Where else but WrestleMania would you get to see the Big Red Machine give Pete Rose a piledriver?
It's been a quarter century since Hulkamaniacs all over the country tuned in to see 24-inch pythons, Hot Rod and no joke Liberace. The grandaddy of 'em all not only became the Super Bowl of wrestling, it transformed Hulk Hogan, Roddy Piper, The Rock and Mick Foley into household names, movie stars and best-selling authors.
World Wrestling Entertainment is set to broadcast its annual extravaganza of tighted titans on Sunday night from Houston. Will any of it live up to the greatest moments from the world's sweatiest soap opera?
For that matter, will anything ever live up to Hulk Hogan's bodyslam of Andre the Giant?
"Andre the Giant was a momentum-shifting moment where he passed his torch," Hogan said in a telephone interview. "He was like the icing on the cake. Once he blessed me, it was up to me to mold that business and carry it through."
Hogan was already the biggest name in wrestling, but his victory set the tone for another decade. His eventual departure to World Championship Wrestling in 1994 and return to WrestleMania in 2002 is notable because it showed that no matter the script or the foolproof plan, it's really the fans that run the show.
The Rock (that's Dwayne Johnson to action-hero fans) was WWE's babyfaced crowd favorite and Hogan was the villainous "Hollywood" Hogan or that was the plan, at least. Casting protocol aside, the Toronto crowd decided to back Hogan.
"When we hit the ring, 70,000 loyal people didn't want to hate Hulk Hogan," Hogan said. "Everybody kind of started to panic and I just said, 'Brother, stick with me and I'll get you through this.'"
After the match, the cheers for Hogan called for a last-second change of plans, with his former nWo allies running down to attack him. The Rock helped Hogan fight off the interlopers and the two men posed together to riotous cheers.
"As I raised his hand and said he's the greatest wrestler in the world, they had to turn me back red and yellow (his pre-villain colors) immediately," Hogan said. "It's kind of interesting, that was going to be the nail in my coffin. It turned out to be the fountain of youth for me."
With Hogan going from hero to heel and back again, it's clear WrestleMania has come a long, long way.
WrestleMania I had Mr. T, Cyndi Lauper and Muhammad Ali. This year's edition is built around love triangles and grudges against senior citizens.
Now that's progress.
IN THE BEGINNING
WrestleMania I, like virtually any 25-year-old televised event, looks laughably outdated today. "Mean Gene" Okerlund sang a stilted version of "America the Beautiful"; backstage reporter Lord Alfred Hayes had all the camera presence of Brick Tamland from Anchorman; and let's just say spandex technology was not what it is today.
There wasn't much in the way of theme music and no pyrotechnics. Today's pay-per-view telecasts use elaborate entrance music and enough pyro to give a KISS roadie an inferiority complex. And there have been stars although "stars" is generous for some of the entertainers who have stepped between the ropes.
For the inaugural event, Lauper was in Wendi Richter's corner when she won the women's title. Then came Bob Uecker and Mike Tyson, Gennifer Flowers and Donald Trump. And, in maybe the most desperate ploy for relevance ever, Pete Rose. Three times.
Last year, Kim Kardashian served as a guest host, Snoop Dog emceed a Playboy Bunny lumberjack match and Floyd Mayweather continued the long, proud tradition of boxers visiting WrestleMania by knocking out 440-pound Big Show in a no-disqualification match. Using brass knuckles, of course.
But the most dramatic change has come in the story lines and the breathtakingly insane feuds.
WrestleMania I had a good old-fashioned Cold War feud, pitting The U.S. Express against Russian Nikolai Volkoff and Iran's Iron Sheik. WrestleMania 24, on the other hand, opened with a match tied up in the disputed paternity of Hornswaggle, a leprechaun who accompanies Irish brawler Finlay to the ring.
While WrestleMania I was built around "The War to Settle the Score," one of this year's main events pits John Cena vs. Edge vs. The Big Show in a war for Vickie Guerrero's love.
So much history has happened at WrestleMania, there's even a new video game, "WWE Legends of WrestleMania," that lets fans relive or rewrite much of it. But what were those greatest moments? The this-will-never-be-t opped matches?
What are you waiting for, jabroni? Read on.
WRESTLEMANIA III: Ricky Steamboat wins the Intercontinental Belt
It may have been the undercard to the Hulkster-Andre match, but move-for-move, the Steamboat-Macho Man Randy Savage match was in a league of its own.
Steamboat was making a comeback from a brutal attack by the Macho Man where Savage wailed the Dragon in the throat with the ring's bell. After a 14-minute epic that strung together some of wrestling's best clichés injury comeback, referee knocked out, ring bell-as-weapon, outside interference by George "The Animal" Steele with high athleticism, Steamboat rolled Savage up in a small package for the 3-count.
WRESTLEMANIA X: The ladder match
When Shawn Michaels took on Razor Ramon in a ladder match at WrestleMania X, wrestling took "Oh my god" to a new, more profane level.
Michaels and his glorious mullet and Ramon were feuding over who was the rightful holder of the Intercontinental belt. They went so far as to each have a version. Naturally, the only way to solve this was to hang both belts high above the ring and let whoever got them down keep both.
The Heartbreak Kid had the advantage nearly the belts when Razor knocked the ladder over and sent Michaels down on the top rope crotch-first for victory.
The first televised WWE ladder match, this would be the spiritual predecessor to many gimmicks to follow. Once a single ladder became passe, multiple ladders, chairs and tables became the norm.
WRESTLEMANIA XII: The Iron Man
Michaels finally became a headliner, challenging reigning champ Brett Hart in a 60-minute battle for the title.
HBK and the Hitman traded blows for a full hour with Michaels valiantly refusing to tap out of the sharpshooter submission hold. Since neither had scored a fall, they headed to overtime. A little over a minute into OT, the Heartbreak Kid planted a pair of superkicks to Hart's jaw the "Sweet Chin Music" for the pin and his first heavyweight title.
It wasn't the first iron man match, but HBK-Hitman did feature two technically proficient wrestlers at their peak. It also elevated Michaels into the top echelon of WWE talent and helped him build his "Mr. WrestleMania" legacy.
WRESTLEMANIA 13: Stone Cold vs. The Hitman:
Stone Cold Steve Austin built his reputation as a beer-drinkin' anti-hero with his "Austin 3:16" gimmick. But it was his match against Bret Hart that gave him his reputation as a tough SOB.
In a submission match refereed by mixed martial arts fighter Ken Shamrock, Austin and Hart battled out of the ring, through the crowd and back into the ring, where Hart put a bloodied Austin in his submission hold. Austin eventually lost consciousness but never tapped out and Hart won the match.
Austin's grit and willingness to be knocked out rather than give up helped give him his boost to the top as the anti-corporate everyman. Well, for a couple of years, anyway.
WRESTLEMANIA 25: What will they think of next?
Sometimes, the more the body slams change, the more they stay the same. Superfly Snuka, Rowdy Roddy Piper and Ricky Steamboat all appeared on that first WrestleMania card, and they're back again for the 25th showcase of the immortals. This time they're in a legends handicap match with Oscar nominee Mickey Rourke in their corner against Chris Jericho.
And the son of WrestleMania I main event enforcer Cowboy Bob Orton, Randy Orton, is wrestling in the main event against Triple H.
All the wrestlers on Sunday's card should take time to reflect on being part of something special, Hogan said.
"I try to notice every kid and every person I make eye contact with, because they're so wanting to believe and they want to live vicariously through you," Hogan said.
"You steal their energy, then when you get in the ring you don't have to worry about what to do because you know what to do."
Associated Press Writer Dan Gelston in Philadelphia contributed to this report.
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