Previously on the vintage Best and Worst of WWF Monday Night Raw: Bret Hart is back and has accepted Stone Cold Steve Austin’s challenge for Survivor Series, which sets off a chain of events nobody could’ve predicted. Meanwhile, Sid and Shawn Michaels are kinda-sorta best friends and about to have a WWF Championship match, setting off a chain of events that a blind newborn baby could’ve predicted. Also, the Undertaker was buried alive, but he’s probably fine.
Click here to watch this week’s episode on WWE Network, which is actually recommended for once! Please scroll through for the Best and Worst of WWF Monday Night Raw for Oct. 28, 1996. Here we go.
Worst: Vince Kills Double J In The First Second Of His First Raw Match
If you wanted to know how sunk poor Jesse James was before he even had a chance to succeed, check out his Raw debut against Salvatore Sincere. Vince McMahon excitedly says we’re watching “Double J, Jeff Jarrett,” and there’s a weird pause. King is all, “did you just call him Jeff Jarrett?” (because the situation is unavoidable), and Vince just goes the “be that as it may” route and deflects it. You know what’s a great way to tell your audience that a cool new wrestler WASN’T created purely to spite an older, established star who just left the company? Call him that guy.
Anyway, this might be a little severe — a little Salvatore severe — but Salvatore Sincere might be the worst wrestler ever. He’s not the objective worst, just to say it, and there have been worse gimmicks, but man, there is NOTHING to the guy. Take Tom Zenk. Now, take away all his wrestling ability and give him an ethnic gimmick that doesn’t even commit to the stereotypes. Have him do headlocks and make kissy faces at the crowd. What’s his character development? “I tell people I like them, but I don’t really mean it.” It’s like Dolph Ziggler’s “introduce myself to everyone” gimmick in a fedora. When your character arc ends with JOHNNY B. BADD calling you a phony, you know you’re doing it wrong.
Double J gets the win over Sincere with a pump-handle slam, and I spend the entire match wondering why “Desert Storm vet from a famous wrestling family” was a worse idea than “hip-hop dancing guy in country-music clothes.” Although I guess when he finally caught on it was as “hip-hop dancing guy who fell out of a 1997 Spencer’s Gifts,” so what do I know?
Best: Jim Ross Continues To Be Accurately Sick Of Raw
Crush squashing Aldo Montoya and debilitating him with the Armpit Punch is every bit as bad as you’d think. They’ve already kinda given up on Crush and are moving Clarence Mason to Faarooq (so Faarooq can become a militant separatist and eventually form the Nation of Domination, which ends up doing WWE a lot of favors), and the “jailbird” thing is Exposed! Pro Wrestling’s Greatest Secrets at best. Crush’s gimmick might as well have been ripping autograph books in half and shoving down Stunt Grannies.
That said, the match is singlehandedly saved by Pissed-Off, Vindictive Jim Ross, who spends three minutes basically RiffTraxing the match and throwing Vince under the bus at every opportunity. He snidely comments about having to work “preliminary matches” instead of calling the main event, and complains about how obvious the result will be. He asks if Aldo’s jock-strap face was Vince’s idea, and says Vince wouldn’t be affected by the heart punch. What’s retroactively great about Ross is that he wins — the show ends up changing, Vince is forced to come to terms with everyone knowing he’s the boss, Vince (the character) is more or less proven to be heartless and JR ends up anchoring the show for years. Fake Razor Ramon and Fake Diesel weren’t great, but they may have accidentally forced WWF to realize how desperately stupid they were being about a lot of stuff.
Ironic Best: The Karate Fighters Tournament Has Begun
I’m not going to front: I love the Karate Fighters tournament.
If you aren’t familiar with Karate Fighters, they were a reinterpretation of Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots that got … I don’t want to say “popular” in the ’90s, but they were a thing. Instead of having two robots attacked to a ring, you had a little controller with an action figure on the end, and you could make it spin around in circles. Someone else had their own, and you just kinda poke them at each other until one falls off. The spinning is “doing karate.”
WWE had this annual Karate Fighters tournament where they’d pair up the most absurd people — Sid faces Marlena, for example — and build weird stories around it. Jerry Lawler tried to cheat in the previous year’s tournament by putting tape on his Karate Fighter’s feet. The entire thing was conducted in a mysterious stone temple, so imagine Lucha Underground if everyone but Konnan, Vampiro and Dario Cueto were tiny toys.
The first match in round one of the 1996 tournament is Mr. Perfect vs. Phineas Godwinn. Perfect wins when he says “HEY LOOK, IT’S DOLLY PARTON” and Phineas gets distracted. Perfect’s victory speech of, “You dumb hillbilly” is MAGICAL. I kinda love the Karate Fighters tournaments, you guys. They’re at least twice as good as Double J vs. Salvator Sincere.
Worst: The Smoking Gunns Explode
The storied first singles push of Billy Gunn begins with a match against Freddie Joe Floyd. It’s terrible (and ends with one of the worst guillotine leg drops you’ll ever see), but it almost works. I feel like the Smoking Gunns breakup would’ve been cool and heated if we’d ever gotten to know them as individuals, or if either of them was worth a singles push.
Here’s what’s going on: Sunny shows up to do commentary dressed as Sexy Dusty Rhodes in an all-red leather ensemble, and Billy’s convinced that they’re dating. Or something. She puts him over on commentary, saying he’s got a “great smile” and that she’d consider managing him if he won some championship gold, but that’s all she’s interested in. Billy’s distracted by her during the match, which brings out Bart, and they get into a shouty almost-pull-apart over her. The formal breakup happened on Superstars, I guess, and this is the aftermath.
Right, so if we’d had some time to learn who Bart Gunn was besides “the Smoking Gunn with brown hair,” we might be able to side with him here. His brother ditched him to hook up with an ex-manager who isn’t even really interested in hooking up with him, so you’d want to see Bart get righteous and kick Billy’s ass, right? Only, it’s Bart Gunn. Wanting 1996 Bart Gunn to beat up 1996 Billy Gunn is like hoping The Ascension breaks up and feuds. It might be interesting for a minute, but all you’re left with is Konnor vs. Viktor. And I swear, either Ascension dude could throw a better top rope leg drop than Billy Gunn in jeans.
Best/Worst: Every 1996 Shawn Michaels Match, Again
The main event of the show is Shawn Michaels vs. The British Bulldog, and it’s every 1996 Shawn Michaels match. Technically solid-to-brilliant in a very mid-90s WWF way for the most part, followed by someone wandering in and causing a disqualification. I feel like every major Michaels match ended this way. Even the Iron Man Match where he won the championship kinda ended like that. It was 0-0 after 60 minutes so the champ retained, but Gorilla Monsoon showed up and restarted the match for no reason. Shawn/Mankind was like that. Shawn/Vader had two restarts. Every Raw match against a competent opponent has that opponent’s friends showing up to screw it up. It’s all the worst parts of 2015 Raw. The wrestling is great, the wrestlers are great, but the finish is trying too hard to protect everyone and just farts on the rest of it.
Here, Michaels and Davey Boy tear it up for like 10 minutes until Shawn sets up for Sweet Chin Music, and Owen Hart leaves commentary to grab his feet in clear view of the referee. That causes a dopey DQ, which brings out Sid, and they push the “Sid and Shawn are FRIENDS” thing as hard as possible. They even do a big double fist bump, which is the ULTIMATE in 1996 WWF Friendship. We don’t have much longer until Sid throws Shawn at the ground and takes his title, which [infinite coughing noises] is not suspiciously timed with Bret Hart’s return whatsoever.
Best: Stone Cold, All Night Long And All Weekend
Now, the thing worth watching.
The selling point of the episode is that Bret Hart is here live via satellite from his home in Calgary, and Stone Cold Steve Austin is live from WWE HQ. Austin spends the ENTIRE EPISODE complaining about this, interrupting nearly every backstage segment to interject and explain why he’s pissed. Dok Hendrix tries to go over the Survivor Series card, so Austin barges in, threatens him and says he’s gonna kick Bret Hart’s ass. They cut to him again, and Austin isn’t happy with how he’s being counted down. He doesn’t want to go to commercial, he wants to kick Bret Hart’s ass through a video screen. They have technical difficulties, and Austin thinks it’s a conspiracy against him to protect Bret. It’s FANTASTIC.
The money here is that on Superstars, Brian Pillman tried to hype up the newly-announced Austin vs. Hart match at Survivor Series. In doing so, he used Bret Hart’s nickname — “the best there is, the best there was, and the best there ever will be.” Austin interpreted this introduction as Pillman making his interview time about Bret, so he attacked his best friend, beat him in the leg with his own cane and crushed his ankle in a steel chair. This is now commonly known as “Pillmanizing” someone, and here’s your origin. Austin is so wound-up that even a mildly positive mention of the guy he wants to fight results in him brutally ending you.
That’s not even the end of it. Austin keeps Pillman from going to the hospital by accosting the ambulance driver, stealing the keys and throwing them down a hallway. He says they’ll have to take Pillman to “the cemetery.” Vince says they’re gonna have Pillman on the show next week live from his home, which causes Austin to complain that they can go live from Bret’s home and live from Pillman’s home, but not his, and he’s got to travel up from Texas just go get TV time. It’s a legit concern in an insane sociopath sort of way, and Austin says he’ll go to Pillman’s home, too. He does, and the result is one of the most shocking, surprising and game-changing segments in show history.
If you haven’t picked up on it yet, Bret Hart’s appearance has turned Stone Cold Steve Austin into the thing that makes “Stone Cold Steve Austin.” He’s the fulcrum.
Best: The Brilliance Of Austin Vs. Bret
The best part of the entire thing is how WWE presents Austin and Hart. Austin is this crazy, violent dude who feels like the world’s against him. He flips out on the makeup lady and threatens the production team. He just injured the only guy in the company who had a positive relationship with him. Meanwhile, Bret Hart is this relaxed, confident, non-plussed Canadian guy sitting at home in front of a fireplace PETTING CATS. He doesn’t care. He says Austin’s great and he’ll be happy to wrestle him, but he’s been here before and faced “giants,” so there’s no reason for him to get all worked up about it. His mind’s on the WWF Championship. Meanwhile, Austin is basically handgun in human form. It’s a crazy dichotomy, and maybe the best WWF’s ever pulled off. One guy is comfortable and thinks he’s been through the worst. The other has never had the best, and is hungry to destroy anything above him. F*cking brilliant.
Two other notable things happen:
1. Austin gets mad at the segment ending before he’s ready, and beats up a production guy. That gets the cops called, and marks the first time in Raw history that Stone Cold Steve Austin gets carried about by police. It’s not the last. Even when he’s forced to leave the building, he’s confronting the cops in the parking lot. He’s instantly the most dangerous wrestler you’ve ever seen, and all it took was a boring guy petting cats to really set him off.
2. Austin establishes the basis for the entire Stone Cold/Vince McMahon relationship: Vince is the boss, whether he’ll admit it or not, and Austin is the hottest act in the company. Vince knows he can make money off Austin, so he’ll make excuses for him and keep him around even if he hates him and he’s a pain in the ass. Without that story point, Austin vs. McMahon isn’t possible. Without that, it’d make no sense for Vince to do anything but fire and blackball the guy for attacking him, stealing his stuff, pouring cement in his cars, whatever. Vince HAS to keep Austin around, because the crowd loves Austin, and without the crowd Vince is nothing.
It feels good to be writing positively about this show. Join us next week when there is cursing and gunfire.