Chris Van Vliet recently spoke to Features of Wrestling to talk about WrestleMania 18, which took place live from the SkyDome in Toronto, Canada 20 years ago. For those that haven’t been, Chris talks about what it is like attending a WrestleMania and his memories from the event. Chris also discussed the icon vs. icon match between Hulk Hogan and The Rock, how he got to attend WrestleMania against the odds and more.
So you have very kindly joined me today to talk about WrestleMania 18. Can you believe it’s been 20 years already?
“I honestly can’t believe that it has been 20 years, but when you look back at this card, so much has changed in the landscape of pro-wrestling. I also think what is interesting about WrestleMania 18 is that this is back when WrestleMania used to be in March. So this was on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17th 2002. When I interviewed The Rock for Hercules a few years ago, I think the interview was around this time of year. I remember saying to him ‘You know, a few weeks from now, March 17th is coming up. To most people that is St. Patrick’s Day, but to us wrestling fans, that’s the anniversary of the greatest match of all time.’ And he was like ‘Oh yeah that is coming up.’”
Do you call it WrestleMania 18 or WrestleMania X8?
“It’s definitely WrestleMania 18. That was such a weird thing back then when we would put the X there like it’s roman numerals. But I don’t think that anyone has ever called this WrestleMania X8, in the same way that people call it WrestleMania 16 and not WrestleMania 2000.”
Was this the first WrestleMania that you attended live?
“It was and I have now been to 10 of them, I had really become a hardcore fan just before that. I am as old as WrestleMania is, so when WrestleMania 18 came to town, I was 18 years old. It’s the same with all the others, I am the same age as the number that follows WrestleMania. I had just become such a hardcore fan becasue the Attitude Era had become such a big thing in the late 90’s. I was a backyard wrestler at the time and I had just started college. I was a freshman at college and had just finished my fall semester. I had bought the tickets with 2 of my best friends and we had decided that we were going to go, no matter what. I didn’t have a way to get there and I didn’t know how I was going to get from my college town to Toronto at the SkyDome, but we were going.”
For those who haven’t been, what is it like going to a WrestleMania?
“Oh my gosh. WrestleMania is like everybody who is really hardcore about wrestling, all together in the same place. The great thing about WrestleMania is that people will fly all over the world to be there, which you don’t see for the other big events like a SummerSlam or a Royal Rumble. WrestleMania more than anything, people will make a whole week out of it. They weren’t doing this as much 20 years ago, but now, people will fly in that Monday and spend the entire week going to all the independent shows, autograph signings and events. So it’s just basically, it’s our SuperBowl, it is our SuperBowl for wrestling fans. You walk around the city, this is the great thing about WrestleMania, whether it’s New Orleans, Los Angeles, Dallas, Toronto or wherever. No matter where you go in the city that week, you are surrounded by wrestling fans. When you have 70,000 people all attending an event like that, everywhere you go it’s wrestling t-shirts and wrestling chants. It’s just a great time to be a wrestling fan, because you are all together in one place.”
So taking it back 20 years ago, can you remember where you were when WWE announced that WrestleMania 18 would be in Toronto?
“I had just spent a bunch of time as a backyard wrestler the summer before. I guess that it was announced in 2001 that WrestleMania 18 would be on March 17th, 2002. So my friends and I were very much in that headspace of not only did we love wrestling, but we thought that we were “wrestlers.” So when WrestleMania was announced for Toronto, it was a no brainer. I knew that I was going to go, it was just a matter of how many of my backyard wrestling friends were going to go. My one very best friends Greg, still a friend to this day, he came with another very good friend Trevor. I remember sitting there when the tickets went on sale, and I was refreshing and refreshing the screen, which was in the early days of the internet, until we were able to get in. I said to my friends ‘How much do we want to spend?’ They were like ‘I guess we could spend $100?’ We ended up getting floor seats for $125 plus the service charge, making it $135.50, which I thought was a pretty good deal. We ended up buying 3 tickets, and I think we were row 16, so like really good seats.”
So you were 16 rows from the ring?
“There was the ringside section and then there was us. I think we were like 26 rows from the ring. There are some ringside shots where you can see the backs of our heads. We were on the hard cam side, facing the ring with the entrance way to our left. There are some very big sweeping shots with the jib where you can see the backs of our heads and we are liek ‘Oh my gosh! That’s us.’”
So you have the tickets and you are counting down the days, then shortly before the event The Rock vs. Hulk Hogan is announced. Can you remember your reaction when that match was announced?
“I remember looking at the card up to that point and talking to my friends. We were like ‘This card is not that great.’ And I remember thinking that at the time. I look back now and go oh there are some really great matches on that card. But I remember at the time going this is not that great. But then Hogan vs. Rock was announced and it’s like OK, finally! I have that poster on my wall because that is my favourite match of all time because of the crowd reaction, which I am sure we will get into. That was the match that really sold it for all of us.”
Am I right in thinking that you nearly didn’t go to WrestleMania?
“We were really close to selling our tickets. You have to remember that we are 18 years old, college students, who have a lot of debt and expenses. Just to backtrack a bit here, my parents are not fans of wrestling, they did not like the fact that I watched it. When I bought the tickets, they were like ‘Good luck getting there, we’re not going to help you get there.’ My college town was an hour from Toronto and about an hour and a half from my hometown, so they were like ‘You’ve got to find a way to get there, because we want no part in supporting you going to WrestleMania.’ So I found a ride with somebody to my hometown and we took the train into the city. And then I had to get a friend of mine, his dad happened to be doing a meeting in and around the area and he offered to give me a ride back, that was the only way that I could make this happen. We took the train into Toronto, were looking at the card and we were like ‘Well do we really want to go in? We have spent a lot of money on these tickets.’ We went and talked to a scalper and we asked them ‘Just out of curiosity, how much can we get for these tickets?’ He looks at me and he goes ‘I will give you $200 [a ticket] right now.’ We are all like ‘Oh my gosh $200!’ We could make a little bit of money, go to a bar and watch this thing. We were so close to doing that, but my friend Trevor goes ‘Come on, it’s WrestleMania. We should at least go in to explore this thing.’
I think we got in that mindset that every fan gets in where you are jaded to the current storylines. I think at times that you often can’t appreciate wrestling for what it is until many years later when you can look back and appreciate how great that was in the context of history. And I think we were in that time, there had been the Invasion angle with WCW and ECW, it fell kind of flat and the roster was really bloated with all these people from WCW, who I think a lot of us hardcore WWF fans didn’t really know or really cared about. This kind of became the pay-per-view where Diamond Dallas Page was on this, Scott Hall was on this, Lance Storm was on this, Stacy Keibler. There were a lot of people that were WCW people that I didn’t know that well and I think a lot of WWF fans didn’t know that well, and I think we were just jaded to that idea. But we ended up going in, and I am so glad that we did.”
Getting into the show itself, when was the last time you watched WrestleMania 18 as either a match in isolation or the whole thing?
“I go back and watch the intro to The Rock vs. Hogan match frequently. A few times a year. Even talking about it now gives me goosebumps. To know that I was a part of that reaction, that is the greatest crowd reaction in the history of wrestling, bar none. You can’t argue with me on this one there is no greater crowd reaction than that. As a whole, I have not watched WrestleMania from start to finish since I was there. But I go back and watch Rock/Hogan, the intro frequently, the match, once or twice a year. But the show as a whole, not at all. I tried to watch it one time with my friend Greg who I went with, and it was so weird watching it on the WWE Network. None of the licenced songs were on there so all of these people were coming out to different songs and I’m like ‘That wasn’t their entrance song.’”
So there were 11 matches on the main card. Aside from the 2 big matches of Rock vs. Hogan and Triple H vs. Jericho, do you have a favourite match?
“I remember Arn Anderson running in and giving a picture perfect spinebuster, I will never forget that. I didn’t even know he was there. He just runs in, picture perfect spinebuster, rolls out of the ring, I will never forget that moment.”
For context, Ric Flair was 53 when that match took place. The Undertaker is 56 now.
“Wow. It’s funny to us wrestling fans, Ric Flair has always seemed old, even when you watch the videos of him in his 30’s when it was the 80’s. Maybe it was because of the white hair, Ric Flair has always seemed old to me, but it seems like it is one of the same. But the thing about Ric Flair is that he is the best because he is the best. He has put in all that time and he understands the psychology so well. I knew when I saw Ric Flair’s name on that card that no matter who he was fighting, and he was fighting The Undertaker, you knew that it was going to be a great match.”
When you think of WrestleMania 18 you think of one match. It’s Icon vs. Icon, The Rock vs. Hulk Hogan. The entrances take place and then something changes in the crowd. Did you feel like something strange was happening?
“I fully went into that match expecting to cheer for The Rock. I am a huge Rock fan and I think he helped shape who I became in high school as a wrestling fan. I dressed up as The Rock once for Halloween, taking photos with the eyebrow raised. I was fully going in intending to cheer for The Rock. Also, I was not the biggest wrestling fan in The Golden Era. I was aware of Hulk Hogan, The Ultimate Warrior, The Macho Man, Sgt. Slaughter… all of those names, but I didn’t really watch it religiously until The Attitude Era. I definitely was way more aware of what The Rock was doing and his work than I was of Hulk Hogan, so I knew that this match was icon vs. icon. But as soon as those entrance themes stopped and those 2 men were staring at each other, Hulkamania just took over every bone in my body, and the crowd just shifted in an instant. I would say that it was 90% Hogan and 10% Rock, which was so wild to see. There was this kid sitting next to me, and he was cheering so loudly for The Rock, and the rest of us are cheering so loudly for Hulk Hogan. I remember he turned around to me after The Rock won and he was like ‘I told you he’d win!’ I was like ‘Yes I think we all knew that he was going to win, but it was fun to cheer for Hulk Hogan.’ It’s funny that you talk about the buildup to that match because I don’t think the buildup was that great at all. We would make fun of Hulk Hogan running over The Rock, vehicular homicide. Hogan is in an 18 wheeler [Hogan voice] ‘I’m going to lay the SmackDown on him, nWo style!’ And then he runs full speed into an ambulance that The Rock is in. And somehow, The Rock gets out of that unscathed.”
We often hear commentary reference that Canada can be like bizarro world. They say ‘Guys cheer who they normally boo and boo who they normally cheer.’ Why do you think that is?
“I think it must have started with Montreal . It’s really only Montreal and Toronto that does that, I don’t feel like it really happens in the other cities too often. I would just think that it is down to the Montreal Screwjob. Bret Hart is like the patron saint in Canada, the way he was treated by the WWF was not right. Montreal is only a 5 hour drive from Toronto, so very close in distance. I think that has to be what it is, I think it has to be.”
So The Rock vs. Hulk Hogan match ends and there are still 2 matches left. Did you feel burned out and tempted to beat the traffic, or did you still have some energy left?
“The biggest mistake in booking WrestleMania 18 is not putting The Rock vs. Hulk Hogan on last, it’s crazy to think that it’s not even second last, it’s third last which is wild to think about. I feel really bad for the women’s match, it was Jazz, Trish Stratus and Lita. They were given 5 minutes, and they had to follow Rock vs. Hogan, it’s crazy to think about. But I think that it was a big mistake for them not to put that match on last. I guess they wanted to end in a title match, which also ended up falling flat as well. The title match did not feel as interesting, because of what we had seen earlier in the night. I will say that I think the greatest moment of the whole night is the first time that Hogan knocks down Rock. The crowd pops so loud, and Hogan looks around like he is a child like ‘That’s for me?!’ He had been a heel for years, and was still a heel going into this match. There are Hulkamaniacs everywhere, and I still think he gets cheers wherever he goes. But this was a resounding roar of cheers. You see the look in his eyes of ‘I remember that!’ I was fortunate enough to do an interview with him and I asked him ‘Did you know the nWo was going to turn on you that night?’ And he goes ‘I had no idea brother.’ He said that he was told to stay in the ring after the match, which was weird because he wasn’t the one who won. Usually the loser rolls out while the winner can get their moment in the ring. He thought it was strange but he went with it, Mike Chioda had told him to stay in the ring. Apparently they hadn’t planned it, but because the reaction to Hogan was so big, Vince told Scott Hall and Kevin Nash to turn on him, it was a spur of the moment thing. I had no idea that it was the case.”
Are you someone who thinks that the title match should close the show or the biggest match?
“Yeah the biggest match should close the show. In the same way that the Royal Rumble closes the show, not the title match, I think the biggest storyline should close the show. No disrespect to Triple H and Chris Jericho who were in that main event, but I think even they will tell you that they should not be in the main event.”
The main event was Chris Jericho vs. Triple H. Jericho is the champion, Triple H wins the Royal Rumble. Jericho is actually announced as from Canada, unlike fellow Canadian Christian, who is announced as from Tampa to get heat.
“Which is so strange. Right after 9/11, none of the wrestlers were billed from Canada, they all had some American residence. You will see after 9/11 for about the next year, Chris Benoit was from Atlanta Georgia, and Christian was from Tampa, Florida. It was announced as ‘Now residing…’
Who were you cheering for in the main event?
“I was a big Triple H fan. I had a poster of Triple H on my wall, when I was a backyard wrestler I would tape my right hand and my right wrist and just my left wrist because that was what Triple H did. I was really excited to see Triple H in person. I had a disposable camera, and these are terrible photos. I don’t think we took a single photo of us, but I took a photo of the water spit. It’s so cool looking back at cameras now, I think that moment was the most flash bulbs, and I was definitely one of them. I was excited to see that match and I wanted Triple H to win. I love Chris Jericho now, but I didn’t love him as much back then as I did Triple H and The Rock, Kurt Angle and Stone Cold. All those other people were in front. I don’t remember too much about that match apart from the fact that Triple H won.”
Many say that WrestleMania 17 is one of the best pay-per-views of all time. WrestleMania 18, it didn’t top it but it could be up there as one of the best pay-per-views. Where would you rank it?
“If I am being completely unbiased here, WrestleMania 17 is the best wrestling pay-per-view of all time, certainly the best WrestleMania. It’s so hard to rank 1-37, what’s the best and the worst? But I would put WrestleMania 18 towards the top of the pile because of one of the greatest matches and crowd reactions of all time. Is it in the top 10? I would say absolutely.”