Sunday, August 10, 2008

Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant sowed the seeds of a slam at Shea Stadium, by Elliot Olshansky - New York Daily News - 9th September 2008

Before Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant headlined wrestling's biggest shows of the 80s, they laid the foundation for their most famous moment at Shea Stadium.

The defining moment of the 1980s pro wrestling boom took place outside Detroit, but the seeds were sown at Shea Stadium.

The image is iconic, even among non-fans: Hulk Hogan, at the peak of his popularity - at least until "Hogan Knows Best" hit VH1 - lifts and bodyslams Andre the Giant, thrilling the reported 93,173 fans who filled the Pontiac Silverdome for Wrestlemania III. A short three-count later, the match ends, and Hulk is still the champion of the promotion then known as the World Wrestling Federation.

As Hogan celebrated his win over the mammoth Frenchman, commentators Gorilla Monsoon and Jesse Ventura remarked that it was Andre's first loss in 15 years, and the first time he'd ever been slammed. It was a great story, a fitting climax for the largest show in the history of the business. Of course, given the nature of the wrestling business - or, as it's called these days, "sports entertainment" - it's only fitting that the story was a fabrication.

Of course, all discussion of wins and losses in professional wrestling is pointless to begin with, for obvious reasons. However, when it comes to the celebrated bodyslam, before it became "The Bodyslam Heard 'Round the World" in front of 93,000 fans, it was heard - and seen - by some 36,000 at Shea Stadium, 28 years ago on Saturday.

On August 9, 1980, the then-WWF presented its third "Showdown at Shea" event. While World Wrestling Entertainment has routinely drawn more than 50,000 fans for the seven pay-per-view events held at outdoor stadiums, the shows at Shea, like the WWF at the time, operated on a different scale, and being able to attract that many fans to Shea was a major step for the promotion.

"Back then, they didn't have the penetration from TV that they have now," said longtime wrestling writer Bill Apter of "The TV universe was much smaller, so that was equal to a gigantic gate today."

To Keith Elliot Greenberg, a longtime writer for WWE's magazines and a collaborator on the autobiographies of wrestling legends "Classy" Freddie Blassie, Ric Flair, and "Superstar" Billy Graham, that gigantic gate was a major statement for the promotion, and for wrestling as a whole.

"It symbolized that despite the complete exclusion of the mainstream media, professional wrestling could stir hearts of the masses and fill a venue at Shea Stadium," Greenberg said.

After 22,508 showed up in Flushing for the first Showdown at Shea in 1972, and some 32,000 turned out for the second incarnation in 1976, the third Showdown was the biggest yet. A reported 36,295 came out to see Bruno Sammartino battle protégé-turned-rival Larry Zbysko inside a steel cage. Earlier in the evening, however, a young, up-and-coming Hulk Hogan stepped into the ring to face the beloved Andre the Giant.

"At that time, Hulk Hogan was brand new," Greenberg said. "He was young, he was massive, he was golden in color, and he was the future of the industry in more ways than fans realized."

The fans at Shea that night wanted to see the brash newcomer put in his place by the beloved Giant, and they got their wish. Andre pinned Hogan after 7:48 of action, but not before Hogan lifted and slammed his rival.

Shortly after the match, Hogan left the WWF, and when he returned - after a scene in Rocky III and three years in the Minneapolis-based American Wrestling Association - he began the run that made him a household name, helping to take the WWF from a regional promotion based in the Northeast to a national powerhouse. That run reached its peak in 1987, when he again locked up with Andre.

By this point, Hogan had become the virtuous hero who espoused training, prayer and vitamins, and it hardly made sense to acknowledge his past as a cocky rulebreaker. Besides, the WWF's audience had grown by leaps and bounds in the seven years since Hogan and Andre met in Flushing, and there was no reason for the vast majority of fans to know that the match had ever taken place, or that Hogan had already lifted and slammed the supposedly impossible-to-lift Frenchman.

"There was no reason at that point," Apter said, "because they were recreating their history."

Of course, in the age before YouTube, Wikipedia, and internet message boards, there was really no good way to find out.

"While the Shea Stadium show was a big deal in the New York area, it was little more than a curiosity elsewhere in the country, unless you were a reader of magazines like Pro Wrestling Illustrated," said Scott Keith, author of four books on pro wrestling, including the forthcoming "Dungeon of Death: Chris Benoit and the Hart Family Curse." "Fans were basically at the mercy of the WWF as far as things like match results and history went. So while they may have mentioned in passing that Hulk lost that match, in the bigger picture they could simply pretend like it didn't happen when it suited their needs to do so later on."

As Hulk and Andre became the focal points of a storyline that would last nearly two years and help launch two new annual pay-per-view events (Survivor Series in 1987 and Summerslam in 1988), their earlier history was swept under the rug, never spoken about on WWF programming.

It wasn't until 2002, when Hogan returned to WWE after an eight-year stint with the now-defunct World Championship Wrestling promotion, that the match resurfaced as an official part of the promotion's history. In the summer of 2002, the promotion released a two-DVD set, Hulk Still Rules, documenting the wrestling icon's career, and among the matches included to accompany the main feature was the "lost" match at Shea Stadium.

Today, of course, WWE is much more open about the nature of the business. Fans are as unlikely to believe in a 15-year unbeaten streak as they are to care, and it's commonly accepted and acknowledged that anyone who is lifted and slammed in the ring is a willing participant in the activity. Meanwhile, Hogan is a reality TV star, Andre Roussimoff has been dead for 15 years, and the stadium where the two of them laid the foundation for a defining moment in their profession is set to be dismantled. However, 28 years after the fact, as New Yorkers recall the historic moments that took place at Shea Stadium, one of those events, often forgotten, was a key moment in the career of a wrestling icon.

As Greenberg said of Hogan, "His slamming of Andre the Giant symbolized the fact that Hulk Hogan could go where others could not."

(Credit: New York Daily News)

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