WWE Survivor Series: The Unauthorized History, Part Three
In case you missed the details surrounding the beginning of the Survivor Series, including Vince McMahon’s pay-per-view ultimatum and the demise of Jim Crockett promotions, click here. If you missed out on the second entry, regarding changes to the system and the Gravest Challenge, click here. If you’re caught up, then we’ll continue our tour in 1992.
The chemical makeup of the World Wrestling Federation was vastly different in 1992 than it had been in previous years. While many of the top stars from the 1980’s were relegated to smaller roles or retirement, this was the golden era of the technical wrestler and the high flyer. Perhaps no star was caught so rapidly in the crossfire than the Ultimate Warrior, who had returned to the WWF after just six months away, proving time heals all wounds.
But Warrior was being booked in the main event of the 1992 Survivor Series, a stellar tag team showdown pitting Warrior and his former enemy-turned-ally Randy Savage against Ric Flair and the upstart Razor Ramon. For all parties involved, this match could easily supersede the World Title match between two veritable youngsters in Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels.
In fact, this card, from top to bottom, was booked on the strength of individual rivalries, and as such, included just one elimination bout. But to call the contest between the WWF’s four biggest tag teams a classic Survivor Series contest would be outright lying, as only a few falls occurred before the match was called.
Outside of the main event matches, there was the Nightstick on a Pole match between the Big Boss Man and his arch nemesis, Nailz, as well as the first ever coffin match between The Undertaker and Kamala. The former pretty much ended any feud Nailz could ever have in the WWF, while the latter only served to build the career of one of the company’s biggest emerging stars.
The event was booked in a more or less traditional way to the WWF pay-per-view cards in the past. One main event was slapped right in the middle of the evening to help stretch the talent to the extreme. Surprisingly, however, it would be the highly-lauded tag team contest that played second fiddle to Michaels/Hart.
Despite clearly having the largest drawing power on the entire rundown, Randy Savage and Ric Flair were relegated to the mid-card after nearly an entire year in feuding. Truth be told, Savage flailed aimlessly in his latest world title run, and Flair was preparing for his final WWF feud before his contract expired. And then, there was the ongoing saga of what to do with the Ultimate Warrior.
You see, Warrior had been booked weeks in advance to headline in the tag team affair, yet he would quickly sour on the WWF and Vince McMahon as the event drew closer. Warrior was citing creative differences with the direction of his character. Rumors that creative had formulated a plan for Warrior to feud with Nailz, and more likely, Papa Shango were part of the destruction. In fact, Warrior had been filming several vignettes with Shango to set up for an epic, if not completely absurd, showdown.
But the WWF cited other reasons for their fallout with Warrior this time around. Embroiled in heavy mainstream criticism and allegations of steroid abuse amongst the talent, Vince McMahon decided to terminate Warrior once again after a random drug test came back with positive results for performance enhancing drugs.
Warrior, still one of the top draws of the time, and the British Bulldog, who had just won the Intercontinental Title a few months earlier in front of 80,000 strong in Wembley Stadium, were both shown the door in a way of literally thinning out the roster. Running low on options, the WWF now had to replace their big star with another in time for pay-per-view buys.
Left with only a few aces to play, the WWF called on Mr. Perfect, a career heel who had become a professional adviser to Ric Flair. Perfect wasn’t active when he stepped back in and went full face, challenging Flair and Razor for Survivor Series. The move, though created at the last second, turned out to be a stroke of genius.
Not only could Perfect benefit greatly from the exit feud of Ric Flair, but he could act as the perfect guide to Razor Ramon, who was still green within the company and needed some direction. Portrayed by Scott Hall, Razor had worked for years in the now-defunct AWA alongside Mr. Perfect. Everything added up and the WWF had apparently saved their skin.
With Warrior, one of the last remnants of the steroidal 80’s out of the picture, the WWF could now focus on younger homegrown talents. The Undertaker’s victory in the coffin (later renamed casket) match was just the first strike in Taker’s impressive lineage. It would become the first of several Undertaker-themed matches on display at the Survivor Series.
In the main event, Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart entertained for almost half an hour before Hart emerged victorious. Complete with the under card, which also included the pay-per-view debut of Yokozuna, the WWF had put together a pretty good card of wrestling action. The problem, however, came back when the buy rates were lower than any previous year’s event. Whatever it was, it wasn’t Survivor Series.
For all that was going on, be it constant static from the media or wrestlers in turmoil, the WWF booked the best possible card they could. And yet, it wasn’t a Survivor Series card, so it was immediately panned by fans and critics alike.
In 1993, it was back to the old way of doing things, but the wrestling climate wasn’t the same. The on-again, off-again relationship between Hulk Hogan and Vince McMahon was off for good. Hogan was gone, Warrior didn’t get another invite and Savage was losing every last shred of main event status he had attained just a few years earlier.
In their place, the WWF had developed Bret Hart, Yokozuna, The Undertaker, Shawn Michaels, and WCW-transplant Lex Luger as the upper echelon of talent. But none of them, despite their increasing popularity, had translated to big pay-per-view buys. And this Survivor Series had been booked in a way that very few could benefit.
In fact, it appeared as if the WWF was on the way to making Survivor Series “just another show” when storyline progression took prominence over conclusive, year-ending action. In fact, the only huge positive coming out of this event was the creation of the company’s next big heel, Owen Hart.
During their eight-man tag team match against Shawn Michaels and his “Knights” (masked versions of Barry Horowitz, Greg Valentine, and Jeff Gaylord), the Hart family imploded into something absolutely terrible. While Bret Hart had convinced his brothers Keith and Bruce to come out of retirement and fight with him, he wasn’t banking on Owen’s selfishness to spoil the victory.
A clever miscommunication led to Owen being the only member of his team pinned as Bret beat Shawn once again. It sparked the beginning of Owen Hart’s greatest run in the WWF and his only chance at the main event. But this highlight was overshadowed (at least on the evening) by no less than four Doinks, one Bastion Booger and everyone’s favorite foreigner: Crush (who was from Hawaii). And that also excludes the Smokey Mountain Wrestling tag match, featuring four men who weren’t even technical WWF stars at the time.
Things were falling apart for the Survivor Series, and in 1994, the trend of wild and crazy continued to pull rank on star power. The WWF still had a monopoly on the pay-per-view world (WCW’s buy rates were laughable at best) and pulled in television star Chuck Norris to hopefully bolster the card. Had they done this 10 years later, when the internet was all the rage, they likely would have had more success.
The 1994 Survivor Series was also a major turning point in the complexion of the World Wrestling Federation. It was at this event that Bob Backlund, a 45-year old amateur wrestler who had won his first world title for the company in 1978, became the WWF Champion once more. You read that right, Bob Backlund, a long-retired, vanilla athlete was about to become the champion at least ten years past his prime.
It wasn’t that Backlund was bad or that his comeback as a ravenous psycho didn’t have its moments. The fact of the matter was that Backlund was the exact opposite of what the World Wrestling Federation’s campaign, the “New” generation, was trying to promote. Putting him over Bret Hart, who had legitimately become one of the top two draws for the company, only complicated things.
The rest of the night was similarly bizarre. Despite a quality main event from Yokozuna and the Undertaker, who had become rapidly familiar with working excellent matches against one another, we were treated to some strange booking decisions that did little to motivate fans to order Survivor Series again, much less any WWF pay-per-view. Lex Luger was a shell of his Lex Express days and as an indictment of the product, we got to see Jerry Lawler and Doink clash with six little people for an entire 20 minutes.
Was this what the future of Survivor Series had to offer? Two lackluster affairs in a row, combined with a totally out of place event the year before didn’t bode well for the 1995 event. But rather than skip straight to that one, we need to understand that things were way different by that time. The aforementioned monopoly was all but evaporating.
In the 12 months after the 1994 event, Bob Backlund was already on the outs. He lost his title just days after winning it to Diesel at a live event in Madison Square Garden. Why order the pay-per-view when the biggest outcome of the night was washed away just a few days later in a non-televised setting? Diesel remained champion throughout the beginning if 1995 and into November in a reign that many fans called one of the worst periods in WWF history.
But blaming all of that on Kevin Nash just isn’t fair. In truth, 1995 was the year that, for the most part, the WWF showed that they didn’t care. They got even wackier, nuttier, and stupider with their gimmicks. Joining the stable of wrestling clowns, rappers and headshrinkers were garbage men, plumbers, rockers, retired hockey players, Lawrence Taylor and something called Mantaur. The in-ring action was still improving, but the WWF had overshadowed it with a league of impeccably awful characters that couldn’t draw a good buy rate to save their lives.
Meanwhile, in WCW, a company was gaining steam by using the same old formula that made WWF tons of money. They booked the most established stars of any decade at the top of every card. It didn’t matter that Hulk Hogan was over the hill, because he still made more money than any other single draw and WCW had him. WCW head Eric Bischoff had crafted a masterful idea to expand pay-per-views to one per month, throwing out conventions in favor of more quick bucks more often. It would take a decade for this formula to truly corrupt the industry, so at the time, it was ingenious.
By the time the WWF was starting to turn the corner from their inequity at the 1995 Survivor Series, a bigger problem was looming. WCW was booking a pay-per-view event just one week after Survivor Series emanated from Landover, Maryland. The plan was for WCW to go live with World War 3, a massive 60-man battle royal competed in three rings and for the WCW World Heavyweight Championship.
The real kicker? The event would take place in Norfolk, Virginia, less than five hours driving distance from the WWF’s Survivor Series. Sound familiar? Eric Bischoff had employed the same strategy that pretty much bankrupted Jim Crockett promotions in 1987, but this time, he was sticking it to Vince McMahon.
The WWF experimented with the card, creating the first ever “Wild Card” elimination match while also finally taking the strap off of Diesel (and conveniently putting it back on Bret Hart). The event was certainly a better effort than the last two affairs, yet the WWF simply couldn’t compete with the likes of Luger, Hogan, Savage, Flair and Sting in a feldspar of action one week later.
When the buy rates came out, World War 3 trumped Survivor Series and also took some momentum away from January’s Royal Rumble, the original battle royal pay-per-view. It was only the beginning for the WCW’s complete domination of the WWF over the next two years. 1996, sadly, held more of the same.
The 1996 Survivor Series is, overall, one of the best cards in the history of pay-per-view. Strong new talents made their debuts in the form of Doug Furnas, Phillip LaFon, Too Cold Scorpio (as Flash Funk) and of course, Rocky Maivia. The crowd in Madison Square Garden was electric for a showdown between the Undertaker and Mankind, as well as the first shot in the epic war between Stone Cold Steve Austin and Bret Hart.
When it came time for the main event, fans sheepishly applauded the heel Sycho Sid as he orchestrated a dastardly assault on the uber-popular champion, Shawn Michaels. What was intended to be a heinous victory was met with applause and elation from the crowd as Sid stood victorious with his first WWF Championship. All of it, though, didn’t matter when it came time to crunch the numbers.
WCW had done it again. They had simply taken over as the premiere wrestling program to watch, and when fans were forced to choose between the Survivor Series or World War 3 a week later, they stuck with World Championship Wrestling. It was an up-and-down event with a mostly forgettable battle royal won by the Giant, who, at the time, was one of the 300 members of the New World Order. What had been just another show for WCW still did better numbers than an excellent event from the WWF.
And so it went on. The WWF’s Survivor Series, despite recovering from some uncertainty over the past few years, had made a full recovery to excellence, but it didn’t matter when the fans weren’t watching. What could possibly turn the tide back in favor of the Federation? As luck would have it, the changing of the guard would come in an earth-shattering way that remains, perhaps, the most important incident in professional wrestling history.
To be continued…
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