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Introduction To Wrestlemania XII
Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels had been moving on well-crafted parallel paths prior to this show: Bret had disposed of his two primary challengers, Diesel and The Undertaker (though not convincingly, a large part of what pissed Bret off and caused him to bail shortly after this show), while Shawn had been built up as the next big challenger, winning the Royal Rumble and subsequently defending his title shot at IYH 6, the previous show, against Owen Hart. Logically, it was a fine build, save for the problems of Bret looking like a weak champion and Shawn being far too obviously the "next big thing" and logical winner at 'Mania. Still, it did result in a buy rate in the neighborhood of 1.2 for this show, the highest number the WWF would reach in 1996. Since the main event was, rather famously, the third Iron Man match in WWF history (the first one televised, following Bret Hart vs. Ric Flair and Bret Hart vs. Owen Hart, both of which had taken place at house shows) the undercard was by necessity rather truncated. It did still feature something of a dream match, however, in the form of Diesel vs. Undertaker, whose feud had been building since before the Rumble first over who was to be the #1 contender and later over them costing each other the title (and for that matter just not liking each other much). Most of the rest of the card, however, tended towards the unmemorable. Vamanos, amigos….
1. Free For All: The Bodydonnas beat the Godwinns to capture the tag titles in the finals of a short tournament necessitated by an injury to one of the Gunns (Billy, I think), and Huckster and Nacho Man go to a no contest. For the love of god, don't watch any of this.
-HBK video package on "a young boy's dream".
We're in Anaheim, with Vince and Jerry at the helm.
2. Yokozuna/Ahmed Johnson/Jake Roberts vs. Owen Hart/British Bulldog/Vader (w/James Cornette) If the faces win, Yoko gets five minutes with Cornette. This makes sense as a match, but was very much organized as a "let's get people on the show" type affair, as opposed to being a major built up deal in and of itself. Big brawl to start, and the faces take the advantage. Vader bumps around for Yoko a bit, a deeply bad idea given who was supposed to be the monster here. Ahmed has his working boots on though, and hits a no-hands plancha 30 seconds in. Yoko and Vader isolate in the ring, and Yoko sells nothing, as is customary. Owen comes in and gets slammed by the big man with a lariat. Bulldog pulls Owen out of the corner on a Yoko charge, and the heel tag team puts the beats to him, then bring in Vader. After some heel shenanigans involving ref distraction and eye pokes, Vader tries to pummel Yoko in the corner, and sort of succeeds, but Yoko just can't physically sell a'tall. Humorous visual at ringside: Mr. Fuji with an American flag. That's just SO ridiculously pandering. Yoko ducks a punch and hits an urenage, and twin tags produce a segment of Ahmed kicking Bulldog and Owen's asses. After a big powerslam Vader smacks Ahmed from behind, they do a rope sequence, and Vader misses the sit-out counter to Ahmed's sunset flip. Ahmed gets big air on a leaping lariat and does his tongue pose. They sort of wander around for a second, then it's a mystery switch and Bulldog's in to get slammed. Ahmed goes for the Pearl River Plunge (tiger driver), but Cornette distracts the ref and Owen hits a missile dropkick to break the hold. Owen works Ahmed over with a few stomps and an elbowdrop, some punches that Ahmed doesn't sell, and an Owenzuigiri that hits the back. Vader comes in with a big splash as Ahmed plays designated face-in-trouble. Quick heel tags, Owen with repetitive eye gouges, but he runs into an Ahmed lariat off the ropes and it's a quick tag to Jake for the big man. Jake quickly runs through what's left of his offense with jabs and a short arm clothesline, but Owen holds the ropes to block the DDT. A Jake blind charge sees him run into Owen's boot, which he holds onto, expecting an Owenzuigiri spot which never comes. Bulldog in and he bumps Jake around a bit on this HEAVILY MIC'ED MAT. Vader in, Vader Hammers in the corner and a short arm clothesline. A Vader avalanche connects in the corner, and a lariat puts Jake down. An Owen flying elbow drop gets 2, and the heels work Jakes over with quick tags and basic offense. Bulldog gets his powerslam, but *someone* (I'm looking at you, Ahmed) doesn't break the pin up, so Jake has to kick out. Bulldog is shocked. More heelish working over from Camp Cornette until Bulldog misses a leg drop, and Jake gets the hot tag to Yoko. Yokes and Vader go at it and the sumo pounds Vader down in the corner, then bumps around the other heels (including the dreaded double noggin knocker, called as such by Vince). Yoko gets a Samoan drop on Bulldog, Jakes goes for the DDT on Owen before Bulldog breaks it up, and this one is brawling toward the finish. Jake DDT's Owen, is distracted by Cornette, and Vader hits a Vader attack and Vader Bomb for the pin at 15:04. Very formula (faces dominate a brawl, heat segment on an endangered face, hot tag, brawl to the finish), but perfectly decent and surprisingly energetic considering the deadweight involved in the form of Jake and Yoko, and to a lesser extent Ahmed. They did a nice job of keeping the weak links out as much as possible, and Owen and Vader did yeoman's work here. Perfectly acceptable stuff. **.
-Roddy Piper video, highlighting his feud with Goldust. Ramon had a month off here, I believe for rehab, so Roddy got hauled out of mothballs to pick up his feud and (hopefully) help the buyrate. "I'm gonna make a man out of you!"
3. Roddy Piper vs. Goldust This is of course the "Hollywood back lot brawl", which I understand was pretaped. I'm not surprised; I wouldn't want these two business-exposing goofballs live on the biggest show of the year either, if I could help it. Sadly, there's still a live portion later. Goldust arrives in a gold Cadillac, which Roddy sprays with his big hose. Yeah. He smacks the car a bit with a baseball bat and breaks the windows. He chases the fleeing Goldust down and chokes him with the bat, runs him into a "catering table", bounces him off a dumpster, and inflicts some generalized mayhem on him. Onto the car, fist drop, off the car, awful punches. Goldies gets a nutshot and throws Roddy into a dumpster to break. He gets back into his car and drives off, accidentally hitting a stuntman dressed remarkably like Roddy Piper as he goes. That's the segment. Fnyeh. Roddy chases him in a white Ford bronco.
4. Steve Austin (w/Ted Dibiase) vs. Savio Vega I've not a clue what this was doing on a Wrestlemania; there was a standard WWF socioeconomic feud behind it (people's hero vs. Million Dollar Man protégé), but it was hardly what you'd call top shelf business. Austin had the million dollar championship at this point still, had dropped the "Ringmaster" gimmick, but had slightly less then no reaction on his entrance. Savio…gets even less. Yeesh. Brawl to start, which I have and will type SO MANY TIMES in this series. Savio gets the side slam, they roll around punching each other, brawl to the outside, Austin eats post. Back inside, Austin wins a slugfest for control and runs Vega shoulder first into the post in the corner. Austin hits a double axe handle and some stomps, then another double ax for 2. Austin continues the attack on the arm, jerking it up and down and going for a hammerlock, which Vega backflips out of. Austin ducks a spin kick, then gets caught with a superkick of sorts for 2. Austin ducks the lariat off the ropes and hits a double axe to the arm, as Roddy Piper calls in incoherently from the road. Austin posts Vega again, and stretches the arm in the ropes. He transitions to a camel clutch briefly, Vega rolls him forward out of the hold and hits a lariat, but hurts himself and Austin no-sells. Nice little bit of psychology and selling there. Austin sweeps the legs and knee drops the arm, then applies a basic armbar for a psychologically appropriate resthold. An extremely focused match so far, with it's little story of Austin's technical ability vs. Vega's explosive offense in the form of brawling and his kicks. Austin transitions to a hammerlock again (as Roddy calls in AGAIN), Vega tries the same flip out which worked before, and Austin drops him into a hammerlock slam of sorts, right on the arm. Beautiful. 2nd rope elbow from Austin gets 2, he tries a whip, and Vega ducks a lariat to hit a cross body for 2 ¾. Nice comeback tease. Another whip, and Austin hits the Thesz press, reversed for 2. Iffly executed reversal sequence concludes with Vega's arm giving out on a backslide attempt (more good selling and psychology) and Austin driving his face to the canvas. And then….
-RODDY PIPER IS OJ SIMPSON! See, Piper had taken off in a white Ford Bronco, so to simulate "live footage" of him chasing Goldust, they played a tape of OJ Simpson fleeing the police. Hee. Hee. Fun. Ny. This was not a good idea.
As Austin follows up in the corner though, whipping Vega to the other corner and following, Vega connects with a roundhouse kick. Vega tries to follow up with a second rope splash, but it's too early and Austin gets his knees up. Nice. Vega gets a quick rollup for 2, but Austin stays on top. Slam, and Austin comes off the top, only to meet Vega's boot. Double knockout spot. They reach their feet, slugfest, but Vega can't do the "Iblockyourpunchyoudon'tblockmine" because HIS ARM HURTS. THAT is good selling and psychology, first because it's hard to sell something like that quickly, and second, from a psychology perspective, because the essence of "work a body part" psychology is that it has to actually have a meaning within the match. Several times during this match, Vega has, logically, been unable to do things he otherwise would due to the arm work; that's showing the practical effect of Austin's attack, which validates it as effective and logical psychology. Plus, it's just fun to watch when all the pieces fall together logically like that; it's one of the things which makes me a fan. Vega still wins the slugfest with his right hand (Austin had been working the left, typical of American workers), whips Austin off the ropes and hits a lariat and a back body drop, then follows it up with another lariat. He goes for slightly-behind-the-times leg lariat finisher, but Austin ducks out and Savio hits ref Tim White. Dibiase slides the Million Dollar Belt into the ring, but as Austin goes to apply the Million Dollar Dream, Savio kicks him down. A cover goes nowhere, and as Vega attempts to revive the ref, Austin waffles him with the belt. Then, he does it again, leaping down from the apron to nail Savio, who had rolled beneath the ropes. Dibiase pours soda on the ref to wake him, as Austin applies the Million Dollar Dream. The ref revives, and the bell goes off at 10:07 for the Austin win, Austin keeps the hold on for a while after the match. A very fine midcard match, with a nice, albeit limited, story and good psychology and selling. Basic, but skillful and only awkward in a few places. ***.
-More Roddy Piper footage. Yarf.
-Diesel interview with Mr. Perfect. They recap the feud, then a stoned looking Nash gives an uninspired promo. He does manage to randomly yell out "goo-goo-gachoo" for no discernable reason, though. Dedicated to his craft that man was, always professional. Thank god I'm able to use the past tense.
-More Piper footage.
5. HHH (w/Sable) vs. The Ultimate Warrior Vince McMahon, wrestling genius, industry leader, the man who got wrestling back on network TV, vanquisher of Billionaire Ted and Time Warner's vast corporate might, has the Warrior no-sell the pedigree and kill Hunter dead with the moldy, decrepit usual in about a minute or two. Fabulous. The stupidity of this result, even back in 1996, should be obvious to all. -*, on principle for this being so horribly counterproductive for everyone involved. Don't let 'em sell you on the myth folks, because as good a promoter as McMahon is and has been, he's done some of the stupidest things ever in the history of this business, and is fully capable of cocking something up on a grand scale given a decent shot at it.
-The reason for Sable's presence is quickly explained, as Todd (Michael Cole version 1.0) Pettingill has Marc Mero backstage for an interview. Mero, the ex-Johnny B. Badd, had recently left WCW, and this was one of his first appearances in the WWF. Mero and HHH get into a brawl over their bumping into each other (compelling storytelling….), and Sable shows the first signs of siding with the Wildman. The insta-coffee insta-feud is nothing new.
-Roddy Piper footage. It was a bad, one-note joke the first time, so of course there's like a million more segments of this. In many ways that was the biggest problem with 1996 WWF, the fact that they'd just keep banging their heads into something instead of finding another way around, so to speak, on a lot of topics. From little things like this up to bigger elements like the Billionaire Ted skits and the whole Warrior experiment, they were simply loath to admit that what they were doing wasn't working in some instances. Vince being Vince, I suspect that advent of a legitimately competitive WCW (Nitro was going strong by this point) caused him to do what he always does in times of stress: retreat to the ways of doing things he knows best and cling to them as long as possible. Thus the cartoonish gimmickry stayed in place for much of this year (though reduced as time passed), and as the calendar tipped over from this year into the next, Vince's prototypical blond, big man champion was back in the form of Sid.
6. Diesel vs. The Undertaker (w/ Paul Bearer) Sample Nash quote from his entrance: "I'm the shit, I'm tellin' ya!" Taker here is in the last stages of the first incarnation of his character; he's got Paul Bearer, the urn, the overwrought entrance with the lights out and the long black coat, and he's in full on zombie warrior mode. The first major changes and evolution would begin appearing a few months later, with the Mankind feud. This match actually represented a bit of pretty good promotion by the WWF, as it was the first ever match up of two of the bigger WWF names from this era, nicely timed so as to secure a clean and definitive finish at the biggest show of the year. You will be SHOCKED to read this, but they brawl to start; I know, that's such a break from pattern for the WWF. That's one of my big complaints about WWF style and WWF workers; they have no other, and specifically no subtler, methods of depicting hate and animosity than just having guys start flailing at each other with punches. First, it's repetitive, second, it's unimaginative, and third, it has none of the subtle possibilities for storytelling that, say, All Japan has. No, I don't expect the WWF to be AJPW, but that doesn't mean they shouldn't be open to other ways of depicting emotion (which is, after all, their business in large part), and it doesn't excuse them from being unimaginative. Diesel gets the upper hand and hits a whip and a diving lariat in the corner, and follows up with the trademark elbows, non-framed. He whips UT to the other turnbuckle, but Taker gets his feet up (psychology? Psychology!). Lariat out of the corner, UT misses the big elbow drop, and Diesel clotheslines him out to the floor. Brawling outside allows UT to ram Nash's head to the steps, and they roll back inside. UT blocks a back body drop with a short uppercut and goes for the tombstone, but Nash slips out the backside. Taker runs the ropes, ducks a Nash lariat, and hits a leaping crossbody for two (!). Taker connects on the ropewalk, but Nash drops out on another crossbody attempt and UT sprawls to the apron. Diesel tries to follow up, but Taker hits a guillotine and sends Diesel out over the top with a right hand. On the outside, UT rams Nash to the post back first, but the chairshot follow up misses allowing Nash to retaliate with a whip to the guardrail. Diesel with the back to the post move, twice, and he retreats to the ring to play to the crowd. Taker makes his way back in, slowly, and gets caught with the Nash big boot. Nash taunts him as he makes his way to his feet, then rocks his head back with a right hand/forearm. It's hard to tell sometimes, what with Nash's atrocious arm-based offense, which really is only a few cuts above Sid-like levels. Nash hits the side slam for 2, then snake eyes, then the second rope running butt splash choke thing I still have no name for (nice idea Joe, but too many guys do it for that to work). Nash signals for the "jackknife powerbomb" (which isn't actually, y'know, a jackknife powerbomb), hits some knee thrusts in the corner, but gets caught with a reverse elbow on a corner charge (first hint of a story- Nash is overconfident about how effective his offense is, and keeps overestimating how worn down UT is. This will pop up again later). UT brawls out of the corner and they do the double big boot spot, awkward as hell but kinda neat. UT sits up, but Diesel is there first, clobbers him to the back, and gets a bear hug off a hard whip to the corner. More psychology- Diesel has been working the back to set up the powerbomb. Sadly, I could just about check my email and get a sandwich during this hold. Taker breaks with "the clapper", and they do a side headlock which is obviously done to call spots; it's very awkward and out of place. UT hits a backdrop suplex out of it, and drops a listless elbow. He goes to the top and hits a lariat, and covers for 2. He goes for a back body drop on Diesel quickly off a whip, but Nash puts the breaks on, grabs UT, up, down, jackknife. But, no cover as Diesel's hubris has him playing to the crowd and poking at UT with his boot. There's that story again. UT does a zombie sit up, but Nash beats him down and hits another powerbomb. Again, he plays to the crowd instead of covering; sample lip read quote: "I'm so good, it's scary". He finally goes to cover UT after an hour, and it's URK! UT gets him by the goozle with a choke on the mat, and Nash has to beat him back down, horror movie style. Again he goes for the cover, and again UT does a zombie situp and chokes him, and again Nash fights him off. Third time is the charm for Taker, as he rises with the choke to his feet, but Nash hits a backdrop suplex. Nash staggers up, but again it's the zombie routine for UT and he's up quick, selling nothing. Taker wins a slugfest, ducks a clothesline while running the ropes, and hits his leaping lariat. He gets a really bad chokeslam on Nash, and then finishes with the tombstone at 16:42. Well. It's about the best possible match you could have ever expected from these two; their story was undermined by UT's natural "nothing hurts me- I'm an invulnerable zombie!" act (how could Nash overestimate his offense if nothing ever really hurts UT?) which was a common occurrence until he dropped it largely with the Mankind feud, but the attempt was there and the story was still pretty good. The moveset and execution were what you'd expect from these two, but UT did, ironically, some good selling and bumping in places to keep the match together. All in all, a perfectly acceptable match carried largely by Undertaker, who was entering the best period of his career as a worker at about the same time Nash was leaving his. ** ¼.
-Roddy Piper is in the arena, I repeat….
-And here's Goldust, still selling the beating Roddy gave him like a moron. I think by this point he'd, y'know, be able to walk a few feet without collapsing.
-And now, to complete their little "match", Piper and Goldust come out (so to speak) to ringside for some weak brawling, mostly groin-based, including an ass-fondle piledriver from Dusty's boy. Goldust kisses Piper, which causes him to go nuts and apply the groin claw and a knee to the groin, spank Goldust, and strip him down to his lingerie before applying one more nutshot. Goldust runs away, and they play Roddy's music. As sportz entertainment segments go on PPV, this was not good. And a latent homosexual subtext in wrestling? NAW. And I'm SHOCKED that Piper was involved in this. Claude Raines shocked, even.
-Shawn/Bret video package.
-Short pre match interviews. And I mean like, 30 seconds each.
-Gorilla Monsoon becomes official president of the WWF, as opposed to his previous temporary status.
7. Bret Hart vs. Shawn Michaels (w/Jose Lothario) A few things before I do this. First off, I'm the biggest fan of the iron man stipulation around; it's easily my favorite type of match, because of the immense canvas which it offers to the workers and the great artistic opportunities it allows. As a setup, it offers an unmatched opportunity to construct a nuanced and deep match over a great expanse of time: selling, pacing, multiple finishes, psychology, all of these can be utilized in an iron man match as in no other contest to tell a story. In addition to the natural advantages of the time, which allows for incredibly nuanced selling and pacing (and an innate drama, given the rarity and extremity of these stipulations), the psychology which can exist around the multiple falls stipulation is equally important; the trick of "giving up a fall in order to do enough damage to get it back" is well known, and had been introduced before this by Ricky Steamboat and Rick Rude four years prior to this match at Beach Blast '92. That, however, is but one of many possibilities; others include the element Benoit and Jericho utilized in their 2/3 falls match, "tap out quick in the first fall in order to prevent injury", among many others. The point is, few elements in a match allow the workers to convey more about their characters and the match than the finish, and the iron man match is the only setup which allows this important element to be utilized to such a great degree. In short, the twin elements of time and multiple falls create an unparalleled opportunity for the workers to create art.
As it regards iron man matches, I'd like to also mention that I've done my homework; those I've seen include Steamboat/Rude, Hart/Flair, Hart/Hart, Hart/Michaels, Rock/HHH, the quasi-iron man Angle/Benoit ultimate submissions match, and Fuyuki/Hayabusa. If any others exist on tape, either I'm not aware of them or they're slipping my mind.
Shawn's music plays to kick things off, but of course it's Jose Lothario. He stands on the bottom turnbuckle in the ring and points to the rafters, and it's Shawn making the famous zip line entry that's been replayed a million times since; Bret makes his entrance second, utterly upstaged, as he had been through most of the build for this show. Prior to the match they do the wonderfully anachronistic equipment check, and Earl Hebner repeats the match rules to both men over the house mic. Bret kisses the title belt before passing it to Hebner, gives away the sunglasses, and we're ready to go.
Unlike EVERY OTHER MATCH ON THE SHOW, they start without a brawl, which is a great move; it puts over the technical focus of the match (since a brawl would be untenable given the time frame, and out of character with the build to this match) and distinguishes this match immediately as something different. All the other matches were based on the basic conceit of personal animosity built up over whatever; this has the different underlying idea of each man wanting to prove they're the better WRESTLER, specifically for Bret that he's still the top man in the WWF, and for Shawn that he can hang with the top dog. The object is the same, the other man; but the governing and motivating emotions are pride and thirst for glory, even a bit of fear, rather than hate.
There's also an element of the dramatization of Bret's real life professional tragedy (as opposed to the greater personal one of Owen's death), the way in which the wrestling he grew up with and loved was, in time, pushed aside by the industry in favor of the highflying, brawling, and over-the-top showmanship represented by Michaels. The internal story of this match is, in large part, that of Bret trying to stop time and impose his will on everyone, on the crowd, on Michaels, on the people who made the decision that the boy toy's style was more "marketable", or whatever. It's going to be a match designed to be technical, fundamentally based, mat oriented; it's Bret's dream, for better or worse, his great retort in the year's big showcase to those who, in the end, buried him. It's not going to be a match about Shawn, even if he's going over, even if he's the big new thing; it's about Bret validating HIS wrestling, and himself as the master of it. They tie up collar-and-elbow, no advantage, they break and the corner and return to a neutral position. Shawn gets a brief advantage and hits a waistlock takedown, but they amateur wrestle their way back to a neutral position. Again, it puts over to start both men's technical expertise and the nature of the match. A second tie up, and Shawn rolls Bret out of a headlock. They repeat the spot, and Bret looks frustrated. Shawn gets the arm wringer and works the arm for a bit, Bret reverses to a headlock, Shawn tries to roll out but this time Bret holds on, seeing it coming. Shawn sends Bret off the ropes, but Bret drags him down with the headlock. Headlock takedown, and Bret controls on the mat. At the start, it's all about Bet demonstrating dominance, forcing Michaels into the strictures of his type of match; that's all the headlock is about, dominance. It's not a damaging move, just a controlling one. Shawn tries to fight out of the headlock every which way, and finally escapes off the ropes. Shawn hits a hiplock, Bret pushes him off with his feet, Bret with the headlock again and Shawn this time sees it coming and counters with a headscissors, Bret kips out, and gets ANOTHER headlock. That's an essential problem with the match right there: the story is in place, but the moveset involved is very, very basic and there are long expanses in which they tell the story with what are essentially rest holds. In fact, one of the essential elements of the match is that it takes place in a crowd vacuum; Bret seems much less out here to entertain anyone than he is to make a statement. Shawn escapes the headlock with a top wristlock, back trips Bret down, but gets caught in a front chancery. Shawn makes it back to his feet, and Bret takes him down with the headlock again. Shawn fights out again off the ropes, ducks under twice, and hits two arm drags into an arm bar. He legdrops the arm, and adjusts into a different knee assisted arm bar. Bret gets up, Shawn takes him back down. Bret breaks off the ropes, Shawn shoulderblocks him down, Bret ducks under and then hits the drop toehold into…a headlock. Shawn rolls out to a hammerlock, and drops a knee on the arm, then hooks the far arm and tries to roll Bret to his back amateur-style. Bret blocks it and pushes Shawn into the corner, and they take turns working each other over with strikes, the first of the match. Shawn sends Bret to the other post with a whip, Bret reverses, Shawn tips up in the corner and catches Bret with his legs, and sends him sprawling to the outside with a headscissors takeover. Bret is frustrated, and we're 10 minutes in.
Bret climbs back in, Shawn gets an armbar, an arm wringer, and a quick fireman's carry into an armbar back on the mat. Another running break off the ropes, the Hitman ducks under, and catches Michaels as he rebounds, throwing him over the top. Michaels skins the cat back in and plays off this quick sequence with…an armbar. BOOOO. It's a bad spot which plays against the story of the match by having Michaels utilize Hart-style offense, not to mention simply being a momentum killer. The hold is broken quick again off the ropes, another Bret drop down, and he catches Michaels with a knee to the gut. This whole early section of the match tends toward the repetitive. Bret follows up with slow ground based offense, a headbutt to the midsection, a legdrop, a chinlock. His mannerisms are subtly heelish here, and reflective of the disdain he's depicting, as he moves Michaels into position for one of his strikes with a derisive foot shove to the head. It's a little element which serves to build the portrait of his character. Shawn breaks with a jawbreaker out of the chinlock and hits his own legdrop, than moves to a Fujiwara armbar which is sold as a resthold. He moves to a standard armbar, Bret kips up, reverses the armbar and switches back to his headlock. They do ANOTHER break-in-the-ropes-and-do-a-running-sequence sequence, and Bret catches Shawn on a leapfrog, hits a slam, and goes for the sharpshooter. Shawn makes the ropes, but as he gets to his feet Bret sends him out over the top with a lariat. Bret follows out and gets…a headlock…on the floor…. Shawn sends Bret forward and into the post, Bret falls onto the timekeeper at ringside, and just manages to avoid the superkick Shawn sends after him by ducking out. Sadly, the timekeeper is not so lucky, and gets leveled. Back inside, Bret with a chinlock; and, so we sit. Again, a repetitive problem with this match rears its head: there are long expanses of the match which make theoretical sense from a storyline perspective, but which have NO value aside from that; chinlock, armbar, etc.; wrestling Spam. They're moves which can have a purpose, but they're overused to a large degree here and as such they result in large dead zones within the match. After an eternity, Shawn armdrags out of the head/chin lock and connects on a lariat. They go off the ropes, Bret hits a lariat…and another chinlock. That's why this match, in the end, is good but not Great: so much of the time is taken up with meaningless non-moves. It's a waste of the stage on which these men were given the chance to perform. Shawn gets up and escapes the chinlock, comes off the ropes, escapes an attempt at a press slam and waistlocks Bret from behind. He runs him into the ropes, Bret holds on to block the attempted rollup, and Shawn hits a dropkick and an armdrag into an armbar. Shawn works the arm a bit and moves to a modified cross armbreaker, and we are 20 minutes in.
Bret is selling the armbreaker as a resthold, and tries to walk himself up and over to where he could kick Michaels in the face to break. The attempt fails, but Bret manages to roll over Michaels' legs into a headlock, which is quickly reversed to a hammerlock. This is all very, very odd to me having just watched several Pride tapes. Michaels works the hammerlock, dropping knees to the arm, until Bret manages to back Michaels into the corner and break the hold with elbow shots to the face; he follows up with stiff uppercuts, but Michaels blocks a whip with a knee to the gut, and throws Bret shoulder first to the post. Shawn leaps from the apron to the floor, slamming Bret's arm into the post, and gets into another of his arguments with camera men as he goes: "get the fuck out of the way before I knock…." Inside the ring, he follows up his attack on Bret's arm with a shoulder breaker and a second rope axe handle. He slams Bret down, then hammerlocks him and runs his shoulder into the top turnbuckle twice. Three standing axe handles. This whole section is very disjointed, as if they really don't have a clear understanding of what to do next and thus have to keep delaying and using filler moves to figure out where they're going; Michaels keeps hitting a move, then walking around and creating dead space. Michaels gets an arm wringer, Bret reverses, Shawn reverses, Bret gets some punches and whips Shawn, but puts his head down early and gets caught with an armbar takedown. Shawn goes for another cross armbreaker, but puts it on the wrong arm until Bret warns him off; it's a pretty bad blown spot, so far as mat wrestling goes. Shawn gets it on the right (left) arm, but this time Bret escapes the way he previously attempted, walking up and stepping on Michaels' face. He rests in the corner though, selling the arm, and Michaels catches him with a shoulder thrust to the stomach. Great little sequence there, because it utilizes selling to create and maintain internal logic: the arm work means something, because it has a real effect on what Bret can do; likewise, the value of offense is maintained as Bret sells all the accumulated arm work more than Shawn sells a face rake. Had Bret mounted a comeback immediately, it would have violated basic logic and devalued Shawn's offense. Shawn hits some back elbows, a snap mare, and a crouching armbar of sorts. He moves to a standard arm bar before Bret breaks with punches and a stun gun of sorts on the second rope. Rather odd for Bret to be picking people up with that bad arm, huh? Bret hits a catapult sending Shawn to the post, and it gets 2 for Bret. Bret tries to slam Shawn's head to the buckle as a followup, but Shawn blocks and does it to Bret. He goes for a Stinger splash of sorts, but no one's home and Shawn gets hung up on the top. Bret puts the boots to him, then hits and inverted atomic drop and a lariat for 2. Wow, that arm cleared up quick, huh? Bret's not selling it at all anymore. Bret gets a bulldog, then they do a bizarre spot in the corner: Bret puts his knee behind Shawn's head as he sits on top, and sort of tries to ride him down, driving the head into the mat. It's really hard to tell exactly what the idea was, since they collide with the ref, but the ref bump goes nowhere. Shawn reverses a whip for a powerslam and a 2 count, as we pass the half way point, 30 minutes in.
When I was figuring out how to structure this recap, I ended up having to do it the way I didn't want too: breaking it up every 10 minutes. Without the value of the give and take of falls (and without even considering the other problems that causes) the great natural internal give-and-take of the iron man match is largely lost. Since it wouldn't be remotely realistic for either man to have any long stretches of offense without securing at least one fall, the match has to be structured largely either around rest holds or around quick switches of offense back and forth; the result is that structurally this is like any other match in this area, just a very long version of it. It doesn't get deeper than that, answering the question of how each man would perform beyond the first fall of a basic match, whether they could come back from being several falls down, whether they could physically recover from long stretches of the other man's offense, sufficient to secure several falls. Those are the questions in the minds of fans that an iron man match is partially designed to answer, and because of the structuring here this match doesn't really answer them. It's possible to argue that instead of this conception of the iron man concept, they were attempting to portray the state of utter equality between the two men; yet that doesn't in and of itself preclude the utilization of the multiple falls stipulation to advance that story. Again, I read this as an example of the major problem with this match: it's too small for the stage it was set on.
Bret reverses a whip, and hits a jumping piledriver for a close 2 count. Lawler: "how'd he kick out of a piledriver!?" Bret goes up top and gets predictably thrown, then caught with a rana and punches on the rollup. Michaels signals for chin music and whips Bret into the ropes, but they blow the spot as Bret was supposed to duck under a Michaels elbow, and instead help on to the ropes. Michaels throws some punches to cover up, but is visibly calling spots as they rest in the ropes. He hits a side backbreaker for 2, whips Bret off the ropes, and this time connects on the back elbow. He sets up for the superkick, but Bret bails to the outside. Shawn follows with a plancha from the top, rolls Bret back in, and follows up with a flying cross body which hart rolls through for a 2 count. Bret is immediately up and in control, throwing punches; the arm is totally fine, and Bret's not selling the plancha at all, despite it being the major highspot of the match so far. It's as if Hart is explicitly trying to convey that Michaels' high-flying style is inferior to/less effective than his ground pounding mat wrestling; he no-sells the plancha because it's "the wrong style", and he no-sells the arm work because he doesn't respect Michaels' ability to work "the right one". Again, that's one of the underlying themes to this match: Hart depicting the dominance of his style, and his mastery of it. Bret goes for a backslide, Shawn flips through and gets a small package for 2. Off the ropes, Shawn punches to the gut and hits a fisherman's suplex for 2. He applies the sleeper, Bret backs into the corner to break, Shawn reapplies, and when Bret tries to break in the corner again Michaels side steps and runs Hart's head into the turnbuckle. Nice. The sleeper returns, Michaels flips out of a backdrop counter, and hits a reverse elbow and a front kick. He whips Bret to the corner and charges at him…oops. Bret catches him with a backdrop and over the top Michaels goes, almost over the post, in one of his trademark "holy shit" bumps. Shawn is dead. Bret follows him out and runs his back into the post, then brings him back in and focuses on the back. Headbutts, forearms, hard whips to the buckle, the second rope elbow, all are directed toward Michaels' back. They blow a caught bodypress into a backbreaker spot partially, but Bret saves it and executes. Knee to the back, punch to the back, kicks to the back in the corner and a Vader bomb of sorts as we pass 40 minutes.
A hard whip triggers the Michaels flip in the corner, and Hart quickly follows with a backdrop superplex for 2. This is where the match begins to take on an aura of unreality, since Michaels and Hart had both taken a sufficient amount of punishment to finish them in every other match, few of which went past 25 minutes even on pay per view; instead here, they both seem to be kicking out of every move thrown at them simply because it's in the script to have no falls, not because it makes any internal logical sense to do so. It's another of the rather glaring flaws with this match. Bret applies a Sid-like "camel clutch" (arms not hooked), Shawn fights out while selling the back, and hits a sunset flip off the ropes as a comeback tease for 2. Bret continues to focus on the back, avoiding an attempted flying double axehandle from Michaels. Russian legsweep for 2, and a HARD whip sends Michaels flying over the top with an HHH-like bump. Great spot. Outside, Bret whips Shawn into the steps and Jose Lothario. Back in, Hart hits a belly-to-belly suplex for 2, and stifles a Michaels comeback with shots to the back. Shawn flips out of a vertical suplex and rolls Bret up off the ropes for 2, but Hart's kick out sends Michaels out to the floor through the ropes. Bret hits a tope through the ropes, then waits for Shawn to crawl back to the ring. Bet tries to suplex Michaels in, Shawn flips out again to a waistlock the same as before, but this time Bret sees it coming, reverses the waistlock, and hits a picture perfect bridging German suplex for 2. Any of these spots would be acceptable as finishes, but, obviously, aren't used as such. Michaels fights up off the mat from his knees, brawling with Bret in an obvious babyface heat spot designed for him, a nice subtle-ish touch. It gets less subtle when Shawn adds the "gimme some more" hand motion. Bret goes back to the not-so-good camel clutch and we've got some more dead time, though of a logical sort. It's a LONG hold though, passing through to the 50 minute mark.
Shawn fights out of the hold, ducks a lariat off the ropes, and collides with Bret in a double knockout spot. Bret hits a superplex, and it's another double knockout, till Bret goes for a sharpshooter which Shawn blocks. After some fumbling with a figure-four, Bret goes to a single leg crab which Shawn breaks in the ropes. Side backbreaker, and both men are exhausted, selling and in reality, 55 minutes in. Second rope elbow catches boot, and both men stay down. Shawn's up first and hits a dropkick, an elbow in the corner, and a hard whip which triggers Bret's "ouch my chest" crumple bump, then the flying forearm and a nip up. With a bad back. Not so good. Stomp to the face, leaping back elbow, slam, and a spinning double axehandle from the top gets 2. 57 minutes in. Vertical suplex, Michaels elbow, it gets 2. Gut-wrench sit-out powerbomb (!), moonsault press rollup for 2. Shawn blocks a whip, leaping rana from the second rope rollup, 2. A minute left, and Shawn hits a slam and goes up top. Hart catches Michaels as he comes off the top, and locks him into the sharpshooter, 30 seconds left. Michaels won't tap. 15 seconds, he won't tap. 10. 5. And the time runs out, with no submission, for the ostensible draw.
Of course, this triggers the dreaded Dusty Finish, as Gorilla Monsoon does the babyface commissioner spot, saying "there must be a winner!" Or some such. Overtime. Bret dominates to start going after Michaels' back, hammering it with strikes and hitting a backdrop and a side backbreaker. Michaels tips up in the corner on a whip, Bret passes under him, and WHAP, Shawn hits a superkick. Both men are out. Bret does the best sell ever of the superkick, acting like he's trying to get up but can't from being dazed. Very Kawada-like, everything but the thousand yard stare. Michaels crawls to the corner, Bret staggers up, WHAP, superkick, 1-2-3, that's it. Shawn does the weeping celebration as the show closes.
It's a hell of a match, but one that's fatally flawed in so many ways. On the one hand are the coherent story and a multitude of solid work and smart spots, plus other advantages; on the other, the really bad selling from Bret and the often-mediocre work and lengthy rest spots, among other things. In the end, it's a match with too much good in it to be less than memorable and good, but which falls short of the greatness demanded by its circumstances. ***3/4.
A mix of a show. The main event is one of those WWF must-sees, if only to make up your own mind on its quality; some say it's a near-***** classic, some say it's not even ****. I more or less split the difference myself. The rest of the card is basically throw away, though the UT vs. Diesel match is impressive simply for not sucking, and the Austin vs. Savio match is surprisingly good. Overall, a 6 or 7 out of ten or so, and a fun show overall. It's probably most important from a storyline and booking perspective, as this established firmly the paradigm for the rest of 1996: Shawn Michaels having **** or so matches in the main event, carrying the company, and an undercard that would range from spectacular (Survivor Series) to horrific (Mind Games). In all though, the meaning of this show to the WWF audience was the one conveyed by the final image from the show: from here on out, it was going to be the Shawn Michaels show.
Next up: IYH: Good Friends, Better Enemies (a.k.a., the Kliq farewell show).
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