Way back in 1984, the World Wrestling Federation put on a three-hour show in their home arena, Madison Square Garden. The live event featured a battle royal plus all three men’s titles were defended. The local MSG channel carried this entire event, but one match was also carried on the still-new cable channel, MTV. The Women’s title match between the reigning champion for the last 28 years, the Fabulous Moolah, and the young MTV audience demographic Wendi Richter. This match was the highest-rated pro wrestling match of all time in 1984. It still ranks second, just behind 1985’s similar “The War to End the Score.” It is still the highest-rated show in MTV history. This tale of the Rock n’ Wrestling Era becoming a phenomenon started in two places: a flight to Puerto Rico, and a 1954 NWA house show in Atlanta.
During a flight from Puerto Rico to New York City, two very unique-looking people realized they are both in the expensive seats and thus must both be someone. Captain Lou Albano, retired professional wrestler, and the current manager met new pop music sensation, Cyndi Lauper. This came about because Lauper’s manager, David Wolff, immediately recognized the good Captain and made all the introductions. Wolff was a huge wrestling fan and used his new power as manager of Lauper to get to know some of his favorites in the world of wrestling. The future live-action Super Mario was deemed good enough by Cyndi, and he appeared in her monster hit video “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”.
Vince McMahon wanted to use Lou’s appearance in a frequently played music video to get some attention on the WWF. During an appearance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, Lauper mentions the WWF, and a buzz was created. Suddenly there was some mainstream attention to Vince’s beginning national expansion. Cyndi agrees to appear on a Piper’s Pit segment during one of the WWE’s weekly shows. During her interview, Captain Lou shows up and says he not only manages wrestlers, but also manages rock stars. Lauper calls him a liar, he calls her a broad and a strong feminist angle begins.
MTV wants a part of this crossover between rock and wrestling. They offer TV time to WWF and the angle is built up to culminate at The Brawl to End it All. Captain Lou begins to manage the WWF Women’s champion, the Fabulous Moolah. She’s a “real woman”, not a “broad” like Lauper. Cyndi Lauper and David Wolff begin to manage the young up-and-coming woman wrestler star (and trained by Moolah) Wendi Richter. Moolah has been champion for 28 years but this new up-and-coming generation that wants to wear crazy clothes, dye their hair, and just wanna have fun, is here and they want recognition. Like the WWF Women’s title.
In an era when titles can change multiple times in one show, it’s near impossible to imagine anyone holding a title for one year, much less 28. How did Moolah do it? Well, that story goes all the way back to 1937.
Mildred Burke is recognized as the first NWA Women’s champion thanks to a victory in 1937. Burke was a freak of nature at the time. Strong enough to defeat any woman clean and 99% of the men that crossed her path too. She married her trainer/manager and the two would tour the country fighting other women her husband trained. He, unfortunately, didn’t contain his rolling around with other women to the ring. Burke finally gets tired of the infidelity and files for divorce. But he is also her wrestling manager. He begins to take away everything from her – bookings, money, and eventually her title.
Burke is scheduled to face June Byers in a 2 out of 3 falls match in 1954. Burke loses the first fall to make a good show. Fully confident she can take Byers in a shoot (real fight) if that is what this becomes. Instead, the athletic commission stops the match during the second fall. Rules Byers as the new champion. And at that moment robs Burke of everything she worked for all her life. Seeing all of this and vowing to never let any man take advantage of her in such a way is a young Fabulous Moolah.
Moolah wins the title for the first time in 1956. While she did lose the title over the years, these reigns become unrecognized and the WWF promotes her 28-year-long reign. Over that time, Moolah owns the title and is the manager/trainer/landlord/booker for all other female wrestlers she worked against. The Fabulous Moolah controlled women’s wrestling. She would book a match for herself against one of her trainees on the card. Take her own booking fee, take her wrestling fee, take a cut of the other woman’s fee. Plus she owned the title, so no one was pinning her unless she allowed it.
Near 30 years later an older Moolah started to look for a way to remove the burden of controlling the championship. She saw a young dreamer throwing money around and sold the women’s title to Vince McMahon and the WWF. She handpicked her trainee Wendi Richter to defeat her. Knowing all of this history while watching the event shows this match in a different light. While Richter did win the match she was manipulated by Moolah throughout the match. Almost as if to say, I’m letting you win this one but I can take it back at any time.
And she did. In the original WWF screwjob, Wendi Richter had to defend her title against the unknown “Spider Lady”. One quick count from the referee later and despite the fact that Richter was not pinned for a legitimate three count there was a new women’s champion. The Spider Lady unmasked revealing Moolah’s face.
Controversies aside, this match is still the catalyst for the popularity of pro wrestling in the 1980s. Without the MTV connection, the celebrities would not have appeared at WrestleMania, giving it some buzz and credibility. The cartoon which featured both Moolah and Richter may not have happened. Without the cartoon, the giant rubber action figures would not have been nearly as successful.
All because of a flight.