Lord of Their Ring

High glitz, high risk in the beginning, McMahon's WrestleMania stands alone in 20th edition

Pop Culture

March 14, 2004|By Kevin Eck | Kevin Eck,Sun Staff

On a spring Sunday afternoon in 1985, people went to see a fight and a Broadway show broke out.

Prior to the main event of a professional wrestling card at Madison Square Garden, Liberace and four members of the Radio City Rockettes formed a high-kicking chorus line in the middle of the ring while the familiar strains of "New York, New York" played.

Things got even more surreal when Liberace, sporting a white satin shirt and his trademark gaudy jewelry, returned after the bout. This time the flamboyant pianist joined boxing legend Muhammad Ali in raising the sweaty hands of wrestler Hulk Hogan and actor Mr. T, who had just emerged victorious in a tag-team match. Flashbulbs popped throughout the sold-out arena as the unlikely quartet took a bow.

Hotheaded former New York Yankees manager Billy Martin, looking as if he'd rather be sporting pinstripes than the tuxedo he was wearing, and rainbow-haired pop singer Cyndi Lauper also were on hand.

It was an eclectic bunch to say the least, but it all made perfect sense to Vince McMahon, the wrestling impresario who brought them all together for the inaugural WrestleMania, the closed-circuit extravaganza that would become wrestling's version of the Super Bowl, Roman numerals and all.

McMahon, chairman of World Wrestling Entertainment, turned the wrestling business on its ear that day, making his vision of "sports entertainment" a reality. With celebrities adding glitz and glamour to the grapplers' grunts and groans, his World Wrestling Federation (as it was then known), moved up from grainy UHF stations and dimly lit arenas to become a heavyweight fixture in pop culture.

Tonight at 7, McMahon and WWE superstars such as The Rock, "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, The Undertaker and Triple H will perform their brand of scripted athleticism at WrestleMania XX before another sellout crowd at the Garden in New York City.

All 19,000-plus tickets for the event were gone in less than five minutes when they went on sale six months ago. Ringside seats with a face value of $750 are now being resold for as much as $3,500, according to Dave Meltzer, editor and publisher of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter. The four-hour event is also available on television via pay-per-view for $49.95.

Over the past 19 years, WrestleMania has set records -- not just for pro wrestling, but for any sport or form of entertainment -- for pay-per-view buy rates, closed-circuit gates and attendance at indoor events.

It's become so popular that celebrities are no longer needed to lure viewers (though banished baseball great Pete Rose will make an appearance today, the day after he is enshrined in the WWE Hall of Fame). The WWE stars themselves, like wrestler turned actor Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, are now bona fide celebrities, with hit movies, best-selling books and endorsement deals, and the WWE is a $350 million-a-year, publicly traded company.

"We have surpassed Hollywood and television in many respects," boasts McMahon, 58. "When you think about it, who are the action-adventure stars of today? Our guys. It's evolved to that."

Risking it all

But all that would not have been possible, it seems, without the success of the first-ever WrestleMania, an idea that had its genesis on a beach in the Bahamas in the summer of 1984.

McMahon was on a rare vacation with his wife (and WWE CEO), Linda, "allegedly relaxing," when the idea hit him.

"The whole while I was down there ... I was thinking about how every sport and every form of entertainment, be it television or film or music, has an annual big event," McMahon says. "It just seemed like a natural for us to have a big event. So when we got back off vacation, the very next day we had a board meeting and I announced what we were going to do."

An elaborate story line involving singer Lauper, who was topping the music charts, Mr. T, then the star of the popular television series The A-Team, and various wrestlers played out on McMahon's syndicated and cable wrestling programs as well as on MTV. It would culminate in a closed-circuit broadcast from Madison Square Garden on March 31, 1985, with good guys Hogan and Mr. T taking on bad guys "Rowdy" Roddy Piper and "Mr. Wonderful" Paul Orndorff in the main event.

McMahon believed so deeply in his grand plan, which he thought could make wrestling a part of mainstream American culture -- and a big moneymaker -- that he was willing to risk everything. He put all his financial resources into the show, which was to be broadcast via closed-circuit television into theaters and other venues. "We had to rent the halls and the arenas. All the equipment was our expense; all the promotion was our expense," McMahon says. "WrestleMania I was a huge gamble for us."

Advance ticket sales, however, were slow. As the date for the first WrestleMania approached, it appeared not only that it was going to flop, but that the future of the company was in jeopardy.

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