Previously on the Best and Worst of WWF RAW IS WAR: Half the roster got sent to tape a show in South Africa, leaving Stone Cold Steve Austin and a ton of jobbers to anchor Raw. Also, Shawn Michaels loves our freedom.
If you haven’t seen this episode, you can watch it on WWE Network here. Check out all the episodes you may have missed at the Best and Worst of WWF Raw Is War and Best and Worst of WWF Monday Night Raw tag pages. Follow along with the competition here.
Notable Re-post: If you want us to keep doing retro reports, share them around! And be sure to drop down into our comments section to let us know what you thought of these shows.
Up first, let’s take a look at the episode we skipped, and the pay-per-view we probably should’ve.
Before We Begin
Here’s everything you need to know about the April 14, 1997, edition of RAW IS WAR, a mash-up of taped footage from South Africa with equally distant taped footage from Muncie, Indiana. If you’d like to go to sleep but are out of NyQuil, you can watch the episode here.
This episode was so bad that its tanked rating was reportedly (via Vince Russo, so “reportedly”) enough to frustrate Vince McMahon into taking a more hands-on role and joining the booking team, which eventually pushes Raw over the edge into greatness and then continues pushing them OUT of greatness until it’s 2008 and nobody knows what the fuck is going on.
Here’s the rundown:
– Two matches end in schoolboy roll-ups.
What are the two defining tropes of modern Raws? If you answered, “distraction roll-ups” and “champions losing non-title matches to build to championship matches between the same people,” congratulations, you’re paying attention. The South African main-event of Ahmed Johnson vs. Crush (woof) ends with Ahmed rolling up Crush — and Faarooq insulting Ahmed’s “charcoal butt” — and Savio Vega pins Intercontinental Champion Rocky Maivia with a roll-up to build to, you guessed it, Savio Vega vs. Rocky Maivia. Literally the only highlight of any of this is Rocky using the Rock Bottom, which at this point is not enough to put away SAVIO VEGA.
– Everything else involves interference or disqualification.
Everything else. The Legion of Doom get ready for their Tag Team Championship match with Owen Hart and the British Bulldog by losing to the Godwinns when Bulldog hits Animal in the back of the head with one of the belts. The WWF always knew how to book the Road Warriors. Have them get cheated out of victories against simpleton farmers nobody likes! Hunter Hearst Helmsley defeats The Real Double J Jesse Jammes via Chyna interference, then Helmsley and Chyna return to cause a DQ in Goldust vs. The Sultan. Vader and Mankind vs. The Headbangers even ends in disqualification when the Bangers spit in Mankind’s eyes, and a blind Mankind mandible claws his own partner. Interested in this show yet?
The best part is that it was the go-home show for a pay-per-view. I bet that show did really well!
And now, here’s what you need to know about In Your House: Revenge Of The Taker. The first hour is so bad it makes the South Africa Raw look like WrestleMania X-7.
Over the past few weeks (in 1997), former Intercontinental Champion and Elvis-impersonating Jerry Lawler the Honky Tonk Man had been looking for a “new” Honky to be his protege. He asked Jesse Jammies, so Jammies broke a guitar and told him no. He asked Billy Gunn, so Gunn punched him in the face and told him no. At Revenge of the Taker, Double J takes on the man who said yes to the Honky Tonk Man … Billy Gunn. Wait, what?
If you aren’t familiar with the story, here’s what went down. Over on WCW Monday Nitro, booker slash satanic George Costanza Kevin Sullivan and his girlfriend “from the neighborhood” Jacqueline have been beating up and humiliating jobbers. Apparently WCW wanted Disco Inferno to get beaten up by Jacqueline and disappear for six months (despite him only having four months left on his contract), and Disco was like, “wait, you want me to get beaten up by a lady half my size and then never come back? No thank you.” They fired him for it. So HE was supposed to be the new Honky Tonk Man, to the point that they put a silhouette of him in WWF Magazine. But then WCW hit him with a no-compete for that four months of remaining contract, WWF got restless and Disco never got hired. So Disco went back to WCW, and Billy goddamn Gunn ended up as Honky 2.
The best part? He loses his debut to Jammies via roll-up. After the match, Rockabilly and Honky try to get some guitar-based revenge, but it backfires. This is all to set up, you guessed it, Jesse Jammes vs. Rockabilly the next night on Raw. I wonder why this never went anywhere?
My ass better call somebody.
Stone Cold Steve Austin And Bret Hart Wrestled In A Match You Don’t Remember
Here’s a fun exercise. Think about the submission match at WrestleMania 13. Think about all the classic knowledge of pro wrestling that made that work, and why the human drama of a bad man showing good qualities fighting for his life against a good man turning bad matters. Think about why it’s one of the greatest moments and matches in wrestling history. Now imagine the exactly same talent, without the understanding of what makes a moment great. Imagine Hart vs. Austin filtered through the WWF of just a few years later.
That’s Austin vs. Hart at Revenge of the Taker. It’s still fun, because you could put Austin and Hart in a ball pit at a Chuck E Cheese’s and they could get you three and a half stars, but it’s such a damn mess. Instead of creating another iconic moment in the feud to follow Survivor Series and WrestleMania, WWF compensates for a lack of Sid by throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks. Austin ends up catching Bret in the Sharpshooter, which brings out Owen Hart and the British Bulldog to break it up. Austin manages to fight them off and security is taking them away, so Austin puts on the Sharpshooter again. Bulldog somehow breaks away from security, runs BACK into the ring and swats Austin with a steel chair, causing a DQ. Keep in mind they’d already jumped him in the back earlier in the night. So they get taken away AGAIN, and Austin recovers enough to attack Bret’s knee with a chair.
It’s just too much. The good news is that the angle continues the next night on Raw and gets a lot better.
Taker Got His Advertised Revenge
A couple of weeks ago on Raw, Mankind threw a fireball in the face of the Undertaker. At Revenge of the Taker, Taker takes his revenge (who knew?) by burning Paul Bearer. I think Mankind was supposed to accidentally burn Paul, because Mankind accidentally does everything, but they couldn’t figure out the lighter and the flash paper on the fly so Taker just took control and lit him up.
Fun note: This is technically the beginning of the next step in Paul Bearer’s career, in which he copes with being burned by (1) no longer dying his hair, and (2) remembering he’s been keeping Undertaker’s fire-themed burn victim demon brother in a basement all these years.
And now, finally, the Best and Worst of WWF RAW IS WAR for April 21, 1997.
Best: Hey Man Nice Shirt
The April 21 edition of Raw opens with Stone Cold Steve Austin and the debut of the Austin 3:16 shirt, one of if not the most iconic WWF shirts of all time. It’s at least up there with the yellow Hulkamania shirt and the Acolytes “Always Pounding Ass” number. Although I’ve gotta point out how funny it is that there’s a sign in the front row that says “Eric RIP-OFF,” and WWF’s new big star is an anarchic ass-kicker in a black t-shirt with white letters. He should’ve told people he liked hunting deer and then made little deer heads with his fingers.
Anyway, Austin opens the show by challenging Bret Hart to a street fight right here, right now, because he ain’t through with ya Bret, he ain’t through with ya not by a longshot. Bret spent most of Revenge of the Taker trying to hurt Austin’s knee, and Austin managed to turn it around on him. So now you’ve got two guys with injured knees and a score to settle. Austin puts 30 seconds on the TitanTron for Bret to answer the challenge, or he’s going to head to the back, find Bret, and kick his ass anyway.
Bret doesn’t answer, because of course he doesn’t. Instead, he pops in via TitanTron to run down the morals and ethics (and carnal forbearance) of the American crowd and accept the challenge for later tonight. He also rightfully complains that Austin has a WWF Championship shot against The Undertaker at In Your House 15: A Cold Day in Hell, which at least isn’t called “In Your House: Austin Wins The Belt.” Bret says he’s going to send Austin “straight to hell.”
Austin’s response is to promise he’ll take Bret to hell with him, immediately head to the back, find the Hart Foundation’s dressing room door and kick it until the match starts. Not hard to see why this guy caught on.
The street fight goes down, and at some point Bret realizes that “street fight” means he can do whatever he wants without fear of disqualification, so Bulldog and Owen join in. Austin looks like he’s going to take a 3-on-1 beatdown until he gets help from an unlikely source: Shawn Michaels, wielding a chair, high on his desire to defend FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION or whatever for all Americans. Michaels runs off Bulldog and Owen, allowing Austin to fight back, take out Bret’s knee with a chair and then … well, continue to take out Bret’s knee with a chair for like five minutes. It’s GREAT.
Austin does those great chair jabs to the knee for a while, then puts Bret in the Sharpshooter. Bret can’t escape, so Austin just keeps it on forever. It takes an entire squad of referees several minutes to pry him off, all while the crowd chants AUS-TIN AUS-TIN AUS-TIN. Jim Ross thinks enough is enough, and Vince McMahon is like COME ON BRET HART OBVIOUSLY SET STONE COLD UP, HE’S GETTING WHAT HE DESERVED. Vince was never on Bret’s side, was he?
Eventually Bret gets carried away, and we spend the entirety of the next match getting backstage updates of how far through the hallways he’s been carried and how quickly the ambulance is going to take him to the hospital. When it’s time to actually load him in, this happens, and it might be the moment Austin goes from gutsy anti-hero to ridiculously over maniac babyface:
Stuff like this set a bad precedent for WWF’s top faces going forward, because Austin and Hart’s characters had six months of escalated hostility building to it. Modern WWE would have John Cena meet, I don’t know, Braun Strowman for the first time one week, have Strowman attack him in week two, and have Cena return the beating tenfold in week three. This had MONTHS of anger and grief and beef behind it, and while Austin’s clearly taking it too far, he’s taking it too far against a guy who has been taking it too far for weeks — Shawn Michaels and Rocky Maivia both got injured off ring post figure-fours well beyond the end of fights — who cheated him last night, set him up tonight and only got his comeuppance due to Austin’s unstoppable tenacity and the grace of God.
These WWF tropes really worked back when they put in the work to justify them, instead of just doing them and saying “shut up, it works.”
At the end of the night, Austin returns to the ring to gloat about taking Bret out like he promised, and sets his sights on the Undertaker. But whoops, British Bulldog and Owen Hart still exist and are none too pleased with what’s been happening for the past two hours, so they charge the ring, tackle Austin and put the boots to him. Vince McMahon even tries to help out Austin, which is retroactively hilarious, and gets shoved on his ass. And since Shawn Michaels is still in the building and has already run Bulldog and Owen off once, he runs back out to run them off again. Vince Russo’s writing style works brilliantly in regard to remembering characters exist and why they might do what they’re doing. It’s a shame he eventually eschewed that part of it and amped up the CRAZY SWERVES AND CRASH TV shit. One helped justify the other’s existence.
Once the smoke clears, Austin’s left in the ring by himself again. He pulls himself up in a manner similar to WrestleMania 13, and the crowd’s chanting his name. Vince McMahon looks impressed that Austin’s still able to get to his feet after all that’s transpired. And then, just when you think everything’s done, Brian Pillman hops the rail and attacks Austin from behind.
Pillman attacks Austin with a steel chair and tries to break Austin’s ankle the same way Austin broke HIS back in October. Michaels is able to run back out a third time with the chair and shoo Pillman off.
One part of this is definitely Michaels trying to siphon some of Austin’s heat for himself by being the ally of a man who doesn’t have any allies. The other is establishing that Austin is psychotic and motivated enough to accomplish anything, but he’s still one man, and he can’t possibly take on an increasingly large, increasingly hostile group of Canadians and Canadian-associates who want his head. It’s a great story, and we’re still at the beginning.
And don’t worry, the payoff for Shawn Michaels is that he’s a dick. Which is always the Shawn Michaels payoff.
Worst: Heaven Can Kuwait
What else happens on this show? Oh, right, The Man They Meaning WCW Call Vader is being HELD HOSTAGE IN KUWAIT after assaulting Borat, the host of Good Morning Kuwait, for asking him if wrestling’s fake. Vader had to stay in Kuwait to go to court about it, so the WWF seriously referred to it as him being “held hostage” and drew political cartoons about him having to scoop up camel poop under a bunch of SCUD missiles. Because cultural sensitivity.
The best part of this hostage situation is that Vader was allowed to leave the country after paying a $164 fine. 164 bucks. INTERNATIONAL INCIDENT.
Worst: The World’s Most Dangerous Plan
Meanwhile, Vader’s COLD DAY IN HELL opponent, Ken Shamrock, challenges boxing’s “Iron” Mike Tyson to a shootfight (?) in a WWF ring to determine who the real Baddest Man On The Planet is. The highlight is Shamrock saying that if Tyson thought being in prison “for his rape charge” was hard time, it’s nothing compared to what he’ll do to him.
Fun note: I got in trouble with 2K Games in 2013 for calling their Downloadable Superstar Mike Tyson “the rapist version of The Iron Sheik.” I should’ve challenged him to a fight on television!
Note: Shamrock never fights Mike Tyson, but Hornswoggle does!
Worst: Singh A Sad Song
The match after the Austin/Bret street fight is one of the worst “on paper” matches ever booked: the debuting Tiger Ali Singh vs. Salvatore Sincere. If you aren’t familiar with Sincere, imagine a taller, whiter Marc Mero who was told to do a mafia gimmick but never did any research into what a mafia gimmick might look like, and didn’t do anything more exciting than a chinlock. Tiger Ali Singh is the son of wrestling legend Tiger Jeet Singh, famous for fighting Antonio Inoki in a shopping center and having Cactus Jack stab him with a sword in the 1995 King of the Death Matches Tournament.
Tiger Ali was brought into WWF as a huge international signee, projected to be the “Asian Hulk Hogan.” He was even booked to win the second annual Kuwait Cup. His debut on Raw is a backdrop for the Hart injury angle, and then he’s gone for an entire year. Not kidding you. He shows up on a few Shotgun Saturday Night episodes and then completely vanishes until mid-1998, when all hopes of creating an international superstar are thrown in the garbage in favor of him being the middle-eastern Ted DiBiase.
Tiger wins with a lazy spinning heel kick out of nowhere, completing his overall aesthetic, “unprepared Owen Hart.”
Worst: Board To Death
Speaking of culturally sensitive gimmicks (in both directions, honestly), Ahmed Johnson wrestles The Sultan. He’s about to finish the Sultan off when (surprise!) the Nation of Domination tries to interfere. Ahmed’s response is to grab a 2×4 from under the ring and hit the Sultan with it repeatedly, getting himself disqualified. The Nation has like 10 guys in it, but back off when they realize Ahmed has both a slender wooden board and a wedgie that would make Sable blush.
The story here is the same as it’s been for months: Faarooq and Ahmed keep derisively calling each other black and making weird, vague challenges for gauntlet matches or handicap matches that will disband the Nation. But all we ever get is Ahmed rolling up Crush, saving people while in his pajamas and cutting promos about “this illegal immigrant, this jailbird, and your black ass.” Looking back, this angle really should’ve ended with Ahmed trapping Faarooq in the walls behind a bunch of 2x4s, Cask of Amontillado-style.
Worst: Rockabilly Vs. Jammies, Part 2
As promised, the epic rematch. Here’s a picture of Rockabilly hitting a Shake, Rattle & Roll to win the match. Notice how no part of him is actually touching Double J:
Way to keep it snug, Bill. After the match, Honky Tonk Man hits Jammes in the back with his guitar. If you have 100 questions to ask about this match, 99 of them should be, “why didn’t they just do this at the pay-per-view?” Question 100 should be, “why am I watching this,” or maybe, “how did Billy Gunn manage to hit a neckbreaker on a guy without touching his neck?”
Worst: The Beginning Of An Era
This week’s main event is a very slow kick-and-punch affair between future 3-time WrestleMania opponents Hunter Hearst Helmsley and The Undertaker. Helmsley’s still trying to find his footing as a top heel, and hasn’t figured out that lifting weights and constantly pointing at his dick is the key. Undertaker is selling the burn damage from the Revenge of the Taker angle by wrapping his face with gauze and having a cartoonish scab around his eye.
Taker looks like he’s got the match won with a chokeslam when Mankind shows up BRANDISHING A BLOW TORCH.
That’d be a definite Best, except for the fact that Mankind attacks Undertaker with it by hitting him with the gas tank. Instead of, you know, burning him. It’s like when Leonardo attacks Foot Soldiers by stabbing his katana into the ceiling, doing a pull-up with them and kicking the Foot in the face instead of like, cutting them with his TWO SWORDS. Taker manages to recover from this, and they brawl into the crowd.
That leaves the ring open for the final surprise brawl of the night:
Best: Don’t Watch This, Daniel Bryan, You’ll Get In Trouble
Street clothes, real-life versions of Dustin Rhodes and Terri Runnels show up and attack Helmsley and Chyna. Terri jumps on Chyna’s back and chokes her with a leather strap, mirroring Chyna’s choked-themed debut on her from a few months back. So much soda is thrown by a crowd who is waiting for approval for an nWo-style snack disposal segment.
This is all very new and exciting, and although WWF would drive the crash TV and the “this part of the show is fake but THIS part is real” stuff into the ground, it works remarkably well in these small, new doses. And even looking back, it’s easier to remember the good parts than the bad. And the bad usually built to something a little better, Tiger Ali Singh aside.
Next week: A new Intercontinental Champion, finally. Raw rolls on, after this!