book excerpt

The Meet-Cute That Made WrestleMania

How a ponderous wrestler and a pop star from Queens formed an unlikely friendship that started it all.

Cyndi Lauper and Lou Albano, two parts of an unlikely tag team. Photo: The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock
Cyndi Lauper and Lou Albano, two parts of an unlikely tag team. Photo: The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock
Cyndi Lauper and Lou Albano, two parts of an unlikely tag team. Photo: The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

I was 13 in the summer of 1984. Michael Jordan was 21. And he had come to my hometown of Bloomington, Indiana, to audition for — and then train for — the U.S. Olympic basketball team. This wasn’t a pop-in visit either. Jordan spent weeks in Bloomington at the behest of the team’s dictatorial coach, Bob Knight.

Jordan was no longer a college kid. With great ambivalence, he had just renounced his senior year at North Carolina to turn pro. Jordan wasn’t yet an NBA player either, as the Draft wasn’t till June and the season wouldn’t start until October. Marooned in the sleepy midwestern college town, Jordan cut a restless figure, projecting no air of celebrity. When he wasn’t training, he would traipse around town, ordering a smoothie by himself, playing mini-golf, heading to the movie theater affixed to the College Mall. One night, he sauntered into the Edgewood High School senior prom, held as it was at the same facility where Jordan and the other players were staying.

By the end of the summer, Jordan was somewhere else entirely. He hadn’t just made the U. S. Olympic team roster; he was undeniably the star, who shone as they won the gold medal. He wasn’t just the third selection in the NBA Draft; he was selected by the Bulls, a team in a prime media market. Jordan didn’t just have a Nike shoe contract; a signature model was in production, bound to pay him far more than the $550,000 the Bulls were offering him as a rookie contract.

It was as good a metaphor as any for the transformation of sports — and American culture — that occurred that summer, which is the focus of my new book, Glory Days: The Summer of 1984 and the 90 Days That Changed Sports and Culture Forever. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, at last, met in the NBA Finals, to the delight of the new visionary commissioner, David Stern. In keeping with the free-market embrace of the Reagan ’80s, the Los Angeles Olympics turned a profit; a New York real-estate magnate entered the national conversation via his crass capitalism and his ownership of a pro football team (Trump was his name). This was the season that cable television roared into American homes. Bruce Springsteen and Prince released the albums — Born in the USA and Purple Rain — that would vault them to a new plane of celebrity. And we familiarized ourselves with a new cube-shaped personal computer — called, benignly, the Macintosh — and the VCR that enabled us to consume media on demand.

Amid all that seismic cultural activity, on a sleepy July weekend at Madison Square Garden, a hard-charging sports overlord, Vince McMahon, staged an event, broadcast on MTV, that consecrated an unlikely marriage between pop music and professional wrestling. The “Brawl to End It All,” was a smashing success, not only the most-watched event in MTV’s brief history but the origin for Wrestlemania, today the world’s biggest annual sporting event after the Super Bowl. As the book excerpt below illustrates, it was also a perfect distillation of that pivotal season.

Excerpt From 'Glory Days'

As absurdist story lines go, this one was right out of a pro-wrestling writers’ room.

In the early 1980s, a struggling female pop singer and veteran athlete meet by happenstance on a flight headed to New York from Puerto Rico. She’s in her early 20s, a singer chasing stardom. He’s in his early 50s and looking for a final act. She is five-three, swallowed up by her first-class seat, and speaks in a cartoonishly squeaky voice that recalls Betty Boop in the Queensiest of Queens accent. Her style of dress might be described as thrift-shop chic. She wears her heavily teased hair and eyelashes in assorted colors of the rainbow.

He verges on obese. On this day, he is without his signature accessory — rubber bands dangling from a biblically long beard and safety pin piercing his cheek — but still cuts a striking figure with his chaotic ringlets of hair, his unbuttoned Hawaiian shirt. He speaks in a New York accent as well — his a thick baritone.

Neither recognizes the other. But as they talk, they realize they like each other, that their commonalities outstrip their differences. They are both extroverts — the kind of people who talk to their seatmates on flights. They are both from the New York area. Both are in show business. Both are working in industries buffeted by change. Together they will help form an unlikely alliance, enter new arenas, and help each other’s careers. In the process, their pairing — an unlikely tag team — will play an outsize role in building one of the most valuable franchises in sports.

She is Cyndi Lauper, a singer in search of a big break. Growing up, she paid a price for her weirdness, her otherness. “People used to throw rocks at me for my clothes,” she told Rolling Stone journalist Kurt Loder in what Loder described as “her appealing Queens-side wheeze.”

He is Lou Albano, a galoot born in Rome, once a football star at the University of Tennessee, before he was kicked out of school for bad behavior and cheating on a final exam. He then joined the Army, but aggravated a football injury and was honorably discharged. Back in New York, he tried to become a boxer, leaning on a cousin in the promotion business, Lou Duva, to help get him fights. When that didn’t work, Albano transitioned to professional wrestling.

“Leapin’ Lou” was a ponderous wrestler — a “stiff” in the vernacular — who didn’t always execute his moves with technical expertise. He did, however, master the performative part of the job. He looked the part and dressed the part and acted the part. He also relished playing a heel, a wrestling villain. Partnered with Tony Altomare, Albano was half of the “Sicilians,” a tag-team so convincing in their hijinks that, as they toured the Midwest, they elicited actual threats from organized crime in Chicago.

The Sicilians appeared on The Jackie Gleason Show and wrestled for various promotions. When they broke up, Albano transitioned into becoming a manager. “Captain Lou” Albano — a reference to his time in the Army and, in the tradition of pro wrestling, exaggerating his rank — played his pulpy role masterfully, stomping around the ring as his hairy chest and assorted gold chains protruded from his unbuttoned silk shirts.

But by the early ’80s, pro wrestling was an industry in transition. For decades, pro wrestling in the United States existed under a patchwork “territory system,” whereby different regions of the country had their own promotions. One might liken this to college sports conferences without the NCAA to unify all of them.

Boundaries were inexact, but each promotion had its own roster of stars. Like wrestlers ricocheting off the turnbuckle, the spandex-clad band would bounce from one testosterone-soaked arena to another. Each promotion would make its own television deals — usually with local stations — at strange hours. Hulk Hogan worked primarily for the AWA, the American Wrestling Association, in Minnesota. Ric Flair (d.b.a. “Nature Boy”) wrestled mostly for the National Wrestling Alliance. Andre the Giant, a seven-foot-four, 500-pound French leviathan, toiled mostly in the World Wide Wrestling Federation, the WWWF.

The WWWF was the main promotion for the Northeast. The head of the organization, Vincent J. McMahon, was not a ruthless businessman. He was known to share gate receipts with his wrestlers. He openly told the media that wrestling was fake. Though unhappy about it, he allowed one of his up-and-coming “babyfaces,” Hulk Hogan, to film a cameo as Thunderlips in Rocky III.

But in 1982, McMahon sold his business to his ambitious, hard-charging son, Vincent Kennedy McMahon, known to all as Vince Jr. or Vinnie. Vinnie’s vision and his disposition were nothing like his father’s. Then in his late 30s, Vinnie had ambitions that went beyond the Northeast. He put forth an acquisition strategy. The new federation would, in effect, roll up all the balkanized territories and create one streamlined pro-wrestling organization. He shortened the name of the promotion to World Wrestling Federation, the WWF, making his ambitions clear. (If the new acronym had the potential to cause confusion with the World Wildlife Federation, which had trademarked WWF in 1961, so be it.)

McMahon’s empire-building acquisition strategy was centered on the same principle that David Stern was using concurrently to expand the power of the NBA: television, specifically cable television. One television deal would knit it all together. Why restrict your product to a region when there existed the technology to expose it to an entire country — and beyond?

“In the old days, there were wrestling fiefdoms all over the country, each with its little lord in charge,” McMahon would later explain to Sports Illustrated. “If I hadn’t bought out my dad, there would still be 30 of them, fragmented and struggling.”

McMahon began to negotiate putting the WWF on nationwide cable. Suddenly viewers throughout the country were able to watch McMahon’s product. And the top wrestlers, predictably, followed. Why would an up-and-comer like Hulk Hogan, for instance, limit himself to the Midwest when he could decamp to the WWF and find national exposure on television?

For a sport predicated on violence, with so many stories centered around revenge, the men in power were remarkably passive. Promoters disparaged McMahon behind his back. They hated McMahon for violating a code. For weaponizing television. For disrupting their business.

But apart from idle threats, he faced remarkably little resistance.

With typical pro-wrestling bravado, when McMahon heard that other promoters had gathered at an O’Hare airport hotel to discuss how to thwart his ambitions, he laughed. “The first meeting they had all they could agree on was that they hate me and that they’re going to do everything possible to put us out of business,” McMahon. “The second meeting, they couldn’t even agree on ordering lunch.”

McMahon had already taken over the Sunday-morning time slot on the USA Network. For more than a decade, a Saturday-night slot on WTBS, the “superstation” owned by Ted Turner, broadcast World Championship Wrestling featuring the cast of Georgia Championship Wrestling. McMahon approached Turner with an offer to buy the Saturday-night slot. Perhaps still chastened by his unsuccessful bid to buy ESPN weeks earlier, Turner was in no mood to negotiate. He rejected McMahon. Undeterred, McMahon had another plan: He would buy the Georgia Championship Wrestling promotion that owned the time slot. McMahon found enough willing sellers, and soon the WWF had a controlling stake in the Georgia promotion.

July 14, 1984, marked what would be known as “Black Saturday,” another McMahon victory, at least in the short term. At 6:05 that night, wrestling fans tuning into TBS realized that Georgia Championship Wrestling had been taken over by the WWF. The loyalists hated it. They hated that McMahon had made an end-run around Ted Turner and gotten his promotion on cable. They hated the WWF style of wrestling as well as the cartoonish characters. They hated McMahon and his preening.

Callers flooded the TBS switchboards to complain. Ratings of World Championship Wrestling began to tank. Turner, to his credit, began to investigate how he could expand into wrestling and put up some competition. Eventually McMahon would end up selling the slot. But, at the time, Black Saturday was still a sign of Vince McMahon’s ambitions. And like wrestlers in compromised positions, the competition appeared helpless to escape and survive the WWF stranglehold.

If professional wrestling was being buffeted by change and shifts in media, so was pop music. The industry had been in a slump in the early 1980s. It was starting to emerge from the chill, thanks in part to a new television network in the expanding cable universe.

Music Television, soon shorthanded MTV, was predicated on a new art form: the music video. As the “veejay,” Mark Goodman explained it when the network first went live: “This is it, the world’s first 24-hour stereo-video music channel … Behold! A new concept is born, the best of TV combined with the best of radio!”

For decades, pop stars and mainstream bands recorded songs arrayed them on an album and then released them one by one, hoping they would find favor on the radio. The video delivered another sensory experience that could enhance the listening. As the Associated Press put it, the video was a capitulation to “peach-fuzzy viewers. Notorious for their bite-sized attention span.”

The artists (and their labels) would have to foot the bill to produce the videos. They would then deliver the video to MTV. The network’s roster of veejays would air these videos, interspersed with commercials. The artist would receive no revenue. But what they received in exchange for donating these song-movies had value: marketing and promotion. At the beginning and end of the video, graphics listed the name of the song, the artist, the album and the label, a free bit of advertising that, ideally, would motivate the viewer to buy the single or, better yet, the album.

MTV officially launched on August 1, 1981, rolling out a video by The Buggles, a British new wave band, for their single “Video Killed the Radio Star.” It was a clever meta joke; but it was also a bit of prescience. Why listen to the radio when you could see the artist perform the song you were hearing?

Soon, the video became as essential to an artist’s success as radio play. Artists who took advantage of this new platform could break through — and sell millions of albums—based as much on the visual impact as the merits of the music itself. Like professional wrestling, the visual performance and image of it all — the wardrobe and appearance and the ability to “sell the move” — became as essential as underlying talent.

Not all artists embraced this new medium. For some, this video craze was an annoyance, a new job responsibility that went beyond the scope of their employment. Some simply provided live concert footage as their video. Though this, too, could be effective. When, in the summer of 1984, Bruce Springsteen cast a young actress, Courteney Cox, as a fan who would come onto the stage during the video for “Dancing in the Dark,” it helped turn the song into a smash hit.

Other artists were thrilled by a new opportunity to express their creativity. Often at great expense, artists would experiment with concept and hire Hollywood directors. (Even Dancing in the Dark was directed by Brian DePalma.) From Duran Duran to Madonna to Michael Jackson, the most successful acts of the era, not coincidentally, put out the most inspired videos. And, then, Cyndi Lauper, too.

By the summer of 1983, Lauper’s career had gained traction. She had broken with her band, Blue Angel, and had been forced to file for bankruptcy. As a solo artist, she had a new manager, David Wolff, who became her boyfriend. Having been in a band himself, Wolff knew music and helped Lauper land a deal with Portrait Records, a sister label to Epic.

Lauper was 30 and, with Wolff’s guidance, treated this as both her big break and perhaps her last chance at stardom. For her album — titled, appropriately, She’s So Unusual — she hired Annie Leibovitz to shoot the cover image. Lauper and Wolff devoted great care to the video for the album’s first single, “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” a winsome, upbeat doo-woppish tune with a feminist message. Lauper and Wolff storyboarded the video. Lauper would star as a carefree young woman living at home whose parents couldn’t abide her lack of serious purpose. Lauper’s mother, Catrine, would portray herself. But with the Laupers divorced, who would play Lauper’s father?

Wolff had an inspired idea. A fan of professional wrestling, Wolff figured the video could use a cartoonishly over-the-top figure. One wrestler, in particular, came to mind. “There’s this guy, Lou Albano —”

Lauper nearly did a spit take.

“I know Captain Lou!” she squealed, recalling the nice man she’d sat alongside on the flight from Puerto Rico. “We swapped numbers when we were on a plane together.”

Albano, too, had fond recollections of that flight from Puerto Rico. He was happy to appear in the video. But there was a hitch. “You need to ask permission from my boss, Vince McMahon.”

Unlike his father, McMahon wanted his wrestlers branching out into pop culture. If wrestling was going to grow beyond smoky ballrooms and off-hours TV and its blue-collar fan base, it would need to move from the margins to the mainstream. And there was no faster way to do that than to get on television. “You got him,” McMahon responded.

While labels and musicians and artists themselves were beginning to invest in videos, “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” was a bare-bones production, made for less than $35,000. (Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video was made around the same time for $800,000.) Lauper and her team wrangled friends to waive their fees and called in favors. Wolff appears in the video. So does Lauper’s brother, Butch. Lauper’s attorney, Elliot Hoffman, did a turn as, well, a dancing lawyer. Hoffman had another client, Lorne Michaels, then nearly a decade into his run overseeing Saturday Night Live. Michaels generously agreed to provide state-of-the-art digital editing equipment at no charge. The video was filmed on the Lower East Side, and most of the interiors were shot in Lauper’s bedroom.

Scene-stealing Albano, dressed in a white undershirt, his elaborate curls bouncing, scolds Lauper for her insolence. She accepts his criticism at first.

My father yells what you gonna do with your life

Oh daddy dear you know you’re still No. 1

But girls, they wanna have fun

But she then rotates and — foreshadowing! — with the skill of a professional wrestler, manipulates his wrist and pins him against the wall. He surrenders and retreats, a defeated man.

“Girls Just Want to Have Fun” was released in the fall of 1983. It received little fanfare. Frank DiLeo, head of promotion for Epic Records — trivia: He later played Tuddy Cicero in the Martin Scorsese film GoodFellas — summoned Wolff to his office. “I hate to tell you this,” DiLeo said, “but ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun’ is a stiff. We’re closing this single down, and we’re going to release the next single.”

“Hang in there!” Wolff protested. “Don’t bail on it yet!”

“Fine,” said DiLeo. “I’ll give you and Cyndi two more weeks to figure out how to turn this around.”

Two weeks later, Wolff was back at Epic and saw a woman in the promotions department running up the hall. “We’re on KIIS-FM,” she shrieked. “We’re on KIIS-FM.”

Epic placed the single in the rotation of KIIS-FM, Los Angeles’s biggest Top 40 station. Two weeks later, every pop station in the country was playing “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” In the spring of 1984, it reached No. 2 on the charts — topped only by Van Halen’s “Jump.” And the video may have been an even bigger hit, playing on heavy rotation throughout 1984. Lauper won the MTV Best Female Video Award for 1984.

As Lauper’s career blossomed, so did her friendship with Albano. They would speak on the phone and meet socially in Manhattan. Lauper and Wolff would drive to the suburbs and spend the day with Lou and his wife, Geraldine. Recognizing opportunity, Wolff wanted to keep the cross-promotion going. He set up a meeting and drove to WWF headquarters in Stamford, Connecticut — ironically, Wolff’s hometown — to strategize with McMahon.

McMahon, happy for any and all crossover promotion, listened intently. Accounts of what follow vary. But we’ll stick with Wolff’s. He recalls pitching McMahon on a “Rock ’n’ Wrestling” strategy, an extensive blueprint for marrying the spandex-clad wrestlers with spandex-clad rock stars, for twinning the WWF with pop music. And Lauper, of course, would figure prominently. When Lauper, for instance, went on Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show, she would mention pro wrestling. “I love it,” said McMahon.

Wolff’s big idea: The WWF would put on an event at Madison Square Garden in the summer of 1984. And MTV would broadcast the event live. It was bizarre. It was off-brand. It was also a broadcast scheduled for a Monday night in the dead of summer, a few days before the start of the 1984 Olympics. MTV had little to lose. And said yes.

Hype and promotion are essential components of pro wrestling, as they are of pop music. Wolff, Vince McMahon, and MTV already had a name for their summer wrestling event, “The Brawl to End It All.” They even had a basic plotline that pivoted on feminism — “women’s lib,” Lauper insisted on calling it. Reinforcing the fact that, under Vince McMahon, professional wrestling was going to become something entirely different and more inclusive, the headliner match would pit two women against each other. Lauper would play the manager of a young and progressive female wrestler, while the misogynist, Lou Albano, managed the opponent. This wasn’t just a battle for wrestling supremacy; it would be a battle over ideology.

The premise was ridiculous, even by wrestling standards. But it fed the hype machine before the big show. This was Vince McMahon’s vision unfolding in real time. That the taping occurred the same weekend as the death of his father — who likely would have despised precisely this kind of cross-pollination of wrestling and pop culture — seemed somehow fitting.

As the crowd filed into Madison Square Garden on Monday, July 23, 1984, for “The Brawl to End It All,” there was a palpable sense of uncertainty. It was only nine days after “Black Saturday,” when McMahon and the WWF took over the wrestling cable spot on WTBS. Wrestling fans weren’t sure what awaited and how closely this glamorized, mainstream, made-for-live-TV event would align with pro wrestling as they had known it. The mainstream music fans, meanwhile, didn’t always know that pro wrestling was scripted theater.

“The Brawl to End It All,” offered ten matches chock full of the brightest stars in the WWF’s roster. The headliner, though — which would be the only match airing on the main MTV broadcast — featured two women who operated far from the mainstream.

Mary Lillian Ellison (a.k.a. the Fabulous Moolah), a battle-ax from South Carolina, had been a champion since the ’50s and was a favorite of Vince McMahon Sr. Recognizing that Vince Jr. was about to monopolize pro wrestling, she had recently sold her championship rights to the WWF. In exchange for a payout, she joined the WWF, aware that it could script her out of her belt at any moment. For “The Brawl to End It All,” Moolah would enter as the champion, and she would be managed by Albano. Her challenger was far younger and more obscure, Wendi Richter from Dallas, managed by Lauper.

Gene Okerlund was a bald-pated Minneapolis TV and radio executive who occasionally served as a ring announcer for local pro-wrestling events. Soon, he came to like wrestling more than office work. He rose in the ranks of the American Wrestling Association (AWA) and joined McMahon’s WWF as its interviewer and television commentator. Okerlund was nicknamed “Mean Gene,” by a Minnesota wrestler, Jesse Ventura, who 15 years later would become the state’s governor. Working “The Brawl to End It All” — partnered with 400-pound sidekick Gorilla Monsoon — marked a career apotheosis for Okerlund, just as it did for the wrestlers. Meanwhile, Dave Wolff — conflicts of interests be damned — worked the television broadcast as well.

The night began as a conventional wrestling card. On the fifth match, the WWF introduced its rising star, Hulk Hogan, who had left Minnesota for the national stage. Still best known to the mainstream for his Rocky III cameo, Hogan emerged to the strains of Eye of the Tiger. He wore red, white, and blue, not his trademark red and yellow. Though he was only 30 years old, his hairline was already in a state of retreat. Curiously, as the ring announcer intoned, “Weighing three-hundred-and-two pounds,” graphics listed him at 235.

Discerning fans may also have noticed that the wrestlers were nervous. They knew that this was a new audience and, potentially, a significant cultural moment. Discerning fans also noticed something else. The wrestlers were playing for the television cameras. Television had long been an essential part of wrestling. But for the low-budget broadcast under the promotion system, a few static cameras were planted in the rafters, shooting down at the ring. In some cases, there was a remote camera ringside, but it often panned the crowd or was pointed on the announcers. Wrestlers barely thought about the cameras. And why should they have? Weeks later, a broadcast — often edited to conceal any screwups — would air on some regional network.

Now, the setup was completely different. MTV brought an array of cameras to the broadcast. It reinforced the point that the prime audience was no longer the fans in the stands — in this case 15,000 or so, not even a sellout. It was the millions at home. So it was that, time and again, wrestlers like Hogan would be doing their bit wearing a mask of earnestness. Then, clearly realizing the camera was fixed on them, they switched their expression to exaggerate pain and give a villainous wink. Video, you might say, killed the wrestling star.

The main event was pro wrestling at its most over-the-top. Captain Lou emerged saliva spraying and selling the match as only he could. “This woman can never be defeated! Often imitated, never duplicated … This woman has had the belt for — what is it? — 12 years!”

Moolah, who had turned 61 years old the day before, gently corrected him. “Twenty-seven years.”

Richter then emerged to predictable walkout music: “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” She was trailed by Lauper, wearing sunglasses and dressed outrageously as ever. Richter’s face was caked with inexpertly applied makeup. (She claimed after the match that Lauper has been teaching her how to dress fashionably and wear cosmetics.) As Richter was being introduced, Captain Lou, paced around the ring, ranting and heckling fans, calling one, memorably, “a prefabricated dog biscuit.”

The match itself was not a technical masterpiece. Moolah got the action started, executing an arm drag that Richter strenuously sold to the crowd. Moolah choked Wendi directly in front of Lauper. Wendi writhed free somehow, head-butted Moolah, and applied a half-nelson. The crowd urged Lauper to take a few shots at the hated champion. Lauper smiled, but declined. But moments later, Lauper got another opportunity and this time couldn’t resist, wrapping her hands in a towel and unloading.

Then it was Moolah’s turn. Somehow she managed to apply a full nelson to Richter, all the while pulling her hair. Captain Lou then climbed onto the ring apron. Moolah, though, had mounted Wendi and appeared to pin her opponent. The crowd grew noticeably quiet as Moolah pranced around the ring with Albano, both of their arms elevated. Wait, what? All this hype and the villainous Moolah wins? 

But, wait, the referee grabbed the mic for the official decision and … determined that Wendi had managed to get her shoulder off the mat. And then he quickly declared Wendi the champion. Pandemonium ensued.

Moolah kicked the referee to the ground. Albano taunted the crowd, which began giving the middle finger, which forced the folks in the MTV production truck to switch quickly to a different camera angle. “Total chaos!” yelled Mean Gene Okerlund. “Total chaos!”

Even given the low standards of professional wrestling, this was a ridiculous sequence. And if the overarching goal of the night was to demystify professional wrestling for a new audience, why not end the match with Wendi beating Moolah, or pinning her more conventionally?

But it was also undeniably entertaining. And undeniably successful. The wrestlers knew instinctively that this had been a winning performance and that the new crowd was, as McMahon would later put it, “eating up what we’re serving.” The anecdotal evidence was soon supported by the data. MTV scored a phenomenal 9.0 rating, making it the most watched program in the history of the network.

After the show, Lauper and Wolff repaired to the apartment they were sharing in lower Manhattan. Still wired and unable to sleep, Wolff arranged a conference call with Albano. “We did it!” Wolff screamed. And they spent the next hour replaying the night and sharing their excitement.

Predictably, “The Brawl to End It All” did nothing of the sort. It only fueled interest in professional wrestling and the WWF and convinced McMahon that he was onto something, courting crossover audiences. Suddenly, wrestling was no longer the province of the benighted, long on tattoos, and low on teeth. As Sports Illustrated framed it: “Knuckle draggers who traditionally made up wrestling crowds have been booted out of the bleachers and replaced by Wharton graduates.”

The ratings success of “The Brawl to End It All” caught the eye of more networks. Within months, four of the country’s top-ten cable shows were devoted to professional wrestling, two of them produced by McMahon himself. McMahon had effectively choked off the competition. He had gained scale by taking his product mainstream. And was on his way to becoming a billionaire.

The other big winner was Hulk Hogan. He was on his way to becoming pro wrestling’s leading light and began negotiating a cartoon series on CBS, titled, appropriately, Hulk Hogan’s Rock ’n’ Wrestling. There could be no better example of the WWF’s crossover strategy. “‘Rock ’n’ Wrestling’ is not a dream,” Hogan said. “It’s the way we live.”

Seven months later, the WWF was back in Madison Square Garden for another “Rock ’n’ Wrestling” card that would air on MTV. This one was titled “The War to Settle the Score,” and it drew a sell-out crowd of 22,000. Again, there was a vague feminist theme, as Gloria Steinem and Geraldine Ferraro both were recruited to tape promos.

Lauper again played a prominent role, managing two wrestlers this time. Bob Costas called the action for the main event, which featured Hulk Hogan against Rowdy Roddy Piper. With Lauper in his corner, Hogan defeated Piper by disqualification. In the obligatory brawl afterward, Lauper was kicked in the head by Piper. Backstage, a motley crew that included Mr. T., Hogan, and Piper continued their act in a room under the Garden. While Gene Okerlund attempted to broker peace, Andy Warhol walked into the frame. Warhol, a closet pro-wrestling fan, had been in attendance. Okerlund grabbed Warhol for an impromptu interview.

A year earlier, Warhol would have required a lengthy introduction to the wrestling fan base. Now he was just another celebrity in the stands.

“Your impressions of the ‘Rock ’n’ Wrestling’ connection?” asked Mean Gene.

“It’s the most exciting thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life,” Warhol said flatly.

Not everyone was as fond of “Rock ’n’ Wrestling.” To the pro-wrestling tribalists, this was viewed as the ultimate commercial sellout. A Los Angeles Times article was headlined, “Wrestling Has Gone Hollywood and It’s Ruining the Sport.”

But that was a minority view. Professional wrestling was now squarely in the mainstream. It was regular cable-television fare. McMahon had, as planned, effectively clotheslined the competition and established a monopoly for the WWF. Emboldened by this success, a few weeks later in 1985, McMahon went bigger still, returning to Madison Square Garden yet again for still another super-show. This one wouldn’t air on MTV but on closed circuit television.

In keeping with McMahon’s philosophy, mainstream stars figured prominently. Muhammad Ali was a referee. Billy Martin, then the New York Yankees manager, was a ring announcer. Liberace, naturally, was the timekeeper.

Of course, the two unlikely mascots of this era were there too. Captain Lou Albano managed the tag team, the U.S. Express. Lauper again managed Wendi Richter, who, in a rematch, defeated Leilani Kai to win the WFF Women’s Championship. (Richter was paid $5,000, while comparable male wrestlers allegedly made up to $100,000. She protested and was essentially drummed out of wrestling.)

In the main event, Hulk Hogan and Mr. T defeated Paul Orndorff and Roddy Piper. More than a million fans paid to watch the broadcast, making it, at the time, one of the largest pay-per-view buys in history, setting it on track to becoming the biggest annual franchise in sports after the Super Bowl.

WrestleMania, they would call it. The Roman numerals would come later.

Jon Wertheim is an author, a correspondent for 60 Minutes, and a senior writer for Sports Illustrated.

After a series of settlements and legal battles over the acronym, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) prevailed over World Wrestling Federation (WWF). In 2002, the conservancy group kept the initials; Vince McMahon rebranded his organization WWE, World Wrestling Entertainment.
The Meet-Cute That Made WrestleMania