It’s that time of year, wrestling fans; WrestleMania season is upon us. As we head into the festivities of the thirty-third annual Show of Shows, there’s no time like the present to look back into history and focus on what it was that brought us to this point, particularly the show that drew the largest crowd in ‘Mania history before last year’s event, WrestleMania 3.
Visually, WM3 has a lot going on for it: the striking shots of a packed house in the now-defunct Pontiac Silverdome, the iconic cart carrying performers up and down the aisle, and the announcers being placed high above the ring in a press box all make for one of the most unique looking WrestleManias of all time, all prior to the advent of the large, extravagant set pieces that we have all come to be familiar with over the years. The commentary also deserves every ounce of praise that it gets, as Jesse “The Body” Ventura and the late, great Gorilla Monsoon make every single match on the card feel important, in a way that modern announcers are seemingly just not given the freedom to do.
The show opened with a tag team match, pitting the team of pre-Model Rick Martel and Tom Zenk, collectively known as The Can-Am Connection, against “Cowboy” Bob Orton and Don Muraco, who are for some reason managed by Mr. Fuji. The most interesting thing about this match, other than Martel being a babyface, is how stylistically different it is from what fans have come to expect out of tag team affairs, as the Can-Am Connection, the faces, take a lot of the offense in the match and cut off Orton from tagging Muraco for a bit. It’s honestly a breath of fresh air, as the Rock-n-Roll Express style of tag wrestling has become so commonplace that it’s virtually an expectation nowadays. Zenk and Martel picked up the win in a fun opener after a sequence in which Muraco inadvertently backdropped Orton, allowing Zenk to hit a cross body and get the three count.
“Mean” Gene Okerlund made his presence felt on this show, interviewing the majority of the competitors, giving us too many backstage interviews to review all of them. However, there were some standouts, namely an interview with Bobby “The Brain” Heenan and Hercules. Heenan doesn’t have much to say here and lets Hercules do his thing, but remains effective in his role and reminds this reviewer why it is he’s held in such high regard among all of the great managers in wrestling history. Hercules’ match, against Billy Jack Haynes, also known as the only man in the world who has ever managed to look tough in a gold sequined jacket, told a great story. Both men used the Full Nelson as their signature move, and the match was built around that fact and the implication that whoever could get it locked in first would be the victor, and this is teased early on in the match. At one point, Hercules has the match seemingly won and instead elects to break his own pin to instead attempt another Full Nelson, eventually leading to Haynes locking in his own out on the outside of the ring, causing a double countout and a no contest, although Hercules and Heenan would get the last laugh after a brutal post-match assault on Billy Jack.
The match that followed, however, was less enjoyable, and honestly a bit uncomfortable. King Kong Bundy teamed with 58 year old Lord Littlebrook and 45 year old Little Tokyo, to take on Hillbilly Jim, Little Beaver and the Haiti Kid, who I’m fairly certain is wrestling in TOMS. In his pre-match interview, Jim referred to his tag partners, both of whom are older than him by the way, as, “his little buddies”, and literally picks them up in his arms as if they are his children. Due to the times, a certain six-letter word for little people is used pretty liberally by not just Bundy, but Okerlund, Jim and Ventura, really racheting up the discomfort. The match ends in a disqualification in favor of Hillbilly Jim’s trio, after Bundy dropped an elbow on Little Beaver and his team turned on him for going too far.
Celebrity involvement has been a big part of WrestleMania, going back to its inception, and the 1987 edition of the event featured it in the form of baseball legend and guest commentator Bob Uecker, and TV host Mary Hart, who acted as a guest timekeeper in the main event and interviewed Miss Elizabeth, or at least tried to before being interrupted by Randy Savage. What Savage says here isn’t all that important, although he does manage to mesmerize, in that way that only the Macho Man could.
Harley Race took on the Junkyard Dog in the next match. It was kept short and simple, with JYD taking the majority of it, constantly throwing Race to the outside, before Bobby Heenan got involved and distracted him, allowing Harley to hit a belly to belly suplex and pick up the victory. Per the stipulation, Junkyard Dog had to bow to Harley, which he did, before taking the chair the King was sitting on and hitting him in the face with it to a big reaction from the crowd in Detroit. A pattern with this show has begun to form, with a lot of heels coming out on top, and a lot of post-match beatdowns. This is a bit of a bummer, as a lot of the faces on this show are extremely easy to root for, particularly guys like Billy Jack Haynes and the Junkyard Dog.
Vince McMahon appears briefly, to interview Hulk Hogan as he gets ready for the main event. Looking back, it’s really easy to see why Hogan was the top guy in the WWF for so long. When he talks, it’s hard to look away from. He had this spectacular ability to grab the attention of the viewer and keep you hooked, even when you know what he’s going to say.
Following that up was a tag team match between the Fabulous Rougeaus and The Dream Team of Greg “The Hammer” Valentine and Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake. It’s around this point that the event’s age really begins to show, as it’s almost beat for beat the same as the opener, save for the finish, where Valentine got the pin after an assist from Dino Bravo. The match seems to exist both just to fill time and to turn Beefcake before the Hair vs. Hair match that followed, and it’s high point is that Bobby Heenan left ringside for the announcer’s booth.
Speaking of that Hair vs. Hair match, the late, great “Rowdy” Roddy Piper took on “Adorable” Adrian Adonis in what was set to be Hot Rod’s retirement match, although he would return to the ring a few short years later. Piper walks the long aisle of the Silverdome to the ring, as opposed to taking the cart, which makes a really great visual, one that is a bit overshadowed by Hogan doing the same thing in the main event, which might be a metaphor for the bulk of Piper’s career. This match is a bit of a hidden gem on this show, as it’s a lot of fun, but has to live in the shadow of Steamboat vs. Savage and Hogan vs. Andre. The finish of the match comes when Adonis releases Goodnight, Irene just a hair too early, allowing Brutus Beefcake to run in and wake Piper, who then locks in a Sleeper of his own and put Adonis away. To his credit, Adrian Adonis sells the Sleeper for what has to be three minutes while Beefcake shaves his head and Piper literally skips around the ring before taking the long trot up back up the aisle for what he thought would be the last time. The world is a worse place without Roddy Piper.
The next match brings the tag match count to four, as the Hart Foundation teamed with “Dangerous” Danny Davis in his in-ring debut against The British Bulldogs and Tito Santana. At this point, Jesse Ventura left commentary to be announced in front of the crowd, as a means to promote his appearance in Predator, which was set to hit theaters later that summer, leaving Gorilla Monsoon to provide commentary on this match with Bob Uecker and Mary Hart; proving that for all the credit Monsoon gets, he still doesn’t get enough, as carrying a three man booth with two people who don’t regularly do the job is a tough job at the very least and amazing at most. Davis spent the majority of the match inside, which works as a great way to get the crowd behind the Bulldogs and Santana, while protecting the Hart Foundation, who were the Tag Team Champions at the time. Davis also scored the winning fall for his team, after Davey Boy Smith took a shot to the back of the head from Jimmy Hart’s megaphone–continuing the trend of heels being victorious after outside interference.
Butch Reed took to the ring with Slick in tow to face Koko B. Ware in a match that couldn’t have been more filler if it tried. Despite The Birdman taking all three minutes that this match went, Reed picked up the win after Slick interfered, which for those of you keeping score at home, brings the “Outside Interference Leads To A Heel Win” count to four, out of the eight total matches on the show to this point. After the match, Reed tried to attack Koko, until Tito Santana made the save. Butch Reed got away, but unfortunately for Slick, he didn’t, and Santana pulled his shirt up over his head and beat him down.
And then, it was time for what is still to this day regarded as one of the best matches in not just the history of WrestleMania, but one of the best matches of all time, as the Macho Man, Randy Savage, defended his Intercontinental Championship against Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat. There’s nothing I can say about this match that hasn’t been said a million times over the last thirty years. The only note I even bothered to take on it was “It’s Steamboat & Savage”. It’s a fantastic match to roll into the final hour of the show, that if not for the pure spectacle of Hogan and Andre, could have feasibly been the end of the show.
Moving on from that, Detroit native Alice Cooper accompanied Jake “The Snake” Roberts down to the ring for his match against the Honky Tonk Man, who of course, was flanked by Jimmy Hart. This match is pretty good, especially as a straight up grudge match; there are no holds exchanged, and it’s largely just Jake pummeling HTM. The camera work in this match deserves a lot of praise as well, with a ton of great shots of Damien moving around in his bag. Jake only attempts the DDT twice, once early on and again in the closing stretch–the first attempt was blocked and on the second, Jimmy Hart grabbed hold to his ankle to prevent it, leading to the Honky Tonk Man getting the win. Jake and Alice managed to get a measure of revenge on The Mouth of the South though, dropping him and laying Damien on him.
The fifth and final tag team match on the card pitted The Iron Sheik and Nikolai Volkoff against the Killer Bees, in a series of events that could be classified as strange to say the least. As Koloff began to sing the Soviet National Anthem, as was his trademark, out came “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan to interrupt, as he had vowed to never allow him to do so. This, more than anything else on this show, encapsulates the late ’80s perfectly. Volkoff never really does anything outright devious to upset Duggan, he just simply loves his home country, which just happens to be the United States’ enemy at the time. The match itself is good, and the Killer Bees prove to be a tag team decades ahead of their time, wrestling in custom Air Jordan I’s, way back when Enzo Amore was only a few months old. The closing moments of the match are when things get weird again, as Hacksaw chases Volkoff into the ring and subsequently attacks The Iron Sheik, who had Jim Brunzell locked squarely in the Camel Clutch, to raucous cheers from the crowd, who he then leads in a chant of “U-S-A!”, despite just getting the American duo disqualified on purpose.
Finally, in the main event of the evening, Hulk Hogan defended the WWF Championship against Andre the Giant, in a match that was built around the question of if Hogan was capable of lifting the 8th Wonder of the World. It’s an absolute spectacle, in the same way that Goldberg vs. Lesnar at this year’s event will likely be, and it hasn’t particularly aged well. This is largely due to the fact that over the last thirty years, WWE has replayed the most important visuals of the match in every historical video package that they’ve made–those being the face off in the opening moments, and of course the slam at the end before Hogan wins and ends Andre’s fabled fifteen year undefeated streak. However, it can’t go unmentioned that at one point, Andre locks Hogan in a bearhug that goes the entire length of the Koko B.Ware/Butch Reed match. Yes, I’m serious.
WrestleMania 3 is very much a product of it’s time; a time in which keeping the crowd engaged and invested in the product didn’t require as much work as it does now, and a time where your heroes didn’t have to win to look strong, provided that they always gave the villain what-for when all was said and done. Wrestling has changed a lot since 1987, but as they say, the more things change, the more the stay the same. People still gravitate today to larger than life characters like the Macho Man and Hulk Hogan, and the evil foreigner character that brought Volkoff and The Iron Sheik such great success, still manages to rile up a crowd, as evidenced by the reactions that Rusev, and to a lesser degree, Ariya Daivari garner today. All in all, if you want to take a look at a show that exemplifies an entire era of wrestling, WrestleMania 3 isn’t a bad choice.