Wednesday, April 30, 2014

At Ringside: Wrestlemania IX


Well, I knew what I was getting into. Wrestlemania IX probably has the worst reputation in the history of wrestling's most prestigious event, and it certainly represents the WWF at its most confused. 1993 was not a good year for either of the Big Two wrestling promotions, and the WWF's problem was trying to transition to new stars and storylines while still cashing in on what remained of the star power of the Eighties, specifically their slowly-departing star Hulk Hogan. While just about any wrestling PPV is a grab bag of matches reflecting current storylines and star positions, Wrestlemania IX is especially messy, full of cheap finishes and unsatisfying matches. A gaudy purple-and-yellow spectacle broadcast from outside Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas, this one just never builds any momentum.

But first, a word on the presentation. Since they were holding the event at Caesar's Palace in an open ampitheatre, the WWF decided that this Wrestlemania would have a Roman theme. All the non-wrestling personalities on display (and several stage hands) are in togas, commentator Randy Savage is accompanied by vestal virgins, Bobby "The Brain" Heenan rides in backwards on a camel, and ring announcer Howard Finkel is now Finkus Maximus. Even Caesar and Cleopatra make another appearance to kick off the games. All this I like. There's a sense of fantasy and old fashioned hullaballoo to it, and it's an early step by the promotion towards the kind of crazy presentation their top events have now. If nothing else you get the sense that the live crowd probably enjoyed themselves.

It begins reasonably enough, with a fast-paced if unspectacular title bout between Intercontinental Champion Shawn Michaels and challenger Tatanka, a Native American on an undefeated streak. Sensational Sherri Martell has firmly turned against Shawn by now and is in Tatanka's corner, so Michaels brings his own valet, the gravel-voiced punk Luna Vachon. Here WWF ran into an odd booking situation- they wanted to keep the belt on Michaels, but weren't ready to end Tatanka's streak, so the latter technically wins via DQ so that the title doesn't change hands. A bit of a cheap finish, which wouldn't be the worst thing except as a harbinger of what's to come. Also there's a long post-match segment where Vachon attacks Martell backstage, and this too is a sign.

Up next, the Steiner Brothers take on the Headshrinkers, Fatu and Samu, racially insensitive descendants of the Wild Samoans.  As in the Royal Rumble, Scott Steiner spends most of the match as the face in peril- however, the Headshrinkers' moves are mostly limited to punches and headbutts. It's a sluggish match in general, and the lack of any story context doesn't help. Even the Frankensteiner at the end is botched, so yeah, the whole thing does not end well.

The next bout is at least interesting. Doink, the evil clown described as being out to make children cry, has been feuding with the "Big Hawaiian" Crush, and it comes to a head here in Las Vegas. Doink is the kind of cartoonish character that could only have worked in the pre-Attitude era, and I like the horror-movie music he enters to. Crush, on the other hand, is… well, Crush. A generic muscular babyface whose only distinction is being rather large (which doesn't mean much in the WWF), he never demonstrated much personality in the segments building to this match. As for the match itself, it starts with Crush attacking Doink as the latter enters, and works as a normal fight for a while.

And then another Doink shows up and clobbers Crush from behind, allowing- well, the other Doink to pin him for the win. It's an interesting finish, but then there's a long and largely pointless sequence of another ref trying to convince the match referee that there was a second Doink, but the double has disappeared. Bobby Heenan on commentary even argues that it was an "illusion". Nothing comes of this post-match segment; it's just filler.

The next match pits Razor Ramon against Bob Backlund. These two could potentially give us a really good show, but before you know it Ramon rolls up Backlund for a three count. I have no idea why this match is as short as it is, whether it was time crunch or health-related or whatever, but it's pointless except as a way for Ramon to regain a little heat after losing his title shot. In short there's nothing here that couldn't have been accomplished on an episode of Raw.

And that brings us to the first main event. Even though Brett Hart vs. Yokozuna for the WWF Championship is the actual main event, it doesn't have Hulk Hogan in it, so the other main event is the Hulkster teaming with Brutus "The Barber" Beefcake- returned from a fairly horrific real-life facial injury and wearing a hideous protective mask- to take on the WWF Tag Team Champions, Ted Di Biase and evil taxman Irwin R. Schyster, the team of Money, Inc. (And the political ramifications of a millionaire and a tax collector being on the same side are complex to say the least.) Hulk and Beefcake, with manager Jimmy Hart in their corner, are billed as the Mega Maniacs.

The match is basically a disaster. A lot of wrestling heels play chickenshit, trying to stay out of the ring and out of the path of the babyface trying to righteously beat them up; they appeal to the referee or to their opponent and do anything possible to avoid a serious exchange. This is an old tradition but it's best used in moderation. The Mega-Maniacs vs. Money Inc. battle is a series of ref arguments, distractions, bumps, and just about anything that will prevent a reasonable flow of action in the ring. It's chaotic and confused, and once again, we're denied a clean finish, with Money Inc. given the win by disqualification.

But of course it doesn't stop there! To save face Hogan and Beefcake manage to get a hold of IRS' briefcase (with which IRS had been assaulting the face of the still-recovering Beefcake) and distribute the money inside to the crowd as Hogan's music plays. (Throwing money to the crowd is sort of an old-school wrestling trick, not seen much these days because large amounts of cash typically aren't brought into the ring. More's the pity.) He has to be the winner even when he loses.

You may have noticed a couple of trends so far. One is a dearth of clean finishes, especially for Wrestlemania which is often used to settle feuds and bring stories to a conclusion. The second is a fixation on long, bland post-match segments which generally try to steer the viewer in the direction of a proper reaction, as here when we're supposed to end the match on a high note even though the bad guys won. These elements drag the pay-per-view down more than the quality of wrestling ever could- it's not just that we're seeing poor matches, but matches which fail to provide proper payoffs.

Lex Luger, the Narcissist, heads to the ring, escorted by showgirls in bikinis who help set up some mirrors for him to pose in front of. His opponent is Mr. Perfect, Curt Hennig, fresh from his retirement of Ric Flair on Monday Night Raw. The two proceed to have what is probably the best match of the night. It's straightforward, traditional wrestling with clear exchanges and near-falls, and I'm probably overrating it some because it's the only properly paced match of the night. Luger gets a dirty win, pinning Perfect despite the latter having his feet on the ropes. After the bell, Luger attacks Mr. Perfect, and the beatdown continues backstage with Shawn Michaels helping the Narcissist. An oasis of relatively decent work in the middle of a lot of crap.

And now we're on to the worst match of the evening, the Undertaker's faceoff against the Giant Gonzales. Gonzales is accompanied to the ring by his manager Harvey Whippleman, while Undertaker is accompanied by a turkey vulture. I'll let you decide who got the better end of the deal. As at the Rumble, Gonzales is wearing a muscle suit with patches of hair to cover inappropriate places; however, owing to the heat of Las Vegas (presumably), the actual patches of fur are replaced with drawn-on fur. For whatever reason, whoever did this opted not to cover the giant's rear end, so even more than before we get the impression that Undertaker is battling a giant naked man.

Gonzales has not learned to wrestle in the time since we last saw him; he's slow, he telegraphs everything, it's basically bad stage fighting. The Undertaker does his best to make it look like a fight, even if he's sort of slow too. But then Harvey throws his theoretically inhuman monster giant a chloroformed rag with which to attack the Undertaker. The referee sees this, takes a few seconds, and finally disqualifies the Giant. So even the Undertaker's streak is tainted by Wrestlemania IX's indecisive nonsense.

There naturally follows a long epilogue wherein Gonzales starts attacking refs, a guy in a toga with a stretcher shows up to help them off stage, and finally the Undertaker re-emerges to attack Giant again and drive him away. This takes so goddamn long.

Before the main event, we see Hulk Hogan. Giving a promo for a match he's not in. This is not a good sign. It wasn't apparent in his match, but Hogan has a really ugly eye injury that makes this segment really hard to watch. When asked his prediction for the upcoming battle between the Canadian champion Bret Hart and the Japanese challenger, sumo wrestler Yokozuna, Hogan predicts the belt will stay right here in the USA.

At the time, amusing. In retrospect, ominous.

Yes, it's Hart vs. Yokozuna for the gold, and this is actually, for the most part, not bad. It's hard to evaluate a wrestler like Yokozuna fairly, because of course he isn't going to be especially agile. He's slow, but he's convincingly powerful. Hart plays a very good strategy, slowly chipping away at the big man, making it look like a real uphill struggle. After a long battle, Hart finally gets Yokozuna knocked over and applies the sharpshooter to his gargantuan legs. It looks like the WWF title is secure, when Mr. Fuji, Yokozuna's manager, throws a handful of salt into Hart's face, completely incapacitating him, letting Yokozuna get a quick roll-up and a victory, becoming the new WWF champion.

It's a bit of a cheap finish, not handled as well as it could have been. Yokozuna does kind of mess up the final pin, and Hart oversells the salt as not merely blinding him but somehow knocking him out cold. Still, not too bad as a capper to the evening.

But oh no, we're not done. Hulk Hogan rushes in again to rescue his buddy Hart, and this pisses off Mr. Fuji something fierce. He demands a match between Hogan and Yokozuna right the Hell now, and when Hogan initially refuses, he puts up his new champion's belt. Hart tells Hogan to go for it.

Yokozuna grabs Hogan, and Mr. Fuji makes to throw the salt again, but Hogan ducks just in time, meaning that Yokozuna gets blinded and incapacitated again. Hogan hits a leg drop and covers Yokozuna for the pin. Yokozuna's short reign is over, and Hulk Hogan is the new WWF champion. Again.

It's well known among wrestling fans that Hulk Hogan is the kind of wrestler who pushes himself at the expense of anyone else, and during his initial run with the WWF he had plenty of creative control to make sure this happened. It's understandable to some extent- it can be a pretty cutthroat industry, and protecting your spot is the kind of basic office politics everyone has heard of.

But it's amazing just how shameless this is. Hogan managed to muscle himself into winning the WWF title one more time, at the expense of two wrestlers that the WWF was trying to promote as part of a new generation. In a match he wasn't even in.

And the capper? We're just one more PPV away from Hogan leaving the company altogether. Though I'm not sure of the exact timeline, by the time Wrestlemania IX was booked it should have been obvious that Hogan was eyeing the exit. But he had to exit on his terms, of course.

Wrestling pay-per-views tend to be uneven at their best- there's simply so much going on that consistency is hard to maintain- but Wrestlemania IX is oddly reliable in how it falls apart, regularly avoiding clean finishes or even terribly good wrestling. Hogan's ego-tripping would be bad enough on its own, but when an entire show seems to be built around frustrating non-resolutions to ongoing angles, the results are pretty much dire top to bottom. A waste of Jim Ross and some wonderfully ridiculous art design.

Grade: D+

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