STH: Well, with my regular partner busy on a family vacation recently, we thought it would be a good time to bring in our first guest contributor. Anyone familiar with the Fair to Flair family of writers and podcast journalists is already well-versed in the unique perspective of K Sawyer Paul, founder and co-host of the International Object podcast, creator of the International Object website and a recently engaged proud Canadian. And that’s just the stuff I can think of off the top of my head.
I recently shared with KSP the analysis of WrestleMania IX I wrote for volume 1 of the Atomic Elbow fanzine. If you haven’t had a chance to read that piece yet, order it now and it will be mailed to your home in a few days. But the short version is this: the show might not rate well in the pantheon of great WrestleMania cards, but it still carries some important historical significance. KSP has read the piece and I’m interested now to hear his thoughts on that show and others that might fall under the same criteria.
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KSP: WrestleMania IX is an historically important show, but it is mostly a poor show. Your article — which people should buy the issue to read — tries to defend it, but even you must admit that if you count up your points, I think you found the show to be more disappointing than your summary may suggest. I agree with your points about the show being heavy on interesting risks, both aesthetically and in regards to matchups. But I don’t think any of the risks really paid off. I believe the event failed on three levels: setup, execution and overall narrative.
To go into them briefly, I think the on-paper card was weak. It was the first WrestleMania where most of the pairings were fresh and — while exciting, from a certain point of view — this led to the quality being significantly worse than previous events. Every single good wrestler on the show — Shawn Michaels, Mr. Perfect, the Steiner Brothers, Bret Hart, etc., — was unfortunately paired with an equally terrible dance partner. Even going in, it felt like a very odd shuffling of the cards.
In terms of execution, with the exception of the meaningless Steiners/Headshrinkers tag, not one match ended cleanly. There’s just no way around that. I’m not even an “all the matches have to be clean” kind of guy, but WMIX is overkill. It’s an exercise in schmaltz finishes. We start off with a count-out, followed (after the tag) by several bouts of DQs and/or bad guys successfully cheating. WMIX is home to the only DQ victory on The Undertaker’s streak, which was a pretty big blemish in the beginning. Finally, the event is capped off with not only flagrant in-front-of-the-ref cheating, but also a random role switch and the most subtle heel turn in history. We’ll surely get into that later.
Finally, overall narrative. What message did wrestling fans get with this show? Villains won almost every match. The actual wrestling (literally none of it any good) came last in the order of importance, behind the cheesy set pieces and entrances, international objects and surprises. What are we supposed to take away, here? “Don’t worry, no matter what happens, Hulk Hogan will always close out WrestleMania”? I never figured it out.
I’d like to hear your comments on these, and then we can go into how this show — while terrible — is an incredibly interesting study.
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STH: Well you’re not wrong, let’s start there. As I wrote for the Elbow, the match results are unsatisfying — especially if you are the kind of fan who demands any sort of consistency in the way the rules and referees are supposed to work. I maintain there is some decent work by great performers, and certainly this event still is easier to watch than some of the WCW pay-per-view events near that company’s demise, but I will concede the most important and lasting aspects of the show can perhaps be captured in still photos and video montages — unless you’re dying to know the answer to the question of how a major show with so much talent can still come off poorly.
If I had more free time, I would perhaps dive into wrestling history to see if I could determine the best-received show with the least amount of talent in contrast to WrestleMania IX, which may be the finest example of under-utilizing a roster, from top to bottom, in the history of the art form.
As much as I sometimes dislike the instant reaction to wrestling shows, especially the ones with the most hype leading in, I do wish we had some sort of time machine to go back and get fans’ real-time reactions to the proceedings in 1993. Given the benefit of hindsight, it is incredibly frustrating to see such bold moves away from Hulk Hogan after WrestleMania VIII essentially negated in a few hours in Las Vegas. I’m not sure how far that set back the company creatively, but I can’t imagine anyone on the creative team at the time is satisfied with the end result.
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KSP: You’re absolutely right. If you compare WrestleMania IX to almost any other PPV in the period of 1993-1995, it doesn’t stack up that poorly. It is tremendously worse than any of the major PPVs from 1992 from either WWE or WCW, but I’ll grant you 93-95 was a poor period in general and we shouldn’t rule IX out simply because it’s a WrestleMania. And since its flaws are so obvious, it’s definitely more interesting to argue which points are compelling and worthy of a closer read.
Specifically, I’d like to suggest all the villain-dominated activity on the show is WWE trying to paint WrestleMania as a new thing, in step with its new direction. WWE launched Raw a few months before this WrestleMania, and the format allowed it to create a threaded weekly narrative in a way they simply hadn’t before. While
WWE was always linear, the national and international fanbase rarely got the same story beats at the same time. Some states or countries had to wait for different periods to hear about major events, which meant they had to move slower. With Raw, WWE had a single spot to put story advancements, which meant they could now be free to experiment. WrestleMania IX is a result of this experimentation. It’s a major show by any stretch — even by today’s standards, it stands out like a peacock — but it was also an episodic show. I’d argue WrestleManias I-VIII weren’t meant to be treated as episodes so much as climax points. IX doesn’t assume that on the viewer. It assumes you watched Raw going in, and that you’ll watch Raw going out. It was less important to deliver major good-guy moments because they’d want you to tune in next week. It’s a method both companies would go on to abuse in the following years.
I think the location also did a major disservice to the show’s production. For one, only 16,000 people were in attendance, and those 16,000 were in Las Vegas, a town known for comp tickets if there ever was one. Shows like this attract casual fans, which means they might not be on the same page as the fanbase WWE thought they had with Raw. The live fan in Vegas was going to be familiar with WWE in general and Hulk Hogan specifically, but perhaps only familiar with the overall cast. This is why you get the USA chant in the main event between Hart and Yokozuna. This is why we got the result at the end of the night.
WWE wrote this show overall to appeal to the weekly WWE viewer, but they also tried to make the live crowd happy. There’s a clear tension between the two goals here.
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STH: WrestleManias IV and V were famously staged at the Trump Plaza casino complex in Atlantic City, N.J. While the capacity was just north of 18,000, not a significant difference from Caesar’s Palace, the atmosphere of both of those shows was much more in line from what we expected of major wrestling show of the era. WrestleMania IX very much has the air of a thing a bunch of drunk folks stumbled into because they were outside in Vegas at the time.
Your point about the dawn of Raw as it relates to this show is spectacular. Even by 1994 the creative team had developed a better idea of what people want from the year’s climactic show as it relates to the weekly TV product. WrestleMania X ends with distinct finality. Sure, there is some excellent foreshadowing (some paid off, as in Bret-Owen, and some ignored, as in Perfect-Luger), but it’s doesn’t present the same sense of unrest.
Look at three of the next four pay-per-views. King of the Ring ends not with Bret Hart triumphant as the tournament winner, but incapacitated after an attack from Jerry Lawler. SummerSlam ends with a victorious Lex Luger celebrating with his good guy buddies, but the elephant in the room is his countout victory and failure to win the title. WWF used a locker room confrontation between Luger and Ludvig Borga to set up a Survivor Series match, but if memory serves that was aired on Raw (and Superstars, etc.), leading to the confusion about if the weekly TV serves the PPV or vice versa. And don’t get me started on Survivor Series 1993 ending with a Lex Luger/Santa Claus celebration. But with the Royal Rumble, we’re back at it: the show goes dark as confusion reigns about who gets what and don’t you think you should tune in to Raw tomorrow night to see what happens?
It could well be argued we’re still not sure whether a given major show is going to end with clarity or confusion, though I do think at least with WrestleMania they’ve resolved to deliver an iconic closing scene and leave the unrest for the next night’s Raw. But I doubt very much we’ll be getting any such certainty with something like the upcoming Survivor Series, That’s just not how they do things.
The difference, though, is we’ve come to expect that by now — especially those of us who have been following this drama for 20 or 30 years. But in 1993, we expected closure. And we expected our hero to win in the end, though most of us were prepared for that to be the Hitman, not the Hulkster. Turns out Hulk wasn’t really our hero any more — if he ever was in the first place.
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KSP: Rich and I discussed a theory I’ve had about 1993’s WWF narrative on the 58th episode of our show. I won’t go into too much detail, but the basic theory is Hogan’s good guy character in the 80s was divided into two parts. The flag-waving American part was given to Lex Luger, who did a terrible job with it. The other part — the far more interesting part, in my opinion — was given to Jerry Lawler. That’s the part of Hogan that contains his ego. Again, this is Hogan’s character, not the guy playing him. Hogan’s ego was never small. It’s what got him into trouble with Savage in 1988. It’s what got him defeated by the Ultimate Warrior in 1990. And it’s what made him main event WrestleMania VIII in the least consequential match of his career. This is the part of his character we saw in earnest when Hogan came out to help Bret Hart at WrestleMania. Instead of helping his supposed friend to the back, he accepted Mr. Fuji’s idiotic challenge, cheated and won the WWF Championship.
In the moment, I’m sure a lot of people in the crowd were very happy with this surprise turn of events. A crowd enthusiastic for Americana that basically sat on their hands during the main event; they suddenly came very much alive when Hogan won. It sure made everyone go home happy. Personally, it was the moment that broke me out of my innocent childhood enjoyment of wrestling, and placed me somewhere else. I have no doubt if you asked every wrestling fan you knew, there is a moment they still find a little uncomfortable, that shook them out of the fiction. As a Calgarian, Bret Hart was my guy, and there was nobody more elated in 1992 to watch him rise to the top of the show. WrestleMania IX made no sense to me then, and only barely does today.
It’s the first moment I saw Bret Hart for what he really was: human. He was vulnerable; someone who actually could be defeated on any given day. He had weaknesses, and those were very closely tied to traditional wrestling tropes (this would be a defining trope throughout his career). Hart losing actually didn’t make me lose any faith in him. Instead, his loss reflected poorly on the other people involved. It’s the first moment that also showed Yokozuna’s weakness. Yes, he looked immeasurably strong, but also too cocky. It therefore made narrative sense that a focused and rested Yokozuna steamrolled over Hogan at King of the Ring. Finally, it was the first moment where I really saw Hogan for what he was: a spotlight-grabbing, past-his-prime politician, who would do anything to make sure he stayed on top. Hulk Hogan would leave for WCW and, in 1996, turn heel for real, but he might as well have done it at WrestleMania IX.
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STH: I’m struggling to come up with my moment that shook me from the fiction, though I’m sure it exists if I jog my memory. It might have been the first time I clearly recognized a performer in his second character unexplained in the on-screen story, such as when I figured out Smash of Demolition was the Repo Man. That probably says a lot about me as a wrestling fan.
Once thing I do remember about this time in my life as a fan is how frustrating it was to not have access to Monday Night Raw. We didn’t have cable, so pay-per-views were always out of the question, but once the narrative shifted to things developing weekly each Monday it drove me batty to wait until Saturday to see the developments on one of the syndicated shows. I was a loyal subscriber to WWF Magazine at the time, but that’s not exactly the pinnacle of timely journalism.
I do recall the theory you and Rich hashed out on IO58, and I was pretty impressed with the discussion at the time. Propping up Luger as the next Hogan never seemed a good fit — in fact, everything surrounding the Lex Express movement may well have been my “shaken from the fiction” moment — and your podcast helps illustrate why, because Luger only adopted one dimension. Hogan’s not the mostly richly written character in wrestling history by any stretch, but by comparison Luger makes Hogan look like he was crafted by Dostoyevsky.
We’ve talked an awful lot about 1993 WWF, but let’s broaden the horizon a little bit. What are some other shows or eras you consider important canonically if not especially entertaining to watch? Likewise, perhaps you can offer an example or two of something that’s just plain bad with little to no redeeming value for most fans.
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KSP: Oh man, that list is large. WrestleMania 13 is a must watch for historical purposes but generally a bore, save for Austin vs. Bret. I could say the same for Starrcade 97, Bash at the Beach 1996, and WrestleMania IV. All of these shows are on the core curriculum of wrestling history, but none are very fun to watch. Jason’s going to hate that I threw WM IV in there, but it’s just such a slog of bad pairings. There’s certainly more, but those would be my top four. The list of fun shows that carry no historical significance are much, much longer.
As for just-plain-bad wrestling shows, you don’t have to travel very far. Almost every major show WWE put on between 2005 and 2008 is lackluster. When they changed the nature of their PPV setup in 2009 to include more gimmick-based shows, it actually began to help them create more satisfying shows. Dropping the number from 16 to 12 (over the course of a few years) certainly helped as well. But for a while there, every show seemed to blend in together. The HHH-Orton-Cena thing went on for what felt like 11 years. What’s more, none of these shows seem to matter in the long run. To go back further — and this maybe a controversial statement — I don’t think any of the major PPVs from any company in 1999 were any good. All the good wrestlers in WCW were either burned out or leaving, and all the good wrestlers in WWE were stuck with poor opponents.
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STH: I’m torn on WrestleMania IV myself. I loved Randy Savage as a kid, and especially everything involving the Mega-Powers from inception to implosion. But really, you can get all you need of the Macho Man stuff from that show in less than an hour. The entire event does a fantastic job of building up that one character, especially with two of his opponents getting a bye the round before facing him, but under no circumstances would a purely casual fan be interested in sitting through all four of those hours.
I just did a quick skim through the WWF pay-per-view cards of 1999. Apparently No Mercy rated pretty well with fans, in large part due to a tag team ladder match between Jeff and Matt Hardy and Edge and Christian. I’m reasonably sure I didn’t watch the show live, and I’m not entirely certain I’ve seen any of the matches at any time since — an admission not accompanied by regret. I watched hundreds of hours of Raw and Nitro (and Smackdown and Thunder) in those days, wore my nWo T-shirts proudly and tried to get The Rock elected student body president at my college. But the actual wrestling memories, by and large, are a complete blur. The only concrete things I can recall at the moment are The Big Show debuting at St. Valentine’s Day Massacre and the iconic “Classy” Freddie Blassie segment to open WrestleMania XV.
Perhaps I remember events form the Hogan era more clearly because I watched them dozens of time on VHS. With live events coming fast and furious in the late 1990s, there was scarcely time to rewatch anything, which had the unintended effect of making everything seem less important. Even now I think I can process and recall what happens on Raw differently from other fans simply because I don’t regularly watch Smackdown or The Main Event or anything TNA produces. Not that those other shows aren’t good (in fact, I’m quite convinced The Main Event is the best wrestling show in TV these days), I just don’t have the time.
We’ve had a pretty good chat so far, and there is a major WWE show looming. Are we going to get your regular predictions about which stories will end or continue Sunday night?
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KSP: I missed Hell in a Cell, because it was pretty clear from their trajectory that no stories were going to wind up until at least the Royal Rumble. In many ways, it’s destroyed the premise for my prediction column. For some reason, I just don’t see Ziggler cashing in until after the new year. I don’t see Punk dropping the title or exiting the main event scene for quite some time. They can spin their wheels and pretend things matter, but until the bell rings at the Rumble, nobody has any idea what their plan is. This is great in one respect. Punk is involved in what I like to call the new slow burn: stories with incredibly lengthy runs that don’t actually involve much in terms of an angle, but built to an incredibly-hyped single match. They began this in earnest with Rock vs. Cena in 2011-12. Their next one was with Brock and HHH, and now we have this, a one-sided buildup to a main event with real consequences. Survivor Series and TLC will surely be fun events, but they’re candy. They’ll be forgotten the second they kick into WrestleMania season.
What’s far more fun to predict is what WrestleMania season will look like. I’ve mentioned on the blog that I think anyone expecting Cena vs. Rock II or Rock vs. Punk as the main event of WrestleMania are most likely going to be disappointed. It’s just not WWE’s style to do rematches at WrestleMania anymore. They like very much for the match to be fresh, desired and as one-of-a-kind as possible. Their memory has extended in the last few years. Wrestlers seem to remember more than they used to. They don’t turn on their friends quite as much. And “Once in a lifetime” is treated with at least some measure of reverence. Of course, the obvious argument against that is HHH vs. Undertaker, which happened three times at WrestleMania, and two of them were back to back. To that, I’d say that matches that don’t occur in the main event spot don’t get the same special treatment. There’s only been one match that main-evented two WrestleManias: The Rock vs. Steve Austin. They got away with it then because Rock and Austin had both grown so much in those two years. But don’t Rock and Cena stand in exactly the same space they did last year? Neither of them have altered their characters whatsoever. It would be boring to do it again.
It also seems unlikely that Punk and Rock dance at the Rumble and then again three months later. First off, there’s absolutely no historical context to support this is something they might do. No Royal Rumble title match has ever been repeated at a subsequent WrestleMania. It’s just not done. If I had to place chips on a color, I don’t think Punk, Rock, or Cena will be entangled at all come WrestleMania time. They’ll be fighting other guys. But I have no idea which one has the title. I’d still very, very much like the show to be headlined with Bryan vs. Rock. I don’t have a clue how they’d get there, but that’s my little hope.
Of course, they could split the difference and have Rock vs. Cena vs. Punk headline WrestleMania. I’m not sure why that isn’t the leading rumor.
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STH: I agree with you on many levels. On the most recent episode of The Wrestling Podcast, Tom Holzerman and Eric Gargiulo of the Camel Clutch Blog did some of their own looking ahead to the WrestleMania card, and though they didn’t discuss it directly, my takeaway was wondering what a Cena-Bryan program would look like. Bryan-Rock would be great as well (Bryan and most people would tend to be pretty entertaining), and while they did interact a bit on Raw 1000 (giving Bryan reason to hold a grudge), there doesn’t seem to be many clear lines toward getting them into the ring at the same time in April. Not like a little thing such has logic has impeded WWE creative before, but we’ll see.
I’m totally with you in having little appetite for Rock-Cena 2. I enjoyed the match this year, but there’s absolutely no storyline potential, unless they fight over which one Vince McMahon loves more — and that won’t make for compelling television. A Punk-Rock-Cena three-way would be a twist, but still just a mashup of the WrestleMania and Royal Rumble main events (provided Punk-Rock happens at the Rumble). And perhaps I am a traditionalist to a fault, but I am a firm believer in the title matches at the biggest card of the year being one-on-one showdowns. Sometimes story can absolutely dictate the need for a gimmick match or a three-way or four-corners tilt, but those exceptions are, to me, incredibly rare.
Brock Lesnar is the wild card in all of this, because I’m absolutely certain he’ll be on the company’s biggest stage. If Undertaker is healthy you’d assume he’ll want another match, though I would not rule out a formal retirement sometime between now and then. My gut says Triple H will weasel his way back into the spotlight, though maybe there’s a chance he’s actually going to stay away for now. I’m not sure if SummerSlam was his ideal final chapter, but it did have an air of finality.
I could keep going down the card, but everything underscores your larger point: whatever we get Sunday, and the next night on Raw and so on, is all building to something larger. Slowly, to be sure, but of little independent consequence. Fans can very likely skip Sunday’s show and not be too worried about regret when an earth-shattering surprise goes down in Indianapolis. Of course, WWE does seem to love branding itself as a place where anything can happen, and maybe they’re aware of the general buzz right now and have plans to mix it up. Or, more cynically, they’re relying on fans expecting the unexpected, knowing they don’t always have to deliver a surprise to keep anticipation robust.
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That’s it for our special edition with K Sawyer Paul. Thanks for reading and enjoy Survivor Series! As always, thanks for reading — please feel free to contact us via Twitter or the comments section. Your feedback is appreciated!