James Dixon: Strap yourselves in for yet another three hour trawl through the finest events in the WWF between January and September, this time from 1996. I have always quite enjoyed these annual retrospectives, so it is a shame that this is the final release of its kind.
Bret Hart (c) vs. The Undertaker
This match splits this office considerably. In his review of the show in Volume #3, HoW scribe Arnold Furious gave it a **** rating that caused drinks to be inadvertently spat out, staplers to be beaned across the room and many a cross word to be spoken. My initial response was: “You give it that score and you will have less credibility than Michael Cole”. Harsh words, but Furious to his credit made some great arguments about why this is an epic war, but I stubbornly dismissed all of them as bollocks. If Arn can find enjoyment in this drawn-out snoozefest then more credit to him, but I find it a colossal slog. The whole thing is worked at a pedestrian pace, with neither man willing to exert too much energy due to the length of the contest (28-minutes) and no points where it picks up and becomes exciting. Yes, the psychology is strong with Bret working over Taker’s leg and getting a heel response in the process, but he does that every match regardless of opponent, so I don’t buy that this is a concerted effort to cut Taker down to size. For me the whole thing lacks in intensity, and while it is certainly one of Taker’s better matches up until that point, that is no great praise given the usual quality of his opponents. To compound the disappointment, the finish is a lame DQ, with Diesel interfering and pulling the referee out as he was about to count a winning pinfall for the Undertaker following a Tombstone. Way to make your champion look weak. Even in clipped form (though a decent chunk is shown) this is a dull affair, and I almost think that I am rating it too high here, never mind four frigging stars.
Final Rating: **¼
Steel Cage Match
Bret Hart (c) vs. Diesel
The next month, Diesel received a title shot, with this being made a cage match to prevent Undertaker getting involved and returning the favour from last month. Of course that makes little sense, because if anything this should be a rematch for Undertaker in the cage, to prevent Diesel doing what he did at the Rumble again. This is basic logical booking, that interference in a straight-up singles match leads to a cage return bout, but the WWF had obviously not read their booking manual in a while. In a shoot interview with Kayfabe Commentaries, Kevin Nash cited this match as one of the reasons for his WWF departure, saying that Bret beforehand was complaining about the spot at the end with Undertaker coming through the ring, arguing that as WWF Champion, it made him look weak to need help to win. Nash says he turned around to Scott Hall in the showers afterwards and said “f*ck this” and that he was going to join him in WCW. So, if Nash it be believed, we are supposed to buy that he quit the promotion because of an angle, or Nash’s own perceived lack of worth? Not the multi-million dollar contract, creative control, cushy schedule and complete autonomy that WCW provided? Bret is right about the Taker spot anyway, because his involvement makes it both of the last two PPV defences that Hart has been unable to win on his own, with his title reign being used as a backdrop for the Diesel-Taker rivalry. Bret was booked to look incredible fallible while WWF Champion pretty much every time he had the belt, which would never have been done to Hulk Hogan. And then the WWF wondered why business struggled and why Hart didn’t draw major money. Sometimes the WWF is the architect of its own downfall. Actually scratch that; the WWF is always the architect of its own downfall. This is another meandering and boring affair, that doesn’t come close to reaching the heights of their excellent Survivor Series 1995 scrap. Again, I think Furious overrated it significantly, probably due to his love of the Hitman.
Final Rating: *½
WWF Intercontinental Championship
Goldust (c) vs. Ahmed Johnson
We skip ahead four months to this IC title match from King of the Ring 1996, which makes no sense chronologically (shouldn’t we have seen Goldust win the title from Razor Ramon at Royal Rumble first? Or his series of excellent scraps with Savio Vega on Raw?) but is a good choice for inclusion given the meteoric rise of Ahmed in early 1996, the superb performances from behind the make-up by Dustin Runnels and the fact that the result is an immensely popular title switch. The match itself is somewhat disjointed and scrappy, but at least it is heated, with Goldust provoking an immense level of revulsion from the crowd when he gives Ahmed “mouth to mouth”, and the place coming unglued when Ahmed hits the Pearl River Plunge for the very popular win. What a shame then, that this was the pinnacle of Johnson’s WWF career, with his subsequent two years in the promotion blighted by injuries, turning heel and some shoddy performances. As the WWF took the giant leap from New Generation to Attitude, Johnson was one of the first major casualties.
Final Rating: *¾
King of the Ring Semi Final
Marc Mero vs. Steve Austin
We stay at King of the Ring with this fairly notable match between two cast-out former WCW stars. Many casual fans saw Mero as a likely winner of this tournament coming in, what with the strong push he had been receiving and the decent crowd response he elicited, thanks in part to his PVC-clad wife Sable. In reality this tournament was fairly wide open when it came to directions the WWF could take, and while Austin seems like the obvious choice in hindsight, at the time that really wasn’t so. In fact I would have pegged him prior to the semi-finals as the rank outsider, given that Vader was such an unstoppable monster and that the WWF seemed to be behind the fairytale of Jake Roberts winning it. Austin was beginning to get over, sure, but he had hardly been given time to explore his new ‘Stone Cold’ persona and had barely done anything of note, so he wasn’t expected to come through this with the crown. Obviously it was the right choice and good booking from the WWF, but how intentional it was is another question, especially given the company’s original plan of having the tedious Hunter Hearst Helmsley win the thing. Having watched a lot of Hunter from the timeframe, I have to wonder just exactly what the hell the group saw in him. He wasn’t penetrating any of the McMahon family at the time, so the reasons behind his potential push can surely only stretch to the political bartering power of his vastly superior buddy Shawn Michaels, because it sure as shit wasn’t based on his in-ring stuff. What a blessing for the WWF that the Kliq were so unabashedly arrogant that they thought they could pull that Curtain Call stunt at MSG and get away with it. If they hadn’t been such dickwads, the WWF might have been a very different place, or perhaps not be here at all. Anyway the match, which is a solid contest between two good workers, is probably one of the best in Mero’s career. The difference between the lithe, agile and exciting Mero here and the fat waste of space he became in 1997/98, is amazing. It is like two different guys. I don’t actually enjoy this match as much as some, though in this case I realise I am in the minority. It just doesn’t quite do it for me, and I think it perhaps gets more love than it otherwise would due to the potency and long-term significance it has attached to it. Still good, but not great, though that finishing move Austin used is pretty nifty,..
Final Rating: ***
Host Kevin Kelly says how Austin went on to become the King of the Ring, though the footage and Austin’s now legendary “Austin 3:16” speech are remarkably left off. Sometimes the WWF just makes no sense. Speaking of things we don’t see, Shawn Michaels’ Royal Rumble win is merely mentioned rather than shown, but we do get to see his entrance at WrestleMania XII.
Iron Man Match
Bret Hart (c) vs. Shawn Michaels
I was rather hoping I would be able to avoid reviewing this match, because it is one of the most difficult to rate in wrestling history. Some think it is a classic, others a colossal bore. On one hand it is technically excellent and well executed by two of the greats, but badly booked and very slow in places. It almost harks back to the 50s and 60s, with long periods of the match being controlled by nothing holds like headlocks, and spots being worked out of them here and there. Undoubtedly there are some great moments and some memorable highlight reel visuals, but this is hurt from going as long as it has to. A match half the length would have been just as epic, but probably a far easier watch. The dead crowd hurts this as well, and they sit on their hands bored for the majority, only coming alive on occasion when something actually happens. The truncated nature of these highlights makes this look like a truly great match, but the full thing requires a lot of patience. The decision to book this as a 0-0 draw was a poor one, as it removed a lot of the potential intensity and the various storyline possibilities that inserting falls can offer. The overtime ruling was also questionable, because as Bret correctly pointed out in kayfabed interviews, in the event of a draw the champion retains, and he signed on for a 60-minute match, not a 61:47 one. Michaels winning, which he does with the superkick, was the right decision, but the booking was all to pot. Good, but far from great.
Final Rating: ***¾
The Undertaker vs. Diesel
I am a big fan of the admittedly cartoony and silly build-up for this battle of the behemoths, also at WrestleMania XII, and unlike Hart-Michaels, this actually far surpassed all realistic expectations. Nash and Taker were hardly best buds in the mid-90s due to their respective allegiances with backstage political factions, but both were smart enough to realise that working together professionally was of mutual benefit to them. Contrast that to Bret and Shawn, who both took countless cheap shots and threw the odd cheeky potato in their match, at times to its detriment. Given that they go over 15-minutes, this match is a triumph. Both guys are among the best big-men workers of all time (despite what we say about Nash sometimes, he had some genuinely great matches, whereas Taker’s record speaks for itself), and quite fittingly this is one of the better clashes of the titans in WWF history. It certainly pisses all over the Colossal Jostle.
Final Rating: ***
Shawn Michaels (c) vs. The British Bulldog
This comes from the doomed Beware of Dog pay-per-view, which was famous for a power cut that left the building with only tiny lights and the feed for the TV audience completely lost. This match made it to air as the power was restored, but the majority of the card had to be redone. Because of the amount of time it took to get the power back and get the main event lit properly so it could actually be shown to paying customers, the action needed to be truncated compared to the original plan. Earl Hebner relaying this information to Shawn while he is selling a chinlock, results in a famous and frankly pathetic tantrum from Michaels, who blatantly starts whining in lieu of selling, and then decides to sabotage the entire match by avoiding a Davey kitchen sink and taking a ridiculous bump to the outside off nothing, where he dead-sells. Davey and Heber have no idea how to react, and what had been a fairly absorbing contest comes apart at the seams due to Shawn’s childish behaviour. I am surprised they didn’t cut out all of that given that this tape is full of clipping, but I shouldn’t be surprised. Anyway, looking back it is amusing to watch. The finish sees Shawn prevent interference from Owen Hart with a shitty looking superkick, before hitting a German suplex that pins both guys. Confusion abounds as both Davey and Michaels are announced as the winner, before they settle on a lame draw. For those keeping count, that is every WWF Title match shown on this tape that has had a badly booked and unsatisfying finish. 1996 was a shitty year for finishes in the big matches, with the trend continuing in to SummerSlam and another match where Michaels had a famous tantrum, this time opposite Vader. In a startling coincidence, another major WWF/E show to lose power during the broadcast, the woeful Battleground in 2013, also had a lame and unsatisfying draw in the main event. Spooky.
Final Rating: **¾
WWF Intercontinental Championship
Goldust (c) vs. The Undertaker
This comes from the second run of Beware of Dog matches that were re-taped two days later. Given that we have already seen Goldust lose the title to Ahmed Johnson earlier in the tape on a show that took place a month later, this is an odd choice to feature. If it was a good match at least there would be justification, but it’s not, it is just a slog between two guys whose styles don’t complement one another. Many critics rightfully panned the WWF when it did the Katie Vick necrophilia angle, but in truth they had done it years earlier with this feud. Sure the segments are nowhere near as disgracefully bad taste, but the fact remains that Undertaker is the ‘dead man’ and a zombie, and Goldust is a big golden gay who wants to copulate with him. The match is not horrific or anything, but there is little to recommend it. Mankind gets involved for the Goldust win, and then Taker pulls his usual Houdini act.
Final Rating: *½
WWF Tag Team Championship
The Smoking Gunns (c) vs. Owen Hart & Davey Boy Smith
I covered this already for the horrific Sunny tape, with her in the corner of the Smoking Gunns, as she continues to be passed around between the tag teams like Chlamydia. I have little desire to watch it again, because it is just a generic by-the-numbers tag match that certainly doesn’t warrant inclusion on a tape claiming to represent the best moments of the year. Then again for the tag division it probably was, because at least it ended with a talented duo wearing the belts, as opposed to the horrid pairings that had been wearing the straps all year prior to this. The match actually starts fairly quickly, with Owen and Davey getting the better of the early exchanges. Both teams were heels at this point, but Davey and Owen play babyface due to the presence of Sunny at ringside with the Gunns. After their opening shine, Owen and Davey work a heat, which is just ass-backwards. What kind of formula sees the same team do the shine and the heat!? I expect better from Owen and Davey. After some dull action, the Gunns hit their Sidewinder finisher, but Clarence Mason interferes to prevent the fall. The Gunns end up working a heat of their own on Davey, who mounts his own comeback and pins Bart with the powerslam to win the belts, after some shenanigans involving Billy and Sunny. Post match, Sunny berates the Gunns and fires them. Almost completely worthless due to the weird psychology.
Final Rating: *¼
Boiler Room Brawl
The Undertaker vs. Mankind
Bafflingly, the WWF decides against showing anything from the actual boiler room portion of the match, instead just featuring the sluggish brawl back to ringside in the “match beyond”. What a joke. As such there is nothing particularly to rate, because without the first half the match is basically just two guys rolling around at ringside until Paul Bearer shocks the world by belting Taker hard in the mush with the urn, severing their near six year on-screen affiliation. Even though the interesting but slow boiler room part of the bout was axed, there is still room for the post-match Undertaker shenanigans, as he gets carried off by druids. If they had removed a lot of the pointless fluff on this tape they could have shown some of these better matches in full.
WWF Intercontinental Title Tournament Final
Faarooq Asad vs. Marc Mero
Next we go to another match that featured on the horrible Sunny tape, which should give you an idea of how good this is. It comes from Raw the night after Mind Games, and is the final of the Intercontinental title tournament, the belt having being vacated by Ahmed Johnson after Faarooq attacked him in kayfabe land. Faarooq beat Savio Vega and Sid to get this far, whereas Mero defeated Steve Austin and Owen Hart. Pat Patterson, the first ever IC champion, is the referee. Sunny is in the corner of Faarooq, who is her new singles charge, and Sable is in the corner of then husband Marc Mero. The WWF was all over the place in 1996, with titles being vacated and strange choices progressing in the subsequent tournaments for those belts. If this was Ron Simmons vs. Johnny B. Badd then I would be far more interested. Mero is a strange one, because he was a good flyer and did exciting moves, but he still managed to be boring. He had no idea how to play his character, because he was trained by WCW to be Johnny B. Badd and that was all he knew. Having earlier been ejected from ringside, Sunny returns and gets into a catfight with Sable, which ends with slaps for both. Mero takes advantage in the ring and hits the shooting star press to win the belt. Once again I am forced to disagree with the assessment of my colleagues, because I didn’t think much to this at all.
Final Rating: *½
Shawn Michaels (c) vs. Mankind
One match we (nearly) agree on though, is this classic. Universally this is recognised as the finest wrestling match in Mankind’s career, and is a much better representation of his skills when at his peak than the stunt filled nonsense from Japan or the silly bumps of Hell in a Cell. For 30-minutes Mick Foley and Shawn Michaels assemble a brutal epic, full of intelligent big bumps and measured violence. It is safe to say that this blew people away at the time, because the WWF had never done anything like it (Diesel-Michaels from Good Friends… Better Enemies was similar in a lot of respects, but this surpasses it) and it really made Mick Foley in the WWF as far as winning Vince McMahon over and seeing him as a WWF Superstar rather than just a garbage wrestler. Some go the full boat for this, but I am reluctant to do so because of the crappy DQ finish (yes, yet another main event in 1996 was ruined by the weak booking) and the relatively small-time setting. Truly great matches need every factor to be in place to achieve the 5* accolade, and those key elements prevent this from doing so. A great match though, and even better at the time than when watched back through slightly jaded eyes, but I am not in love with it like many others are and I think it has been surpassed since. Be warned too, that the version on this tape is clipped and if you want the full experience so you can make your own mind up about those fractional star quibbles, then be sure to check this out in its unedited form.
Final Rating: ****½
Summary: In places this is a real chore to get through, and some of the finishes will leave you pulling your hair out with frustration, but if you can stick out the less pleasing aspects of the tape, there is some rewarding action to be found. While this does nothing like the great summary job of the 1992 edition, nor is there anything that hasn’t been seem countless times before, it still does what it says on the box and covers the majority of the key moments from 1996, on pay-per-view at least. There are baffling exclusions, but I guess there is only so much room and not every match can feature Shawn Michaels. I still hate the way these things cut off in September, but such are the pitfalls of releasing these tapes so early in the year as to make sure they didn’t become irrelevant. This probably has more value than it did at the time given the rarity of some of the matches nowadays, though don’t buy this for any one specific bout, as all of them suffer at least some butchering. If you own it then pop it on for a bout of nostalgia and some decent action in what is otherwise a fairly poor year.