Monday, December 24, 2012

WWF WrestleMania 13 (March 23, 1997)

WrestleMania 13 wasn't great. I don't even recall it being good, really, besides one match, and that's the only reason the show is remembered much at all aside from being WrestleMania. I haven't watched the full show in years now, so maybe I'll be gladly proven wrong, but I doubt it.

The lead-in Raw was one of my favorite episodes of the show, with the Sid-Bret cage match, and both scheduled Mania opponents (Undertaker and Austin) trying to interfere to help their upcoming foe win the match, thus securing a title shot for them at the big show, and Bret dropping "goddamn" and "bullshit" on Vince in the ring, plus Austin saying Bret was too big of a loser to win even with his help, and the four of them brawling as the show closed.

The best thing about this show, from a personal standpoint, is that it was the first WrestleMania I ever saw live. A few months prior I had purchased Starrcade '96, which was my first-ever live, unscrambled wrestling PPV. That became the routine: Starrcade with Christmas money, WrestleMania with March birthday money. But I watched them all live; either the audio was good enough on the PPV channel that it was like listening to a radio broadcast, or the audio was pretty good AND you could make out enough of the video for it to be a totally great and punk rock experience, fuck the man, not paying your hard-earned $29.95 for the blowoffs to all the Raw and Nitro feuds.

This year... a tempest engulfs utopia. This year... clouds of hatred and anger have eclipsed the heavens, shed darkness upon the Gods. We've watched as our heroes stepped down from their pedestals, witnessed malicious attacks by a depraved nation, beheld the dark, disturbing flashes from a once benevolent force.


March 23, 1997, at the Rosemont Horizon outside of CHICAGO, ILLINOIS. PlayStation blimp supports WrestlingMania. Titles! Streetfights! So boss on paper. You got Vince and JR and the King.

Four-Way Elimination Match for #1 Contendership: The Godwinns (w/Hillbilly Jim) vs The Headbangers vs Doug Furnas & Phil LaFon vs The New Blackjacks

The rules here dictate that if tag partners are tagged, they have to wrestle each other, which is really stupid, so the Headbangers just slam dance. Lawler says McMahon's favorite rock group is Mount Rushmore. I'm gonna save that one for if I meet some total square. Totally burn 'em down.

The Blackjacks get eliminated on a DQ pretty quickly. Furnas & LaFon go with them, and nobody really cares much. By nobody, I mean me. "They're spittin' on each other, good grief." JR could still be offended at this point. That wouldn't last much longer. The Headbangers and Godwinns basically wind up having a normal match, real clash of cultures here, and Mosh's flying crotch attack gets the pin on Phineas. Headbangers t-shirts for the night: White Zombie (Thrasher) and Metallica (Mosh). Headbangers get the WWF champions tomorrow night on Raw.

In the ring is the Honky Tonk Man. Capt. Lou Albano and Arnold Skaaland are ringside. Albano dances to Honky's music. Skaaland does not.

WWF Intercontinental Championship: The Sultan (w/The Iron Sheik & Bob Backlund) vs Rocky Maivia (c)

Honky Tonk Man figures Rocky's sideburns are an attempt to impress him. Makes sense. Honky's actually quite good on commentary, passionate about his topics. The blatant story told here is that The Sultan, who was also new to the WWF, has too much experience for Maivia, who is a dumb greenhorn. Rocky's comeback has very little heat. It's actually an OK match apart, well put-together and stuff, but neither of these guys were over. Rocky wins with a rollup, and Ross goes over to talk to him immediately, so that Sultan can go after him again. Gang attack leads to Rocky Johnson hitting the ring, where he's eventually overwhelmed, but Maivia gets time to recover and they do a number. You know, looking back on it, I think Rocky had several problems getting over, but there was a big one that came from presentation. They went from treating a 6'4", 260-pound, second-generation guy, a former college football player and an obvious athletic specimen, like a blue-chip prospect, to treating him like he was Mikey Whipwreck with offensive maneuvers, a lucky kid who got a break and was expected to drop the IC title any match now. It just didn't work -- he looked too good and was too pumped up for that approach to take hold, especially since fans had already decided he wasn't their cup of tea.

Todd Pettengill is with Ken Shamrock, who manages a few ways to say he won't be intimidated. Here's Dok Hendrix with Hunter Hearst Helmsley and Chyna. Here's a Slammy Awards recap, where Maivia won "New Sensation" and the feud with Austin started.

Hunter Hearst Helmsley (w/Chyna) vs Goldust (w/Marlena)

The feud wasn't exactly one that captivated the audience, but it had several purposes. Goldust looked more human, Marlena did too, Chyna came in, and Helmsley got a new boost on his career. HHH wins this one when Goldust rescues Marlena from Chyna, only to get Marlena bumped into a Chyna bearhug, followed by HHH with the pedigree on Goldust for the win.

WWF Tag Team Championship: Vader & Mankind (w/Paul Bearer) vs Owen Hart & The British Bulldog (c)

They probably hoped the first three matches would have gotten actual heat instead of having to put four heels out there right now. To make for some kind of conflict, they had Owen Hart knock over drinks onto Vader at the Slammys.

I remember this being good but having little heat since there was nobody to cheer for, and that's about what it is. All four of these guys were really good still at this point, though Vader and Davey would pretty much be done by the end of the year. Bulldog & Owen play de facto babyfaces. Stu and Helen are shown ringside, with their usual level of emotion. Then it ends in a fucking double countout. God, this show sucks. I could usually find something to enjoy with these four guys, and the DCO finish isn't what bugs me, but it's just so dead in there.

Todd Pettengill's voiceover sucks, but the Bret-Austin feud was just totally brilliant in every way. It was great then, and it's even better now.

Submission Match, special referee Ken Shamrock: Stone Cold Steve Austin vs Bret Hart

There may be no more iconic an image in WWF history than that of Steve Austin, blood streaming down his face, trying to power his way out of Bret Hart's sharpshooter at WrestleMania 13.

The genius of the "double-turn" is sometimes lost in description, I think, because over the years the official and then widely spread story is that it all mostly happened on this one night. That's not the case; Austin's organic babyface rise was matched by Hart's organic descent into frustrated heel rage. Audiences wanted to cheer Austin, and through no fault of his own, that meant they wanted to boo Hart.

So written in was a maddening series of events that would have made any longtime hero character lose his shit. Hart took time off in '96 after losing to the man he didn't hate the most on TV (at that time), because they were both "good guys," but the man he most detested in reality, Shawn Michaels. That they didn't get along wasn't much of a secret, even then, when I was 14-15 and not plugged in to much. Upon return, he encountered Steve Austin, a red-hot heel whose act was so fresh, so different, and so real, that it made crowds gravitate toward him. Wolverine (in various stages) wasn't the coolest, most well-written X-Men character, either, but people like badasses who get shit done, and Steve Austin was one of those.

Hart, to his credit, may not have understood or liked where it all went, but character-wise, he went for the gusto. After the match here, as he diabolically continues to go after Austin just to make his point clear -- "Look! I'm better than him! I'm the hero!" -- Shamrock gets involved because, well, he was signed up to make sure things were down the middle and contained. So he slams Hart, who gets to his feet, considers fighting Shamrock, and then thinks better of it.

It is a moment of weakness for a character who, as the ultimate WWF good guy since 1992 and hadn't been a heel since 1988, hadn't backed down from anyone for a long, long time. It wasn't just about the fact that Steve Austin was going somewhere uncharted; Bret Hart was, too, and just like Austin, he was doing it tremendously well.

The key that made it all work so well is that neither Hart nor Austin really changed. This wasn't, "I'm a good guy now, so I'll slap your hand on the way to the ring," or, "I'm a bad guy now, so here's a rude gesture for you and your child, and later, I will be cowering in the face of adversity."

Austin and Hart came to one another in one of those perfect storms. Not only were they both fabulously gifted professional wrestlers, with a seemingly instinctive chemistry that allowed them to produce matches just about as good as any two men ever did, but their personalities meshed beautifully, and the divergent paths they were headed down intersected at the exact right time. By coming back to face Steve Austin at Survivor Series '96, Bret Hart began to turn well before anyone -- even he, probably -- knew that this was all going to happen.

Though a Michaels-Hart rematch at WrestleMania may have been the plan, and may have been what Bret most wanted, it would have been a colossal shame to lose what we got instead, which is arguably the greatest WWF match of all-time in Hart-Austin at WrestleMania 13, yet another huge night in the evolution of Stone Cold Steve Austin, and a seismic character shift in Bret Hart that built over months and months, and gave us some of the best wrestling TV ever for the remainder of 1997.

Chicago Street Fight: Nation of Domination vs Ahmed Johnson & The Legion of Doom

These guys had way too much to try and follow, but they gave it a shot. For a program that never really took off (Ahmed-NOD) and the inclusion of a tag team that had basically been dead for years but could still get a pop (LOD), and for following Hart-Austin, they did pretty well. There were weapons and brawling and no real pace or flow or structure, so it was kind of an ECW match without any Singapore canes or blood, and also with Ahmed Johnson and Crush. Faarooq appears the match's workhorse from what you can follow, including a really dumb part where Animal goes to piledrive him on the very small French announcers' table, but once he gets him up, Animal realizes how bad an idea this is, so he sort of slowly sits down and the table doesn't break, and there's really no piledriver to this piledriver. It bridges from the great match into the main event better than some of the filler matches they'd start putting in these slots later.

Because he's not quite irrelevant yet due to his own crappy attitude and shitheadedness, Shawn Michaels joins the commentary for the main event. Michaels takes forever getting to the ring so that he can make himself look good with every fan near ringside. And he gives those stupid Wolfpac finger kisses to a few fans behind the commentary booth. "What would WrestleMania be without Shawn Michaels? That's the bottom line, King." "It would be better." Preach, King.

WWF Championship: The Undertaker vs Sycho Sid (c)

Michaels is all respect and analysis until Bret Hart comes out, but it makes sense here because, well, Bret's a jerk now. Now he addresses Shawn: "First of all, you phony little faker, why don't you take your pussyfoot injury..." Hart and Undertaker aren't friends now. Hart addresses Sid last, who laughs in his face and power bombs him. "Take your whinin' ass outta here!"

Sid gives an ATG Sid performance, sucking his heart out but trying as best he can to not, including some high-flying maneuvers. Bret runs in to hit Sid with a chair, Michaels says it's because he can't stand the spotlight being on him. Lawler, standing up for real rasslers the world over, remarks, "If that isn't the pot calling the kettle black." Lawler's having none of Michaels' act tonight. It's terrific.

Anyway, Undertaker gets the chokeslam, and Hart runs in again, but he doesn't last long, and Taker wins with the tombstone, to claim his second WWF title, and first since his upset of Hulk Hogan in 1991, a run that lasted a mere six days and barely meant anything at all. In retrospect, it's crazy that Undertaker went that long without holding the title for any real amount of time. As Michaels ass-kisses at the end of the show, he truly deserved it.

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