Triple H, October 2011:

“When I grew up, I hated Hogan. I thought he was terrible and didn’t like to watch him. I was like Punk in a way. I liked the Steamboats and Flairs and the ones that could go. Would I be right in saying that Hogan was the wrong guy to go with, and they should’ve changed directions and gone with Steamboat because he was the better wrestler? Ludicrous.” - Triple H. October, 2011.

The Road to Wrestlemania XXIII - Part One

Friday, February 15, 2008

Rumble is here.

The Road to Wrestlemania XXIII – Part One

The Road to XXIII begins with a recap – 22 years of Wrestlemania in 4 bite sized parts – how did we get from 1985 to 2007? If you haven’t been following along, devoting your life to my little cause, here’s the recap.

It began before it began, the dark match at Wrestlemania featured two men who would play as pivotal a role in the first 22 years of Wrestlemania as as any other, the Dynamite Kid, Tommy Billington, taking on Bret Hart.

The actual opener was a little less workrate friendly, King Kong Bundy and Big John Studd squashing Wendy Richter and Lelani Kai, with Cindy Lauper in their corner.

Andre the Giant won the first ever Legend’s Match, destroying David Sammartino. Paul Orndorff, with aid from Roddy Piper, screwjobbed his way to a pinfall on Hulk Hogan; the tag titles switched hands, the Iron Sheik and Nikolai Volkoff dropping to Tito Santana and Brutus Beefcake. The IC Title match was a bloodbath, a dog collar match where the champ, Greg Valentine, lost his belt to Roddy Piper.

In the main event – Ricky Steamboat, who had just defeated Hogan for the belt on MTV weeks before, retained, keeping over Barry Windham. Steamboat stood with Muhammad Ali in the ring as the show ended – the enduring image of Wrestlemania, immortalized in a black and white photograph still used in the open of Monday Night RAW – Ali holding Steamboat’s arm aloft in triumph in the ring at Madison Square Garden, the Greatest of All Time giving his seal of approval to the WWF and its standardbearer, Ricky Steamboat.

Probably you should get an autographed print for your home or office.

Jesse and Gorilla returned a year later, this time from Chicago for Wrestlemania II – also returning, Andre the Giant, who won his second Legends Match, this time over WWF Hall of Famer Bruno Sammartino. Andre and Bruno shoot hands following the match in a nice moment bridging WWF generations. Hulk Hogan rematched with Paul Orndorff at II, Orndorff had a heel turned Mr. T in his corner for support – but Hogan was able to overcome the odds and avenge his defeat from a year previous. Making his Wrestlemania debut – Jake the Snake Roberts, who quickly dispatched of the former IC Champion Valentine. An exciting match with some historical value was Terry Funk going over his brother Dory.

The tag titles switched hands at II, the heel Hart Foundation – Bret Hart and Davey Boy Smith, with Neidhart as the 3rd member – took from Tito and Beefcake. Also switching hands, the IC, heel Randy Savage, doing his act with Liz, went over Piper, who had turned face; and in the main event it was the Dynamite Kid, the leader of the Hart Foundation, taking the WWF Championship from Steamboat. The Stampede group – Bret, Davey, Anvil, Dynamite – the Hart Foundation – establishing their dominance at Wrestlemania II – all four men hitting the buckles at night’s end – Wrestlemania II a triumph of the Calgary heels – a triumph of Stampede Wrestling.

In front of 90,000+ in the Silverdome, Wrestlemania III returned in 1987. The opening tag was a rematch from II, the Bees going over Herc and Muraco. Andre the Giant went 3 for 3 in Legends Matches, defeating multitime NWA Champ Harley Race. Rick Martel made his WM debut, going over Valentine; Tito and Beefcake, former champions, had busted in half, with Brutus turning heel – Tito beats him at III. Piper’s full time WWF run ended here as the people finally got the long awaited Hogan/Piper Wrestlemania match, the Hulkster getting the duke.

Bret/Davey/Neidhart turned face during the tag run – splitting from the Champ Dynamite – and began a feud with even more Canadians, the Rougeau Brothers. The Harts kept at III, sending the fans home happy. Another reason for their happiness, Savage, who also turned face over the course of the year, keeping his IC over Jake Roberts.

And to complete the babyface trifecta – Ricky Steamboat regained the WWF Championship, defeating Dynamite in the main event – this time it was the four babyfaces – Steamboat, Savage, Bret, and Davey Boy hitting the four buckles while the 90,000 fans roared and the indefatigable Billington, his body ravaged, broken. Battered – stood in the aisle and cursed a storm – standing defiantly against the tidal roar of the fans.

The Calgary group got larger when Wrestlemania returned in 1988, Wrestlemania IV from Atlantic City, Owen Hart defeating Bad News Allen in the dark match.

Demolition made its Mania debut in the opening tag, going over the Bees; two men who had appeared at all four Wrestlemanias, Andre and Hogan, met in a colossal Legends Match, Andre going over and rolling his Mania mark to 4-0. Davey Boy and Bam Bam Bigelow both getting monster pushes, collided hard at IV, with the Bulldog going over. Another huge singles program saw Rick Rude with Bobby Heenan, matching their prodigious heel talents together, to beat the now babyface Jake the Snake.

The tag team champions were the Rougeaus, along with their manager Neidhart, who had turned his back on the Foundation, keeping their belts over Strike Force, Martel and Santana. The IC match was big on big, a babyface matchup where Randy Savage, two full years as the Intercontinental Champion, finally lost his belt, to the former tag champ Bret Hart. Bret and Savage shook hands after the match – Savage giving his stamp of approval to Bret, then exiting the ring to allow the Hit Man to accept the crowd reaction by himself.

And in the main event – the two dominant figures of these first four years of Wrestlemania, Ricky Steamboat and Dynamite Kid, met in a Loser Leaves Town Match.

The loser was the WWF Champion Steamboat (and current commissioner of the WWF, 19 years later) and he left town. The enduring image is of Steamboat offering his hand to Dynamite postmatch, their 3 year feud over, and Dynamite, after a pause – the fans encouraging him to shake his longtime adversary’s hand – Dynamite spitting at Steamboat – cursing at him to “Get the hell out of my ring!!”

Dynamite, all fury, defiantly holding his WWF Championship aloft, as Steamboat shakes his head…less in anger than in sadness at Billington’s monomania, Dynamite screaming at Steamboat even as Steamboat walks back up the aisle, the enduring image of Wrestlemania IV.

Finally – the end of the first part of our Road to Wrestlemania XXIII the end of the 1980s Manias– Wrestlemania V, one year later, once again in Atlantic City.

Hulk Hogan appeared at the first five Manias, he won his first Legends Match at V, going over the Ultimate Warrior, crazed, radical right wing xenophobe. Owen Hart made his Mania debut at V, losing to the now heel Rick Martel, who, as the Male Model, came with a significant entourage as part of his gimmick. The Million Dollar Man Ted DiBiase made his Mania debut at V, stuffing a hundred dollar bill in Jake’s mouth after going over him.

The belts belonged to the Heenan Family; this was the first Wrestlemania for the tag champs, Arn Anderson and Tully Blanchard, the Brainbusters – and they won a bloody, full on Somers/Rose type brawl, with their principle opposition during their WWF run, the Rockers, Shawn Michaels and Marty Jannetty, who also were making their Mania debuts. Curt Hennig, Mr. Mothertrucking Perfect Himself – made his Mania debut, losing his IC belt to his stablemate in the Heenan Family, his longtime friend from Robinsdale High in Minnesota, Rick Rude. It was heel/heel, a Wrestlemania classic match – both men cheating, scrapping, wrestling, finally full on brawling – with Rude taking Hennig’s belt – the enduring image of Heenan celebrating with Rude and Arn in the ring – while Tully consoled Hennig on the outside, the fracturing of the Family evident.

The main event was a rematch of the IC title switch the year before, now the World Champion, Randy Savage – getting retribution against his friend and fellow babyface Bret Hart – keeping his WWF Title in the culmination of a terrific top of the card.

In a mirror image of the year before – this time it was Bret’s turn to give the magnanimous postmatch loser’s handshake to Savage – then exit the ring to allow the Macho Man to stand alone as the King of the world of professional wrestling –

But Savage did not have the luxury of enjoying the moment – for the first time, Wrestlemania ended with a full scale brawl – the Heenan Family, Arn/Tully/Rude/Hennig – all bloodied, even at each others hands, made their way to the ring, surrounded Savage, who stood alone, and kicked the hell out of him.

Savage took a good beating – until Shawn and Marty, themselves, terribly beaten from their loss earlier in the evening, made their way down the aisle to help fight off the heels –

Still outnumbered – Miss Elizabeth ran up the ramp to get reinforcements -- in the person of the Hit Man – together, Bret/Savage/Shawn/Marty were able to run off the heels – the four babyfaces, exhausted and bloody – hitting the four buckles for the face pop as the show ended, all four men shaking hands and hugging as Mania faded to black, an image that would be played and replayed years later, a bloody, exhausted Shawn Michaels leaning his full weight on the Hit Man, as the babyfaces stood in solidarity.

That’s part one.

We’ll recap the rest of the 22 year history of Wrestlemania.

And then the road will continue as we set up Wrestlemania XXIII – who will win the match over a year in the making – Edge v. Matt, Hell in a Cell? Who will take the vacant WWF and NWA championship belts as the tournaments to crown those new champions culminate at Wrestlemania. Who will CM Punk, the ECW Champion defend his title belt against? What about the IC Champ – Sugar Shane Helms and the new tag champs Sandman and Tommy Dreamer? Whom will they defend their respective belts against? What about the Legends Match, the Opening Tag, and all the other Wrestlemania staples? 9 big, big matches to set up – Wrestlemania returns to the Motor City of Detroit for XXIII!  The road continues.

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