Monday, August 31, 2015

Pro Wrestling: A Mark's History, part 12 (The Year of HBK)

What a pivotal year 1996 was in the world of pretend fighting.  The landscape of the business would change drastically over next five years, and '96 was really where it began.  Yes, the Monday Night War had already started the previous September, but it wasn't until mid '96 that things fully escalated and each company would begin to find their respective identities.

Shawn Michaels made his triumphant post-concussion return at the Royal Rumble, putting on a mesmerizing performance and becoming only the second 2-time Rumble winner in history.  WrestleMania season that year was of the totally-predictable-but-awesome variety.  It was obviously Shawn's time to shine and I couldn't wait to see it all unfold.  Shawn's Rumble win positioned him to challenge Bret Hart for the WWF Title, creating what was on paper the greatest WrestleMania match of all time.  Added to the intrigue was the revelation that it would be a 60-minute Iron Man match.  This really felt like a celebration of pure wrestling, which was just all kinds of awesome.  Piling it on, the WWF also booked Undertaker vs. Diesel as the semi-main event.  The two best big men in the company at that time in a full-on slugfest.  This was shaping up to be an unequaled 'Mania lineup.

Over at WCW the World Title was passed back and forth between Ric Flair and Randy Savage (rehashing what the WWF had done in 1992), while Hulk Hogan took a buncha time off.  Hogan's fan reaction had become lukewarm as fans seemingly remembered why they had tired of his act in the WWF.  I was watching RAW religiously every week but flipping over to Nitro during breaks just to keep up on current events.  I did enjoy some of the Cruiserweight stuff on the show, but my first response was that the action was so fast and spectacular they weren't leaving any time for any of the moves to mean anything.  The terms "ring psychology" and "workrate" weren't yet in my lexicon, so I wasn't approaching this stuff from the point of view of an IWC fan by any means (still didn't have internet yet), but on some level I recognized that the storytelling aspect of the Cruiserweight matches was lacking.  It was around this time that I first saw Rey Mysterio, Eddie Guerrero and Dean Malenko, whom I had read about in PWI.  All the magazines raved about their work, but at the time I was pretty underwhelmed by them.  I appreciated the technical aspect but didn't connect with any of them emotionally.  Other than that stuff, Nitro just looked to me like Old Folks' Wrestling.  The main event matches and feuds were insufferably dull to me.

Yeah man, I just didn't get it at first.....

WrestleMania XII arrived, and this was literally the most excited I had ever been about a wrestling show.  I remember thinking, "Bret vs. Shawn will never be topped as a 'Mania main event."  The match itself wasn't quite what I had expected.  It was very methodical for the first half, and while I liked it a whole lot, I was a little thrown by the overall pace.  The false ending with an overtime period felt a bit like a cheat and I sorta thought Shawn should've won in regulation.  To this day I think they should've gone 1-1 in the first sixty minutes to break up the match somewhat.  I consider this a great match, but I can see why some people are bored by it.  As for the rest of the show, I was pissed that Diesel lost (Taker's streak wasn't really a thing yet) but enjoyed the match, and the undercard was a tad underwhelming, not surprising given the length of the main event.  Still 'Mania 12 does hold a special place for me because it was so satisfying to see Shawn Michaels finally win the big one.  'Mania 12 was also the first of 19 consecutive 'Manias I watched live on PPV.  I haven't missed one since WM11.

Ah the boyhood dream.....

Michaels' first WWF Title run was almost the prototypical way a new babyface Champion should be booked.  He was given a variety of opponents and was able to steal the show nearly every time.  His first Title defense against Diesel was the damnedest brawl I had ever seen, and upon the conclusion of that PPV I had to immediately rewatch the match.  I was amazed that Shawn actually topped his match with Bret only four weeks later!  The powerbomb-through-table spot would become quite commonplace on WWF TV in the years to come, but in 1996 I had never seen anything like it, and couldn't believe Shawn wasn't horribly injured.  It was clear to me at this point that WWF PPVs would be can't-miss television for the foreseeable future. 

A few weeks after this match I picked up an issue of PWI and read the following bombshell: Diesel and Razor Ramon had signed with WCW.  I cannot overstate just how betrayed I felt at reading this.  Diesel was one of my absolute favorites and I could not fathom how in a million years he could leave the WWF in the prime of his career, for the Land of the Old Guys.  With Razor it didn't sting quite so much as it seemed he had accomplished everything he could in the WWF.  He was on and off TV for a few months (unbeknownst to me at the time he'd had some drug issues), and so I didn't feel like I'd miss him that much.  But with Diesel I couldn't imagine how the company would fill that hole. 

Those dirty rotten traitorous bastards.....

Fortunately the WWF had just brought in a handful of WCW castoffs, all of whom seemed primed for big things.  In January they signed Vader which I thought was wild.  Vader seemed like one of those guys who would always be either in WCW or Japan. 

Around the same time they brought in a guy I was both familiar with and impressed with from his WCW run, "Stunning" Steve Austin.  From the first time I saw him wrestle in 1990 I knew Austin had something (it's easy to say that now but I'm being totally serious).  I couldn't exactly put my finger on it but he just struck me as someone who would end up being a big star.  Sometime in 1991 it occurred to me that most of my favorite wrestlers at that time would eventually go away as they got old, and be slowly replaced by a new crop of guys.  The idea kinda bummed me out, almost like becoming aware of your own mortality.  But upon having that epiphany the first young talent I though of in conjunction with the paradigm of "The Next Generation of Wrestling Stars" was Steve Austin.  Swear to Christ he's the first guy I thought of.  Not like "gee I hope he's the top guy in the wrestling business someday," just in a "he's probably gonna be a success and be around for a long while" kinda way.  It should be noted however that I was actually annoyed when he changed his name from The Ringmaster to Stone Cold, which just reminded me of that awful Brian Bosworth action movie.  I guess I was wrong on that one as well.

It's STUNNING how different he used to look. 
Get it?  STUNNING?

Factor in the signings of "Wildman" Marc Mero (whom I found goofy-looking but in whom I initially saw a bit of Randy Savage), and Mankind (Cactus Jack didn't impress me that much in WCW but he had built up such mystique from his Japanese hardcore exploits that I was pretty stoked for his repackaging), and the WWF was in pretty solid rebuilding shape.

Shawn's awesome title run continued with a pair of PPV matches against Davey Boy Smith, with whom Shawn always had great chemistry.  The first match was pretty dull unfortunately but the rematch at King of the Ring was one of the best matches of the year. 

Speaking of King of the Ring, I went into this PPV assuming 100% that Vader would win the tournament and face Shawn at SummerSlam.  Turns out I was only half right.  Steve Austin shockingly won the whole thing and of course cut the legendary Austin 3:16 promo, and the industry would never be the same (took a little while for the repercussions to be felt, but still....).  This was a pretty awesome PPV I gotta say.  HBK vs. Bulldog, Austin vs. Mero in the semifinals, Taker vs. Mankind (the beginning of one of the greatest, most brutal feuds of all time), and Ahmed Johnson vs. Goldust for the I-C Title.  Pretty stacked show really.

Right around this time down in Atlanta, Diesel and Razor showed up on Nitro, appearing to still be representing the WWF and planning to take over the company.  Going by their real names of Kevin Nash and Scott Hall, their debuts were handled in a gritty, realistic way which I had to admit was pretty novel.  Then when Hulk Hogan was revealed as their leader I had two thoughts: "Well it's about time they turned him bad!" and "Uh oh.....WCW's gonna be on top for a while."  Clearly the formation of the nWo was a major game changer.  WCW cleverly followed it up with a series of new member reveals - Ted Dibiase, 1-2-3 Kid, The Giant, etc. to keep the audience guessing.  The early weeks also featured multiple segments dedicated to the group running roughshod over the whole WCW roster.  This was groundbreaking for a little while but got old REAL fast.  Months later it seemed like the same stuff was happening on every show.  WCW loyalist stands up to nWo; nWo gangs up on him and beats him up; show ends.  Then WCW brought in Roddy Piper of all people to lead the WCW charge, leading to a Hogan-Piper feud.  In 1996.  Really?  Cue Justin facepalm.

Damn......okay that was a good one.

In the WWF, Shawn added three awesome PPV matches to his Championship run - a six-man featuring Shawn, Ahmed and the returning Sid Vicious vs. Vader, Davey & Owen Hart; a SummerSlam title defense vs. Vader; and an all-time classic vs. Mankind.  The latter is still one of the best matches I've ever seen.  It was almost a hardcore match without explicitly being hardcore.  So brilliantly worked by both guys, and my only gripe is that it ends in a disqualification.

A true "holy shit" moment if I've ever seen one.

That fall Bret Hart finally made his WWF return and targeted Steve Austin, which I felt was such a perfect fit.  Austin had not been well-used since winning the KOTR tourney, so it was great to see his push finally get back on track.  Their Survivor Series match that November is one of my favorite Austin matches, and I actually consider it better than the Submission match at 'Mania 13.  Yeah, I said it.

Shawn's Title run came to a screeching halt the same night, as he inexplicably lost to Sid, who turned heel by bashing Shawn with a ringside camera.  This flat out sucked.  First, I realized for the first time how cosmically inept a worker Sid was, given that Shawn had gotten good to great matches out of damn near the whole roster but somehow even he couldn't make Sid look very good.  Second, I found Sid to be such an undeserving Champion, who seemingly came and went on a whim whenever he had better things to do than wrestling.  It seemed like the plan should've been for Vader to take the belt for a while (which I believe was going to happen until Shawn vetoed it), as Shawn vs. Vader had been a really strong main event and Shawn's win was less than decisive.  Instead they put the belt on a tweener with little to no in-ring skill.  Just baffling.  By the way, if there's any doubt how bad Sid was, Bret Hart challenged him a for the belt a month later in an equally awful match.  Neither Shawn Michaels nor Bret Hart was able to get a good match out of the guy.  What does that tell you?

As 1996 closed it felt like the WWF was in a state of flux, trying all sorts of different things to see what would gain them a ratings win over WCW.  Meanwhile WCW just kept doing the same stuff month after month (which to be fair was still drawing huge numbers of viewers).  I was hoping 1997 would see another Shawn Michaels Title run followed by another slew of classic defenses.  While that didn't happen per se, 1997 did bring about some pretty amazing stuff.

Part 11                                                                                                                                           

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