What do 30 years of WrestleMania and the NCAA Basketball Tournament have in common? Find out in part two 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 that are one and the same? As a die-hard fan of both professional wrestling and college basketball (to the point that 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 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.
WrestleMania IV (March 27)
Final Four (April 2) Kansas d. Duke, Oklahoma d. Arizona
National Championship Final (April 4) Kansas d. Oklahoma
For the first time in this series, college basketball and WrestleMania both have one direct commonality: They both had elimination tournaments to determine a new champion. While the NCAA conducts theirs every year, the WWF decided on theirs due to the highly controversial finish to the Hulk Hogan/Andre the Giant rematch on NBC’s The Main Event only months earlier. While so many matches involving 14 wrestlers made WrestleMania IV in Atlantic City a much longer show than the three previous installments, there was still heavy drama for the winner of the quarterfinals match between Hogan and Andre and if who would meet in the finals. I will still never forgive Vince McMahon for making Ricky The Dragon Steamboat lose to Greg Valentine, robbing us of a surely classic WrestleMania rematch between Steamboat and Randy “Macho Man” Savage, but Savage was not complaining at all by night’s end. That is because Savage, alongside his wife Miss Elizabeth, got all the way to the finals against the Million Dollar Man Ted DiBiase and (with some assistance from Hogan) dropped the flying elbow and won the newly etched Winged Eagle WWF Championship belt.
Many fans today would claim that a Hall of Famer like Savage winning the WWF title seems predictable, but in fact, despite his individual greatness, Savage’s championship victory as he moved from round to round was seen by many as a massive upset. Savage was always complemented for being a phenomenal performer, but no one was sure if he truly had the backing of the company as a top draw. WrestleMania IV changed that perception forever for the Macho Man, and he wasn’t the only one carrying his end of the bargain during an unlikely championship run. In 1986, Kansas head coach Larry Brown had a loaded team with the likes of Danny Manning, Greg Dreiling, Ronald Kellogg and Archie Marshall at the top of the rankings as they moved on to the Final Four in Dallas. After losing to Duke in semis and injuries and graduation removed all but Manning from that lineup, the losses began to pile up and the talent was minimal. Manning as a senior was forced to carry a team with supporting acts like Chris Piper, Milt Newton, Kevin Pritchard, and Scooter Berry. Danny Manning was a star, but the team finished the 1988 regular season with 11 losses and outside of the top 25.
But once the NCAA Tournament tipped off with Kansas as a 6 seed, the story of Danny and the Miracles truly began. They got all the way to the Elite Eight and played against state rival Kansas State, whose star player Mitch Richmond had eviscerated them two weeks earlier in the Big Eight tournament. But Kansas turned the tables on K-State with a resounding victory to get back in the Final Four at the Kemper Arena in Kansas City, where they got a rematch with Duke. After another shockingly easy win over Coack K’s crew, Kansas reached the finals on their state turf. However, just like Savage’s run was overshadowed by the publicity of a Hogan/Andre rematch earlier on, Kansas’ run was overshadowed by a big-time showdown in the semi-finals between the two larger-than-life teams in the regular season: The Cabbage Patch-dancing Oklahoma Sooners and the crap-rap-tastic Arizona Wildcats. Between the two teams, there were seven future NBA players on the floor, and I did not even count future MLB great Kenny Lofton! The Sooners under the quick-paced Billy Tubbs averaged an astounding 102 PPG while beating teams by a nearly 22-point average (Arizona was second at nearly 21). The closest margin of victory for either team in the tournament was OU’s 10-point win over Louisville, setting up a much-anticipated match-up in the night game.Unfortunately, like Hogan/Andre III at WrestleMania IV, the game was met with a bit of a thud as the Sooners efficiently dispatched the Wildcats 86-78 on their way to what seemed like an easy win over a Kansas team that they had already beaten twice.
But Danny and the Miracles, like the incoming wave of Macho Madness at Atlantic City, had something in the air in Kansas City as they hooked up with the mighty Sooners in an all-Big Eight national championship game. The normally-slow Jayhawks took even Larry Brown by surprise by catching fire from deep and tying the score at 50 apiece at halftime, the highest scoring half in national title game history. It was in the final 20 minutes when Kansas settled back, Oklahoma’s ultra confidence slowly waned, and Manning took over the game, notching 31 points and 18 rebounds while playing all but 4 minutes. Manning, like Savage, was a man possessed and on the roll of a lifetime as the smart money on Oklahoma, like Ted DiBiase’s dollar bills, began to look like fool’s gold. Kansas defeated Oklahoma 83-79 to win the school its first national championship in 35 years. The Jayhawks had to stick together as a team to get through the tough times, but it was Danny Manning (who was picked #1 overall in the NBA Draft months later) who made sure we never forgot his name or what he accomplished. The beauty of a tournament is that sometimes, it only takes one great performer with momentum to win it all. Nobody shares that sentiment more than Danny Manning or Randy Savage.
Final Four (April 1) Michigan d. Illinois, Seton Hall d. Duke
WrestleMania V (April 2)
National Championship Final (April 3) Michigan d. Seton Hall
When we last left Trump Plaza in Atlantic City in WrestleMania IV, Macho Man Randy Savage was on top of the world with Hulk Hogan and Miss Elizabeth by his side when he hoisted the WWF Championship for the first time. WrestleMania V made a return engagement in that same building, but the love in the ring between Hogan, Savage, and Liz was certainly lost a year later. After forming the Mega Powers in the ring that night at WrestleMania IV, the fifth event would be where the Mega Powers Exploded and a hellbent Savage would defend his WWF title against Hogan. It’s a bit repetitive to say that Savage went rogue on Hogan after accusing him of lusting for Liz when they officially split apart on an episode of Saturday Night’s Main Event because it was in the Macho Man’s wheelhouse to always tow the line between ingenious and insane. It was almost eventual that despite the ringing endorsements from Hulk Hogan, Randy would become determined to make his own way as one of the WWF’s all time greats and be the one who rebels against Hulkamania instead of merging with it.
Back in Ann Arbor as a 24-7 Michigan team prepared for the NCAA Tournament, a sudden and bitter split of their own between the school and its head coach changed the course of history. Head coach Bill Frieder announced before the tournament began that he would accept the head coaching job at Arizona State, and Michigan legend and athletic director Bo Schembechler wanted none of that. Bo fired Frieder immediately under the explanation he wanted a “Michigan man” to coach the team instead of a lame duck. Assistant Steve Fisher was then promoted to the head job with a pretty good team whose best player was future NBA great Glen Rice. Whether it was Frider’s firing that fired up the Wolverines or if Fisher’s guidance that liberated the team’s offense, but come tourney time, no one could stop the Maize and Blue on their run to the Final Four. A long range shooter with tremendous athleticism, Rice averaged a whopping 30.7 points in the tournament, setting a record for the most total points scored by one player in a single tournament with 184 points.
Just as Hogan and Savage had become quite familiar with one another over the previous year, Michigan did not need too much of a primer as they got ready for their Final Four match-up against Big Ten rival Illinois and their nicknamed “Flyin’ Illini” squad. In a tight game, the Wolverines came out on top after a late put back by Sean Higgins gave them an 83-81 victory to move on to the finals. Their final opponent was P.J. Carlesmo’s multi-skilled Seton Hall Pirates, who had the offense to go tit for tat with Michigan’s Rice, who scored 31 points to go with 11 rebounds. It was also one of the rare occasions that the national championship game went to overtime as Rumeal Robinson sunk two free throws with 3 seconds left, John Martin’s last shot for Seton Hall was off, and Michigan won its only national championship under the leadership of a “Michigan man” who had just coached his sixth career game.
The Mega Powers’ explosive match between Hogan and Savage, like many sports accomplishments, has grown from unappreciated at its time to justifiably legendary today. Although Savage’s effort was in defeat (and Rice’s ended in victory), I always had a greater fondness for the Macho Man coming off of this match than any other because not only was he in the main event, but he was always a loner who wanted to carve out his own destiny. It was that “us vs. the world” mentality that galvanized Fisher’s Wolverines all the way to a national championship. There may not have been a title at the end of WrestleMania V for Randy Savage like it was for Glen Rice, but Macho showed once more that losing should never get in the way of putting on a hell of a show.
Final Four (March 31) UNLV d. Georgia Tech, Duke d. Arkansas
WrestleMania VI (April 1)
National Championship Final ((April 2) UNLV d. Duke
For the WWF, the main event of WrestleMania VI was an encounter of figures so epic, it was almost of a cosmic nature. In one corner, you had the dominant WWF Champion Hulk Hogan, whose Hulkamania continued to run wild in wrestling, and in the other you had the celestial ball of energy that was WWF Intercontinental Champion the Ultimate Warrior. It was not only the two most popular names in the company at that time, but it was champion versus champion, title for title. In the first domed show since WrestleMania III, Toronto’s SkyDome was packed to the rafters to see these two Goliath’s in a battle for supremacy. Thankfully, unlike many, many other renditions of this narrative, the Ultimate Challenge lived up to the billing as Hogan and Warrior embarked on a match rich in character, oozing with testosterone, and nail-bitingly intense down the stretch. Warrior’s win after moving out the way of Hogan’s leg drop and splashing him for the three count remains one of the biggest shockers in wrestling history, and as Gorilla Monsoon said that night, both men, regardless of Warrior winning and Hogan losing, took a step towards immortality that night.
With all due respect to the other many talents that wrestled that night in Toronto, from Dusty Rhodes to Jake Roberts to Demolition to Mr. Perfect, it was an event where only two people (or forces of being) mattered. The same, in many ways, could be said about the 1990 NCAA Tournament when one dominant force, Jerry Tarkanian’s 29-5 UNLV Runnin’ Rebels, made headlines. While not perfect like they were the next season, UNLV was the rare breed of superstar-laden squads that only get better the further the competition goes, raising their games up to unthinkable levels by the time we got to the Final Four in Denver, CO. Hulk Hogan and the Ultimate Warrior, while heavy fan favorites, also drew the ire of being magnetic yet polarizing figures at their time. The Runnin’ Rebels, a boisterous, up-and-down team that included Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon, Anderson Hunt, and Greg Anthony, were just as polarizing to an NCAA that despised Tarkanian’s West Coast ways for years. Yet the more fans met UNLV with disdain, the funner it was to watch them stomp through the opponents, which they did.
After a memorable 69-67 contest against Ball State in the Sweet 16, the Rebels never looked back, beating Loyola Marymount, Georgia Tech, and Duke by a combined 69 points. The 103-73 win over Duke (the last national title game called by Brent Musberger on CBS before Jim Nantz took the reins) was a performance so awe-inspiring that its one-sided nature only made it more memorable. Hogan and Warrior were on a figurative plane so much higher than their peers in the WWF that it seemed like they would never fall back to Earth and walk among us normal folk. That’s how good the 1990 UNLV Runnin’ Rebels were: They made every other college basketball team seem simply inferior. As much as fans complain about the predictability of the most talented teams winning all the time, secretly we enjoy the process of immortalizing, real or imaginary. The “cosmic” powers of the Hulkster and the Warrior were clearly of the imaginary variety, but the basketball powers of UNLV at that time were just as glowing, and very real.