MY MEMORIES OF MANIA--FSM#104

Recently, our erstwhile editor sent me his massive monthly missive proferring a plethora of tantalizing topics for me to expound upon in my borderline mystical way. At the keyboard, indecision gripped me as I struggled with selecting a subject, until the perfect panacea for incurable indecisiveness presented itself--go with the obvious!

Any column on wrestling in the Springtime has to reference what is now the undisputed biggest event in pro wrestling/sports entertainment's year, Wrestlemania. It's been 30 years now since the WWF took the gamble, and it's safe to say Vince McMahon won this one big. However you feel about the product, the changes in the industry, the effect it's had on every other promotion and the business in general, Mania is without a doubt the big one, in terms of money generated, press and mainstream attention, name recognition and star power.

It was already a big deal in the years I was involved with it, but it's waay bigger now. Forgetting the XFL, the WBF, the restaurants and the movie projects, Mania is possibly Vince McMahon's greatest achievement. As such, there's always a level of excitement inside the company surrounding the event that outstrips any other, and I got caught up with it in varying degrees during my WWF tenure as well.

I've told this story in various places before, but looking back, it's fairly incredible that the first time I ever walked into Madison Square Garden, I was managing the WWF Champion in the main event at Wrestlemania X on March 20, 1994. At the time, I was the "American Spokesperson" for Yoko and his full time manager Mr. Fuji, and we were to defend the WWF Title TWICE that night, versus Lex Luger with "Mr. Perfect" Curt Hennig the surprise special referee, and then again, losing it this time, to Bret Hart with special referee Roddy Piper. My Heavenly Bodies, Dr. Tom Prichard and Jimmy Del Ray, had defeated the Bushwhackers in the "dark" match that evening, so I worked my first Mania three times, too. In the Luger match, while Lex had been annointed the next champ by Vince the previous summer, while trying to draw it out to Wrestlemania "the chairman" had cooled on that idea--permanently, as it turned out. So right before Curt was to switch heel and cost Lex the match, I got to take my first bump at Mania--Lex would slingshot me in and nail me with a right cross as I got up. I flew in over the top, landed in a heap, staggered up to take a mighty punch and fly like a bird for it--and he punched me kind of half-heartedly on the left bicep. Ready to take the Mania bump for the ages, I still flew, so it either looked like shit or made Luger look like Superman, one or the other. You can decide, it's on the Network, where the suit I wore has been getting rave reviews.

In the match with Bret, at least I got to halfway redeem myself by getting KO'd by Piper as well, and it looked better, so all-in-all I'd rather have saved the spot for Roddy to begin with. Madison Square Garden was sold out with over 18,000 fans and another 4,000 plus watching closed circuit in the Felt Forum, plus the pay-per-view audience, so it was a thrill--but for every thrill in New York City comes a shattering of dreams, or at least travel schedules.

I was travelling with the Bodies in a rental car, as we were driving on to Poughkeepsie for RAW tapings on March 21, followed by two more days of TV. The office-chosen Mania hotel was in Manhattan, so after the event, we arrived at the hotel and luckily found a parking space in a string of other cars right outside the hotel. Checking to make sure there were no "No Parking" signs, we unloaded our baggage, checked in the hotel and drifted off to sleep the sleep of the Wrestlemania icons.

Nine and a half hours later, Monday at 10AM, we were standing in the lobby of the hotel with all our baggage, ready to go to RAW, looking out the window at the place where our car USED to be, on a street completely devoid of any parked cars. The front desk clerk calmly informed me they had watched a tow truck take it away about an hour before. After he swore to me that it was clearly marked that after 7AM Monday, parking was not allowed there, Tom, Jimmy and I were standing there not seeing one goddamned "No Parking" sign, until someone said "All I see is No STANDING". The clerk THEN tells us THAT means "No Parking", whereas for three Southern boys that means you can't STAND there. After a heated discussion involving me slamming my fist down on the desk so hard my watch flew across the room, we had ascertained the holding place of our rental car and gotten a cab to take us there. We had also informed Tom's brother, Bruce Prichard, that I would be late to the production meeting, as I was to do color on one of the RAW episodes.

After paying $25 for the taxi to the impound lot, and $150 to get the car out of the lot, we were on our way to Poughkeepsie, tearing up and throwing away the THREE parking tickets we had accumulated from 7AM until they towed it at 9--so kiss my ass, NYC, the statute of limitations has run out! When we finally arrived at TV, Bruce had stopped at a toy store and gotten a little truck toy in a box, which was presented to me as a present from Vince, Pat Patterson, Bruce and the production team. It was emblazoned with white athletic tape, labelled in Sharpie as a "New York City Tow Truck", with $150 Fine" and "No Standing" written across the front. I still have that in my office.

In hindsight, I didn't get the chance to fully savor my first Mania experience. My full-time job was operating Smoky Mountain Wrestling, and March 1994 was one of the busiest schedules we had yet run there. The first week of the month had contained four spot shows and a TV taping in a row--two days of post-production and promotional work--and a string of eight events in eleven days including a cage match in Marietta, Georgia with me one on one versus Bullet Bob Armstrong, and seven handicap matches against Bullet Bob with Dick Murdoch as my partner. After finishing that in Harlan, Kentucky on March 19, we flew out of Knoxville to New York City for Mania the morning of the 20th. After finishing WWF TV on March 23 in White Plains, NY, the Bodies and I were back in SMW for two matches with the Rock & Roll Express in Virginia, and I made another quick trip to Stamford to do RAW VO's before month's end. People wonder why I was highly strung in those years.

The following year, 1995, I had a much easier schedule heading into Mania, but it got hectic from there. In Hartford, Connecticut on April 2, 1995, I was ringside with Fuji when Owen Hart and the returning Yokozuna defeated the Smoking Gunns for the WWF Tag Team Title, and got to personally witness NFL Football great Lawrence Taylor turn pale and be helped to a chair after completely gassing out against Bam Bam Bigelow. I had a week off from SMW events beforehand, but after Mania I did three more days of WWF TV tapings, then returned that Friday to my annual Spring sellout in Pikeville, Ky. featuring the Undertaker and a big event in Johnson City, Tennessee's Freedom Hall the next day.

The year 1996 was the first year where I was full-time with the WWF, and being on the creative team got to participate in the matchmaking and formatting of the show. It was always understood this was the big show, and it should be treated at a level apart. Inside the ring, I led the Camp Cornette team of Vader, Owen Hart and the British Bulldog to victory over Ahmed Johnson, Jake Roberts and Yokozuna, with the loyal Mr. Fuji. Backstage, I got to watch the Hollywood Back Lot brawl between Piper and Goldust that I found perversely entertaining, and the last match between Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart until Montreal, but my biggest memory of this Mania is another travel deviation--before the show, to Phoenix, Arizona.

The Ultimate Warrior was returning to the WWF at this event, where he would squash HHH in a minute and a half in a classic lack of long term thinking. As members of the creative team, myself, Bruce Prichard and Jim Ross received one of Vince's mandatory invitations to stop over in Phoenix on the way to LA and have lunch with the Warrior, to "get inside his head" and "get ideas for how to present him" based on his "concepts". We met Warrior at his gym, and had lunch with him. I had never been a fan of his work, and was not alone in that thinking, but he was a big star, so since I had never met him, I could at least give him the benefit of the doubt.

All I can say after that lunch is, specifics are impossible to remember because while I know he was speaking English because I recognized the words, I had never heard them in that order before. Past that he takes his position as a sports entertainment icon and paragon of positive thinking very seriously, I'm not sure what the bloody Hell his "concepts" were.

Wrestlemania 13 in Chicago pretty much held true to it's number in terms of business and fond recollections in and out of the ring. I suffered through a bad cold the entire weekend that worsened to bronchitis by the TV's afterwards. I was no longer an on-camera talent, but was still on the creative team and am at least proud to have helped produce a show that featured the incredible "I Quit" match between Bret Hart and Steve Austin.

Business, as they say, was about to pick up. Wrestlemania 14 in Boston featured the iconic appearance of Mike Tyson as special referee for the WWF Title match between Shawn Michaels and Steve Austin. I was no longer on the creative team, but the issues Michaels had with Vince, the match, the finish, and everything else in the world had become widely known in the company. This Mania stands out for the image of Undertaker sitting at the monitor with his fists taped, apparently giving indication of what he'd do if Michaels didn't do business the proper way, and my usual travel problems. The office had booked me into a hotel in downtown Boston with no air conditioning operating until April 15, on March 29 in a freak heat wave in the city. To get air, I had to move next door to a newer hotel at $50 per night out of my pocket.

I attended Wrestlemania 15 in Philadelphia in 1999 due to my backstage duties, but was finishing up at the time to move to Louisville and establish the developmental program at Ohio Valley Wrestling, so for me the memory that mosts stands out is seeing Jim Ross return to announcing after time on the sidelines due to Bell's Palsy.

Being in Louisville full-time, I skipped Wrestlemania 16 in Anaheim completely--but through a complete fluke, I would yet achieve my last goal, to actually WRESTLE at Wrestlemania!

Wrestlemania 17 was in Houston, Texas in 2001, and it would feature as a main event the biggest-money match in pro wrestling ever to that point in time, Steve Austin versus the Rock. I was scheduled to be in Houston, because we were having meetings that weekend about the developmental program with the top talent relations people under Jim Ross. In a phone conversation, Bruce Prichard told me he was in the "Gimmick Battle Royal", where many legends would come back in the personas they had worked the WWF in, as Brother Love. I jokingly said I should enter so we could get in the corner and beat each other up safely, and stay away from all the old-timer's potatoes. He said, "You wanna be in it?" I replied "Sure". That is how hard it was to get booked to wrestle on the undercard of the biggest money wrestling event in recorded history.

Of course, it didn't turn out to be that easy. I went into the match with a minor black eye from an OVW spot the previous week. I gut-shotted Bruce with the racket in the corner, and he bent over to sell it and headbutted me in the mouth, fattening my lip and bruising my jaw. I believe I stepped on his toes and hit him at least once in the face with a punch. At least I ran to the ring and in doing so got a bigger pop than many of my slower-moving contemporaries. I also ended up aggravating a hernia I had had since a 2000 match with Bob Armstrong, and ended up having surgery for it a few months later. But it was fun, and a great experience working the Astrodome in front of 68,000 fans, the biggest crowd I had ever appeared before.

I went to Wrestlemania 18 in Toronto, but just as a backstage spectator, and that was the last. It does have an infectuous energy, but only, for me, if you're in the middle of it. It also can just about hospitalize you due to exhaustion if you're in the middle of it. But while some of my feelings about the WWF/E can be conflicted, I did as a whole enjoy my involvement with Wrestlemania events, and they provided memories, of one kind or another, that will last forever.