What do 30 years of WrestleMania and the NCAA Basketball Tournament have in common? Find out in part one of this ten-part series.
Just last year, fans of World Wrestling Entertainment enjoyed watching the company’s 30th edition of their grandest annual event: WrestleMania. But no matter how many millions of fans get WrestleMania fever for these past 30 outings, just as many (if not more) are simultaneously in the thick of NCAA Basketball Tournament action known the world over as “March Madness,” arguably the most enjoyable three weeks in all of sports. But what about those fans is one and the same? As a die-hard fan of both professional wrestling and college basketball (to the point that it is almost sickly), there is a tremendous range of emotions and thoughts that I go through every year as WWE wrestlers gear up and step up to the biggest stage in all of pro wrestling at the very same time that college basketball’s finest follow suit in their respective dream: Going to the Final Four and winning the national championship.
Many times (20 of the 30, to be exact), the Final Four or national semi-finals has taken place the Saturday night before WrestleMania and the national championship final has done so the Monday after wrestling’s biggest show. There are some basketball moments in certain years that I have cherished more than the WrestleMania ones, and vice versa in other years, but I have always wondered to myself: Where is the connection? What has gravitated me towards both of these events so prominently over the years, with a deep obsession and anticipation for the final match or final game, and left me coming back for more? What does Villanova’s upset over Georgetown and the very first WrestleMania have in common? How about the Bret/Shawn rivalry and the Pitino/Calipari rivalry? What made Rey Mysterio and George Mason such great underdogs in the same year? What about those B-plus players, Daniel Bryan and Shabazz Napier? Get ready to find out as we journey, year-by-year, through 30 years of shining moments and WrestleMania moments.
Final Four (March 30) Georgetown d. St. John’s, Villanova d. Memphis State
WrestleMania I (March 31)
National Championship Final (April 1) Villanova d. Georgetown
By the time we reached 1985, Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation was on the cusp of mainstream notoriety, riding the wave of the MTV-driven “Rock ‘N Wrestling” fad that drew in younger audiences to the wide world of wrestling. At the epicenter of this wave was Hulk Hogan, who had won the WWF Championship from Iron Sheik a year earlier, kicking off the era of Hulkamania. McMahon sneaked his foot in the door of national prominence in February of 1985 thanks to the MTV special “The War to Settle the Score,” which featured hot entertainment acts like Cyndi Lauper and Mr. T and a main event match between Hogan and Rowdy Roddy Piper. The ratings were high, but Vince had an even bigger idea in mind, and that was a pay-per-view event with the foundation of wrestling in the card but with the spectacle and grandeur of the Super Bowl or the Academy Awards. McMahon built this event around the main event of Hogan and Mr. T versus Piper and “Mr. Wonderful” Paul Orndorff with a cavalcade of famous names on the assist, from Muhammad Ali to Billy Martin to even Liberace. It was a daunting effort that many local wrestling promoters vilified and swore would fail, but McMahon and his wild bunch were going all-in for WrestleMania.
Meanwhile, as Hulkamania ran wild in the WWF, college basketball was experiencing a daunting force of their own in “Hoya Paranoia.” After winning a national championship in Seattle’s Kingdome in 1984, head coach John Thompson and his star center Patrick Ewing were dead set on winning another national championship and going back-to-back for the first time since John Wooden’s UCLA Bruins did it in the early 1970’s. Along with key stars Reggie Williams, Bill Martin, David Wingate, Horace Broadnax, and Michael Jackson, Ewing’s Hoyas trounced their way through the regular season, losing only two games atop a loaded Big East Conference. The Big East was such a beast that three of the final four teams (Georgetown, St. John’s, and Villanova) were conference rivals. When the Hoyas took out the Redmen on Saturday in the semi-finals 77-59, it seemed a foregone conclusion to many that Georgetown would repeat as national champs on Monday and beat another conference foe in Villanova. Sure, the up-and-down Houston Cougars were had by the masterful slow-down tactics of Jim Valvano and N.C. State, but there was no way that Rollie Massimino’s Wildcats could slay the mighty Goliath that was Georgetown… right?
It was here that the similarities suddenly and magically appear between the very first WrestleMania and the now-legendary championship game between Villanova and Georgetown. While Ewing stood as dominant in college hoops as Hogan did in the squared circle, the analogies lean towards Villanova after that. Massimino, an East Coast smartie like Vince McMahon, became the master motivator and pulled some brilliant reverse psychology. A useful tactic in getting the adrenaline flowing for a wrestling show is emphasizing the idea of “us versus the world,” doing your best and proving the doubters wrong. I am certain Vince and the WWF would have still thrived in 1985 without a big event like WrestleMania, but he never gave up on his dream, in memory of his father who had died just recently. McMahon drove the point home relentlessly in the days leading up to March 31, 1985: Tonight’s the night. Make your moments count, because they may never come back if you miss them. While the event was not a five-star effort in the work rate department, no one can deny that the celebrity-adorned fever of the tag team main event drew the fans to pay-per-view screens across the country, building a brand new and vital market for the company’s future revenue. The WWF made that night mean something to themselves and the fans, and with that, a yearly must-watch pageant was born.
Rollie Massimino pulled the same exact motivational tool on players like Ed Pinkney, Dwayne McClain, and Harold Jensen before their title game against Georgetown. The players got a fever of “Nova Paranoia,” believing that everyone was against them and they could only trust each other to show them they were all wrong. The game plan was smart yet simple: The only way to beat a seemingly invincible team is by playing together, holding the ball (this was the final season in college basketball without a shot clock), and making all your shots. Easier said than done, obviously, but I’ll be damned if the Wildcats were a shade below perfection on that Monday. Just as WrestleMania had taken place on their sacred ground at Madison Square Garden in New York City, an arena where Georgetown and Villanova had played against one another merely weeks before the WWF’s big show, the two teams were at it again on one of college basketball’s most hallowed courts in Rupp Arena. While the Kentucky Wildcats usually play there, there was a different Wildcat team there whose efforts were being praised by the masses the night after WrestleMania. Villanova shot an unthinkable 78.6 percent from the field, making 22 or their 28 shots and 22 of their 27 free throw attempts. Georgetown, at 54.7 percent, would have defeated almost any team that night… except for ‘Nova. As McClain clutched the ball on the floor and time ran out, the seemingly impossible dream was realized and the Wildcats had not only dispatched the champions but won the title in doing so. Why? Because the night was simply theirs, and they made their moments count regardless of their obscurity. Now, Ed Pinkney, like Bob Orton and his famous arm cast, are legends who helped make unforgettable moments when they were needed most. WrestleMania was the first big shot in the mainstream for the WWF, and like Villanova did against Georgetown, they made sure not to miss it.
Final Four (March 29) Louisville d. LSU, Duke d. Kansas
National Championship Final (March 31) Louisville d. Duke
WrestleMania II (April 7)
Although the song was actually released the previous year, one of the iconic ballads of the 1980’s was Simple Minds’ “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” from the soundtrack to John Hughes’ generation-defining classic The Breakfast Club. That song keeps ringing through my head as I look back on the year 1986 in terms of both WrestleMania and the Final Four, and not necessarily for the most generous of reasons. While the first WrestleMania in 1985 was an outright success for Vince McMahon as he continued to push the WWF product towards new boundaries on television with shows like Prime Time Wrestling and Saturday Night’s Main Event, the question always arises with bated breath about how he was going to follow it up. Rarely does a sequel live up to the original, and while WresteMania I was not exactly a blow-away show in terms of quality, WrestleMania II was certainly a step below that.
McMahon, as he is prone to do, reached for the stars and decided to air WrestleMania II on a Monday night (the only time in history the event has not taken place on a Sunday) from three separate locations: New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. All three towns had passionate wrestling fan bases for the WWF, but while ticket sales were healthy in the arenas, the event was seen as, well, pretty uneventful. It was by far Hulk Hogan’s least memorable WrestleMania match as he defended his WWF title against King Kong Bundy in a cage in L.A.. The celebrity battle royal at the Rosemont Horizon was a faint memory for many outside of the fact that William “Refrigerator” Perry was in it and Andre the Giant, like most battle royals he was in, was the victor. And the less said about the Mr. T/Rowdy Roddy Piper boxing match in Nassau Coliseum., the better. In fact, the greatest moment from WrestleMania II had nothing to do with wrestling as Ray Charles sang his perennial version of “America the Beautiful.”
While the WWF was holding on to hope for something epic and memorable, the NCAA Tournament encountered a similar dilemma at the Final Four in Dallas, TX. Leading into the national semi-finals, the talk of the tourney had been not about great games or star names but mammoth upsets as two 14-seeds defeated 3-seeds and a wolf in sheep’s clothing emerged as 11th-seeded LSU Tigers got all the way to Dallas (The only others schools with that low of a seed to ever make the Final Four since have been George Mason in 2006 and Virginia Commonwealth in 2011). LSU’s run was almost a microcosm of the WWF’s flat landing at WrestleMania II as a team who voluntarily took on the role of scrappy underdog in the mainstream even though they had become the big bad wolf of professional wrestling. Midnight struck for that year’s Cinderella, as well, as LSU lost to the eventual national champion Louisville Cardinals. While there was some rich history in the national title game as Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski coached his first one in a loss while Denny Crum (at that time) joined Hank Iba, Adolph Rupp, Branch McCracken, Phil Woolpert, Ed Jucker, John Wooden, and Bobby Knight as two-time national title-winning coach. 1986 in college hoops is notable by its, well, obscurity in the fact that while every game in the 1980’s had either epic encounters or nail-biting finishes, the 1986 game between Louisville and Duke, while tight down the stretch, lacked in both. But as I look forward a year later and go back to that song from The Breakfast Club, one of the lyrics to that famous song was, “Don’t you try to pretend/It’s my feeling we’ll win in the end.” The win in the end came this year for Louisville, but for college basketball and wrestling fans alike, a more profound victory came a year later.
Final Four (March 28) Syracuse d. Providence, Indiana d. UNLV
WrestleMania III (March 29)
National Championship Final (March 30) Indiana d. Syracuse
Sometimes, the greatest of ideas come in happenstance from the lowliest of places. In 1986, a singer-songwriter named David Barrett was sitting in a bar called the Varsity Inn in East Lansing, MI, after a performance when he drew inspiration from a basketball game to and started writing lyrics on a napkin the next day. The song was titled “One Shining Moment,” and Barrett showed it to one his good friends Armen Keteyian, who was a reporter with CBS Sports. The producers liked it enough to have it on the docket as part of a post-game montage for Super Bowl XXI in 1987 between the Giants and Broncos, but the segment got bumped due to time constraints. CBS decided to use the song as part of a medley highlighting the end of the NCAA Tournament later that year, which would culminate at the Final Four in the Louisiana Superdome.
The last time the Superdome played host to the Final Four was in 1982, and we got one of the most iconic games in college basketball history as Michael Jordan helped the late Dean Smith win his first national championship against Georgetown. This version was no less thrilling as the tradition-laced Indiana Hoosiers, coached by Bob Knight, took on the Syracuse Orangemen out of the beastly Big East Conference coached by a cranky up-and-comer named Jim Boeheim. As one of the greatest college basketball games ever played went down to the wire, Knight’s Hoosiers came through after Syracuse’s free-throw shooting failed them and Keith Smart made one tough shot after another, including a game-winner from 15 feet away on nearly the same spot on the court that Michael Jordan had made his shot five years earlier. In a time when winds of change were on the horizon, the polarizing Knight won his third and final national title in the first college season with both a shot clock and a three-point line.
While Indiana celebrated what remains their last national title in school history in the middle of the spacious Superdome and “One Shining Moment” took its place in college basketball lore, Vince McMahon had an even bigger idea about the next WrestleMania event 80 miles east of that bar where David Barrett unknowingly made sports history. After a bold attempt to rope in more viewers by selling out three different venues for WrestleMania II, McMahon wanted to create the “grand daddy of them all” for WrestleMania III, and chose the Pontiac Silverdome in Pontiac, MI, to be the landing point for his manifest destiny. McMahon built a super card like no other at its time, punctuated by a gargantuan main event match between WWF Champion Hulk Hogan and the now-evil Andre the Giant. The Silverdome, while host to plenty of major events like a mass from the Pope and the Super Bowl, never hosted a Final Four in its history, but it will always be most remembered for the estimated 93,000+ spectators the WWF roped in to attend see Hulkamania battle the Eighth Wonder of the World.
While Hogan slamming Andre to thousands of flashbulbs became the most iconic moment in pro wrestling history, there was definitely an overlap of legacies both born and sealed between WrestleMania III in the Silverdome and the 1987 Final Four in the Superdome. Hogan/Andre and the slew of celebrities like Aretha Franklin to Alice Cooper may have been the biggest draws to the building, but what wrestlings fans came away with the most lasting impression of was Macho Man Randy Savage’s groundbreaking match against Ricky The Dragon Steamboat for the WWF Intercontinental Championship. Just as Savage and Steamboat aggressively and meticulously mapped out the fine details for what turned into a wrestling masterpiece, Bob Knight and Jim Boeheim were both renowned perfectionists who triumphed over the other two coaches who relied a lot on improvisation and situation (Rick Pitino and Jerry Tarkanian). Knight’s motion offense set the trend for college basketball know-how in the 1970’s just as Boeheim’s 2-3 zone defense befuddled teams for decades. While what Savage and Steamboat did in the ring itself was not even close to fancy, the product of rigorous practice, planning, and execution made for something that sits at the top of wrestling royalty. The same can be said in college basketball for the tyrannical Knight as his Hoosiers won the national title on a half-court set punctuated by not a dunk or a trick play, but a jump shot.
There are many more parallels that you can find with just the number 3, from Knight winning his third national title the year of WrestleMania’s third event to the fact that UNLV’s Freddie Banks made a record 10 three-pointers in the national semi-final against Indiana. As many say, the third time is the charm, and in the case of WrestleMania, that motto is more than fitting. The WWF has always predicated in later years on “WrestleMania moments,” but just as Keith Smart gave the nation something to jump out of their seat for, WrestleMania III gave us that one moment that shines the brightest and never, ever fades away.