Wrestling fans get tired of saying it: it’s not fake; it’s scripted. For decades, professional wrestling has labored under this basic misunderstanding by people who don’t actually watch it. The fandom knows that it’s “fixed,” just like the last movie or TV series you watched. Wrestling presents a combination of live theatre, athletics, and stuntwork. It’s carefully plotted by creative teams and wrestlers themselves, designed to deliver the maximum impact as both a live show and a broadcast. And for 35 years, the biggest date on the wrestling calendar has been World Wrestling Entertainment’s WrestleMania. Here are six things you didn’t know about the biggest show in the ring, along with some classic moments.
1. Professional Wrestling is Older Than You Think
Professional wrestling extends back to the 1800s, when staged in-ring fighting was a form of sideshow and carnival entertainment. With the advent of television in the United States, professional wrestling was one of the first things to get on the air on a regular basis. At that point, wrestling promotions (leagues) were working different “territories”; one promotion might run mid-Ohio, for example, while another might run Florida. By the early 1980s, only a handful of big promotions remained. One was the World Wrestling Federation, known today as WWE.
2. WWE Truly is a Family Business
Jess McMahon promoted concerts, boxing, and wrestling in New York; his son Vincent J. McMahon was born in 1914. Vincent focused on professional wrestling, co-founding the World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF) under Capitol Wrestling Corporation in 1963 with Toots Mondt. The WWWF dropped a W in 1979, retooling their name to the World Wrestling Federation. In 1980, Vincent’s son, Vincent K. “Vince” McMahon, and his wife Linda founded Titan Sports, Inc. They bought Capitol and the WWF from Vincent in 1982. Vince had a vision that extended beyond the territory system that would make WWF a truly global brand. Vince still runs the company today, and his adult children Shane and Stephanie have on-camera and behind-the-scenes roles within the promotion. Linda ran the Small Business Administration as part of Donald Trump’s cabinet and currently sits as the chair of America First Action, the pro-Trump Super PAC. Stephanie’s husband, best-known as the wrestler Triple H, is an executive vice president and producer for the company.
3. WrestleMania Was a Reaction to Starrcade
Rival promoter Jim Crockett, in conjunction with the National Wrestling Alliance, launched the Starrcade event in 1983. Their biggest show of the year, Starrcade was shown on closed-circuit TV, which at that point meant special broadcasts in theatres and other venues. The WWF felt the need to offer a competing event, and that planted the seed for what would become WrestleMania, though a long build-up took place first.
4. The Road to WrestleMania is Paved with MTV
Vince McMahon had witnessed the success of MTV as a platform, particularly one that was reaching young people. At that time in the early 1980s,WWF programming was mostly confined to weekends in syndicated block programming, so a relationship with a delivery vehicle like MTV could bring a huge signal boost. Wrestler/manager Captain Lou Albano helped formulate the idea of a “Rock ‘n’ Wrestling Connection,” something that began to play out when Albano appeared as Cyndi Lauper’s dad in her 1983 video for “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” McMahon got Lauper onto WWF programming and began to build a feud around Lauper’s objections to Albano’s “kayfabe” (that is “fake” or “fictional” for the storyline) sexism. Their argument would result in each picking a female wrestler for a match in the future.
That match would end up being held on MTV on The Brawl to End It All, which went down on July 23, 1984. While the rest of the card was on closed-circuit, the match between The Fabulous Moolah (Albano’s pick) and Wendi Richter (Lauper’s choice) was carried on the music network. Moolah, an industry veteran who had recently come to WWF, was promoted as being the women’s champion for the past 28 years. Richter beat Moolah, and in the process handed MTV its biggest ratings in its then-short existence.
Those events led up to another MTV special, The War to Settle the Score, which ran on February 18, 1985, as one of the big final pushes for WrestleMania. Again, only one match was shown from the card, and it featured Hulk Hogan successfully defending his WWF World Heavyweight Championship belt against “Rowdy” Roddy Piper. Their feud had been set up using the continuation of the Cyndi Lauper angle (storyline); Lauper and Albano had “reconciled” after The Brawl, but Piper objected to the “Rock ‘n’ Wrestling Connection.” Hogan came to their defense, leading to The War match.
5. There’s No WrestleMania without Hulkamania
That might be a bit of a stretch, but the fact is that in 1985, the WWF was already enjoying a wild surge of popularity, and one of the biggest reasons for that was Hulk Hogan. Born Terry Bollea, he wrestled early on Terry Boulder, half of a tag team with Ed Leslie (Hogan’s best friend and later better known as Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake). By coincidence in the late 1970s, Bollea appeared alongside actor and bodybuilder Lou Ferrigno on a Memphis talk show; people commented how Bollea was much bigger than TV’s Incredible Hulk. Shortly thereafter, the wrestler began incorporating “Hulk” into his various ringnames. From 1979 to 1980, he had a brief run as a villain in WWF; it’s during that time that Vince McMahon gave him the ringname Hogan.
Hogan had a tenure with New Japan Pro Wrestling that began in 1980; the next year, he filmed a cameo as wrestler “Thunderlips” for Rocky III. It was a move that Vincent J. McMahon objected to, so Hogan went to the rival AWA promotion, where his star rose over the next two years. In 1983, with the younger Vince now in charge of the WWF, Hogan returned. By January of 1984, Hogan wrestled the Iron Sheik for the Championship and won; retired wrestler/announcer Gorilla Monsoon declared, “Hulkamania is here!” and the WWF ran with it.
Hulk Hogan became wildly popular, in part due to his enthusiastic promos (interview segments) and his embrace of the hero role. A veritable catchphrase machine, Hogan’s pronouncements like calling his fans “Hulkamaniacs” and interview-ending “Whatcha gonna do . . . when Hulkamania . . . runs wild on you?!” entered the popular vernacular. Hogan’s appearance in Rocky III also connected him with another tough guy in career ascension: Mr. T. By this time, Mr. T was starring on the hit show The A-Team, which provided another bridge for wrestling into the mainstream. Through a variety of storyline twists, the main event of WrestleMania was scheduled to be Hulk Hogan and Mr. T battling “Rowdy” Roddy Piper and “Mr. Wonderful” Paul Orndorff with special guest referee Muhammad Ali.
6. The Event and the Aftermath
The Undertaker carried a 21-0 undefeated streak at WrestleMania. (Uploaded to YouTube by WWE)
As a closed-circuit and pay-per-view event, WrestleMania was a groundbreaker. With an audience of more than one million, the show helped mainstream wrestling and give a number of regional stars national recognition. McMahon parlayed this success into an ongoing NBC series, Saturday Night’s Main Event; launching in May of 1985, it would occasionally occupy the Saturday Night Live timeslot for the next six years. WWF was also able to build a string of pay-per-views, developing a type of storyline programming where everything that happened on the broadcast shows would culminate in bigger matches and events on PPV. This became the defining model for pro wrestling broadcasting in America, with other promotions like World Championship Wrestling, Extreme Champisonship Wrestling, and others fielding the same type of approach.
Though the popularity of wrestling dipped in the mid-1990s, an influx of new stars to both WWF (now WWE) and WCW led to the “Monday Night Wars” as each promotion had a Monday night prime time show doing battle in the ratings. By the 2000s, Vince won, buying both WCW and ECW and incorporating much of their talent into the WWE roster with expanded programming. Today, WWE has an entire network in addition to monthly pay-per-views and broadcast shows. Their biggest competition comes from upstart All Elite Wrestling, a promotion run by legacy wrestler and promoter Cody Rhodes and staffed by a combination of veterans and upstarts.
This weekend, the 36th WrestleMania will play out over two nights in slightly muted circumstances. Though the COVID-19 situation will make the show a crowdless affair, it nonetheless goes on, in a way that’s emblematic of professional wrestling as a whole. It’s widely misunderstood, even vilified, but it’s been around for decades and will likely never, ever go away. America may try to kick out, but wrestling still gets the pin.
Featured Image: Becky Lynch will defend her title at WrestleMania 36 (Christian Bertrand / Shutterstock.com)