By Josh Molina, WrestlingObserver.com
– Air date: March 24, 1985
– Run time: 43:28
– Stars of the show: Piper, Mr. T and Liberace
– Quote of the show: “You have the New York Yankees. Out of 13 million people, you figure you could find nine people who could play baseball.”
It’s the biggest “extravaganza” of all-time Vince McMahon tells us to start the show. In the words of Kaientai, indeed.
McMahon gambled big on WrestleMania, broadcasting the big show on closed circuit television across the country. This episode of TNT was designed to do one thing: Drive home the fact that Wrestlemania is not available on your home television. You have to watch in a theatre near you.
This episode of TNT reminds us that McMahon was a salesman of epic proportions. This man believed in his product, sold it with reckless abandon and did it with a smile on his face. McMahon is a lot of things, but at the top of the list has to be the word “entrepreneur” to describe him. WrestleMania was his product and this was his final sales pitch to seal the deal.
The people pitching their products on “Shark Tank” could learn a lot from watching Mr. McMahon’s rise.
Immediately we learn that this show is something special. It’s not taking place in the TNT studio, instead, the WWF control room. McMahon and Lord Alfred Hayes are there to promote the show. It’s clear right away that this show is built around the main event of WrestleMania, Hulk Hogan and Mr. T vs. Rowdy Roddy Piper and Mr. Wonderful Paul Orndorff.
McMahon begins by reminding us that repetition matters. He takes us back to the infamous Madison Square Garden ceremony where Cyndi Lauper was presenting Capt. Lou Albano with an award for his multiple sclerosis charity work and Piper crashed the party by slamming the framed award over Albano’s head. This is no less than the third time TNT has aired this segment.
The picture frame was gimmicked. This wasn’t the Honky Tonk Man’s thick guitar against Jake “The Snake” Roberts’ head in The Snake Pit. There was no shattered picture frame glass, just the plastic flinging into the air and Albano taking a glorious backwards bump, arms flinging symmetrically, and hitting the ground simultaneously.
Gorilla Monsoon screamed: “Roddy Piper has gone bananas. Roddy Piper has gone crazy here!”
Indeed. Piper was a perfect heel who had the guts to wreck an “official” ceremony. This was one of those real-fake-real moments in early wrestling, kind of like you knew it was scripted, but there was still a sliver of doubt. Perhaps Albano and Piper knew, but Lauper and Dick Clark didn’t? Either way, it worked spectacularly.
In the control room, McMahon says he wants to “clear up any confusion” about where you can see Wrestlemania. McMahon explains that it is not at home. “We do invite you to see it at your local coliseum or theatre, which will carry in a closed circuit basis on a giant color screen,” McMahon.
I never saw WrestleMania at a theater or “coliseum.” I was a kid who was kind of hoping to see it magically appear on television that day by flipping through every channel multiple times. I watched it a few years later on videocassette and wondered, why are all of these matches so short?
From there we go to Piper, making a special guest appearance on the set of “The A-Team,” Mr. T’s 1980s television show. The camera zooms in slowly on Mr. T, who is sitting in a director’s chair with his back to us, with his name “Mr. T” clearly written on the back of the chair. Piper reminds us why he, not Dusty Rhodes, was the second-greatest talker in the history of the business. Ric Flair is No. 1.
“I am assuming that’s there so you don’t get lost,” Piper says as he points to the letters on the back of the chair. Piper asks Mr. T how it feels to portray a tough guy like Piper on television.
Piper is full-on berating him, bullying him, telling Mr. T that he’s an actor trying to portray a real man like Piper. Mr. T, gifted with an awesome cadence in his speech, goes off on Piper, asking him if he thinks he is tough for hitting a lady. Piper responds by telling Mr. T that “the children of America must be sick of looking at Mr. T,” prompting Mr. T to throw the weakest left hook ever, which lands on Piper’s belt.
Ace Cowboy Bob Orton and A-Team crew members break up the melee. But of course, since Piper is stalking Mr. T, we go to Madison Square Garden for special “Piper’s Pit,” featuring guest Mr. T. Piper was undoubtedly the innovator of the interview segment. If Ric Flair could have a great match with a broomstick, Piper could have a great interview segment with a chair.
McMahon then takes us to the recent Hulk Hogan vs. Roddy Piper match in Madison Square Garden. Piper was wrestling like how he talks. He was spastic, coming at you from all directions. In other words, he was carrying Hogan. Ace Cowboy Bob Orton got involved here too, pulling Hogan’s hair as he was draped over the top rope and Piper was distracting the referee. Eventually, Hogan inadvertently knocked the referee down and Orndorff sneaked into the ring to begin the double team on Hogan. This was one of the few times in Hogan’s career when he was needing to be rescued, and not the other way around.
“Mister T” walked fast, but casually down the aisle, wearing about 20 pounds of gold around his neck.
As Mr. T. is walking into the ring Mean Gene Okerlund says “I don’t know anything about his background as a wrestler,” and in somewhat of a Michael Cole moment, Gorilla Monsoon blurts “he doesn’t belong in the ring.”
Wait, what? Isn’t Mr. T the street-fighting badass that the company has been promoting the last month to enter the ring at WrestleMania? He doesn’t belong in the ring? Suddenly he’s incapable of defending of himself? Maybe Monsoon meant he’s such a crusher that Piper and Orndorff aren’t safe anymore. Orndorff, Piper and Orton walked out of the ring, leaving the payoff for WrestleMania.
Now we go to what was simultaneously the most hilariously clever, but highly offensive segment possibly in WWF history. We’re back in Madison Square Garden for a special edition of Piper’s Pit. It’s Piper, with Orton lurking behind him. Piper is talking about how it’s St. Patricks Day. “St. Patrick’s Day is when they chased all the snakes out of Ireland. Now I know where they all came to, they all came right here!”
Piper, with his Cheshire Cat grin, then looks at Orton and says: “This is my bodyguard Ace. I love my bodyguard. Don’t you wish you had a bodyguard.”
I am not sure how or why Orton got paired up with Piper. I have read that Orton was a good worker in his prime — prior to 1985. They seemed like an unlikely pair. Imagine Randy Orton serving as a silent bodyguard to John Cena? Just weird. Perhaps Orton had an injury and needed a reduced role.
Piper continues berating the New York audience: “You have the New York Yankees. Out of 13 million people, you figure you could find nine people who could play baseball.”
Point of fact: In 1984, the Yankees were 87-75, finishing the season 17 games out of first place. Ouch. Piper then fakes out the audience by talking about how he is going to bring out a man who is a great street fighter. A man who he has come to respect. A legitimate tough guy. He brings out — Orndorff.
Orndorff comes out shirtless in tight black shorts. So as a preface to the rest of the segment, here’s a reminder of Orndorff’s character. He’s an arrogant jerk. He believes he has the best physique in the world. He hates Hulk Hogan. And he’s a borderline racist.
Orndorff is off the chart here, even by his standards. He starts by making a series of monkey imitations to imitate Mr. T. Piper says he’s about to bring out the fella with “all the chains on.” Orndorff then, while still making money movements, then simulates that he is smoking a joint and passes it to Piper, who simulates taking a hit of it.
Yes, this is really happening in 1985 on cable television to promote the biggest wrestling extravaganza of all time. Piper says “if you got any guts, or if you are finished powdering your nose with that dark powder, come on out here!” Wow, Piper. Mr. T finally comes out, but here’s here with Hogan and Snuka. Again Hogan is not the star here — it’s Mr. T. It’s probably the last time Hogan ever played a back-up character to anyone.
Piper asks Mr. T “Were you afraid to come out here by yourself? How come you have all these men here?” Mr. T responds that since Piper has his men out here, he needs his men too. Piper then asks Mr. T to sit down in the Piper’s Pit chair, but does it with an insult: “I know you are not used to cleanliness, but I cleaned it off.” Why is Mr. T not used to cleanliness?
Mr. T tells Piper that he’s not going to sit down because “I don’t trust you.” Piper then says he has looked into Mr. T’s background and “found out you were the amateur champion in the state of Illinois. I found out you won a Tough Man championship.” Still, he’s stepping into the ring with Piper so he’d better be prepared for a beat down. So Piper makes Mr. T an offer:
“This is your chance to back out of the closed-circuit fight without getting hurt. There will be no shame put upon on for backing out. All these people won’t think any less of you because after all you are going against men.”
Piper is just perfect at running Mr. T down. Clearly he also does not like Mr. T. T is not backing out. He tells Piper it is his chance to back out. Snuka then steps forward and yells something at Piper. Piper then turns to Mr. T and asks him if he speaks Snuka’s language. Piper’s not done with Mr. T yet. Piper decides to show Mr. T some of the artwork he’s done leading up to WrestleMania. The first drawing is of Mr. T with his arm in a cast.
Mr. T tells Piper that he’s a good artist, but “that’s not what moves me.” Piper responds, “Oh that doesn’t move you. I don’t know what moves you, Ex-Lax, maybe?” The next artistic rendering is of Mr. T in a leg cast.
And then, the final drawing is off Mr. T in a full cast. These renderings were pretty good, but clearly they were not done by Piper, unless Piper has Jerry “The King” Lawler skills that we didn’t know about.
Piper then, not getting the rise that he wanted out of Mr. T, puts on a skull cap that looks like Mr. T’s mohawk. Mr. T freaks out and says “you really made me mad. That’s my heritage!” Mr. T moved toward Piper and Piper threw a drink in his face and said “we will save this for the 31st.”
What an incredible Piper’s Pit. Orndorff came across as just a racist jerk. Piper came off as a mildly racist jerk, who’s also really funny. These guys played their characters spectacularly.
Now it’s time to promote the celebrities of WrestleMania 1. In what looks like a harbor of some sorts, Mean Gene Okerlund is sitting down with New York Yankees manager Billy Martin. “It is a privilege to be on assignment with Billy Martin talking about the great year the Yankees are going to have,” Okerlund says.
Okerlund asks Martin what he thinks of the WWF wrestlers as compared to MLB baseball players. Martin responds with a comment that probably pissed off McMahon: “They are a lot fatter, let’s put it that way.” Martin looked like he knew nothing about professional wrestling, but was going to get a decent paycheck to appear as the guest ring announcer.
But forget Martin, the real celebrity star here was none other than Liberace. I remember flipping through a TV guide as a kid and seeing some show with Liberace as a guest. I asked my dad “who is Liber-Ace.” I had no idea how to pronounce that name. I didn’t realize that Liberace was this high-class cultural icon, one of the greatest pianists of his time. It’s no small stroke of genius that McMahon was able to land Liberace for this show. Somehow, Liberace totally fit on WWF television.
The interview takes place inside Liberace’s home. He’s in a glamorous jumpsuit, with gold rings, sitting at this piano, and a bigger grin than John Cena. Liberace says his mother was a big wrestling fan who loved Gorgeous George. He said she knew every wrestler back then.
“I am so happy to be part of this, with all these wonderful, talented people,” Liberace said. Forget Billy Martin. Here’s a guy who knows how to promote WrestleMania.
Liberace shows his piano-shaped watch that will help him be the guest timekeeper. And like a good promo-man, he finishes his interview with a go-home comment: “Wait to you see what I am going to wear!”
Liberace must have been in heaven at the WrestleMania show. Back in the control room, McMahon reminds us that “you will not be able to see WrestleMania on your home television. If you are waiting to see this on your home TV you could be old and grey before that happens.”
The show wraps up, of course, with promotion of the WrestleMania main event. It’s Hogan and Mr. T running and training in New York’s Central Park. Mr. T tells Hogan that he has taught him wrestling and now he is going to teach Hogan how to street fight. Hogan tells Mr. T to “remember the Eye of the Tiger,” and to “get hungry.”
The show ends with Lord Alfred Hayes announcing that he will reveal the winners of the The Great Wrestling Trivia Contest next week. And McMahon ends the show with one final reminder:
“We would like to remind you that WrestleMania will not be seen on your home television. We invite you to join us at your local theater coliseum.”
What a great go-home show for WrestleMania. It was simple, yet effective. Clearly we all knew what the main event was and we all cared. The message was direct and clear and if you love professional wrestling you really can’t ask for more than that.
Some notable items about the first WrestleMania:
Where was Dr. D David Schultz. He was apparently fired by now, but he was on the show getting a somewhat heavy push just a few weeks ago.
Where is Hillbilly Jim? He took was getting a big push not that long ago, he has disappeared.
Where is Sgt. Slaughter, another guy who disappeared after appearing prominently on several early TNT episodes.
Why is Snuka just in Hogan and Mr. T’s corner? Why wasn’t this guy in an actual match?
The titles were totally secondary on this show. WrestleMania was all about the celebrities, the gimmicks and the spectacle.
Rowdy Roddy Piper was incredible and certainly deserves as much credit as Hulk Hogan in building up and creating buzz and drama around the first WrestleMania.