WrestleMania's Iconic Hulk Hogan-Ultimate Warrior Match Almost Never Happened
A hydro labour dispute in Toronto led to fears of a power strike and a potential blackout that could have derailed the event, something WWE boss Vince McMahon was left in the dark on.
Illustration by Ben Ruby/VICE
If you were a wrestling fan in 1990, you remember watching Hulk Hogan vs. The Ultimate Warrior in the main event of WrestleMania VI. The match produced moments that are seared in wrestling fans' minds forever. Warrior sprinting the length of a football field to get to the ring. Hogan besting Warrior in a test of strength which looked like passionate fellatio thanks to an unfortunate camera angle. Hogan handing the belt, and ostensibly the WWE torch, over to Warrior.
We've come to learn many things about the match over the years. Hogan was injured and needed the time off, but didn't think Warrior should be the one to carry the championship belt in his absence. Warrior was so overwhelmed by emotion after the match that he was found weeping in a janitor's closet later on backstage.
But one thing that's never been discussed is that the match, and the entire event, almost didn't happen at all, unbeknownst to most people involved.
In 1990, the WWE (then the WWF) still had very deep roots in Canada. Its on-screen president, Jack Tunney, was a longtime Canadian promoter who in real-life was still legitimately promoting WWE events in Toronto and elsewhere across the country. The WWE held office space in Canada, and some of its weekly television programming was produced in Canada, or by Canadians.
"When a US performance product went into Canada, it needed to have a certain portion of the operation being local—that is to say, being Canadian. There was a time when the two syndicated series were Championship Wrestling and Superstars of Wrestling—one was shot in the US, and the other was shot in Canada," Nelson Sweglar, former head of television production for the WWE, and the producer of WrestleMania VI, told VICE Sports. "The reason for that is that it needed Canadian content. That is to say some Canadian wrestlers needed to be on the show, but equally as important was that the crew itself needed to consist of a certain percentage of Canadian nationals. It was important for us to have offices in Toronto and actually have a business operation in Toronto. That was how we were able to get funds in and out of Canada from these events."
Toronto in particular had always been a major professional wrestling market, dating back to the 1930s. Four years prior to WrestleMania VI, the WWE held an event at Exhibition Stadium in Toronto, headlined by Hogan and Paul Orndorff, which drew over 70,000 fans. One year prior, it was reported that the company cashed in on $200,000 worth of closed circuit revenue in Toronto alone for WrestleMania V.
In the two previous years, WrestleMania had been scaled down, after a record-setting WrestleMania III extravaganza in Michigan at the Pontiac Silverdome, which drew 93,173 fans. WrestleMania IV and V both took place at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, drawing 19,199 and 18,946, respectively. However, for WrestleMania V, more than 100 audiences in the United States ranging in size from 2,000 to 14,000 watched the event in closed circuit locations, and another 767,000 households purchased the pay-per-view. Additionally, more than 120,000 copies of the Coliseum Home Video VHS of the show were sold before it even took place.
Knowing that it could count on tremendous broadcast revenue domestically, WWE deemed the timing perfect to head north to Toronto, where the SkyDome, the newest colossal stadium in the world, had just been built a year prior.
It was time to host WrestleMania internationally for the first time, in a city and stadium that was ready for it—or so they thought.
In early 1990, Ontario Hydro was in the midst of a labour dispute, which seriously threatened a power strike in the province. The Canadian Union of Public Employees was asking for wage increases of 11.6 and 9.5 per cent over two years, along with an improved pension. The negotiations came to a head the week of WrestleMania VI.
On March 30, Ontario Hydro warned residents that a blackout or brownout could happen as early as the following morning. A Hydro spokesperson told the Toronto Star that day that people should purchase "candles, a flashlight and a battery-operated portable radio to tell them what's going on," and that "anyone with a life-support system at home, a kidney dialysis machine or a respirator for instance, should be certain they have a backup generator." Unfortunately, suppliers at the time were reporting that all of their generators were sold out.
"We've contacted Hydro and we're trying to come up with a plan in the event of a strike, but we don't have any plan in place. We do have a generator, but it only lets every fifth or sixth light to come on," Gail Anderson of SkyDome guest services told the Star that day.
All of this was flooding local media at the time WWE was in town to set up for WrestleMania, and running right beside stories about the event in national and local newspapers, yet somehow nobody in the notoriously media-critical organization noticed this looming catastrophe.
The only person who seemed to know about it by the time the show started was Sweglar, the lead producer.
"It came about either before the event began or during the event. We were made aware that there was a labour action of some sort going on and that there was a possibility that we could lose power, or that there would be a brownout due to taking certain generators offline. And there was nothing we could do about it. It was either going to happen or not happen and there was absolutely nothing anybody in the WWF could do about it," Sweglar said.
At this point, the SkyDome hadn't hosted many large-scale entertainment events. On June 3 of 1989, the stadium celebrated its opening with a gala featuring Alan Thicke and Glass Tiger, which was broadcast nationally on CBC. A week later, Rod Stewart performed the first concert in the stadium. A week prior to WrestleMania, the Rolling Stones performed at the Dome. That was pretty much the extent of non-sports related activity in the venue as of April 1990.
"Remember, this was a brand-new building. You could sniff the newness of it. A lot of what we were doing was not built in to the house system. We had enormous amounts of TV lighting and production trucks," Sweglar explained. "We probably had standby generators for production trucks, but it wasn't practical to have enough standby power to just continue the show if the power would have failed, because the building itself would have asked the audience to leave."
The stadium did have one generator, however it would have only lit every fifth or sixth bulb as emergency lighting. The Jumbotron screen alone at the time had 420,000 light bulbs. The stadium itself was lit by 776 halide lamps.
Had the strike occurred that night, Hogan and Warrior would have had to wrestle in the dark—or, more likely, the building would have been evacuated with the WWE likely on the hook for refunds across the world.
To compound the disaster, if the building were to have been evacuated, the Gardiner Expressway, Toronto's main route into downtown and to the stadium, was closed in both directions until 6:00 PM, and westbound until 7:00 AM the following day.
Luckily, the event went off without a hitch, and rather than lose a tremendous amount of money for the company, it was a rousing success. The event set an attendance record for the SkyDome which stood until WrestleMania X8 surpassed it in 2002. Its live gate revenue of $3,490,857 would be a WrestleMania record until it was finally broken in 2001 at WrestleMania X7. Pay-per-view sales for the event would hit $20.2 million.
As it was happening, company head Vince McMahon had no idea how different the outcome could have been, and nearly was.
"I made the mistake of telling Vince after the fact," Sweglar said. "I told him we got lucky, because we didn't lose power. He had a small fit. Why didn't you tell me?! Well, mainly because there was nothing you could have done about it! Why would I tell you? I told you after the fact because there was nothing you could have done. What are you going to do? Go out and light candles? But, that's Vince."
The show was historically significant for a variety of reasons beyond its featuring of an all-babyface main event for the first time, its occurrence outside of the United States, and massive gate numbers. It was also the night of Andre The Giant's last televised WWE match, as he and partner Haku dropped their tag team titles to Demolition. It's tragic time-capsule viewing, as 15 of the in-ring participants who took part in the event that night are now deceased.
Unfortunately, that time capsule has mostly been sealed because of the participants in the main event. Due to Warrior's reprehensible views and behaviour, large portions of the wrestling community have no interest in him. This is despite the WWE's bizarre and objectionable insistence upon honouring him by naming the Warrior Spirit award after him. The award is given to those exemplifying courage and compassion, and has been issued to Eric LeGrand and Jarrius Robertson in recent years. The disgusting irony that an award named after a racist who called people "cripples" and scoffed at the idea of Martin Luther King Jr. Day has been issued to African Americans with a disease and disability, respectively, should not be lost on anyone.
As for Hogan, his own racism has resulted in the WWE disassociating with him completely, and removing most mentions of him from the company website. The company has stated that it has had discussions with Hogan about returning in some capacity, but as of press time, he remains gently scrubbed from its historical narrative.
WrestleMania VI was the WrestleMania that almost didn't happen, and in some ways, it now actually is.