There isn’t much connective tissue between the years 1991 and 2016. A quarter century is a significant passage of time by any standards, but when you factor in unprecedented advancements in technology, a geopolitical environment vulnerable to seismic shifts at a moment’s notice and a world made exponentially smaller thanks to social media we find ourselves at the tail end of the most expedient quarter century since the industrial revolution.
In 1990 the United States was collectively waking up after the wild party known as the 1980s, where bigger was better, greed was good and everything was paid for on a credit card with an unlimited balance. The 1980s played host to the birth of Hulk-a-Mania and the groundbreaking Rock-n-Wrestling Connection that transformed a regional pro wrestling territory into a global empire. Names like Hulk Hogan, Roddy Piper, Randy Savage and Andre ‘The Giant’ were as well known as members of the New York Yankees’ line-up. The days of smoke-filled convention halls full of middle-aged men in sport coats were replaced with major sporting arenas jam-packed to the rafters with enthusiastic fans of varying demographics eager to experience the thrill ride that was Vince McMahon’s new brand of pro wrestling.
The bill for this awesome party finally came in the mail without warning in 1991, forcing the country to rethink its priorities as it struggled to function amidst a hangover ten years in the making. The world quickly transformed into a serious place again. On the home front an economy in recession tightened purse strings from coast to coast. Overseas a conflict in the Middle East demanded American military involvement, which played out on live television. Suddenly things that were wildly popular in the 1980s, like the World Wrestling Federation, weren’t nearly as attractive anymore.
Six years after Hogan first defeated The Iron Sheik for the WWF Championship his character had hardly changed at all. His real American persona and message of saying your prayers and eating your vitamins was beginning to wear thin. Recognizing the need to rejuvenate the product, a transition from Hogan to The Ultimate Warrior was scripted; a new face for a new decade- at least that was the idea anyway. The circumstances surrounding Warrior’s WrestleMania VI win over Hogan ultimately created more sympathy for Hogan and less momentum for the new champion. Hogan’s inability to properly hand the torch to Warrior (and McMahon’s willingness to allow such storytelling malpractice to occur) caused the audience to become confused, conflicted and eventually apathetic.
Less than a year later McMahon cut his losses and chose to reinstitute Hogan as the main attraction, using WrestleMania as the stage to re-crown the returning hero. The country’s renewed patriotism amidst the first significant combat operation since the Vietnam War was viewed as the perfect backdrop for Hogan’s reinstitution and would go down as one of the more controversial angles the promotion ever produced.
Today WrestleMania VII is largely viewed as the first of three consecutive WrestleMania events lacking any substantial historical or entertainment value. Seven years after the WrestleMania franchise reinvented the business of pro wrestling it was beginning to feel like just another wrestling show. In March of 1991 the WWF’s roster was almost entirely comprised of the same players that made the original WrestleMania an overwhelming success in 1985. Poor advanced ticket sales for WrestleMania VII prompted a drastic change in venue from the originally planned Los Angeles Coliseum (a one hundred thousand-seat outdoor venue) to the much smaller LA Memorial Sports Arena (just over 16 thousand seats). A product that was once fresh and effervescent had become stale and tired.
The more things change the more they truly do stay the same.
Re-watching WrestleMania VII with the added benefit of historical context allows the viewer the opportunity to view the event much differently than the 1991 audience was forced to. One could even argue that such a reexamination could erase many of the negative critiques so commonly associated with the event. Furthermore, stark parallels between the product in 1991 and today are difficult to ignore and bring hope for today’s roster, which is in desperate need of new life.
WrestleMania is the most important storytelling platform of the WWE year, a reputation that usually garners certain expectations in terms of the quality of matches featured on the event. In 1991, however, the event was less of a grand stage for a litany of headlining talent (largely because said litany was non-existent) and more a showcase of young talent not yet marketed as stars. The first three matches of the card more closely resemble matches today’s audience has grown to expect on an episode of Raw rather than WrestleMania. The Rockers (Marty Jannetty and Shawn Michaels), Texas Tornado Kerry Von Erich and The British Bulldog all won what amounted to glorified enhancement matches against Haku and The Barbarian, Dino Bravo and The Warlord respectively.
While quality background stories were severely lacking in all three matches, the crowd was noticeably behind all of the babyface characters. The Rockers fast-paced, high-flying style was highlighted against a ground-and-pound team like Haku and The Barbarian. Texas Tornado used brute strength to make short work of the established strongman heel. The Bulldog displayed impressive tenacity and intestinal fortitude in a come from behind win against the nasty Warlord character.
The first championship match of the event pitted Tag Team Champions, The Hart Foundation against The Nasty Boys, in what proved to be the culmination of the rivalry between the two teams. The match used classic tag team psychology and a brilliant mix of technical wrestling and brawling styles to tell a compelling story. Ultimately Jimmy Hart’s presence proved to be the demise of his former team and the Nasty Boys left with the tag titles.
The first 30 minutes of WrestleMania VII subtly established who McMahon identified as the next crop of young talent his promotion desperately needed. Both The Rockers and The Nasty Boys became part of a rebuilt tag team division that would become a staple of the promotion for the next several years. The break-up of the Rockers to kick start Michaels’ singles career was less than two year later. Texas Tornado would go on to become Intercontinental Champion at a time when the title’s value was still noteworthy. As for The Hart Foundation, the team would quietly disband in the aftermath of WrestleMania VII in order to facilitate a singles run for Bret Hart. A year later he was holding the WWF Title for the first time. Watching these now beloved characters perform in the eleventh hour of their development is akin to watching an NXT: Takeover special today.
Perhaps the most notable happening of the event took place after the first of three title matches. The Undertaker manhandled Jimmy Snuka in what would become the first win of his legendary WrestleMania streak. The Undertaker character was less than a year old at WrestleMania VII and proved to be the most frightening character the promotion ever imagined. The win over Snuka cemented the character as an unstoppable monster in preparation for a program with Hogan later that year. Ironically, as Undertaker stepped into the ring you can already hear faint cheers from the audience still afraid of him, signifying the lasting stay-power the perceived run-off character would eventually enjoy.
For those reading and watching along at home, you may have noticed the omission of the Blindfold Match between Jake Roberts and Rick Martel; a match most enjoyable if you too are wearing a blindfold when watching it.
This brings us to the first of two main events, The Ultimate Warrior vs. Randy Savage. Having cost Warrior the title at Royal Rumble 91’(payback for not receiving a title match) the ill-will between the two grew to a fever-pitch. It became clear the WWF wasn’t big enough for both of them- justifying the stipulation that the loser of the match would be forced to retire. Ironically, this is easily the best match of Warrior’s career in spite of the conscious decision to subdue many of the notable aspects most commonly associated with a Warrior match today.
The match told a compelling story of two heated rivals determined to earn a victory, but more importantly avoid the embarrassment of having their career ended. Unlike the majority of Warrior’s matches, the pace was steady as the audience (which included Savage’s former manager, Miss Elizabeth) was given the opportunity to soak in the dire implications the loser of the match would be faced with. The final false finish of the match gave Warrior pause, as he gazed up at the heavens looking for a sign that his destiny was to remain in the WWF. Framed by the laser-guided commentary of Gorilla Monsoon and Bobby Heenan the suspense of the story between the two icons was pro wrestling storytelling at its best.
Having received confirmation of his destiny from the gods above Warrior earned the victory and, most importantly, the right to continue his career. Savage, on the other hand, was left with his tail between his legs and a furious manager, Sheri, who insisted on kicking the fallen gladiator when he was down-literally. The impromptu reunion between Savage and Elizabeth became an iconic moment in the promotion’s history still referenced today. On the flip side, like WrestleMania VI, the turn of events after the match forced Warrior to the backseat despite being the victor of the match. The stipulations of the match notwithstanding, Savage would ultimately return to the WWF in a less active role, mainly as a color commentator, before leaving for WCW in 1994. As for Warrior, WrestleMania VII proved to be the high-water mark for the character, despite back-to-back high profile WrestleMania wins.
Later in the evening the Intercontinental title would remain in Mr. Perfect’s control after being disqualified in his match against Big Boss Man. More important than the outcome of this match was the fact that the Andre The Giant’s appearance in support of Boss Man would be the last WrestleMania appearance made by the legendary performer, who died in January of 1993.
Prior to the main event both Earthquake and The Mountie earned wins over Greg Valentine and Tito Santana respectively. While the matches themselves were nothing to write home about, the showcase of both heels, in addition to the Nasty Boys earlier on the card, signified a changing of the guard in terms of the dominant stable of heels from Heenan’s Family to Jimmy Hart’s stable. Having been the figurehead for most of the important heel characters since the early 80s, Heenan’s role would gradually shift away from the ring and more toward the announce table. Hart represented a fresh face and a new kind of heel manager more in line with the evolving roster.
And now, you’re main event of the evening.
When Sgt. Slaughter returned to the WWF and abandoned his drill sergeant gimmick for that of an Iraqi sympathizer in 1990 the Persian Gulf War was in full force. Exploiting reality and the emotions spawned by that reality for the sake of advancing fiction is not a credible criticism of art but rather lazy analysis. Exploitation films have long since existed in the world of cinema and their presence often adds significant contributions to the medium. Similar exploitative devices have been used throughout literature, music and the stages of Broadway to great fanfare and profit.
Pro wrestling is the most unique form of art in existence, at least in my humble opinion, and deserves to be critiqued in the same fashion as those aforementioned art forms. Sadly the story between Slaughter and Hogan is often dismissed among wrestling’s detractors and fans alike as an example of ‘wrestling being wrestling’, a classification as meaningless as it is misguided. Art is art, the medium in which specific art is produced or consumed by the masses holds no bearing on how that art should be critiqued- the same standards applied to cinema must be applied to pro wrestling, to do otherwise is nothing short of intellectually dishonest.
From a storytelling perspective WrestleMania VII culminated with the most basic of stories using well-placed metaphors for added drama and intrigue. It was a story of good triumphing over evil; freedom winning the day over tyranny. From a physical perspective it was one of the more athletically impressive matches of Hogan’s WWF career. Although the war had officially ended in February of 1991 American-Middle Eastern relations were hardly stable at the time WrestleMania VII took place. And so at its core, the story between Hogan and Slaughter amounted to effective propaganda- the unstoppable power of American exceptionalism- not unlike popular television shows like, Saturday Night Live and South Park after 9/11. Rather than using satire, McMahon and the WWF used simulated physical combat. The final shots of Hogan waving an American flag in one hand and the WWF Championship in the other injected his character with new life at a time when it desperately needed it.
More than anything else WrestleMania VII highlights the incredible talent waiting in the wings on the WWF roster in 1991 and the consequences of failing to cultivate that talent in a timely fashion. Characters like Hart, Michaels and The Undertaker would not become the face of The New Generation era until WrestleMania X three years later, a fact that nearly bankrupt McMahon and his company. It is easy to watch WrestleMania VII and see the likes of Dean Ambrose, Roman Reigns, Kevin Owen, The New Day and others in place of Hart, Michaels, Bulldog, Undertaker, Von Erich and The Nasty Boys. One can only hope that a review of WrestleMania 32 a quarter century after the fact does not include similar observations.