Lee Maughan: March 19, 2004. Hilton Hotel, New York City, NY. Created in 1993 as a means for the WWF to pay tribute to the recently deceased Andre the Giant, and with additional small scale ceremonies held between 1994-1996, the WWE’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony would become an annual part of the WrestleMania weekend package in 2004, coinciding with the promotion’s presentation of the 20th incarnation of its showpiece event. Lauded by fans as a valuable chance to pay homage to the grappling greats of years gone by, yet maligned by critics who see the event as a credibility-shattering sham designed to push DVD sets and massage the political egos of the powers that be and their pals, the 2004 reboot was, to paraphrase the tagline of the WrestleMania it was attached to, where the Hall of Fame all began again.
Hosted by ‘Mean’ Gene Okerlund, with Michael Cole giving a rundown on the twenty-four names already inducted.
‘Superstar’ Billy Graham
Vince McMahon puts over Graham’s unique look, and pays a huge compliment by saying he thinks the business would have changed a lot sooner than it did had his dad ran with ‘Superstar’ on top as champion instead of Bob Backlund. Triple H handles the induction and namelessly calls out those in attendance who previously said wouldn’t attend a Hall of Fame that Graham was ever inducted to, puts over Graham as being twenty-years ahead of his time as wrestling’s first “sports entertainer”, then reels off an amusing list of Graham’s rhyming couplets.
Graham talks about being at death’s door fifteen months earlier before receiving a liver transplant from twenty-six-year-old Arizona car crash victim Katie Gilroy. Onto wrestling, Graham first got stretched in Stu Hart’s infamous “Dungeon” before moving to San Francisco to be Pat Patterson’s tag team partner. Penniless, Pat loaned him $3,000 to get a car and put up with his inexperience. Moving ahead to 1975, Graham won the “Best Arm” award at the Mr. America contest and joined the WWWF, loaded with charisma and promo ability. He puts over the McMahon Family for their class and dignity, and talks about writing Vince a letter asking for forgiveness over his years of bitterness, transgressions and drug issues. A rich man with nothing to gain, McMahon accepted Graham’s apology.
Jimmy Hart calls himself the luckiest guy in the world for getting a call in 1984 from Vince McMahon inviting him to be part of WrestleMania and the WWF. He met Vince, Pat Patterson and booker George Scott at the airport, then drove to Poughkeepsie where Howard Finkel told him he’d be managing Greg Valentine. Valentine promised him, “We’re going to make a lot of money together,” but leaving the taping at 1:15am armed with a stack of plane tickets, thirty-five separate booking sheets, a drive back to New York and less than six hours before they needed to catch a flight to the next town, Hart asked him when they’d ever get to go home and see their families. “This is your home now, and this is your family,” came the response.
Valentine talks about having a thirty-four-year career, “sixteen years of that” being with WWE (which is true if you count his various short-term returns and legends’ contracts, but it was not an uninterrupted run), breaking in at Stu Hart’s Dungeon, and getting his first big break in 1974 when they put him in a tag team with a young kid called Ric Flair. Joining the WWWF in 1979, Vince McMahon Sr. told him a run in New York would make him world famous, and also credits McMahon, Sr. with giving him the figure four leglock. In typical wrestler fashion, he claims a 30,000 sell-out at the 20,000-seat Madison Square Garden for an hour draw with Bob Backlund, and thanks Backlund for carrying him through the last forty-five-minutes of the match. He calls breaking Wahoo McDaniel’s leg “a good memory”, then puts over Intercontinental Title rival Tito Santana, WWF Tag Team Title partner Brutus Beefcake (“Who I tried to teach how to wrestle… I think I did… “), and being a part of seven WrestleManias, including the very first one against The Junkyard Dog. On a personal note, he thanks his wife of eighteen-years, Julie, then touchingly dedicates the award to his late father, the legendary Johnny Valentine.
A gimmick induction into the newly-established “celebrity wing” of WWE’s Hall of Fame based on the controversy surrounding his ineligibility for the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame on account of allegedly gambling on the outcomes of games while coaching for the Cincinnati Reds in 1989, something to which he later confessed. Kane flat out admits during his introduction that Rose’s presence brings mainstream and sports media attention to the promotion, underlining exactly why he’s there. In a funny line, he says that people often ask him if Rose will ever get revenge for his Tombstoning him at WrestleManias past, to which he responds, “Don’t bet on it!”
From one “Big Red Machine” to another, Rose admits that he never realised the recently unmasked Kane was quite so ugly, thanks Vince McMahon for the opportunity, and puts over the talent for caring so deeply about the fans. Rose sincerely puts over WWE and NASCAR for being the only two groups who are so good to their fanbase, just as the director cuts to a shot of the former Thurman ‘Sparky’ Plugg in the audience, drawing uproarious laughter from the audience.
‘Big’ John Studd
The Big Show talks about Andre the Giant being “the giant of giants”, but also looking to Studd for inspiration as a man who was never afraid to be a heel. Studd’s son John Minton, Jr. accepts the award on behalf of his late father, thanking the fans for never forgetting him, recalling a couple of quick memories of the likes of Billy Graham and Jesse Ventura hanging out at the house, and giving a shout out to his family in the front row.
Pat Patterson reveals that when Slaughter was born, he weighed twelve-pounds and the doctor had to pull him out by the chin, after which the doctor slapped his mother. At sixteen, Slaughter signed his first autograph as a member of a rock band, but the group broke up and Slaughter joined Verne Gagne’s wrestling camp where he got sent home after getting into a fight with the legendarily tough shooter Billy Robinson. Heading up to Vancouver, Slaughter took on the name ‘Beautiful’ Bobby, which didn’t last long, nor did a runs as ‘Bruiser’ Bob, ‘Big’ Bob or Super Destroyer Mark II. Finally as Sgt. Slaughter he got it right, and his 1981 Alley Fight with Patterson was easily the best match of his career, although Patterson makes sure to note that he had many other matches that were just as good. As a mark of the esteem in which he was held, Slaughter was invited to the White House by President Ronald Reagan (who gave him an American flag that hung at the house), President George Bush and President Bill Clinton, met President Jimmy Carter, and took pictures with and signed autographs for President Richard Nixon, and also has the distinction of having wrestled all four members of the Orton family, patriarch Bob, Sr., brothers ‘Cowboy’ Bob, Jr. and Barry, and third generation star Randy.
Slaughter puts his hat on to declare, “Good evening you maggots!”, talks about seeing all the old faces and being prepared to do it all over again, then tells a funny story about when he quit being ‘Beautiful’ Bobby (another ‘Superstar’ Billy Graham rip off) and sold all of his boas and colourful clothes to Jesse Ventura (“… and you still owe me $200!”). He talks about the honor of having something named after you, such as the Gorilla Position, Brisco Rules or the “Patterson Quick One”, and talks about his famous bump in the corner becoming known as the “Slaughter bump”. He moves on to his WWF debut where he asked “Vinny… Vince, Jr.… we call him ‘God’ now…” to play a tape of the U.S. Marine Corps hymn before his interview, and Vince, Sr. called it the greatest thing he’d ever seen. He says the greatest compliments he ever received in life were that he looked like his father and that he was reminiscent of fellow Hall of Famer Arnold Skaaland, thanks The Grand Wizard for being a teacher, and puts over his sister for teaching him how to fight, ending with thank yous to various family members, predicting WrestleMania XXX will take place on Mars (close enough), then finally dismissing himself. And that’s an order!
Bobby ‘The Brain’ Heenan
Things get off to a wretched start with a speech from Blackjack Lanza so meandering that the majority of it is cut from the DVD, save for a story in which Heenan wrestled and managed one night in Tennessee for a measly $3 payoff, including the bonus. Taking the stage, Heenan asks if it’s last call (in relation to Lanza’s laboured performance and apparent references to Heenan’s drinking on the road during his career) before happily declaring himself both cancer and wedgie-free to a rousing standing ovation. On Pat Patterson’s induction for Sgt. Slaughter, he announces that at midnight tonight the whole thing will be replayed in English, and he scores points off Pete Rose by apologising for betting on wrestling.
Heenan got hooked on wrestling at the Marigold Arena in Chicago in 1954 at the age of ten, and was enamoured with the heels, namely Johnny Valentine and ‘Nature Boy’ Buddy Rogers along with Chief Big Heart and Arnold Skaaland (“Who was sixty-three then!”). By 1961, with his mother jobless, his grandmother growing old and his aunt suffering from cancer, Heenan took a job carrying jackets and selling cokes at the matches at his local armory, spending most of his time running away from The Sheik, who he was terrified of. Four years later at the age of twenty-one, he started as a manager for The Assassins, in this case Joe Tomasso and Guy Mitchell (the future Jerry Valiant), before moving on to Angelo Poffo and Chris Markoff, a man who would kick you in the groin then say, “Watch for the kick!” as you were sinking. “He was horrible. Nice man, he called me when I was sick, but he was horrible.”
From there, Heenan moves onto The Blackjacks, telling a story about Lanza stealing doughnuts from a hotel lobby every time the lady on the counter turned away to answer the phone, failing to realise that every time he did, more and more powder was turning his moustache from black to white. Talk moves onto the Hall of Fame names Heenan managed, including Billy Graham (“One night Ivan Putski slammed me on top of you, you had so many bumps on your body it hurt my back for a month!”), Harley Race (“When I found out I was going to be here tonight to be inducted with Harley, knowing Harley, I thought we were going to be indicted!”) and Sgt. Slaughter (“As we went down the back roads in Peoria, knowing our wives would never believe that we were riding with four fat girls taking us to the airport so we could save twenty bucks, he says to me ‘If this car flips and we’re dead, they’re never going to believe us!’”).
Next, a freudian slip as Heenan mentions the recently banned term “WWF” before going on a classic diatribe: “When I came here they had the three Freebirds, they had The Junkyard Dog, Mad Dog, two Bulldogs, Matilda, another dog, you had insects, you had two Killer Bees, you had serpents, you had a guy with a snake, you had a Hawaiian guy with a lizard, and to top it off, I’m ‘The Weasel’ doing commentary with the Gorilla! Dammit! So if you think you people over at the WWF now think it’s wildlife, you spend one weekend at the Hojos in Newark with Afa and Sika, The Samoans, that’s wildlife!” Needless to say, that earns Heenan his second standing ovation of the night, and he’s barely halfway done.
On leaving the AWA, Heenan recalls calling Verne Gagne with Gagne angrily asking him to come to the office the next day. Heenan decided to take his wife (“I didn’t think he’d hit a woman, and she’s Italian, God knows what would have happened to him!”) but called Vince McMahon first (“Vince said ‘Boy, I wish I could be with you.’ I said ‘What, to back me up?’ He said ‘No, I want to tape it!’”). Heenan admits he’d called Vince, Sr. every six months for ten years to try and get a job in New York, but at the time they had Ernie Roth (“Who was doing a great job”), Freddie Blassie (“Who was doing a great job”) and Lou Albano (“Who refused to be fired”), and reveals that the original plan had been for him to debut at Madison Square Garden as the manager of Jesse Ventura. Unfortunately, Ventura had discovered blood clots in his legs that effectively ended his career (“If I’d managed the Governor all those years ago, I may have been the First Lady!”), so he was asked if he would like to manage ‘Big’ John Studd instead. “I’d just been to the AWA, which in my terms was ‘All the World’s Assholes’, so I would have managed Skaaland just to get out of there.”
Skipping ahead to 1991, Heenan retired from managing due to a broken neck suffered in 1983, but McMahon asked him to go on the road with Ric Flair for six months (“So now I gotta go on the road here with Larry Flynt. I lasted ten days.”) On the first WrestleMania, Heenan didn’t think it would work and most of the boys agreed, but when he saw the celebrities and press in attendance that afternoon, he realised that McMahon was onto something. By WrestleMania III, things had gotten so big that Heenan didn’t even think about the size of the crowd that night, but how many millions were watching around the world. Talk moves on to Heenan’s broadcasting career and being given the chance to inject some comedy into a business he felt, “Needed a kick in the pants and a couple of smiles rather than a guy blowing his nose, belching and spitting. If you want to see that, come to my room! And that’s just my wife!”
Having spent the last two-and-a-half years doing nothing but chemotherapy and radiation, Heenan declares that he’s ready to start doing things again. “You sit for two-and-a-half years naked in a room watching Judge Judy, you’ll go nuts!” Recalling his $3 payoff, he declares that the reason he stuck around wasn’t because of the money or the family he had to feed, but because he loved it. And there’s standing ovation number three. Adding a personal thanks to his wife Cynthia, daughter Jessica and son-in-law John Solt, a clearly emotional Heenan wraps up with a wish that Gorilla Monsoon could still be here. Excuse me, did somebody start cutting up a bag of onions in here? An unprecedented fourth standing ovation is followed by Heenan returning to the stage to ask Gene Okerlund if he’s getting paid for tonight, and when Okerlund responds in the negative, Heenan retorts “Then I’m drinking!”
Shawn Michaels references Sgt. Slaughter’s earlier speech about the ultimate honor in the industry being to have something named after you, and talks about old friend Scott Hall’s wish of having “the ‘Tito thing’”, or in other words keeping a level enough head to be able to one day go home to mom and the kids and enjoy the riches of a long and successful career. Sadly, the part about keeping a level head seemed to elude the former Razor Ramon for much of his run.
Santana immediately thanks Vince, Sr. for giving him his first chance in the business, but looks on the verge of tears as he talks about all the family birthdays he had to miss, and thanks his wife for raising their three children. For him, the Hall of Fame is the justification for all of his sacrifices. Going back to Vince, Sr., he thanks him for being a man of his word, and talks about his consistency as a performer, missing just two shots in twelve years, one for the birth of a son and another due to a hurricane keeping him grounded at an airport. He moves on to an oft-told story (Bret Hart has his own version of the tale) of angrily demanding meetings with Vince, Jr. and coming out of them feeling great about yourself, only to realise you haven’t accomplished a single thing you went in for. Ariba!
Ric Flair puts Race over as the toughest guy in the history of the business (a debatable accolade to be sure), and talks about Race’s distaste for “sports entertainment” and steadfast belief that he was the one true World Heavyweight Champion. Flair talks about the amount of respect that Race commanded from promoters nationwide, and how when the NWA board gathered to vote on a new World Champion and collectively questioned Flair’s suitability for the role, Race was the guy who went to bat for him. Race’s word was all it took, and Flair took his first World Title shortly after. With all due respect to Heenan, Flair calls Race his favourite person to travel with, then puts his foot in it by talking about going on the road with their wives and leaving them behind when they didn’t make the plane (“That was their problem… until they caught up with us“).
Going back to Race’s toughness, Flair talks about getting a call from NWA President Bob Geigel in 1983, telling him that he was going to Japan to defend the World Title against Jumbo Tsuruta in an hour match, and that Race was going with him. When Flair asked Race who he was working with, Race told him he wasn’t going there to work, he was going there to make sure the Japanese office didn’t pull a double cross and take the belt from Flair in a shoot. They drank all the way on the flight over, and when they got there Race sat at ringside and watched a hungover Flair take “3,000 suplexes” from Tsuruta, but still leave with the belt.
Race calls his talent a gift, and feels blessed to have been able to wrestle, but doesn’t feel any bigger or any better than any of the other inductees or performers sitting in the audience. Interestingly (or perhaps politically), he doesn’t look at his cartoonish WWF run as the ‘King’ as an insult to his legacy, but an opportunity he should rightly have been passed over for, given his age at the time, and pledges his allegiance to the McMahon family for it. He moves on to talk of wrestling “probably 1,000 hour draws” with Flair, who he says has more talent in his little finger than 90% of the guys who ever have or ever will be in the business, and was honoured to be able to pass the torch on to him. Similarly to “the Slaughter bump” and “the Tito thing”, Race says there’s no greater compliment that when Triple H drops a knee and Jim Ross calls it a “Harley Race knee”. He finishes by asking the young wrestlers to keep the business alive, “Because it’s the greatest damn sport on the earth.” I think most of us can agree with that.
Mick Foley tells his now-famous story of the feud that turned him from a fan looking on into a dreamer looking to get in, beginning with the angle in which ‘Superfly’ Jimmy Snuka dove over the ropes to fight Muraco after Muraco came to ringside and said something that raised Snuka’s ire. Listening in closely to hear what was said, commentator Pat Patterson simply communicated that, “Muraco said something to Snuka, and Snuka is going banana! He looks absolutely nut!” A freshman in college, Foley felt bad about missing the first Muraco-Snuka match after seeing a promo in which Snuka, his hair matted with blood, declared, “I’m not finished with you yet, Don Muraco!”, so made sure to hitchhike his way to Madison Square Garden for an October 1983 steel cage rematch. That was the night a bloody Snuka dove off the cage with his famous Superfly Splash onto a prone Muraco, which Foley calls the defining moment of his life. It was only years later that he realised it took two to tango, and that Snuka had only been such a great babyface because Muraco had been such a great heel.
Fast forward to 1990 and a still wet behind the ears (back when he had two of them) Cactus Jack found himself booked on a tour of Aruba, only to be mistakenly sent Muraco’s contract instead of his own, which he couldn’t help but notice was for significantly more money than he’d agreed to be paid. Armed with six months of WCW television exposure, Foley had his burgeoning ego punctured when he called the promoter to ask about the imbalance, only to be told the reason for the monetary disparity was, “Because Don’s a big star… and you’re not.” Although not a financially fruitful trip, the tour of Aruba did at least lead to the conception of Foley’s eldest child, Dewey, and gave him the chance to meet with Muraco personally, who he was thrilled to discover treated the dues-paying rookies with an equal amount of respect as he did the veterans.
Muraco began his career training with Dean Ho at a gym in Waikiki where the likes of Karl Gotch and Luther Lindsay would stop off when travelling between the United States and Japan. He credits ‘Lord’ James Blears as being the man who got him his start in Vancouver, and Muraco feels lucky that he was able to transition between the glory days of “‘rasslin’” and the dawn of sports entertainment, putting over the boys in the locker rooms who were willing to give the young guys advice and help them grow during an era when there weren’t wrestling schools to go learn your craft in. He admits that things weren’t always a bed of roses, but overall he feels like he had a wonderful career and no longer remembers the bad times.
The Junkyard Dog
Michael Cole’s pre-induction video narration ludicrously suggests that JYD didn’t become a major superstar until he joined the WWF in 1984, which patently isn’t true. Thankfully, ‘Big Cat’ Ernie Ladd is on hand to add some real history, talking about how highly pro sports salaries have risen since the days of legendary Baltimore Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas being the highest paid player in the NFL in 1960, at a rate of $15,000 a year. In wrestling, he calls the McMahons responsible for those skyrocketing salaries. Onto JYD, Ladd talks about booking in Louisiana where Bill Watts told the Dog to go away and come back when he’d gotten more experience. Angry about the situation, JYD returned not just with additional experience, but armed with dialogue, style, and Queen’s ‘Another One Bites the Dust’ as his entrance theme, and immediately began selling out buildings against “Bigfoot” Ladd, and as a top draw, it was no surprise to him that JYD would eventually head for the bright lights of New York and the WWF.
Sadly, JYD was killed in an automobile accident on June 2, 1998, on the way home from his daughter LaToya Ritter’s high school graduation ceremony in Wadesboro, North Carolina after falling asleep at the wheel. Perhaps fittingly, LaToya accepts the award on her father’s behalf, although she herself would also meet an early end, collapsing whilst on the phone with a friend on October 19, 2011. Rushing to her home, Ritter was found unresponsive and paramedics were unable to revive her. She was just thirty-one-years-old.
Jesse ‘The Body’ Ventura
Ventura is inducted by his son Tyrell, who talks about how proud he is that his dad could go out and prove that wrestlers weren’t just big dumb muscleheads, but amazing people for what they put themselves through as performers just to entertain the fans. Ventura thanks the families for putting up with their husbands and fathers being away from home so often, then begins by talking about his early AWA fandom, and the thrill he got from being able to wrestle his childhood idol The Crusher. By the time he was in high school, Ventura was a swimmer, but with no professional swimming, he joined the Navy instead. Home on leave one night with a pocket full of money and his friends all busy, he bought a front row ticket to the wrestling matches where, for the first time, he laid eyes on none other than ‘Superstar’ Billy Graham, without whom he never would have had the desire to enter the business.
Heading down the 7th Street Gym, Ventura got himself trained by Eddie Sharkey, a man also credited with training Bob Backlund and The Road Warriors. Sending out pictures, Ventura got a call from ‘Texas’ Bob Geigel and began touring the territories, getting himself “married” to a young guy out in Portland called ‘Superfly’ Jimmy Snuka who would blow Ventura up every night. Heading to his home promotion of the AWA, Ventura formed The East West Connection with Adrian Adonis before moving to the WWF. Skipping his entire run there, Ventura talks about maybe being the only wrestler to ever retire and stick to his guns (which his former broadcast colleague Gorilla Monsoon also did), before quickly moving on to his 1999-2003 term as Governor of Minnesota, joking that he followed Arnold Schwarzenegger into the movies, but Schwarzenegger (Governor of California from 2003-2011) followed him into politics (with their Predator co-star Sonny Landham losing out in a 2003 bid to become Governor of Kentucky).
Calling himself proud to be a wrestler and never shying away from that time in his life while in office, Ventura likens wrestlers drawing houses to politicians collecting votes, and credits the business with teaching him to be comfortable in front of a microphone and think on his feet, citing a point where he was polling just 10%, but six weeks and seven debates later, he was elected because he was the only one who knew how to communicate. Getting strongly political, he talks about how the majority of politicians are just playing a character in an attempt to appeal to the biggest audience, just like wrestlers do, before suggesting that, “Maybe it’s time we put a wrestler in the White House,” drawing a surprisingly riotous round of applause from future United States Senate seat-seeking Republican failure Linda McMahon.
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