Salve, fair reader! You’ve probably guessed from the title that I’ve taken leave of my senses once again and decided to write a daily series, in this case, a column on each of the thirty Wrestlemania events, from 1985 to 2014. I’ll be delving into issues, controversies, classic matches, disappointments, pen portraits of wrestling greats and more. The last one of these I did was rather well received, so I hope you enjoy the ride. In week one, I’ll be taking a look the formative stages of Wrestlemania’s evolution, with thoughts on the first seven editions of the Show of Shows edited into this thread at the beginning of each day.
Wrestlemania I: The Blueprint
Those of you who have watched Wrestlemania I will know that the fundamental thing about it that’s strange is that it doesn’t truly feel like Wrestlemania. It’s low key, short on bombast, even intimate in its execution. We’ve grown so used to the military grade pyro, the stadiums, the thirty minute epic main events, the smorgasbord of rock and rap acts performing live and above all the hype that going back to more innocent times is deeply strange to modern eyes. However, if we take a more Structuralist approach to the event, we find that actually, most of what we expect from Wrestlemania was established all the way back in 1985 and runs in an unbroken line all the way to the modern day. There have been many innovations along the way, some of which became tradition themselves, some of which were abandoned as ill-conceived experiments, but ultimately there are certain non-negotiables with Wrestlemania which start with the construction of the card.
When we look at the line-up of the first Wrestlemania, a few things become apparent. The curtain jerker features one of the best technical workers of the time in Tito Santana, who was trusted to get the crowd going; this is of course a fundamental of any wrestling show to this day, but particularly with wrestling’s Superbowl. Think about last year, with The Shield marching through the MetLife Stadium’s audience to battle three main event talents in a hot six man opener, or JBL and Finlay’s weapons filled Belfast Brawl from Wrestlemania XXIV. The next match on the inaugural ‘Mania’s card was a squash between King Kong Bundy and SD Jones; this is, again, a tradition which has endured, with Kane’s eleven second destruction of Chavo Guerrero and Rey Mysterio’s stealth humiliation of JBL both recent examples. Going deeper into that evening of wrestling in the spring of ’85, we find lots more to recognise. Variously, we have an Intercontinental Title match between two prominent midcarders in Greg Valentine and JYD, a tag team title match between American babyfaces and foreign villains (a trope which would define the 1980s and early 1990s) and a special attraction match with an odd stipulation. Ah yes, the “Bodyslam Challenge” between Andre The Giant and Big John Studd; I’m not quite sure why they thought such an odd gimmick match would work except for the fact that the thought of somebody slamming Andre would be impressive enough to carry the action for the crowd. However, there is no doubt that Andre was a huge draw and using him in this way masked his limitations better than a traditional singles match. The special attraction match as a genre does just what it says on the tin; for many of his first appearances at the Show of Shows, The Undertaker found himself cast in this role, and in latter Wrestlemanias, Vince McMahon himself took up the baton. The idea is that the audience get to see something different than they could see on a typical night of wrestling…and who, in 1985, could have imagined seeing Vince climb a ladder and drive Hulk Hogan through a table in a semi-main event eighteen years later?
The main event of Wrestlemania shows a tranche of tropes that would define future events but is also quite different from most of the headlining bouts that followed. From Wrestlemanias II to VII, the WWF Title match went on last, but here, the title holder and face of the company was in a main event tag match featuring Mr T as his partner. Now, in 1985 I knew absolutely nothing about wrestling; I was five years old and Vince’s circus had yet to make it to the UK. However, ‘The A-Team’ was my favourite television programme and I absolutely adored Mr T, or B.A Barracus as he was in the show. I imagine many young Americans felt the same way, so putting Mr T in the storylines was an absolute genius move on McMahon’s part. Hogan had of course played a cameo role in ‘Rocky III’ as ‘Thunderlips’ so the screen association of the two men was already established. Set them up against two gifted heels in Piper and Orndorff, with potential interference from Bob Orton, and you had guaranteed money. For the first ‘Mania, it made sense to put on such a match rather than a title bout. Celebrity involvement is indeed what most people would point to as the key part of Vince McMahon’s vision of what professional wrestling could become. We all know by now that Vince didn’t want to play by the rules of the regional territory system; he foresaw a national and international promotion which had mainstream appeal; no longer would professional wrestling have a niche appeal. As far as he was concerned, it was evolve or die, and the staging of a supercard packed with MTV and Hollywood talent was an important part of that evolution. In every single Showcase of the Immortals since, actors, sportsmen and musicians have played an integral role on the evening, drawing in casual fans and enhancing the big time feel of the evening. That is the enduring legacy of the first Wrestlemania.
For a modern viewer, this first attempt of Vince Mc Mahon at writing his name in the history books does not offer a great deal other than curiosity, but it’s important to understand how we got to where we are today. Wrestlemania I may not have the pyro, the bombast, or the epic matches but it sure as hell has the formula, and you may be surprised to find just how faithfully the company has followed that formula over the past twenty-nine years.