The ’80s – Geek Edition: Part One by Jerry Whitworth
The National Geographic Channel recently aired the mini-series The ’80s: The Decade That Made Us to much acclaim and if there was any criticism regarding the series, it’s that six episodes were not enough to cover everything. Watching the series was a nostalgia overload, but it also demonstrated how important the decade was in shaping popular culture in America and how virtually every aspect of our lives changed. If there was anything missing from the series for me personally, it was that the decade was huge for geek culture and the series only touched upon it. Transition during this time for the various mediums of entertainment maybe incalculable. So, I offer this series to try and cover some of the more notable advents of this decade. Before beginning, however, I should note that while the focus will be on the ’80s, not everything the period was known for began in that decade nor ended when the 1990s came and went. In fact, the ’80s was very much a product of changes in the ’70s just as the ’90s grew out of its preceding decade. So, while I try to stick to the time from 1980 to 1989, real life doesn’t and shouldn’t fit like that. The first aspect of geek culture this series will discuss is professional wrestling in the 1980s.
Wrestling was one of mankind’s earliest fighting arts and wrestling for entertainment dates back far in human history. As wrestling entertainment transitioned from the center of a village to a coliseum to under the tent of a traveling carnival or circus, professional wrestling emerged featuring staged combat for entertainment. In the United States, this evolved into territories where talent was trained and fought within the same area generally the entire career of a wrestler. This evolved from performers of a town to performers of a region in order to introduce new faces to the crowd to keep them from getting bored. Promoters for these territories fought vigorously to keep their talent in their region but would exchange performers for a time in order to keep the business entertaining. The National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) was the biggest game in the world being a large, loosely affiliated organization of smaller promotions united under a single banner. For the first several decades of its existence, it was the be-all, end-all of professional wrestling. In the NWA, Charlotte, North Carolina-based Jim Crockett Promotions (JCP) was one of the biggest dogs covering wrestling in the Carolinas and Virginia (with major clout in the Southeastern US). Another large promotion was Capitol Wrestling Corporation (CWC), coming into the game around the same time as Crockett and dominating the Northeastern US. Owned and operated by Jess McMahon and Toots Mondt, the CWC was also in the NWA and respected its unwritten rules of co-existing beside other promotions (CWC wrestlers were CWC wrestlers and JCP wrestlers remained in JCP). The CWC would evolve, however, after it brought in Vince James McMahon.
In 1954, Jess McMahon died and his son Vince was brought into the business to take his father’s place. Under Vince and Mondt’s watch, the CWC expanded taking up 70% of the NWA’s territories. When the NWA decided its championship title would be awarded to Lou Thesz (who the CWC felt wasn’t a strong draw for fans) from the “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers (who favored the Northeastern promotions), CWC left the NWA out of protest. The CWC became the World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF) and Rogers was named the new promotion’s world champion. However, very shortly afterward, the title would exchange hands with Bruno Sammartino, considered one of the greatest professional wrestlers to ever live and who held the WWWF title longer than anyone else (an over eleven year reign). After wrestler turned manager Lou Albano began representing Sammartino, the WWWF became wildly popular selling out show after show. Mondt would later leave the company and the company would be renamed simply the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) in 1979. That same year, Vince James McMahon would bring his son Vince Kennedy McMahon into the family business. In 1982, the son would buy the company from his father and his associates and would change the face of professional wrestling forever.
Vince Kennedy McMahon would do the unthinkable: poach talent from the NWA (against the advice of his father). Viewed at the time as sacrilege, McMahon assembled one of the greatest stables of wrestlers on the planet (his promotion rivaling, if not outshining, the very NWA). Rowdy Roddy Piper, Jesse “The Body” Ventura, André the Giant, Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka, Junkyard Dog, Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat, Nikolai Volkoff, and the Iron Sheik to name a few of McMahon’s acquisitions. The crown jewel of McMahon’s stable was Terry Bollea of Verne Gagne’s American Wrestling Association (AWA). A massive and muscular man, Bollea had a chance meeting with bodybuilder Lou Ferrigno on a radio show where the latter was promoting his television series The Incredible Hulk. Bollea, who towered over Ferrigno, felt he was more of a hulk and adopted the name Terry “The Hulk” Boulder. Former NWA champion Terry Funk would introduce Bollea to Vince James McMahon who offered the wrestler work. McMahon felt, however, Bollea would go over better in the WWF with an Irish name and so was born Hulk Hogan (Bollea dying his hair blond to be blond Irish). Hogan would eventually end up in Japan as part of his work with the WWF at New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW) where he became a megastar (nicknamed “Ichiban,” or “Number One”). In 1982, Hogan would be featured in the film Rocky III against McMahon’s wishes. Despite bringing a lot of attention to the WWF, McMahon fired Hogan for defying him. Hogan went to work for AWA only for Vince Kennedy McMahon to buy the WWF a month after the film premiered and re-hired Hogan as his star. The WWF would soon have the world’s eye upon it under the banner of Hulkamania.
On a flight to Puerto Rico in 1981, wrestling manager “Captain” Lou Albano had a chance encounter with emerging pop star Cyndi Lauper. David Wolff, Lauper’s manager, suggested the two collaborate on something together. In 1983, Lauper released the single “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” and produced a music video to help sell the song which was made very cheaply mostly with volunteer work from Lauper’s friends and family. Albano was asked to portray Lauper’s father in the piece and the song ended up becoming a hit as new attention was brought to the WWF and Lauper and Albano became lifelong friends. The advent came to be known as the “Rock ‘n’ Wrestling Connection” beginning a collaboration between the WWF and the music industry with Lauper cross-promoting her music with guest-appearances with the WWF (as her music brought in a new, younger audience for pro wrestling). The pieces would begin to fall into place for the WWF with the next major piece came pushing Hogan as the brand’s face. On January 7, 1984, Hogan would face the Iron Sheik taking the WWF title from the famous heel (term for villain) after escaping Sheik’s signature move the camel clutch. That same night, commentator Gorilla Monsoon famously proclaimed “Hulkamania is here!” giving birth to the phenomenon as Hogan began referring to his fans as the Hulkamaniacs. The exposure and appeal made the WWF grow significantly, where within five months of winning the belt, the WWF began being broadcast nationally. Wrestling promoters across the US were infuriated, seeing McMahon as stealing attention away from their promotions and their local television broadcasts. McMahon began cultivating the brand, selling not just wrestling but merchandise and video tapes of his program (the latter another major dig at local promoters). Toy and video game company LJN would begin producing the Wrestling Superstars toyline, action figures of WWF wrestlers which was another hit for the company (the line running for five years until LJN closed its toy division). McMahon began burying the competition when, with the income made from these sales, he started culling even more talent from the little guys. While it was a gamble to keep reinvesting in his own product, it wasn’t long before the push began paying off.
March 1985 was arguably McMahon’s greatest gamble. The NWA had ran the pay-per-view event Starrcade for a few years but McMahon wanted to go even bigger. The WWF’s event WrestleMania was billed as the Super Bowl of professional wrestling and its inaugural event hosted talent like Mister T (who got his big break in Rocky III as the film’s antagonist), boxing legend Muhammad Ali, internationally renowned pianist Liberace, and superstar pop singer Cyndi Lauper on the grandest stage: Madison Square Garden in New York City. The event was cross-promoted with MTV as part of the emerging “Rock ‘n’ Wrestling Connection” as WWF matches were aired on the music channel in television specials. The wrestling card for the pay-per-view included the likes of Tito Santana, King Kong Bundy (accompanied by Jimmy Hart), Ricky Steamboat, Bruno Sammartino and his son David, Brutus Beefcake, Junkyard Dog, the tag team of Nikolai Volkoff and Iron Sheik (accompanied by “Classy” Freddie Blassie), Lou Albano, Wendi Richter, Fabulous Moolah, Big John Studd (accompanied by Bobby “The Brain” Heenan), and André the Giant. The main event saw the tag team of Hulk Hogan and Mister T (accompanied by Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka) take on Rowdy Roddy Piper and Paul Orndorff (accompanied by Cowboy Bob Orton). Of course, Hogan and T defeated their opponents. The event was viewed by over one million households, breaking records at the time.
Following the success of WrestleMania and the WWF specials on MTV, McMahon signed a deal with NBC. In place of reruns of Saturday Night Live, NBC would occasionally air the WWF’s Saturday Night’s Main Event in its place. Later that same year, members of the WWF would get animated in the cartoon series Hulk Hogan’s Rock ‘n’ Wrestling on CBS. This exposure put pro wrestling in the limelight, its performers’ likenesses appearing everywhere with colorful, larger-than-life characters to appeal to children, spectacular staged combat to appeal to men, and positive messages from Hulk Hogan to say your prayers and take your vitamins to get the approval of mothers to let their children indulge in its entertainment. Marvel Comics would introduce Unlimited Class Wrestling Federation (UCWF) in the pages of The Thing featuring superhuman competitors. Pro wrestling would even make it into theaters with the opening scene of the science fiction film Highlander featuring the Fabulous Freebirds taking on the Tonga Kid, Greg Gagne, and Jim Brunzell at Madison Square Garden. “Rock ‘n’ Wrestling” would be the theme of Body Slam starring Dirk Benedict (Battlestar Galactica, A-Team), Tanya Roberts (Charlie’s Angels), Roddy Piper, Tonga Kid, and Lou Albano. The best, however, was yet to come.
WrestleMania became everything McMahon hoped it would be, seen as the pro wrestling event of the year (as the WWF became synonymous with pro wrestling itself in the US). In 1987, the WWF hosted what many view as the greatest event in wrestling history as well as its greatest moment. WrestleMania III featured Aretha Franklin sing “America the Beautiful” and its card included King Kong Bundy, Hillbilly Jim, Junkyard Dog, Brutus Beefcake, Roddy Piper, the Hart Foundation (Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart and Bret “The Hitman” Hart), the British Bulldogs (Davey Boy Smith and the Dynamite Kid), Tito Santana, Koko B. Ware, Randy Savage (with Miss Elizabeth), Ricky Steamboat, Honky Tonk Man (with Jimmy Hart), Jake “The Snake” Roberts (with rock icon Alice Cooper), Iron Sheik, Nikolai Volkoff, and “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan. The main event saw Hulk Hogan defend his title against former friend André the Giant billed as the “biggest main event in sports entertainment.” Seen as the greatest moment in wrestling history, Hogan scooped up the 520-pound Giant and slammed him onto the mat to win the match. The event broke attendance records with an audience of 93,173 (which would be unchallenged for over two decades) with several million watching the event on pay-per-view. Tickets sales made $1.6 million with about $10 million from PPV sales.
Some months following WrestleMania III, the WWF would introduce one of its most memorable novelties. Ice Cream company Good Humor would introduce the WWF Superstars of Wrestling Bars which featured vanilla ice cream sandwiched between a chocolate coating and crisp cookie with the likeness of a wrestling superstar all on a popsicle stick. The confectionery treat would remain in production for over two decades. Meanwhile, as the WWF’s fame skyrocketed, two of the biggest names to finish out the decade for wrestling worked as a tag team in the Continental Wrestling Association (CWA). Steve Borden (under the name “Flash”) and Jim “Justice” Hellwig were part of the stable Power Team USA before breaking out on their own as the Blade Runners (taking the names Sting and Rock, respectively). Noted for their use of face paint and incredible physiques, the pair nonetheless had an uneventful run at CWA and moved on to Bill Watts’ Mid-South Wrestling, shortly renamed the Universal Wrestling Federation (UWF). After some months operating together, Hellwig would leave for World Class Championship Wrestling (WCCW) while Sting remained building his character and persona. Sting would get a major push well on his way to obtaining the UWF Television Championship only for Jim Crockett to buy the promotion adding it to his growing piece of the NWA. Sting would get his big break in 1987 when he teamed with Michael P.S. Hayes and Jimmy Garvin (the duo of the Fabulous Freebirds fame) against “Hot Stuff” Eddie Gilbert (Sting’s former manager, tag partner, and rival), Rick Steiner (also Sting’s former tag partner), and Larry Zbyszko (Bruno Sammartino’s protege) at Starrcade (the NWA’s biggest event). Following this, Sting would begin a feud with NWA World Heavyweight Champion Ric Flair cementing him as the NWA’s rising star. Sting’s former partner Jim Hellwig would soon see his star rise after him.
In the WCCW, Jim Hellwig would become the Dingo Warrior and teamed with Lance Von Erich to become tag team champions. Hellwig would spend a short while in the WCCW before moving to another promotion before coming back and abandoning it again, this time for the WWF. Vince McMahon didn’t know what a “Dingo” Warrior was but since there already existed a “Modern Day Warrior” in Kerry von Erich and the Road Warriors, he decided Hellwig would become the “Ultimate Warrior.” In October 1987, the Ultimate Warrior would make his television debut on WWF Wrestling Challenge where he became a hit with the audience. A high energy theme matched with the Warrior’s mad dash to the ring where he circled it, slid in, and went crazy shaking ring ropes and playing up the crowd. The WWF would push the performer, putting him up against the likes of “Ravishing” Rick Rude, Hercules Hernandez, and André the Giant before defeating the Honky Tonk Man at SummerSlam for the Intercontinental Championship less than a year after his debut. The Warrior was heralded as the icon of the 1990s just as Hulk Hogan was the icon of the 1980s and was on the fast track to becoming the face of the WWF. As such, Warrior defeated Hogan at WrestleMania VI in 1990 to become the new WWF Champion.
While Sting and the Ultimate Warrior were becoming the rising stars of the wrestling industry, WWF wrestlers were breaking into Hollywood. Jesse Ventura was cast in the science fiction film Predator where he befriended star Arnold Schwarzenegger leading to Ventura’s role in Schwarzenegger’s next film later that year The Running Man. Around this time, Roddy Piper would star in films like Hell Comes to Frogtown and John Carpenter’s They Live. As the pro wrestling industry grew, Jim Crockett acted as the president of the NWA and while the NWA and JCP remained separate entities, JCP was the cream of the crop and was featured on World Championship Wrestling, a weekly wrestling television program. Do to the mismanagement of Crockett and various extenuating circumstances, JCP fell on hard times but would be snatched up by media mogul Ted Turner. The JCP would be re-branded as World Championship Wrestling (WCW) in 1988 and with Turner’s money would become not only a force to compete with the WWF, but within several years surpassed it. Finishing out the 1980s, the WWF would release a popular video game with Acclaim Entertainment for the Nintendo Entertainment System called WWF WrestleMania and Hogan would star in the film No Holds Barred. The antagonist of the latter in Zeus (portrayed by “Tiny” Lister, Jr.) would wrestle for a short time as part of the WWF. Even the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles would get in on pro wrestling, introducing the Intergalactic Wrestling promotion in the Archie Comics adaptation.
In Part Two of “The ’80s – Geek Edition,” we’ll examine role-playing games of the 1980s.
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