Wrestling Review: WWF SummerSlam 1996 feat. Shawn Michaels vs. Vader

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WWF SummerSlam 1996

A bit of context for this one: at the time of WWF SummerSlam 1996, I was largely watching Pay-Per-Views only (and in most cases, In Your House wasn’t being shown in the UK, so it was really just the Big Five) and only occasional Superstars episodes (Raw was shown at random time slots at this point, so I didn’t become a regular Raw viewer until spring 1997). This meant I wasn’t aware of Raw happenings, nor of the massive impact that WCW and, in particular, the nWo led by a heel-turning Hulk Hogan, was having on the wrestling industry. And since the internet had yet to take off, I was unaware of such backstage developments as Shawn Michaels’ fragile ego causing all sorts of problems, some stemming from the Curtain Call that I wouldn’t know anything about for several years. I had watched King Of The Ring but not in its entirety, partly because Bret Hart was off television for an extended break. And they seemed to really lack star names at this point; I mean, who was Steve Austin anyway?

I mention all this because, watched in a vacuum with no real expectations, SummerSlam 1996 is okay, though hardly a classic supershow. Watched with knowledge of all of these different elements, though, it becomes a different viewing experience altogether. For you realise how weak the WWF product had become, with very few household names, talent whose gimmicks felt passé, and rising stars who had yet to become headline attractions. At this point, the WWF had fallen into second place behind WCW, and the lethargic nature of the event demonstrates this, even to 8-year-old me who know nothing about the new World order. The show did include one major angle, and the two main events were exciting for different reasons, but overall SummerSlam 1996 sums up the state of the WWF at that point, not least because of one lightning rod moment involving Michaels during the last match and the extenuating circumstances relating to this incident.

Free For All Match
Stone Cold Steve Austin vs. Yokozuna

Austin was coming off his King Of The Ring triumph, but partly because his character conflicted with the family-friendly nature of WWF programming at that point (what with the swearing and finger-flipping), he was only featured in a smaller role initially. Here, he was on the Free For All, the original 30-minute Kick-Off Show available for US PPV customers, in action against Yokozuna. By this point, Yoko was massive even by his standards, to the point where it’s amazing that he could even walk (and yet he would get bigger in the future). The match didn’t last too long but it had a memorable ending: as Yoko went for the Banzai Drop, the ropes gave way and he crashed down, bringing the now-broken ropes with him to give Austin the pinfall win. Aside from a Survivor Series cameo, this was it for Yoko, while Austin would soon begin to call out Bret Hart, and the rest is history.

Owen Hart vs. Savio Vega

It would be Bret’s brother Owen that opened the PPV proper in the ring, in a somewhat underwhelming contest against Savio Vega. The match was okay but nothing more, and less than what you would expect from the first match of such a major card. This is partially because there was no real storyline reason for the match to take place, and because Savio didn’t exactly provide fans with excitement upon the announcement of him appearing in a bout (history would repeat itself at No Way Out 1998 when Savio replacing Shawn Michaels elicited groans on an all-time scale). At the time, Owen had revived the Cowboy Bob Orton cast gimmick, where he would wear a cast for a broken arm that would seemingly never heal. And it was the cast that decided the outcome of this match, with Vega being cracked with said bandage-wrapping before a Sharpshooter claimed the win for the King Of Harts. Savio’s night got worse afterwards when he was beaten up a bit by Justin Hawk Bradshaw, another newcomer who was some distance off finding his niche in the company.

WWF World Tag Team Championship Four Corners Match
The Smoking Gunns (C) vs. The Godwinns vs. The New Rockers vs. The Body Donnas

This was a first for the WWF, that being a four-corners contest. Shame it happened in a very boring contest. This had a lengthy set-up, with Sunny having originally abandoned The Body Donnas for The Godwinns, only to switch to The Gunns a few days later. In the meantime, The Bodies introduced their “man-ager” Cloudy, while The New Rockers found a way into the picture somehow. So, a four-way bout made sense, but the booking itself was sound enough. The only problem is that the action was not very interesting at all. Arguably the most interesting aspect of this is that Skip appeared, and didn’t get involved in the action besides standing on the apron, with a serious neck injury. WWE would never allow that today, even though he didn’t take any bumps. Skip would leave the WWF shortly afterwards, and Zip (Tom Prichard) would disappear fairly quickly as well. Zip was pinned by Billy Gunn, and Henry Godwinn pinned Leif Cassidy (the future Al Snow), leading to The Gunns and The Godwinns battling it out for the final fall. Interference by Sunny allowed Billy and Bart to retain, and afterwards Sunny unveiled a huge portrait of herself in a somewhat seductive (albeit still PG-friendly) pose. More on this later.

British Bulldog vs. Psycho Sid

This is an intriguing match on the surface, but with Sid having replaced Warrior one month prior, I wonder how interesting a Bulldog vs. Warrior bout on PPV would have been. Nevertheless, this is a short yet enjoyable match because Sid was hugely over with the Cleveland, Ohio audience. Indeed, despite having been considered a poor worker and a questionable promo man, Sid could get the fans invested as this content proves. Bulldog did catch the Psycho one with a Running Powerslam, but Sid brushed it aside and drilled Davey Boy Smith with a Chokeslam and a Powerbomb to a big pop. Jim Cornette and Clarence Mason had a bit of a tiff at ringside as part of a storyline that never really developed concerning Mason’s attempts to take over Cornette’s, erm, Camp. Bulldog was said to be a bit unhappy at this point, but for Sid, this was a big stride towards the best period of his entire, unusual career.

Goldust vs. Marc Mero

Back in June, Marlena and Sable had a minor interaction, which it is rumoured was supposed to lead to some sort of lesbian angle involving the two, which would have been a major point of controversy in the WWF of 1996. For that reason, it didn’t happen, but their two male charges would still go at it here. This was an uneventful bout, with the only highlight being the unveiling by Mero of his new major move The Wild Thing, a Shooting Star Press (which I believe had never been seen in a WWF ring before). One would assume that this would earn Mero a victory, but for some reason, Goldust kicked out and then won with the Curtain Call. More bizarrely, Mero would win the Intercontinental Championship a month or so later. What the hell? (Oh, and Mankind made a brief cameo for no reason whatsoever.)

Faarooq Asad & Sunny Promo

Sunny was back out next for an in-ring promo with her newest client Faarooq Asad (in his blue helmet phase). Faarooq had debuted the prior month and attacked IC Champion Ahmed Johnson, but in the process Ahmed was seriously injured, forcing him on the shelf and forcing the belt to be vacated, thus cancelling the planned Ahmed-Faarooq match. Here, Asad vowed to win the title anyway, though in his mind he should have already been given the title in Ahmed’s absence. This early version of Faarooq, and him losing the final of the upcoming IC Title tournament to Mero, are further evidence as to why the WWF was in the position that it was in during this period.

Jerry Lawler vs. Jake Roberts

Mark Henry was introduced on commentary prior to the match as a new WWF arrival shortly after that summer’s Olympics. His first port of call was to feud with The King, who at this point was insulting Jake Roberts with many near-the-knuckle jokes about his alcoholism, even bringing a bottle of Jim Beam to the ring. Jake went from the valiant veteran falling at Steve Austin’s feet to defending his name from accusations of alcohol abuse in two months. Lawler was very funny here I have to admit with some dark comedy that even babyface Mark laughed at on commentary. But not unlike the previous match, the obvious result of the good guy getting the win was ignored to pile further heat on the heel, with Lawler using the damn bottle to earn him the win. Afterwards, he tried pouring it down Jake’s throat, and at that point, Henry sent Lawler scurrying away. This had been the worst SummerSlam ever up to this point; thankfully, things would improve in the final two matches.

Boiler Room Brawl
The Undertaker vs. Mankind

This was the second PPV encounter between The Dead Man and his toughest opponent to date, this time in the fresh heel’s lair, the boiler room. The rules were that the first man to escape the room, make it to the ring and retrieve Paul Bearer’s urn would be victorious. This meant that the two combatants brawled in the darkened boiler room for more than 15 minutes, with small (well big, but small compared to an actual large-screen in an arena) television sets at ringside giving fans their only opportunity to see what was happening, and with very limited commentary for those watching at home; oh, and the TV feed went off at one point. It all sounds horrendous, but it was made up for by the fact that this was a brutal, hard-hitting, realistic fight that was thoroughly compelling and believable. At one point, Mankind took a huge fall off a ladder onto pipes on the solid concrete floor. Eventually, they left the boiler room, brawled backstage amidst onlooking wrestlers, and to ringside, where Taker brutally pulled the ropes back to send Mankind back-first onto the arena floor in a blood-curling splat. However, the real talking point came next, as Bearer shockingly refused to give his longtime charge the urn, and he began to laugh when Mankind caught Taker in the Mandible Claw. Even more surprisingly, Paul then slammed the urn onto Taker’s skull, and he then gave his personal possession to Mankind for the win. Paul Bearer had done the unthinkable and turned heel on Undertaker and left with Mankind, saying to the camera “I’m Paul Bearer, and you’re not!”

As noted, this was a major shock; nobody saw this coming at all. Everybody assumed that Undertaker would win, and the rivalry would be done here. Instead, Mankind was given an almighty boost, and he was rewarded with Undertaker’s manager of more than five years, breaking a bond that seemed inseparable. Undertaker was carried out by druids, though he did reappear the next night on Raw to interrupt a Mankind/Bearer promo. The after-effects of this were huge, because it would be eight months before Taker finally get revenge on Bearer by burning his face; Paul’s response was to hint at the arrival of what would become Undertaker’s brother, Kane, and it would be almost a full year before Taker and Kane collided. I’m not sure if all of this was the plan in August 1996, but needless to say that this was truly awesome, a shining light in a sea of WWF darkness. Undertaker is one of the more emotional characters to have an attachment to, despite the man himself being emotionless, which allowed this to have a major impact on the fans, in the same way that the end of his WrestleMania Streak would many years later.

WWF Championship Match
Shawn Michaels (C) vs. Vader

Shawn was accompanied by his trainer and mentor Jose Lothario, while Vader was backed up by Jim Cornette. This was an inevitable collision for the lighter, smaller Shawn, as he had an almighty mountain to topple here against the 400-pound Mastadon. And it followed the typical formula of the underdog trying to overcome the monster, though an early highlight saw Michaels launch himself onto Vader at ringside with a huge dive over the top rope. Back in the ring, there was a notable spot when Vader didn’t move quickly enough to avoid a Shawn top rope elbow drop, with Michaels petulantly kicking at him (more on that shortly). Shortly afterwards, Vader dropped Shawn ribs-first onto the ringside barricade, and won by countout, but this would mean that Shawn would retain the title. In response, Cornette got in the ring and called Shawn a coward before insisting that the match be restarted. Shawn compiled with Jim’s wishes, before using his tennis racket to attack Vader to cause a disqualification in Vader’s favour. Again this would allow Shawn to retain the gold, so again Jim asked (not so politely) for another restart, and again Shawn agreed to this suggestion. Michaels hit Sweet Chin Music, but Vader surprisingly kicked out; he went to hit his Vader Bomb, but instead he went one step higher for a moonsault, only for Michaels to roll out of the way, and a moonsault from Shawn was enough for the pinfall victory.

Shawn managed to retain, but only just. Here’s where we get to the controversial aspect of this match: the original plan was for Vader to win a rematch at Survivor Series and win the WWF Title, and retain it at In Your House: It’s Time (named after his catch phrase), before losing it back to Shawn at Royal Rumble. Instead, Sid stepped into the picture to replace Vader (and IYH 12 remained It’s Time). Why? The overwhelming theory, which is largely said to be factual, is that Shawn wasn’t happy with Vader due to this match and other instances where he felt that Vader’s offence was unnecessarily stiff (bear in mind that this was a Vader trademark), and so the change was made to put Sid into these upcoming major matches. Despite other title opportunities in the future, Vader’s career in the WWF would never recover. Though his performances had been a bit of a letdown due to a shoulder injury that he hadn’t fully recovered from, many sympathise with Vader, and many criticise Shawn for this, as well as how he kicked out at Vader for real during the main event, knowing that The Mastadon couldn’t retaliate. It all feels like Shawn treated the WWF as his personal playground, and that Shawn was causing all sorts of problems at a time when the company was struggling enough. This isn’t the most famous example of Shawn being a pain for Vince to deal with (that would be the ongoing Bret Hart situation), but it is a close second.

This is a strange show. The first five matches are mostly dull, with Sid’s reactions and Lawler’s one-liners being the highlights. We had a mixture of veterans doing what they could, stale talent with even staler gimmicks that just didn’t have it, and performers stuck somewhere in the middle. The double main event delivered plenty of action, though, and each of the two matches is memorable for different reasons, both good and bad. Amidst the lack of energy and excitement about the product as a whole, though, the early signs of Attitude are there, and some would say that we were already in the very early stages of the Attitude era. Between the violence of the Boiler Room Brawl, the sexuality of Sunny’s character (plus the soft sexual teases in the Free For All pool party), the Stone Cold character gathering momentum (albeit on the pre-show), the questionable back-story to Lawler vs. Roberts (which genuinely upset Jake) and other smaller elements (such as Goldust, whose character had been toned down a bit but was still present in a fairly featured role), it’s clear that while we’re still in the New Generation for this card, the traits of Attitude were starting to bubble beneath the surface. Shawn’s title reign, which had classic matches but to diminishing interest, in some respects forced the company to evaluate its presentation as a whole to determine why it had fallen behind WCW, and by the time he lost the gold, we were another step towards the company changing forever.

But we weren’t there yet on August 18 1996. And so I would suggest that WWF SummerSlam 1996 has a double main event that is worth watching but nothing else of major interest, unless you wish to examine the transition of the WWF product. I guess I wasn’t missing much back in the summer of 1996, then.