(Photo credit: RowdyRoddyPiper.com)
NEW YORK — Madison Square Garden recently saluted the “Great Moments” in the arena’s 130-year history. Up on the stage with the likes of Patrick Ewing of the New York Knicks and Mark Messier of the New York Rangers was none other than “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, the greatest “heel” (or villain) in pro wrestling history.
Why would the Garden salute a “sports entertainer” from a faux sport alongside real athletic superstars? I’ll tell you why. Because Piper was money on a hoof — and one of the biggest box office draws in Garden history.
Hot Rod’s War to Settle the Score match against Hulk Hogan at MSG in February, 1985 set the stage for Piper and tag team partner Paul “Mr. Wonderful” Orndorf to face Hogan and Mr. T at the Garden in the first WrestleMania on March 31, 1985. Those two matches spawned a nearly 30-year old, global pay-per-view franchise that’s made tens of millions of dollars for the Garden (which has hosted WrestleMania multiple times) and Vince McMahon’s WWE ever since.
Piper’s real name is Roderick George Toombs. The Canadian pro wrestler was billed as hailing from Glasgow, Scotland during his career. Piper used to enter the ring and perform his interviews while wearing a kilt. New York’s Emerald Society of cops and firefighters memorably serenaded him with bagpipes when he met Hogan in 1985
Piper was comic relief. His rise to box-office gold was fueled by his talk show, Piper’s Pit. Rather than screaming, he used insults and humor to create feuds that would translate into closed-circuit buys. To make sure fans ponied up for the first WrestleMania pay-preview, he staged a live Piper’s Pit with Hogan and Mr T.
We asked Piper at the MSG event how Piper’s Pit got started. He said the whole thing was improvised, including his first and favorite interview with the late, great “jobber,” or perennial losing wrestler, Frank Williams.
“They were taking the middle card guys and killing them on TV. Short of a ritual killing there wasn’t much left you could do,” said Piper, 58, while standing beside his aspiring MMA fighter son Colt Toombs. “So I got the idea that if they’re going to see me wrestle, they’re going to have to pay for it. So I started Piper’s Pit …Thanks to Frankie Williams, it really took off.”
With many former pro wresters dying young from apparent steroids abuse, it’s hard to remember how close pro wrestling came to breaking through into mainstream culture in the1980′s. Hogan appeared on the Grammy Awards with Cyndi Lauper and co-starred in a Rocky movie with Sylvester Stallone.
Broadcast network NBC got into business with the former WWF, showing Saturday Night Main Event wrestling matches in place of Saturday Night Live. Piper vs Hogan in the War to Settle the Score was televised live by MTV.
The 1980′s boom led a young Bob Costas to examine the “phenomenon” of pro wrestling on NBC. My favorite part of the piece: the Hulkster telling “Bashful Bob” to lose the bow tie, get in the gym and work on his “chicken wing” biceps.
Did Piper ever think WrestleMania would grow so big? “Never occurred to me. I was trying to feed my kids,” he said.