Building an Empire: 1985

As of this year, the WWE is celebrating over thirty years of PPVs. From humble beginnings (as humble as you can get with Mr T. in the main event and Muhammad Ali involved, among others), with two shows in 1985 to the monthly PPV extravaganza that peaked during the Monday Night Wars and has continued to this day, the WWE PPV has a storied history. Huge moments, great matches and amazing angles have all graced some of the biggest shows WWE has produced – and I’m here to look at them all.

In a previous incarnation of this blog, I began to look at Hogan’s road to the title, with the plan being to head towards Wrestlemania 1, encapsulating his feud with Piper, Orndorff and Orton Jr. This time, I will be looking only at the PPV events (with links to WWE Network to allow easy access for those who want it). I found a list of ‘The Greatest PPV Matches of the Past 30 Years’, and will be using that to select the matches I watch – no duffers here, or at least that it what I hope. Hopefully, in doing this, I’ll be able to see the building of the empire that the WWE became, watching some of the best action it has committed to tape along the way.

As the initial stages of this project have less PPVs per year, I will begin with a year by year coverage of the biggest and best matches. Let us begin in 1985, Wrestlemania 1 and The Wrestling Classic!

The US Express (c) vs Nikolai Volkoff and The Iron Sheik

Outside of the main event, the contents of Wrestlemania 1 was a mystery to me for the longest time. I had an encylopedia covering the WWF when I was younger, and it made a big deal about Hulk Hogan and Mr T battling Roddy Piper and Paul Orndorff, but there was literally no coverage for anything else. It was only in the days of the internet that I saw it fit to check it out, and be thoroughly underwhelmed.

You see, rather than the big deal it is today – a chance to end long-standing feuds – this was basically a one match show. Outside of the main event, there was little else of note…except for the first title change at a WWF PPV. This would occur in a tag team title match between The US Express and Nikolai Volkoff and the Iron Sheik. It was definitely a historic moment, but is also probably the only reason this match made the original list; it means a fair bit more than Tito Santana vs The Executioner, that’s for certain.

It feels mildly surreal watching Barry Windham and Mike Rotunda in a WWF ring at this time.Windham, I always associate much more closely with NWA/WCW, whilst Rotunda was the guy I remember boring me to death as IRS.  Seeing the two as relatively young go-getters in a WWF ring feels like it takes them out of my comfort zone somewhat. Even more confusing is the athleticism of Nikolai Volkoff, leaping over the top rope and later on hitting a dropkick on his partner by mistake – definitely not the man who would plod through many a Bolshevik match.

There isn’t much to say about the match. After the face team take initial control, Rotunda ends up face in peril. Following a miscalculation by The Iron Sheik, going for a tag rather than holding on to a grounded Rotunda, Windham gets the hot tag. A bulldog should be enough for the victory, but Sheik breaks it up. In the ensuing confusion, Sheik nails Windham with Freddie Blassie’s cane, leaving us with new, hugely unlikable, tag team champions. Watch it due to how relatively short it is, and for the historical significance, just don’t expect a particularly exciting match.

Hulk Hogan and Mr T. vs Roddy Piper and Paul Orndorff

This is all about the spectacle. Liberace at ringside, Muhammad Ali as the outside enforcer, Mr T. in the ring; you cannot fault the amount of star power (and money) that has been thrown at the main event of the biggest show in WWF’s history. In reality, it is horribly disjointed, with too many cooks when you also include Pat Patterson, Jimmy Snuka and Bob Orton Jr., but try and tell that to anyone who was there in attendance – the crowd were molten throughout.

An early Mr. T. fireman carry slam on Roddy Piper sees the match break down for the first time, with all four men hopping into the ring and being joined by Ali for good measure. At times, it even looks as if Patterson has to try and keep Ali at ringside, as this wouldn’t be the first time he tries to get involved in the match. Piper, feeling the whole world is against him and his team, threatens to leave, only to head back to the ring shortly afterwards. Things don’t really change for his men, a slam on him leaving Mr T. to drop Orndorff with a hiptoss. A Hogan big boot sends Piper to the outside, yet this is the first opening for the heel team, as Orndorff attacks from behind and dumps Hogan to ringside also. A chair shot from Piper finally sees the bad guys take over.

Hogan is double teamed effectively by Piper and Orndorff, with Orndorff in particular looking very impressive manhandling the WWF Champion. This is where the layout of the match feels awkward, as the time spent during each segment feels rushed. Mr T, following Orndorff missing a top rope elbow on Hogan, has very little time on offense following a hot tag, yet he then breaks away from Piper fairly easily to tag Hogan back in. It feels like more sympathy needed to be built for either man at some point in the match – overall, the faces just had too much of the match.

The finish came when Orton Jr. and Snuka both also get involved. This leads to Orton Jr. smashing his cast from the top rope mistakenly on Orndorff’s head. No legdrop, but it is not needed, as Hogan gets the three count to send the fans home happy; a recurring theme of at least the earlier Wrestlemania events. In some ways, whether the match is good or not is irrelevant. This showcased the WWF at its peak of cultural significance for the next decade at least, and it is not hard to see how Wrestlemania, as risky as it was at the time, was a real game changer in the world of wrestling as a whole.

Paul Orndorff vs Bob Orton Jr. (First Round Match)

Fast forward eight months, and WWF chose to hold a one night tournament including sixteen of the biggest stars on the roster. In the first round, we got an enticing looking match-up on paper, as a face Paul Orndorff went against one of his former running buddies, Bob Orton Jr. With Orndorff’s change in alignment also comes a bounty, Bobby Heenan willing to pay big money to whoever is able to wipe Orndorff out.

By nature of the tournament set-up, this is always going to be fairly short and sweet, but as would be expected from two of the better wrestlers to have graced the squared circle, it is good for what it is. The more I watch of old school wrestling, the more I think that Orndorff was unlucky to be wrestling at the same time as Hulk Hogan, as he had a lot of upside, and the fans absolutely love him in this. Orton Jr. is his usual stooging self, taking a bump from an atomic drop into the ringpost and selling in a punch drunk manner at ringside near the end of the match.

What makes the Orndorff character at this point so interesting is that there is still an element of the heel nature bubbling under the surface. Ventura is very quick to call into question Orndorff’s change of heart, and we see Orndorff grab a handful of tights for leverage on a roll-up, thus showing he isn’t averse to breaking the rules when necessary. There is enough nuance to his face character to make it interesting, and not a complete 180 for no real reason.

The end sees Orndorff take a cast shot to the head right in front of the referee, thus winning by DQ. The cast shot isn’t sold for very long though, Orton Jr. getting run off fairly quickly by several Orndorff punches. Mr Wonderful is through to the second round to face Tito Santana, the WWF Intercontinental Champion.

Paul Orndorff vs Tito Santana (Quarterfinal Match)

It is at this point that I feel I should mention that I don’t pick the matches. We don’t see the main event of this card (Hulk Hogan vs Roddy Piper), but we do get a fairly middling Orndorff vs Tito Santana match from the quarter final. The match is limited by what appears to be a legitimate injury that Santana suffered in his first match, though it does allow them to at least tell an interesting story, if not wrestle a particularly interesting match.

With it being face vs face, the narrative is as to whether Orndorff will eventually break the rules to get ahead, or at least target the obvious injury that Santana has? A handshake and initial trading of holds, Santana targeting the head and Orndorff targeting the arm, doesn’t seem to indicate so. However, following an Orndorff atomic drop which clearly re-aggravates the injury, Orndorff can’t help it and goes for the injured thigh. A leglock has Santana in agony, before a grapple into the ropes sees Orndorff not break cleanly and drill Santana with a forearm to the face. With Orndorff heading to ringside to join Santana, the finish is fairly obvious, both men blasting away at each other until the bell rings for a double countout. The company had somewhat booked themselves into a corner in this match, as Orndorff was hot but Santana is the current IC champion – neither could lose. An interesting match storywise, but not much more than an extended session of trading holds in the long run.

Randy Savage vs The Dynamite Kid (Semi-Final Match)

To some, this would be a dream match. That is only lasts five minutes in the middle of a tournament doesn’t detract from the action – as you’d expect from both men, they do a lot in that time. It isn’t surprising as to why Savage and The Kid were (and still are, though the Kid maybe less so) revered by wrestling audiences at the time, as they were just so much quicker and more fluid than a lot of wrestlers that were still plying their trade in the WWF. Plodding heavyweights had nothing on these two, and the match, though short, is testament to this.

Savage always plays a frustrated heel well, and initially, Dynamite frustrates him a lot. They even spend a small portion locked up and rolling around the top rope, only for Savage to take the opportunity when the ref broke them up to punch Dynamite in the face. Not to be fazed, Dynamite rocked Savage with a vicious shoulderblock, a back body drop and a crossbody that sees Savage need to reach the ropes to break the pinfall. An attempted roll-up is blocked by Savage though, dropping abruptly on Dynamite’s sternum, whilst Dynamite doesn’t aid his cause by missing a second crossbody.

A double clothesline has both men down early, but Savage is able to get to the top rope. A dropkick crotches Savage, and we see a very impressive looking superplex, only for Kid to get hooked by Savage’s legs into an inside cradle for Savage to pick up the victory and the spot in the final. He would eventually lose the final match to the Junkyard Dog by countout, but both of these men would be holding gold within the next six months. This match is short, sweet and well worth watching – it just makes you wonder what they might have been able to offer with an extra five minutes on top.

!985 down, 1986 to come. Only twenty nine more years to go! What are your opinions on these matches? Please comment below – should Orndorff or Piper ended up WWF Champion at some point? How ahead of their time (for the WWF at least) were Savage and Dynamite? Is Tito Santana one of the most underrated presences ever to grace a WWF roster? I’d love to hear from you.

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