The Story Of Mr T's Involvement At The First WrestleMania
A WrestleMania celebrity encounter proved notable on-screen *and* off
They say great things happen when stars align, and that tends to be the case in the world of professional wrestling - specifically when stars of other galaxies temporarily inhabit the squared circle.
As we enter WrestleMania season, we have a few ideas of what to expect as the thirty-seventh instalment of the "Grand Spectacle" comes together. Seeing as popular musical artist (and recent WWE 24/7 titleholder) Bad Bunny has been hanging around the Monday Night Raw landscape, it's a pretty safe bet that he'll be involved with a match on the WrestleMania card.
Of course, he'd hardly be the first celebrity to take to the 'Mania ring.
A stroll down memory lane reveals a great number of actors, athletes, and other contemporary stars that have laced up the boots on WWE's biggest stage. Football icon Lawrence Taylor thwarted Bam Bam Bigelow in the hard-hitting finale of WrestleMania 11. Undefeated boxing great Floyd Mayweather Jr took down Big Show at WrestleMania 24 in one of the more eclectic outings. Others, from TV hostess Maria Menounos, to sumo legend Akebono, to The Jersey Shore's Snooki, have had their WrestleMania fill in the form of an actual match.
For most outsiders at WrestleMania, the experience is a pleasant one, and they're treated as welcome guests.
But one superstar wasn't as entirely welcome.
As part of the WWF's national expansion in the mid-eighties, the mother of all supercards was being put together: the first WrestleMania. Taking place on March 31, 1985 inside historic Madison Square Garden, WrestleMania was Vince McMahon's biggest gamble to date - if it wasn't a financial success, the WWF may well have sputtered to its demise shortly thereafter.
To boost WrestleMania's Q rating, the WWF employed two contemporary stars as a grand appeal to casual fans and other mainstream avenues. One was pop idol Cyndi Lauper, who would corner for Women's title challenger Wendi Richter in WrestleMania's semi-main.
The other was Mr. T.
Between his chiselled physique, unflinching gaze, natural charisma, and propensity for churning out million dollar phraseology, Mr. T seemed like a natural fit for the over-the-top world of professional wrestling.
Less than three years earlier, T came into prominence as James "Clubber" Lang, Balboa's boisterous challenger in Rocky III. The ensuing surge in popularity for Mr. T led to a Saturday morning children's cartoon, a starring role on the action-adventure series The A-Team, and merchandising in all conceivable forms.
His colourful phrases entered the global lexicon, from "I pity the fool" to declarations that one had no time for "jibber-jabber."
Mr. T's infectious machismo complemented that of reigning WWF champion Hulk Hogan (himself a memorable part of Rocky III). The plan was to put the two pop culture heroes together as a dream team of sorts.
And their opponents were ideal antagonists.
One was arrogant muscleman "Mr. Wonderful" Paul Orndorff, an extremely gifted worker with the ability to get the most out of a novice wrestler.
The other was the fearless and irascible "Rowdy" Roddy Piper.
Hogan and Piper had fought to a DQ finish at an MTV special that February, after Orndorff got involved. Amid the ensuing scuffle, ringside spectator Mr. T jumped the guardrail and insinuated himself on Hulk's behalf. Officials and police then intervened on what had become a chaotic fray.
The pieces then came together: Hogan and Mr. T would team up in the main event of the all-important, needs-to-succeed WrestleMania, to battle Piper and Orndorff.
Piper, however, was not so enamoured with the man behind Clubber Lang.
The "Hot Rod" felt that Mr. T didn't respect wrestling at all, and was treating it the way most outsiders did: with a dismissive sort of condescension.
Piper later said, “There was a big difference between Cyndi Lauper and Mr. T. While Cyndi came into our business not to take anything out, Mr. T thought, ‘What can I do for Mr. T?’”
Piper wasn't the only one unimpressed with the sturdy outsider. Orndorff later made it clear that he didn't like working with him, while Nikolai Volkoff noted many of the "old school" guys in the company felt (as they might about most non-wrestlers) that T didn't belong. Mean Gene Okerlund added, “Mr. T could rub anyone the wrong way. He was making a lot of money, and he was leading Hogan around by the arm, when it should have been the other way around.”
As if Mr. T's occupancy of the WWF sanctum wasn't enough to rankle Piper and company, the Rowdy one was far more apoplectic by the planned finish of the WrestleMania match.
In discussing the ending with McMahon and Pat Patterson, Piper was horrified to learn that he was going to lose cleanly in something far removed from a blaze of glory, and it would come at the hands of Mr. T.
Piper flipped out at the construct, screaming at McMahon and Patterson about how wrong the idea was.
To this point, Piper hadn't met his match in the WWF, and had yet to even taste a pinfall defeat to The Hulkster himself. He believed that if somebody from the world of entertainment (even someone like Mr. T, who the mainstream audience accepted as a bad ass) pinned him, it would damaging to both himself and the organization.
In Piper's defense, wrestlers (particularly then) were extremely protective about the business and their tough guy images. Jake Roberts once barely registered a punch from boxing great Muhammad Ali during a Mid South Wrestling event. He justified it by noting he had to work there tomorrow, whereas Ali didn't.
And since Piper was Hogan's top challenger, he reasoned that it made no sense to put a celebrity over the A1 heel on the depth chart.
In his refusal to succumb to a Mr. T pinfall, Piper noted, "I wasn’t being difficult. I’m not going to let someone come into my business and treat me like a clown."
Piper would've likely resisted even if he liked the celebrity in question - but given that Mr. T and him weren't on good terms, his refusal was just that much more staunch.
And his commitment to holding out on a widely-seen pinfall loss extended to Hogan as well. Piper also made it clear he wasn't going to lose to Hogan either, because once Hogan pinned him clean, the power and the allure were gone. He believed the money in "Rowdy" Roddy Piper was in how well he protected his main event image, and it goes a long way in explaining why Piper so rarely let his shoulders get pinned to the canvas.
By anyone, let alone Mr. T.
The day finally arrived. Barely 12 hours after Hogan and Mr. T hosted Saturday Night Live at 30 Rockefeller Plaza in Manhattan, they were getting set to battle Piper and Orndorff before 19,000 fans at the Garden, and many, many more viewers through national closed circuit broadcasts.
Some have claimed that disaster nearly struck, as close to the eleventh hour, Mr. T allegedly almost backed out of the main event bout. Hogan claimed that T was upset that some of his entourage wasn't allowed backstage, and almost left as a result.
Other variants of the story, however, have claimed that T was afraid that Piper and Orndorff were going to try and legitimately hurt him. Hogan even admits that he wasn't so sure Piper (a boxer in his youth, and a trained judoka) and Orndorff (a renowned tough guy in his own right) wouldn't try something, out of their distaste for the celebrity guest.
After an action-packed afternoon of matches, the main event arrived with plenty of pageantry and fanfare. Celebrities lined the squared circle, the ringside area, and the crowd itself as Gorilla Monsoon astutely referred to the entire spectacle as "a happening".
Much posturing from the respective tandems kicked off the early stages of the tag team bout, leading to a double-tag that brought in both Piper and T.
Piper reportedly insisted that things be kept simple with the relatively-untrained actor, and that they stick to amateur-style wrestling rather than get too showmanlike. And so, after a few coarse strikes back and forth, the two jostled on the mat, and it ended up with Mr. T hoisting his bellicose foe into a fireman's carry, an image forever immortalized in an oft-published photograph.
From there, things remained light and simple, and no attempts were really made to muscle on Mr. T (save for Piper snaring him in a front facelock when T reportedly strayed a bit from the plan).
The finish came after 13 minutes, when an interfering Bob Orton accidentally struck Orndorff with forearm cast, enabling Hulk to pin "Mr. Wonderful". The finish was a concession to Piper's unwillingness to personally lose, but was a crowd-pleaser nonetheless.
And McMahon was also pleased - WrestleMania drew over one million viewers on closed circuit TV, empowering his WWF to not only live on, but continue to grow.
As for Piper, he and Mr. T weren't done with each other yet. A year later, they squared off in a farcical boxing match at WrestleMania 2 on Long Island, and tensions between the two had far from cooled by then.
They did "make amends" during a humorous segment backstage at WrestleMania 30, however. Perhaps Paul Orndorff's unexpected mustache smoothed over all the animosity?
Celebrity matches and other star skirmishes continue to be a staple of WrestleMania season. As such, it's interesting to look back at an instance of vital celebrity connection to the world of wrestling, and understand that while fans may have eaten it up, the principals at its core found it harder to digest at the time.
(Anecdotes and quotations are credited to "Rowdy: The Roddy Piper Story" by Ariel Teal Toombs and Colt Baird Toombs, and Bleacher Report's "WrestleMania I: An Oral History" by Keith Elliot Greenberg)