REMEMBER WHEN TWO TALENTED WORKERS JUST "WRESTLED" IN THE MAIN EVENT OF WRESTLEMANIA? PEPPERIDGE FARM REMEMBERS
(THE ONE WHERE VINCE ONLY HAD LIKE 20 GUYS ON THE ROSTER, SO SOMETHING HAD TO GIVE)
The year was 1995. Shawn Michaels challenged Diesel for his World Wrestling Federation championship in the number two match at WrestleMania 11. He had won the Royal Rumble and despite his size (he's Vince McMahon's A-cup, after all) managed to rise to the main event level on account of natural charisma and a high flying style.
Though he came out of WrestleMania a heel, he was viciously attacked by his psychotic bodyguard Sid. The kayfabe beatdown led to a legit injury, however, and prevented him from challenging Diesel in a rematch. He would return that summer as a babyface and win the Intercontinental championship. Just when it looked like he was climbing the ladder back to the main event scene he was injured outside of a nightclub and forced to vacate the title. All that without mentioning the superstar was dealing with a lot of so-called "personal demons."
1995 was not his year, to say the least.
Bret Hart, on the other hand was having a fine 1995. Though he was out of the title picture for most of the year, he was always involved in a hot-enough storyline (matches with Jerry Lawler and Isaac Yankem aren't going to set the world on fire) to keep him around the upper card.
Hart would stay out of the title scene in 1995 until Survivor Series when he won his third WWF Championship from Diesel, who had been the champion for a year but had failed to take off as a major draw. With WrestleMania 12 approaching and the financial stability of the company still an issue, McMahon needed the best match-up he could offer potential buyers.
Michaels won the Rumble for a second year in a row. This time he won it as a babyface, taking out seven men single-handedly. His up-and-down 1995 was behind him; this was a "Heartbreak Kid" ready to make an impact in 1996.
The February In Your House event provided for plenty of pre-WrestleMania drama, as the top two matches featured four guys with plenty of history between them. Owen Hart challenged Michaels for his number one contender spot, teasing a potential Owen vs. Bret WrestleMania 10 rematch. Also, Bret took on Diesel for the championship, teasing a potential Diesel vs. Michaels WrestleMania 11 rematch.
Instead, Hart remained the champion and his WrestleMania 12 challenger would be Michaels.
If you haven't watched the fantastic documentary chronicling the intertwined careers of these two legends, you must. Go here and watch it now.
The history between those two men, from the tag ranks, to the undercard, mid-card and then, finally, main event level, is incredible. These were two guys who waded through the tail end of the "Titan Era" where being big meant more than being able to wrestle. They had climbed to the top of the ladder and now, being the unquestioned top two "wrestlers" in the company, they were set to go one-on-one for the top "wrestling championship" in the company.
The promise of a one hour IRON MAN match accomplished two things. For one, it adequately masked the shortage of talent at Vince's disposal in 1996. The show only had six matches, and one of them was a two minute Ultimate Warrior squash. I don't know if Vince had enough talent on hand to book a more traditional 8-10 match card.
The second objective the IRON MAN stipulation achieved, was it let the people know just what they were guaranteed to get. It used to be that the WWF was known for big lumbering guys going at it for 10 minutes in a championship bout. Meanwhile the NWA would have Ric Flair and Ricky Steamboat dancing around the ring for 30 minutes.
By 1996, WCW was main-eventing shows with Hogan, The Giant (aka Big Show) and Lex Luger in 10-12 minute slugfests. The WWF, on the other hand, was in the midst of the "New Generation" era, offering workrate and athleticism as the counter to WCW's main event scene.
In fact, that became a driving point during the build up to the event. Videos were shown with montages of Bret and Shawn training for the grueling hour-long contest. The story of the match was face vs. face and while other WrestleMania main events have featured a similar dynamic, those matches were all about "who is willing to do more to win" (Austin/Rock) or "who has the most passionate supporters" (Hogan/Warrior) or "who will go down as the greater competitor" (Rock/Cena). This might be the only one where the story was "Whoever is the better wrestler is going to win the belt."
Bret came into the match just as popular as ever, but it was clear who the star of the show was that night. It was the guy who ziplined into the ring while Vince McMahon squealed like a woman during a Rick Rude entrance.
I know this match has a lot of haters, and I freely admit the IRON MAN match between Rock and Triple H surpasses this one in terms of excitement, fan enthusiasm and in the "stuff happening" department. This is not the kind of match you put on the network at 11:00 p.m. If you do, expect to wake up at 3 a.m. to the voice of "brown Gene Okerlund" interviewing some jobber on an early episode of Raw.
This is the kind of match you put on as you're typing a 1,500 word article about WrestleMania main events. This is smooth jazz, not Master of Puppets. You have to watch this from a critical perspective to really enjoy it. You almost have to feel snooty, like you need opera glasses in one hand as you say "Nnnyes quite an armbar there. Indubitably." Like you're Fraiser Crane discussing the quality of a bottle of sherry.
So, yes, I understand the criticism of the match. It sometimes feels like the longest 20 minute match ever: I mean, your typical armbar in pro wrestling lasts 20 seconds. These suckers lasted a minute. Your typical headlock? That's a good three minute maneuver, with counters and reversals worked around them. Hart and Michaels work those babies for what felt like nine minute stretches. I think I saw the same sequence of moves (hold, counter, reversal, hold, etc.) done five different times in that hour. Rock vs. Triple H had more pins in the first 30 minutes than Hart vs. Michaels had pin attempts!
Having said that, it's one of those matches that you can sit back with a bowl of popcorn and Dr. Pepper and just calmly enjoy. I can, at least.
The finish is memorable, of course, what with Hart totally winning the match and then (kayfabe) totally being screwed by Gorilla Monsoon. Correct me where I'm wrong, but a non-decision favors the champion in pro wrestling. Count-outs, disqualifications, and in the case of IRON MAN matches, TIES go to the champ. Hart walked out of the ring, slapping hands with the fans and holding his belt tight, because according to the rules, he didn't lose the title. He didn't win the match either, sure, but so what. Michaels gave it his all, he didn't tap to the Sharpshooter but also didn't pin the champ. Freaking Fink announced "GORILLA SWERVE! There must be a winner! Sudden death!" a couple superkicks later (and Hebner's patented slow count) and Michaels wins the belt.
I'm kidding, of course; the finish was good storytelling. "HBK" comes close but can't get over the hump, then he gets a lucky break and capitalizes on it. The finish is good but how they got there hindered the match a bit. Announcing "most falls wins" leads one to think you will see more than the standard "one" fall. It's one of those ideas that maybe works better on paper than it did in execution.
Still, this match, though deliberately paced, is up there with the WresteMania III Intercontinental title match and the WrestleMania X ladder match as one of the matches that look like the forerunners of the modern in-ring product. Wrestlers look at this match like an encyclopedia for technical workmanship and psychology (even if both guys only sold a move for a few minutes at a time) the way Michaels and Razor Ramon paved the way for the insanity of modern ladder matches, or the way Savage and Steamboat opened the door for a new way to work a match (heavily planned vs. improvised).
That, plus the great story the two men told in the ring, the uniqueness of the main event, the great history between the two (and what followed between them), makes this a landmark main event in WrestleMania history. Its placement in the top 10 is indicative of the quality of the work both men put into it. It's not the greatest WrestleMania main event of all time, but on a technical level it is certainly up there.
Sound off, Cagesiders. What are your thoughts on this match? I know there are true wrestling purists who say this should be a top three main event. Those same ones will put Hogan vs. Andre in the bottom-tier. I just don't look at things that way. Every main event is different and climaxes its own particular history. I think the journey and conclusion to the story told here (both outside of and in the ring) is the 10th best in WrestleMania history.
What do you think? Let us know in the comments below.
Tomorrow's main event featured a superstar at his peak surrounded by a packed house of adoring fans that were happy to see something entertaining for a change.
See you then!
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