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COMMENT





The Big Event 20 years later
Massive Toronto show drew 65,000 fans
By GREG OLIVER - Producer, SLAM! Wrestling


A poster from the show
- courtesy Bill Cubitt

In many ways, it's quaint to look back on The Big Event, on August 28, 1986 at Toronto's Exhibition Stadium. The top ticket price was $20, t-shirts were $12. Yet with an estimated attendance of 65,000, it's still quite an awe-inspiring event 20 years later.

The WWF, riding the wave of Hulkamania to incredible heights after two WrestleMania events, was the right show at the right time in a monstrous venue.

Toronto had long been a wrestling hotbed, and the abrupt switch by Jack Tunney from the NWA-affiliated Jim Crockett Promotions to the expanding WWF 1984 would prove to be a wise decision.

Having sold-out numerous shows at Maple Leaf Gardens, Tunney was approached by the Canadian National Exhibition about putting on a wrestling card. The 108-year-old CNE, looking to capture a slightly different audience than its usual cast of teenagers out to see the rock stars and ride the midway, thrillseekers to see car races or monster trucks, or the farmers coming to see the agricultural shows, teamed with Concert Productions International and the WWF for the show.

Exhibition Stadium, torn down in 1999, was home to the Toronto Blue Jays and the Toronto Argonauts. It had held many wrestling shows in the '70s and early '80s during the summer, with attendance never that much more than the 16,000 or so that could pack Maple Leaf Gardens.

The event was very-much driven by the main event of Hulk Hogan facing his former tag team partner Paul "Mr. Wonderful" Orndorff.

In his autobiography, Hogan talks about the show. He claims that the Gardens was booked, so the show was forced out of the famed arena. "We had already announced that we were coming back to Toronto, so we booked an outdoor venue, CNE Stadium, which was really too big for the crowd we had in mind. With a little promotion, we figured we would draw ten thousand people, maybe a few more if we got lucky.

"I mean, it wasn't a WrestleMania match. It wasn't a Pay-Per-View. It was just the climax of a little feud between me and Paul Orndorff. ... We made it a title match, so there would be an additional reason for people to come see us in Toronto, but didn't expect much. Then, on August 28, 1986, I got out of the car to walk into the CNE Stadium and got blown the hell away. Instead of ten thousand people in the place, there were almost sixty-five thousand."

"It's a total sellout," Bill Stockwell, general manager of the Exhibition, told the Toronto Star. "There's been bigger crowds here (Bruce Springsteen at 69,000 apiece for two shows) but nothing like this. This is unique."

The night itself was frigid for late August, with temperatures getting close to freezing.

However, tempers kept things warm. It turns out that last-minute additions of giant video screens and the cameras forced many seats to be relocated -- if they existed at all. The 70-or-so rows at ringside were forced to stand for most of the event. Fans threw chairs, ice cubes and other items. According to the Toronto Sun, "reserved seats disappeared, fights erupted in the aisles and security guards were accused of switching seat numbers." Security was hired by CPI, and ticketing run by Best Available Seating Service (BASS).

In the end, it went to court, and refunds were offered to 219 people from outside southern Ontario, and 1,609 people from the Greater Toronto Area were offered tickets to a 1987 CNE wrestling match (which never happened).

The event got front-page coverage in the Toronto newspapers. "Record 65,000 holler for Hulk" was the banner on the Toronto Star, while the Toronto Sun had Don Muraco on the cover of its early edition, and Hogan on its later editions. The papers also followed the saga of the oversold seats for days afterwards as well.

Here are the results from The Big Event, which was later released in an edited-down version by Coliseum Video:

  1. The Killer Bees (Jim Brunzell & B. Brian Blair ) beat Hoss Funk (Dory Funk Jr.) & Jimmy Jack Funk (Jesse Barr)
  2. King Tonga and "Magnificent" Don Muraco went to a draw
  3. Ted Arcidi beat Tony Garea (subbing for Tony Atlas)
  4. Junkyard Dog vs Adrian Adonis went to a double countout
  5. Dick "The Rebel" Slater beat "Iron" Mike Sharpe
  6. King Kong Bundy, Big John Studd & Bobby "The Brain" Heenan beat Giant Machine (Andre the Giant), Super Machine (Bill Eadie) & "Captain" Lou Albano by DQ
  7. Rick Steamboat beat Jake "The Snake" Roberts in a Snake Pit, No DQ match
  8. Billy Jack Haynes beat Hercules Hernandez
  9. Jacques & Raymond Rougeau beat Greg "The Hammer" Valentine & Brutus "The Barber" Beefcake
  10. Harley Race beat Pedro Morales
  11. WWF champion Hulk Hogan beat Paul "Mr. Wonderful" Orndorff w/ Bobby Heenan by DQ when Heenan hit Hogan with a chair

But in the end, it's about the fans. A few shared their memories of The Big Event.

Nigel D'Souza, Toronto: It was just before my 14th birthday and I remember going with my dad to see it. His two brothers and their two sons (my cousins) were there as well. By the time we got downtown it had already begun but it was packed. We had parked near the old Tip Top Tailors building and had walked over. I remember the Killer B's, The Machines (including the disguised Andre The Giant), Big John Studd, JYD, Paul Orndorff, and of course The Hulkster. It was absolutely amazing. I didn't matter that we sat just behind the Home Run Fence in left field, it was the thrill of a lifetime. Until WrestleMania X8.


Don Muraco in the air against King Tonga.
- photo by Bill Cubitt
Luis Martins, Toronto: As a 12 year old I was proud as it was the first time my friends and I were without adult supervision on an evening outing. I also remember being so happy that our tickets got us into the CNE for free so we made a whole day out of it. The event itself was great. The matches I remember were of course the Hogan-Orndorf match quite vividly (it was the match that brought us there), I was angry that Studd and Bundy beat the Machines (I am after all an Andre the Giant fan), I was happy that the Rougeau Brothers beat Valentine and Beefcake. A few things outside of the actual matches that stood out for me were 1) how small Pedro Morales appeared to be. 2) "Iron" Mike Sharpe being cheered and 3) just how much Adrian Adonis flopped and flew for someone who appeared to be fat and out of shape. For me, it was a 12 year olds perfect day, CNE rides, Junk Food, and Wrestling. Life was so simple then.


Bobby Heenan whacks Hulk Hogan with a chair to the back.
- photo by Bill Cubitt
Bill van Boxtel: I remember going down there, seeing my first ever wrestling event, and even though my favorite tag team wasn't wrestling, I bought a British Bulldogs t-shirt and pulled it over my winter vest preparing for a cold night. People looked at me and I looked as buff as Davey Boy Smith and Dynamite Kid and got a few comments on it, of course because I had the jacket underneath. I remember Canada's Greatest Athlete Iron Mike Sharpe coming out to a great response from the crowd, a true Canadian fan favorite. I remember seeing another of my favorite wrestlers wrestle, I think the only time I saw him wrestle live, and what a wrestler he was -- Ricky "The Dragon" Steamboat. I could be wrong, but I remember it also being too cold for Jake to bring his snake out. I also got to see the Giant Machine/Andre the Giant and how truly massive he was. Even from the higher up seats you could see how much bigger he was than the Brain. The Rougeaus climbed up on the 3rd base dugout with a Canadian flag and waved it to the fans and got a rousing ovation then went on to beat the Dream Team. I also got to see the Hulkster for the first time, and his amazing feud with Paul "Mr.Wonderful" Orndorff which I consider one of the best feuds of that time and of Hogan's career. My first wrestling event was very memorable and remember it like it was yesterday.

Mike Le Blanc: You want my most vivid memory of the big event? Seeing the "Giant Machine" when Andre was still suspended? Nah. Hogan over Orndorff? Nah. The Killer B's putting their masks on? Nah. How about the fact that WWF decided to sell all the tickets before they figured out where they were putting the cameras. No wait, before they decided to have cameras. My most vivid memory is walking into the stadium, and discovering that my floor seats were right in the middle of the big camera tower and production equipment area. So we just stole some poor sap's seats (since they were trying to put us somewhere in the open stands, right around where home plate used to be, only farther back), and watched from the floor. A few weeks later, we received an apology letter in the mail; I think it also contained a coupon towards a ticket to another event, or some kind of pitiful compensation. That, and the rain. I think there was rain. Keep in mind I had just turned 10.


Ricky Steamboat delivers a chop to Jake "The Snake" Roberts.
- photo by Bill Cubitt
Brett Martin: It's hard to believe that was 20 years ago. In my mind, that will always be the first SummerSlam. It was an unusually cold night for that time of the year, but what I remember most was the ticket printing snafu. Apparently tickets for a whole floor section were printed, and sold, in duplicate. That was the word going around on the floor that night. Many people did not have seats and just sat in the aisles. There were a lot of angry fans and more than a couple of fights broke out. I guess that's how they got 70,000 people to attend.

That being said, there were a couple of memorable matches on the card as wll. I thought that the Ricky Steamboat/Jake Roberts "Snake Pit" match was one of their better matches. The evening was capped off with Hulk Hogan defending his title against his former partner Paul Orndorff. The crowd was really hot for this match with Orndorff getting a lot of heel heat after his recent turn against Hogan. Emotions really got tense as Orndorff got a 2-3/4 count on Hogan after a chair shot. I thought this too was one of their better matches with some decent storytelling. In my mind it was better than the Saturday Night's Main Event cage match a few months later

As far as "Supercards" go, it was lacking title defenses by both Randy Savage (Intercontinental champ) and the British Bulldogs (tag champs). It could have been the perfect venue for Roddy Piper's return as well.

The event set an attendance record that stood for only seven months, when "93,000" attended WrestleMania 3. In the end it was a great night that solidified Toronto's claim as a mecca for pro wrestling. This was proved again a few years later at WM 6 and again at WM 18.

Marshall Ward, Waterloo: I'll always remember entering Exhibition Stadium on that summer evening in August and being completely overwhelmed by the amount of people in attendance. It was unbelievable. Up to this point, I had been a wrestling fan for several years, and had traveled far to see several WWF, NWA, and AWA events -- yet had never seen anything like this. These were the glory days of the CNE as well: with the backdrop of coloured lights, midway noises and the sweet, wafting smells created a movie-like atmosphere. It was my first outdoor wrestling event as well, and it was the perfect evening for it. It reminded me of those photos I had seen in PWI of the huge outdoor wrestling shows from World Class Wrestling in Texas. My seats were 12 rows back on the floor, and I could see the elevated ring quite well. I recall feeling sorry for the thousands of fans who were much further back -- and there was no 'Titantron' screen that I can remember. I also remember how the music for the wrestlers' entrance sounded so distant, and how long it took them to get to the ring. The whole event was highly entertaining, and the anticipation for the final bout between Hogan and Orndorff was crazy. I think my favourite match of the evening was Big John Studd, King Kong Bundy, and Bobby Heenan vs. Big Machine, Super Machine, and Captain Lou Albano (with Giant Machine at ringside). I think everyone there knew they were part of something very special. Looking back on it, I imagine it was quite similar to being at Wrestlemania III. I can't believe it's already been 20 years. I'll be going to the CNE once again this year, and I'm certain I'll take a moment to reflect on The Big Event.


The Machines exit the stadium. Which one is Andre?
- photo by Bill Cubitt
Bill Cubitt, Calgary: When I had bought my tickets for the "Big Event' it was advertised that the ring would be at spot of the Blue Jays pitchers mound. So instead of being on the ground, I wanted to be in row one in the stands to be at a better vantage point for taking pictures. As it turned out way more tickets were sold than expected so they moved the ring way back past second base. Despite being 100 yards back from the action it was a classic event in Toronto. It was the usual fun night of mayhem with all of the big stars like Hogan, Steamboat and my favorite Andre the Giant. During this period Andre was wearing a mask which is like hiding an elephant at a petting zoo. Hogan and Orndorff provided a fantastic match in the old format of good guy vs bad guy. As usual, good guys win.

Alas, Greg Oliver was not at The Big Event. Can't remember why, really. Kitchener to Toronto wasn't that big of a deal. Next time!