Welcome to the Big Apple, UFC. Your time has arrived.
The UFC this Saturday night will finally hold a show in New York, at Madison Square Garden, widely regarded as the "The World's Most Famous Arena"
The show is more than just a big fight card. The event symbolizes the arrival and acceptance of UFC as mainstream fare, after a years-long push for political support to hold a mixed martial arts event in the state. The UFC finally won the battle when the legislature earlier this year approved MMA, recognizing that it is not "no holds barred" cockfighting.
When Eddie Alvarez and Conor McGregor take that walk toward the Octagon Saturday night, they will follow a long line of professional wrestlers who have sold out Madison Square Garden for decades. It's true that the UFC will break the live gate record, but the WWE has made history over and over again inside that very building. If the key to legacy is longevity, then the WWE is King.
In fact, Madison Square Garden has been essential to the WWE's rise. The New York crowd has always been a smart crowd. They cheered what they felt, not what the scriptwriters wanted them to cheer. If they enjoyed a wrestler and a match, they showed appreciation. If they hated it, you were DOA. Let's take a look at some of the times when WWE and Madison Square Garden made history together.
11. Triple H Returns After Tearing His Quad (Jan. 7, 2002)
Triple H made one of the greatest returns in pro wrestling history during an episode of Monday Night Raw. When the WWE does things right, it knocks it out of the park. Triple H tore his quad a year prior and had to miss action at the height of his biggest run as a singles star. You never know how an audience will react when a superstar goes down from injury. Things change and there are no guarantees that you will be as hot as you were before. In Triple H's case, when he returned, he was bigger than ever, both literally and figuratively. He looked like he had not stopped working out the entire time he was on the shelf. But the crowd's pop for Hunter that night was louder than any single roar in that building -- ever. The WWE had built Hunter's return marvelously, showing him rehabilitate with U2's hit song "Beautiful Day" playing in the background. This guy was a music video come to life when he returned. MSG made him a bigger star that night. MSG certainly played The Game.
10. Wrestlemania I (Mar. 31, 1985)
The first Wrestlemania was manna from heaven. It was proof that God on high is a wrestling fan. Hulk Hogan was the hottest wrestler in the world and a mainstream star, bigger than Conor McGregor is today. Vince McMahon rolled the dice and opted for his first of many Wrestlemanias to be hosted on closed circuit television. The main event found Hulk Hogan and Mr. T taking on Rowdy Roddy Piper and Mr. Wonderful Paul Orndorff. The celebrity presence of the event was monumental and included Muhammad Ali, Liberace, Billy Martin and Cyndi Lauper. The show was a massive hit and cemented the WWE's place as pop culture mainstay. The WWE has only become bigger -- three decades later.
9. The War to Settle the Score (Feb. 18, 1985)
A month before the first Wrestlemania, the WWE staged "The War to Settle the Score," a live event from MSG on MTV. You knew wrestling was hot when during the early days of cable, the WWE got a spot on MTV, in primetime.
Hogan wrestled Roddy Piper in the main event, with Mr. T at ringside. Hogan was still sizzling from his 1983 appearance in Rocky III. Hogan defeated Piper by disqualification and a melee ensued between Hogan, Orndorff, Cowboy Bob Orton, and Lauper, who was legitimately kicked in the head by Piper. Piper was clearly the best heel in the business at this time. This was an MSG event that made the WWE feel like something special in 1985.
8. The Brawl to End it All (Jul. 23, 1984)
Wendi Richter defeated The Fabulous Moolah to win the women's championship on MTV in a show that drew a 9.0 rating, the most-watched show in MTV's history at the time. The WWE was soaring from the Rock N' Wrestling connection and Cyndi Lauper's involvement in the WWE. If you were a closeted wrestling fan growing up, seeing the show on MTV allowed you to talk about it in public, since it was on MTV and everyone watched MTV at the time. The MSG crowd ate it up and Richter became a huge star, for a little while, anyway. MSG was at Ground Zero of the WWE's amazing explosion into popular culture.
7. Bruno Sammartino vs. "Nature Boy" Buddy Rogers (May 17, 1963)
Bruno Sammartino was the king of New York. He sold out Madison Square Garden 187 times between 1963 and 1981. The Italian-American was an ethnic and cultural icon. Before Hulk Hogan, Stone Cold Steve Austin and John Cena, Sammartino was a hero to young men and boys inside the hallowed halls of Madison Square Garden. He defeated Rogers in 55 seconds to become the original face that runs the place. No star was ever bigger in MSG than Sammartino.
6. Bruno Sammartino vs. Ivan Koloff (Jan. 18, 1971)
You could hear a pin drop. The only thing close to it in the modern era was when Brock Lesnar defeated The Undertaker, breaking his 21-0 Wrestlemania streak. Ivan Koloff pinned Bruno Sammartino inside Madison Square Garden to win the championship, in a twist ending that enraged the New York crowd. First they were quiet. Then they were sad. Then they got angry and nearly rioted. Tears flowed in the audience the night The Russian Bear won the gold, stripping Sammartino of the championship he held for more than seven years.
5. The Curtain Call (May 19, 1996)
It was the night pro wrestlers broke character live in front of the crowd. It was a groundbreaking and daring move, so, of course, it had to happen in Madison Square Garden. Scott Hall and Kevin Nash, known then as Razor Ramon and Diesel in the WWE, were leaving to wrestle in WCW. The smart fans in New York caught wind of this and chanted "You Sold Out" at Hall and Nash. But Hall and Nash were also good buddies with Shawn Michaels and Triple H, who were staying. Behind the scenes, they were called "The Kliq" because they stuck together. The four of them embraced and turned the crowd in their favor during the non-televised show at Madison Square Garden. The moment, now known as "The Curtain Call," was captured on video by someone in the audience and the event now lives in WWE lore. It was one of the first times a top star broke character in front of the crowd
"Madison Square Garden went crazy," Triple H said after the fact. Yes it did.
4. Summerslam 1988: The Ultimate Warrior vs. The Honky Tonk Man (Aug. 29, 1988)
Few wrestlers excited a building like The Ultimate Warrior. When he was hot in 1988, Madison Square Garden came unglued. The Honky Tonk Man was the intercontinental champion and held the strap for 15 months. He was supposed to wrestle Brutus "The Barber" Beefcake that night, but Beefcake got injured and the WWE had to find a replacement. So Vince McMahon turned to the hottest guy in the company at the time not named Hulk Hogan or Randy "Macho Man" Savage. The cocky Honky Tonk Man made an open challenge and, to everyone's surprise, out came The Ultimate Warrior. In a matter of minutes, The Ultimate Warrior raced to the ring, clobbered the Elvis lookalike with clotheslines and hit his big splach to win the title. That's how you book a superstar.
3. Wrestlemania XX, Triple H vs. Shawn Michaels vs. Chris Benoit, Triple Threat for the World Heavyweight Championship; Eddie Guerrero vs. Kurt Angle for the WWE Championship (Mar. 14, 2004)
This may have been the best pure wrestling match in Wrestlemania history. You had Michaels and Benoit, two of the greatest wrestlers of all time, and Hunter, who was an exceptional worker with great ring timing and psychology. The event was billed as "Where it All Begins, Again." Benoit's realistic style, Michaels' ability to fly like a little guy, yet fight like a big man, and Triple H's in-ring storytelling, was the Citizen Kane of pro wrestling matches. Benoit won the title in a match that was just a beauty to behold. On the undercard, Eddie Guerrero defeated Kurt Angle. On this night, and rarely do you see this, the two best wrestlers in the company held the championships. It was also a stunning personal moment. Benoit and Guerrero were best friends in real life who were held down in WCW because they were seen as "too small" to be on top. Now here they were, the top two guys in the biggest wrestling company in the world. Sadly, both Benoit and Guerrero have since died. And since Benoit committed suicide after killing his family, you won't hear the WWE talking about this match. The show also featured the first Bill Goldberg vs. Brock Lesnar fight, which the crowd crapped on because both wrestlers were leaving the WWE after the match. You can find the show on the WWE Network.
2. Wrestlemania X, Shawn Michaels vs. Razor Ramon, Ladder Match for the Intercontinental Championship (Mar. 20, 1994)
Bret Hart's greatest night and a groundbreaking ladder match between Shawn Michaels and Razor Ramon made Wrestlemania XX inside MSG a night to remember.
Ladder matches are fairly common in the WWE these days, but that's only because of the show Michaels and Ramon put on at WrestleMania X. If those two had a stinker of a match, the ladder match concept could have died right there in MSG. Instead, the match gave birth to an entire genre of matches. Michaels, one of the greatest professional wrestlers of all time, stole the show. Ramon was a good worker for his size. The two were also friends, so they trusted each other inside the ring and the match tore the house down. Also, Bret Hart defeated Yokozuna in the main event to win the WWE championship, signaling the beginning of a the post-Hulk Hogan era. Of course, Vince McMahon would screw Hart out of the WWE championship three years later, in what is known as The Montreal Screwjob, but at least people were happy on this night.
1. Hulk Hogan vs. The Iron Sheik (Jan. 23, 1984)
Talk about a great booking decision. Vince McMahon stole Hogan from the AWA and booked him to defeat the Iron Sheik inside Madison Square Garden, forever changing the future of professional wrestling. It's hard to imagine how big Hogan was at the time. He was bigger than Conor McGregor. He was bigger than Mike Tyson. He was bigger than the LeBron James. Hogan was an American hero. He earned national mainstream attention by appearing in Rocky III, so when when he entered the ring that night to "Eye of the Tiger," he fueled a jacked up Madison Square Garden crowd. Hogan's title win caused a cultural movement, one that we really have only seen with Stone Cold Steve Austin since. The title win paved the way for Wrestlemania, cartoons, music videos, ice cream bars and wrestling's place as a cornerstone sport and genre deeply rooted in our culture more than three decades later. With a legdrop, Hulkamania was born and the MSG crowd made it happen.