1985 was a key year in Vince McMahon’s expansion of the WWF into the global Sports Entertainment behemoth it would soon after become. Not only did 1985 give us the first WrestleMania, a complete game changer in itself, but May 11th, 1985, brought us the very first episode of Saturday Night’s Main Event.
A much-beloved show that, during its initial run in the Hulkamania era, was just as important to the fans as the promotion’s PPVs, Saturday Night’s Main Event stood out for featuring mainly Superstar vs. Superstar matches at a time when TV wrestling predominately featured stars taking on enhancement talent. This was a way for the WWF to bring the house shows with its big-name contests to the small screen, albeit on a semi-regular basis throughout the year, anticipating the way the Monday Night Wars would do away with the enhancement talent and feature star vs. matches as an ordinary occurrence. It also gave the 80s viewer a reason to tune in and support the WWF—this was the reward for their support. It was not until 1988 and Clash of the Champions that the NWA would reward their fans in the same way.
Not only that but by taking the late-night slot periodically on NBC, where reruns of the comedy show Saturday Night Live would air, Vince made that crucial step to national exposure that he needed and his brief sojourn with TBS had failed to give him (at least in terms success). As Wikipedia puts it, Saturday Night’s Main Event “was a rare example of professional wrestling being broadcast on an over-the-air commercial television network after the 1950s.” It allowed Vince to gain that much-needed foothold on national exposure and as we would see, he would soon be rewarded tenfold.
Let’s get into the action and step back in time to that very first episode of Saturday Night’s Main Event!
Vince was nothing if not a top-level artist in how to brand your product strongly, and the debut edition of Saturday Night’s Main Event is a case in point.
From the opening, a clear brand identity was already in place which is impressive. We get two opening promos (crudely done against a green screen of the fans in the arena, but it actually doesn’t look that bad) from Cyndi Lauper with her charge Wendi Richter (claiming that they’re using the B.A.A.D principle—“be annihilated and destroyed!”) and Hulk Hogan and Mr. T pitying the ‘fools’ that are Roddy Piper and ‘Cowboy’ Bob Orton. It immediately establishes two key characteristics of what the WWF would be (and remains to be): big mainstream celebrities and larger-than-life characters. It sets their stall out immediately.
As does the opening credits with shots of the guys wrestling on the card (Hogan, Piper, Barry Windham, Iron Sheik, JYD) alongside images of Cyndi Lauper and Mr. T. The music is big, pumping eighties soft rock similar to what would be the classic SummerSlam theme tune only a couple of years later. The classic Saturday Night’s Main Event logo is already in place from the off, and wouldn’t in fact change until 1992, and is featured on everything, from Hulk Hogan posing to banners hanging all around the arena and from above the entrance to the ring (something WWF didn’t really do back then) to the ring apron.
The classic Saturday Night’s Main Event commentary team of Jesse Ventura and Vince McMahon are here too, with Jesse, dressed in head-to-toe pink, very much fired up. We get a quick interview with Mean Gene and Barry Windham, Mike Rotundo, and Ricky Steamboat, with their manager, Captain Lou Albano, threatening to bust Freddie Blassie open should he interfere. Albano: not a man to mince his words.
And with that, we’re into our first match!
The Iron Sheik, Nikoli Volkoff & George ‘The Animal’ Steele (w/’Classy’ Freddie Blassie) vs. Barry Windham, Mike Rotunda & Ricky ‘The Dragon’ Steamboat
Volkoff and Sheiky Baby were the WWF tag team champions here, having beaten Windham & Rotunda at the inaugural WrestleMania for the belts. The obligatory rendition of the Soviet anthem is roundly booed by the crowd (of course) so Iron Sheik proclaims that Russia and Iran are number one and the USA is…well, only worth spitting on the mat for. Some things age better than others in wrestling, but Sheiky was always fun.
Windham, Steamboat & Rotunda were a great idea for a combination here, all being class athletes (it’s easy to forget just how motivated Rotunda was in the 80s) and even then providing a contrast to big hulking masses of meat like Volkoff. The face trio dominates the Sheik in the early going, using a combination of Windham’s power and all three men’s speed to dominate the former World Champ. Sheik got a moment’s respite by putting the Dragon in an abdominal stretch, but Steamboat hip tossed his way out of it, bringing all six men into the ring, with the faces knocking the heels to the outside.
Steamboat, as always, shines here with a beautiful top rope dropkick and a flying crossbody. Windham and Steamboat up the ante with a double dropkick on Volkoff for a two count. Rotunda nails two jumping leg drops that instantly look better than Hogan’s because Mike’s feet actually left the floor. Near-falls follow but the ropes save Volkoff from a Windham sunset flip. George Steel tags in to trade blows with big Barry, but when he goes to tag out, Sheik and Volkoff drop to the mat, allowing Windham to roll Steele up for the three count.
This was a really fun little opening contest, with the far more athletic faces sensibly dominating the match and setting an exciting fast pace for the time. Good stuff,
Afterward, George Steele tears a turnbuckle off before Sheik and Volkoff try to get the jump on him. Steel fights them off as Albano tries to calm him down. Blassie tells Mean Gene that Steele didn’t tag when he was supposed to and that’s why they left (not the greatest reason), but he’s interrupted by Steele, who seems to hit Sheik and then run off, while Albano, Blassie, and his boys do a lot of shouting.
There’s no messing around here, as we’re straight into the ring with the protagonists already there. And if you ever needed evidence that Roddy Piper was great on the mic and Paul Orndorff wasn’t, here it is. This is the fallout from the main event at the first WrestleMania, where Roddy Piper and Paul Orndorff lost to Hulk Hogan and Mr. T, with Orndorff being the one that was pinned. That obviously upset Piper, who put the blame on Orndorff. ‘Mr. Wonderful’ did not like being blamed.
Piper tries to cajole Orndorff to sit down calmly and talk about what happened. Orndorff gets a pop for telling Piper’s protector ‘Cowboy’ Bob Orton to back off into the corner and for telling Orton to ‘go on. Make my day’ when Orton looks to start a fight. But Piper can’t get Orndorff on board and just ends up outright calling him a loser. Orndoff responds by saying Piper has been drinking too much of his own bath water—what?
Piper eventually makes to leave but swerves into taking a pop at Orndorff. Orndorff fights back and looks to piledrive Piper, but Orton cracks Orndorff on the back of the head with his arm cast for the save. This brings out Mr. T to a big reaction and chants of ‘T’ from the crowd to persuade a dizzy Orndorff not to fight and to get him to the back. T was over, man. A fun segment with good heat, despite Orndorff’s limitations on the mic.
WWF World Heavyweight Champion Hulk Hogan (w/ Mr. T) vs. ‘Cowboy’ Bob Orton (w/ ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper)
I’ve always wondered why Hogan would wrestle at the start or middle of episodes of Saturday Night’s Main Event, rather than in the actual main event. Answers on a postcard, please…
Hogan gives a rather restrained pre-match promo by his standards, promising the fans there’s no one he’d rather wrestle than Bob Orton, before giving George Steele the face seal of approval by saying how Steele felt something in him change—who says Hogan didn’t people over?
Hogan and T rip each other’s shirts off before hugging in an unintentionally homoerotic moment. Orton tries to sneak a shot with the cast to start but Hogan unleashes a flurry of fists before landing four big scoop slams, sending Orton to the floor to regroup. Orton takes the advantage with a knee and an Irish whip to the corner. Orton ends up running himself into the buckles, though. The children’s role model Hogan bites Orton’s head in the corner, before snapping Orton’s in-cast arm over the ropes and into the ring post in a nicely vicious moment.
Orton takes the lead with a lovely jumping knee before unloading with fists of his own and an atomic drop. A further knee to the face punishes the champ, as does Orton simply pulling Hogan up and ramming his face into the mat. Orton’s really slowed the pace down, picking his moment and dropping elbows. It’s no use, however, as Mr. T has the crowd chanting Hogan’s name, causing him to hulk up. A big clothesline and elbow drop gets Hogan a two, but fists in the corner are countered cannily by an Orton atomic drop.
‘The Cowboy’ looks to nail a superplex but Hogan’s having none of it, knocking Orton to the mat with a hard right. An elbow and a leg drop looks to be all she wrote, but Piper pokes Hogan in the eye to break up the pin and earn Hogan the DQ victory. All hell breaks loose as Orton knocks Mr. T down with his cast, and he and Piper, belt in hand, stare down a cornered yet confrontational Hogan. Things don’t look good for the champ until…Paul Orndorff runs in to back up ‘The Hukster’! He and Hogan stand shoulder to shoulder as Mr. T brings up the rear and Orton and Piper leg it while the crowd cheers wildly for our faces and their new ally.
By Hogan’s standards, it wasn’t a bad match at all. They kept it short and sweet and Orton was a good foil, but something was missing and I can’t put my finger on it. Still, it was a decent match and it wasn’t exactly the typical Hogan formula (Orton was able to come back after Hogan ‘hulked up’ for instance), and the closing angle was hot, so certainly it warrants a thumbs up from me here.
WWF Women’s Champion Wendi Richter (w/Cyndi Lauper) vs. The Fabulous Moolah
Mean Gene interviews Moolah before the match. Moolah claims she’s fed up with Lauper’s interference in her matches with Wendi Richter so she has gotten her banned from ringside. Gene then interviews Lauper, who definitely is enthusiastic and was the right person for the job in bringing eyes to the WWF. She does call WrestleMania ‘Wrestling Mania’ though. Oops. She says she’s coming to ringside and she’s going to stand by her girl.
And indeed she does come to the ring, but then everyone’s favorite ring announcer Howard Finkel reads from a scroll (!) and announces that Cyndi Lauper is indeed banned from ringside for the match. Lauper isn’t happy and neither is the crowd, but Lauper does get to watch from a TV in the interview area.
Possibly I’ve never seen Moolah in her prime, but I’ve never been a fan of the matches of hers I’ve seen but this wasn’t a bad match; it was just very short. Moolah started by choking Richter with the top rope and sending her out onto the outside ring table. Richter comes back by dropkicking Moolah over the top rope to the floor in a nice spot. A backdrop gets Moolah a two count but Richter is right back by pulling Moolah off the ropes and driving her into the mat. Moolah retaliates with a kick but a body slam attempt is countered into a small package to give Richter the win. A genuinely pleased-looking Lauper runs all the way down the ring and dances with Richter to celebrate.
Not awful, and not anything particularly special either. But a definite reminder of how women’s wrestling has come over the years. The contribution of Richter (and Lauper as manager) should definitely be remembered.
Junkyard Dog vs. ‘The Duke of Dorchester’ Pete Doherty
In a slightly bizarre but quite sweet moment, JYD is interviewed with his mother before the match. He’s brought her to New York for Mother’s Day because she’s never been before. I did for a moment question whether it was really Dog’s mother, but apparently, it was. She looks proud as JYD leads her to the ring by the hand and gives her a chair at ringside.
I wasn’t familiar with Doherty before this match, but research reveals he was an enhancement-level talent for Vince Sr’s WWWF and then the WWF, with him having a brief commentating stint in the late 80s for Boston-based shows. He certainly bumped well for the Dog here, as JYD pounded him from pillar to post and held him up by his hair. Doherty made the mistake of threatening JYD’s mother. Big mistake. A series of headbutts back in the ring and an atomic drop dropped Doherty as Mrs. Dog smiled proudly. The power slam finished it in quick time. Dog was over as hell here with the crowd, his reaction certainly as loud as Hogans. And Dog’s mother proved herself game, dancing with JYD in the ring after quite a sweet moment.
We end with a slightly bizarre Mother’s day party in the locker room held by Cyndi Lauper. Cyndi’s mother is there as are JYD’s and Hogan’s. Blassie has a young lady with him who he tries to pass off as his mother (oh dear). The Fabulous Moolah turns up and insults Lauper and her mother, so Cyndi pushes Moolah into Gene and they both fall into the cake on the table. Gene takes the brunt of it, bless him. Vince and Jesse sign us off, and that’s it—the end of the very first edition of Saturday Night’s Main Event!
The first-ever edition of Saturday Night’s Main Event is a lovely piece of history: evocative, warm, and very indicative of a particular time and place. But—is it any good?
The short answer is yes. At 55 minutes in length, it’s not as substantial as a PPV, but it wasn’t supposed to be. Considering the short length of time, the WWF managed to produce a quick-paced, fast-moving show that never allowed you to get bored for a moment. We got four matches, several interviews, and a couple of big angles. The characters on display were big and entertaining, Mr. T was over as hell, and Mean Gene got covered in cake. Imagine if one of the big shows could keep things moving as swiftly as that and still be able to keep people’s interest and attention. They’d be onto a winner, for sure.
Furthermore, it’s fascinating seeing the branding and marketing genius of Vince McMahon seep in, as the show is very clearly branded from head to toe as you can the old wrestling world of Vince Sr’s smoky halls evaporate into a brand identity. Whether you feel this is a good thing or not, it’s fascinating to see the change in front of your eyes. The WWF was on a path to becoming. Soon it would simply be.
Is the wrestling the best you’ll ever see? No. But I’ve also seen much worse, from the same era and beyond. More than that, the angles featuring Piper, Orndorff, Mr. T, and Hogan are hot and are more than worth the price of admission alone.
A great piece of history. Recommended.
You might also enjoy: