Nowadays, WWE would be thrilled if Monday Night Raw pulled in 2 million viewers for their weekly show. AEW would kill for a consistent one million viewers. Impact wrestling are thrilled that their fan enjoys their show every week.
Never in any of their wildest dreams could anybody have imagined that over 30 million people would tune in to watch a clash between two of the all-time greats in the WWE, putting the WWE Championship on the line.
However, this came in a much different time. The WWE did not run a weekly TV like show like Raw or Smackdown, and top-level wrestling was not something you saw on weekly TV on a regular basis. This was on a WWE special, which was born out of the Saturday Night Main Event specials.
Saturday Night’s Main Event
Saturday Night’s Main Event was a series of special TV shows run by the WWE from 1985 to 1992. The company produced the shows as one of the most anticipated “late night” shows in the 1980s, broadcasting their wrestling show at a later-than-usual time of half an hour to midnight.
The idea for the show came after the previous two WWE specials – “The Brawl to End It All” and “The War To Settle the Score” were broadcast on MTV in the years prior – achieved incredibly high ratings that helped launch the WWE as the premier pro wrestling company in the US.
The first Saturday Night’s Main Event managed some fantastic ratings, partially due to the WWE’s constant association with Cyndi Lauper. It also had a much faster, slicker production than other WWE events, and gave Vince McMahon a view of what wrestling could be in the future.
The network immediately signed a deal to broadcast multiple episodes of the new WWE special, with the company usually broadcasting five episodes of Saturday Night’s main event per year. Hulk Hogan was always the star of the early episodes, defending his title in matches against stars like Don Muraco, Terry Funk and Ted DiBiase.
Due to the time slot the show as in, Hulk Hogan’s match usually went on at midnight – as he was the most popular wrestler, they wanted fans to be able to see the match before they went to bed. This was usually in the middle of the show, bucking wrestling tradition of the biggest match going on last.
As Hulk Hogan would rarely wrestle on the WWE’s usual weekly shows, this was a rare treat for fans to see him “hulking up” inside the ring, outside of pay per view matches. This made the Saturday Night’s Main Event must-see for any WWE fans, with millions of kids staying up late to watch the WWE broadcast.
WWE created a spin-off of the show – aptly just named “The Main Event” – outside the usual SNME time slot. This is where the most-watched wrestling match in US history took pace.
The Main Event 1988 – Hulk Hogan vs Andre The Giant
WWE have broadcast some incredible moments on Saturday Night’s main event, like Randy Savage turning on Hulk Hogan, and Terry Funk challenging Hogan for the WWE Championship. However, only one episode takes the record for the most-watched match in American wrestling history.
Ratings were a huge talking point for fans and wrestlers alike in the 1990s. When WWE and WCW went up against one another during “The Attitude Era”, the weekly ratings for Raw and Nitro became regular discourse for fans.
However, none of these TV shows came close to the incredible success of the “The Main Event”, which was an episode of the show commissioned the year after the first Hogan vs Andre match. This match took place at February 5, 1988, in the Market Square Arena in Indianapolis.
Hulk Hogan defended his WWE Championship against Andre The Giant at the event, which helped draw the biggest TV audience in United States history. In a staggering turn, 33 million fans tuned in to see the rematch of the century, with the Ted DiBiase-led Andre taking home the WWE Championship for the first and only time in his career.
This earned the WWE a 15.2 on the Neilsen rating scale, earning them a viewership that they will likely never reach again (especially with the way that TV viewing has changed over the decades since 1988).
Live on NBC, Andre The Giant hit Hulk Hogan with a single-underhook suplex – Hogan doing all the work, due to the terrible shape Andre was in, before pinning him for the victory. Despite Hogan’s should being up not long after the one-count, the referee somehow made the terrible mistake and awarded Andre the WWE Championship.
Andre The Giant did not hold the title for long, but he always had the memory of the roar of the crowd when he won, and the knowledge that 33 million people saw him beating Hulk Hogan and becoming the Heavyweight Champion of the world.
However, Andre The Giant would vacate the title very soon after winning it, making history in the process.
WWE referenced this match in 2007, when fellow giant The Great Khali defeated WWE Champion John Cena in one of the biggest matches of his career – although it was in a non-title match.
Andre The Giant’s WWE Championship Reign
On the night of Feb. 5, 1988, Hulk Hogan defended his WWE Championship against Andre The Giant on “The Main Event”. This was the most watched wrestling match in US wrestling history, with 33 million people tuning in to see the two top stars in the company battling it out for the biggest prize in sports.
With the money of Ted Dibiase behind him, Andre The Giant cheated his way into winning the WWE Championship.
The Million Dollar Man paid off the referee to count the pin, even though Hogan’s shoulders were clearly off the mat. No amount of Hulking Up would save his blushes, and the result was confirmed – Andre The Giant was the new WWE Champion.
However, this whole thing was a set-up for Dibiase to finally achieve his true goal of becoming a world heavyweight champion. Andre was on his books, being paid a handsome fee to do his bidding.
Hamish is a writer and podcaster and wrestling fan who is a key part of the Atletifo team.
After playing countless hours of WrestleMania X8 on the Gamecube, he discovered Rey Mysterio getting his head crushed by The Great Khali, and thus a love for professional wrestling was born.
He is also a Media Graduate, as well as writing for multiple sites about Premier League football and the culture of Wales – his home country.