REQUESTING FLYBY: The Wrestlemania Dailies (Redux) - Wrestlemania XII: Ironman
Mar 19, 2017 - 1:43:53 PM
The Wrestlemania Dailies (Redux) - Wrestlemania VIII to Wrestlemania XIV
Welcome back one and all to my daily Wrestlemania series. Apologies for the down time since last week, real life rather took over! Every day this week, I’ll insert an analysis of a historical issue, important match or overlooked aspect of each of the editions of the Show of Shows comprising Vince McMahon’s “doldrum years”, that is, Wrestlemanias VIII to XIII, plus the one that changed the game for him, Wrestlemania XIV. To get caught up, I’ll have some double posts for you over the course of the week. Many fans find the WWF’s flagship shows of the early to mid-1990s pretty rough to watch, but there are actually more things to like about those pay-per-views than is sometimes credited. I hope you’ll be back with me each day to debate these issues. To business, then.
Wrestlemania XII: Ironman
There’s no doubt that WWF had the right idea heading into the twelfth edition of the Showcase of the Immortals: put the best two wrestlers in the company together in a never-before-seen sixty minute Ironman Match and knock the socks off the audience with the technical skill and storytelling abilities of Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels. The Hitman was miffed by his booking against The Undertaker and Diesel, and also by the way that Shawn was being set up as the babyface to take over the company man mantle from him through a saccharine “boyhood dream” angle. However, we know that he had no problems with looking at the lights for HBK. At the time, Bret was trying to make a go of an acting career, and his character in Lonesome Dove had been upgraded to series regular. With a sabbatical planned, Hart figured he would put Shawn over strong and return to make more money with him at Wrestlemania XIII. So far, so good.
At this stage, Michaels had developed a reputation for bad boy behaviour and backstage politicking, but he had not yet reached the excesses he would later on down the line. He needed a strong rub from someone as legitimate as Bret and he knew it. Besides, it was in both of their best interests to showcase what they could do. WWF had a golden opportunity at Wrestlemania XII, because WCW’s Uncensored pay-per-view had been panned critically due to Hogan and Savage’s superman act inside a steel cage. The Sexy Boy and the Pink and Black Attack could cement a WWF supremacy through 1996 with a strong performance, although by then, it was known backstage that Scott Hall and Kevin Nash had signed big money deals with WCW and would effectively prevent WWF from taking advantage of a strong and well received ‘Mania headline match. That inconvenient string of events lay in the future, however.
Watching older iterations of the Granddaddy, you really come to appreciate how much less bombast there is compared to more modern versions. Michaels descends from the ceiling all in white leather and spandex, living his gimmick to the max, while Hart enters to some understated pyro in a beautiful pink and black military jacket. The importance of the bout and the originality of the stipulation is emphasised by having a mic’d up Earl Hebner explain the exact rules to competitors and audience alike. Gorilla Monsoon, playing the onscreen “president” of the Fed also adds his customary class and gravitas to the scene in front of us.
According to the interview section of the Greatest Rivalries DVD set, Bret and Shawn mapped out the first and last ten minutes spot for spot and called the middle forty on the fly. What I find interesting is the mini-stories they tell through the sixty-two minutes they wrestle for. With no falls taking place during “normal time” they have to find other ways to spice the action up, and do so with great creativity. If you watch The Rock and Triple H a few years later, the sheer amount of falls is what brings the variety and it’s the same with Cena and Orton come 2009. While I enjoy both of those matches an awful lot, I do very much appreciate the psychological nuances and seamless advantage transitions that HBK and The Hitman brought to this inaugural version of the gimmick.
So the first act tells the story of Shawn’s ascendancy and momentum as Royal Rumble winner and comeback kid after failing to capture the title the year before. Surprisingly, the ultra-crisp amateur exchanges find the Boy Toy having slightly the better of things. Lawler on commentary sells this as Bret being defensive and wily by nature, whereas Michaels’ effervescence means he has no gear but top gear. There are a lot of rest holds in this first fifteen minutes and that has often been a key criticism of detractors of the contest, but personally, I think it adds a sheen of realism. They’re going out for an hour; it can’t be a sprint. As we come towards the end of this initial section, the pace is suddenly quickened by a couple of explosive Ricky Steamboat armdrags by HBK, followed by a huracanrana which sends the champ to the outside to gather his thoughts. In this way, the face shine belongs to the challenger, which is commensurate with the narrative going into the bout, and Bret gets to take the tweener role he has used so effectively in matches against Diesel and ‘Taker. After all, he’s the veteran. And he finally gets to show that experience and know how when he almost catches his rival in the Sharpshooter, showing us that all he needs is a split second to put on a move that could quickly result in a fall. This passage seems to awaken The Hitman’s aggressive streak, leading to a vicious clothesline over the top and some stiff European uppercuts outside the ring. The story of Bret taking control is confirmed when Shawn misses a Sweet Chin Music attempt, instead taking out the timekeeper, which is, by the way, an awesome bump by that guy. He sells it like an absolute champ.
At this point though, they swerve from the typical WWF match structure, as the Excellence of Execution’s new found advantage lasts only the length of a chinlock. Soon, the Showstopper is back to taking the champion on at his own game, pounding Bret to the canvas and working on his arm, first with a sweetly timed shoulderbreaker and then with a double axehandle from the top. It’s fascinating how little Shawn flies around the ring, adopting instead a mirror of Hart’s style and seemingly beating him at his own game. As a psychological nuance, it’s fascinating, though of course the fact that the contest might have been aesthetically and superficially more pleasing had Michaels worked his usual style is something we must consider. Even so, the persistent targeting of the arm is very sound cerebral work from the challenger, and it’s interesting for modern viewers to see Alberto Del Rio’s finisher deployed here as a transitional wear down hold! Interestingly, this second quarter of the match ends with the champion regaining the advantage not through technical wrestling, but by smashmouth brawling. Bret’s desperation is obvious as he throws right hands and whips his opponent hard to the corner. This is where Michaels’ bumping ability finally comes to the party and the match is all the better for it.
If the first half of the match was low on spectacular impact manoeuvres, the second half more than makes up for that fact. I like how the intensity of the moves deployed gradually progresses as the 0-0 scoreline works a spell on both competitors, causing their aggressiveness to be heightened. There’s an incredible exchange of hard hitting offense- a Shawn powerslam, a Bret piledriver- followed by a breathless exchange of pinning combinations which really gets the blood pumping. However, it’s the picture perfect crossbody to the outside from HBK which really represents the move into a higher gear, not least because it’s quickly followed by another in the ring itself and then by a sick bump to the floor when Bret backdrops him from the corner to the concrete. The Excellence of Execution is totally one with character here, sensing blood and pounding on his vulnerable opponent, who he outwaited and out-thought. You might compare it to Ali in the Rumble in the Jungle, letting big George Foreman tire himself out until the time was right to take him off his exhausted feet. It’s typically fantastic psychology by both men, in a match that’s filled with it.
As we move into the final portion of the hour, Hart’s dominance continues as he throws his challenger over the top into manager Jose Lothario and then moments later, whips him into Lothario again, showcasing once more Bret’s ability to play the heel when he needed to, something that continues when a suicide dive by the Hitman is followed by a climb back in the ring to see if Michaels will get counted out. The crowd jeer this and are behind HBK as the titanic struggle continues. Two half-comebacks are cut short, delaying audience gratification, so that when the Texan does finally go on a tear, the Arrowhead Pond goes crazy. And what a tear it is! This is why Shawn’s ring work is loved by so many; it’s an incredibly athletic and poetic sequence, from the moment he nips up out of nowhere, to the top rope elbow, axe-handle and moonsault, to the more impact based gutwrench and body slam. As the clock ticks down, the desperation factor rises, and the Sexy Boy takes one high risk after another in search of the elusive fall, which is just wonderful storytelling, setting up the Sharpshooter out of nowhere to perfection. Did Bret ever wrench back on that move in quite such a deliciously poetic way as he did here? The last thirty seconds ticking by is an all-time great WWF/E moment, for sure.
With all the years that have gone by, the finish is so well-remembered that I dare say it speaks for himself. The overtime victory out of nowhere and Vince’s famous line. All of the rumours surrounding Michaels’ words to Hebner in the aftermath of the match, and the alleged heat on Hart for going straight to his hotel…based on the most up-to-date source, the Greatest Rivalries sit down with JR, Bret did not mind leaving the ring in order to give Shawn his moment and left without a word because he felt that this type of fourth wall semi-real heat would help business upon his return from hiatus. Of course, from such small chinks do bridges collapse, and the path to Montreal really starts here, in many ways.
However, for our purposes, all we need to know at this stage is that Shawn had been given a massive rub on the very grandest stage and would look very strong going into his first feud as champion. Meanwhile, Bret had been validated once and for all as the premier worker of the 80s and 90s and could take a holiday from pro-wrestling knowing that his reputation had been enhanced yet again. Some people call this match boring. I think I’ve laid on the line the fact that I find it to be anything but. Watching it again- and I’ve seen it a fair few times before- my eyes did not waver from the screen once. Even the passages which seem slow by modern standards are enhanced by the facial expressions and storytelling capabilities of both men. And let us not forget, they were pioneering a gimmick match and were booked to do the most difficult thing possible- wrestle a nail biting 0-0 draw for sixty minutes. It’s incredible that they were able to do that in this match. Bret, Shawn- I salute you both.
Wrestlemania XI: Did Shawn Michaels Screw Kevin Nash?
Shawn Michaels is often criticised for his backstage politicking, but when one examines how he arrived in main events, one has to say that he got there on his own merits through a considerable amount of hard work; he got over the old fashioned way. From the epic dissolution of The Rockers after Survivor Series ’91 and his time with Sherri Martel onwards, Michaels worked his tail off with a variety of veterans and esteemed midcarders, bumping big and displaying athleticism hitherto unseen in a WWF ring. After a test main event with Bret at Survivor Series ’92 he performed in a heavily featured upper-midcard role, putting on a pair of classics with his buddy Scott ‘Razor Ramon’ Hall, as discussed yesterday, until he was pushed to win the Royal Rumble in ’95 to face his other pal Diesel at Wrestlemania XI.
By Wrestlemania XI, Diesel had been champion for almost five months and had very much been placed in the stereotypical big man face champion position previously held by Hogan. However, this was not necessarily playing to the seven footer’s strengths; as anyone with even a passing knowledge of pro wrestling is well aware, all of Kevin Nash’s best work came as a badass cocky heel or tweener. Asking him to be the honourable strong guy was not a great way to use him and that is one reason why his near year-long title reign fell slightly flat. His 358 day span on top signalled the beginning of the end for the kind of lengthy title runs that had defined Hogan’s eighties. Hart held the belt for 131 days after defeating Big Daddy Cool at Survivor Series ‘95, Michaels for 231 in the aftermath of Wrestlemania XII, but after that, the frequent title changes that defined the Attitude and Ruthless Aggression eras would take hold, until JBL and John Cena revived the trope of the long reigning champion in the mid-2000s. Perhaps Vince felt that the declining numbers during the Michigan native’s time at the top were partly due to perceived predictability and that he needed to make his audience aware of the fact that a new champion could be crowned at any time, particularly with the move to monthly pay-per-views. Of course, the fact that Nash was frequently booked against limited opponents in matches that stunk up the ring hardly helped. The eventual jump to WCW for “more than Sting money” was therefore almost inevitable because the Diesel character had probably done everything it could in the Fed and I dare say McMahon was reluctant to pay $1.2 million a year to anybody by that stage; he simply could not afford it and if he were to, there were better investments than Nash.
The question at hand, then, is whether Shawn Michaels accelerated that process during the match the two competed in at Wrestlemania XI. Was Michaels holding a smoking gun in his hand having shot his own friend down in the middle of the ring? Let’s examine the case for the prosecution.
Going into the Showcase of the Immortals, the Royal Rumble winner was quite firmly a heel, but his in ring style hadn’t necessarily changed a great deal from his days with The Rockers; as we saw yesterday it was high octane, risk taking, crowd pleasing stuff. HBK’s big bumping and eye-catching selling made larger opponents look great…but one could argue that it made him look even better. There’s no doubt that Shawn was the man for the big occasion, hence the Mr Wrestlemania nickname he eventually acquired, but as a villain, his role was to create sympathy for the babyface champion, not himself. As soon as the bell rang at the Hartford Civic Center, it was clear that everybody there and everybody watching on pay-per-view would remember Shawn Michaels and not the man he was putting over. From the way he flew around the ring on offense to the way he sold so spectacularly it was a bravura performance, but he effectively turned himself face without permission to the extent that he had to be taken off television with a scripted beat down so he could be re-introduced as a sympathetic character, because after the main event of Wrestlemania XI, there was no way that anybody was going to be booing The Heartbreak Kid. In his book, Bret Hart compared it to a Bugs Bunny cartoon where the canny rabbit outsmarts the bigger, dumber animals after him. Worse than that though, a spot near the close of the match saw Shawn hit the superkick and only miss out on the pinfall due to a “twisted ankle” preventing him from reaching the prone Diesel. The actual finish where Michaels was put away with the powerbomb therefore came across as something of an anti-climax and perhaps damaged the credibility of the champion somewhat. Shawn Michaels the heel had, in the immortal words of Bobby Heenan “left the building” and it put him on course to potentially supplant both his friend Nash and the de facto top guy in the company, The Hitman.
We cannot say for sure what Michaels’ intentions were going into the title match in 1995. He had worked hard for a long time, paid a lot of dues and no doubt felt like it was his time and that he would take his momentum from the year before and run with it by coming up with yet another grandstand performance. However, a good wrestler ensures his opponent gets over no matter what, and that’s the difference between Shawn’s matches at Wrestlemania X and XI. Both are a treat to watch, but in one, his opponent came out somewhat damaged in reputation terms. There’s always more than one factor to the failure of a champion as a draw, but I do believe that Diesel’s relative lack of success as a top guy can be partially laid at his fellow Kliq member’s feet, which is ironic given how strongly Nash put HBK over at Good Friends, Better Enemies on his way out of the door a year later.
Wrestlemania X: Mr Wrestlemania Is Born
As an up and coming midcarder, you need to know exactly when to turn on the gas, burn everybody on the outside and show the corporate head honchos who the next guy really is. Over the course of three successive Wrestlemanias, Shawn Michaels did exactly that, and his ascension is what I propose to cover over the next three entries. What HBK knew instinctively was that the Showcase of the Immortals gave him the platform that elite workhorses like himself could wow crowds far more than the muscular dinosaurs of yore. If Bret Hart had kicked that door ajar in 1992, Shawn Michaels permanently blasted it open in 1994.
In his first career with the company, Shawn had absolutely everything you could wish for in a professional wrestler: athletic ability, the gift of innovation, excellent mic work, a well-developed character, an innate understanding of match structure…you name it, he had it. As an up and comer, there are certain times when Michaels has intimated that he felt the time was right to quite literally steal the show, and the most prominent of these matches was the ladder match at Wrestlemania X, working with his long-time friend Scott “Razor Ramon” Hall. The gimmick they were due to work in had been brought to WWF by the Harts who had used it up in Stampede, indeed, Bret and Shawn had a forgotten ladder match back in 1992 at The Hitman’s suggestion. However, this would be the first high profile version of the bout type, and it fit the Ramon/Michaels feud perfectly, as Razor had won the “vacant” Intercontinental Title when Shawn legitimately failed a drugs test while champion. When he returned, he called himself the “true” Intercontinental Champion, even carrying his old belt around with him. Therefore, both the straps were hung above the ring and the man to climb the ladder and collect them would be the champion. The stage was set for a classic.
From the beginning, you can see the motivation oozing from Michaels as he and Razor engage in crisp chain wrestling, with Shawn moving and countering spryly, before his heel smarts lead him to toss his larger opponent out of the ring to be levelled by bodyguard and fellow Kliq member Diesel, which precipitates Big Daddy Cool’s ejection in classic fashion. Following this, HBK demonstrates his ludicrous bumping ability, flipping over the turnbuckle and doing a full 360 to the outside after a Razor clothesline. Working with his friend, Michaels is motivated to make the bigger man look as good as he himself does and it makes for an excellent match.
The psychology is sound from the beginning; it’s only when Ramon takes a ride to the concrete outside that the Heartbreak Kid fetches the ladder, and when it’s brought up the aisle, there’s a very believable battle to possess it as a tactical objective towards winning the bout and the belts. The potential for using the ladder as a weapon is quickly explored by both men, but it’s Michaels’ speed and malignant intent that win out to begin with. A lot of these shots do perhaps look tame now, but for the time they were intense, and seeing Ramon battered from all angles with the ladder is to buy into his babyface in peril antics. The fans are clearly invested now the initial strangeness has worn off and their first taste of the spectacular is Shawn dropping an elbow from the top of the ladder with his tights pulled right down so that he hits the move while mooning everybody in the arena. That was Shawn Michaels for you, but the athleticism and innovation he displays only ten minutes into the contest is deeply impressive, even more so a few moments later when he hits the splash from ten feet up. Things like this just weren’t seen in a WWF ring at this time; that’s what you have to keep in mind whenever you revisit this one.
The next stage of the confrontation involves the abortive climbs to the top of the ladder, and again, when Shawn is thrown off his perch he displays a peerless willingness to put his body on the line, with little regard for his own safety, though never to the extent of sacrificing realism as some might accuse Jeff Hardy of doing. During Razor’s ascendency, HBK again bumps maniacally in order to sell his opponent’s larger size and strength, as well as invest the audience who are no doubt wishing for the cocky heel to fail. He allows himself to be slingshot into the ladder, hip locked off it and thrown out of the ring like a piece of trash. However, his heel smarts also allow him to continue to chip away at Razor, drop kicking him off the ladder when victory is in the Bad Guy’s grasp. And yet, like any cocky villain, his hubris gets the better of him eventually, as his climb above Razor’s prone body leads the Scarface inspired 275 pounder to be able to crotch Michaels, who then gets a leg caught in the ropes, rendering him helpless as Ramon collects the belts. A great finish to a great match, that still, to me, stands the test of time.
Paul Heyman is fond of saying, when it comes to high profile professional wrestling matches, “one man goes over, the other gets over” and this was exactly what we had here. The popular, well sized, charismatic Scott Hall retained his Intercontinental Title, while the thoroughbred workhorse created a highlight reel that’s still running in the minds of wrestling fans to this day.
Wrestlemania IX: The Danger Of Binary Analysis
In terms of the kind of structural analysis pioneered by the likes of Roman Jacobsen and Mikhail Bakhtin, a binary can be defined simply as a pair of opposite semantic concepts, one of the most simplistic being that good vs. bad. A fan of any artistic medium may apply a reductive binary of this nature to any sort of cultural production. In the case of wrestling fans, this can be at the smaller level of a single match or segment, or at the unitary level of an entire show. We have become notoriously kneejerk as a group of enthusiasts, applying such simplistic labels as good and bad without always thinking things through. My good friend on these forums ‘Plan and myself have spoken in private, on air and in writing for this website of the shared “folk memory” of the wrestling universe and how it often needs to be carefully interrogated to get to the truth, which often needs a great deal of qualification from its form in the communal experience of the fanbase.
A prime example of this is Wrestlemania IX, which has often been maligned, both by those who saw it at the time and by those younger fans who have later gone back and watched the footage in the name of discovering company history, though I dare say there are a few of you who believe, as I do, that it is not as simple as all that. In fact, there may be some of you reading who believe, in concert with myself, that denouncing a show as “bad” without considering every aspect of it as an individual piece of evidence, is not a sustainable form of analysis, particularly with as vast a beast as Wrestlemania. I discussed in my piece on the first edition of Vince McMahon’s sports entertainment extravaganza that the structural composition of the WWF/E’s principal supercard has barely changed in its twenty-nine year existence, and once this is understood, it becomes ever clearer that calling a Wrestlemania “good” or “bad” is a great deal more problematic than one might think.
As I have expressed, a Show of Shows bill fairly much follows this pattern to one degree or another:
· Hot opener featuring skilled workers (examples: Bret Hart vs. Owen Hart, Wrestlemania X; Eddie Guerrero vs. Rey Mysterio, Wrestlemania XXI).
· Two or more midcard matches featuring popular character wrestlers; more of these matches in the early Wrestlemanias, less of them in the past decade due to main event times increasing (Roddy Piper vs. Adrian Adonis, Wrestlemania III; Jake Roberts vs. Ted DiBiase, Wrestlemania VI).
· A match for the Tag Team Titles (The Dream Team vs. The British Bulldogs, Wrestlemania II; Team Hell No vs. Ziggler and Big E, Wrestlemania XXIX).
· An Intercontinental Title match; joined briefly in the late ‘90s by the European Title and Hardcore Title; interchangeable with the U.S Title from the early 2000s (Ricky Steamboat vs. Randy Savage, Wrestlemania III; Cody Rhodes vs. The Big Show, Wrestlemania XXVIII).
· A multi-man tag contest (Legion of Doom and Ahmed Johnson vs. The Nation of Domination, Wrestlemania XIII; Right To Censor vs. Tazz and APA, Wrestlemania XVII)
· A special attraction match, sometimes with celebrity involvement (Mr T vs Roddy Piper in a boxing match, Wrestlemania II; Floyd Mayweather vs. The Big Show, Wrestlemania XXIV).
· From Wrestlemania XXI, “The Streak” became a unique attraction in its own right but of course began all the way back at Wrestlemania VII before ending at Wrestlemania XXX (The Undertaker vs. Randy Orton, Mark Henry, Batista, Edge, Shawn Michaels, Triple H, CM Punk and Brock Lesnar).
· A brawl or gimmick match (Hollywood Backlot Brawl, Wrestlemania XII; Money in the Bank from Wrestlemanias XXI to XXVI).
· Matches for the WWF/E Title, Unified Title, World Heavyweight Championsip, WWE World Heavyweight Championship (Hulk Hogan vs. Randy Savage, Wrestlemania V; Kurt Angle vs. Brock Lesnar, Wrestlemania XIX).
Obviously there are deviations, variations and adaptations, but that’s a pretty decent stab at the composition of most Wrestlemanias. Now, what people believe to be good and bad versions of the Showcase of the Immortals rather depends on personal taste, how far one subscribes to the wrestling folk memory’s version of events, and the perception of the amount of good matches on the card (which is in itself a deeply subjective decision making process). Even the Granddaddies acknowledged as the “best” have some matches I would personally judge as poor or superfluous (Batista vs. Umaga, Wrestlemania XXIV; Kelly Kelly and Maria Menounos vs. Beth Phoenix and Eve Torres, Wrestlemania XXVIII), while some derided as the “worst” actually have some very decent action on the card. Which brings us back to Wrestlemania IX.
So why is Wrestlemania IX so heavily criticised by large sections of the fanbase? It largely comes down to three issues: The Undertaker’s hopeless task in getting a good bout out of the horribly limited Giant Gonzales, Hulk Hogan’s jarring impromptu title win against Yokozuna after Bret Hart had been dispatched by the kayfabe sumo master, and the Roman Empire themed costumes and set design. The first two of these criticisms are in my view perfectly fair. Poor Mark Callaway was often saddled with utter dross in his first five years with the company, and Gonzales was probably the worst of the bunch. There’s probably no redeeming that contest as an aesthetic experience. Hogan’s grotesque ego-charged hogging of the main event spotlight meanwhile, left a foul taste even at the time, and history rightly views it in an even more unfavourable light. However, the constant trashing of the Roman theme strikes me as grotesquely unfair; is any historical era more suited to the pageantry of Wrestlemania? JR and Bobby Heenan in togas always seemed like a win to me, in all honesty. Yes it’s brash and a bit camp, but here’s the thing: so is professional wrestling. Deal with it, as Batista might say in between asthmatic gasps.
Now, when you put those three issues to one side, what does Wrestlemania IX look like? The scheduled main event between Bret Hart and Yokozuna is actually a very well worked, psychologically satisfying contest. When I watched it back for a future edition of the 101 WWE Matches To See Before You Die podcast series, I was pleasantly surprised by how well it stood the test of time, and I was always a mark for salt in the eyes, anyway. Elsewhere on the card, Mr Perfect and Lex Luger put together a very decent midcard match with the added mystique of Luger’s reinforced forearm, Shawn Michaels put on a masterclass in narcissistic heel showboating in his Intercontinental Title defence against Tatanka, the visual of twin Doinks elevated the match against Crush no end and The Steiner Brothers put on a fantastic tag match with The Headshrinkers. Even Hogan and Beefcake vs. Money Inc. had a certain charm to it, seeing as it was a special attraction match that didn’t outstay its welcome and made good use of four very prominent wrestling characters to add name value to a fairly young transitional card. So you tell me, does Wrestlemania IX still sound like a crappy show? Maybe you should give it a watch and then let me know.
With a pay-per-view as peppered with tradition and continuity as Wrestlemania, I feel it’s very dangerous to start slapping “great!” and “awful!” labels on any individual iteration of the event. That goes for booking decisions, match ratings and card order, as well. Unless one really explores such matters in depth and with an objective viewpoint, it’s all too easy to get lost in rhetoric and shared memory, and for me, no show illustrates the danger of binary analysis better than Wrestlemania IX.
Wrestlemania VIII: A Story Ahead Of Its Time?
The late 1990s were renowned for their use of worked shoot storylines to create beef for wrestling feuds, particularly in regard to female valets and managers who were involved in kayfabe with in-ring talent. This happened so frequently through that era that an overkill effect developed. However, back in the early 1990s, when such salacious stories were rare, they could have great impact on the build to a Wrestlemania, and perhaps the critical success of one half of the Wrestlemania VIII double main event ended up feeding into the thinking behind the proliferation of sex, lies and videotape angles in the Attitude Era to come.
Randy Savage and his real life wife Elizabeth had actually married in 1984, but for WWF purposes, they had been estranged former lovers from 1989 to 1991. After their tearful reunion at the conclusion of the “retirement match” between Savage and Warrior at Wrestlemania VII, the two had an onscreen “wedding” at Summerslam 1991, again precipitating her high profile use in her husband’s angles as a feud with Jake Roberts began that evening over his torment of Elizabeth. Backstage, Savage’s jealousy was legendary, and he was known to take his over-protectiveness into physicality with his fellow wrestlers. He was, according to observers, possessive and unstable when it came to his love for the tiny girl from Louisville, Kentucky (ironically the same city that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Daisy Buchanan hailed from) and so once the decision was made to have the Macho Man face Ric Flair for the title in one half of a double main event, using this real life weakness in a storyline was a natural next step.
You see, a mooted mega-match between Ric Flair, hero of the NWA and WCW, winner of the 1992 vacant championship Royal Rumble, and Hulk Hogan, face of the WWF for eight straight years, ended up being nixed due to wrangling between Hogan and McMahon. Seeing the way the wind was blowing, The Hulkster decided that Wrestlemania VIII would represent the beginning of his retirement and would be his last appearance at the Showcase of the Immortals. Therefore, he did not want to lose to Flair in his final appearance at the pageant he did so much to popularise and promote. In actuality, we all know that Hogan took a brief sabbatical and returned in time for Wrestlemania IX, getting in Bret Hart’s way as the “next guy” in the process. But at the time of Wrestlemania VIII, Hogan was granted his wish to be in an alternative match. Therefore, he was booked against Sid Justice while Savage was inserted into the title bout.
To be honest, Ric Flair against Randy Savage did not need much selling; as a workrate dream match, there weren’t many, if any, that sounded better than that. However, this is Vince McMahon we’re talking about, so something sensationalist was cooked up in order to add some extra spice to the dish. Flair had been presented as a “ladies man” type of figure his entire career, so it was a role he could play to perfection. Playing on storylines from Hollywood films of the time, The Nature Boy announced that he had dated Elizabeth before she had met Savage, with the immortal line “She was mine- woo! – before she was yours!” This guaranteed a heated build to their title match and led to some memorable segments involving doctored photos; you can actually see the influence of that to this day in the Dolph Ziggler/AJ/John Cena/Vickie Guerrero cluster-you-know-what from November and December 2012, which similarly involved grainy photographic footage with the added innovation of hacked voicemails (not just the News of the World that do that apparently. Americans, ask a friendly Brit).
What’s interesting to me is that although Savage and Flair were always likely to have a good match, Macho always worked best when there was some kind of “passion angle” going into the contest, and that je ne sais quoi provided here by the impugning of his wife’s honour gave the eighteen minute bout heat and vigour. It’s sad to think of it languishing in the midcard while Hogan and Sid stank up the ring and Papa Shango missed his interference cue, but at least the angle that fed into Savage vs. Flair had a wide ranging influence on the future of storytelling in the business. Think about it: Sable and Mero’s offscreen/onscreen relationship duality was modelled heavily on Savage and Elizabeth; the Eddie Guerrero, Chyna and Billy Gunn love triangle from 2000’s exceptional midcard scene bore echoes of it, except with Chyna also able to compete in the ring; and the aforementioned AJ Lee not only worked a babyface valet/heel worker dynamic with Daniel Bryan in early 2012, she also became the object of conflict in the Kane vs. CM Punk vs. Daniel Bryan triple threat at No Way Out later that year. More extreme versions include Stephanie McMahon’s “kidnap” and subsequent marriage to Triple H and of course the Katie Vick nonsense that provided the backbone of Kane’s feud with The Game.
Did Wrestlemania VIII’s title match need such an angle? The answer is a qualified no, as I have explored. The effect on match quality is debatable, but the “doctored photos” plot device did allow Savage momentum as an avenging babyface in his first title match for some time, and the swiftness of the switch of opponents for Flair thus went largely unremarked. The real importance of the angle was in proving that Vince McMahon could break out of the outdated patriotic All-American nonsense that had stunk up Wrestlemania VII; even the much maligned Sid vs. Hogan main event had a more realistic build based on conflict from the Royal Rumble earlier in 1992. Wrestlemania VIII showed that wrestling’s soap opera could become more gritty, less cartoonish, based on the kind of issues men might legitimately fight over. That lesson would take some time to be absorbed by the company, but eventually it would. That it took so long to be fully understood seems odd given that the eighth edition of the Granddaddy Of Them All put 62,167 asses on seats and drew a 2.3 buyrate, which would be the best return until Wrestlemania XIV in 1998. Then again, trends in professional wrestling are notoriously difficult to put one’s finger on at the time; hindsight is always 20:20, after all.