The Mother Brain Files: Wrestling with ‘95
By Mother Brain
There are many things I can say about the current state of the wrestling business in the middle of a worldwide pandemic. Most of it is not good. Some have said WWE’s lackluster booking cannot be blamed on COVID-19 and no fans in attendance. Many will praise AEW for stepping up on all fronts, but they get called out on institutional bias. Other companies like Impact, ROH, and most indie companies are truly struggling to stay afloat. Overall, this could be considered the worst year in wrestling history. Is it though?
I recently watched an episode on Brian Zane’s Wrestling with Regret YouTube channel which focused on Kevin Sullivan’s Dungeon of Doom stable in WCW back in 1995. While the gimmick was nothing more than a way for Hulk Hogan to feud with all his close buddies, the entire angle was a rehash of old school WWF without the mainstream popularity. What stuck out for me in the video, however, was the fact that this angle was the ultimate wakeup call for WCW to get out of its kid-friendly direction and turn to more edge and grit that the business desperately needed a year later with nWo. This not only made me think about just WCW but also wrestling in 1995 as the real game changer in the business. In other words, we would not have had nWo, WWE’s Attitude Era, or any true innovation had it not been for what I consider wrestling’s worst year ever.
For me, I was only a true wrestling fanatic for a year when 1995 began. I had just started going to WWE live events the summer before with my family, ordered the PPVs which upset my dad over rising cable bills, and started a serious action figure hunt for both the Hasbro and LJN toys. For my age range, wrestling appealed to me in a big way. This led to my one-time experience attending the Fan Festival (Now called AXXCESS) in Hartford, CT prior to WrestleMania 11. I went nuts buying the new bend-em figures, playing the WrestleMania arcade game which to me was red hot at the time, seeing the wrestlers up close including my dad getting Owen Hart’s autograph, etc. Even in all the excitement, I never thought for a second that wrestling was at a low point. It took me a long time to realize how quickly things would change after this year.
1995 was a year when WWE was still trying to find its way back into the mainstream and move on from the Hogan era. They made Shawn Michaels’ ex-bodyguard Diesel (aka Kevin Nash) into the world champion and top face of the company. The 7-foot Big Daddy Cool was perceived as their next Hogan right from the start. But when they booked him to conclude his feud with HBK at WrestleMania 11, the optics of the match were just not correct. You had this babyface Goliath taking on this cocky David-size heel and the latter of the two just ran circles around the face. HBK was clearly the better wrestler while Diesel showed how green and sluggish, he was in the ring. In almost an instant, the fans switched sides that night and wanted HBK to win the title. But the plan stayed the same as Diesel jackknifed HBK to retain the title and celebrate with the celebrities of the night. None of this was lost on Vince McMahon who quickly turned HBK face the next night after getting turned on by his 2nd bodyguard, Sycho Sid.
From that point on, HBK saw his stock rise by reuniting with Diesel, winning the Intercontinental Title, solid matches with the likes of Jeff Jarrett and Razon Ramon, and huge merchandise sales. HBK still had his behind the scenes issues, however, including an incident involving a real-life gang fight with marines in Syracuse, NY which got played up on TV and was forced to drop the belt to Dean Douglas. Despite his personal issues, moments like this only enforced the Rocky-like buildup for HBK’s rise as the next top guy. On the other hand, Diesel ran out of gas as fast as he filled up. His feuds with Sycho Sid, King Mabel, and a newly heel Davey Boy Smith were horrific on TV, badly booked, and exposed his shortcomings in the ring. Moreover, Diesel was very injury prone. Once the summer ended, Vince clearly gave up on Diesel when he dropped the World Title to Bret Hart and turned heel.
The rest of Vince’s top guys were not faring much better. Bret Hart, the former triple-crown champion and face of the company in late ’92 and most of ’94, was thrown into some of the worst matches and feuds in his career. His I-Quit match with Bob Backlund at WrestleMania 11 was considered his worst ever and the company kept throwing him into short-lived cartoonish feuds with Jerry Lawler (the Kiss my Foot match at King of the Ring ’95), Isaac Yankem DDS (the future Kane), and any forgettable cartoon gimmick that the company could muster up. Bret, however, had 3 memorable moments that year: The feud with Japanese star Hakushi, his 3rd World Title win from Diesel at Survivor Series, and his title defense against Davey Boy Smith at In Your House. But despite Bret’s successes, it was no secret he was being treated as a transitional champion to eventually put over HBK. A chip on his shoulder that led to wrestling’s most infamous moment 2 years later.
Other reliable stars were having a rough time. Undertaker was still going up against all the monster gimmicks like King Kong Bundy and was made to be vulnerable when Kama (the future Godfather) stole Paul Bearer’s urn and turned it into gold, weakening the Dead Man’s invincibility in the ring. Lex Luger, a man propped to be the next Hogan back in ’93, was now reduced to tag teaming with Davey Boy Smith. His career went nowhere, and he was out by the fall. Razor Ramon (aka Scott Hall) and 1-2-3 Kid (aka Sean Waltman or X-Pac) seemed to fare better than most. But these were all guys who were part of HBK’s Kliq backstage and they were running up the top cards. Rather than WWE build new stars, they were trying to repackage old ones with out of touch gimmicks: King Mabel, Man Mountain Rock, Waylon Mercy, Aldo Montoya, The Bodydonnas, Duke “the Dumpster” Droese, Jean-Pierre LaFette, etc. The only one of these characters who stood out over time was an American blue blood named Hunter Hearst Helmsley who was a WCW reject back then. The rest of these guys went nowhere. Even the women’s division was limited to Alundra Blaze as an on-again, off-again champion against whoever the company would hire for a few months. Eventually, they stopped airing women’s’ matches all together.
There was only one moment when it looked like WWE was going to turn a corner. At the ’95 Royal Rumble, NY Giants legend Lawrence Taylor was in attendance. After a tag team match, legendary heel Bam Bam Bigelow got into LT’s face and started a shoving match that was broken up by security. Almost immediately, every news outlet in the NY/NJ area covered this incident like it was an unscripted part of the show. It got WWE the mainstream buzz that Vince craved for. Then it all led to a main event match at WrestleMania 11 which included several retired NFL stars and members of Ted DiBiase’s Million Dollar Corporation stable as lumberjacks. All I can say is that Bam Bam worked his ass off to make LT look good in what many consider the worst PPV match in history. Bam Bam turned face not long after and he was expected to be pushed as well as receiving big time pay. He got neither.
As WWE was struggling with its New Generation identity, WCW had turned their corner a year earlier by not only signing Hogan to the company but also appointing commentator Eric Bischoff as the main guy behind the scenes. Bischoff made efforts financially to get WCW out of its’ gritty Georgia roots and turn it into a more polished program with co-branding with Walt Disney World at their Disney/MGM Studios theme park. By getting Hogan, the two men attracted other ex-WWF employees to come in for a career resurgence: Randy Savage, Brutus Beefcake, Mr. T, Haku, Big Boss Man, Hacksaw Jim Duggan, the Nasty Boys, etc. There were knockoffs of iconic wrestlers, specifically The Renegade who was WCW’s answer to the Ultimate Warrior. The company still managed to maintain their NWA originals at the top of their cards including Sting, Ric Flair, Arn Anderson, Dusty Rhodes, etc. They also built emerging stars such has Harlem Heat, Diamond Dallas Page, Alex Wright, and a wide array of Luchadores and New Japan talents. But as more of Hogan’s friends got contacts, Bischoff did away with the guys he thought were bland and were going nowhere. Among these men included Steve Austin, Mick Foley, Dustin Rhodes, and the previously mentioned Hunter Hearst Helmsley.
Despite the influx of established stars, the WCW product was arguably more tone deaf to the wrestling audience than WWE at that time. The Dungeon of Doom angle had reached its height when the company hired a giant named Paul Wight to come in as Andre the Giant’s long-lost son to get revenge on Hogan. They made the angle so overdramatic that the acting alone was torture. They even booked the two in a monster truck match that appeared to show The Giant fall off a building to his death only to show up later in the night unharmed! Fans were slowly pushing back against their intelligence being insulted.
Up until 1995, neither WWE nor WCW saw each other as serious competitors. Yet, this was the year when the shots were fired. It had already started a year earlier when Hogan signed with WCW and the WWE pushed back with their New Generation ads. But soon it took a hit on the fans’ wallets when WCW started increasing the number of PPV events per month which forced WWE to increase from the usual 4-5 events a year to 12 all together with the In Your House PPVs. Neither company was really landing blows despite this. Then one day, Ted Turner asked Bischoff one simple question: What would it take to compete with WWE? Bischoff replied that he needs prime time.
Up until then, WWE’s top weekly show was Monday Night Raw on USA Network. WCW’s was their Saturday Night show on TBS. Now Turner called for a new 2-hour show to air on TNT against Raw called WCW Monday Nitro. Vince McMahon was alarmed, but not concerned since he had a low opinion of the WCW product. Then the first Nitro aired at the Mall of America in Minnesota that September when out of nowhere, Lex Luger appeared on the show and everyone reacted with shock. Keep in mind that in 1995, we were living in a pre-internet era when nobody was going on the dirt sheets to find out all the behind the scenes activity in any company. You would only find tidbits here and there in magazines like The Wrestling Observer or kayfabe 900 number hotlines like the ones that WWE and WCW used to do. But the Luger was still perceived as a WWE guy and no one had a clue he was leaving despite his lack of momentum. Regardless, Luger switching companies was the real start of the Monday Night Wars.
With a new Monday night program, Bischoff sought underhanded methods to expose WWE’s own weaknesses. He would give away the results of a pre-taped Raw just minutes before they hit the air. He forced WWE to start Raw 3 minutes early and eventually to expand from an hour to 2 hours each week. He took shots at WWE whenever he could, especially when he hired away Alundra Blaze, repackaged her as Madusa, and had her drop the WWE Women’s Title in the trash on live TV. This may have lit a fire under Vince who responded by slowly making his characters a bit edgier. It was late in that year when he introduced tough guy (but unsafe worker) Ahmed Johnson, hired Dustin Rhodes who started vignettes as the bizarre Hollywood gay guy in face paint named Goldust, and took fitness chick Sunny, who was paired with real-life boyfriend Chris Candido as one half of The Bodydonnas, and turned her into a sex goddess that would be the most downloaded person on AOL the following year. Despite the on-air war that Bischoff was waging, he had yet to see how his own product was out of touch with fans. Ratings for both shows flipped flopped each week. Nitro would normally come out the winner, but neither show was really delivering blockbuster ratings.
On a whole, the wrestling business was out of touch. WWE was still stuck in the good guys vs. bad guys formula of the 80s while WCW tried to rehash that formula with the stars Vince created. Then there was another company without Vince or Ted Turner’s money that created a serious rumble on the streets of Philadelphia called Extreme Championship Wrestling. On late Saturday nights, I would stay up to watch ECW on the MSG Network here in NY. Unlike the squeaky-clean product that I was used to, ECW was to wrestling what Nirvana was to rock music in the 90s. Paul Heyman, an ex-WCW talent turned head booker, took a low income wrestling organization and used its lack of production resources to his advantage. Where WWE and WCW characters were cartoonish by design for kid, ECW’s characters were regular street level personalities without the flashy pyro: The poolhall drunk named Sandman, the cult leader named Raven, the Red Hook badass named Taz, the company sexpots like Francine and Beulah, the hip-hop influenced tag team Public Enemy, Sabu who wrestled like he had a death wish, and so many others. The matches were bloody, brutal, and sometimes misogynistic. But then they can mix it up with some of the most innovative, technically efficient wrestling not seen on the major companies. Guys like Eddie Gurrero, Chris Benoit, Dean Malanko, Saturn, Chris Jericho, Rey Mysterio, Rob Van Dam, and Jerry Lynn to name a few were delivering 5 star matches every night. Most of these guys would get hired away to WCW within the year and grow into bigger stars over time. Then there were WCW rejects like Mick Foley and Steve Austin who cut their teeth and found their voices in ECW. They would go on to find greater fame and glory a year later with the WWE.
ECW’s impact was not totally lost on Vince. When the King of the Ring was held that year in Philly, ECW talents were in attendance that night. Sandman even spilled his drink on Savio Vega during his tournament finals match with Mabel. The entire show overall was one of WWE’s worst PPVs ever. So when Mabel won and was crowned king, not only was he getting real heat (He spent 2 years as one half of the kid-friendly Men on a Mission tag team), but he was getting loud chants of E-C-W throughout the arena. A year later, Vince started doing business with them.
Looking back at the trajectory of the wrestling boom of the late 90s, everything starts with 1995 as the moment when business was low and two struggling companies had to awaken to the changing times. Had it not been for the events of this year, WWE would not have turned their overall direction into an ECW-influenced gritty product that elevated Austin, Foley, Goldust, and fresh new upstarts like Dwayne Johnson who came in as Rocky Mavia in 1996. WCW would not have had the wakeup call that resulted in hiring Hall and Nash to come in as part of a outsider faction looking to ruin the company and to turn the ultimate superhero in Hulk Hogan into the biggest, hottest heel that wrestling had seen in years. This almost surreal brand called the nWo brought fresh new eyes to wrestling and made it cool again. The sad irony of it all, however, is that all of this succeeded at the time without the internet tearing down the backstage curtain. Surprises and suspension of disbelief are much harder to achieve in wrestling today because of dirt sheets and fans not allowing storylines to play out without criticizing a pre-packaged product. I for one will admit to being guilty of behaving as one of those fans at times. But I personally know that in order to grow into something better, you have to experience what fall to the bottom feels like. That exemplifies the year of 1995 in pro wrestling.