Previously on the Best and Worst of WWF Monday Night Raw: Shawn Michaels is no longer WWF Champion, and poor Vince McMahon is heartbroken. Faarooq is now a militant separatist, The Undertaker is now a leather-clad man-bat, and Rocky Maivia is SpongeBob SquarePants The Wrestler.
And now, the Best and Worst of WWF Monday Night Raw for November 25, 1996.
Best: Layered Alignment Shifts
That makes the recap sound like a business meeting, doesn’t it? My first Best is, “Reimagining Paradigms Going Forward.”
Anyway, this week’s show starts with Bret Hart vs. Owen Hart and ends in what would eventually become one of the most complex, layered alignment shifts WWE ever pulled. It’s like a quadruple turn.
Bret wrestles Owen, and if you’re wondering why you don’t remember this match, it’s because it’s … not their best. It’s still Bret vs. Owen, but they’re very clearly going through the motions to get to the post-match stuff. Bret counters a sunset flip attempt into the Sharpshooter and looks like he’s got the match won, so Stone Cold Steve Austin runs out and waffles him with a chair (pictured). He’s a f*cking psychopath who can’t handle the fact that he lost at Survivor Series, so he wraps the chair around Bret’s leg and tries to break his ankle. Owen is fine with this, because he’s the world leader in hating Bret Hart. Owens tag partner, Davey Boy Smith, is not. He shows up, removes the chair from Bret’s leg and gets in Owen’s face about it. While this is going on, Austin calmly retrieves the chair and attacks Davey Boy from behind.
What’s great about this is that it’s one of the best early examples of Austin’s actions accidentally making things way worse. That’s one of the best parts about the Austin character that a lot of people miss … Vince McMahon gave him numerous opportunities to chill out and play ball, but Austin could never swallow his pride long enough to even pretend to cooperate. He always had to do things “the hard way.” Here, Austin’s only active enemy is Bret Hart, the most passive, relaxed WWF babyface there is. Bret beat him with a submission counter at Survivor Series, which is maybe the least threatening way to prove your dominance over someone. Austin can’t handle it, though, so he escalates the violence and tries to put Bret in the hospital. Tries to end his career. When Davey Boy shows up, he’s on the only person objecting to Austin’s actions, and even that’s not directed at Austin … it’s directed at Owen for being cool with it. Austin could’ve just bailed or continued trying to attack Bret, but by attacking Bulldog he makes things way worse. Owen doesn’t care about his brother, but he cares about his tag team partner … so now you’ve got Bret hating Austin for escalating the violence, Bulldog hating Austin for trying to hurt Bret, and Owen hating Austin for trying to hurt Bulldog. It takes us a while to bring everything together, but this single moment is the genesis of the reformation of the Hart Foundation.
That’s complex as hell. After the WrestleMania 13 double-turn, they’ve managed to make heel Austin a beloved babyface without compromising much of what made him so accidentally popular as a heel, they’ve turned one of the most nonconfrontationally do-gooder WWF Champions into a heel and paired him up with not only one of his major rivals, but his inferiority complex-ridden little brother. Nowadays they can’t even make you cheer a popular guy.
Worst: Shawn Michaels Has Already Lost His Smile
Speaking of not cheering a popular guy, here’s Shawn Michaels.
We join him live via satellite from the home of Jose Lothario, where he’s dressed like he should be playing guitar in the E Street Band. Loving caretaker Vince McMahon asks him how he and Jose are feeling after Sycho Sid crushed Jose’s chest with a camera for trying to interfere and took advantage of Shawn’s fussy concern to win the WWF Championship. Shawn’s response is to make every angry face he’s ever imagined and throw literally everyone other than himself under the bus, including the fans who didn’t give him enough credit for being sexy and amazing. I’m paraphrasing.
Nobody in the segment can figure out why the Madison Square Garden crowd would’ve cheered for Sid over Shawn. It’s like desperately looking for Waldo while he’s standing next to you, tapping you on the shoulder. Shawn is all, “I’M GONNA COME BACK AND BE THE CHAMPION AGAIN AND I’M GONNA GROW MY HAIR LONGER AND DANCE SEXIER DANCES AND YOU’RE ALL JUST GONNA HAVE TO F*CKING DEAL WITH IT.” It’s an extension of Vince’s mopey apology from the week before, where he insisted that while Shawn is a ladies man, he’s also a man’s man. At home I’m holding up a picture of Sid and cheering at it.
Shawn doesn’t actually “lose his smile” until the second time he’s WWF Champion and realizes he’s gonna have to defend it against guys he doesn’t like in real life, but it’s safe to say it’s already gone.
Worst: Whatever The Opposite Of The Excellence Of Execution Is
Speaking of “already gone,” here’s The Executioner.
If you want to know how exciting this Executioner vs. Freddie Joe Floyd match is, look at the picture. That’s everything you need to know. That’s probably the most athletic and exciting moment of the match. One dude just kinda grabbing another dude’s neck as they lie motionless on the mat and force the referee to pretend it’s a deadly submission. He’s performing the “Asiatic Spike,” aka touching your opponent with your thumb. When you think of mystical Oriental precision, you think Terry Gordy in a Halloween costume.
Best: The Rock Is Instinctively Trying To Do The People’s Elbow
There was a time between Shawn Michaels using the Teardrop suplex and Sweet Chin Music where he’d figured out the superkick was a better finisher, but wasn’t sure how to present it. Watch some of those matches. He’ll go stand in the corner waiting for his opponent to get up, and you’ll see on his face that he knows he’s supposed to be doing something, but hasn’t figured it out. Eventually he’d start “tuning up the band,” and the piece would come together.
Rocky Maivia has a moment like that in his match with Salvatore Sincere. He bodyslams him in the middle of the ring, stands up near Salvatore’s head and starts messing with his elbow pad. He takes a weird step toward the hard cam, squats down and throws his arm out to the side. This is to signal for the shoulder breaker, but that doesn’t make any sense. You’re setting up a move where you pick up a guy and set him down by picking him up and setting him down? Nah Rocky, you’ve got the People’s Elbow in your brain somewhere and it’s trying to get out. Eventually you’re gonna do all the taunting without taking the step toward the camera, and you’re gonna figure out that if a guy’s on the ground and you’ve done a wacky dance to get your arm out, you might as well drop it on him.
Worst: Billy Gunn’s Subtle Heel Turn
When he was in the Smoking Gunns, he wore a white hat. Now that he’s alone, he wears a black hat. Get it?
Best/Worst: More Accidental D-X Foreshadowing
The main event of the episode is Billy Gunn vs. Marc Mero, which is exactly as good as you’re imagining. In my brain, the opposite of Dean Malenko vs. Rey Mysterio is Billy Gunn vs. Marc Mero. The only highlight (if you can call it that) is the finish, and that only works in retrospect.
Hunter Hearst Helmsley is on commentary, and because we needed two DQ finishes in one 40-minute episode, he interferes. It’s a great reason, too. Mero’s about to win the match so H is like, “I’m gonna go help Sable! Er, uh, yeah” and wanders over to vaguely gesture at her until Mero saves her. That leads to H and Billy Gunn ganging up on him, and somewhere in the back The Real Double J is like, “hey, you know what would be cool? Football jerseys with 69 on them.” And then the moment passes.
Jake the Snake wanders out to make the save, and Lawler’s calling him drunk before the heels have even left the ring. In case you’re wondering, this is how WWE set up Smackdown main events before Smackdown was a thing. And … that’s the show. Yep. We’ve almost put it all together, but somebody’s intent on hanging on to the New Generation formulae as long as possible.
Next week, the Attitude Era officially begins with Fake Diesel vs. Phineas Godwinn. Kidding. Nothing begins.