WrestleMania is the signature event in the world of pro wrestling. There have been imitations, but Vince McMahon’s creation – which popped into his mind during a rare family vacation – has shared no peers for the past 31 years. As the buzz builds and the WWE prepares for WrestleMania XXXI in San Francisco, the greatest performers to ever enter a ring and some other high-profile names shared their memories of WrestleMania then, now, and forever.
I.) “STONE COLD” STEVE AUSTIN
“WrestleMania is the biggest stage you can be on as far as sports entertainment goes, though I still like to call it pro wrestling,” said Austin, who performed in seven WrestleMania’s and headlined the show on three separate occasions. The “Texas Rattlesnake” captured his first WWE championship in Boston at WrestleMania XIV.
“You want to knock it out of the park, grand slam style, for the fans,” said Austin. “When I was in the ring with Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania XIV, Shawn was in a bad way. He was in a bad place in his head, and along with his bad back came a bad attitude. I remember telling Vince McMahon right after, ‘That match was half-ass,’ but Vince told me, ‘We got that done and it’s over with. Now we’re going to take off and put the jets to the rocket.’”
Sting served as WCW’s backbone for a decade before keeping TNA afloat, and then finally agreed to terms with WWE in 2014. While the WWE has added their own touch to his character – The Vigilante is repeated over and over by the broadcast team – Sting has seamlessly fit into the wrestling landscape in 2015 and has fans asking for more.
“There is a large wrestling audience that doesn’t want to say goodbye to my generation,” said Sting, who faces off against Triple H at WrestleMania XXXI. “Guys like myself, Ric Flair, and Hogan, and the fans still appreciate us. And it goes both ways, absolutely, because it’s the same for me. It’s hard to walk away.
“I thought, in the beginning, my career would two, three, four, five years and then out and done. I never imagined, all these years later, I would still be in the ring and still wrestling. In March of 2001, I thought it was over with. It’s unbelievable how time flies, and it’s still a thrill for me. I want to give my fans something to remember.”
III.) HULK HOGAN
WrestleMania III marked the most memorable moment of the Hulkster’s legendary career, but Hogan’s achievements at ‘Mania are long and distinguished. He headlined eight of the first nine WrestleManias and stole the show with Andre the Giant, Savage, the Rock, Vince McMahon, and the Ultimate Warrior. This past year, at WrestleMania XXX in New Orleans, WWE officials informed Hogan he was to keep his distance from the Warrior, as bad blood still existed between the two. Despite the enormity of the Superdome, Hogan still managed to run into his former companion.
“A lot of things happened over that weekend, and there was so much political stuff going on, too,” said Hogan. “The Warrior stayed in a house. He didn’t stay in a hotel around any of the other wrestlers. He distanced himself. There were a lot of things that needed to be fixed. There was a lot of negative stuff said about Vince [McMahon], there was a lot of stuff said about Kevin Nash, and there was a lot of stuff said about Hulk Hogan. I was asked by the WWE not to say anything to him until the weekend was over, but I just happened to bump into him in the Superdome, which is a really big building, but I happened to bump into him there. I took the opportunity to tell him I loved him, and he forgave me and I forgave him for any of the negativity that’s spread over the years. I was just so happy I had the chance to talk with him. When he passed away a few days later, I would have had an even harder time dealing with that if we hadn’t made things right. When I told the Warrior I loved him and I apologized, he said the same thing back, and it just made my whole weekend.”
IV.) THE “MILLION DOLLAR MAN” TED DIBIASE
WrestleMania IV hosted the 14-man tournament for the vacant WWF championship. The “Macho Man” Randy Savage captured the title, but the original plan had Savage booked to enter the Trump Tower that afternoon as Intercontinental champion and the “Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase set to win the gold.
“I was supposed to win and then go on and feud with Hulk Hogan,” said DiBiase. “At the end of that run, I would have dropped the belt back to Hogan,”
The HonkyTonk Man wore the IC gold, and in a move that infuriated Vince McMahon, he refused to drop the belt. Savage’s popularity continued to grow, and plans were changed for the main event at ‘Mania, as Savage defeated DiBiase.
“Pat Patterson, Vince’s right-hand man, asked me, ‘What would happen if you didn’t win the tournament?” recalled DiBiase, who wrestled in six differentWrestleMania’s but headlined only his debut. “His idea was you, as the Million Dollar Man, spend your money but your luck runs out. So, in your anger and in your arrogance, you just announce to the whole world that you don’t need the world title and that you’ve instead created your own. Every night, you’d walk out with this diamond-studded belt as the self-proclaimed champion.’”
Patterson was pitching the Million Dollar Belt as a consolation prize, but DiBiase – a business man well aware everyone, himself included, has a price – saw a much greater future with his Million Dollar belt.
“Once I heard that from Pat,” said DiBiase, “I knew that was it for me with the Million Dollar belt. Hands down, that was going to make me more money and it was going to put more heat on me.”
Bruno Sammartino reigned supreme in the world of wrestling before WrestleMania. Although he accompanied his son, David Sammartino, to his match at the original WrestleMania in 1985 and fought in the WrestleMania II battle royal, Sammartino paved the road to WrestleMania by defending the WWWF championship for over eleven years during his two runs as champ. The 79-year-old “Italian Superman” does not, however, appreciate when people list him in the same category as Hulk Hogan.
“I would never compare Hogan to any of the greats,” said Sammartino. “He don’t belong, or deserve to be mentioned, in the same breath. No way.
“Bret Hart is a guy who appreciated wrestling. He was taught and trained by his father, Stu Hart, and understood the wrestling of different eras. He himself trained very hard and became a big headliner, but he didn’t come up the easy way and he never lost that appreciation of the wrestlers from past eras. You can’t put Hogan in the same class. He was a musician. Because he was somewhat of a big guy, and it was the steroid era, someone worked with him in Florida for a few weeks and he became a wrestler. A lot of Hogan’s fans are resentful when I say this, but I’m not going to lie. You can't put Hogan in the same category.”
If Sammartino had the opportunity to headline a WrestleMania, he would not hesitate when choosing his opponent.
“Killer Kowalski would be at the top of the list,” said Sammartino, who was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2013. “He was always in such great shape, and Killer could also brawl. If we went ten minutes or even over twenty minutes, you can bet there would always be action in the ring.”
VI.) DANIEL BRYAN
Despite headlining WrestleMania XXX, Daniel Bryan was placed in the undercard at this year’s pay per view.
“I know the WWE is not looking for people like me to main event WrestleMania,” said Bryan, who is fighting for the Intercontinental title in a ladder match set to steal the show. “It’s interesting, there have been a lot of people the company believed in right away that didn’t pan out to be anything.
“Guys with every superstar quality and can be on the cover of a magazine right away. I was never that guy. I’ve always enjoyed the process of earning people’s respect and earning my place. I’ve never asked to be handed anything.”
VII.) ROMAN REIGNS
Daniel Bryan would be in the main event if not for the presence of Roman Reigns. The 2015 winner of the Royal Rumble is poised to win his first championship in a match with WWE champion Brock Lesnar.
The 29-year-old Reigns is a member of the Anoa’i dynasty, and his championship lineage includes his father, Sika, who is a WWE Hall of Famer. Reigns is cousins with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, the Uso brothers, Rikishi, Umaga, and Yokozuna.
“My whole life I’ve been fed by the WWE,” said Reigns. “My father was fortunate enough to provide for his family through wrestling. I’ve always been fortunate to have a seat at the table, but there’s a great deal of pride in being a provider. Now it’s my chance to sit at the head of the table.
“I respect what people before me have done, but my time is now.”
VIII.) JIM ROSS
Jim Ross made his WrestleMania debut at Caesar’s Palace, filling in for a sick Gorilla Monsoon, at WrestleMania IX. As the former voice of WCW, Ross faced a heavy dose of skepticism from WWE employees and fans before earning his place as one of the greatest broadcasters of all time. He also worked in WWE’s talent relations department and helped sign Brock Lesnar to his first WWE contract. Ross may no longer be employed by the WWE, but the voice behind The Ross Report is looking forward to the Reigns-Lesnar encounter.
“Roman Reigns and Brock Lesnar for a main event looks great on a poster,” said Ross. “But if this were the territory days, Reigns would probably be about three or four years away from WWE hiring him. Now I happen to like Reigns and think he has a great aptitude, but I’m not sure he has yet realized what it takes to be ‘The Guy.’ But if Reigns is the guy, you’ve got to get the title off Brock Lesnar.”
Ross’ last major broadcast in WWE was three years ago during the Triple H-Undertaker match WrestleMania XXVIII. Ross was devastated to see the Undertaker’s WrestleMania winning streak come to an end.
“I would not have had the heart to break ‘The Streak,’” said Ross. “The Streak was perfect and was an amazing accompaniment to WrestleMania. It should have been timeless.”
IX.) RIC FLAIR
“WrestleMania is what it is, and that’s the Mecca of Sports Entertainment,” said 16-time world champion Ric Flair.
“In terms of marketing and the production of the show, Vince McMahon set the standard. He’s done more to make our business big than anybody. And on the day of the show, are you kidding? It’s awesome. The day you’re not nervous, don’t go out there. You want to be at your best, you’re nervous all day long. The day of my WrestleMania match with Shawn Michaels, I must have drank 20 cups of coffee just to kill the time, I was so excited and nervous. I’ll put that retirement match up against anybody from Canton or Cooperstown. Anybody.”
Flair’s final WWE match was with Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania XXIV.
“Shawn just said be quiet and don’t say a word for 30 minutes. No one’s ever talked to me like that. Shawn put me on his back and carried me. Shawn’s in that elite status, and I have no problem saying it: Shawn’s the greatest performer I’ve ever seen, and that hurts me to say that. But I don’t even think it’s arguable. He was that good.”
Flair wrestled Randy Savage at WrestleMania VIII, then returned a decade later to battle the Undertaker. If he stayed with the WWE, the “Nature Boy” believes he would have made WrestleMania magic year after year.
“Oh my god, for sure,” said Flair. “I think the world of Bret Hart and would have loved to wrestle him at a WrestleMania. He and I have had our differences, but everybody has differences in a competitive business. I have a lot of respect for him, and I’m comfortable he does with me. I would have loved to stay there in the WWE the whole time, but the company made changes. Vince wanted to go youthful. Vince said do you want to go back to WCW, and I did, and that’s the worst mistake I ever made. When Bret came to WCW, we had a phenomenal match in Dayton, Ohio. It was so good, WCW cut it off. In WWE, if your match is good, they’ll continue with you. But in WCW, Bret and I stole it and everyone was mad that we did.
“Everybody works out triple hard for WrestleMania. I’m not even wrestling and I’m still working out twice a day just to be there. I’m trying to find a youth fountain as we speak.”
X.) BRET “HITMAN” HART
Forever linked with Shawn Michaels, Bret Hart has a rightful claim to the “Mr. WrestleMania” title. Hart truly was the “Excellence of Execution,” fighting in fourteen different matches in thirteen WrestleMania’s, and proved, time and time again, he is the best there is, the best there was, and the best there ever will be. Hart left his fingerprints all over the spectacle, with memorable appearances in two battle royales, headlining with Shawn Michaels in a 60-minute “Iron Man” match, and defeating Steve Austin at WrestleMania XIII in one of the most acclaimed matches ever at a WrestleMania. His favorite match, however, was with his brother.
“WrestleMania X will always be my most special one because of the memory of being with my brother Owen,” said Hart. “There was a lot of pressure on Owen to fill those shoes as a top heel. The storyline was the bitter hatred between two brothers, but Owen was really grateful to work with me. I went to bat a lot for Owen for that chance, and he really shined that night. I thought that was one of his finest hours. There were two reverse sharpshooters in that match, which had never been done before. Those are the tiny little things that no one really remembers or notices, but made that match a real treat. And what I really love about the match is how it launched my brother’s career.”
XI.) DANA WHITE
As president of the UFC, Dana White is well-versed in his knowledge of the WWE. He and Vince McMahon grapple over viewers as well as talent, as rumors swirled for months that WrestleMania XXXI would be WWE champion Brock Lesnar’s final bout in pro wrestling before returning to the Octagon.
“Pro wrestling has great live events and productions,” said White. “But the difference is their fighting is fake. They’re actors and they’re acting.”
Lesnar ultimately used the UFC as a play to negotiate a better contract with the WWE. The former UFC champion was spotted with White at UFC 184 on February 28. White claims the Octagon is not designed for those weak at heart, and Lesnar no longer had a burning desire to fight.
“People don’t understand that you need to be mentally, physically, and emotionally to be a professional fighter, period, let alone in the UFC. It takes a special kind of person to be a fighter. Our fighters were put on this earth to fight. There’s such a big difference between guys who are real fighters and normal human beings.”
XII.) JESSE “THE BODY” VENTURA
When Jesse Ventura went to federal court with Vince McMahon’s Titan Sports in 1991 over restitution of missed royalties, McMahon’s attorneys tried to downplay the importance of announcers. In front of the jury, Ventura’s legal team played the Savage-Steamboat match from WrestleMania III in silence, then again with Ventura and Gorilla Monsoon broadcasting the match. Ventura won the case.
XIII.) MARK HENRY
The 375-pound Mark Henry will be a challenge to eliminate from this year’s “Andre the Giant Battle Royal.”
The 43-year-old was dubbed the “strongest teenager in the world” by the LA Times in 1989, but life hasn’t always come easy for Henry. Though he has set records in powerlifting (with a squat of 953 pounds and a 903-pound deadlift), Henry has had to work for his success.
“I know I’m different,” said Henry. “But different is good. I’ve put a lot of work in, but I’m happy for the fans, because when they watch me, they get a finished product and someone who enjoys performing for them.”
Henry is a lifelong wrestling fan, and actually had a brief interaction with the late Andre the Giant in 1980.
“I was at the Beaumont Civic Center when I was nine,” Henry explained. “Just like you see all the kids run to the barricades, once upon a time, I was one of them. But so many kids came behind me that they knocked me over the barricade. My feet were on the barricade and my hands were on the ground, and Andre reached over and grabbed me and put me back on the other side of the fence. I’ll always remember how he grabbed me – it was like an angel descending down on me.”
XIV.) THE ANDRE THE GIANT MEMORIAL BATTLE ROYAL
The WWE is once again showcasing its talent in an “Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal” at WrestleMania XXXI.
Bret Hart battled with Andre the Giant in the WrestleMania II battle royal, which featured multiple stars – including William “Refrigerator” Perry – from the NFL.
“Andre was in a grumpy mood that day,” said Hart. “He didn’t want anything to do with those football players, but he was good to me. I was just lucky that Andre had his eyes set on the football players.”
The final two standing in the battle royal were Hart and Andre, but Hart was sent home in second place after he was sent flying over the top rope.
“Being picked up over Andre’s head and tossed out into the crowd, that was a long ways down,” said Hart. “Even when I watch it now, it doesn’t seem like that big of a drop, but it felt like I was falling off the top of the Empire State Building.”
XV.) THE IRON SHEIK
The Iron Sheik played a big role in the WrestleMania II battle royal, eliminating four men before Bruno Sammartino sent him over the top rope. The Sheik, who has a fantastic new documentary airing on his life, also recalls grappling with the NFL players.
“Before we go in the ring,” said the Sheik, “I grabbed the biggest football player, the “Refrigerator” [William Perry], and said, ‘Come and show me what you can do.’ They were great football players, but this was wrestling. Football players cannot be wrestlers. Wrestling is a much tougher sport.”
If the Sheik were gearing up for one more WrestleMania, he’d have his sights set on only one opponent: WWE champion Brock Lesnar.
“If I was in my prime, I can take him,” said the Sheik, who gave his own variation of Lesnar’s “Eat, Sleep, Conquer, Repeat” mantra. “Single leg, double leg, takedown, suplex. Then again: single leg, double leg, takedown, suplex. Then I finish him off with camel clutch.”
XVI.) WADE KELLER
“I was fortunate to see WrestleMania I live at the Carlton Dinner Theater in Bloomington, Minnesota,” said Wade Keller, who has run the Pro Wrestling Torch since 1987. “There was something about WrestleMania – it was New York, it was the celebrities, and it was Hulk Hogan.
[tile:Macho Man: Wild road from baseball washout to WWE Hall of Famer]
“I had watched Hulkamania blossom in the AWA. Vince McMahon didn’t create Hulkamania. Hulk Hogan and the AWA fans created Hulkamania, and almost did so against the will of the AWA promoter Verne Gagne.”
Keller sees odd parallels between Hogan and Daniel Bryan.
“Daniel Bryan and Hulk Hogan are so different from each other, but there is a connection. It’s hard to imagine, but Verne Gagne looked at Hulk Hogan and thought, ‘He’s a bodybuilder without amateur credentials,’ and Verne resisted the fan response to Hogan. Vince McMahon’s vision of a champion clearly does not include Daniel Bryan.
“Vince looks at Daniel Bryan’s popularity and thinks it defies logic. He thinks it won’t last, it would be a bad investment, and he needs to go with someone else. I see what Vince sees in Roman Reigns, but he’s in denial thinking that Reigns will have a better run than Daniel Bryan as champion.”
XVII.) JOHN CENA
“The Hulk Hogan-Andre the Giant match at WrestleMania III was easily my favorite WrestleMania moment of all time,” said Cena, who will be battling the undefeated Rusev on Sunday for the United States championship. “As a child watching that match, I envisioned myself going up those steps and into the ring. Now I am in that ring.”
After headlining back-to-back WrestleMania’s with the Rock, Cena is out of the main event for the second consecutive year.
“Whether you’re holding a championship or not, you need to give that same work ethic. I’ve always said I’ll do the best I can with the cards I’ve been dealt. I love my job, I love this company, and I don’t want to let my fans down. I truly think we’re in the greatest business in the world, getting the chance to go out and be superheroes on a daily basis.”
XVIII.) THE STREAK
Ric Flair was in a dark place before WrestleMania XVIII, and you may be surprised to learn the man who brought the “Nature Boy” back to life was The Dead Man.
“There are four or five guys who are a special light in my life, and the Undertaker is one of them,” said Flair. “He’s a man among men, but he’s a guy that has feelings, he’s sensitive, and he’s just a wonderful person.”
Flair became the tenth victim of the Undertaker’s WrestleMania streak, and he could not have been happier to do the honors at the Sky Dome.
“I wasn’t even going to wrestle when I came back to WWE. But Hunter walked up to me – and this was a phenomenal moment of my life – and said, ‘Taker wants to work with you in Toronto.’ I was in shock. At that point in my life I had major insecurity problems. Sometimes you can’t correct your emotions, and you can’t express that to people because you’re embarrassed that you’re having problems with self-confidence, and I did. Now I’d wrestled everybody in the world, but I don’t think I’ve ever been as nervous in my life as the night I wrestled the Undertaker in Toronto. I knew that was the defining moment in my career – either I could do it, or I couldn’t. I made it through the night, thanks to him.”
XIX.) ERIC BISCHOFF
The shadow of WrestleMania is a bit darker from a competitor’s point of view.
“I’ve certainly had a lot more perspective from being on the outside than the inside,” said Bischoff. “WrestleMania is the nucleus of their brand. Going back into the ‘80’s and early ‘90’s, programming was all written and stories were designed with WrestleMania in mind.
“Even when you were competing against WrestleMania, you were still looking forward to it. WCW’s pay per views paled in comparison, so while you looked forward to it, but being in the industry, you knew you were going to be judged by it. That was a hard threshold to overcome.”
Bischoff’s core business since 2003 is Bischoff-Hervey Entertainment, which produces reality television and sitcoms. He just helped release a new show on WGN, Outlaw Country. In his opinion, WrestleMania XIV was the turning point in the battle against WCW.
“That particular WrestleMania was so frustrating. It was close to devastating. Vince McMahon made it clear in the lead up to WrestleMania that he was going to counter what we were doing to him at WCW. Vince had the determination and the resources to do the deal with Mike Tyson and he aired a SuperBowl commercial, and he reinvested in his brand. There are very few people like Vince McMahon. He believes so much in himself and his product that he’s willing to take high-risk chances. The world now, especially in the entertainment business, is so risk-averse. Everything is a creation by committee with handfuls of analysts, and people are always covering their a--. People don’t have the guts to make big moves. Vince was able to make a big move, and it paid off.
“I knew then he was setting himself up to kick our a--, and he did a great job doing just that.”
XX.) CHRIS JERICHO
Chris Jericho is a WrestleMania legend, wrestling in eleven different cards and headlining perhaps the greatest of all at WrestleMania XVIII. Yet the host of the popular Talk is Jerichopodcast will not be appearing for a second straight year.
“WrestleMania is a big show, it’s called ‘the Superbowl of wrestling,’” said Jericho. “And it’s not just another show, but there are shows leading up to it and there’s a show the night right after it.”
“It’s a big, big moment, but it’s not like the Superbowl when, the next day, guys go on vacation for the next two or three months. So I disagree when they say, ‘This is the Superbowl of wrestling’ because it’s the biggest show of the year, but it’s just another show. You’ve got a show leading up to it, and then you’ve got a show on Monday night right after it. There is no coming down period from WrestleMania.”
XXI.) VINCE RUSSO
“I went to WrestleMania IV and V as a fan, and it was such a big deal,” said Russo. “But when I was involved, it started to become just another show. The first one I worked was WrestleMania X at the Garden, and my strongest memories come from that. But the rest of the ones I worked after that they were really just another show. Your job as a writer at WrestleMania is mainly to make sure the talent is as best prepared as possible.”
Russo’s “The Brand” is re-launching this April on the Relm Network, and will offer a plethora of podcasts and exclusives from Russo, including commentary from his time with WWE.
“While the WrestleMania hoopla is going on around, I was too focused on what was going to happen on the show the next night. In terms of the writing of the show, there’s more effort, no doubt, that goes into that next Raw than WrestleMania. The three I was involved in were WrestleMania XII, XIII, and XIV.”
Russo had no doubt that Michaels would drop the belt to Austin at WrestleMania XIV.
“Shawn was not very popular in the back, and he did not have many friends, so he would have been too afraid of guys like the ‘Taker to not do the job for Austin. He was under the influence and was on a lot of stuff back then, and I’m sure Shawn looks back at that stuff now and thinks, ‘What was I thinking?’”
XXII.) SHAWN MICHAELS
“My whole intention at WrestleMania XIV was to drop the belt to Steve,” said Michaels. “But I was going to make everybody sweat it out and make them think I wasn’t. Obviously, I got that accomplished. That’s extremely unprofessional, but that’s exactly who I was and what I was doing.”
XXIII.) MARTY JANNETTY
Up to that point, WrestleMania V represented the biggest moment in Marty Jannetty’s career. He and Shawn Michaels were battling two behemoths in the Twin Towers, which featured Akeem and the Big Boss Man.
“We had to be different,” said Jannetty. “The WWF was the land of the giants. We had to do whatever we could to stand out, because we certainly weren’t going to do it with our size.”
The Rockers had dreamed of working a show of this magnitude, and WrestleMania was an opportunity to shine.
“I’d flown my girlfriend in and Shawn brought his wife. But we were just so on edge. I was so nervous the night before, my girlfriend and I got into an argument and I went storming off around midnight. I went downstairs to gamble and drink, and I started laughing when I saw Shawn outside the elevator. He’d got in an argument, too. We said the hell with it, had a handful of drinks, and before we knew it, it was curtain call and time to get to the show.”
Despite a massive hangover, Michaels and Jannetty delivered a double dropkick off the top during the match, the first of its kind at a WrestleMania.
“We knew we needed one big thing against these two monsters. I said to Shawn that I’d see plenty of wrestlers do a dropkick from the top rope, but I’d never seen a double one from the top. Shawn looked at me with this long glare and said, ‘There’s a reason you haven’t, but that does sound pretty good. Let’s try it.’” We knew it had to be timed right so no one would get hurt, and we figured we could get it. To this day, people still ask us, ‘How the hell did you pull that one off?’”
XXIV.) BOOKER T
Very few of WCW’s stars successfully transitioned to superstardom in the WWE. A rare exception to the rule is Booker T, who was even more popular in WWE than ever before in his Hall of Fame career.
“The WCW guys were supposed to be buried,” said Booker, whose new book, My Rise to Wrestling Royalty, is a worthwhile read for any wrestling fan. “None of us were supposed to make it, but I’m the only guy who was willing to step up to the plate and survive. I went to WWE to prove something. I had to go through Steve Austin, the Undertaker, Edge, and I had to go through all of those guys to prove myself. I didn’t want to wake up at 50 years old and wonder if I could have competed with those guys, I wanted to know in my own mind I was just as good.”
Booker T proved he belonged in the squared circle at WrestleMania, fighting in five – yes, five – WrestleManias and is now looking forward to broadcasting some more. He remains thankful for the creative genius of Vince McMahon, whose approach did wonders for Booker.
“One of the most important talks I ever had was with Vince McMahon right after I’d got to WWE,” said Booker. “I had so many different agents telling me I had to go out and work this way and that way. I knew if I listened to those guys I was going to get fired. So I went to Vince and explained, ‘I’ve got this agent telling me this, another telling me that, and I know I’m going to get fired doing it their way. I’d like to go out and do it my way. If you don’t like what you see, just fire me.’ Vince looked straight at me and said, ‘Do your stuff, Book.’ From that point on, I had the green light to just be me.”
XXV.) BUBBA RAY DUDLEY
For those in the industry, not everyone dreams of a Steamboat-Savage moment.
“Steamboat-Savage was a phenomenal match,” said Bully Ray aka Bubba Ray Dudley, one half of the Dudley Boyz. “One of the most memorable, greatest matches of all time. But here’s what I say to a lot of up-and-coming wrestlers: would you rather be Steamboat-Savage or would you rather be Hulk-Andre? Which was the better pure wrestling match? Obviously Steamboat and Savage.
“But which drew the most money and paid off the most? So which would you rather be? At the end of the day, this is business. Just like any other business. Would you rather be Yankees-Red Sox or Padres-Expos? It’s not about what is the absolute best match, it's what puts asses in the seats.”
XXVI.) ROB SCHAMBERGER
Schamberger’s“WrestleMania Series” is a series of paintings from each WrestleMania, and WWE has turned it into an art book called “The Immortal Showcase” that will be available at AXXESS this weekend.
“No one was really doing a serious body of work with pro wrestling,” said Schamberger. “No one was celebrating wrestling the way I saw.”
Schamberger will also be painting a portrait of the “Macho Man” Randy Savage on ring canvas throughout the weekend at AXXESS.
“It’s been a huge honor to paint wrestlers. I’m thankful every day.”
XXVII.) JEFF JARRETT
Vince McMahon is the not the only ambitious man in wrestling. Global Force Wrestling, the newest promotion to hit the wrestling landscape, has a familiar face in charge.
“WWE is big enough for 90 percent of the market share,” said Global CEO Jeff Jarrett, who is connecting with other promotions around the globe to put together a different version of WrestleMania. “But there is still a huge opportunity to promote professional wrestling, not just in North America, but all around the globe. The world is so connected, and I plan on showcasing talent from all over the world – Mexico, Japan, South Africa, all through Europe, Australia – and really highlight a diverse roster.”
McMahon and Jarrett split on bad terms in October of 1999. Jarrett was working in WWE without a contract when McMahon needed Jarrett to drop his Intercontinental title to Joanie “Chyna”Laurer. Jarrett balked at losing. Since he wasn’t under contract, Double J did not feel obligated to do Chyna the honors and used the situation as an opportunity to recoup pay per view bonuses. He gave McMahon an ultimatum, threatening to leave for competitor WCW with his belt unless McMahon ponied up enough money – allegedly $300,000 – to lose the match.
“Vince McMahon has always said, ‘If it’s good for the brand, it’s good for the talent,’” said Jarrett, who declined to get into specifics about the contract dispute. “If it’s not good for the brand, he doesn’t stand for it. That’s what I was trying to do, and it’s what we’re trying to do here, build our own brand.”
Although they are fierce competitors in the ring, Sheamus is not afraid to admit he’s a big fan of Daniel Bryan. He and Bryan battled in a dark match at WrestleMania XXVII and then a championship match the following year, and were rumored to meet again last year until the “Yes! Movement” helped catapult the talented Bryan into the main event.
“I was watching WrestleMania XXX, waiting in the back until I could give him a hug,” said Sheamus, who is scheduled to return this Sunday – perhaps to even interfere with Bryan. “Bryan’s been one of my favorite opponents ever. We built up our skills together, but we’ve also suffered disappointment together with the U.S. title match at WrestleMania XXVII being bumped to a dark match.
“There’s no nicer guy in the company than Danny. He really is everything you see in the ring. No ego, no hidden agenda. He just loves what he does. Give him something, he'll make it work, no matter what. When he won at WrestleMania, it was awesome. How could you not feel that emotion from the crowd? It was tremendous, and you couldn’t be happier for the guy. The good guy literally won, and I really mean that.”
The highlight of Fandango’s career occurred in the middle of the ring at WrestleMania XXIX as he defeated Chris Jericho.
“We came out the gates really hot with the 'Mania match with Chris,” said Fandango, whose character has been in limbo after a white hot start. “But you can’t get stagnant. I need to continue to change up the character and keep things fresh, change up my look, and eventually get some gold. If you’re not aiming to be a champion, you’re in the wrong business.”
The 33-year-old Curtis Hussey plays the role of Fandango, and the product of Standish, Maine toiled for years in the independents before catching a break with WWE.
“I’ve tasted the bitter before the sweet,” he said. “I know what it’s like to go through the hard times, so I can deal with that. I worked for years in front of not a lot people, so I appreciate everything I’m doing now. This was Vince’s idea. He saw me and he came up with this idea based upon my look. He came up with it and then we both ran with it. In my mind, this might be my only opportunity. I better embrace this thing because, if I half-ass it, it might be my last opportunity with the company. They gave me this gimmick, and this is one of those sink-or-swim kind of things. When you have Vince McMahon backing you, you give it your all.”
XXX.) RICKY “THE DRAGON” STEAMBOAT
The battle between Ricky Steamboat and Randy Savage at WrestleMania III at the Pontiac Silverdome is one of wrestling’s greatest matches of all time, but the Dragon’s only regret was that there was never a sequel.
“I thought the rematch would be perfect,” said Steamboat. “When I saw the amateur-style brackets for WrestleManiaIV, and I knew Savage was going to win, I thought I would advance to fight Savage and then do the honors for him. So it was a great surprise to me to get beat in the first round and not face Randy.”
Steamboat had just returned to the company after taking a personal leave of absence to be with his family, and McMahon was furious at his decision to leave. Greg “The Hammer” Valentine defeated Steamboat in the first round of the tournament, and Steamboat – and the wrestling universe – was forever deprived of the rematch. No different than countless others, that next ‘Mania moment still eludes Steamboat.
“I was actually looking forward to doing the honors for Savage,” said Steamboat. “It was a letdown when I couldn’t.”
XXXI.) THE FANS
Then, now, and forever, WrestleMania belongs to the most dedicated people in the world – wrestling fans.
Ric Flair understands why there was disappointment when he returned to the ring after his farewell match with Michaels, but for some, the “Road to WrestleMania” is unending.
“Here’s the deal,” said Flair. “I’d done this for 38 years. I didn’t know how to get off the road. I was miserable not wrestling. I missed the business, and I miss the business now. When it’s in your blood, it’s in your blood. I was heartbroken and I missed it so much. I missed the guys and I missed the camaraderie. After the retirement ceremony, I was bored in two days. I wanted to be with the guys. You get there at noon, you have a good time, tell stories, drink coffee, and get ready to go to work in front of the fans. I’d been doing that for almost 40 years, and it’s hard to walk away.”
The chase continues. Then, now, and forever.
Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.