Last time in our "History of the WWF Tag Team Championship", we picked up with the dawning of the freshly named WWF and caught up through the early 1980's. It wasn't a golden era for the belts, with a lot of ho-hum reigns with names like Tony Garea, Mr. Fuji, and Jay Strongbow gobbling up the belts, years after their primes. Rocky Johnson and Tony Atlas made Federation history as the first African-American TEAM to hold the gold (Sonny King being the first man, period, early in the WWWF lineage), and as we pick things up, we're set in the middle of the reign of the North-South Connection of Adrian Adonis and Dick Murdoch.
Carrying the belts throughout the remainder of 1984, Adonis and Murdoch survived a long, heated pursuit of the belts from former Champions Afa and Sika, who turned babyface along the way and were betrayed by Captain Lou Albano to give them the crowd support that they would need to justify swapping locker rooms in their chase to regain the gold. After dispatching of the Samoans, who left the WWF immediately after the feud wrapped up, Murdoch and Adonis were challenged by the team of Jerry and Jack Brisco. With the calendar turning over to 1985, there were big plans on the horizon for the World Wrestling Federation, and it was time to go back to what Vince McMahon knew best: build a program around patriotism and evil foreign menaces, and neither the team of Murdoch and Adonis nor the Brisco Brothers fit that bill.
Barry Windham was a talent with all the right stuff to be a star. The son of Blackjack Mulligan, Windham had the height, the ability, and as time went on, the promo skills that would make him an attractive piece to pursue, year after year, even as his personal problems disrupted his career and made him unreliable. With only 5-years of in-ring experience at this point, Windham was brought in and paired up with someone who may not have had the personality or pedigree he came from but had the credentials of a legitimate collegiate grappler. Lettering at the University of Syracuse, Mike Rotunda was another fresh young face in the world of professional wrestling, making his debut in 1981 throughout the various Southern territories. While Rotunda (or Rotundo, because wrestling promoters couldn't bother to spell his name properly on a regular basis) had the right credentials, it would be an understatement to say he wasn't the most charismatic man in the world. Before arriving in the WWF, the duo came together to win Florida's U.S. Tag Team Championship on four occasions, though no reign lasted longer than 4-weeks. (Don't feel too bad for them, only one team in the sporadic history of the title lineage held the belt for more than 100 days.) Years later, the world would find out the two would become brothers-in-law, as Mike Rotunda married Barry's sister, and their two sons, Windham and Taylor, would become long-time WWE Superstars, but they are a story for another day.
Of course, two talented young men looking to break out on a national scale needed a boost... the manager of champions. One of the biggest angles of 1984 was centered around the Rock ‘n' Wrestling Connection between the WWF and MTV. Cyndi Lauper was unquestionably one of the most recognizable up-and-coming stars in the music industry, and after the casting of Lou Albano for her music video "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun", the two formed a relationship that brought Lauper into the universe of professional wrestling. As a guest on Piper's Pit, Captain Lou took credit for all of Cyndi's success, leading to the Brawl to Settle it All where Lou's representative, the Fabulous Moolah, took on Lauper's, a freshly turned Wendi Richter, in what would be the end of Moolah's ridiculous stranglehold on the World Women's Title after an alleged 28 YEARS as Champion. Shortly after, Captain Lou's persona started to make a shift towards a warm-hearted man, raising awareness for multiple sclerosis, with the babyface turn capped when Piper interrupted an award ceremony to assault Lou and Lauper. It wasn't long after when Albano was paired with Rotundo and Windham, giving them the experienced mouthpiece for the countless promos they needed to cut for local advertisements. Did the pairing make sense? Not really. At least as a heel, Albano was just chasing titles with his newest combination of goons. As a babyface, it was just throwing something against the wall to see what sticks and wouldn't be the last we see of Albano in a babyface managerial role.
On January 21st, Adonis and Murdoch's reign as the Tag Team Champions ended after 279 days, the longest reign of any Champions since the Valiant Brothers held the gold in the WWWF in 1974. The common location for title changes seemed to be at the tapings for Championship Wrestling, but in this case, it was a token live event (a.k.a. "house show") in Hartford, CT. Believe it or not, that would mark the first time the titles changed hands outside the states of New York and Pennsylvania.
Now carrying the Tag Team gold, Windham and Rotundo would start wrapping themselves in the American Flag, commonly referred to as the U.S. Express, although if you watch the weekly television product, the name is rarely ever used by any of the announcers or commentators. I began to question the authenticity of the name, leading me to believe for the longest time it was a team name created later by the online wrestling community, but occasionally, the name was spoken, and they did get a t-shirt, so that would eventually settle the controversy I created in my mind. Not only were they proud representatives of the United States of America, but they were also one of only a few acts to have entrance music; Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA", which if you investigate the lyrics, is hardly the anthem for American pride one would assume based on the name and name alone. With Adonis moving into a singles role thanks to Murdoch's departure, that opened the slot for another team to fill at the top of the tag team division.
With the all-American good guys holding the straps, the obvious rivals would be foreigners who looked down on the USA, and thus was born the team of the Iron Sheik and Nikolai Volkoff. The Shiek, born in Tehran, Iran, had a long list of amateur accolades before making the switch to professional wrestling, with his biggest claim to fame being the man who ended Bob Backlund's 5+ year reign as WWF Champion in December 1983 and acting as the transitional champion for Hulk Hogan to obliterate a month later, kicking off his own 4-year reign with the gold. Nikolai Volkoff is back, representing the U.S.S.R. and irritating fans by demanding time to sing the Soviet anthem (which often, especially as the years went on, would be interrupted by the babyfaces). While the Sheik was no slouch in demonstrating power, he was the man who held the matches together with crisp wrestling ability while Volkoff would hang out on the apron, come in and do a move or two, and quickly tag back out to mask his limited skills as an in-ring performer. The two could've been absolute dog sh*t in the ring, to be honest, because their ability to draw heat before the bell would ring was more than enough to justify their push.
Though the two teams would battle throughout the first few months of 1985, none of their matches for the belts were featured on television, whether it be syndicated programming or regional broadcasts, setting the stage for March 31st. From the world-famous Madison Square Garden, the WWF was promoting a super-card known as "WrestleMania", headlined by Hulk Hogan and Mr. T against Roddy Piper and Paul Orndorff, which also involved celebrities such as Muhammad Ali, Liberace, and Billy Martin. Cyndi Lauper and Wendi Richter were still a unit, as Richter chased Leilani Kai, the latest protégé of the Fabulous Moolah, in hopes of regaining the hold, and Andre the Giant's career was on the line as he stepped up to the challenge of body slamming nemesis Big John Studd. Though no hot angle was filmed, the Tag Team Title Match was positioned in a respectable position on the card. Unfortunately for Windham and Rotundo, their title reign wouldn't see April Fool's Day.
The common theory for why the title switch took place seems to be they needed a heel to go over in a big match. With Hogan and T obviously going over, Andre not retiring, and Wendi and Cyndi standing tall in victory all a given, that leaves very few options elsewhere in a match with some sort of stakes on the line. The only other option would be putting Greg Valentine decisively over the Junkyard Dog, but for whatever reason, they chose to put JYD over, though in a lame cop-out finish since the money was still in Tito Santana chasing Valentine for the belt. With the two teams switching positions, that also allows the company to juice the house show run for a couple more loops, with Windham and Rotundo often winning their immediate rematches via Disqualification or Count-Out, typically when they were on the verge of winning the belts, only to leave the fans angry that their heroes were robbed in the end. I've heard on multiple occasions that these teams also did a "phantom switch", where the titles changed due to an accidental cover, forcing a match the next day to reset everything and neither change being recognized on television or in any official WWF publication. Unfortunately, my research netted me nothing when it came to any dates for such a scenario to take place, so we'll leave that note as an urban legend unless something comes up. Another gimmick on the house show loop, often done on the B and C-tours but occasional in larger markets, would be to split the teams and run a pair of singles matches, often splitting the match series, and sometimes giving the clean sweep top the babyfaces. That doesn't mean the heels wouldn't pull it off, but it would be an incredibly stupid booking choice with babyfaces either chasing or being presented as underdogs... which leads us to the next bonus...
After a couple of more loops on the house show circuit (and even working opposite in a Six-Man on the debut episode of Saturday Night's Main Event), with Rotundo and Windham more often than not on the winning side of the ledger, that brings us to the June 17th taping for Championship Wrestling, filmed in everyone's dank gymnasium in Poughkeepsie, NY...
Rotundo and Windham would continue working primarily with Volkoff and the Sheik in "Texas Tornado" Matches (that's basically where all the men are legal and there's no need for tagging in and out) to give Rotundo and Windham the definitive win as the series of matches were finally wrapping up. Peppered in those defenses is the occasional odd-ball match, though none record for television, like defenses against Bob Orton and Roddy Piper and the earliest days of the Hart Foundation. In early August, Windham and Rotundo would have another set of challengers on their tails, and you could say it's quite the dream team of singles stars put together as the ultimate powerplay to capture the gold.
As we've seen with the Iron Sheik, Greg "The Hammer" Valentine was a top-of-the-card singles star who was being positioned lower on the card. After holding the Intercontinental Championship for the better part of a year, his reign came to an end at the hands of Tito Santana in a brutal Steel Cage Match in Baltimore. As that feud spanned most of Valentine's reign (Santana was the man he took the belt from, after all), it would be tired to run it back again, and instead of chasing a 2nd reign, he was shuffled into a tag team with someone who wasn't lighting the world on fire as a singles star and needed a better worker to mask his shortcomings. Ed Leslie has a unique legacy in the world of professional wrestling. He wasn't a very good worker, his charisma often felt forced, and he didn't have the ripped physique of a lot of his contemporaries. What he did have was connections, being the best friend of the golden goose himself, Hulk Hogan. After multiple repackages around the territories, Leslie found his way into the WWF in the Summer of 1984. He was given the name "Brutus Beefcake" and rarely cut promos in his early days, with Johnny Valiant acting as his mouthpiece. He got some token title matches against Hogan during his run but wasn't presented as a serious threat to the gold. Valentine and Beefcake on paper didn't seem like a team that made sense, but with Valentine carrying the workload and Beefcake doing what little he did well in short spurts, they made it work. The duo began working together more regularly in the early Summer, though mostly for TV tapings. Their first attempt at challenging for the belts came on August 10th at Madison Square Garden, which saw Barry Windham shockingly pin Valentine after a 20+ minute battle. “Shocking” because it was rare to see Championship matches decided by pinfall with such high-profile performers on the first trip on the house show loop. Valentine and Beefcake would have another crack for a television audience two weeks later...
They keep Rotundo away from his corner, switching off with front face-locks. He fights to his corner but guess what... the referee didn't see the tag. Valentine tosses Rotundo to the floor during the confusion, but this isn't NWA rules, so it's not that big of a deal to me. Back inside, Rotundo nails Valentine coming off the ropes. He fights out of the corner, only for Valentine to hook the ankle, buying Beefcake time to cut him off with another face-lock. Rotundo counters with an inverted atomic drop and we've got ANOTHER distraction to keep him from making the tag. Valentine with a shoulder breaker for two. Whip to the ropes and Rotundo and Beefcake knock heads, with Valentine throwing Beefcake on top of Rotundo for a near-fall. Rotundo rolls away from a series of elbows and FINALLY tags in Windham! He runs wild with right hands and a DOUBLE NOGGIN KNOCKER. He nails both men with dropkicks and throws more rights before tossing Beefcake out. He hits Valentine with the bulldog out of the corner, but Valentine kicks out at two! Windham with a second bulldog, this time with Beefcake making the save. Rotundo cuts off Beefcake's interference, but that distracts the referee from seeing Valiant pass along his lit cigar. Beefcake rubs it out in Windham's eye and Valentine drops an elbow for three and the Tag Team Titles at 19:09. This took time to get going, with what felt like a never-ending stream of arm bars, but once the heels took over, this kicked into a new gear. ***
For whatever reason, Barry Windham and Mike Rotundo were off the booking sheets for the month of September, and only appearing on TV once in a pre-tape to sell the injury of Windham's eye caused by the lit cigar. When they returned at the October 1st tapings for Championship Wrestling, history was made: They no longer came out to Springsteen's pro-USA "anthem", and instead came out to a new track featured on the WWF produced "Wrestling Album" created by Rick Derringer: "Real American." Curiously, the team of Windham and Rotundo rarely challenged for the belts on the house show loop once they returned to action, either working with Valentine and Beefcake as part of Six-Man Tags or working prelims against the makeshift team of Mike Sharpe and Barry Orton. The return lasted all of two weeks, as Barry Windham packed his gear and left following the October 16th show in Buffalo. Even more curious was that Rotundo was put back on the road with Valentine and Beefcake IMMEDIATELY after Windham's departure, thrown together with names like the Junkyard Dog and Mr. Wrestling II before they settled in on a permanent replacement: "Golden Boy" Danny Spivey, who was instructed to wrestle like Windham including doing a bulldog finish, and if you squint hard enough, could pass off as a knock-off Windham physically.
Meanwhile, Brutus Beefcake and Greg Valentine had their own unique circumstance. Instead of being chased by the former Champions for a strong loop or having a steady challenger to fill that spot, they would work against all sorts of teams, no matter the markets. Among the challengers beyond the wacky Rotundo and WHOEVER trick to fill in for Windham, were the recently put together team of B. Brian Blair and Jim Brunzell, soon to go by the name of "The Killer Bees", various combinations of the Hillbilly Clan of Jim, Elmer and Junior, and even Tito Santana and Pedro Morales. Yes, the Intercontinental Champion had so little to do he was thrown into a makeshift team with a past-his-prime Morales for much of his second reign with the gold. When the dust settled, Beefcake and Valentine would finally get their great challengers, and of course, they'd be managed by Captain Lou Albano, looking to make them his 16th set of Tag Team Champions (number unconfirmed).
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