March 26, 2003
Behind the creation of WrestleMania
By GREG OLIVER - SLAM! Wrestling
We're just hours away from The Colossal Tussle XIX and the wrestling world is abuzz. Wait a minute. Colossal Tussle?
According to George Scott, who was the booker for the first two WrestleManias, that was the name that was almost used.
About six months before the March 31, 1985 mega-event, Scott remembers a meeting in Vince McMahon's office. The gatherings there were sometimes free-flowing idea sessions, and office staff who were wrestling fans often were invited to participate. On this occasion, everyone was brainstorming for a name for a big event that would further marry pro wrestling with mainstream culture. Someone piped up with the name 'Mania', and Scott remembers immediately saying 'WrestleMania.' Later, The Colossal Tussle came up and won McMahon's vote.
A final decision was not made that day. The next morning, Scott further argued against The Colossal Tussle, doing funny voices to mock the way the words rolled together. Eventually, McMahon relented to Scott, who had been involved in wrestling since 1948.
In Basil DeVito's WWE-produced WrestleMania: The Official Insider's Story, the close-call on a bad name isn't mentioned. "Credit for the name, incidentally, is generally given to Howard Finkel, known to many fans as one of the World Wrestling Entertainment's announcers. Howard is the unofficial company historian and fact-finder and the nuggets he unearths are affectionately called 'Finkel Facts'," DeVito wrote. "It's sort of a Finkel Fact about Finkel that in a legendary meeting in the winter of 1985, while a roomful of staffers were trying to think of a name for their big closed-circuit event, Howard Finkel blurted out..'There's Beatlemania, right? Why not WrestleMania?' And that was that. WrestleMania was born."
It's just part of the fascinating stories you get when you talk to some of the people, like Scott, who were involved backstage at the early WrestleManias. The stories don't always match the official company line.
Jim Barnett was a long-time promoter in Chicago, then Australia, then Atlanta who joined the WWF in 1983 as Senior Vice President and stuck around until 1987. How did WrestleMania come about? "They got the idea in 1985 when they were on a trip, a vacation for a week in Martinique, maybe it was St. Maarten. They came back and said they like to do this big show in Madison Square Garden with talent-like people to ring the bell, referee, all kinds of celebrities," Barnett said.
In the following years, Barnett was one of the key people in the WWF and for the WrestleManias. "Vince got the locations, but I worked real hard on it. It was a five, or 10-people show and I did a lot of work on it," he said. "The third show was in Pontiac, and I worked very hard on that. I got the biggest bonus of anyone for that show. I left their employment later and went to work for Jim Crockett."
George Scott is quick to credit his hard-working staff for the success of the WWF in the early days of national expansion. "I had some great guys working with me," he said. Terry Garvin was his assistant, and Jim Barnett and Rex Jones were all part of his team. To Scott, Howard Finkel is "a genius" who has a great memory -- "unreal. I couldn't believe it."
Scott's memories of the first WrestleMania are almost exclusively about what happened backstage before and afterwards. It was Scott who was sent to Atlanta to talk to Mr. T about appearing. "What a big shot. I told him where to get off!" Scott laughed. Obviously, things got worked out in the subsequent weeks. According to Scott, a Hamilton, Ontario, native, Mr. T had $22,000 in expenses during the WrestleMania I week.
Backstage at the event, it was chaotic. "I remember Vince McMahon at WrestleMania I where I had to grab him by the shoulders and say, 'Stop. You're driving us nuts. Go in your office,'" recalled Roddy Piper. "Some guy's taking pictures of my feet. Get this guy out of here! Guy's name was Andy Warhol. I'd never heard of him. Liberace with the Rockettes. What's wrong with this picture. Little Richard ... Dr. Ruth Westheimer."
Out in the arena, things weren't all that different. When Muhammad Ali started shadow boxing in the ring as the special referee for the main event, Scott ran to ringside, grabbed his ankle and got him to calm down o all off camera.
In the end, it was a special time where all the elements lined up properly. I think that we were all lucky to be there. Timing is everything. In my opinion, WrestleMania was not as premeditated as people believe today," Roddy Piper told SLAM! Wrestling in a chat a few years back.
George Scott agrees. He recalled a conversation with Vince McMahon after WrestleMania. McMahon told him later that "if we had not been successful at it, we would not have been in business."