Previously on the vintage Best and Worst of WWF Monday Night Raw: We got the ill-fated “Royal Rumble Raw,” where Vince wanted to show the Rumble match in its entirety, people got mad, and USA Network ended up with two hours of grainy house show footage where nothing happened and everything ended in a run-in. This week, we make up for that.
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And now, the vintage Best and Worst of WWF Thursday Raw Thursday for Feb. 13, 1997.
Before We Begin
Despite them saying “Thursday Raw Thursday” about 60,000 times in the first five minutes of the show, the episode’s formal title — if we’re going by the graphic, at least — is, “Thursday Raw! Thursday Live!” Wrestles on contingency? No, money down!
If you’re wondering why Raw is happening on Thursday, there are two good reasons:
1. Nitro was pulling Raw’s pants down and spray-painting it in the ratings, so WWF was trying a two-hour Thursday show that could run unopposed, get more eyes on the product and kinda-sorta test the waters for a permanent move away from what at this point had become a years-long brow-beating.
2. USA Network preempted the episode because a bunch of really nice-looking dogs were having a tennis tournament.
Here’s the good news: after almost a year of doing these columns and typing, “wait until we get to Thursday Raw Thursday, that’s when Raw finally starts feeling like Raw,” we’re finally there.
Best: Aw Here It Goes
So what does that mean? “Raw finally starts feeling like Raw?”
Well, here’s Triple H being referred to as “cerebral” …
… and there’s the first time The Rock talks about “the people.”
This week’s opener is about 15 minutes (!) of Hunter Hearst Helmsley vs. Rocky Maivia, aka Triple H vs. The Rock, a rivalry that’s still pretty much continuing in some form or another to this day. The match is built around Hunter clearly being the better wrestler but lacking a “killer instinct” and refusing to put Rocky away when he’s got him beat, and Rocky catching him in a small package and pinning him to win his first Intercontinental Championship.
There’s so much going on here that affects where these characters go in the future, and how they become big stars. Having a “killer instinct” is sort of Triple H’s defining characteristic, isn’t it? I don’t know if I can explain it as eloquently as Max Landis and 25 minutes of models, but Triple H has been eternally motivated by his belief that he’s the very best wrestler ever, even if nobody — including himself — truly believes it. He faked it until he made it, then kept faking it when he didn’t have to for like 20 years.
A lot of that comes from this early, enduring rivalry with Rocky Maivia, a dorky Blue Chipper with pineapple hair who f*cks around and ends up arguably WWE’s biggest star ever and also the richest, most beloved and most handsome celebrity in the world. It’s such a lasting blow to his (at least fictionalized) self-esteem. It just keeps going, and keeps getting worse. Rock’s like, “hey, no, it’s fine, I’ll show up to WrestleMania and wave, I gotta get back to my Fast & Furious movies that make a billion dollars each.” Triple H is like, “I LOVE THIS BUSINESS, LOOK AT THIS INSTAGRAM OF ME AND KEVIN OWENS.” It’s great.
Also, this is the beginning of EVERYTHING for The Rock. Raw needed something “shocking” to open the unopposed Thursday show, so they had Rock take the IC title only a few days before Helmsley was scheduled to defend it at Final Four. The crowd here loves it, but as the weeks and months go on, WWF crowds stop buying this hokey, awkward dude winning and smiling all the time and turn on him to the point of chanted death threats. That turns him into The Rock. If Raw hadn’t been aired on Thursday and Vince hadn’t needed something shocking to happen, Rocky wouldn’t have won the Intercontinental Championship here, and (in theory) wouldn’t have been pushed down fans’ throats hard enough for them to want him to die. Triple H would’ve just defended the belt against Ahmed Johnson at Final Four, and the Triple H vs. Rock rivalry wouldn’t have started. Everything would be different.
Get ready for this speech again later in the column when we talk about Shawn Michaels. Bret Hart and Stone Cold Steve Austin. It’s crazy how important this, “whoops, let’s call an audible”-ass Raw is to the future and identity of the World Wrestling Federation.
Sunny doesn’t have much to do these days, but (1) she’s actually on this episode, and (2) she’s ring announcing in what looks like somebody’s work undershirt stretched into a dress, so I’m giving it a Best. She can’t find her notes and realizes she left them in her bra, and Vince McMahon has a Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite moment where he travels space and time through a corridor of bra and panties matches, kiddie pools full of gravy and the Miller Lite catfight girls headlining a WrestleMania.
Worst: The Head Bangers
Sisters of Love no more!
Brother Love’s crossdressing pun nun tag team have been repackaged as “The Head Bangers,” one of the most comically notable and forever illogical tag teams of the Attitude Era. First of all, nobody involved in this knows what headbanging is, or what it’s supposed to look like. Instead of two dudes with long hair, whipping it around, we got THESE goobers:
Yes, the Head Bangers are two completely bald guys in kilts who NEVER HEADBANG. They don’t have any clue how to do it. Their version of it is to remain perfectly still, then SUDDENLY SKANK, then suddenly stop. It’s supposed to look like they’re moshing, but the closest they ever get is the Milli Vanilli chest bump. Eventually they start wearing Madonna cone bras. You know, just like Metallica did for their Ride The Lightning tour.
Anyway, the garbage-ass Head Bangers face the only team in the world that could make them look great: Bob “Sparky Plugg” Holly and Aldo “Euthanasia Suddenly Makes Sense” Montoya. The Head Bangers get the win with their finisher, which is supposed to be a powerbomb/leg drop combo but gets horribly mis-timed so it’s a powerbomb and Aldo getting kicked in the temple. Join us again in 19 years when these f*ckers are still wrestling.
Worst: Tell Me A Lie
And now, ladies and gentlemen, the moment you’ve all been waiting for.
Thursday Raw Thursday opens with a somber video package announcing that due to injury — that sound you hear is everyone who has ever watched wrestling suddenly coughing in unison — Shawn Michaels will be giving up the WWF Championship instead of facing Sid for it as advertised. WWF would NEVER bait-and-switch you like Nitro!
A little ways into the show, we get Vince McMahon and Gorilla Monsoon in the ring looking like a dad and a principal at a parent/teacher conference. They break the news to the live crowd and bring out Shawn, who gets what feels like half an hour to shovel the most rank bullsh*t you’ve ever heard on a wrestling show. The short version: he’s injured, but also wrestling just isn’t any fun for him anymore, and now that he’s rich and got to do all the cool rich guy stuff he dreamed about when he was little, he has to go “find himself” and his LOST SMILE instead of taking a f*cking powerbomb.
If you’re reading this and you’re like, “c’mon, Shawn Michaels is great, I’m sure he was going through some tough personal stuff and needed to step away to heal himself” or whatever, keep in mind that this happens a week after Raw went to Canada and Shawn got booed while Bret Hart stood on his championship and made him look like a total chump.
For confirmation of that, Shawn’s goodbye speech about how much wrestling has meant to him makes a point to mention all the people who’ve been getting cheered over him.
Wrestling isn’t fun for Shawn anymore because OTHER PEOPLE WHO AREN’T SHAWN MICHAELS ARE DOING WELL. He tries to say that all those other guys getting cheered over him is great for the future, because that’ll be great for WWF fans, but yeah, Shawn Michaels is the present but Bret Hart, Sid and the Undertaker are the future? What a great group of scrappy Young Boys!
The speech on its own is intensely up its own ass, but extra insufferable if you factor in the previous several months of Shawn growing visibly bothered by not being the coolest and most popular guy on the show, and the fact that he shows up again a few months later after WrestleMania season is over. You see, all signs were pointing toward Shawn defending the title against Bret Hart at WrestleMania 13 and, in theory, returning that forever-tainted-in-my-brain Mania 12 victory. But instead of Shawn losing to Bret — or even losing to Sid here, to set up a Shawn vs. Bret match where he’d still have to lose but not lose a title — Shawn takes a knee.
Like The Rock’s IC title win, this changes everything. It looked like Stone Cold Steve Austin was being positioned as Bret’s first post-Mania challenger for the title, but there was no way they were gonna give Austin the belt then, and things might’ve been completely different for him. Instead, Austin/Hart gets bumped up to Mania, they put on an undisputed five-star match featuring some of the most iconic imagery in WWE history, a double-turn happens and Austin spends the next year skyrocketing to the main event of WrestleMania 14. Against, uh, Shawn Michaels. And if the Austin vs. Hart Foundation story doesn’t happen, Austin vs. Owen doesn’t happen either, and Austin doesn’t get his neck broken. That directly changes the character as we knew it in its prime, as that was always Austin’s one true spot of vulnerability. Shawn bailing makes Bret paranoid and gets him playing politics, demanding story changes like Owen Hart and the British Bulldog retaining the Tag Team Championship at WrestleMania to make the Hart Foundation angle better, and all the weird pieces start to fall into place for what goes down in Montreal at the end of the year. If Vince doesn’t screw Bret, Vince doesn’t become “Mr. McMahon” and Steve Austin never gets the rival he needs to become the biggest star in the world. Austin and Rock don’t headline three WrestleManias, because Austin isn’t Austin and Rock isn’t Rock.
EVERYTHING is different, and it’s all for want of a smile.
Look at that face. He’s doing the math in his head.
So, what does Bret Hart think of this?
Best: LOL Bret, Or
Worst: The Nation Of Domination Won’t Stop Being Terrible
The announce team interviews Bret via picture-in-picture during an Owen and Bulldog vs. the Nation match, and it’s a combination of the world’s greatest “bitch, please” faces and diplomatic dialogue ever. Bret is like, “we’re all worse for the loss of Shawn Michaels, nobody works harder than Shawn Michaels, I hope he’s back soon but if he hung up his boots for good we wish him the best in his future endeavors.” And in his face, he’s like, “I WISH A MOTHERF*CKER WOULD.” It’s GREAT.
The match is the opposite of that, because Crush could’ve stood 50 feet from Bret/Austin at WrestleMania and turned it into sh*t by proxy. It’s the same story as last week, with Owen faking a knee injury (cough) to get out of having to defend his championship (COUGH). Man, did Shawn get the idea for avoiding Bret by watching Owen?
Sadly this isn’t even the only terrible Nation segment of the week. Was there ever only one?
Undertaker wrestles Savio Vega, and the highlight is Taker going for a Fame-Asser out of nowhere and just kinda Banzai Dropping Savio’s entire spine. Look at this:
That’s seriously the best moment.
Undertaker wins with a chokeslam, causing the entire Nation of Domination to nWo their lousy asses into the ring and attack him. He’s saved by (get this) Ahmed Johnson, who forgot his wooden board backstage but brought DEADLY KARATE KICKS. Ahmed and Undertaker clear the ring of several tiny white guys in giant jackets, but there’s still some animosity between them, because they’ve got attitudes and WWF faces are generally just time-displaced 5-year olds in their underpants who are constantly seeing other people for the first time in their lives.
Best: Thursday Raw Thursday Is Brought To You By Union Western Union
It’s the day before Valentine’s Day, so Jerry Lawler sends money to his mother via Western Union (so she can have enough money to buy him a Valentine’s Day present). Western Union is the fastest way to send money! Man, Western Union finding out Venmo exists must’ve been like when travel agents realized what an Internet was.
Best: So, Back To Bret
After Shawn Michaels loses his smile and Jerry Lawler Wester Unions 200 bucks to a teen so she can buy a train ticket or whatever, Gorilla Monsoon announces that the #1 contender match at Final Four will now be for the WWF Championship. It’s the “only fair” thing he can think to do, which hilariously leaves Sid just kinda standing around with his dick in his hand despite having signed a contract for his WWF Championship rematch tonight. Note: It works out okay for him.
Anyway, Sid ends up wrestling Stone Cold Steve Austin instead of Shawn Michaels, and they have a shockingly good match until Bret runs in and starts punching and headbutting Austin for no reason. Well, it looked like he was going for a Sharpshooter during the match, so maybe that was it. Nothing Bret’s afraid of more than someone else doing a Sharpshooter to him, am I right folks?
Sid takes exception to Bret’s interference, and they super telegraph the eventual Bret vs. Sid match that happens the night after Final Four. Hey, they’re figuring this out on the fly on a Thursday, we’ll cut them some slack.
Bret ends up main-eventing the episode against Vader (sorry, Sid!), and Austin tries to return the favor by showing up in the balcony and distracting him. It works for a minute — Vader’s able to gain an advantage and go for a moonsault — but the moonsault misses, and Vader eats sh*t. Bret covers him, gets the three, and makes Austin even madder. So mad, in fact, that he tries to CLIMB OVER THE RAILING AND JUMP ON HIM FROM LIKE FIFTY FEET AWAY ON A BALCONY.
And that’s where we end Raw. To recap:
1. Rocky Maivia is the new Intercontinental Champion, which sets into motion the story that turns him into The Rock, help substantiate Triple H’s lifelong inferiority complex and cause a totally unnecessary title change on Nitro in response (more on that later).
2. Shawn Michaels has vacated the WWF Championship and is totally retired, because sadness.
3. Shawn’s temp retirement speeds up the Bret Hart vs. Steve Austin story, giving them a WrestleMania classic they wouldn’t have gotten otherwise and causing the match that double-turns them, turns Austin into a colossal tweener star and makes Bret seem like a total paranoid jerk. MONTREAL COMIN’.
4. Final Four is now incredibly important, as the four-way is now for the WWF Championship, and what happens there will shape the now malleable-as-f*ck WrestleMania 13 card.
5. Western Union is the fastest way to send money.
Every Raw after this is this important, right?