SI Vault
Bruce Newman
April 29, 1985
Pro wrestling has gone big time, thanks to a show-biz send-up that has bred stars like the Missing Link—who's not missing, he's right here
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April 29, 1985

Who's Kidding Whom?

Pro wrestling has gone big time, thanks to a show-biz send-up that has bred stars like the Missing Link—who's not missing, he's right here

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McMahon took steps to "nationalize" wrestling promotions in other parts of the country, (see box on page 38). But his real marketing masterstroke fell into place last June, when he persuaded rock colorburst Cyndi Lauper to front the hype bandwagon that her manager-boyfriend, David Wolff, later dubbed "the rock and wrestling connection." Lauper had become the hottest attraction in the music world following the release of She's So Unusual, her debut album which produced four Top 5 singles. But when she made her first appearance last June on Piper's Pit, an interview show hosted by Piper, she quickly proved she was at home with the wrestlers. When Albano, who played the part of her father in Lauper's Girls Just Want to Have Fun video, tried to take credit for her success, Cyndi merely demurred. But when Albano—emerging from beneath a grotesque meringue of facial hair, rubber bands and morsels of food that made him look like Jabba the Hutt—had the pierced cheek to call her a "broad," Lauper commenced beating the Captain and Piper over their heads with her purse. She called Albano a "fat bag of wind" and "an amoeba," and, given the fact that he was sitting right thereat the time—presenting the evidence for the prosecution, as it were—she seemed to have a very good point.

A month later, Lauper was "managing" top women's contender Wendi Richter. Under Lauper's guidance, Richter quickly took the WWF's women's title from the Fabulous Moolah, who had held it since 1958, when a little Moolah went a long way. Albano, meanwhile, became infuriated by Lauper's impressive managerial debut and insisted that she was "ungrateful." Piper remarked that she was a "scuzzbag."

Somewhere in the midst of all the eye-gouging, haircutting, and name-calling, WrestleMania was born. For the benefit of those who chose to go to the ballet that night, WrestleMania was held on March 31 in Madison Square Garden and beamed live to 200 closed-circuit outlets across the country. It pitted babyfaces Hulk and Mr. T, representing Lauper and the forces of good, against arch-heels Piper and Paul (Mr. Wonderful) Orndorff. As a concept, WrestleMania proved to be a direct conceptual descendant of the Evel Knievel Snake River Canyon jump. Which is to say, one of the biggest media events in the gassy history of hype. McMahon's promotional work for WrestleMania was brilliant, successfully propagating the Big Lie that wrestling had somehow become the new barometer of hip for the '80s. MTV willingly abetted McMahon in this deception by carrying two of the WWF's "grudge" matches live in March and by cutting to taped "interviews" with Gloria Steinem and Geraldine Ferraro in a way that made it appear that both women were actually at the matches. In fact, Steinem and Ferraro had made their remarks while attending Ms. magazine's Women of the Year breakfast in January, at which Lauper was also an honoree. Lauper had asked her new friends Gloria and Gerry to say something unkind about the villainous Roddy Piper, and they happily obliged. "He's a disgrace to rock and roll," said Steinem. "He certainly is not fit to wear a skirt." Ferraro challenged Piper to "come out and fight like a man."

When those two film clips started to turn up on MTV about as often as Madonna's lower lip, Ferraro said she'd been duped. Insisting she never went to wrestling matches, Ferraro also said she had been assured her comments would be used "in good taste." "Maybe I should have known better," she says now.

The Hulkster and Mr. T, meanwhile, were bouncing from talk show to talk show, spreading goodwill wherever they went. At one point Hogan was asked by cable-TV host Richard Belzer to demonstrate a wrestling hold. The Hulk put him in a front chinlock, whereupon Belzer was rendered null and void, almost permanently. Belzer slumped to the floor unconscious, waking up moments later in a pool of his own blood. Belzer, who received eight stitches on his head, called the incident "vicious and sickening," then placed a full-page ad in the New York Post announcing it would be replayed five nights later, just in case anybody hadn't been sufficiently grossed out the first time. Should Belzer be thinking about suing, he might have company in 20/20 reporter John Stossel, who claims to have suffered pain and ringing in his ears as the result of David (Dr. D) Davis's boxing his ears during an interview in December.

WrestleMania was a magnificent spectacle and probably enough of a success financially to consolidate McMahon's hammerlock on wrestling. The featured match came to a creative, if predictable, conclusion. First Piper and Orndorff teamed up to perform a double Atomic Spine-breaker on Hogan. Then guest referee Muhammad Ali stepped into the ring to issue them a warning. While that was going on. Cowboy Bob Orton, Piper's nefarious bodyguard, sneaked up behind the Hulkster and was about to bash him on the cranium with the cast he had on his right arm. when Hogan alertly stepped aside. Orton's blow connected with the preening Orndorff, knocking him even more senseless than he was in the first place. The Hulkster then applied the pin, at which point an outraged Piper clotheslined the working referee and stalked off. When Mr. Wonderful finally regained consciousness and saw the Hulk and Mr. T in wild celebration, he was disconsolate. "I guess I have no friends at all," he muttered darkly.

No friends at all is precisely what McMahon has among wrestling traditionalists and, more particularly, in the old-boy network of regional promoters. "I can't speak real highly of his caliber of wrestlers if in two weeks an actor like Mr. T can be transformed into someone capable of taking on his top pros," says Verne Gagne of the rival Pro Wrestling USA. "In his bouts, one guy always goes out and squashes the other," adds Joel Watts of Mid-South wrestling. "He plays on the personalities of the wrestlers, making them out to be freaks or something. I think he's generating a fad that will pass away."

One thing that McMahon's critics object to most frequently is the way he has tampered with wrestling's traditional, if theatrical, mix. "What separates McMahon's philosophy from everyone else's is that he deliberately tries to make everything as ridiculous as possible, whereas most of the others manage to do it unintentionally," says Dave Meltzer, the 24-year-old publisher of an exhaustive triweekly newsletter called the Wrestling Observer. "The TV ratings have been good for the last 10 years," says Meltzer, "but when McMahon started bragging about them, suddenly people began to notice. Then you started to hear, 'Wow, they're selling out the Garden every month.' Well, wrestling has been selling out the Garden every month for the past 15 years." And what of the new demographics? "That's all a New York phenomenon," says Meltzer, who lives in Northern California. "I go to WWF shows out here, and it's the same demographics as it's always been. The only difference is that the WWF show is a lot rowdier because they do the whole ethnic thing to incite the crowd."

The ethnic thing consists in large part of the race-baiting, homosexual-baiting, xenophobic bluster of villains like Piper and Orndorff. "That's not anything new to wrestling," says Meltzer. "But the WWF exploits racism more than any promotion I've ever seen. They exploit ethnic stereotypes, and by doing so they trivialize racism. Everybody buys it and thinks it's chic to laugh at somebody who calls blacks 'boy.' " Meltzer cites the Junkyard Dog, who is black, as an example of McMahon's handiwork. "When he was with Mid-South, he was one of the 10 best interviews in wrestling," says Meltzer. "He was almost like a philosopher to the black fans in the South. Now he goes into New York, and he barks his interviews."

The Dog was averaging nearly $150,000 a year before he started barking for McMahon in 1984. This year he expects to make $250,000. "Nobody in my family could believe the money I was making," the Dog sniffs. "They thought I was selling drugs." The Dog has made enough money to bury some in his backyard for when he retires, but there is no pension and no disability insurance if he suffers a serious injury.

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