We have arrived at a dozen Wrestlemania events for the Wrestlemania Challenge series and this particular show ushers in glimpses of what would eventually become the Attitude era, which generated a surge in popularity. The broadcast started with a random six man tag match as Jake Roberts, Ahmed Johnson, and Yokozuna were against Owen Hart, Vader, and British Bulldog. Despite being a thrown together tag, this match was solid will a lot of good action from everyone involved. Something to be mentioned is that Yoko was still agile, but was clearly decline because of his addition weight gain. Considering that he was only 30 when this bout took place, he definitely would’ve been able to contribute to the industry for years if he hadn’t continued to physically decline. That being said, it must be stated that he did legitimately have a Hall of Fame career, which was represented when he was inducted in 2012. Sadly, he would be written off TV before the end of 1996 and take time off to attempt to lose weight, but he eventually gained it back before his death in 2000.
Steve Austin vs. Savio Vega was a decent match, but they would actually have better matches later on at In Your House pay-per-views. It was strange seeing Stone Cold, in his trademark black boots and trunks, get such a mediocre reaction alongside Ted DiBiase as the Million Dollar champion. It’s a prime example of how much the presentation of a character matters because Stone Cold eventually became the biggest star in the history of the industry, but got almost no response from the crowd because the Million Dollar champion gimmick wasn’t going to get someone over in 1996. It’s ironic that the current product doesn’t seem to take any cues from this example, especially because the booking direction over the past 4-5 year seems to be set in stone regardless of the reaction of the audience or the pattern of sluggish ratings. Sure, there’s a temporary detour if the crowd would boo Roman Reigns or express discontent with Brock Lesnar’s repetitive matches, but the overall direction of the company has stayed on the same path, proof being the original main event for the Universal title at WM 36. One of many examples of the opportunity cost associated with this way of doing business is that when others were at their peak in terms of being the most over with the audience, management didn’t run with it. You have to strike while the iron is hot to get the most from a push. For example, a few years ago would’ve been the right time to run with Braun Strowman, but instead of wrestling in the main event that year, he won the tag titles with a kid from the crowd.
Next up was The Ultimate Warrior’s infamous return to the company, and as much flak as this match gets because of the absolute disaster his comeback was, as a stand alone match, this was exactly what it should’ve been at the time. Triple H, still using the blue blood persona, made Warrior look like a million dollars and for the brief few minutes Warrior was in the ring, he did a great job of bringing his signature intensity to the squared circle. The problem is, everything that Warrior did in that match was the only thing he could bring to the table, which wasn’t going to work in the evolving industry. This would’ve been better as a one-off because Warrior didn’t have anything else in his playbook beyond what was seen in this bout. Warrior even being re-signed is an indication at how the WWF was willing to try anything to attempt to garner some buzz for the promotion because of the numerous disputes he had with the organization. Not surprisingly, Warrior left the company just three months later, but it’s doubtful he would’ve been over as the Attitude Era started because most of his gimmick was based on the cartoonish era of a previous generation. More than anything, the Warrior experiment proves you can’t catch lightning in a bottle twice because his limited in-ring ability wasn’t going to get over in the late-90s. Speaking of which, his feud with Hulk Hogan in WCW in 1998 was proof that he should’ve stayed retired.
Diesel vs. The Undertaker was a really good big man match and these two delivered a quality bout that probably doesn’t get talked about enough. As I said yesterday, Nash’s work, specifically in this time period, often gets overlooked because work rate wasn’t his signature in WCW, but this bout against The Undertaker shows that he could go in the ring with the right opponent. There were some really impressive spots here, including when Nash hit the power bomb on Undertaker twice. The Undertaker eventually wins with the tombstone. In retrospect, it’s interesting to consider that not only is this Nash’ last WM appearance for several years, but he would show up on Nitro just a few months later.
The Hollywood back lot brawl that started earlier in the night spilled into the arena and the finish saw Roddy Piper rip Goldust’s ring gear before he scurried to the locker room. With the talk about cinematic matches today, it should be noted that if something outside the environment of a typical match or at multiple locations is done, this is the way to do it because it’s at least realistic. In my opinion, there has to be logic to the presentation, even if the parameters of sports entertainment allow for some limits of logic to be stretched for certain narratives. Keep in mind, the environment of pro wrestling is theoretically reality based and because it’s presented to a live audience, it’s not a movie fight scene. If there’s music in the arena, it’s because it was played from a sound system in the building, which is why mic are used when wrestlers talk in the venue. There’s not goofy sound effects or teleportation during a match. Roddy vs. Goldust was a physical bout that resembled a street fight, but it was done within a reasonable context from different locations that allowed for it be something more than just a typical match.
The classic iron man match was the finale of the show, and while I’ve heard some criticism of the bout in recent years, I disagree with it. I think the match still holds up today, especially the structure of the match that allowed for particularly the last 45 minutes to be a very easy watch as the contest built intensity toward the conclusion. It must be mentioned that booking this match, even with these two legendary performances was a gamble, especially at this time. The WWF product wasn’t tailored toward one-hour matches and it wasn’t something that live audiences were accustomed to watching at WWF events. The bigger gamble was putting it on live pay-per-view because if the live crowd soured on it then the entire viewing audience would hear that reaction. The match was very well done and I think one of the better elements was that it went to OT because too often in iron man matches since, an almost comical amount of decision rank up that don’t match the pace of normal matches. For example, a typical main event match might go 20 minutes, but in an iron man stipulation, there’s often two of three decisions within that time frame.
As we all know, HBK won with the super kick to claim the championship in one of the most memorable moments in the history of the industry. In interviews, Bret mentioned that Shawn told Earl Hebner to tell him and Jose Lothario to get out of the ring after the bell. You can actually see during his celebration in the ring that Shawn tells Hebner to get out of the ring too. Granted, HBK himself has said that he wasn’t the best person at this point and was at a rather dark place in his life. Thankfully, Shawn turned his life around and has a completely different reputation today than he did in the late-90s. Although, it’s somewhat ironic that the selling point of this match was Shawn achieving his dream, but he vacates the title less than a year later because he “lost his smile” and there were rumors that he didn’t want to drop the title at Wrestlemania in 1997.
What do you think? Comment below with your thoughts, opinions, feedback and anything else that was raised.
Until next week
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