The superstars that appeared in the ring at WrestleMania over the years were never really overshadowed by the superstars at ringside. But that doesn’t mean that the wrestlers weren’t in awe of the other celebrities.
Jacques Rougeau Jr. admitted that he was a “mark” for meeting the various stars from the music and entertainment world that the WWF had at WrestleMania. His particular favourite to meet was Burt Reynolds.
“All those personalities, for me, was a new world. I was a mark for them,” said Rougeau. “So when we were backstage, and you’d see Jesse ‘The Body’ Ventura come down with Vince and a couple of superstars with them, Bobby Heenan, a couple of guys, it created an impact on us.”
Maniac Matt Borne, who lost to Rick Steamboat at the first WrestleMania, agreed, saying that the initial show was a “big transition point” for pro wrestling. “It was pretty cool, with Cyndi Lauper there and her entourage, Mr. T, Liberace, Muhammed Ali. It was quite the production. At the time, it was just like another show. It was a big show, it was a pay-per-view (but mainly closed-circuit) of course, but it was just like another day at the office.”
Borne was excited to meet Liberace at that first show. “He was just somebody that I never thought I would meet.”
Barry Darsow participated in a number of WrestleManias, as both Smash of Demolition, and once as Repo Man. Celebrities weren’t as big a deal to him. “It wasn’t a big deal because I saw them all anyways,” he explained, referring to how popular the WWF has always been with the starry crowd. “The WrestleManias, Vince [McMahon Jr.] usually put a little bit more money in.”
Besides the celebrities, the former WWF stars treasure their memories from the big events, not just WrestleMania.
“The whole year kind of worked all the way up to the WrestleManias … so the other pay-per-views were kind of just matches to get a story going towards WrestleMania,” said Darsow. The match that really stands out for him was Demolition against Haku and Andre the Giant at WrestleMania VI in Toronto’s SkyDome, where they captured the WWF tag team titles. “I remember a lot of them, it’s almost like you can remember every match, but to wrestle Andre at SkyDome with that many people and everything, and then beat those guys, that was pretty big.”
A huge crowd was equally important to Rougeau. “Pontiac Silverdone. That’s got to be the one that stands out. I remember Andre. It was good time. It was so big, going out with the carts in the little ring,” he said laughing. “Another thing that was special about WrestleManias was you could be six months before the event and it would be sold out. That made it important.
“Also the hype around WrestleMania. How it became so big, I don’t know. Hulk was always there. We had two, three days that we had to do promotion before getting to the event. It made it special. It was signing autographs, meeting people, even going singing! I remember going singing a couple of times with Jimmy Hart and Raymond.”
Borne has an interesting perspective on his WrestleMania experiences — both at the first one, and the ninth event as Doink The Clown. “It was different for me because I was one of the featured matches on it (WrestleMania IX, as opposed to the first WrestleMania, where I was a preliminary match and I was actually to go out there and get Ricky Steamboat over, which at WrestleMania IX, we were getting Doink over.” At WrestleMania IX in Las Vegas outside at Caesar’s Palace, Doink beat Crush with the added help of Steve Keirn dressed as another Doink coming out from under the ring as a distraction.
For General Adnan, who came to the ring with Sergeant Slaughter at WrestleMania VII, the big show was almost anticlimatic, their heat from the pro-Iraqi, anti-U.S.A. angle having peaked. “From the time that Sarge and I came in, we started building up the situation about the war … we got hotter and hotter and hotter,” Adnan explained. “By the time we got to Hulk Hogan in California to wrestle for the championship match, we were on top already. … I didn’t think we could get any higher.”
Many of the events leading up to the Hogan title win over Slaughter stand out for Adnan, rather than the match itself. “[There were] so many things we had to do. We burned Hulk Hogan’s picture, we burned the flag of the United States of America, we threw some fire in Hulk Hogan’s face and burned him.”
Adnan was key to the angle really working. He was actually born in Bagdad, Iraq, and had gone to school with Saddam Hussein (though he was a few years younger). He had wrestled in the United States for years, both as Billy White Wolf and as Sheik Adnan Al-Kaissie. “Vince knew that, and knowing that Sarge was a babyface for so many years, he was going to use him as a villain, but he was not going to get over with the people. The one that was going to get him over was me, being his manager from Baghdad, Iraq.”
The angle “got over like a sonovabitch. We were the hottest thing that ever walked in the WWF at that time.”
From his viewpoint working out of the Canadian office of the WWF, Billy Red Lyons can remember the joy he had in building excitement right across the country, a show that was promoted as the most important of the year. “It was sold that way — it was the big one. It was kind of like the Super Bowl for the year,” said Lyons. The wrestling great, turned announcer went to quite a few WrestleManias, including Indianapolis, New York City, Las Vegas and, of course, Toronto. But more importantly, he remembers just watching the first three WrestleManias with everyone else in Canada in the various closed circuit locations.
Looking back, it isn’t immediately evident why, precisely, WrestleMania became the big daddy of wrestling pay-per-views. But over time, there is no denying that it has.
Reaching into his memory, Borne knows that he didn’t give WrestleMania much thought as a whole back in March 1985. “I thought it would be like an annual thing, I kind of knew that. I didn’t really know where exactly where the business was going, I really didn’t give it much thought. I knew that Vince was putting everybody out of business, and I felt pretty fortunate that I was able to be on the card. It was the biggest show that I had ever been on up to that point.
“It will always stand out in my mind because I was a part of it. I’m very fortunate to have been a part of it.”