Hulk Hogan & Mr. T vs. Paul Orndorff & Roddy Piper
I’m not really sure what can be said about this match that hasn’t been said a million times before, I guess other than how interesting it is to see how the perceptions of celebrities involved in wrestling matches on what has now become the biggest show of the year for any promotion anywhere in the world, has changed so drastically. In 1985, Mr. T was accepted completely as being worthy of the spot as Hulk Hogan’s tag team partner to tangle with the nefarious duo of Piper and Orndorff, whereas someone like Nicole ‘Snooki’ Polizzi was derided by fans and roundly booed at WrestleMania XXVII in April 2011. The again, she did come from Jersey Shore, so maybe that kind of reaction shouldn’t be surprising. But one thing you can say about the way WrestleMania itself has changed is how the celebrities were used to bring the wrestlers’ star power up for those early entries into the series, but in more recent times, the wrestlers… er, “sports entertainers” have been positioned as the stars themselves, with outside names like Floyd Mayweather and Maria Menunos acting somewhat as window dressing to the proceedings, despite an in-ring spot on the card. Still, one would be remiss not to point out that it was the involvement of Donald Trump and the premise that either he or Mr. McMahon would have his head shaved bald after WrestleMania XXIII‘s “Battle of the Billionaires” match, pitting Trump’s charge Bobby Lashley against McMahon’s representative Umaga, that not only broke Michigan’s Ford Field attendance record (80,103, a number larger than the legitimate 78,000 fans WrestleMania III pulled in the same state) but both WrestleMania XVIII‘s $3.9 million live even gross (to the tune of $5.38 million) and WWE’s all-time pay-per-view buyrate with 1.2 million individual buys worldwide. Still, despite the acceptance of Mr. T by both wrestling fans and the mainstream media, one person who didn’t buy into him (and in fact, legitimately hated the guy for his apparent rotten attitude) was Piper, who told Vince McMahon in no uncertain terms that he would not allow T to get any offence in on him or Orndorff. It might all seem a bit like sabotaging your own match, cutting your nose to spite your face if you will, but back in 1985 with kayfabe still largely protected, it made a lot of sense not to allow an actor, even one with the (fabricated) tough guy reputation of T to take it to Piper or Orndorff at the risk of them losing their own tough guy auras. Let’s face it, if T exposed Piper and Orndorff as frauds, they were done. If Piper and Orndorff were to destroy T, well, they’re wrestlers, why wouldn’t they? And T would always go back to The A-Team, no harm done. But even with that semi-shoot unfolding in the ring, even with all the chicanery from the corner men (‘Superfly’ Jimmy Snuka with the Hogan & T combo, ‘Ace Cowboy’ Bob Orton seconding for Piper & Orndorff) and the involvement of celebrity guest referee and all-time pro boxing legend Muhammad Ali, the magic was there that afternoon. The stars aligned and the massive personalities and monstrous egos all mixed in a volatile, explosive crescendo of sheer excitement. And the Garden was pandemonium as Orton struck his own man Orndorff with a plaster cast he’d been dragging a not-actually-broken arm around in, to gift the victory to “Hogan’s Heroes” in what I’d probably call the first baseline “good” match in WrestleMania history.
Final Rating: ***
It’s actually pretty insane that this match even happened at all given the inclusion of several still-active NFL players like Jim Covert and the beyond smug Bill Fralic (who, based on his performance here and in an interview he gave before the show with Big John Studd, would have made a superb heel had the gridiron not worked out for him), something which would seem completely unimaginable even five years later. Of course, April is during football’s close-season and in the days before multi-million dollar contracts, many NFL players transitioned into wrestling careers, most notably names like Ernie Ladd and Wahoo McDaniel. In fact, one of the football players here would eventually be inducted into WWE’s Hall of Fame Celebrity Wing, William ‘Refrigerator’ Perry, a SuperBowl-winning Chicago Bear whose crossover popularity was so great that later in the year, he was immortalised as part of the G.I. Joe action figure line, alongside another future WWE Hall of Famer, Sgt. Slaughter. Still, despite a couple of bright spots, including Perry illegally eliminating Studd from the outside, this is still just your usual cluster of a battle royal, the pre-match introductions being about the most exciting part. Eventually it comes down to the usual situation of the final four, who in this case are Andre the Giant, the Hart Foundation, and football player Russ Francis, whose inclusion this late in the match isn’t actually as strange as it might seem, given his father Ed Francis was a wrestler and promoter in Hawaii during the 1960s and 70s, and that Russ had previously held the NWA Hawaii Tag Team Championship with his older brother Billy Roy Francis in 1978. Once he retired from football, Francis would go on to wrestle full time (albeit briefly) for the AWA, though he’s dumped out by the Harts, leaving the usual battle royal situation of the babyface being outnumbered 2-on-1 by the nefarious heel duo. Of course, when the one is a giant and the two are an as-yet unregarded low-card tag team, the finish is inevitable. Andre boots Jim Neidhart in the face, resulting in ‘the Anvil’ taking one of the worst, most credibility-shattering eliminations from a battle royal that you’re ever likely to see, before the Giant flings Bret Hart down on top of him to claim the predictable victory. One final trivia note; this is the only time bona fide legends Bret Hart and Bruno Sammartino were ever in the same match.
Final Rating: *
WWF Championship Tournament Final
Randy Savage vs. Ted DiBiase
This is the conclusion (or indeed, continuation of) an epic storyline/angle in which Andre the Giant challenged Hulk Hogan for the WWF title, eventually ensnaring it on the February 5th, 1988 NBC special The Main Event, with the help of a crooked “evil twin” referee, before surrendering the title to Ted DiBiase. Since WWF president Jack Tunney deemed a title could not just be handed over to someone (and try explaining that one to Triple H), DiBiase was not officially the champion. Nor was Andre, who in surrendering the belt had given up all rights and claims to the title, and neither was the title to be returned to Hogan since Andre was still being recognised as the last man to hold to the title. Which doesn’t really make any sense if you think about it, how come Tunney could overturn DiBiase taking the belt on a default but not wipe out Andre’s “victory” from the record due to the corrupt officiating? What a terrible president Tunney really was. I bet he was on the take too. The upshot was the WWF title being declared vacant for the first time in its history, resulting in a colossal (and colossally boring) 14-man single elimination tournament to crown a new undisputed champion, of which this was the final match. DiBiase had defeated former Mid-South stablemate-turned-rival Hacksaw Jim Duggan and Don Muraco in the first two rounds, before getting a bye into the finals after Hogan and Andre went to a double-disqualification in their quarter final match, whilst Savage bested Butch Reed, Greg Valentine and the One Man Gang to earn his berth in this bout. The match itself is somewhere between decent and good, but comes crashing down to earth on account of a horribly stifled Trump Plaza atmosphere, with a crowd completely burnt out after sitting on their hands through an extremely long, four-hour card full of mostly short, uninspiring matches. In fact, Savage-DiBiase was the sixteenth match held that afternoon, and I guess it’s just one of those weird, ironic things that the two of them would have such consistently great matches throughout their series in 1988, yet the most famous and arguably important meeting of the lot just happened to be the one time that the elements failed to come together, that the stars failed to align. With the action meandering along at a steady pace, Andre trips Savage from the outside, sending his valet Miss Elizabeth scurrying back to the locker room to bring out Hulk Hogan as back-up for Savage. It was a sequence that had become somewhat commonplace after she had previously done the exact same act on an edition of Saturday Night’s Main Event in October 1987, as Savage was being destroyed by the Honky Tonk Man and the Hart Foundation in a three-on-one attack. Here, Hogan’s arrival does at least serve to wake the dead crowd up momentarily, and when Andre begins choking Savage from the outside, Hogan leaps into action like Batman responding to a Bat-signal, running around the ring to wallop the Giant with a right hand square upside his ample gob. From there, Savage misses his big elbow drop off the top rope, allowing DiBiase to cinch his Million Dollar Dream sleeper hold, giving Andre a further opportunity to belt Savage from his position on the floor, which the referee admonishes him for (the referee being one of the two Hebner twins who had been involved in the previously-referred to Hogan-Andre title switch, this one presumably being whichever one the good, non-corrupted one was, although either way that still seems like a serious conflict of interests, especially given how recently that whole screwjob had gone down). And, with the referee distracted, Hogan slides in to crack DiBiase flat across the back with a steel chair, giving the dizzy Savage one final opportunity to ascend to the top rope and drop the big elbow for the match-winning, tournament-conquering, WWF title-winning pin. At the time, a lot of Hogan-haters used that to draw attention to what a lousy cheat the supposed All-American hero Hogan really was, but given the mind-numbing length of the entire WrestleMania IV card, it’s easy to forget that Hogan had been nailed from behind with a chair by DiBiase during his quarter final match with Andre. Not to mention the outrageously ridiculous manner which the Mega Bucks had gone to steal the title from him in the first place. It should be worth noting that as this disappointment was unfolding, the rival Jim Crockett Promotions were running a live television special over on TBS, the first Clash of the Champions on which NWA World Heavyweight champion Ric Flair was busy making a star out of Sting with an epic 45-minute draw.
Final Rating: **
Jake Roberts vs. Andre the Giant
This is the final blowoff to a months long feud between Jake and Andre, primarily built around Andre’s fear of snakes and a truly embarrassing angle in which Andre supposedly suffered a heart attack at the sight of Damien on an episode of SNME. How tasteful. It’s also the genesis for a revitalising of the Andre vs. Big John Studd feud, as Studd is here as the special guest referee, complete with a slower version of what eventually became Hacksaw Jim Duggan’s entrance theme. Yeah, as if the Andre-Studd matches weren’t bad enough in 1985 before Andre completely deteriorated, the WWF was actually trying to resurrect them four years on, only with Studd as the babyface and Andre as the heel. Studd quit the promotion prior to a Superstars taping on June 6th, cutting short their run of house show matches, eventually being replaced on the circuit by Hillbilly Jim (and what corkers those bouts must have been). In fact, just one Andre-Studd match from their 1989 ever made air, a horrendous double-disqualification clash from the Boston Garden on May 13th that aired locally on the North East Sports Network. Here though, Studd is largely just a bystander as master of psychology Jake works around Andre’s enormous size with a hit and run, cat and mouse strategy. Andre works in his usual spot of getting his arms tied up in the ropes, but it’s an inevitability that he eventually gets his hands on Jake, and it’s choke city from there since Andre’s so broken down by this point that he can’t physically do a whole lot else. It’s just so sad to watch him struggling through his matches towards the end of his life, especially here in front of a crowd that seems completely bored out of its mind. It certainly didn’t help matters that WrestleMania V had been such a tepid, drawn out card. Eventually, Jake ends up on the outside where a close-up shot of the ring apron reveals what a cheapskate Vince McMahon is, having sewn purple patches over the ‘I’ on the WrestleMania IV logo. Still, I suppose you can’t blame him for getting some extra use out of those things. From there, Andre decides he doesn’t want Jake to get back in the ring so Studd gets in his face about it, while Jake grabs his bag containing Damien as two issues suddenly splinter out of one – Ted DiBiase sprints down the aisle and steals the bag from Jake, kicking off a year-long issue between the two. Meanwhile back in the ring, Andre shoves Studd from behind prompting Studd to shove to return the favour before Andre chokes out Studd from behind and drops him with a series of head-butts to the back of his noggin. Finally, Jake returns with Damien having retrieved the bag from DiBiase, Andre bails, and Studd declares Jake the winner on a disqualification just to screw with Andre, even though Jake probably should have been counted out by now. Match was at least pretty short with just enough bullshit going on to keep it from being entirely terrible, but it wasn’t good by any stretch.
Final Rating: *
The Ultimate Warrior vs. Randy Savage
Shawn Michaels might have found himself carrying around the nickname “Mr. WrestleMania”, but in the first decade of the event, you can make an exceedingly strong argument that Randy Savage deserved that moniker for his sterling collection of performances against the likes of Ricky Steamboat, Hulk Hogan and Ric Flair. Here, he even manages to carry The Ultimate Warrior to an epic, career-best performance, no mean feat given how lousy the Warrior usually was against anybody not named Rick Rude. The fact the match had such a strong storyline certainly helped, with Savage having attempted to hedge his bets by strong-arming his way into title contention, brokering a deal with number one contender Sgt. Slaughter and basically attempting to bribe champion Warrior into giving him a shot with promises of sexual favours from ‘Queen’ Sherri. When Warrior refused a blowjob at the Royal Rumble (more or less), Savage’s mind was made up; Slaughter had to win the title. And he did, with help from Savage. Unfortunately for the ‘Macho King’, his title match would not be forthcoming. Instead, his hands were filled with attempting to deal with an enraged, vengeful Warrior. Further proof that Savage was completely nuts? Enraging someone who was already a complete maniac.
Further to the Warrior-Savage angle was a much deeper rooted storyline dating to Savage’s arrival in the World Wrestling Federation, all the way back in 1985. At the time, it was common for a hot new commodity in the promotion to court all the managers of the day, eliminating them one-by-one until only his prime cut remained. With Savage, things were different. He didn’t pick Bobby Heenan, Jimmy Hart, ‘Luscious’ Johnny V or ‘Classy’ Freddie Blassie. In fact, Savage didn’t pick a manager at all, rather a beautiful, princess-like valet named Elizabeth. The act was dynamite, with Savage as the aggressive, crazed ‘Macho Man’, and Elizabeth as a concerned but loyal sweetheart, clearly in love with her man but always somehow managing to express the desire that he be a nice guy, despite how little he ever allowed her to speak. That she was there for him when he was attacked by the Hart Foundation and the Honky Tonk Man said it all, the frightened little rabbit displaying such courage in the assistance of the one she truly loved. And now, with Savage as the WWF’s deluded monarch putting his entire existence, his reason for being on the line, she had returned, watching on from the sidelines. Watching a man who’s career she had been such an integral part of. Watching a man who had betrayed her out of pure, carnal jealousy. Watching a man she loved and cared about so greatly, despite how he’d hurt her. Watching a King unwillingly abdicate his throne. Watching Randy Savage give everything within his bodily fibre still get his ass kicked into premature retirement by The Ultimate Warrior. Savage could be as beloved as he was hated, and despite his status as one of wrestling’s most despised individuals by the early part of 1991, his true victory was in defeat, displaying the heart of a fighting champion who gave everything he had just to live one more day in a wrestling ring. For his valet ‘Queen’ Sherri, it was goodbye to a life of opulence. For Savage, it was goodbye to life itself. Sherri was livid and attacked an unconscious Savage after his loss. And there at the end of that darkened tunnel, shone the brightest light of all. Elizabeth darted to the ring to save the day, only this time, she got her hands dirty, yanking Sherri out of the ring by her hair. Coming to his senses, it was like a great weight had been lifted from Savage’s shoulders. Realising what had happened and everything they had been through, Savage and Elizabeth embraced mid-ring, as genuine tears fell from the eyes of those around ringside. “It means much more than this” read the airbrushed graffiti on Warrior’s tights, surrounding a rendering of the WWF Title belt. This match meant more than one could possibly have imagined. The King was dead. Long live the ‘Macho Man.’
Final Rating: ****½
Summary: Once again it’s another “best of” WrestleMania tape that doesn’t quite live up to its billing, forsaking genuine classics like Steamboat-Savage and monstrous main events like Hogan-Savage and Warrior-Hogan, in favour of a bog-standard battle royal and some other rather underwhelming bouts. Of course, match selection on WWF home videos was a lot more political and a lot less liberal than it would come to be, at least during the early days of WWE’s retrospective DVDs, even if those did tend to weigh heavily towards as much current footage as they possibly could. Still, it remains that WWE has yet to produce a really definitive “best of” on the history of its grandest showpiece for either the VHS, DVD or Blu-Ray markets.