WRESTLEMANIA VII: All These Flags Make Me Feel American

WrestleMania 7

WrestleMania VII (March 24, 1991) – Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena (Los Angeles, CA) – Main Event: Hulk Hogan vs. Sgt. Slaughter (WWF Championship) – Announcers: Gorilla Monsoon, Bobby “the Brain” Heenan, “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan, Lord Alfred Hayes, “Mean” Gene Okerlund, Sean Mooney, Regis Philbin, Alex Trebek, and Marla Maples.

Jingoism was in full effect at WrestleMania VII. With the Gulf War dominating the news cycle (the war officially ended almost a month earlier) and the controversial WWF storyline that saw former G.I. Joe Sgt. Slaughter as an Iraqi sympathizer (and WWF champ), fans were ready to blow the roof off the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum – er, the LA Memorial Sports Arena. Originally planned for the Coliseum, the WWF moved the event indoors – they have said it was for security reasons, others have said it was for a lack of ticket sales. Whatever the reason (and whatever volume enhancements the WWF techs gave the crowd for the broadcast, which seem to be extraordinarily high), WrestleMania VII might lack a bit of the visual spectacle of past events, but it more than makes up for it with intensity.

One of the best parts about watching WrestleManias back to back is seeing how the event shifts from one year to the next as the company reacts to the lessons learned about what works and what doesn’t; WrestleMania VI was a start and stop affair, with too much time wasted with stuff going on outside of the ring. WrestleMania VII addresses this immediately, with a much greater emphasis on the in-ring action without completely ignoring the standard backstage interview segments and narrative subplots.

The biggest difference between these two events is that WrestleMania VII crackles with a much higher level of energy. The Toronto crowd at SkyDome for VI did what they could, but the night seemed geared for the enjoyment of the home audience more than those in attendance. WrestleMania VII, in contrast, gives the LA crowd a greater experience than the previous year. Perhaps the jingoism of the night helped keep the crowd riled up, but the WWF helps this along by keeping the action moving at a high clip. The wrestlers deserve a huge amount of credit for this, too, as there is a noticeable increase in the intensity of the matches.

I really like WrestleMania VII. The event gets bashed quite a bit and I really don’t get it. IGN, in fact, ranked it 20th out of 25 WrestleManias, which is just stupid. If nothing else, WrestleMania VII sees a major decrease in the Saturday Morning Cartoon levels of absurdity that wrecked WrestleMania VI and there’s far less of the start and stop action. Both events had fourteen matches, but VI only had two matches clock in at over ten minutes (The Roberts/DiBiase match went almost twelve minutes and the main event of Hogan and Warrior went over twenty minutes), while VII has two matches that top twenty minutes and another three that top ten minutes. IGN also slams VII for having a bunch of inconsequential matches, but while the world might not spin on its axis because the British Bulldog fights the Warlord, the in-ring action is strong. I’ll give IGN its due and admit that there are some matches we don’t need (most of them in the final third of the program) but all the bad matches are quick matches.

WrestleMania VII gets off to a great start. The tag match between the Rockers (Shawn Michaels and Marty Jannetty) and The Barbarian and Haku is a high energy tag match that’s brilliantly paced and full of great action from start to finish. Jannetty takes a whole heap of punishment from the Barbarian, allowing anticipation for Michaels to build and giving him a chance to play hero. This match is a perfect example of how teams with differing styles can work well together. The Rockers’ speed and the Barbarian and Haku’s power allows for plenty of narrative back and forth over their ten-minute-plus match. It’s a lot of fun and the Rockers’ victory gives the crowd an automatic reward for their participation.

The Texas Tornado Kerry Von Erich versus Dino Bravo is up second, and while it’s not much of a match, it is awesomely weird to see Von Erich playing the Dusty Rhodes from WrestleMania VI role of classic territory guy getting the temporary spotlight of the national showcase.

A surprisingly good British Bulldog and Warlord match follows. Both guys are of the overly muscled variety, yet they both move very well for their size, leading to plenty of back and forth. It’s good stuff.

A strong tag match is up next between the technical Hart Foundation and the sloppy Nasty Boys. It’s another good match, with plenty of energy and lots of back and forth, and the competing styles work really well together. It’s a bit like watching a football game where the teams have different styles and are trying to impose their will on one another. The Nasty Boys get the win after using Jimmy Hart’s helmet (yes, Jimmy Hart wears a motorcycle helmet to the ring) and the Tag Team titles, and shortly after this event, the Hart Foundation splits up and Hitman’s singles career is launched.

Unfortunately, the event then comes to a bit of a halt with the silly Blindfold Match between Jake “the Snake” Roberts and Rick “the Model” Martel. In the match’s favor is that the Roberts/Martel angle had been built up for quite a while. Martel originally “blinded” Jake with his perfume canister (take a minute to soak that in) and the two had been going back and forth long enough that everyone knew it was Jake’s turn to finally get his revenge.

So, of course, the WWF has them drop black bags over their head and stumble around the ring, “blindly” trying to find one another. Jake manages to milk the crowd a bit by pointing around the ring, encouraging the fans to cheer the closer his finger gets to Martel, but at 8 minutes-plus, the match goes on way too long. If they’d found a reason to dump the masks after a few minutes, the storyline and match would have come to a more satisfying conclusion.

Though at least the match gave us this gem from the great Gorilla Monsoon: “If there was a sixth sense involved here, I’d give the edge to Jake the Snake.”

Okay. I mean, there’s not a sixth sense involved. But if there was, yes, I would also give the edge to Jake.

The Undertaker and Paul Bearer make their WrestleManias debut in the following match as Taker starts his epic streak by squashing Superfly. It’s really not much of a match, and the Taker isn’t much more than an average plodder with a fantastic gimmick at this point, but that’s what the character calls for. Choosing Snuka as the debut opponent for the Phenom (I was surprised to hear Gorilla call him “the Phenom” during the match as I thought that had come later) was a wise choice. Snuka’s heyday was pre-WWF, but he still had name recognition and cred with the fans. Seeing Taker squash a fan favorite surely added to his own credibility with the fans, though his subsequent non-speaking interview with Regis Philbin (in which he took Regis’ jacket measurements) tried to give all that newly earned cred right back.

By the way, is there anything more disappointing about looking back at the early WrestleManias than watching a “classic” Taker match? Because he’s THE UNDERTAKER, because of the Streak, and because his latter day WrestleMania matches have been so off-the-charts good, it’s easy to romanticize his whole career, but so many of his pre-Attitude era matches were sub-par that it’s sort of amazing to me that he’s the guy who has The Streak. I’m glad he is the guy who has it, of course, because The Streak has become one of the best things over the last half-dozen WrestleManias.

One of my favorite things about watching the Heenan-era on commentary is listening to him talk about future stars. He has Shawn Michaels pegged early as future main event star, and he sells Taker hard after he demolishes Sunka, yelling, “I don’t believe it! That is Superfly Jimmy Snuka!” I don’t know how much of Heenan’s insight is actual insight versus mimicking the backstage chatter, but in hindsight it makes him come off as even more knowledgeable than he did at the time.

"Macho King" Randy Savage vs. the Ultimate Warrior in their WreslteMania VII Retirement Match.

“Macho King” Randy Savage vs. the Ultimate Warrior in their WreslteMania VII Retirement Match.

The match of the night comes next and it’s one of the truly great matches in WrestleMania history: The Ultimate Warrior vs. the Macho King Randy Savage in a Retirement Match.

Savage is my all-time favorite wrestler and Warrior just might be my least favorite main event wrestler ever. That said, I’m more than happy to give the man his due – he put on a really good main event at WrestleMania VI and he puts on an even better match here in VII. Much of that is due to Savage, of course, who manages to not only bring the best out of Warrior, but sell him the best, too. More than any main eventer ever (or at least, any main eventer beyond latter day Chris Jericho), Savage seems to get that the better you make your opponent look, the better you look in turn. This is one of the reasons why I’m such a fan of modern wrestlers like Dirk Ziggler and Seth Rollins. Nobody sold Hogan better than Savage, and nobody sold the Warrior better, either.

It’s a bit of a shame that what’s clearly the night’s second main event is stuck down in the mid-card but the way WrestleMania was booked back then was done so to give the audience time to come down and re-psych themselves up for the next big match, with a bit of filler in between. Savage and Warrior had the benefit of a big lead-in to the event as they battled over the preceding months, and when they entered the ring, it was clear that the crowd was ready for something historic.

This was not only the first WrestleMania Retirement Match but one being held between two of the company’s biggest stars. It could be rather easily argued, in fact, that this match was between the two biggest WWF stars of 1991 beyond Hulk Hogan (or, in Warrior-speak, HULK HO GAN). Today, Retirement Matches are almost useless because fans can either figure out who is going to lose based on Internet rumors and reporting, or like death in superhero comics, no one is ever really and truly retired until their buried six feet deep. (In real life, not in an Undertaker match.) But back in the pre-Internet days of 1991, I had no idea who was going to lose.

At least until just before the match started when Bobby Heenan noticed Miss Elizabeth sitting in the crowd, looking extremely worried.

First, I love that the idea the WWF was selling was that Miss Elizabeth had just bought a ticket to come to WrestleMania by herself, and that it was a ticket near enough to the ring that Heenan could see her from the announce table at ringside, but not so near that the Macho King didn’t see her. Did she scalp the ticket? Did she call in a favor to Vince? Or did she start dialing her phone the morning WrestleMania tickets went on sale? Heck, for that matter, did she originally have a ticket to VII when it was scheduled for the Coliseum? Or did she wait until it was moved to the Sports Arena.

Inquiring minds want to know.

Where’s Rona Barrett when we really need her? Still recovering from the Jesse Ventura porn film she uncovered last year?

Second, I still get a little misty when, at the end of the match, Elizabeth runs into the ring to pull Queen Sherri off of Savage and then reunite with the man she loves. The Savage/Elizabeth storyline may very well be the single best story the company has ever created, and if it’s not the best, it’s certainly hanging out with whatever is.

Monsoon and Heenan are at their very best in the match. I certainly enjoy Ventura as Gorilla’s partner, but the Monsoon/Heenan pairing made me a wrestling fan as much as any action in the ring. They’re fantastic together all night, but the Savage/Warrior match brings out the best in them, and the Miss Elizabeth angle puts it over the top. It’s Heenan who first spots her in the crowd and when the camera finds her next, he scoffs, “How low can a woman get? She’s here to watch Savage lose and rub it in!”

At the end of the match, after Savage and Elizabeth have been reunited to the thunderous applause (and copious tears) of the audience, the Brain partially comes around, insisting, “This is better than Love Story!” before qualifying his emotional outburst by adding, “If you like this kind of mush!”

“He certainly lost the match,” Gorilla remarks, “but he gained something much more valuable: his woman!”

“I’d rather have the match!” Heenan cries out.

And while Heenan botches the line, he does manage to make the point that Savage entered the match to everyone booing him and was leaving with everyone cheering him.

Epic.

The match itself is overshadowed in memory by the emotional reunion, but it’s a damn good match. Warrior shows a bit of attitude, not bothering to run to the ring and getting snippy with fans who try to pull on the tassels of his technicolor dream coat. He even seems a little disinterested in the ring, at times, but given how it helps the match, maybe it’s intentional. Still, it’s not hard to imagine that James Brian Hellwing isn’t in a happy place in his Warrior gear, given that a year after defeating the immortal Hulk Ho Gan he’s got to watch Hogan headline another WrestleMania with the WWF title on the line, and even though he’s got the #2 match of the night and the honor of retiring Savage, his victory is going to be overshadowed by the kayfabe reunion of Elizabeth and her off-screen husband. Allegedly, Warrior and his first wife divorced in the days leading up to WrestleMania VII, as well, and five months later, he’d be suspended from the company.

He does his part here, though, helping to tell a story in the ring that leads to both men looking better at the end of the match than they did at the start.

There’s six matches to go between Savage’s retirement and Hogan’s re-ascension, and they are a mixed bag. Genichiro Tenryu and Kōji Kitao defeat Demolition (Crush and Smash version) in a blah match given the worst possible booking spot of the night.

Big Boss Man is up next to challenge Mr. Perfect for the Intercontinental Belt, and the two men put on a strong match that includes Andre the Giant making an appearance to help out Boss Man. Boss Man and Perfect are given over ten minutes to not only put on a good match but reward the fans who’ve stuck with the ongoing storyline of Big Boss Man making his way through various members of the Heenan family over the preceding months to get his shot at the Intercontinental title.

Earthquake defeats Greg “the Hammer” Valentine and Legion of Doom defeats Power and Glory in the lowest sequence of the night – neither match is given any time to develop and both of them feel like they were included just to get all six men on the card.

Ted DiBiase and Virgil have break-up wrestling, with Roddy Piper in Virgil’s corner. It’s a good match, but it’d be better without some of the filler matches wasting a bit of time. If WrestleMania VII were a movie, I’d say it’s a great three-hour movie that’s been stretched thirty minutes too long.

The Mountie and Tito Santana are the night’s penultimate match, and it seems there were two reasons it made the event: 1. to give Santana a match without the audience at home having to listen to Jesse Ventura refer to him as “Chico,” 47 times during the match, and 2. because Jimmy Hart had a Mountie coat made for himself and he insisted it make the broadcast. I’m not a fan of Jimmy Hart- wait, let me rephrase that … I’m not a fan of Jimmy Hart’s megaphone, but damn if he isn’t a dedicated manager. The dude has a unique coat for every single wrestler he manages. It’s impressive, even if most of them look like they were designed by a dude at a beach using an airbrush.

Hulk Hogan vs. Sgt. Slaughter for the WWF Championship at WrestleMania VII.

Hulk Hogan vs. Sgt. Slaughter for the WWF Championship at WrestleMania VII.

I’ll give the LA crowd (or the WWF techs that rocketed up the sound) credit for coming alive for Hogan vs. Slaughter. The match had obviously been well-hyped and crowds always pop for Hogan, but after three-hours plus, it’s impressive how they rise to the occasion. The match for the WWF title is actually rather good. Neither Hogan or Slaughter are fantastic wrestlers, but they’re both really good storytellers and they spend twenty minutes with the crowd hanging on their every move.

One of my favorite moments of the match comes from Regis Philbin, of all people. Vince is still trying to starfuck WrestleMania into pop culture relevance, and he’s got Regis, Alex Trebek, and Marla Maples doing interviews. Regis gets to sit in on commentary for the main event, and when Slaughter has Hogan in a Boston Crab right near the ropes, Regis openly wonders, “Why isn’t the Hulk grabbing the rope?” Regis knows full well the rope will cause the ref to break the hold, something Hogan doesn’t (and shouldn’t) want until he’s worked the crowd a bit, but if wrestling wasn’t scripted, Hogan would have grabbed the ropes immediately.

Regis, then, is asking the exact right question if one is playing by kayfabe rules. I love it. What’s even better, though, is the answer Gorilla and Heenan give him, which is to basically just ignore the question. I love it.

Hogan wins and Gorilla declares the Gulf War officially won for America.

You’re welcome, Gulf War soldiers.

__________

MATCH OF THE NIGHT: Savage vs. Ultimate Warrior. A great in-ring story matched with a powerful non-ring narrative makes this not only the match of the night, but one of the all-time WrestleMania greats.

STAR OF THE NIGHT: Randy Savage and Miss Elizabeth. It still makes me misty-eyed 23 years later.

MOMENT OF THE NIGHT: Savage and Elizabeth’s embrace in mid-ring after she’s torn Sherri off of him.

QUOTE OF THE NIGHT: Bobby Heenan, on Savage/Elizabeth: “This is better than Love Story! … If you like this kind of mush!”

RUNNER-UP QUOTE: Lou Ferigno, on WrestleMania, to “Mean” Gene Okerlund: “It’s better than the Olympics, the circus, anything you can put together.” / Heenan, to Gorilla, “It’s amazing how Lou Ferigno can talk with 50 pounds of crackers in his mouth.” and Gorilla, to Heenan: “Would you stop!”

RUNNER-UP QUOTE #2: Gorilla Monsoon, on Savage/Elizabeth: “He certainly lost the match, but he gained something much more valuable: his woman!” / Heenan: “I’d rather have the match!”

RUNNER-UP QUOTE #3: Big Boss Man, to “Mean” Gene, about Heenan and Mr. Perfect: “When you hurt my mama’s feelings, you hurt my feelings.”

RUNNER-UP QUOTE #4: Heenan, on seeing Piper coming out with the help of one crutch: “Here comes Long John Piper.”

__________

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