Every spring since 1985, World Wrestling Entertainment (formerly the World Wrestling Federation) puts on a sporting spectacle that has to be seen to be believed. WrestleMania brings together contemporary (John Cena) and vintage (Hulk Hogan) pro wrestlers in the WWE for an extravaganza of athletic and theatrical melodrama. We’re taking a look back at some of the more intriguing facts behind the event that started it all.
1. The WrestleMania name was inspired by the Beatles.
Unlike other wrestling promoters of the 1980s, who promoted in regional territories across the United States and Canada, WWE (née WWF) promoter Vince McMahon had larger aspirations. After signing a number of top stars from across the country like Hulk Hogan, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, and the Iron Sheik, McMahon wanted to promote an event via closed-circuit television that would be available nationally and emulate large sporting attractions like the Super Bowl. Originally, McMahon was going to call it The Colossal Tussle. According to ring announcer Howard Finkel, it was Finkel himself who suggested the name WrestleMania based on a pop culture phenomenon of the 1960s.
“[McMahon] was trying to come up with a name for what we could call the event,” Finkel told Bleacher Report in 2013. “And I said, ‘The Beatles, when they came to the United States in back in 1964, their phenomenon was dubbed Beatlemania. Why can’t we call our event WrestleMania?’” (WWE employee George Scott, who was a matchmaker for the company at the time, has claimed he was the one who came up with the name.)
2. MTV and Cyndi Lauper helped promote WrestleMania.
In order to make WrestleMania a success, McMahon knew he would have to reach audiences beyond wrestling fans. Fortunately, he had a point of contact thanks to wrestling manager Captain Lou Albano, who appeared in Lauper's 1983 music video for the song “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” Lauper and Albano struck up a friendship encouraged by Lauper’s manager and boyfriend, David Wolff, a wrestling fan. The partnership eventually evolved into a marketing strategy known as the Rock ‘N Wrestling Connection, with Lauper making appearances in WWE programming and MTV airing WWE specials like The War to Settle the Score, which helped raise awareness for WrestleMania. Lauper even solicited feminist icon Gloria Steinem and politician Geraldine Ferraro to insult Roddy Piper in taped comments that aired on MTV. (Lauper occasionally got physical inside the ring and later appeared during WrestleMania.)
3. Mr. T was not necessarily a welcome participant at WrestleMania.
In order to maximize the general public’s interest in his event, McMahon enlisted actor Mr. T, who appeared as the villainous boxer Clubber Lung in 1982’s Rocky III and was a regular on the NBC action drama The A-Team. (Mr. T's talent agent, Peter Young, also worked with Hulk Hogan, who had also appeared in Rocky III.) With no pro wrestling experience, Mr. T met with a mixed reception in the locker room, with some wrestlers resenting his presence—and large paycheck. “The wrestlers whose minds worked old-school, they didn’t like Mr. T,” wrestler Nikolai Volkoff told Bleacher Report in 2013. “They felt he didn’t belong there. But, as entertainment, he was perfect.”
Mr. T was apparently aware of the friction his presence was causing and even contemplated dropping out the day of the show because he allegedly feared one of the wrestlers going rogue and hurting him in an unscripted assault. While Mr. T went through with it, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper—who was wrestling opposite Mr. T and Hulk Hogan in a tag-team match during the main event—insisted that Mr. T never pin his shoulders to the mat. “I wasn’t being difficult,” Piper later said. “I’m not going to let someone come into my business and treat me like a clown.” Instead, Hogan pinned Paul Orndorff, Piper’s partner, to win the match.
4. But Mr. T was crucial to elevating wrestling to the mainstream.
Welcome or not, Hulk Hogan gives credit to the TV star for being the fulcrum that lifted wrestling—and, more specifically, the WWE—from a niche form of entertainment to a global, mainstream powerhouse that celebrities wanted to be a part of. “The whole WWE universe rested on his back, and we didn't even know it. . . this whole company was on Mr. T's back,” Hogan told WWE.com.
5. Liberace was the guest timekeeper at WrestleMania I.
WrestleMania had no shortage of recognizable faces. In addition to Cyndi Lauper, McMahon invited possibly the most famous athlete in the world, then-retired boxer Muhammad Ali, to be a guest referee for the main event. To fill the role of timekeeper, he enlisted singer Liberace. “If my mother was alive today, she would say, ‘Son, you’re finally a man,” Liberace told reporters during a press conference in 1985 to promote the show. “Because she was a great fan of wrestling.” Liberace took to the ring to dance to “New York, New York” with another group of guests: the Rockettes.
6. “Mean” Gene Okerlund sang the National Anthem at WrestleMania.
Subsequent WrestleMania events were notable for enlisting A-list talent like Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” But for the first WrestleMania, no performer was able or willing to step into the ring. Instead, the WWE asked ring announcer “Mean” Gene Okerlund to sing the song. Okerlund wrote some of the lyrics on his hand.
7. Hulk Hogan and Mr. T hosted Saturday Night Live before WrestleMania I.
McMahon got a significant amount of publicity when Hogan and Mr. T hosted Saturday Night Live the night prior to the March 31, 1985 date for WrestleMania. They were late fill-ins for comedian Steve Landesberg, who couldn’t appear in the entire show due to a family illness. The episode is probably best remembered for cast member Billy Crystal commenting while in character as talk show host Fernando on Hogan’s heaving pectoral muscles, causing Hogan and Mr. T to begin laughing.
8. Hulk Hogan got sued for promoting WrestleMania.
As Hogan and Mr. T made the press rounds, it was a spot on cable talk show Hot Properties that garnered the most attention—from lawyers. Demonstrating a choke hold on host and future Law & Order actor Richard Belzer, Hogan squeezed too hard and rendered Belzer legitimately unconscious. Belzer popped up, blood trickling from his head, and went to a commercial. In 1987, he filed a lawsuit for $5 million against both Hogan and Mr. T, who encouraged Hogan to put him in a submission hold, or what he called a “pipsqueak sandwich.” The case was settled before going to trial in 1990.
9. A technical glitch angered a lot of WrestleMania fans.
Before pay-per-view on home cable boxes was common, major premium sporting events like boxing matches were broadcast on closed-circuit, which meant theaters or other locations would pay for the signal and screen it for customers. WrestleMania went out to 200 locations, with an estimated 400,000 people watching. Not all of them came away happy with the result. Roughly 11,443 fans entered the Civic Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to watch the show, with tickets priced at $8 to $10 each. Unfortunately, a technical glitch prevented the signal from being unscrambled, and they were met with a blank screen. After hearing an announcement that the show would not go on as planned, fans pushed over a television and began throwing folding chairs (clearly in the WrestleMania spirit). All attendees were refunded. Three were cited for disorderly conduct. Pittsburgh fans were able to see the show a week later on local station WTAE.
The refunds didn’t hurt McMahon. WrestleMania grossed a reported $12 million, including ticket and merchandise sales, and has been an annual tradition for the WWE ever since.
10. WrestleMania was make-or-break for Vince McMahon.
WrestleMania represented a massive sea change, boosting a regional interest into a national pastime and giving birth to the hybrid concept of "sports entertainment." McMahon put it all on the line to shoot his shot, dumping tons of money into the event and its promotion during an already-difficult financial year for his organization. Hulk Hogan told the New York Daily News, “I saw the pressure building in the pipes, and the chaos on everyone's faces as they were thinking, 'How are we gonna pull this off?'” Wrestler Tito Santana said it put a lot on the performers' shoulders knowing that the show was either going to launch them into the stratosphere or potentially bankrupt the company.
11. The WWE World Heavyweight Championship wasn’t on the line at WrestleMania.
Although conceived as a crowning Super Bowl-esque event, WrestleMania didn't close with a bout for the company’s biggest championship. Other belts were on the line throughout the evening, and the World Heavyweight Champion at the time, Hulk Hogan, appeared in the finale tag team match alongside Mr. T, but the inaugural show remains the only WrestleMania without a battle for the big prize.
12. The Hell's Angels bullied their way into WrestleMania.
The show sold out Madison Square Garden, but several Hells Angels members were determined to get in without tickets and secure some front-row seats in the process. McMahon accommodated them and brought in extra seats, probably wanting to avoid the added drama of irritating the infamous biker gang just minutes before the show of his life was about to kick off.
13. King Kong Bundy's “nine-second match" actually lasted around 23 seconds.
King Kong Bundy's famed mauling of SD “Special Delivery" Jones at WrestleMania is said to only have lasted nine seconds, according to WWE. Realistically, it lasted around 22 or 23 seconds, but that hasn't stopped WWE from claiming otherwise to this day.
14. André the Giant tried to give his WrestleMania prize money away to the audience.
André the Giant faced off against Big John Studd, aiming to body slam his opponent to win $15,000 and avoid retirement. After dominating the match and dumping Studd to the mat, Andre the Giant scored a bag filled with cash and began tossing it out to a thrilled front row (possibly Hell's Angels members?). Unfortunately for the crowd, Big John Studd's dastardly manager, Bobby Heenan, snatched the bag from Andre and took off with it.
15. Tony Atlas was paid not to perform at WrestleMania.
Atlas was a popular, well-established veteran of the old-school mold, and he's the only wrestler (at least that he knows of) who was paid not to wrestle that night. “I was there. I was getting ready to walk in the dressing room door and a guy named Arnold Skaaland, he came up to me and said 'Hey Tony, I got good news for you. You don't have to wrestle tonight. Vince is gonna give you a day off. He wants to save you for something bigger. But he's gonna pay you anyway,'” Atlas told CBS.
16. The Iron Sheik was asked to sabotage WWE a year before WrestleMania.
According to the Iron Sheik, the American Wrestling Association's (AWA) owner, Verne Gagne, offered him $100,000 to break Hogan's leg when they wrestled for the belt on January 23, 1984, hoping to put an end to Vince McMahon's star before he really took off and put the whole company out of business. Trapped between a large paycheck from Gagne—Sheik's former trainer—and the potential for working for an ascending new program, Sheik called Sergeant Slaughter for advice, who told him to lose the belt to Hogan because they were “going to make millions working for Vince.” As the Sheik humbly put it years later, without him, there would never be a WrestleMania.
17. WWE's competition said Vince McMahon's style of wrestling would be a fad.
Not only was McMahon breaking from the established order of numerous promoters covering individual territory, he was breaking from the old-school sensibility of what wrestling was supposed to be—theatrical, sure, but primarily a display of prowess and skill. Soured by McMahon's (ultimately successful) revolution, other promoters publicly scoffed at what he was building. Mid-South Wrestling rep Joel Watts told Sports Illustrated, “He plays on the personalities of the wrestlers, making them out to be freaks or something. I think he's generating a fad that will pass away.”
18. Former Yankees manager Billy Martin was smashed when he did his WrestleMania promo video.
No one could blame Yankees legend Billy Martin for not knowing anything about professional wrestling; his involvement as a “special ring announcer” at WrestleMania was purely promotional. And according to “Mean” Gene, Martin had already started the drinking day by the time they were supposed to film their promo video in the weeks leading to the event. “Mean” Gene threw some sunglasses on Martin and muddled through. “I told him I’d talk about the wrestlers, and he’d respond with a baseball story. And you know what? It all worked. It had to work,” “Mean” Gene told Bleacher Report.
19. “Mean” Gene interviewed Andy Warhol backstage a few weeks before WrestleMania.
Pop art icon Andy Warhol is at the tippy-top of the list of surreal personalities involved with the WWE in the build-up before WrestleMania. Perhaps as a signal that McMahon's attempt to expand wrestling's audience was a success, Warhol was just hanging around backstage at The War to Settle the Score, taking in all the kitschy gore. “Mean” Gene's interview with him is its own bizarre artifact, wherein Warhol sleepily says that the show was “the most exciting thing he's seen in his whole life.”
20. Muhammad Ali freaked everyone out by getting into the ring at WrestleMania.
The legendary boxer was only supposed to stay ringside as a special referee because McMahon and his partners didn't want him to get hurt, so when Ali jumped into the ring during a four-man brawl, it caused immediate concern for the back office. Retired wrestler and WWF promoter George Scott told Bleacher Report, “I had to run out to get him, take him by the arm and lead him back to ringside, where he was supposed to be.”
21. WrestleMania ended inauspiciously for Roddy Piper.
After the biggest wrestling event of the era, a night that redefined the sport forever, Roddy Piper and Bob Orton ducked the angry crowds and headed for a quiet night back at the hotel. McMahon had arranged a massive party for Hulk Hogan and everyone else involved, but there was no limo waiting for Piper and Orton, and they had to scramble to make it away from Madison Square Garden. “While Hogan and Mr. T were in the Rainbow Room, getting their picture taken, we went to the Ramada Inn, like it was just another night. We might as well have worked Poughkeepsie,” he told Bleacher Report.
22. WrestleMania was the completion of a trilogy.
Just as the largest wrestling event of the day didn't happen overnight, it also needed other big shows to lead into it, building the narratives so that it would present some truly climactic battles. The Brawl to End it All and The War to Settle the Score preceded WrestleMania and aired on MTV in order to get the company into the spotlight. The shows focused on Wendy Richter securing and protecting the WWF Women's Championship with Cyndi Lauper in her corner, as well as the rivalry between Hulk Hogan/Mr. T and Roddy Piper/Paul Orndorff. These storylines would all pay off at WrestleMania and conclude the trilogy (and open future storylines, of course).
23. WrestleMania wasn't just a financial gamble.
McMahon had put his money and reputation on the line, but Hogan was also worried about the wrestlers' career prospects if the show went down in flames. After all, McMahon was spitting in the face of all the other promoters in order to make his big play. Hogan explained on the True Story of WrestleMania DVD: “I said, ‘This guy’s crazy. This guy’s going to piss everybody off, all these little territories. Vince is going to get everybody so mad that everybody who works on the WrestleMania card will be blackballed. And if Vince fails, I’ll never be able to go anywhere else and make a living.’”
24. WrestleMania's success (along with an endorsement from David Letterman) helped launch WWE on NBC.
WrestleMania was a runaway success, which changed the tune of network executives who had shunned the WWF for years. NBC president Dick Ebersol was still skeptical, but when he asked David Letterman for advice, the comedian suggested he give McMahon's crew a shot. McMahon wowed Ebersol, and the two hatched the Saturday Night Live off-week replacement Saturday Night's Main Event, a wrestling program that scored the highest ratings of any show in that time slot that year.
25. Today, WrestleMania is huge for a city's economy.
To truly elevate wrestling beyond the smoke-filled arenas of yesteryear, McMahon knew he needed a big event—on par with the Super Bowl or the Oscars—to give his company legitimacy (and a good deal of pageantry.) It worked, and just like the biggest football game of the year, cities that want in on the economic success of WrestleMania now have to place bids in order to host it. In 2019, New Jersey hosted WrestleMania 35 at MetLife Stadium, and the event wound up generating $165 million for the region. According to a press release from WWE, “The economic impact derived from WrestleMania Week was equal to the creation of 1534 full-time jobs for the area.”
This article originally ran in 2020; it has been updated for 2022.