WRESTLEMANIA VI: Images of Strange and Powerful Forces

WrestleMania VI

WrestleMania VI (1990) – SkyDome (Toronto, Ontario, Canada) – Main Event: Ultimate Warrior (Intercontinental Champion) vs. Hulk Hogan (WWF Champion) – Announcers: Gorilla Monsoon, Jesse “the Body” Ventura, “Mean” Gene Okerlund, and Sean Mooney.

The opening introduction to WrestleMania VI has Vince McMahon talking over a scrolling image of heavenly constellations, eventually revealing the images of Hulk Hogan and the Ultimate Warrior. It’s a fitting opening to the year’s biggest PPV, as the focus is on wrestlers who have been pumped up to be larger than life (either in stature or personality). Looking back on WrestleMania VI now, it’s like watching a bad Saturday morning cartoon. It’s a bit like watching the Laff-A-Lympics, except its largely filled with characters you don’t like or have forgotten to remember.

That’s not to suggest that WrestleMania VI is all terrible, only mostly all terrible as what we see here an event which is running the risk of being crushed under its own previous success. Much has been made of the fact that Edge, Christian, and Lance Storm were in attendance at SkyDome, and I’m pretty sure even from their seats they were among the ten best ring technicians in attendance.

This Saturday Morning Cartoon era of WWF history is not my favorite, but there’s no denying that oversized personalities and characters was the way to get yourself on the card. Hulk Hogan is the greatest of all cartoon faces in wrestling history, and it’s easy to see the Ultimate Warrior as an amplified Hogan – where Hogan was a living dude turned into an actual cartoon, the Warrior like a cartoon come to life, complete with all his little Warriors and their face paint and their running around. If Stan Lee had invented the Ultimate Warrior, the origin would involve a scientist’s kid throwing sugar at a cartoon as a bomb went off in the lab down the hall.

Given that Vince still rolls out the occasional Fandango and Los Matadores-style gimmick for new talent, I suppose we should all be glad the chairman fell in love hardest with the Attitude Era, so that Roman Reigns, Dean Ambrose, and Seth Rollins aren’t sold to us as the Big Boss Man’s kids.

WrestleMania VI is notable for the main event, of course. Not because it was the main event, but because Hulk Hogan lost clean to the Ultimate Warrior. I don’t know how they convinced/conned/bribed Hogan into losing clean to an asshat like the Ultimate Warrior, but I don’t really care, either. While there is no denying the spectacle of the evening’s final bout, my pleasure largely comes firmly from the mid-card, where Curt Hennig, the Hart Foundation, Jake the Snake, Ted DiBiase, the Macho Man, and a cartoonified Dusty Rhodes do battle. Unfortunately, they don’t get much of the spotlight. I’ve never been a fan of big plodders, and WrestleMania VI has a ton of them: Earthquake, Hercules, Ax, Smash, a nearly-finished Andre, the Bolsheviks, the Barbarian, Hacksaw, Dino Bravo, and Akeem.

It must have driven plenty of solid pros nuts that the coveted main event slot went to the Warrior, as they wondered if the real difference between their place in the company and Hogan’s was really just colorful face paint, running to the ring, shaking the ring ropes, to scream sentences, and a receptive arena rock entrance theme. It’s not that easy, of course – go ahead, picture Dino Bravo trying to pull off the Warrior’s schtick. I’ll wait – but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.

Every WWF era depends, to a certain extent, on oversized personalities, and it speaks to one of the reasons the modern “Reality Era” label is a bit of misnomer. Fans have never been more tuned in to the “reality” of the business, have never had so much access to so many different wrestlers, but Vince still won’t trust his company to the independent stars. The Reality Era moniker only actually applies if you understand the WWE still operates via Vince’s reality and no one else’s. To believe that this is the “Reality Era” as it was originally sold is to think that the fans have a larger say in how the company is run than the company, itself.

Fans are starting to get that, but they didn’t get it back in 1990. I think the opening shot of the Reality Era might well have come when WrestleMania returned to the SkyDome for WrestleMania X8 and openly rebelled against playing their expected part in the Hogan v. Rock match, but 1990 still saw the crowd largely responding exactly how the company wanted them, too.

And that is what makes the main event such a fascinating experience, as the WWE tossed their two biggest faces into the same match and made the crowd decide who was going to get their hearts and applause.

But damn if it doesn’t take forever to get there.

The night’s opening match pitted Koko B. Ware against Rick “the Model” Martel. Koko still had Frankie with him, but thankfully WWE’s animal fascination was on the wane. This match typifies much about these early Mania matches, in that there’s as much time devoted to entrances as their is to the match itself. Were Ware and Martel feuding? There’s no sense of story here, just two guys tossed into the ring against one another because one’s name resides on the “face” list and the other on the “heel” list.

The second match gives us some star power, as Andre the Giant teams up with Haku as part of the Colossal Connection (mockingly referred to as the “Colostomy Connection” by “Mean” Gene during the pre-match interview) to take on Demolition in a tag team championship match. It’s a pretty blah match, as is usually the case when the biggest star in the ring can barely move. Andre is close to the end of his career here and Haku does all the heavy lifting, with Andre only getting involved at the end, when he gets tied up in the ropes. It’s sad to see any athlete diminished by time and health concerns, of course, but at least Andre gets to turn face one last time. After Bobby Heenan blames Andre for the loss, the Giant takes his frustrations out on his manager and his partner.

The real star of this match, though, is Heenan. The greatest manager in pro wrestling history rescues a blah battle by his post-match antics, and helps create one of the night’s best moments (even if he does no sell a complete whiff of backhand from Andre).

The giant mass of fat and back hair that is Earthquake comes up next to take on Hercules in a squash match. Hercules has put in some good work over the first five WrestleManias, but he’s fed to Earthquake here, whose primary skills seem to be jumping up and down in the middle of the ring and letting Jimmy Hart yell. Big, fat guys have always been my least favorite wrestlers (HAHAHAHAHA, I WILL SIT ON YOU, HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!), so Earthquake was unlikely to ever win me over, but this match does nothing for me.

The next match features one of my favorite wrestlers from this era, Mr. Perfect, but his undefeated streak comes to an ignominious end at the hands of a guy whose gimmick was being a hedge-clip wielding barber. Nothing against Beefcake (well, nothing except for the lame name and lamer gimmick) but this pairing epitomizes where the WWF’s mind was in 1990 more than any other match on the card, as the cartoon takes down the previously unbeaten in-ring technician. What was the payoff here? Curt Hennig gets built up as the “perfect” wrestler only to get stopped in the fourth match at WrestleMania in a non-title match? Was this decision made on the fly? Because the end result is that Hennig’s “perfect streak” gets stopped by just another guy looking to work his way up the card.

Even the payoff in the ring doesn’t amount to much, as the pin just kind of happens, and then Beefcake runs around threatening to cut Hennig’s hair and beating up Hennig’s sidekick, the Genius.

Hennig’s persona was based entirely around his work in the ring, and when faced with a guy who could make big goggly eyes and do Hogan-derivative promos, he didn’t stand a chance.

(I know that sound awfully harsh on Beefcake, and I want to point out that I like him more than most other wrestlers with unbelievably stupid gimmicks. I was in high school when WrestleMania VI happened and while I never had any thoughts of becoming a pro wrestler, it was guys like Hennig, Bret Hart, and Savage that I looked up to, that I would have wanted to be if I had wanted to be a wrestler, and I got just as angry when they lost to a cartoon then as I do when Punk, Bryan, Cesaro, and Ziggler lose to cartoons now.)

Roddy Piper has painted himself half-black for his battle against Bad News Brown. Piper is one of the all-time great heels, and often, his ability to work the crowd into a frenzy comes from walking the line between appropriateness and insensitiveness. Wrestling has a complicated history with race, of course, and that’s never more evident than when Vince and Creative take a piece of racial or ethnic culture, embrace the stereotype, and then amplify it to Saturday Morning Cartoon status. Bad News Brown is here to play the role of Scary Black Guy while Piper get to be the champion of White Male Consternation, as he’d previously done with Mr. T and Snuka, and as he’ll do at WrestleMania XII with Goldust. Brown and Piper’s match is more dull brawl than wrestling match, and Brown has to go down as one of the most mishandled wrestlers in this era of WWF history.

One of the biggest disappointments / highlights of the night is up next, as we get a brief match between the Hart Foundation and the Bolsheviks. More time is devoted to a bit with the Bolsheviks and Steve Allen in a bathroom, to their entrances, and to the Bolsheviks singing the Russian National Anthem individually than gets devoted to the entire match, which lasts all of about 15 seconds.

It’s a good 15 seconds, but still.

The Barbarian and Tito Santana have a match, which produces only two things of note: One: The Barbarian moves slower than frozen molasses but he occasionally pulls off an impressive power move, such as a big boot to the face and a pretty good clothesline. Two: Ventura does his “Chico” Santana, anti-Mexican bit, which is Ventura at his worst.

Well, almost worst.

As much as I enjoy the announcing duo of Gorilla Monsoon and Ventura, the worst schtick they do is when they start playing the rules game with one another, and that’s what we get during the Dusty Rhodes and Sapphire versus Savage and Sherri mixed tag match. It’s like listening to kids arguing for their parent’s approval: “He was bad!” “He started it!” “He started it because he provoked it!”

Ugh.

The match itself is an odd mix of chaos and silliness. This is Savage in his Macho King heel phase and he’s his usual dependable self, but Queen Sherri neutralizes all of her effective in-ring technique with her incessant screeching. Shut up. Just shut up.

It’s a bit painful and awesome to see Dusty Rhodes out here on the WrestleMania stage with his polka dots. Rhodes is the epitome of the regional era and he looks and sounds out of place out there in the middle of SkyDome, dancing and prancing and trying not to have his ear drums blown out by Sherri. He calls out the “crown jewels” to join him and Sapphire, and Miss Elizabeth gets one of the biggest pops of the night. The match itself is a mess of people running in and out of the ring willy-nilly. In a night painfully short of good wrestling, this match at least has the benefit of showcasing Rhodes and Savage, but-

WAAAAAAHHHHHH!

AAAAAHHHHHHHHH!

WWWWAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!

YYYYYAAAAAAAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHHHYYYYHHHHHHAAAAA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

You said it, Sherri.

WrestleMania VI gives us a big break after the Savage/Rhodes match so we can listen to a bunch of backstage interviews. The Hogan and Warrior bits are interesting given how the main event ends. Hogan sets up his Hulkamaniacs for the loss, saying it’s not whether you win or lose, but what kind of winner and loser you are. Then Warrior comes on and does his monosyllabic rant. I had genuinely forgotten how he always refers to Hogan as “HULK HO GAN,” which makes me giggle. Warrior lets us know he’s not here to destroy Hulkamania, but to combine the Hulkamaniacs with the Warriors and to take them someplace HULK HO GAN never did.

Which, presumably, is the back of a shag-carpeted windowless van for some tainted bug juice and a golden ticket to years of therapy.

The big delay kills the crowd. It’s hard to imagine the crowd wouldn’t be super-enthused about Rona Barrett making allusions to a Jesse Ventura sex tape, but there you have it. Truthfully, the crowd is great when WrestleMania VI gives them something to cheer about, but so much of the night is spent in down time and so little on in-ring action that by the time the Rockers and the Orient Express restart the event, the crowd is dead. The two teams put on a pretty good show, but it’s nothing special. If you just showed the match on its own, you’d think it was from an episode of Superstars and not the biggest PPV night of the year. It’s always interesting to watch these Rockers matches in hindsight and try to figure out why Shawn Michaels became the Heartbreak Kid and Marty Jannetty became a guy who you have to check Wikipedia to make sure you’re spelling his name right. On this night, Jannetty is every bit as good as Michaels, but it’s admittedly Michaels in one of his least interesting WrestleMania performances.

The Orient Express wins, and then Hacksaw and Dino Bravo come out to remind you they also exist, and after a Hacksaw win, Earthquake enters the ring to jump on Duggan 50 times to remind you he’s fat.

As bad as WrestleMania VI is, with its preference for cartoons and rapid-fire set of matches, the night offers us one really classic, old school wrestling match, as Jake “the Snake” Roberts and Ted DiBiase put on a fantastic show that’s marred only by the Dusty Finish of Virgil rolling DiBiase back into the ring so he can win by count out. Before that unsatisfactory ending, however, Roberts and DiBiase prove that what people still want most is a good wrestling match. While not super technical, these aren’t guys who get over with the crowd through amplified height, weight, muscles, or gimmick. One guy is a rich asshole who has his own belt. The other guy is a bad-ass Texan who keeps a python in a bag. Both dudes have perfect personas that seem like simple extensions of who they really are. I can believe that these two guys are going to fight whether they meet in the middle of the ring or in the parking lot.

The crowd loves it, too. Other than the Warrior and Hulk Ho Gan main event, the crowd is never more into what they’re watching.

I love it.

And Mary Tyler Moore, sitting at ringside, seems to dig it, too, though Sean Mooney’s interview with her tests the limit of her wrestling knowledge. She does give one great answer, though, when she describes wrestling as the perfect mix of athletics and theatrics. I am going to go ahead and give Mary Tyler Moore credit for creating the term “sports entertainment,” just because WrestleMania VI needs every bit of help it can get.

Because Vince has paid for 3 and 1/2 hours on the SkyDome rental, he decides to torture us with an Akeem/Big Boss Man match that could put the Energizer Bunny to sleep, and then we get a musical performance from the Honky Tonk Man and Greg “the Hammer” Valentine, as they sing their new song, “Hunka Hunka Hunka Shoot Me in the Face.” It’s such a painful segment that I’m actually glad when the Bushwhackers show up to end it.

The penultimate match features Ravishing Rick Rude and Jimmy Snuka in a brief match that’s mostly memorable for a couple of really bad Steve Allen lines, including, “Jimmy Snuka is so ugly that a vampire flew through his window, took one look at him, and bit the bedpost” and “I like Snuka because he’s wearing my wife’s underwear.”

Hey-O!

The pay-off for all of these short matches is the face vs. face main event, as the two biggest cartoons in the company vie for the soul of six-year olds everywhere.

The main event thankfully gets the star treatment, as Hogan and Warrior are given 20 minutes or so to wrestle. Both men eschew that awful cart, as Warrior runs to the ring and Hogan struts. I can be critical of Hogan but there’s no denying how great he is at working the crowd. The genius of Hogan’s interaction with the crowd is that he’s always inviting the crowd to participate and celebrate his Hoganness with him. With “Real American” cranking and the crowd going wild, Hogan points to the crowd, making them the stars. Fans loves to be told their awesome, which is why every championship interview and jersey retirement ceremony includes the athlete telling their fans they’re the best fans in the world. No one has ever been better at that than Hogan, and while I’m always going to prefer the Hitmans to the Hogans, the Hukster brings out the inner fanboy better than anyone.

I’m always amazed that more wrestlers don’t constantly play to the crowd during their matches, especially if they’re struggling to connect with that audience.

Hogan and the Warrior do not put on a great technical match but they do put on one hell of a show. It’s clear that the match is designed to make both men look good and both men look evenly matched. After some shared feats of strength, Hogan “hurts” his knee and the Warrior takes advantage of it, which leads to the two men, as Ventura puts it, “getting nasty.”

It’s really great storytelling, and Monsoon and Ventura rise to the occasion. Their bickering takes a backseat to calling the match, and now when they disagree with one another, it comes across as sharp rebukes instead of canned schtick.

It’s a truly great spectacle of a main event. Hogan pins the Warrior by referee Dave Hebner is out and so doesn’t get the win. Then the Warrior pins Hogan but Hebner is still out. Hebner then delivers some of the best slow counts you’ll ever see, as his own grogginess is the cause of the elongated count. The ending is a crescendo of close calls and big moves – Warrior drops Hogan in a gorilla press, then Hogan hits a big boot but misses the leg drop, allowing the Warrior to hit a splash and get the pin. Hogan losing clean is more shocking than the Warrior winning and unifying both the Heavyweight and Intercontinental championships.

WrestleMania VI has a great main event and a fantastic Snake/Million Dollar Man match, but the rest of the night is largely a big long dud. There’s too much inaction and too little wrestling as the theatrics overcome the athleticism.

____________

MATCH OF THE NIGHT: As much as I like the Roberts/DiBiase match, there’s no denying the spectacle of the Ultimate Warrior vs. Hulk Ho Gan.

STAR OF THE NIGHT: Was there one? Robert Goulet singing the Canadian National Anthem? I’ll give it to DiBiase for putting on a great match with Roberts and then hanging out under the ring to try and inject some life into the Boss Man match.

MOMENT OF THE NIGHT: Warrior pinning Ho Gan for a clean finish.

QUOTE OF THE NIGHT: Ventura: “You were digesting another hot dog.” Monsoon: “I was busy trying to digest some of the verbiage you’ve been laying on me.”

RUNNER-UP QUOTE OF THE NIGHT: “Mean” Gene Okerlund to Bobby Heenan: “Family members are falling like the Berlin Wall.”

RUNNER-UP QUOTE #2: Randy Savage: “Suffering builds character!”

__________

FULL CARD RESULTS

1. Rick Martel defeated Koko B. Ware – Singles
2. Demolition (Ax and Smash) defeated The Colossal Connection (André the Giant and Haku) (with Bobby Heenan) – WWF Tag Team Championship
3. Earthquake (with Jimmy Hart) defeated Hercules – Singles
4. Brutus Beefcake defeated Mr. Perfect (with The Genius) – Singles
5. Roddy Piper and Bad News Brown end in double count out – Singles
6. The Hart Foundation (Bret Hart and Jim Neidhart) defeated The Bolsheviks (Nikolai Volkoff and Boris Zhukov) – Tag Team
7. The Barbarian (with Bobby Heenan) defeated Tito Santana – Singles
8. Dusty Rhodes and Sapphire (with Miss Elizabeth) defeated Randy Savage and Sensational Queen Sherri – Mixed Tag Team
9. The Orient Express (Sato and Tanaka) (with Mr. Fuji) defeated The Rockers (Shawn Michaels and Marty Jannetty) – Tag Team
10. Jim Duggan defeated Dino Bravo (with Jimmy Hart and Earthquake) – Singles
11. Ted DiBiase (c) (with Virgil) defeated Jake Roberts – Singles
12. The Big Boss Man defeated Akeem (with Slick) – Singles
13. Rick Rude (with Bobby Heenan) defeated Jimmy Snuka – Singles
14. The Ultimate Warrior (Intercontinental Champion) defeated Hulk Hogan (WWF Champion) – WWF Intercontinental and WWF Championship Title Match

__________

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