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Wrestling’s Greatest Shoots, Volume 4: Wendi Richter vs. The Spider, a.k.a. The Fabulous Moolah

Wendy Richter

shoot (noun): anything real that happens in the scripted world of professional wrestling. It originally meant a real fight — a shoot fight — but evolved to include reality-referencing speeches and later any intervention of reality into the unreal proceedings. This is a series that explores the true stories behind real fights, genuine talk, and general breakdowns in pro wrestling unreality.

It’s November 25, 1985, at Madison Square Garden. The first WrestleMania occurred in March of that year, and WWF was riding high on a moment of pop culture semi-legitimacy that pro wrestling rarely achieves. That night had its share of star power: Fans saw Terry Funk triumph over Mr. Wrestling II; King Tonga dispatch Mr. X; Tito Santana and Pedro Morales eke out a disqualification against Greg “The Hammer” Valentine and Brutus Beefcake; Ricky Steamboat best Don Muraco; and, in the main event, Andre the Giant, Hillbilly Jim, and Captain Lou Albano overcome the nefarious alliance of Big John Studd, King Kong Bundy, and Bobby “The Brain” Heenan.

Midway through the card, however, there was a little-hyped match between Wendi Richter — WWF Women’s Champion — and The Spider, a masked woman in black tights and a blouse. The average fan probably presumed her to be a glorified jobber, and the match was not positioned as anything of great significance. When Richter and her “150 pounds of twisted steel and sex appeal” arrived at the stadium, she thought it was odd when she ran into The Fabulous Moolah, the doyenne of modern women’s wrestling (and trainer of Richter herself) whose 30-year reign as champion was ended by Richter. Moolah had been the country’s main impresario of lady wrestling before Vince McMahon absorbed her, her title belt, and its lineage. According to some accounts, Moolah remained a booker for the women’s division even after the WWF takeover. But despite being the unofficial matriarch of the division, she almost never showed up at events unless she was scheduled to perform. The Spider also was there that night, though, so Richter didn’t immediately think anything was amiss. (According to Richter, The Spider was a woman called “Glendean,” though some accounts say she was Penny Mitchell, and some people have erroneously reported that she was Lisa Evers, who was a model, karate black belt, and then-wife of Guardian Angel founder Curtis Sliwa, and who now is a local TV news reporter in New York.)

Richter realized something was wrong when she got to the ring and The Spider who came out wasn’t tall and brawny like normal, but short and shaped like an older woman — like Moolah. (In recent months, Richter had referred to Moolah as “Shmoola,” which I can only guess was a “Shamu” joke.) Richter knew something was up, but she couldn’t just walk out — maybe the real Spider suddenly got sick, or maybe McMahon had changed plans on the fly. This was wrestling, after all, and weirder things had happened. “I knew at that time I’ve got to protect myself,” Richter said years later. “She’ll try to hurt you, she’ll try to pin you,” she said of Moolah, who was a notoriously rough and self-interested worker despite her advancing age. (On that night, Richter was 24 and Moolah was 62.)

As the video begins, announcers Gorilla Monsoon and Jesse “The Body” Ventura play dumb, but they tease that Richter knows more than they do. “I don’t understand what The Spider did to cause her to be so irate,” says Ventura. But they seem to be willfully blind to Richter’s attempts to unmask her opponent, and willfully deaf to the crowd erupting into a “Moo-lah!” chant after Richter knocked her out of the ring in the early going. The announcing is almost certainly overdubbed — that was standard back then, and Ventura had a match on that same card — so their “real-time” reactions are less important than the story WWF was trying to tell. Immediately, Richter’s ire is called into question — as is the usual face-heel alignment of the commentators:

Ventura: “I’ve never seen her this aggressive and this flagrant about breaking rules, Gorilla.”
Monsoon: “Well, title’s on the line, you do whatever you can to hold on to it, I guess.”
Ventura: “Now you sound like me.”

Midway through the match, with Richter’s mask-grabbing now undeniable, Ventura says, “I don’t understand why everyone feels they gotta unmask someone in there.” And Monsoon, almost absentmindedly, replies, “I’d like to know who it is underneath that mask — it’s probably Moolah!” Yet although The Spider is obviously Moolah and Richter knows it, the announcers don’t acknowledge it. Finally, The Spider gets a small package pin and Richter kicks out after a one and a half count, but the referee quickly pats his hands to the mat three times. Then the bell rings, feebly and out of rhythm. Monsoon says: “What was that? Referee made a three count? Appears that the referee has made a three count!”

Richter immediately goes after The Spider and pulls off her mask, finally revealing Moolah — an oddly story-conscious thing to do in a shoot fight, it must be noted. Then Richter lifts her into a backbreaker (which Moolah seems disinclined to help with) and pins her, which suggests that Richter thought that either the match or the angle was ongoing. She keeps throwing forearms at Moolah until the outmatched ref is bailed out by announcer Howard Finkel, whose presence seems to give Richter pause to digest what has happened. “Ladies and gentlemen,” Finkel says, “the winner of this bout and new World Wrestling Federation Ladies Champion: The Spider? The Fabulous Moolah?”

Richter rants and raves — seemingly in character — and then yanks the belt away from the ref defiantly. It’s truly one of the oddest moments in wrestling history, because its reality and unreality are so hard to untangle. What seems to be the case is that McMahon determined Richter should be relieved of the title, and he decided to make that happen in the most ignominious way possible. It’s impossible not to draw a parallel to 1997’s Montreal Screwjob, when McMahon conspired to end Bret Hart’s reign because Hart had signed with WCW and the Hitman was refusing to drop the belt to Shawn Michaels at the Survivor Series.

The story behind the Richter snafu was that she had been agitating for a new contract and that she was almost certainly underpaid. When MTV aired The Brawl to End It All on July 23, 1984 — WWF’s biggest crossover event to date — the only match was Richter (accompanied by Cyndi Lauper) versus Moolah (with Captain Lou Albano, then a villain). This was the heyday of Hulk Hogan, yet there was no Hogan match. It sounds heretical, but there’s a reasonable argument that for a brief moment, Richter was as big a star as Hogan.

And during the mid-’80s Richter was on the original contract she signed with the company, which left much of her paycheck at the discretion of management. She says she was guaranteed $25 per house show, and even factoring in the WWF’s largesse, she expected to earn about $500 for the November ’85 MSG show where she was supposed to fight Spider.

“Every time I saw him I [had a confrontation with McMahon] about payoffs,” she would later say. “I wasn’t ugly or yelled or anything like that. I always told him, ‘Vince, I need to make more. I’m not bringing home enough to justify being on the road like this.'” The traditional story goes that Monsoon — in his role as a backstage McMahon lieutenant — offered Richter a new contract when she arrived at MSG that night, and when Richter said that she wanted time to let her attorney review it, the double-cross was set in motion. Richter, for her part, denies part of the story about the contract. According to no lesser a human encyclopedia of wrestling history than King Kong Bundy, once, after Vince insisted that he “made” Richter, she replied, “You can’t fuck with me. Cyndi Lauper made me.”

Maybe McMahon was mad about being talked to like that. Maybe he didn’t like the idea of paying a lady wrestler that much money. Maybe he was swayed by Moolah, an old friend of his father’s who always seemed to have trouble relinquishing the spotlight. (Her protégé Mad Maxine was originally slated to be the top female baddy in ’85 until Moolah dumped her and took her spot. Moolah also nabbed Maxine’s role in the famous Saturday morning cartoon show Hulk Hogan’s Rock ‘n’ Wrestling.) Maybe, with Lauper stepping away from the WWF, Richter’s influence was waning, and McMahon was content to let Moolah do her thing. The perpetual uncertainty of the women’s division over the past several decades certainly reinforces the notion that McMahon isn’t invested in it.

Whatever the case, Richter was in an ongoing dispute with McMahon. But she didn’t see the double-cross coming, and she didn’t even see it for what it was when it happened. After Moolah pinned her, Richter was clearly still “wrestling.” It’s important to remember that pro wresting is a heavily improvisational sport, and it’s not uncommon that all sorts of flubs are overcome by the persistence of the competitors. It seems Richter thought the match should continue, as if either the ref’s count was a mistake, or that she could bull-rush her way past what just happened. Either way, she remained bizarrely committed to keeping up appearances for someone who just got screwed over. She was preserving kayfabe in the face of unforgiving reality. She reacts visibly to the shock of Moolah’s unplanned pin, yet proceeds to fake-fight Moolah — to body slam her and attempt a pin of her own, only to be rebuffed by the thoroughly confused and apparently corrupt referee.

Richter later said that although she expected anything from Moolah, “what I didn’t count on was the referee getting paid off.” This sounds crazy, because nowadays referees — like wrestlers — are WWE employees and part of the performance, but back then the WWF was still under the oversight of the New York State Athletic Commission. This means that professional referees, timekeepers, and state-approved medics were assigned to WWF bouts just like they were in boxing. Except that the referee in question, Dick Kroll, was himself a former wrestler who had a permanent place as head referee on the WWF’s monthly MSG shows. “I’m an honest and trusting person,” Richter said, “and somehow I thought the referee was too.” The lesson here (and in this series in general) is plain: Never trust a wrestler.

When she finally grasped her situation, Richter held on to the belt for dear life, which is significant (just as it likely was in the Hart incident years later), because a belt isn’t just a prop. The champion takes ownership of the belt and is tasked with transporting it from town to town, so defrocking a champion isn’t as simple as firing them. (In the NWA’s heyday, the champ would leave a large cash deposit with the home office as collateral on borrowing the belt so he wouldn’t abscond with it.) But all her wrangling didn’t keep her the belt, or her job.

It was an odd scene to be sure, but the strangest part was the WWF’s willingness to let that oddness play out in public. In those days, fairly major things could still happen “off camera” and be treated as reality. (Perhaps the most famous instance of this was Pat Patterson being crowned the first WWF Intercontinental Champion in Rio de Janiero in 1979 by winning a tournament that never took place.) Even if WWF needed a real match to physically remove the title from Richter, it didn’t need to air the match and confuse its fans. But it did — repeatedly. It was played on the WWF’s TV broadcasts and immortalized on a pair of Coliseum Home Video releases: The Best of the WWF, Vol. 5 and Wrestling’s Grand Slams.

After that night, Moolah remained champion for almost two years until she relinquished the title to Sherri Martel in 1987 and retired. Of course, she didn’t disappear — she made regular appearances on RAW throughout the 1990s, usually playing the punch line in tables matches and bikini contests alongside her real-life housemate, Mae Young. At a pay-per-view show in 1999, a 76-year-old Moolah beat Ivory to win the WWE Women’s Championship, and promptly dropped it back to her — but not before becoming the oldest beltholder ever.

Richter quit the WWF immediately after the 1985 match. She wrestled on the independent circuit for three more years, and then dropped off the map until 2009, when she was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame. Time heals all wounds, even if the wounds are screwjobs. The show must go on, as they say. Her WWE profile doesn’t even mention the night when she lost the title. There is video of the match elsewhere on WWE’s site, however, where they say that Richter lost “due to some suspicious officiating.”

The most plausible explanation for what happened that night would be that Richter was told Moolah would be playing The Spider, but she didn’t know about the ending. (Moolah later said, in character, that she was forced to go as The Spider because Richter wouldn’t grant her a rematch.) But Richter has always insisted that she was surprised to see Moolah. WWE seems content to let it be just another in-ring double-cross. Perhaps Richter is doing in real life what she did after she got pinned: hopelessly, almost valiantly trying to maintain kayfabe, despite the destruction reality has wrought. It wouldn’t be the first time a pro wrestler did that.

Perhaps the weirdest thing about this match is that most fans don’t even know it was a shoot. To them, it’s just another oddball ’80s wrestling story line. What’s more, one of the defining characteristics of shoots is that they might make it onto TV, but they rarely make it into the official canon. This was an exception. WWE has kept it around, and even though the tape — and the reality — say one thing, fans believe another thing because they’ve been told to so many times. One other little thing: Moolah’s character has been enshrined in wrestling’s collective memory as “The Spider Lady” despite that not being her name. She was “The Spider” according to the graphics and the announcers. Even WWE has its own history wrong. It’s as if we all collectively decided to believe something that wasn’t true. Imagine that.

Next time: Book, line, and sinker.