I recently watched Wrestlemania 3 for the first time in probably seven or eight years. It’s still a strong, well paced wrestling card with a lot of exciting matches and an atmosphere of big-fight, main event importance.
One of the subtle things I love about Wrestlemania 3 is how the Pontiac Silverdome gets darker as the show progresses. The show starts in the afternoon, and sunlight filters through the translucent, domed roof. As the event courses through bigger and more important matches, the sun sets, and the arena is much darker than it was earlier in the afternoon, adding to the tension and anticipation, as the collective attention of the world seems to focus more and more on the ring. It’s a neat effect that adds to the mystique and importance of the show.
Naturally, the arena is darkest, at its most-focused, for the main event, the biggest wrestling match in the history of the sport: WWF World Heavyweight Champion Hulk Hogan versus Andre the Giant. Unfortunately, this colossal confrontation has not aged well. The match is fought in the shadow of the phenomenal Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat versus “Macho Man” Randy Savage Intercontinental Championship match, which occurs about an hour before Hogan versus Andre and is widely considered one of the greatest matches of all time. Andre’s health was already beginning to fail at this point in his career, and his moveset, speed, and agility were significantly limited compared to his early career. He was still a powerful man, but well past his prime. As a child, I had no idea, not to mention the company wasn’t about to expose the health issues of one of its biggest stars. Lastly, the long-suffering reputation of Hulk Hogan continues to degrade over time through sex tapes, family strife, and poor business decisions. As fun as it may still be to watch his old matches, even when the wrestling character is separated from the man, Hogan is far from the American hero we once knew.
Still, where Hogan versus Andre lacks the grace and technical prowess of Savage versus Steamboat, the narrative makes it a compelling match: two friends driven apart by a manager, Bobby “The Brain” Heenan, who holds a longstanding hatred of the champion, dating back to their time spent in the American Wrestling Association (though that is not acknowledged within the WWF’s canon). Heenan manipulates Andre into challenging Hogan for his title, but it is not for Andre’s benefit—Heenan seeks only to put Hogan out of wrestling and procure the WWF Championship for his own. Could Hogan overcome the giant? Could Andre so callously turn against the man he called friend? While the match is not a technical classic, the narrative behind Hogan and Andre’s Wrestlemania 3 collision ensures the match holds up today.
The story begins when the WWF gives Hogan a trophy for holding the Championship for three years. A week later, as something of an afterthought, they give Andre a slightly smaller trophy for his fifteen years of undefeated wrestling (not actually true, but the audience at large had no idea). Andre understandably feels disrespected by this, which gives Heenan the opening to plant jealousy in an already-perturbed giant, convincing him that Hogan has stolen his spotlight, isn’t really his friend, and is only using him to make himself look better. Unfortunately, Andre buys it, challenges Hogan for the title, and all of a sudden we have the most imposing, powerful opponent that Hogan has ever faced. It’s a curious study on how quickly jealousy and some well-timed manipulation can turn a man, even a bastion of goodness like Andre, against his friends and allies, while they look on in shocked disbelief. Heenan has turned Andre into his newest, greatest weapon in the war against his longtime enemy. It’s a compelling setup to the biggest match in the history of professional wrestling.
One of Heenan’s talking points of the feud is that since Andre was undefeated for 15 years, he deserves a title shot and that Hogan has been ducking him since winning the title. Others, most notably Gorilla Monsoon, argue that Andre never asked for a title shot and, more importantly, never wanted a title shot. Andre was huge and unstoppable, but he was a good person. He was carefree and had a kind spirit. He didn’t care about titles and prestige and personal accomplishment; he wanted to go out and make other people happy and maybe crush a few dirtbags who foolishly ambled into his path along the way.
This is where things start to get really interesting. What if Andre decided he did want the title? What if proving he was the very best became the most important to him? That’s what makes bad guy Andre and this match so scary and intriguing. Heenan has convinced Andre that he does, in fact, want the title. And if he wants the title, who could stop him? He’s unstoppable. He could take a championship from anybody, even the greatest of competitors, and never lose it. No challenger could ever hope to take it from him. Heenan manipulates Andre into unleashing his selfishness, convinces him he deserves things like title opportunities. He is corrupted, and you can see it in his facial expressions during interviews. Heenan waxes poetically about Andre’s legendary career, that he is the uncrowned champion. Meanwhile, Andre stands stone-faced, his eyes glazed over. Brainwashed, even. The big smiles and charm we’re used to are gone. He lets Heenan do the talking for him. He’s a broken man. Broken, but the most dangerous he’s ever been in his career. A 7-foot-5, 520-pound giant is dangerous enough on his own, but now he operates outside the rules, without a moral compass, under the tutelage of a dastardly mentor. It’s important to remember that Heenan is the true villain in this scenario, that Andre is his puppet. But that is terrifying. He’s not just another big man, like King Kong Bundy or Big John Studd, or a staller and manipulator like the Honky Tonk Man or the Macho Man. Andre is an immovable wall of flesh and muscle that has never been defeated, and now he wants the biggest prize in the sport. How can Hogan expect to defeat a force like Andre? Without a single punch being thrown, the attention and imagination of the nation has been captured.
As the lights of the Silverdome fall on the main event, Andre (with Heenan at his side) and Hogan make their entrances, stare each other down as the bell rings, and come to blows after an opening flurry of trash talk. The question isn’t just whether or not Hogan can beat Andre, but what happens to the future of the company and the WWF Championship, and the culture of America, for that matter, if Andre wins? Of all the guys in the world who could conceivably defeat Andre, Hogan is the only one with the track record to pull it off. Still, considering Andre’s track record, one must assume Hulkamania is in jeopardy like never before.
It’s a heavy-hitting affair. There is minimal finesse or scientific wrestling; it’s two big guys clubbing and kicking and choking each other. These are true heavyweights, with real emotion and complicated backstory driving the match, rather than high-flying offense and technical maneuvers. As all eyes in the wrestling world focus on the Silverdome, the match achieves the same cultural magnitude as a heavyweight boxing fight. Both of these pillars of wrestling, in their own minds, are betrayed, and the match is their opportunity to take out their frustration, prove they are the best, and prove they are correct about the other guy’s actions. There is no indication whatsoever that either man is remorseful for having to fight his former friend, or that he’s holding back. In Hogan’s mind, Andre is lost, a completely different person. In Andre’s mind, Hogan is a coward and a fair-weather friend. Every blow leaves no question of their disdain for one another. Hogan even makes an ill-fated attempt to piledrive Andre on the concrete floor.
Fittingly, one of the biggest matches of all time ends with one of the biggest moves of all time. Hogan body slams Andre. One legdrop and a 3-count later, the impossible happens: Hogan wins. The giant falls, good prevails over evil, and Heenan leaves the arena humiliated, his greatest plan foiled. Andre directs threats of revenge at Hogan on his way back to the dressing room—his role as Heenan’s weapon won’t end until Wrestlemania 6, when Heenan slaps Andre in frustration after he and Haku lose the tag-team titles to Demolition. Andre finally realizes he’s been duped, but ironically, it’s too late in his career to get true revenge on Heenan and have a final, redeeming run as a good guy.
As for Hogan, while he had other great challenges in his career, none could match the mystique of the Andre the Giant. Not Randy Savage, not the Ultimate Warrior, not the Undertaker, not anyone. Hogan versus Andre wasn’t the best technical match, but it was the biggest moment in the career of both men. Their staredown and the big body slam at the end are embedded in the memories of wrestling fans everywhere. It’s one of the greatest professional wrestling stories ever told, and that will never change.