Saturday, December 1, 2012

Toronto sets wrestling attendance record at Exhibition Stadium in August, 1986

I was up late on a Friday night watching WWF All American Wrestling on WUTV, Buffalo 29, when Howard Finkel's voice interrupted the commentary.

Not so strange, as the WWF TV shows of the day were essentially infomercials to hustle people into attending live events. The matches shown during the show were to familiarize the audience with the talent and advance the angles (storylines).

They were rarely competitive matches -- it was usually a star squashing a non-star. During the matches, the play-by-play was usually interrupted by an announcer hyping the next action-packed card in your area.

The interview segments did the same thing, promoting the next show. Hence, wrestlers "cutting a promo" for the next town. Now the kids say "cutting a promo" any time they talk about a wrestler yelling about something.

So, The Fink cuts in and starts talking about a huge show just signed for Toronto's Exhibition Stadium. As you've seen in my recent posts, I'd been to two WWF shows in Newmarket. Two 'C'-team shows featuring the least in-demand talent on the roster. But this show announced for Toronto looked bigger than WrestleMania, and it was going to happen in Toronto!

HOLY CRAP. Most of the biggest feuds of the day: Hulk Hogan defending his title against Paul Orndorff, the friend and tag team partner who'd just turned on him; The Machines, rumoured to be Andre The Giant and some other big guy, vs. Studd and Bundy who wanted to unmask them; Ricky Steamboat getting revenge on Jake Roberts, who put him out of action for months.

Okay, so the rest of the card was typical Maple Leaf Gardens fare, and the Tag Team Champions (British Bulldogs) and Intercontinental Champion (Randy Savage) weren't on the card. But HOLY CRAP, I was freaking out.

It was midnight and I needed tickets. I was 12 years old. How was I going to get tickets? Where do you even GET wrestling tickets? The only person I knew of who went to wrestling shows at Maple Leaf Gardens was The Comic Wizard, the comic shop guy downtown. Does he sell them? I don't have a credit card. I'm a kid. HOW DO I GET TICKETS TO THE GREATEST THING EVER?

The show was further promoted on CHCH's Saturday wrestling shows, with Billy 'Red' Lyons taunting me with the enormity of it all, ordering me "don'tcha dare miss it!"

Looking back at this moment, I can kind of understand these girls on Twitter who freak out trying to get tickets to see One Direction or Justin Bieber.

Long story short, I didn't get tickets. Zach and Peter and whoever else did get tickets, but not enough for me to go along with them. They went. I think they had ringside seats.

It ended up being a cold night, August 28, 1986 on the shore of Lake Ontario. Paid attendance was just under 61,500 people, although it was publicized as a record-setting attendance of 68-thousand or even 74-thousand.

And after all the hype, it was presented as just another Maple Leaf Gardens show, but in a huge setting. They used the MLG ring, which was an early-1980s NWA ring redecorated in WWF colours, and put it up on a riser for better visibility.

The newspapers covered it, with a wink and a sneer as was always the style when talking about this display of athletic vaudeville. The Toronto Sun, being the working man's paper, gave it the most ink. Here's a picture from the always-excellent Maple Leaf Wrestling blog:

Toronto Sun color spread of the WWF at Exhibition Stadium in August 1986.
Toronto Sun color spread of the WWF at Exhibition Stadium in August 1986.
It was taped for Coliseum Video and released on VHS as The Big Event. I rented it and watched it as soon as it hit the local video store.

It was boring. It really was boring. It barely kept my interest.

I remember a letter to one of the wrestling magazines, Wrestling's Main Event, complaining about the show. Wrestling magazines of the day were strictly aimed at marks. They treated it as legitimate competition and wrote as though the storylines were real. But this letter-to-the-editor was a departure. It complained of daylight showing during headlocks, punches that were obviously pulled, dropkicks that missed their mark, and Ricky Steamboat taking too long under the ring apron adjusting his "blood squib." In other words, the fan was complaining that it looked too fake to be remotely believable. Ouch.

I'll always wish I'd gone. This was the one wrestling show I really wanted to see but didn't. But knowing that it was a weak performance takes a little bit of the sting out of it. When they tore down Exhibition Stadium, I bought one of the Grandstand seats. I'd say "I'll alway have that," but I had to get rid of the chair when I moved from Toronto to Halifax.

Grandstand seat from Exhibition Stadium in Toronto. Chair used to be bolted to concrete.
Grandstand chair from Toronto's Exhibition Stadium. I never went, but I always had a seat.
Still, it was a historic show. The attendance record would be broken months later at WrestleMania III. At least I got to see part of that.

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