Lee Maughan: In the UK where Best of Raw 3 was released, the tape was deemed exempt from BBFC classification, which is interesting to note because of the lack of inclusion of something rather significant. You’ll note from the airdate of the first match that this is actually the second RAW of November ‘96, the prior edition being the first to air in the US at 8pm, putting it firmly in prime time and offering looser content restrictions. Why is that significant? Because it contains the infamous Pillman/Austin gun angle, the inclusion of which probably would have rendered this tape a 15 certificate at best, though more likely an 18 certificate, and resulted in it being unavailable to most of the WWF’s target demographic at the time. Hosted by ‘Handsome’ Dok Hendrix.
WWF Tag Team Championship
The British Bulldog & Owen Hart (c) vs. Sycho Sid & Shawn Michaels
This is from the arse end of the Fort Wayne taping cycle, with Shawn and Sid on the verge of clashing at Survivor Series for Shawn’s WWF title. Sid actually starts out for his team, but it’s Shawn who works the bulk of the match, trading high-speed stuff with Owen at first before the heels cut the ring off and they go to town. It’s all fairly energetic stuff, but it’s nothing you haven’t seen from these guys before. That’s not really a knock since Owen and Davey both work so well with Shawn, but it just feels fairly routine by their admittedly high standards. Sid keeps jumping into the ring to protest the heels’ cheating, but that constantly results in Shawn taking more and more of a beating, which Jerry Lawler actually points out on colour, drawing attention to it as the main focus of the match. Vince McMahon meanwhile just tries to claim that Sid is unaccustomed to tag team competition, so the lines are fairly murky on that. Owen misses a missile dropkick and that allows Shawn to make the hot tag and Sid runs wild, absolutely planting Davey with a chokeslam and clotheslining Owen over the top, but Shawn goes for the superkick on Davey who ducks, and Sid goes running into Shawn’s boot, gets knocked out, and that’s enough for Davey to get the pin and the champions to retain. The match was fine and told a good story, but that finish was so poorly timed and badly executed, largely on account of Sid’s timing that it left a bit of a bad taste. The WWE in years to come would get much better with the camera angles, and if Sid hadn’t been seen until the last split second here, it would have looked much better. Alas, it looked completely blatant, completely phony, and really hurt the overall package.
Final Rating: ***
Steve Austin vs. Mankind
On to the night after Survivor Series and the live episode of Raw from a fresh set of tapings. This was originally supposed to be Austin vs. Vader, but Vader got hurt last night at the hands of Yokozuna, which is unfortunate as it means he’s off TV now for a month. In fact, it was worse for Yokozuna – he was off TV for good after Survivor Series. Mankind’s presence should at least increase the speed of the bout which, mark your diaries, is one of the rare times you can talk up Mick Foley as being faster than someone. Mankind jumps Austin in the aisle and the brawl is on and it’s all fairly enthusiastic stuff, but it’s not quite as intense or as meaningful as it would become once Austin became the biggest star on the planet and Foley joined up with Mr. McMahon. The dynamic is quite similar in that Austin has enough support from the live crowd to be the de facto babyface in this all-heel encounter, and there’s also that old wrestling convention of one guy taking all the bumps and the suspension of disbelief making the guy seemingly responsible for it all the more popular. In this case, Mankind takes a back bump through the ropes and lands on his head, and then takes an Irish whip onto the top of the guard rail at full speed. Naturally, the place goes nuts for Austin off all that, and for his low blow to break the Mandible Claw. This being a “toughman contest” means he can get away with that since it’s relaxed rules. Before long though the action begins to feel a little bit directionless and slightly (but only slightly) tiresome, and the answer to that reveals itself in the form the Executioner (Terry Gordy under a second rate 1960s-style masked gimmick), who jumps in and belts Austin for the lousy disqualification finish. The Undertaker follows him in for the save in the new leathers he debuted at Survivor Series, but lone wolf Austin clotheslines him to the floor to make sure you know he’s not actually a babyface. At least, not yet. Good match, bad finish.
Final Rating: ***¼
Bret Hart vs. Owen Hart
This is Bret’s first match back on Raw after his big return, and in a really weird moment, Vince McMahon describes his comeback performance as “less than stellar.” That’ll be the same comeback performance in which Hart assembled a classic with Steve Austin at the Survivor Series. It’s such a weird pot-shot for Vince to take, especially since Bret is freshly back in the WWF camp after flirting with both Lonesome Dove and WCW, that with hindsight, it almost felt like Vince already had Montreal planned out.
You can tell the taste of the audience is changing because they were rabid for the Austin-Mankind brawl on last week’s show (earlier in this same taping), but they don’t sound interested in the technical wrestling on offer here at all. It probably doesn’t help that this match has been done to death since 1994 and Owen isn’t as aggressive as usual, which is likely by design, allowing the brothers to have at least one straight-up grappling battle built around counters and counter reversals, with Owen breaking out a lot of his trademark moves that almost play off like babyface spots; his headflip escape, his enzuigiri, his super quick belly-to-belly suplex. The crowd eventually start getting into it because good workers tend to have that effect, even when their matches start out cold, and Bret goes into a selection from his Five Moves of Doom™; the side Russian legsweep, the backbreaker and the second rope elbow. Owen takes a big spill to the outside and tries to come back with a sunset flip, but Bret catches him in the Sharpshooter, only for Austin to jump in and smash Bret with a steel chair for the disqualification. I’m starting to sense a theme with all of these lousy finishes.
Post-match, Austin tries to shatter Bret’s ankle with the chair just like he did to Brian Pillman, which Owen is all in favour of. But curiously enough Owen’s partner (and his and Bret’s brother-in-law of course) Davey Boy Smith runs out to protect Bret. Owen and Bulldog get in each other’s faces about it so Austin waffles Davey with the chair from behind, and now Owen is pissed with Austin too. It’s those Vince Russo/Attitude Era “shades of grey” with the lines between face and heel being completely blurred. That stuff becomes tiresome after a while and just dilutes the interest level in the characters, although with strong enough personalities it can at times be very intriguing, which it was here. Sadly, the angle didn’t really go anywhere although the long-term plan had been for Davey Boy to turn babyface until Bret himself wound up turning heel in early 1997 and put together the Hart Foundation stable, insisting Davey remain a heel for the group to go against a babyface Austin. Good match, bad finish, good angle.
Final Rating: ***½
Sycho Sid vs. Hunter Hearst Helmsley
Sid’s the WWF Champion and Helmsley holds the Intercontinental title, but this is for neither belt. It seems kind of odd for Sid to be booked against a heel here, since he himself just turned heel after belting Jose Lothario with a camera at Survivor Series, but given the reaction he got from the MSG faithful that night it’s probably for the best. Plus, you’ve probably already noticed a growing trend for cross-pollinating the heel/face divide rather than keeping everyone within their own self-contained group. Sid charges down the aisle and boots Helmsley in the back for a hot start, gorilla presses him around the ring, beats him up some more on the outside, whips him into the corner, chokeslams him and then looks to finish with the powerbomb, until Helmsley just rolls to the outside and the takes the count out loss. I get that Sid as WWF Champion was a much bigger star than Helmsley at this point, and I appreciate that you would want to protect your Intercontinental Champion to a certain extent, but Helmsley got completely squashed and made to look like a total geek here anyway, so why did they even bother booking this match? Couldn’t Sid have squashed, say, Bob Holly and achieved the same outcome, only with a decisive finish? This did nothing at all for Helmsley or his status as champion, made him look worse than third rate, and still failed to deliver on a satisfying conclusion. One can only presume that Helmsley was still in the doghouse after he, Shawn Michaels, Razor Ramon and Diesel broke kayfabe at Madison Square Garden back in May, but if that was the case then why even put the title on him in the first place? Pointless. A real head-scratcher all round.
Final Rating: ¼*
No Holds Barred
The Undertaker vs. Mankind
These two have been rumbling pretty much nonstop for the past six months, with no apparent end in sight, although this is the last notable match between the two for a little while at least. It’s kind of like back in the 80s when two guys would get programmed together for a loop or two of house shows, then when the feud had finally been exhausted at the box office, it would make its way to an episode of Saturday Night’s Main Event to act as both a special TV treat and an ultimate blow-off. Here, it’s more that the feud has been exhausted as a PPV match but still has a modicum of value to it as a Raw outing.
It’s a pretty good little brawl too, but at this point it really does feel like it has run out of steam. Undertaker works over Mankind’s fingers which is one of those things that’s totally logical, but hasn’t half taken him a long time to figure out. You can just imagine him jolting up in his coffin in a cold sweat in the middle of the night having one of those “Eureka! How could I have been so stupid?!” moments. A guy in the front is dressed like Cactus Jack and strikes up a small chant of “He’s hardcore! He’s hardcore!” with Mankind dropping a Cactus elbow off the apron shortly afterwards. I like that, it’s a nice subtle nod to the superfan that doesn’t confuse the few thousand WWF fans on hand with no idea who Cactus Jack even is.
Mankind brings in a chair so Undertaker kicks then punches it right back in his face. That’s one of those little things that really bugs me about wrestling – this is being presented as no holds barred match, not a no disqualification match, the difference being that you can use any hold you want, illegal or otherwise (which would work better if, say, the piledriver was banned in the WWF), but you can still get disqualified. Not so here as it’s apparently just an interchangeable term. You might argue that since Mankind brought the chair into the ring only to get hit with it himself, it shouldn’t count, but there was clear intent to use it there. It’d be like saying if he brought a gun into the ring, it should only count as a disqualification if he actually fires it himself, but not if Undertaker spins it around and he bullets himself in the head. Ridiculous.
Mankind avoids a Tombstone and gets the Mandible Claw, but Undertaker catches his second wind, escapes, and polishes things off with a successful Tombstone. Poor Mick. Everyone else gets protected left, right and centre, but Mankind gets to do a clean job on TV. In fairness, his run with the Undertaker was over (for the time being) and the goal was to set up an Undertaker-Executioner match, so sacrificing Mankind at this point didn’t really matter. And sure enough, the Executioner hits the ring post-match and puts Undertaker down with the Asiatic Spike. Pretty decent little match overall, but the two had better together, and with more prep time (this was still the night after they’d fought at Survivor Series remember) they probably could have done a lot more with the stipulation. Still, at least we got a clean finish for a change.
Final Rating: **½
– To the night after In Your House 12: It’s Time and another live edition of Raw now, as Bret Hart joins us to suggest there’s no good reason why he’s not the WWF Champion after last night. If you’ll recall, Bret lost his shot a Sycho Sid’s title after Steve Austin clipped his knee during the match and Shawn Michaels clambered up onto the ring apron after getting into it with Sid, only for Michaels and Hart to collide, leading to Sid scoring the pin on Bret with a powerbomb. Bret complains about how the WWF has changed for the worst, that rules have gone out of the window, and now he doesn’t even know who are his friends and who are his enemies. He warns Sid, Shawn and Austin that he intends to follow suit, won’t play by the rules any more, and joins the announce team where he promises to call thing “right down the middle… just like Shawn Michaels did last night.” Shawn of course had given word that he wouldn’t get involved in Bret’s match last night as he did commentary of his own, only to get physical after Sid barrelled into him. A good promo from Bret as he starts growing disillusioned with the direction of the promotion, both on air and in real life, which is tough to look back on knowing it was really the beginning of the end for him.
Steve Austin vs. Vader
Sticking with December’s live episode, this was the match originally scheduled last month that got changed due to Vader’s injury. Both guys are still heels, which continues the blurred lines trend of having everyone pretty much be enemies with everyone else, which makes sense from a logical standpoint since other combat sports like boxing don’t strictly have heels and faces (I mean, they do of course, but they’re not so blatant about it), but it’s the sort of thing that only works short term. If pro wrestling crowds had paid big money to see anyone vs. anyone regardless of their good guy/bad guy status, the development of such clear cut heroes and villains never would have even happened. It’s too bad Vince Russo failed to realise that, because as a novelty it’s cool to see, but as a regular occurrence it just waters the product down. Vader pounds away on Austin to a mixed but vocally strong reaction, so Austin fires back with a Lou Thesz press and a blistering series of punches, driving the crowd crazy. Ladies and gentlemen, we have our babyface. Vader smacks Austin around viciously and they brawl into the crowd. Back in the ring, Austin blocks a Vaderbomb with a low blow, drawing another gigantic reaction, and then fires away with punches in the corner. Vader buys himself some time with a back body drop to the outside, giving Bret his opening to go nuts, destroying Austin and trapping him in the Sharpshooter for a disqualification. Vader, aggrieved at having been robbed of both his match and the decision, attacks Bret, and they brawl until a swarm of referees split them before Bret then goes back to finish his job on Austin with another Sharpshooter. This time a horde of suited officials arrive but Bret is on such a rampage they struggle to break it up. The crowd goes absolutely nuts for all of this. It’s just too bad Vader wasn’t red hot as a heel when Austin was at his peak, because this was great up until the disqualification finish, but even that was fine thanks to the performance from Bret. Good stuff all round.
Final Rating: ***½
Bart Gunn vs. Billy Gunn
Unbelievably, this is the final blow off for the Smoking Gunns split. You’d think something like that could have been saved for an In Your House, but apart from captaining opposing teams in the Survivor Series Free for All match, this is it. And it’s hardly a match at all as after a couple of minutes of running through some basic spots, Bart drops Billy neck-first across the top rope with a stun gun, giving Billy a “stinger” as the WWF goes to the well for another Shawn Michaels-style injury angle. The referee stops the match as Billy lays motionless on the canvas, then both Gunns’ “wives” hit the ring (played by WWF staffers) as paramedics tend to Billy. Why they would turn a guy heel then have him be the victim of an injury angle like this which one would think could only draw sympathy, I have no idea. The whole thing was a pointless rehash of something already done much more successfully the previous year, and this version of it went absolutely nowhere, making this a classic example of just doing something for the sake of doing something. What a waste of time.
WWF Intercontinental Championship
Hunter Hearst Helmsley (c) vs. ‘Wildman’ Marc Mero
Helmsley can lose his title here if he gets disqualified or counted out, but thankfully for him Mero’s a nice enough guy not to arrange to have someone jump him after the opening bell and cause the DQ. The outcome is further telegraphed by the arrival of Goldust to observe proceedings from the crowd, Goldust having recently turned babyface after being “outed” as straight by Jerry Lawler, who asked him if he was “queer.” Ah yes, professional wrestling. Where coming out straight is considered grounds for a full-on babyface turn. Feuds intertwine as Mero goes after Lawler, chasing him from the announce booth but giving Helmsley his opening in the process. There’s some good psychology on display as Hunter thinks about striking Mero with a steel chair only to realise he’ll lose his title if he gets disqualified, and he gives up a lot of the match to Mero, which is all for the better. It’s been noted elsewhere in this book that Helmsley was a superb at the selling aspect of wrestling but his offence remained thoroughly tedious for a long time, so having the springboard-happy Mero control the action made it much more exciting than if the heel had led things, as is standard wrestling procedure. Of course, the match eventually reaches a point where Helmsley simply has to take control of things, but Mero stays alive with a few pinning sequences to keep things interesting, throwing in a tilt-a-whirl headscissors, a missile dropkick and a Samoan drop for good measure. Sadly, he misses a springboard moonsault and walks right into a Pedigree to give Hunter the title-retaining pin.
Post-match, Mero gets upset about the loss, but in fairness he lost clean as a sheet there so he doesn’t have a lot to complain about. Helmsley cuts a promo that winds up Goldust and the brawl is on. Pretty decent match this one actually, as Mero got most of the action and kept Hunter’s usually drab offence down to a minimum.
Final Rating: ***
Savio Vega & Jesse Jammes vs. Faarooq & Steve Austin
Why would Faarooq, a staunch advocate of black power, willingly team up with a southern redneck like Steve Austin? That hardly makes sense, but I suppose JC Ice, Wolfie D and Crush were all part of the Nation of Domination at this point so let’s not let logic get in the way of a good wrestling match. Austin jumps Jammes as he makes his entrance, which seems to be quite the popular way to kickstart a match having already happened twice on this tape. The heels trade off on Savio until he can get the rather lukewarm tag to Jammes, who misses a charge and takes a bad fall to the outside where Austin wipes him out with a chop block. Bret Hart arrives to check on Jammes, but he’s unable to continue so Hart takes his place clad in street clothes. You’d think that should have been a count-out on Jammes, but again, let’s not let logic get in the way of a good wrestling match. They go back to working heat on Savio in order to build the anticipation for Bret’s eventual tag, which almost doesn’t come as Savio finds an opening but opts to go for a big splash instead, but takes a pair of knees to the gut. Savio eventually escapes another round of heat with an electric chair on Faarooq, a big bump Faarooq seemed to like taking since he worked it into a whole bunch of matches around this time, and finally Savio gets the hot tag as the crowd explodes. Bret comes in, jeans and all, and goes for the Sharpshooter, which brings in Crush for the disqualification. Austin and the Nation run wild on Bret and Savio for a while until Ahmed Johnson in one of his typically ridiculous outfits, in this case looking like Danny Davis in a ski suit, makes the save with a 2×4. A big plank being swung by a big plank. The match was decent, but it was all build and no payoff, unless you consider Ahmed’s run-in the payoff. I did like the attention to detail from Bret though, what with him rather sensibly coming out in street clothes. It’s such a minor thing but seeing wrestlers who aren’t scheduled to have matches do unexpected run-ins with their gear on kind of defeats the point of the unexpectedness of it. Maybe if somebody actually took the time to explain that guys walk around the back in their gear in case of injuries and last minute substitutions it wouldn’t be so bad, but people are too lazy to bother and just expect modern fans to accept such nonsense without realising how much damage they’re doing to their own credibility. “Oh, it doesn’t matter, it’s only wrestling.” It doesn’t matter that I’m going to illegally stream your next pay-per-view for free then, does it? After all, it’s only wrestling…
Final Rating: **¼
– Jim Ross brings out Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels for a face-to-face clearing of the air. Shawn promises not to interfere in Bret’s match next week and condescendingly claims he wouldn’t dare dream of answering the first question ahead of the almighty ‘Hitman’, interestingly enough referring to himself as a “degenerate.” Bret viciously rips into Shawn, saying he’s learnt nothing about respect from Jose Lothario and calls him out on not fulfilling his post-WrestleMania promise that he would carry the WWF with dignity and honour, which Bret says Shawn didn’t even come close to doing. He also claims to have been “screwed” out of the WWF title in the Iron Man Match, and then moves on to burying Shawn’s status as a pin-up for 14-year old girls and people who read Playgirl magazine. He questions what kind of man Shawn really is and suggests that he’s anything but a “real man’s man”, going on to label Michaels “classless” and a “disgrace”. The real-life feelings magnified on-screen continue as Shawn fires back, rather crossing the line by accusing Bret of being anything but a role model on the road, implying that Bret was cheating on his wife after Bret had earlier mentioned how his kids used to look up to Michaels. That was a pretty lousy thing for Shawn to do but it’s not like it wasn’t true, which Bret finally admitted in his 2007 autobiography Hitman: My Real Life in the Cartoon World of Wrestling. Sadly, the quasi-shoot comes crashing to an end with the arrival of Sycho Sid, marking a sharp return to that cartoon world of wrestling. Sid tells both guys to quit arguing with each other about his title, but then the lights begin to flicker, heralding an appearance from the Undertaker. He gets jumped while making his entrance by his Royal Rumble opponent Vader, and Sid hits the deck for a face-to-face. Back in the ring, Michaels prevents Hart from leaving by accidentally on purpose crotching him on the middle rope, before diving onto Sid for a brawl.
An awesome segment here as the insider barbs from Bret and Shawn were absolutely electrifying, were reigned in enough that they never went over the heads of anyone who didn’t know what they were talking about, and even the much more standard pro wrestling angle type stuff once Sid and the boys arrived was really well done too. All this was crying out for was an appearance from Steve Austin and a six-pack challenge the following week.
Jerry Lawler vs. Goldust
This is joined in progress with Hunter Hearst Helmsley and the returning Honky Tonk Man on commentary, as Honky is scouting for a new protégé. Rockahunter, perhaps? Most of the focus is on the announcing, then after about a minute Helmsley gets up to kidnap Marlena, only for Marc Mero to block his path. Goldust catches up and wipes out Hunter, but that sends Marlena flying and a brawl leads to Goldust getting counted out with Marlena left in some distress. All very rushed due to time constraints and impossible to rate given how little match there actually was.
Summary: I actually remember picking this up in 1997 when it came out, and coming from a household that didn’t have SKY at the time, being enraptured with this tape that had so many big-time matches I’d missed out on, all neatly wrapped up into a two hour compilation. Watching it again more than 15-years later having since experienced an obviously much wider palette of pro wrestling, I found it to be somewhat flawed and tiresome. No less than seven of the ten matches ended in cheap, unsatisfying count-outs or DQs, which is a formula that might have served actual episodes of Raw well at the time, but stacked up against each other on a single tape is infuriatingly frustrating. Of course, the WWF was just trying to keep up with WCW’s Monday Nitro, which had introduced giving away pay-per-view quality matches for free on TV by tacking on the new convention of almost never giving a conclusive finish, and the WWF was clearly aping that booking ethos here lest they get left in the dirt. The positive is that you get a tape full of name vs. name matches, but the negative is that you rarely get anything of substance out of it. On a whole, the action is at least pretty good throughout, so you might want to give the tape a look if you can stomach all the non-finishes.