WrestleMania I: Revisiting WWE’s ‘Greatest Wrestling Event’ that started it all

The tagline of the event was “The Greatest Wrestling Event of All Time!”

It may not have been the most memorable of all WrestleMania events or had the pyrotechnics or pageantry moments fans are now used to, but WrestleMania I introduced fans to something they’d never before seen: a professional wrestling pay-per-view event. Viewers saw the event through closed-circuit television.

The first WrestleMania was a nine-match show that took place on March 31, 1985, at Madison Square Garden in New York City. It featured several sports and music celebrities, including Muhammad Ali as a special guest referee/enforcer, Billy Martin as a ring announcer, Cyndi Lauper as a manager and Liberace as a timekeeper. The Rockettes also made an appearance in the ring and danced with Liberace before the main event — which included Mr. T in a tag team match.

Wrestling fans are now preparing for the two-day WrestleMania XL this weekend at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia. The Athletic will be on site and also provide live-blog coverage for the event. But before we get to Saturday and Sunday, members of The Athletics staff wanted to give fans the opportunity to take a stroll down memory lane with some reminders — almost live blog-style — from the very first WrestleMania.

Pre-show notes

Richard Deitsch (senior writer, sports media): What strikes you immediately about the elements before the opening match — the intro from announcers Gorilla Monsoon and Jesse “The Body” Ventura, “Mean” Gene Okerlund singing the national anthem, and Lord Alfred Hayes showing up near the locker room for I’m not exactly sure why — is how underproduced it is. There’s no over-the-top pyrotechnics or no camera whipping around the arena to show us the scale. It’s very low key. A wrestling fan born after 2000 would think this show is originating from a different planet.

Jason Jones (staff writer, culture): That was some video package to start the show. Music and stock photos? No glitz. Nothing fancy. And they couldn’t find Lord Alfred Hayes a spot a little closer to the crowd? Wrestling has come a long way.

Damon Sayles (senior editor, culture): Okerlund singing the national anthem is an example of how versatile and vital he was to WWE back then. He did a little bit of everything. Commentator, interviewer, interrogator, instigator … and, yes, singer.

Tyler Batiste (managing editor, NBA): What an outfit by “The Body” to start the show. And what an MSG logo on the microphones in the center of the ring. One question, though: Does “Mean Gene” need notes to remember the lyrics to the national anthem? It sure looks like it. C’mon, Gene!

Chris Vannini (senior writer, college football): That Ventura wardrobe.

Singles match: Tito Santana vs. The Executioner

Deitsch: The Executioner’s pre-match promo with Okerlund was hilariously bad. Gotta say: Santana’s athleticism was very impressive for his time.

Jones: The Executioner’s promo … no way something like that would air even five years after this event.

Batiste: “Weight unknown” for The Executioner? Did no one have a scale for him to step on before heading to the ring? Surely there’s one somewhere inside Madison Square Garden.

Sayles: There weren’t many wrestlers flying outside of the ring. The outside chairs and guardrails were extremely close to the ring.

Batiste: Good action in match No. 1. The Executioner was intent on working Santana’s leg. Tough to see how much the crowd is into this first match, but you can certainly hear them.

Deitsch: I loved Monsoon and Ventura selling the soap early. Exclaimed Ventura: “Woodstock was to Rock ‘N’ Roll what WrestleMania is to wrestling, Geno!”

Batiste: Santana made The Executioner tap with a figure-four leglock … but I’m still intrigued by this mid-ring microphone situation. Should look into buying one of those for personal use.

Result: Santana wins by submission

Singles match: King Kong Bundy vs. S.D. ‘Special Delivery’ Jones

Sayles: Bundy was accompanied by “The Mouth of the South” Jimmy Hart. But only for a few seconds. Wow!

Batiste: Love that Jimmy Hart switched suits between the recorded, pre-match interview and the actual match. Nothing wrong with a wardrobe change … though I’m not sure either outfit tops that get-up Ventura is wearing.

Deitsch: Well, that was quick. Bundy took out Jones in seconds with Monsoon hilariously going over the top by diagnosing that Jones “might have a fractured rib.”

Batiste: King Kong Bundy — not a small man!

Vannini: It was only a few seconds, but Bundy moves well for a man of his size. I would’ve loved to see what he could do in today’s wrestling. He was a former college wrestler, twice earning all-conference honors.

Jones: If they’d shown the ring entrances, they would have been longer than the match.

Deitsch: In keeping with wrestling tradition, the announced time of the match (nine seconds) is not close to the actual time (25 seconds).

Result: Bundy wins by pinfall

Singles match: Matt Borne vs. Ricky Steamboat

Deitsch: The athleticism of Steamboat really stands out — a precursor of the stuff we see regularly today.

Vannini: I miss the days when the referee checked both wrestlers for any foreign objects before a match, like he did in this match. A little thing that adds to the “rules” of this universe.

Sayles: Santana moves well, and the high crossbody to finish the match showed he had a solid skill set. That move doesn’t get the 1-2-3 pin too often anymore, but salute to Santana.

Jones: Imagine wrestlers in this basic ring gear in 2024 for WrestleMania. Borne’s boots don’t even look clean. Steamboat deserved the win just on that alone. The high cross body off the top rope for the win was a big deal for the “high flyers” of that time.

Sayles: Random side note: Steamboat wasn’t Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat at WrestleMania I. Later that year, he embraced that gimmick now remembered by so many fans. To add, this also was before Borne became Doink the Clown.

Result: Steamboat by pinfall

Singles match: Brutus Beefcake vs. David Sammartino

Sayles: David Sammartino is the son of Bruno Sammartino, who holds the record for longest-reigning WWE Champion of all time at 2,803 days. Do the math: That’s more than seven years.

Jones: Shout-out to Bruno Sammartino for rocking the gold WWF blazer for the promo. It looks more like an NFL Hall of Fame blazer at first glance.

Deitsch: My favorite moment happened before the match. First, Beefcake’s manager Johnny Valiant tells Lord Alfred Hayes near the locker room, to “wake up, wake up,” which nearly throws Hayes off his read. Then Borne, who is coming down the aisle after the Steamboat match, nearly walks in front of Hayes and the camera before quickly realizing his near botch.

Jones: An unmasked wrestler from “Parts Unknown” is wild. What’s he hiding? Also, Beefcake was ahead of the game with his in-ring gear. The clip-on bowtie, the glitter … he clearly was about the look during a time when most of the wrestlers lacked flash.

Vannini: Valiant got me fired up with that interview. That’s what a good manager does. Also, Beefcake is already the second wrestler on this show billed from “Parts Unknown.” Human resources needs to do a better job of figuring out where the employees are from.

Jones: This was some old-school grappling. The excitement over a suplex was something else. The ending was pure comedy.

Vannini: I normally would hate a long match ending in interference for zero reason, but that crowd exploded when Bruno got in the ring to go after Valiant. That’s the match I want to see.

Result: Double disqualification for outside interference

Intercontinental Championship: Greg ‘The Hammer’ Valentine (c) vs. The Junkyard Dog

Vannini: Valentine says he’s in the best shape of his life. It must be spring training!

Jones: One-hour time limit? No way!

Sayles: We get another Jimmy Hart appearance as he manages Valentine, but let’s focus on JYD’s entrance. That was special, as it was the first of the show to actually include entrance music.

Jones: The champ didn’t even get an entrance. JYD’s entrance is the first time this feels like a big event.

Deitsch: Man, the walk-up music changes the entire tone of the event as JYD comes out to the iconic “Grab Them Cakes” and gets an immediate huge pop. Given the two talents, this match started out insanely slow with little action or story. They amped it up late, but this was far too short a match for two Hall of Famers. Plus, no change of title.

Result: The Junkyard Dog wins by countout (title doesn’t change hands via countout or disqualification)

Tag Team Championship: The U.S. Express (Barry Windham and Mike Rotundo (c) vs. The Iron Sheik and Nikolai Volkoff

Sayles: Immediately I noticed Mike’s last name was “Rotundo” and not “Rotunda.” The father of the late Bray Wyatt wrestled under both last names, but during his U.S. Express days, he was Rotundo — with an O at the end. The Iron Sheik always called Gene Okerlund “Gene Mean” instead of “Mean Gene.”

Deitsch: Nothing better than Nikolai Volkoff — who was born in Croatia — singing the Russian national anthem, followed by The Iron Sheik cutting a promo against the United States. The match had a very hot start and you have to love how much the Sheik is willing to sell for Rotundo and Windham. Another quick match but these were four pros who told a nice story.

Jones: Seeing this younger version of Windham is cool. It also lets you know where Bray Wyatt’s birth name (Windham Rotunda) came from.

Vannini: Shout-out to U.S. Express, who will go into the WWE Hall of Fame this year.

Jones: The trash flying at Volkoff into the ring is pure comedy. The late-great Sheik is the quintessential heel. He’d draw heat in any era. The way he nailed Windham with Freddie Blassie’s can was great bad-guy work for the win.

Result: Sheik and Volkoff win by pinfall and become new champions

Career vs. $15,000 Body Slam Match: Big John Studd vs. André the Giant

Sayles: The rules of this match were simple: André has to body slam Studd. If he does, he wins $15,000. If he doesn’t before the match’s time limit, he would be forced to retire.

Deitsch: I can’t believe that André The Giant and Big John Studd battled for just $15,000. (That would be $43,000 today.) That’s terrible creative, even with the stipulation that André would retire from wrestling if he did not slam Studd. The best thing about watching this was seeing a healthy, happy and in-shape André nearly jogging to the ring.

André the Giant and Big John Studd put on a show as two of the largest men in pro wrestling. (Courtesy of WWE)

Jones: This is as mobile as I’ve ever seen André. By the time he main evented WrestleMania III, he was physically compromised. It’s obvious watching this match. And what was Mean Gene standing on for that post-match interview? He looks way too tall to be interviewing André.

Sayles: André did it! Made it look relatively easy too. He was then given a duffel bag with the $15,000 in it … and starts throwing the money into the crowd. That’s one way to keep the fans on your side.

Deitsch: Studd sold big for André while the reverse did not happen.

Vannini: The match wasn’t much of anything, but the finish was fun. I love how André immediately signaled to give him the money as soon as he slammed Studd, then tossed the money to fans before Bobby “The Brain” Heenan took the bag of money and ran away. What a heel. Two years later, Heenan and André would join forces against Hulk Hogan at WrestleMania III, when an even bigger body slam would take place.

Deitsch: Finally, how can you cut André off mid-sentence as he is doing a promo with Okerlund? Brutal!

Result: André wins by body slam

Women’s Championship: Leilani Kai (c) vs. Wendi Richter

Sayles: All eyes on the managers of the competitors before the bell. Kai was accompanied by The Fabulous Moolah, one of the greatest champions of all time. Richter was accompanied by Cyndi Lauper, who took a break from her music career to become manager trained by Captain Lou Albano. Lauper and Albano helped spearhead the “Rock ‘n’ Wrestling Connection,” which cross-promoted the WWE and MTV and music in general.

Vannini: Who could forget Albano’s starring role in the “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” music video!

Deitsch: Richter is chronically underrated. So many women prior to the era of Charlotte Flair, Becky Lynch, Sasha Banks etc., never got the due they deserved. Both women told a great story, sold for each other and showed out with great moves from backbreakers to jumps from above the turnbuckle.


Wendi Richter and Cyndi Lauper made for a solid wrestler-manager team during WrestleMania I. (Courtesy of WWE)

Jones: It’s hard to convey just how big a star Lauper was at this time. She was MTV in a lot of ways. This was a big get for WrestleMania. She even gets involved in the match to get the Fabulous Moolah off Richter.

Vannini: It is fascinating to watch this match and look back at a time when women’s wrestling simply was sport.

Jones: This was a really good match. This had all of the elements of a modern WrestleMania match. Pop culture, a wrestling legend and entertainment. I also like its placement on the card. It might have been the best match on the card, so it was in the right spot.

Result: Richter wins by pinfall and becomes new champion

Tag Team Match: ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper and ‘Mr. Wonderful’ Paul Orndorff vs. Hulk Hogan and Mr. T

Deitsch: First we start off with former (and soon-to-be-again) Yankees manager Billy Martin as the ring announcer who introduces — wait for it — Liberace, who served as the guest timekeeper. Then comes Ali as a guest referee (with the great Pat Patterson).

Vannini: Mr. T might have the most impressive physique of the bunch.

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Mr. T and Roddy Piper, with Hulk Hogan in the background. (Courtesy of WWE)

Deitsch: My favorite moment of the festivities is Piper swaggering down the aisle to the ring, all heel.

Sayles: Lost in all the pageantry of this main event are the men, now two WWE legends, who accompanied the competitors. Cowboy Bob Orton, the father of 14-time champion Randy Orton, joined Piper and Orndorff. Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka joined Hogan and Mr. T.

Jones: If there’s somewhere I can buy a replica of Piper’s shirt from this match, I need the link. You’ve got three legendary heels with Orton in Piper and Orndorff’s corner.

Vannini: Overall an enjoyable match with a fun and frantic finish. It’s very Piper that he walked off after defeat and left his partner Orndorff in the ring.

Jones: Hogan got the pin without the big boot and leg drop … how often did that happen?

Deitsch: I thought Orndorff did the best work out of everyone. He sold everything. What a great and underrated bad guy.

Jones: It’s kinda crazy Hogan’s title wasn’t on the line, but I guess you forego that when you’ve got Mr. T, who was wildly popular from “The A-Team” and more. I really enjoyed this match. Ali was entertaining in his role. Hogan will never be called a technician in the ring, but he knew how to work the crowd.

Result: Hogan and Mr. T win by pinfall

Post-show notes

Jones: This completely looks like a practice run. I’m sure no one imagined WrestleMania would become what it is now.

Sayles: Let’s give credit to Jesse “The Body” Ventura” and Gorilla Monsoon. who provided the nostalgic commentary we didn’t know we needed.

Vannini: This show really summed up wrestling in the 1980s. Star power, big muscles, big personalities, as many celebrities as possible, below-average wrestling and a show completed in a reasonable amount of time. “Mean” Gene Okerlund really is the greatest backstage interviewer that pro wrestling has ever seen. He absolutely shined on this show.

(Top photo of Mr. T and Roddy Piper courtesy of WWE)

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