This past Wednesday, March 29, was the 30th anniversary of WrestleMania III, held at the Pontiac Silverdome in Michigan. Though I missed the exact day with posting this article, I still wanted to share my memories of that event on the day of WrestleMania 33. I was one of the fans in attendance that day, whether you choose to believe the crowd in the stadium that day was a then-record 93,173, or the 78,000 number that renowned wrestling writer Dave Meltzer has touted for a few years now.
Personally, I believe the 93,000 number. The Silverdome seated 80,000 for football games. Ask longtime Detroit Lions fans how often games were blacked out locally because the stadium couldn’t sell out. Granted, the on-field product was terrible. But the Lions could also sell more tickets than many other teams throughout the NFL, yet not reach a sellout. Granted, my father was driving that day, but traffic that day and getting to the stadium was more of an ordeal than I ever remember in going to a Lions game.
I have no hard data to cite, and my memories of the event are those of a pre-adolescent. My 12-year-old brain was far too consumed with the excitement of the event itself. But it seems rather logical to think that filling the stadium seats, along with all of the seats on the floor of the Silverdome, could reach the 93,173 figure. It doesn’t seem that outlandish. As Tony Paul and Adam Graham report in their outstanding oral history recalling the event for the Detroit News, the event was a slow build to a sellout. This was not something that happened in a day or a week. It was months in the making.
What I most remember about WrestleMania III was it felt like affirmation for a 12-year-old kid who largely kept his wrestling fandom to himself. My friends weren’t into it very much. Nowadays, I occasionally wonder on social media where all these wrestling fans were when I was a kid. They certainly weren’t in my neighborhood or classroom. The internet could have made my life very different. So for me, it was mostly my dad — and my poor little sister, who was subjected to me trying to do wrestling moves on her. To this day, the word “piledriver” probably makes her shudder.
The previous two WrestleManias were events, of course, but seemed unattainable in terms of ever getting to experience it beyond watching on closed circuit TV or VHS cassette months later. (Pay-per-view wasn’t yet really a thing, if I recall.) The first one was at Madison Square Garden, “the mecca” for all big sporting events it seemed. Of course, the then-WWF’s signature event would be in New York City.
That in itself was notable, since pro wrestling had largely been a regional endeavor (WWF was in the northeast, NWA was the south, AWA was in the Great Plains, especially Minnesota) before Vince McMahon ambitiously tried to extend its reach nationwide. WrestleMania II was a bigger example of those national aspirations, held in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. How would the WWF top that? Hold the event in even more arenas and try to sync those cards up on the same day? McMahon had something more game-changing in mind.
I still remember the feeling on that Saturday morning, watching WWF Superstars of Wrestling when the WrestleMania III site was announced. My whole body was tingling. It had to be a dream. WrestleMania was being held in Michigan and in a football stadium. I could actually go to the event! Considering the size of the Silverdome, everybody could go. Those crowds from Chicago, New York and Los Angeles could fit in one building. I don’t remember how quickly I told my dad and asked him if we could go, but it was probably pretty quickly. He was likely intrigued too. We’d gone to several WWF events in Detroit before at Joe Louis Arena and Cobo Arena. Of course, the idea of getting tickets, how much it would cost and all that was completely lost on me.
I have memories of going with my father to the nearest TicketMaster outlet at Hudson’s department store, but don’t remember if I went with him to get the WrestleMania seats. I faintly recall him having some sense of not wanting seats on the floor, knowing that we probably wouldn’t see the ring very well. I’d like to think his experience as a sports fan and going to football games factored into that. But that same mentality could have applied for an arena show too.
Whether he knew what he was doing when choosing seats or had some luck of the draw, we were in a good location. Our seats were toward a corner of the stadium and we could see the wrestlers on their way to the ring, transported by wrestling ring-shaped carts because it was such a long path to the ring. I clearly remember being able to see the wrestlers almost as well as we could for an arena show. Even though there were four large video screens above the ring to get a closer look, I don’t recall having to look at those screens too often. Maybe when there was a pin to see if the wrestler’s shoulders were down, if there was any grabbing of the tights for leverage, or during a particularly dramatic moment in the match.
As you likely know, the main event — the one that drew 93,000-plus to the Silverdome and made WrestleMania a national story — was the clash between Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant. This was everything that a pro wrestling storyline and feud should be. Hogan and Andre were great friends and partners. Andre turning heel felt like the ultimate betrayal. How could he do that to Hulk Hogan? How could someone so seemingly gentle (outside the ring, anyway) turn so mean and nasty — and ally himself with Bobby “The Brain” Heenan?
Could Hogan possibly beat Andre the Giant? He was unstoppable. Hogan was a wrestler who relied so much on his strength and power. There was no way he was going to body-slam Andre to set him up for his finishing leg drop.
But that’s indeed what Hogan did to defeat Andre the Giant. The Silverdome lit up with camera flashes when the Hulkster picked up the Giant. It was like a magical moment surrounded by stars and fireworks. Hogan body-slammed Andre! At that size, no way he was going to get out of the way in time to avoid the leg drop. All of us in that arena couldn’t believe what we were watching. I do wonder, however, how many of the other fans in attendance still felt some sadness over Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant becoming enemies and having to wrestle. Yeah, I know it was all a storyline meant to build up a huge event. Hey, I bought in. I was a kid.
The match I really wanted to see, however, was Ricky Steamboat versus Randy “Macho Man” Savage for the Intercontinental Championship. Steamboat was my favorite wrestler. I loved his high-flying style and slight martial arts influence. But as an Asian-American, it truly meant something to see someone who sort of looked like me in the ring and battling with all of the other stars of the WWF. (That got my mother interested in wrestling too.) Even as a kid, I understood that he wasn’t going to be World Champion because that would have meant wrestling Hulk Hogan. So winning the Intercontinental title was the next best thing. Besides, an “intercontinental” championship for a wrestler of mixed ethnicity seemed appropriate.
But Steamboat wasn’t just going for a title. This was about getting revenge. Months earlier, the storyline was that Savage had injured Steamboat’s larynx during a match, jumping from the turnbuckle to slam Steamboat’s throat into the ringside barrier. Savage caused even further injury by jumping from the top rope with the ringside bell and slamming it into Steamboat’s throat. Steamboat was writhing in pain, seemingly having difficulty breathing. Policemen and attendants came out to the ring to prevent Savage from inflicting further damage, and Steamboat was taken from the ring in a stretcher.
This all looked like pretty serious stuff for wrestling. (Gene Okerlund’s “news report” weeks later seems rather absurd now.) Although it probably should have occurred to all of us watching that a paramedic or doctor was not among the people checking Steamboat and taking him from the ring. Savage seemed maniacal, trying to deliberately injure an opponent and cause lasting harm, rather than just defeat him. As impressive a wrestler as he was — and even if you hated the Macho Man, you had to admire his high-flying skill — he now seemed truly villainous. Steamboat recovering to wrestle him again felt like a battle of good versus evil.
Even without the dramatic storylines leading up to the bout, the battle between Steamboat and Savage at WrestleMania III is largely considered to be one of the best wrestling matches of all time. Personally, I’ve felt gratified over the years to read those opinions — which were repeated in the Detroit News oral history — because I always felt biased about the match and its result. This was Batman versus The Joker. Luke Skywalker versus Darth Vader. It felt like more than a wrestling match.
But Steamboat-Savage was such a good match, a fantastic 15-minute display of wrestling that was the longest match of the evening. All of my relatives and friends who dismissed wrestling as fake could eat it. Who cared if anything was choreographed or pre-determined? That was a major display of athleticism from two stars at the top of their game. Even as a fan who was only beginning to embrace “real” sports, I knew this was something spectacular to behold. But Steamboat had to win, right? Good had to triumph over evil? Savage couldn’t be allowed to be a champion after demonstrating such brutality to an opponent.
This was a back-and-forth battle, with both wrestlers nearly getting the pin numerous times. It really felt like it could go either way. Savage seemingly should have won the match after hitting his finishing elbow drop, but the referee was knocked out and couldn’t give the three-count for the pin. Then Savage, being the true asshole that he was back then, figured he would hurt Steamboat again, trying to get the ringside bell to slam it into Steamboat’s throat while he was unable to defend himself. Fortunately, Steamboat had George “The Animal” Steele (a Michigan native!) to help him. Steele knocked Savage off the top rope, a blow that set him up for Steamboat rolling him up for the pin.
Maybe it wasn’t the bombastic ending many were hoping for, but it was an unexpected one — and the surprise made it spectacular. When ring announcer Howard Finkel said “NEW!” in front of “Intercontinental Champion” to announce Steamboat had won the match, it felt like one of the most amazing things 12-year-old me had ever seen. Even my eight-year-old sister jumped up and down with her arms raised when Steamboat won. We could have left the Silverdome after that moment and I would have been happy. But there were three more matches on the card, including the Hulk Hogan-Andre the Giant main event.
Thirty years later, I don’t remember much about the other WrestleMania III matches aside from Steamboat-Savage and Hogan-Andre. Looking over the card, I don’t recall, for example, Hillbilly Jim versus King Kong Bundy with four little wrestlers in a six-man tag team match. I have no memory of what was billed as Rowdy Roddy Piper’s final match before retirement. I was a big British Bulldogs fan and don’t remember their match against The Hart Foundation, which was another six-man tag match.
What I do remember is the traffic before the game, hearing wrestlers such as Junkyard Dog on local radio stations like WRIF-FM. I recall the anticipation of riding up to the Silverdome in a shuttle and walking up the ramp toward the stadium. (I also remember riding back to our car at night, looking at our reflection in the bus window.) But what I remember most is the feeling of awe walking into the Silverdome on March 29, 1987, the stands full of people, the large WrestleMania III banners hanging, the video screens situated above the ring. There were so many people there, and all of them were there to see a wrestling event. Even if some were just there to witness the spectacle itself, I didn’t feel like a kid watching wrestling by himself on TV every Saturday morning. I remember the front-page photos and news stories in the local papers the next day. For at least one day, pro wrestling wasn’t a joke.
In thinking about what happened 30 years ago, I also think about my father. I’d love to ask him about his memories of that day, but unfortunately he’s not here to share them anymore. But I hope he enjoyed the day. Even in dealing with all of that traffic in what must have been hours of driving (Ann Arbor to Pontiac was normally a one-hour drive), the shuttle buses, spending that money on the tickets and whatever other souvenirs I had to have that day, I don’t recall my father ever losing his temper (and he had a short one). I think he had fun. Like everyone else in that stadium, he was caught up in the event and wowed by the spectacle of it all. I remember my hand stinging when he high-fived me after Steamboat won. That was a hell of a thing for a father to do for his son. I just hope I thanked him and he knew how much I appreciated it all.