Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Pro Wrestling: A Mark's History, part 10 (The New WWF Generation)

As 1994 began, multiple top heroes were being positioned to challenge Yokozuna for the WWF Title.  Chief among them were former champ Bret Hart, Lex Luger, and after two years wading around the midcard pool fighting off silly cartoon villains, The Undertaker was finally being pushed as a top challenger. 

He would wrestle Yoko at the '94 Rumble in a casket match, and at the time I really thought he might take it down.  Unfortunately Taker needed some time off and he lost to the Champion with the help of 10 (ten!) midcard heels, in one of the worst matches I've ever seen.  Seriously, this thing stunk worse than a Taco Bell Chalupa fart.  Even worse was the goofy post-match angle, where Taker "disappeared" from the casket, appeared as a ghost on the TitanTron, and "floated" up to the ceiling (in fact it was Marty Janetty in Taker's costume who was the floating stunt double - I mean couldn't they have found anyone close to Taker's size for this job??).

Yup, Yokozuna looks how I felt watching this snorefest.

The Rumble match itself ended for the first time with co-winners, as Bret Hart and Lex Luger tumbled over the ropes simultaneously.  This meant that at WrestleMania X Yokozuna would have to defend the Title twice.  Luger won the coin toss for the first crack at the Champ, while Bret would face his estranged brother Owen before getting his shot.

These two matches, coupled with the possibility of a Bret vs. Luger main event, and the Shawn Michaels-Razor Ramon I-C Title match, made WrestleMania X a must-see event for me.  This was the first WrestleMania I had ever ordered on PPV, and man did I pick a good one!

I was actually shocked when Luger failed to win the Title, as I figured the months-long build from the summer of '93 would result in Luger finally climbing the mountain.  I was pretty pissed when he got disqualified and ousted from the Title hunt, and of course it was then a forgone conclusion that Bret would be regaining the belt in the main event.  To this day, with all due respect to Yokozuna, I still think Bret vs. Luger would've been a spectacular match and I consider it a lost opportunity that it never happened.  When Bret predictably won the Title back, I was happy for him and knew he was deserving, but I wasn't overly excited about it.
My feelings about Bret at this time (and this was kind of true his whole singles career) were that he was always my second or third favorite guy.  For some reason he was never my absolute favorite, and I think I took him a little for granted for most of his run.  I acknowledged that his matches were often the best on the show, but there was always a different wrestler I was more excited about.  From '92 until early '94 Lex Luger was still my top guy, and then once he fell into the midcard and got mired in that awful feud with Tatanka, Shawn Michaels became my favorite, in no small part due to the 'Mania Ladder Match.

This match is still 17 kinds of awesome.

I've talked about this in my 'Mania History column, but I can't overstate how mindblowing that Ladder Match was in 1994.  Nothing like that had ever been done, and even in losing, Shawn cemented himself as one of the most important guys in the business.  In the months that followed Shawn sort of became more of a sidekick for the emerging Diesel, which I definitely resented at the time (I believe Shawn had talked about jumping to WCW after 'Mania, so he was more or less written out of the picture initially before deciding to stay after all.).  I didn't see much in Kevin Nash and thought Shawn deserved to eventually win back the I-C Title.

I should note that in the summer of 1994, WCW (whose product I was still pretty much ignoring) announced that Hulk Hogan had signed with them.  This was the weirdest thing ever.  Hulk Hogan, a WWF landmark, was now with WCW.  Three things about this that surprised me: a) I figured Hogan would just ride off into the sunset after his WWF run was over.  b) I considered WCW's product much too serious and traditional for Hogan to fit in there.  c) I thought it was unbelievably lame that his first match in the company was for the WCW Title.  He had beaten literally zero guys in WCW to earn a title match.  Of course Hogan won the belt, brought in a bunch of other ex-WWF guys from the 80s (including Randy Savage, who I honestly can't blame for jumping since Vince didn't want to do anything useful with him), and turned the company into a three-ring circus.  It was sad in a way that for North American wrestling fans our only two options were 90s WWF or 80s WWF (Seriously, the main event for WCW's flagship PPV Starrcade in '94 was Hogan vs. Brutus Beefcake. No really.).

The MegaPowers in WCW.  One of the most bizarre things I had ever seen.

The top WWF feud of the summer was of course Bret vs. Owen, about which I had no complaints.  Their 'Mania X match was an absolute clinic and I looked forward to further battles.  When it was announced they'd fight in a steel cage at SummerSlam I was chomping at the bit.  As it turns out I was pretty disappointed with that match (I know everyone considers it a five-star affair but I really wouldn't rank it above ***1/2).  In hindsight I think a submission match would've made much more sense.  Steel cage matches were never really Bret's thing, and since Owen's style was so similar to Bret's, the cage didn't lend itself well to this feud.  A submission match on the other hand, given that both guys used the Sharpshooter and were brothers, would've felt much more organic - anyone with siblings can relate to two brothers trying to force each other to scream "uncle."  See what I mean?

The Undertaker returned from hiatus in the summer of '94, in one of the most confusing, poorly executed angles I can recall.  Let's break this thing down: Ted Dibiase showed up on WWF TV saying he was bringing Taker back (makes sense since Dibiase originally brought him in at Survivor Series '90).  Taker re-debuted on TV and immediately I knew something was up.  It was reeeeally obvious this was not the real Taker (I'm sure this was done on purpose, so I'll accept that) - he had a different complexion, he was missing a tattoo, and he was noticeably shorter.  The impostor Taker was played by Brian Lee, who's about four inches shorter than Mark Calaway - couldn't they have either found someone taller or given Lee thicker boot soles?  Anyway, after a few weeks of this, they announced that the main event of SummerSlam would be Dibiase's Undertaker......vs. Paul Bearer's Undertaker.  Like they didn't even confirm yet that Dibiase's Taker was a fake.  Paul Bearer hadn't even come out to say "that's not him" or challenge him to a match.  It was just announced out of the blue.  Then on the local house show promos Stan Lane announced separate upcoming matches for both Undertakers.  It was just a horribly assembled angle.

Man, Taker was involved in some pretty awful matches in 1994.

So the Taker vs. Taker match happened at SummerSlam and was bafflingly given the main event slot, despite having to follow an epic, fast-paced steel cage match.  The two Takers had little chemistry together and lumbered around for 9 minutes before the match mercifully concluded.

Surely Taker vs. Yokozuna would've been a more fitting return for him, especially since Yoko wasn't even on the card (I know, they explained Yoko was "too scared" to appear on the show given Taker's presence).  No matter, they slotted that for the Survivor Series main event instead (and yeah, it also stunk).

After 8 months of frequent title defenses, including standout matches against 1-2-3 Kid and Bob Backlund (who then "snapped" and turned heel), Bret dropped the Title at Survivor Series to Backlund, giving Bob the record at the time for longest time between WWF Title reigns (just under 11 years, later eclipsed by Triple H).  The match had a somewhat convoluted stipulation where each wrestler would have a "second" at ringside who would have to end the match by throwing in the towel when his wrestler could no longer continue.  After a strong 20 minutes of action, Bob Backlund locked Bret in his dreaded crossface chickenwing.  The only problem was Bret's second Davey Boy Smith got knocked out during a ringside scuffle, prompting Backlund's second Owen to plead with their mother Helen to throw in the towel for Bret.  This exchange went on for literally fifteen minutes.  FIF. TEEN. MINUTES.  Look, I get it, this was a dramatic and unusual way to end a match.  But there was no reason it needed to go on for fifteen minutes.  Seriously, that's 43% of the match spent on Bret being locked in a submission hold and Owen convincing his mom to throw in the towel to save him.  Just absurd.

My reaction to Backlund winning the title was, "Seriously?  This guy who hasn't been relevant since 1983 gets to beat Bret??" 

Look, it's the 90s version of Hulk Hogan,
and he even has a full head of hair!

Three days later Diesel became the WWF Champion by pinning him in 8 seconds at Madison Square Garden.  Justin's reaction: "Wait, WHAT. THE HELL?"  I found this horribly idiotic at first - Diesel hadn't even been established as a WWF Title contender (except for that one-off King of the Ring match).  Yes, he had impressive showings at the Rumble and Survivor Series (after which he turned babyface and dumped Shawn Michaels as his partner), but this struck me as major hotshotting, even before I knew what hotshotting was.  I felt that if anything, Taker should've been the one to beat Backlund.  After all, he got screwed back in January.

Two things warmed me up to Diesel as WWF Champion.  #1 - his first babyface promo made me realize how charismatic he was.  I said to myself, "Ya know what, he's actually pretty cool."  #2 - since Diesel and Shawn had just split up and were now feuding, this positioned Shawn as the logical challenger for the WWF Title.  KABOOM!!!

Part 9                                                                                                                                            

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