WrestleMania is this weekend. Well, a show taped over two days in an empty arena and various sets disguised as WrestleMania is this weekend. I am hopeful, as I always am, but this show has the chance to be an all-time train wreck. Imagine being a kid who has been just getting into wrestling and you have been hearing about this huge important show for months now, and what you get could end up being the worst show ever. My hope, other than these shows surprising us, is that kid enjoys their first WrestleMania just like I did. My first time watching WrestleMania as it happened was a show that many consider the worst WrestleMania ever up to this point, the largest toga party in the world, WrestleMania IX from Caesar’s Palace. A show that as I’ve gotten older, my opinion has moved closer to the consensus opinion.
Though WrestleMania IX will always have a special place in my heart.
I had watched a few WrestleManias prior to this show via video rentals, but this was probably within the year when I really started to get into watching wrestling as a 5-6-year-old, so I didn’t know much about the importance or the history of it. All I knew was my grandma surprised me on a Sunday night and we watched the show on her old wooden box television. I couldn’t have been more excited to watch a show live as it happened and not have to read about it in magazines and wait for the VHS to be available for rental. I also knew that Hulk Hogan, my hero at the time, would be on the show.
I’m going to try my best to convey my thoughts about the show as they stand now after a recent re-watch and what I remember thinking and feeling about it back then. The first thing that struck me then and now is the esthetic and setting. This was the first WrestleMania held outdoors in an open arena at Caesar’s Palace, and it really did seem like a giant party. The entire scene of this show just makes me smile to this day. The crowd was going nuts, as many dressed in togas along with Bobby Heenan, Gorilla Monsoon, and good ol’ Jim Ross (making his WrestleMania debut). I remember being very surprised by seeing Macho Man on commentary with Heenan and Ross, since I always remembered him being a wrestler. Looking back on it now, Savage was surprisingly good on commentary. He did a good job putting the wrestlers and matches over, even though he always didn’t know how exactly to say it.
There are a lot of reasons why this show isn’t looked highly upon, specifically the atmosphere around the company and how that reared it’s head in the main event. More than that though, the matches on this show just aren’t that good. Young me was excited to see some of my favorite characters like The Steiner Brothers, Mr. Perfect, The Undertaker, Bret Hart, and Hulk Hogan and wasn’t concerned with match quality and work-rate. Present-day me wouldn’t give any match on this show more than ***1/4 (The Steiner Brothers vs The Headshrinkers for those wondering). Every other match on this show ranged from above-average to downright bad. This was a show bookended (well, kind of) by two of the greatest workers in history in Shawn Michaels in the opener and Bret Hart in the main event (kind of). Shawn did his best and got a perfectly fine wrestling match out of Tatanka, despite his noticeable frustrations with his Native American opponent during the match. Bret Hart pulled a good match out of Yokozuna (gentleman’s ***), which is a minor miracle. Though that match is overshadowed by what was to follow, which I’ll get into later. The rest of the card included the aforementioned tag team match, a Crush match against the delightful evil Doink the Clown, Razor Ramon squeaking out a victory over Bob Backlund in a match Backlund took 95% of, The Mega Maniacs Hulk Hogan and Brutus Beefcake getting disqualified against Money Inc. (then celebrating for what felt like 40 minutes after), and The Narcissist Lex Luger pinning Mr. Perfect. I remember even as a young boy and huge Hogan fan thinking the tag match was boring. Woof.
Then there were the two most “memorable” matches on the show. The semi-main event was The Undertaker, whom I was terrified of when I first started watching wrestling but turned the corner on (I was an easily worked 6-year-old), against the giant man in a ripped granite looking bodysuit with fur and a butt crack Giant Gonzalez.
Giant Gonzalez was a legit 7 foot plus who made the Undertaker look like a cruiserweight. I couldn’t believe how big this man was back then. Today, I can’t believe how stupid he looked. This match was your basic big man kick and punch contest. The Undertaker tried his hardest and things were going okay until the chloroform came out. Even back then I wondered why a man so big needed to use something to make his opponent pass out. And he didn’t even win! The post-match angle that included the stretcher job was ridiculous, and although Undertaker reappearing after a loud gong brought him back to life popped young me, any mature person can see how hokey and needlessly overdone this all was.
This brings us to the main event, which was preceded by a short Hogan interview with Mean Gean talking about how he talked to his “friend” Bret Hart and assured him the power of Hulkamania was behind him. Foreshadowing much? As previously stated, as far as Yokozuna matches go, this was good. Bret Hart worked like crazy to get as strong a match out of the big man as possible, and I think he largely succeeded. I was completely behind the Hitman watching live, cheering him on as he tried to get this enormous man’s legs in place for a match securing sharpshooter. Bret finally got him in his patented move as best he could, but as he struggled and the referee concentrated on Yokozuna’s face to listen for a submission, Mr. Fuji has grabbed some powder and threw it into the Bret’s eyes, blinding him enough for Yokozuna to get the pinfall and win the championship. Boy was I angry! I couldn’t believe the referee couldn’t clearly see all the powder on Bret’s face and the ring. This couldn’t be the way this show ended, could it?!
Then, to the surprise of myself and many others in the venue, Hulk Hogan came down to complain to the referee and help his fallen friend out of the ring. What a guy! Mr. Fuji then got on the microphone and began to chastise my fallen heroes, even challenging Hogan to a match. I saw a glimmer of hope as Bret told his savior to go win the belt back for him and the common good. I went crazy as Hogan jumped back into the ring, and screamed at the television my hero got beat down by Fuji and Yokozuna. Yokozuna then picked Hogan up and held him for Fuji to blind him with that same powder. “DUCK!” I screamed. That’s exactly what he did and Yokozuna was now blinded just as Bret was moments earlier. Hogan got Yokozuna off his feet, hit the leg drop, and became the new WWF Champion right in front of my very eyes. I had just watched my hero win, in real-time, for the first time, and I went absolutely crazy with joy. My grandma had to calm me down for fear that I would wake up my grandpa.
Obviously to those of you in the know that read these last two paragraphs, you probably feel a little sick to your stomach right now. Many saw the string of champions the previous few years with Ric Flair, Randy Savage, and Bret Hart as somewhat of a change of the guard for WWF at the time. Business wasn’t exactly booming though. So they went back to the well one more time (until they would again for different reasons years later), possibly after a little bit of politicking based on the stories you here, in hopes of winning back some lapsed fans. Needless to say, it didn’t exactly work and WWF would reset course again one year later.
The reasons this show is looked upon poorly are warranted and obvious. It’s not a good wrestling show and certainly doesn’t hold up when compared to the shows that came before and would come after. That said, I can’t forget the happiness I had back then after watching it. That certainly helps my viewing experience now, as I can’t help but feel nostalgic for this show because of it. I’ll never forget how this show made me feel as a young boy. I hope this year’s show during this scary and uncertain time can somehow create that same feeling for a child or a fan, or a family somewhere. It’s about putting smiles on faces after all, isn’t it?