How times have changed, brother. Last summer’s revelations of Hulk Hogan’s bilious racial epithets and a recent sex tape lawsuit have made it pretty hard to work up a good, old-fashioned case of Hulkamania (at least not without some compartmentalization and self-resentment). Meanwhile, World Wrestling Entertainment has grown into media powerhouse with its own network and movie production company. Its alumni have gone on to film careers and elected office. And the monumental success of WWE and its stars can be traced back to a key event on March 31, 1985.
The 31st anniversary of Wrestlemania makes today the perfect time to stroll down memory lane, accompanied by your entrance music of choice. Billed as “The Greatest Wrestling Event of All Time!” Wrestlemania I was the brainchild of Vince K. McMahon, who had recently taken over the WWF from father Vincent J. McMahon. Looking to expand wrestling’s popularity, the younger McMahon’s strategy was twofold: use Hulk Hogan as the face of the WWF, and create a national pro-wrestling event like no other.
Prior to Wrestlemania, Hogan had been a WWF black sheep due to a management conflict over his appearance in Rocky III. The younger McMahon saw the value in Hogan’s broad appeal, and cannily created a Wrestlemania tag team pairing of Hulk Hogan and Mr. T, who had also become a household name thanks to Rocky III (and the A-Team). The two also shared a natural chemistry, as seen in this Wrestlemania promo:
Beyond leveraging the country’s best-known wrestler, McMahon partnered with MTV, and used pop-culture icons like Cyndi Lauper and Muhammad Ali to expand interest beyond the WWF’s core audience. Lauper’s outsize stage personality made her the perfect choice as manager for Wendi Richter, winner of the Wrestlemania Women’s Championship belt. Phil Collins and Philip Bailey’s “Easy Lover” seems like a ridiculous choice for the event’s opening theme, until you consider that the breezy chart-topping hit had exactly the mainstream appeal that McMahon was looking for.
Meanwhile, having “accidents” like Hogan knocking out Richard Belzer in front of a live studio audience was the icing on a promotional cake, helping to create national interest (and possibly some wish-fulfillment).
By almost every measure, Wrestlemania was a success, putting Madison Square Garden in a near-maximum-capacity headlock, and dropping a pay-per-view piledriver with over a million viewers, a record at the time. PPV was so successful that it became the foundation for the WWE’s business model.
Just as important was the cultural effect of Wrestlemania, which succeeded in securing the ’80s zeitgeist with its schlocky theatrics and beefcake-and-neon physique. To have Richard Corliss, a prominent Time writer and film critic, provide an admiring, clear-eyed editorial on the event is evidence of Wrestlemania’s overnight success.
Within months, the American public was lousy with action figures, saturday morning cartoons, and even an album that topped at #84 on the chart. Choreographed wrestling has been a part of American culture for over a century, but 31 years ago, future entertainment mogul Vince McMahon permanently changed wrestling’s profile with his Wrestlemania I.