8 Wild Facts About WrestleMania I
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. With WrestleMania 36 broadcasting from Tampa, Florida on April 5, we’re taking a look back at some of the more intriguing facts behind the event that started it all, held 35 years ago in Madison Square Garden.
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. 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.
5. “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.
6. 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.
7. 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.
8. 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 went away happy. 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. 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.