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King of the Ring 1996
by Brendan "Shaddax" Welsh-Balliett

Welcome to the most disjointed review EVER, as I've been writing this on and off for 6 months, and have had to change the opening of this...ah...I think this is three times now, at least. Which is-all to say, no guarantees of references in the main body of this thing being timely or anything. At least it'll be all seasonal with this year's KOTR up next on the big PPV merry-go-round. Not like I've been watching regularly or anything, but I'll take Brock in that one, though they're 12 shades of nuts if they follow through and try to mainline Summerslam with him.

Background: this show followed Beware of Dog, and thus had the notable aid of the utter inability to be worse than the last PPV the WWF had put out. BOD ("the power outage show") is generally considered among the worst WWF PPVs ever put out there in either of it's two forms, and while I don't hate it that much, even I agree it was not in any sense of the word, good. In addition, this show dated from June, the same month Hall and Nash made their first PPV appearance for WCW (doesn't THAT just seem a billion years ago?), so the pressure was on the WWF to find someone to replace the star power that had so recently defected to the competition. I'm going to guess you remember who they chose; the interest factor, though, is in how they went about doing it, an interesting thing to look back on considering the present day fed's near-total inability to establish new talent at a top level. Highlighting the importance of this, in it's own way, was the WWF's contemporary main-event level feud, still holding over from the previous month: Shawn Michaels vs. The British Bulldog. Their feuds, both of them, have a tendency to be overlooked in the WWF's history, as they were obviously totally lacking in star power and any real suspense (NO ONE bought Bulldog as a championship prospect; he was an outside reach as a contender, even); that this feud actually, in one form or another, occupied three PPV main even slots in this year underscored the fed's issues with finding legit drawing cards to put in with Michaels, That said, the matches of the feud, if not the set-up, certainly deserve to be looked back on; this being the best of the three of them, and something of a forgotten classic. The undercard to this show, as always in this year, was several different vartieties of suck in execution; but this was really the first show of the year wherein the fed got it's post New generation, post Deisel-and-Razor sea legs under it and began to construct the roots of the elements that would carry it through till the 1998 renaissance. Bottom line, this is something of a pivotal show. On to the matches (and other crap)….

(Insert, written later- seems rather timely to look back, as well, on the birth of Steve Austin's productive WWF career, since the death of such seems to have been written a week or so ago with the spousal battery incident. I don't get as Wrath Of God righteous as some do about that, since in the end I don't think one circumstance defines a man's life, nor is it entirely my place to pass judgement on someone else's marriage; but I'm quie in agreement with the majority that his effective days as a face are numbered. Most of the WWF's target mysoginist glue-sniffers would probably accept him, but even the Al Goldstein level of public relations intelligence Vince McMahon possesses is probably sufficient to convince him of how stupid a move that would be. Probably.)

-Opening video. And god, I forgot that both Jerry Lawler and the Warrior wrestled on this card…at least it's against each other…. Wait, is that good? Uh oh….

-Owen hart makes his way to ringside, reminding me that he actually does commentary on this whole show; which ALMOST makes up for the impending abortion of a Warrior match….

-If he's actually named "Warrior", am I smarkish for calling him that? Do I have to use "Ultimate" to avoid the smary smark smark label? Do I call him "Helwig" then, or does that simply take me to otherwise unreachable altitudes of smarkosity? Or, like, does his transcendent stupidity get me a free pass? I am BOGGLED by this. BOGGLED. -Steve Austin vs. Marc Mero (W/ Sable): this is Austin's first appearance on PPV as the Stone Cold character in its full application (post Ted Dibiase); he's in all black and had begun using the stunner only weeks earlier; the only parts missing are the music, the beer fixation, and the total lack of functionality in the knees and neck. Oh yeah, that's why I'm doing '96, and not, say, 2000…. In any case, both Mero and Austin were new-ish WWF recruits at this point, part of the attempt to plug the leaking ship which was the Great WWF Talent Haemmorage of the mid 90's. Their careers would, of course, take vastly different paths from here on out, but at this point both were considered roughly equal on the card and for potential for the future; and it's easy to forget, Mero was considered nearly Austin's equal as a worker at this point. Less skilled in the fundamentals, for sure, but possessed of much greater high-flying ability (back when HIS knees worked, as well). The mix here, in fact, is what makes this match, as both men are athletic enough to integrate the differentiations in their respective variations on US Pro style into a workable brew. The first exchange is the standard headlock-takeover-headscissors-escape sequence, but the manner in which Austin (the initiator) performs it gives it some added meaning: after the reversal and break, he stares a hole in Mero, seeming to suggest both a slight air of offense that Mero, the flyer, could equal him on the mat, and a sense that he had intended that sequence as a feint to judge Mero's skill, and is now readjusting his game plan. It's a subtle thing by Austin, but a skillful use of in-ring action to play off character and establish it further- a key component of the WWF style when it's at its best. From there, the match covers the basics- Mero hits some flash speed/flying moves to get over who he is, and Austin does some mat grinding/brawling and stalling to do the same. They utilize a standard Mero-thrown-over-the-top-to-the-floor spot to get Austin into his offense, the heel-dominant middle portion of WWF formula. And an interesting collection of offense it is, too- press slam on the concrete, snap suplex, assorted pummling, backbreaker, second rope elbow, Boston crab hold. It's almost nothing like his current selection, for whatever reason. It is, however, suited to Mero's good-yet-awful selling. Mero has the tendency to sell each move as if it has just chipped off part of his immortal soul, which is to say that his default idea of selling is to writhe about. Clutching the affected body part; and after the next move, he merely adjusts the focus of his clutching and writhing. He's got no nuance at all, but Austin is skilled enough to put together his offense in ways that construct psychology (windpipe+back work = an attempt to take Mero's wind, and reduce his flying and speed advantage) without the aid of nuanced selling, relying on Mero basically just to make things look like they hurt. It's a good match, stylistically. Again, fitting the template, Mero makes his inevitable comeback with arial maneuvers (corner springback reversal to a whip, dropkick, etc.) and segues into his own offense, as the formula continues: flying axhandle, dives from the ring to the floor, plancha, frankersteiner, etc. It's all reasonably state of the art for 1996 America (as is the Black Blood bomb Austin pulls out around here), so it goes over well in the match, though it has no real flow to it, or relevance to the story Austin was trying to tell earlier. And then, Austin just sorta hits the stunner and wins. Yeah. It's got a HORRID non-ending to it, but it's really quite a decent match- ** 1/2ish, I'd say, and fun; more fun if you don't analyze, oddly. A good opener. Austin advances to the KOTR finals with the win. -Jake Roberts interview, from his born-again period and brief resurgence as a novelty act in early 1996. Within months he was back on the bottle, getting smaller and smaller crowd reactions, stinking up the ring, and generally on his way out the door again, good riddance. LESSON: nostalgia never pays for long.

-Jake Roberts vs. Vader: I am still not clear on why Vader was not booked to win this thing, as he was clearly the monster heel on the rise at this point and being groomed as a top player and potential champion, but in the event that since he wasn't booked to win a necessary out had to be found that allowed him to maintain face. The result, of course, is a colossal mauling by Vader resembling a bear cub playing with it's dinner, culminating in a DQ on the big guy for mistreating a ref, and then more Vader-mauling after the bell. Basically an extended sequence of Vader killing the old guy, and unratable as a consequence. Jake makes the finals with his "win'.

-Godwinns vs. Smoking Gunns, best of 17 million: this was, of course, the tag feud that Would Not Die for months on end in '96, and pretty much stretched on until Bulldog and Owen were teamed regularly to basically save the division in the latter months of the year. If you're scoring at home, Sunny had just left the pig farmers for the cowboys at this point, after her stint with the flabby workout gurus, and yes all of this was precisely as stupid as it sounds. The match itself is exactly why I don't like to do play by play anymore- it's ponderous, repetitive, and 90% of it revolves around cruddy brawling and worse wrestling on the level of "whip, reverse elbow, both guys fall down. And stay down." Plus, we get a cut away interview with Cloudy. And that ain't right. This whole mess is sub-*ish, and if you get this show, fast forward for your own good. Gunns take it.

-Bulldog and crew interview, standard issue.

- Jerry Lawler vs. The Ultimate Warrior: An utter, utter misfire on every level. It'd be easy to sit back in the old standard issue Big Smark Armchair and rail about match quality and all that; and it'd be true too, since on that level this was more suck than any one man should have to endure. But even on it's own merits, judged on it's own aims, this was terrible. The entire point of a match like this is to have Warrior KILL an easy opponant to reestablish himself in preperation for larger duty (he was, in fact, scheduled to headline the following month's PPV), and thus, following the King's interminable but at least-in-theory justifiable cheap heat segment, one would expect this to go about three seconds. It doesn't. I didn't care toi time it, but I suspect it's at least 5-8 minutes in length, bell to bell, and before the inevitable Warrior pin, it's all Jerry Lawler's 1970's offense, which was horribly dated even when this show was new. Selling for Lawler does nothing to get Warrior over, doing nothing int he ring except a clothline and a shoulderblock does nothing to get Warrior over, and occupying a midcard slot with a boring match does nothing to get Warrior over. Leaving aside the dubious usefulness of the end itself, if you for some reason had decided that it was a MAJOR promotional goal to get Warrior over enough to headline the following month, you could not have done a worse job if you had planned to. It was an obvious attempt to re-create, in some form, the night Warrior finally oblitterated the Honkey Tonk Man's endless IC title reign back in the late 80's, but it had none of the requisite heat or suddenness that made that such a memorable moment. Much as the WWF is learning now with Brock Lesnar, you can't just say that someone's special, give him a big entrance and a supply of Winstrol, and expect to make money out of the deal. At least Brock still has time, athleticism, and newness on his side; by 1996, the failed retread stink was on the Warrior, and no amount of scrubbing with the Quick Win pad was going to get it off.

- Mankind vs. The Undertaker: This was the first match in this series (which seems so long ago now, doesn't it?), and the lack of familiarity is very apparent. Undertaker haden't yet taken advantage of the Mankind plotline to humanize his character and inject more visable emotion into his matches, Foley hadn't yet taken control of the direction of the brawling, and the feud itself hadn't yet reached the necessary intensity level to inspire and dictate the high-level brawling which would distinguish many of their later matches as being not just instumental in getting the Undertaker character back on track after years of the wrestling equivalent of monster-of-the-week episodes with people like Giant Gonzalez and Yokozuna (Taker truly was the Godzilla franchise of mid-90's WWF), but as legitimately high-end brawls which were among the better matches on the card every time out. As it is, this early entry in the series mostly sees UT stringing together his offense without much logical structure behind the choices or fire to the movements, and Foley unable to help much do to the selection UT makes (one can't super-bump off a standing choke). there's also a huge amont of lag time, as both men seems unsure of what the other is about to do next, or where exactly the match itself is about to go. The UT/power vs. Mankind/abuse sponge basic plan which underlay their later matches begins to take shape here, but it hasn't yet coalesced into an actual story. Mankind hasn't yet affected the Undertaker character enough to shock him out of monster-movie mode and into an actual I-hate-you-you-hate-me type of antagonism, so the fire of semi-realism isn't yet there to tell any sort of REAL story. The WWF, and wrestling in general, will never be realistic; but they have to have enough elements of realism to have a correspondance to real life in order to effectively create drama nd astorytelling, which in the end, is both the artistic and financial lifeblood of the industry. Absent those qualities, what you have here is a not-painful brawl with bits of decent bumping and selling here and there, and a nicely done sense of escalating violence and desperation that was a precursor to their later matches. I'm trying to get away from star ratings, but this was **-ish, as a guide.

- Mr. Perfect says he's no cheat.

- Goldust vs. Ahmed Johnson, IC title: I can't imagine that you coud have found anyone back in '96 who would have guessed correctly which of these two would still be hanging around the WWF, getting notable camera time, 6 years later. Life's funny like that. Thsi was during the period when the WWF was well and truly pushing the edge on the Goldust character, as this feud transpired over Goldust kissing Ahmed at some point, over something (and yes, I realize how cro-magnon this plot was; that WWF fans were supposed to hate Goldust for being gay, that being gay in and of itself was considered pushing the envelope, etc. etc. Makes Tommy "Jackass" Dreamer look not quite as bad in comparison, no? At least Goldust is played as a face now, though the sexual componant of his character seems to be rather muted these days). The match itself is very much every WWF midcard match from this year, as two resonably new faces considered at the time to have promise have a resonably decent US Pro style matchup. Ahmed controls the opening portion, natch, and does his throughly decent power offense to good crowd reaction. It ought to be remembered, this guy was though to have all the potential in the world 6 years ago, before various issues resulted in his losing part of '96 and most of '97, and washing out of the WWF by early '98. heck, he even throws in a dive over the top to the floor early in the match, which in and of itself encapsultes him as a performer: visually impressive and very athletic, by also quite obviously slightly out of control and liable to cause serious injury at any given moment. It's a beautiful thing to watch, until you realize he nearly lands head first on the outside arean floor. Not good.

The second setion of the match is all Goldust, as befits US Pro formula, and it's painful to watch; the big knock on Dustin Rhodes throughout his career was that his offense was painfully bland, and this section bears that out as firmly as abny other match of his I've seen: chinlocks, iffy strikes, sleepers, and repeat. It's a master symphony of crowd-killing un-offense, which somehow manages to look both utterly basic and totally non-credible all at once. It's like an ode to Sid, or something (and god do I fear the next 6 months of this year, when the real thing comes to town), and it encapsulates pretty much into a five minute segment a lot of why Rhodes jr. never quite made The Leap. Of course, per WWF plotline resolution necessity, Goldust kisses Ahmend after running through his, ah, offense, provoking the 1996 version of Lesnar to go into his "Brock SMASH!" pattern and kill Dust dead with a spinbuster and tiger driver, to win the IC title. For all intents and purposes, it looked like this was the moment when, against all odds and stupidity around him, Ahmed had made The Leap and was mere months away from being a true headliner. Moral of the story: there are no sure things. It's a pretty bad match too, since Dustin airmailed in his offense; his body was there, but his mind was wrestling this from his barcalounger back in Texas.

- Brian Pillman, who even by this point was a waking advertisement for everything wrong with wrestling, ambles into the arena, then rambles and makes a scene (-a). Watching him now, with the benefit of hindsight, is really tragic. He was a total trainwreck of epic proportions, whose own issues combined with the intense and inhuman pressures of the industry created a situation where a great performer ground down into nothing from overwork, steroids, and unnecessary injuries. And unfortunately, his reputation as "the worked shoot guy" obfuscates the real lessons related to the health and safety of wrestlers which ought to be his real legacy.

- Steve Austin vs. Jake Roberts, KOTR final: Here's your big moment of history, as Austin eradicates the old man in about 5 minutes flat, going first after the injured ribs and finishing with the stunner, conceeding no offense, and getting over the viscious, messiah-complex heel nature of his character in he ring and then on the mike with his famous promo. This would, of course, help get Austin the recognition to touch off the early stages of one of the greatest runs in wrestling history, six years of nearly unmitigated triumph, until this last month seems to have put at least a temporary hold on things. As a moment, it's overstated, because it did not much more than get Austin a platform from which to work and his character noticed (the Bret Hart feud really put him over the top), but it really is everything the early Stone Cold character was about in a 10 minutes segment. It's fun to watch, if you can watch Austin after recent media reports. Match is non-ratable, an adjunct to the character drama. Hey, remember when they actually gave KOTR winners a real push to get them noticed, instead of having them wrestle a series of PPV matchs that I can't even remember a month later? Edge needs to step up on his own, obviously, but if he'd had this sort of set up, he'd be mainlining SD every week at this point. Oh well. We'll see if they get the message about presentation this year. Part of what allowed WWF 1996 to serve as the first year of the WWF renaissance in many ways was that they were much more prepared, at this point, to well and truly get behind new stars, who in time became the headliners who carried the company to much greater success. Whether they've gotten desperate or smart enough to relay on Edge, Jericho, Brock et a. at this point, rather than Hogan and such, remains to be seen. But at any rate, I suppose we can savor the irony of Austin, 1996's golden boy, reportedly refusing to help get Brock, 2002's golden man-beast, over. That's wrestling, folks.

- Shawn Michaels vs. The British Bulldog: The inevitable rematch from the star-crossed "Beware Of Dog" PPV the previous month, which had ended in one of those German suplex double-pin finishes. An extra month had done little to provide any real heat to the matchup, but had made it increasingly clear that the match itself was a one month placeholder (first in a series of two) in order to get things along until the inevitable Michaels-Vader matchup at Summerslam. There's a variety of shenanigans before the match involving Mr. Perfect, another referee, and Gorilla Monsoon, that essentially go no where, thus rapidly invalidating half the build for this match. Good times.

This is, in the end, a very difficult match to review/recap the way I like to. I tend to be like the rest of the BTM staff, and read as much, or more, than is humanly possible into my wrestling. It maybe a guy in a clown suit vs. a rhinestone cowboy type, and some times it HAS been in the WWF, but I'll try to make it into Shakespear. I can't do that witht his match, and in an odd way, I think that's why I love it so. There really ISN'T any sort of meta plotline to this match; it's just very much the best US Pro style contest you're ever likely to see, without the aid of stipulations and such. And as such, it's devilishly fun to watch, if as nothing else, than as an intellectual break. It's very much in the US Pro formula tradition, with a strong face opening from Michaels (highlighted by his excellent, athletic rana/head scissors variations, including one from the apron to the floor that I can't recall, offhand, having see more than a handful ot times anywhere) followed by a period of Bulldog's dominance, followed by the eventual face comeback (which here leads to a Michaels win, off the superkick.) What sets this match apart, is how well both men execute not just the formula, but everything. First of all, they do not neglect the mat, as virtually every WWF match of the last 4 years as done; Michaels does an extended arm work sequence to sap the strength in Bulldog's arm (sold nicely on commentary by Ross, before he became a parody of his own parody.), and in turn Smith does his part to grind Michaels to the mat, keeping him off his feet, where he preiviously had dominated Bulldog with speed. None of it adds up to a Big Idea- but it's a VERY convincing portrayal of the idea of "human chess". And as such, it almost collects itself into a coherent argument for a vision of professional wrestling rooted more in the depiction of sporting contest and legitimate competition, than overwrought character drama. But if it does, it keeps it subtle.

Which is good, because it makes it all the easier to enjoy the obvious pleasures of the match. Both men engage in excellent selling, nicely nuanced as the match proceeds; neither oversells body part damage, nor undersells mat work, both common flaws in WWF wrestlers. As well, the match in general is paced well, with neither man ever totally dominating, and frequent "hope spots" for both men. It's very much in tune with the idea of presenting simulated contest. Also in line with that aim, are the massive number of counters employed by both menthroughout the match, as seemingly every move, major or minor, landed by each man comes off either a counter, a reversal, or a foiled counter previous to the move. It's perfectly calculated to keep the match fluid and dynamic, with "rest holds" interspersed for the audience to catch a breather, but which in turn feed into the plot. In addition, for 1996 WWF, the moveset is quite advanced. Michaels has his rana variations in addition to his usual comeback arsenal (flying forearm, flying elbow, etc.), but it's the Bulldog, left to control and carry the bulk of the middle of the match, who really impresses. An excellent piledriver, a Romero special, several nicely executed and timed, for maximum value in the plot of the match, gorilla slams (including one from the ring to the floor which provides the face to heel transition point for the first two sections of the match; also excellent bumping by Michaels) and a variety of more athletic fare. It's a match that really makes the viewer appreciate how good Davey Smith really was, and if you're looking for a good match with which to look back at his career, this would be a fine selection. In addition, the match benefits from a legitimately clean finish, as Michaels simply executes his finisher after a series of reversals of major moves (the offense in the match is nicely calibrated to increase in intricacy and "scale" even as it decreases in frequency) to win the match. It's a fitting end. The night I wrote this review, I had occasion to watch the second fight between Marco Antonio Barerra and Erik Morales, and this very much was wrestling's correspondant to that- human chess. This match is as close as wrestling can get, bar something like UWFi, to a legitimte depiction of simulated sporting contest between two excellent professionals. It's the match Bret Hart was always trying to have, and never quite getting to. As such, it reprsents in some ways a road not taken by the WWF, an alternate path that in time would have taken them a great deal closer to the spirit of WCW's cruiser devision, or the old NWA. In comparison to a lot of what was to come in the next 6 years, you'll forgive me if I question the decision made. The bottom line is, this is a fabulous match, an utter lost classic. **** 1/4 feels right.

-Final thoughts: It's really a great little show that either gets remembered for the wrong reasons, or totally forgotten these days. The famous Austin promo is a little slice of history, but no doubt, if that's your sort of thing, there's a million WWF "Stone Cold...." this-or-that tapes possesed of the same footage. The real reason to get this is to both savor the excellent main event, which is the epitome of WWF-style wrestling at it's potential best, and to contemplate an alternate vision of what the WWF can be (could have been?) these days. This show, despite flaws, is very much an excellently balanced combination of straight good wrestling, competantly booked (if not scintillatingly written) angles, and enough razzle-dazzle to tie the whole thing up in the pretty bow of WWF-style presentation. It's got a whole heck of a lot less "ha-ha" crap than current WWF programming, it's got angles that respect the conceptual universe for which they're conceived, and more than anything, it feels like WRESTLING, not the fifth-rate variety show crap that all too often charicterizes a Monday night's viewing from the now-WWE. Personally, comparing the old days to the new, I wish they'd get the "F" back in; and remember that the second "W" counts, too. Give it a few months, kids, and I may yet go on one of those massively-tangential semi-rants about the importance of respecting the intellectual and conceptual integrity of a fantasy world.

And On A Side Note: When I started this whole "review WWF 1996" project a while back, it was for no better reason that that I had always thought it was the most underappreciated year in the WWF's history, and thought it might be a good idea to flash back a bit and try to turn some other people on to matches and such that I had always loved. Months later, the current WWF looks like it's turned into a sort of bizarro-world replay of this year. A major star leaves early on in the year (Deisel/Razor; Austin) for various reasons, leaving a depleted headlining crew (Michaels, Undertaker; HHH,) to try to carry the company through the thros of atrocious writing with the aid of imported quasi-stars (Sid; Hogan, Nash) and ex-headliners making token appearances at best (Bret Hart; The Rock), to hold the fort long enough for stars and maybe-stars of the future to fully develop (Ahmed Johnson, Mankind, Steve Austin; Brock Lesnar, RVD). So, partially to see if the current WWF can springboard back to prominance from this sort of base, as the 1996 version did, partially to try and reinvigorate my own interest in wrestling (which, for a million reasons, has been flagging for a year solid now, and is virtually gone for foreign stuff), for the last 6 months of my retro '96 series, and the last 6 months of this year, I'm going to try to churn out parallel reviews of the corresponding shows, month by month, in 1996 and the present year. If it works out, I guess I'll keep doing it for 1997/2003. I don't have a blessed clue if anyone else out there will care to read this profusion of stuff, but I think I'll have fun doing it. And in the end, that's why I'm here.

Brendan Welsh-Balliett
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