Vintage Best And Worst: WWF Royal Rumble 1997

Hi guys…David D. here again with the return of the Vintage Best and Worst. We had a little break to recover from the year that was 1996 and we’re hitting 1997 right in its happy place.

Also, we’ll have Racist Gimmicks Of The Week coming soon.

In the meantime, follow me on Twitter and be my friend. I like friends.

Worst: This Is Basically Wrestling For People Who Think Wrestling Is For Dumb People

The opening vignette for the Hunter Hearst Helmsley vs. Goldust feud is basically everything a non-wrestling fan thinks of when they think of wrestling. So basically it’s a TNA angle. In the 30-second segment we get HHH stealing Marlena Peppy Le Pew style for what we can only assume is an old-fashioned harmless forced sex act and Jerry Lawler asking Goldust if he’s “queer.” To Goldust’s credit, he sells the accusation perfectly as if it’s the most outrageous thing he’s ever heard. To nobody else’s credit, the denial is supposed to be his big babyface turn. “No, no, guys, I just pretend to be gay so you can feel comfortable cheering me now.” You watch something like this and realize just how progressive the genre is now compared to just two decades ago.

…I think.

Worst: Get Colin Raye Out Of Here

Hunter Hearst Helmsley and Goldust spent most of 1996 carrying Marc Mero’s carcass through meaningless In Your House undercards. So it’s nice they get rewarded with a long match to open up the Rumble so we can see them tear it up. The match is going well (thought I wish they’d had a conventional match instead of a No Holds Barred one because they deserved to really show off how good they’d gotten as a mid-card feud) until they cut to a mid-match interview on one of the four biggest pay-per-views of the year. Is it for a backstage fight? An important storyline development?

Nope. To interview country music sensation (?) Colin Raye. If you want to know where wrestling was in 1997, then look no further than the fact country music star Colin Raye was a big enough star to show up on a WWE program that he merited any sort of recognition. Let alone recognition during a goddamn pay-per-view match. This is pre-Attitude Era WWF popularity. By contrast, just one month ago there were so many celebrities at ringside WWE basically just railed off the names and kept it going.

Here’s my favorite Colin Raye song.

Coincidentally it’s the first Colin Raye song you see on Youtube. Coincidentally.

Worst: Gang Warfare

I know I do a column about racist stuff and I could probably dedicate an installment to Farooq vs. Ahmed Johnson so I’ll keep it short(ish) and sweet. First, let’s talk about how much better at everything Farooq is than Johnson. Farooq is actually saying something and making a point: that being he’s tired of White guys winning championships and Black wrestlers getting held down. Ahmed Johnson’s rebuttal is “YAAAAARGH *adjusts fanny pack*” I regret not putting Ahmed Johnson on my list of worst, insufferable guys from 1996 because hot damn.

Beyond all of this, though, my gripe with the Ahmed/Farooq feud is the way it’s treated by commentary. Let’s break down how the feud works: Ahmed Johnson and Farooq don’t like each other. Occasionally, one guy will interfere in another guy’s match. Sometimes one guy swill fight the other guy in the locker room. Basically it’s every other feud ever. But for some reason, every time these two would get into a brawl, Jim Ross would be like “this is a STREET FIGHT” “this is TURF WAR” “THEY’RE TAKING IT TO THE STREETS.” They’re literally in the middle of textbook headlocks and Ross is calling this a back alley fight. WWE: Where It’s Wrestling Unless The Black Guys Do It.

Worst: Let’s Discuss Ahmed Johnson’s Trunks

And now, an important discussion about booty meats.

I realize that I watch a show where men barely wearing clothes get sweaty and pretend to hit each other to our unending delight. They put crotches in each other’s faces and basically participate in 20 hours of homoeroticism every week. So I understand that what I’m about to say is splitting hairs a bit.

But I really can’t take Ahmed Johnson’s trunks. Usually wrestler tights are supposed to be, you know, tight. They’re supposed to hold the butt and kibbles & bits snug. But Ahmed is wearing some sort of stripper-y silk trunks and his butt meats are jiggling freely like a cup of Jello on the dashboard. I don’t understand why he’s essentially wearing tights from the “Vivrant Thing” video and I don’t understand why he’s wrestling with a cheek perpetually exposed, digging his drawls out of his ass after every bump. It’s hard to watch.

Also, Ahmed Johnson isn’t good at the wrestling.

Best: Undertaker vs. Vader

By 1997, Undertaker wrestling guys bigger than him had become a trope similar to “how are they going to get the 400 pound guy out of the Rumble?” On paper, it seems like an arduous task but the 400 pound guy never wins and Undertaker always knows how to beat up the guy who’s bigger than him. This match, though, is pretty damn close to a dream match that got squandered. Plus, Vader was still suffering from having his soul snatched by Shawn Michaels at Summerslam, so the match wasn’t as great as it should have been.

Still, we get some hossiness and a brawl…that’s unfortunately the third brawl in a row on the pay-per-view. I really wish these two could work an extended program (they have a kick-ass casket match on the Network from a MSG house show), but we still get something decent.

Until the end.

Worst: Bitching Wrestlers

I’m going to give the storytelling here a semi-pass because I know what it leads to. But it seems like the move to multi-faceted personalities basically meant wrestlers should just bitch about things.

We already have Bret Hart being a heel because he’s complaining about the times he gets cheated out of matches. Then we get the Undertaker transitioning from the un-dead to caring about win/loss records all of a sudden to the point of bitching about it. Remember, this is the same guy who eliminated himself from the Royal Rumble so he could choke Macho Man more. So now he cares about a win to the point of standing around and complaining to referees?

In 1997, most characters are getting to the point of having more than one motivation, but right now it’s a lot of being angry about bad guys cheating.

Worst: You Can’t Just Throw Mexicans In The Ring And Call It A Great Match

I get it. I really do. WCW is basically putting on two-hour shows every Monday night and only having to come up with an hour of creative because the first hour is just great wrestlers putting on great matches. And hey, they’re all wearing masks and have tans. So, in Vince McMahon’s inability to understand nuance and anything beyond lowest common denominator, he figured that if he threw a bunch of luchadores in a ring in San Antonio then the crowd would be behind it.

Even though the match wasn’t promoted. And it’s about 15 minutes too long. Contrast this match to the NXT showcase on RAW last week. Last week, we got four guys wrestle an eight-minute match that had some flippy things and the crowd got behind it by the end. This six-man match is all pretty slow and the wrestlers are nowhere near Rey Mysterio and Ultimo Dragon. So they die a slow, painful death in front of America…and Texas.

Hey, WWF, #NotAllLuchadores.

Worst: Ahmed Johnson…Again

If I were ever allowed to interview a wrestler, the one question I’d ask would be about who is the worst person to have a multi-man match with. There are just some wrestlers who you can tell get confused and panic. I don’t know what the absolute hell he’s doing and it’s mercy that he eliminates himself by jumping over the top rope to beat go after Farooq.

Which, let’s discuss. I’ve always thought it would have made more sense for the Royal Rumble to have a countout clock for people who go through the ropes. Like, if you go through the middle ropes and brawl in the back, after two minutes you’re eliminated. It’d make it unnecessary for a guy to do the unrealistic thing of jumping over the top rope to run after someone. Because the theory of jumping over the top rope is that he’s so mad that he’s not thinking about the Rumble…but he’s clearly not so mad that he doesn’t make it a point to deliberately eliminate himself by taking the most impractical way out of the match.

It would also be cool if Kofi Kingston had to jump from the Titantron (they still call it that, right?) to the ring and got to the ring with a second left. Where was I? Oh yeah, Ahmed Johnson’s butt meat. No…?

I will admit that the crowd went crazy when he finally hit Farooq with a two-by-four so they were at least invested in it.

Best: Enter The Danger Zone

As I’ve mentioned before, one of the nicer aspects of watching these events in order on the WWE Network is that I get to watch the Austin build and all of its nuances. History tells us it’s King Of The Ring then Tyson then McMahon then automobile havoc. And while those moments are all obviously huge, it’s the moments in between that really made me a fan. Like his appearance on Livewire or the No Holds Barred match vs. Bret on RAW or this match right here. This Royal Rumble is maybe my favorite and it’s all because Austin is in his prime right at this moment and he dominates. But not in the unrealistic and getting-sort-of-annoying way Roman Reigns is doing it.

While Reigns is basically Thor, using thunder and god powers to clear everyone out of the ring, Austin is more Wolverine, clawing his way through the roster. Every guy who comes in the ring gives Austin a fight, chipping away at him and making him weaker throughout. He looks more like a guy using sheer toughness to eliminate guys left and right instead of just unrealistically powering up and tossing 12 guys. It takes all two minutes to get rid of Henry Godwin. Road Dogg gets some offense in. Luchador guys are…still here…okay?

Austin plays this perfectly. He’s worn out but too proud to act exhausted and beat down. He’s knocking guys out, checking his watch, doing push-ups and waiting. Because he knows he’s the sh*t and that Bret can’t come to ring until it’s his turn. You want to hate him, but he’s too much of a badass to get your flu anger. This is what it means to be a “tweener” and Austin is making magic happen here.

Worst: Bart Gunn Lulz

Bart Gunn hopped in the ring to be one of Austin’s victims and managed to botch three moves in 30 seconds. I honestly think Butterbean hit him so hard that it retroactively made all of his video library footage look like he was wrestling with a concussion. No wonder WWF thought Billy Gunn was a star. Next to Bart, he looks like Lou Thesz.

Best: This Roster

Here are the last nine guys in the Rumble: Terry Funk, The Undertaker, Rocky Maivia, Earth-2 Kane, Vader, Austin, Bret Hart, Mankind coughHenryGodwincough. And HHH had just gotten eliminated a few minutes earlier.

That’s one-third of the Rumble match. And every one of these guys is either a Hall Of Famer or Henry Godwin. This is a jacked roster. Some of them are at their peaks (Hart, ‘Taker’s first peak), others are righhhht there (Austin, Hunter) and some are green but you can tell they have it (Rocky) and the other guy is Henry Godwin. In the end, they pull together an insane ending sequence and set up several WrestleMania matches, or at least what would have been WrestleMania matches if Shawn Michaels hadn’t lost his smile.

Best: Shawn Michaels’ Unofficial Heel Turn

Michaels vs. Sid didn’t do much for me. It was a slightly better version of their Survivor Series match, but it’s significant because it’s Michaels’ last big babyface match he’d have for five and a half years. Even here, it’s hard to sell HBK as a babyface as Sid gets a visual pin and Michaels uses the camera to get the cheap win. Sure, he plays the crowd and does his dance, but this is unmistakably heel Shawn Michaels. And Bret Hart was totally right all along.

Worst: HBK’s BFF…izzle?

It was creepy enough on the Shawn Michaels documentary when his friend was saying he thought Shawn was pointing directly at him after the match. But now he’s being all extra hug-gy and handsy like he wants the world to know he’s Shawn Michaels’ only real close friend. We get it, guy. You know the famous person. Act like you’ve been there before. Weirdo.