WWF WrestleMania VIII
WWF WrestleMania VIII occurred during what proved to be a transitional stage for the company. Many of the “Golden Age” favourites were starting to be phased out in favour of younger, smaller competitors, and a few of these legends would bow out at this very show. But the card still boasted a lot of old-school star power, and despite a multitude of problems off-screen, the WWF was still popular enough to draw tens of thousands of fans to the Hoosier Dome in Indianapolis, Indiana for one of the best Manias of the Hulkamania years. This show also marked the first appearance of the classic WrestleMania ring skirt and banners, as well as the debut of the then-innovative glowing entrance set which would be used for several years.
El Matador vs. Shawn Michaels
Kicking things off, we had the first major singles bout on PPV for Shawn Michaels, who had been involved in one of the most famous heel turns ever at the expense of Rockers partner Marty Jannetty a few months prior on the set of the Barber Shop talk show. In what will be a running theme of this review, the original plan was for Shawn and Marty to settle the score here at WrestleMania, but Jannetty was fired (one of many such occasions), though he would be back later in the year. Therefore, the veteran Tito Santana – now using the El Matador gimmick – stepped in to give Shawn a suitable opponent for the Mania stage. It was an enjoyable back-and-forth contest between two performers renowned for their in-ring prowess, and it allowed Shawn to pick up a credible singles victory, though it has been overhyped in recent years by WWE as this milestone career moment, when in reality there was still a fair amount of time before Michaels truly became one to watch in the WWF.
Before the second match, The Legion Of Doom returned after a short absence for an interview with Mean Gene Okerlund, where they introduced their old manager from JCP, Paul Ellering. The purpose was to establish that the LOD now had the brains of the operation at their side, and that they would forge ahead stronger than ever. Considering that Hawk was gone after SummerSlam, and with Rocko having been introduced in the interim period, their strategy didn’t really work.
The Undertaker vs. Jake Roberts
In match number two, Jake Roberts became victim number two to The Undertaker, who had recently turned babyface. Jake has stated that he was desperate to leave the WWF after he was denied a position on the booking team, so much so that he refused to compete in this bout unless he was granted a contract release. It’s amazing to think about considering that Jake had become one of the greatest heel characters ever just a few months earlier; in November 1991, he had set Lucifer the king cobra on Macho Man Randy Savage, and yet by April, he was out of the door. Nevertheless, this match served its purpose, with Jake looking typically evil (and check out the naked woman having her private parts covered by a snake on his tights) and Taker being – well, he was also a dark character, but he had yet to evolve into the Lord Of Darkness, and so here, he was the less psychotic of the two men. Taker also looked strong by surviving not one but two DDT’s, before Tombstoning Roberts on the ringside mats to earn his second of many WrestleMania wins. As a side-note, a rumoured initial booking plan was for Jake to resolve his feud with Savage inside a Steel Cage, with Taker likely to then battle Sid Justice instead. We’ll come back to the alternate WM VIII card later.
WWF Intercontinental Championship Match
Rowdy Roddy Piper (C) vs. Bret Hart
Now, we come to one of the real highlights of the card. Like Shawn Michaels, Bret Hart was viewed as a potential future superstar, but unlike Michaels, Hart had already been Intercontinental Champion, which at the time was a major step towards the main event level. The Mountie had been a transitional titleholder between Bret and Piper, thus setting up this face vs. face contest. It proved to be a mid-card classic, with both men rising to the occasion and delivering a superb battle for the WWF’s second richest prize. Of note, Bret was busted open during the match, but Hart had to legitimately present the blood loss as being totally accidental backstage to avoid a fine or worse from Vince McMahon. Piper teased the use of the ring bell to his advantage during the bout, but instead he took pity on fellow good guy Bret. Hart used this as a way to snatch victory from the claws of defeat by reversing a Piper sleeper hold into a pinning predicament. Post-match, Piper endorsed Hart to a huge reaction. It was Hot Rod’s best WWF match ever, and it was the last hurrah for his second WWF run; in the future, he would only make occasional appearances as a special attraction. This was much bigger for Bret, though, who was now a two-time IC Champion, and he would ultimately crack the main event glass ceiling before the end of the year.
Eight-Man Tag Team Match
Hacksaw Jim Duggan, Sgt. Slaughter, Big Boss Man & Virgil vs. The Nasty Boys, The Mountie & Repo Man
This was a way to get other characters of worth onto the WrestleMania VIII card, assisted by heel manager Jimmy Hart having such a large clientele at that point. There wasn’t much of a story to this one, as it merely existed to showcase the likes of Duggan and Boss Man. Ray Combs of Family Feud fame handled the ring announcing by firing humorous insults at the bad guys, and from there it was just a filler bout, though I did like the group clothesline from the faces. Virgil (wearing a face mask to protect a broken nose) pinned Brian Knobbs to get the win for his side, which meant that Virgil of all people has a limited yet perfect winning record of 2-0 at WrestleMania, whereas some far more legendary performers (such as Sting) don’t have a single WM win on their belt. Think about that.
WWF Championship Match
Ric Flair (C) vs. Randy Savage
The storyline to set up this bout was tremendous, with Flair suggesting that he had previously been with Savage’s wife Miss Elizabeth, and even presented what proved to be doctored photographs as proof. The promise of a huge centre-fold image being placed on the big screen was not lived up to by the Nature Boy, but he’s a heel, so of course he would lie, right? Savage was given further reason to beat up Ric due to the personal nature of their rivalry, and that added a layer to what would already be a thrilling bout. And that’s what we get, as the crowd were fully invested into the top-class wrestling action on display from two of the all-time greats. With a few more minutes, this may have had a chance to eclipse Savage’s previous WrestleMania classics against Ricky Steamboat and The Ultimate Warrior, but it was still a joy to watch. Notably, Flair also bled, but he did a poor job of disguising the moment to the extent that he was fined and heavily brow-beaten by McMahon backstage afterwards. Given that this was being presented midway through the card, there was the potential for heel champ Flair to retain, but instead Savage ended his reign after little more than two months with a roll-up that included a villainous pull of the tights. This sent heel commentator Bobby Heenan apoplectic (he and Gorilla Monsoon were superb all night), but it had the fans on their feet going wild. Afterwards, a crimson Flair confronted Liz and demanded a kiss, only to take a slap, and Savage attacked Flair again, being separated by Mr. Perfect (Ric’s Executive Consultant) and other officials. What a match this was!
Tatanka vs. Rick Martel
This was the cool-down bout following the first half of the “double main event”of WrestleMania VIII, and it allowed newcomer Tatanka to achieve a fairly important win at the expense of The Model, who by this point had become a veteran of the roster. With respect to both men, the highlight of this contest was the continuing argument between Heenan and Monsoon on commentary over the Flair-Savage match, which makes it such a shame that this would be the final time that the legendary announcer’s duo manned the broadcast booth at a WrestleMania. Normally, fans might suggest turning the volume down and focusing solely on the action, but this showdown would require the opposite strategy to be applied. (Oh, I almost forgot: this card also saw Lex Luger make his first WWF appearance as part of the WBF – Vince’s bodybuilding organisation – during which he had a satellite interview with Bobby and Gorilla, and established his future heel status by insulting Monsoon.)
WWF World Tag Team Championship Match
Money Inc (C) vs. The Natural Disasters
I noted earlier that The Legion Of Doom had been absent; the reason for this was a suspension for Hawk that necessitated The LOD dropping their Tag Team Titles to Ted DiBiase and IRS ahead of what was apparently a scheduled Mania match between the two sides. Replacing Hawk and Animal, then, were Earthquake and Typhoon, who had recently turned babyface (in another storyline that I loved, Jimmy Hart had granted a planned title shot for The Disasters to Money Inc with the suggestion that his largest clients had agreed to his switch when in reality they hadn’t; simple, but very effective). Sadly, the match was pretty poor, and it continued the trend of a mid-card title match ending with a crap finish, as the heel titleholders simply walked out and took a countout loss to hold onto the straps. Quake and Phoon would eventually capture the belts a few months later.
Owen Hart vs. Skinner
Talk about a show of two halves. The WrestleMania VIII card seemed to go off a cliff after Flair vs. Savage, as evidenced by another filler bout here, as Owen (having recently returned to the WWF following his initial Blue Blazer stint, but with him having yet to really establish himself in the company) pinned the alligator man in 71 seconds. Pointless, really, but that was the style of the time, to paraphrase Grampa Simpson. Bear in mind that previous Mania shows had featured several very short contests like this, so it was nothing to be shocked at. The removal of an hour of the running time meant that The British Bulldog vs. The Berzerker ended up not even happening, so Owen and Skinner were lucky just to make it onto the show.
Hulk Hogan vs. Sid Justice
And so we come to the second main event match for WrestleMania VIII. Why did Hogan go on last instead of the WWF Title? Because he’s Hulk Hogan! In all seriousness, the underlying story to yet another case of someone betraying the Hulkster was the unofficial implication that this would be Hogan’s farewell match, which made this a must-see for Hulkamaniacs. It started okay, but then it slowed right down as fans waited for the inevitable Hogan comeback on Sid (who allegedly side-stepped the opportunity to replace Hogan as the WWF’s number one babyface because he preferred being a heel; whatever floats your boat, mate). Of course, Hogan did, and he had Justice down for the Legdrop. Then, here’s where things get strange. The plan was for another new face in Papa Shango to break up the cover and cause a DQ, but he was nowhere to be found. Improvising, manager Harvey Whippleman climbed up to the apron to distract Hulk, which turned people’s attention from the fact that Sid KICKED OUT of the Legdrop in another attempt at improv. After the bell rang, Shango finally appeared (what the hell was he doing?), and the heels trapped Hogan in the ropes for a chairshot, only for The Ultimate Warrior to return! His reappearance was a massive surprise, especially in the pre-internet era, and he attacked the heels (after taking the time to do a quick jig, which made me laugh). The faces eventually cleared house, and the outgoing Hogan and returning Warrior posed together in front of pyro to end the show.
The last match was a bit of a mess, but at least Hogan went out with a victory of sorts, while Justice maintained enough credibility to make an impact … if he had stuck around. Sid would leave the WWF just weeks later with seeds having been planted for a feud with Warrior, which led to Ultimate having a notorious conflict with the bizarre Shango. Meanwhile, Jake and Piper were also gone (Hot Rod did a few non-wrestling cameos but that was it), and many vintage WWF characters of previous years would also head out the door in the subsequent months. Even Savage, who won the World Title for the second time, would be on commentary duties at the next Mania, and this would be Flair’s lone WM match of his first WWF tenure. It was a time of change for the WWF, but it’s only upon reflection that you realise just how many ins and outs there were during 1992 and also 1993. By the time that SummerSlam 1993 rolled around, the Golden Age was definitely over, and Mania VIII was the first major sign that we had approached the end of a glorious era.
Now for the elephant in the room. Supposedly, the original plan was for Hogan and Flair to have a dream match for the WWF Title at WrestleMania VIII, and it had even been announced on television via a mock press conference. But plans changed, and instead we got Hogan vs. Sid and Flair vs. Savage. Supposedly, Vince got cold feet based on Hogan-Flair matches being disappointing at the box office (why did he book those bouts on house shows in late 1991 anyway, rather than waiting until after Mania?), and Hogan was going on an extended absence, which removed the potential for him to win his fifth WWF Title here (that moment would occur the following year). Meanwhile, having a heel from another company be the guy to beat Hogan on his way out was apparently not an option. And then there are the rumours that Hogan either refused to put over Flair or that Ric refused to lose to Hulk, which I find very hard to believe.
I’m torn on this subject as to whether or not Plan B proved to be superior to Plan A. The original WrestleMania VIII card could have given us Hogan vs. Flair, Savage vs. Jake (alleged to be in a cage as I noted earlier), Taker vs. Sid, Bret vs. Piper, The LOD vs. Money Inc, Shawn vs. Marty and whatever else was deemed worthy for the event. On paper, that sounds like one hell of a WrestleMania show, even during a dark time for the company’s fortunes. But in terms of what we did get, Flair vs. Savage was great, Taker vs. Jake proved to be significant, and Hogan vs. Sid did pave the way for a Warrior comeback that I still love to relive on repeat viewings. When you break it down, Plan A probably would have resulted in a stronger show so I guess we missed out on what could have been (since you could have always ran Flair vs. Savage at, say, SummerSlam, and with the same storyline), and Hogan vs. Flair is one of the notable dream matches that never happened at a WrestleMania, proving to be a close second “what if?” behind only Hulk vs. Stone Cold Steve Austin.
Nevertheless, WWF WrestleMania VIII was still a blast to watch. Two of the matches are truly awesome, while most of the rest of the show helps to elevate the stars of the future, and Warrior’s return will never get old to me. Sure, the WWF wasn’t in the best condition at that point, but WrestleMania VIII remains one of the best, if not the best, WM shows of the Hogan years, as well as being a major turning point between the Golden Age and what would become known as the New Generation.