What do 30 years of WrestleMania and the NCAA Basketball Tournament have in common? Find out in part four 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 X (March 20)
Final Four (April 2) Arkansas d. Arizona, Duke d. Florida
National Championship Final (April 4) Arkansas d. Duke
Somehow, President Bill Clinton was able to attend both WrestleMania X at Madison Square Garden AND the Final Four at the Charlotte Coliseum! Okay, so maybe I’m embellishing just a tad when I write that. In fact, the real P.O.T.U.S. actually was in attendance for the regional finals in Dallas as well as the Final Four and national championship game in Charlotte to root on the eventual national champion Razorbacks of Arkansas, the state for which he had served as governor before entering the Oval Office. While President Clinton’s presence was certainly the most important cultural landmark for college basketball’s biggest event, a Clinton impersonator preening for the camera with Irwin R. Schister seated behind him was merely a calculated goof by Vince McMahon during the tenth annual WrestleMania. Thankfully, nobody cared about the fake Clinton stuff because WrestleMania X was a home run show at a time when the company really needed one.
By 1994, Vince had finally ditched the likes of Hulk Hogan and promoted the WWF’s New Generation as the lead attraction of the biggest show of the year with no more Rock ‘N Wrestling relics left to hijack it in the end. The show opened with one of the greatest matches of all time when Owen Hart pinned his brother Bret, then followed that one up with Shawn Michaels facing Razor Ramon in a ladder match for the Intercontinental Title that, in some ways, revolutionized the business due to its gruesome punishment and spectacular high spots. Throw in a few other high notes, a wash of celebrities and legends, and Bret winning the title back from Yokozuna in the main event, and you have yourself a true measure of mid-90’s WWF at its very best. There was true symbolism in the closing moments as Bret Hart, who had been shamed by Vince into being a patsy for Hulk Hogan getting another moment under the sun in the previous WrestleMania, having that wrong righted and being handpicked as the face of the company after being lifted on the shoulders of his own peers. There may have been a fake Bill Clinton in the crowd, but we didn’t need the real President anyway to give Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels a stamp of approval going forward.
I’m sure the Arkansas Razorbacks, led by Most Outstanding Player Corliss Williamson, did not necessarily need President Clinton fanboy’ing his way through Dallas and Charlotte in order to win a national championship, but there was certainly a sense of vindication for Nolan Richardson and his unique “40 MInutes of Hell” strategy in 1994. Richardson was always fighting for validity starting as a player for Don Haskins, who famously won a national title for Texas Western (now UTEP) in 1966 with an all-black starting lineup. He coached in high school, junior college, then Tulsa before earning the job at Arkansas and becoming the first African-American head coach in the South. His frenetic, speedy-paced “40 Minutes of Hell” style was viewed by many as a gimmick, but after reaching a Final Four in 1990, Richardson showed his ace with a team perfectly built to push teams from corner to corner. Much can be made about that 1994 team’s outstanding depth, Williamson’s “Big Nasty” physicality, Scotty Thurman’s versatility and shot making ability, or the back court nightmare of Corey Beck and Clint McDaniel. But what stood out the most from that team was Richardson’s insistence to keep things rolling and never letting up.
It paid off in 1994, two weeks after WrestleMania X, as Arkansas took down Duke 76-72 in a great national final, making Richardson the second African-American head coach to win a national championship and the first SEC team to win one since 1978. I always found it gratifying that Richardson and his unconventional system at Arkansas gained the proper legitimacy thanks to his national title win the same way that the WWF’s New Generation gained new found confidence after excelling at the world’s most famous arena on the company’s biggest show. You don’t need fancy domes, big names of yesteryear, or even a conventional game plan to outhustle the competition.
Final Four (April 1) UCLA d. Oklahoma State, Arkansas d. North Carolina
WrestleMania XI (April 2)
National Championship Final (April 3) UCLA d. Arkansas
When I mention UCLA basketball championships, there are plenty of memories that immediately spring to mind. John Wooden, Bill Walton, Lew Alcindor, the 88 game winning streak, 10 national titles. Those are just a few of the things that turned Bruins basketball into one of the richest traditions in the sport. But as much as they would hate to admit it, the team that would probably wind up in the back of your mind when waxing poetic about UCLA is the 1995 team that won it all at Seattle’s Kingdome. It’s difficult to pinpoint a particular reason why a championship team gets caught between the cracks of history, but I always felt like the ’95 Bruins deserved more praise than they usually do. UCLA’s 31-2 record was one of the best regular seasons ever recorded in the last 20 years, never dipping out of the top six all season long.
One of the primary reasons behind the team’s later obscurity is the fact that they were coached by the polarizing Jim Harrick and full of players that never really made it in the NBA, from the O’Bannon brothers to Tyus Edney to Toby Bailey to George Zidek. The only thing people remember now about Ed O’Bannon, the team’s best player, is a long-ranging lawsuit against the NCAA with his namesake regarding compensation for student-athletes. Sure, Edney permanently etched his name with a coast-to-coast layup to beat Missouri in the second round of the tournament, but it was his back-up Cameron Dollar who led the way against the defending champion Arkansas Razorbacks in the national title game. You want to know how good UCLA was that year? They played basically the same Arkansas team that had already won a national title the year before, and beat them by 11 points. More needed to be said, because so little has been said about that team for quite a while.
In the same way that the 1995 edition of Bruins championship lore always winds up as a annotation, wrestling fans still have trouble figuring out the true impact of Diesel’s year-long title reign as the WWF Champion from 1994 to 1995. When you think of monstrous beasts who held the gold over the years, you think of legends of yesteryear like Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant or even more recent freak shows like Brock Lesnar. Maybe it is unfair for Big Daddy Cool to get the bridesmaid’s treatment since he was the centerpiece of Vince McMahon’s celebrity-drowned push for mainstream attention (Yes, I am including you in that group, Nick Turturro!) at WrestleMania XI in his home state of Connecticut (Fun fact: UCLA defeated UConn in the regional finals one week earlier to get to the Final Four). WrestleMania XI’s true measure as a show is almost as debated as Diesel’s title reign was, with many calling it one of the worst to some considering it underrated (I am more of the earlier opinion than the later).
But what fascinated me about WrestleMania XI, and the confirmation that Vince McMahon believed in Diesel as the face of the company going into 1995, was the same thing that always perplexed me about UCLA’s championship run that year. The more fans flocked to TV screens to watch Lawrence Taylor fight Bam Bam Bigelow and see if Pamela Anderson and Jenny McCarthy would have a cat fight, the less faith we had in Diesel to be the champion who could transcend the sport like Hulk Hogan did before him and Steve Austin did after him. Although WCW was getting more competitive, there is still that core fan base that will root for anything the WWF would trot out, even if it meant believing that a slick-haired seven-footer could be the next Hulk Hogan (which he obviously wasn’t). But there always comes a point where star power shines through regardless of the wardrobe, whether it is the legendary UCLA colors or that classic “Winged Eagle” WWF Championship belt. In 1995, Kevin Nash and the UCLA Bruins may not have been world famous enough for the history books, but for one year, they were world beaters. Just ask Arkansas.
Final Four (March 30) Syracuse d. Mississippi State, Kentucky d. UMass
WrestleMania XII (March 31)
National Championship Final (April 1) Kentucky d. Syracuse
There are always questions about what are the key ingredients to creating a great rivalry. Should there be more mutual respect involved or more seething hatred? Do both sides have to trade victories evenly or can it be disproportionate? How long can one go on before it becomes stale and old? No matter how much patching up and text messages they share with one another on the interview circuit in the later stages of their lives, I don’t think there will ever be a better (and more bitter) rivalry between two pro wrestlers quite like the one between Bret “Hitman” Hart and “The Heartbreak Kid” Shawn Michaels. The rivalry was so personal to fans that we would link them together by their first names instead of their last: Bret and Shawn. They drew parallels almost immediately as they grew up as tag wrestlers in the WWF and ascended as two of the top dogs in the WWF’s New Generation movement after the Hogan era had finally come to rest in Stamford. While fans were still bedazzled by the theatrics of the Undertaker, it is fair to say that it was destiny for the two most important performers of that generation to face off in the grand daddy of them all, which they did in a 60-minute Iron Man match for the WWF Championship at WrestleMania XII in Anaheim, CA.
While Hart and Michaels prepared for a talent-fueled duel with no California love in sight, the animosity was just as thick between Kentucky head coach Rick Pitino and UMass head coach John Calipari. While the talk in the WWF was all about new kids on the block, Pitino and Cal were both vibrant and magnetic personalities with the drive of an Italian street hustler from the Bronx. Pitino was building a monster at Kentucky while Calipari had recruited a monster at UMass in player of the year Marcus Camby. Little did we know back in November when the Minutemen beat the Cats 92-82 that we had seen the two best teams in the country face off and there was little that the rest of the country could do about it. Kentucky went on to win 27 games in a row with a team nicknamed the “Untouchables'” thanks to their devastating full court press and endless array of talent (Tony Delk, Antoine Walker, Derek Anderson, Walter McCarty, Ron Mercer, and more!). While Kentucky got the best of UMass in the rematch at the Final Four, you can argue that Big Blue would not have been so over-the-top great without having John Calipari’s team forcing them to find greatness.
Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels did not necessarily need each other to find the greatness within themselves as wrestlers, but I have a hard time believing that each person’s presence did not raise the other’s performance level on a nightly basis to the point of obsession. That obsession and one-upsmanship was clear in the Iron Man match at WrestleMania in which neither wrestler surrendered a pinfall or submission in the allotted time, forcing overtime in which Shawn superkicked Bret for his first WWF Championship win. While the boyhood dream came true for the “Boy Toy,” Pitino’s Cats didn’t need to go to overtime to take down UMass 81-74 in the Final Four in the Meadowlands Arena in East Rutherford, NJ, going on to win the national title against Syracuse two nights later. Because it is easier for coaches to grow old on the bench than it is for wrestlers to grow old in the ring, the WrestleMania XII match was the second to last time Michaels and Hart faced off in the ring (I think we all know what the last time was). Calipari and Pitino have continued to square off as dueling coaches in the tournament, not only in the 2012 Final Four but with Cal as the head coach at Kentucky of all places while Pitino coaches at hated rival Louisville.
Like Michaels and Bret today after making peace for their many differences, there will someday be a laugh to be had or a beer to be shared on a lonely decades into the future for both Pitino and Calipari. Hell, Joe B. Hall and Denny Crum, the O.G’s of the Kentucky/Louisville rivalry, despised each other and now do a radio show together! But as much as we dissuade from despising your opponent to the point that it sickens you, let’s admit it: Sometimes it’s okay to embrace the hate. You can argue that Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels probably went too far in their stand-offs, racing nose-to-nose to touch the sun, and that the messy years-long fallout led to an unnecessary reservoir of hurt feelings. But sometimes it takes two people at the top of their craft going for each throat to truly savor the prize at the end. As much as the two would never admit it publicly, John Calipari and Rick Pitino needed each other to not only become better coaches but to maximize their opportunities. Now they are both legendary coaches although they were already legends in their own minds. Bret and Shawn proved to wrestling fans that you can bring out the worst in each other while also giving your best. Kentucky fans know this all too well.