Hulk Hogan vs. Andre the Giant. The match had headlined Wrestlemania III and the inaugural Survivor Series in 1987. Now, the WWF was going to air the rematch for free on an NBC prime-time special called The Main Event. A desperate move to garner ratings? Today the move would be heavily questioned by Internet analysts and dirt sheet writers as a hotshot stunt. However Andre vs. Hogan was a carefully crafted plan that was going to be used to build up Wrestlemania IV, hardly a hotshot stunt.
As we discussed last time, The Main Event was a huge coup for the WWF. Professional wrestling had not aired in prime time on one of the major networks since the mid 1950’s when the DuMont Network aired its weekly wrestling show. WWF kingpin Vince McMahon knew the power of TV coverage, having previously used specials on MTV and NBC to build up previous editions of Wrestlemania. Who knew how many new fans a nationally broadcast show in prime-time would attract?
The match between Andre the Giant and Hulk Hogan wasn’t going to be just another rematch. The match was built as the end of one era and the introduction to a new era (although the fans wouldn’t know this until the very end of Wrestlemania IV). First however, the WWF had to get the belt off of Hulk Hogan.
Hulk Hogan had successfully thrown back the challenge of Andre the Giant at Wrestlemania III. However things were played out well so the fans knew that it was very possible that Andre could beat Hogan in a rematch. In an earlier edition of Saturday Night’s Main Event, Andre had choked Hogan out, proving that he was still a dangerous opponent. Hogan had his work cut out for him once again.
The Main Event saw WWF champion Hulk Hogan facing a stacked deck as he defended his belt against arguably his greatest opponent up until that time. Not only was Hogan facing Andre, but he had to contend with the ringside presence of “The Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase and DiBiase’s bodyguard Virgil. DiBiase had a vested interest in the match as he had bought Andre’s services with the understanding that Andre would surrender the title to him as soon as he defeated Hogan.
The match began with Hogan starting off strong against Andre. Hogan made it clear to DiBiase and Virgil that he wasn’t going to stand by idly while they interfered in the match. Hogan attacked DiBiase and Virgil whenever the opportunity arose, keeping their interference to a minimum.
Despite a strong offense, Hogan could not get the Giant off of his feet. Not until Andre tried a diving headbutt and missed did Hogan see his challenger knocked to the mat. Andre fought back and began using a chokehold to weaken Hogan. The referee counted as Andre tried to choke the life out of Hogan. Andre knew that he had until a five count before he had to release Hogan and the “Eighth Wonder of the World” used the most out of each five count, slowly weakening the champion.
Hogan wasn’t done however and he managed to land his legdrop on Andre. Hogan covered the Giant, confident that he would pin Andre again as he had done the previous year at Wrestlemania III. However Virgil distracted the referee, preventing him from making the three count. To the fans in the arena and those watching at home, it was clear that Hogan had Andre down for at least a four count. However none of this mattered as long as the referee wasn’t making the count.
Andre managed to execute a suplex on Hogan, covering him for the pin. Hogan kicked out at one but the referee continued to count. Professional wrestling has had its share of instances where wrestlers kicked out near the three count only for the referee to rule that they had been pinned. However this was a rarity as there was no doubt that Hogan had kicked out of the pinfall attempt. It was clear to the fans watching the match that Hogan had kicked out in plenty of time. However the referee took the championship belt and awarded the match to Andre, declaring him the new champion. Hogan was stunned. What was going on?
As Hogan tried to get a grip on what was happening, Andre the Giant was interviewed. Andre declared that he was surrendering the belt to “The Million Dollar Man”. DiBiase accepted the belt, delighted that he’d been able to buy the belt he’d been unable to win in the ring.
As the announcers and fans tried to puzzle out what had happened, things took a turn for the surreal when an identical double to referee Dave Hebner appeared in the ring. The two men began arguing and eventually, one of the referees knocked the other one down. The referee in the ring then incurred the wrath of Hulk Hogan who caught on that he’d been had.
After the match, “Mean” Gene Okerlund interviewed the former champion about what had happened. Hogan wondered how much DiBiase had paid for the plastic surgery, implying that DiBiase had bought off an imposter referee in order to call the match in Andre’s favor. Things became clear that Hogan had been swindled out of the title (the reality was that referee Dave Hebner’s identical twin brother Earl Hebner played the part of the surgically duplicated Dave Hebner).
Looking back at the match itself, Andre vs. Hogan at The Main Event clearly wasn’t their best match. However it was different enough from the match at Wrestlemania III that fans didn’t feel like they were getting a carbon copy of that encounter. Factor in the presence of DiBiase and Virgil as well as perhaps the most clever screwjob ending of all time and you had a very memorable match. No five star classic but an entertaining match that served the purpose of getting the belt off of Hogan in a controversial but believable manner.
The Main Event proved to be a major success for the WWF. The show drew a 15.2 rating, the highest rating that a professional wrestling show ever attained a record that holds to this day. Think of all of wrestling’s greatest moments (available in handy paperback or e-book format in my book Wrestling’s Greatest Moments) that have taken place since 1988. Whether it was Austin stunnering McMahon, Mike Tyson on RAW, or Goldberg vs. Hogan on Nitro, none of these have even come close to matching the ratings of The Main Event. The highest rating during the Monday Night War Era was when Monday Night RAW garnered an 8.1. Given wrestling’s ever dwindling ratings, it’s hard to imagine that record ever being broken again.
After the events of The Main Event, the WWF aired several house shows which recognized Ted DiBiase as the WWF champion. The February 6, 1988 house show at the Boston Garden had a sell-out crowd see a tag match with the teams of Hulk Hogan and “Bam Bam” Bigelow taking on the team of Ted DiBiase and Andre the Giant. DiBiase was introduced as the WWF champion following the events of The Main Event. Another house show (this time at the Philadelphia Spectrum) ran footage of Andre’s title win (and subsequent transfer to DiBiase) with the announcement that DiBiase would defend the title against Hulk Hogan at a house show in March. A February 8, 1988 house show at the Los Angeles Sports Arena saw Ted DiBiase announced as WWF champion during a match against “Bam Bam” Bigelow.
The week after The Main Event aired, WWF President Jack Tunney made a decision regarding the controversial finish of the Andre vs. Hogan match. On the February 13, 1988 edition of Superstars, Tunney ruled that while he recognized Andre’s title victory, he did not recognize Andre surrendering the belt to DiBiase. Tunney ruled that by Andre surrendering the belt, the title had become vacant. Thus, a fourteen-man tournament would be held at Wrestlemania IV to crown a new WWF champion.
With Wrestlemania IV a month and a half away, the WWF ran tag team matches with the team of Hulk Hogan and “Bam Bam” Bigelow taking on the team of Ted DiBiase and Andre the Giant. Hogan and Bigelow earned up an impressive run of wins over the DiBiase/Andre team as well as wins against the team of DiBiase and Virgil.
On March 12, 1988 Saturday Night’s Main Event ran the final episode before Wrestlemania IV. Hulk Hogan squared off against Bobby Heenan Family charge “King” Harley Race with the Hulkster scoring a pinfall victory.
The real intrigue that night revolved around a match between “The Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase (accompanied to the ring by Virgil and Andre the Giant) and “The Macho Man” Randy Savage (accompanied as always by Miss Elizabeth). This match would be a harbinger for Wrestlemania IV as well as a sign of things to come over the next year. However to understand the ramifications of this match, we’ll have to step back a few months and witness the events that led to the formation of the Mega-Powers, a team destined for greatness as well as tragedy. Join me next time as we look at the epic pairing of Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage.
Thanks again to Graham Cawthon for his awesome resource page The History of WWE!