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The 1980s professional wrestling boom (more commonly referred to as the Golden Era) was a surge in the popularity of professional wrestling in the United States and elsewhere throughout the 1980s. The expansion of cable television and pay-per-view, coupled with the efforts of promoters such as Vince McMahon, saw professional wrestling shift from a system controlled by numerous regional companies to a system dominated by two nationwide companies: Ted Turner's World Championship Wrestling (WCW) and McMahon's World Wrestling Federation (now WWE). The decade also saw a considerable decline in the power of the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA), a cartel which had until then domineered the wrestling landscape, and in the efforts to sustain belief in the verisimilitude of wrestling.
First steps at going national
The first step in McMahon's attempt to go national was to sign American Wrestling Association superstar Hulk Hogan. To play Hogan's nemesis, he signed both North Carolina badboy Roddy Piper and Jesse Ventura (although Ventura wrestling was limited in the WWF at that point due to the lung disorder that caused his retirement).
Other promoters were furious when McMahon began syndicating WWF television shows to television stations across the United States in areas outside of the WWF's traditional Northeastern stronghold. McMahon also began selling videotapes of WWF events outside the Northeast through his Coliseum Video distribution company. He effectively broke the unwritten law of regionalism around which the entire industry had been based. To make matters worse, McMahon would use the income generated by advertising, television deals, and tape sales to poach talent from rival promoters. Wrestling promoters nationwide were now in direct competition with the WWF.
Vince McMahon stated in the documentary The UnReal Story of Professional Wrestling that he did not think his father would have ever sold him the company if he knew what he was planning to do: "He probably would have said, Vinny, what are you doing? You're gonna wind up at the bottom of a river", explained McMahon, Jr. The younger McMahon held a bold ambition: the WWF would tour nationally. However, such a venture required huge capital investment—one that placed the WWF on the verge of financial collapse.
A failed attempt to garner a greater appeal outside the North-east, McMahon bought a controlling interested in Georgia Championship Wrestling (GCW), an NWA member which held the lucrative Saturday time slot, in May 1984. On July 14, 1984 — later dubbed "Black Saturday" — WWF programming began airing in the WTBS timeslot formerly occupied by GCW programming. The WWF programming was not successful and viewed as comical compared to the NWA. Due to low ratings and viewer protests, WTBS began airing wrestling by Ole Anderson's promotion, as well as Bill Watts's Mid South Wrestling, both of which garnered higher ratings than McMahon's WWF show. Later, McMahon sold the WTBS timeslot to rival promoter Jim Crockett, Jr. for $1 million.
Crocket, also envisioning a nationwide promotion, absorbed several other NWA members into a single entity known as Jim Crockett Promotions (JCP). In 1986, he renamed JCP "NWA World Championship Wrestling". He would acquire several more promotions, including some non-NWA members, in the following year. By late 1987, Crockett's ownership of so many NWA affiliates, coupled with his continued presidency of the NWA, gave him considerable power. However, Crockett's spending had left JCP indebted. Crockett's attempt to generate revenue with the broadcast of the highly promoted Starrcade pay-per-view in late 1987 was thwarted by Vince McMahon, who held his Survivor Series pay-per-view on the same day. A similar situation arose in January 1988, when Crockett's Bunkhouse Stampede pay-per-view was counter-programmed by the inaugural Royal Rumble, which aired for free on the USA Network. On November 21, 1988, Crockett was obliged to sell his promotion to Ted Turner. Under the ownership of Turner and the presidency of Eric Bischoff, WCW would resume competition with McMahon's WWF in the 1990s.
Besides Hulkamania and the emergence of WrestleMania, another legacy of the 1980s was the destruction of the regional territory system which was in place for pro wrestling for Canada, United States and even Latin America. Many fans especially those in the Deep South were angered by the collapse of their local wrestling promotions. Some of the more well known promotions included WCCW in Dallas and Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling in Charlotte. In the late 1980s, many fans in the Deep South disappointed in the collapse of regional territories turned to WCW which was based in Atlanta. Fans in Nashville and Dallas turned to the USWA. In most of these areas, WWF shows were not financially successful until 1997-98.
Thanks to the collapse of regional territories, the WWF was now able to sign the best wrestling talent across Canada and USA. Other than Hulk Hogan, the WWF eventually signed stars from other promotions such as Roddy Piper, Dusty Rhodes, Bret Hart, and the British Bulldogs. The 1980s also had success in the growth and popularity of the tag team division, which included Demolition, Powers of Pain, The Hart Foundation, The Rockers and British Bulldogs.
Rock 'n' Wrestling Connection
While Crockett created a nationwide company, Vince McMahon and the World Wrestling Federation would go on to a period of unprecedented success in the mid-1980s. The success was in part precipitated by the "Rock 'n' Wrestling Connection", a period of cooperation and cross-promotion between the WWF and elements of the music industry. The idea was formed by WWF manager Lou Albano who met singer Cyndi Lauper on a plane to Puerto Rico. Lauper asked Albano to appear as her father in her video for the single "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" in 1983. McMahon later booked Lauper and Albano on a segment of Piper's Pit. During the segment, the Rock 'n' Wrestling storyline began when Albano called Lauper a "broad", while Lauper retaliated by hitting him with her purse. She then challenged Albano to a match, where the female wrestler of his choice would fight the female wrestler of her choice. Lauper chose Wendi Richter, while Albano chose The Fabulous Moolah. The match was scheduled for July 23, 1984 at The Brawl to End It All, broadcast live on MTV. During the match, Lauper interfered on Richter's behalf by hitting Moolah in the head with her purse, dubbed "The Loaded Purse of Doom". At the conclusion of the match, Richter had defeated Moolah for the WWF Women's Championship, which the WWF had promoted as Moolah holding for the previous 28 years. Meanwhile, the connection between Lauper and the WWF continued with the video for the song "The Goonies 'R' Good Enough", "Time After Time", and "She Bop", all of which featured WWF wrestlers. Richter later had a match with Moolah's protégé Leilani Kai at The War To Settle The Score, with Lauper and Moolah in their respective corners. Kai won the title with the help of Moolah. Richter and Kai had a rematch at the inaugural WrestleMania, where Richter regained the title.
On January 3, 1984, Hulk Hogan returned to the WWF. Hogan had been fired from the company by Vince McMahon, Sr. for appearing in the film Rocky III (seen by the elder McMahon as a breach of both etiquette and kayfabe), but was welcomed back to the company by Vincent K. McMahon. McMahon was able to parlay the mainstream popularity Hogan had gained from his role in Rocky III into an even greater level of celebrity. On September 14, 1985, Hulk Hogan's Rock 'n' Wrestling, an animated television series starring the character of Hulk Hogan, premiered on CBS. The series ran until June 6, 1987, in the process expanding Hogan's young fanbase.
The inaugural WrestleMania
To counter the NWA's primary supercard, Starrcade, the WWF created its flagship show, WrestleMania, held at Madison Square Garden and available on 135 closed-circuit networks. The future of not just McMahon's national experiment, but also the WWF, the NWA, and the whole industry came down to the success or failure of McMahon's groundbreaking sports entertainment concept. WrestleMania was a pay-per-view extravaganza (most areas of the country saw WrestleMania available on closed-circuit television) that McMahon marketed as being the Super Bowl of professional wrestling. The concept of a wrestling super card was nothing new in North America; the NWA had been running Starrcade a few years prior to WrestleMania, and even the elder McMahon had marketed large Shea Stadium cards viewable in closed circuit locations. However, since McMahon wanted to take the WWF to the mainstream, he tried to target to a public who were not regular wrestling fans. He drew the interest of the mainstream media by inviting celebrities such as Mr. T and Cyndi Lauper to participate in the event. MTV, in particular, featured a great deal of WWF coverage and programming at this time. The show was a huge success with Hulk Hogan, who won in the main event, going on to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated. After the swimsuit issue, it was the magazine's best seller. Professional wrestling began to become mainstream, thanks, in large part, to the appeal of Hulkamania among children. Large television networks took wrestling into their weekly programming, including Saturday Night's Main Event, premiering on NBC in 1985.
WrestleMania's popularity and ratings appeal made wrestling a television mainstay. Professional wrestling, now synonymous with the WWF, began to throw more grandiose matches. In 1985, the first-ever pay-per-view wrestling event, "The Wrestling Classic", took place. The concept, a one-night tournament, was a huge success and would become a regular event, titled King of the Ring. Later, Pat Patterson would invent the Royal Rumble match, another grand invention showcasing the most talent.
Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant and Randy Savage
WWF held its most successful event, WrestleMania III in 1987. It achieved the largest recorded attendance for a live indoor sporting event in North America. The main event, where Hogan scoop-slammed (which dubbed 'the body slam heard around the world') and defeated André the Giant, helped the show go down in wrestling history as one of the greatest ever produced and made the WWF's popularity soar. In February 1988, Hogan and André faced each other in a special WrestleMania III rematch on the Friday night prime time spin-off of Saturday Night's Main Event, titled The Main Event which saw Hogan lose to André by manipulation of "Million Dollar Man" Ted DiBiase. After the match André handed the title to DiBiase as promised, resulting in the title being vacated and setting the stage for a WWF Championship tournament at WrestleMania IV. On a previous edition of the same show, Randy Savage made his official transition as a face in his match against The Honky Tonk Man, following a previous altercation The Hart Foundation and The Honky Tonk Man, this eventually struck a friendship with Savage and Hogan.
At WrestleMania IV a special WWF Championship tournament was held and resulted in Randy Savage winning, with Elizabeth and Hogan at his side. After WrestleMania IV Hogan and Savage formed The Mega Powers, And at the first ever SummerSlam they faced off against DiBiase and André's tag team known as The Mega Bucks. Though friends and tag partners, over the period of a year tensions began to build for various reasons, finally resulting in Savage striking Hogan in early 1989, turning Savage heel once again, and setting up a WWF title match at WrestleMania V, which saw Hogan after over a year once again hold the title. Savage and Hogan continued to feud for nearly another year, the feud finally ending at the February 1990 edition of The Main Event, which Hogan successfully defended the title in a special WrestleMania V rematch.
End of an era
Generally WrestleMania VI on April 1, 1990, is acknowledged as the end of the 1980s wrestling boom. The event saw the last wrestling appearance of Andre the Giant (as a member of the Colossal Connection), who had become barely mobile in the ring due to his real life condition, and his parting way with long-time manager Bobby Heenan. One last time, Nikolai Volkoff (then part of The Bolsheviks) played his standard part as the evil Soviet Russian before turning face and embracing America, reflecting the end of the Cold War.
The main event not only pitted the WWF's two greatest faces against each other but was intended as the passing of the torch from Hogan, the star of the 1980s, to The Ultimate Warrior, who was immensely popular and considered Hogan's successor. Hogan's clean pin fall loss (another first) signaled the end of an era. However, the Warrior did not live up to expectations and Hogan lingered on in the WWF for the next three years, winning the title three times more.
By 1992, allegations of anabolic steroid abuse and sexual harassment were harming the promotion's family-friendly image.
The fans who were kids in the mid and late 1980s were teens by the 1990s, and many eventually grew bored with the comic book style of wrestling of the 1980s, turning their attention away from their childhood favorites such as Hulk Hogan, Junkyard Dog, and "Superfly" Jimmy Snuka, in favor of newer and grittier wrestlers like The Undertaker, Shawn Michaels, Mr. Perfect, Bret Hart, Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Rock, Triple H, and Chris Jericho.