On My Childhood Wrestling Iconography: Wendy Richter vs. Leilani Kai, February 1985

We all, I think, come at wrestling with our own collection of references, noteworthy matches we saw live, caught as children when they aired on television, or special pay-per-views we saw back in the day when, because of price or cable TV limitations, you didn’t necessarily see every pay-per-view. These important moments in a wrestling fan’s career define the fan’s perspective at its core. They are foundational, just like the books and films that influenced us.

The most formative match for me as a wrestling critic was most certainly Mankind vs. The Undertaker at a Market Square Arena house show in Indianapolis in the late nineties, which I wrote about here. But the first match I ever stumbled upon as a kid was also a revelation. It was my virgin match, which I discovered when I was looking for more to glut out on after cartoons were over one Saturday morning in early 1985, when I was nine years old.

Behold!

Wendy Richter (w/Cyndi Lauper!) vs. Leilani Kai (w/Fabulous Moolah!):

Imagine, I had been up from the couch turning the channel, for remote controls were still a new thing and we didn’t have a TV with one yet. I was literally turning the dial, which went from channel to channel with rather heavy thunks, you had to give it a little english to make it move. Keep in mind that this was a dial numbered 1-13, and there were only five channels anyway — NBC, ABC, CBS, PBS and a newer one called FOX. There was also a “U” on the main dial for “UHF”, which would allow you to switch over to a rather ahead of its time secondary dial of a hundred or so channel numbers to flip through with never anything on them where I lived save the occasional “Praise the Lord” programming. Some people had cable back in those days, but we didn’t. These were channels coming in on the silver metal “rabbit ears” that retracted out across the room and poked you in the eye, and the quality of reception depended on a lot of things. If my mom was running the vacuum cleaner, for example, the picture on the screen would get distorted by a strange pattern of static that would play across it until the vacuuming was done.

So there I was, a child of the eighties, cranking the clunky dial from one number to another through several channels of snow, when I happened upon one of my favorite pop singers taking part in some kind of athletic event. I quickly realized it was “wrestling”, which I knew was a sport. But why was Cyndi Lauper helping? And holy cow, who was that super mean-looking old lady named Moolah? This was fascinating. I can’t remember how much of the match I actually watched, but Moolah choking Cyndi Lauper to the floor like that was the most incredible thing I’d ever seen on TV! I mean, there was an audience cheering and sports announcers talking about it like it was a serious sporting event, but that lady choked Cyndi Lauper right there on TV! Everything else on TV was tame in 1985. I watched things like Alf, Punky Brewster, and Three’s Company, which I used to think was totally racy. I did watch all kinds of adult programming like it was no big deal: my parents’ soap operas, “Magnum P.I.” and “Simon & Simon”, plenty of Rated R movies that had very mild nudity or very mild violence in them. But none of it was all that edgy, and there was something very different about professional wrestling. Everyone was acting like this was real, and here was a lady choking my favorite singer. I was fairly certain that wasn’t allowed in the world, but no cops came in to stop it, and at the end Cyndi even got up and tried to chase down Moolah and Leilani as they were leaving with the championship belt. It seemed impossible! Whatever was going on here, this was some crazy TV.

I felt exhilarated. I had discovered something wild — flamboyant ladies fighting on TV, and it was on right after cartoons! I think I watched the rest of the show, and while none of the other matches stuck with me, I seem to remember being transfixed by all of it. I ran to my dad when he got home and said something to the effect of, “Dad! Dad! Cindy Lauper was helping Wendy Richter but this old lady Moolah choked Cyndi and when Wendy came to save her Leilani beat her and won the championship!”

My dad had a look of pity when he said it: “You know that’s all fake, right?”

Oh, how I stormed to my room in a snit! Look, I knew something didn’t make sense, it couldn’t be real, but the thing was, I really wanted it to be.

I followed the Wendy Richter/Leilani Kai feud as best as a nine year old could with no cable and no internet. They went on to be one of the main event matches of Wrestlemania 1. Imagine that, Wrestlemania 1! Upon rewatching the match, my favorite part is the dottering ref, always out of position and a totally slow counter. Was he a stooge for Moolah?

Do you remember who was on the card when you first discovered professional wrestling?

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