19th Mar2014

30 Years of WrestleMania: A Fan’s View

by Chris Cummings

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As I write this we are only a couple of weeks away from the thirtieth WrestleMania event, which is being held on April 7th 2014 in New Orleans, Louisiana. The excitement for wrestling fans, and more-so, WWE fans, often reaches it’s height in the weeks leading to the so-called “showcase of the immortals” and what was once, prior to Vince McMahon feeling like it made the event sound “old”, “the grand-daddy of ‘em all”.

I started watching wrestling in 1992 and the first show I ever watched was WrestleMania 8, held at the Hoosier Dome in Indianapolis, Indiana. The show featured two spectacular matches, being Bret Hart vs. Roddy Piper and Randy Savage vs. Ric Flair. Randy Savage would remain my favourite wrestler of all time from this event on. Looking back on this event in 2014, and these matches still hold up today. Great selling, wonderful story telling, and top notch wrestling from these four men. I look back on this specific WrestleMania with a major fondness, and if it wasn’t for these two matches I don’t know if I would have been hooked and thus becoming a wrestling fan, a torturously wonderful thing that would remain a part of me to this day. My favourite WrestleMania event, personally, isn’t the first one I saw, but rather one that happened in the midst of a wonderful time for professional wrestling. In 2001, WWE promoted WrestleMania 17, mere days after they purchased their competition, WCW. Held in Houston, Texas, at the Astrodome, the event was a great one, featuring some wonderful matches, a hot crowd, great commentary, and a main event between two of the biggest stars that the world of wrestling has ever seen, in Steve Austin and The Rock. I still love this show, from top to bottom, warts and all.

After my initial introduction to wrestling I couldn’t get enough. I saved pocket money and would buy VHS tapes off my friends, who were becoming less interested in wrestling as they got older, of older WWF events, I would ask for tapes for birthdays and for Christmas, and I would search for them whenever the opportunity arose. It was doing this that allowed me to see every single WrestleMania (and other WWF PPV) that had happened prior to the one I started with in 1992.

Over the past thirty years there have been some magical moments featured at WrestleMania, moments that to people who aren’t wrestling fans would be nothing of meaning or interest, but to those who do love the weird world of professional wrestling they are moments that stick in our minds, give us chills, make is throw our fists in the air in excitement and give us that reason to keep watching, year after year. Who can forget Randy Savage lifting the World Title at the closing moments of WrestleMania IV, the sight of Bret Hart being hoisted onto the shoulders of his peers after winning the World Title at WrestleMania X, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin lifting the World Title above his head at WrestleMania XIV while Jim Ross announced to fans at home that, in fact, the “Austin era has begun”. I remember these moments with a smile on my face and a twinkle in my eye, among the hundreds of other moments that have been given to me by WWF and their biggest annual show, WrestleMania.

There have been times when it would have been all too easy to step away from wrestling. Times when the content of the weekly television shows was boring or frustrating, times when certain wrestlers hit the bricks and walked out of the company and times when there were things outside of wrestling that were more appealing. It might have been easy to walk away from being a fan of wrestling but the claws of it are deeply embedded in my back at this point, and there’s always something that I’m interested in seeing. WrestleMania as a show is the same way. There are often matches on the cards that, for whatever reason, aren’t of interest to certain people, but I’m yet to find a WrestleMania event that doesn’t have at least one match that interests me.

WrestleMania 1, all the way back in 1985, was a big gamble for Vince McMahon and his WWF organisation. Many insiders, as well as Vince himself have said that if it failed then WWE would have gone out of business. Luckily, for WWF and for fans of american wrestling, WrestleMania was a success, and it revolutionised wrestling as an industry, as well as pay per view as a concept for viewing live entertainment and sports. The first ‘Mania wasn’t exactly thrilling as far as the in-ring stuff is concerned, and especially revisiting it today it is hard to watch many of the matches. Slow, bland and without the powerful and exciting moments that we have become used to, the matches in the first event were mostly there to fill the card before the celebrities came out, and the main event was underway. Hulk Hogan and Mr T vs. Roddy Piper and Paul Orndorff was the main event at the first WrestleMania. A boring match that is hard to enjoy in 2014, it was a success and the fans lapped it up.

Hulk Hogan was the cornerstone of WWF and WrestleMania for many of the years that followed, with Hogan usually headlining the annual extravaganza against whoever was being promoted as the “nasty heel” that year. King Kong Bundy, Andre the Giant, Randy Savage, Sgt Slaughter and Yokozuna all fell to Hogan at WrestleMania’s before Hogan jumped to WCW in 1993. He was the main player in WWF, even when WWF booked Randy Savage and The Ultimate Warrior to win the big belt at certain ‘Mania events, the spotlight was always solidly on Hulk Hogan. I was never much of a Hogan fan, and always preferred the mid-card matches, and that has been something that has stuck with me.

The wrestling industry went through an era of change after Hogan left for WCW and WWF was left with a lack of main eventers. Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels took the helm and had a great hour long iron man match at WrestleMania 12. These two guys, along with mainstays like The Undertaker, would keep the WWF afloat during this rough period in the company’s history, a time when WCW was growing and signing many popular former-WWF performers. A year later, one of my favourite ‘Mania matches happened, when Bret took on Steve Austin in a submission match, a match that, to this day, is flawless in its execution, and lead to Bret becoming a heel, and Austin becoming the biggest, most over, and most successful babyface star in WWF since Hulk Hogan. Austin would win his first WWF World Title at the following, fourteenth, WrestleMania, defeating an injured Shawn Michaels and launching into orbit at the beginning of the very popular, and fondly remembered, Attitude Era. Seeing Steve Austin reach these heights back then was exhilirating as a wrestling fan, I even got the chance to see Austin and the Rock wrestle live in the UK during that time and the crowds were more into wrestling than I remember them ever being, before or since. I loved that era as a fan, seeing WWF forced into being creative and into taking chances due to the hefty competition of Ted Turner’s WCW promotion that was breathing down WWF’s neck for years.

I mentioned being a fan of the mid and lower card matches, and during the attitude era, and certainly in the early noughties, the mid-card was a special and fantastically entertaining part of  WWF shows, especially WrestleMania. With guys like Chris Benoit, Eddie Guerrero, Chris Jericho, Edge, Christian, The Hardy Boyz, Kurt Angle and others, the matches that preceeded the main events were often the most interesting parts of the show. Even as far back as the late-eighties the mid-card had some spectacular performers, such as Curt Hennig, Bret Hart, Ricky Steamboat, The Rockers, and later, performers such as Owen Hart, Sean Waltman, Scott Hall and many others made the events watchable, and sometimes stole the show altogether. Today, the mid-card still has many talented workers who will, hopefully, have a chance to show their abilities and shine at the biggest wrestling show of all time. Wrestlers like Cesaro, The Shield, Cody Rhodes, Dolph Ziggler, Bray Wyatt, The Uso’s, and others, are truly remarkable performers who, given time, and opportunity, could be the Hulk Hogans, Bret Harts, Steve Austins and John Cenas of future years.

Oh, John Cena, that guy. I’m not a fan, but I understand that he is a hard working guy who is very much loved by the kids who watch WWE shows today. Still, he has been on top for a decade, and has headlined most of the WrestleMania events since he went into the main event scene back in 2005. His reign as “face of WWE” and most pushed worker is astonishing. Steve Austin was on top of WWF for less than five years. Hulk Hogan’s lengthy headlining tenure in the first stretch of WrestleMania’s lasted for nine years. Bret Hart headlined just two WrestleMania events. John Cena has been on top for going on ten years, and is a vastly worse performer than those that preceeded him, he is also terrible at selling, but lets not turn this into a Cena-hate column. I appreciate that some people want to see him, but I think it is time for WWE to use Cena as a talent that helps younger guys step up, while making new stars who can headline in the years to come. I don’t think I can watch Cena headline for ten more years, which he has recently stated is his plan. Cena, this year, is facing Bray Wyatt at WrestleMania 30, and has a chance to put over a young guy who could really benefit from a victory over a star as protected and strongly pushed as Cena is. We’ll see what happens come April 7th. Cena can work some good matches, as was demonstrated on RAW this year in his match with Cesaro, so I hope for a similar, entertaining contest between Cena and Bray.

I can’t write about WrestleMania without mentioning a man who has been a major part of the event for many years, The Undertaker. Debuting at WrestleMania 7 against “Superfly” Jimmy Snuka, ‘Taker became the single most successful gimmick in wrestling history, and more importantly, one of the most popular, respected and beloved workers in the history of wrestling. The best big-man worker of all time, ‘Taker has wrestled, and won, 21 matches at WrestleMania, and lost none. The Streak has been the selling point for WrestleMania for the past few years, and the matches have been excellent for a long time. Mark Calloway is reaching the twilight of his career, and thus only works one match a year, at WrestleMania. The spectacle and excitement of seeing him work ‘Mania is a major selling point. This year, he will work against Brock Lesnar, and no doubt add another digit to the streak. The question remains of how many years The Undertaker has left in the tank, and whether or not the streak, in all it’s glory, will remain intact when the day comes for Mark Calloway to hang up the boots. Until then, the match featuring ‘Taker, at WrestleMania, will be a spectacle that WWE put the hype-machine behind, full force.

Thirty years of this event, and there have been some amazing matches, many good and decent ones, some dull ones, some terrible ones and even the odd pillow fight and boxing match. As we drive our wheels towards New Orleans, and WrestleMania 30, there are things that we, as fans want to see. Daniel Bryan becoming champion is something many fans want to see happen at the show. The Undertaker and Lesnar putting on a fight for the ages. The Shield stealing the show like that have done on many occasions since their debut in late 2012. These things, and others, could happen, but whatever occurs on April 7th, I will be watching with a big cup of Diet Pepsi and a big dish of salted popcorn, like I do every year.

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