January 21, 1996
The year 1996 is generally considered to be the low point for the WWF, so I figured it’d be fun to check out some of the major shows from the year to see how bad things really were. The Royal Rumble is the natural starting point.
Jeff Jarrett . . . breaks his first ever guitar, a good three years before he was doing it every other night.
Diesel . . . continues being one of the most interesting characters on the WWF roster.
Bret Hart . . . proves that he really is the excellence of execution by going out and actually *wrestling* The Undertaker.
HUNTER HEARST HELMSLEY vs. DUKE THE DUMPSTER DROESE
HHH follows up the epic feud with the hog farmer and kicks off his feud with the garbage man. The beginning of the match is mostly just punch and kick type of stuff, but then Duke takes a shoulder bump into the post and it starts getting good. HHH is surprisingly good at sharking in on Duke’s arm, he even whips out a couple of nice armbar takedowns, and hits the jumping knee to block a flying shoulder block. Droese’s selling isn’t anything special, but HHH is nasty enough on offense to make up for it. Duke eventually makes a comeback and looks to finish HHH off, but HHH escapes the Trash Compactor and hits a backdrop suplex. HHH cheats to win using brass knucks but President Monsoon rats him out and Duke wins by DQ. I’m not sure what’s more surprising, the fact that this was as watchable as it was, or the fact that it was HHH who made it watchable.
JEFF JARRETT vs. AHMED JOHNSON
Hey, this actually isn’t a total waste, but it’s close. Ahmed busts out a big tope to the floor and also attempts a somersault legdrop from the top. Other than those spots, there isn’t anything to see here. Ahmed hurts his leg on the missed legdrop and Jarrett forgoes any type of setup and goes right to the figure four. Ahmed doesn’t give up, and reverses the hold, so Jarrett does his first ever guitar shot for the second straight DQ of the night.
BART GUNN/BILLY GUNN © vs. SKIP/ZIP (WWF Tag Team Titles)
Candido and Prichard both have good reputations as workers, for good reasons, but this isn’t a good example of that. Aside from a few nice double team spots, namely Skip giving a suplex to Zip onto Bart, and a good blind tag spot (before they became commonplace in WWF matches), neither is especially impressive on offense. The Gunns aren’t any better, although Billy’s dives and willingness to take a couple of big bumps to the floor help. But a lot of this is made up of the punch and kick stuff that was so prevalent of the WWF at the time. Considering that both Candido and Prichard had extensive experience working tags against the Rock ‘n’ Roll Express, I expected better. They get too cute with overbooking in the form of distractions by Sunny. They’ve got an original finish, which is a plus, Billy breaks up a double suplex and Bart gets a small package for the win, but the cradle itself was ugly. The match clearly has its good points, but the good doesn’t outweigh the dull.
RAZOR RAMON © vs. GOLDUST (WWF Intercontinental Title)
This was during the time when Dustin was more concerned with making the Goldust character controversial and edgy than he was with having tolerable matches. This was also when the answer to the question "Does Razor feel like working tonight?" was usually no. Goldust touches himself a bunch and then tries to starts trying to fondle Razor, which only makes Razor want to beat his ass. Sexual harassment and gay bashing, I wonder if the people behind the WWE's anti bullying campaigns have seen this stuff? There is some occasional wrestling going on. Dustin takes a few nice bumps and does a nice slingshot backdrop suplex, but, for every nice thing like that there are three instances of Dustin playing "mind games" or them sitting in rest holds. Marlena distracts the ref and 1-2-3 Kid lays out Razor to let Goldust take the title and continue the Razor/Kid feud, which is just about the only thing to take away from this mess.
THE 1996 ROYAL RUMBLE
It's fitting that this is the first Rumble to not headline the PPV, given how mediocre it is. It's lacking in most of the aspects that can make these matches so much fun. Nobody other than Shawn, Diesel, and (The Man They Call) Vader is able to look all that dominating, and they're all relatively late entrants (Vader is the earliest one in at #13). The WWF also has the brilliant idea of really spreading out the eliminations, which leaves the ring far too full and giving the wrestlers even less room than normal to maneuver around and clog up the match with the usual stalling and time killing tactics until it's time to clear out some of the people. When one of the longest lasting wrestlers in the match is Bob Holly (Sparky Plugg!) nearly a year after he did anything notable, and three years before he'd do anything notable again, you know the match is in trouble.
There's some obvious filler talent used in order to get the number of participants up to thirty. Takao Omori, Doug Gilbert, the Swat Team (Headhunters), and Dory Funk, Jr. all show up to do nothing. Lawler doesn't really do much either, although his hiding under the ring at least adds some comedy. The Swat Team really gets the short end of the stick. The first one is tossed in short order, but his partner is the next one out, so they both come down together (since they can't be told apart) and get in the ring, only for Yoko and Vader to quickly toss them both. The rules also get changed this year so that if a previously eliminated wrestler throws out someone else, it no longer counts.
The match isn't totally devoid of good things. There’s a hint of Yoko's upcoming babyface turn when he dumps his friend Mabel, and attempts to eliminate Vader. Shawn dumps them both, which triggers a brawl between Yoko and Vader on the floor. Razor also chases Kid to the ring, looking to avenge the IC Title loss (although even if Razor returned the favor by causing him to get eliminated it wouldn't have counted). There's the comedy with Lawler hiding under the ring, and Shawn digging him out and quickly eliminating him. Steve Austin isn't out there for too long, but he adds one great moment when he levels Shawn with a lariat and then mocks him. There's another great moment when Owen gives Shawn the enzuigiri and Shawn puts it over like death, but manages to reverse the momentum of Owen’s attempted toss, and eliminate Owen. But, all you really need to see is the last few minutes, because the best thing here is in the booking.
The final four are Shawn, Diesel, Kama, and Bulldog. Shawn eliminates Bulldog and sees Diesel is about toss Kama. Diesel tosses Kama and turns right into the superkick and falls out to give the Rumble to Shawn. Diesel is clearly upset, but winds up celebrating with Shawn. Honestly, considering how close he came to winning, only to have his best friend cheap shot him to steal the win, I don't think anyone would have blamed Diesel if he decided to lay out Shawn right then and there.
BRET HART © vs. THE UNDERTAKER (WWF World Heavyweight Title)
Here's the perfect example of why I'm such a proponent of thinking for oneself. Why this has the reputation of being such an awful match, I'll never know. I actually found it to be quite fun. This is Bret and UT both working their typical style of match, but instead of being a total mess because of the clash of styles, it comes off really well. UT had spent nearly four years working with monster heels, where all he had to do was take a few bumps, sell big, and then work in whatever spots he could pull off. Bret is the excellence of execution, he wins his matches by being a better wrestler than his opponent, that's how he beat Bulldog the month before, and that's how he tries to beat UT. So, in effect, they take the formula UT had developed after so many years of working with giants, and adjust it for Bret's straight up wrestling. The result is a match unlike anything else UT had done at the time.
Once they get past UT's extended quasi-clawhold, this picks up rather nicely. Bret works over UT's leg to set up the Sharpshooter, and UT sells as much as he ever has in his career. Instead of playing dead to get over the size and power of Mabel, he's selling his leg to get over how Bret is wearing him down. The aggressive nature of how Bret works at the leg looks more suitable for Ric Flair than it does Bret. In addition to the leg, Bret adds a nice DDT when UT drops his head too early, and he heels things up in other ways such as dropping the wrestling in favor of throwing punches, and he even exposes the turnbuckle in order to ram UT's face (he was still wearing to a protective mask at this point) into the steel. Bret even finds a way to get in his usual five moves without making it seem like he's doing them just to do them, UT is pulling his sit up routine, so Bret amps them up in attempt to keep him down.
UT lets Bret do most of the heavy lifting as far as offense goes, but he manages to impress in his own ways. Again, he sells just as much as he has for anyone else, him losing his balance when he had Bret up for the Tombstone was an especially great moment. He also smartly lets Bret put himself into position for UT's big moves, like UT getting the chokeslam when Bret goes for the Sharpshooter, and letting Bret run himself right into position for the Tombstone. UT has it won with the Tombstone, but Diesel pulls out the ref (before it was a common way to prevent a pinfall) and gets Bret disqualified. Some will hate the finish, but it works on a couple of different levels. After Diesel's decision to celebrate with Shawn, it's a return of the heelish side of him. The crowd was split in support of Bret and UT, so Diesel spoiling it prevents the crowd from turning on either of them. There were far too many classics worldwide during the year for this to even sniff being a MOTYC, it's not even the best match of January '96, but it's a remarkable performance that's certainly not deserving of the reputation its been given. ***1/2
Conclusion: I won't recommend the show as a whole, but people should definitely check out the main event. But the undercard is nothing special, and the Rumble match itself is pretty bad, so I'm going in the middle for this one.