March 31, 1996
It’s always been a belief of mine that the best year for professional wrestling was 1996. You had Kaientai DX, The nWo, Cruiserweights in WCW, Junior Heavyweights in NJPW, ECW inventing “WWF Attitude.” I’ve always felt the only exception to that belief was from Vince, who was way out of touch. But I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt here, and giving him a fair shake.
Steve Austin . . . shows some honest to goodness wrestling skills.
Hunter Hearst Helmsley . . . gets no-sold and squashed, which you’d never see happening nowadays.
Shawn Michaels . . . accomplishes his boyhood dream of being the most powerful guy in the WWF locker room.
VADER/OWEN HART/DAVEY BOY SMITH vs. JAKE ROBERTS/AHMED JOHNSTON/YOKOZUNA
Wow. This is more fun that it’s got any right to be. Everyone is serviceable, if nothing else. The main rivalry is between Yoko and Vader, so their exchanges are the most heated. All of the heels, including Vader, are good about bumping and selling for Yoko. Yoko’s size prevents him from doing a whole lot, so they make the most with what he has to offer. Roberts also impresses with his selling when he’s getting beaten on, as well as getting the crowd hot when he’s on offense. Owen is far ahead of everyone else, bringing several good spots and bumping and selling nearly as good as Jake does. Ahmed and Bulldog get the least amount of ring time for their teams, they don’t really bring anything unique to the match, they simply use their biggest strength (power in this case) to keep the ball rolling. The stipulation (Yoko gets five minutes with Jim Cornette if the babyface team wins) gives away the result, and the six man melee is a good enough reason to forget who the legal man is (Yoko, although it’s Jake who gets pinned after the Vader Bomb), although it’s far from original.
RODDY PIPER vs. GOLDUST (Hollywood Back lot Brawl)
Between this and the King of the Road match at the first WCW Uncensored, Dustin has a corner on the market for silly gimmick matches on PPV. For the five or so minutes that are shown (more to come later) I was alternating between laughing and marking out. Piper’s shots with the baseball bat are just like HHH’s shot with the sledgehammer. You can tell by the way he holds it whether he’s actually going to connect. Piper trash talking Goldust the entire time is also pretty funny. Piper also levels Goldust with some nasty punches, with a very audible smack to them. Vince nearly loses his mind when Goldust “runs Piper over” with the car, but it’s more like Goldust just drove at him, and Piper jumped on the hood. Goldust driving off and Piper chasing him in a white S.U.V. is fairly topical for the time period, although it was about as amusing then as it is now.
SAVIO VEGA vs. STEVE AUSTIN
Yet another surprisingly fun match. This is more of a brawl than a wrestling match, which shouldn’t seem surprising with Austin, but it’s more due to Vega than Austin. Austin does get the chance to do a little wrestling with the backslide nearfall and a series of reversals. Savio sticks with the brawling tactics, which works in the context of their little feud going on. Vega’s shoulder bump into the post seems like a prerequisite transition, but Austin starts working over the arm, to actually make it mean something. The ref bump and Austin’s cheap shots with the belt (Austin was Million Dollar Champion) really weren’t needed, but seemed to be the only way to explain why the heel wins. At least Austin really cracked Vega the second time around and leant some credence to the knockout. It’s not on the radar for Austin, but it’s probably the best singles match Vega ever had in the WWF. Just a shockingly fun ten minute match, despite Vince and Lawler harping on about Piper, Piper “calling in” on his cell phone to say he wasn’t done with Goldust, and the split screen to show Piper’s drive toward the arena.
HUNTER HEARST HELMSLEY vs. THE ULTIMATE WARRIOR
Standard Warrior squash, he no-sells the Pedigree and finishes off HHH with the usual in less than two minutes. Things would get much worse for Helmsley, and then wind up getting a hell of a lot better for him later on. Looking at his track record, it was obvious that Warrior wasn’t going to last long. Vince could probably have prolonged it by at least a couple of months by only using Warrior on TV and PPV, and keeping him in matches like this. Much the same way he prolonged Scott Steiner getting exposed, by keeping him out of the ring for as long as possible.
THE UNDERTAKER vs. DIESEL
If you’re watching this tape or DVD and feel the need to use the bathroom, grab a caffeinated beverage, get the mail, or just get up to stretch, this is the match to do it during, and no need to hit the pause button on the remote. The lack of mobility going on is sad at first, until Lawler starts talking about how these two can do moves that a lot of big men can’t. Too bad they didn’t use any of those moves. They punch and kick a lot, and Nash uses his big knee lift a ton. The only other “action” is UT’s telegraphed missed chair swing at Nash’s head, and UT falling over while he’s doing the chokeslam. They do a contrived double KO spot after simultaneous big boots, and after Diesel powerbombs UT, instead of selling or resting, he walks around and gloats. UT finally ends the pain with a tombstone, after a fifteen minute affair that went about 14:30 too long given the talent involved.
Piper and Goldust make their way to the ring to continue their fight, which is less entertaining than it was in the back lot. Goldust basically just kick’s Piper’s leg a bunch of times, and then “plays mind games” (read: does some homoerotic gestures) to which Piper rips off his gold outfit and he runs away wearing lingerie. Did the world *really* need to see that?
BRET HART © vs. SHAWN MICHAELS (WWF World Title - Iron Man Match)
After a fun but unspectacular undercard, this is an easy choice for match of the night. It’s a good match, but good is about it. There are plenty of things to like about it, but it’s got its share of things working against it. First and foremost are the Iron Man rules, it’s a bit on the strange side to book an iron match to go an hour and end it with them tied at zero. The rules of the match also hurt any heat that it could garner until late in the match. If they worked this exact same match, hold for hold, move for move, as a one-on-one match, the heat would be so much better throughout.
The whole match is filled with fun stuff, but not all of it really has a purpose beyond being cool looking filler. This especially applies to the early rest holds, which really did nothing other than eat the time up. Bret has always been known as a fine technician, even during his time in The Hart Foundation. Shawn never has been known for his ground game, so it’s a bit cool to see Shawn’s surprise counters and escapes to Bret’s headlock attempt. Bret learns his lesson and holds on to apply the hold. The message is clear that Bret underestimated Shawn, but learned his lesson. But he holds the headlock on for way too long, and it really doesn’t wind up going anywhere. The first real theme of the match is Shawn’s work on Bret’s arm, and impressively, twice in the same show was the shoulder to post spot not used as a meaningless transition. Shawn’s armbars aren’t really anything special, but look impressive in a WWF setting. But where does the arm work on Bret wind up going in the long run? Nowhere. Shortly after Shawn moves away from working on his arm, Bret unsuccessfully attempts a backslide, and it’s unsuccessful due to Shawn blocking, not because Bret’s shoulder is hurt.
Bret working over Shawn’s back is a bit deeper, but really does have the same sort of impact on the match as a whole. Bret’s back work isn’t as swanky looking as Shawn’s work on the shoulder is at times, but some of Bret’s work on Shawn’s back does have a bit of nastiness to it. Shawn also takes a couple of suicide bumps to help put the back work over too. But Shawn also does some things that take away from it a bit, like his big moonsault, and jumping rana off the top. The big head scratcher though is how was the Sharpshooter not able to get the submission after the specific area that it targets had been worn down. Bret has gotten tons of wins with that hold, without doing huge wear down jobs on the back.
After the halfway mark or so of the match, is when the lack of falls gets to be a bit frustrating. There were several points of the match where a fall could easily have taken place, and made things a bit more interesting. Bret’s piledriver springs to mind really quickly, and if it had gotten the win, Shawn could have tied it up with the rana he surprised Bret with and went for the pin, rather than pummel him with right hands. The bump Shawn took over the top turnbuckle was made for a count out. Bret’s tope at Shawn was right there for a double count out. Not that falls should end in count outs, but falls should take place in a match like this. Bret could have gotten a really nice fall when Shawn put the sleeper hold on and Bret did his roll-up counter. The extended control segment on Shawn’s back should have been enough for Bret to pick up a fall with the Sharpshooter, especially with the throwback to their first WWF Title match (Survivor Series 1992) with how Bret got the hold applied. The lack of near falls isn’t the only frustrating thing though, the ref bump, and the two bumps that Jose Lothario takes also served no purpose. All three bumps could have led to a slightly underhanded fall taking place. Be it Bret getting cradled while checking on the ref, or Bret giving Shawn a cheap shot while he checks on Jose.
The tie and sudden death rules aren’t a bad thing in the least. Had Bret stuck around after WrestleMania he had a perfectly good excuse for a rematch, and a draw is no way to end a major show. Bret’s aggressive and upset character is almost a replica of how he’d be portrayed at the beginning of next year. Not happy about the match having to continue, and going after Shawn’s back as quickly as he can. The first sweet chin music was a nice touch, although Shawn should have just covered and gotten two, rather than collapse to explain Bret’s kick out. Shawn not connecting all of the superkick should be the only reason he doesn’t get the win, and it gets negated two minutes later when he hits all of it, and manages to stay on his feet and get the cover and the pin. Time has certainly been kind to this match. It’s a really good match and an easy pick for best of the card, and an argument could even be made for best WWF match of the year. But compared to what was going in outside of the WWF in the great big world of pro wrestling that year, it’d be lucky to crack a top ten list. ***1/2
Conclusion: It’s known as a one match show, but honestly it’s got a decently fun undercard that leads up to a really good main event. Nash and UT stunk up the joint, but everything else managed to be enjoyable in one form or another, thumbs up for this show.