Very few fans grasped just exactly what the WWF was doing back in 1985. For that matter neither did many of the wrestlers. Ask many of the participants of the first WrestleMania whether or not they knew that the event would become what it has and you'll likely get the same answer: "No."
Despite being available on closed circuit (and a VERY limited pay-per-view basis) and promoted to the hilt, the first WrestleMania was really just a glorified Madison Square Garden house show. Sure, celebrities crowded both the audience and took part in the event, but around this time that had almost become the norm. From notables like Andy Warhol and Danny DeVito being interviewed after attending cards to Diane Keaton snobbily asking David Letterman "Have you been?" regarding pro wrestling, Vince McMahon saw what was happening to "the family business" and had the forethought to take advantage of it.
While events like Starrcade were certainly wrestling supercards in their own right, the WWF made WrestleMania a household word. Although it isn't always used in the proper context, nearly everyone has heard the name. While countless parents, casual fans, and even television shows occasionally use "WrestleMania" as a catch-all term for a wrestling show, the fact is that it's stood the test of time. Nearly three decades to be exact.
This year we have the longest-promoted main event in the history of WrestleMania. Never before has a "Mania" main event been announced a full year before taking place. Arguably the greatest WrestleMania main event of all-time, Hulk Hogan against Andre the Giant, was announced a mere couple of months before their Pontiac Silverdome encounter. While that match had an anticipation likened by fans of the era to "waiting for Christmas morning," this years match will at least have one similar quality: a battle of era-dominating stars.
In the WrestleMania III contest, Andre the Giant represented domination of the 1970's. While he had never held the world championship, he really didn't have to. Looking at it through a business standpoint, due to his busy traveling schedule from one territory to another it wouldn't have made sense for Andre to hold a title, but he also did not have a need for one in order to remain the attraction that he was. Hogan, although a ten-year-veteran of the ring at that point, had only been on top of the industry for three years. In this match, a "passing of the torch" moment was intended and did indeed take place. You can honestly point to this as the beginning of the winding down of Andre's career while Hogan went on to have successful feuds with many other top stars of the industry.
The Rock-Cena contest will be a similar battle of eras, but without a torch to pass. The Rock, representing the WWF's "Attitude Era" of the late 1990's may do something that the WWE has been unable to accomplish with its current product: reign in old fans who have abandoned the industry. Although not necessarily connected, when The Rock initially left pro wrestling for Hollywood it was right around the time that many fans started to cease their viewership. Stars like Cena have been unable to bring them back into the fold due to changes in the product's content. Will The Rock's return to the company's biggest stage be the turning point?
Cena, on the other hand, represents the new image that the company has built. Capturing the hearts of women and children, Cena is a cash cow for the company. Undeniably successful and a very talented star, Cena has come up just a few steps short of what Hogan did a couple of decades earlier. Whereas Hogan was a household name during his prime years, Cena still is not. You cannot walk up to any grandma on the street and expect her to know the name John Cena. With Hulk Hogan the opposite was the case. Hogan not only stood side-by-side with stars like Mr. T and Cyndi Lauper in the ring but in name recognition as well.
Though Cena has been the face of WWE for the better part of the last decade, it seems that he will never crack the mainstream lid like Hogan did. The Rock also accomplished this largely in part to his Hollywood career. It's obvious that WWE wants its Universe and casual viewers across the world to think that this is exactly what the conflict is about. The company and the two stars at the focal point have done an excellent job of blurring the line between in-ring fiction and out-of-ring reality. Do Cena and The Rock really detest each other? Is Cena jealous of The Rock's mainstream successes? Does The Rock wish he was ten years younger and the face of the WWE again? It's pro wrestling storytelling at its finest. Fans are choosing who they want to get behind for their own reasons. For WWE this will hopefully translate into the huge buyrates that they desire.
At the end of the day, do we as fans really need or want to know how much is fiction and how much isn't? Even now, stories circulate among fans as to if Andre really always intended to "pass the torch" back in March of 1987. Thanks to the excellent job being done on the 2012 main event, twenty years from now fans will probably still be asking just how much heat truly existed between Cena and Johnson.
Maybe wrestling is still alive.
Oh? You want to know who I think will win the epic encounter on April 1? I can't tell you. Not here at least. To read the opinions of myself and 19 other staff members of PWI as to who will come out on top of the biggest match of the year, be sure to check out the latest issue of Pro Wrestling Illustrated on newsstands now!
I'm getting worse than Okerlund.