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Trading Card Set of the Week – The History of WrestleMania (Classic, 1990)

March 31, 2013

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WrestleMania 29 — 0r XXIX, depending on your numeric preferences — is a week away, with all the attendant pomp and pageantry that has helped make it a transcendent sports entertainment spectacle. The Rock, the current champ and star of the abominably awful G.I. Joe: Retaliation, faces John Cena in a rematch of last years match. The Undertaker, he of the god-awful eponymous comic book, tries to push his 20-0 WrestleMania undefeated streak to 21-0 against C.M. Punk. AND SO MUCH MORE.

What does all this mean? That there will never be a better time to shoehorn a WrestleMania-centric product into the Trading Card Set of the Week feature. So here we are: “The History of WrestleMania,” from Classic.

In 1990, as cards were cresting in popularity and wrestling was still milking the Hulkamania glory days, a little company called Classic came out with an attractive, if bare bones, set of cards commemorating the superstars of the WWF. This was by no means the first time that the beefy titans of the squared circle had found their way onto cardboard. Topps had issued several WWF sets in the 1980s, and there had been sporadic wrestling card appearances for as long as there had been such things. Classic, a company that got its start with cards that were tied into a baseball-themed board game, entered the fray when they got the WWF license. Their first set had eye-appeal, with decent photography and clean white borders like the first Marvel Universe cards from Impel, and focused on individual cards for the major stars of the day. The only c0mplaints were that the stock was a bit thin — like glorified business cards — and there was far too much repetition, with multiple cards for the wrestlers — how much Hacksaw Jim Duggan can one set endure? But they sold, at least well enough to justify a second edition. And, having exhausted the WWF roster with the first, centering the next on WrestleMania, the primary showcase event for Vince McMahon’s scripted gladiators, seemed a natural progression.

They looked exactly the same as the first set, so much so that there’s some confusion to this day as to which is which — the gilded WrestleMania logo on the front, though, providing an obvious clue. The photography, while clear, was a bit of a downgrade from the first series, which had studio publicity shots as the backbone of the series. Here, the card fronts are, naturally, action-oriented, and the sometimes wide-angle, through-the-ropes perspectives can make what you’re seeing a bit murky.

Still, they’re a smile-inducing trip down memory lane for any kid who grew up in the age of Hulkamania. Indeed, the Hulkster is very much the star of the set — though the Ultimate Warrior, who had (briefly, as it would turn out) supplanted Hulk Hogan as the top headliner, was featured on the box top you see above. The first six (VI) WrestleManias all had Hogan involved in the main event. In the first he had teamed with Mr. T (who, one imagines for rights issues, is mentioned but not seen here) against Rowdy Roddy Piper and Cowboy Bob Orton, while in the second he took on King Kong Bundy in a cage match. But it was WrestleMania III, held in Detroit’s Pontiac Silverdome, where the event simultaneously hit its stride and what was perhaps its high water mark, with what remains the most memorable main event of them all: Hulk Hogan vs. Andre the Giant:

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The match wasn’t much to look at, as Andre’s acromegaly, the disease that gave him his legendary “8th Wonder of the World” dimensions, was exacting its final, crippling toll on his body — and Hogan, always a big lug, was no high-flier himself. But the crowd was into it, going wild as Hogan “cinched Andre up into the launch position,” and what a crowd it was. The total attendance number has shifted over the years, depending on whatever huge, record-setting number suited McMahon’s ego purposes, but it was certainly a sea of humanity:

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The card back lists the attendance as 93,173, for whatever that’s worth:

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Like many wrestling memories, what endures isn’t what happens in the ring, but the build-up, and in this case the build was as epic as Andre’s size. It all started in Piper’s Pit, Roddy Piper’s interview segment, with instigator Jesse “The Body” Ventura rabble-rousing and Bobby “The Brain” Heenan, the greatest heel manager of all time, lighting the gasoline. Ignore the initial VHS tracking lines (they go away quickly) and bask in the drama:

“Tehk yoah hunds awf muh shoaldairs” remains a personal catchphrase to this day. And the match contract signing, with Andre’s contemptuous “Au revoir” at the end, kept the ball rolling:

Magnifique.

The Andre-Hogan bad blood would last for years, but there were other feuds where Andre’s unique thespian gifts could be put on display, including the build to his WrestleMania V match with Jake “The Snake” Roberts, which is commemorated here:

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Watch this clip and try to not smile:

As many opportunities as there are to warm yourself in nostalgia’s glow, there are just as many sad moments unearthed going through the cards. Premature wrestler deaths have become an all-too real, all-too sad meme over the years, and the faces of those who have passed away stare out at you from these twenty-plus-year old cards. “Mr. Perfect” Curt Hennig was a personal favorite wrestler of mine, a cocky heel whose intro vignettes were so magnificently ridiculous you couldn’t help but love to hate him. He died in a hotel room in his 40s, of drug-assisted heart failure. Owen Hart, younger brother of Bret “The Hitman” Hart, was a hated heel beloved backstage, everyone’s friend. He died, famously, in the ring in 1999, a victim of a stunt gone wrong. Here they are, wrestling each other at WrestleMania V, Hart in his “Blue Blazer” superhero gimmick (the gimmick he was using when he died):

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Depressing. To lighten the mood, here’s Bobby Heenan in an Andre the Giant unitard at the same event:

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There. That’s better.

WrestleMania V also saw the sundering of the Mega Powers, the short-lived alliance between Hogan and the briefly babyface “Macho Man” Randy Savage. What drove a wedge between them? What else — a broad. Savage’s jealousy concerning his manager, Miss Elizabeth (The First Lady of Wrestling) drove him nuts. Macho is another who died too young, and, since he was one of the greatest entertainers I’ve ever seen — he committed to a role like few others — here’s some of his vein-popping interviews from the build-up:

And here’s Hogan bashing his head into a turnbuckle — no, WrestleMania V did not end well for the Madness:

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The last five cards of the set are a strange assemblage of character cards, which look and feel much like the predecessor set: “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes, the Rockers (Shawn Michaels and Marty Jannetty), the Ultimate Warrior, Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake, and the Bushwhackers. The last are oft-lamented as a really dopey, too-silly tag team. I loved them. They were ridiculous, but perfect fodder for comedic minds like Bobby Heenan. They were also, until the Lord of the Rings movies came out, the only New Zealand export I knew of (I still have it in the back of my head that all people down under walk waving their arms around like they did). I mean, how can you not love these mugs?:

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Their best move was when one would take the other’s head and use it as a battering ram on an opponent. Again: HOW CAN YOU NOT LOVE THESE GUYS?

The History of WrestleMania is a nostalgic, if somewhat bare-bones, set of cards. Fair warning if you ever want to buy a box, though: The collation is atrocious, with poor distribution of cards — you’ll open three packs in a row with cards 16-30. But, even with that, they’re perfect for this coming week, the buildup to the Christmastime of pro wrestling. Like a chair shot sent from above.

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