August 2013 COTM - Requesting Flyby #46: Lessons From The New Generation
Oct 20, 2013 - 1:41:05 PM
Requesting Flyby #46
Lessons From The New Generation
Here at Flyby Towers, your friendly neighbourhood Maverick has been taking a well-deserved rest, recharging his batteries after reviewing thirty three New Generation pay-per-view main events in thirty three days back in August and early September. This was a project that I took on in the afterglow of watching through the two discs of the ‘Best of In Your House’ Blu-Ray set, a release which blew me away, both in terms of match quality and use of available talent. In watching thirty three headlining bouts (from King of the Ring 1993 to Wrestlemania XIII) and their accompanying angles play out, I had confirmed for me the suspicion I’d held all along; the wrestling that took place between 1993 and 1997 is unfairly maligned and deserves a great deal more attention than it’s given.
So why would a period of time containing some superb angles, fantastic storytelling and a fair few in-ring masterpieces acquire such negative connotations? The answer is all in the context. In 1993, the wrestling boom of the mid to late 80s was well and truly at an end. Vince McMahon, architect of the WWF’s rise to the top of mainstream entertainment, was embroiled in legal troubles over the steroids his muscle bound favourites had been taking to build the chiseled bodies he had demanded of most of his employees ever since he bought the company from his father, Vince Sr. His own top star, Hulk Hogan, was a witness in the trial, leading to the Hulkster’s eventual transfer to the WWF’s main competition, the Ted Turner backed WCW. Add in the creeping exposition of kayfabe, with wrestlers appearing on chat shows constantly besieged by questions on wrestling’s legitimacy, as well as several sex scandals, and there was something of a crisis brewing in Connecticut.
The company’s answer to this was the launch of a new marketing strategy, with an emphasis on a “New Generation” of WWF superstars, young, hungry guys looking to take the place of the “dinosaurs” of the previous era. Many of these men had been junior hands during the boom period, part of the tag division or the midcard, such as Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels. Others were lower card hands from WCW who had jumped ship, frustrated by the lack of opportunity down in Atlanta, among them Kevin ‘Diesel’ Nash, Scott ‘Razor Ramon’ Hall and Steve ‘Austin’ Williams, originally given the Ringmaster gimmick, but later repackaged as Stone Cold Steve Austin. These men, along with special attractions Yokozuna and The Undertaker, formed an interesting top echelon of the roster, but any optimism over this picture was countered and undermined by the continual invention of cartoonish gimmicks which, in the harsh light of the 1990s, seemed ridiculous and had no chance of getting over. Some of the more infamous examples are The Goon, an exiled ice hockey player, and Duke ‘The Dumpster’ Droese, a wrestling refuse collector. The 1993, 1994, 1995 and 1996 Royal Rumbles are notable for exposing the paper thin roster of that time period, with the depth of the Rock ‘N’ Wrestling cards a distant memory.
Then, as I know you’re all very much aware, WCW countered the WWF’s innovation of a prime time cable television show with the creation of Nitro, putting it head to head with Raw from September 1995. The success of Nitro caused serious financial headaches to Vince and co. particularly after Kevin Nash and Scott Hall had been stolen away and booked in a white hot “Outsiders” angle. The version of events that has become more or less canon from this point is that WWF was forced to gradually adapt its programming to a more adult style (what later became Attitude), leaving behind the “blandness” of the New Generation and eventually vanquishing their hated rival in the Monday Night Wars as WCW consumed itself from within. Any kind of “official” WWE publication will now tell the story this way, and even a great many websites, magazines and books not published from Stamford will also express this view. However, although the New Generation assuredly began as an overly safe, family friendly package, due in large part to the heat Vince McMahon felt after the Senate hearings on steroid abuse, by late 1995, I don’t think it would be fair to call the action safe or bland in any way. Watching the matches over that period, you gradually begin to see a certain edge trickle in, almost imperceptibly at first, but flooding through huge cracks in the dam of family friendly programming by late ’96. As my main man ‘Plan and I have discussed on LOPRadio on several occasions, there’s plenty of in-your-face action to find in the mid-90s. More on that later in this column.
Perhaps it’s understandable that the modern day monolith that is WWE have been hesitant in discussing this period in their history though. They came close to being run out of business by the upstart Executive Vice President of WCW programming, Eric Bischoff, after all. Admitting past weakness or crisis is not something that comes easily to Vince McMahon, and the fact is that one star of the era, Bret Hart, was openly at war with the company until the mid-2000s, another, Shawn Michaels, was a drugged up embarrassment from his retirement in 1998 until his “rebirth” some time in 2001, and the likes of Hall, Nash and Waltman all jumped to the competition. The company’s discussion of Michaels’ legacy, in particular, tends to emphasise the CV he put together from 2002 to 2010 rather than the stellar work he did during his first career. To a young fan today exploring the company history, the mid-90s period would seem like something to be avoided, an aberration in the otherwise dominant history of VKM’s company. This is an issue that I feel needs addressing, because now we’re free of the restrictions of thinking about “money” and “draws” we can just watch the matches, watch the angles, and enjoy them.
So, enough preamble. The title of this column tells you that examining this era closely taught me a few things. So, without further ado, here they are.
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1) Attitude happened gradually
As I mentioned above, WWE love to peddle a version of history where historical eras begin and end with single momentous events; witness the “end of an era” nonsense with ‘Taker, Trips and Michaels at Wrestlemania 28 for evidence, as well as any of the hype packages for the “big four” pay-per-views. In truth, a series of relatively small steps tend to build over time to change the prevailing climate, and this is what we’ll look at here. Reviewing high profile matches and referencing the angles that accompanied them, I began to think about a definitive timeline of events that made Attitude “happen” so to speak:
January 22, 1995: At the Royal Rumble, the WWF title match between Diesel and Bret Hart ends in a draw after interference from multiple midcarders. Seeking vengeance, a furious Hitman takes out both Bob Backlund and Owen Hart on their way out to the Rumble match. This marked one of the first occasions in which a babyface would interfere in a heel’s business as revenge for that villain’s earlier actions, a trope that would be used again and again in the rise of Stone Cold, and later, The Rock. It was also a first glimpse at a grittier character for the Excellence of Execution, one that would serve him well over the next couple of years.
September 24, 1995: Kevin ‘Diesel’ Nash and Shawn Michaels team together at In Your House: Triple Header under the name “The Two Dudes With Attitude”, employing some of the slightly goofy, slightly frat boy schtick that would later become an integral part of both Degeneration X and The Outsiders. Just a couple of months before, Michaels and Nash can be seen throwing the Kliq hand gesture with Scot ‘Razor Ramon’ Hall in Nash’s Lumberjack Match against Sycho Sid. This kind of “cool” camaraderie between top faces would be something that became a leitmotif of the late 90s and early 2000s. Meanwhile, all three of the performers I mentioned would have a huge role to play in making wrestling an edgier industry.
November 19, 1995: Bret Hart takes the first Spanish Announce Table bump in company history in his successful title challenge against Diesel. Today, it may seem rather tame, but it is impossible to underestimate the influence it would ultimately have. How ironic too that it was once again the Pink and Black Attack, the man who professed to hate everything Attitude stood for, who innovated what my main man ‘Plan calls “WWE’s very own colloquialism.”
December 17, 1995: At a time when blading was banned within the company, The Hitman defies company orders by juicing up spectacularly in his title defence against The British Bulldog. Bret’s crimson mask in this epic bout added a huge amount of drama and intrigue to a minor pay-per-view. Within a couple of years, you’d be hard pushed to find WWF main events without blood.
April 28, 1996: In a No Holds Barred main event, Shawn Michaels uses the false leg of Maurice ‘Mad Dog’ Vachon to help him defeat the departing Kevin Nash. The use of a controversial foreign object, as well as the smashmouth nature of the brawl itself, certainly helped Attitude’s arrival on the wrestling scene.
May 19, 1996: The controversial “curtain call” incident occurs at Madison Square Garden, as Nash and Hall’s last live event with the company ends with their real life friends, Shawn Michaels and Triple H, coming down to ringside to embrace and salute the crowd. This was a major breach of kayfabe as both Helmsley and Nash were playing heels at the time, while Michaels and Hall were faces. This was the first major “fourth wall” moment in company history, and it would later be exploited as part of Degeneration X’s “disrespect” of the business.
June 23, 1996: Steve Austin, no longer encumbered by a terrible “Ringmaster” gimmick, wins the King of the Ring tournament as Stone Cold, uttering the infamous line which would go onto be Attitude’s defining catchphrase “Austin 3:16 says I just whooped your ass!” Signs, T-Shirts, mugs, you name it, Austin 3:16 was as ubiquitous as Coca Cola through the late 90s.
November 17, 1996: A screwy finish to the Michaels vs. Sid main event involved ref bumps, television cameras and an assault on the elderly Jose Lothario that recalled Clubber Lang’s on Mickey from Rocky 3 predicted the key Attitude trait of having main events end with as many complications as possible.
January 19, 1997: ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin wins the Royal Rumble after his elimination was undetected by the officials at ringside. This showcased the increasing trend within the company to use kayfabe controversy in order to drive storylines forwards. We can see the influence of this trend to this day, with the Daniel Bryan/Scott Armstrong “fast count” from Night of Champions 2013.
February 16, 1997: The ‘Final Four’ main event involving Vader, Bret Hart, Steve Austin and The Undertaker is a bloody, brutal brawl which cements the action packed main event style which would dominate for the next five years and arguably for even longer than that.
February 24, 1997: ECW “invades” Raw, with wrestlers from the Philly based promotion working matches and appearing in angles in one of the better cross promotions in wrestling history. The style of action in Heyman’s company would increasingly seep into the mainstream as the late 90s progressed.
March 23, 1997: A rare double turn takes place when Bret Hart, after years on end as the company’s go-to babyface, refuses to let go of the Sharpshooter after winning a brutal submission match against Stone Cold. Hart’s turn is cemented by an anti-American diatribe the next night on Raw, a segment which ends with a ring post figure four on an “injured” Shawn Michaels.
October 5, 1997: The very first Hell In A Cell match takes place at Badd Blood between The Undertaker and Shawn Michaels. This gimmick match would become a staple of the Attitude Era, with PPV classics involving Mick Foley, The Undertaker and Triple H helping the WWF to first reel in and then conquer WCW.
November 9, 1997: The infamous Montreal Screwjob takes place at Survivor Series. Although Vince’s transition to an on-screen “evil boss” is not instant, and actually takes some time to come to pass, once the character is in place, it defines the entire Attitude Era. In the interest of fairness.
March 29, 1998: The self-proclaimed “baddest man on the planet”, Mike Tyson, is the special referee for the WWF title match between Shawn Michaels and Steve Austin. The Rattlesnake’s victory initiates the Attitude Era as we know it, bringing wrestling well and truly back to the centre of popular culture for the next five or six years.
2) Sid Eudy is better than he's given credit for
Poor old Sid is never going to be considered a mat technician of the Dean Malenko variety, but you know what? He’s seven feet tall, he yells gibberish at the camera and he drops people on their head. There will always be room for that kind of thing in professional wrestling. Moreover, his weakness as a worker has been exaggerated, at least to an extent. When I first got to Sid matches in my daily series, I groaned internally and opened my laptop grimly, like a warrior marching to battle to do their duty. And the matches with Diesel sucked. But later on, against better workers, Sid would show me that he could work.
It’s a fact that Sid was insanely over during his feud with Shawn Michaels, literally oozing charisma as he strode down the ramp in his leather waistcoat, eyes bulging, his ear piercing music a tribute to Jim Johnston’s gift for presenting a superstar’s gimmick through audio. As he stepped into the ring “SID” was etched across the darkness in angular pyro and he would survey the crowd commandingly. It was such a badass entrance. In some ways, Sid anticipates the modern trend of “cool heels” getting cheered at the expense of an “overexposed” babyface. His two matches with HBK are excellent, compelling main events with a great story unfolding in both of them. The match with Bret Hart is full of great psychology from beginning to end, and is a part of one of my favourite Roads to Wrestlemania. Even his much sneered at closing bout with The Undertaker from Wrestlemania XIII deserves another look. It is very much a special attraction match, but it’s quite a spectacle, with an old school vibe that I really appreciate. At the very least, make sure you check out the headlining bouts from Survivor Series 1996, In Your House: It’s Time, and Royal Rumble 1997. All three are very underrated.
3) Lame special attraction matches are nothing new
If I had one major criticism to make of the New Gen it would be that there are some horrible main events that bump good title matches down the card. In 1994, we have the “joy” of seeing a past his best Roddy Piper against a camp Jerry Lawler; this match very much feels like a match taking place out of its time. If you took placed this bout on any card from, say, ’82 to ’89, it would fit like a glove, but even in the context of the date the contest actually took place, it feels like a nostalgia act, and the years have not been all that kind to it. It’s definitely the kind of match best left in the 1980s, and I really don’t recommend seeing it.
Then, one pay-per-view later, The Undertaker wrestles, um, The Undertaker. Has any performer in WWF/E history had more bad angles thrown at him over the years than ‘Taker? To write him out of the storylines due to a legitimate injury, the Phenom was placed in a casket by the entire heel roster at Royal Rumble 1994, after which the his “spirit” (actually Marty Janetty in a harness) rose to the ceiling. The Deadman’s return was presaged by the usual spooky vignettes where various people claimed to have seen him. Meanwhile, Ted DiBase claimed to have found The Undertaker and brought him back to television. Paul Bearer claimed to have the “real” ‘Taker and so a match was set up to determine the real Deadman. It pained me just to type that. The angle was a dreadful idea in every conceivable way. The Undertaker has always been a special attraction wrestler, and he has of course excelled in that role for more than twenty years, but at certain points in his tenure, the WWF mistook “special attraction” for “daft hokey sideshow” and this is probably the worst example.
By 1995, we have a football player headlining Wrestlemania; Vince McMahon’s concept for Wrestlemania was always a marriage of mainstream entertainment and professional wrestling, using huge names like Mr T, Cyndi Lauper, Bob Uecker and Donald Trump in the early days of the event in order to boost public interest and garner PPV buys. With interest in the wrestling business on the wane by the mid-90s, Vince once again went back to the celebrity well for Wrestlemania XI, with the surgically enhanced chests of Jenny McCarthy and Pamela Anderson playing a prominent role in the title match between Diesel and Shawn Michaels, and with retired New York Giants football player Lawrence Taylor wrestling in the main event against Bam Bam Bigelow. For a man with no wrestling experience at all, Taylor does well, but good lord, the headline match of Wrestlemania being a midcarder against a retired NFL star? That just seems so very strange. I can’t imagine that will ever happen again.
4) Two of the best main events in company history are sadly neglected
The main event of In Your House: Seasons Beatings, a minor Yuletide pay-per-view saw brothers-in-law Bret Hart and Davey Boy Smith lock horns in a rematch from their celebrated encounter at Summerslam 1992. That night, the historic nature of the evening- a first major pay-per-view in England headlined by a proud Englishman- ensured that it would always be remembered; the fact that it was also a mat classic thanks to the ring-generalship of the Hitman was in some ways just the icing on the cake. Fast forward three years and we find that Davey is a far more rounded and mobile performer, that Bret is a bona-fide legend and that they are capable of tapping into a far darker vein of storytelling than the all babyface feel-good moment from Wembley. The headline contest of Seasons Beatings is a brutal, bloody affair which pulls no punches. It feels like it takes something out of you when you watch it. In many ways, viewed objectively, it’s a better match. It’s essentially the Over The Limit 2012 CM Punk vs. Daniel Bryan match with the addition of an epic juice job, and I imagine that years down the line, the Straight Edge Superstar’s war with the American Bandwagon will be similarly neglected, more’s the pity.
Another contender in the lost classics stakes is the Final Four match I mentioned in my “Countdown to Attitude” from February 1997, featuring Vader, The Undertaker, Steve Austin and Bret Hart. with the first main event that’s recognisably an Attitude match; if you were to take this contest and place it in the middle of 1999 it would fit seamlessly. More boldly, I might venture to suggest that this was the bout which alerted the WWF brass to how well this kind of bloody, chaotic brawl could go over with the audience, and how this “edgier” product was something well worth pursuing. It is, to my knowledge, the first prominent four corners match in WWF/E history. How strange that in the few years that followed there would be so many multi-man matches, culminating in the creation of such gimmicks as Elimination Chamber and Money In The Bank in the early Brand Extension era. A four way also closed out Wrestlemania only three years after this. The fact that this one is so fantastic goes a long way to explaining that, and it’s also a perfect example of using a gimmick to advance the story rather than vice versa, a common problem today. With Austin cheating to win the Rumble despite having been eliminated, and with Shawn Michaels’ forfeiture of the gold, the final four of the reverse battle royal were booked in a match where pinfall, submission or going over the top rope would cause elimination, with no DQs or count outs. The last man standing would be champion, facing Sycho Sid the next evening on Raw for the title they’d only just attained. You have to applaud the way they were able to change plans on the fly when HBK dropped his bombshell; I’m not so confident they would cover for it so well if that were to happen today.
5) Title reigns were booked well a lot more consistently
I really appreciate the way that the WWF title was booked during the New Generation era. Looking back at Diesel, Bret and Shawn’s runs with the belt, there was this brilliantly legitimate “challenger du jour feel” to events, with valid and convincing storylines built for all title challenges. To an extent, Alberto Del Rio’s current run with the big gold belt has been bringing back that trope; we can only hope that lovely run of “workrate title bouts” continues into the new year.
Let’s examine the Heartbreak Kid’s 1996 reign closely as the example, seeing as that’s my favourite (by the way, it truly does beggar belief that Michaels didn’t draw with that run. What was wrong with wrestling fans?). Upon winning the belt from Bret Hart in the Ironman at Wrestlemania XII, Shawn went into a programme with heel Diesel, a programme which brought up all of their storied past in the company. Victorious, and with Nash exiting stage right to WCW, the Showstopper went on to have two excellent matches with Davey Boy Smith, with the first ending in a draw in order to facilitate a rematch. Michaels’ antipathy towards the stable Bulldog belonged to, Camp Cornette, led to a tag team main event at International Incident which helped established a rivalry with Vader, taking the company into Summerslam. Of course, the Vader feud was infamously kyboshed by HBK after a heinous temper tantrum elicited by the Mastodon being out of place for an elbow drop, but the company was able to stick a band-aid on the situation in the form of Sid, who took the strap from Shawn in controversial circumstances, setting up the blockbuster Road to Wrestlemania I mentioned earlier in this piece.
It would certainly be nice to see this sort of booking become a regular happening again. You can definitely see it with Del Rio, it’s beginning to be evident with Curtis Axel, and the “abeyance” situation with Orton and Bryan also borrows a little from the inconclusive feud extending finishes of the past. Fingers crossed eh?
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So there we have it dear reader, the five things I learnt from doing nothing but watch New Generation matches. It was certainly an incredibly interesting exercise to go back in time and examine things afresh, and I’m planning to do the same thing with the Attitude Era some time in the future. For now though, that’s enough of the past; I’ll be back writing about the present for a bit now. Be sure to check into the Columns Forum and keep up with the work I and others are doing.
You can follow me on Twitter: @Neil_Pollock79
You can also listen to The Right Side of the Pond on LOPRadio. As one of LOP’s resident Brits, I’m on every week helping ‘Plan count down his 101 WWE Matches To See Before You Die, also fulfilling a range of other duties, including making a lot of erroneous match predictions on our cluster-you-know-what PPV preview roundtables.
You can follow The Right Side of the Pond on Twitter too: @TRSOTP
But until then...
THIS IS MAVERICK, REQUESTING FLYBY.