Wednesday, April 3, 2013

My Favorite WrestleMania Matches: VI-XI

Hulk Hogan vs. The Ultimate Warrior for the WWF title
This was most likely an early video purchase as it was from right before I started watching and I generally back track my hobbies pretty quickly and obsessively. The VHS case for this show is pretty rad and looks almost comic book-esque with the colorful pose down between Hogan and Warrior with a ton of lightning in between.

Aside from the main event and even the undercard, there’s a lot of memorable touches to this show, from the crazy opening where Vince McMahon narrates the constellations turning into Hogan and Warrior, to the return of the mini carts that carried people to the ring from three years earlier, to Steve Allen playing the piano in the shower with the Bolsheviks.

Believe it or not, at eight years old I wasn’t much of a Hogan fan or a Warrior fan (I was probably the only kid who considered Kerry Von Erich his favorite wrestler despite never having heard of World Class), but they delivered here in spades. First off, their dueling whacked out pre-match promos about natural disasters sweeping the Earth and saving planes about to crash are the stuff of legend (get the Ultimate Warrior DVD just for those promos if nothing else) and I can watch them whenever. When they got in the ring though, it was a transformative bit of magic where two guys known for their character over their wrestling prowess boosted each other to a great, intense match with the different formula of two good guys opposing one another, something I’d never seen. They captured lightning in a bottle that night and I should really try to hunt this one down, as I haven’t watched it in ages.

Randy Savage vs. The Ultimate Warrior
Not honestly sure how I first watched this one. I remember renting it years later when I was old enough to think the idea of the blindfold match was dumb and realize those guys were not really Demolition, but I also think I saw it as a kid. Did a friend of mine order it? Possible, as my buddy Dave Hill would get these from time to time (I’m pretty certain there was a wrestling pay-per-view blackout between the years of 1990 and 1997 in the Morse household).

There are a few classic moments tucked among the quickie matches here, including Virgil’s great upset win by countout over longtime tormentor Ted DiBiase and the start of the Undertaker’s streak. I also recall as a nine-year-old being pretty freaked out by if not outright scared of Iraqi sympathizer Sgt. Slaughter, probably in large part because I didn’t think a G.I. Joe would betray America.

The match that makes this show though, and really one of my all-time favorites, is Savage vs. Warrior, career vs. career. It was a slow burn feud where Savage chased Warrior for months, cost him the WWF title, and they hated each other enough to put it all on the line despite not having ever fought (on television at least). It’s another classic Savage performance, with the pathos cranked up to the point where every big move feels epic, and Warrior keeping pace (as best he can). By the time Savage kicks out of the big splash and Warrior gets up after like 18 flying elbow drops, I was losing my mind wondering what was going to happen. It’s the time of match where the story is so larger-than-life that Warrior walking halfway down the aisle, looking “to his gods” and then coming back to win with a big shoulder block makes perfect sense.

However, it gets really good after the action’s over, when the evil Sensational Sherri turns on her meal ticket and Elizabeth returns to save the man who spurned her two years earlier and the first couple of the WWF reunites, Savage hoisting her up on his shoulder just as he did back at WrestleMania IV after winning the title. Savage then refusing to let Elizabeth hold the ropes for him and opening them for her instead is just the icing on the cake.

I have something in my eye…

Roddy Piper vs. Bret Hart for the Intercontinental title
This should have been at the height of my childhood wrestling fandom, but I believe it also coincided with the months-long ban my parents put on me watching because I got suspended at school for getting in a fight (I was bad news when I was 10). I circumvented not being allowed to watch Superstars on Saturday morning by sneaking a little mini TV that got three channels into my closet, but obviously that wouldn’t work for pay-per-views, so I’m pretty sure I didn’t see this one live and later rented the tape instead.

For me, WrestleMania VIII is the changing of the guard/bridge between eras show, as not only does Hogan go away for awhile afterward, but up and coming staples of the 90’s like Shawn Michaels and The Undertaker put away 80’s stars on their way out like Tito Santana and Jake Roberts. Randy Savage has a great match with Ric Flair to blow off the even better “she was mine before she was yours” angle involving Elizabeth, plus Ultimate Warrior came back after being gone since the previous year’s SummerSlam.

However, the highlight of the show for me is the final part of that torch passing trilogy, as Bret Hart gets firmly established in the big time mix by scoring a rare win over Roddy Piper to take back the IC title. You get about 10 minutes of solid chain wrestling and brawling, then the pathos play as the referee gets knocked out, Piper contemplates reverting to his onetime villainous ways by using the ring bell as a weapon, then Hart seizing on his hesitation to reverse a sleeper for the win. Piper is one of the best overall characters of all-time, but it’s cool he got to really show off the wrestling skills he did have here, and then Bret got to not only look like the top flight athlete, but also savvy as he outsmarts one of the WWF’s all-time craftiest guys.

The Steiner Brothers vs. The Headshrinkers
I can’t remember what was going on with me and wrestling in 1993, but for whatever reason, I wasn’t as tuned in as years prior. That seems odd, as I was 11 and really had nothing better to do, because I was just shy of embracing new stars like Shawn Michaels and maybe still missing the late 80’s/early 90’s mid card that cleared out over the course of 1992. Regardless, I don’t think I watched this show until later on tape.

WrestleMania IX gets a pretty bad rap, mostly I think because people didn’t care for the Bret Hart vs. Yokozuna main event and what happened after the match. Stuff like Undertaker vs. Giant Gonzales didn’t help matters and a lot of the card was just forgettable (though Michaels vs. Tatanka and Crush vs. Doink are both pretty ok). That aside, the done-up setting of Caesar’s Palace and everybody wearing togas certainly gave it a memorable look if nothing else.

The bright spot on the show for me—and I believe for others—was relative WWF newcomers the Steiner Brothers taking on the Headshrinkers in a super physical 15-minute tag team match. I was pretty much an exclusive WWF fan as a kid, but I switched over to WCW Saturday Night enough times to at least know who the Steiners and Sting were (Arn Anderson also left an indelible mark on me because he didn’t look like the wrestlers I was used to but was awesome in the ring). I would to this day call the Steiners my all-time favorite tag team, and this match is a good example why, as they snap off crisp suplexes on the mammoth Headshrinkers—who, to their credit, could take and dish out plenty of damage—keep the energy jacked up, then Scott polishes things off with the first Frankensteiner I probably ever saw.

Bret Hart vs. Owen Hart
My friend Dave Hill ordered this show and taped it; I may or may not have re-watched it with him shortly thereafter (I think I did), but I definitely swiped it again when we were in high school and it currently resides in the basement of my house. I was definitely onboard with the product again at this point, with the rise of Shawn Michaels and awesome Hart brothers feud drawing me back in.

That said, I think this is probably the most overrated WrestleMania of all-time, and while most people love it, I can take it or leave it. The argument in favor is that two of the best matches ever (almost) bookend the show, but that’s 40 minutes of awesome action, then the remaining two-plus hours are pretty bland (actually, the Randy Savage-Crush match isn’t bad either). It’s still an ok show, and has the benefit of the always great Madison Square Garden crowd, but so many people go on about it being among the best that I reflexively dislike it.

But man, those two good matches are really, really good. And as much as I love the Michaels-Razor Ramon Ladder match for the Intercontinental title, I love the Bret vs. Owen opener that much more. First off, it was just an incredibly intense and well done storyline, with Owen coming out of nowhere to be this great heel foil to his heroic brother (seriously, what was he doing a year before this?). But no matter how good the promos were, they don’t hold a candle to the in-ring product, as these guys put on a clinic in technical wrestling with the kind of chemistry I suppose only brothers who had been wrestling one another since they were kids could have. The ending is just perfect, and this is another match I can watch over and over.

Diesel vs. Shawn Michaels for the WWF title
1995 was the nadir of my pro wrestling fandom as I checked out somewhere shortly after Diesel won the WWF title and wouldn’t be back full-time for a couple years. I was aware of what was going on peripherally mostly because of the mainstream coverage they got bringing in celebrities like Pamela Anderson and Lawrence Taylor, but by the time Mabel became King of the Ring, I was totally out of the loop.

It would be some time before I watched this show, tracking it down years later once I went into completist mode. Not many people speak too highly of this one, from the bland undercard to the crappy venue (Hartford, Connecticut, quite possibly my least favorite city in America). A smorgasbord of mid-90’s celebrities arguably outshone the WWF roster here, with Salt-n-Pepa belting out “Whatta Man,” Jonathan Taylor Thomas beating Bob Backlund at chess, and, of course, LT putting on a match way better than anybody expected against Bam Bam Bigelow in the main event.

However, as impressed as I was by the work of Bam Bam and Taylor, on a forgettable show, I give my nod to the WWF title match, as my favorite wrestler, Shawn Michaels, got his first real shot (discounting Survivor Series 1992) and busted his ass even in a losing performance. Diesel knew well enough to let his buddy lead the dance and looked cool as heck with Pamela Anderson on one arm and Jenny McCarthy on the other, eyebrow cocked and smirk firing on all cylinders.