I feel like a bit of a broken record, but this one is yet another entry in our countdown that suffers from bizarre overbooking. The match itself is very good, probably just a notch below great, but the overbooking torpedoes it in these rankings.
As always, let’s talk about some background.
Big Van Vader was a JCP/WCW/New Japan Pro Wrestling mainstay (and mainstay of very young Curtain Jerker’s nightmares too) as a dominant monster heel. As opposed to the vast majority the stiffs who had been monster heels, Vader could move really well for a big guy. One of his signature moves was a Moonsault! This guy was awesome, and I sincerely hope he makes it into the WWE Hall of Fame one day.
Anyway, Vader was fired from WCW after a near-legendary locker room brawl in the summer of 1995, sat out his non-compete clause for the rest of 1995 and then debuted in WWF at the 1996 Royal Rumble. He memorably Vader-Bombed (for the uninitiated, picture a Swagger Bomb by a guy who weighted at least 450 pounds) WWF President Gorilla Monsoon and helped win a multi-man match at WrestleMania XII.
Vader, like all good monster heels, eventually set his sights on the World Wrestling Federation champion, one Shawn Michaels. Michaels and Vader had sparred before, with the former eliminating the latter at the aforementioned Royal Rumble. Vader’s team of him, Owen Hart and the British Bulldog beat Michaels, Ahmed Johnson and Sycho Side (turning Sid face) at an In Your House in July.
The stage was set for a SummerSlam main event.
Before we get to the match itself, a quick note: WWF was in a transition period here. They were losing the Monday Night Wars to WCW ever since the latter turned Hulk Hogan heel at July’s Bash at the Beach (the Nitro on 8/12/96 outdrew Raw 3.3 to 2.0 for example. The last time Raw beat Nitro was 6/10/96, and it was a tenth of a point win.) Two of the "New Generation" guys in Diesel and Razor Ramon that Vince McMahon had build his empire on had defected for more money from Ted Turner’s WCW. Creative was in a rut too and McMahon was overly dependent on big man matches that flopped badly. It is no coincidence that the bottom two matches in my list were from 1994 and 1995.
However, the much ballyhooed "Attitude Era" wasn’t yet in full swing. Sure, Steve Austin won the King of the Ring in June of 1996, but he spent SummerSlam wrestling Yokozuna in the pre-show match. Other Attitude Era mainstays like The Rock, Triple H and Mankind either weren’t in the company entirely (The Rock debuted as a bland babyface at 1996’s Survivor Series) or were anywhere close to the top of the card (Hunter Hearst Helmsley was still the "Connecticut Blueblood" and Mankind, while sparring with the Undertaker, was still light-years away from the WWF Championship picture).
To top it off Bret Hart took off most of 1996 after his WrestleMania match with Michaels. Hart wouldn’t come back until Survivor Series, when he beat Austin in a great match.
That’s how we ended up with Vader vs. Michaels, in what felt like a placeholder feud. The good news is that despite the issues, the match itself was very good – at least at first.
Main Event Time!
We were right in the middle of Shawn Michaels’s first prime and Vader himself could absolutely go before time took its toll. Michaels went out of his way to bump for Vader and Vader went out of his way to throw Michaels around. Highlights include HBK hurricanrana-ing Vader from the ring to the floor and Michaels attempting a plancha and eating a powerbomb for his troubles.
Michaels was bumping like a hero and this was a back and forth event with tons of high spots. Well, until about thirteen minutes in. Vader and Michaels were brawling on the outside when Vader grabbed Michaels and dropped him throat-first over the safety barricade. These were the old-school metal barricades too, all exposed aluminum, so the spot looked brutal. Michaels sold like death and was eventually counted out.
Here’s where the match starts to fall apart. Vader’s manager – the incomparable Jim Cornette – grabbed a microphone and started ranting and raving about not wanting a countout win because then Vader wouldn’t win the title. Cornette must have been paying attention at SummerSlam 1993. He demanded Michaels consent to a restart. Michaels, still selling the rail shot, didn’t answer, but either way we got a restart. Another two minutes of shenanigans occurred, highlighted by Michaels grabbing Cornette’s tennis racket and walloping him a few times. This, of course, led to a disqualification and a win for Vader.
Cornette, knowing that the title doesn’t change hands on a disqualification any more than it does a countout, demanded another restart. WWF President (and former Vader victim) Gorilla Monsoon approved it, and we were in our third fall – even though Vader had won the first two, he didn’t win the belt.
The third "fall" was just as action packed as the first two, with Michaels finally hitting his Sweet Chin Music, only for Vader to kick out. Vader responded with a power bomb, but a ref bump means that by the time a second ref made his way down to the ring Michaels had the energy to kick out. Vader missed the moonsault and Michaels hit one of his own for the win.
This match could have been an all-timer if they didn’t have the momentum-killing restarts. Not to mention that they booked it backwards: If you have a underdog face gunning for the belt who keeps winning the match but not winning the title (see: most NWA Ric Flair title defenses) who then is forced to overcome multiple restarts, a heel manager AND a tennis racket, only to win the belt more or less clean at the last minute, then you have a great story. Instead, you had a face retaining the belt on technicalities until pulling one out at the end because of a missed moonsault. That kind of booking doesn’t really help anyone. Just have Michaels, the plucky underdog, pull it out clean at the last minute. Vader wasn’t going anywhere anyway in WWF (much as it pains me to say) so half-ass it?
Curtain Jerker’s Star Rating – 3¾ for the match itself. The restarts knock it down a peg or two in the countdown
Up Next – Yet another overbooked mess in the midst of a solid one-on-one match for a title, the fact that it wasn’t as overbooked as the Vader – Michaels match means it is a spot higher.Also in this series: