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International Incident '96
Quick note: Deadline rush made me neglect to note the ending of the preceding month's show in the KOTR review. The show concludes with Owen Hart, Vader, and British Bulldog's attack on Shawn Michaels foiled by the appearance of Ahmed Johnson and Warrior, which would, in theory, set up this month's main event in a rare and much appreciated attempt at linear booking with foresight. Sadly, that all went for naught after another spectacular public flameout from the ever-dependable Warrior. Amazingly, the WWF was desperate enough to rely on him. Even more amazingly, his replacement was, against all odds, not an improvement.
This was the July 1996 WWF pay per view show, one of the last few to check in at the original length of only two hours; and thank goodness for that; because this was the definitive wasteland of WWF 1996 in a lot of ways, a dusky stretch of utter nothingness between Here and Some Place Else in which nothing of real note took place (at least nothing good). It lacks, somehow, the sheer poetic Murphy's-law-in-action effect of Beware Of Dog from May, but then all of perhaps three people saw that one- and THAT didn't suffer from…Sid. Yep. This was roughly the point in the year when the wheels began well and truly to fall off the wagon at the main event level (for the resurgence of the WWF this year was very much a midcard phenomenon, not a main event one), and from the first time the googling countenance of Mr. Scissors (and yes, I WILL be making every, bad, tired, hackneyed joke about him I can, sorry) is revealed in a pre-show promo to the last time he was seen in a WWF ring the following June, not a damn good thing involving him happened. And the sickest part? I LIKE the guy.
The rough explanation is that the Warrior had been programmed into the main event of this show, tagging with Johnson and Michaels against Camp Cornette, at which time he, depending on what you read, either departed to attend to a sick relative, attempted to hold the WWF up for more money, or simply flaked and missed his bookings. In any case, it was announced on TV that he was suspended (behind the scenes, he was summarily shitcanned) and Michaels would have to find a new partner. Apparently, through some combination of availability, history with Michaels, sheer pigheadedness and powerful hallucinogens, the man who was settled upon by whatever functionaries decide these things was Sid, who'd not been seen in the WWF since the preceding November for…some close variation on the same reasons the Warrior had just been flushed. This was, needless to say, not the best decision ever made by the WWF, and it would not be the last involving Mr. Eudy before the egg timer on his WWF career finally, mercifully went off. Moral of the story, about to be repeated ad nauseum et absurdam for the next 12 months or so (and applicable to the present, as always in this company): relying on flaky muscle-encased egomaniacs, merely because they're "big names" with "proven track-records", is a great way to sink an otherwise pretty OK main event division right quick. My soul yearns to use the obligatory Georges Santayana quote here, but I suspect the number of softball comments to come will try the patience of the good reader quite sufficiently in the area of the cliché. Suffice to say, when backstage maneuverings and personnel flameouts constitute the majority of the influence on booking, that's a bad sign for things to come.
The resulting match itself, following all this assorted backstage banditry, pitted the Sid/Michaels/Johnson team against Owen Hart, Vader, and British Bulldog in roughly that configuration. Vader was, in some ways, the Brock Lesnar of Summer 1996, though obviously with a great deal more pedigree to him (and ability, and charisma, etc. etc.). He filled the well-established in wrestling history role of the monster heel new to the territory, who forges an unbroken string of wins on the way to a match with the face champion (who he either defeats, setting up the rematch, or is ultimately edged by). It's a time-honored plotline, and a good staple of skilled promotion; the WWF was having some trouble with it, though. They'd gotten to the part where Vader and Michaels were obviously positioned as natural adversaries a month removed from the big show of the summer, and were moving towards the usual step of having the face champion pinned by the challenger in a tag match before the singles contest, so as to create the aura of doubt and legitimacy for the challenger. They'd stumbled with an embarrassing DQ of Vader in the KOTR tourney the previous month, stunting his momentum; they'd also constructed a six man tag for this interstitial show, detracting further from the essential drama, and had hired a known maniac with violent tendencies to fill out that number even when confronted with a perfect opportunity to truncate it. Given that a purpose of these reviews is to examine the alternate paths taken to restore a company in distress by the WWF, I invite you to compare this to the handling of Lesnar prior to his match with the Rock at this year's Summerslam (which takes place after the writing of this): Given the KOTR crown (the WWF's equivalent of a no. 1 draft pick for a sports franchise), allowed to hang with other young talents (RVD, etc.) and crush available "name enhancement talents" (Hogan, revealing that the WWF appears to have learned somewhat about the proper use of leathery old unstable lunatics, though there still seem a few of those running about unhampered at present), and kept in a situation of tension at present with relation to the champion, neither man at advantage or even having made contact; which is a thoroughly viable alternate way to build a match such as this. Given a significantly lesser caliber of talents to work with at present, as opposed to six years ago at the same time in the same basic promotional stratagem, the WWF is currently doing a much better promotional job. Much as they are rightfully slagged by all and sundry for the half-dozen or so blindingly stupid things they can find to do in any given week, they deserve credit for proper promotion and learning from mistakes where applicable.
So. Why an introduction of this length for a show who's primary interest is the comparison it provides to another show six years in the future, which has yet to take place as of this writing? Because, frankly, this show is bad. Not terrible, not heinously awful, not the sort of beast that might accidentally warp impressionable youth. It's just sort of…there, in a vaguely interminable way. And since a solid 75% of my comments are going to be along the lines of "as bad as it was the last time they did it", I figure I gotta fill this out some way!
And so, on to actual wrestling talk….
The Free For All sets up the oh-god-they-really-did-that-they-didn't-really-do-that-did-they ancillary Cornette vs. Jose Lothario match. Which ended up wasting another chunk of the undercard at Mind Games in September. And BOY HOWDY, is that show even worse than this on the undercard….
Smoking Gunns (w/Sunny) vs. The BodyDonnas Again, and it does not benefit from the repetition. Calluses, perhaps. Unless you feel a need to oogle Sunny (or dub Best Of Bart Gunn, as someone I know was recently. Boy ain't right….), there's almost no reason to ever watch a match like this. It was pointless in it's own time, and it's done not much more than molder in the interim. The work is mediocre from four guys ranging in the D+ to B talent range, who seem themselves even to realize the treadmillesque nature of this sort of match, if the execution and workrate are any sign. There were a million of these matches in the tag division in 1996, before Owen and the Bulldog more or less took the division over in September, and they're all total formula. They don't hurt to watch, but there's not much to say about them either. There's a slow tease of the eventual Billy Gunn more-heel drift (it wasn't big enough to be a turn, really), and that's really all of interest. Donnas take it on a misdirection surprise missile dropkick, and slog slog slog onward.
Vader growls, and Cornette waxes racial. Wheeee.
This was supposed to be Jake Roberts vs. Mankind, but Henry Godwinn is subbing for the old guy for whateverreason. Whether it was a worked injury or a legit lapse on Jake's part, I neither know nor care. Frankly, I believe I've had my fill of hillbilly gimmicks from now till Ragnarok. At least Jaime Knoble will chip in a good match to the common cause occasionally; Godwinn is very much just another large man with a mullet and an excessive amount of "scufflin'" and "gettin' riled" in his offense. To compound things this is a Mankind showcase match, at a time when Foley seemed to still be working out how that character wrestled. So it's basically bits and pieces of the standard Foley offense (choking, running knee to the head, short punches and assorted striking, neckbreaker) and a great deal of squealing from all involved, plus one or two pointlessly sick bumps. If you like Mankind, there's a lot of good matches to choose from; this is not one. Like everything else on the show, it's not BAD, just…there. That phrase gets mocked, but sometimes it's really the truth of things.
Steve Austin vs. Marc Mero (w/Sable) The opening strike contest is hysterical and instructive of the difference between quality and flash. In 1996, based on his look and aerial ability, Marc Mero seemed to be on the cusp of a new trend in WWF performers, exemplified by Shawn Michaels. Steve Austin was very much a ground-pounding brawler and something of a throwback. In two years' time, Austin was the biggest thing in the industry, and Mero was jobbing to his wife. Why? Because Austin KNEW how to work a professional wrestling match, and Mero knew how to turn gymnastics tricks. Austin comes out burning in this one, with really quality strikes, the kind he used when motivated rather than the looping gestures he often lapsed into later on. He really LOOKS as if he's attempting to beat the crap out of Mero, and that illusion of reality, the creation of space in which to suspend disbelief, is where a lot of the charm of wrestling as a form lies. Mero, to counteract this, throws some of the weakest, lamest, no-bad-intent theater punches you will EVER see in response, and generally screams out loud about his own lack of fundamentals. Austin, seeing this, immediately wraps him up in a headlock and goes into a ropes running sequence, short-circuiting a brawling sequence that would have deflated the match and both performers with it, Mero for his bad punches and Austin for having to sell them. That is ring generalship in the worked context, and THAT is the sort of thing that a reviewer means when he says so-and-so "carried the match". Austin is dragging Mero's dead carcass around on his back here, and it would take less than a year for people to realize that. Audiences are like children; they always see more then you think they do, and they're much harder to fool than your average booker judges them to be.
From there, the match descends to the mat, where Mero is competent enough to keep this together. Back to brawling, and this time Austin can't save the awful punches from coming out in force. They do a riff off a rolling clutch playing off of Austin's mouth injury in June from the same move, with Austin miming a repeat injury to get in an eye poke. Very standard stuff. Their challenge at this point is to fill the first portion of WWF formula, which is face dominance. Mero's offense is all big spots and shit brawling, with occasional decent matwork, so cobbling something together out of that isn't the easiest if you're shooting for quality. That sort of stuff works well enough for quick heat segments and face comebacks for the 2-3 formula transition, but it's useless for a heel and tough as a fill for the first section, so a great deal of this is snappy reversals and such, rather than moves linked together by Mero. Austin's offensive section, in turn, is very precise; it mirrors the sadistic aspect of his character at the time, which is one of the elements that got Austin over so quickly; his wrestling at all points conveyed and created his character for the fans to buy into- he literally walked what he talked at all times. Most of his stuff involves either projecting Mero into various pieces of metal or pounding him with strikes, mouthing off and generally projecting Giant, Gaping Asshole at all times. Chokes, disrespectful slaps, etc, all help Steve Austin show how he's Stone Cold. The little things count.
Unsurprisingly, the eventual 2-3 shift from Austin's offense to Mero's comeback comes on something suitably flashy, a rana reversal that takes Austin over the top to the floor; Mero then blows that as a transition and deflates the drama created by Austin's offense by totally no-selling everything done to him up to that point and hitting a rolling body press from the apron to the floor, which he also no-sells. Apron-to-floor moonsault press hits, looks pretty, means nothing as Mero no-sells his own move again, then gets up and immediately does ANOTHER move, right after three successive highspots. This is very much everything that was wrong with Rob Van Dam up until a few months ago. Two more random slingshot highspots, Austin clips the knee from nowhere, stunner from nowhere, PIN from nowhere.
What do we have here? Less a match than an object lesson. The finish can be forgiven as they were attempting to get the stunner over as an instant kill move (the value of having such moves is thoroughly debatable, but I'll concede it here for the present), but the rest of the match is a crystal-clear example of a great performer taking an utterly limited guy and using him to create the best match possible, in an unselfish way that made both men look good, while hiding the manifest and glaring flaws in the lesser man's game to the greatest extend possible. It's far from a great match, not really above ok-to-good, but it's a great performance from Steve Austin and a lesson on what "carry" means, and what really constitutes a great worker. You really, really don't need this show; but if you get it, this is the best and most interesting thing on it, the thing most worth your time to see. It's things like this that really make me wish HHH was as good as he almost was for a while, and even more so that Austin was still an active performer.
Bob Backlund. Yep.
"Here's a look at the Undertaker. Musically!" Yep.
Undertaker vs. Goldust Nope. No, no indeed, there is nothing good here. Undertaker still hadn't had a large enough dose of Foley to hit his big 1996-1998 peak when he was really good at times in general, excellent for his size; and Goldust has never really been much in the ring, though he's hit an inexplicably brilliant comedic run of late, with that peculiar brand of "I don't know why this is funny, it just IS" humor. Back in 1996 though, most of the comedy involving his character was semi-intentional at best, and his character was very cannon fodder-y following his squashing at the hands of Ahmed Johnson in January. This match was some oddball time killing extension off the endless Mankind plotline, and I have no real recollection of the actual circumstances which led to it. In and of itself, it's every bit as bad as you might imagine, with a bit extra on the side. Several ages of the world seem to pass during the requisite stalling from Goldy, which then leads into Atrocious Brawling (a staple of this show after the Mero and Godwinn matches), and were it not for fast forward and a combined caffeine/sleep deprivation buzz (and a strange yen to write this morning), the yen to spleen-vent would truly be beyond my power to restrain. You may as well shave your eyeballs with a carrot-scraper as watch this.
Yeah. And then Mankind appears out of a hole in the ring and SUCKS HIM BAH GAWD TO THE BOWLS OF HELL while the 1996-era silly B horror flick effects go off- smoke, lights flickering, the whole works. Taker appears back out of another hole, and Foley and he Itchy-and-Scratchy their way back to the lockers. It's all really, really tedious. 15 minute segment, a non-finish involving largely a guy not even in the match, and a great deal of annoying effects including several participants in the segment making barn yard sounds. It's no good, sir- it's just no good.
Main event time, with the aforementioned teams And now, with bonus Sid promos in the video package! As much as I know he sucks in almost unimaginably diverse ways, I really do love the big goof. The nonsensical promos ("I may have half the brain you do…!"), the tendency to play a tough guy while wearing a golf shirt and driving Your Grandfather's Oldsmobile (thanks, video package!), the career-spanning ability to make Hulk Hogan look Really Stupid, the dread Sid Inversion Effect (more on that in November) the out of ring stuff- it's about 75% ironic amusement, but I'll be damned if he hasn't entertained me as much as anyone through the years. I haven't heard any news, but I hope his leg's doing alright, and I hope he's happy, wherever he is. He may not have ever drawn money or wrestled a five-star classic, but he made ME happy, at any rate.
Having him here though does pose some issues, besides the aforementioned match bloat. Since it's his first match back, the urge is to feature Sid; but with Michaels-Vader set to headline the second biggest show of the year in a month's time, that has to be the focus of the match in order to hype it and draw money. The first section of the match is consequently all Michaels vs. Vader, which basically does little more than to show the essential problems with the matchup (Michaels does not adjust his offense against Vader, so even though the big man sells them well, they just look silly and artificial in places, as on rana takeovers) and remind everyone that Yes, Michaels Has A Big Heart and Yes, Vader Is A Big Nasty Guy. Sid then clears things out with the Return Of Atrocious Brawling, and gets a giant maxi-pop for it. Ahmed runs through his offense including some homicidal rolling Germans, and generally reminds everyone why his big run petered out in 2 years at IC title level. Meantime, the crowd chants for Sid, and I am NOT ALONE. Next we get Vader dominating Ahmed, and it's pretty clear that the match plan is to let everyone who maters run though their offense, hit the heat segment on a face or two, roll over to the panic-finish, and get out. There isn't an exact six man formula outside of Mexico, but that's not a bad approximation of what one would be were there enough matches to establish one, I imagine.
The alternating offensive showcase segments (including an extended and really nice Michael/Hart reversal sequence of chain wrestling and counters) eventually resolve themselves into Michaels playing the imperiled member of the face team. Which goes well, until Vader suddenly develops WCW/Japan flashbacks and goes into this interminable neck vise that kills the crowd, the match, my interest, and generally is totally out of place. It's an odd and really noticeable cock-up from a truly great performer, and it just about stops dead in it's tracks a match that up to this point is a million times better than it should be given the participants, mostly due to high energy, good crowd response, and quick segments that get each of the lesser players out before they have to do much more than run through their offense. Somehow, they blow a false tag sequence, which I haven't seen done in a good while, and the thing sorta slooows down to a crawl. Sid gets the hot tag, which is good planning, but then proceeds to follow up a Vader lariat no-sell with a choke slam from nowhere, which is bad execution. More chokeslams for all and sundry, various face offense including a Michaels/Sid rocket launcher, and then the thing just sort of turns into an all out scrum involving managers and wrestlers. Cornette grabs Michaels' foot to halt the superkick attempt, and a Vader attack and Vader bomb finish things, which is the correct finish for promotional purposes. The thing itself was really good based on a 4-2 quality to suck ratio, until it ran off the rails at the end. Michaels and friends beat up the heel contingent to end things. A match that got where it was going, and was a pleasant ride in the meantime until that neck vise.
Closing Thoughts: You really don't need to see this show, and that's the bottom line. But if you do chance to see it, it's an interesting study of how the little things can carry you. Austin's efforts are an extremely obvious and quite good example of that in the context of a match, while the show itself shows something of the application of that principle on a larger scale. It's clear here, unlike the current WWF, that this show was booked, at least partially, backwards from the perspective of what those in charge wanted in place for Summerslam, one month hence. The main event is entirely booked with an eye for setting up Vader vs. Shawn Michaels, with perhaps a secondary idea of setting up supplementary matches involving the other four participants. Mero/Austin also serves to do something the WWF never does anymore (bar HHH vs. Chris Jericho), which is say to the fanbase clearly that wrestler A is better than Wrestler B- it's a sort of definitive progression and boosting a talent that's rarely done anymore, replaced more by trading pseudo-wins and working programs with successively higher profile opponents as a means of advancement. Either method has it's merits, but the former requires more foresight to choose the right man and at least a two month investment for successive major wins. The current need for/obsession with booking on the fly negates this as a means of boosting a potential major talent over another (it wasn't even done for Brock really, who's getting the largest debut push in the WWF in recent memory) which is a rather large club to remove from the bag. The underlying point being that skill and the promotion thereof, allied with some measure of foresight and preplanning, were very much at the heart of the WWF's 1996 resurgence, and underlay the later elements that put them over the top. Those qualities, if not entirely absent from the modern WWF, don't seem to be getting the same play. If the WWF has a similar resurgence in the next year or two, it will be as a result of the emphasis of very different promotional tactics and aims.
This show itself is a 4/10 for a two hour block, and really interesting only for completists.
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