Okay, yes: WrestleMania 31 is probably going to underwhelm. Even if it ends up being a “good” show, which it very well might, it is very unlikely it will outperform the spectacle and outmatch the memories made at last year’s event.
But that’s okay. Even if this WrestleMania ends up only being “good” that would put it in typical company. Already we’ve broken down each WrestleMania event and ordered them among the best, middle and worst events. Among the whole host of them, there have only been a few that stood out as more than just great shows; they ended up being shows that changed the company and shaped the direction of the WWE for years to come.
WRESTLEMANIA III started the trend. After a successful first round, and a bit of a misfire-sequel, WresteMania III needed to be something special. From the beginning, the idea for “WrestleMania” in general was to combine Wrestling and pop culture. In the 80’s there was Cyndi Lauper and Mr. T. In the 90’s there was Pam Anderson and Mike Tyson. The 2000’s relied on the occasional rock band to come in and perform on the big stage, and the 2010’s seem to be all about bringing back past wrestling talent that left to become mainstream stars. Despite the crutch of relying on celebrities, WrestleMania has also been about paying off big stories, with enough star power on the periphery to hook casual viewers and turn them into regular fans.
Vince’s idea with WrestleMania III was the same as with all Manias: to tell a timeless story. He needed a feud that could appeal, not only to WWF fans, but also could attract non-fans of the “sport.” He had his captivating hero, Hulk Hogan, but he needed a villain. Roddy Piper had been a perfect thorn in the side of the champ, but his time in the spotlight was passing, and no one expected “Hot Rod” to step in a ring and out muscle the title from Hogan. At WrestleMania 2, King Kong Bundy had successfully managed to convince children from 8-80 that the champ might have met his match. With the third annual event set to sell out the Silverdome Vince needed a match that was worthy of the 70-90,000 fans who would be in attendance. He needed a challenge that was big enough to top Bundy. He found it in the only performer he had that could literally top him: Andre the Giant.
At 40-years-old, with half of his life given to pro wrestling, Andre had seen better days. He debuted with the WWWF in the mid 70’s and remained one of the most beloved pro wrestlers of the era. His wrestling days seemed over, both due to health issue and a small but steady income from Hollywood. The chance to make a big WrestleMania payday and become one of the top heels in the business was a chance too good to pass up. With Andre’s turn on Hogan, WrestleMania III had its main event and “WrestleMania” as a brand solidified itself as the show where superstars become immortal.
Before WrestleMania III, Pay-Per-View wrestling shows were still an experiment, Vince McMahon’s idea of a big, loud, cartoonish pro wrestling empire was still a gamble, and the WWF was still just one of many wrestling promotions in United States at the time. After WrestleMania III, PPV became the norm, with Survivor Series debuting that November, then later SummerSlam, the Royal Rumble, King of the Ring, until finally monthly shows were offered on a pay-per-view basis. WrestleMania I proved the model could work, WrestleMania III proved the model worked. Vince’s over-the-top wrestling style became synonymous with the medium to non-fans and media, eventually overtaking the industry and–until Ted Turner, at least–gave Vince McMahon the throne over the pro wrestling world.
WRESTLEMANIA X came along at just the right moment. After Hogan slammed Andre, there was nowhere for Hulkamania to go but down. It had reached the absolute zenith of its popularity, and though it would be a few years before the bloom was definitely off the rose, it’s easy to look back and see pro wrestling’s decline as a generational “fad” coinciding with the finish of WrestleMania III. There was no topping it, so no matter how hard Vince and co. tried, they couldn’t help but disappoint fans. Macho Man, Ultimate Warrior, an Iraqi-sympathizing Sgt. Slaughter, even the WWF debut of Ric Flair could not recapture the magic of WrestleMania III.
Bret Hart was the next man up to bat, and though he likewise did not break into the mainstream the way Hulk Hogan did, he at least offered a different kind of champion, one who still embodied superhero ideals while having a physique that was far less cartoonishly large.
Hart had won the title earlier in his career and then lost it at WrestleMania IX, but the circumstances of WrestleMania IX are so horrific it’s best not to elaborate further. After the Cesar’s Palace Screw Job, Hart dropped down the card and was used as a draw without the perks. He wrestled the popular matches, had the fun mid-card feuds, but mostly stayed away from the main event.
Until the 1994 Royal Rumble.
Bret and Lex Luger co-won the Ruble match with Vince gauging the fan reaction to the two babyfaces. Bret was clearly the more popular babyface but Vince wanted to hedge his bets with Lex, whom he saw as the next Hogan (like how he saw Ultimate Warrior as the next Hogan…). Both men entered WrestleMania X with the opportunity to compete for the WWF Championship.
In the end, the right man won, however, and Bret reclaimed his title from the giant who had beaten him a year earlier.
As he celebrated in the ring, Vince (on commentary) screamed that this was the dawning of a new era. Suddenly there was Lex Luger in the ring. The two shook hands, and Bret’s arm was raised. Soon after they were joined by Roddy Piper, then Razor Ramon, then freaking Burt Reynolds (that’s when you know you’ve made it) then every babyface left on the roster, including Macho Man and Gorilla Monsoon, came down to shake his hand, eventually hoisting him on their shoulders in a display that I just can’t fathom ever happening for Hulk Hogan or Steve Austin or Shawn Michaels or even John Cena.
Before WrestleMania X, the WWF was scrambling to find the next face of the company. Macho Man wasn’t really given the chance to run with the ball, Warrior dropped it soon after being handed it, others either turned heel before having a chance (Sid Justice) or were always heels who weren’t going to be carrying the company (Slaughter, Flair). As the company struggled to find the next guy who could have HIS WrestleMania III moment, the fortunes of the company continued to dwindle. After WrestleMania X, Vince’s company found its stability, it found its standard bearer for a new generation and it found its hope for the future. Things would still be a struggle, because wrestling in general was losing popularity as an entertainment form throughout the 90’s, but at least things weren’t so rudderless.
WRESTLEMANIA X-SEVEN is proof that sometimes you CAN catch lightning in a bottle more than once. How many wrestling fans in the 90’s thought that WrestleMania III was the peak of the business and would never be topped? Sure Bret Hart and later Shawn Michaels had a good run carrying the company through pro wrestling’s darkest days in the mid-90’s. And sure, Steve Austin (along with what WCW was doing with the nWo) had already rescued the industry at WrestleMania XIV, but there had yet to be a show that captured the awesome spectacle that pro wrestling can create they way WrestleMania III had done it way back in 1987.
But by 2001, the WWF was not only as big as it was at the peak of 80’s boom, some argue it was even bigger. It’s audience may not have been as broad as it was in the 80’s, when everyone from children to grandparents were in the crowds, but the 90’s boom expanded the most critical demographic out there, and the sheer number of 18-35 year olds who sold out Raw and PPV shows week after week were enough to overcome a diminished audience among kids and older folks.
Unlike with WrestleMania III, Vince wasn’t desperate to find a matchup that could appeal to a stadium-sized audience. He probably had a dozen guys on his roster that he could have mixed and matched as needed and still sold out the Houston Astrodome.
But WrestleMania X-Seven was destined to be Rock vs Austin. Austin became the next Hulk Hogan, left for a year due to a lingering neck injury, was usurped by The Rock, who didn’t just keep the seat warm but blew it up and replaced it with an even bigger throne. Then Austin returned and won the Royal Rumble, Rock won the WWF Title, and the two were on a collision course for the Showcase of the Immortals.
Just days before the big event, the WCW–once Vince’s major competition and legit threat to bankrupt him–went out of business, and was bought by Vince for pennies on the dollar. The amount he paid to “own” WCW is less than he pays Brock Lesnar to make ONE “stand there while Paul Heyman talks” appearance on Raw. Chris Jericho, who had been overlooked and mismanaged while in WCW, left to become a WWF Superstar and later remarked that the company was so worthless when it went under that HE could have bought it. WrestleMania X-Seven was supposed to be the celebration of the WWF’s victory over WCW.
Instead it became the Attitude Era’s swan song.
Nevermind that, though. At the end of the night there was still Rock, the undisputed number one guy in wrestling, versus Steve Austin, the undisputed number one guy in wrestling. It was the biggest main event since Hogan vs Andre, and–for reasons previously mentioned–was arguably even bigger.
And like with WrestleMania III, things could only go downhill. Before WrestleMania X-Seven, wrestling was the hottest counter-culture form of entertainment. The stars were huge, the audiences were raucous, everything was clicking. After WrestleMania X-Seven, things went down. Although they didn’t have to: had the WCW acquisition been handled better, some real Icon vs Icon matches could have been legendary and could have kept the company on its high. But what happened, happened: WWF Stars left for Hollywood, WCW stars never showed up. Austin’s heel run was creatively strong but a box office liability and there were few strong mainstream stars to challenge him. Later, with a roster that was at least 50% bigger, split across two “independent” shows, there were fewer and fewer stars than ever. Looking back on the past decade and a half, wrestling has never again been as big as it was on that night on April Fools 2001.
But that’s what the said after WrestleMania III.
And when things looked promising after WrestleMania X, things still were bad, with WrestleMania XI among the worst PPV’s the company has ever aired. But still, WrestleMania X-Seven happened.
We can look to big moments like the semi-returns of Rock and Brock Lesnar. We can look to Daniel Bryan’s very Bret Hart-like wins at WrestleMania XXX, and though WrestleMania 31 looks to underwhelm you never know:
The next great boom might be just around the corner.