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A Flair for the Dramatic

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Scott: So I was listening to the Old School Wrestling Podcast episode on WrestleMania IV today (and yes, that episode is 17 months old) when the guys started discussing how Hulk Hogan’s involvement in the WWF Title tournament, and more so sharing the spotlight with Randy Savage and Miss Elizabeth as the credits rolled, somehow takes away from Savage’s title wins and serves to tell the audience that although he’s the champ, he’s not the Hulkster.

Clearly there is a connection to a current WWE story — CM Punk being the champ but John Cena still being portrayed as more important. But I still want to stay in 1988. For starters, Savage’s tournament win, and the entire story of the evening, might just be my favorite thing in wrestling ever. At the time, I looked at it as Hogan endorsing Savage — not quite a torch passing, but solidifying Savage in the fan’s eyes as a good person, a worthy champion. I also agree with Jason Mann of Wrestlespective, who said on Twitter that “Savage’s title win was one time in which Hogan was totally justified in breaking the rules.”

Further, much like at WrestleMania VI, where Hogan lost the title then went to film a movie (after an Earthquake attack, but still…), it’s not like he lost the belt then kept right on being the main event star. Of course, in those days there were about five full months between pay-per-view shows each spring and summer, so it was the perfect time for Hulkster to not be the champ. But I digress.

What I’d really like to do is look at the concept of title victories. As we well know, how you win a title is much more important than the simple act of winning. Daniel Bryan had a decent run as World Heavyweight Champion by escaping against Big Show and Mark Henry, or both at once, but he obtained the title by cashing in a Money in the Bank briefcase. If he ever wins a belt like that at the end of a pay-per-view show, it will be much more significant to his fans.

I happen to think Savage’s win is not cheapened by Hogan’s help because he still had to win three other matches earlier in the night. Plus, Hogan couldn’t get by the scheming of Ted DiBiase, Andre the Giant and Virgil alone, so how could Savage? But I know others disagree. I asked on Twitter about the best title wins in terms of making a star. Martin Dixon  suggested the Chris Benoit victory over Triple H and Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania XX as  a prime example, and Luke Starr chimed in, noting the story started when Benoit entered the Royal Rumble at No. 1 and last eliminated Big Show to win the shot. Hard to argue with that one.

Woo! Ric Flair wins the WWF Title at the 1992 Royal Rumble.

Obviously the way Ric Flair captured the vacant WWF title in the 1992 Royal Rumble is classic, with a lot of credit going to Bobby Heenan for the way he sold the story as a color commentator. I usually don’t start these things with 500-word rants, but I feel pretty strongly about this one. Now it’s your turn. Give me an example of a great title win that really “made” a given performer. I’d love to hear what tops your list.

• • •

David: As a huge Sting fan, his early matches with Flair were what came to mind first. Specifically, his match with Flair at the 1990 Great American Bash. I know you’re not overly familiar with that time period in WCW/NWA, but that match was the climax of the Sting vs. the Horsemen feud that lasted about 14 months. Most people remember that story line for the cross promotion with Robocop, or the story’s conclusion, which was the infamous Black Scorpion angle. But that match, with Flair putting Sting over and making him look really good in the process was one of the high points of wrestling in 1990 for me… even compared to Warrior/Hogan at WrestleMania VI. That match pretty much set the stage for Sting to achieve the success he achieved.

For what it’s worth, I agree with you and Jason about the WrestleMania IV situation. Hogan’s presence in the final match wasn’t, to me, about cheapening Savage’s victory. It was about Hogan doing something somewhat selfless (for once) and helping even the odds for the Macho Man.

• • •

Scott: On the flip side of the equation are the title matches that have almost zero impact for a variety of circumstances. I continue to find it odd that after the incredible Ric Flair-Randy Savage WWF title match at WrestleMania VIII, the title went back to Flair on an episode of Prime Time Wrestling that aired two weeks after the actual match. Even worse, when Bret Hart beat Flair for the title, it happened at a house show in Saskatoon. The other nontelevised modern era title change didn’t make a ton of sense either, with Diesel squashing Bob Backlund a few days after the horrible Survivor Series 1994 towel match with Hart. I’m sure lots of backstage issues were at play leading to these incidents, and I know NWA/WCW had plenty of similar challenges.

By and large, the WWF royally screwed up the brief Ric Flair run on many levels. Do you think Vince McMahon gets a pass on this because Flair still had some signature moments? If so, is that warranted, or do you consider that one of McMahon’s major failures as a promoter?

• • •

David: In my eyes, McMahon’s handling of Flair is a huge failure. He’s one of the greatest performers in the history of the business, and was one of the top drawing performers at that time. I think the Flair situation is one of the many times Vince McMahon’s ego has gotten in the way of making him money. One of the things I’ve read over the years about Vince, from a variety of sources, is that he prefers to make stars rather than use a star who made his name somewhere else. I think we have a clear example of that with Flair. While he couldn’t deny Flair’s star power and drawing potential, his ego wouldn’t allow him to use him as effectively as he could have. I think the same thing is true, albeit on a smaller scale, of the runs the Steiner Brothers and the Brain Busters had in the WWF. It’s also why I think Sting has been reluctant to ever sign a WWE contract.

Are there any other examples of this I’m missing?

• • •

Scott: Dusty Rhodes and Harley Race are great examples of guys whose WWF runs were pretty much the absolute worst stretches of their careers. I think Vader could have been used better in the WWF in the mid 1990s, but WWF was never a place where monster heels experienced sustained success. I’m not interested in analyzing Lex Luger. When you think of the former NWA/WCW top guys who did at least have some WWF glory, you have to wonder how Sid Vicious gets to sit at the same table as Flair. I’m sure it’s Sid’s look more than anything.

I wonder if the WWE superstardom of Mick Foley and Steve Austin, guys with notable non-McMahon pedigrees, wasn’t a sign of Vince finally realizing how much fun it could be to take a WCW mid-carder and unleash star potential. Of course, Eric Bischoff had already taken Kevin Nash and Scott Hall far beyond their WWF prominence, so maybe Vince was just in tit-for-tat mode

Of course, if you go down that road, you have to give Vince credit for looking at Vinnie Vegas and the Diamond Studd and seeing Diesel and Razor Ramon — not to mention “Mean” Mark becoming the Undertaker.

Thinking back to Flair, what’s his biggest missed WWF opportunity? The easy answer is a WrestleMania main event against Hogan. But I’m even more perplexed he didn’t even wrestle at SummerSlam 1992. And, although a lot more cards would have needed to fall the right way, I always have wondered what a Hulk Hogan-Four Horseman feud might have looked like in early 1991.

• • •

David: When Ric Flair gave Vince McMahon his notice he was going back to WCW, it was decided his last match would be against Curt Henning on Monday Night Raw. In January 1993, Raw featured the two men in a loser leaves WWF match, and it is a really good match. Can you imagine how great it would have been if Mr. Perfect had been healthy and become a good guy earlier than he did? If he had been featured in a longer program with Flair, I think they could have had numerous great pay-per-view matches. They had some other good matches later in the 90s when Hennig went to WCW, but neither man was quite at their early 90s level. That’s a missed opportunity if there ever was one.

The very definition of a pro wrestling stable.

I do have to say a Hulk Hogan vs. The Four Horsemen story line would’ve been great. The Hulkster very rarely had to face a group that was as unified as the Horsemen. Yes, he had to face most of Bobby Heenan’s family, but they weren’t really a group as much as a bunch of individuals who had the same manager. He also had to face some tag teams (the Twin Towers and Natural Disasters come to mind), but none of those groups had the acclaim or, again, the cohesion the Horsemen did in the late 80s and early 90s.

As I think about it, solid stables are something the WWE lacked for most of the early “WrestleMania era.” I can’t really think of any unified groups until Degeneration-X came together in the late 90s. Heenan’s family members would have tag team matches every once in a while, but very rarely would you see multiple members together. Could the existence of a more unified stable have made Hulkamania more interesting for a longer period of time?

• • •

Scott: It’s tough to say. With the WWF being a place where the hero almost always stands victorious, you can sort of see why a true stable never had a chance to succeed. Whereas Crockett/NWA/WCW seemed to be more about the Horsemen dominating and fans waiting to see which hero might be the one to finally put a chink in the armor, WWF was (and to a large extent, still is) much more about an iconic superman warding off all challenges.

Though the WWF was a national promotion, most of what happened (at least at the top of the card) in the latter half of the 1980s appears, to me anyway, to have the feel of storytelling you might find in a regional promotion. A monster would slowly rise to prominence — King Kong Bundy, Andre the Giant, Big Boss Man, Zeus, Earthquake, etc. — only to be slain by the conquering hero. Every so often one of the hero’s allies would run afoul of him — Paul Orndorrf, Randy Savage, Andre — and they could run with that for a stretch.

The short answer is as intriguing as Horsemen-Hogan might appear on paper, it would be difficult to execute to its maximum potential. If it happened in WWF, there would have to be a lengthy period of establishing the Horsemen’s dominance in order to build excitement for them being overthrown, and the WWF of that era simply did not let “the bad guys” have that much of a run. If, say, Hogan had jumped to NWA after dropping the belt to the Warrior at WrestleMania VI, I have a hard time imagining the NWA fans being interested in him being the one to finally bring down Flair’s empire.

• • •

David: You’re right. The traditional NWA fan was not likely to have been interested in 1990 Hogan coming in to try and challenge the Horsemen’s dominance. The question is… why not? Is it because he was too cartoonish? Maybe… but was he really any more cartoonish than Sting? I don’t really think so. Why, then, would they get behind Sting, but not Hogan? Maybe there is something to Vince’s attitude about making stars instead of re-using them… in some cases.

As always, thanks for reading — please feel free to contact us via Twitter or the comments section. Your feedback is appreciated!


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