From The Hartford Civic Center in Hartford, CT
April 2, 1995
Three years after raking in over 60,000 fans to nearly fill a domed stadium, the WWF experienced the ignominy of putting their biggest show of the year on display in a shopping mall.
Imagine, shunted in between your local Best Buy and Bed, Bath, and Beyond is a moderately sized civic center, and that building is housing the eleventh annual WWF WrestleMania, in the middle of one of the smallest states in America.
Coming down from the enthralling and hallowed Madison Square Garden of one year prior, perhaps Vince McMahon was better off holding WrestleMania in an actual garden.
Despite dodging a bullet in July of 1994 by being acquitted on charges of steroid distribution, Vince McMahon was still reeling. Toymaker Hasbro pulled their licensing out, declaring the WWF a “dead brand”. The stench of illicit happenings in the World Wrestling Federation was enough to gag a large number of fans into turning away from the product. Those that stayed were treated to the rise of wrestling’s most cartoonish circus atmosphere to date, with silly storylines and nonsensical characters (garbage men, race car drivers, pig farmers, etc).
Attendance waned at television tapings and house shows. Pay per view buyrates were largely sliding. In 1994, the WWF began the still-running tradition of having sponsors for pay per views (Dominos Pizza would be the first for Summerslam ’94).
To top it all off, McMahon watched Hulk Hogan and Macho Man Randy Savage both defect to WCW and bring mainstream attention to Ted Turner’s “rasslin’” company. McMahon tried celebrity tie-ins to shuttle fans into his product, such as Leslie Nielsen, Chuck Norris, and senile NFL great Art Donovan, but to little avail.
However, at the 1995 Royal Rumble, two celebrities would become intertwined with WrestleMania XI, and it would help save the day.
Shawn Michaels, long considered to be on the fast track to stardom after his stellar performance in the ladder match at WrestleMania X, won the 1995 Royal Rumble match from the #1 position. Lasting around forty minutes in the fastest Rumble match in history (just one minute intervals), Michaels survived all the way to the end of the match with the #2 entrant, Davey Boy Smith. After a false elimination that gave impression to the British Bulldog’s victory, Michaels snuck back into the ring (with only one foot having touched the floor), and deposited Smith over the top.
Diesel, three days later, won said WWF Championship by defeating Bob Backlund at Madison Square Garden in just eight seconds. Diesel survived a title defense against Bret Hart at the 1995 Royal Rumble, wherein five different men (Michaels included) interfered.
Michaels was convinced that he had created the monster of “Big Daddy Cool”, and was equally convinced that he could break him as well. In Diesel’s mold, Shawn Michaels brought in Sid Vicious, now simply known as Sid, to be his new bodyguard, and to convince the world that Diesel was as replaceable as anyone.
In addition to winning the Royal Rumble match, Michaels won the opportunity to be accompanied to the ring by Baywatch sensation Pamela Anderson. In 1995, Anderson was at the apex of her fame, starring on a syndicated show that was watched worldwide, and it catapulted her into permanent stardom. Getting Baywatch’s own CJ Parker was a coup for the WWF, and would certainly turn some relatively positive attention toward the big event.
But Anderson wasn’t the only star who was tied in with that year’s Royal Rumble. Sitting front row at ringside to the January spectacular was future NFL Hall of Famer Lawrence Taylor. The fearsome linebacker was seated with friends, taking in the action, when he suddenly became a part of the show.
Bam Bam Bigelow and Tatanka had failed in their bid to become WWF World Tag Team Champions, and it was Bigelow’s clumsiness that was the difference maker. As the “Beast From the East” seethed in loss, he stomped around ringside on the verge of a tantrum. That’s when he caught “LT” giggling, and Bigelow perceived his merriment to be a slight against his manhood.
Bigelow confronted Taylor, who seemed keen on playing peacemaker. Taylor’s good natured attitude fell on deaf ears, as Bigelow shoved Taylor over a row of chairs, creating a new hot button story.
In WWF vernacular, Bigelow was suspended for thirty days for touching a spectator, but before long, the two men were signed to meet at WrestleMania in the main event.
Vince McMahon and Jerry Lawler handled commentary duties for the second straight year, while Jim Ross provided post-match interviews from the aisleway. Special Olympian Kathy Huey sang “America the Beautiful”, while Anderson, Jenny McCarthy, Nicholas Tuturro, and Jonathan Taylor Thomas were on hand as window dressing for the World Title match. Lawrence Taylor had with him an entourage of NFL defensive greats, including the likes of Reggie White and future Horseman Steve McMichael.
The Allied Powers def. Eli and Jacob Blu in 6:34
(Lex Luger was in the World Title match one year earlier. The British Bulldog was the runner up in the Royal Rumble. The best thing you can do is give them the no-sell twins? Unusual opener)
WWF Intercontinental: Razor Ramon def. Jeff Jarrett by disqualification in 13:32
(Solid match, made interesting with future DX members 123 Kid and The Roadie serving as seconds. Historians may note that Kid performed what may be the first televised crotch chop in wrestling history. BREAK IT DOWN!)
The Undertaker def. King Kong Bundy in 6:36
(That’s four. Undertaker’s urn would be stolen, mid-match, by Kama, who apparently melted it down into a necklace fit for the jivest of pimps. Hmmm)
WWF World Tag Team: Owen Hart/Yokozuna def. The Smoking Gunns in 9:42 to win the titles
(Wanna hear something awesome? Watch this match, and listen to the crowd reaction when Owen pins Billy Gunn and gets his first piece of gold in the WWF. Owen’s celebration seems to be at least half legitimate, and it makes you happy for a deserving man)
(A far cry from their classic at the 1994 Survivor Series. With Rowdy Roddy Piper as referee, the match seemed to be little more than rushed comic filler, and that’s no use for either Hart or Backlund. Bret called it his worst PPV match in his WWF tenure, and for good reason)
WWF World Heavyweight: Diesel def. Shawn Michaels in 20:35
(Really good match. Michaels ended up being escorted by Jenny McCarthy, while Diesel arrived with Anderson, who was, in character, repulsed by Shawn’s ego. Of course, she married the likes of Tommy Lee and Kid Rock. To paraphrase Jeffrey Ross, keeping it cleaner, doesn’t she screw anyone with talent?)
Lawrence Taylor def. Bam Bam Bigelow in 11:42
(The best celebrity match in wrestling history. Bigelow could take a beating, and Taylor obliged with wicked forearms, hard slams, and even sold admirably for Bigelow. The highlight was Vince McMahon’s ring introductions for both men’s entourages, doing his best pre-game PA announcer impression)
ITS PLACE IN HISTORY
WrestleMania XI was premised as a two match show, and both matches were loaded with outsiders and celebrities in order to entice casual buys. With a lot of wrestling fans either turning to WCW or ECW, or tuning out altogether, at the time, Vince McMahon had to try and grasp as much of a new audience as possible, and thus resorted to these means.
The most telling image of the show was in the post-match of Diesel vs. Michaels. When Diesel won, he stood in the ring with his arms raised, celebrating with Anderson, McCarthy, Thomas, and Tuturro, in an attempt to achieve some kind, any kind, of rub. Diesel’s World Title reign had been lukewarm thus far, and his match with Shawn would basically be the peak.
Late in the match, the crowd was booing Diesel’s forced “fist pumping” gestures (to insinuate that he was loading up on ‘Diesel Power’), and it was clear that making Kevin Nash into a Hogan clone was failing miserably.
McMahon couldn’t have forced Diesel down the fans throats any harder, even if he’d used a plunger. But the image of Diesel celebrating, flanked by pseudo-stars, still left a foul taste in our mouths.