On Feb. 5, 1988, 30 years ago this week, professional wrestling returned to prime time broadcast network television after a decades-long absence. WWE had been running semi-monthly Saturday Night’s Main Event specials in the Saturday Night Live time slot on NBC for almost three years before it got the green light for an hour-long special during the middle of the “sweeps” ratings period that determines local advertising rates. It was a huge opportunity for WWE and an equally big vote of confidence by NBC. To make the most of it, WWE would need the show to be something special. As well as WWE did in syndication, on cable, and in that late night time slot, this was something else entirely. Friday was not a “death slot” in 1988, either, which meant the show would almost certainly be seen by the biggest audience in American wrestling history, much less company history. Making the most of the opportunity was imperative, especially with WrestleMania coming up in March.
And damned if they didn’t pull it off. The Main Event drew a 15.2 rating, the percentage of American homes with TVs that were tuned to the show, and 33 million viewers. And those 33 million people saw the greatest and most batshit insane piece of Vince McMahon creative writing that the world has ever seen.
All three of the the promotion’s titles were at stake on the show, but the titular main event and biggest drawing card was Hulk Hogan defending his world championship against Andre The Giant, who had jealously turned heel a year earlier. With their first meeting having packed the Pontiac Silverdome, sold 450,000 closed circuit tickets across North America, and garnered 400,000 pay-per-view buys in a universe of just 5 million homes, there was no frontier left for McMahon to conquer besides network TV. The NBC special would be the best possible promotional vehicle for WrestleMania IV, which would also be built around the Hogan-Andre feud. It was such a coup, in fact, that it’s still hard to believe all these years later that they really pulled it off.
The former WWE writer/producer Bruce Prichard discussed that origin story on a Main Event-themed edition of his podcast last week. Per Prichard, it all began when referee Dave Hebner went to Vince McMahon to see about getting a job for his brother, Earl, who worked for rival Jim Crockett Promotions. Dave wanted to wind down his in-ring role and become a backstage road agent/producer, which would leave an opening for Earl to step in as a referee. At some point during the conversation, Dave mentioned that Earl also happened to be his identical twin. According to Prichard, Vince perked up at this and became very into the idea of hiring Earl; he told Dave not to tell anyone else about the conversation. Earl promptly gave his notice to Jim Crockett Jr., who agreed to keep his departure secret. With most of the TV shows taped far in advance and Earl having just appeared on Crockett’s Bunkhouse Stampede pay-per-view less than two weeks earlier, nobody would have any idea that he had jumped.
Come Feb. 5, the referee for Hogan-Andre was, of course, “Dave Hebner.” After a sloppy hip toss by Andre, Hebner counted three and proclaimed the giant the new champion, despite the fact that Hogan’s shoulder had very obviously come off the mat at the count of two. After being awarded the belt, Andre immediately surrendered it to his new manager, “Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase, who had been on a quest to buy the title instead of winning it from Hogan in the ring. All hell broke loose shortly thereafter, with “another Dave Hebner” (the real one) running to the ring and arguing with his lookalike imposter. Eventually, Earl decked Dave, proving that he was the evil twin. Hogan saw this and then nearly killed Earl when he tossed him out of the ring so hard that he flew so far that the other bad guys couldn’t catch him.
The only hint as to what the hell actually went on came in the form of Hogan’s tearful, overwrought locker room interview after the match. The answer was, apparently, not that Dave Hebner had an evil twin brother, even if many fans remember it that way. Instead, they got...this:
HOW MUCH MONEY DID THEY SPEND ON THE PLASTIC SURGERY, MAN!?! I had all bases covered! I had the Hulkamaniacs watchin’ DiBiase! I had Virgil in his place! NEVER IN MY WILDEST DREAMS, MEAN GENE, would I think I would get ripped off by a penny-pinching, two-timing referee. HOW MUCH MONEY ON THE PLASTIC SURGERY?! How much money did he spend to pay the referee off?!?!
When I turned around, Mean Gene, they were identical!
Look at the shoulder, brother! Look at the shoulder! The referee is paid off, brother! Look at the hundred dollar bills falling out of his pocket! MY GOD! HULKAMANIACS!
The interview then ended abruptly due to time constraints.
The finish had to be kept under wraps until the show aired, and was played close enough to the vest that Prichard says he made a point of asking not to be looped in. This created a problem, though: The weekend’s syndicated shows, which were treated in-canon as if they aired live or close to it, had to be voiced over and distributed via satellite before The Main Event took place. The solution was a clever one: It was announced that figurehead president Jack Tunney had ruled that, pending further review of Hogan-Andre, the result of the match could not be discussed on television. Throughout that weekend’s Superstars of Wrestling show, Jesse Ventura was repeatedly bleeped for trying to talk about it before walking off the set. DiBiase, meanwhile, worked that weekend’s live events as champion before being stripped the following week. WrestleMania IV would feature a 14-man tournament for the title with Hogan and Andre each getting a bye to a rematch in the quarterfinals.
The Hebner brothers were kept off TV for a while, with Earl eventually making his debut... as “Dave Hebner.” The actual Dave would occasionally be seen when road agents were used to break up fights, but he was never named; Earl would have to wait several years before finally being referred to by his own name. For almost a decade, The Main Event was what the Hebners were best known for, but that changed at Survivor Series ’97, when Earl was the referee for the match in which Vince McMahon and Shawn Michaels double crossed Bret Hart on the planned finish. Earl called for the bell to be rung while Michaels had Hart in his own Sharpshooter finishing hold, then bolted from the ring and met up with Dave, whose car was running with their bags packed inside. The two sped away, and it seemed as if they would have jobs for life in the promotion; hell, Earl’s son Brian was eventually hired as a referee, as well. “For life” lasted until 2005, when the brothers, who oversaw arena merchandise sales, were fired over some kind of misappropriation of t-shirts.
The WWE/NBC deal lasted only a few more years, as it turned out. The prime time specials never came close to 30 million viewers again, while ratings for the late night shows dwindled and an instantly dated Gulf War-centric storyline made everyone involved uneasy. While WWE did eventually reestablish a network presence, it was usually on fledgling smaller networks like UPN or in the form of poorly-rated occasional specials on NBC. However, WWE’s ongoing negotiations with Fox, which are rumored to include the flagship Monday Night Raw moving to the Fox broadcast network, could change that. Thanks to The Main Event, any future network show will have its work cut out for it, both in terms of success and pure lunacy.
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, NY who co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com and everywhere else that podcasts are eavailable. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.