In my 3 Part series detailing my personal rankings for every WrestleMania in history, I gave the nod to Mania X-7 as my choice for the best of all time. But it was a crown I had to give tentatively, as the more reflection and thought I gave it, the more it stood out to me that of the last 30 installments of “The Granddaddy of Them All”, the best executed of them all was the one I gave the silver medal to. That being WrestleMania 3.
To me, 3 is the blueprint for how every Mania should be done, and today we’ll look at how nothing the WWE has done since has really come close to such a complete supershow, despite evolving standards and some 28 years of practice and opportunity.
Regardless of the legitimacy of the alleged attendance of 93,173 (contrasting evidence has it closer to 78,000), this was clearly the first of the series to truly look like a WrestleMania. After Mania 1 took place in a dark Madison Square Garden, and after Mania 2 which was a production nightmare emanating from three shithole arenas in New York, Chicago and LA, the Pontiac Silverdome took your breath away. Obviously stadium shows existed long before this in wrestling, but a crowd (and more importantly, a PPV buyrate, live gate and closed circuit record) of this size at this point in the American wrestling landscape marked a definitive declaration of victory from Vince McMahon. Nobody else was going to do something of this scope and magnitude. Not Verne, not Crockett, not Watts, not Fritz.
In modern times we’re spoiled by the magnificence of WrestleMania being held in domes and being visually spectacular, as they have been since 23. In 1987 it was a rarity, and it has been mythologised ever since.
This is where WrestleMania 3 grabs history by the balls, because in terms of creating well built programs to put important matches in place and creating anticipation, nothing comes close.
Hogan Vs. Andre
The built-up equity these two guys had over the course of many years, the star power involved, it was already a match that would have generated incredible interest. But the Andre heel turn and alliance with Bobby Heenan, as well as the exceptional Piper’s Pits where Andre first walked off the set for being given a smaller trophy for his being “15 Years Undefeated” than the one Hogan was given for three years as WWF Champion. This was followed up in a later Pit, where Andre tore Hogan’s shirt and crucifix off in memorable fashion, setting the stage for the quintessential mega-match. The contract signing, the verbal skills of Heenan, the excellent promotional hype that created a match that seemed larger than any other, bigger than the norm, a once in a lifetime clash of the titans the likes of which we haven’t seen before and likely wouldn’t again. Even taking the time and effort to focus on the little details, such as making a custom supersized WWF Title belt in case Andre won to show on TV beforehand, is brilliant. This match drew the crowd, and while it didn’t have the mainstream interest Mania 1 had, this was bigger to the wrestling fans, and they turned out in droves. It was a dream match, and by God did the build drive that point home successfully. Consequently, this is the most famous match in WrestleMania history.
Savage Vs. Steamboat
A brilliant angle is devised, as Randy Savage assaults Steamboat in violent fashion during a title defense in late November 1986, crushing his throat with an axehandle from the top to floor with Ricky draped over the guardrail, and later driving the ringbell into his throat off the top rope. The gravity given to the attack was tremendous, with Bruno Sammartino outraged backstage, Savage rubbing it in by arming himself with ketchup and asking “where’s the hot dog at?”, and Vince McMahon himself selling the assault in glorious fashion. We even got vignettes of Steamboat re-learning how to talk, until the time came for his return, all to set-up this Intercontinental Title match. The pre-match promos have been seen countless times, and we’ll get to the match itself, but it was a brilliant angle created to highlight the strengths of both men – Savage’s erratic personality and excellent promos, and Steamboat’s ability to sell and elicit sympathy like no other, and it built to an excellent crescendo on March 29th.
Piper Vs. Adonis
Often overlooked in Mania 3 discussion is the stellar job that “Adorable” Adrian Adonis did in becoming an incredibly hot heel in late 1986. If you want to skip to the heart of why this build-up was tremendous, search on YouTube for “Piper’s Pit Vs. Flower Shop”. The organic babyface turn of Piper in 1986 was perfectly complimented by Adonis’ ramping up the camp and hijacking the wrestling talk show scene. The slow burn for this one began in August 86, a full eight months before it was to be paid off, when Adonis hired Piper’s former bodyguard Cowboy Bob Orton, who took to wearing a pink cowboy hat in his new role of Adonis’ ally, as Adonis began his Flower Shop talk show. Piper and Adonis began with the potshots, with Piper especially making light of Adonis’ persuasion (how times have changed), before Piper was attacked in his own Pit by Adonis, Orton and Muraco. Piper’s subsequent snapping and using a baseball bat to destroy the Flower Shop got over to a ridiculous level, and made this a highly anticipated encounter. The subsequent attacks, Hair Vs. Hair stip, and the announcement that it was Piper’s last match only added further to the special feeling surrounding this one going in.
Harts/Davis Vs. Bulldogs/Santana
A storyline that came about almost by accident, as Dynamite Kid’s back injury forced a title switch in January 1987, and it was decided to go with the Hart Foundation with an assist from a new heel referee character, Danny Davis. The retrospective shoe-horning in of the co-incidence of Davis refereeing Santana’s IC Title loss to Randy Savage (which also ended via nefarious means) made this a natural tie-in. But this angle was played up huge at the time, this was no 2015 Monday Night Raw Special that was cast aside to plug the latest company project. Davis constantly would attempt to referee certain heel’s matches and get removed from ringside. He was also the focus of a Piper’s Pit where he got to deny any malpractice in the Harts/Bulldogs title change, and was thrown into the wolves for his first match as a wrestler at Mania 3, where the wrestlers he’d wronged swore revenge. As a novelty and way to put the champions in a high profile match, this was aces.
Race Vs. JYD
Another simple and well-built feud. After Harley was crowned King in mid-86, he and Bobby Heenan went on a crusade of demolishing jobbers and forcing them to bow to Handsome Harley. JYD began calling out Harley for this, and while it seems far-fetched or abusrdist, it was the cartoon era, and Dog’s “this country ain’t never had no King” promos got the desired response, setting up a match between the two on Saturday Night’s Main Event. After Race and Heenan failed to get Dog to bow in the manner they were able to with the jobbers, the stage was set for Mania, a match with the stipulation that the loser must bow. Again, nothing overly complex, but there is a narrative built over the course of a few months that is allowed to simmer, and used at the right time to make you care.
Honky Tonk Man Vs. Jake Roberts
A rivalry that was very simple and based pretty much on one angle – the famous episode of the Snake Pit where, after Jake taunted Honky and stopped him from singing by scaring him silly with Damien, Honky catches Roberts with an absolutely devastating guitar shot to the head that left him laying. The Alice Cooper teases to get to Jimmy Hart and Jake vowing to avenge the cheapshot was all that was needed, and it was perfectly serviceable mid-card material.
Hercules Vs. Billy Jack Haynes
Like the above, this was built off one big angle and repetition of the premise in the following promos – Billy Jack and Hercules both felt they had the better Full Nelson submission hold, and after Haynes invited Hercules to apply the move to see if he could break out, Herc cheap-shotted him and beat him down before applying it. This is one element of 1986 WWF that is really lacking today in a TV environment where they feel they have to constantly churn out new steps in the story to fill time, which only waters down the match you originally wanted to see. This was a simple angle to set up a match underneath with some heat to it, and did its job.
Of course, all the build in the world doesn’t make a show great, but it does allow it to become immortal if it lives up to the hype.
Hogan Vs. Andre was a terrible match. But I’ve got news for the snowflake scorers of the world – it didn’t matter to the crowd. Not one little bit. I know full well it looks awful when Andre “headbutts” the ringpost and delivers the worst worst backdrop. But it was all about the staredown and the finish, and both were inch perfect, exactly what everybody wanted. The ending was beautiful wrestling theatre, the famous slam and legdrop, and Andre gets taken away in the ring cart, Heenan beside him with his head in his hands, as garbage is thrown from every direction, allowing Hogan to do his thing centre stage.
Savage Vs. Steamboat speaks for itself, and if it didn’t, the last 28 years of people praising it as an all-time classic sure does. It was the first truly great match in WrestleMania history, and as such, is remembered forever in that vain. The blistering pace throughout is heart-racing, the ebb and flow of the battle is excellent, the pop when Ricky Steamboat is announced as the new Intercontinental Champion will send chills down your spine, and the sight of an exhausted Steamboat holding the belt high, drenched in sweat as the crowd goes crazy, is magnificent. It’s been said a million times, but this changed the way the next generation would strive to wrestle, and you can see the fingerprints of this encounter all over matches today.
Much like the build, the execution of Piper Vs. Adonis is underrated, as the crowd is absolutely rabid for the duration (including a fan hitting the ring to hug Piper), and this comes off as a completely fitting “final chapter” to Piper’s current run, making it a clean sweep for the babyfaces in the top three matches, and also helps give Brutus Beefcake a brush with greatness as he gets to avenge the haircut that Adonis accidentally gave him on Superstars in the Mania run-up, and becomes “The Barber” to fulfil the hair stipulation.
The heroes stand triumphant on the big show, exactly what you wanted. That there would be enough.
But you also have the underappreciated shit-kicking of “Dangerous” Danny Davis at the hands of the British Bulldogs, featuring one of the rare good celebrity commentary jobs from Mary Hart. The match itself is fantastically fun, as Davis is the ultimate chickenshit walking around with a swagger that Vince McMahon himself would be proud of. The story of the match, simple as it is, was Davis doing minimal work before getting caught and utterly demolished. And in the kicker, to keep the heat alive, Davis gets the pin after using Jimmy Hart’s megaphone. This also features one of my favourite three second clips in wrestling history, as Jesse Ventura carries Matilda away in the ring cart.
Elsewhere, you have Harley Race bumping like a trooper in his match with JYD, a fun opener with the Can-Am Connection getting a big win over Orton and Muraco, Herc and Billy Jack go to a double count out to continue their story, Jake and Honky is really a backdrop for the Alice Cooper snake spot, King Kong Bundy squashes a midget, and there is enough fun dotted around elsewhere that you are constantly entertained. Nothing drags on this show, and the main attractions were so well executed for what people wanted. Also worthy of a mention is the brilliant commentary of Gorilla Monsoon and Jesse Ventura, who added so much at so many points throughout the show. Today’s announcers are much maligned, but this illustrates why the criticism is valid. Gorilla and Jesse are entertaining without mocking, get themselves over without taking away from anything else, and provide the perfect soundtrack for the event.
If Vince McMahon could write down on a piece of paper all the aspects of a megashow he’d want, what it should look like before, the anticipation it creates, the dream match, the classic match, the spectacle it becomes on the night, the crowd reactions, the presentation, absolutely everything, it would look like this show. For all the bells and whistles and admittedly excellent shows we’ve seen since 1987’s edition, no WrestleMania has ever been as completely 100% on point as this. Is it the best show ever? Maybe not. But it is the perfect WrestleMania, and the WWE could benefit from learning a thing or two about the very show they eulogise so greatly.