Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Pro Wrestling: A Mark's History, part 8 (Bret Wins the Big One)

The WWF started 1992 off amid a hugely memorable angle.  The World Title was vacated at the end of '91, stemming from a pair of (unwatchably terrible) matches between Hulk Hogan and the Undertaker, both of which ended in controversy.  WWF President Jack Tunney held up the Title and declared that the winner of the '92 Royal Rumble would be crowned the new Champion, thus making this the most important Rumble match in the event's history.

The company pulled out all the stops for this one, stacking the Rumble match with all the top contenders - Hogan, Flair, Taker, Savage, Sid, Jake, Piper.  They made sure to ramp up the unpredictability of who would walk out with the belt.  In the end of course it was a gutsy 60+ minute performance by Ric Flair that earned him the WWF Championship.  I was absolutely stoked!  Flair was the guy I was rooting for but I wasn't sure they'd pull the trigger on a Title run for him.

Awesome thing I never thought I'd see #1. 
BTW how tiny does that belt look
when compared to Flair's Big Gold Belt?

Following the Rumble was the press conference where Tunney would announce Flair's challenger at WrestleMania, and predictably Hulk Hogan was originally the choice (which I found idiotic - Hogan wasn't even the last guy eliminated from the Rumble match).  This would all be used as a way to set up the Hogan-Sid feud however, and on Saturday Night's Main Event they more or less recreated the Hogan-Savage angle from 1989 by having Sid abandon Hogan mid-match and turn heel. 
With Hogan out of the way, Randy Savage was moved into the #1 Contender's spot, and I was delighted.  We'd get to see a dream match far more intriguing to me than Hogan vs. Flair.  The company added some bells and whistles to the Flair-Savage buildup by releasing doctored photos of Flair with Elizabeth, supposedly taken before she was with Savage.  Randy was incensed at the implication that she had been Flair's woman first.  It was then revealed that Flair had superimposed himself into pics of Liz and Randy (Why didn't Savage just point that out immediately is my question - surely he'd have remembered being in those photos).  This was all very silly, but nothing could take away from the actual match which was a 'Mania classic. Finally Savage climbed back up the mountain to be the WWF Champ, regardless of how silly his ring attire now looked (seriously, what was with the neon colored fringe-laden shirts?  At the time I thought Flair probably should've held the belt longer, but this was back when heels were only ever transitional WWF Champions.  Why this match couldn't've been the main event of 'Mania is still beyond me.

The bigger long-term story coming out of WrestleMania VIII though was that Hogan would be taking a leave of absence from the WWF.  It was like a big orange 300-pound weight had been lifted!  Finally the WWF could move forward and present programming that didn't always have to come back to Mr. No-Sell!  It was kind of surreal to watch WWF TV without Hogan's shadow hanging over everything.  Savage as WWF Champion and Bret Hart, fresh off his excellent 'Mania I-C Title bout with Piper, led the company into a new era of smaller, more athletic wrestlers and much more focus on the in-ring product.  Also very exciting to me was the heel turn and first singles push of Shawn Michaels, who you'll remember I hated as one of The Rockers.  But now he was a cocky, ruthless prick, and as with Rick Martel in 1989, I became a big supporter.  Things were fresh and exciting in the WWF again!


The only downside was that without Hogan around wrestling's popularity waned significantly, and thus began a lull period for the WWF and the business in general.  Over the year the company would lose or release several established stars such as The Ultimate Warrior and Davey Boy Smith (in their case due to the allegations of steroid distribution directed at McMahon).  But the in-ring product, particularly when it came to PPV main events, suddenly got much more serious and intense, resembling the NWA's glory years in some ways.

SummerSlam '92 emanated from Wembley Stadium and featured two epic 25-minute Title matches.  Randy Savage once again fought the Warrior (against a really lame backdrop of "Who hired Mr. Perfect to be in his corner?") to a fine contest, and unexpectedly in the main event slot was Bret Hart defending the I-C Title against Davey Boy Smith, in what is considered by many to be the greatest SummerSlam match ever.  This was a major statement by the company that they were ready to embrace serious workers as top attractions. 

One of the greatest matches of all time.

Davey Boy beating Bret disappointed me a little, but not to worry.  Six weeks later the awesomely unthinkable happened.  You see in September Flair regained the WWF Title from Randy Savage on an episode of Prime Time Wrestling.  I was sorta confused by this decision and was afraid Flair would just be a transitional Champion again before losing to the Warrior (someone I really didn't want to see regain the belt).  Then the company threw a major curveball in October when Flair dropped the Bret Hart!  WHAAAAAAAA????

I was amazed!  Bret "Hitman" Hart, one half of the Hart Foundation - a man I never thought would climb above secondary championship status - was now the WWF World Champion.  All bets were now off.  First, with Bret as the champ, the main event of every show would actually be a good wrestling match.  Second, this opened the door for other smaller wrestlers, particularly former tag team specialists, to climb to the top of the card.

A few weeks later Shawn Michaels did just that, by upsetting Davey Boy for the I-C belt.  Now two of the most exciting, technical wrestlers in the company were both Champions, and as luck would have it, they were on a collision course at the 1992 Survivor Series.

Survivor Series '92 was only the second WWF PPV I ordered, and it was almost purely because of the aforementioned Bret Hart vs. Shawn Michaels World Title match.  The most hyped bout on the card was Randy Savage & Ultimate Warrior vs. Ric Flair & Razor Ramon.  Why the company decided not to do a traditional Survivor Series featuring several 4-on-4 elimination matches I didn't and still don't understand.  I was actually not at all excited about this show until the Title match was announced, as it just seemed like every other PPV (I've always loved the traditional Survivor Series concept and still feel the company needs to get back to that or else SS is just another show). I also thought the Savage/Warrior "Ultimate Maniacs" alliance was quite lame and a cheap attempt to recreate the MegaPowers dynamic.  As it turned out Warrior was released from the company just before the PPV, prompting them to turn Mr. Perfect babyface and put him in Warrior's spot.  This suddenly made the match infinitely more intriguing, as Perfect a) hadn't wrestled in over a year and b) had never been a babyface in the WWF.  Bully for me!

Awesome thing I never thought I'd see #2

The PPV as expected was not great.  Not in the slightest.  But it was saved by the featured tag match (which ended in a lame DQ but was still fun) and the awesome Bret-Michaels (heh, Bret Michaels) main event, which was unlike any WWF main event I had ever seen.  These were two of the very best workers in the business in an epic 26-minute athletic contest (the longest PPV singles match in WWF history up to this point).  I remember thinking as I watched, "This is surreal.  The WWF is finally taking wrestling seriously."  While it wasn't the best match of 1992, it may have been the most important in terms of signaling where the WWF product was headed over the next few years.

What the WWF lacked in star power they made up for in emphasizing the in-ring product over the entertainment side of things.  With Bret Hart in the spotlight, we'd be getting World Title matches like we'd never seen before.

It was definitely a rebuilding period, but 1993 looked to be an exciting year from where I sat.  Of course then the big orange goblin decided to swoop in on his red and yellow air skiff and ruin everything.....

Part 7                                                                                                                                              

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