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Royal Rumble '96
Introduction To The Series
So I had a bad idea. Welcome to my little project, as for kicks I'm going to review every WWF pay-per-view from 1996. The obvious question I guess then is "why?" (No, "what are you smoking" isn't what I was thinking of…). Well, I've always thought this year got something of a bad rap from people (a thought reinforced by the reactions to this idea from some…=)), when in fact many of the shows were in the range of good to excellent in my opinion, and in fact it may be, top to bottom, my favorite year in WWF history, hence my choice of this as a series. From Shawn Michaels carrying everything on two legs, live, dead, or Kevin Nash, to ****+ matches, to the last good months of Bret Hart: babyface, and Vader on US soil, to the debut of Mick Foley and the start of his excellent feud with the Undertaker, this was a year which had a great deal of high quality wrestling and historic occurrences taking place within its limits, many of which have been either forgotten or only dimly remembered as time passes.
Introduction To The Rumble
In November of 1995, even Vince McMahon was unable to ignore the brutally obvious fact that Diesel as Champion was a non-starter; in fact, I believe history has recorded him as the worst drawing WWF champion of all time. To staunch the bleeding from his bottom line, Vince McMahon went back to old reliable, Bret Hart, and put the WWF title on him at Survivor Series 1995; however, plans were already in the works at this point to place the title on Shawn Michaels at Wrestlemania, which many fans had already guessed. Thus the resulting Hart title run from November to the following March was, in the eyes of both the WWF and fans, something of a lame duck run, a perception emphasized by the booking of that title run as it unfolded. Meanwhile, Diesel and Razor Ramon were both in the process of leaving the WWF for the greener financial pastures of WCW, as was the 1-2-3 Kid eventually, and the WWF was scrambling to replace them with new acquisitions Goldust, Ahmed Johnson, Steve Austin, and Vader, and later Mick Foley and Marc Mero as a "New(er) Generation" of sorts. Some of those guys ended up working out…some didn't. So here we go….
1. Free For All: Duke Droese beats HHH on a Gorilla Monsoon (figurehead president) reversed decision, to win the #30 spot in the Rumble.
-Promo video to start, focusing on Bret Hart and his challenger at this show, the Undertaker. Also noted is the Razor/Goldust feud, and the rumble itself.
-"Live" from Fresno, California, with Vince McMahon and Mr. Perfect as your hosts. Boy does that seem odd these days.
2. Jeff Jarrett vs. Ahmed Johnson Jarrett was recently returned from contract limbo at this point, I believe, while Ahmed was getting a big-time push based on his look and ability. And no, I'm not kidding. Had it not been for his propensity to both cause and sustain injuries, he could have been Goldberg; he had that sort of physical charisma and palpable intensity. Jarrett was in shiny happy neon rhinestone cowboy territory at this point, by the way, with the blinking lights on the jacket and cowboy hat he used as warm-ups, quickly working his way onto (ominous music) HONKY'S ASS-WHIPPING LIST! I'm sure somewhere in Tennessee right now, in between groveling phone calls to Jim Ross ("Ah swayre, Viiince Russo mahde me do thaht skeeit!") Jarrett is having a good laugh over that one. That said, I'm SHOCKED this act never got over like it did for HTM; goodness knows what people were thinking to miss out on such a highly nuanced characterization as this, from such a unique and compelling performer as Jarrett. Phillistines.
Ahmed chases Jarrett around the ring to start, and Jarrett nails him as he reenters, allowing Jarrett some knees in the corner to control. Ahmed blocks a hip toss and hits one of his own. Jarrett gets a side headlock and exclaims "I'm gonna give him a wrestling lesson". I *guess* that's psychology, of a sort. Ahmed promptly picks him up and throws him forward, and dominates with power stuff (short arm clothesline, shoulderblocks, powerslam) for a two count. He nails that leaping forearm lariat Rock uses these days, then does this creepy tongue wagging pose. Charisma he had, in bunches. Perfect annoys me on commentary he exclaiming how this was Ahmed's first big event, instantly reminding me he had wrestled at Survivor Series '95. Perfect was not much of a commentator, that's for sure; most of the time he seemed either lost, or more interested in getting himself over than the match. Ahmed finally misses a dive over the top and gives JJ some offense on the outside, with clotheslines and whips into the steps and ring. Back inside, and JJ chokes his opponent on the ropes, including the Steve Austin running butt splash on the ropes thing, which I don't have a good name for (can you tell? Email me if you've got an idea what to call it). He hits three axe handles from the ropes as Ahmed no-sells, dancing in a Tatanka-like manner, but gets caught on the fourth in a bearhug into an inverted atomic drop. Ahmed kills him with a lariat and a spinebuster while grunting, driving JJ to the outside. Ahmed then hits THE UGLIEST TOPE CON HILO EVER, falling on his FUCKING HEAD and crashing and burning into the guardrail. +10 for effort, -1 million for near homi/suicide. MAN was that ugly. Ahmed of course just gets up as if nothing happened. He rolls JJ in and goes up top, but misses a somersault senton (what'd he eat for breakfast?), which he decides to sell with a knee injury. JJ gets the figure-four, but Ahmed reverses to escape. JJ stays on the knee with elbow drops to the leg, but as he goes for the figure-four Ahmed kicks him out of the ring with a boot to the ass. JJ gets desperate and nails the el kabong from the top rope for the deeply lame PPV DQ at 6:38. Ahmed chases JJ from the ring to the back. Well. Lucha Ahmed was cool, and the power vs. skill psychology was there, but it was short and had an awful finish. *1/2, but a fun couple of snowflakes or so.
-Smoking Gunns interview. MORONS, the both of them, especially Bart. Shiny happy Billy is kind of odd, though.
-Diesel interview. He had reverted to cool tweener status at this point, though he has little to say beyond that he doesn't have any personal problem with the Undertaker, just with him being #1 contender to Bret's title.
3. Bodydonnas (w/Sunny) vs. Smoking Gunns Warning: this review (and the rest of the series) is 100% crack whore joke free. Go somewhere else if that gives you the chuckles. The Gunns are the champs here and this is for the tag titles, and if anyone doesn't know, the Bodydonnas were Tom Prichard and Chris Candido. Perfect spends much of this match making vaguely obscene comments about Sunny, while Billy, for the record, is probably 30 pounds lighter here than he is today. Yeah. Headlocks and shoulderblocks to start, with lucha Tom Prichard busting out the flying headscissors. I didn't even know he knew that moves existed back in '96, which is what I get, I guess, for never following Smokey Mountain. Billy catches him with a backdrop but blows a crossbody and falls to the floor. The 'donnas dump Bart and then put the double beats on Ass Man as he reenters, with hiplocks and elbows. They try to slingshot Bart in as well, but he reverses and sends them both out to the floor himself. Bart then pulls the top rope down, allowing Billy Gunn to hit a plancha (!!!!) over the top onto the Bodydonnas below. The Gunns celebrate back inside. Things settle into a standard tag match, as the Gunns pound on Candido with basic punching. Bart no sells some Pritchard chops, and mauls him with a press slam and such. The 'donnas try the old switcheroo, but it goes nowhere really, and the Gunns connect with a Hart Attack. Sunny gets knocked off the apron by Billy on a whip though, distracting The King Of Jakked and kicking off THAT godawful plotline. Skip and Zip jump him of course, and use their high-tech-for-1996 offense to get some traction. Pritchard holds the New Age Cowboy for a Candido plancha, and back inside Candido gourdbusters Pritchard onto Billy. The 'donnas then run through their more basic tag offense, mostly kicky-punchy-slammy, for a succession of 2 counts. This is formula tag all the way folks, Rock-And-Rolls vs. (New?) Midnights. The guy Road Dogg carried finally makes the hot tag, thankfully hastening the end of this match, and lefty clears the ring with, guess what, lefts. Various ludicrous hijinkery follows with double team offense (whipping two men into each other forces one to backdrop the other? WHAT?) until Kawada bait and HHH's valet hit the sidewinder (sideslam/leg drop combo), with The Uno coming off the top. Sunny distracts the ref of course, and Candido hits a diving ax handle for a 2 count only. Sunny pouts. Double backdrop by the 'donnas and they go for a double suplex, but Chyna's ex-boyfriend hits an iffy spear on a 'donna to give Bart an inside cradle for three at 13:11, which apparently was an homage of sorts to a famous Midnights tag finish. BLEEECH. Not a good formula tag, as no one really seemed to be trying, or were just so hideously untalented it's hard to detect the difference. Five years later: Sunny has personal issues, Candido has been thrown out of every federation in North America and is now a jobber for New Japan on an occasional basis, Tom Prichard is an office worker, Bart Gunn still sucks, but used his Brawl-For-All fame to secure a spot getting the shit kicked out of him by superior workers in All Japan, and Billy Gunn is known primarily for the people he hung around with and the bad gimmicks he accumulated. What an absolute batch of nothing this match was, though an interesting piece of perspective. *.
-Billionaire Ted skit. Vince McMahon is an insecure fuckwad, I'd just like to say, and a mean spirited old codger.
-Goldust/Razor recap video. Razor is sexy, mang, and Goldust wants him. It's really that simple, and I dig Scott Keith's analysis of this as the first true "shades of gray" plotline; was Goldust wrong for being gay, or for forcing himself on the unreceptive Ramon? Or was he just messing with Ramon to throw him off? For some of the WWF fan base, that amounted to deep thinking.
-Coliseum video interview with a glassy eyed Ramon, who appears to have mastered the ability to cut a passable promo even while his brain is telling him he's actually Captain Neptune, intergalactic space hero from the outer rings of planet Koolooqwu.
4. Goldust (w/Marlena) vs. Razor Ramon This is for the IC title, and Ramon is champ going in. Terrie, by the way, looks like a different person these days, more specifically one who's had a lot of work done since this match; apparently this was the first use of both Marlena (brought in for both prior experience in the business and for being Dustin's wife) and the unique letterboxed entrance for Goldie. For the record, I hate Goldust, the character and the wrestler. Goldie gyrates on the mat to start and feels himself up. I turn the tape off at this point, and watch some of Starrcade '95 until my brain recovers from the sight of that…Liger vs. Benoit…yes…. OK, I'm back. Ramon completes the ceremonial toothpick tossing (I'm told it's similar to the sumo practice of tossing salt before a match to exorcise evil spirits), but sadly it fails to exorcise the Dusty spawn and the match must go on. Hall breaks out the great "ooh, I'm so scccaaarrrreeddd" finger waggle, reminding me that Razor kicked ass back in the day as a character. This Goldust faux stereotypically gay preening is *really* frightening, because to put it nicely, he's inherited all of his father's attributes in physical areas (though sadly none of his charisma). Razor wrenches jr. down to the mat to start, doing the "I'm a manly man" bit to establish that HE'S NO HOMO. Yeah. Or maybe there's some whole dominance/submission story going on here that I'm missing. Who can say? He gets the arm bar and the slapping on the back of the head, the usual Scott Hall trademarks. Side headlock leads to a standoff and more self-groping from Dusty's kid. That just never gets pleasant. Goldust gets the waistlock and feels up Ramon, causing him to freak out pretty good. Hey, if a 260-pound redneck was groping me, I'd freak too, wrestling match or no wrestling match.
Three minutes in and this is closer to sexual assault than it is to actual wrestling, as nothing is going on other than Dustin doing his character. They break a collar-and-elbow tie up in the ropes, and jr. fondles Ramon again. I get it already, he's a sexual predator. MOVE ON. Ramon throws him out of the corner. More self-fondling from GD. NOTHING is happening here. Ramon goes after the arm again but jr. reverses the hammerlock and slaps Ramon. Razor gets a drop toehold and more headslaps, then a slap to the face. Then he spanks Goldust, who sells it and fondles his own ass. This is just horrible stuff, four minutes of goofy humiliation "offense" and a lot of Dustin stroking himself. Razor finally just punches him, sending him to the outside to…wait for it…stall again. Yip-frickin'-ee. Goldust hides behind Marlena on the outside, and NOTHING IS HAPPENING. Back inside finally and they partially screw up a headlock/headscissors reversal spot, but manage to force their way through it before Ramon punches Goldust again, triggering THE SAME STALLING I JUST WROTE ABOUT. This is really utter atrociousness. Don't watch this if you get the tape. GD blows Ramon a kiss. Great. More self-grasping, and Razor dumps him outside with a lariat for more stalling. Finally Marlena provides the distraction for Dust to get some of his ridiculously generic offense rolling. Irish whips! Bulldog! ENTHRALLING. Hey lookee, a back suplex for 2. An actual wrestling move, how 'bout that. Swinging neckbreaker for 2. Sleeper. Because what this match needed was to SLOW DOWN MORE. Good show, Dustin. TWIT! Razor kicks Goldust in the nuts to break the hold, and I don't even know how to read that into the sexual politics of this match. Razor makes a punching comeback, hits a chokeslam for 2, the Scott Hallaway slam (blockbuster suplex) for 2, and Goldie gets the thumb to the eye. Razor catches him going to the top though and hits a backdrop superplex, but Marlena distracts the ref. 1-2-3 Kid runs out of the crowd and spin kicks Ramon off the top, giving Goldust the pin and the title at 14:17. Yes, I know, my bitching is repetitive, but this was offensively bad, and one of the worst matches you'll run across. -**, and I don't give negative stars easy.
-Pre-Rumble interview segment: Dr. Jeff Unger (on Shawn Michaels)! Owen Hart! Jake Roberts! Jerry Lawler! Barry Horowitz (!?)! Vader! Shawn Michaels!
5. The Royal Rumble The big plotline here was Shawn Michaels' "recovery" from "injuries" sustained "at the hands of Owen Hart and the Owenzuigiri". In reality he had another boo boo from getting the shit kicked out of him by a couple of guys in a bar in upstate New York, the kind of injury which always seemed to crop up whenever it was time to lose a title (in this case the IC strap to Dean Douglas). In fairness to him he probably was legitimately injured by that encounter, though perhaps not so much as he let on. This was also the WWF debut for Vader, who had left WCW after a fight with Paul Orndorf, which he rather famously lost. Diesel was also entered, seeking another shot at the title he had lost to Bret Hart at Survivor Series. Vince tells us we're using 2 minute intervals this year; we'll see about that. Starting off is HHH (having lost a qualifier to Duke Droese of gimmick battle royal non-fame on the first ever free-for-all) and Henry Godwinn. Jesus. 1996 really is like bizarro-world from the perspective of today, a land where HHH is a curtain-jerker and a hog farmer is considered a darn good starter gimmick in the WWF. Here we go:
Hunter controls with eyepokery and some listless brawling, but HOG reverses quickly and bumps HHH around a bit, while yelling "sooey" at some random interval. Jesus. Baaaack body drop (trademark Vince-ism). HHH does a variation of the Flair flip, gets caught, but eyepokes his way out of a press slam. Choking. Ech. #3 is Bob Backlund, well into his demented old man gimmick and not far from his second exit from the WWF. He goes after HOG, then HHH, because as Vince never neglects to tell us, "it's every man for himself tonight LIIIIVE at the Royal Rumble!" This was why people used to hate him as a commentator. Of note as well about our announce crew: Perfect is absolutely shameless here about putting himself over CONSTANTLY on commentary, which gets highly annoying after a while. HHH breaks up HOG's attempt to dump Backlund, causing me to ask the inevitable "why?" This one already has degenerated into the worst of Rumble clichés, as two guys sidle up to the ropes and grope each other in a supposed attempt to throw each other out, while doing a great deal of nothing for the most part. It's not exactly an enthralling thing to watch. #4 is the King, drawing good heat. The heels jump HOG and try to slop him with his own slop bucket (ok, so not all of 1996 was good…) but it is inevitably reversed, leading to the king getting slopped. Yipeee. Vince: "I'm not too sure what we're at!"
Bob "Sparkplug" Holly is #5, as the parade of dead gimmicks continues. More listless brawling/man-groping in the ropes. HHH nearly evicts HOG, but no dice. I really have nothing to write here. At all. #6 is King Mabel, and I would weep about the utter dearth of talent in the ring, if I didn't know that there was even worse to come. We're actually keeping to the 2:00 intervals so far. It should be noted that not a single person in the ring is still with the WWF under the same gimmick, and only 2 of 6 remain at all. Absolutely nothing is going on. #7 is Jake Roberts, during the period in which being fat, old, washed up and a substance abuser was actually his gimmick, more or less. He brings the first actual interest value to this match, as he clears the ring with his snake (NOT the Heroes of Wrestling sort of "he clears the ring with his snake", thank god) and then attacks Jerry Lawler with it. Sadly, that's all that happens, as this is still all listless brawling; Jerry Lawler does take this opportunity to disappear, though….
#8 is Dory Funk jr. as the legends entry. This. Match. Sucks. There's legitimately not a single good wrestler in the ring, currently, and no one is doing anything other that punches and groping. Our announcers note that the King has snuck under the ring to hide; I figured he was just doing a good deed though, chasing away a rat under the ring. He's good for that. #9 is Yokozuna. I hate to speak ill of the dead, but at this point Yoko was giving an ample showing of what eventually killed him, and I believe we have now reached the point of negative workrate in the ring. Which is promptly exacerbated by Yoko's dumping of Backlund, one of the few energetic people in this match. Yeargh. Bob Holly actually busts out the never before seen Hollycanrana on HOG, so at least somebody was trying here; let it be noted though, for whatever it means, that both HHH and he have added at least 30 lbs. of muscle in the last five years. #10 is the 1-2-3 Kid, who is chased around by Razor Ramon to put over that feud. Paired off in the ring now is the bizarre duo of Dory Funk and X-Pac; wrap your mind around that one. #11 is Takeo Ohmori from All Japan. I have no idea why. He is, however, the best wrestler in this match, so that's all good. Most notable thing going on is 1-2-3 Kid bumping around for old Dory; bless that little weed abuser's heart.
#12 is TNT/Hombre Dinemita/Kwang/Savio Vega. He hits a nice leg lariat on Mabel, who is then eliminated by big Yokes. Takeo Ohmori is gone too, eliminated by Jake on one of those "we both go over but I grab the ropes to save myself" spots. #13 brings me sweet relief, as Vader finally shows; for the record, I love Vader. The first signs of Yoko's impending face turn are present here, by the way, as Cornette accompanies Vader to ringside instead of him. Savio Vega eliminates Dory Funk, then gets worked over by Vader. #14 is Doug Gilbert from the USWA. Jake pops the crowd big time by finally hitting the DDT (after several loud crowd chants) on Savio, but gets dumped by Vader off a lariat from the middle of the ring. Yeah, THAT was realistic. Vader is basically mauling everyone here, and Doug Gilbert and the uno-dos-tres nino are bumping big time for him. #15 is a big fat guy I've never seen again who Vince calls "one of the swat team members". I think he was one of the Puerto Rican Headhunters, but I'm guessing there. He's part of an identical fat twin brothers tag team, and his partner is upcoming. Yeah. Vader continues to demolish Gilbert, concluding by press slamming him over the top to the floor. He then eliminates the round Headhunter guy. Vader's the man. Vader and Yokes go at it, as #16 is…
The other fat Headhunter guy. Great. Of all the worldwide talent available in 1996, THESE guys are the ones Vince chooses to bring in. And no, Ohmori does NOT make up for them. Makes me wish for the days of Gen'ichiero Tenryu at Wrestlemania. Both fatties charge the ring, but Yoko and Vader clubberize them and eliminate them in short order. Good show. #17 is Owen Hart, single handedly doubling the talent level in this match. Sadly, the format of the Rumble is such that even a talented performer like Owen is forced into you-hit-me, I-hit-you, then-we-lean-on-the-ropes strictures. #18 is HBK, as McMahon splooges on his monitor. Vader dumps Savio, as Michaels tries by sheer force of will to elevate this suckfest by flying around like a man possessed. Vader and Yoko go at it hard, prefiguring their feud; but as they lean on the ropes, HBK sneaks up and dumps them both and then press slams the Kid after them. THAT was a cool spot. #19 is Hakushi (Jinsei Shinzaki), as the two recently eliminated fat guys take exception to each other on the outside. Vader wins that tussle, and returns to the ring to get his heat back by pummeling HBK, press slamming him over the top, then beating up everyone else in the ring and throwing them out. None of the eliminations count, due to Vader not being legal
#20 is Tatanka, just waiting to be fired, as Michaels throws Jim Cornette from the ring. Hakushi hits the handspring elbow on Owen Hart in the corner, as everyone else engages in some good brawling for a bit. Vince declares that HHH has been in for over 40 minutes, while a quick time check reveals he's actually a bit short of 38. #21 is Aldo Montoya, as Owen eliminates Hakushi. I think all the Aldo jokes that can possibly be made have been, so I'll leave the poor guy alone. Mr. Perfect does say "he's got his jock on the wrong part of his body" as Aldo runs to the ring, though. Michaels, on the outside, takes this opportunity to extract the King from his endeavors beneath the ring. Both the King and Aldo are eliminated (by HBK and Tatanka), as Diesel appears as #22. He hits the ring as quickly as Nash will, and swiftly eliminates Tatanka. Diesel and Michaels go at it despite being friends at the time, and then things settle back into standard brawling. #23 is Papa Shango, err, The Godfather, err, The Goodfather, ehh, Kama, actually. Sadly, he sucks in all his incarnations. Nothing's happening again. #24 is some guy called the Ringmaster, with no crowd heat. At all. What a difference a year will make in his case….
He eliminates Bob Holly with a knee to the back, and #25 is Barry Horowitz, with "Hava Nageilah" as his theme music, I shit you not. After a minute, Diesel eliminates HHH. Note that each clique member is eliminated by another. #26 is "makin' a difference" Fatu, a wrestlecrap special for sure. I actually miss Rikishi these days, though. More random brawling. #27 is Issac Yankem, with about half the muscle mass as today. Yeah. Owen Hart eliminates Barry Horowitz, but is eliminated himself by Michaels. #28 is Marty Jannetty, who juxtaposed with Michaels is a living argument for the evils of excessive drug abuse. Diesel and the Ringmaster continue to go after each other, as Michaels and Jannetty brawl heatedly as a wink to the old timers. #29 is the British Bulldog, hot off challenging Bret Hart for the WWF title at the previous month's In Your House. Much quasi-intensical brawlificationalism. Jannetty gets dumped by the Bulldog off a standing backdrop, and Fatu goes off a Yankem lariat. #30 is Duke Droese, and, hey, I doubt anyone cared back then either. The people left in the ring are Droese, Diesel, HBK, Yankem, Bulldog, and Kama. Yankem goes quickly off a Michaels dropkick, Kama and Diesel dump Droese, and we're sprinting towards the finish. Bulldog exits swiftly off a duck under/lariat combo from Michaels, Kama gets piefaced over by Diesel, but as Diesel turns around he's stuck hard and dropped over the top by Michaels with the superkick for the win, his second in a row, at 58:39. Whee. Bad Rumble all around, really: no surprises, no real flow or interesting stories being told, and a lot or mindless pseudo-brawling. Not painful or anything, just bad as these things go. The right guy went over though, with a good finish, and it picked up late once the fat guy quotient went down. That counts for something. **. Michaels and Diesel reconcile after the match, after Diesel finishes punking the Bulldog. We also get the set up for another big feud, and a segue way into the next match, as Diesel and Taker have a run in at the entrance way and come to blows.
6. The Undertaker vs. Bret Hart This is for the WWF title, their first PPV meeting, and it's NOT one of the better matches between them. UT still has the stupid facemask here, left over from Mable sitting on his head a while back, which may or may not have been a legitimate cover for a legitimate injury. Yo no se; pregunte El Rick. Bret plays duck and dodge to start, avoiding the larger and stronger Undertaker. Nice psychology there, of the basic variety. He tries to get things going with punchy-kicky, but it has predictably little effect, and UT mauls him in the corner with right hands and choking. Interesting thing: the exact point at which UT stopped sucking, I believe, was when he eliminated the choke as a regular part of his offense. I'm not sure why that is, but it seems to hold up. UT slowly works Bret over, and hits a sharp whip in the corner and a two handed choke lift. He continues with a slow pounding, mostly with right hands, from one corner to the next, and Bret takes his trademark crumple bump in the corner. UT actually breaks out the stupidest move in the history of wrestling, the one handed smother. That one's really inexcusable, because even on it's own terms it's just bad. Much like this match; four minutes in and we've already hit the rest holds. UT gets a series of 2 counts off the…smother…then returns to general pounding, including the ropewalk. Yay! The smother returns. How is that even supposed to work!? "Oh no, large powerful man, you have grasped my face, and therefore your hand has rendered it completely impossible for me to breathe at all!" And shouldn't that be an illegal choke of sorts, then? And shouldn't Bret actually sell it as more than an annoyance? And how in the name of several deities does someone actually get a 2 count off it? Boggled, I am. I mean really, this thing is at an Iron Claw-like level of ludicrous. Bret finally gets his feet up on a charge in the corner, then hits a second rope lariat and a running lariat to dump UT to the outside. He follows with a pescado, but a dive off the apron goes wrong allowing UT to ram his back into the post. Taker gets some more slow offense out side before Bret escapes an attempted battering ram into the post, driving UT into it instead. As he tries to follow up however, UT catches him with a boot, and gets back on offense with right hands and face smashes into the guardrail. Bret, however, reverses a whip (on a spot called by Undertaker, oddly) and drives UT into the steps knee-first. Bret does the predictable but psychologically correct thing (to counter the larger man's size and strength advantage) by going to the knee with kicks and smashes into the stairs. He pummels UT around a bit and takes it back inside for more of the same, punctuated with rollover hamstring snaps and butt drops to the knee propped on the bottom rope. He drives an elbow into the knee and settles into a leg grapevine, then drives a few knee drops into UT's injured leg. After a bit more leg work, he goes for the inevitable figure-four and gets it, but UT reverses (natch) and the hold is broken. Bret stays on top however, focusing mostly on the leg with kicks and a knee wrench in the corner around the middle rope, and finally back to the grapevine. This goes on for a while, until Bret counters some punches on the ground with a choke, playing subtle heel. Back vertical, Bret goes to the knee again and takes UT down, hits an elbow smash to the knee, then a leg wrench. This one started REALLY slow, and now that it's got going it's absolutely correct from a psychology and execution standpoint, but boring as hell. Elbow drop to the knee. Grapevine. UT breaks with kicks to the head, and hurls Bret from the ring. On the outside it's head to the stairs, choke with electrical cord (now they're both playing heel?), whipage to the rails and over various debris, and finally back in. UT's half selling the leg injury, as he's limping a bit, but not really doing anything different in the ring; consequently it's not really a down point, just a lost opportunity to actually tell a story based on Hart's offense affecting UT's ability to do what he wants to during the match. Whip side to side, but Hart ducks the big boot and steps to the side, kicking again at the damaged limb, drawing boos in the process. He stays on it with a variety of offense, including an ankle pick to set up a slam of the leg into the ring post. Hey guess what? Back in the ring…MORE LEG WORK!!! Another grapevine, another few minutes of the match disappearing for no discernable purpose. The thing is, they're sitting on the mat in the same hold, not transitioning, not really doing anything other than, in theory, "working the leg". But they're doing it in the most boring way possible, with repetitive holds, without the sense of realism that good shootstyle has, and what they're doing isn't having a major effect on how the match progresses. That's the problem with what they're doing.
They finally break and a vertical brawl puts Bret down and gives UT the space for a legdrop (after all that leg work? What!?) and a lariat off a whip. He goes for the tombstone (remember the good old days?) but Bret scrambles off his shoulder, landing on the apron. UT knocks him off there with a right hand, but when he tries it a second time Hart guillotines him. UT puts his head down early on a whip and Bret gets a DDT (was Jake watching?) for the double knockout spot and the obligatory zombie sit up from the PG-13 Lord of Darkness. Bret kicks the knee however and hits the side Russian legsweep (1) triggering another no sale spot. Bulldog hits (2) and Fangoria pin-up man does his bit again. Side backbreaker (3) and second rope elbow (4) both connect, and Bret gives the thumbs down for Taker before going for the sharpshooter (5). UT blocks with a choke however (nice spot; one man's signature move allows him to counter the other's in a way most wrestlers couldn't. Puts over the unique flavor of this match up.) and hits a knee to the gut. He misses a lariat on the whip however, and then both men connect for the double knockout. Bret gets up first and loosens a turnbuckle pad, and after a scrum on the mat he manages to remove the Undertaker's "protective facemask". Taker goes ape-s and chases him about the ring, with Bret ducking and dodging, and finally hitting a back elbow, giving him the opening to drive UT's head into the exposed bolt in the corner. He continues the beating with a headbutt and punches, but a bodypress goes wrong, allowing UT to position him for the tombstone. It hits and UT has Bret beat, but Diesel pulls Earl Hebner out of the ring before he can count to screw the Taker and preserve his own claim as the #1 contender. The bell rings at 28:27, giving UT a DQ win. LAAAAME. Bad booking as well, making the champion look weak and illegitimate. From the way in which Howard Finkle reads off the results afterward (UT wins…but Bret retains!) it's obvious they just wanted to get out of the match with both guys keeping their heat; instead, they made both look bad. The match itself was one of those technically decent but horribly boring affairs, which you really don't need to see ever; there are enough bad Undertaker matches turning up these days anyway (though, for the record, I enjoy his current work quite a bit based on his character and have thought several of his recent matches have been good, most notably vs. Austin at Judgment Day). It had the proper and logical psychology to it and good execution of what was there, but the restholds were brutal and the psychology never really developed into a true story as it might have without UT's iffy selling; also, Bret seemed quite unmotivated here, for obvious reasons. If you want a good UT/Bret match, pick up either SummerSlam '97, or better still One Night Only, which has a truly superior encounter between the two; this here gets only **. Postmatch, Diesel flips off the Taker, Bret scrapes himself off the mat, and we get a…
A functional show only, that got where it had to be in terms of storyline advancement in preparation for Wrestlemania, but did precious little else along the way; at this point everything was stuck in neutral until Vince could get the belt onto Shawn Michaels, and figure out what he was going to do to replace Diesel and Razor. There's really nothing standout about this show at all, so unless you really like the whole Rumble concept this isn't an especially necessary show to see. It's a 5/10 or so. Oddly enough, it drew the second highest buyrate for the Fed this year, trailing only Wrestlemania; I suppose the first ever PPV meeting of Bret and the Undertaker would explain that.
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