411's Countdown to WrestleMania 24: Shining a Spotlight - WrestleMania IX
Posted by Michael Weyer on 03.21.2008
As my part of the Countdown, a look back at the worst WrestleMania ever.
Graphic by Meehan
When I decided to take part in the Wrestlemania Countdown, it didn't take long for me to figure out a topic. It's tied in to something mentioned already in several of the Countdown articles but I think it's time someone examined it in depth. That's the answer to the question as to what is the worst Wrestlemania of all time. There's plenty of debate on the best. Some say X-7, others XX, others III. But when it comes to the worst Mania of all time, there's only one winner.
Now there have been plenty of poor Manias but those did have at least one match to redeem them. 13 had the classic Austin-Hart match that changed the course of wrestling. XIX had the great Michaels-Jericho matchup. Even IV had some nice bouts. So even these poor Manias do have a match or other aspect that redeems them and elevates them to a better card.
Wrestlemania IX has none of those redeeming qualities and that is why fifteen years later, it still ranks as the worst Mania of all time.
The previous year had been one of change for WWE as Hulk Hogan had bid farewell, seemingly for good (how little we knew). Things were a bit rough for business despite Randy Savage and Ultimate Warrior having a feud for the WWF title and Ric Flair around. With Warrior leaving after a contract dispute, pushes were made with Bret Hart winning the WWF title and Shawn Michaels the IC belt, indicating a new push to lighter, less muscular athletes. True, business was taking a dip but there was still a great fan base to build on for the future.
That increased when RAW debuted in January and the Royal Rumble was set up so the winner got a shot at the WWF title at Mania. That was won by Yokozuna, promising a unique battle of the biggest man in the company against a smaller one. But Vince McMahon felt he needed something more. He needed another touch, he needed something to really sell the show and help business out.
He needed Hulk Hogan. So he went out and agreed to a huge payday to get him. And that would turn out to be one of the worst mistakes Vince would ever make that would shake up the entire company for a year and not for the better.
It began in January as Brutus Beefcake had been doing interviews with WWF for a while and was in the ring to talk to fans. That brought out Money Inc, Ted DiBiase and Irwin R. Schyster (aka Mike Rotundo), who had reigned for a while as tag team champions, came out to run Beefcake down and then attacked him. It went beyond the usual punches and kicks as they used a metal briefcase to smash Beefcake in his surgically reconstructed face. The attack was so brutal that their own manager, long-time heel Jimmy Hart, actually stood up for Beefcake and tried to call them off. When Money Inc left, Hart stayed behind as Beefcake was loaded on a stretcher and taken off.
A couple of weeks later, Hulk Hogan made his RAW debut to announce that he was coming back to help Beefcake. Hart had switched sides, decked out in full Hogan colors and Beefcake wore a face mask with red and yellow as well. So it was set up for a tag title match against Money Inc which seemed to boost the show.
However, the setting wasn't exactly the sort of epic showcase for the biggest show of the year. After pulling over 60,000 people to the Hooiser Dome the previous year, it made little sense to relocate to Ceaser's Palace in Las Vegas, a city not quite known as a wrestling haven.. Sure, it was a nice setting but also much, much smaller. It ranks as the only Mania to take place at an outdoor setting (VII was to be at the LA Collisium but after low ticket sales was moved to the LA Sports Arena) which was set up like a Roman arena to hold the 16, 891 fans. After years of seeing huge arenas packed to the rafters, watching a crowd more suited to a tennis match than the biggest show of the year was jarring and a sign things weren't as good for WWF as they had been.
That Roman theme extended all around. Gorilla Monsoon, clad in a dark toga, welcomed everyone to "the biggest toga party in the world." Howard Finkel was clad in a white robe and a crown of leaves and introduced as "Finkus Maximus." Bobby Heenan, also clad in a dark robe and golden leaf crown, came out on an ill-tempered camel. Randy Savage was in full Macho Man regalia with a white tinge, coming out lounging on a large couch drawn by a horse with women throwing petals and feeding him grapes along the way. And, making his grand debut to WWF after years with WCW was Jim Ross. Yes, in his very first WWF appearance, good ol' JR was shown in a white toga, red cape, gold sandals and trying to put a good face on it all as he joked with men dressed as Roman centurions. That was followed by models dressed like Ceasar and Cleopatra coming out on an elephant.
Looking back, that should have all been a sign as to how things were going to go downhill.
It started off well enough as for the second year in a row, Shawn Michaels kicked things off. This time, he was the Intercontinental champion. This was a period of Michael's career often glossed over as after breaking with Sheri Martel and before hiring Kevin Nash, Michaels had Luna Vachon as a valet. Michaels was facing Tatanka, the Native American wrestler who was rising well in the company with a good winning streak so people really thought he had a chance to win the belt. Tatanka had Sheri in his corner as he and HBK started to go at it. IT started off slow with armbars but picked up steam with Michaels taking a great charge into the post and Tatanka hitting him with a shoulderbreaker. Michaels hit him with a kick as Tatanka left off the top rope and a running clothesline. Looking back, it does seem Shawn's timing was off a bit and it makes you wonder if he was on something (Hey, he fully admits he was on a lot of stuff back then). He did take plenty of bumps with chops and being catapulted into the post and powerslammed from the top. After missing a leap and hitting the stairs, Shawn punched referre Joey Marella, allowing Tatanka to hit him with his fallaway slam finisher only to have it revealed that Michaels was DQ'ed. An okay match with a bad ending with Luna attacking Sheri afterward in a program that went nowhere as Sheri left WWF not long after.
The next match had the Steiners, still new to WWF, facing the Headshrinkers, giving JR the chance to work in "slobberknocker" and "smash-mouth" less than a minute into the match. It was fun to hear JR call a match with the Steiners when they were in their prime, even claiming this must have been what the coliseiums were like. However, the match just wasn't that much fun, mostly punching and kicking. But there were bright spots like when Scott was supposed to be hot-shotted on the top rope but instead sailed over it to the floor. Then the spot of the night as the Shrinkers set up a Doomsday Device move but Rick caught and powerslammed Samu in mid-air. Scott was able to finish it up with a Frankensteiner, which was still a rare move back then so it was a poor match but nice finish.
Now the next bout involved two unique characters. Crush had debuted as part of Demolition, with black leather and face paint. He had returned minus the paint, long blonde hair and a suit of neon yellow, orange and purple. His opponent was the original Doink the Clown, Matt Borne. Most know Doink as the annoying clown of later years but the original concept wasn't too bad as he was actually an evil clown. As he came out, his circus music shifted to a more sinister tone with screams and he'd use a cigar to pop kids' balloons and use heel mannerisms. Doink had attacked Crush in a match earlier to set this up. The match was about as bad as you can expect from these two, Crush's power moves and Doink's shictk clashing too badly to mesh. When the ref was knocked down, Crush went for his fnisher only to have a second Doink run in from under the ring to knock him out with a prostethic arm. The two Doinks would mimic the Marx Brothers with a mirror bit to the non-amusement of the crowd before the second Doink ran out to let the first one pin Crush, ending arguably the worst match on the card (and that's saying something).
Two more interesting characters would pop in the next match. Razor Ramon had been given a good push the year before but after losing to Bret at the Royal Rumble had been on his way down. He would, of course, end up bouncing back after a loss to the 1-2-3 Kid, a face turn and the IC title. Bob Backlund, after years away, had returned to WWF and was making good headway with his classic grappling long before his wild heel turn. Ramon would actually be cheered by the crowd as Backlund only managed a classic atomic drop before being cradled for a fast pin in less than four minutes.
So we came to the first big event as the "Mega-Maniacs" faced Money Inc. Hogan came out with a black eye, which Money Inc claimed was their doing by hiring a bunch of guys to beat up Hogan the night before (in truth, Hogan simply woke up with an infection that morning). It's notable that Hogan not only got a lukewarm reaction but was noticbly thinner than his last period in WWF, no doubt from lack of steroids. Naturally, it started with the Maniacs pummeling the heels until they started to walk off so Earl Hebner declared that if they didn't get back, they'd lose the belts. They'd pound on Hogan with DiBiase slapping on the Million-Dollar Dream which Hogan no-sold, weaking its impact. While the ref was distracted by IRS, Beefcake hit his crappy sleeper on DiBiase which of course put him out in about five seconds. Randy Savage would get off a hysterical comment (and I'm quoting verbatim here): "The people are hanging from the rafters…although this Roman coliseum doesn't have rafters…but it has columns, and people are hanging from them." After a double knockout, Hogan tagged in Beefcake only to have Beefcake attacked with the suitcase again with his mask torn off. Beefcake recovered to hit IRS with a sleeper which led to the ref getting bumped. Hogan tagged in to do the big boots and both guys got hit in the face by Beefcake's mask. The Maniacs did a double cover and Hart ran in to count the three-count. However, before the celebrations could begin, Danny Davis came out to say the Maniacs were DQed for using the facemask. It was a shock to everyone that Hogan would actually agree to do a Wrestlemania only to lose. How little we all knew…
In a bit of truly ironic timing, the next match featured Lex Luger as the Narcissit. Luger had attempted a bodybuilding career but a motorcycle injury ended that. After cutting his muscles down, he came to WWF and was put up as a total egotist who would have women following him and surrounding him with mirrors so he could see his reflection before matches. I know quite a few are cracking Luger didn't have to go too far to pull that off but it was a nice example of how the best personas are just the real person taken to the tenth power. Luger would come off as a bully using the steel plate in his arm to his advantage. Meanwhile, Mr. Perfect had been on a roll since turning face, beating Ric Flair in a loser leaves town match. Bobby Heenan, Flair's manager, was so outraged by that, he got Luger to start attacking Henning. The accident had cost Luger some of his polish so it was a rough battle but Henning got going with some great chops and kicks. Luger came back with smashes of his forearm on Henning's back, showing some nice psychology as Henning was still recovering from back surgery. Henning bounced back with a sunset flip and sleeper and a small package before taking his usual slingshot into the post. The ending was nice as both men got the other for a backslide, each fighting for control before Luger got Henning over, getting the pin despite the fact Henning had his feet on the second rope. Luger hit Henning afterward, Perfect chasing him only to be attacked by Shawn Michaels, setting up a feud between the two. It was a good turn for Luger's character that might have gone far had they not had the idea to turn him into a second Hogan.
From a fair match came another bad one as Undertaker was set to face the man well known as arguably the worst wrestler of all time, Giant Gonzalez. Seriously, the Great Khali is Ricky Steamboat compared to this guy. At least Khali is capable of walking in a natural way and bending over, two things Gonzalez seemed unable to accomplish. Standing eight feet tall and over three hundred pounds, Gonzalez was horribly immobile and not agile. It was hardly helped by his outfit, which was basically a full on flesh-covered body suit, complete with a crack on the ass and brown tufts of fur. He'd debuted to eliminate the Undertaker from the Rumble and so became the next guy to face him. I know everyone complains about Taker guarding his spot today but when you consider he spent about five years pitted against every big, slow guy Vince could throw against him, it's understandable. The Undertaker came out in style with a chariot towed by bearers and a live vulture settled on it. To call the match bad is to give it a break as Taker did his best to sell Gonzalez as a monster but it was one of the slowest and stiffiest battles you can imagine. After "action" I'll spare you all from recapping, Gonzalez grabbed an ether-soaked rag to knock Taker out and get DQ'ed. Taker would be carried out by bearers but return moments later to attack Gonzalez, setting up a match at SummerSlam that would be even worse.
What should have been a warning sign came as Mean Gene interviewed Hogan over the loss, Hogan saying he was sticking behind to see how things came out. Insert forboding music…
So we finally get to the big main event as Bret, a man who'd proven to be a viable and marketable champion over the last six months faced the monster Yokozuna. I've always thought Yokozuna was highly underrated as a powerhouse. This was a man who weighed over six hundred pounds who was able to move better than guys half his size, a powerful package. Bret used his smarts to lure Yokozuna to the ropes and trip him up before doing a slingshot headbutt and an elbow drop from the second rope. Yoko would do a quick super-kick and a nerve pinch to turn the tide. Yoko went for a charge but Bret ducked it to miss and hit a bulldog. He'd then fight dirty by tearing the turnbuckle off to ram Yoko's head into it and knock him to the mat. That gave Bret the chance to do the Sharpshooter, something to see on a guy so huge. As the ref checked on Yoko, Mr. Fuji grabbed a handful of salt and threw it into Bret's face. Stunned, Bret fell back allowing Yoko to roll him up for the pin, despite the fact Hebner had salt on him when he counted. The crowd was shocked as for the first time ever, a heel was emerging from Wrestlemania as the big winner and champion.
And that's when the moment occurred that has given the card its infamously horrible reputation.
While Yoko and Fuji celebrated in the ring, Bret was outside and Hogan came out to check on him, despite the fact Hogan and Bret had absolutely no friendship or for that matter, any real contact at all. As they walked away, Fuji, in what has to rank as the stupidest managerial move in the history of wrestling, immediately issued an open challenge to Hogan for the title. Hogan acted like he wasn't interested until Bret waved at him to go ahead. So as the man who had been the leader of the company for the last half year walked away blinded, Hogan went into the ring and was grabbed by Yoko so Fuji could use the salt again. This time, Hogan ducked so Fuji hit Yoko, allowing Hogan to clothesline him, hit the legdrop and get the pin for his record fifth WWF title.
Yes, it's true the crowd at the time went wild with Hogan as champion. But the damage that would be done was horrible to the company. For a year, Vince had done all he could to show the WWF could survive without Hogan and was showing that with Bret and Shawn as champs. But in a move to get back to the glory days of business, Vince threw away any trust he had with Bret to give Hogan the spotlight once more. It was instantly clear the only reason for the tag title match in the first place was to have an excuse to have Hogan on hand to set up the ending. The fans may have gone wild but it was a slap in the face for Hogan to take the top prize after all the hard work Bret had done, not to mention the potential Yoko would have as a heel champion. To undo all the build up for both Bret and Yokozuna just to give the tired Hogan act another run at the top was a truly bad move on Vince's part.
Karma would come to haunt him immediately however as Hogan would decide to take two months off rather than the planned rematches with Yokozuna. The plan was for Hogan to drop the belt to Bret at SummerSlam but Hogan refused to do it so they had to give it to Yoko at the King of the Ring. In his autobiography, Hogan claims he always thought the plan was to drop it to Yoko and he didn't know Vince had told Bret he'd get the belt until Bret confronted Hogan. But considering all the half-truths and outright lies that fill that bio, take that with a grain of salt.
Was this the worst PPV ever? No, far more fitting candidates. But this would have been a bad show at any time of the year. When you consider this is the gem of WWE's crown, the show meant to be remembered forever, its failings grow larger. Even worse was its impact over the year as the title was up in the air for two months before going back to Yoko while Bret spent the rest of the year on the mid-card. When Hogan did leave, rather than put Bret back in the main spot, Vince instead flushed away the potential success of the Narcisst to turn Luger into a second Hogan and then didn't even give him the title, which hurt Luger's career. Wrestlemania is supposed to be the start of a new year for WWF/E and in this case, it was a very, very bad one.
So no matter how poor this year may turn out to be, rest assured it'll have to be one of the five worst PPVs of all time in order to beat out IX. One can only hope that distinction remains for a long time to come or the whole business is in trouble.