Madness To Canvas 1st Edition:  Looking at WRESTLEMANIA 1 from a Cultural Standpoint

Madness To Canvas 1st Edition: Looking at WRESTLEMANIA 1 from a Cultural Standpoint

Sami Zayn recently tweeted out as I’m paraphrasing, “Professional wrestling is beautiful because of its honesty and simplicity.  The good guy gets beat down, humiliated, spat at, and eventually gets the upper hand on the bad guy, and we cheer because the bad guy had it coming”.  If that doesn’t reflect our society today, I don’t know what does.  That’s why I love professional wrestling.  The stories are simple, the bad guy gains the upper hand and the good guy seeks retribution.  Usually, the good guy wins at the end, but we are captivated to see what trials and tribulations the good guy has to go through to get retribution.  It’s a lot more complex than that, but if you understand the basics of professional wrestling, you’re scratching the surface of it all.  I’m taking you my lovelies on a journey to myself falling in love with the sport all over again.  I’m starting with the inaugural Wrestlemania and going chronologically to the PPV’s and then once the first Raw hits going to watch the corresponding episodes.  I want to see how the culture shifted from the promos to the matches to how the characters were portrayed.  Let’s go with the first Wrestlemania, which took place at the historic Madison Square Garden in New York City and featured Hulk Hogan teaming with Mr. T to face Rowdy Roddy Piper and Mr. Wonderful Paul Orndorff.

According to history, this was the first “PPV” in American history.  The event was being shown on closed-circuit television and it posed a big risk financially.  Not only you had to pay the wrestlers, but you had to pay the advertisers and for celebrities such as Billy Martin, Cyndi Lauper, Muhammad Ali, Mr. T, and Liberace to be a part of the event.  The commentary was between Gorilla Monsoon and Jesse Ventura.  I definitely loved the commentary as it felt like a sport, you saw small hints of them trying heel commentary work but it wasn’t evident until Wrestlemania 3, which I will talk about in a future date  The first match in Wrestlemania history was between Tito Santana vs. The Executioner.

In my opinion, Tito Santana is one of the most underrated wrestlers in history.  He possessed a good physique, had the pride of Mexico behind him and was Intercontinental and tag team champion.  From a cultural perspective, we saw hints of stereotypes of people of Mexican descent played by Jesse Ventura as he would reference him as “Chico” and later on in his career called him “the Mexican jumping bean” and his finisher “the flying burrito”.  It told me as a viewer not to take this accomplished wrestler seriously, although Tito’s body of work in the ring was incredible.  The Executioner was played by Buddy Rose, who was not a very good wrestler.  The match was what it was, Tito got the win, Tito at this point in his career, played a great “curtain jerker”, which means the wrestler that opens up the show and does a great job on setting the tone for the evening.  I have argued for YEARS that the curtain jerker was the most important spot besides the main event on the card because it sets the tone for the rest of the show.  Tito is one of the great babyfaces in wrestling, he does a great job of playing to the audience and manipulating the audience’s emotions.  He really paved the way for other Latino superstars to play crucial roles in the WWE.  Tito got the win as stated, on to the next match.

The next match was between King Kong Bundy and SD “Special Delivery” Jones.  This match was strictly for booking King Kong Bundy as a monster heel.  Jones did his job by taking the squash and King Kong Bundy showcased some athleticism for how big he was.  King Kong Bundy wins in a squash.  In terms of cultural and character standpoint, Jones didn’t really have depth in his character, there was a brief interview, it just showed him as a babyface facing insurmountable odds.  I mean it was King Kong Bundy for crying out loud.  I actually enjoyed this squash for what it was.

The next match was between Ricky Steamboat and Matt “The Maniac” Borne.  We might know Mr. Borne as the evil Doink The Clown.  He seemed like a raging psycho at the time that lived off the grid and put pipebombs in mailboxes.  If he did that, I wouldn’t be surprised.  Steamboat is the all-American good guy from Hawaii.  This match laid out the groundwork of Borne thinking that Steamboat is “too nice to hang with the big boys” and Steamboat out to prove everyone wrong, which makes for great underdog babyface storyline.  This was a highly entertaining match, Steamboat really plays to the crowd and he is showing that he could be a great Intercontinental champion someday.  Borne was a great character to build up that rising babyface.  Steamboat with the win.

We see a whole lot of nepotism in the next match as David Sammartino, Bruno’s son, fought Brutus Beefcake. I got a giggle when they said that Brutus Beefcake was from “parts unknown”, that’s usually relegated for monster looking people, not for cleancut people like Brutus.  I did enjoy Brutus’s arrogant heel work, I actually prefer this version over the hokey barber WITH FREAKING HEDGE CLIPPERS gimmick!  David showed nepotism here, he literally got a spot on the card because of who his father is.  Bruno has all kinds of charisma, really played off his Italian heritage to the NYC crowd during the WWWF days, but David has the personality of a broomstick.  I never saw what they saw in David.  This is Exhibit A on how sometimes it’s who you are not your merits in getting ahead in wrestling.  The match THANKFULLY ended in a no-contest, Brutus was clearly carrying him throughout the match.  The crowd did get hot when Bruno got involved.  When the manager has to get involved, you don’t have a future.  I don’t think we heard from David since this match.

Now, we get into the Intercontinental Title match between Greg “The Hammer” Valentine defending against Junkyard Dog.  Junkyard Dog was one of my favorite characters ever, he played a fun-loving babyface that had the “GRAB THEM CAKES” entrance music.  About time someone comes out to entrance music.  It’s so weird watching wrestling without wrestlers coming out to music.  Greg Valentine seemed like a Ric Flair knockoff during this time.  Valentine was a great heel though, more ruthless than Flair but I would’ve liked to have seen more ruthlessness from his character, he was a little too much chicken shit for me during this time.  The match was entertaining.  JYD’s antics always made me laugh and he knew how to get a crowd going.  I argue that he paved the way for many black wrestlers, especially from the south to try their hand at professional wrestling.  I didn’t quite get why they called him that, but you can research that for me and comment below.  At first Valentine won with his feet on the ropes, great underhanded tactic, but Tito Santana came down to the ring and the match restarted.  JYD won by countout.  Why didn’t they put the IC belt on him during this time?  JYD was wildly popular during this time.  Valentine could’ve feuded with Santana and they could’ve fought in a #1 contender’s match and we could’ve had the encounter between Santana and JYD.  It would’ve been great for multicultural diversity during this time.  Keep in mind, if I felt that JYD wasn’t over with the fans at the time, I would’ve agreed with Valentine keeping the title.

Next, is the tag team title match between The US Express defending against Nikolai Volkoff and The Iron Sheik.  You could tell that the Cold War was brought to Madison Square Garden, when Volkoff sang the Soviet National Anthem, he was getting paper and cups thrown at him.  Plus, The Iron Sheik being from Iran, fresh off of the hostage crisis incensed the crowd as well.  This really played off unity from the NYC crowd.  This was at a time when America had a common enemy, now we are divided more than ever, I argue in large part to politics and the media.  You can draw your own conclusions on how we are divided.  This caused me to appreciate Volkoff and The Iron Sheik so much more.  WWE would use this as a reoccurring theme as a great way to draw legitimate heat.  The US Express came down WITH ENTRANCE MUSIC with Captain Lou Albano.  Mike Rotunda and Barry Windham did a great job showcasing that all-American attitude and that fighting spirit that is part of that attitude.  From a cultural standpoint Classy Freddie Blassie reinforced that these evildoers from foreign lands always cheat to win and he proceeded to throw his cane at The Iron Sheik and he whacked Barry Windham over the head with the cane and we have new tag team champions.

Andre The Giant defeated Big John Studd in a bodyslam match.  This match was short and at the time it was a spectacle.  A clash of the titans and it showed that Andre The Giant was beloved, but it seemed like he was the lovable giant at the time, heck he threw cash out into the crowd.  Also, Wendi Richter defeated Leilani Kai to win the ladies’ championship.  Cyndi Lauper brought mainstream culture to wrestling by accompanying Wendi to the ring. This showed at the time that Vince McMahon had his finger on the pulse by recognizing that if you get celebrities involved in a big show, people that normally don’t watch wrestling will tune in, and lo and behold, you can gain fans that way.  Lauper was the free-spirited girls next door misfit type that caused mainstream culture to fall in love with her, well that and she made great pop songs.

Now the moment we have waited for.  The tag team main event between Hulk Hogan and Mr. T vs. Roddy Piper and Paul Orndorff.  From a character standpoint, Hogan was America in a nutshell, had exceptionalism written all over him and fought the evildoers all the time.  Mr. T was brash and yet with his million gold chains was a good guy.  In terms of their counterparts, Orndorff was the typical arrogant strongman and Roddy Piper was the sadistic Scot.  In leading up to this match, Piper infamously smashed a coconut over Jimmy Snuka’s head, Piper was not afraid to use stereotypes during this time.  He was the master of mind games and psychology.  I kind of wonder if his antics would fly in today’s culture.  Piper knew that it would draw heat to smash a coconut over a Samoan’s head.  Bottom line, Piper wanted the old guard and Hogan wanted the Rock N Wrestling connection to make wrestling a mainstream product.  The match was okay.  Hogan pinned Orndorff after Cowboy Bob Orton screwed it up.  YOU HAD ONE JOB ORTON!  Your son was probably calling him STUPID like he did to Kofi Kingston in 2010.

From a cultural standpoint, Wrestlemania 1 knocked it out of the park by bringing this to a mainstream audience.  They knew getting controversial(at the time) people such as brash Yankees manager Billy Martin, a gay man in Liberace(the LGBTQ+ culture was not accepted at this time), bringing Mr. T in to wrestle, and getting an outspoken individual in Muhammad Ali would get people to tune in.  The thing I wonder about though, before I get “PC comments”, would Roddy Piper’s treatment of Jimmy Snuka be acceptable?  Maybe I’m reading way too much into this but Piper said and did anything to draw heat even if that meant being a bit stereotypical or a bit racist.  Piper in real life was a sweetheart of a guy, but he was a maniac when the camera was on.  The production was decent for what it was, it was simple yet it felt like a huge show.  McMahon knew what he was doing and at the end of the day, I argue that this event alone was the turning point for getting WWF to be the top territory by trying to even get casual fans in JUST FOR ONE SHOW.     Wait til you read my Wrestlemania 2 review.  HERE ARE FIVE THINGS I WOULD’VE CHANGED:

  1.  Mr. T would’ve turned against Hulk Hogan, setting up Hogan vs. Mr. T for the belt at a major event.  Can you imagine the eyeballs on the product during this time?  Hogan fighting Mr. T?
  2. I would’ve had Orndorff turn face after the match by him and Orton fighting.  Set up a feud between Orton and Orndorff.
  3. I would’ve put the intercontinental title on Junkyard Dog after the match was restarted.  No sense for a countout finish.
  4. Subsequently, Valentine and Santana would’ve feuded for the number one contendership for the Intercontinental Title.  Or had a round robin tournament between the three for the belt.
  5.  I would’ve had Brutus defeated David Sammartino cleanly.  It was clear who had a future.  David would’ve fit in during the WWWF days but with the Rock N Wrestling era, Brutus would’ve been a better fit than David.

FIVE THINGS THAT I AGREED WITH:

  1.  Wendi Richter winning the title.  I wish the match was a little longer but she was white hot during this time.
  2.  The Iron Sheik and Nikolai Volkoff winning the tag team titles.  Especially with the underhanded tactics by Freddie Blassie and The Iron Sheik.  The US Express were a great tag team but we’re talking Volkoff and The Sheik.
  3.  Ricky Steamboat winning.  I loved how this match was booked.  It was a perfect buildup to Steamboat being a future star for the company.
  4.  Hogan and Mr. T winning.  It did build Orndorff as a babyface afterwards, but I would’ve gone a different direction with Mr. T, him attacking Hogan after the match to say that while he has a lot of gold he wants THE GOLD and that’s the belt around Hogan’s waist.
  5.  Tito Santana winning.  He looked strong against The Executioner.

Hope you enjoyed Madness To Canvas.

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