Larger than life: An oral history of WrestleMania III

On March 29, 1987 — 30 years ago — at 4 p.m., the first ringside bell was rung at the colossal Pontiac Silverdome.

Share This Story

Bigger! Better! Badder!

That was the tagline for WrestleMania III, and it certainly lived up to the hype — never mind that the whole thing, 12 matches in all, was a pumped-up soap opera in spandex.

On March 29, 1987 — 30 years ago now, as hard as that is to believe — at 4 p.m. local time, the first ringside bell was rung at the colossal Pontiac Silverdome. Thousands of Metro Detroiters, mostly pre-teen boys, many of whom had been begging their parents for tickets since Christmas or before, and millions more watching around the world via closed-circuit locales or on this new thing called pay-per-view, were about to witness the greatest extravaganza the “sport” had ever seen, and one that, even to this day, stands the test of time.

Hulk Hogan, the fresh, oiled, tanned and bandana-wearing face of wrestling, and Andre the Giant, the old guard, faced each other in the main event with the world heavyweight championship belt at stake. Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat and “Macho Man” Randy Savage stole the show in an undercard bout for the Intercontinental title. Celebrities Alice Cooper, Aretha Franklin, Mary Hart and Bob Uecker were there, in on the act. And a sellout crowd — whether it was 93,173, as the then-World Wrestling Federation announced, via “Mean” Gene Okerlund’s unmistakable voice, mid-show, or the tempered and more-realistic figure of 78,000 — soaked it all in, every grunt, every clothesline, every oversized head to the turnbuckle and every folding chair to the skull.

Today, The News takes a look back on the very day, many say, that wrestling went mainstream, and Hulkamania exploded, as told in an oral history, mostly by the men who were there.

Autoplay
Show Thumbnails
Show Captions

Chapter I

The Mania

Vince McMahon, CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), formerly known as World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWF): This will be tough for me to say. What stands out in my mind, is what a proud moment. And what I was thinking in terms of a proud moment is not so much myself, because I don’t do that a lot. I was proud of the business, and I was proud of my Dad (Vince McMahon Sr.) When I first went out — if there’s tape of it, and there must be — I couldn’t speak at first because I was overwhelmed with the presence of my Dad, and how much that would have meant to him to be there. To see 93,000 people in that arena, it’s like, ‘OK, kid, all right, you made it.’ I wish my Dad would have been there.

Alice Cooper, rock star and Detroit native: People still ask me about WrestleMania III. That and ‘The Muppets’ I get more than anything else.

Jake “The Snake” Roberts, WWE Hall of Famer who wrestled with fellow snake lover Alice Cooper in his corner: WrestleMania III, there’s no way I can even touch that page anymore. That was 30 years ago. I’d like to say I have real clear memories, but I don’t. But I do have some fun stuff that comes up from time to time.

Hillbilly Jim, former wrestler: I’ll bet you in my lifetime, and I’m not gonna pull your toe on this, I’ll bet you I’ve had 60,000 people tell me they were there.

Big Cass, current WWE Superstar: WrestleMania III. Hogan and Andre, Steamboat and Savage, 90,000 people packed into the Silverdome. That’s definitely a WrestleMania that stands out. Absolutely incredible WrestleMania, one for the ages.

Violent J, rapper, Berkley native, member of Insane Clown Posse and lifelong wrestling fan: I’ll be 45 next month. Sitting here, in my truck, I feel like I want to cry remembering the impact of that event. WrestleMania III was unquestionably one of my best experiences.

Neal Ruhl, local broadcaster and Washington Township resident: Wrestling was right up there with baseball back then, in the late ’80s and early ’90s. I begged my parents badly for tickets, I begged them badly. ‘If you don’t come through with the tickets, then you’re a bad parent.’

Bob Uecker, Hall-of-Fame baseball broadcaster, former actor and WWE Hall of Famer: Spring training was when WrestleMania III was gonna take place in Detroit, and it’s one of the best things I ever did in my life.

Foster Peabody, 62, of Harper Woods, who took his two sons, Matthew and Aaron, to the event: March the 29th, 1987. It was a surreal experience for my children and myself.

Ryan Ermanni, local television reporter and anchor: I was 8 years old, and my uncle got 10 tickets. My Dad, my brother, my uncle and a couple of his buddies all went down to the Silverdome. I remember how big it was, and we had relatively good seats, too, and everybody just looked so small. I’ll never forget how loud the building was, and how crazy it was. I know this is, like, so minute, but I remember how long the hallway was from the locker room to the ring, and the wrestlers were carted in those little ring-shaped carts that took them to the ring. I’ll never forget that. I’d find it hard to believe there was somebody that was more of a wrestling fan than me growing up. It was just the greatest thing in the world.

Matt Hennessy, fan, Lake Orion native and Battle Creek resident: It was my ninth birthday (March 13, 1987), and I’m a 9-year-old kid, I’m kind of greedy. I want gifts and everything. I was begging my parents to go to this. I was all into it with my cousins. We loved Hulk Hogan and Captain Lou Albano. I’m begging for WrestleMania tickets, and they were like, ‘We can’t afford that, we can’t afford that.’ A week before my birthday, my parents put this huge box — well, to me, it was huge — they put it on the fireplace mantel and said, ‘That’s your birthday present.’ I’m all excited, at 9 years old, I’m begging and begging, I want to open that thing, and they said, ‘No, not ’til your birthday.’ There’s also a little box from my sister, who’s two years older, laying next to it. Finally, my Mom said the day before my birthday, ‘You can only open one present,’ and which one does a 9-year-old kid go for? I gotta go for the big one. I open that, and there’s a slightly smaller box inside all wrapped up. Mom said, ‘I said you could only open one, you can’t keep opening them.’ She was just messing with me, God love her. There ended up being seven boxes and inside the last one was an envelope, and inside were WrestleMania tickets.

Foster Peabody: Back then, in the ’80s, I worked for a beer distributorship in Detroit called Eastown Distributors. Miller Lite was a sponsor of WrestleMania, and they gave so many tickets to their customers in Southeast Michigan as thank-yous for being big accounts. I went to my boss and said, ‘If there’s a chance there’s anything left over, my kids are big wrestling fans.’ And he reached into his desk drawer and he said, ‘How many do you want?’ I said, ‘Can I have four?’ And he handed me four tickets and he said, ‘Enjoy the show.’

* * *

The first WrestleMania took place on March 31, 1985 at Madison Square Garden in New York City, and included appearances by the Rockettes, Muhammad Ali, Liberace and New York Yankees manager Billy Martin. Its mixture of entertainment and professional wrestling and its culmination of long-building storylines established WrestleMania as the WWF’s marquee annual event.

* * *

Howard Finkel, ring announcer and WWE Hall of Famer: I blurted out in a meeting in 1984, ‘There was Beatlemania, why can’t we have WrestleMania?’ And that was basically it.

Gary Woronchak, Wayne County commissioner and long-time wrestling promoter in Metro Detroit: Detroit was always a pretty good town for wrestling. The WWF, at the time, had some success here running shows at Joe Louis. Wrestling was going through a real transformation from regional promotions to the WWF breaking through as a national promotion. The first WrestleMania at Madison Square Garden two years before WrestleMania III was pretty much seen on closed-circuit TV arenas. WrestleMania 2, the next year, was a hybrid between closed-circuit and pay-per-view, which was just kicking off. The first two WrestleManias had been so successful, they were ready to make the leap to a very large venue, and for whatever reason they chose the Silverdome. I assume because it was an appropriately large venue in an area that had been pretty strong for them.

Howard Finkel: You try and top yourself every year. With WrestleMania 2, we did the three venues in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. So we felt the momentum at that time, and we wanted to go for the whole ball of wax. So that’s when we booked the Silverdome, and everyone was confident.

Dave Meltzer, wrestling historian and publisher of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter: It was a spectacle. When Vince booked it, I remember the feeling around wrestling was, ‘Oh, this might draw 45,000, but why would you book a building that big?’ ... Detroit was centrally located with Chicago and Columbus and Toronto, and all these different cities that they felt people would come in for when you’re building up such a huge match.

Howard Finkel: We knew where we were going, but did we want to go there softly? Nah. We wanted to go full bore. From my perspective, we just exuded confidence, but we didn’t want to be cocky about it. We wanted to make a statement. To have the 93,000-plus people in attendance, it’s an absolute statement that we made.

Violent J: WrestleMania III was the biggest deal going down. Of course, everybody remembers the epic build-up with Hogan and Andre, Andre ripping the crucifix off of Hogan’s neck. I remember in the paper there was a full double-page ad, Hogan staring at Andre, with an all black background. I remember opening the paper and seeing that big double spread, it was so epic. But by then it was already sold out.

Terry Foster, retired Detroit News columnist who covered WrestleMania III for the paper:

There was a lot of hype. Both (Detroit daily) newspapers did a lot of stories on it, which I was surprised by. It was like a legit event.

* * *

In a front page column that ran the day of the event, Detroit News columnist Shelby Strother referred to WrestleMania III as an “indoor muscle orgy.”

* * *

Dave Meltzer: It wasn’t an instant sellout like WrestleMania is now, but they did sell out. The number’s a legit sellout. But it’s not like they sold 60,000 tickets the first day tickets went on sale. The only risk was there might’ve been empty seats. Financially, there was no risk. It was going to do over a million-dollar gate, that was pretty clear. It would’ve done a million dollars either way, and in those days a million-dollar gate for an event was phenomenal. They had a huge, huge attraction. It was the right time, wrestling was strong, the two characters were super strong. When they introduced the angle, I knew it was gonna do well. It wasn’t going to fail, though it could’ve been less successful.

Neal Rubin, Detroit News columnist and then-Detroit Free Press staff writer: We weren’t interested in WrestleMania as a sporting event, but if 90,000 people were going to pay as much as $100 a ticket to see it, we were definitely interested in it as a lifestyle event. That wound up getting me banned by the World Wrestling Federation.

* * *

Chapter II

The Show

In an effort to assure a sellout, Vince McMahon blocked out pay-per-view and closed-circuit viewing in the state of Michigan. It was available on pay-per-view at a later date in Michigan.

Hillbilly Jim: The vastness of that building was unbelievable. A couple of days before the event, when I got out there on Friday, I walked all the way to the top of that building up there by where the roof concaved behind me, and I looked down to see how far it was. It was a massive building. It was like, ‘Wow.’ And my friend, to see that thing full to the top, you just knew it was a big deal. We knew at that time we had done something that had not been done before. I was in Detroit a couple, two or three days before. Our deal with WrestleMania is kind of like when the NBA guys get ready for All-Star Weekend. They always finish up their schedule a day or two before, then they head to wherever it is for All-Star Weekend. WrestleMania is like our Super Bowl or All-Star Weekend. They usually give us off a couple days before so we can rest up, because everybody wants to be on their P’s and Q’s at a big show like that. I got to come down to Kentucky and heal up from being on the road, I worked out, got myself together, and then headed to Detroit. I remember I spent two or three days around Detroit getting ready. The NBA has this thing now where everybody’s resting their players, and I understand why they’re doing it because they need to do it. I remember that helped us tremendously, especially for WrestleMania. You want to be your best when you’re out there, you want to feel good, you want to have some spring in your legs, you want to be sharp in the ring.

Jake “The Snake” Roberts: We’d been there about three days. We went to the building because we had to do time run-throughs. Before I became a part of the WWF, there were no time run-throughs. Somebody rang the bell and you marched your ass out to the ring and you done what you’re supposed to do. With it being that place, quite a lot of time can elapse from the back to the ring. And the last thing you want is two or three minutes of lost or dead time. WrestleMania, they go through that thing 100 times, the TV people do. Our job as athletes is to be in the correct position at the right time.

Hillbilly Jim: They timed us all getting to the ring, because it was such a long trip from the dressing-room area to the ring. They would take you out there in a little golf cart-like-thing, but on the way back you had to walk, and all that had to be done and coordinated and they had to get an idea of what the time was going to be so the pay-per-view wouldn’t run over.

Howard Finkel: I didn’t get into town until Saturday night. If I recall, I didn’t see the building and the set-up until Sunday morning. What blew me away was that people were already out in the parking lot, partying. That was unheard of in our genre. It was a surreal feeling just to see people having a good time in the parking lots. I believe the gates opened at 8 a.m., and it was just an amazing, amazing happening. I remembered looking at the parking lots and I said to one of the guys, ‘This is just unbelievable.’ That transcended into my belief that we were going to hit a home run out of the park.

Jim Brunzell, former wrestler and member of the tag team, The Killer Bees: The biggest thing about WrestleMania was afterward, you got five or six days off. Everybody was looking forward to that. It was quite an experience.

Lou Gamelin, fan, Holt resident: I was one of the 93,000 Hulkamaniacs that was at the Silverdome for Wrestlemania III. I was a senior at (Central Michigan), going with my brother and two friends. There had to be at least 15,000 people outside tailgating that couldn’t get in.

Foster Peabody: We had to park the better part of a mile-and-a-half away. The traffic was jammed, it was unbelievable. They had never seen that many people in the Silverdome, it was absolutely packed. We parked in a vacant field that was overflow parking because there was nowhere else to go to even get close to the building. And then we walked down the shoulder of Opdyke Road to get into the Silverdome.

* * *

Legend has it that traffic coming into the Silverdome was so congested that Aretha Franklin, who sang “America the Beautiful” to open the event, nearly missed her call time.

* * *

Violent J: The plan was to go down and buy tickets off a scalper. Me and my friend, Noel, his Dad had a heavy Irish accent. We went down there in the afternoon, we were in a station wagon, and Noel’s Dad got out of the car and walked up to a scalper selling tickets. We could hear everything. We were watching, and I don’t remember how much the guy wanted, but I remember Noel’s Dad, in his Irish accent, saying ‘(expletive), hell no!’ And he got back in the car and started to take off. And I was just like, ‘Let me out! Let me out!’ And he was like, ‘No, I’m not leaving you out here!’ And I remember being salty the whole way back, I was so mad. Why wouldn’t he just leave me out there? So we got back to Noel’s house and I ran all the way to 9 (Mile) and Woodward and I jumped on the Woodward bus and went straight to downtown Pontiac. There, they were having free shuttles to the Silverdome. I jumped on that WrestleMania shuttle like crazy, and it took us right to the Silverdome. I had $60 saved up because I was a caddie. I was going to use that money toward a ticket, because I didn’t have any idea what a ticket would cost. My thoughts were, this isn’t going to be enough, but hopefully once the show had started, somebody’s got some extra tickets or something, I would be able to get in. But when I got down there, that wasn’t happening. People were asking like $150, $200! I was like, ‘This isn’t going to work.’

Foster Peabody: We were in the first bowl, about 300 feet from the ring, diagonal from one of the turnbuckles. We could see the wrestlers come down in the motorized carts.

Violent J: I was gonna sneak in. At this point, I had already become a master of sneaking in to the shows down at Joe Louis. But the Silverdome was un-sneak-in-able. I’m walking all around it, it’s nothing like Joe Louis. There’s fences before you even get into the doors. And I remember, there were a bunch of us trying to get in, and this dude walked up with some form of bolt cutters, and he straight up clipped the fence open. And he bent the fence back and we all slipped in through there, and we ran up to a door, and it was open! We got in there. It was epic. But the show had already started, (“Rowdy” Roddy) Piper and (Adrian) Adonis was on. I remember calling (ICP member) Joey (Utsler) on a payphone, and I was like, ‘I’m in this (expletive), listen to the crowd!’

“Rowdy” Roddy Piper, former wrestler and late WWE Hall of Famer: I got in that ring, 93,000 people stood. It’s the first time I really looked around at them. It was a moment; holy cow, man. It was a moment only God can give you, that moment right there.

Violent J: I didn’t have a seat, so I just had to keep on moving. Every time I was standing in an aisle, ushers would be like, ‘You’ve gotta sit down,’ and I was like, ‘I’m just taking a look.’ But I ended up securing a spot where no one was messing with me. I went up, almost to the top, and there was nowhere to sit but there was no security guard up there so I just kind of sat on the steps and watched. The ocean of people was mesmerizing. In the song ‘Miracles,’ we say something about it. We say, ‘I’ve seen 85,000 people all in one room, together as equals,’ and that’s WrestleMania III I’m talking about. That’s what I felt.

Gary Woronchak: It was a spectacle. As someone who had gone to wrestling shows with crowds of every size for many years before that, to see a building that large filled with people who paid to see wrestling was just a phenomenon. Wrestling, throughout its history, had peaks and valleys as part of its popularity. When the Shiek was the main villain at Cobo in the ’70s, they would sell out Cobo, too. But it certainly signaled WWF’s national expansion was a resounding success and it was gonna just go higher and higher from there.

Violent J: This was my thinking: 85,000 people, mostly blue-collar people, and we all know it’s fake, right? And two people in the ring are telling a story that we know is not real. But we’re all escaping reality. We just want a break, man, we just want to tap out of our life for a minute and get caught up in a legit passion. Jump up out of your seat, ‘Oh man, two-count!’ You’re not thinking it’s fake, that’s not even on your mind. You’re just tapping out of reality, because reality ain’t always fun. Two people in the ring captivating 85,000 people, and millions around the world. That’s pretty dope, right? No instruments needed, not even a microphone. Just physically captivating the crowd, rising and falling emotions: anger, happiness, celebration, fear, everything. That’s what wrestling is, and that’s what people fail to see is the beauty in that. I remember thinking that, even as a little kid, and being mesmerized by that. We’re all enjoying ourselves, having the best time, and it don’t matter if it’s legit. These guys are killing it. It was an epic moment in my life, it really, honestly was.

Hillbilly Jim: Everybody was fired up on the crowd. We had advertised that we were going to have a world-record crowd, and we delivered. And that had everyone’s spirits through the roof. I can remember we all stood in the hallway, I remember even Vince McMahon said, ‘Guys, you better all check this out, this is something.’ He was in awe. This was young in the company’s career, and it was really taking off. We were knocking down walls, we were doing all sorts of things that had never been done before. And this was like putting the cherry on the banana split.

Matt Hennessy: We had decent seats, lower bowl, we were below the concourse level. You weren’t gonna catch us on TV, but we had pretty good seats. If we turned to our left, we could watch the wrestlers and see them come down. I was there with my Mom, my Dad and my sister. They got tickets for all four of us. My Dad went because he’s my Dad, my sister couldn’t care less, she was 11 at the time. And then my Mom goes, as well. My Mom came prepared, she brought cross-stitch stuff and my Mom worked on a needle-point project basically the whole time. She’s there knitting while I’m screaming and yelling at wrestlers. She brought more than one project, that’s how committed she was to not watching wrestling. She can mathematically say she was there, but mentally she wasn’t there. They bought a program, and if you look at the program, my Mom ... next to every single match, she would write, ‘Winner,’ ‘Loser,’ or she’d write, ‘Winner, but he cheated.’ It was a very Mom thing.

Hillbilly Jim: Some of the guys kept going around and looking for spaces where they could see out into the crowd. It was kind of hard to see out there. But we found a couple spots where we could peel back the curtains and see the crowd. And you could see it growing and growing, and all the guys were freaking out. I think we had some monitors back there too so we could see what was going on, and you could hear the crowd. It was just unbelievable.

B. Brian Blair, former wrestler and member of the tag team, The Killer Bees: It was the largest crowd I had ever wrestled in front of. Man, it’s probably the greatest event I’ve had, and I’ve had over 6,000 wrestling matches. It was amazing. The whole building was electric. When you strolled out there in a golf cart in your modified underwear, it’s quite a rush. It’s about as high as you’re gonna get. Looking at the people way up at the top, I could barely see them. I had gone up to the top and I couldn’t really see, I could see the ring guys, but I couldn’t really see them good. I was asking myself before the show, ‘Why would somebody even come and be in a seat way up here?’ But the aura in that building and the feeling was simply amazing. I’ve talked to a lot of fans that were there, friends that were there, a couple guests I had brought. They just said it was the time of their lives.

Hillbilly Jim: We wanted to go out there and have a good time and make everyone happy. Sometimes you think of things that you want to do out there, and then when the match starts, it all changes. It kind of was like that for us, too. Especially when we got out there and saw that crowd. Brother, in my lifetime, I have wrestled before crowds of 30 or 40 people. And then I wrestled at WrestleMania III with 93,000 people indoors. I’ve gotta tell you, it’s much more fun to wrestle in front of more, because more is better. It’s so easy, because all you’ve gotta do is look at the crowd and raise your hand, and they’re with you. You could hear that roar going all the way around that entire Pontiac Silverdome. It was amazing. It’s so much easier to get fired up to have a good match because they’re with everything that you do, and you’re on center stage in front of almost 94,000 people. You can’t get much better than that.

Neal Ruhl: We were in the lower bowl, in the corner of the tunnel opposite of where they came out. I remember how they came out on those little tiny wrestling ring carts.

* * *

After the first two matches on the card — the Can-Am Connection defeated Bob Orton and the Magnificent Don Muraco, and Billy Jack Haynes vs. Hercules Hernandez resulted in a double countout — Hillbilly Jim and “King Kong” Bundy fought in a mixed tag-team match, each with two little people in their respective corners. Jim had Haiti Kid and Little Beaver in his corner, while Bundy had Little Tokyo and Lord Littlebrook on his side.

* * *

Hillbilly Jim: It was a long show with a lot of matches on it, so we only had a certain amount of time where we could get out there and do our thing. The match itself was kind of a novelty match, as you can well imagine. It seemed like it was over before it got started, brother. Boom boom boom, bam bam bam, next thing you know me and Bundy are locked up and the little guys are running around, and then I’m carrying Little Beaver to the back. He was as heavy as 50 stones, and I had to carry him all the way back to the dressing room because they didn’t have the little carts to take you back, only to take you out there. This ain’t no pun, he was dead weight. He was a little guy, but he was concentrated weight. It was like holding 130, 140 pounds in your arm, right next to you, trying to walk with your arms bent, like, 300 yards. It was like a strongman contest.

Alice Cooper: Backstage there were four midgets that were wrestlers, and they were yelling at ‘King Kong’ Bundy, who’s 7-feet-9, and one of them is going, ‘You said you weren’t going to slam us!’ And Bundy was going (affects sheepish voice), ‘I’m sorry.’ It was so funny.

* * *

Following the six-man tag match, won by Hillbilly Jim and friends when Bundy was disqualified, Harley Race defeated Junkyard Dog in a “bow match,” so JYD had to bow before Race —which he did before clobbering his majesty with a folding chair. Next up, Greg Valentine and Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake trounced the Rougeau Brothers, and “Rowdy” Roddy Piper — in what was said to be his retirement match, when in real life he was taking a hiatus to focus on his acting career — took out “Adorable” Adrian Adonis, who then got an impromptu trim from Beefcake. That set the stage for the Hart Foundation and on-the-take-referee-turned-wrestler Dangerous Danny Davis against the British Bulldogs and Tito Santana, with the Harts coming out victorious.

* * *

Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart, former wrestler and member of the tag team, the Hart Foundation: Anytime you’re wrestling with the British Bulldogs, you’re going to have a hell of a match, because there’s nobody better out there than Dynamite Kid and Davey Boy (Smith). They’re really strong, fast English wrestlers. We enjoyed working with them. We got those fans riled up toward the end of the match, got them popping. That’s what it’s all about, man.

Gary Woronchak: There were 12 matches that day, the most famous match for actual wrestling fans was not the Hulk Hogan match, but the match between Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat and Randy Savage, which is still regarded as one of the greatest matches in WrestleMania history. It was high-flying action, back and forth.

Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat, former wrestler and WWE Hall of Famer: Everywhere I go, when I’m doing an appearance work for the company or doing some stuff on the side on my own, that match is always mentioned head and shoulders above everything else, three-to-one, four-to-one. It is always, always talked about. I get it when I walk into 7-Eleven. I get it when I’m sitting in a restaurant. I get it when I’m filling up gas. They’ll come up to me and say, ‘Aren’t you Ricky Steamboat? Man, I remember watching you as a kid. Man, that match with you and Savage, oh my God.’ It’s everywhere I go. And it’s never boring, it’s very enlightening, and we never knew it was going to be this way years later. We were just going for the night.

Violent J: I saw the epicness of Macho Man and Ricky Steamboat. The false finishes, the false finishes, the false finishes, the epic, historical match.

Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat: We were hearing how the numbers of ticket sales at the Silverdome were coming in: 30,000 sold, 50,000 sold, 75,000 sold. We were hearing buy-rate numbers for the pay-per-view were really spiraling up. These big numbers were attributed to the fact that it was Hogan and Andre. Grant you, Randy and I had our part in it. But I’ve always tipped my hat and gave the honest response, that especially in the first couple of months, with Andre and Hogan headlining the show, that was the reason we were getting such big accounts of numbers coming in.

Neal Ruhl: I was a big Ricky Steamboat guy. When he squared off against ‘Macho Man,’ that was my big thing. That’s what I loved.

Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat: A lot of times today you have three or four weeks, then the pay-per-view, then they move on to somebody else. But we had at least three or four months to build on the storyline, which really kept fans in the news every week, ‘Stay tuned, stay tuned.’

Gary Woronchak: At the time, WrestleMania was the only big event they did. They could spend several months building up the storylines to generate interest. They didn’t have to go from month to month to try to create new interest.

Jesse “The Body” Ventura, former wrestler, WWE Hall of Famer and broadcaster for WrestleMania III: I’ve always said the greatest match that I’ve ever witnessed in my life was at WrestleMania III, ‘Macho Man’ against Ricky Steamboat. I don’t think there’s ever been a match on this planet that was better than that one. Believe me, I saw a lot of great matches.

Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat: We wanted to steal the show, never knowing the publicity, the accolades that came after. We never said we want this match to be talked about years from now. That was never the thought process, it was just for that night, and to go out there and win the applause of the audience and steal the moment. It was just that. We never not once said this is going to be something that’s talked about 30 years from now. That thought process never, never entered the mind. We were just going to go for that one night. And here it is, 30 years later, and we’re still talking about it.

Violent J: Both of them were in their prime. That match was just something else.

* * *

There were so many false finishes in the Steamboat-Savage match, often rapid-fire one right after another, that veteran referee Dave Hebner is visibly drenched in sweat late in the match.

* * *

Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat: We didn’t have very much time to work with each other because here I am, ‘injured,’ right? So through the days, weeks and months leading up to it, the things we thought would work in a match, we didn’t have time to test them out in the live audiences prior to WrestleMania III. We wanted to put together something that never was put together before in the fashion that we did. What I mean by that is the number of false finishes we had throughout the match. I think there was 21 false finishes in a match that went less than 17 minutes. We had written notes with the match. It started out just being a little sporadic this and that’s, and then it ended up being step one, two, three, four, five, up to 100-and-something once we got this whole thing put together. Because we really didn’t have time to work on it, we would quiz each other when we ran into each other. I’d pull out my pad, he’d pull out his, and it would be, ‘OK, step number 66 is this, this and this, tell me the rest of the match.’

And I would say, ‘67 is this, 68 is this,’ and all the way through. And I would quiz him back. We were schooling each other during the match, so both of us were on the same page, because we didn’t want to get this false finish mixed up with something else. If I’m going for this, and he’s thinking something else, guys get hurt. We had to be spot-on, because there were so many different false finishes. Typically back then, you’d have maybe seven or eight false finishes in a match. That seemed to be the norm, the standard blueprint. With this one, coming off of 21, and at the very end, he picked me up for a slam, and I hung on and ended up in a roll-through small package. A very amateurish finish, a lot of times used as a false finish in the course of a match. But instead of using a dive-off-the-top kind-of-thing, which was Ricky’s finish, we both agreed that by the time we go through so many false finishes, and a match that went back and forth so many times, that whatever finish we decided to come up with, the fans would just explode. So a good old-fashioned, amateur-style small package type-of-thing. We wanted to catch them out of nowhere, out of the blue, and it worked.

Gorilla Monsoon, WWE Hall of Famer, from the pay-per-view broadcast: You’ll never see a better match than that if you live to be 100.

Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat: There was a momentary lull because we had so many false finishes — 1, 2, kick out! 1, 2, kick out! — and then there was the 1, 2, 3, and everybody was like, ‘Whoa!’ And then the eruption — here it comes, here it comes. Savage is laying there on the mat and he says to me (affects Savage’s raspy voice), ‘Listen to ’em, Dragon, listen to ’em! Here they come. Oh yeah, we got ’em. We got ’em tonight, Dragon.’ I wish he was around today so the two of us could sit around and do these Q-and-A’s, because both of us would elaborate on that. There are such great moments that only the two of us would know of, because we’re in the ring. It would be great to have him sitting side by side, and both of us being able to do this.

Big Cass: Ricky Steamboat was a coach in (WWE developmental league) NXT for a while, and he always talked about that match with Savage. That was one of his favorite matches. We always used to ask him about it, we even watched it back with him a few times. And he would always notice little things that he did wrong that obviously no one else would ever notice. But it was really cool to get inside his brain and hear him talk about it as we watched it.

Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat: It took that Intercontinental belt, obviously second in line to the World Championship, and I think it raised it up a level or two. Who came before us or after us, we paid no never mind. Knowing the power of Hogan and Andre and their drawing ability on the ticket sales, we just wanted to do our own thing and ultimately, at the end of the day, be the ones that came out shining. And that’s what happened. Reflecting today, if I was to change things, I would have loved to add my dive off the top as a false finish, and everybody in the building and watching on the pay-per-view thinking, ‘this is it,’ and then have Savage kick out. What a moment that would have been, right?

* * *

In another angle to that electrifying match, Detroit native George “The Animal” Steele — part-high-school teacher and coach, part-wrestling legend — was in Steamboat’s corner, having taken a recent liking to Savage’s wife, Miss Elizabeth. It was a bit, and Savage wasn’t always amused.

* * *

George “The Animal” Steele, late WWE Hall of Famer: Randy is very, very jealous — that’s for real. ... I’d say, ‘Hey, I’ve got a daughter older than her, relax.’ But just as I’d leave I’d say, ‘Boy, I’ve had some runs with some of these young broads around her,’ and leave. ... I’d have him right where I wanted him, and he’d come to the ring fired up, really fired up.

Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat: George “The Animal” — God bless him, he just passed —figured in in a couple of key moments. He took the bell away from Savage when Savage was getting ready to come off the top (rope). And then he gave a shove to Savage off the top, and Savage taking a bump, trying to collect himself and pick me up for a slam. During all this time, I’m in a prone position, so we have a little bit of a lull going on. I didn’t want any focus to be on me, only because it would take away from what George the Animal and Randy were doing. So I’ll just play like I’m so far out of it. That way you guys have your moment, and then Savage collects himself after being pushed off the top, and then coming over to give me a slam, and then out of the blue it’s like, ‘Hang on for dear life here buddy.’ And get the one, two, three.

Terry Foster: I knew it was fake, but they were still denying it was fake at the time. You knew what it was, but it was fun.

* * *

Following the Steamboat-Savage match — which was preceded by Butch Reed’s victory over Koko B. Ware, accompanied by his parrot, Frankie — Jake “The Snake” Roberts, backed by rocker Alice Cooper, fought the “Honky Tonk Man,” who had Jimmy “The Mouth of the South” Hart in his corner.

* * *

Jake “The Snake” Roberts: Following Steamboat and Savage, for me, wasn’t that big of a problem. The only people that have a problem following a great match is a guy that doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing. Number one, if you’re following a great match such as Steamboat/Savage, the last thing you do is go out there and try to kick it off and get to their speed when they left the ring. You don’t do that. What you do is settle people back down and get them flat in their seats again and take a deep breath, and then you start to build back. That’s the way you do it properly. “Honky Tonk,” being the idiot that he is, he wanted to get it going because he thought, ‘We’re losing ’em, baby! We gotta do something!’ When you do that, you’re digging yourself a hole. I tell people don’t go out there and be something that you’re not. Go out and do what got you to the dance. Use some common sense here, guys. I can’t be Ricky Steamboat, I can’t be Randy Savage, but I do a damn good Jake “The Snake.”

Alice Cooper: They called me up because of Jake “The Snake.” I was famous for the boa constrictor, and I was famous for being from Detroit. Detroit was my hometown, and that’s where they were gonna have this thing. It was a perfect fit. And it was our kind of theater anyways, so I fit right in with this whole thing. The funniest thing about it was backstage with the wrestlers. They’re all going, ‘OK, when I hit you with the chair, I want you to fly over the thing,’ and I’m sitting there kind of going, ‘Oh man, this is all rehearsed.’ But when they hit, they hit hard. These guys were major athletes. I heard one guy go, ‘OK, I’m probably going to break your nose doing this,’ and the other guy says, ‘Yeah, I know. Go ahead.’

B. Brian Blair: Normally there’s always a story at any given wrestling match, something that somebody got into a fight backstage or something. But the WrestleManias I performed in, 2, 3, 4 and 5, it’s a different type of thing. Everybody is serious as you can be, they know that’s gonna be their biggest payoff of the year. They didn’t want to do anything to jeopardize that.

Alice Cooper: It was a different kind of theater, but I got it immediately. I figured, ‘OK, now I’ve gotta play this game.’ I know how to play Alice, so I’ve just gotta be Alice in a different situation. When I look at these guys, it’s pretty much the same thing I do. I play a character, Alice, so I have to assume what he’s like, and I have to act like Alice. These guys do the same thing, they assume their characters. If anybody’s close to what I do, it’s the wrestlers. When they’re backstage they’re all buddies and pals and everything, when they get out there, they take on their character. So I felt very much that this is very similar to what I do, just without music.

Jake “The Snake” Roberts: When I think about WrestleMania, I think about Alice Cooper. What the hell? Give me a break! This was Alice damn Cooper, bro. I’m from the ’70s, man, so that was my music. School’s out for summer was the hottest thing going at the time.

Alice Cooper: To me, it was just a gig. I was going, ‘OK, I’ll show up.’ I really didn’t have any idea the scope, the vastness of this thing. I’m used to playing in front of a lot of people. But when we rolled out on the cart, 90,000 people at the Silverdome, packed, it was pretty amazing. That’s more than the Lions ever drew. I was in there probably an hour before. I got myself acclimated to what it was going to be. And they were trying to tell me all this stuff, and I was saying, ‘Hey guys, just let it happen.’ The only thing I had to know was when to jump in the ring, when to hit him in the head with the guitar, when I was going to take the snake. Those were the things I had to know. The rest of it felt like it was pretty improvised on their part.

Skip in Skip
x

Embed

x
CLOSE

Wrestling legend Jake "The Snake" Roberts remembers WrestleMania III in an exclusive interview with The Detroit News. Robin Buckson, The Detroit News

Jake “The Snake” Roberts: So I’m going to the ring with Alice Cooper on that tiny little ring that they shot us up in the air and took us down there with. I’m just trying to get my breath, because there was so much electricity in the air, man. It felt like your nosehairs were growing, oh my God! It was crazy. And then all of a sudden I’m being clawed and scratched like there’s some friggin’ cat with rabies or something clawing the hell out of my arm. And I’m like, ‘What’s going on?’ And I look and it’s Cooper, and he’s got this horrible look in his eyes and he’s like, ‘Please help me!’ And he’s sliding down my body, scratching me, and I’m like, ‘What are you doing?’ He whispers, ‘Too much rush, too much rush.’ I was like, ‘Dude, you’re Alice friggin’ Cooper, what do you mean, too much rush?’ I talked to him after the show, and he said, ‘Man, I’ve never had anything hit me like that.’ He goes, ‘How do you guys do it?’ And I’m like, ‘What? You’re in front of thousands of people at these concerts!’ He’s says, ‘Yeah, but I’ve got my guitar, I’ve got this, I’ve got this happening over here, they’ve gotta be on time,’ I go, ‘Oh.’ So if it’s not your game, you have a rough time playing it.

Hillbilly Jim: Alice was a shock-rock guy. But I looked in his face and in his eyes, his mouth was open. He was shocked seeing all these big guys walking around. Our company was full of big men. You didn’t want to pay money to see guys who looked like the guys who were mowing your yard next door to you. You wanted to see something bigger than life, and that’s what we had at that time. We had huge men, we were all 300-pounders, big strong-looking guys. And Alice was looking around at us, and he was freaking out.

Jake “The Snake” Roberts: The funny stuff for me was Cooper in that match. You guys couldn’t even hear this stuff. It was really funny, “Honky Tonk Man” was really needling him. He was like, ‘Why don’t you get that jacket off and come up in the ring, I’ll tear your butt up you little skinny girl. You must be a girl, named Alice. What the hell’s going on?’ And Cooper got into it, he lost himself in the moment. And it was so funny, man, he ripped his jacket off. The guy might weigh 125 pounds. And it was so funny, when he ripped that jacket off, I was like, ‘Oh, God, put that back on.’ And “Honky Tonk” is dying laughing.

Alice Cooper: I was the littlest guy there, by far. I weighed about 120 pounds of pure, fierce, Detroit muscle. (Manager) Jimmy Hart said to me, ‘You and I are the guys that aren’t wrestling. I’m representing this guy, you’re representing that guy, so the crowd’s kind of expecting me and you to go at it, and you’re gonna stop that real quick just by breaking this guitar over my head. And they’re gonna love that, because that’s Alice. Alice would do that.’ He told me, ‘If you’re going to break this over my head, you’ve got to really do it. It looks really bad if you just kind of hit me with it.’ So I came down with it like a sledgehammer. It might have been sawed a little bit in the back to break easier, but I didn’t see where they fixed it or if they did. But I know when I hit him, it broke pretty easily. I was afraid I killed him!

Jake “The Snake” Roberts: At the end, Alice is going to put the snake on Jimmy Hart. The problem with putting the snake on Jimmy Hart is Jimmy Hart is terrified of that snake. And Alice could not get the snake over there, because the snake outweighed him. And he’s trying to pick the snake up and he can’t pick it up. Now Jimmy Hart, in the meantime, is blistering my shins with his kicks, because he wants away from this situation. And the longer Cooper took, the worse it got. If he’d just get it over with it would have been okay. It seemed like eternity. And he didn’t really get it on him, he just sort of laid it there, that was about it.

Alice Cooper: What I didn’t realize was Jake’s snake was one of the meanest animals I’d ever seen in my life. He treated it really rough. So when that thing came out of the bag, it would have taken your hand off. I had to grab him by the nose and hold his nose down just so he wouldn’t bite me.

Bob Uecker: I remember going to Los Angeles to do the promotion stuff. So I meet Jake “The Snake” Roberts, who incidentally, he says, ‘Uke, why don’t you take a picture with Damien?’ I said, ‘Who’s Damien?’ He says, ‘He’s in the bag.’ I said, ‘Well so am I, give me a couple more beers.’ So he takes the snake out, and I put him around me. And he’s big and he’s strong, and he’s got his tail around my leg here. And I’m holding him and I’m looking at Jake, and he’s got this huge scar right here (left chest). I said, ‘What is that?’ He said, ‘Well that’s where Damien bit me.’ I said, ‘Oh what a great time that must be, God I hope he bites me, too.’

Alice Cooper: Backstage, everyone’s smoking cigars. A lot of people are getting stitches. There’s doctors back there. There’s certain guys with the fingers in front of their eyes to make sure there’s not concussions. These guys, they play rough. They weren’t kidding around. They realize that you can’t look fake out there, it’s gotta really look real. And in most cases, I’d say 80 percent of it was as hard as you can hit. We had some kind of a dinner thing afterward, and there were these two brothers (wrestlers Jacques and Raymond Rougeau, “The Fabulous Rougeaus”). And they were sitting there, eating, and then one, if the guy was looking the other way, the guy would just punch him in the face. And the guy would almost fall off his chair, and the other guy would start laughing. And while the other guy was picking up a napkin, the other guy would just smack him in the face as hard as he could. And this happened maybe eight times. And I’m going, ‘What are you doing?’ And they’d say, ‘You never know when you’re going to get hit, so you’ve gotta always be ready for it.’ And he says, ‘We’ve been doing this all our life, when we were 5 years old we were doing this.’ I said, ‘Yeah, but now you’re 270 pounds, you’re gonna knock him out!’ He said, ‘Nah, he can’t knock me out.’ I’m just sitting here going, ‘Wow, you guys are in a whole different world than I’m in.’

Jake “The Snake” Roberts: Afterwards, I was looking for a beer, back in those days. After a match, normally, guys would come by and say thanks for a good match, for protecting me, because that’s the most important thing is for both athletes to get out of the ring without nobody being seriously injured.

Alice Cooper: I don’t think we asked for any money. I think we did it just because it was Detroit. And were doing a concert around then, before or after that, and I said let’s do it, come on. This will be the one time we ever do this.

Jake “The Snake” Roberts: To get me and Cooper together, it was business. Vince paid him.

* * *

In the night’s penultimate match, the Iron Sheik and Nikolai Volkoff, two of the sport’s most-despised heels, faced off against The Killer Bees, the tag team of B. Brian Blair and Jim Brunzell. The match also was the big unveil for “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan, whose patriotic ways was a perfect balance to the despised Shiek (Iran) and Volkoff (Soviet Union).

* * *

Jim Brunzell: You just keep waiting for your cue to go on and you want to go on, and boom. My mouth was so freaking dry, I couldn’t spit. I was pretty nervous. ... I remember, of course, the match. We had worked with Nikolai Volkhoff and the Iron Shiek many times. It’s sort of like pulling teeth without novocaine. We managed to have a good match with them, a real rarity. It was Jim Duggan’s, ‘Hacksaw’s’ initial visit into the WWF at the time. He comes running into the match with that big board and cleans house, and we get disqualified and we were supposed to be happy! I never followed that storyline. Why should we be happy when we were disqualified?

“Hacksaw” Jim Duggan, former wrestler and WWE Hall of Famer: With the WWE, I had been with them a couple months, but just on a really basic level. They weren’t using me. I came down for the Killer Bees match when they were wrestling Nikolai Volkhoff and the Iron Shiek. I came running down with my two-by-four and this little American flag taped to it. I worked over Nikolai and the Shiek with the board, it was one of the highlights of my career. Everybody in the place was yelling ‘U-S-A, U-S-A,’ it was the thrill of a lifetime. Even playing ball, I played college football for SMU and we played Texas at their stadium and Ohio State at theirs. But 93,000 people. I had the little flag taped to the board. Wrestling back then, it was black and white, cheer the good guy, boo the bad guy. Even today, I still do some smaller shows and people just want to cheer ‘U-S-A.’

Jim Brunzell: Thank God Jim Duggan came in and protected us with that two-by-four, or who knows what would’ve happened. Here’s our big deal and we can’t beat these guys, that sort of pissed us off.

B. Brian Blair: That was interesting. I enjoyed the heck out of the match, even though it was not one of our better matches. It was a decent match.

“Hacksaw” Jim Duggan: You could always find a two-by-four lying around. Jake had to carry that heavy snake around. I’d just show up and break off a piece of a pallet in the back.

* * *

In the night’s main event, Hulk Hogan squared off against Andre the Giant: The irresistible force meeting the immovable object, in the words of Gorilla Monsoon.

* * *

Violent J: I remember the building getting darker as the sun went down, because the sun was hitting the roof and it was lighting up the building. I remember the excitement building as the sun went down, because everything’s more exciting in a dark arena.

Neal Rubin: Like a lot of people, I’d first heard of Hulk Hogan when he played Thunderlips in “Rocky III” in 1982. Keep in mind that Vince McMahon was still growing what’s now the WWE into a national enterprise in the 1980s, and it was pre-Internet. So most people, including me, didn’t know anything more about Hogan than what he showed on television. I got curious. I mean, I figured he wasn’t born 6-foot-8 and 300 pounds throwing hammerlocks for Jesus. I called the WWE publicity contact, whose name was Basil (editor’s note: Basil DeVito, now a WWE board member and the former president of the defunct XFL) and said hey, I know everybody’s busy this week, but I’d love to talk to Hulk even if it’s just for 10 minutes on the phone. He asked me what I wanted to talk to him about, and I said I wanted to know who he was before he became Hulk Hogan. Basil said if that’s what you want to talk about, forget it: “Hulk is Hulk, and no one else.” Is there a better way than that to activate a reporter’s “Bite me” mechanism? I said thanks anyway and started digging.

Jim Brunzell: Hulk Hogan was the Golden Goose. He’s the one that put the WWF on his back and drove them to the success they had. They couldn’t have done it without him. He was such a tremendous talent as far as being a physical specimen.

Neal Rubin: I found a reference in a Canadian magazine to Hulk Hogan’s real name, which is Terry Gene Bollea. Then I saw someplace that he was from Tampa. I called the Tampa Tribune, which gave me the name of his high school, and I called there and talked to his former guidance counselor at dear old Plant High, who was now a vice-principal. After that, the dominos started falling. I wound up talking to people all the way back to his Little League coach — old friends, the wrestling promoter who discovered him sitting in the crowd at a show, you name it. When he first tried wrestling, he was unloading banana boats for a living and playing bass guitar in a band called Ruckus. The baseball coach told me that when Hulk was 12 years old, he was 6 feet tall and weighed 198 pounds. He pitched and played third base. Can you imagine? You’re 10 years old and you’re standing at home plate with a bat in your hand. Standing on the mound only 46 feet away is Terry Bollea, and he’s bigger than your dad. I remember the promoter telling me that the first time the future Hulk showed up to train, they worked him until he threw up. They figured that was the last they’d see of him, but he came back the next day. They started him out wrestling in tank towns as a villain named Sterling Golden. He had precious little idea what he was doing, but the crowds went berserk anyway. The other thing I remember vividly is being told that when he was a junior, he put a nylon over his head and streaked the high school graduation. He’s 6-foot-8 by then, probably the biggest guy in Hillsborough County... Do you think maybe they knew who he was? I wrote a long profile, and by any objective measure, it was positive. People had good things to say about him and the streaking was presented as a lark, which of course it was. But the WWE was furious. Someone, probably Basil DeVito, called my editor and said I was officially banned by the WWE, and if I showed up at the Silverdome they would throw me out and revoke the credentials of everyone from my newspaper. As far as I know, I’m still banned by the WWE. I’m so broken up about it that it’s on my resumé.

Jim Brunzell: We were right before Andre and Hulk. Really, the people were just waiting and waiting, you could almost feel that in the crowd that people didn’t give a (expletive) about our match. They wanted to see Andre and Hogan.

Gary Woronchak: Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant, that was a longtime old wrestling angle, having two good guys, having two good guys and one turns bad, setting up a feud you’d never thought you’d see.

Bob Uecker: When we go to Detroit to do the show, when the Giant choked me (on the pre-match interview) and let me go, now if the camera stays on, if the camera stays on instead of breaking away, you see me on top of Andre, yeah, oh yeah, yeah. And Vince McMahon comes screaming, ‘Uke, get off him, he’s got a match.’ Yeah, oh yeah, it wasn’t all Andre, it wasn’t all Andre. I remember later on when I was changing underwear ...

“Honky Tonk Man,” former wrestler: When Andre put his hands and shook Bob’s head, it’s gotta be the funniest thing. I tell Uke all the time that’s the damndest thing I’ve ever seen.

Neal Rubin: I don’t remember the details, but I went to a press conference that week featuring Andre the Giant. It seems like the mayor of Pontiac was there, too, not that you noticed anyone else when Andre was in the room. Andre liked coming to Detroit. He’d become friends over the years with John and Jimmy Butsicaris, who owned the old Lindell A/C at Michigan Avenue and Cass. The Lindell became American’s first sports bar because athletes actually hung out there, at least partially because John and Jimmy made sure they weren’t bothered. Jimmy told me once that Andre was actually fairly shy. He’d come to the bar and just sit in the corner, drinking beer from the side of the pitcher and trying to be inconspicuous. Anyway, it was your standard press conference until for some reason, Andre slammed his hand down on the podium. We’re talking about a wooden podium, and a hand the size of a medium pizza. It sounded like a thunderclap, only 10 feet away instead of a mile up in the sky.

Terry Foster: I had served beers and burgers to Andre the Giant when I worked at the Lindell A/C. He could knock down a few beers, two at a time. I was in high school, they were a third-pound burgers, but they looked like White Castles in his hands.

Hulk Hogan, WWE Hall of Famer: I wrote everything out from A to Z. ... I saw Vince that morning, and he said, ‘You’ll be fine. ... I think you need to go talk to Andre.’ So I go sit next to Andre, who’s in a ton of pain and has two quarts of Crown Royal. ... His back was bad, it wasn’t from drinking. I’m sitting there with him, I said, ‘Andre, what are we doing?’ ‘Don’t worry!’ ‘OK.’ A couple hours later, he’d give me a drink, and whenever he’s not looking I’m dumping them, bro. I’ll never make it out there. ... We get in the ring and everything I wrote out, he did. It was like he memorized it. Every single thing we wrote on that yellow legal pad was pretty much to the T. It blew my mind.

Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat: Out of respect for Andre I went to him and I asked him if there was anything him and Hogan were going to do. Knowing we were before them, I didn’t want to step on their toes because they were the main event. I told him, ‘We’d like to do this, and wanted to get with you first, to see if you guys were doing it because you are the Main.’ I told him we were having all these false finishes, a lot of scrambling going on, moments with George. And God bless Andre and his back, his hips, he was carrying all that weight all those years, he told me basically they were going to work a bearhug type-of-thing, that’s two guys in the middle of the ring. And we had something totally different.

Terry Foster:A story I heard later was that Andre the Giant was hungover and he couldn’t do the full match. Andre had Hulk in this bearhug for like 10-12 minutes. They had it as Andre was squeezing Hulk, but Hulk Hogan was actually holding Andre the Giant up.

* * *

Andre’s health was such a concern, urban legend has it that the WWF had “Mr. Wonderful” Paul Orndorff waiting backstage to fill in as Hulk Hogan’s opponent if the Giant wasn’t able to go. Orndorff’s absence from the card was conspicuous.

* * *

Dave Meltzer: Andre was in terrible shape physically by that point in time. I don’t know how much fear there was that he wouldn’t be able to make it. I’ve heard he was numb from the knees down and things like that. He couldn’t do much of anything, he could barely move. I know he had back surgery in ’86, or else he wouldn’t be able to wrestle. It was a famous surgery where they had to get new tools because the tools you’d use on normal human beings wouldn’t work for him. He was probably 6-10, and I would say in that ring on that night, probably 500 pounds.

“Hacksaw” Jim Duggan: Nobody knew if Andre was gonna do the job for Hogan. He could be an irritable giant. Everybody knew the script and the way the script was going to go, but Andre hadn’t said ‘Yes’ or ‘No.’ Nobody knew. There was a little tension backstage with that. Hogan didn’t know if Andre would go up in the slam.

Hulk Hogan: The place is rumbling ... just out of nowhere (Andre says), ‘Slammmmm!’ I go, ‘What?’ ‘He goes, ‘Slammmm! Slammmm, dammit!’ It was time to pass the torch and I was on fire at the time, and I did need to win.

Bobby “The Brain” Heenan, former wrestler, manager and broadcaster, and WWE Hall of Famer: It was Andre’s idea. He realized, I believe, that this was his last big pay-per-view he could’ve ever gotten and with who, Hogan, the hottest guy in the business, the biggest guy in the business. If he wanted to beat Hogan, he was gonna beat him. But he made his money. That’s what he wanted to do was make his money on the way out.

Neal Ruhl: When Hulk Hogan slammed Andre the Giant, it was as loud as any football game I was ever at, and I was at the game against the New York Jets when Barry Sanders went over 2,000 yards.

Terry Foster: It was the loudest I’ve heard that stadium, louder than any chants of ‘Bar-ry! Bar-ry!’ I’d ever heard. It was absolutely nuts.

Foster Peabody: When Hogan slammed Andre, the crowd was absolutely insane. It was so loud, it was unbelievable.

Lou Gamelin: When Hulk bodyslammed Andre, I thought the roof was going to blow off the place. You never heard that stadium that loud for a Detroit Lions game!

Gary Woronchak: Actually the way it works, Andre helped him get him up for that body slam. But that was a big deal. That was kind of like passing the torch from Andre The Giant to the new star.

Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart: You’re talking one of the biggest men in the world, who I wrestled a number of times. He was kind of a good wrestler for a big guy, a hell of an athlete and an amazing guy. He was a very good friend of mine. I bodyslammed him a couple times. We wrestled every night out there, throughout all towns and states.

Gary Woronchak: Andre had been wrestling for many years before that, he had been slammed, he had been beaten before. For the purposes of the storyline they were developing, though, they said he was undefeated and never been picked up off his feet. In those days, there wasn’t an Internet for all this information to be shared. Now if somebody claimed Andre the Giant had never been beaten before, you could probably find it on YouTube any number of videos as evidence to the contrary.

Dave Meltzer: To a lot of people, it is probably the most famous pro-wrestling match outside of Japan. For North Americans, if you ask what’s the most-famous wrestling match today, I think that match would probably win a poll.

* * *

After Hogan executed the slam, his famous leg and drop and pinned Andre for the 1-2-3, the crowd went crazy — and eventually off into the night — but the legend lives on.

* * *

Chapter III

The Aftermath

Foster Peabody: It was tremendous event. The kids had school the next day, so it was a late night. I can’t remember what time we got home, but after walking back to the car, which with the crowd getting out of the Silverdome was easily a 20 minute walk. The only redeeming factor was on Opdyke, all lanes of traffic were going in one direction, and that was away from the Silverdome.

Dave Meltzer: They did $1,599,000 (at the gate). Now, the least-expensive ticket at WrestleMania is $160. I think then it was about $9. Maybe $50 down to $9. It would be about a $20 average ticket price. For last year’s WrestleMania, it would’ve been about a $220 average ticket price. That tells you the difference.

* * *

The next two WrestleManias did more at the gate, despite much smaller venues (Atlantic City properties owned by Donald Trump). WrestleMania IV and V brought out the high rollers, willing to spend much more on tickets, but the crowds were lifeless by comparison to the Silverdome, so for WrestleMania VI, Vince McMahon went big show again, at the then-SkyDome in Toronto.

* * *

Jim Brunzell: Believe it or not, we got paid on a scale. It usually took three to five weeks to get paid from a WrestleMania. This is what I heard, I don’t know if this is true, but what I heard was that Vince took the money from WrestleMania III and stuck it in a 60-day CD and paid us the interest. We got 10 grand, and that’s a good payout for a single day. Hulk and Andre got the most, they drew the house. They got a million apiece. Some of the other guys got $25,000. The majority of the guys got 10 grand. I’m sure they’re getting way more than that now.

Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart: All I know is I was disappointed (in the pay). All wrestlers are kind of greedy anyway.

Dave Metlzer: 78,000 is the (attendance) number. It’s been confirmed by the promoter and a bunch of different people. It’s not a secret that the number they gave was made up. They’ve admitted it to me on more than one occasion. Most WrestleMania numbers are exaggerated. Dallas didn’t do 101,000 (for WrestleMania 32); there’s documentation on that. It’s very clear. The Ford Field number (80,103 for WrestleMania 23) was not a legitimate number. Every year, there’s a number they announce and later the real number comes out. It’s usually 10,000 off. It was the biggest event in wrestling history up to that point in time. The previous record in the United States was 38,622 in Chicago in ’61, so you’re going from 38 to 78. That’s a big jump. We knew going in this was going to break every record in the book. People will cling to (93,000) because it’s their childhood. ‘It couldn’t be bigger than WrestleMania III.’

“Hacksaw” Jim Duggan: I had my eyes fixed a couple weeks before, and all the guys backstage were like, ‘How’s the crowd, how’s the crowd?’ ‘Well, the first three rows are full, I don’t know about anything after them.’

Kurt Angle, former wrestler and member of the 2017 WWE Hall of Fame class: For wrestling, for all sports, it broke the record of what a sporting event could actually do. That was the biggest sporting event of all time. Even though I wasn’t a fan back then — I didn’t start watching until I started, I was an amateur wrestler, I was told never to watch it — but that’s all I ever heard was WrestleMania III, when Andre got slammed by Hulk Hogan, how famous that year was, and how special that event was and how that kept wrestling alive. And WrestleMania was only in its third year. You would expect that after 15, 20, but not after two. And Detroit, Michigan made it possible to show that WrestleMania is one of the best sporting events of all-time.

Big Cass: That really just showed the world WWE is a force to be reckoned with. We’re at the 33rd one this year. WrestleMania I of course, very very huge, WrestleMania 2, extremely important, but WrestleMania III put WWE on the map for good and said WrestleMania is the greatest show in live entertainment.

George “The Animal” Steele: My wife, and this goes way back to when I was a student in Detroit with a mask on, and my wife goes to get her hair done and the hairdresser asks her, ‘Where are you going? Are you going out?’ And my wife says, ‘Yeah, I’m going to the wrestling,’ and the lady said, ‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ like it’s a putdown that she’s going to wrestling. Years later, the same beauty parlor, same lady, my wife goes in, she’s getting her hair done and the lady says, ‘What are you getting your hair done for?’ ‘Well, I’m going to WrestleMania III.’ ‘Can you get me tickets!?!’ That’s the change that we had. It was an insult way back when, now, ‘Can you get me tickets?’

Dave Meltzer: It was a landmark show for what it was, that’s legit.

* * *

The massive crowd was so rowdy, it pelted the wrestlers and managers — especially the heels — with trash as they made their way to and from the locker rooms. During one match, the ring was even littered with debris. Silverdome workers assigned with postgame cleanup apparently reported the place was trashed.

* * *

Neal Ruhl: Because of my experience at WrestleMania III, I went to the next one at Ford Field (in 2007), just because of how great WrestleMania III was. We tailgated for the new WreslteMania, and we sat in the parking lot and watched WrestleMania III. I hold that in the same regard as going to Tiger Stadium with my Dad. We would watch wrestling on Saturday mornings together. As hard as that is to believe, to me personally, I hold that in the same regard as going to sacred Tiger Stadium.

Matt Hennessy: It was one of the pinnacle memories of my growing up. We were really dirt poor at that time, so my parents finding the money to buy those tickets, they were being very generous and very sweet. It’s just one of those moments that sticks.

B. Brian Blair: I think that really put the WWF into a major-league category, and people accepted it both in the sports and entertainment world. That was the rock-and-wrestling days, with Cyndi Lauper and different people that performed. They were so into it. It was the first time I really saw how much the stars from other sports and entertainment industries were really into what we did.

Hillbilly Jim: As the years have gone by, it’s become more and more important to me. People always ask me, ‘What’s your favorite match?’ And my favorite match wasn’t necessarily the one at WrestleMania III. But I’ve had so many people talk about that match, and that match is so storied, it’s become one of my favorite matches. I’ve wrestled Andre the Giant one-on-one, I wrestled Harley Race one-on-one, I wrestled Randy Savage. But WrestleMania III in the Pontiac Silverdome has become more and more important to me.

Violent J: WrestleMania III, the night Hogan slammed Andre. Even though they had wrestled a billion other times and nobody knew it, that doesn’t matter. That’s the night they wrestled. It’s just the way it was done. Saying Andre has never been beaten and these two have never wrestled. This was the time everyone was watching, and this is the one that counted. It’s like at the end of ‘Radio Flyer’ when he says, ‘History is all in the mind of the teller, and truth is all in the telling.’ That’s all that matters. Who cares to discredit the story when it’s more enjoyable the way it was presented?

“Hacksaw” Jim Duggan: That was just the Golden Age. Like Hollywood back with Rock Hudson and that group.

Howard Finkel: We did it, we scored. We shot and scored. And everybody, to the best of my recollection, was thrilled beyond belief. We pulled it off. That was our showcase back in that time. That was WrestleMania par excellence as far as I was concerned. It meant a whole heck of a lot. We had one of the largest crowds ever in the history of the world, and I felt very, very confident that it would stand the test of time. And it has.

* * *

The Silverdome attendance record was surpassed six months later when, on Sept. 18, 1987, 93,682 were said to be there for a mass by Pope John Paul II. That figure, too, is widely believed to be inflated, but Silverdome officials at the time were quite embarrassed by the idea — for these purposes, let’s say sin — of a wrestling event outdrawing a papal visit.

* * *

Chapter IV

Postscript

The following WrestleMania III participants have died:

* “Adorable” Adrian Adonis, wrestler, 33: Died July 4, 1988; car accident.

* Andre the Giant, wrestler, 46: Died Jan. 27, 1993; congestive heart failure.

* Dino Bravo, wrestler, 44: Died March 10, 1993; murdered.

* Zane Bresloff, WrestleMania III promoter, 58: Died June 20, 2003; car accident.

* Miss Elizabeth, manager, 42: Died May 1, 2003; drug overdose

* The Fabulous Moolah, manager, 84: Died Nov. 2, 2007; heart attack.

* Mr. Fuji, manager, 82: Died Aug. 28, 2016; cause unknown.

* Hercules Hernandez, wrestler, 47: Died March 6, 2004; heart disease .

* Junkyard Dog, wrestler, 45: Died June 2, 1998; car accident.

* Little Beaver, wrestler, 60: Died Dec. 4, 1995; emphysema.

* Little Tokyo, wrestler, 70: Died Sept. 6, 2011; heart attack.

* Lord Littlebrook, wrestler, 87: Died Sept. 9, 2006; cause unknown.

* Joey Marella, referee, 31: Died July 4, 1994; car accident.

* Gorilla Monsoon, broadcaster, 62: Died Oct. 6, 1999; heart failure.

* “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, wrestler, 61: Died July 31, 2015; heart attack.

* “Macho Man” Randy Savage, wrestler, 58: Died May 20, 2011; heart attack.

* Davey Boy Smith, wrestler, 39: Died May 18, 2002; heart attack.

* George “The Animal” Steele, wrestler, 79: Died Feb. 16, 2017; kidney failure.

* Jack Tunney, WWE figurehead president, 69: Died Jan. 24, 2004; heart attack.

* * *

Roddy Piper, Jesse Ventura, Hulk Hogan, George Steele, Jesse Ventura, “Honky Tonk Man” and Bobby Heenan quotes taken from YouTube interviews. Bob Uecker quotes taken from his WWE Hall-of-Fame speech. Vince McMahon quote taken from 2007 interview with The Detroit News.

* * *

agraham@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/grahamorama

tpaul@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/tonypaul1984

Share This Story