‘Sup, Lords of Pain? Well here we are with the last big stop on the Road to WrestleMania upon us. I am very excited for Elimination Chamber. I think it could go down as a Feburary classic and I am expecting shenanigans aplenty. I am also really looking forward to Raw. I generally don’t go out of my way to avoid Raw spoilers before I get to watch it after work on Mondays but I will do this week. I get the feeling that there could be a few absolutely huge moments as the WWE will want to make the day the network launched go down in history for on screen reasons as well as business ones. But EC and Raw are sure to generate plenty of column inches in the next few days on Lords of Pain. Now however it is time for your weekly dose of...
ATTITUDE! Ground Zero (CPR Productions)
By Maz & Mav
Feb 20, 2014 - 6:36:23 AM
Maverick: Here we are again Maz, at the sharp end of 1997 with another key event to review. The momentum from Summerslam was strong and the ‘Taker/Shawn “accidental” chair shot angle was taking off, while the Canada vs. United States vibe was kept running in the title scene. Just as in the present day, the autumn of 1997 was congested with pay-per-views, and those events would essentially count us down to one of the most earth shattering moments in wrestling history. Tick tock, tick tock.
Mazza: We have certainly hit a period where events that would shape pro-wrestling history will be taking place on a monthly period. Business was definitely picking up and Ground Zero would see the In Your House format add an extra hour to proceedings. Would that give us an hour more quality entertainment or just drag the format down? Let’s not hang about to find out.
The Event: Ground Zero: In Your House
The Date: 7 September 1997
The Place: Louisville Gardens, Louisville, Kentucky
BACKGROUND AND BOOKING
After the superb main event of Summerslam, Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels shook hands backstage, an incredible turn of events given how things had stood just weeks earlier. Bret notes in his book that ultimately, he believes that Vince was most to blame for their problems, describing the boss as being like a boy with his wrestling dolls, setting them against each other and reaping the rewards. Bret moved on in the storylines to defend his newly won strap against champion of American values The Patriot, who had debuted in July and had already beaten the Hitman (albeit with an assist from HBK) in the build to Summerslam. The man behind the gimmick was Del Wilkes, whose most significant work had been in Japan, where he’d held the AJPW All Asia Tag Team Championship. Wilkes was a good worker, but had not been in America long enough to get over as a legitimate threat to a legend like The Hitman, and thus some of the heat was lost from the Border Wars storyline, even though baby brother Owen had inadvertently kept some of it going with his botch of a piledriver.
With the Border Wars on the simmer rather than the boil, the build to the pay-per-view focused on the other two titans of the New Gen, Shawn Michaels and The Undertaker. In the aftermath of the chair shot heard around the world, HBK claimed that it was an accident, which was indeed how it came off on the night. However, the Deadman harboured his doubts and eventually the ugly tension was released by Michaels unleashing a veritable tempest of chair shots on The Phenom during a tag contest in which they had been booked as partners. With blood streaming down his head, ‘Taker showed no signs of going down for the count, and Shawn ultimately fled, thus reverting back to the cowardly heel he had last been back in 1995, only this time, he had back up. Yes, that’s right, August and September 1997 laid the groundwork for the faction we’d come to know as Degeneration X, with Rick Rude, Hunter Hearst Helmsley and Chyna helping the Heartbreak Kid on several occasions through the build to Ground Zero; you may have played through the Michaels and Helmsley vs. Mankind and Undertaker tag match from the August 25 1997 Raw in WWE13’s Attitude Era campaign mode! With the Deadman getting the worst of things in the run up to the event, you had to believe, based on wrestling logic, that payback was coming Shawn’s way.
Elsewhere, the event was more humdrum in character, as I suppose one would expect from an IYH of the time. Going into Summerslam, Dude Love and Stone Cold Steve Austin had been the tag team champions, but Austin’s broken neck meant that he couldn’t compete and so the reality of his medical status was intertwined with kayfabe and a vacation ceremony was booked for the pay-per-view. Competing for the belts Foley and the Rattlesnake were about to give up would be The Headbangers and The Godwinns (both of whom you may remember competing in the Fatal Four Way opener from Wrestlemania XIII) alongside the always-over Legion of Doom and trusty Hart Foundation workhorses Owen and Davey. Another Hart Foundation member, Brian Pillman, was still entangled with Goldust and things had gotten personal from a kayfabe point of view. In an early stab at breaking the fourth wall, the story had Pillman claim fatherhood of Dustin’s daughter Dakota. After a heated build, the stipulation demanded that the Loose Cannon leave if he lost, but if he won, Marlena would be his for thirty days. Plenty more of that sort of thing to come as the era wears on…
The final two matches on the undercard both looked underwhelming; whereas Canadian Stampede had featured the very best of cruiserweight wrestling with an all Japanese clash, Ground Zero unfortunately featured a young and green Brian Christophers taking on Scott Putski in an all second-generation bout that literally nobody cared about. Meanwhile, Vince had decided to go ahead with featuring the minis again after a gap of some years (see Wrestlemania III for the last prominent use of midget wrestlers) and had booked El Torito (not to be confused with the current guy under that gimmick) against Max Mini (the Rey Mysterio of the little guys).
So, it’s about time to dive into the undercard with Maz and see how all this holds up to modern day scrutiny...
We start out with a video package voiced by Vince on the events at SummerSlam and aftermath regarding Shawn turning heel and the build to the main event.
Brian Pillman defeated Goldust (With Marlena) in 11:06
The curtain jerker has become extremely personal battle with Pillman claiming he was the father of Marlena and Goldust’s daughter. This kind of edgy storyline would become a hallmark of Attitude and it didn’t stop there. At SummerSlam The Loose Cannon’s defeat meant he had to wear a dress, but this time both sides had to deal with a stip. If Goldust won, his torment would be over with Pillman having to leave the company but if he lost, Marlena would have to stay with his arch nemesis for 30 days. With such high stakes it is not a surprise to see Dustin attack before Pillman hits the ring. The crowd are hot for the feud as the early action goes back and forth. We are soon on the outside again and Goldust hits a suplex on the ramp. Back in the ring and there is a clear pro-Pillman section of the crowd (which is a little odd even for smarks based on the story). The Loose Cannon works over his opponent but Goldie hits back with an electric chair drop. Pillman then gets crotched on the top rope and thrown into the barrier before getting a slap from Marlena. Plenty of Attitude favourites going on in this match and a ref bump soon adds to things. Goldust hits a Curtain Call before checking on the ref. In the meantime Pillman gets up and despite Marlena trying to distract him, he manages to snatch her handbag. He nails Goldust with it and picks up the victory. Pillman quickly forces Marlena to the back before her husband comes to. This was thoroughly intriguing despite the action not quite living up to the feud. Pillman never managed to fulfill his in-ring potential in the WWE despite some great character work and storytelling. Still an enjoyable opener all in all but I can’t help but wonder just how good this would have been had it not been for his severe ankle injury just before he joined the company.
ATTITUDE! Rating: ***
After the match Lawler goes to get Marlena’s handbag and it has a brick in it. We cut to backstage where Pillman throws Marlena into a waiting car and speeds off just before Goldust arrives. Dustin is then seeing throwing stuff around backstage in frustration.
Brian Christopher defeated Scott Putski in 4:45
Next up the WWF try their hand at some more light-heavyweight action but this time focus closer to home as opposed to the Land of the Rising Sun. Scott Putski looks like a miniature brunette Lex Luger. Brian Christopher comes out in something very similar to what would become his Grandmaster Sexay gimmick down the line. He gets good heat from the crowd who are wise to the fact that he is The King’s son. Lawler, of course, refutes suggestions despite the apple clearly falling not very far from the tree. The smark element in the Louisville crowd are pretty vocal again in reacting to Christopher who shows off a few good moves in the early going. He then throws Putski to the outside and you can tell something is up. The youngster can hardly move as Christopher looks lost in finding a good way to stall. The ref calls the match off and Lawler comes off commentary to help his son out. He heels it up by throwing a few poor jokes in Putski’s direction. We see a close up of the knee which is clearly dislocated and Putski is stretchered to the back, career essentially over and done with. There was certainly some promise before this was cut short. Christopher had the heat, even if a lot of it was his dad’s, and Putski certainly looked the part. It’s just a shame we’d never get to know if he had the tools to build on it or not.
ATTITUDE! Rating: *½
Savio Vega defeated Crush and Faarooq in 11:37 in a triple threat match
Here we see the continuation of the Gang Warfare storyline as the faction leaders and original Nation of Domination members go at it in a triple threat. It’s interesting to note that triple threats were such a rare occurrence back then that they felt the need to show the rules before the match starts. Crush is definitely the fan favourite of the three which I will put down to the biker gimmick. We get an immediate brawl and a fragile alliance between Faarooq and Savio which is broken up predictably with the first attempt at a pinfall. The NoD leader is soon back to beating his former stablemates with a belt like they’re his kids. The match settles down into a lot of your typical triple threat routines but to be fair, I guess they would have been fresh at the time. The one rests-two fight period does end with a nice little sequence that sees them all punching each other. It wouldn’t be a 1997 PPV without Crush reaching for his chinlock of doom, this time on Vega but fortunately the threeway means Faarooq can break it up rather quickly. The DoA leader then hits his former boss with the second electric chair drop of the night (a move I love and is a must for all my CAWs). They are soon working together however for the second uneasy alliance combination of the match which comes to an end as they both go for a cover at the same time. It is not long before we get the final combination as Crush and Vega work over their former leader and nail a spike piledriver. They are soon out for themselves again and a heart punch to Faarooq from Crush looks like it will get the win before Savio sneaks in to hit the DoA leader with a spinning heel kick to get the win. This was a fun little match for what it was and kept the Gang Warfare storyline ticking along.
ATTITUDE! Rating: **½
Max Mini defeated El Torito in 9:21
I can almost picture Vince McMahon’s face whilst pitching the minis and it is interesting that he is at the booth whilst this is happening. It’s also interesting that WWF seems to be throwing a lot of things at the wall during this period of the Monday Night Wars to see if anything gets over. We seem to have the exact same conversation we have had about the current version of El Torito on commentary, who looks more like a cruiserweight next to his opponent. Max Mini is promoted as the world’s smallest athlete at 86 pounds. The funny thing is this plays out almost exactly like a standard Rey Mysterio match. Max is clearly an underdog size wise and he has a lot of exciting high flying offence. Torito’s relative size makes him a monster heel and to be fair, the action is exciting for the most part and the story the wrestlers tell is a good one. The problem here is the presentation. The announce team (including JR) seem to be on a mission to throw in as many height jokes as possible (I am sure you will struggle to believe Lawler would go there!). We also get a break in the good action to have Max Mini biting his opponent and the ref before jumping on The King and stealing his crown. This is pretty much the only part that draws a reaction from the crowd as we get our second “Jerry’s kid” chant of the night. The match ends how it starts with some impressive moves and Max eventually picking up the win with a sunset flip. A hard match to rate in all honesty but credit to the talent who definitely had some skills.
ATTITUDE! Rating: *¾
A recap of the aftermath of Austin’s neck injury follows before we get going with an in-ring segment. Commissioner Slaughter is in the ring with Jim Ross and says it was a hard decision to strip Stone Cold and Dude Love of the tag belts but he had to do it.. Foley comes down and gives up his belt. He says he could have defended the titles by himself but wouldn’t because Austin was the reason he won it. Stone Cold comes out and flips JR off before getting up in Sarge’s face. He takes a shot at Vince before throwing the title in front of Slaughter and telling him to “drop and give me 20”. He orders Sarge to pick up the belt and says Slaughter, Ross and the whole WWF makes him sick. Austin calls JR a fat ass and while Ross tries to play the politician he gets hit with a Stunner. Chaos follows and Slaughter and a bunch of refs get in the ring whilst McMahon debates getting involved too. Stone Cold flips the Commissioner off and a huge Slaughter sucks chant starts up. Under normal circumstances this would have no place on a PPV but when your hottest commodity is injured, you need to try and milk it any way you can. The crowd were certainly into it.
We then cut to backstage with Bulldog and Owen. Hart says Stone Cold’s actions were disgusting and the US fans are too. He says Austin should go to jail and that he should be given the Intercontinental Championship back. Good promo work from Owen but Davey struggles through saying that JR didn't deserve that even if he is from Oklahoma. We go back to ringside where McMahon is pissed, almost giving away his position in a nice bit of blurring of lines.
The Headbangers defeated The Legion of Doom, The Godwinns and Owen Hart & The British Bulldog in 17:15 in a Four Team Elimination Match to win the Tag Team Championship
We have a horrible backstage interview with the Headbangers (who were put into the match with the champs unable to compete) whilst the Godwinns have their own pre-match spot and say that Austin was smart to back out. LOD also have an interview with Michael Cole. They say it has been six years since they had the tag titles before they shout incomprehensibly about buckets. They get a huge pop from the crowd to counteract the heat for Davey and Owen. We get another rundown of the match rules before we pick up where Mania left off with the Headbangers and Godwinns. It’s a dull opening until business picks up when Animal gets tagged in. The action slows once more however as the Hart Foundation representatives seem disinterested in getting involved. Hawk eventually brings Davey in with a slap which automatically ups the quality for a while although it doesn’t last for long. We soon have the Godwinns and the Road Warriors continuing their rivalry. Henry and Phineas go for the bucket but are intercepted and LOD use it to beat the pig crap out of them, causing a disqualification. With the most over team gone and the Foundation taking a lazy day, we are down to the Godwinns and the Headbangers again. It’s a mess but eventually the Bangers eliminate the pig farmers thanks to an assisted sunset flip. Owen jumps in quickly as we are down to two teams. The crowd chant “USA” but the action is horrible, even with two of the greatest tag wrestlers of all time in there. Eventually Steve Austin comes out to save the day to a huge pop. He hits a Stunner on Owen allowing the Headbangers to pick up the victory and the straps. This was a horrible match that really messed up the division. I can see what the WWE were trying to do here but it really fell flat. The company seemed very hot on the Headbangers (since Mania) but they would have surely been better served to pop the straps on LOD here who were ridiculously over. Having Davey and Owen play the apron until the sharp end was good psychology but meant we had to deal with horrible in-ring work.
ATTITUDE! Rating: *½
The Headbangers celebrate at the concession stand for no apparent reason. We then cut to JR backstage with Sarge, who apologises. Ross is pissed and unleashes a hilarious potty mouth rant in Vince’s direction.
Bret Hart defeated The Patriot in 19:20 to retain the WWF Championship
Before the WWF title match gets underway we have a rather interesting video package which tries to cover over the cracks left by a pretty much unknown wrestler getting a title shot. It does as good a job as it can as we find out about Del Wilkes. After a couple of interviews, Wilkes comes out to what would become Kurt Angle’s music. We have a lengthy feeling out process in the early goings with Bret working well within the gimmick. Once they have eased in the action kicks up a gear as Hart methodically works the leg. Davey Boy comes down to ringside to play the cheerleader role just as The Patriot makes a mini-comeback to a good reaction. The Bulldog gets involved which almost gifts Bret victory with a roll up and he makes his presence felt once more, breaking up a pinfall following the ridiculously named Uncle Slam! The Patriot goes after Smith but Vader comes down to level the playing field, throwing Hart into the steps before being ejected. Bret fishes for the DQ victory but the ref tells him to fight on. The crowd pick up a bit and Wilkes takes control. He manages a few near falls before we get a ref bump. He then hits the Uncle Slam again but can only manage another two as the ref is slow to count the fall. The Patriot then goes for a Sharpshooter but Hart counters into one of his own. The crowd shout “USA” once more but the submission comes. The Hitman signals for the crowd to kiss his ass before he continues the beatdown on Wilkes. He chokes him with the Stars and Stripes as he really pushes the anti-America gimmick to the max. There are two ways at looking at this match. On one hand it was a very strong encounter in a filler feud with a relative unknown. From that position you can’t really fault it. On the other hand, you just wonder how good it could have been with someone a bit higher profile in there. If we had Vader instead of Wilkes we may have been looking at a potential five star classic. Still, “if ifs and ands” and all that.
ATTITUDE! Rating: ***½
Michael Cole interviews Bret post match and he calls all Americans losers, mentioning Taker, Austin, Michaels and the Patriot. He also says that the UK respects great wrestlers as he prepares himself for a hero’s welcome on the upcoming European tour. But before we head to a huge night in Birmingham, Mav has the small matter of a main event to look at...
THE MAIN EVENT
Shawn Michaels and The Undertaker fought to a no contest in 16:20
Bizarrely this was the first time Michaels and The Undertaker had ever met mano a mano in the ring, and bear in mind that this was two of the company’s top stars, so this was a huge bout in that sense. Actually, it’s fairly easy to explain in the sense that the Deadman had usually been on special attraction duty with assorted hosses while Michaels had been the guy pursuing and then carrying the top strap. Now though, their paths were well and truly about to collide, with classic results. Chemistry is such an intangible thing in wrestling, but these two had it for sure.
This first one on one meeting, the feud opener if you will, gets heated before the bell has even rung, in keeping with a rivalry that was swiftly developing into a war; Shawn attempts to hide behind the referee who takes a massive right hand from ‘Taker so he can get to his hated enemy. The selling of the Michaels character change is all important here, as he flees his larger opponent in classic yellow-belly fashion only to get ordered back to the ring by Commissioner Slaughter, who HBK had made the mistake of alienating in the weeks prior to this event. This main event already feels very Attitude by this early point, and the Demon of Death Valley proceeds to gorilla press Michaels to the floor and then fling him into the house of the set that was an ever present prop at the IYH events. Remember, during Attitude, anything and everything could be used as a weapon! The heated nature of the bout and the pace of the beatdown, as well as the fact that Shawn is in super-bump mode, make the opening minutes of the bout truly fascinating.
Indeed, the in-ring tale that unfolds is all about Michaels being punished for his transgressions against his supernatural foe. He suffers huge haymakers, choke holds, turnbuckle bumps and a crotch of the top rope, all in the name of ‘Taker’s grisly brand of vengeance. In fact, we could see this match as the blueprint for the Undertaker/Edge feud that would follow a decade or so down the line. Needless to say, the live crowd are all for it, even popping for the exposure of Michaels’ backside when an escape from the ring is foiled by his opponent. It’s worth remembering that this was still very much the Phenom character who showed huge powers of recovery, so it’s not surprising that he sits right up from a Michaels neckbreaker, but for all of Shawn’s travails, the thought of an insurance policy is always on our minds, and indeed, it’s the entry of Ravishing Rick Rude that turns the tide; a ref bump allows brass knucks to be tossed to the Boy Toy who nails ‘Taker with them, finally gaining himself the advantage in the match at just about the half-way point.
This is reinforced further by the interference of Chyna and Hunter Hearst Helmsley, who beat down a replacement official and then start to wail on the Deadman, double irish whipping him into the steel steps. It’s classic faction booking this- the foot soldiers helping their general get the job done and in this case in brutal fashion. The ludicrous yet entertaining amount of ref bumps continues when the zebra in the ring comes to only to be rammed straight into the turnbuckle; psychologically, it’s as if Shawn no longer wants to win; he just wants to beat on the Phenom and take him out of the game, which he proceeds to try and do with chokes and well-placed knees.
Given how heated the entire bout has been, it’s difficult to imagine it growing more so, but that it does, with bombs traded in the middle of the ring and a clothesline over the top rope which leads to ‘Taker falling once again into the clutches of Hunter and Chyna, allowing Shawn to come off the top rope to the outside with customary athleticism. Back in the ring, the band is tuned up, but the Demon of Death Valley has it scouted and catches the leg to a huge pop, creating an even bigger one when he nails first his opponent with his own brass knucks, and then the Blueblood, who makes the mistake of interfering again.
The finish is glorious chaos indeed; Michaels kicks out of the knucks shot, which sends Undertaker into a rage that causes him to chokeslam the referee. A replacement official finally calls for the bell as ‘Taker battles three opponents; this post-match section is compelling, with Sweet Chin Music dished out to officials that try to stop the beat down, a fightback from ‘Taker and finally the intervention of the entire locker room that leaves the Demon of Death Valley standing tall at the end. A breathless encounter which laid the ground for the seminal Hell in a Cell match to come.
ATTITUDE! Rating: ****
When it comes to looking at Ground Zero as an event, it really is a mixed bag. We had an opener that delivered in one aspect but fell short in another. We had a couple of fillers that, in typical Attitude fashion, pushed the boundaries of decency and political correctness. We had what was probably the highlight of the Gang Warfare storyline where the gangs were nowhere to be seen. We had an awful tag team match which is unthinkable when you consider half the field are legendary tag wrestlers. You had the most over star in the company desperately slotted in any way the company could to keep his, and their heat. We had a strong title match which you just can’t help but think could have been stronger. Finally we had an intriguing cluster**** of a brawl that would be the first match between two men in a rivalry that would still be a selling point for the company fifteen years later. How do you sum Ground Zero up? I am not sure I can. I’ll let Mav, who I think enjoyed the event as a whole a little more than me, try.
Well I think for one thing, like a lot of Attitude events, it’s more than the sum of its parts. If you try and overthink it and reel off the matches as Maz just did, you’re going to come away thinking it sucked. I often find when I look up old cards on Wikipedia that I kind of gape in horror and go “Jesus, I forgot about that, what were they thinking?” and this event is certainly one where you’d be tempted just to skip to the main event, but there’s a feel to the pay-per-view that kind of transcends the underwhelming booking. Certainly, I think the Hart/Patriot match is historically underrated, one of the few clean Sharpshooter wins of Bret’s late career, and the Goldust/Pillman/Marlena triangle is kind of intriguing as well. I won’t try and defend the minis or the Brian Christophers nonsense, but you know, I found the show oddly endearing. Which is probably a pretty good way to describe a lot of the Attitude Era!
Ground Zero Overall ATTITUDE! Rating: **½
MVP - SHAWN MICHAELS
1997 had not been a vintage year for Shawn Michaels, all things considered. He had begun the year well enough, with an emotive title win in his hometown at the Royal Rumble, but following that victory, his well documented personal problems, pathological opposition to jobbing to anybody and a knee injury that may or may not have been legitimate meant that he lost a lot of momentum. Shawn didn’t make it back to in-ring competition until May ‘97, and after his tag run with Stone Cold and their match at King of the Ring, Michaels was once again injured. It was around this time that he also had his famous backstage bitch fight with Bret Hart. Meanwhile, his work on screen had taken on a notable tweener vibe, starting with his commentary on the Wrestlemania XIII main event and progressing from there. It seems that Shawn thought that professional wrestling needed to move with the times and that the old model of hero and villain wasn’t convincing any longer. Not many backstage agreed with him and many were sick of his prima donna act and his influence on Vince McMahon and Pat Patterson.
Given all of that, it was important that the Heartbreak Kid showed everybody what he could still bring to the company, and his guest referee spot on the Summerslam card came off perfectly. That he then pulled out an absolute classic in his pay-per-view return spoke volumes about the man’s talent. When I think of Shawn Michaels, it’s nights like this that I remember. Younger readers may remember the Undertaker matches from Wrestlemanias XXV and XXVI as massive highlights, but I would personally rate this match and the Hell in a Cell which is still to come ahead of both of them. Pre-back injury HBK was just an unbelievable athlete. When he came back in 2002, he was more generous, more reserved and maybe a better storyteller, but in terms of pure performance, the work he did between the late 80s and late 90s was just out of this world and incredibly influential. He broke down doors for smaller workers at the main event level, and on nights like Ground Zero, there was no-one to touch him, as he went into super-bump mode to make The Undertaker look like a serious beast. A fantastic night for HBK.
Without a doubt this was a brilliant performance. It seems that in the second half on 1997 a lot of people we now call legends of the business were undergoing character changes in the WWF. Whilst I think every single one of these (Bret, Foley, Rocky, Hunter) would be a key part of the company getting back on terms in (and eventually winning) the Monday Night Wars, Ground Zero was Shawn’s night to shine. This was the night that solidified his turn to the heel side of the goodie-baddie spectrum and put his new faction, that would very soon become DX, on the map. When HBK’s talent was focussed on doing something positive during his first run as a main eventer, it usually had excellent results and this was definitely one of those occasions.
WHAT IF KURT ANGLE HAD BEEN THE PATRIOT?
As Maz noted in his review of their match, The Patriot entered the ring to Jim Johnston’s glorious composition ‘Medal’ which would later become known indelibly as Kurt Angle’s entrance music. This got us both thinking. Kurt Angle won the gold medal for Freestyle Wrestling at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. Soon afterwards, gripped by the idea of having a legitimate American hero on the payroll, Vince McMahon offered Angle a deal, which he turned down, thinking at the time that professional wrestling would tarnish his public image. Now, we all know that Angle will be along in this series in due course, but the curious case of Del Wilkes begs this question- what if The Patriot gimmick or a variation of it had been given to Kurt Angle? Now, I know that Wilkes used that gimmick in Japan, before anybody jumps down my throat, but knowing Vince as we do, it seems likely that if Kurt had signed in ‘96, he would have got the Luger/Wilkes treatment. Given McMahon’s alarming obsession with recreating the success of Hulk Hogan’s pro-America gimmick from the ‘80s, it’s not such a stretch to imagine Angle getting a white bread character of this sort, in which case he would have most likely sunk and never gone onto the massive heights he reached. It’s quite a thought really. Not signing with WWF in 1996 might have been the smartest move Kurt could have made, as evidenced by what happened to Wilkes in the aftermath of Ground Zero...
Well I think there are two very different schools of thought that you can take for all situations like this. The first, as Mav says, is the “right place, right time” philosophy. Alternatively you have the “cream rises to the top” thought process. I think as wrestling fans we are quick to jump on whichever one suits our argument best at the time in general but it’s good to examine both sides of the coin. The character of the Patriot definitely was not one with a long shelf life in the WWF. It’s kind of ironic that Wilkes’ run was cut short by injury just before he was scheduled to be on Team USA at Survivor Series, the night where the Montreal Screwjob essentially put the America vs Rest of the World storyline to bed. He was released soon after. The question really here is whether Wilkes had the chops to take on something else outside of the gimmick he used throughout his career. WWF management didn’t seem to think so. He was just the man with the right gimmick for what the company needed at the time.
Now let’s look at Kurt Angle. Even if we take away everything we know about the man’s pro-wrestling career, he still has a foot up on poor Del from the get-go. Wilkes was painted as an American hero with the WWF trying to use absolutely every bit of footage from his past to back that up. Kurt on the other hand was an American hero. There were no gimmicks needed. Whilst the fans kind of rejected Kurt for that when he did eventually join the Fed in that Attitude contrary fashion, he wouldn’t have had that issue here. Firstly he was just one year removed from winning that gold medal at a home Olympics. A couple of years later that wouldn’t be so fresh and important in people’s minds. Secondly, the storyline meant that anyone who stood up for Team USA would automatically be cheered. Vader would be the best case in point here as he went from monster heel to patriotic hero overnight.
Something we can’t ignore is the dream match element. Angle vs Hart is an encounter that would be very high up on a lot of fantasy card makers’ “Best of” lists (it would probably be top 3 on mine along with Vader vs Lesnar and Hogan vs Austin). The problem with a lot of dream pairings is that they don’t usually live up to expectations when they happen (or when you find out they happened on an obscure show) due to the fact that one party will either be over the hill or green as goose shit. Angle would have no doubt been green here if it had gone down but when he did join the company he took to pro-wrestling like a duck to water. Would he have had a better match with Bret than a solid journeyman like Wilkes? It’s hard to say for sure but my gut tells me we would have been looking at a similar star rating. I think the difference is Kurt would have carried more of a buzz coming out of the match.
Where would that buzz have taken him though in a stacked early Attitude midcard? His eventual debut year goes down as one of the greatest in wrestling history. He managed that in another stacked midcard and then into a main event scene that boasted much of the 97 midcard talent. As a rookie he managed to rub shoulders with the likes of The Rock and Triple H in their main event stage so I see no reason he wouldn’t have been able to do the same at a midcard level. Managing to play in Austin’s league at this stage though might have been a step too far, so I would guess his rise would not have been as fast as it eventually was. Would he have remained as a face character in that post-Montreal environment? Probably for a while but I could definitely have seen his heel work kicking in at some point during 1998. I am not sure where he would have fit into the DX vs Nation dominated midcard shuffle but I think he would have been a great fit in the Corporation when that begun.
In fact, the more I think about, the more I see Kurt as fitting perfectly into Ken Shamrock’s role during this stage of Attitude. Obviously the company had high hopes for The World’s Most Dangerous Man at that point in time so he wouldn’t have just taken the spot (and would probably not have got the Ankle Lock either) but a similar path may have worked. In fact, a pairing between the two might have been fun. Whatever his path would have been however, I just can’t see Kurt fading away like Wilkes. His stature was that much higher and he became so good, so quickly in the squared circle that in this instance, I definitely find myself subscribing to the “cream rises” theory.
As with most of these ‘what if?’ scenarios, I think the truth is somewhere in the middle. When Angle finally joined the company, they were definitely looking to push him hard and fast, and we know that he adapted brilliantly, but I think that adaptation happened because of the climate he was parachuted into; a company who were winning the war with WCW and were 100% confident in what they were doing. In 1997, there was still a lot of scrabbling around and uncertainty, and I believe that Ken Shamrock’s presence as a legit shoot fighter turned wrestler would’ve been a barrier to Kurt’s elevation, if only because Shamrock was there first and had done reasonably well with the brief. Cream definitely rises, but with Angle I always think of the unbeaten streak and the Eurocontinental Champion plot points as being very influential in him getting over, and I don’t know if the company could have pulled those stories off with the same conviction, particularly given the attention they were having to pay to DX, Austin and the aftermath of the Screwjob. All in all, I’m glad Angle came along when he did. As we’ll see in this series, Fate is a curious and fickle mistress, but most of the time, her decisions are what they are for better rather than worse.
Ground Zero suffered from a serious case of reliance on a blockbuster main event, and that turned out to be a mistake, as the buy rate was a 0.4, the lowest since December 1996’s It’s Time. This was a lesson the company should really have learnt by now and the more I think about it, the more puzzling it is that they stuck matches better suited to throwaway Raw segments on a pay-per-view. Fortunately, the next event was set to take place from the shores of the United Kingdom, and us Brits were in for a treat of a card, one we’ve never been given to that extent since!
Yep, One Night Only seemed to be just another throw away UK only PPV that, even as a Brit, I give no credence to when looking at WWF history. This one would be different though as the events in Brum would have huge ramifications throughout the company, and wrestling history. The huge fall off in ratings from SummerSlam to Ground Zero meant that it would be needed as well. A small comfort would be WCW’s Fall Brawl also not doing a great buyrate (0.53). Despite being headlined by the popular War Games concept, The Four Horsemen taking on a rather weak looking nWo team (Nash, Syxx, Konnan and Bagwell) probably didn’t help. Of course ratings would not be of concern at One Night Only, that would all be about creating a special night.
You can hear more from Mazza and Maverick on The Right Side of the Pond, part of LoP Radio. New episodes every are out every Friday at 9pm UK time/4pm EST.
On tomorrow’s show Joey, Mav and Maz are joined by LOP Main Pager Oliver to look at an excellent Raw and predict Elimination Chamber with insane theories the name of the game. ‘Plan also returns to look at another WWE Match To See Before You Die.
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