The Common Denominator – “The Road to Wrestlemania…III” (Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant, Randy Savage, Ricky Steamboat, Roddy Piper, Paul Orndorff)

Columns, Top Story

Greetings once again, my Common DenomiNation! Thanks to everyone who commented on, or at least read my two-week foray into the world of what might have been if WCW hadn’t been bought by the WWE. I enjoyed writing it, but at the same time it made me kind of mad thinking about what really did happen. I could write a dozen more columns on the subject and might revisit it some time after Wrestlemania, but it is Wrestlemania season, so I’ll switch to the more timely subject for this week.

I was 12 years old when the inaugural Wrestlemania was held. And I’m going to be honest and say that I was only vaguely aware of the WWF at the time. I knew who Hulk Hogan was and had seen a few episodes of WWF programming, but in 1985 I was still fully invested in Memphis wrestling, with NWA Championship Wrestling on WTBS as my second favorite promotion. Now by Wrestlemania 2, I was much more aware of the WWF product. In fact, I was actually expecting King Kong Bundy to beat Hogan for the belt. I was aware that wrestling was “fake” by that time, but at 13 I was still able to completely suspend my disbelief and become totally immersed in the product. By Wrestlemania III, I was completely over Hogan’s shtick. Being 14, I guess I was “too cool” for Hulk’s goody-goody act or whatever, so I was outright rooting for Andre the Giant to win the WWF title. I guess I made a heel turn of my own, since most of my WWF favorites were heels or recently “reformed” heels: Andre, Savage, Jake Roberts, Beefcake, the Hart Foundation. ‘Maina III was the event that made a true believer in the WWF product. Okay, let me take a step back. The period between Wrestlemania 2 and III was what did it. I’m trying really hard to think of any other extended period where they completely nailed the booking from the main event scene to the bottom of the card, and I can’t.
Seriously, you can go all the way back to mid-86 to see the seeds of this card being planted. Bobby Heenan getting Andre suspended only to bring him back under Heenan’s guidance with the enticement of a WWF title match. Jake Roberts, vehemently hated heel getting the face turn after being attacked by the somehow even more hated Honkytonk Man. Man, even more than an Andre wiu, I wanted Jake to someday somehow become WWF Champion. I remember fantasy booking (was that even a thing then?) the Wrestlemania IV WWF Championship tournament with Jake beating Bam Bam Bigelow in the finals. Anyway, the whole Danny “Evil Referee” Davis angle drew great heat. Roddy Piper’s exit and return to reclaim his “spot” from “Adorable” Adrian Adonis. You know, Piper never really did anything to draw cheers. People just freaked for the guy when he came back from making movies. And of course, the whole epic saga with Ricky Steamboat, Randy Savage, Elizabeth, George “The Animal” Steele, and Miss Elizabeth that played out for months was done to perfection.

With the Hogan storyline, one guy who never seems to get his due, and frankly kind of got screwed over in the whole deal is “Mr. Wonderful” Paul Orndorff. The guy main evented ‘Mania, tagging with Piper against Hogan and Mr. T. Then he gets a face run that saw him jerking the curtain at ‘Mania 2. But then, you get the masterfully done angle where he and Hogan are going to take out Bundy and Big John Studd to stick it to Heenan once and for all. So they have a “warm up” match against the Moondogs one week on Wrestling Challenge, then the next week it’s Bundy and Studd, only Orndorff turns on the Hulkster and joins the Heenan Family. Hogan and Orndorff then proceed to tear the house down and draw ALL OF THE MONEY, ALL SUMMER LONG, drawing 80,000 fans in Toronto for what was essentially a House Show…

…as well as putting on the awesome cage match on Saturday Night’s Main Event with the infamous “whose foot touched first?” false finish.
The guy wasn’t even on the card for ‘Mania III. He actually got hurt during the Hogan feud, but decided to make money while he was hot and didn’t take time off. He was pretty much done with the WWF by Survivor Series.

Anywho, at Wrestlemania III, I marked out for Roddy Piper’s win over “Adorable” Adrian Adonis, as well as the face turn for Brutus Beefcake. I completely lost my shit when Steamboat won the Intercontinental title. I liked Savage, but man he had it coming. “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan making his big debut in the Sheik/Volkoff vs. Killer Bees match was pretty cool too, seeing Hacksaw show up in the WWF. Sadly, he was never really treated as a serious threat, becoming more of a comedy wrestler. I’ve since wondered if the whole getting caught in a car with drugs and the Iron Sheik thing played a role in that (and from the WWF’s perspective which was worse at the time, getting caught with the drugs or traveling with his “enemy”). I even gave Hogan his props for slamming Andre. Seriously, it seemed like almost every match on the card was important. Let me just do a quick rundown of the whole card.

Can-Am Connection (Rick Martel & Tom Zenk) vs. Bob Orton & Don Muraco – A great quick little tag-team opener. It established the Connection as legitimate contenders for the tag belts in the wake of the British Bulldogs effective end as a team. It also led to a face turn for Muraco, which would have been almost unthinkable just months earlier.

Billy Jack Haynes vs. Hercules – Think Ryback vs. Mark Henry, only Ryback can wrestle and Henry is Hispanic. I always liked Haynes, but I seem to recall him having a dark side involving drugs or something. Anyway, a great power match marred only by a weak double-countout finish. Someone could have gone over and been established as a contender for the WWF or I-C title.

Hillbilly Jim, The Haiti Kid and Little Beaver vs. King Kong Bundy, Little Tokyo and Lord Littlebrook – Okay, so this match sucks, but there was a decent storyline behind it that escapes me at the moment, so maybe it wasn’t all that great. I don’t know who got screwed more, Orndorff for not even being on the card, or Bundy, who went from Main Event vs. Hogan last year to this trainwreck.

“King” Harley Race vs. Junkyard Dog – Sue me, I like Harley Race. But as much as I didn’t like the “King” gimmick, I guess it was as close as they were willing to get to acknowledging his status as a legendary former NWA Champion. And JYD was, at one time, maybe second to Hogan on the good-guy pecking order. Race goes over in a short inoffensive match that set Race up as a challenger for Hogan.

The Dream Team (Greg Valentine & Brutus Beefcake) w/Johnny Valiant and Dino Bravo) vs. Jacques & Raymond Rougeau – Remember when the Rougeaus were faces? Me either. Honestly, this match was all about Beefcake getting dumped by the heel faction. Of course it gets paid off almost immediately later in the show. But the whole angle for this match had a nice build that sort of ran along the Piper/Adonis feud, showing a sort of roster-spanning integration that you really don’t see anymore.

“Rowdy” Roddy Piper vs. “Adorable” Adrian Adonis – Of course, this is supposed to be Piper’s retirement match, but we all know how that ended up. Sadly, as effective as Adonis’ gimmick was at the time, that shit would not fly in today’s PC world. Just ask Lenny Lane and Lodi. It’s a hair match, by the way, and after Piper puts Adonis to sleep, out comes Beefcake to do the honors, making him a big babyface singles star for the next few years. I still can’t believe he never got to win the Intercontinental title.

The Hart Foundation (Bret Hart & Jim Neidhart) & Danny Davis w/ Jimmy Hart vs. The British Bulldogs (Davey Boy Smith & Dynamite Kid) & Tito Santana – This match actually had the longest spanning back story, as they (retroactively, I think) tied Tito’s loss of the I-C title to Savage as part of Davis’ transition from evil ref to evil wrestler. Logic dictates that the good guys get their revenge, but even though Davis gets his ass handed to him for the entire match, he was being established as a performer and the Bulldogs were pretty much on their way out, so Davis scored the pin.

“The Natural” Butch Reed vs. Koko B. Ware – Okay, so this was the one match I had completely forgotten about. Koko was a popular mid-card guy, and Reed was being groomed for a feud with Steamboat, so Reed goes over. I may be mis-remembering, but I think Reed was the one who was actually picked to take the I-C belt from Steamboat once Ricky decided to stay home with his family instead of spend 300 days a year on the road, but Butch no-showed or something and HTM got the belt.

Intercontinental Title – “Macho Man” Randy Savage w/Miss Elizabeth vs. Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat w/George “The Animal” Steele – Hey quick trivia factoid: Steele and Dave Batista have the same nickname. This is the guy they had to put Savage against to keep fans from cheering from him, and even then he gets his share of cheers. If somehow you don’t know the story here, just a quick not-doing-justice-to-it recap: Steamboat had been having a really bad year. First, Jake Roberts nearly killed him with a DDT on the concrete floor. Then Savage nearly killed him with a timekeeper’s bell shot to the throat. Savage’s behavior is so horrible that it draws Bruno Freaking Sammartino out of retirement to try and beat some respect into him. In the meantime, Steele falls in love with Elizabeth, igniting a feud with Savage, during which Steamboat returns, setting up this match. It is, even almost three decades later, still considered one of the best matches ever. True as that may be, at the time, I was only interested in the result, which was Ricky getting the pin and the title.

Honkytonk Man w/Jimmy Hart vs. Jake “The Snake” Roberts w/Alice Cooper – Alice looks right at home in the late-80s wrestling environment. Sadly this was set up by the guitar shot that ultimately played a huge part in Jake’s addiction problems and stunted his potentially meteoric rise to the main event scene. Jake not getting the win here made me mad, but I bet there were bigger plans for Jake that got screwed up by something or other.

Iron Sheik & Nikolai Volkoff w/Slick vs. The Killer Bees (Brian Blair & Jim Brunzell) – In my opinion, the fact that this was so high up on the card shows that they had much more planned for Hacksaw than what ended up happening. In fact, the match only served to allow Duggan to run in with the 2×4 back when bringing a weapon like that to the ring was a big deal. Not as much build for this one, but I think it was supposed to be a big debut for their next all-American superstar. He did win the first Royal Rumble a few months later. And of course…

Main Event: WWF Championship Match – Hulk Hogan vs. Andre the Giant w/Bobby “The Brain” Heenan – As far as dream matches go, this was one you almost could not beat at the time. Maybe Hogan vs. Flair in a WWF/NWA title unification match, but I’m not entirely sure even that would have gotten 90,000 fans into the Silverdome. I mean, Andre really never lost, not really never, but never enough that no one really argued the point when his 15 year undefeated streak was claimed. And of course, Hogan never lost either, so there was a definite must-see aspect to the match. As I mentioned earlier, the build for this match was months in the making and executed perfectly, with Andre, after years of basically being second-fiddle to Hogan, turning on his friend for a chance to be champion. Hogan sells the betrayal perfectly as well. People tout this as a “passing of the torch” sort of thing, but I think Hogan had already grabbed whatever torch there was to grab and had been running with it since 1983 or so.

So, that’s a dozen matches, nearly all of them with months of storyline behind them and with a pretty clear direction going forward. Now, I know the business has changed a lot with monthly pay-per-views and compressed storylines, but here it is less than three weeks from Wrestlemania 29, and I’m pretty sure they are still trying to a) figure out the card and b) figure out where to go from there. I know that Wrestlemania is now basically an event unto itself and would probably draw a packed house and a million ppv buys if they just said, “Hey it’s Wrestlemania!” and didn’t even announce a card, so it might just not be a priority to have a fully fleshed out card from top to bottom. What have we got so far as of today? Let’s see…

WWE Championship – The Rock vs. John Cena

World Heavyweight Championship – Alberto Del Rio vs. Jack Swagger w/Zeb Coulter

No Holds Barred – Triple H vs. Brock Lesnar w/Paul Heyman

The Undertaker vs. CM Punk

WWE Tag-team Championship – Kane & Daniel Bryan vs. Dolph Ziggler & Big E. Langston

Ryback vs. Mark Henry

Sheamus, Randy Orton & The Big Show vs. Dean Ambrose, Seth Rollins & Roman Reigns

So, that’s seven matches. And I honestly have nothing against any of those matches. But several of those were just put together in the last couple of weeks. Even if there was speculation, there hasn’t been much to build up anticipation for a lot of these. And I’d expect to see at least three, maybe as many as five more matches added. Are we really going to get Chris Jericho vs. Fandango at Wrestlemania. Really? I guess Wade Barrett vs. The Miz for the Intercontinental title as well. What happened to Bo Dallas? Sadly I would not be surprised to see some cluster of a match like Cody, Sandow and the Bellas vs. Brodus, Tensai and the Funkadactyls or some variation of that. Is Cesario going to make the card? I know he’s scored more losses than any champion in history, but maybe a match against Kofi? I swear to God I don’t even know who the Divas Champion is right now.

Anyway, thanks for reading. As always, feedback is welcome.

A lifelong self-admitted geek and nerd, Ralph has passed on his love of comic books, movies and pro wrestling to his children. In his day job, he writes for a newspaper in the Memphis area and plays volleyball and softball. He is almost as smart and as funny as he thinks he is.