Wednesday, November 7, 2018

The History of WWE Survivor Series, part 4 (1996-1998)

Moving into the late 90s and the inception of WWF Attitude!

Survivor Series 1996 - Madison Square Garden - 11/17/96

Survivor Series '96 might be the best-ever PPV thrown together with seemingly no logic or common sense.  There are some good matches on this show, but really look at it - the lineup is a complete fucking mess.  Aside from one singles match there wasn't much of a reason for anything that happened here.  Four new wrestlers made their in-ring debuts on this show (FOUR!  That's way too many debuts all at once.), only one of the three elimination matches was assembled around a feud, one of the three singles matches was totally unnecessary at this point, and the WWF Title challenger had no business getting a title shot.  I really don't know what they were thinking putting this show together the way they did.

The opening match was entirely built around nothing.  Yet another two-teams vs. two-teams elimination bout, Tag Champions Owen Hart and Davey Boy Smith teamed with The New Rockers against The Godwinns and WWF newcomers Doug Furnas and Phil Lafon.  Furnas & Lafon were a celebrated team in Japan but American audiences were not familiar with them at all, and they made no RAW appearances before debuting at this show.  Yet immediately they were positioned as the #1 Tag Title contenders.  Aside from this match having a lot of good wrestling, there was no reason to care about any of it.

Match #2 was the fourth PPV meeting between The Undertaker and Mankind.  Now, let me preface this by saying the Taker-Mankind feud from 1996-1998 was and is one of the greatest feuds of all time.  But they had already wrestled each other on PPV in a regular singles match, a Boiler Room Brawl, and the first-ever Buried Alive match.  So to follow this up the company opted for.....another regular singles match??  This made no sense.  If the level of violence wasn't going to escalate, have Taker and Mankind each captain a Survivor Series team.  Ya know, since the show is called Survivor Series??  This match was fine, but totally anticlimactic after their three previous efforts, and was probably the weakest of this entire feud.

The one elimination match involving a real feud was next, as I-C Champion Hunter Hearst Helmsley led Crush, Goldust and Jerry Lawler against Marc Mero, Jake Roberts, "The Stalker" Barry Windham (what a laughable gimmick), and another debuting star, Rocky Maivia (at least with Rocky the WWF showed a bunch of vignettes leading up to this).  This match was just ok, but I did like that both captains were eliminated before the end.  Rocky overcame the odds to win the whole thing, much to the delight one really.  This was long before Maivia showed us all what a true star he could be, and I'll confess that until his 1997 heel turn I didn't see any real potential in him.

Finally in the fourth slot came a true classic.  Bret Hart made his long-awaited return to action to face the company's hottest villain, Stone Cold Steve Austin, and they had a match for the ages.  This was wild, crisp, and brutal, and ran an amazing 28 minutes before Bret pulled out a surprise pinfall.  Many credit the WrestleMania 13 rematch as elevating Austin to main event status, but it was really this match that demonstrated how good he was.  Austin hung with Bret move for move, spot for spot, and began to win over the crowd.  Believe it or not, I consider this match superior to its sequel, and it's probably my all-time favorite Survivor Series match.

Dude, it's so f*ckin' on.....

The third elimination match felt like a smorgasbord of leftovers.  There was no feud involved and it just seemed like something for the remaining roster members to do in between important matchups.  Vader, Faarooq, Fake Diesel and Fake Razor took on Savio Vega, Yokozuna, the debuting Flash Funk (who also hadn't appeared on WWF TV prior to this), and surprise guest Jimmy Snuka.  I suspect the surprise partner was originally supposed to be a returning Ahmed Johnson, who was feuding with Faarooq but was sidelined four months earlier with a kidney injury.  Alas Ahmed wouldn't be medically cleared until the following January.  This match was utterly pointless and after two eliminations the remaining six participants were all disqualified for brawling in the ring.  Bra-fucking-vo.

The main event featured Shawn Michaels defending the WWF Title against The Wrong Guy, Sycho Sid.  Originally the plan was a Shawn-Vader rematch from SummerSlam, as Shawn was only able to beat Vader after two match restarts, and Vader had pinned Shawn twice in tag matches.  This could've been a really great match where Vader finally dethroned Shawn, setting up a rubber match at the Rumble.  But Shawn refused to drop the Title to Vader and instead selected real-life friend Sid as his successor.  The resulting feud felt very forced as Sid was Shawn's onscreen sidekick and there was little chemistry between them as foes (not to mention their previous matches together weren't exactly classics).  This match was extremely awkward due to some miscues and Sid's apparent inability to ad lib or fall into any kind of natural rhythm.  When even the amazing Shawn Michaels can't get a three-star match out of you, you probably aren't cut out for wrestling.  Sid won the belt by turning full heel (which the NYC fans cheered) and smashing Shawn with a ringside camera.  Thus began two excruciating months of Sid as the WWF Champion (I'd place him just above Sgt. Slaughter on the list of Weakest Champs Ever).

Most badass-looking undeserving Champion ever.

Now don't get me wrong, Survivor Series 1996 was a pretty entertaining show overall and featured an absolutely amazing semi-main event match.  But the rest of the show was so poorly assembled with seemingly little to no thought given, and it's quite vexing to think of how good this PPV could have been.

Here's what I would've done (aside from having Flash Funk and Furnas & Lafon debut on RAW in the weeks leading up to Series so we cared about them):

WWF Championship: Shawn Michaels vs. Vader - I mean come on, this was a great match at SummerSlam and the two rematches would've been light years better than either Shawn-Sid match.

Bret Hart vs. Steve Austin - Obviously no change there.

Undertaker/Sid/Yokozuna/Jake Roberts vs. Mankind/Crush/Razor Ramon/Diesel - A real battle of giants that would've easily been as good as the underwhelming Taker-Mankind singles match and certainly better than the Team Vader vs. Team Savio match.  Obviously this should've boiled down to Taker vs. Mankind, with Taker going over.  Oh and look, Taker vs. Kane again!

Hunter Hearst Helmsley/Goldust/New Rockers vs. Marc Mero/Rocky Maivia/Godwinns - Still built around the Helmsley-Mero feud, but now there won't be a rudderless two-team vs. two-team match on the card.  Rocky still wins here.

Faarooq/Jerry Lawler/Owen Hart/British Bulldog vs. Savio Vega/Flash Funk/Doug Furnas/Phil Lafon - Faarooq was sorta feuding with Savio around this time, so there's your two captains.  You have it come down to the two tag teams and elevate Furnas & Lafon, as was the plan anyway.

Now there are only five matches and the three traditional ones all have a purpose.  Much better this way.

Best Match: Bret Hart vs. Steve Austin
Worst Match: Team Vader vs. Team Savio
What I'd Change: See above.
Most Disappointing Match: Shawn Michaels vs. Sid - These two just never clicked in the ring (No one really ever had a good match with Sid - the guy was cosmically inept) and all these years later I'm still baffled that Sid got to be WWF Champion twice.
Most Pleasant Surprise: I guess the opening match?
Overall Rating: 7.5/10
Better than WrestleMania XII and/or SummerSlam '96? - No on the first, yes on the second.

Survivor Series 1997 - Molson Centre - 11/9/97

Speaking of PPVs that are a complete fucking mess, the 1997 Survivor Series suffered from all kinds of problems.  I'm guessing that due to the turmoil and uncertainty surrounding WWF Champion Bret Hart's impending departure from the company (essentially forced by Vince, mind you), there wasn't much time or energy left to focus on the rest of the card.  Bret had initially agreed to stay through November '97 and drop the title before he left, Vince insisted it had to be to Shawn in Montreal, Bret refused, you know the rest.  Anyway there were seven matches on the card, most of which were mediocre or just too rushed and/or chaotic to be very good.

First up was (what a shock) an elimination match consisting of four tag teams.  The New Age Outlaws teamed with The Godwinns to face The Headbangers and The New Blackjacks.  This was watchable and helped get the Outlaws over as the hot new heel team, but otherwise not much going on.

Second was a totally pointless elimination match between Crush's DOA stable and an Apartheid-inspired heel stable, the Truth Commission.  Essentially the whole point of the Commission was to get over a new giant wrestler named Kurrgan, whose career fizzled very quickly but who can be seen in such blockbuster films as 300 and Sherlock Holmes.  Kurrgan basically won the whole 9-minute match by himself.  Welcome to ThrowawayLand.

Third was a somewhat anticipated match between Team USA, consisting of Vader, Goldust, Marc Maro, and newcomer Steve Blackman (subbing for the injured Patriot, without whom this match more or less lost all purpose) and Team Canada, consisting of Englishman Davey Boy Smith, American Jim Neidhart, American Doug Furnas, and sole Canadian Phil Lafon.  The match was fine but just felt very sloppy, and it ended with the guy playing the babyface role, Bulldog, bashing Vader in the head with the ring bell to win the whole thing.  I'm not sure if this was supposed to lead to a Bulldog-Vader feud before they let Davey follow Bret to WCW, but that would've been pretty cool.  Instead this match led to a Vader-Goldust feud which wasn't so great.

The first of three singles matches was next, and while kind of a messy brawl it was pretty well-executed.  Kane made his in-ring debut against Mankind, after having put The Undertaker on the shelf.  Mankind bumped around like a Hardy Boy for Kane, helping build his legend as a killing machine.

I can't see where he's gonna land, but that's gonna hurt.

The one really strong elimination match pitted the Nation of Domination (Faarooq, The Rock, Mustafa and D-Lo Brown) against Ken Shamrock, Ahmed Johnson, and the Legion of Doom.  This was a fine display of power wrestling (aside from one inane elimination where Rocky pinned Ahmed while the referee could clearly see Faarooq holding Ahmed's foot from under the bottom rope), and cemented Rock and Shamrock as rising stars. 

In a rematch from SummerSlam '97 where Steve Austin was infamously injured by Owen Hart's errant Tombstone piledriver, the former once again attempted to capture the I-C Title.  After Austin's DL status had been confirmed, a tournament was held for the vacant championship, which Owen won.  This was Austin's comeback match and he unfortunately wasn't quite ready to go, having to drastically alter his wrestling style to include more brawling and less mat wrestling.  This lasted a scant four minutes before Austin recaptured the Title, and was quite forgettable (especially when compared to the near-classic they had over the summer).

The main event was possibly the most famous wrestling match of all-time after Hogan-Andre.  Bret Hart vs. Shawn Michaels.  The Montreal Screwjob.  Going into this I had expected a 25-30 minute mat classic.  Instead this only went 20 minutes, about half of which was spent brawling outside the ring.  While this fit the nature of their very personal (and real-life) rivalry, it made for a bit of a dull and disappointing marquee matchup, particularly when you consider how good both participants were.  If not for the historical significance of the result, this match would likely be little more than a footnote.

The most historically significant Sharpshooter of all time.

Survivor Series 1997 felt like a very chaotic show with not much in the way of memorable in-ring action.  The outcome of Bret vs. Shawn will always be one of the most important events in wrestling history, and ironically marked the beginning of the WWF's reascension in the Monday Night War.  But as a standalone PPV this wasn't much of a show.

Best Match: Bret Hart vs. Shawn Michaels - it's far from great, but it's still the best thing on the show.
Worst Match: DOA vs. Truth Commission
What I'd Change: Drop the DOA match, maybe put Austin and Owen in the US vs. Canada match and save Austin's involvement for the end to protect him.  Then Austin wins the whole thing, setting him up for a future I-C shot in December when he's healthier.  Also I'd have much more of the main event take place in the ring, because the crowd brawling thing generally sucks.
Most Disappointing Match: Bret vs. Shawn - I was hoping for something on par with 'Mania 12.
Most Pleasant Surprise: Kane vs. Mankind I guess?
Overall Rating: 4/10
Better than WrestleMania 13 and/or SummerSlam '97? - No, and hell no.

Survivor Series 1998 - Kiel Center - 11/15/98

The 1998 edition almost defies critique as a wrestling event.  Almost.  As an angle played out over a three-hour running time it was rather genius.  As a professional wrestling show it was abysmal.  Once again nothing about this show earned it the title of Survivor Series.  The PPV was built around a WWF Title tournament after Steve Austin lost the belt under controversial circumstances and the belt was vacated.  As with WrestleMania IV, the company tried to cram far too much into one show, and this didn't even have the benefit of a fourth hour.  Fourteen matches in three hours.  Simply batshit insane.

There were two non-tournament matches, Sable vs. Jacqueline for the new Women's Title (this one stunk), and a Triple Threat for the Tag belts pitting The New Age Outlaws against The Headbangers and D-Lo Brown/Mark Henry (this one was mediocre).

The tournament itself was shabbily thrown together and had some baffling inclusions such as jobber Duane Gill, midcarder Al Snow, newcomer Steven Regal, who had only been in the company a few weeks, and two first-round matches featuring McMahon henchman the Big Bossman.  Now the storyline going into this was that Vince would do anything to keep Austin from regaining the Title, and had handpicked (rather reluctantly) Mankind to be the next Champion (Mankind had shaved off his beard and styled his hair for the occasion).  Mankind opened the show against pushover Duane Gill to allow him easy advancement.  Steve Austin's first round match was against Bossman, tasked specifically with injuring Austin and hindering him going forward (why not just use a crooked referee to take Austin out of the tournament right at the beginning?).  The Rock, who had been slowly turning babyface and had run afoul of Vince, was slated to face Triple H in the first round.  Triple H, despite being injured, was nonetheless billed to appear on this show in a rather shameless bait-and-switch.  Instead Rocky faced the Bossman (making his second first-round appearance) and quickly rolled him up in a four-second match.

The second round featured a shitty Undertaker-Kane rematch, a very good little Rock-Shamrock rematch (where Bossman's interference on Shamrock's behalf backfired), a Steve Austin bye into the semis, and an exceedingly brief Al Snow vs. Mankind bout.

The semifinals saw Rock advancing after the Undertaker got disqualified, and Mankind beating Steve Austin with the help of newly appointed babyface referee Shane McMahon, who doublecrossed the Rattlesnake and rejoined Vince's side (Mick Foley considers this one of the worst matches he's ever been involved in).

This was probably the only good part of the match.

This meant the Finals would pit Vince's chosen one Mankind against Vince's newest enemy The Rock.  The final match was a crazy and entertaining brawl and very easily stole the show as one of only two or three memorable bouts.  The big swerve came when Rocky applied a sharpshooter, and Vince immediately signaled for the bell to ring, echoing the Montreal Screwjob from a year earlier.  Upon Rocky being announced as the new Champion, Vince revealed he had been the chosen one all along and Mankind was merely a pawn. 

At the time this aired I was honestly pretty blown away by this whole angle.  From a storyline perspective it was very well-executed and I didn't see any of this coming.  I was also excited about The Rock becoming the newest main eventer and feuding with Mankind over the next few months.  However this PPV had almost no good wrestling and a few of these tournament participants had no business vying for the company's top championship.  If you're going to have a tournament for the World Title, there should be few to no filler contestants.

Ok, that was a good swerve.

As I said, it's hard to even grade this show as a wrestling card.  It was really more of an extended angle meant to set up The Rock as the new top heel and create new obstacles for Steve Austin to overcome on his way to regaining the Championship.  Much like a suspense thriller with a crazy twist ending, you watch it the first time for the initial mindfuck, and watch it a second time to try and spot the clues you missed the first time.  There's usually very little rewatch value after that.

Best Match: The Rock vs. Mankind
Worst Match: Tough to say, maybe Steve Austin vs. Big Bossman?
What I'd Change: As with 'Mania 4, there were way too many matches here.  Make this an 8-man tournament (you could even have the qualifying round on RAW leading up to this) with Austin, Rock, Mankind, Taker, Kane, Shamrock, X-Pac, and Owen Hart.  Then there would only be seven tournament matches at the most and they'd have been a helluva lot better.  What were Snow, Regal, Bossman, or Gill doing in a World Title tournament?
Most Disappointing Match: Steve Austin vs. Mankind - this was far from their best meeting, and the ending was quite poorly executed.
Most Pleasant Surprise: The swerve - I literally did not see this coming.
Overall Rating: 4/10
Better than WrestleMania XIV and/or SummerSlam '98? - Not by damn sight.

Part 3                                                                                                                                                Part 5

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