This is chapter 1 in a series examining the history of the NFL, the Green Bay Packers and professional wrestling. The introduction to the series can be read here.
In 1986, Vince McMahon, Jr. was in the middle of transforming the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) from a regional promotion in the northeast to a national powerhouse that would eventually wipe out every other wrestling territory in the United States. McMahon used his deep pockets to lure away top wrestlers like Hulk Hogan and Roddy Piper from rival promotions. He also used his marketing and promotional skills to develop many of his wrestlers into larger than life characters with mainstream appeal.
But McMahon was not satisfied with running a successful wrestling promotion. He wanted to create an entertainment empire that happened to involve wrestling. He wanted the WWF to be viewed on the same level as a major movie studio that produced blockbuster films, or a record label with bands that released No. 1 hits.
To achieve this, McMahon knew he needed more than top-level wrestling talent. He needed something that could make wrestling “cool,” something that would appeal to a younger generation and people who normally did not pay attention to wrestling.
The Rock ‘n Wrestling connection was born.
Wrestling Becomes Cool
McMahon partnered with MTV in the mid-80s to reach the younger and hipper audience he was targeting. He also brought in rock singers and celebrities like Cyndi Lauper to broaden the WWF’s brand beyond the scope of traditional professional wrestling.
To be fair, McMahon was not the first promoter to incorporate celebrities and musical acts into the wrestling world. To sell tickets for larger-scale events, wrestling promoters occasionally brought in musicians to perform after matches or local celebrities to make some sort of appearance. But nobody did it like McMahon.
McMahon used celebrities to build the WWF for the long term. In addition to selling tickets, McMahon wanted the celebrities he used to establish the WWF as mainstream entertainment. He had a vision of where he wanted to take the WWF, and he recognized that celebrities could help get him there.
The WWF’s flirtation with celebrities came to a head at the first Wrestlemania, held at Madison Square Garden in New York on March 31, 1985. Celebrities like Lauper, Mr. T, Liberace, Muhammad Ali and Billy Martin helped Wrestlemania reach over a million people through closed-circuit television and establish the WWF as “hip” and “cool.”
In addition to celebrities, McMahon used his connections in the New York media market to help sell his brand of sports entertainment. He also took full advantage of the emerging cable TV industry, strong-armed arena owners throughout the country to exclusively book the WWF and exaggerated the truth about his company whenever possible to make the WWF appear on the same level of popularity as major sports leagues or top-drawing musical acts.
The Wrestlemania II Battle Royal
By 1986, McMahon had already weakened much of his competition and was looking to further distance the WWF from other wrestling promotions with Wrestlemania II. The follow-up to 1985’s inaugural event featured three main events in three different cities. In Los Angeles, world champion Hulk Hogan faced King Kong Bundy in a steel cage; in New York, Roddy Piper squared off against Mr. T in a boxing match; and in Chicago, WWF wrestlers were mixed with NFL players in a 20-man over-the-top rope battle royal.
NFL players in the battle royal included Bill Fralic, Jimbo Covert, Russ Francis, Ernie Holmes, Harvey Martin and William “the Refrigerator” Perry. The Fridge was at the height of his popularity after winning the Super Bowl with the Bears in 1985 and went over big time with the Chicago fans. He also provided the match’s most memorable moment.
The Fridge entered the ring by leaping over the top rope and immediately began taunting WWF midcarder Big John Studd. Studd eventually eliminated the Fridge, but Perry had the last laugh. Standing on the floor after being eliminated, Perry offered to shake Studd’s hand. When Studd accepted, Perry pulled Studd over the top rope and eliminated him.
Lawrence Taylor in Wrestlemania XI
Another notable Wrestlemania appearance by an NFL player came in 1995 when Lawrence Taylor beat Bam Bam Bigelow in the main event of Wrestlemania 11. Celebrity and professional athlete appearances often do not go over well with the actual wrestlers. Many wrestlers feel that the money spent on celebrities would be better spent on the workers that wrestle night after night instead of investing it on a one-off appearance by some celebrity that might or might not pay off. By most accounts, however, Taylor earned the respect of the WWF locker room by taking his match seriously and putting in the time and effort to make his appearance credible and successful.
Unlike most celebrity appearances, Taylor was actually wrestling a one-on-one match; and not just any match, the main event at Wrestlemania. Putting a non-wrestler in the main event of Wrestlemania is like one of the Super Bowl teams bringing in LeBron James to play quarterback for the big game. It might be interesting, but the potential for disaster is great.
But Taylor more than held his own. The troubled hall of famer’s match with Bigelow is regarded by many wrestling observers as the best worked bout involving a celebrity in wrestling history. Taylor gets winded during the match, but he does a good job of taking all of Bigelow’s moves, selling them accordingly, and dishing out some offense of his own. Taylor got the win when he pinned Bigelow after nailing him with a forearm off the second rope.
Taylor brought several NFL players to ringside to prevent outside interference from the Million Dollar Corporation, a stable of heels (bad guys) that Bigelow was affiliated with. Players included Ken Norton Jr., Chris Spielman, Rickey Jackson, Carl Banks, Reggie White and Steve McMichael.
From Professional Football to Professional Wrestling
Professional football players turning to professional wrestling is not limited to one-off appearances at major events. Several former players have gone on to achieve national fame and fortune in the wrestling world after leaving football. It also wasn’t uncommon for professional football players to wrestle during the offseason when salaries required football players to find additional work in the offseason.
Bronko Nagurski is the only former player to be in the pro football hall of fame and hold the NWA world championship. Ed “Wahoo” McDaniel was a defensive standout for the Jets and Dolphins before enjoying a 30-year wrestling career. Ernie “Big Cat” Ladd was a four-time All-AFL star before embarking on a wrestling career that eventually landed him in the WWE hall of fame.
Cowboy Bill Watts played briefly for the Houston Oilers in the AFL before McDaniel, his college teammate at the University of Oklahoma, convinced him to try wrestling. Watts headlined matches across the country and eventually started his own promotion and was recently inducted into the WWE hall of fame.
Bill Goldberg did not achieve much as a member of the Falcons, but his popularity exploded as the top draw for World Championship Wrestling (WCW) in the late 90s and early 2000s.
Peter King, then of the Cincinnati Enquirer, once wrote that Bengals linebacker Brian Pillman had the most desire of any player he’s ever seen. That desire only resulted in six NFL games, but it helped Pillman achieve wrestling success as the “Loose Cannon” in the WWF, WCW and Extreme Championship Wrestling.
Jim Wilson played in the AFL and NFL in the mid-60s and early 70s before starting a promising wrestling career in the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA). Wilson claimed he was blackballed from wrestling after turning down sexual advances from NWA promoter Jim Barnett. Wilson also tried (and failed) to form a union for professional wrestlers and published a tell-all book about the wrestling business in 2003.
Taking an alternate approach, Brock Lesnar left the WWE in 2004 and tried to make the Minnesota Vikings roster. He failed, but eventually went on to become a top draw in the UFC.
Most recently, current New York Jets linebacker Bart Scott appeared on TNA Wrestling’s iMPACT and actually wrestled. Scott (like this geeky blogger) can name almost every wrestler from the 80s. He also left open the possibility of returning to the ring, especially if the lockout drags on.
Football and wrestling are more connected than most people realize. And why not? Both feature superb athletes, crazy interviews, enigmatic leaders, public scrutiny and cheating while the ref is distracted.
Life in the NFL has gotten much better since the days of Nagurski, Watts and McDaniel. With players making six figures or more annually, the chances of seeing another player leave the gridiron for the squared circle are slim.
Life has also improved in wrestling since the old days. McMahon succeeded in snuffing out all rival promotions (TNA popped up recently, but so far is not a major threat), and has been forced to try and clean the business. Wrestlers in the WWE are now drug tested, steel chair shots to the head are limited to reduce concussions, salaries are higher and the travel schedule is less grueling.
Sometimes I wonder what would happen if football and wrestling merged. What would an NFL run by Vince McMahon look like? Would he encourage coaches to make the postgame press conference more entertaining? How would Tom Brady fit into the wrestling world? What sort of revealing outfits would Gisele wear as his manager?
These are some of the thoughts that go through my wrestling and football-obsessed head. Truth is, as connected as football and wrestling appear at times, they have no business taking it beyond the flirtation stage. After all, we’ve already seen what happened when the two tried to get married.