Saturday, January 3, 2015

WWE Network World Tour: WrestleMania XI

The years immediately following Hulk Hogan's departure were a weird time for the WWF, who were trying to promote their "New Generation" of stars led by the Undertaker, Bret "Hitman" Hart and the "Kliq" of Shawn Michaels, Razor Ramon, Diesel, and the 1-2-3 Kid. I wasn't following very closely at this point because, while the WWF made amends in 1994 by putting the title back on Bret Hart at WrestleMania X, the storylines and characters outside of Bret and Owen's adventures weren't very compelling (to say nothing of the WWF's positioning of their world champion as a mid-carder playing second fiddle to the Deadman--something to which i'm sure a certain CM Punk could relate). The WWF in general had doubled down on cartoonish, overly colorful characters in order to sell to kids, and the fanbase that had grown up with Hulkamania were hungry for something new and more grown up. While the WWF would finally capitalize on this desire with the Attitude Era (thanks in no small part to ECW's influence), there were some pretty thin years between the boom periods.

One of Vince McMahon's weaknesses, during thin times or fat, is an over-reliance on celebrities. McMahon has always seemed obsessed with wrestling's sports entertainment's legitimacy, and this obsession has often resulted in a questionable desire to insert famous actors, musicians, and athletes into his storylines during 'Mania season. When it's something as simple as Alice Cooper at ringside for Jake "The Snake" Roberts, it's fine--it's a fun glitzy addition to the business' premier annual showcase. But as soon as those celebrities get into the ring, it never ends well (when the closest example you can get to a legit crossover is Mr. T, you know it's slim pickings).

Considering the state of pro wrestling's mainstream popularity at the time, using recently-retired New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor in the ring in a heavily-promoted match against Bam Bam Bigelow stank of desperation (especially when you consider Taylor's substance abuse problems and the stain McMahon's steroid trial had left on the WWF). Everything about the match--its hype, its placement on the card, and the way it was booked--was meant to attract mainstream media attention, but ironically, it only served in every way to discredit the very art form it was meant to promote. On top of that, the WWF's champion at the time was its latest attempt to push a bigger-than-life superman on the fanbase, "Big Daddy Cool" Diesel (aka the future nWo's Kevin Nash), a 6'10", 300-plus-pound beef slab that got a rapid-fire monster push the year before that hadn't been seen since Hogan's immediate placement at the top of the card 10 years earlier. In the span of one calendar year, Diesel went from Shawn Michaels' non-wrestling bodyguard to tag team champ (with Michaels), Intercontinental champ, and finally the World Title, three days after Bret Hart shockingly dropped the belt to an aging Bob Backlund at the 1994 Survivor Series. After a 35-minute submission match that ended with Owen Hart convincing his mom, Helen (who was at ringside in the Hitman's corner) to throw in the towel and do Bret's submitting for him (shades of Arnold Skaaland throwing in the towel on Backlund's behalf when he lost the title to The Iron Sheik in 1983), Backlund immediately dropped the belt three days later to Diesel in an 8-second house show squash:

Lots to unpack in this sequence of events: in 1983, the WWF wanted Backlund to turn heel in order to drop the belt to Hulk Hogan; he refused, leading to the need to use the Iron Sheik as a transitional champ, losing to Hogan at Madison Square Garden. In 1994, Backlund, working as a heel, became the transitional champ between another smaller, technically gifted titleholder and the muscled superman the WWF preferred as their standard-bearer--losing the belt in Madison Square Garden. That the legendary manager-throwing-in-the-towel gimmick was incorporated shows that the similarities were not lost on WWF creative; what they had not yet grasped though, was that the WWF audience was getting tired of the same old same old, and were desperate for something new.

Well, they didn't get it at WrestleMania XI, even with Shawn Michaels in the title match against his "former" buddy. But hey, let's recap it anyway, since we're here.