What do 30 years of WrestleMania and the NCAA Basketball Tournament have in common? Find out in part three 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 VII (March 24)
Final Four (March 30) Kansas d. North Carolina, Duke d. UNLV
National Championship Final (4/1) Duke d. Kansas
When we last left off our series, the Ultimate Warrior had squeaked past Hulk Hogan in the battle for all-powerfulness in the WWF while the Runnin’ Rebels of Las Vegas were riding higher than ever before in college basketball. After winning a national championship in 1990 in dominant fashion, UNLV topped themselves by going undefeated in the regular season, the first time that had happened since Larry Bird’s Indiana State Sycamores did it in 1979. Larry Johnson was named the national player of the year, and his teammates Stacey Augmon and Anderson Hunt weren’t that far behind in the race. They were ranked first before the season began as defending champions out of the Big West and they never looked back, with only two teams coming within single digits in defeat (Arkansas and Georgetown). But while the Rebels were trying to go wire to wire, there was always a sense of dread and finality to the late Jerry Tarkanian’s team.
After an investigation involving Vegas game fixer Richard Perry (who was later photographed in a hot tub with key Rebel players), the NCAA originally wouldn’t allow UNLV to participate in the 1991 tournament altogether. The school and the NCAA later compromised so that they could defend their championship but would be severely punished in 1992, eventually leading to Tarkanian’s resignation. The Runnin’ Rebels, knowing this was the last hurrah of sorts, wanted to go out on top for “Tark the Shark,” and throw another monkey wrench in the straight-laced ways of college hoops. Meanwhile, in the WWF, the mega push of Ultimate Warrior as their new face of the company was not going as well as it had been hoped one year earlier. Not only was Jim Hellwig too wild of a stallion to tame, but too one-dimensional for fans to unanimously support as they had done with Hogan. A plan was put in place by Vince McMahon to have Warrior lose the WWF Championship to military turncoat Sgt. Slaughter during the height of the Persian Gulf War. While Slaughter’s title win over the Warrior at the Royal Rumble was an all time stunner, it felt like the pieces were already in place to put things back to where they once were in the WWF, as the patriotic Hogan challenged the now-evil Slaughter to win back the WWF title at WrestleMania VII in Los Angeles, CA.
Hogan’s third title victory in the main event over Slaughter, as well as Macho Man Randy Savage reuniting with the lovely Miss Elizabeth in a beautiful moment after losing a retirement match to the Warrior, felt a lot like a reset in the balance of power, with Warrior’s title reign as merely a hiccup that was somewhat frowned upon. The same sentiment was shared around the nation for UNLV’s team one week later as they went to the Hoosier Dome in Indianapolis 34-0 looking to make history. But history, and the critics who hover around it, are always ready for second guessing, and many wondered if the ultra-talented Rebels should be the ones who represent the next breed of immortals after Bobby Knight’s Hoosiers and John Wooden’s Bruins. Ironically for a Rebels team that did nothing but win, it was a lose-lose situation in the Final Four because repeating as champions would make the dark clouds of controversy and uncertainty hover over them forever and a loss would make them the sports’ most talented footnote. Unfortunately, it was the latter that did them in.
One year after beating them by 30 points in the national championship final, the Duke Blue Devils, long before fans got absolutely sickened by the sight of them, became the national darling as they took down UNLV 79-77 in a classic showdown. The buzz was so thick for UNLV’s lone loss in the national semis to Duke that the school’s first-ever national title win two nights later over Kansas (including an all time dunk by Grant Hill) was almost an afterthought to the shock and awe of Saturday night. It would be almost unfair to call it a fall from grace for the Runnin’ Rebels because it seemed like media and NCAA alike viewed the team as a disgrace of sorts, an acronym in the timeline proper. To call Duke’s win over UNLV a “happy ending” sounds repulsive today, but such was the case in 1991 when it wasn’t cool yet to cheer for the bad guys, and UNLV wasn’t afraid to wear the black hats. Who better to represent the hammer that took down the team everyone loved to hate than the team that eventually took that mantle years later in Duke? Mike Kryzyzewski, winning his first of four national titles, would take that deal any day. Hulk Hogan had already been on top (and never really left) in the WWF when the belt was his again at WrestleMania VII, but the feeling was prevalent that Vince McMahon was going back to an old well to find a sense of normalcy. The last word I would ever describe the 1991 UNLV Runnin’ Rebels, maybe the greatest team to not win a national title, was “normal.”
Royal Rumble (January 19)
Regional Final (March 28) Duke d. Kentucky
Final Four (April 4) Duke d. Indiana, Michigan d. Cincinnati
WrestleMania VIII (April 5)
National Championship Final (April 6) Duke d. Michigan
First of all, I have to admit to a bit of a cheat in this essay, but there is plenty of reason to include the precursors to the Final Four and WrestleMania in the year 1992. There was no shortage when it came to superlatives in this case. It was almost a perfect storm when it came to both college basketball and the WWF in a variety of ways, and like many occasions, it was the event before the event that carries the most significance. The 1992 Royal Rumble match, the only one in which the WWF Championship was up for grabs, was a match so memorable and historic that it has only grown in stature as the years go by. Nature Boy Ric Flair, who won the Rumble match after lasting over an hour, WWF Championship in hand, proudly proclaimed, “With a tear in my eye, this is the greatest moment of my life.” As great as WrestleMania VIII was, it almost felt like the desert to the main course that was Flair’s Royal Rumble victory over a cavalcade of superstars.
It was the kind of joy and ecstasy in the midst of unmatched effort that you can only hope to see faintly through the pomp and circumstance of organized sport. But I’ll be damned if that is exactly what we got in the Regional Finals in Philadelphia between the defending champion Duke Blue Devils and Rick Pitino’s Kentucky Wildcats. In what has been rightfully dubbed by many as the greatest game in college basketball history, senior forward Christian Laettner caught a long pass from Grant Hill and nailed a jumper to beat Kentucky 104-103 in overtime, sending Duke to the Final Four for the fifth year in a row. The game was so important that the losing team (nicknamed the “Unforgettables” by Kentucky faithful) had their jerseys retired. Only in a game that great can the players be equally galvanized in defeat. The same, in a way, can be said for Flair, who went on to lose the WWF title to Macho Man Randy Savage in a fantastic match at WrestleMania VIII in the Hoosier Dome. But what WrestleMania shares with the NCAA Tournament in 1992 was that, while good on paper, both events were a signification of the past, present, and future.
For WrestleMania VIII, there was Hulk Hogan’s “farewell” match with Sid as he celebrated one more time with the Ultimate Warrior. While Flair and Savage had maybe their greatest WrestleMania moment together, Bret Hart, The Undertaker and Shawn Michaels were showing fans in the under card that they were next in line for stardom. The overlapping of timelines was just as noticeable in college basketball that year. You had the resurgence of Kentucky as a dominant program under Pitino, Bobby Knight’s last Final Four appearance as he lost to his former pupil Mike Krzyzewski, the hip-hop newness of Michigan’s Fab Five freshman in the national title game, and Duke winning back-to-back titles for the first time since the Wooden dynasty days at UCLA. Like Bret and Shawn waiting their turn What gets forgotten at times about Duke’s upset over then-undefeated UNLV in the same building that held WrestleMania VIII was that the Blue Devils were pretty friggin’ good, too. That point was hammered home even more by the school’s second title after beating Michigan 71-51 in the national final. But no matter how many great moments I remember in WrestleMania VIII and the Final Four that year, it’s impossible to not remember Duke/Kentucky and Flair’s title win at the Rumble as the true marks of greatness in a period full of greats both past and present. It was a special year in so many different forms for both entities even if we didn’t know it yet, but for me, the Final Four and WrestleMania VIII were just icing on a pretty rich cake thanks to what came before it. The icing was pretty good, too, though.
Final Four (April 3) North Carolina d. Kansas, Michigan d. Kentucky
WrestleMania IX (April 4)
National Championship Final (April 5) North Carolina d. Michigan
While I compared 1992’s Final Four and WrestleMania to icing on a cake, the 1993 editions had more of that sour taste that ruins the entire meal and makes you flee to the nearest commode. College basketball as constituted is always in a period of transition, an endless array of names either playing at their fullest before leaving the limelight or merely passing through on their way to the next level. We as fans today are lucky to get more than one season of a surefire star in college hoops let alone two, three, or (my God!) four of them. So as Duke’s all-everything Christian Laettner graduated to the NBA, all eyes in 1993 were on Michigan’s vaunted Fab Five of Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King, and Ray Jackson, who had all started as freshmen in the national title game the previous season. Sophomores rarely went pro back then, but Webber’s amazing abilities at power forward were enough to make fans think that his second season in Michigan was likely to be his last one (Rose and Howard stuck around as juniors before declaring in 1994). But even in an era where college programs would keep players for two to three years, not often did you see a team as wildly talented as Michigan’s Fab Five were. They weren’t unbeatable like the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels were in ’91 nor were they squeaky clean like Mike Kryzyzewski’s Duke teams, but it was that young, childlike vulnerability that endeared that Wolverines team even more to younger fans. Or maybe it was the baggy shorts, who knows?
While college basketball fans were embattled with learning to love the new kids on the block, Vince McMahon spent every waking moment between WrestleMania VIII and WrestleMania IX trying to turn the page from old to new, making Bret Hart his WWF Champion and The Undertaker and Shawn Michaels his next in line. But as the marketers always tell you, WrestleMania is the “showcase of the immortals,” and as ratings sank and popularity dwindled in 1993, McMahon broke the emergency glass by bringing back Hulk Hogan to team up with Brutus Beefcake against Money Inc in a tag titles match at WrestleMania IX at Caeser’s Palace in Las Vegas. But little did we know back then how far Vince was willing to go for the sake of star power when he made one of the worst booking decisions of his career. To cap off a substandard WrestleMania event, sumo monster Yokozuna pinned Bret Hart thanks to powder in the eyes to win the WWF Championship. Hogan, who was “merely trying to help Bret,” would be quickly challenged by Yokozuna, and go on to pin him and win the title in a matter of seconds. The self-absorption on Hogan’s face to close out the show said it all, and many fans weren’t saying nice things in return about Hogan or the show.
It was not so much the new guard getting held back or screwed over by the old timers as it was a pivotal situation made much worse by poor decision making… which leads me back to Michigan and Chris Webber. At the Superdome in New Orleans, Michigan took down Rick Pitino’s Kentucky Wildcats in a great overtime game to reach the championship game for the second year in a row against yet another blue blood, the late Dean Smith’s North Carolina Tar Heels. The smart money was on Michigan’s talent, but many wondered aloud if the young, brash Fab Five would buckle again under the intense pressure the same way they did the previous year. In another tight contest, Michigan trailed by two points with seconds to go when Webber, by far the best player on the court all season, had the sports version of a panic attack. He traveled after rebounding a missed free throw (not called by the ref), dribbled aimlessly to the corner, and tried to call a time out when Michigan had none left, an automatic turnover and technical foul. North Carolina sank the free throws, the lead ballooned, and the Tar Heels won 77-71 to give Smith his second and last national title (both in the Superdome).
While it would be straight up wrong to compare a lifelong class act Dean Smith to an egomaniac like Hulk Hogan, there is something to be said about college basketball karma gravitating to a tradition-laden program like North Carolina as the young guns shoot themselves in the foot. It will always be unfair to overtly criticize Webber for what happened that Monday night in April because kids make mistakes, but what also came with the infamous “timeout that wasn’t” was that the more potential a player has, the closer we analyze that player and every little thing he does. Hence, a kid making a mistake is a future NBA star committing an error that could haunt him for the rest of his career. Thankfully, the awful WrestleMania IX decision to give Hogan the title again at a time when familiar faces were the last things we needed to see did not go on to stalk Hogan, Vince, or Bret Hart. But like Hogan’s face, it was a black eye on WrestleMania main events and, like Webber’s timeout in the national title game, there’s no escape from a tarnished end.