biggest and most lucrative extravaganzas on earth. But it’s not just cities that are desperate for a slice of the action, with the Superstars themselves out to prove they should be part of the show…