Sunday, April 01, 2007

Shades of Wrestlemania -- Part 4

Heya all, welcome to the 4th Installment of Shades of Wrestlemania. Sorry for the delay, it has been a hectic time for me and my pals of late. Oi indeed.

I don't think that I need to give you any intro here, you've already gotten enough here.

We get an the first of a McNutt two part here, by getting his thoughts on one of the bravest athletic performances ever...

Wrestlemania 14
March 29, 1998
Boston, Massachusetts
WWF Title Match - Shawn Micheals vs. Steve Austin

This Sunday at Wrestlemania 23, Shawn Michaels will be challenging John Cena for the WWE Championship. Unless you’ve followed wrestling over the years, you probably have no idea how shocking this is.

It’s not just that Shawn Michaels is still a top-tier talent in the company twenty years after he first started wrestling for them, surprising because of his age – he’s 42 this year – and also because he’s been suspended, has temporarily quit or has been on bad terms with management so many times. But the real shocker is that after a back injury he suffered at the 1998 Royal Rumble, few thought he would ever wrestle again.

Facing the Undertaker in a casket match, Michaels took a body drop to the outside, smashing his back on the roof of the casket. The result? One disc in his back was completely crushed, leaving two more herniated. He finished the match (somehow), but his doctors made it very clear that his career as a wrestler was at an end. But standing in the way of that sunset was one last order of business: handing off the title to the icon waiting in the wings.

To his credit, the Heartbreak Kid didn’t use his injury as an excuse to avoid losing his title in the ring (as he had done before) or to change the existing storyline. Wrestlemania XIV was designed as the coronation of Stone Cold Steve Austin, the foul-mouthed anti-hero who had become the WWF’s biggest fan sensation since Hulk Hogan. Having returned from a potentially career-ending neck injury to win the Intercontinental Title, Austin had vacated the title to go after the WWF championship, earning his shot like everyone did at the time by winning the Royal Rumble.

It was more than just the ascendancy of Austin as a star that was at stake for the WWF, as their product was beginning to climb out of a deep, dark hole. For the first time years they were not only beginning to compete with the television ratings of competitor WCW, but they were generating some genuine mainstream buzz. Capitalizing on this, Vince McMahon arranged for the baddest man in all of sports, Mike Tyson (yes, this is post-ear banquet) to serve as the special guest enforcer for the match. The move was a media coup, ensuring that more eyes were focused on the WWF and on Wrestlemania than in any of the years since their mid-80s heyday.

So what on earth could Shawn Michaels do? He was in no condition to wrestle – in fact, while he regularly made TV appearances to build the feud with Austin, HBK never wrestled or defended his title in the two months leading up to Wrestlemania; the risk just wasn’t worth it. But he also was in no position to try and weasel out of his obligations again, not with what was at stake. Would he be able to even compete at the biggest event of the year, and possibly the biggest night for the WWF in years?

The answer was a resounding yes. I have no idea how he did it, but Shawn Michaels not only managed to get in the ring and go toe-to-toe with Austin but actually put on a hell of a show – we’re not talking a ***** classic here or anything, but at least a **** match to remember. Perhaps it was the crowd that was so excited to see their hero Austin prevail that drove Michaels to suffer through what must have been some of the worst pain of his life, I don’t know. But as someone who followed wrestling enough at the time to know that this might be Michaels last match, I could see the discomfort and outright agony with every move he did. And yet, he kept going far above and beyond what was expected of him given his condition.

After almost half an hour, the match came to an end. Michaels, after somehow gathering the strength to make a top-rope elbow drop, went for his Sweet Chin Music finisher. But after a series of reversals, Austin hit HBK with his Stone Cold Stunner and, despite an unconscious referee, Tyson came in to make the three count(Tyson had aligned himself with Michaels’ DX stable, but in the end was revealed to be in Austin’s corner all along). The crowd went bananas as the WWF Attitude era began with its most iconic figure finally ascending to the top of the ladder.

Watching the ending of the match all these years later, I can’t help but be struck with the look of relief that comes over Michaels’ face as he hits the mat and is pinned for the title. During the entire post-match celebration, Michaels just lays there in the middle of the ring. Later, we learned that this wasn’t an act – he literally couldn’t move. Every ounce of adrenaline had been used to keep his body going for one last match, and it finally gave out on him. After the credits rolled and as the fans were leaving the arena, officials and friends helped a hobbling Michaels get backstage.

Shawn Michaels did wrestle again, obviously: he healthily returned to action in the summer of 2002 and has been competing near the top of his game ever since. In fact, the WWE has used him extremely wisely these last few years, giving him dream matches against their best and brightest stars and Michaels has time and time again brought his A-game to the table (he seems to have matured nicely in his old age). But this late-career run was never necessary to establish his legacy; had he never wrestled again after WMXIV, he would have gone out on one hell of a high note.

Next up, Travis chimes in with the first of a two match installment that came from the second Wrestlemania to come from Toronto...

WrestleMania X8
March 17, 2002
Toronto, Ontario
No DQ Match - The Undertaker vs Ric Flair

Ric Flair, the greatest professional wrestler of all time, would return to WrestleMania ten years after his last appearance (discussed in my previous post). He had wrestled the last match in WCW Nitro history, losing to Sting on March 26, 2001. He had a very lengthy absence from wrestling, returning to television in November of 2001 as the co-owner of WWF. The storyline had Flair purchasing the WWF stock of Stephanie and Shane McMahon prior to their purchase of WCW & ECW.

This led to Flair’s first match since his return to WWF television, against Vince McMahon at the Royal Rumble. A bloody Ric Flair would force the genetic jackhammer to submit to the figure-four leg lock in the street fight. On the same card, in the Royal Rumble match, a young Maven would eliminate the Undertaker. This greatly angered the Dead Man who would go on to eliminate Maven from the match.

On an episode of Smackdown! the Rock brought up Taker’s embarrassing elimination and the two began a feud. This would see Taker causing the young Maivia to lose his #1 contendership for the undisputed title, and the Rock costing the Undertaker a match against Maven for the Hardcore title. The two future Hall of Famers feuded up to a match at No Way Out. Following interference from Ric Flair (you knew this was coming in somewhere, right?) the Rock emerged triumphant.

The Undertaker would then challenge the Nature Boy to a match at WrestleMania 18. Initially Flair wanted no piece of the Dead Man, declining the offer of a match. The Undertaker was not about to take no for an answer, though, and during several weeks on Smackdown! he would assault those close to Flair, including the Enforcer Arn Anderson and Flair’s son, the ruddy-faced David, in a fine television moment I remember to this day. Flair finally accepted the challenge and Vince McMahon subsequently gave the match a No DQ stipulation.

The build to this match was epic. No one cuts a promo like Flair, who would bring up the Undertaker’s impressive record at the Mania, and his segments during this time were excellent. In his special lisp, Flair vowed to give the Undertaker “WrestleMania moment after Wrestlemania moment.” Great stuff. Having Undertaker go after Flair’s friends and family only added to the tension leading up to this match. It’s amazing the difference that solid storytelling can make in building a match.

Say what you want about the in-ring abilities of the aging Flair, but at WrestleMania he wrestled the longest match of the night. He put his body on the line, bled like he did in his heyday, and put on a brilliant hardcore encounter with the already legendary Undertaker. We all know who won this one; the Undertaker put Flair away following a Tombstone piledriver at just about the 19-minute mark.

On a card that featured Rock v. Hogan, this match really shone. It was nothing short of two legendary performers giving it their all. It’s no secret I’m a huge fan of both Flair and Taker, and to see two of my favourites collide on the biggest stage of all was truly a treat. The Undertaker cemented his record at 10-0 and Flair would prove that he could still go, even if “the yard” belonged to the Dead Man.

Despite it being a dream match, it really didn’t impact WWF storylines that much. Following the official brand extension experiment, with McMahon running Smackdown! and Flair RAW, and the WWF being changed to the WWE, Flair would eventually lose his stake as owner. McMahon defeated a bloody Flair with the aid of Brock Lesnar on the June 10 episode of Monday Night RAW. Following this would come the dark ages of NWO on WWE television and many a night of horrible programming. It’s nice to look back on Mania 18, though, to remember the night that not only had the Great One and the Immortal One, but also a classic encounter between the Phenom and the Nature Boy.

McNutt concludes my two previous teasers by posting his second match of this entry and giving the other Wrestlemania X8 Dream Match...

WrestleMania X8
March 17, 2002
Toronto, Ontario
Icon vs. Icon - Hulk Hogan vs. The Rock

From all that I’ve read about wrestling over the years, “passing the torch” is a really big fucking deal. There seems to be one heck of an honour system in wrestling, so when a big name star is willing to lie down and lose to an up-and-comer, it’s taken as a huge sign of respect and a recognition of the new guard.

Hulk Hogan makes for an interesting case study. Despite serving as WWF Champion for two years previously, his match at Wrestlemania III (which was already discussed in a previous post) was considered the moment where Hogan received the torch. Since then, Hogan has been something of a torch-hogger. Sure, at times he has been willing to pass it off briefly – most notably to the Ultimate Warrior at WMVI – but usually ends up wiggling his way into the spotlight again and stealing it back. At other times, he’s been completely unwilling to give it up – he refused to lose the title to Bret Hart before leaving the WWF after WMIX and his contract with WCW gave him a booking veto that allowed him to remain torched through most of his time there (his only big loss to a newcomer was losing the belt Goldberg…but he got it back soon afterwards). Hogan was also with WCW during a time where it created very few new stars (outside of Goldberg), which ameant that torch-passing opportunities were rare to begin with.

But all of that changed when the WWF bought out WCW. Vince McMahon now had control of all of WCW’s property including some of their biggest trademarks and brand names. And although it had been driven into the ground by WCW, the idea of a reunited nWo was too much to resist. In early 2002, rumours begin to run rampant that the original nWo trio – Hogan, Scott Hall and Kevin Nash – were going to return to the WWF. And while Hall and Nash were good and all (when the latter was healthy and the former was sober…which in both cases was quite rare), what excited fans the most was a chance to see Hulk Hogan, THE defining wrestler of the 1980s (and a good deal of the 90s) face all of the superstars dominating the WWF in the 00s, few of which were even around when Hogan left eight years earlier.

Hogan and the nWo returned as heels, and Hogan targeted third-generation superstar and HUGE fan-favourite The Rock for his first target (Steve Austin might have been the more obvious iconic choice, but rumours suggest that Austin wasn’t on the best terms with Hogan or WWF management at the time, so he declined the storyline and faced Hall at Wrestlemania instead). Billed as “Icon vs. Icon,” Hogan and The Rock would stare each other down at Wrestlemania X8 at the Skydome in Toronto, the site where 12 years earlier Hogan first tried to hand off the torch to the Warrior.

The match was decent, all things considered, but like most things involving Hogan, the wrestling wasn’t the reason it’s remembered. In this case, Hogan/Rock stands as one of the most fascinating crowd reactions and storyline reversals in WWF history. In the weeks leading up to the show, Vince and the writers had done everything in their power to make Hogan out to be a vindictive monster who had it in for the Rock. But all the plot devices in the world couldn’t convince the Toronto crowd to boo their former hero on his return to the ring. From the moment the wrestlers walked down the aisle, the crowd was firmly behind Hogan and, if only for opposing the Hulkster, The Rock was the subject of boos and jeers.

If anyone involved in the match saw this coming, they did a great job of acting surprised. Some of the match’s best moments were when Hogan did such stereotypically ‘bad guy’ moves like a back rake and hitting The Rock with his belt…and the crowd cheers, CHEERS! Hogan looks absolutely shocked, but soon both him and The Rock realize what is happening and smartly reverse rolls in the middle of the match.

This fascinating reversal also changed the match’s ending on the fly. The Rock, rightfully, was always supposed to win, and so he did, but it took two Rock Bottoms and a People’s Elbow to put Hollywood Hogan away. Hogan had rightfully allowed a younger superstar to defeat him cleanly in the middle of the ring (which, as many know, is something Hogan doesn’t do very often). But everyone involved improvised a new post-match storyline, having Hogan and Rock shake hands and embrace at the end of the match and fight off the attacking nWo. This gave Hogan a full-blown face turn, allowing him a chance to posedown for the 70,000+ crowd to their delight.

Alas, as fantastic as this moment was, its legacy has been kind of tainted by how Hogan’s newfound popularity was handled, the WWF rushing him into a title reign that just seemed stupid and completely wrong for how his character should have been used. During a time in his career where he should have been handing off the torch during one last glory run, Hogan found himself once again holding fire in his hand. Oh well – at least he got WM18 right.

I chime in with the last of the Mania Matches here. I also put in a huge dream match from Wrestlemania XIX (man I missed those Roman Numerals!!!!). On a card that featured Angle-Lesnar and Hogan-McMahon, you may be surprised which match I consider the dream...

WrestleMania XIX
March 30, 2003
Safeco Field
Seattle, Washington
Shawn Micheals vs. Chris Jericho

First off, let me get something out of the way. I am a HUGE fan of both of these men and this was a mach that I had been dying to see for years. When back injuries made Shawn Micheals leave wrestling in 1998, I thought that this match would never happen.

So you can imagine my joy when a feud between this two started to brew in January 2003. It started out simply enough, Jericho began to claim that as the First Ever Undisputed Champion that he was the best ever and there was nothing that he hadn't done. Who should interrupt this, but Mr. Michaels. He claimed that Jericho had never won the Royal Rumble from entering at number one. Jericho, the consummate egomaniac (hmmmm no wonder I like him so much), decided that he would enter the Rumble at Number 1 only to find out that Shawn Michaels had beat him to it. Jericho entered in at number 2 and through hook and crook was able to eliminate Michaels in one of the most shocking eliminations in Royal Rumble history. A few months of attacks and beat downs later and here we are. A match that I had wanted to see for so long but never thought I would be able to.

The match itself was a thing of beauty. Jericho spent the early parts of the match working on Shawn's back. An ode to his previous back injury and the fact that his trademark Walls of Jericho targets the back as well. Jericho spent the match doing many of Shawn's trademark moves such as the elbow drop and the kip-up. It is one of the few times when watching a match that I was genuinely rooting for both men. However, that changed at the end. Shawn was down and out. Jericho began stomping on the mat to "tune up the band", just like Michaels has done time and time again. He went in for a Superkick and even did a small "Ali Shuffle" in the middle before planting HBK with the most beautiful superkick I have ever seen. He went for the pin and I got really, really excited. ONEW-TWO-THRRRRRR...NO!!!! Shawn's shoulder went up and my heart dropped. A short roll-up later and Shawn was declared the winner.

This match would mark one of the last times that Jericho would serve as a feature performer for a big card, other than his awesome feud with Cena in 2005. I can't help but feel that they blew their chance with this one. A Jericho win would have vaulted him into legendary status, but he was soon sacrificed to Goldberg and then thrown in a boring feud with Kevin Nash before falling farther down the card. Poor booking and hindsight aside, this is still a match I look back at very fondly, a chance to see two of my absolute favourites from two different eras go one-on-one in a match for the ages. That is what Wrestlemania is all about.

And that concludes it for our Shades of Wrestlemania. I will chime in at some point before the big show with my predictions.

I hope that you all give the show a chance tonight. Who knows what future memory you may just find out tonight...

Until next time,


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