By Martin Dixon (@BunnySuicida)
WWF RAW, Monday February 26th, 1996.
Hello and welcome back to Wrestling in the Clinton Years, here making a brief stop on its journey through WCW’s 1996 Nitro run to return to its old stomping grounds of the World Wrestling Federation to see what’s changed since I left at the end of 1994. As it turns out, quite a bit has changed and sadly some has stayed the same.
The show begins with a video recap of the burgeoning feud between Diesel and the Undertaker. We see Undertaker dragging Diesel through the ring during a cage match between Big Daddy Cool and Bret Hart at In Your House and Diesel upping the ante on the last episode by destroying one of Undertaker’s caskets with an axe. We learn that Diesel will make an appearance in ring on this show and Vince McMahon teases that The Undertaker may not be far behind…
After the new (to me) title sequence I’m pleased to see the classic RAW set of massive red lettering but my ears are in a state of extreme discomfort as a piercing sound of a dentists’ drill announces the arrival of Isaac Yankem DDS for his match against the recently returned Jake The Snake Roberts, an idea that terrifies Jerry Lawler due to his fear of snakes (it’s amazing just how many in wrestling have a fear of snakes). Lawler’s fear is well founded as a replay of Jerry barely escaping an encounter with Roberts’ reptile at the Royal Rumble.
The match proper finally begins with Jake and Yankem exchanging headlocks until Yankem is sent head over heels by Roberts with a very sloppy hiptoss. The ornery orthodontist gains control of the match by ducking a shortarm clothesline by Jake (the setup move for the DDT) and hitting a thunderous clothesline of his own. Some slow, plodding “action” takes place as Vince reveals to us the audience the name of Roberts’ new python, the very pious “Revelations”. Jake looks every one of his years plus a handful more for good measure as he tiredly works with the big green Yankem before Isaac attempts his finisher, his own version of the DDT called the (sigh) DDS. He’s unsuccessful however as Jake holds onto the ropes to counter the move as the future Kane falls flat on his back. Jake seizes the opportunity to hit the original DDT to a huge cheer from the crowd to pin Yankem and win a lifeless match that paled before many matches I’ve seen on Nitro so far in 1996.
Next a protracted hype video for the Ultimate Warrior plays, showing highlights of Warrior as well as kids imploring the storyline WWF President Rowdy Roddy Piper to bring Warrior back to the WWF. The highlight of this was clearly the brief glimpse of John “Earthquake/Avalanche/Shark/A man not a shark/Golga” Tenta who at this time is under contract to WCW where in the rest of this package, great care is taken to avoid showing Hogan, Savage and many of Warrior’s more famous opponents during his first WWF tenure.
A dark reminder of 1994 returns as Bob Holly, still in possession of checkered ring gear and race car driver gimmick is on hand to face Diesel. Bob is easily defeated by Big Daddy Cool amid yet more incredibly slow action throughout which Diesel nervously looks around and checks the ring canvas, expecting an attack by the Undertaker. The attack never comes as Diesel finishes off Holly with the Jacknife powerbomb to end another tired, lifeless contest. Post-match Diesel becomes confident that he has avoided the Deadman’s wrath for the night and begins to leave. As he reaches the entranceway the lights suddenly go out, with the Undertaker’s signature gong ringing through the arena. As quick as the lights extinguished they return, revealing the Undertaker stood in the centre of the ring, taunting Diesel. Instead of fear Diesel responds with a smile, returning to the ring to confront Undertaker but before he can reach the ring, the arena goes dark once more, relighting to a scene of Diesel in the ring alone, The Undertaker disappearing back into the darkness from whence he came. Undertaker does have the last word however, appearing on the Titantron to taunt Diesel once more, proclaiming himself the master of mind games in retaliation for the destruction of his casket. The match that preceded it was awful but the theatrics were excellent and did much to make me interested in a feud I have very little experience of.
While reviewing 1994 I called Pat Tanaka “an off brand Great Sasuke”, I now realise that was wrong as that title really does belong to Shinobi, the laughable multiple-masked ninja as he faces the incredibly shiny Ahmed Johnson. Poor Shinobi is easily dismantled by the wild and dangerous looking moves of Ahmed as he throws him around with ease, his tights getting devoured by his posterior throughout. Shinobi’s Sasuke tribute act goes so far as to recreate the famous botch of Sasuke’s during a match with Jushin Thunder Liger (I’m so glad to finally mention him in WiTCY), falling off the top rope attempting a springboard something, splatting on the canvas as the crowd howl with laughter. Ahmed ends Shinobi’s pain with the Pearl River Plunge (a sitout tiger driver). Of more consequence during the match was Vince receiving a dirty phone call from Goldust who reads aloud a filthy poem he had composed about Roddy Piper, complete with references to “skirts” and “bagpipes” to build towards the pair’s infamous Hollywood Backlot Brawl at Wrestlemania 12.
Deep in a dungeon somewhere away from the world, the deranged Mankind consults with his only friend, a rat named George, telling the rodent of Mankind’s abandonment by his mother and his constant pain. Mick Foley’s twisted yet pitiable delivery is amazing to see in such an early form and is in total contrast to the wrestling dentists and race car drivers from earlier. 1996 is such a transformative year on both sides of the fence it seems.
Vince McMahon is in the ring next to grab a few words with the two opponents ahead of their collision at Wrestlemania. Bret and Shawn spend a lot of time singing each other’s praises amid promising victory in the match as talk turns to their wrestling prowess and conditioning, with Bret playing the subtle heel (as he selflessly always opts to do with Face vs Face plots). The talk of conditioning and longevity draws out president Roddy Piper who himself sings each man’s individual praises (including the amazing quip “I even heard that he beat Roddy Piper but I wouldn’t know, I wasn’t there” in reference to Bret Hart) before (in a very rambling fashion) revealing that Hart & Michaels will compete in an iron man match for the title. Piper finishes with another killer line as he tells each man “you might as well shake hands now because after this you’re gonna hate each other”. How prescient of Piper given what will occur 17 months later in Montreal.
This was a killer segment that set up on of the highest regarded Wrestlemania matches of all time. Piper may ramble but he is such a great talker you can’t help but listen to him as he speaks. This also brought something that separates the two companies sharply into focus for me that I can’t help but address here. For all its faults in its in-ring presentation, the WWF knows how to drive storylines forward in grand fashion with segments like this and the Undertaker/Diesel segment earlier on. WCW on the other hand relies almost exclusively on its announcers to key the viewer into story beats as the show goes on underneath. The best example of this is the arrival of the Bootyman and his reveal as being Hulk Hogan’s spy in the Dungeon of Doom as Zodiac. At no point does Hogan, Savage, Taskmaster or Booty himself talk of this supposed major development in the war on Hulkamania story, instead, Eric Bischoff is left to garble the information during the Harlem Heat/Road Warriors match on the Nitro that opposes this episode. WCW’s match heavy show is welcome provided the matches are entertaining but a segment like the Piper/Hart/Michaels one would do wonders for some of the feuds going on in WCW that don’t involve Hulk Hogan et al.
The last match on this Raw pits Yokozuna who after being chastised by manager Jim Cornette one too many times, snapped and ended their professional relationship by attacking his former employer, in a handicap match against his former stablemates Owen Hart and British Bulldog. Yoko is surprisingly popular as a babyface and garners rather large cheers from the crowd despite his ever increasing size (Yoko is announced at 625lbs here).
Despite starting strong and overcoming his numbers disadvantage Yokozuna soon succumbs to the numbers game and through quick tags and some helpful distractions from Jim Cornette at ringside, Owen and the Bulldog keep Yoko off balance and on the canvas until Owen misses a top rope splash that gives Yoko some respite as Cornette’s new charge Vader wanders out to the ring. Cornette struggles to hold Vader back and avoid a disqualification for his team. Yoko soon regains the upper hand however and Cornette then turns Vader loose, forfeiting the match as all three villains attack and stomp Yokozuna. Aid for Yoko arrives in the form of Ahmed Johnson and Jake Roberts who storm to the ring (or amble in Jake’s case) where Jake unleashes his python, forcing Vader and his stablemates to retreat.
Again the match was dull as ditchwater but the antics afterwards were fine, although the loudest reactions for a segment hyping a Yokozuna/Vader feud came from when Vader and Ahmed squared up to one another which does ruin it somewhat but overall this was another win for the Federation in the plot stakes.
The show ends with an interminable “Larry Fling Live” segment poking fun at WCW, Hogan, Savage and Ted Turner in equal measure. Plenty of jokes at “The Huckster” and “The Nacho Man”‘s age and physical condition are fired off like bullets from a machine gun which is very rich from a company with Jake Roberts and Ultimate Warrior on its roster. This awfully childish display ends with Huckster attacking random people with a chair as Larry fends him off with a shoe, mocking WCW’s booking which is something I can’t fault the segment on. That said I still hated it and to end an episode with it was baffling in its petulance and seeing this show at this time after watching so much Nitro it is easy to see that WCW’s ratings success wasn’t totally down to the creation of the nWo as modern WWE would have you believe but for all its faults Nitro is honestly a better weekly show with a roster of better wrestlers and matches. On this show alone the WWF of early 1996 feels an awful lot like the WWF of 1994. Change is on the horizon with Goldust and Mankind among others but I am thankful that my return to the WWF will be short lived and I will soon be back in the warm bosom of Monday Nitro next week.