Wednesday, April 3, 2013

My Favorite WrestleMania Matches: XII-X-Seven

The Undertaker vs. Diesel
I came back to watching the WWF in full force over the summer of 1996 as a lot of my buddies had already gotten a second wind, including the aforementioned Dave Hill, who had purchased this show and lent me the tape (pretty sure I gave this one back). Given what I’ve already written, you probably wouldn’t be shocked (I mean, if you’ve been actually reading thus far) that Shawn Michaels becoming WWF champion was more than enough of a hook to keep me around.

This is an interesting case, as at first glance it feels like it should be on the same level as WrestleMania XI in terms of wow factor, but the combination of some solid work by the guys in the first couple matches, a bit of smoke and mirrors with the Hollywood Backlot Brawl and the return of the Ultimate Warrior giving everything a bigger feel, and then a suitably epic main event buoy it nicely.

That said, even though the main event saw my guy HBK defeat Bret Hart to win his first WWF title, it’s an hour-long Iron Man match that’s technically sound but exhausting to watch with no falls over the course of 60 minutes and a formula that hadn’t quite come together yet. However, 20 minutes or so prior, the Undertaker and Diesel would put on a great clash of the power merchants that turned out better than I’m guessing most expected. In early 1996, ‘Taker was still in zombie mode and had yet to up his in-ring work to match his character, while Diesel was coasting after losing the WWF title. But, for whatever reason, these two brought out the best in one another, delivering one of my favorite hard-hitting big man matches of all-time.

Incidentally, Diesel’s pre-match locker room interview with Mr. Perfect is also a classic.

Ahmed Johnson & The Legion of Doom vs. The Nation of Domination in a Chicago Street Fight
By 1997, my high school buddies and I were bigger wrestling fans than we had ever been as kids, going to live events for the first time (we’d up to the Paul Tsongas Center in Lowell for shows including the infamous Thursday Raw Thursday where Shawn Michaels lost his smile and Rocky Maivia won his first Intercontinental title) and gathering regularly to watch Raw and pay-per-views together. We actually made a whole weekend plan for WrestleMania where we were going to have a battle royal in my basement on Saturday—we conned enough of our non-wrestling fan friends into coming over and letting us throw them around—and then watch the show at Dave’s house the next day. During that battle royal though (which was us moving the coffee table to the middle of the room and trying to throw each other over it), I eliminated Dave, he got mad and pushed me backwards into a wall, where my elbow went through the plaster, and while I wasn’t hurt, I freaked out and was mad enough at him that I boycotted the next night, claiming I had homework. He apologized to me by giving me the tape at school on Monday.

Though it was fun having a gang to watch with and the WWF was starting to heat up into the early stages of the Attitude Era, WrestleMania 13 (they drove me nuts not using the Roman numeral) was a bit of a downer, with lame thrown together undercard matches and a plodding main event between Undertaker and Sid. There were no celebrities or elaborate set pieces, so the whole thing felt really mundane.

However, two matches saved the show, the first being the one most people associate with it, that being the brutal, violent Bret Hart vs. Steve Austin I Quit encounter where Stone Cold passes out in the Sharpshooter and the Hitman gets the win, but becomes hated in the process while his vanquished opponent wins over the crowd. For my money, though, I’ll still take the chaotic brawl pitting Ahmed Johnson with the Legion of Doom against his hated rival Faarooq and his flunkies Crush and Savio Vega. There is no scientific grappling to be seen whatsoever, but I love all 10 minutes of stiff shots and guys just beating the hell out of each other, plus I loved seeing the LOD back on a big stage as they had left the WWF abruptly when I was 12. The fact that this followed Hart-Austin and the crowd stayed pumped says it all, I think.

Oh, and Hawk bringing an actual kitchen sink with him to the ring was a nice touch that has since been replicated to less effect.

The New Age Outlaws vs. Cactus Jack & Chainsaw Charlie in a Dumpster match for the WWF Tag Team titles
This marked a very historic WrestleMania for me personally as it took place in Boston and thus I was able to be there live and in person—though it didn’t look like that was going to happen in the months leading up. My friends and I tried to purchase tickets, but we were dumb high school sophomores who didn’t really understand the urgency involved in such a process, and the show was sold out by the time we made a move. Fortunately, at the very last minute, a friend of my buddy Matt Corley’s father coughed up three tickets so Matt, Dave and I could make our way over to the Fleetcenter and catch the action.

No doubt I’m biased toward this edition of WrestleMania since I was there, but we lucked into a classic show. In addition to the main event where Steve Austin beat Shawn Michaels for the WWF title and kicked off the hottest era for wrestling in over a decade, the entire evening was packed with great moments and not a single weak match. Taka Michinoku and Aguila delivered a hidden gem, Sable became the most popular woman to that point in WWF history, The Rock got his ass kicked by Ken Shamrock but somehow kept his Intercontinental title, and Kane finally lost to the Undertaker—but not before giving Pete Rose his first tombstone piledriver. Even the bloated tag team battle royal at the beginning was a hot start and it was awesome to hear the pop for the return of the Legion of Doom live.

We also got an extra treat as the Jackyl—who had been off TV for awhile—showed up in the corridor leading to our row and watched a bunch of matches with some jacked up blond dude. Jackyl was a pretty hilarious jerk, telling a little kid who wanted an autograph to get lost, and hey, that blond dude turned out to be Edge.

My personal highlight was, interestingly enough, a match we didn’t even get to see all of live, as they ended up brawling backstage and we had to watch a significant portion on the video screen. I’m referring to the Tag Team title contest, where the only way to win was to toss both your opponents into a dumpster. Cactus Jack and Chainsaw Charlie—who ditched the pantyhose and basically appeared as plain old Terry Funk—are maybe the two best brawlers in wrestling history, and the New Age Outlaws hung in with them, taking a hellacious beat down with various weapons and dishing out plenty of abuse themselves. After 10 minutes of mayhem, getting to see the joy on Cactus’ face as he got to share his mentor’s first WWF title with him shone brightly from all the way in the back.

Shane McMahon vs. X-Pac for the European title
With more of my friends watching wrestling than ever by 1999, my basement became the destination for anywhere between five and 15 high school juniors to be every Monday night (much to the delight of my two-years-younger sister’s friends and her annoyance, as “they were just my brother’s idiot friends”). For WrestleMania, we moved the table out of the room and the couches over to the side so we could put down a mat and do moves to one another while we watched the show (Matt Corley suffered many a Rock Bottom and became the victim of a vicious Eric Master ankle lock that fateful night).

At this point, the quality of the product was almost a non-factor, as getting together with my buddies to cheer the guys we liked and boo the ones we hated was what made wrestling fun. That was a good thing, because this was the height of the Attitude Era and Vince Russo’s tenure as booker, where characters and storylines were stronger than ever, but in-ring action as well as logistical consistency often took a backseat.

It’s a pretty muddy and messed up show that made little sense, typified nowhere better than the New Age Outlaws pursuing singles titles for months, then Road Dogg winning the Intercontinental title—the one Billy Gunn wanted—and Billy Gunn winning the Hardcore title—the one Road Dogg wanted—and taking one another’s places in convoluted matches involving three or four people. It was pretty much darts being thrown with a Gatling gun, but we loved every minutes.

Aside from the great brawl main event where Steve Austin finally got the WWF title back from the nefarious Rock, the angle that really captured my crew’s attention was D-Generation X’s two-match battle with the Corporation. Midway through the show, Chyna helped Triple H out against Kane—though she cost him the match by disqualification—and DX was seemingly reunited as heroes. 15 minutes later, both HHH and Chyna turned on X-Pac, helping Shane McMahon retain his ill-achieved European title and turning out to be Corporation bad guys all along. But besides the cool twist ending, the match was surprisingly—at the time solid—with this being before anybody knew Shane McMahon could go as a wrestler and also X-Pac’s first chance to step up at WrestleMania after half a decade on and off in the WWF; both guys had something to prove and they succeeded big time.

I should also mention that a little over two years earlier at a house show we went to where all the big stars were on a European tour, Bart Gunn gave us all high fives, becoming one of our collective favorite wrestlers, so we were devastated when Butterbean destroyed him in their Brawl for All match.

The Dudley Boyz vs. The Hardy Boyz vs. Edge & Christian in a Ladder match for the WWF Tag Team titles
It was my senior year of high school in 2000 and a bunch of my friends and I packed into Mike Cherny’s living room—admittedly much ritzier than my basement—to watch what we figured would be our final wrestling show together. We had bought a toy ring and Titan Tron that keyed off certain figures to play their entrance music, then each had our own figures we’d walk through it when they came on the TV (I was Christian, my buddy Alex Verdaguer was Christian). We also had purchased a foam WWF title belt which we christened the Newton South Hardcore title that could be won at any time anywhere by pinning the current titleholder for a three count with official referee Matt Corley present; the title was contest on front lawns, at restaurants and in the halls of our high school, which annoyed our head of campus safety/my high school wrestling coach to no end.

The girl I was dating and her best friend (who was dating one my friends I was watching the show with) also ordered this WrestleMania just so they could call and ask us questions about what was going on/bother us during matches we cared about (it didn’t work out). I think Cherny and one or two other people may have opted for the “WrestleMania All Day Long” package where the pay-per-view broadcast began hours early and Ivory and whoever was her co-host showed highlights of past shows until the real thing started.

There was a lot to like about this show, particularly if you were watching in a group of friends. Whereas the year prior WWF had a decent amount of talented guys on the roster, by 2000 their roster was stacked with breakout stars and WCW defectors. The Hardcore battle royal was crazy fun, though I think most of us were bummed when Tazz didn’t win. The six-person with Chyna and Too Cool against Eddie Guerrero, Dean Malenko and Perry Saturn was a great example of how WWF could seemingly make anybody a star at that point (no knock on any of the people in that match, they were all great, but to think a year earlier that Brian Christopher and Scott Taylor would be the hot commodities they became was ludicrous). The crazy 2/3 falls match for two titles with Kurt Angle, Chris Jericho and Chris Benoit was all over the place in terms following the stipulations, but of course the wrestling was great. Truth be told, the main event four way frustrated my gang a little bit, as we were still very conditioned to expect the biggest show of the year to end with arch villain Triple H getting his, so the swerve with him winning knocked us off course, but it was bold.

Unquestionably my favorite match of the night was the Dudley Boyz, Hardy Boyz and Edge and Christian going nuts in a three way Ladder match. I’m in the minority, but I actually prefer this to their later TLCs at SummerSlam that year and the next WrestleMania, simply because it was the first one, and even if they improved on the formula later on, that novelty went a long way. Besides the wow factor of spots like Bubba powerbomb anything that moved through a table and Jeff doing a Swanton off a giant ladder, strangely enough the intricate choreography and amount of planning that had to go into this impressed me a lot. It was six guys willing to do anything to steal the show, and I really appreciated their efforts. I was also a mark not only for Edge and Christian, but for guys who hadn’t held the titles winning them the first time, so the ending left me more than satisfied (and Alex and I got to play our music).

The Undertaker vs. Triple H
My first year of college, I was fortunate to meet most of the people who continue to be among my very best friends in the world, and even more lucky that even if they didn’t share quite my level of passion, they had at least some interest in the stuff I was into, principally pro wrestling and comic books. We were unfortunate in that our college’s cable package carried the USA Network and TNT, but the WWF jumped Raw to TNN (not part of the package) like two months into our freshman year and then WCW ceased to exist a little while later, so our wrestling viewing options were Smackdown or bust. Thus I got most of my info online about what was going on with the product and with no off-campus buddies at this point, missed out on this WrestleMania altogether.

And what a WrestleMania to skip, as it’s the general consensus best of all-time, ending the Attitude Era with a bang as the WWF transitioned into being the only game in town; I got it on VHS as soon as it was available and that summer as a camp counselor forced my campers to watch it on their movie night because I hadn’t seen it yet (they thanked me for it by stealing my copy by the end of the month).

There’s not a dud on this entire show, and it also provides a great showcase of the full breadth of what one of the strongest rosters ever could do across the board. There’s a hot opener with Chris Jericho defending the IC title against William Regal; a wild hardcore match with Kane, Raven and Big Show; a technical masterpiece with Kurt Angle and Chris Benoit; and a pure nostalgic fun gimmick battle royal with all the old-timers getting their entrances and then rolling around the ring for three minutes while Bobby Heenan and Gene Okerlund call the action (due respect to Mean Gene, I wager even he’d agree the only thing missing was the late Gorilla Monsoon as Bobby’s broadcast partner). Eddie Guerrero pulled a really solid performance out of Test for the European title, Tazz teamed with the APA for a nice little brawl against Right to Censor, and even probably the worst match of the night—Chyna beating Ivory for the Women’s title—was over in under three minutes.

The big matches delivered big time as well, and picking a favorite is not easy. Vince McMahon and his son Shane—two guys who are not full-time wrestlers but among the best performers is WWF history—had the kind of showcase you didn’t mind being overbooked a dozen ways because it told a great story (I almost went with this one). The Dudleys, Hardys and Edge and Christian try to top their Ladder match by adding tables and chairs plus Spike Dudley, Lita and Rhyno. And of course you’ve got the main event, an intense half hour tour de force from The Rock and Steve Austin for the WWF title that sees everything including a questionable ending that supersedes the action itself for a lot of people.

However, I have to go with the second to last match of the night, where Triple H attempts to end the Undertaker’s WrestleMania streak (before that really meant anything). If anybody was on a hot streak in 2001, it was Triple H, who after years of busting his ass to get to the top of the WWF was proving why he belonged there by tossing out amazing work with whoever was across the ring from him. Undertaker was one year into his American Bad Ass gimmick and looking totally rejuvenated. Their contest here additionally serves along with the main event as the perfect topper to the Attitude Era type of match, with an epic brawl bookended by traditional wrestling, a style that came about due to Austin’s neck injury and would gradually phase out as guys like Angle, Jericho, Guerrero and Benoit came to prominence. It’s also the first truly great WrestleMania performance by the Undertaker, as I dug his Diesel match at XII, but it doesn’t hold a candle to this or what was to come.