Welcome to WrestleMania Memories, where we look back at the moments in WrestleMania history, good or bad, that have stayed with us for over three decades.
Today, the WWE is lauded unanimously whenever the troll out celebrities for any involvement in Wrestlemania. From Lawrence Taylor leaving the confines of the NFL’s gridiron to make Bam Bam Bigelow do the job to Jersey Shore’s Snooki scoring the win for her team, the internet hates when celebrities get involved with their beloved professional wrestling. But as a kid in the 1980s, the inclusion of The A-Team’s most beloved star, Mr. T, was not only a stroke of PR genius, but the implement of one of Wrestlemania’s most memorable moments. The seething real life heat between Mr. T and one of his opponent’s in the Main Event with Hulk Hogan, the late great Rowdy Roddy Piper.
As someone who watched this as a young 13-year old, I can honestly say that we never knew of this animosity from the viewer’s side then. Everything was very much kayfabe, so anything that resembled hatred only served the characters we knew. Piper hated Hogan with such a honest and remarkable disdain, that it only made sense he would hate his famous partner and friend by default. But as the truth began to unfold with “real” wrestling journalism in the mid-90’s and the Rowdy Scot began to shoot the truths behind the stories, it made a potentially throw away main event into one that gets better with each viewing. And while the real animosity is arguably better showcased in the singles boxing match of Wrestlemania II (where tempers boiled so high that the feud was unexplainedly dropped after WM2 to avoid any potential legal altercations), the shot of Piper and Mr. T locking heads in the middle of the ring in Wrestlemania I was the initial first shot of what be one of pro wrestling’s most heated feuds of the 1980’s.
“Mr. T wanted to come in and bang heads together and then go back to The A-Team and laugh about what a good time he had playing wrestling,” Piper told the MSG Network in an early 2016 interview. “I got so angry…I was going to take him out in the match…for good.” Piper has always been a proud and humble man and no matter his feelings of other wrestlers, he was a staunch defender of the honour of professional wrestling. To him, Mr. T wasn’t treating pro wrestling with the respect it deserved, as just another media appearance to promote his own brands, that Piper was intent on showing him just how “real” professional wrestling really was. David “Dr. D” Schultz may have shown upstart reporter John Stossel the full impact of wrestling’s brutal reality on 20/20, but Piper was going to do it on live TV during the biggest wrestling event in history: at the inaugural Wrestlemania at Madison Square Gardens in New York. Even Mr. T’s partner was concerned about Piper’s behaviour in the Main Event. “The one thing I was really not sure of was Piper and Paul Orndorff, if they were going to behave out there,” Hogan told the MSG Network in the same special. “I thought for sure they may try to break Mr. T’s leg or hurt him because he really wasn’t a wrestler. Nobody was selling anything, everybody was in it for themselves fighting and going crazy.”
The match opened with two extended intros as the heels entered first to the jeers of the 19, 121 in attendance. Piper sneered his cheeky smirk to the crowd as the sound of Rocky’s “Eye of the Tiger” blared over the loud speakers to announce the arrival of the WWF World Champion and B.A. Baracus. Sparks flew but the match started off rather uneventfully. Hogan started against Orndorff, who then tagged in Piper. As Piper and Hogan circled, the crowd rose in anticipation as Mr. T began calling for the tag. Hogan looked around, surveyed the crowd and tagged in the Hollywood star.
“Look at the look on Piper’s face,” Gorilla Monsoon said as Mr. T entered the ring. “One of disdain and disgust.” How right he was. Nose to nose, you could feel the heat between them. Mr. T may not have been aware, but Piper had no intention of throwing this match. He was going to work stiff. So he encouraged T to slap him. Hard. And in return, he would return in style. A questionable kick to the mid-section and a quick throw down, Piper seemed intent on keeping his promise to the boys in the back. When T fought back, Piper sold, although weakly. Whether by accident or design, within moments the ring was flooded with all combatants, and Piper was tossed away from the fray by guest referee Mohammad Ali.
For the next succession of the match, Hogan handled the bulk of the match. When T was tagged back in, every offensive move from Mr. T was greeted by a quick sell, then a bounce back to their feet. We’ll give you the move, but not it’s effectiveness. You haven’t earned that yet.
Hogan returned and got beaten down, only to provide a hot tag to Mr. T. Perhaps increasingly aware of the tension directed his way, Mr. T had a clumsy series of exchanges with Paul Orndorff. In his eagerness to avoid being schooled by the veteran grappler, he refused to remain in any hold long enough for “Mr. Wonderful” to properly apply anything. Soon enough, Piper was back in the ring to square off.
But instead of taking the time to hurt Mr. T anymore, Piper seemed to get a change of heart. He brought Mr. T down and held him for what felt like 10 minutes (it wasn’t). A simple choke hold on the ground, but no matter his inferred greater strength, Mr. T wasn’t going anywhere unless Roddy said so. You could almost see Piper whispering into his ear, “Not so fake now, is it?”
The rest, as they say, is history. Hogan and Mr. T would go on to victory, and Mr. T and Roddy Piper’s rivalry would carry over to a probably-better-on-paper-idea of a boxing match at Wrestlemania II the following year.
But the image of Piper and Mr. T, locked eye to death glaring eye, is one that on repeat viewings makes you proud to be a wrestling fan. It doesn’t matter who you think you are, this business is special. And there was no better defender of pro wrestling’s honour on the Grandest Stage of Them All than Rowdy Roddy Piper.