Saturday, August 23, 2014

At Ringside: King of the Ring 1993

King of the Ring logo

Tournaments in wrestling are a tricky thing. Drag them out too long and an audience loses interest; do everything in one night and you have wrestlers working multiple matches in a row, with a greater risk of injury and of the audience being bored by the redundancy. “King of the Ring” was a WWF/WWE tradition for many years, but in the very first KotR pay-per-view from 1993, the titular tournament isn’t even the most memorable part. Hulk Hogan, around whom the WWF’s success had been built since before Wrestlemania, was on his way out, and so this otherwise average wrestling event marks the passing of an era.

The King of the Ring tournament actually began before the PPV in an attempt to speed things along, with preliminary matches taking place on WWF’s various TV shows. Here at Dayton, Ohio, the field has been narrowed down to eight competitors. The first contest is a Royal Rumble rematch, pitting former champion Bret “Hitman” Hart- the victim of much booking chicanery at Wrestlemania IX- against Razor Ramon. It’s a fast but appropriately brutal reprise of their former PPV encounter, and it sets the pattern for the event- since we’re going to see a lot of repeat performances and a lot of matches overall, they’re mostly going to be short. Bret turns an attempted suplex into a pin to advance.

The next match pitches Kansas City’s own Mr. Hughes, a scowling suited heel, against Mr. Perfect. Mr. Perfect is very fast, Mr. Hughes is not, and the match is mostly the former jumping around and selling the latter’s moves. When Perfect starts to make a comeback, Hughes pulls out his secret weapon- the Undertaker’s urn. The Undertaker himself is nowhere to be seen, but Hughes uses it as a blunt object against Perfect, and is disqualified for his troubles. Probably not the best use of resources there.

Our next match pits superpatriot Hacksaw Jim Duggan, whose affable personality almost makes up for his inability to wrestle, against Bam Bam Bigelow, a guy I’m still unreasonably prejudiced against because of his hilarious theme music. This match isn’t particularly good, but it’s a short affair as both guys show off their big moves and Bigelow gets the win. Unremarkable but I like the result, since though Bigelow has not had the best run in what I’ve seen so far, he clearly has some talent.

The first round closes out with Lex Luger as The Narcissist battling the still undefeated Tatanka, and it’s the most grueling to date at 15 minutes, running out the time limit and resulting in a draw. A finish like this kind of had to happen, but the fact that it had to happen points to a problem: Tatanka couldn’t lose, but they weren’t going to do anything with that. He wasn’t moving up the card or winning titles, and in a tournament he can either win the whole shebang (which is not what they wanted) or endanger the one push he has. The issue is amplified by the Narcissist’s presence, as he too was someone they wanted to push but not someone they were pushing right to the top. Lex’s gig as the Narcissist would come to an abrupt end soon, but that’s a story for another PPV.

So for a semifinal, while Bam Bam Bigelow gets a bye, we have Mr. Perfect battling Bret Hart. An initial interview plays off the tension and respect the two babyfaces have going on, but once the match begins it’s clear Perfect is playing the baddie, getting more desperate as the action goes on. The pace of the match veers between long rest holds and some very fast exchanges and leaps, but there’s an excellent sense of mounting brutality, as befits two very talented ring technicians. The ending is rather novel as well, with Bret Hart reversing Mr. Perfect’s cradle to win- modern WWE and a lot of wrestling overall has a problem with relying too heavily on the participants exchanging their trademark finishing moves, so it’s always good to see the formula changed up. A very good fight. Perfect acts a little bitchy at the end but shakes Hart’s hand, his job of being the temporary heel performed.

The next match is what would be the main event in more or less any other PPV, with Yokozuna getting his rematch with Hulk Hogan for the WWF title. This isn’t the best match of the night, but it’s the most significant by far. The actual fight is pretty good, as Hogan sells Yokozuna’s strength and sheer size; he’s confounded by his inability to knock down or lift the Japanese giant. After a few near-falls, and Hogan almost passing out from a hold, the champion hulks out and delivers three big boots to Yokozuna to finally knock him over, and a legdrop results... in a near-fall. Realizing he has to do more, Hogan starts signaling to the crowd that he’s gonna try and bodyslam Yokozuna like he did to the one-ton Andre the Giant in front of a million screaming Hulkamaniacs at the Pontiac Silverdome. Just then, a photographer standing at ringside accidentally blinds Hogan with his flash, enabling Yokozuna to knock Hogan down and hit a legdrop of his own for a count of three. Yokozuna is once again the WWF Champion, and Hogan is down worse than he’s ever been.

This was Hogan’s last televised match in the WWF before quitting. In classic wrestling fashion he goes out on his back, albeit in a tainted finish which probably didn’t help Yokozuna’s push. There’s something really odd about the way it plays out- the photographer whose faithful flashbulb decides the match (apparently played by manager Harvey Whippleman) is wearing an oversized fake beard, and the bulb itself explodes with such prop-like flair that it seems like this has to be an angle. It seems for all intents and purposes that someone deliberately set out to blind Hogan and hand the match and the belt to Yokozuna, but since Hogan was leaving, nothing ever comes of it.  (All of this also makes Hogan’s showboating at Wrestlemania IX all the more galling, since he put himself over at the expense of not one but two performers who actually intended to stay.)

All behind-the-scenes drama aside it’s an effective moment. Heenan declares Hulkamania dead (and it would be, at least until Hogan signed with the competition at WCW), there are shots of sad children and devastated Hulkamaniacs in the audience, there’s a legitimate sense of a sea change in the WWF. On the one hand, this was something that probably needed to happen, due to Hogan's relentless hogging of the spotlight; on the other, his departure led to years of floundering and near-bankruptcy for the promotion.

After some hullaballoo with Shawn Michaels introducing his bodyguard Diesel, we get an eight man tag team extravaganza. On the face side are the Steiner Brothers and Bart and Billy Gunn, the Smoking Guns. The baddies are Money Inc. (still champions), and the Headshrinkers. Despite the large crowd it’s a pretty quick match, not bad, but unremarkable. Billy Gunn puts Dibiasie in an inside cradle to win, but due to the unusual set-up the titles aren’t up for grabs. Money Inc. continue to evade justice.

Shawn Michaels defends the Intercontintental Championship (which he lost on Raw then won back at a house show) against blonde Hawaiian giant Crush. Shawn is escorted by his new bodyguard, Diesel, who ambushes the challenger outside the ring and beats on him a bit. However, he doesn’t figure in the match’s finish, in which Crush is distracted by Doink the Clown and his double long enough for Shawn to deliver some sweet chin music. Crush shows some personality in the ring, though Michaels seems to be doing most of the work, overselling the challenger’s moves and throwing himself around the ring. Whoever deserves more of the credit, however, it’s a good match.

Which brings us to the main event, Bam Bam Bigelow vs. Bret Hart for the King of the Ring. This is a brawl for most of it, with a fresh Bigelow beating on a weary but resilient Hart. The headbutt seems to be Bam Bam’s preferred mode of attack, and he has the advantage for most of it, but Luna Vachon- she of the gravel voice and varicose head- feels the need to help him along by hitting Hart with a steel chair outside the ring. Why is she even involved? It's not clear. Luna remains a mystery wrapped in an enigma. Bam Bam executes a diving headbutt for a clean 1-2-3 count, but then a referee who saw Luna’s attack argues with the ref in the ring, and we hear Howard Finkel announce that “THIS MATCH MUST CONTINUE.” I’ve heard these words before in mid-90s WWF material, and it’s always a sign that they weren’t quite sure how to finish things. The fight goes on for a bit more, still good, still grueling, and then Hart wraps up Bigelow in a victory roll for a much-needed win.

The actual finale of the show has Bret’s coronation interrupted by the self-proclaimed King of Wrestling, Jerry Lawler. The former Memphis champion was working heel in the WWF and he shows up to complain that he’s the real king- which prompts the audience to start heckling him with chants of “Burger King”, and I hope WWF got some good sponsorship money from that because they were gonna need it.

It’s an odd choice to end the PPV with Lawler beating down Hart, but this was sort of an odd show. It’s not bad, especially by comparison to the disastrous event that preceded it, but uneven match quality and some half-assed finishes keep it from being particularly good either. It does have one really memorable development, in Hogan’s last big defeat and the establishment of Yokozuna as an intimidating heel champion, and the latter would dominate WWF programming for a time while they searched for a new guy to put on the top. This, as it turns out, would take a while.

Grade: B-


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