WWE in 1985: An Oral History
From WrestleMania to MTV music videos, cartoons and network TV, 1985 was WWE's most evolutionary year ever.
In 1985, World Wrestling Entertainment (then known as the World Wrestling Federation, or WWF) was all over the pop culture landscape. Promoter Vince McMahon's bold plan to take the once-regional WWE product national had come to fruition, but booking live events and TV time slots nationwide was just the beginning. For the initiative to truly work, WWE's brand of sports entertainment needed to be entertaining enough to hold people's interest and earn repeat business.
With help from some of that era's biggest pop culture celebrities and an impressive roster of wrestling talent, they pulled it off. At the top of that roster stood the wildly popular WWE champion Hulk Hogan and his heel arch-nemesis, "Rowdy" Roddy Piper.
Piper died unexpectedly last month at the age of 61. Weeks before that, WWE abruptly released Hogan from his contract after controversial comments he made years prior became public during a bitter lawsuit between Hogan and Gawker. But once upon a time, the WWE made its biggest pop culture splash ever, with Piper, Hogan and a memorable supporting cast setting the tone for what the modern-day WWE product would eventually become.
On the 30th anniversary of WWE's groundbreaking year of 1985, here's the story of that era, as told by many of the wrestlers -- and one iconic pop star -- that made it all happen.
1984: THE PRECURSOR
B. BRIAN BLAIR (one half of WWE tag team the Killer Bees, 1985-88): Junior [a common nickname for Vince McMahon] was ready to dominate the world in 1984 or so, when WrestleMania 1 was being planned.
GEORGE "The Animal" STEELE (WWE wrestler, 1967-88): I was a part-time wrestler up until that point, but I was a major player in the WWWF [World Wide Wrestling Federation, previous name for WWF] from 1967 until Vince Jr. took over, but only in the summertime because I was still teaching and coaching. In 1984 when I saw that whole thing happening, I knew there were going to be changes in my life, too.
PAUL "Mr. Wonderful" ORNDORFF (WWE wrestler, 1983-88): There'll never ever be another Vince McMahon. Whether you like him, dislike him, love him or whatever, the guy was a smart man. He knew what to do and he knew how to do it.
"Mr. USA" TONY ATLAS (former WWE tag team champion): What Vince would do, he would let another company spend the money to build you up. Then he would call you up, offer you more money and get you to leave the company that made you.
"Leaping" LANNY POFFO (WWE wrestler, 1985-1992 and brother of Randy "Macho Man" Savage): Nobody could overcome the inertia that they were starting. The only people that didn't admit that it was a phenomenon were the jealous people.
TOUGH TALK: 'TUESDAY NIGHT TITANS'
Cable TV was a critical part of WWE's growth in the early 1980s. WWE had weekly programs airing nationwide on the USA Network, with a new one -- Prime Time Wrestling -- debuting in early 1985. For a brief period, WWE also aired weekly on TBS as a result of McMahon's purchase of a controlling interest in Georgia Championship Wrestling.
One of the most bizarre WWE programs on the USA Network was TNT, or Tuesday Night Titans, a talk show hosted by McMahon with veteran wrestler Lord Alfred Hayes playing Ed McMahon to Vince's Johnny Carson. On TNT, McMahon interviewed a revolving guest list of his wrestlers, who sometimes performed in skits designed to enhance their characters and name value outside the ring and reach an audience more inclined to watch a variety show than a wrestling match. The result was an often corny but completely different way of presenting pro wrestling's performers to the public.
LANNY POFFO: They had me as a guest. I was so afraid that I was going to be boring and I would never be invited back. I decided to stack the deck in my favor. I had already been a fan of poetry. I had written poetry from the fifth grade on, and I enjoyed it. I knew that if I didn't keep doing it, that part of my brain would atrophy. So when I got on as a guest on TNT, I gave them a poem. During the commercial Vince said "That's great. From now on, you'll do a poem before every match."
LEILANI KAI (former WWE women's champion, 1985): It was a completely different thing than preparing for a wrestling match. It was a lot of fun and Vince was great at leading us all and helping to get the best out of us.
WENDI RICHTER (former WWE women's champion, 1984-85): I always did TV, always did interviews, so it was just another interview. When you had a commentator, that made it easier. They didn't just hand you the microphone and tell you to talk for two minutes.
In one infamous TNT segment, McMahon joined manager Captain Lou Albano in subjecting George Steele to shock therapy, to try and make the grunting-and-groaning "Animal" speak normally. In another, the Magnificent Muraco and his evil manager Mr. Fuji starred in a cringeworthy satire of Miami Vice called "Fuji Vice."
GEORGE STEELE: Vince had set this up for me. He says "I want you to memorize this and when you come out of it, you're gonna do this poem." I'm dyslexic. When he gives me something long to read and memorize, that ain't gonna happen. So he's waiting for this long, fancy poem, and I said "How now, brown cow?" He didn't expect it. It got over big time. If I had done that other poem it would have sucked.
DON "The Magnificent" MURACO (former WWE wrestler, 1981, 1983-88): We did that big, epic "Fuji Vice" thing. They flew me and my wife and kids all the way back from Hawaii early to go down to Baltimore. We rented out a big bar; we did a bar scene there. Then I closed it off with the comedy routine that they gave me, that I could do like Johnny Carson. They ran the prompter so fast that all I could do was speed read. I had no idea what the jokes were, and they just ran the prompter. The idea being the worse I was, the better it is.
TONY ATLAS: A lot of us old-timers didn't like it. That was the beginning of Vince getting more people involved in the wrestling world other than just wrestlers. That was a seed that he planted to grow what he's got now. He was introducing wrestling to a whole new world. If you look at it now, he did the right thing.
GEORGE STEELE: To me, the biggest change in professional wrestling came -- and this was when we became total entertainment without a doubt, and it was cartoon over-the-top -- was Butcher Vachon's wedding on TNT and then afterwards they had the reception. Vince went out and got a lot of booze, so everybody was pretty well stoned. They were drinking a lot when we did that reception. We had that big fight afterwards and tore up the place. That was a rented place, it was not a set. The owners went nuts when we started throwing pies and everything. I went up to Vince and I put my hand on his shoulder and said "Son, you're not gonna show this on TV, are you?" He says "I sure am." I said "You're gonna kill the business." He said "We'll see." They showed that three times on the USA Network. And wrestling went from number seven to number one on the USA Network.
TOP BILLING: RODDY PIPER AND HULK HOGAN
For the centerpiece of his beefed-up roster, McMahon chose Hulk Hogan, a charismatic and muscle-bound bruiser fresh off a memorable bit part in the movie Rocky III. While fans immediately took a liking to Hogan, it was the obnoxious and quick-witted heel "Rowdy" Roddy Piper that played yin to Hogan's yang. The duo paired up to give the WWE the main-event feud it needed to grab the attention of the masses.
CYNDI LAUPER (pop musician, WWE collaborator 1984-86): Roddy was incredibly funny and entertaining to work with. He was also very creative. He was an underrated actor.
PAUL ORNDORFF: In wrestling, if there is a legend, Roddy Piper is a legend, no doubt about it. Nobody was ever like he was. He knew how to put asses in the seats. That's what we got paid to do, and we did it. I owe Roddy a lot. He helped me a lot. Some of the ways he did his interviews, he was the best. Nobody was ever better than Roddy Piper was when it came to interviews. He didn't pull no punches. He wasn't afraid of nothin' or nobody. He was a trip, and he was good people, too. He was a good friend. A damn good friend. It just saddens me that he's not here right now.
DON MURACO: He and I were close friends. We would spend hours and hours talking. One time we went about three hours the wrong way, and ended up in Traverse City, Michigan. It was in the middle of the summer, and we were supposed to go to Toledo, Ohio. We were drinking rum and Cokes or something, just talking. About three or four hours into the trip, we were nearing the Canadian border. So we got to Traverse City, and if you know anything about Traverse City -- which we didn't -- it's a huge summer town, a huge resort town. We drove everyplace looking for a motel or someplace we could sleep, and then go to Toledo. We finally found a Holiday Inn but the only thing available was the honeymoon suite. So we took it. And we finally passed out, and in the morning, the thing had about 17 rooms. I'm trying to find him and he's trying to find me. It was a comedy. My lone experience in Traverse City, Michigan. But with Piper, one of many. Lots that can't be repeated. I loved the guy.
TITO SANTANA: Piper was an unbelievable performer. Nobody was better than him on the mic. He knew exactly what he wanted. I don't think he was bigger than me, but he went up against big guys and didn't go down off his feet very much. He wrestled like a big man. He was one of the hottest heels.
BRIAN BLAIR: Hulk Hogan was a phenomenon. A lot of people looked at him more like a gimmick -- a blonde-haired, trash-talking imitation of Billy Graham. [But] Terry could actually wrestle, and a lot of people don't know that.
DON MURACO: All these different writers [said] Hulk Hogan was a bum, Hulk Hogan couldn't wrestle, Hulk Hogan couldn't do this, Hulk Hogan couldn't do that. But g-- damn, all the buildings were sold out. There was a lot of talent there and all the guys worked together, but Hulk was pretty much carrying the flag, you know?
PAUL ORNDORFF: I know him as Terry. Hulk Hogan has probably done more for wrestling than anybody has. He got Hollywood involved in wrestling. Hogan was a big guy, but that big ol' guy could move and he knew how to get those people going. He had it all. He got pro wrestling to a whole new level. The guy was a huge celebrity. Me and him mixed really good because I made him work his ass off when he worked with me. And he did the best he could do. I was all energy, buddy. I was 115 miles an hour. The guy was good. The guy drew nothing but money. He is the biggest name in wrestling ever.
THE IRON SHEIK (former WWE champion and tag team champion): He jabroni, but one of the best entertainers. Mr. McMahon make him number one draw on the earth.
GEORGE STEELE: The timing was perfect. He was in the perfect position, he had the perfect look. He was not a great talent as far as ring work is concerned, but his charisma was over the top.
DON MURACO: He was probably no Ray Stevens or Dory Funk Jr. when it came to wrestling in the ring, but when it came to dollar signs he was certainly the man. He was making me money and a lot of other people, too.
TITO SANTANA: Personally, I was happy that I was on the same cards with Hulk. Vince McMahon got him hotter than a firecracker and he was drawing big, big crowds everywhere he went.
LANNY POFFO: Hulk Hogan is the Babe Ruth of wrestling. If it wasn't for Hulk Hogan, this jabroni that you're talking to wouldn't have been a main eventer for four months.
THE ROCK 'N' WRESTLING CONNECTION/'THE WAR TO SETTLE THE SCORE'
At the height of her fame, pop music superstar Cyndi Lauper made the unprecedented move of beginning a long-term involvement with WWE, a deal that included multiple appearances at wrestling events and numerous WWE wrestlers appearing in her hit music videos. It all started with the unlikeliest of talents: Veteran manager Captain Lou Albano, who struck up a friendship with Lauper after first appearing in her video for "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun."
WWE dubbed its collaboration with Lauper The Rock 'n' Wrestling Connection, a marketing move that would open doors for WWE everywhere from MTV to network television.
GEORGE STEELE: Captain Lou Albano was perfect for the switch. When he brought in Cyndi Lauper and the whole music thing, it was perfect timing. Captain Lou was way out on the edge, so for where Vince was going, he was perfect.
WENDI RICHTER: Cyndi was on a flight with Lou Albano from Puerto Rico and they struck up a conversation on the flight. Then he announced that he was her manager on the wrestling programs without her knowledge until someone told her. She said that he wasn't her manager and then he insulted her. She challenged him to a wrestling match and I was selected [to wrestle on Cyndi's behalf]. I don't know exactly who selected me, but it was wonderful because her song "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" was my favorite song. So it was like a dream come true. She's a very, very good person. Very down to earth. She's not what I thought a rock and roll superstar would be.
CYNDI LAUPER: Lou made all the promotion for [Lauper's hit album] She's So Unusual fun. He was so funny. He was terrific in The Goonies [music video]. Even our moments in Roddy's Pit were unforgettable. I was so privileged to work with him. I will never forget his work in "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun." But Lou was fun. He was my "Great Kahuna."
TITO SANTANA: Everybody in the dressing room liked Cyndi Lauper. She had a great personality. She would talk to all of us, you know.
THE IRON SHEIK: Mr. McMahon, he genius, he know who to work with. The MTV hottest thing and Vince work with them and the Cyndi Lauper to make the Goonies [music video] and put over the wrestlers. I love it because everybody love us. I love the Cyndi. She love me. She good friend of mine forever. We work hard for the company and we have best time doing the Goonies video.
CYNDI LAUPER: I don't think I will ever forget the filming of the Goonies [music video for 'Goonies 'R' Good Enough']. The whole entrance of the wrestlers was ad-libbed. How lucky was I to watch them work? Roddy stood out. He was truly funny. It was an honor to work with him.
The Rock 'n' Wrestling Connection led to a pair of WWE events being broadcast on MTV, the latter of which was The War to Settle the Score. Unlike your typical WWE wrestling show, it was co-hosted by wrestling announcer Mean Gene Okerlund and MTV VJ Alan Hunter. Numerous rock stars and Hollywood actors gave interviews during the show, rubbing shoulders with the WWE wrestlers on their own turf. Even though the celebrities were clearly participating in a tongue-in-cheek manner, their mere presence -- and that of MTV -- at a WWE show did wonders for making the sports entertainment company relevant in the eyes of the mainstream.
ALAN HUNTER (MTV VJ, 1981-87, co-host of The War to Settle the Score): We were all mutually respecting the other's playground, you know? As much as I toyed with the guys that I came up against, I will tell you the reality of their serious attitude toward their profession, I came up against that many times. It was weird when the camera wasn't rolling and you're having to stand next to this wrestler dude who just reamed somebody out, and I kind of wanted to knock on the door a little bit and say "Hey man... your name's Bill, right? And this is all fake, right?"
Hunter recalled a press conference where Albano and Piper were to get into a planned brawl. He listened to the men block out their altercation prior to filming. Hunter himself was not to be involved physically. When the cameras rolled, Piper got other ideas.
ALAN HUNTER: All of a sudden Roddy gets up and starts yelling and screaming at me, calling me a pipsqueak, comes over, grabs me by the neck and pulls me up over the table. That was not planned. That was like, holy cow. I mean I was like a little feather in his hand. Then he screamed at me some more and I went to commercial. "We'll be right back!" acting like I was disheveled and worried, which I kind of was. As soon as the cameras stopped, Roddy came over and he goes "You OK, little buddy?" Like Gilligan's Island. "You alright, man? That was great! Everybody happy?" He was just sweet and funny.
In one of the more surreal scenes of The War to Settle the Score, a stream of celebrities entered the locker room to be interviewed by Okerlund after the main event, in which a one-on-one match between Piper and Hogan ended in a wild brawl. Orndorff was involved, as was Mr. T, an actor on the hit series The A-Team who would tag team with Hogan versus Piper and Orndorff in the main event of the first WrestleMania the following month. Not only had WWE gotten its show onto MTV and used it to promote the first WrestleMania, but they were now getting celebrities to play along, telling the MTV cameras how much they loved the show.
ALAN HUNTER: I knew some of the celebrities that were going to appear, like Joe Piscopo. I knew Danny DeVito was there. But Andy Warhol was a total surprise. We knew that Andy was a fan of wrestling, but he was a fan of all things kitchy, and obviously he smelled that this was going to be a real big pop culture event, the wrestling thing, so he came down. It was just funny to watch Mean Gene interview him.
TITO SANTANA: I think everybody had mixed feelings when Vince started bringing big names into professional wrestling. The wrestlers ourselves, we didn't think we needed it. But Vince was thinking in a different way. He was thinking about giving us publicity with a different fan.
ALAN HUNTER: It was like, we make our living on being irreverent and poking fun at everything and playing silly videos. So maybe that friction was kind of fun. Certainly that wasn't the game Cyndi played, you know, entering into that world.
TITO SANTANA: [Cyndi] gave us some great publicity out there for a different fan, the rock star fans. We were evolving. We were becoming TV stars ourselves.
ALAN HUNTER: There were certainly a lot of wrestlers that were not too much a fan of this collaboration with MTV.
PAUL ORNDORFF: I understand why they did it, but me and Roddy -- he was the type of guy, too -- that we were old school, and you protected wrestling. That's what my mentality was.
DON MURACO: Everybody was pretty kayfabe and stuff. Everybody had their own roles. It wasn't everybody involved with Cyndi Lauper and Mr. T. Only Vince and Piper and Hulk. We weren't really mixing up with them.
ALAN HUNTER: It was funny that it happened in New York too, by the way, with the Andy Warhol sort of elite world of New York-centric entertainment at the time. Everything was coming from New York, and MTV was there. But to have people like him be a fan in a pop culture way of this new thing -- to them -- called wrestling. And I think that's what the real die-hard fans of wrestling resented a little bit, that their thing was being co-opted by this new group of people, the MTV viewers and the people that liked MTV. So that was an interesting dynamic.
DON MURACO: Previously, we weren't mainstream. The local sportscast wouldn't have anything to do with professional wrestling. It was an aside. It was a laugh, it was a joke. Everybody had their nose up in the air.
PAUL ORNDORFF: Mr. T and Cyndi Lauper didn't do nothing for me because I was a wrestling fan. I wasn't into that kind of stuff. Was it good for wrestling? I don't know. Did it hurt it? I don't know. Do I care? Not really.
BRIAN BLAIR: That whole Rock 'n' Wrestling thing was unbelievable. When we started doing that, we knew that wrestling went from being a blue collar kind of sport to an All-American, all-encompassing sports entertainment machine.
ALAN HUNTER: Billy Squier came in, as I remember, looking kind of befuddled. Danny DeVito looked uncommitted. He was kind of standing there for a moment when things were happening. You never knew what to do with yourself when the wrestlers were acting, when you're there two inches away from them and they're shouting and yelling and Mean Gene's trying to, you know, "Keep the lid on the pressure here!"
While Piper and Hogan riled the fans and celebrities like Lauper and Mr. T joined the madness, the rest of the 1985 WWE roster made plenty of waves of their own. Some of the most memorable wrestlers of all-time made up the supporting cast. And a colorful cast it was, with greats like the Junkyard Dog, Albano, Orndorff, Richter, Big John Studd, Ricky "The Dragon" Steamboat, Bobby "The Brain" Heenan and Andre the Giant just a few of those who helped support WWE's growth that year.
DON MURACO: There is another concrete pillar, part of the foundation of WWE, was [Andre] the Giant. What an intelligent man he was. In the ring he was a sweetheart. He made me slam him a couple times. That wasn't fun, believe me. That was a load.
GEORGE STEELE: [The Junkyard Dog] was unique and different. He was gonna play to the younger generation. It was pretty obvious the kids were gonna love him and his little dance. He was a great attraction.
TONY ATLAS: Wendi Richter started drawing the same crowd that Hogan did. That's why they took the belt off her. She was getting as big as Hogan. They didn't want the women wrestlers to be that big.
WENDI RICHTER: I don't think that was ever true. [Hogan] got a lot more airtime than me, but I don't think I was ever as popular as him. I guess as much as a woman could be, I'll put it that way.
For more on the wide array of WWE performers from 1985,.
WRESTLEMANIA: THE BIG RISK PAYS OFF
WWE had major momentum heading into the first WrestleMania, helped along by the cross-promotional efforts of Lauper and Mr. T. Not only were they on MTV, but Hogan, Mr. T and Piper made cameos on Saturday Night Live the night before the big event. They were all over talk shows and newspapers. And they needed to be. By most accounts, WrestleMania was an expensive make-or-break venture.
TITO SANTANA: [Vince McMahon] told us that he put all the marbles in one basket. He said tonight, we're either gonna make it or we're gonna go broke.
BRUTUS BEEFCAKE: I don't think it was a real well-known fact how far leveraged Vince was to do this first WrestleMania. I don't think we would have closed our doors, but it could have made a whole difference in the direction the company went.
LANNY POFFO: He had extended himself a long way with Liberace, Muhammad Ali, the Rockettes, Cyndi Lauper, all these big, big names.
THE IRON SHEIK: I know that Mr. McMahon, he have vision to make the best show for the fans. New York always number one territory so when he tell the boys Muhammad Ali, the Liberace, Lauper, all them come to show, I know it become best show of all time.
The extra publicity from the involvement of celebrities like Muhammad Ali, Liberace, Lauper and Mr. T -- and the fact that it would be available across the country via closed-circuit broadcast, a precursor to pay-per-view -- made WrestleMania extra important for all involved.
Among the matches on the card, Lauper would accompany Wendi Richter to the ring as she challenged WWE women's champion Leilani Kai, managed by the Fabulous Moolah. Tag team champions Barry Windham and Mike Rotundo defended their belts against the Iron Sheik and Nikolai Volkoff. Intercontinental champion Greg Valentine faced the Junkyard Dog, while former intercontinental champ Tito Santana was in the uncharacteristic role of wrestling in the show's opening match.
TITO SANTANA: I wasn't really thrilled. I didn't realize how important it was until after the event. [McMahon] told me that the reason I was on the first match was to get the people off their ass. He said you're the one that can do it.
TONY ATLAS: I am the only wrestler that was paid $2,000 NOT to come. I was there. I was getting ready to walk in the dressing room door and a guy named Arnold Skaaland, he came up to me and said "Hey Tony, I got good news for you. You don't have to wrestle tonight. Vince is gonna give you a day off. He wants to save you for something bigger. But he's gonna pay you anyway." I took the money, I walked out of Madison Square Garden and went back to the hotel. They called S.D. Jones and asked S.D. Jones to take my place [versus King Kong Bundy].
LEILANI KAI: The atmosphere was good. We were all busy doing photos, interviews, and socializing in between. Even though we had done many events at Madison Square Garden, this one felt different. Seeing all the celebrities backstage was really different.
BRUTUS BEEFCAKE: It was just a lot of excitement. It was a first, something new for everybody.
In the main event, villains Roddy Piper and Paul Orndorff tagged up to face Hogan and Mr. T, with Cowboy Bob Orton in the heels' corner and Superfly Jimmy Snuka in the babyface corner. Despite all the work Mr. T had put in to promote his WrestleMania match, he reportedly got cold feet the day of the event and considered pulling out.
GEORGE STEELE: Mr. T was Mr. T, and he had to be Mr. T or he'd have been out of character. I took a look at him. He's coming in here billed as a tough guy. I'm thinking "Son, if it really broke loose, you might be in trouble."
DON MURACO: Mr. T was around a lot in the locker room and he seemed like a pleasant enough guy. He fit in, kind of. He wasn't overbearing.
WENDI RICHTER: I couldn't tell you much about Mr. T other than he was kind of short.
TITO SANTANA: Mr. T was a small man compared to the wrestlers. He'd sit in the corner and wouldn't say anything. He'd smile a lot.
THE IRON SHEIK: He come excellent timing to be in program with Hogan. Make WWF world class.
PAUL ORNDORFF: I was one of those that really didn't like Mr. T, so I didn't really talk to him or nothing. In my opinion, having people like that in wrestling wasn't the right thing to do. But you know, Vince went Hollywood, and I understand why he did it.
BRUTUS BEEFCAKE: Mr. T was out of his element. He was definitely intimidated by the guys. So Hulk got the job of handling Mr. T and keeping him happy so he didn't just take off and disappear. He had to be handled with kid gloves.
PAUL ORNDORFF: We didn't let happen what was pretty close to happening. That was the time when Hollywood was getting into professional wrestling. Vince was way ahead of his time. We were still old school, so it was very intense. Vince talked to us and calmed us all down and we did the right thing.
The financial risk paid off for WWE and the show was a success. Since then, WWE has held a WrestleMania every spring, making it the marquee event of each year.
Television remained the foundation of WWE's ability to reach more fans, and that meant regular shows in places like the Mid-Hudson Civic Center in Poughkeepsie, New York, to tape several weekly hour-long episodes at the same event. When not taping for TV, WWE toured the country with daily events in different cities and promoted those shows ahead of time with geographically targeted interviews on its syndicated TV shows. In addition to wrestling up to three times at a single TV taping, the wrestlers might also have to produce up to two dozen interviews -- known in wrestling vernacular as promos -- to help promote every match they'd have in the weeks between tapings.
LANNY POFFO: We had two different syndicated wrestling shows. You'd have to get there before noon and hang around like an idiot all day. They would feed you. Then we would wrestle until midnight. TV was a long, very important day on an ongoing basis. When I first got there they had about 120 TV markets and they'd have to do a different promo for all of them.
DON MURACO: Then we ended up doing interviews all over the country. They'd rent a meeting room at a Holiday Inn or a Ramada, bring all the TVs in and set up. We'd do four or five hours there in the town that we were working in that night.
LEILANI KAI: When I think of Vince, I always remember him coaching me. He helped me to become more comfortable in promos as we became The Glamour Girls characters. He is a terrific producer and leader.
GEORGE STEELE: Don Muraco and I used to stand and watch Vince as he would go into different rooms with different guys doing their interviews. He would tell them exactly what he wanted and he would do it in their character. And honest to God, I don't know how, but it would come out in their voice, almost. "This is what I want," and he would do it. He would do it better than the talent could. Don Muraco and I used to follow him around and just laugh at it, because it was so over-the-top.
DON MURACO: Everybody cracked up sometimes. I remember spitting in Vince's eye a couple of times. "Oh, sorry boss," you know. Things would get cut, or you'd get tongue-tied and have to start over again. It wasn't like you were live or anything, so there was a lot of fooling around and stuff going on.
'SATURDAY NIGHT'S MAIN EVENT'
In another 1985 first for WWE, the company gained a regular spot in NBC's rotation as an off-week replacement for Saturday Night Live. Saturday Night's Main Event allowed WWE to showcase its product on network television. The show drew respectable enough ratings that NBC eventually gave WWE the occasional prime time special, beginning with the infamous 1988 broadcast when Hogan lost his WWE title to Andre the Giant.
In its first year, Saturday Night's Main Event featured marquee matches -- a rarity for free television at the time -- and some of the same kind of character-driven comedy skits WWE had been using on Tuesday Night Titans. The first episode in May 1985 featured a Mother's Day "party" backstage with the babyface wrestlers (and Cyndi Lauper) bringing their real mothers on camera.
In a Halloween-themed episode that year, the heel wrestlers dressed in costume -- Iron Sheik as Batman, Roddy Piper as Superman, Randy Savage and Elizabeth as Tarzan and Jane -- and bobbed for apples. They also revisited the wedding theme they first used on TNT, this time having giant hillbilly wrestler Uncle Elmer's in-ring wedding and backstage reception air on NBC. All of the above sketches ended with one or more of the heels getting humiliated with a face full of cake or pie.
WENDI RICHTER: I was hurt that my mother wasn't invited. But that's kind of how it is with the women's wrestling. You gotta work twice as hard to get half the recognition and pay.
THE IRON SHEIK: I love they put the jabroni gimmick on me like I real American. This way it was funny. I have good time with my friends King Kong Bundy, Macho Man and Elizabeth. God bless them. They all love see me in my costume because it was different.
The greatest benefit WWE got from Saturday Night's Main Event may have been the chance for Vince McMahon to work along side NBC production crews and Dick Ebersol, who had produced everything from Saturday Night Live to Friday Night Videos. From NBC and Ebersol, McMahon learned how to make his other televised shows look more professional from top to bottom, including the production value, timing and all things in between. WWE's overall product benefitted from the learnings of Saturday Night's Main Event.
GEORGE STEELE: Dick Ebersol ran all of that so it was a totally different twist. Ebersol and his crew was producing and putting it all together. It took wrestling to a whole new dimension that Vince, later on, took into the regular product.
TITO SANTANA: As the company started growing, they started spending more money, getting better people working with the cameras, and better cameras.
THE IRON SHEIK: We work long hours in those days at the TV. Sometime I work six to eight times a day. The Dick Ebersol have sport vision but not the wrestling vision.
In the very first match ever aired on Saturday Night's Main Event -- a six-man tag team match pitting Steamboat, Barry Windham and Mike Rotundo vs. Sheik, Volkoff and Steele -- an unexpected crowd reaction inadvertently led to Steele getting a several-year "retirement run" as a babyface. The original plan was for Steele to lose the match after being abandoned by Sheik and Volkoff, and -- Steele believed -- be written out of WWE for good, due to his age. Steele was expecting to leave, but when the fans cheered for him, he and McMahon saw an opportunity to get more life out of Steele's character.
GEORGE STEELE: When they beat me, the reaction from the crowd was unbelievable. And out of nowhere, Vince was watching what was going on, and he sent Captain Lou -- who had been my manager for many years -- back to the ring. When he came out, I had no idea what to do. I'm looking at him like I'm gonna fight and he's kind of wanting to slow me down. Finally just out of nowhere, I dropped on one knee and I put my head in his fat belly. He started petting my head like I was an animal. The place went absolutely crazy nuts.
BRING HOME ALL THE ACTION
WWE took its deepest dive ever into merchandising in 1985. Today, it is common to see WWE posters, T-shirts and other products on retail shelves. But 1985 was the first time a wrestling organization had ever successfully merchandised such a wide assortment of its performers on everything from lunch boxes to calendars, coffee mugs and children's coloring books.
One of the most important merchandise initiatives was the rise of Coliseum Video, a VHS home video company that sent a variety of WWE home videos into grocery stores and video rental shops nationwide. The booming VHS rental industry allowed people to discover WWE's product in a new way. It also showed WWE the value of its own library of archival footage, which became a critical part of its business over the next few decades. Whereas showing old matches and interviews in regular TV time slots just wasn't practical, there was now a market, and a means, for delivering that to consumers.
The company also licensed LJN to produce its first-ever line of WWE action figures. Having toys in the likeness of Hogan, Piper, the Junkyard Dog and the Iron Sheik hanging on retail shelves next to He-Man, G.I. Joe and Optimus Prime was an invaluable way to hook young fans on the new, more kid-friendly version of pro wrestling.
And of course, merchandise sales meant more income for the performers.
BRUTUS BEEFCAKE: I was one of the first guys that had [an action figure]. I actually got to do a commercial for mine, and that got me in the Screen Actors Guild early on in 1985, which was the beginning of pretty cool stuff for me.
TITO SANTANA: The first group of guys [to have their own action figures] got big checks. My understanding was I was supposed to be in the second batch. Something happened to the mold of my figure and I didn't come out until I think the third or fourth batch. By that time, the payouts for the figures started going down.
GEORGE STEELE: If you look at my action figure and the heels of the boots are worn out, and the butt's got some paint worn off of it, you and I have a problem. If the toes are worn out, we're in good shape. That means if the heels are worn out, you let me get pinned. If the toes are worn out, you let me do the pinning.
THE IRON SHEIK: I come from oldest country in the world, now I become like Barbie doll. I get shock and I never believe this. In my movie you see how I become a legend, but with the doll, it show the people like me or like to hate me and they choose me to have doll.
BRIAN BLAIR: The merchandising for everybody was just off the hook. People were just eating that stuff up and we were getting extra checks besides the good money we were making.
TITO SANTANA: It's pretty neat to have your own figure. I never thought I was gonna have a figure of me. They did a pretty good job on those dolls.
DON MURACO: That was really the start of the change. 1985 you could say was the beginning of the changing of professional wrestling into the new era with the merchandising and the dolls, and there was a wrestling cartoon.
CHILD'S PLAY: 'HULK HOGAN'S ROCK 'n' WRESTLING'
NBC got a piece of the WWE pie with Saturday Night's Main Event, and so did CBS, via a different avenue. In the 1985 TV landscape, Saturday morning was reserved for cartoons that were often based on the most kid-centric pop culture fads of the time. Think Pac-Man, Dungeons & Dragons, or the Real Ghostbusters.
Or Hulk Hogan's Rock 'n' Wrestling, which debuted on CBS in September 1985.
With live-action comedy bits spliced in between animated adventures starring Hulk, Andre, Roddy, Wendi, the Sheik and other WWE stars, the cartoon depicted the good guys standing up for justice while the heels bumbled their way into sticky situations.
THE IRON SHEIK: Everybody know I am the real legend. The cartoon show I am number one heel and everybody want me to be booed on the show.
TITO SANTANA: We were kind of disappointed that we were not going to do our own voices because we would have made more money off of that. The fact that they were somebody else's voices cut into what we would have made. But it was pretty cool being one of the characters.
WENDI RICHTER: I liked [my character on the cartoon] because she was a lot like me. I could see myself doing that. Even when I was in high school I always defended kids that were getting picked on because their glasses were thick or they looked a little different.
THE ORIGINAL SCREWJOB
While she remained a character on the Saturday morning cartoon, Wendi Richter made an abrupt exit from WWE in real life on Nov. 25, 1985, in an incident that has since been unofficially nicknamed "the original screwjob." Richter was scheduled to successfully defend her women's title against an established masked wrestler, The Spider Lady. Prior to the match, Wendi figured out that the woman under the mask was not the person who normally played the role, but the Fabulous Moolah, with the goal of forcefully making sure Richter lost the title.
WENDI RICHTER: I had Moolah stabbing me in the back the whole time I was there. They had me wrestle her over and over again for like a year, everywhere. The matches were not good and I was getting hurt all the time. So my memories are more like nightmares. When I did leave from there, it was time. I had to go.
TONY ATLAS: I was there when they took the belt off her. They screwed her. She didn't even know she was gonna lose the belt.
WENDI RICHTER: It was a title match. I called Cyndi and I said "Cyndi, are you gonna be there?" She said no. I thought that's a little strange because she was my manager at the time. When I got in the ring, the person didn't look like the Spider Lady. I was given a fast three count and my shoulders weren't even on the mat. At the count of one, I lifted my shoulders and the referee went two, three, and that was it. I went back to the dressing room and I asked to speak to Vince. He didn't come. I probably would have attacked him if he did.
TONY ATLAS: She cursed Vince out in Madison Square Garden. They gave her a fast count, 1-2-3, just like that. She jumped up like "What the hell?" She didn't know!
WENDI RICHTER: I left in my wrestling suit. It was cold, too. It was November. But I had my two little carry-on bags and walked right out, hailed a cab in my wrestling suit, went to the airport and went home and that was it. I never worked for him again.
'THE WRESTLING ALBUM'
With the Rock 'n' Wrestling Connection so successful in pushing WWE's performers into the mainstream, it was only natural that WWE would look to collaborate again with Cyndi Lauper, this time on her own turf. Released in October 1985, The Wrestling Album was 10 tracks worth of WWE personalities trying their best to sing. Some of the songs on the album became regularly used as wrestler entrance themes, marking the first big jump by WWE into the creation of original entrance music. In the years that followed, WWE's original entrance themes have often become cult classics.
It all began with Lauper (wearing a disguise and credited under the name Mona Flambe), her boyfriend/manager David Wolff, and the desire to get wrestling back onto MTV on that network's own terms: With music videos of their own.
RICK DERRINGER (rock legend, producer of The Wrestling Album): David Wolff recommended me as a producer because of my work that I had been doing with Weird Al Yankovic.
BRIAN BLAIR: Jimmy Hart was very involved in the songs since he was with the Gentrys.
RICK DERRINGER: David and others had figured out which of the wrestlers had real aptitude in this area. Some of them were singers, some of them had real talent, and what they did was kind of channel those people into the project.
The first single from The Wrestling Album was a remake of "Land of 1,000 Dances" performed by a large group of wrestlers, some of them getting to sing personalized solo lines in the song.
BRUTUS BEEFCAKE: "I'm gonna do the STRUT up and down your SPINE."
The video for "Land of 1,000 Dances" shows the majority of the 1985 WWE roster in a soundstage wearing full ring gear, singing in unison and dancing while a disguised Lauper plays guitar and guest rocker Meatloaf bangs on a drum kit. The video aired on MTV, Saturday Night's Main Event and NBC's Friday Night Videos, among other places.
RICK DERRINGER: It was created to look crazy and spontaneous and wacky, but in reality, they're all pros. These guys were real pros. They were there working hard to create that look that we all saw later on.
WENDI RICHTER: It was fun. That little few seconds you saw [of Wendi in the video], I was there all day long and then I had to wrestle that night. But I did enjoy it, it was fun. I was thankful that I was thought of and included.
TONY ATLAS: I was standing right behind Paul Orndorff. He was doing all the flexing and stuff.
PAUL ORNDORFF: I did it for the publicity and being on the card of the record. I guess I started giving in to how wrestling was going, what direction it was going.
TITO SANTANA: I remember being in the group going "Na, na-na-na-na, na-na-na-na, na-na-na, na-na-na..." I think that I had a horrible voice to have a song on an album.
GEORGE STEELE: That was during the school year. I came in and it took three days to do that. When I went back to school all I had in my head was that stupid sound. "Na, na-na-na-na..." They must have played that a hundred times a day.
DON MURACO: They had that smoke in the back. That stuff was nasty.
BRUTUS BEEFCAKE: I was on the stage standing next to Meatloaf, who was on a drum set but not really playing the drums. Rick Derringer was there on stage with us, and Cyndi Lauper. I had already been around those people and got to know them, but Meatloaf, I was kind of a fan. We had a long day on that stage, over and over and over, singing that thing.
DON MURACO: Hardest day I ever worked in my life. And probably for everybody else, too. Every individual had to do their individual parts and then the group parts. Then in the evening we did the bit before the live crowd. I guess standing right there between Cyndi Lauper and Meatloaf, that was pretty cool.
"Grab Them Cakes" by the Junkyard Dog was one of the few songs from The Wrestling Album to get released as a single. It was a funky, danceable tune advocating grabbing your dance partner's rear-end, with disco star Vickie Sue Robinson singing along with the JYD. JYD even got to perform the single on Dick Clark's American Bandstand with Robinson, Lauper (disguised, of course) and Derringer.
RICK DERRINGER: Any opportunity to be on a show like American Bandstand is always fun. And then of course when you've got Cyndi and I both there in the background, working with somebody like that. People want to call it "novelty artist" or a "novelty project." What they don't understand is how professional these people are, and it really transcends that novelty kind of moniker and it becomes a real professional exercise.
ORIGIN STORY: 'REAL AMERICAN'
The crown jewel of The Wrestling Album was "Real American," a song made famous when Hulk Hogan decided to make it his entrance theme. Written by Derringer and Bernard Kenny, the duo simply set out to create a great, patriotic song.
RICK DERRINGER: We had just done a demo of it. That demo existed, so when we started working on the project and people were saying "What songs could we use?" that was one of the songs we had available to pull out and say "Well, here's one that no one has recorded yet. It's a brand new song." Right away, Vince McMahon has real insight. He was one of the people that said "Oh, wow. We can use this." He chose a tag team [Barry Windham and Mike Rotundo] to say that this'll be for them. But Hulk Hogan was the guy that had the insight to say "It's bigger than them. It's gonna be me. It's gonna be my theme song."
Sometimes used as an over-the-top way to drive home the patriotism of a person or event, "Real American" has become a perennial go-to anthem for events ranging from live sports to political campaign rallies.
RICK DERRINGER: When Barack Obama revealed his birth certificate a few years ago at the correspondents' dinner, they made a video behind that unveiling of the birth certificate. They showed that thing on YouTube, you can still pull it up today. It's received at this point over 11 million hits on YouTube, so once again, validating the real meaning that we had when we wrote it as a political anthem, as something for real Americans everywhere. Since then, Newt Gingrich has used it as his victory song. Now Donald Trump is using it when he comes on stage. Even though it's never been a single, it's turned into maybe my most successful song.
Clearly, Hulk Hogan walking out to "Real American" for so many years is what kept the song discoverable, but Derringer says the message of the song resonates with people beyond the wrestling business.
RICK DERRINGER: It's not going away because the message isn't going away. What it says about Americans as a people is the message. It's just gonna grow and become more ingrained, because we are that kind of people. All I did was realize that message and say it.
30 YEARS LATER
WWE thrives in 2015. It's a seemingly permanent fixture in pop culture at this point, thanks in part to the groundwork laid in 1985. So much has changed in the past 30 years, but it's a fair argument that the numerous people who helped make 1985 so groundbreaking for the company deserve credit for helping drag pro wrestling into the spotlight, likely not realizing how long they would stay.
It was networks like MTV and NBC giving the company a chance to shine in front of new audiences. It was Cyndi Lauper's and Mr. T's willingness to not only show up at WWE functions but to drag WWE into their own realms without shame. It was Vince McMahon recognizing that pro wrestling had the potential to be more than it was.
Most of all, it was "Rowdy" Roddy Piper, Hulk Hogan and a cast of dozens of brilliant, colorful performers riding out the shifts in their industry and being active participants in a change they didn't all necessarily agree with or understand. 1985 was the year WWE found its roadmap into the future.
CYNDI LAUPER: I will always cherish the part of my career that I shared with my favorite wrestling friends. There is no one like them and there never will be. I will always miss them.
BRUTUS BEEFCAKE: Vince was a marketing genius who was able to really put a greatest show on earth together. He was the man. I thank God for him every day that he put us all together and gave us an opportunity and put our faces out around the world.
BRIAN BLAIR: We couldn't have been anything without our fans. People really believed, and it broke my heart when Vince really wanted to break kayfabe and break the tradition that we had given blood, sweat and tears to protect for so long. But that was his prerogative.
TITO SANTANA: A lot of people knock Vince McMahon for the way he is. I just think he was being a businessman in a tough business. I was lucky enough that he kept me around for many, many years. I made a very good living wrestling for him and I have no regrets.
GEORGE STEELE: I just looked at Vince as a mad scientist; a little bit whacky. Who knew?
DON MURACO: Vince had a brilliant mind. Took wrestling in a whole different direction. He made professional wrestling relevant as an entertainment industry, or a sport or however you want to look at it. He may be enjoying his billion. I hope he is. But I imagine he's still going over scripts and issues for the next SummerSlam.
Special thanks to the following for their assistance with this story: Bob Hamel, Steve Stasiak, BookProWrestlers.com, Page Magen, SheikMovie.com and of course the men and women who shared their memories.
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