Sunday, March 23, 2008
The Wrestlemania Story - Part II: Star Search
We last left off, with long time star, Hulk Hogan, declining, after suffering the first blemish on his Wrestlemania record to the Ultimate Warrior. The WWF was destined to enter a new era, with new stars at its helm. Leading up to Wrestlemania VII, the Warrior would suffer a loss to a new wrestler, who in the end, could only be topped by an old veteran.
During 1990, Sergeant Slaughter made his (re-)debut with the WWF. During his previous run with th company, and his long run with the AWA, Slaughter was an American Patriot. However, when he joined the WWF in the summer of 1990, he had a different attitude. He turned his back on his country, and instead became an Iraqi Sympathizer. He went on an extended run in the fall of that year, before earning a shot at the Ultimate Warrior at the Royal Rumble, in January 1991. During the match, the Warrior was attacked by his enemy, Randy Savage, and Sergeant Slaughter won the WWF Title. As Wrestlemania VII approached, there was concern over who would be able to reclaim the title from the side of evil. The all-American Hero, Hulk Hogan, decided to step-up to see if lightning would strike one more time. The scene was set for a memorable night at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Areana.
Another important debut came up that year, as Ted Dibiase introduced the world to The Undertaker in the fall of 1990. The Undertaker made his Wrestlemania debut this year by defeating Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka, after landing the Tombstone Piledriver. The Undertaker's Wrestlemania record stood at 1-0.
At the previous two Wrestlemanias, Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart both competed in tag matches, where Bret achieved victory and Shawn defeat. This year the strange relation between the two men would continue, but in reverse, as Shawn pinned Haku to score the victory for his tag team, The Rockers, against Haku and his partner The Barbarian. Bret, on the other hand suffered a loss, as The Hart Foundation lost the WWF Tag Team Title to the Nasty Boys. This would mark the last time both legendary tag teams would compete at a Wrestlemania, as both men took the next step towards greatness by the next year.
Also on the card for the evening was a huge match between two huge names with monumental stakes. After Savage cost the Ultimate Warrior his title a few months prior, the two entered into an epic blood feud. This would come to a head in a Career vs. Career Match at Wrestlemania. The two men gave it their all, and Savage appeared to have the match won after he hit five elbow drops on the Warrior. However, the Ultimate one shocked the world and was able to muster up enough strength to kick out of a Savage pin at the last possible moment. The Warrior then hit Savage with a series of diving shoulder blocks and scored a pinfall victory. Randy's manager, Sensational Shari, proceeded to berate him after this loss, when a truly touching moment happened. His former manager, Miss Elizabeth, came to the ring, scared Shari off and was reunited with Savage after more than two years apart.
In the Main Event, Hulk Hogan wrestled the turncoat, Sergeant Slaughter for the WWF Title. Despite losing a fair amount of blood, and interference from General Adnan, Hogan was able to hit his patented Leg Drop to claim his (then record) third WWF Title.
While the WWF's plan to find new stars did not have the most immediate of results, there was promise on the horizon, as they landed two huge names, Ric Flair and Sid Justice, from WCW. The two men would play pivotal roles in the build to the event, and at the event itself.
During the fall of 1991, there were two controversial title changes involving Hulk Hogan and The Undertaker. As a result, President Jack Tuney declared the title vacant, and put the Title up for grabs in the 1992 Royal Rumble. The final three in the Rumble were Hulk Hogan, and the two major newcomers, Flair and Justice. In a shocking move, Sid eliminated Hulk Hogan, before being tossed by Ric Flair, who had been in the Royal Rumble for over an hour.
The WWF later had a press conference to decide it's #1 Contender for the title at the Hoosier Dome in Indianapolis, Indiana. To the surprise of just about nobody, Hulk Hogan was named the challenger for the Championship, so it appeared destined that we would finally see the ultimate dream match, Hulk Hogan vs. Ric Flair.
However, Sid had other plans. He was deeply resentful of Hulk Hogan, he felt that he deserved the #1 Contendership. He proceeded to attack Hogan, repeatedly, and Hogan canceled his championship match for a chance to go one-on-one with Sid at Wrestlemania. Randy Savage, who was able to resume his career after the Ultimate Warrior left the WWF the previous summer, was then named as the appropriate challenger for Flair's Title.
Wrestlemania VIII marked the singles Wrestlemania debut of both Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels. Shawn scored a victory over Tito Santana, while Bret Hart reclaimed the Intercontinental Title with a win over Rowdy Roddy Piper (to read my thoughts on that match, click here). Interestingly, this would mark the only time that both men would score victories at a Wrestlemania, something that would be more important in 4 years.
The Undertaker went on to have his second Wrestlemania match against former mentor and ally, Jake "The Snake" Roberts. The Dead Man gave Roberts a Tombstone Piledriver on the concrete and achieved a victory. The Undertaker's Wrestlemania record stood at 2-0.
In the first of two Main Events for the evening, Ric Flair and Randy Savage had a grueling contest for the championship. In the end, Miss Elizabeth, who Flair had been taunting for months leading up to this match, slapped Flair, allowing Savage to get a roll-up, and the World Title (to read Travis's thoughts on this match, click here).
In the final match of the evening, Hulk Hogan took on Sid Justice. This marked the first time since the original Wrestlemania that the Main Event did not feature a WWF Title Match. Also, it should be noted that this was supposed to be Hulk Hogan's last match, as he had plans on focusing on his acting-career.
At the end of the match, Hogan was able to hit the Leg Drop on Sid, but to the shock of the world, Justice was able to kick out of the pin. Sid's manager, Harvey Wippleman then ran in, attacked Hogan, thus getting Sid disqualified. After the match, Papa Shango ran down to the ring, and proceeded to attack Hogan. Then, in the last and biggest surprise of the night, The Ultimate Warrior ran down to the ring to rescue Hulk Hogan.
While Ric Flair and Sid Justice provided short term dividends, neither of them went on to be the big stars that the WWF was hoping that they would be, as both would leave the company by the end of the next year. Before Flair left, he had an incredibly important match on October 12, 1992. By this point in the year, Flair had reclaimed his WWF Title from Randy Savage, and was set to defend it against Bret Hart at non-televised event in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. To the shock of the world, Bret defeated the legendary Ric Flair, and became the first Canadian to win the WWF Championship.
The 1993 Royal Rumble marked the first time that the winner of the match would be guaranteed a WWF Championship at Wrestlemania. The largest competitor in the match took advantage of the opportunity, as the recently debuted Yokozuna went on to win the Rumble. The Main Event was set for Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas, Nevada, Bret Hart vs. Yokozuna for the WWF Title.
While Bret Hart was entering his first Wrestlemania as a champion, so was the man whose fate was entwined with his, Shawn Michaels. Michaels carried the Intercontinental Title (which he had won from The British Bulldog, who beat guess who? Bret Hart), into his match against the then-undefeated Tatanka. Tatanka remained undefeated, but Shawn remained Champion, as Michaels was counted out.
A future infamous Wrestlemania performer would make his first appearance on the Grandest Stage of them all, as "The Narcissist" Lex Luger scored a victory over Mr. Perfect. Perfect would hold a great deal of bitterness and resentment over this loss that would come up a year later.
The Undertaker stepped into his third Wrestlemania match, this time against Giant Gonzalez, who had debuted at the Rumble, costing Taker the match. For the first time in his career, The Undertaker was neither the biggest or the strongest man in the match. However, Gonzalez did not seem to care about winning the match, as he brought out a chloroform soaked rag in an attempt to incapacitate the Undertaker, needless to say this lead to a disqualification. The Undertaker's Wrestlemania record stood at 3-0.
In a shocking turn of events a few months prior, Hulk Hogan had made his triumphant return to the WWF, and agreed to help his long-time friend, Brutus "The Barber" Beefcake, take on the Tag Team Champions, "Money Inc.", composed of IRS and "The Million Dollar Man" Ted Dibiase. Hogan's first match back would not turn out as intended. He ended up striking both of his opponents with a foreign object, and wound up disqualified. But his night would not end there.
In the Main Event, Bret Hart took on the biggest challenger imaginable, Yokozuna. Despite the seemingly insurmountable odds, Bret was able to lock the sumo in his trademark Sharpshooter, and victory seemed imminent. However, with the referee's back turned, Yokozuna's manager, Mr. Fuji, threw salt into Bret's eyes, which allowed Yokozuna to score a pin, and the title from Bret. Yokozuna became the first "bad guy" (or heel) to win the WWF Title at Wrestlemania ever.
After the match, Hulk Hogan ran down to the ring to check on Bret Hart after the match. For reasons, that are still beyond this blogger, Mr. Fuji, issued an impromptu challenge to Hulk Hogan for a match right then and there. Hogan ran to the ring, only to be grabbed by Yokozuna. Fuji then tried to throw salt into Hogan's eyes, but at the last possible moment, the Hulkster ducked and the salt struck Yokozuna. A Leg Drop and three count later, we had our third WWF Champion of the evening (To read McNutt's thoughts on these two matches click here).
Hulk Hogan would go on to loose his WWF Title back to Yokozuna, before leaving the company yet again. However, a new All-American Hero rose in his absence. Lex Luger shunned his narcissistic ways, and embraced his more patriotic side. He had challenged Yokozuna for the Title at Summerslam of 1993, but was only able to score a count out victory, and therefore not the title.
This was contractually bound to be Luger's only shot at Yokozuna, so the Royal Rumble was especially important to him. Luger ended up being in the final two with former WWF Champion, Bret Hart, and in an unprecedented finish, both men fell over the top rope and ended up being declared co-winners of the Royal Rumble. It was ruled that both men would receive WWF Title match at Wrestlemania X, with Lex Luger receiving the first title shot of the evening, and Bret the second.
In order to preserve balance, Bret would have a match earlier in the evening against his brother, Owen, who he had a severe falling out with in the months preceding the event. The match would be the first one of the evening. What followed would be one of the greatest matches in the history of the WWF. Both men provided classic counters after counters, as it was evident that they knew one another very well. In the end, Owen shocked the crowd at Madison Square Garden by scoring a surprise victory over his older brother. The evening did not seem destined to be a good one for Bret.
Randy Savage returned as a Wrestlemania performer, after being a commentator the year before, for a match with Crush. This match would have unique stipulations, as it was announced as a Falls Count Anywhere match, but the person losing the fall would have 60 seconds to return to the ring, or lose the match. After scoring one fall each, Savage would hog-tie Crush in the back of the arena, preventing him from returning to the ring. This would mark Savage's last Wrestlemania appearance as he would leave the company shortly thereafter.
In the first title match of the evening, Lex Luger challenged Yokozuna for the title. Before the event it was announced that both WWF Title matches would have "Special Guest Referees" agreed upon by all competitors. The first referee ended up being Mr. Perfect, the man Luger had defeated just a year before. In a confusing mix-up, Mr. Perfect ended up disqualifying Luger, costing his yet another shot at the WWF Title.
Shawn Michaels would challenge Razor Ramon for the Intercontinental Title, which had been stripped from him months prior. However, this would be no ordinary match, it would be a Ladder Match, the first of it's kind on a WWF Pay-Per-View. In a truly thrilling match, Razor ended up climbing to the top of the ladder and retrieved the title belts (both his and Shawn's were suspended from the ceiling) to claim victory. To further intertwine the fates of Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels, both men competed in, and lost, in two of the greatest matches in WWF history on the same night.
In the final match of the evening, both Yokozuna and Bret Hart looked to do something they were unable to do the year before, leave Wrestlemania as Champion. The special guest referee for the match ended up being the same man that Bret had defeated two years prior, Rowdy Roddy Piper. With Bret Hart down Yokozuna climbed the turnbuckles, and prepared to deliver his patented Banzai Drop, however, the big man lost his balance, and fell to the mat. Bret was then able to score the victory and receive vindication from the previous years events (To read McNutt's thoughts on this match, click here).
This would mark the first Wrestlemania to not feature Hulk Hogan, and it would prove to be a success, the WWF appeared poised to finally have found its new big name star, in Bret Hart. However, by the time the next year rolled around a very big man had other plans.
Diesel had served as Shawn Michaels's bodyguard for the later part of 1993, and the majority of 1994. However, at the Survivor Series of that year he and Shawn had a falling out. A few days later, Diesel shocked the world by winning the WWF Championship in a stunningly-short match with then champion, Bob Backlund. Despite the tensions between Diesel and Shawn, the two former friends never had a direct one-on-one match.
This all changed, as Shawn Michaels went on to become the first man to win the Royal Rumble after entering at #1, and so the match was set for Wrestlemania XI, taking place at the Hartford Civic Center. Also at the Royal Rumble that year, NFL Legend Lawrence Taylor was in attendance, and got into a physical altercation with Bam Bam Bigelow, a member of Ted Dibiase's "Million Dollar Corporation". As a result of these tensions, a match was signed between Bigelow and Taylor, giving the show two big Main Events.
While the two had been heavily featured in Main Events the year before, Lex Luger and Yokozuna fell significantly down the card this year, as they were both featured in separate tag team contests. Luger teamed with The British Bulldog, in a team called "The Allied Powers" to take on the Blu Brothers in a winning effort, while Yokozuna appeared as Owen Hart's mystery partner to defeat The Smoking Guns and capture the WWF Tag Team Championship.
After being injured for the first bit of 1994, and therefore missing Wrestlemania X, the Undertaker returned in the Summer of that year, and found himself doing battle with fellow former Hogan opponent, King Kong Bundy. Despite the presence of The Million Dollar Corporation at ringside, the Undertaker was able to score a victory over the big man with a flying clothesline. The Undertaker's Wrestlemania record stood at 4-0.
This would mark the first Wrestlemania in five years that Bret Hart would not be competing for a title of some sorts, as he faced the man who had defeated him for the title five months before, Bob Backlund. Since both men were submissions experts in their own rights, it was declared that this match would be an I Quit Match, and for the second year in a row, a Bret Hart match would be refereed by Rowdy Roddy Piper. After a hard fought match, Bret Hart locked Backlund in his own trademark hold, the crossface chicken wing, and scored the submission victory. It is worth noting that this was only the third submission victory in Wrestlemania history.
Like Wrestlemania VII, the WWF Title Match would not close out the show, and like Wrestlemania VII, the WWF Title match would be the most exciting match of the show. Despite being heavily booed entering the match, Shawn Michaels put forth such a valiant effort on this evening, that he actually earned himself some cheers from the Hartford crowd, however that would not be enough, as Diesel was able to land his trademark Jackknife Powerbomb for the victory. This would mark the first time since Wrestlemania III that a WWF Champion would successfully defend his title at the event.
In the final match of the evening, Bam Bam Bigelow faced Lawrence Taylor, who was accompanied to the ring by several other NFL players to counteract the presence of The Corporation. In the hardest fought, and perhaps greatest, Wrestler-Celebrity match of all time, Lawrance Taylor scored an improbable victory to close the show.
While Shawn Michaels had failed in his first high-profile attempt to capture the WWF Championship at a Wrestlemania, he would not give up there. He would go on to become the second man to win back-to-back Royal Rumbles, and would be destined to face WWF Champion, Bret Hart at Wrestlemania XII, from the Arrowhead Pond in Anaheim, California. The two superstars were so evenly matched, that it was ruled that this would be the first ever WWF Iron Man Match, where the winner of the match would be the man who could score the most pinfalls or submissions in a one hour span.
Before that epic match, there are a few others worth noting. Two men who would go on to become huge players made their first Wrestlemania appearances at this event. Steve Austin defeated Savio Vega by submission, in what would be the last submissions finish at a Wrestlemania for eight long years, while Hunter Hearst Helmsley, lost to the returning Ultimate Warrior in just over 90 seconds.
The Undertaker fought former WWF Champion, Diesel in a very competitive match-up. The Undertaker was able to hit the big man with a Tombstone Piledriver, and score a victory. The Undertaker's Wrestlemania record stood at 5-0.
The Main Event of the evening was certainly one for the ages, as the two men whose fates had been intertwined for all of these years finally collided. Somehow, both men proved to be made of steel, and were able to both grit it out for the entire hour. As the buzzer sounded, neither man had scored a victory over the other, and it was tied 0-0. Bret felt that since the match had resulted in a draw, he should be the champion, but WWF President Gorilla Monsoon, ordered the match to be restarted under sudden death rules. Shawn Michaels was able to hit a superkick out of nowhere and claim victory, and his first WWF Title, in a truly inspirational moment.
After years of searching, it appeared that the WWF had finally found their new big star in Shawn Michaels. However, injuries and attitude problems appeared to make this not to be. Nevertheless, two rapidly rising mega-stars would emerge in the coming years.
Tune back tomorrow, as I chronicle the era of these new stars, as we look at bleeders, bitters, benefactors, bitterness, and betrayal.
Until next time,