-Greetings, brethren. Welcome to the first WWE WrestleMania of the Monday Night Wars era, which took place on March 31, 1996 at the Arrowhead Pond in Anaheim, CA. One thing you will discover for both this and WrestleMania 2000, which was in the same venue, is that Anaheim fans have a tendency to play dead at inopportune times. I theorized that they were all robots from some animatronic Disney parade and thus were deprived of emotions like elation, euphoria, and “Holy crap, why does Steve Blackman have a job?” I think maybe I judge the Anaheimers (Anaheimlickers?) too harshly.
-This was a watershed day for 12 year old Justin, as his childhood hero Shawn Michaels was either going to become WWE Champion for the first time, or fall short as he’d done in the past. I also watched the event alone, because my brother Josh had been boycotting WWF since Summerslam 1995 for having such a lousy product. He tuned in exclusively to WCW, which had the Dungeon of Doom. Lesson learned: Josh is a schmuck.
-Pre-show action including the Bodydonnas winning the Tag Team Tournament finals over the Godwinns, and The “Huckster” and “Nacho Man” both dying in their geriatric match. Six years later, that same senile Hulk Hogan would become WWF Champion, because Vince McMahon had buried most of the roster into oblivion. I can’t write comedy this good.
-Our hosts are Vince McMahon and Jerry Lawler. While running down the card, Lawler brings up Forrest Lawn in reference to the Undertaker’s match with Diesel, and, for some reason, I get a mental image of a dead wrestler’s version of “Thriller”. Can you imagine Chris Candido and Louie Spicolli and Buddy Rose dancing in sync? “Cause it’s the filler! Filler fight! And we are out to job because it pays the bills, this is FIL-LERRRRRRR!”. Yeah, I’m going to Hell, but I’ll save your seat, since you laughed too.
[adinserter block=”1″]-The opening contest is a six man tag, featuring Yokozuna, Ahmed Johnson, and an increasingly frazzled Jake Roberts facing the impressive Camp Cornette, consisting of Vader, Owen Hart, and Davey Boy Smith. If Yoko’s team won, Yoko would get five minutes alone with Jim Cornette. You know,
I’ve made enough semi-humorous homosexual jokes for the first eleven WrestleManias, so I’m going to let this little sinker ball go without a swing.
-To say that Jake Roberts needs to wear a shirt at all times is a lot like saying that Ed Harris’ character in A History of Violence needs to wear grandpa-style sunglasses at all times.
-After Yokozuna launches Ahmed onto the heels, I wonder how far Ahmed would have gone if he wasn’t such an injury liability. He’s like what would happen if Vince told Bobby Lashley to imitate Suge Knight. Shame he injured himself and so many others, though.
-There’s nothing technically WRONG with this match, but it’s just meandering. There’s no real heat segment, and it’s like everyone’s just trying to “get their stuff in”. This is what Money in the Bank would look like in 1996. The thought of Yoko climbing a ladder is hilarious. The thought of Shelton Benjamin trying to do an over-the-ladder sunset powerbomb on Yoko is even more funny.
-Mr. Fuji is at ringside waving an American flag and I’m feeling queasy. And I’m American! Let’s just move on.
-Crowd comes to life for Jake, as he goes to town on Owen and Bulldog, and the fans scream for the DDT. Say what you will about WWE pushing has-beens, but the ones with enough residual heat to be fascinating still will always have a spot, especially if they can sell t-shirts and help mold the new generation. Hey, if Jake doesn’t spout his gospel here, what quote does Austin use at the King of the Ring coronation? Exactly.
-Jake lands the DDT on Owen, but wouldn’t you know it, Vader lays Jake out and squashes him with the Vaderbomb to give Camp Cornette the duke. Shame, because I wanted to see Yokozuna show us his Deliverance impression. Well, not really but still. I just don’t like Cornette, that’s all. Jim Cornette hated that last match, but didn’t make his opinion known until after Vince McMahon stopped paying him. Good to know.
-Now to the parking lot for the Hollywood Backlot Brawl between Rowdy Roddy Piper and Goldust. There’s no real way to end the match, but it’s strictly an excuse to have a wild brawl. Piper at this point was President (Good lord…) and was threatening to make a man out of Goldust. TOO MANY CHANCES TO MAKE THOSE KINDS OF JOKES! I wish I hadn’t blown my wads so soon! GAHHH, SEE WHAT I MEAN?!?
-So Goldust arrives in a gold Cadillac while wearing his ring attire (total pro), and Piper’s dressed like a crazed Arthur Fonzarelli. Piper attacks the car with a baseball bat and the fight is underway. I have to say, this is probably one of the most violent offerings yet seen in WWF. Between Goldust’s stiff shots and Piper’s go-for-broke swings with the bat, this looked as real as it could get. A few of Piper’s swings came dangerously close to Goldust’s head as well. Eat your heart out, ECW. Piper and Goldust are actually getting PAID.
-Question: it’s raining during this street fight, so why’s there a catering table outside? Wouldn’t that ruin the coffee and bagels? Just an observation.
-During the course of the match, Lawler utters the phrase “vintage Piper”. But he only says it once. C’mon, Jerry, that’s not going to be enough.
-Then we get the famed spot of Goldust running over Piper with his caddy, Piper falling off the hood, and then Goldust driving off. Piper then gets into a white Ford Bronco (oh crap….) and begins to give chase through the streets of Los Angeles. I think this was an aborted mission from GTA: Stamford Stories.
-Back to the arena now, as the fight will just have to continue later, hopefully before the show has ended. I wish there was a script in place so that we could make sure that—wait, there is? Oh, goodie!
-Dok Hendrix interviews Savio Vega and asks the all important question: “Savio, what does it feel like knowing that the only way you’ll get a push in this company is to overplay every Spanish stereotype there is?”. Ok, he didn’t ask that, but you know he was THINKING it.
-So it’s Savio Vega vs. Stone Cold Steve Austin, pre-glass shatter, pre-knock off Rage Against the Machine music, pre-whoop-ass, pre-bottom line, pre-3:16, and pre-if you wanna see me set Vince on fire and then throw him into this gorge, give me a Hell Yeah. Instead, he’s an icy killer in the vein of Mickey Knox from Natural Born Killers. As opposed to being in the vein of Mike Knox from Natural Born Jobbers.
-Great line from Lawler, who is supposedly quoting Dibiase: “Have you noticed that the people who hate millionaires are the same people who buy lottery tickets?”. Sage words.
-Good give-and-take early on as the world’s forgotten just how good Savio was. He was a bit imposing with his stare, martial arts background, and build. I think he could definitely play the heel Carlito schtick. Shame he had his prime in this era.
-I should note that during this match, Piper apparently calls in from the chase, and we get “live” shots of the Bronco chasing after Goldust. Two things: one, this is silly. Two, they would NEVER in a million years cut away from one of Austin’s matches again to provide some silly fodder for another storyline.
-Just to prove that this is 1996, the Lou Thesz press gets zero reaction. Maybe the fans just hate Lou Thesz? He did marry a woman named Charlie, that’s enough reason to be weirded out by a dude.
-Referee Tim White gets bumped. I always thought Tim White reminded me of a flat-topped version of Dante from Clerks. Not sure why I mentioned it, but here it is anyway. Poor Tim White. Wasn’t even supposed to be here today.
-Austin smashes Savio’s head in with the Million Dollar Title, aka the best looking belt of all time, and then applies the Million Dollar Dream. Forgot “pre-Stunner” on the list. Dibiase revives White with a soda, and Savio’s out to give Austin the win. Big win for Stone Cold, but three months later, it would get even better….
-Another great line from Lawler, espousing more Dibiase wisdom: “The rich get richer; the poor get children!”
-More stock footage of “Piper” “chasing” “Goldust”. All we’re missing is Bob Orton as Al Cowlings. “THIS IS COWBOY! I HAVE PIPER IN THE TRUCK….BOB ORTON, YOU KNOW WHO THIS IS DAMMIT!”.
-Mr. Perfect interviews Diesel, who can’t hear Hennig over the size of his WCW contract. Cringe, Vince, cringe.
-Next up, a rather interesting match as it features the return of one Ultimate Warrior. He would be taking on someone making their WrestleMania debut, one Hunter Hearst Helmsley, aka Triple H. At this point, Hunter had a different female escort to the ring each night, and in this case, it’s a rather comely blond by the name of Sable. Too. Many. Egos. In. One. Match.
-Warrior makes his grand return to a sizeable ovation, thus making the potential headache worth it for Vince, at least for tonight. Hunter attacks and manages to land the Pedigree…BUT WARRIOR GETS RIGHT UP! AHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA! YOUR FINISHER IS A JOKE, HUNTER! AHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA! WARRIOR NO SOLD IT, YOU DOPEY SUCKHOLER! AHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!
-Sorry, but that felt good.
-Warrior finishes with the usual in about a minute and a half.
[adinserter block=”2″]-Quick rant: Hunter would go on to kvetch and complain during the WrestleMania 2000 All-Day PPV event about this match, and his rant would reappear on Warrior’s burial DVD in 2005. Basically, he complains that Warrior didn’t do the match right, made Hunter look bad, and ruined the whole Mania experience for “The Game”. Reality time: Warrior needed to squash SOMEBODY in his return match. The match would have gone that way, regardless of the opponent, whether it was Hunter, 123 Kid, Bob Backlund, Jerry Lawler, Jeff Jarrett, or whoever. Hunter’s diatribe was meant to convince fans that Triple H meant something in 1996, when he was really just a heatless twig who latched onto the Kliq like an Ichabod Crane-looking parasite. To say that “Warrior ruined the experience” for him is an absolute joke, and more an exercise in post-relevance damage control. Hunter was a midcarder in 1996, and a very bland one. Nobody cared about Hunter until he inflated his physique and chained himself to Shawn Michaels on screen. Hunter’s just angry because Warrior will never return to WWE to return the favor. Point being: Warrior is the only man to beat Hunter and never lose to him, and that drives Jesus Almighty Paul Levesque insane. And I laugh.
-Meanwhile, Todd introduces new WWF Superstar, Marc Marrow. Who? Oh, Marc MERO. Jeez, say it right you Pauly Shore wannabe. Mero wants us to look into his eyes. Ok, now what? Go into a trance and repeat “I will exploit dead wrestlers just to get on TV”? Oh wait, Hunter blames Sable for his loss and Mero defends her, leading to a pull-apart brawl that would be Mero’s first angle. When you rank the women that have escorted Hunter to the ring, in order of hotness, I think it goes, Sable, Stephanie (distant second), X-Pac, and Chyna.
-Remember, Mero jumped to WWF from WCW because he found WCW’s product to be distasteful. So he brought Sable with him to WWF and….should I really have to tell you the rest?
-More footage of the OJ chase. Do you think that for the money that Vince spent on obtaining the footage, he had to tell Duke Droese and Fatu “Sorry, we’re over budget and you’re being let go”?
-Next up, we have Diesel and The Undertaker in a match where the loser gets to go to WCW and help bury the company. Diesel informs us on camera that he is “the s^#t!”. Diesel would go on to become so lazy in WCW that he stopped saying the “the” part, and it somehow made more sense.
-Take note: we’re watching the first ever good match that Taker would have at Mania, as Diesel’s having a good stand-up brawl with him. That’s how you have a great match with Undertaker: stick him with an opponent that has a lot of signature moves, poses, and knows how to work the fans. Then Taker takes his best stuff and they piece together a match with all of the flair spots. When they’re not in the flair spots, they’re slugging it out in manly fashion. It’s such a simple formula, and it works every time. Take note: good matches aren’t about complicated moves. It’s about proper insertion and use of the big moves.
-Quick shout out to Wrestlecrap.com forum user Agent P, who is the latest winner of the “respond to my post first, win a mention in my column” contest. Good job, P. Thanks for reading.
-You know you’re watching a good Undertaker match when he takes time out of being a zombie to land a couple of cross bodies.
-Diesel hits a couple of Jackknife powerbombs, but Taker refuses to die. You can pretty much guess when someone’s on their way out when their finishing move is proven to be about as effective as a Swiss cheese condom. Undertaker goozles Diesel and prepares Big Daddy Cool for the inevitable.
-Flying clothesline? Check. Chokeslam? Check. Tombstone piledriver that spikes Diesel on his cranium? Check. The winner and now 5-0 at the big dance, The Undertaker. Really good match, one that reads like a primitive prototype for Taker’s matches with Batista. This wasn’t as fast paced, but it was definitely watchable and fun if you enjoy a good brawl. Diesel would stay motivated for about another six months before realizing “Hey, these Time Warner contracts are really cushy!”. Until that happens, BUY THE SHIRT!
-Meanwhile, Todd is stationed by a surveillance monitor, reporting that Goldust and Piper are nearing the arena. If that was Mean Gene, he would have said “Who’s driving erratically outside the Arrowhead Pond? Call the hotline and find out!”.
-So Piper chases Goldust back into the arena, rams the side of his car in a scary spot (you can even hear Vince audibly cringe), and the fight continues onward. They brawl backstage and even pass by Diesel (showing no ill effects, oops), and the fight spills into the arena. My question: where did they go? Did they stop at Sardis?
-As the fight makes it to the ring, the brawling becomes more intense. And by “intense”, I mean that Goldust repeatedly gropes Piper in very overt and non-ambiguous ways. This is the kind of match that drives Sarah Palin insane.
-Goldust puts a definitive coda on his twisted seduction by kissing Piper on the lips. Roddy then snaps, beats the hell out of Mr. Runnels, and strips his jumpsuit off to reveal black lingerie. If Goldust wanted to play mind games with Piper, he should have dressed as Bob Orton and followed him everywhere. Wait….Goldust’s brother is Cody Rhodes….Orton’s son is Randy…..Cody and Randy’s backstage segments have this bizarre sexual tension…..ummm. Can you guys give me a minute? I need to get a dustpan and broom, since I just blew my own mind.
-Piper kisses Goldust in return and destroys him to send him running, and technically “win” the match. Odd as it was, I have to admit it was entertaining. That’s all that matters, right? The real winner: ten year old Cody Rhodes, who learned from his brother’s folly and would grow to keep his sexual feelings more ambiguous. Yep.
-And now, the biggest match in my seven years as a fan: Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels in a sixty minute iron man match for the WWF Title. I’d thrown a nearly full soda at the kitchen door one year earlier when Shawn lost to Diesel. This year? I had a whole case waiting in the fridge. Piss on me, Vince. My mom’s got a mop. Go ahead, try me.
-Nice training video shown for each man, complete with Bret being beaten up by his eighty year old dad, Stu. To be fair, Stu’s the white John Shaft. I don’t think anyone would be dumb enough to try him.
-So here’s the deal with the main event: there’s no way I can mock this match too deeply, given that it’s a near flawless scientific classic. On the other hand, I can’t make one hour of pure wrestling sound enthralling in a wordpad file, so there’s going to a LOT cut out for the sake of creating a fun read. So to anyone looking for a blow-by-blow of 62 minutes of wrestling, then my advance apologies.
-Shawn Michaels is introduced first, and manager/trainer/Hans Moleman’s biological father Jose Lothario comes out instead. This is, of course, a set up for Shawn making his grand entrance from a zipline above the arena. What would have happened if Shawn fell and was seriously hurt? How do you fill the next hour? I guess you could have Bret defend the title against someone else. That would be a hell of a conundrum, though.
-Earl Hebner gives miked up instructions for both Shawn and Bret, which is a nice touch, but I’m quivering with laughter when I consider that it’s those three in the ring together and Vince is at ringside. Hunter would be out here, but he’s too busy gluing his dignity together backstage.
-Two quick notes: one, for a crowd that’s as mostly dead as Anaheim is, I think you’ve run the wrong match type for the main event. Sixty minutes of straight wrestling? Biting off more than you can chew here. Also, in hindsight, I truly think Shawn Michaels was a better technical wrestler than Bret Hart. Bret may have been more precise, but Shawn seemed to display deeper variety (especially here) and seemed to have better improvisational skill. My opinion, of course.
-During the early going, Shawn keeps working over the arm with various armdrags and fujiwara holds while I paced around the room. I kept waiting for one man to strike first and get the first fall. Not knowing was making me tense.
-The match spills outside and we get the first big moment of drama: Shawn attempting Sweet Chin Music, Bret moving, and ringboy Tony Chimel getting wiped out instead. SICK shot for a non-wrestler to take. Gorilla Monsoon’s look of abject horror was to behold.
-The match turns into a shot for shot contest, with both men just hammering each other with stiff looking punches. Bret says in his book that Shawn was hitting him for real, but it’s okay with me. Bret was taking six months off to sit at home and film a long forgotten Western series, so I think that’s a little minor.
-Over twenty minutes in and we go back to the armwork some more. I have to admit, without me growing concerned about Shawn losing, this is starting to drag. I can’t slag it because it’s so precise, but geez, was this really the best course to go on? It’s no wonder WWF didn’t try another Iron Man match until 2000.
-Bret avoids Sweet Chin Music by sliding to the floor, so Shawn goes up the buckles and comes off with the Super Shawn crossbody. Finally, another moment of real drama. We’re only nearly thirty minutes into this thing, you know.
-Back inside and the Hitman begins to work the back. Bret hammers and clubs away, setting up for a potential Sharpshooter. Somehow, if Shawn had lost on a submission, I think my childhood would have ended that day, and I would have grown up to be a bitter, self-righteous, pious jerk who swore he was right about everything. Thankfully, I don’t think Wrestling Observer ever got my application.
-As an aside, McMahon and Lawler are absolutely on their game calling this one. Other than Lawler making a couple cracks about Stu Hart, they’ve dissected the match and explained every move and every action in minute detail. Kudos to both men.
-Shawn flips over the post and ends up landing on Jose Lothario. Good Moleman to you, Jose.
-Meanwhile, 12 year old Justin could barely watch. This is why WWF markets to 12 year olds: it’s an easier demographic to sell drama to. My sweaty brow certainly was buying into this.
-Many pin attempts later, and still no fall. We’re three quarters of the way through and still no pins. Insane. Then Bret lands his through-the-ropes suicide dive and the fans are on their feet. Getting closer.
-Shawn gets his patented forearm and kip up, and I watch as Shawn hits about twelve big moves in a row and is unable to pin Bret. DAMN IT ALL! Bret just won’t die! Vince, PLEASE ring the bell! I’m begging you!
-Now we’re under a minute to go and Shawn’s slooooowly climbing the buckles. Please please please please……CRAP! BRET CATCHES SHAWN IN THE SHARPSHOOTER! I distinctly remember my skin color turning Sheamus-white at this point.
-The bell sounds without Shawn giving up and it’s apparently a draw at 0-0. I was speechless. And then Monsoon conferred with Finkel and it’s announced that we’re going to sudden death! YES! Of course, with my luck, Bret just rolls in and pins the exhausted Shawn. I had a bad feeling.
-So Bret’s pissed about having to do 2 more minutes of work, but he gets in there and lays a beating on Shawn’s back some more. Finally, a cross corner whip sees Shawn catapult himself over Bret and land the Sweet Chin Music. I screamed at my TV like those rednecks on Youtube who got mad at CM Punk at Extreme Rules 2009. Of course, I was 12. Don’t judge me.
-Finally, it happens: Bret stands and is wobbly, and Shawn pastes him with a second Music for the pin and his first WWF World Title. Great, great match that you have to watch in the right context to fully appreciate. Shawn can barely celebrate with a smile, because he’s so exhausted and trying to mask his tears. All of Shawn’s hard work (and maybe a little schmoozing) paid off.
-I went to bed that night with a wide smile on my face. Because back then, I wasn’t the cynical smark that I am now. I was just a kid who wanted to see his favorite wrestler win the big one. And he did. And THAT is why I have no problem with WWE marketing to kids these days: when those kids watch John Cena or Rey Mysterio or Undertaker or DX or anyone else that they love win the big match, they have a very happy moment that brings them back. I should know. This was mine.
-CYNIC SAYS: Six matches, but let’s break it down: Shawn and Bret is an all time classic. Diesel/Taker and Austin/Savio were both well above average. The backlot brawl was entertaining crap that didn’t detract from things in the least. The opening six man tag was fun, if disjointed. And who doesn’t love to see Hunter get crushed in ninety seconds?
It’s hard to find fault with this show other than the notions that it was in a bad time period, the crowd was quiet, and it was short on match quantity. Watching this show for two hours and forty five minutes is not punishment at all, and I would wholeheartedly declare this to be the most underrated WrestleMania in history. It’s not a one match show at all. It’s a show with one great match and a damn fine supporting cast.
If you wanna see a one match show, wait till my next review.
Justin Henry has been an occasional contributor to Camel Clutch Blog since 2009. His other work can be found at WrestleCrap.com and ColdHardFootballFacts.com. He can be found on Twitter, so give him a follow.
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