Monday, April 1, 2013

My Favorite WrestleMania Matches: I-V

Hulk Hogan & Mr. T vs. Roddy Piper & Paul Orndorff
I was three years old when the first WrestleMania took place, so certainly too young to even be aware of it, let alone watch it; I didn’t get into wrestling until my dad introduced me in 1990 (I’m actually curious now to ask my dad if he watched the first WrestleMania). While I saw clips and selected matches from the card over the years on highlight reels and compilations, I don’t believe I watched the entire show start to finish until just a couple years ago via WWE OnDemand.

This was a show not so much about athleticism, but spectacle. The longest match went 13 minutes, and only one other hit double digits, so none were that stand out, but they didn’t need to be; it was a chance for the WWF to trot out their stars for display in front of a big audience alongside mainstream celebrities like Mr. T, Cyndi Lauper and Muhammad Ali.

That said, while it’s tempting to be a know-it-all and say Ricky Steamboat’s sub-five-minute bout with Matt Borne was some sort of hidden classic, this show was all about the main event. The wrestling was fine, but it was the skill Hogan and Piper had for playing the hero and the villain respectively, plus all the bells and whistles beyond their partners—Ali as guest ref, Jimmy Snuka and Bob Orton as the corner men, and so on—that made it memorable.

Hulk Hogan vs. King Kong Bundy in a Steel Cage match for the WWF title
I’m fairly certain WrestleMania II (or 2, if you prefer, but I never stray from the Roman numerals) is the one I got my mom to rent for me when I was recovering from one of the many times I had to get teeth pulled when I was in elementary school. I seem to recall there was a really dinky video store in Newton Center that was a quarter of the size of the larger Wellesley Video down the street (Blockbuster was a couple years away), but they had this awesomely quirky selection of 80’s WWF Coliseum Video collections, including this one.

That said, I don’t remember a lot of the big matches from this show, including the first two main events with Mr. T against Piper in a boxing match and the British Bulldogs winning the Tag titles. I do remember Randy Savage against George “The Animal” Steele for the Intercontinental title, I do remember Andre the Giant winning a battle royal, and I do remember this match, the final one of the show.

I recently watched WWE’s Greatest Steel Cage matches compilation and gained a new appreciation for what Hogan can do in these particular matches against big guys like Andre there and Bundy here. He’s very good at using the psychology of the cage as a weapon to make himself more vulnerable than in his typical early matches, and bounced around spryly for Bundy here. The eventual super hero comeback and victory is textbook how it should be done stuff, and I think it’s a nice snapshot about what worked during this era. Bonus points for the crazy beating Bobby Heenan takes from Hogan per usual after the match (a match where Heenan just wrestled a cage would have been great).

Randy Savage vs. Ricky Steamboat for the Intercontinental title
I inherited a tape of this show from I want to say either my friend Eli or his brother Nate at some point when I was in college. I’d seen the Hogan-Andre main event many times, but almost none of the undercard and the IC title match only in clipped format I believe.

Savage-Steamboat is widely considered not just the match of WrestleMania III (it was the perfect pairing with the moment of the night—which of course is Hogan slamming Andre—in a surreally huge venue to make this one of if not the most memorable Manias), or even just one of the best Mania matches of all-time, but one of the best ever, so it’s not shocking or controversial in any fashion to say I loved what.

What impresses me most though is that it’s 15 minutes long—longest match of the night—and I challenge you to find a single second that drags. Even when they’re in a rest hold—and there aren’t many—Savage’s intensity and Steamboat’s emotion make those exciting. I’m a guy with a short attention span, and this was one of the first matches I saw that started conditioning me to enjoy wrestling clinics that go longer than 10 minutes.

Ted DiBiase vs. Randy Savage for the vacant WWF title
Another one I’m pretty sure I got from the Freedman boys. It was a two-tape VHS set that I retained until ditching my VCR once and for all when I moved last year; I believe Ryan Penagos now has possession of this one.

It’s a pretty boring affair, as the bulk of the show is devoted to the tournament for the vacant WWF title, and as a result of having to accommodate 11 matches there plus five more to boot, most everything is a forgettable five minute dash. I imagine watching it in 1989 and not knowing who would walk out with the championship the whole thing was pretty exciting—that’s how it was when I watched Survivor Series 1998 live—but the hindsight of knowing the end result kills that.

That said, despite temptation to tap the fun opening battle royal or Demolition’s coming out party winning the Tag titles, I’ve still got to go with the final match of the tournament. Savage was on fire all night, making the most out of whatever time he got and the crowd loved him. DiBiase is the perfect foil and they deliver a solid match made better by the presence of Hogan and Andre at ringside plus an awesome post-match celebration where Savage hoists Elizabeth on his shoulder carrying the belt; classic image and it’s cool to see somebody else with the title during that era.

Randy Savage vs. Hulk Hogan for the WWF title
I watched this show at some point when I was a kid, most likely rented from Blockbuster’s ever-shifting collection of wrestling videos (which always had WCW Halloween Havoc 1995). Bought it on eBay or Amazon sometime around or after college graduation when I was going through a 1989 WWF kick (I had the Royal Rumble and SummerSlam as well). I think that year captured my attention around that time mostly because it was the period right before I started watching so I basically got to see the prologue to everything I dug growing up, but maybe also a little due to it being around the time everybody started getting amazing entrance themes (the intros to the Rude’s Brood vs. Roddy’s Rowdies match at Survivor Series is just musical bliss).

The Mega-Powers exploding in the main event of WrestleMania was the best storyline conclusion to date at the time—it’s still up there—with a solid match to back it up. The year build of Savage growing to resent Hogan with Elizabeth as the fulcrum was a thing of beauty, with perhaps the only flaw being that even as a kid you could kind of see that Hulk came off as the jerk. No matter, because Savage was a great villain and Hogan could still get it done as a hero, so their dynamic was great at Mania for their best match ever (that I’ve seen). I also like that it’s a break from Hogan’s formula to that point of dealing with lumbering monsters, instead having to content with a quicker, more devious, more athletic guy and come up with a new game plan.