Lee Maughan: By 1996, the WWF was firmly into the era of 12 pay-per-view events per year, and with the advent of WCW Monday Nitro the previous September, had begun loading up its own A-show RAW with marquee matches. The result was Coliseum Video had begun to suffer as a result, with the “exclusive” titles featuring dark matches from television tapings having all but dried up after half a decade on Woolworths’ video shelves. The solution, at least in the UK? The Best of RAW, a brand new bi-monthly series collecting together all the key matches and angles from the WWF’s premier production. A cheap cash-in allowing the group to recycle material already given away for free on TV, or a handy time capsule packed with just the moments that actually mattered? Hosted by Kevin Kelly.
Davey Boy Smith & Vader vs. The Godwinns
Owen Hart had a broken wrist at this point, hence Vader as his surrogate. He’s not the worst on-paper replacement you could come up with because he’s pretty awesome in his own right, but the problem is that just leaves you with four powerhouse guys, two of whom have been saddled with a pig farmer gimmick, and one of those two having never been any good regardless, low-rent gimmick or not. The consequence is a grand old dose of sluggery that feels like it drags on for much, much longer than it actually does. It also says a lot about the WWF’s tag team division of 1996 that the Godwinns were only weeks removed from having held the titles, yet nobody in the crowd actually buys them having a chance against this somewhat makeshift Camp Cornette duo, even when Henry gets a rather impressive falling slam on Vader. No, a protracted heat segment and an un-expectant crowd does not for an exciting match make, although they do come alive when the sloppy dung-rakers finally make the hot tag after a double down and run wild like expectant hogs to a fresh feeding trough. Sadly it all comes to naught as Vader clobbers Phineas from behind, allowing Davey Boy to pin him after a powerslam. Now, I don’t advocate injuries at all, but it’s kind of a shame it wasn’t Davey who was out of action here because I can imagine Vader and Owen being a hell of a team, and Owen’s faster-paced ring-style was an element this match sorely lacked.
Final Rating: **
Shawn Michaels (c) vs. Billy Gunn
Billy was still a tag team wrestler at this point but the WWF long had him pegged for bigger things, so this was almost a dry run of sorts, putting him in a main event singles match on TV with the WWF Champion to see if he could hang. He couldn’t. Admittedly, Shawn was in practically a league all of his own by 1996, but the gulf in quality is remarkable. Shawn was just so good at bumping around like a human superball, his timing absolutely impeccable. Billy by contrast just looks like an absolute clown and has no focus or direction to anything he does once he takes over for the heat segment. It’s easily the least interesting part of the match, but fortunately Shawn wraps it up not long after with his Three Moves of Doom (flying forearm, big elbow, superkick.) Despite his lacklustre performance here, Billy still got a singles push later in the year, completely bombing as Rockabilly and only recovering from that once he paired up with Road Dogg as the New Age Outlaws.
Final Rating: **½
WWF Tag Team Championship
The Smoking Gunns (c) vs. Shawn Michaels & Ahmed Johnson
The perpetually injured Ahmed was working with a broken nose here, as evidence by a strip of white tape he’s got holding it in place. Lawler picks up on that and questions why he’s got sunscreen on indoors, before stopping to point out that Ahmed wouldn’t need any. As the old saying goes: “You can take the redneck out of Tennessee, but you can’t take the borderline racism out of the royal.” Or something along those lines. This was excellent stuff, quite possibly the best match either Billy, Bart or Ahmed ever had throughout their respective careers, which just goes to show you how much more valuable an asset Billy was in tag teams, and how incredible Michaels really was as a worker at what was arguably the peak of his career. At least, the peak of his career until he blew his back out, retired for four years then somehow managed to come back even better than before. Not that the other guys don’t pull their weight, but between Ahmed’s usual sloppiness, the blandness of Bart, and Billy’s awkward selling, the credit realistically must go to Shawn. Let’s face it, as solid a unit as the Gunns could be, how many really great matches of theirs can you name off the top of your head? Not too many I’d wager. The Headshrinkers maybe? Owen Hart & Yokozuna? Nothing else? Undoubtedly this is their peak work-wise, although it doesn’t quite reach the heights of “TV classic” owing to much too much chinlocking from Billy, which harkens back to what I said during the last match about his lacking direction when he was on offence. Shawn’s back-first bump over the corner to the floor is worth singling out for special praise given the incredible speed he performs the spot at (no wonder he blew that back of his out), and the bout comes to an abrupt halt when a chunky bloke in ridiculous silver helmet and wide-cut powder blue singlet comes pelting down the aisle like a space age gladiator and kicks Ahmed’s kidney so hard it gets lodged in his brain. That would be Ron Simmons (identified as such by Jerry Lawler) making his surprise debut as Faarooq Asad, setting up a feud with Johnson that was supposed to lead to an Intercontinental Title match at SummerSlam until plans had to be changed on account of that kick being so stiff it legitimately put Ahmed on the shelf.
Final Rating: ***½
Sycho Sid vs. Justin Hawk Bradshaw
This is Sid’s first TV match after his return following a six-month absence, and he is over like Grover. Like, just an unbelievable reaction for the guy. If you ever wondered why a guy so universally maligned as a terrible pro wrestler continued to get pushed as a superstar time and time again, it was in large part due to reactions just like this. He stunk, but he had “it”, and that was all that mattered. 6’10” and 320 muscle-packed pounds of powerbombing pleasure. That’s what Sid brought to the table, and goddamn did he ever come across like a superstar. Sadly, the Sid package comes complete with matches, like a shitty salad you didn’t really ask for with your steak and chips. Or in Sid’s case, the shitty steak and chips you didn’t really ask for with your salad. Fortunately the WWF had cottoned on to that by this point, and booked a lousy disqualification in Sid’s favour here, Bradshaw having clotheslined him with his bullrope after having eaten a chokeslam, literally the only move of the match. This was during the WWF’s first of many attempts to get Bradshaw over, so naturally he couldn’t do a clean job here, which makes me wonder what the point of even booking the match was in the first place. That being said, any time he looked to get on the offensive the crowd just completely died, only coming alive when it looked like Sid might kick some stock market ass. Bradshaw eventually did eat a powerbomb, as did his manager Uncle Zebekiah, and the crowd went apeshit. It was short, it was pointless, it was bad, and everyone was happy. Viva Sid!
Final Rating: ¼*
The Undertaker vs. Steve Austin
There’s a common misconception amongst wrestling fans, particularly those with short memories, that Steve Austin made himself a superstar the night he won the King of the Ring tournament. In actuality, the win did little to alter his position on the card, and many of the events between that night and his true starmaking performance at WrestleMania 13 were purely circumstantial. As is common legend, Austin was only gifted the crown when Hunter Hearst Helmsley, the WWF’s original choice, found himself in the doghouse for his part in the kayfabe-exposing and allegedly unauthorised “curtain call” incident at Madison Square Garden the previous May. From there, it was the return of Bret Hart to the promotion in September and Hart’s own personal request for a program with ‘Stone Cold’ that saw the focus shift back in his direction, and his Royal Rumble victory in January was only booked because Vince Russo, under his Vic Venom gimmick, had gone on an episode of LiveWire the weekend of the event and picked Bret as the only possible winner of that match, which somehow saw Russo rewarded with a promotion onto the booking team. It remains one of the most self-serving, self-absorbed, idiotic deconstructions of the unspoken rules of professional wrestling booking logic ever witnessed. Imagine Penn Jillette going on live TV and exposing how David Copperfield was going to make the Statue of Liberty disappear before Copperfield had even performed the trick, then Copperfield hiring Jillette as his new right-hand man. Finally, Austin’s legendary WrestleMania match with Hart only came about as a result of Hart’s original opponent Shawn Michaels forfeiting the WWF Title after coming down with a crippling knee injury as a result of realising he was going to have to do a job, and Austin fitting the bill as a makeshift opponent owing to his and Hart’s recent history.
Don’t ever let anybody tell you that “Austin 3:16 says I just whipped your ass!” was a green light on his rocket to the main event because, for as legendary a speech as that was, it’s all just revisionist history. Further evidence of that comes in the form of this match, a bout that on paper has all the look of something you’d expect the WWF to insist on saving as a potential future pay-per-view collision, yet had no qualms about throwing out on free TV twice in the span of five weeks (Undertaker had won their previous meeting by disqualification after Goldust had thrown gold dust into his eyes.) Not that it mattered in the long run; their outing at SummerSlam ‘98 still went on to pull a whopping 700,000 buys at a time both guys were red hot. Here, like the rest of the promotion, they were still just lukewarm, and the match suffered somewhat due to the limitations still surrounding Undertaker’s gimmick. With the Mankind feud still brand new, it was a transitional time for ‘the Dead Man’, who’d spent the better part of the past five years slowing lumbering around after useless lunks like Giant Gonzalez. Here, he was starting to show flashes of the fact he could actually work a match as well as a gimmick, but he still gets caught up in the snail’s pace zombie act from time to time. Austin was still working out some of the kinks too, having been a technical wizard in his younger days, but slowly starting to add more smash mouth brawling in a way that was better suited to his character. The upshot is a baseline good match, but only just barely.
Undertaker, looking for a chokeslam off the top to finish things, spies Mankind wandering out from his little patch in the boiler room and meets him head-on for a brawl, giving Austin the count-out win. Not happy with that, Undertaker comes back and gives ‘Stone Cold’ a Tombstone anyway. Again, if the WWF had genuinely been interested in pushing Austin as a top-line star in 1996, they never would have booked that spot.
Final Rating: ***
11-Man Invitational Battle Royal
This match just absolutely infuriates me, because the WWF call it an “invitational battle royal” to disguise the fact they couldn’t even rustle up an even 12 names for it. Not only that, but they also have the Undertaker and Mankind brawl throughout the building in lieu of actually competing, in order to protract their ongoing feud further, whilst avoiding having to eliminate two of the biggest names from the match. Which is fair enough, but what it means is you’ve essentially got a 9-man battle royal, and they still don’t make it interesting. With less guys in there and more room to operate, you’d think that would allow a little creative freedom, but no, it’s just a bunch of guys meandering around and hugging ropes; it’s just terrible. In fact, the lack of enthusiasm from all involved really drags things down when you consider what the extra ring space might have brought, making it an even more useless battle royal than usual. Believe it or not, once things finally pare down to a final four, things get even worse. Those four? Sid, Goldust, Ahmed Johnson, and Steve Austin, and not a single one of them even looks interested in winning the damn thing, as they clubber each other through several commercial breaks with as little energy as possible. Sid eventually powerbombs Goldust to finally wake the crowd up, but by the time he goes for a powerbomb on Austin, Goldust is already back up and brawling with Ahmed, completely no-selling the effects of what was supposed to be one of the most devastating finishing moves in all of wrestling. Never one to be outdone, Sid amps up the stupidity by following up his powerbomb on Austin not by attempting to throw him out of the ring, but by slapping on a chinlock instead. I guess he’s at least consistent in his insanity, but man alive does that ever display a distinct lack of the understanding of ring psychology. Sid finally gets dumped by Austin after being distracted by his SummerSlam opponent, Davey Boy Smith, then Goldust eliminates Austin as Austin tussles on the ropes with Ahmed. And then there were two, until they both fly over the top and Ahmed somehow hangs onto the top rope using the back of his knees as Goldust hits the deck.
Having won the match, Ahmed’s prize is a crack at the WWF champion, whoever that is coming out of SummerSlam, telegraphing Vader’s upcoming victory. This is more interesting in hindsight when you consider Shawn Michaels pulled a famous temper tantrum and refused to lose the title, which should have led to a very intriguing on-paper match-up with Michaels defending against Ahmed. Of course, Ahmed’s injury put paid to all that anyway, and his victory here was actually one of those things that really underscored the perils of taping your television weeks at a time. That’s because this battle royal actually took place at the same taping as the attack on him by Faarooq Asad that was featured earlier on the tape, but aired after Ahmed had gone down with a legitimate injury. As a consequence, what fans saw in “real time” was Faarooq assaulting Ahmed and rupturing his kidneys, then Ahmed the following week winning a battle royal during which he showed no ill-effects of the injury, before hitting the injured reserve list for the next several months. Faarooq even came out at the end of the battle royal for a pull-apart with Ahmed to build to their to-be-cancelled Intercontinental title match at SummerSlam. And what did Faarooq ever do to earn that title match, besides sneak attack someone? If I was a WWF mid-carder in 1996, I’d be pissed at that decision, even if Faarooq was a former WCW World Champion. Elsewhere, the match did build to two other SummerSlam bouts, Sid vs. Davey Boy and Undertaker vs. Mankind, but the rest of the action was way beyond tiresome, worse even than an IRS match. I’ve got to go ¼* because it wasn’t entirely without merit, but believe me, besides those minor points of purpose, this match was a stonewall DUD.
Final Rating: ¼*
Shawn Michaels vs. Owen Hart
It seems strange to call a ***+ match a disappointment, but that’s what this was. Still, thems the breaks when you’re as talented as Owen Hart and are on the hot-streak of a lifetime in terms of quality matches like Shawn Michaels was as WWF Champion in 1996. I should really blame my own expectations because based on previous form, this on paper looked like it was going to be a **** classic. Instead, it was standard TV wrestling. Really good standard TV wrestling mind, but by the reputation of each man and accounting for their usual chemistry opposite one another, just standard TV wrestling, nothing exceptional. A shame really. Michaels wins it with two superkicks after foiling interference from Vader. Vader at least murderized Michaels after the match to build to their meeting at SummerSlam, dropping two Vaderbombs (not to mention a pair of referees) before Shawn had to be dragged out of the ring to safety by the officials. You’d think with that kind of hot angle SummerSlam would have done a better buyrate, but you’d be wrong, partly due to the WWF booking Michaels to beat Vader in short house show matches all around the circuit prior to the big pay-per-view clash. In fact, Michaels even pinned Vader in a dark match during this very RAW taping, polishing off the big man with a superkick in just 21-seconds. Talk about an overinflated ego. Dark match or not, how the hell was that supposed to help anyone? For as much as people bemoan the predictable Hulk Hogan era and laud Michaels for his in-ring superiority, even the almighty ‘Hulkster’ wouldn’t have been dumb enough to bury his opponent BEFORE he’d drawn any money with him.
Final Rating: ***¼
Faarooq Asad vs. Skip
This was Faarooq’s in-ring debut, the big joke obviously being that his first opponent was his manager Sunny’s real-life boyfriend. On that basis, you’d think the next logical step would have been secretly feuding with Shawn Michaels. Anyway, this was just a complete squash, as any reasonable debut should be, though the fact a name worker like Skip only managed to get all of three punches in should tell you all you need to know about how quickly his star had fallen over his year-plus in the promotion. Faarooq finished a rather bland four minutes with an over-the-shoulder pancake slam. Very dull stuff.
Final Rating: ½*
WWF Intercontinental Championship Tournament Q/F
Owen Hart vs. Davey Boy Smith
This was joined in progress, riling me to no end given how unnecessary the inclusion of that Faarooq match was. Not that it mattered much as the majority of the action on offer here was ignored in favour of a split-screen interview with Jim Cornette, ranting about how two of his charges being booked as opponents is a conspiracy against Camp Cornette. He also claimed to have reopened contact with Yokozuna, booking him in a match against Shawn Michaels to soften Michaels up for Vader. And once all that was out of the way, any chance to concentrate on the actual wrestling was nullified by the match almost immediately going to its rather silly conclusion after both men took a spill to the floor and Owen nailed Davey Boy with a spinwheel kick, leading to Davey getting counted out. That might not sound so silly, but it led to an apparently aborted angle in which Sunny (stationed at ringside for guest commentary duty) accused Davey of looking up her skirt like a pervert before Cornette arrived to call her a “slut.” Where, oh where, would pro wrestling be without its misogyny? It’s hard to say what the deal was with Sunny there, as it looked to be the very earliest hint at Bulldog’s slow-burning babyface turn that never came to be following the formation of the Hart Foundation stable in March 1997, but it may well just have been some insider gag based on the fact Sunny was apparently caught knocking Davey Boy off in the showers. Of course, the timeline may be a little out there, but she is known to have cheated on Michaels (the guy she was cheating with on Skip) with Davey, leading to the friction between Michaels and Davey that built to a head at One Night Only in September ‘97.
Final Rating: **
Mankind and the freshly-turned Paul Bearer hit the ring to crow about the demise of the Undertaker the night previous at SummerSlam, but as the arena lights dipped in and out, the sea of druids who carried the ‘Dead Man’ out the Igloo martyred him right into Monday Night RAW, whereupon he sat back up to life and made the ringposts explode with fluid like a well-beaten penis. This is a thing that really happened. I just wish there’d been footage of the druids carrying a lifeless Undertaker from one arena to the next over the course of that 24-hour period, stopping off for refreshments at a local mom and pops, or hitching a ride on the back of a trailer full of farmyard animals. Wait, what am I saying? Balls deep into four volumes of Coliseum Video reviews and I’m starting to think like Vince McMahon. That cannot be good for my health.
Shawn Michaels vs. Yokozuna
Star ratings are a curious thing, aren’t they? Earlier in this tape, I gave ***¼ to a Michaels-Owen Hart match and labelled it a “disappointment.” I’m going a star lower here but lashing praise on Michaels for it. Yokozuna was long past his sell-by-date at this point, a gargantuan blob of near-immobility whose babyface turn and efforts earlier in the year to get Vader over as a legitimate threat had rendered him all but worthless by the time he was booked to put Steve Austin over in humiliating fashion on the SummerSlam pre-show. Here, Michaels managed to drag one last worthwhile bout out of him, flying around the ring, bumping and selling every blow to a tee. To Yokozuna’s credit, even at the size he’d ballooned up to he was still getting some serious height on his legdrops and his limited bumps were still incredibly athletic, all things considered. The problem was the in-between of all that, the slowly dragging his gelatinous carcass back to its feet, the slapping on of a nerve pinch so breath could be caught. As impressive as it was to see the big man move, it was equally as painful to see him struggle. Fortunately, the WWF had the common sense not to book this match any longer than it needed to be and after a missed legdrop about six minutes into the bout, to paraphrase Eric Bischoff, the little guy beat the big guy with a superkick.
Final Rating: **¼
Summary: So a solid collection overall then, like one of those old Best of the WWF tapes but with significantly more focus, and the fact that the culled footage all comes from the promotion’s primary television output gives the majority of the content on offer a value it would otherwise have lacked had it all been mined from second-string TV taping dark matches. There’s nothing essential here, but it’s a fun use of two hours that never drags and moves along at a zippy pace. Fairly recommended.