Previously on the Best and Worst of WWF Monday Night Raw: We forgot there was another show before the Royal Rumble, and it was at the end of a long taping cycle, so we had to deal with that. Also, Shawn Michaels went home to San Antonio, hung out in a room full of his biggest fans and closest friends, and never looked so alone.
You can watch this week’s episode here, and check all the episodes you may have missed at the Best and Worst of WWF Monday Night Raw tag page. If you’d like to watch the 1997 Royal Rumble, you can do that here. Follow along with the competition here.
If you want us to keep doing retro reports, share them around! And be sure to drop down into our comments section to tell us what you think about the maneuvers, quite frankly.
Up first, let’s find out if Latin Lover or Fake Razor Ramon pulled off that Rumble upset.
Before We Begin
Here’s what you need to know about Royal Rumble 1997. This was held in front of over 60,000 fans in the Alamodome, just in case you wanted to believe any of those Monday Night Wars stories about the WWF almost going out of business.
Mr. Hughes Is Here For Some Reason
The ’97 Royal Rumble features the debut of Triple H’s legendary bodyguard. No, not that one. Mr. Hughes.
In case you didn’t grow up watching WCW in the early ’90s, Mr. Hughes was part of something called “The York Foundation,” led by future Marlena “Alexandra York.” The idea was that she was an ’80s business lady who’d figured out how to use computers to make wrestlers better. If you were hoping for a Lawnmower Man scenario here, don’t get too excited. It turns out the way she “computerized” wrestlers was by calling them by their full names — Terry Taylor became “Terrance,” Ricky Morton became “Richard” — and telling them to hit their opponents with a janky ’80s word processor. Mr. Hughes was their bodyguard and asked the question, “What would happen if Big Bubba was black?” The answer? “Nothing, really” with a question mark on the end.
Hughes had an early run in ’93 as one of about a billion people of the era to steal the Undertaker’s urn. He ended up in ECW during Shane Douglas’ early title runs as a bodyguard, too, and gets his triumphant return to WWF here. About a month later, Chyna debuts. Whoops!
Mr. Hughes is pretty much the ultimate ineffectual ’90s Big Man, where they ask you to see him as a threat, but he never really does anything or beats anybody. He gets one more big return in 1999 as Chris Jericho’s bodyguard “Gotch Gracie,” but that lasts about as long as this.
There’s nothing in Royal Rumble lore that makes you look more stupid than eliminating yourself. WWE keeps having guys do it like it’s a crime of passion or whatever, but it just makes wrestlers look like they’re bad at their jobs. The ’97 Rumble has TWO self-eliminations.
The first is early in the match, when Ahmed Johnson eliminates himself to chase Faarooq to the back. The Nation of Domination had interfered in their match earlier in the night, you see, so he wanted revenge. Also, I’m not sure he’s agile enough to step through ropes without ripping his quads to shreds and exploding a few of those thigh knee pads, so he has to go up and over. The second involves Mil Mascaras, who calmly eliminates Pierroth only to climb to the top rope and dive onto him on the floor. It’s not even a heated thing. Mil gets back in the ring afterwards until referees are like, “bruh,” and he thousand-facepalms and leaves.
Bret Hart Won The Royal Rumble, But Didn’t Win It
The great thing about Bret Hart’s increasingly bad attitude is that it totally makes sense.
The highlight of this Royal Rumble is, of course, Stone Cold Steve Austin. This is truly Austin’s star-making night, where he enters early, eliminates 10 dudes (!) and gets enough solo time in the ring to do push-ups or check an imaginary watch. It’s great, and by the time Bret’s music hits, you know some serious sh*t is about to go down.
Hart eliminates Austin, but Terry Funk and Mankind are busy brawling on the floor and the referees are preoccupied, so they don’t see it. Austin sneaks back in, double-eliminates Undertaker and Vader, then sneakily tossed Bret. The referees see that, awarding Austin the win and, presumably, a title opportunity at WrestleMania. Bret is livid, dragging the referee around by the shirt, and even technicality-obsessed jerks like me are like, “damn Bret, chill out.” This feud continues to be a masterpiece, and it only gets better.
Shawn Michaels Won Back The Championship He Doesn’t Even Want
Speaking of masterpieces, here’s the opposite of a masterpiece.
The opening video package for Royal Rumble ’97 does some AMAZING revisionist history with the Michaels/Sid feud. If you remember Survivor Series ’96, Sid was going to hit Michaels with a camera, so Michaels’ tio Jose Lothario got on the apron and got camera’d instead. After two distractions and some complicated foreign object work, Sid got the victory and won the championship, and the crowd LOVED IT. Sid became an instant hero for getting one over on the self-obsessed Michaels, and Michaels spent like two months complaining about it and explaining how the fans just didn’t get it. The opening video package here rephrases that as, “at Survivor Series ’96, Shawn Michaels FINALLY GREW UP by caring more about his mentor than the championship, and the dastardly Sid took advantage of it.” It takes some mighty, mighty grapefruits to look at this version of Shawn Michaels and claim he’s a functioning, level-headed everyman.
So yeah, the Royal Rumble rematch ends with Lothario getting on the apron to distract Sid again, allowing Michaels to grab the cameraman’s camera, hit Sid twice with it and kick him in the face to regain the championship. And we’re supposed to like this guy because … reasons. Got it.
And now, the vintage Best and Worst of WWF Monday Night Raw for January 20, 1997.
We’re gonna be hearing that word a lot over the next year.
This week’s live episode (oh thank God, thank you Jesus) begins with a paranoid Bret Hart showing up in street clothes to get all work-shooty on Vince McMahon and the World Wrestling Federation for bringing him back under false pretenses and repeatedly “screwing” him out of his chances at the WWF title. Bret is great here, as “increasingly out-of-touch do-gooder” was a progressive and absolutely logical direction for the character. What happens when the guy who repeatedly tells you he’s the hero stops feeling like the hero? It allows Bret to look justified in his responses to things AND seem like a total baby. I don’t know if it’s great acting, great writing, serendipity, or some combination of the three.
Bret says he’s tired of being screwed, and if he’s not going to get his shot at the WWF Championship, he quits. He leaves out through the crowd, and the crowd chants “WE LOVE BRET.” And then, something magical happens: Stone Cold Steve Austin gets in the ring, grabs the live mic and … it doesn’t work. Eventually they bring him a mic that does, and Austin’s response is, “are you gonna give me a microphone that works, or am I gonna have to whip your ass?” The crowd pops. Austin says that HE’S been screwed and pushed around for seven years but he’s not gonna cry about it or take his ball and go home (yet, I guess), he’s going to kick people’s asses. The crowd pops. Basically a crowd that was JUST chanting about how much they loved and wanted Bret Hart were willing to throw him under the bus in a heartbeat because this cool redneck motherf*cker pointed out that he should be punching instead of complaining. It’s pitch-perfect, and probably the reason WWE’s done so many tone deaf “complainer” angles over the past 20 years. Sorta like how Toy Story begat Shark Tale or whatever.
It’s crazy to think about how the build for WrestleMania was originally supposed to be Bret vs. Shawn, because the absolute beating heart and soul of WWF at this point is Bret vs. Austin. Also, it’s crazy to think how well the Montreal Screwjob is being foreshadowed. I don’t want to go to the “it was a work” well, but you’ve gotta wonder if Vince knew what was gonna go down well enough in advance to plant these seeds and work Bret into a Truman Show situation.
Best: Slammies To The Face
So part of Austin’s speech talks about how the Harts are a bunch of whiners who can’t beat anybody but their “wrinkled old man in his little basement,” and the next match is Owen Hart cheating to win. I’m telling you, this either magically fell into place or was the best arranged wrestling angle ever. It’s really impressive, and modern WWE writers need to spend a weekend watching Bret vs. Austin from beginning to end and workshopping their sh*t until it makes this much sense.
Owen and the British Bulldog face Doug Furnas and Phil LaFon, and god damn is this show improved by being live. It just feels better. It also helps to have talented people paired together in interesting, entertaining matches. This version isn’t quite as good as the one they have at the pay-per-view, but it’s very entertaining, and ends with Owen cheapshotting a dude in the face with a novelty pro wrestling award. That never gets old.
That’s the Harts for you. They’re great wrestlers, but they get too frustrated when things aren’t going their way. Of course their ultimate foil would be a guy who is CONSTANTLY frustrated, even when nothing’s going on, and unstoppable at forcing things to go his way.
Worst: The Nation of Domination
If you haven’t been following along, the Nation of Domination asks, “what would the nWo be like if they were just mid-carders and nobody really cared about them?” That’s the Nation. They take the incessant run-in DQ finish of the New World Order and apply it to the worst and most boring parts of 1997 WWF television, and it’s pretty much the drizzling sh*ts until Rocky Maivia sells his soul to a forest witch or whatever and salvages it.
Faarooq wrestles Bart Gunn, and it’s as bad as you’re imagining. The Nation causes a distraction and Faarooq’s able to hit his finish, and Jim Ross says Bart was “game.” Only it straight up sounds like he calls him “a gay Bart Gunn,” which wouldn’t be a point of interest if Faarooq’s move wasn’t called the Dominator. So JR’s screaming HE DOMINATED A GAY BART GUNN. I was only sort of half watching with my head tilted to the side like a dog’s. I popped on the closed captioning to make sure I wasn’t hearing things and yep, the closed-caption intern at WWE Network heard it, too. But he thinks Faarooq’s name is “Faaoq,” so maybe nobody’s paying attention.
Best: Final Four
An increasingly shifty-eyed Vince McMahon brings out WWF President Gorilla Monsoon to get to the bottom of the Royal Rumble controversy, and I’ve gotta say, Gorilla was pretty much looking like a sloth in his dad’s old suit at this point. There’s a SUPER weird moment where Gorilla finishes his announcement and goes to leave, and Vince sticks out his hand for a handshake. Gorilla doesn’t see it, and instead of just letting it slide, Vince grabs him by the arm Titus O’Neil style, stops him, reprimands him and makes him shake his hand. Honestly, that might be the first true “Mr. McMahon” moment on WWF TV.
Gorilla’s announcement is that the referee’s decision has to be final, so Stone Cold Steve Austin is technically the winner of the Royal Rumble. But he doesn’t deserve the title shot for cheating, so Gorilla’s putting Austin and his final three eliminations in a fatal four-way match to name a true #1 contender. That includes Bret Hart, if he’ll accept. That of course brings Austin back out, and we continue his progression into mega-stardom by having him say Gorilla “hee-haws like a jackass” and threaten to stick a bunch of bananas up his ass. Austin also gets into McMahon’s face, which makes any fan of ’90s pro wrestling get one of those red exclamation points over their heads like the enemies in Metal Gear.
Bret stomps back down through the crowd, accepts the spot in the match, and ends up brawling with Austin. This is all really f*cking good. Can you tell?
Best: The Monday Night Wars
The true Monday Night Wars of 1997 weren’t between WCW Monday Nitro and Raw, they were between The New Adventures of Robin Hood and La Femme Nikita.
If you watched (or read about) last week’s Nitro, you know they did a terrible bait and switch thing where they advertised a Hollywood Hogan vs. Giant main event, started it with only a few minutes left in the show, then continued it during the breaks of the debuting New Adventures of Robin Hood. This week’s Raw features a ton of shade thrown at Robin Hood, and Jim Ross hilariously insisting that La Femme Nikita is better because she has “big arms” and isn’t a “wimpy Robin Hood.” I wish Nitro was still on just to see what they’d say about Chrisley Knows Best. Also, Stone Cold Steve Austin’s wrestling the Undertaker, but that’s less important.
It’s a fun match, but it ends with the predictable “everyone from the Final Four is here now for some reason and BRAWLING” ending. That’s still pretty exciting, as Final Four’s pretty much the last gasp of Vader being taken even remotely seriously by the WWF. Furthermore, I believe that —