TJR Retro: WWE WrestleMania 1 Review

I originally posted my reviews of every WrestleMania in 2012, but with the new site in place I thought it would be a good idea to re-post them here. Enjoy!

The first WrestleMania took place at the home of WWE in New York City’s Madison Square Garden. How’d they get the name WrestleMania? The story goes, from the “True Story of WrestleMania” DVD, that ring announcer Howard Finkel came up with it when he mentioned the Beatles craze was known as “BeatleMania.”

It wasn’t on pay-per-view because at that point in time that wasn’t a common practice. Instead, the first WrestleMania event was shown only on closed circuit television. They convinced movie theatres and arenas to show the event, so people could only see it by going to one of those places. It drew over one million fans, which was the largest audience on closed circuit television up to that point. As Vince McMahon has said many times, if this event failed his company likely wouldn’t have been around much longer.

On a personal note, I did not see this WrestleMania live. I was born in 1980, so I was too young at this point. The first WrestleMania I saw live was WrestleMania IV in 1988.

March 31, 1985
Madison Square Garden in New York, New York
By John Canton (@johnreport)

The announcers are Gorilla Monsoon and Jesse Ventura, who is rocking a pink suit. Of course, he is. The presentation is a lot different than it is today. Most of the wrestlers don’t have entrance music. Some of them do, but not all. While the quality of this show isn’t very high compared to today’s standards, its importance should not be questioned. It’s on the list of the top five most important shows in the history of World Wrestling Entertainment and you can make a case that it’s the most important because it was the first WrestleMania event.

They throw it into the ring to ring announcer Howard Finkel. He announces “Mean” Gene Okerlund to sing the national anthem. He’s not very good at it, but he gets through with the help of some notes. Ventura said that Okerlund did a good job, right up there with Robert Goulet. Monsoon said “unbelievable” twice.

Backstage, Mean Gene interviewed Tito Santana and The Executioner. I don’t know what Tito said other than “Arriba” and the Executioner said he’d be going after the leg. Gene looks like he’s trying to cut him off after about five seconds. That was awkward.

Tito Santana vs. The Executioner
The Executioner was “Playboy” Buddy Rose. He was billed from parts unknown and his weight was unknown as well. For his weight it says “??? lbs.” I love that. He’s so mysterious that he won’t even go on a scale. Oh, the intrigue! Santana was a very popular babyface, so good choice for an opener because the crowd liked him a lot. Jesse calls him “Chico” of course. After a criss-cross, Santana gets a backdrop and a dropkick to send him to the floor. The Executioner came back with a kick to the gut and a headbutt. He went for a leglock, but Tito fought out of it. Executioner comes back with a bodyslam. He goes to the top rope, but Tito gets back up to throw him off with a slam. His splash attempt fails because Executioner gets his knees up. Tito kicks him out to the floor and then brings him back with a bodyslam. Santana hits a running forearm. Santana puts him in the Figure Four Leglock, Executioner gives up and that wins it for him at 4:05.
Winner: Tito Santana

Analysis: *1/2 A good win for Santana, who was a rising star at this point in his career. The announcers did their best to put over the mystery of The Executioner, but the fans weren’t into the character at all. It’s no surprise that he was out of the picture soon after.

Backstage, SD Jones says he’s going ready and he’s going to get down for the fans. Yeah, feel the excitement. Bundy wants him to think about the big avalanche. He also wants him to think about the five count.

King Kong Bundy vs. S.D. Jones
The SD stands for “special delivery” in case you’re wondering. Bundy put him in a bearhug, splashed him in the corner and beat him with a big splash for the pinfall. The announced time was nine seconds although based on the timer on my DVD player it was actually 23 seconds. I guess we’ll run with the 0:09 figure.
Winner: King Kong Bundy

Analysis: No rating. It was a squash to make Bundy look like a monster, which he is of course.

Backstage, Mean Gene Okerlund interviewed Matt Borne, who is against Ricky Steamboat. Borne spoke first saying that Steamboat was too nice while Ricky was very determined in saying that he’d show how tough he could be.

Ricky Steamboat vs. Matt Borne
Ventura keeps calling Monsoon “Gino” because that’s what everybody called him. In later years, he didn’t do that as often. Steamboat showed his athleticism early and Borne knocked him down with an atomic drop. Borne hit a suplex for two. It’s weird hearing Ventura commentate without supporting the heels. Steamboat came back with a back suplex of his own. Ricky put him down with a chop to the throat and finished it off with a crossbody block for the pinfall victory at 4:37.
Winner: Ricky Steamboat

Analysis: *1/2 A nice showcase for Steamboat, who was obviously a rising star at this time and one of the best athletes of his era. What is Borne most known for? He was Doink the Clown!

Mean Gene interviewed David Sammartino, the son of the legendary Bruno Sammartino. He was against Brutus Beefcake, managed by Luscious Johnny Valiant. He wouldn’t let Brutus talk.

Brutus Beefcake w/Luscious Johnny vs. David Sammartino w/Bruno Sammartino
Brutus is the heel here. He’s from parts unknown at this point in his young career. Bruno gets a huge pop when they announce his name, which isn’t a surprise considering he was such a huge draw and long-reigning champion in the era prior to this one. The first few minutes feature a whole lot of nothing. They got a good amount of time, so what did they do with it? They wasted it. That’s a sign of a bad match. Brutus put him down with an arm drag, but Sammartino came back and went for a leg submission. Beefcake fought out of it, so Sammartino put him in another submission hold. Brutus fought out with an eye rake followed by a back body drop and a bodyslam. He gave him a hard whip into the corner to put him down although David didn’t take that bump very well. As the crowd chanted “David” he gave Beefcake an Irish Whip and a back body drop of his own. He followed it up with punches as the crowd came alive. Sammartino hit a suplex for two. Beefcake threw him out to the floor. Valiant gave David a bodyslam on the floor, so Bruno charged at him. Bruno threw him back into the ring. Bruno went wild on him with punches as the crowd went nuts. David knocked Brutus out of the ring too. The ref rang the bell for the double disqualification at 12:43.
No winner due to double disqualification

Analysis: * That was a brutally slow and painful match to watch early, but they built up to the finish fairly well. All the fans wanted to see was Bruno in action here, but he was 50 years old at this point. Obviously, Beefcake had a decent career after this while developing a strong character to make up for his average in-ring skills. Sammartino was out of WWE later in the year after his dad had his falling out with Vince McMahon that still exists to this day.

Backstage, Greg Valentine and Jimmy Hart spoke about why he’s the greatest Intercontinental Champion of all time. He’s lean, mean and full of fighting fury. His opponent is the Junkyard Dog, who says he needs himself a bone to chew on, so I guess Valentine will suffice.

Intercontinental Title: Greg Valentine w/Jimmy Hart vs. Junkyard Dog
There’s an announced time limit of one hour for this. Spoiler: It’s not going that long. JYD has entrance music, the first one on the card to have that. Valentine does not. He was very popular here. JYD used his power to dominate the action early. Valentine missed an elbow, so JYD countered with his dog headbutts that draw a big reaction. Valentine takes control, working on Dog’s legs to set him up for the Figure Four Leglock. JYD has the word “THUMP” on the back of his tights. He kicked him off when Valentine attempted the Figure Four and he fought back with big right hands. Then JYD put him down with headbutts as Valentine did a Flair flop to fall to the mat. Jimmy Hart distracted the ref, Dog grabbed him, he moved and Valentine accidentally knocked Hart to the floor. JYD came back with punches. Crowd was going nuts. Valentine raked him in the eyes, scooped the legs and then put his own legs on the middle rope to get the pinfall victory. Wait a second. Tito Santana comes out, tells the referee that his feet were on the ropes and the ref tells Valentine to get back in the ring. Instead, he stays out on the floor and the match ends in a countout victory for JYD at 7:05.
Winner: Junkyard Dog via countout

After the match, Valentine is angry that he lost although he keeps the IC Title. The crowd was happy for JYD winning the match even though it was a countout win.

Analysis: 1/2* The appeal of JYD was not his in-ring work. He had a lot of charisma, though, and the crowd loved him. There wasn’t much to the match in terms of action, but it did the job in eliciting a good response from the crowd. To this point, JYD got the biggest pop of the show although not as loud as Bruno Sammartino’s.

Backstage, Mean Gene interviews Iron Sheik & Nikolai Volkoff along with their manager Freddie Blassie. What was great here was Sheik calling him “Gene Mean” and also Gene calling Volkoff “commie” and then correcting himself by saying “comrade.” Way to go, Gene. Then Lou Albano spoke, representing the team of Mike Rotundo & Barry Windham, who were the tag team champions here. It’s really spelled Rotunda, but they billed him as Rotundo so we’ll roll with that.

Prior to the tag title match, Volkoff sang the Soviet National Anthem. Massive booing from the crowd while Blassie smiled proudly because that’s what he did. People were throwing things in the ring. Then Sheik on the microphone: “Russia number one, Iran number one, USA…(spit).” How can two of them be number one? Only the Sheiky baby knows. The tag team champions, Mike Rotundo and Barry Windham, came out to a big pop along with their manager Captain Lou Albano.

Tag Team Titles: Mike Rotundo & Barry Windham w/ Captain vs. Nikolai Volkoff & Iron Sheik w/Freddie Blassie
If you don’t know, Rotundo named one of his sons Windham and you would know him as Husky Harris today. Also, Rotundo would later be known better as Irwin R. Schyster. The Rotundo/Windham were known as the US Express, a pair of tall and athletic young babyfaces. They started off on fire, dominating Sheik, who accidentally hit a dropkick on Volkoff. He tagged out to bring Volkoff in while Rotundo worked him over. The US Express did a lot of quick tags. Sheik got tagged in and got a two count after a gutwrench suplex. Rotundo tried to fight back, but Volkoff got the tag and dropped him neck first on the top rope with a stun gun type maneuver. Rotundo came back with a sunset flip for a nearfall. Volkoff was able to weaken him some more while tagging in Iron Sheik, who put Rotundo in the abdominal stretch. Rotundo fought out with a hip lock, Sheik tagged in Volkoff and Rotundo made the hot tag to Windham, who went nuts on Volkoff with some fast-paced offense including a picture-perfect looking dropkick. Windham hit a bulldog that Volkoff sold awkwardly. Sheik broke up the pin. Rotundo went after him. The ref told Rotundo to leave the ring. Blassie gave Sheik his cane and Sheik hit Windham in the back with it. Volkoff covered, the ref turned around and counted the pinfall at 6:55.
Winners: Nikolai Volkoff & The Iron Sheik – new Tag Team Champions

Post match, what was The Iron Sheik’s celebration speech? “Iran number one! Russia number one!” Classic Sheik.

Analysis: **1/2 That was a fun, old-school tag team match. The faces took control early, the heels dominated Rotundo to build up to the hot tag, Windham had a lot of momentum and the heels countered it with the cheap attack using the cane. Simple booking that works.

Backstage, Okerlund interviewed Iron Sheik, Volkoff & Blassie. Gene asked Blassie where his cane is. Blassie denied ever having a cane. Blassie rules!

It’s Bodyslam Challenge time. Big John Studd and Bobby Heenan are putting up $15,000 against Andre the Giant. If Andre wins he gets the money. If Studd wins then Andre retires. Gene talked to Bobby & Studd about it.

$15,000 Bodyslam Challenge: Big John Studd w/Bobby Heenan vs. Andre the Giant
Studd barely gets any heel heat. Andre gets a huge pop, which is no surprise because he’s one of the biggest draws in the history of the business. The money is in a WWF gym bag. Studd attacked him with big punches. Andre comes back with chops and headbutts as Studd bails to the floor. Andre choked him along the ropes as the crowd cheered wildly. Studd kicked him low and tried to slam Andre, but he couldn’t do it. Andre slapped on the bearhug. I’d call this a methodical pace, but that word is too fast for it. He turned it into a choke. The crowd was chanting “slam” because they want to see a slam, but also because they want this ridiculously slow-paced match to end. Andre continued to work him over with punches and kicks to the thigh. Then he gave Studd a bodyslam to end it at 5:53.
Winner: Andre the Giant

Post match, Andre got the bag and threw the money towards the fans. Bobby Heenan didn’t like that, so he grabbed the money from him. He took off with it.

Analysis: DUD Not much of a match. Just a showcase for Andre, who was a big draw and it showed by that ovation he got when he gave the bodyslam to Studd. It would have been better at two or three minutes. It dragged because of how limited they both are, but the crowd loved seeing Andre so the ending was good enough for me.

Backstage, Mean Gene interviewed Andre who said he wasn’t in it for the money. He was there to show Studd & Heenan that he could slam him. Of course, that’s exactly what he did.

Backstage, Gene talked to Richter & Lauper prior to the women’s title match. Then he talked to Kai & Moolah. With the heel champion already in the ring, Leilani Kai came out with her manager Cyndi Lauper to Lauper’s popular song: “Girls just want to have fun.” They want to have fun…girls…want to have fun…sorry it’s an addictive song.

Women’s Championship: Leilani Kai w/Fabulous Moolah vs. Wendi Richter w/Cyndi Lauper
Kai is the heel champion. Getting Lauper to participate in WrestleMania was a big deal as she was a very popular singer in those days. She got them a lot of mainstream press. Early on, Kai worked over Richter with an armbar. Kai turned it into a choke, but Richter countered with a leg scissors. Back on their feet, Richter took her down awkwardly for a two count. Kai did a hair whip for two. Richter fought out in the corner with a double leg kick to the face. A lot of sloppy work here. Moolah choked Richter, but Lauper saved her. Kai put Richter down with a boot to the gut. Richter hit a fireman’s carry for two. Kai came back with a double knee lift followed by a sloppy backbreaker for two. Then she hit a bodyslam. Kai went for a crossbody, she hit it, but Richter slowly rolled through and covered for the pinfall victory at 6:12 to become the Women’s Champion.
Winner: Wendi Richter

Post match, Lauper went after Moolah again, who was doing some Ric Flair style bumps randomly in the ring. I guess you can call it delayed selling. The crowd was going nuts with the win as well as Lauper going after Moolah.

Analysis: DUD It was so sloppy. Sorry ladies. The timing was off for a lot of spots and they didn’t build to the finish well. Still, Lauper’s star power was obvious based on the reaction she got for just being out there. If I were to praise anything it would be the finish, which was well crafted although not fluently done.

Backstage, Gene talked to Richter and Lauper, who were pleased with the win.

The Fink introduced former New York Yankees manager Billy Martin to be the special ring announcer for the main event. The crowd loves him. He introduces Liberace along with the Rockettes. He’s the guest timekeeper. “Liberace’s got a pretty fair kick there Gino,” is all Jesse can say about this. The next guest was Muhammad Ali, who was a special guest referee outside the ring for the match. The in-ring ref is Pat Patterson, which was done because he was a part of the creative process. It wasn’t a regular role for him.

Finally, it was time for the competitors. A band came out with bagpipes and drums to bring out Roddy Piper, Paul Orndorff and their manager for this match, Bob Orton, who of course had a cast on his left hand. ” Real American” started playing and the Garden went nuts. They showed Hulk Hogan, Mr. T and manager for this match, Jimmy Snuka, making their way to the ring. Hogan was the WWF Champion here although obviously this wasn’t a match where the title would be on the line.

Hulk Hogan & Mr. T vs. Roddy Piper & Paul Orndorff
The crowd is going nuts at the start of the match. Orndorff starts with Hogan, but Piper wants in and then Mr. T wants in from Hulk. Piper was such a great heel during this time period. He was a huge catalyst in building this match up. Piper took him down with some mat wrestling, but Mr. T got out of it. Mr. T put Piper on his shoulders in a fireman’s carry and then he dumped him off his shoulders. Everybody starts brawling, so Muhammad Ali runs into the ring and clears everybody out. The heels walk away from the ring. The crowd is going nuts for all of this. The heels come back in, so Hogan & Mr. T ram their heads together for the double noggin knocker. Hogan busts out his moveset with an atomic drop on Piper. T comes in with a bodyslam on Piper and a hiptoss on Orndorff. He tags Hogan back in, who gets the big boot on Piper that sends him over the top rope to the floor. Orndorff cheated to knock Hogan out to the floor.

On the floor, Piper hit Hogan in the back with a red folding chair. Ali chased Piper away as Orndorff threw Hogan back in. The heels double-teamed Hogan with a double atomic drop on Hogan while Ali informed Patterson of the cheating. To say it’s a chaotic match would be an understatement. Orndorff hit a suplex on Hogan. Piper hit a kneelift on Hogan for two. Orndorff got a backbreaker on Hogan. He missed a flying off the top rope. Hogan crawled to the corner to tag Mr. T. He’s a house on fire for a few seconds, but the heels are able to beat him down. Orndorff dragged Mr. T to the corner and Piper tagged in. He put T in a headlock. Ali was standing on the apron for a while, blocking the view. Mr. T fought out of Piper to tag in Hogan. Everybody was down, so Snuka & Orton ran in there and Snuka hit Orton with a headbutt. Orndorff held Hogan for Piper, but T broke it up. Orton jumped off the top rope, Hogan moved and Orton hit Orndorff with the cast to the head. Snuka took care of Orton, so Hogan covered the pinfall at 13:13.
Winners: Hulk Hogan & Mr. T

Analysis: ** It was everything that was good about the mid-80s in the WWF. Hogan was ridiculously over and so was Mr. T, but the match was very disjointed. There was way too much going on, a lot of people missing cues and could have been more organized. That’s what happens when you have inexperienced people out there. You can’t really question the star power, though. It was a huge match and they pulled it off relatively well.

After the match, Piper decked referee Pat Patterson. Orndorff took a while to get up and freaked out after realizing that his team left. He would turn babyface after this although if I recall that didn’t last too long for him.

In the ring, the babyfaces celebrated the victory much to the delight of the crowd.

Mean Gene talked to Mr. T, Hulk Hogan and Jimmy Snuka. Mr. T said he was ready, he trained hard and you had to be tough to be in the wrestling ring. Hogan said he knew how to pick a partner. Hogan said they would be around for a long, long time. It’s 27 years later and Hogan is still around the wrestling business, so at least he was honest about something.

To end the show, Gorilla and Jesse thanked us for watching.


– Why end the main event with a cast shot to the head? I realize that they wanted to turn Orndorff face, but it’s silly that the match ended without Hogan hitting his patented legdrop. The way they did it gave the match a flat ending that could have been easily avoided. I was also surprised that Muhammad Ali didn’t have a bigger role in the finish. They could have used him to punch somebody, sending them into daze before Hogan put them down with a big boot.

– Did they mess up on the Bundy match somehow? They were trying to say the match went only 9 seconds even though it was 23 seconds. I understand trying to put over a new record time for a fast match, but when it was obviously longer than what they wanted they should have changed that plan on the fly. Plus, Bundy didn’t ask for a five count. I loved when he would do that. That’s a shame.

– They used a lot of celebrities here, but I didn’t have a problem with the way they were used. The crowd was very receptive to almost all of them. Even watching Liberace dancing with the Rockettes was entertaining…okay so that was a lie. For the most part, though, I liked the celebrity involvement.

– I laughed hard after the tag title match when Okerlund asked Blassie about cheating and Freddie denied that he even had a cane.

– The commentary team was hurt by the fact that they were both babyfaces for the broadcast. Thankfully in the years that followed there would usually be a heel color commentator.

Best Match: The Iron Shiek & Nikolai Volkoff vs. Mike Rotundo & Barry Windham – Not a classic by any means, but a quality tag team wrestling match with a lot of heat.

Worst Match: Andre The Giant vs. Big John Studd – It needed to be two minutes tops. Stretching it to five was too long. Both guys were limited. The crowd popped for the bodyslam, but the match made it feel like we were watching something in slow motion.

Most Memorable Moment: The anticipation of the main event was the highlight. They did an excellent job of building up to this match. The match wasn’t very good, but the crowd was very excited to see it.

Three Stars:
1. Hulk Hogan – By far the biggest star of the show. He did a good job of integrating Mr. T into the main event.
2. Roddy Piper – The unquestioned star of the heel team. The fans wanted to see him get destroyed.
3. Ricky Steamboat – Even in a short match you could see how good he was.

Show rating (out of 10): 4.5

It’s hard to properly rate a show like this compared to the kind of wrestling shows we are used to today. If you rated it based on importance then it’s a 10, but I’m rating it on the quality of the show. It’s not a show I would recommend if you want to see great wrestling action. It is more about the spectacle of the event. The pageantry wasn’t there aside from the celebrity involvement, which was impressive at the time. They got a recently retired elite athlete like Muhammad Ali, they got a popular actor in Mr. T and they also had a top musician (at the time) Cyndi Lauper to be a part of the show. They definitely added to it although none of them were that impressive in their performances aside from a few brief moves by Mr. T. Still, the star power meant a lot and really helped put the then World Wrestling Federation on the map so to speak.

This show is not one of the best WrestleManias ever. In fact, when I’m done looking at the 27 WrestleManias this one will likely be in the bottom five. With that said, the first WrestleMania is important because without it we wouldn’t have had the 26 that followed it. Vince McMahon took a lot of risk in putting this show on. Obviously, that risk paid off. There can be arguments made about the quality of the show, but nobody can deny that WrestleMania 1 was an unquestionable success.

John Canton

Twitter @johnreport