Just Business: The WWF New Generation’s Top 50 Matches, 1996-1997 Honourable Mentions


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Just Business: The WWF New Generation’s Top 50 Matches, 1996-1997 Honourable Mentions

The New Generation is not the ugly step-sibling of WWE’s modern historical Eras, but rather a black sheep that deserves better.

Alongside our good friend ‘The Doc’ Chad Matthews, my crusade to quash preconceptions about the New Generation Era began with our ongoing series ‘The WWF New Generation’s Top 50 Matches.’ It continues here, with the second of my Honourable Mention companion pieces.

Compromises were made in the construction of mine and Doc’s list, such is the nature of a collaborative project. There were matches, however, excluded from the finalised 50 that I still feel are worthy of your attention, of historical reconsideration or, in some cases, of just being discovered by a wider audience.

With that in mind, here are my personal five Honourable Mentions of 1995.

Read the ‘92/’93 Honourable Mentions here, read the 1994 Honourable Mentions here, The 1995 Honourable Mentions here, the full New Gen series introduction and #46 – #50 here, read #41 – #45 here, read #36 – #40 here, read #31 – #35 here, read #26 – #30 here, read #21 – #25 here, read #16 – #20 here, read #11 – #15 here, and read #6 – #10 here.

Goldust vs. Roddy Piper in a Hollywood Backlot Brawl, WrestleMania XII

The New Generation Era was a time of cerebral in-ring product and well-developed narrative propelled by robust character development. It took the fiction relatively seriously in its own unique way, while always being prepared to experiment with new ideas – ideas presented carefully, with theatrical gusto but never at the complete expense of good sense.

In this context, the WrestleMania XII Hollywood Backlot Brawl is gloriously singular – a surreal and melodramatic grind-house indulgence in irreverent nonsense. But boy, is it infectious.

Everything about the concept is ludicrous. The action starts, as the match name intimates, around the back of a Hollywood lot where the two men engage in a fracas closely resembling what would go on to become the prototypical ‘Hardcore Match’ of the looming Attitude Era. Parlaying into a car chase that would last the majority of the evening – an outrageously inexplicable moment of creative output even by Vince McMahon’s standards! – the action eventually concludes directly ahead of the show’s main event back in the squared circle, where Goldust eventually takes a drubbing from an outraged Hot Rod.

Absolutely nothing about the idea should work. The hilarious obviousness of the prop-filled beginning, the head-scratching car chase, the lip service towards an actual match back in the ring – that there isn’t even a finish is proof enough of the preposterousness of it all! Instead Goldust, stripped down to his black lingerie no less, simply staggers away, humiliated as he digests his just desserts.

It is a testament to the sheer charisma of both men, then, that it remains a riotously good time to sit and revisit. Does it stand up to even the weaker in-ring elements of the Era? No, of course it doesn’t, but nor is it intended to. It is base entertainment is all, and it’s a breath of fresh air among the New Gen’s business as usual that, to this day, will leave you smiling.

Stone Cold Steve Austin vs. Savio Vega in a King of the Ring Quarter Final, Monday Night Raw, June 17 1996

Austin and Vega had one of the highest quality in-ring rivalries of the entire New Gen Era, their work together strongly represented on the proper list in the form of their Caribbean Strap Match – a breathtaking example of over-achievement in the annals of WWE history, to be sure.

This de facto ‘rubber match’ from an episode of Monday Night Raw (MNR) some months later is considerably less famous, and largely forgotten, yet remains as strong an effort as the two ever put together and, frankly, watches as superior to the also-underrated King of the Ring Semi Final Austin would have with the ‘Wild Man’ Marc Mero on the pay-per-view itself.

While a more straight-forward encounter than the aforementioned Strap Match, more akin to their initial WrestleMania XII bout, this King of the Ring Quarter Final nevertheless plays out with all the aggressive verve of their In Your House (IYH) classic. The bitterness felt by the two combatants towards the other is palpable, evidenced in the zeal with which every move is executed. From chop blocks to right hands, diving clotheslines to knife edge chops, the aesthetic is a tangibly heavy one that takes its toll quite understandably on the two men locked in a fray to advance towards infamy.

The sudden ending may be irksome to some, especially those in tune with the ring product of the Era that so often kicked into a late-game extra gear you never anticipated. Vega and Austin flirt with that extra gear, but ultimately their effort is cut too short in order to reach it. The result is a denial of fame that an extra higher octane final five minutes might have otherwise earned them.

That the bout concludes with the undeniable feeling both individuals ultimately had more left in the tank should not detract from its quality, however. Maximising its minutes successfully, it winks at an original narrative – both men work the other’s knee where normally the method would go only one way – and is a match executed with an intense pace and physicality. Were it on pay-per-view, Austin vs. Vega may very well have boasted two mid card classics rather than it’s still very deserved one.

The Undertaker vs. Mankind in a Buried Alive Match, In Your House 11: Buried Alive

Until researching this column, I never held much love the original Buried Alive Match wrestled between Undertaker and Mankind. Upon revisiting it, however, I discovered there to be a great deal to admire about it.

What prompted the original attempt at reconsideration was the fact that, despite never being spoken about, this match provided a crucial moment in the odyssey of the Undertaker character – despite winning the bout, he would find himself buried alive thereafter and the pay-per-view would go off air with his purple gloved hand rising from beneath the dirt. By the time the next pay-per-view rolled around, being Survivor Series, Undertaker was shorn of his Old West gear and had adopted his more famous black leather garb. In essence, then, this was the curtain call for the original concept of the Dead Man as we had known him.

What a curtain call it proves to be. The humanisation of the Phenom was a gradual process that had started as early as the preceding year but one that only kicked into high gear when the famous Mankind rivalry began. From their original fray at King of the Ring through to the treachery-laced Boiler Room Brawl at Summerslam – as John Carpenter a wrestling match as you’re ever likely to find – throughout the Undertaker had started to disregard more and more of what had made him distinctly him. It was as if Mankind was deconstructing the legend one piece at a time.

The irony is it would culminate in a fresh addition to the Undertaker’s legacy, and it’s worth noting that this first Buried Alive Match remains the best. Its presentation is played straight, macabre and intimidating. Its execution is as violent as its tone – Mankind cracking the back of his skull on metal railings; being driven spine first into the steel steps; being tossed off the mound of dirt; an Undertaker swan diving from the top rope to the outside, over crowd barriers and dropping legs on steel chairs; it’s as violent as their feud would ever get, until the more famous Hell in a Cell Match two years later.

Presented as the first Unsanctioned Match in company history too, it plays true to its narrative preludes – Paul Bearer helps Mankind gain an advantage several times throughout and the Dead Man seems intent on destroying himself as he had promised to do heading in – while ushering in a new chapter in the lives of both characters and their feud. It is, put simply, if not among the best of its Era, still very much essential viewing.

Hunter Hearst Helmsley vs. Goldust for the Intercontinental Championship, Royal Rumble 1997

For the majority of the New Generation Era, Razor Ramon was the steadfast mid card presence, particularly when it came to carrying the Intercontinental Championship. Between 1994 and 1996, the Bad Guy had a trilogy of great IC title defences he could attach to his name, and it therefore seems only fitting that it be the man who defeated him the year before this 1997 Intercontinental title encounter that would pick that proverbial torch up and carry it on.

Goldust easily slotted into the role once occupied by the eventually WCW-aligned Bad Guy and while it could be relatively safely argued that the general quality of his in-ring work was to a lower standard than the superlative Ramon, his character work during that same time remains beyond debate.

It is this transitional element to Goldust’s career, bridging the gap between Ramon and his spiritual successor Helmsley, that marks his challenge for the championship at Royal Rumble 1997 worthy of inclusion as an Honourable Mention here, a match that demonstrates everything alluded to in the preceding paragraph.

It is, admittedly, not the most fun you’ll have watching pro wrestling. It typifies a mid card match of the first half of the Attitude Era – its pace is slower, the action in the ring notably less athletic than the heights of the outgoing New Generation and it attempts to paper over that drop in athleticism with an increase in histrionics. The conclusion is laced with Attitudinal shenanigans and there are plenty of occasions where the two combatants tour ringside and play fast and loose with the universally known rules of a standard singles match. Helmsley’s worst traits as a performer are out in force, bizarrely skewing the narrative to portray the villain as the gutsy competitor fighting his way through a damaged and targeted knee, while the heroic turn of Goldust carries an ugly tone thanks to the implicit marriage it has to his distancing himself from his previous homoerotic actions – the hint being we should cheer him because it turns out he isn’t gay.

It has its upside, though. It has the same cerebral weight that the New Generation built itself upon in the ring, tips its hat to the too-easily forgotten legacy left by Razor Ramon on the Intercontinental Championship and helps remind of Goldust’s integral role in the company’s history, despite its transitional nature.

Bret Hart vs. Psycho Sid for the WWF Championship, Monday Night Raw, February 17 1997

Oh, how I love this little gem.

Its charms may be lost on fans reared on the contemporary product, frankly, because this title defence of the Hitman – the sole title defence of his fourth reign – is over and done with in a relatively short timeframe. In an age where fans are arguably conditioned to believe that a match can only achieve great heights once it’s gone over the twenty minute mark, the brevity of this noticeably athletic encounter between Hart and Psycho Sid is probably going to fail to leave an impression.

This seems unfair to me. Sure, the content alone isn’t enough to propel it to great heights, but it is context, in this case, that proves the work’s secret weapon. It is proof that strong storytelling across a wider spectrum of characters in the fictional universe of the company lasting a prolonged period of time lends extra weight to even the most passing of encounters on television, let alone televised World title matches. The truth is neither Hart nor Sid have to reach far to have the crowds coming out of their seats in this one – the cumulative effect of months of interweaving narratives and character arcs mean that even the simplest of exchanges has the fans dialled in, thanks to a weighty and tangible sense of consequence and meaning behind every exchange.

It is, in that sense, a history lesson for the company and its raft of performers today.

None of this, however, should detract from the credit due an undeniably impressive TV main event. Taking place the night after the Hitman won his fourth World title in the Final Four Match (documented in this column series’ proper list), Hart performs like a man whose body is on the verge of packing in. This eventually translates into an overly aggressive champion, whose actions threaten to betray a sense of desperation and rising resentment. In response, Sid wrestles like a challenger needing to elevate his game, which he does in due course – his leg drop from the middle rope and his sunset flip from the ring apron over the top rope might not be too pretty, but demonstrate an untapped reserve fans won’t be used to seeing from the leviathan monster.

The action is heavy-hitting and robust, but it is the storytelling that transcends.

Interference from Stone Cold Steve Austin helps inform the finish and would go on to fuel an equally bespoke rematch between Hart and Sid weeks later in a Steel Cage – a match best watched immediately after this one, as the second part of a double-bill.

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