1985: It Was a Very Good Year. Part One.
Originally published at Canadian Bulldog's World
Professional wrestling has had many memorable moments that are firmly entrenched in the fans’ memories; then there are the years that were so good that you can’t believe how many great memories were packed into them. One such year was 1985, a year that saw the first WrestleMania, Saturday Night’s Main Event (SNME), the American Wrestling Association’s (AWA) SuperClash, the first Great American Bash, the dominance of the Road Warriors, and the formation of the Four Horsemen in Jim Crockett Promotions (JCP). All of this took place in 1985. As Frank Sinatra famously sang, it was a very good year.
Things got off to a great start with World Wrestling Federation (WWF) kingpin Vince McMahon building up what he planned as the final step of his national wrestling expansion, a must-see show that would draw in fans from around the country, not just the WWF’s traditional northeast base. To do so, Vince relied on his ties with MTV in hyping “The War to Settle the Score”, a match between “Rowdy” Roddy Piper and WWF champion Hulk Hogan. The bout was held in Madison Square Garden on February 18, and aired live on MTV.
The “War to Settle the Score” built up the main event for WrestleMania, a tag team match between Hulk Hogan and celebrity partner Mr. T against “Rowdy” Roddy Piper and Paul “Mr. Wonderful” Orndorff. As we know, the event was a fantastic success, thrusting the WWF into the national spotlight and beginning an annual tradition that like the Superbowl, is an attraction in and of itself.
The WWF’s rising star led to NBC network executive Dick Ebersol approaching Vince McMahon about airing a wrestling special on Saturday night. According to Shaun Assael’s book Sex, Lies, and Headlocks; Ebersol, who was looking for something to air instead of reruns of Saturday Night Live, was impressed by the WWF’s Tuesday Night Titans show and saw wrestling as potential new programming. Professional wrestling had once been a mainstay of network television during the 1950’s but that was many years ago. Delighted at the chance for mainstream exposure, McMahon jumped at the opportunity for a show with national distribution. With Ebersol’s help, McMahon streamlined his product, updating the WWF’s production values. In turn, the WWF provided NBC with fantastic ratings which lead to SNME becoming a recurring show on NBC. SNME’s success led to the first prime-time wrestling show in decades, The Main Event, an annual show that McMahon famously used to promote WrestleMania’s IV and V.
Although the WWF seemed unstoppable, its competitors in the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) and the AWA were not ready to give in. Although some of the territories were beginning to fold, territories such as Memphis, World Class Championship Wrestling (WCCW), Pacific Northwest Wrestling, and Mid-South Wrestling (MSW) still operated, despite rival promotions luring away their top stars. Not all were as fortunate. The once vibrant Championship Wrestling from Florida promotion suffered a devastating blow when owner Eddie Graham committed suicide in 1985.
The WWF wasn’t the only promotion with national ambitions. The AWA and JCP both sought to expand their territories, branching out into markets they hadn’t operated in before. Seeing a common enemy in the WWF, they joined forces, promoting shows with talent from both of their promotions. This began in 1984 with the creation of a TV show Pro Wrestling USA and a series of touring dates throughout the country in 1985. Wrestling fans got a chance to see wrestlers from a variety of promotions wrestling one another.
Once upon a time, promoters routinely brought in wrestlers from other promotions in order to spice cards. However once promotions such as the WWF began encroaching on other promotions, the idea of using other promotions’ wrestlers became anathema since a promoter did not want to help out a rival by loaning out a star, or bringing in a rival’s star and providing free advertising for their competition. In the case of Pro Wrestling USA, the adage “desperate times call for desperate measures” saw rivals joining forces. However the possibility of seeing NWA, AWA, and WWF stars on one show seemed impossible.
One notable exception was when promoter Don Owens held a card to celebrate his family’s sixty years of promoting professional wrestling. Owens’ Pacific Northwest Wrestling (PNW), put on a star-studded show called the PNW 60th Anniversary Wrestling Extravaganza. The show was held on May 21 at the Portland Memorial Coliseum, and featured top stars from the AWA, NWA, and even the WWF. Although the WWF normally didn’t work with other promotions, their number one heel “Rowdy” Roddy Piper (who worked for years in PNW as a top face) had enough clout to work the show. The show was a sell-out, reportedly the only wrestling show to ever sell out the Coliseum.