November 17, 1996
The Can-Am Express . . . makes their WWF debut with a bang, and puts the tag team champions on notice.
Steve Austin . . . gives Bret Hart all that he can handle, and proves that he’s a lot more than just a big mouth and finger gestures.
Shawn Michaels . . . show that there’s some truth to his promo calling Sid being a piece of luggage, when he carries Sid all the way to the WWF Title.
JESSE JAMES/ALDO MONTOYA/BOB HOLLY/BART GUNN vs. THE SULTAN/SALVATORE SINCERE/JUSTIN BRADSHW/BILLY GUNN
It’s the jobber match! It’s clear how seriously the WWF took this match by the fact that it gets cut away from just to show an ad hyping Bret’s return match against Austin, and another cutaway so Michael Hayes can try to get an interview with Austin. The work doesn’t look too special, the babyfaces bring some decent spots, and the best exchange is between Bart and Sal, and it’s gone as soon as it’s there. The eliminations start coming in short order, and usually the wrestlers being eliminated seem far too fresh to be taken out so easily. The only exceptions here are Sultan’s Camel clutch, because it came after he spiked Aldo with a piledriver, and Bart’s forearm to Billy that wins him the match, because Billy was stunned from the missed splash in the corner. The rest are flash cradles and basic moves that shouldn’t be viable finishers. The sidewalk slam would work for a bigger guy like Sultan, not so much Bart Gunn. Considering how much of a blatant ripoff of Stan Hansen he was, Bradshaw’s lariat sure looked mediocre.
OWEN HART/DAVEY BOY SMITH/MARTY JANNETTY/LEIF CASSIDY vs. HENRY GODWIN/PHINEAS GODWIN/DOUG FURNAS/PHIL LAFON
All things considered, this is probably as good a match as can be expected, with the limitations of this format and the short amount of time the matches are given. The early stretch, before the first round of eliminations, is highlighted with Furnas and Lafon showing their stuff to an unfamiliar audience, as well as Jannetty bringing some fun stooging and great moments of selling his knee. He’s no Kawada, but the collapse on when he gets whipped into the ropes was a very nice touch. Some of the dead weight is cleared out by doing several eliminations in short order, but at least they come on the heels of moves that are viable finishers. The only one that pushes the envelope is Owen’s spinning kick to Henry, and that still works in the vein of Henry being caught off guard. But, the Slop drop to Marty (especially with him preoccupied with the bad wheel), the powerslam to Phineas, and Doug’s freaky reverse superplex to Snow are all more than plausible to put someone away. Lafon’s elimination of Bulldog much later is another case where the envelope gets pushed, but it also works with the idea of Lafon outsmarting and outwrestling him.
The only time the match really feels like it’s dragging is the extended control segment to Furnas, but even that builds to a nice hot tag from Lafon. The final control segment, Owen working over Lafon’s knee, comes off much better than the one to Furnas, and it’s fun to see the numbers work against Owen when he gets the Sharpshooter and Furnas runs in and breaks the hold, and nobody can stop him since Owen is all alone. Lafon’s reverse enzuigiri was the perfect way to lead in to the hot tag (especially with the replay that shows he caught Owen flush on the jaw), and a refreshed Doug easily throws Owen around before finishing him with a huge release German. This was the perfect way to debut the Can-Ams with a bang, and set up the tag title feud, it’s too bad that it fizzled out (along with Doug and Phil) as quickly as it did.
THE UNDERTAKER vs. MANKIND
From bell to bell, this is the best match between these two, up to this point. It helps that they just need to go out there and wrestle, rather than deal with gimmicks and stipulations like their last couple of matches. Foley, as usual, takes a few gratuitous bumps, but nothing crazy. UT winds up focusing on Foley’s hand for the bulk of the match, which both give him an easy avenue of attack, and is also logical for preventing the Mandible Claw. Foley gets in a couple of surprises on UT, like the piledriver when UT drops his head too early, to keep him in the game. The only altogether odd moment is Foley’s extended Mandible Claw, because they basically thumb their nose at the build up with UT attacking his hand, and UT winds up breaking the hold anyway, so there wasn’t much reason to linger in it for so long. They were much better with Mick’s first attempt at the hold, with UT using his body weight to throw Mick off of him. With such a simple, and smart, match being worked, it’s only fitting that the finish follow suit. Mankind’s desperation sets in and he gets a spike and starts stabbing at UT, but opens himself right up for the Tombstone to finally give UT the elusive pin. It’s nice to see them finally “get it” and take a stab at telling a story, rather than deal with goofy gimmicks and base things around Mick’s bumping. ***
MARC MERO/THE STALKER/JAKE ROBERTS/ROCKY MIAVIA vs. HUNTER HEARST HELMSLEY/GOLDUST/CRUSH/JERRY LAWLER
It really says a lot when the best performer here is Lawler. He’s got his flying shoes on for Rocky, and his selling of the DDT is hilarious. This is a case where the work itself is pretty rough most of the way through, but the fun is in the booking. Of course, it’s not a surprise that the work isn’t very good, Windham, Roberts, and Lawler were all past their primes, and HHH and Rocky were still both a few years away from being consistently good, which leaves, Mero, Crush, and Goldust to pick up the pieces, and that’s not exactly a winning formula. Roberts eliminates Lawler with the DDT to avenge the SummerSlam loss, and Mero pins HHH to avenge his IC title loss. The only one who really looks all that dominant is Crush, as he directly eliminates Mero and Jake, and gives the assist that allows Goldust to eliminate Windham. And, it’s his miscue and heart punch to Goldust that lets Rocky pick up the pieces to make the comeback and win. All the experience in the mach and it’s the rookie who winds up winning in the end, which shows that there were some big plans for him.
BRET HART vs. STEVE AUSTIN (#1 Contender’s match for the WWF World Heavyweight Title)
I think my longtime online acquaintance “Loss” put it best with these three simple words: This is wrestling. Austin’s 1980's technical heel approach jives perfectly with Bret’s no-nonsense approach and the result is the best technical match of the year in the WWF. Work wise, this is pretty much Austin’s match. He gets in the first big shot of the match, with the hotshot, and smartly follows up by trying to keep the wind out of Bret and keep him fatigued. The chinlock has long been considered little more than a time killing rest hold, but this is one case when it’s a smart thing to use. There’s another surprisingly smart moment when Bret attempts a bulldog, and Austin throws him into the corner and Bret takes his usual bump. Yes, it’s a typical Bret bump, but it also plays well into Austin’s strategy. There’s other smart touches from Austin in that vein in the form of the superplex and the slingshot into the announce table. And, after Bret takes the bump into the post, Austin smartly follows up with a bow and arrow.
Compared to Austin, it almost seems like Bret is taking it easy. His performance isn’t bad or anything, but he doesn’t bring nearly as much to the table as Austin does. It makes sense, because it’s Bret’s first match in seven months, and Austin was the one calling him out, so Austin needed to shine. But, Bret’s offense is pretty spread out, and it’s just Bret doing his typical stuff, rather than feeling like he’s got a plan in mind the way Austin does. Bret’s big contributions are the smart ways he puts over the damage that Austin does, like having his knee buckle after the cloverleaf, and the little ways that he shows he can outwrestle Steve, which plays into the finish of Austin pinning himself. Well, Bret does get in a good revenge spot on Austin with a hotshot of his own, but it’s really more of a standalone spot for Bret than anything else.
The only real mark against the match is the way that the finishers are treated. Austin surprises Bret somewhat with the stunner, and after a smart touch in Austin dragging Bret to the center of the ring, Bret kicks out. The announcers make it seem like Austin made a mistake in dragging Bret to the center of the ring, which is silly. The Sharpshooter is handled better, with Bret getting it after escaping the bow and arrow, but Bret just jumps up totally reinvigorated, when the post bump and bow and arrow deserved a longer sell job. Austin losing his temper and getting frustrated was a nice touch, but he doesn’t even try to get the stunner in the middle of the ring, and a second attempt being countered into the Sharpshooter would have worked so much better than blowing off the bow and arrow. With the hotshot and stunner not getting the job done, Austin goes for his other old finisher, the Million Dollar Dream, and Bret does the same ‘kick off’ counter that he used to counter Piper’s sleeper hold a few years before and gets the upset. This doesn’t hit the same highs as Michaels/Foley, which was structured better, but for a straight up technical match without any need for prop shots or bullshit finishes with disqualifications or restarts, they don’t come much better than this. ****
FARROOQ/VADER/DIESEL/RAZOR RAMON vs. YOKOZUNA/FLASH FUNK/SAVIO VEGA/JIMMY SNUKA
This isn’t mindless as Team Billy vs. Team Bart, but it’s nowhere nearly as good as Team Godwins vs. Team Tag Champs. Everyone pretty much does their thing and gets out of the way, with only Yoko’s uranage to Vader looking pretty bad. Scorpio flies, Diesel and Razor do their best impersonations of Nash and Hall, Snuka pops the nostalgic fans at the Garden that remember his cage leap thirteen years before, and Farooq and Vader show their power. There’s a little bit of build to the first elimination with Farrooq softening up Savio on the floor, so that Diesel can finish him with the jackknife. Snuka drops the Superfly splash a few minutes later to eliminate Razor and even the odds. Then, the chairs come into play the ref throws the whole thing out. So yeah, this is pretty much where it belongs, stuck in the middle and lost in the shuffle.
SHAWN MICHAELS © vs. PSYCHO SID (WWF World Heavyweight Title)
The best description I have for this match is that, even though it was Sid’s night, it didn’t seem to be his night. Even in defeat, Shawn performs circles around Sid. Shawn’s chop block is one of the best moments of the match, and he adds a decent number of nice touches throughout. Sid is the polar opposite, when he gets on offense, it’s just a lot of punches and kicks along with a couple of corner whips (which only work because of Shawn’s exaggerated bumping and selling). Sid’s delay on the powerbomb to give Last Rites is a good excuse for Shawn’s counter, and Sid blocking the superkick to hit the chokeslam is the best thing he does.
The finish run with the camera is pretty much stupid all around, although there’s a way that it could have worked. Yes, he’s psycho, but even Sid isn’t dumb enough to get himself intentionally disqualified. There’s just no good reason for him to bring it into play in the first place. It’d have been more effective for Sid to get in Shawn’s face in the locker room or parking lot, and have him shove Jose when he tries to get between them (which could have been shown during the free for all, instead of the Bret/Austin ad). It gives Shawn a good reason to be so aggressive, and his eventual loss gets chalked up to his head not being in the game. It’s hard to say if the MSG crowd would have been any more sympathetic to Shawn, they popped pretty good when Sid hit him with the camera and got the pin after the powerbomb, but it would have made Sid look like the ultimate dick heel. Thanks to Shawn, this winds up being a good match, from bell to bell, but the match was secondary to the Jose angle.
Conclusion: I considered skipping this show in my little ‘96 project, and I’m glad I didn’t. Only the Free For All and Mero/HHH Survivor Series matches are skippable. The Can Ams one is the best by a long shot, and the Farrooq/Yoko one is short and inoffensive. Add in three good singles matches, and you have a winner in my book.