Why Michael Jackson proved so influential to 1984 wrestling
By 1984, the MTV generation was beginning to strongly influence wrestling. Most wrestlers were starting to use pop hits like Eye of the Tiger, Rock n’ Roll is King and Sharp Dressed Man as their theme songs. Arguably no music pop star played a bigger factor in making wrestling cool than Michael Jackson.
This will be hard for modern fans to grasp, but at one point in his career as WWF (at the time) owner, Vince McMahon was pretty cutting edge. He wasn’t the first to incorporate pop music into the fabric of his programming, but he embraced it in a way his competitors did not.
Sure he had the potential crossover larger than life WWF champion Hulk Hogan, but McMahon needed something to capture the New Generation. Rising star Cyndi Lauper became a fixture on WWF programming, but McMahon made sure to embrace The King of Pop albeit in different fashion.
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Michael Jackson was at the peak of his popularity in 84. Thriller was a staple in practically everyone’s music collection as it dominated radio airwaves and the fledgling MTV. Prince and Madonna were big, but McMahon didn’t want to settle for second best. McMahon used Hogan’s ascent to the world title as the launching pad for a cooler, hipper, more fun WWF.
Gone was the generic opening to WWF Championship Wrestling. Now it was replaced by the instrumental version of Thriller. Everyone knew that song from the familiar guitar riff and McMahon subtlety just showed Hogan during this sequence. The subliminal message perhaps being that Hogan was the Michael Jackson of wrestling.
Besides, if a promotion was cool enough to lay Michael Jackson they had to be worth watching. The theme for the mid-show news segment was an instrumental of Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’. In hindsight, why McMahon didn’t use the even more appropriate Beat It is a bigger mystery than Evolution.
But Jackson was way too big to be contained by one promotion. Thriller was iconic and music industry groundbreaking in a way today’s only artists could never imagine. And every company wanted a piece of the action with some territories doing more than just using a random song from the album.
Down in Florida, Kevin Sullivan was doing his cult gimmick with hooded, face-painted followers accompanying him to ringside carrying snakes. While the use of Thriller as a theme song actually works in context, it was way too peppy and popular a song for Florida’s ‘devil’ to use.
Easily the most successful Michael Jackson-influenced wrestling act was the P.Y.T. Express. Yes, that’s the Pretty Young Thing Express. Koko B. Ware and Norvell Austin came out clad in Michael Jackson-like red leather vests, a boom box and one sparkled glove. But the kicker was their theme music perhaps the least intimidating theme of all time.
P.Y.T. is one of those impossible to get out of your head songs, but it hardly suggests you’re about to get beat down like the Road Warriors’ Iron Man. At least the PYT Express had the good sense to alternately use a slowed down version of Thriller during promos.
Koko was clearly the star of the team as he had the swagger and dance moves to pull off the gimmick. Austin did his best to imitate Koko, much like me trying to do The Wobble, but at least he was a decent wrestler. Fun Fact: Austin was the original mouthpiece and third member of the original Midnight Express with Dennis Condrey and Randy Rose.
The PYT’s originated in Memphis battling the scab Fabulous Ones of Eddie Gilbert and Tommy Rich. They had a quick stint in Mid-South where they went against character playing faces against the Midnight Express. Next they headed to World Class Championship Wrestling where they aligned with Butch Reed.
Over in Mid-South, Mark Ragin tried the same shtick only he had a major problem — he was mediocre at best. To be charitable, he was OK doing the dancing bits. Bill Watts tried to sell some excitement for Ragin’s moves in his debut, but Ragin’s following appearance saw him in a more appropriate jobber role. Eventually, Ragin moved on to Memphis, which is no stranger to awful gimmicks and terrible character ideas.
While no wrestler or promotion was ever fully able to capitalize on Michael Jackson’s popularity back in the 80s, it actually has connected to an extent with modern audiences. Jim Ross has famously described Shinsuke Nakamura as a cross between Freddie Mercury and Michael Jackson.
And current star Da Mack has brought the gimmick back full circle with a Thriller jacket and sparkle glove. Some gimmicks are just too good to be forgotten.