Thursday, September 17, 2015

Pro Wrestling: A Mark's History, part 14 (The Birth of Attitude)

Before I get on with this installment, a few words about Brian Pillman:

On October 5th, 1997 Brian Pillman was found dead in his hotel room in St. Louis, the day of the WWF's Badd Blood PPV.  Before the show went on the air, Vince McMahon made the somber announcement. 

I must confess I had never been one of Pillman's biggest fans, as when he debuted in the NWA in 1989 I thought of him as just another pretty boy high flier.  I stopped watching NWA programming in 1990 so I hadn't really followed Pillman's evolving career except in brief flashes.  I liked the Hollywood Blonds team with Austin but didn't see much of their work.  In late '95/early '96 I read about his character now being a loose cannon heel and found that intriguing.  Then in the summer of '96 the WWF announced they had signed him.  I thought, "oh cool, he'll be a good addition to the roster."  It was then announced that he had been in a terrible car accident and suffered a shattered ankle.  "Oh super, they signed him and who knows when he'll be able to wrestle again."  When he finally returned to the ring in 1997 I liked the possibilities his persona presented.  He could have a killer feud with Austin, or have a great match with Shawn.  Unfortunately due to his injury Pillman had to drastically alter his in-ring style, which more or less put the kibosh on any epic main event singles matches he could've had.  Obviously no one can say where Pillman's WWF career would've gone had he not been in that car accident - he could've easily been a top-tier pre-Attitude heel, and the idea of a healthy Brian Pillman vs. Shawn Michaels is certainly interesting.  Sadly Pillman died of an undiagnosed heart condition, so he was evidently destined to die young.

RIP Brian Pillman

Badd Blood featured a milestone of a main event: the inaugural Hell in a Cell match.  This was like a steel cage match on steroids.  Wait, am I allowed to mention steroids?  It was like a steel cage match on crystal meth.

Shawn Michaels and the Undertaker had faced off the previous month in their first-ever one-on-one match.  That first meeting was a mixed bag, but at Badd Blood they wove together a masterpiece.  The first HIAC match is still the best one as far as I'm concerned.  The early minutes focused primarily on good traditional wrestling, while the second half became a cage-heavy bloodbath.  The two combatants slugging it out on the roof of the cage was unlike anything I had ever seen in wrestling.  Shawn took one goddamn helluva beating and gave himself one of the most brutal bladejobs of all time.  This was of course also the night Kane made his long-awaited debut, attacking Taker and costing him the match.  I immediately recognized Kane as the Fake Diesel* from the fall of '96/Isaac Yankem from the fall of '95, but his Kane costume looked pretty badass.  The visual of a broken, gory Shawn Michaels literally being held upright by Hunter and Chyna, his hand raised in victory, was both slightly chilling and really funny.

He looks like me after a Jaegermeister shot contest
I had about ten years ago.

*It occurs to me I forgot to mention the Fake Diesel/Razor fiasco in part 12 - after losing Kevin Nash and Scott Hall to WCW, Vince came up with the brilliant idea of simply plugging two new wrestlers into the personas of Diesel and Razor Ramon, with a heel Jim Ross as their spokesman (yes, that's correct, a HEEL Jim Ross).  Glen Jacobs (at the time best known as the evil dentist Isaac Yankem, DDS), attempted to fill Kevin Nash's shoes.  Only problem was they had to dye his hair (which was so short he actually used extensions for a while), and he couldn't cut a promo so he never spoke.  In the ring however he did a pretty admirable job of mimicking Nash's style.  As for the Fake Razor, Canadian wrestler Rick Bogner took over that character, and while he did a pretty solid Scott Hall impression, he couldn't wrestle a lick.  Seriously, his punches were laughable.  This angle went on for about four months before both characters disappeared from WWF TV.

Shawn's Hell in a Cell victory guaranteed him a shot at WWF Champion Bret Hart, who had beaten Taker for the belt at SummerSlam after Shawn accidentally bashed him with a chair.  That led to Shawn turning heel and feuding with Taker, which always struck me as a bit convoluted.  Going into SummerSlam, Bret was the heel challenger, and Shawn was the tweener (leaning babyface since he was Bret's enemy) guest referee.  Tweener referee accidentally screws over babyface Champ, allowing heel challenger to win the belt.  Obviously Taker would be pissed at Shawn, but since he was clearly provoked by Bret the idea that Shawn would turn heel kinda didn't make much sense to me.  Nonetheless Shawn was now the heel and Bret was the tweener.  Offscreen Bret expressed dismay at this situation, since he was now neither a strong hero or villain.

By this point I was acutely aware the business was changing radically.  Steve Austin, the hottest babyface in the company, was essentially the exact same character he was as the most ruthless heel; handsome high flying wrestlers like Shawn Michaels (who just a year earlier was the most popular guy on the roster) were now booed across the board; and the product was much edgier and more risque.  It was tremendously exciting how fresh things felt.  There were almost no barriers in place anymore - a promo or match could go wherever it needed to.  Part of what made it so cool was that the shift was totally organic.  The company didn't even acknowledge this tonal evolution.  Until one episode of RAW where Vince McMahon officially delivered the WWF's new mission statement, citing that the old-fashioned notion of "good guys vs. bad guys" was out the window and going forward the characters would be portrayed as shades of gray.  While I sort of understand now why this announcement was made, at the time it struck me as really contrived and unnecessary.  The product was changing and we could all sense it.  Just let it happen naturally and don't call attention to it!

WCW had not embraced this new "anything goes" mentality, still presenting a PG show where the nWo still ran riot over the entire roster and was now comprised of like 30 different people.  It was so tiresome.  What started out as a groundbreaking angle became the most drawn-out, repetitive programming on TV. 

Back in the WWF, the Bret Hart-Shawn Michaels Title clash would take place in Montreal at Survivor Series, and I was salivating at finally getting a rematch from 'Mania 12.  I was also really looking forward to just a straight-up wrestling match with no gimmicks.  Unfortunately what I got was ten minutes of brawling through the crowd (which was cool and novel when Bret and Austin did it at 'Mania, but got old REAL fast when it became an Attitude-era staple), followed by only ten minutes of actual in-ring action, none of which was noteworthy.  What happened next though turned a mediocre match into one of the most talked-about moments in wrestling lore.

Now I knew something was rotten because all through the crowd were fan signs talking about Bret leaving for WCW, and I thought, "Come on, not another one!!"  Again, no internet for me back then so I had no idea such a jump was even happening.  By this point I was actually rooting for Bret to retain the title since it meant he couldn't be leaving the company.  You have to understand, after Diesel and Razor left, anytime a major star lost a big match, I was afraid they were leaving the WWF.  This was my fear when Shawn lost the belt to Sid, and again in 1998 when Austin dropped the belt to Kane for a day.

At the end of the match Shawn slapped Bret's own Sharpshooter on him.  As Bret went for the planned finish of reversing the hold only to have Hunter and Chyna storm the ring, referee Earl Hebner called for the bell despite the obvious fact of Bret not submitting.  This moment was terribly confusing and emotional for me, as it confirmed that Bret was leaving the company which, not knowing all the facts of the situation, I immediately hated Bret for.  I figured Bret was yet another sellout who left the WWF in the lurch for guaranteed Turner money (I actually drafted a fan letter to Pro Wrestling Illustrated, publicly condemning Bret for selling out.  Fortunately I never actually sent it in).  I was also outraged that the match was so clearly cut short and felt robbed that they had called an audible.

Oooooooh, shit's on.

My feelings about the Bret vs. Vince falling-out have changed over the years.  Initially my reaction was, "Bret's a crybaby, he should've agreed to drop the Title as is the tradition whenever a guy leaves a territory.  Why would he have such a problem with losing to Shawn if Shawn cheated to win?"  I completely sided with Vince at the beginning.  After seeing the Wrestling with Shadows documentary and hearing both sides of the story extensively, I'm kind of in the middle now, maybe leaning very slightly with Bret.  To a certain extent I think they were both right and both wrong.  Vince should've been clearer with Bret about what he wanted instead of presenting scenario after scenario of Bret dropping the belt in ways that made him look bad.  Bret should've been more receptive to losing the belt due to outside interference.  Vince was understandably paranoid that Bret would show up on Nitro with the WWF Title.  Bret was understandably not willing to lose again to Shawn after some of the things Shawn said to him.  Vince should've gotten better control of the situation from both sides.  It was just a big mess.  But in retrospect it led to the WWF's resurgence and turned Vince into the evil Mr. McMahon - one of the most genius character transitions in wrestling history.

Now the WWF roster really seemed thin.  We were left with Shawn, Austin, Undertaker and Mankind, and a host of midcarders who would need to step up in a hurry.  The December PPV DeGeneration X featured the new HBK/HHH stable prominently (I loved DX's comedic antics when they first hit the scene - really hilarious stuff) and was an okay card but showed the roster holes.

Two WWF returns occurred around this time.  The first was Jeff Jarrett, fresh off a two-year WCW run.  His re-debut was treated with quite a bit of fanfare, almost like a rising star pitcher jumping to a different team.  For some reason I was excited about him coming back despite never really being a fan of his before, and I saw a future main eventer (This would probably qualify as "grasping at straws").

The other return, at the DX PPV, was Owen Hart.  Owen brutally attacked Shawn Michaels after the main event, knocking him off the ring apron and through the announce table, and pummeling him on the floor.  This was such a brilliantly done angle I couldn't wait to see a lengthy Shawn vs. Owen feud.  Sadly what I got was one match on RAW before Owen was moved onto a midcard feud with Hunter.  I still think the WWF dropped the ball on this, as the heat between them after Survivor Series could've been nuclear.  Owen should've been Shawn's challenger at the Royal Rumble, and then moved down the card a bit.  Regardless they should've given Owen at least a brief main event run at some point.

WCW's big climactic PPV of 1997 was Starrcade, where Hulk Hogan would finally defend the WCW Title against Sting.  They held off having Sting (now repackaged as The Crow) wrestle for an entire year so his eventual match with Hogan would be huge.  And it was big deal when it finally happened.  Unfortunately when they booked it they forgot basic storytelling, which dictated that Sting should be the guy who finally brings down the nWo.  After a year and a half of total dominance, the "franchise player" of WCW should've finally vanquished the invading villains.  But egos of course got in the way and the whole thing fell apart and if anything, made Sting look weak.  Crooked referee Nick Patrick was supposed to fast-count Sting down and award the match to Hogan, prompting Bret Hart (licensed as a WCW referee from an earlier match) to run out and restart the bout, eventually declaring Sting the winner.  As it turned out, everyone looked like idiots when Nick Patrick either forgot or was told not to fast-count the pin on Sting.  First off, how do you not have the returning hero beat the villain clean here?  It's the big payoff to 18 months of angles, the good guy is supposed to win decisively.  Second, how do you debut Bret Hart of all people as a guest referee and then make him look like a clown when he disputes what was supposed to be a fast count but in fact was not?  So in the end, the heel Hogan pins the babyface Sting clean, then the babyface referee Bret runs out and restarts the match.  Is there any wonder WCW's ratings dominance was about to crumble?

Possibly the most disappointing big match of all time.

1997 closed with all signs pointing to the WrestleMania clash I had hoped for earlier that year - WWF Champion Shawn Michaels vs. the newly focused Steve Austin, who forfeited the I-C Title for the second time saying he was only concerned about the WWF World Title.  While I was upset about Bret shipping down to Atlanta, I was excited about Austin finally getting his run and all the young, rising talent who would have a chance to shine.

Part 13                                                                                                                                           

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