Thursday, June 23, 2016

The History of WWE King of the Ring (1996)

King of the Ring 1996 - MECCA Arena - 6.23.96

What a difference a year makes.  The 1996 edition was everything the previous KOTR wasn't.  Exciting, fresh, memorable, and the tournament elevated someone who actually deserved it.  For the first time only the semifinals and finals would take place on the PPV; the first two rounds would be decided on RAW and Superstars.  The sparser PPV format allowed the WWF to stack the card, and while it de-emphasized the tourney to a certain extent, it made for a much stronger overall show.

To kick things off we were treated to an excellent semifinal matchup between WWF newcomers Steve Austin and Marc Mero.  These two former WCW talents delivered a fast-paced, action-packed bout which infamously included an errant Mero kick that split Austin's lip open.  Austin finished, and won, the match before being rushed to the hospital for stitches.

Hard to believe Mero was hired at three times Austin's pay
The other semi pitted tournament favorite Vader against the newly-returned Jake Roberts, and was more of an angle than anything else.  Vader was disqualified early on and went ballistic, destroying Jake with multiple splashes after the bell.  This beautifully set up the eventual final, where a stitched-up Austin took advantage of Jake's injury to dominate him for four-plus minutes before tying up the tourney with a Stunner.



What followed is now the stuff of legend, as Austin cut the most important promo of the last thirty-plus years, referencing Jake's born-again Christianity with the iconic line "Talk about your psalms, talk about John 3:16....Austin 3:16 says I just whipped your ass!"  It was the beginning of Austin's meteoric rise and eventually helped the WWF regain its status as the world's #1 wrestling company.  Things would likely have turned out very differently, had the WWF gone with its original plan of giving Hunter Hearst Helmsley the vaunted crown.

Probably the most important promo of all time

KOTR '96 was already historically significant for the rise of Austin, but the non-tourney matches elevated this show to another level.  Things started inauspiciously with a forgettable Smokin' Gunns-Godwins WWF Tag Title match, and the following Ultimate Warrior-Jerry Lawler farce didn't help.  But the rest of the show was pretty stacked.

New monster villain Mankind presented The Undertaker with his toughest challenge to date with a wild, brutal fight that spilled all over ringside and lasted 18 minutes before a seemingly errant urn shot by Paul Bearer cost Taker the match.  This kicked off one of the best feuds of the era and introduced the mid-90s WWF audience to new levels of edgy in-ring violence.

This feud was pure gold

Next up was a pretty underrated Intercontinental Title match between Goldust and rising star Ahmed Johnson.  Ahmed had a huge upside and had he stayed healthy I still think he would've become a headliner.  This was his first, and sadly only, taste of WWF gold, and the match was a pretty solid chaotic brawl.

But it paled in comparison to the main event - WWF Champion Shawn Michaels vs. The British Bulldog.  The two had met a month earlier at In Your House, in an underwhelming match that was affected by a power outage partway through the show.  This rematch more than made up for it; Shawn and Davey produced a classic speed vs. power battle and their styles meshed beautifully.  This remains one of the forgotten gems of Shawn's career.

WHAMMO

King of the Ring 1996 is still one of my favorite PPVs - the variety and overall match quality places it high in the pantheon of KOTR shows - but it was also contained a watershed moment for the WWF, as Steve Austin had finally arrived.  While it took a few months for his potential to be appreciated, the Austin 3:16 phenomenon began here, and the wrestling industry would never be the same.

Best Match: Shawn Michaels vs. British Bulldog
Worst Match: Ultimate Warrior vs. Jerry Lawler
What I'd Change: The '96 Warrior run was a bust, so skip his match, but otherwise not much.
Most Disappointing Match: Probably the tournament final just because of how short it was, but the Austin promo afterward made up for it and then some.
Most Pleasant Surprise: That Austin won the whole thing.  Going in I assumed Vader was a mortal lock.
Overall Rating: 9/10


1995

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