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This Day in Wrestling History (May 19): The Curtain Call

21 years ago today in New York City, Shawn Michaels defeated Diesel in a steel cage match to retain the WWF Championship.

On the undercard, The Godwinns (Henry & Phineas) defeated The Bodydonnas (Skip & Zip) to win the WWF Tag Team Championship.

Also, in his first Madison Square Garden match since 1991, The Ultimate Warrior defeated Owen Hart.

None of this was the story of the day.

Following the conclusion of the main event, Michaels, Razor Ramon, Diesel, and Hunter Hearst Helmsley all shared in a group hug. What is the problem, 2017 you is probably asking. Well, back in 1996, Michaels and Razor (real name Scott Hall) were faces, while Diesel (real name Kevin Nash) and Helmsley (real name Paul Levesque) were heels. Oh, and the four of them happen to be friends. Presenting perhaps the most blatant breach of kayfabe in WWE history, The Curtain Call.

Dave Scherer's account of the incident as it appeared in Wrestling Lariat Newsletter in 1996:

"In a shocking moment, one that I never thought I would see from either of the big two promotions, four wrestlers willfully broke kayfabe in one of the most touching moments in wrestling history on Sunday May 19th at Madison Square Garden, in what was the farewell appearances of both Razor Ramon and Diesel.

After an awesome cage match in which Shawn Michaels beat Diesel to retain the WWF title, Michaels went back into the cage and stood and danced over the prone Diesel. He then bent over and kissed him. Razor Ramon came out and hugged Michaels. Then out came Hunter Hearst Helmsley, making the clique sign. He hugged both guys. Diesel then "awakened" and stood up. Four of the five members of the clique then went to the corners of the top of the cage and extended the clique sign to the fans, most of whom ate it up completely.

We were told that the guys did this on their own and that Vince McMahon did not endorse it. In fact, we were told he was dead set against them doing it. But obviously, he did not stop it, and I think was the right move. Throughout the night, the fans in the building knew that both men were leaving as they heard alternating chants of "Please don't go" and "You sold out," with Diesel hearing much more of the latter (Lord only knows why).

A precursor to what was to come came earlier in the night. After Ramon's match, most of the crowd was chanting, "You sold out" to him so he rubbed his fingers together in a money gesture. He took the mic and said, All I have to say is say goodbye to the Bad Guy." Midway through, the company cut the mic off. They could not stop what happened at the end of the show, as the friendship of four men was more important, to them, than breaking kayfabe.

Given the professionalism that both men showed on their way out of the promotion, and also the classy way that the company did not bury them upon leaving, it was one of those times in this business that it makes all of us proud to be wrestling fans. In addition, I think all sides handled the situation the right way. No bridges were burned on either side, and if WCW handles the departing wrestlers the way they did the last time they had them, they could come back to Titan.

There are some who will be aghast by the breaking of kayfabe, but personally, I have no problem with it. Very few, if any, people "believe" that the business is anything but a work, and those who got to see this event will never, ever, forget it."

So... how did we get here?

In 1994 through many miles and many matches together, Shawn Michaels, Kevin Nash, Scott Hall, and Sean Waltman (aka the 1-2-3 Kid, who was actually not with the WWF at the time; he was in drug rehab; in fact, Waltman’s final WWF match as the 1-2-3 Kid aired the next night on RAW) formed a friendship. They would be joined early the next year by Paul Levesque and would serve as their designated driver, as he was the only one in the group that didn’t do drugs or alcohol. The group became a backstage alliance known as “The Kliq”. Where the name originated changes on who’s telling the story (one version says Lex Luger came up with the name, while another says it was Davey Boy Smith).

As their popularity grew, so did their booking influence. For example, Michaels and Nash briefly held all three WWF Championships simultaneously as Two Dudes with Attitude (Diesel as WWF Champion, Michaels as Intercontinental Champion, the two as tag team champions together). Hall had high-profile feuds with Waltman, Michaels, and Nash. The foursome were often in the WWF’s most high-profile matches and feuds, while the bulk of the roster fought for scraps.

Two people notably negatively affected by The Kliq’s influence were Carl Ouelett and Troy Martin. Ouelett, who went by Jean-Pierre Lafitte at the time, was booked to beat Diesel, but Michaels vetoed it. In response, Ouelett refused to be pinned by Diesel. Their match went to a double countout. For Ouelett’s refusal to lay down, he was repeatedly booked to lose in lower-card bouts until he quit the company in early 1996. Michaels later admitted in his autobiography that the Kliq purposefully buried Ouelett.

Troy Martin, who was in the WWF as Dean Douglas in 1995, was to have a somewhat modest run as Intercontinental Champion, but the Kliq, specifically Michaels, put the kibosh on that, saying Douglas shouldn’t be champion. Douglas got the title via forfeit, only to lose it to Razor Ramon just 11 minutes later. Martin threatened to sue the WWF unless he was granted an outright release to return to ECW, a release he would get in December 1995.

In a span of two weeks in early 1996, both Scott Hall and Kevin Nash both gave their notice of intent to leave the WWF for WCW (Hall signed in late February, Nash in early March). Hall’s decision to bail cost him a Wrestlemania XII payday, as he was suspended from the company for failing a prior drug test. Nash remained on the card with a high-profile match with The Undertaker. Though both wanted to remain in the company, the thought of guaranteed money for fewer dates was too good to pass up (especially for Nash, whose wife was pregnant at the time).

At the time, WWF contracts were structured as such: ten matches a year at $150 each was all that was guaranteed, and anyone that wanted out had to give 90 days notice, or their contract would be automatically rolled over. WCW changed the math in the mid-1990s, offering fully-guaranteed contracts, something unheard of in the wrestling business at the time.

While Nash was still prominently featured on WWF programming, Hall was for all intents and purposes on the bench for the remainder of his time in the company. For both, their final television appearance came at In Your House 7: Good Friends, Better Enemies. Hall as Razor Ramon was defeated by Vader, while Nash as Diesel lost in the show’s main event, a WWF Championship match against Shawn Michaels.

After working house shows in Baltimore and Philadelphia, their finale came in Madison Square Garden. A look back as reported in the May 27, 1996 issue of Wrestling Observer Newsletter:

The final appearances of Diesel and Razor Ramon in the WWF came in a strange curtain call finale of the clique before the first indoor non-PPV house in WWF history to top $300,000 on 5/19 in Madison Square Garden.

The Garden's second straight sellout, the first time that's happened in 11 years, of 18,800 fans (16,564 paying $319,411) saw what many were saying was the best MSG house show since Wrestlemania X.

The big news on the show was supposed to be the tag team title change where the Godwinn Brothers (Mark Canterberry & Dennis Knight) won the belts from the Bodydonnas (Chris Candito & Tom Prichard). That happened, with Phinneus (Knight) recovering from being kissed by Sunny to score the pin on Zip with the slop drop. While that happened, and results in the Godwinns defending the tag team titles in the Free-for-all match on the 5/26 PPV show from Florence, SC against the Smoking Gunns, it was hardly the main topic of conversation regarding the show. Eventually the belts are supposed to wind up going to Owen Hart & Davey Boy Smith.

Both Diesel and Ramon, in their final appearances before starting with WCW in mid-June, were the recipient of chants of "You sold out" and "Please don't go" by a decent percentage of the crowd that seemed to know it was their final show. Ramon was booed in his match with Hunter Hearst Helmsley (who replaced Goldust who missed another weekend because his knee hasn't recovered well enough for him to work), and heavily booed with a loud "You sold out" chant after he did the job. After the match, he grabbed the house mic and before he could get more than a few words out, panicked WWF officials, since this wasn't part of the show, cut off the power. As it was, all Ramon ended up saying was something to the effect of telling people to "Say Goodbye to the Bad Guy."

However, it wasn't over for the Bad Guy just yet. After a very strong main event cage match where Shawn Michaels beat Diesel to keep the WWF title, it was time for the curtain call. Michaels had won the match by walking out the cage after laying Diesel out with the superkick. After the match, Michaels kissed Diesel, who revived like the frog kissed by the princess, and the two hugged in the ring. Diesel got a lot more cheers during the match than most would have figured, although Michaels was still the most popular wrestler on the show. Ramon and fellow clique member Helmsley then came into the ring and the four got on all four posts and gave clique signals to the fans, some of whom were teary-eyed and saying it was one of the best moments of wrestling at MSG in years.

Supposedly this final display wasn't approved by WWF officials, but it got over great with the audience so little will probably result from it. However, there were other wrestlers who were very unhappy at what they considered a kayfabe violation, particularly since Helmsley was in the ring hugging Ramon and Diesel had just finished a match with Michaels and magically arose from a finishing move by being kissed. The other clique member, 1-2-3 Kid, wasn't at the show as his future with the company is somewhat in question after he showed up at the Superstars taping on 4/30 in no condition to perform, and won't be back until June at the earliest.

As it turned out, after WWF wrestlers and officials got in the ear of Vince McMahon (he initially okayed the sendoff), he wasn’t happy about the Curtain Call either. After all, this was a blatant breach of kayfabe, the idea that everything that happened on a wrestling program was real, and said issues between wrestlers in the ring extended beyond the confines of the squared circle. If two rivals were seen associated with one another in public, it could kill a storyline in a matter of seconds (see Hacksaw Jim Duggan and the Iron Sheik in 1987).

As it also turned out, two fans in attendance, Mani Mohtadi and Jason Cosmides, recorded the whole thing via a camcorder that got in the building. Footage of the incident, both in picture and video form, went viral, as it spread online and into wrestling magazines, making the incident even more widely known.

Such a brazen act needed to be punished, thought many wrestlers and officials. Not only did these four expose the business, they did it Madison Square Garden, the WWF’s home away from home. But who could Vince punish? Not Scott Hall or Kevin Nash; they were leaving. Not Shawn Michaels; not only was he the WWF Champion, he was one of the few true stars left in a company devoid of them. Not Sean Waltman; he was in rehab. In the end, it was Paul Levesque, aka Hunter Hearst Helmsley, that fell on the sword.

The domino effect was massive. Plans of him winning the 1996 King of the Ring tournament and a monster push were scrapped; for the next few months, Levesque was put in preliminary bouts and demeaning feuds. That 1996 King of the Ring title (and push) went to another ex-WCW employee: Stone Cold Steve Austin. Austin’s win soon propelled him to a high-profile feud with Bret Hart, and by 1998, was not only the WWF Champion, but he was the face of the company’s new direction, the Attitude Era.

For what it’s worth, Levesque took his punishment in stride. It earned him respect among his peers, especially those that didn’t like him for his association with the Kliq. In October, he would win the Intercontinental Championship, and the next year, he would win the King of the Ring tournament. He would soon join Shawn Michaels in one of WWF’s most meta-storylines, D-Generation X. In 1999, Paul would win his first of what would be 14 world championships and marry Stephanie McMahon. Today, Levesque is the executive vice-president of talent, live events, and creative, as well as the creator of NXT, WWE’s developmental property.

Shawn Michaels would fall out of favor with many fans, and was cheered when he was defeated for the WWF Championship in November 1996. A tumultuous 1997 for Michaels included regaining the WWF title before controversially vacating it, getting suspended for getting into a fight with Bret Hart (costing him his half of the tag titles), and being involved in the infamous Montreal Screwjob. In early 1998, Shawn suffered a back injury that virtually put a halt to his career. He would return four years later. Though he would win just one world title over the next seven and a half years, Shawn retired in 2010 as one of the most celebrated performers in wrestling history.

Hall and Nash didn’t do too bad either. The two debuted for WCW two weeks apart in the spring of 1996 as “invaders” from the WWF. The Outsiders, as they would be known, would join Hulk Hogan in July to form one of the most influential and dominant factions in wrestling history, the New World Order (or nWo for short). Hall and Nash would become one of the most successful tag teams in WCW history, winning the tag team titles six times together from 1996 to 1999. They would do quite well in singles too; Hall would win the United States and World Television championships, but never the world title. Hall would win the 60-man World War 3 battle royal in 1997. Nash would win the WCW world heavyweight championship five times and win the 60-man World War 3 battle royal in 1998.

Three of the four men involved in the Curtain Call would be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame: Michaels in 2011, Hall in 2014, and Nash in 2015.

In August 2015, the foursome met the two fans who recorded the event for the first time.

When did you first hear about the Curtain Call? What did you make of it? Sound off in the comments below. And check out the full, unedited, grainy video of that infamous moment here.

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