Many wrestling pundits like to speculate on what year was the peak creatively and qualitatively for each particular organization. For my money, no organization had a better run at the top of the card than the WWF in 1997.
A word of explanation: The WWF in 1997 was in dire straits. WCW had taken over the Monday Night Wars midway through the previous year with the red hot NWO angle, and 1997 was the absolute peak of WCW as a product. They absolutely kicked the shit out of the WWF in Monday Night ratings and PPV buyrates. And make no mistake, WCW rocked in 1997. While the NWO ran roughshod through the promotion at the top of the card, workhorse technicians and cruiserweights provided the cannon fodder on the undercard. Guys like Eddy Guerrero, Dean Malenko, Rey Mysterio, Chris Jericho, just to name a few, were putting on tremendously entertaining matches and storylines. 1997 was probably the peak, creatively, of pro Wrestling in America.
Back over to the WWF. So since May of 1996, they are getting their brains beat in by WCW. They were still trotting out the God-awful “New WWF Generation” product, with an emphasis on gimmicks over characters. Gimmicks like Doink the Clown, Thurman “Sparky” Plugg, Connecticut Blueblood Hunter Hearst Helmsley. It was an egregiously cartoonish era, and fans couldn’t stomach the syrupy saccharine sentimentality of it all. Each week on Raw would feature the Scrappy Garbageman thwarting the advances of the evil Plumber. Really, Vince McMahon was just so completely out of touch at this point it was sad.
But for all his foibles, Vince McMahon can be a creative genius, especially when he has competition and has his back to the wall. And at no time during his ownership of the WWF did Vince have his back so firmly planted against a wall against great competition. So as 1997 dawned, the old formula was scrapped and something completely different was phased in. Welcome to the beginnings of the “Attitude Era.”
At the first WWF Pay-Per-View of 1997, Royal Rumble, the changes started to become visible. The event, held in San Antonio, Texas, was one of the most papered (handing out of free tickets to present the illusion of a sell out) in company history. Not even hometown hero Shawn Michaels challenging Pyscho Sid could put the requisite butts in seats. In that match, which featured an either sick, hungover, or stoned (or perhaps all three) Shawn dragging his ass, not his normal stellar self, HBK overcame the onslaught of the Maniacal one to win his second WWF title. That part becomes improtant a little later.
In the Rumble match itself, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, the catalyst and initial protagonist of the Attitude Era about to dawn, entered the match at #5 and guzzled his way through the competition, eliminating one participant after another, and never failing to badmouth his victims. Austin dominated until the 21st entry to the fray emerged from the curtains…Bret Hart. Bret and Austin were embroiled in a bitter boiling feud, and the two kicked the crap out of eachother for the next two minutes. Soon they were distracted by other combatants in the match, but they both stayed in for the duration, both in the final five of the match.
Just prior to the final five, Mankind and Terry Funk eliminated eachother, continuing their years-lond feud over several continents. While the referee’s were busy trying to separate the two, Hart tossed Austin from the match. Hart, the dutiful babyface, believed his archenemy vanquished and focused his attentions on the remaining three men in the match: Vader, Undertaker, and Fake Diesel. (Kane before he was Kane or anyone cared about him) However, sensing the referees had not seen him eliminated, the conniving Austin reentered the fray and eliminated all the remaining entrants from behind and, under dubious circumstance, was named the winner of the Rumble match, to receive a WWF title match at WrestleMania 13. Bret Hart, once again wronged by heel shenanigans, vocally expressed his displeasure to commentator Vince McMahon, himself calling the match on TV from ringside. This was a little different, as Bret was a babyface, and Vince was portrayed onscreen as a play by play announcer, nothing more, nothing less. This was one of the first instances of the WWF breaking the fourth wall, and letting the smarter fans into the “backstage” aspect of the program.
So the next night on Raw, the whole program is thrown into a flux when Bret comes out, bitches, whines and quits the WWF. Steve Austin comes out and runs down Bret after he left the arena. You know what, rather than me explain it, here:
Pretty good, huh? So the whole program is now seemingly in a state of flux, until figurehead President of the WWF Gorilla Monsoon came out towards the end of the program to announce that due to Austin’s tainted Rumble win, instead of Austin being awarded a title shot, he was put into a match against Hart, Vader, and Undertaker, the last three men he illegally eliminated from the fray (Told ya Kane didn’t mean shit yet). Here’s the video:
In my opinion, that is tremendous stuff. You never see anything even remotely approaching that quality on Raw these days. So the match was set to be a Final Four Match (Good thing they had that PPV name lined up already) between Vader, Undertaker, Hart, and Austin, the stipulations being that you could eliminate opponents either over the top rope like the Rumble, or by pinfall or submission. The match would be to determine who would challenge then WWF Champion Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania 13.
But hold everything…
You see, Shawn was not a happy boy. Three days before the Final Four Match, Shawnie “lost his smile.”
He stated that he suffered a career threatening knee injury, and thus was relinquishing his WWF title. Most smart fans at the time, as well as his fellow wrestlers, particularly Bret, cried bullshit on this one. Most felt, and still feel, Shawn didn’t want to return the favor and job (lose) the title to Bret at Mania. (Bret had lost the title to Shawn at Mania the year prior) So the program was once again thrown into a state of flux, but this time it wasn’t scripted, this was very real. Shawn took his ball and went home at the worst possible time of the year. This is just one of the many reasons I despised Shawn Michaels. To solve this little conundrum, the WWF simply made the final four match for the title. Now, rumors abound that Steve Austin was originally supposed to win the match and drop the title to Sid the next night had he not been injured midway through the match. I don’t believe this, as Bret wrote in his book he was supposed to win the title all along and lose to Sid the next night. Anyway, enough with my longwinded explanation of the WWF scene at the time, onto the match.