Wednesday, March 20, 2019

The History of WrestleMania: 13-XV

And on we go, into the Attitude Era!

Rosemont Horizon - 3/23/97 

1997 was the WWF's ratings nadir during the Monday Night War with WCW.  They were right in the middle of an 82-week trouncing, and their PPV buyrates reflected that - 'Mania 13 did an abysmal .72 I believe.

But early '97 was also the very beginning of the Attitude era, before the WWF even fully acknowledged that the business was radically changing.  Snow-white babyface characters were no longer cool to cheer for; instead it was a foul-mouthed, beer-swilling, redneck bully named Steve Austin who captured the fans' imagination and became their hero.  The company was about to switch gears in a major way.

The WWF's original plan for WrestleMania 13's centerpiece was a rematch of Bret Hart vs. Shawn Michaels from the previous year.  Shawn apparently suffered a knee injury just 6 weeks before the big show (which may or may not have been a way to avoid doing the job for Bret) and announced that he'd be taking time off indefinitely, thus relinquishing the WWF Title.  This left the company scrambling for a new main event to build the show around. 

Sucky main event, but this was a nice moment

Two title changes later, and the belt was back around the waist of Sycho Sid, who it was announced would be defending against The Undertaker (marking the first time Taker would challenge for a championship at WrestleMania).  Seemingly Taker and Sid tried to emulate the Taker-Diesel match from 'Mania 12, but unfortunately it failed to live up to that match, and a subpar main event was the result.  This match went too long and, as was often the case, Sid looked lost for much of it.  Taker finally won the WWF Title however, giving the show a feel-good ending.

The other big matchup was the aforementioned Steve Austin vs. an angry, edgier Bret Hart in a no holds barred Submission match, with UFC import Ken Shamrock as the guest referee.  The ensuing battle was nothing short of legendary.  From an action standpoint there have certainly been better matches (including Bret-Austin 1 at Survivor Series '96, IMO), but I can't think of a better example of pure storytelling in a wrestling match.  Bret went into this match the babyface and left a reviled, vicious heel.  Austin went into the match a nasty bully and emerged as a gallant, tough-as-nails hero.  The visual of Austin being trapped in Bret's Sharpshooter as torrents of blood streamed down his face became one of pro wrestling's iconic images.  Masterful work by both guys.

Is there a more violently iconic image in the history of wrestling?

This show had a pretty solid undercard, including the entertaining Chicago Street Fight between Ahmed Johnson/Legion of Doom and the Nation of Domination; a wild brawl that ranged all over the ringside area.  Also featured was a rare heel vs. heel Tag Title match - Owen Hart/British Bulldog vs. Vader/Mankind, and a rather criminally underrated match between Hunter Hearst Helmsley and Goldust.

The only truly forgettable bouts were the opening four-team match of The Headbangers, The Godwinns, The New Blackjacks and Doug Furnas & Phil LaFon (a team whose potential the WWF wasted badly), and the baffling Intercontinental Title match pitting new Champ (and reviled babyface) Rocky Maivia against The Sultan (Fatu with a stupid 80s gimmick).  I'm still confused why they thought this match was a good idea, but the crowd hated it.

Overall WrestleMania 13 was a rare example of a gritty, no-frills WrestleMania card.  No celebrities, no expensive arena decor, just a rabid Chicago crowd and a roster of determined wrestlers hell-bent on showing that the WWF's in-ring product was superior to WCW's.

Best Match: Bret Hart vs. Steve Austin
Worst Match: Rocky Maivia vs. The Sultan - Rocky wasn't ready to be the I-C Champ yet, and for Chrissake couldn't they have found a better challenger??
What I'd Change: It's a shame the Bret-HBK rematch couldn't have happened, but then again the Bret-Austin match was the inception of the Stone Cold era.  I certainly would never have put the WWF Title on Sid.
Most Disappointing Match: Sid vs. Undertaker - it's just not worthy of being the main event at the biggest PPV of the year.
Most Pleasant Surprise: The double-turn.
Overall Rating: 7.5/10

Fleet Center - 3/29/98

It's fitting that 'Mania 14 took place on the anniversary of 'Mania 3.  The 14th edition was to the late 90s WWF as the 3rd was to the late 80s.  In both cases a major star (with serious back problems) seemingly nearing the end of his career passed the torch to the man of the hour, and a major boom period followed.

In the main event, Steve Austin defeated Shawn Michaels for the WWF Title, which kicked off possibly the most successful financial run any single wrestler has ever enjoyed.  The match itself, while not a five-star classic, was a very strong main event, and Shawn's performance is nothing short of a miracle given how badly he was hurting at the time.  This would be his final match for over four years.  On the outside of the ring was celebrity guest Mike Tyson, whose presence sparked a media frenzy which garnered a ton of mainstream hype for the event.  This, my friends, is how you utilize a celebrity guest star in wrestling.

The semi-main event slot went to the Undertaker and his onscreen brother Kane.  The buildup for this match lasted about nine months, from the original announcement that Taker had a brother.  When Kane finally debuted, the company did an excellent job of establishing him as an unstoppable monster, and held off giving away too much physical interaction between him and Taker.  By the time this match finally took place it truly felt like Taker would be facing his ultimate adversary, and the match didn't disappoint. This was arguably Taker's best 'Mania match to date and was also a career-making match for Kane.

It's like King Kong vs. Godzilla!  OH MY GAHD!!!

The top undercard match was the European Title bout between Triple H and Owen Hart, an extremely well-worked secondary title match that at the time reminded me a bit of Savage vs. Steamboat.

Also on the card was a fun hardcore-style Tag Title Dumpster Match between the New Age Outlaws and Cactus Jack/Terry Funk.  It was ten minutes of garbage wrestling (pun intended) featuring brutal spots and a dash of humor.

The I-C Title was represented as well, with The Rock defending against Ken Shamrock.  Unfortunately this match only went about four and a half minutes, followed by about ten minutes of Shamrock losing his mind, getting disqualified, and beating up every WWF agent.  I'd have preferred a much longer match with a shorter angle at the end.


Aside from that we got a weak Tag Team Battle Royal that marked the surprise reunion of The Road Warriors under the name LOD 2000 (and with Sunny as their manager), an abbreviated but entertaining Light Heavyweight Title match between Taka Michinoku and Aguila, and a bizarre but surprisingly fun mixed tag match pitting Marc Mero and Sable against Goldust and Luna Vachon.

WrestleMania XIV brought the WWF Attitude era into full swing and ushered in a major boom period for the company and the industry as a whole.  Soon after, the WWF would finally regain their former status as the #1 wrestling promotion and a pop culture phenomenon.  The Austin Era had officially begun.

Best Match: Shawn Michaels vs. Steve Austin
Worst Match: Tag Team Battle Royal - even this isn't terrible though
What I'd Change: Not much, other than giving Rock-Shamrock an extra ten minutes
Most Disappointing Match: Match: Rock vs. Shamrock, obviously
Most Pleasant Surprise: I was shocked how good the Marc Mero/Sable vs. Goldust/Luna match was.
Overall Rating: 8/10

First Union Center - 3/28/99

'Mania 15 holds the distinction, at least according to me, of being the most disappointing WrestleMania in history.  Never before or since has the WWF/E possessed all the tools, talent, and momentum to put on an unforgettable PPV only to completely squander it in almost every possible way.

First the good (there isn't much): The main event of The Rock defending the WWF Title against Steve Austin is a fine match.  Full of crazy brawling and guest referee shenanigans, it captured perfectly the peak of the Vince Russo era, for better or worse.  Rock and Austin would be hard-pressed to have a bad match, so this was just fine (though they would go on to top this match on PPV not once, not twice, but thrice).  It felt more like a good RAW match but given how bad the rest of this PPV is, I'll take it.

This match is the only reason to watch 'Mania 15.

The only other decent matches on this show are Shane McMahon vs. X-Pac, which far exceeded my low expectations (though it really should've been Test in Shane's spot), the Owen/Jarrett vs. Test/D-Lo Tag Title match (which was good but way too short), and the 4-way I-C Title match of the Road Dogg vs. Ken Shamrock vs. Goldust vs. Val Venis.  Now originally Billy Gunn was supposed to be the I-C Champion going in, and Road Dogg was the Hardcore Champ, but Vince Russo decided to swerve everyone and have them switch places, which made no sense and hurt the opening Hardcore Title match.

The other good thing to come out of this show was the Triple H/Chyna double heel turn angle.  During Hunter's match with Kane, heel Chyna turned on the Big Red Monster to reunite with Hunter.  Then during X-Pac's match, they both turned heel on Mr. Waltman, joining the Corporation.  It bordered on convoluted (as did pretty much every angle of the time), but it was a nice double-twist.
The rest of the show consisted of matches that were either too short (Mankind vs. Big Show), forgettable (Sable vs. Tori), or just boring (Undertaker vs. Big Bossman in the worst Hell in a Cell match of all time). 

What a shitshow

The most mind-boggling inclusion was Bart Gunn vs. Butterbean in a boxing match.  Bart Gunn had won the legit Brawl for All boxing tournament in 1998, much to everyone's surprise, and so the WWF decided to have him fight Toughman Competition star Butterbean several months later, by which time we had all forgotten about the BfA tournament.  This segment ran a good 10-15 minutes, all for a fight that lasted 35 seconds and exposed the "toughest" WWF wrestler as a pushover for the actual fighting star.  An utterly pointless match, and yet another example of a celebrity guest being a detriment to the product.

'Mania 15 illustrated perfectly that while the WWF's ratings were still crushing WCW's, the Vince Russo era was becoming stale.  At this time the PPV events tended to raise more questions than they answered, and were designed to get viewers to tune into RAW, rather than the other way around.  It was a business model that couldn't possibly hold up long-term and led to some pretty awful storyline payoffs.  Fortunately Russo left the WWF six months later and the following year the company got back to focusing on the in-ring product rather than overly complicated angles.

Best Match: The Rock vs. Steve Austin
Worst Match: Bart Gunn vs. Butterbean (I'm still not sure why they felt this belonged on a WrestleMania card.)
What I'd Change: I'd have cut two matches off the card and given more time to the remaining eight, and kept the storyline-focused stuff to a minimum.  This was the biggest PPV of the year and should've paid things off in the ring, not featured multiple angles and swerves.  I would also have included a match for The Brood.
Most Disappointing Match: Mankind vs. Big Show - This was a major dream match at the time, and quite possibly the bout I was most looking forward to on this card.  And then it was only given six minutes and ended with a senseless DQ.
Most Pleasant Surprise: Shane McMahon vs. X-Pac
Overall Rating: 4/10

Part 4                                                                                                                                                Part 6

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