I have long been of the opinion that 1997 is, pound for pound, the greatest year in WWF/E history. A unique combination of a growing attitudinal edge to the product, a historical watershed of top New Generation talent evolving or leaving, the unstoppable momentum of Steve Austin, and well-written, slow burning storylines meant that 1997 stands up to rewatches better than any other year of the Wrestlemania Era, at least to this writer’s mind. It was in 1997 that Raw Is War became essential week to week viewing, with a unique array of clever cliffhangers and narrative hooks designed to claw back their audience from the previous two years of WCW supremacy in the Monday Night War. The Road to Wrestlemania XIII is one of the most fascinating story arcs in wrestling lore, filled with twists and turns, real life tensions and hastily re-written plans that ended up actually bettering what was originally supposed to happen.
And yet, the crown jewel of this mini-era, In Your House: Final Four, is criminally neglected. As a pay-per-view, it’s as balanced as you could possibly wish for, with a variety of midcard bouts that each add something to the evening without trying to (loathsome expression) “steal the show” all building up to the lurid and unceasing x-rated violence of the main event gimmick match where a new champion was to be crowned in the wake of Shawn Michaels infamously “losing his smile”. As a historical document, it has all of the antecedents of the Attitude Era whilst still possessing the good old fashioned virtues of characterisation and storytelling that defined the New Generation. In watching it, you can practically see Attitude coming to life in front of your eyes, with the long gestation period of ever increasing edge through 1995 and 1996 finally erupting fully formed ‘Alien’ like from the chest of WWF as 1997 came around.
The show is kicked off in entertaining fashion by Marc Mero and Leif Cassidy (the future Al Snow) who wrestle a simple but well-performed bout based around Cassidy trying to ground Mero, whose shooting star press “Merosault” finisher was being given a reputation at the time. The case of The Wildman is a fascinating one; he had begun to be accompanied to the ring by his then wife Sable, whose sex appeal had begun to get over huge with the young adult males who had begun to make up a decent portion of the Fed’s audience – the Hulkamania generation had become teenagers and twenty somethings, and they wanted something different from their wrestling, and WWF was beginning to oblige them, with Sable and Sunny at the forefront of their mission to promote sex appeal in their female valets. Eventually, after an injury lay off shortly after this show, this phenomenon became the catalyst for a long running storyline whereby Mero became increasingly jealous of his arm candy’s popularity; it was a key early Attitude midcard story that we see the beginnings of here.
A six man tag then pitted the original Nation of Domination up against a makeshift trio of Goldust, Flash Funk and Bart Gunn. Again, this is fascinating from a historical point of view, if not from a pure wrestling perspective! The Nation was a clear sign of the company’s desire to push the envelope, basing their beliefs on those of groups such as the Black Panthers. With the formidable Farooq as the leader, Savio Vega as the wrestler, and Crush as the muscle, as well as their accompanying entourage of hip hop artists and managers, their presence in the midcard was a welcome point of interest as 1997 dawned. All three men they faced had their issues with the upstart stable, with the recently turned face Goldust being the biggest name to tussle with them thus far. You might wonder what on earth Bart Gunn is doing in the match, but believe it or not he was due a big push around this time due to the fact that he was supposedly a legitimate badass outside of wrestling. Flash Funk is also an interesting case in that his entrance and attire clearly anticipates The Godfather by a good couple of years. As six man tags go, it’s fairly generic, but it’s chaotic as these matches still are to this day, and of course, the heels cheat to win.
Things get really interesting with the first feature length encounter between The Rock and Triple H under their old aliases of Rocky Maivia and Hunter Hearst Helmsley. The so called Blue Chipper was already beginning to get cat called at this point for his bland babyface character, whilst the more seasoned Helmsley was growing notably more edgy; still in the Blueblood gear, but increasingly adopting a more aggressive style in the ring, and dropping some of his character’s more fey affectations. Interestingly, in this Intercontinental Title match, their legendary chemistry is very much present even with their characters not quite at their peak yet; as a midcard title match, there is plenty to like about this one, with crisp exchanges and slick counter wrestling, though nothing, of course, of the standard we would see from them a year and a bit down the line. What does make the match stand out is the finish, a wonderful example of shared universe storytelling, whereby Goldust, who was feuding with Hunter at the time, and would do all the way to Wrestlemania that year, distracting The Blueblood long enough for Rocky to catch him with a German suplex for the victory. However, it’s the debut of Chyna immediately afterwards which really lifts the occasion, as the muscle bound amazon grabs the diminutive Marlena from behind in a chokehold, indicating her allegiance to Helmsley. The commentary team call this so convincingly, selling the fact that they do not know who the assailant is, with Ross later reporting that she has been kicked out of the building. As the Road to Wrestlemania dawned, Chyna’s importance to Hunter would become more and more clear. By September of 1997, the first incarnation of D-Generation X was upon us. And it all started here, at Final Four.
Furthermore, there was some fantastic long term storytelling going on in the tag division. WWF had been teasing tension between the dominant team of the era, Owen Hart and Davey Boy Smith, for some months, and that tale was fully explored in a beauty of a contest against the way-ahead-of-their-time Doug Furnas and Phil LaFon (think Team Angle but a good seven years earlier). The threat of the challengers was exacerbated at all times by Owen’s ego and selfishness, which enraged Davey to the point of hitting his finisher on his partner, walking back to the corner, and then only at the last minute breaking up the pin that his retaliation had led to. The match ultimately ended in a disqualification when Owen used a Slammy award to blast La Fon, just as Bulldog was about to powerslam him. This again caused tension as Davey would have won the match legitimately without his team mate’s illegal assistance. WWF kept this rivalry simmering all the way past Wrestlemania, a path which included them meeting in the barnstorming final of a tournament to determine the first WWF European Champion, only to then resist the temptation to break them up and instead make them the first members of Bret Hart’s new heel Hart Foundation, with The Hitman coming out and publicly airing the dirty laundry all three had with each other through the mid 1990s in storyline, but binding them together with the emotive fact that could not be changed- they were family. It’s that kind of long running, powerful storytelling that really stands out about ‘97, especially compared to today.
All of which leads us to the main event; the first prominent four corners match in WWF/E history. How strange that in the few years that followed there would be so many multi-man matches, culminating in the creation of such gimmicks as Elimination Chamber and Money In The Bank in the early Brand Extension era. A four way also closed out Wrestlemania only three years after this. The fact that this one is so hot goes a long way to explaining that, and it’s also a perfect example of using a gimmick to advance the story rather than vice versa; oh for simpler times when less was more. With Austin cheating to win the Rumble in January despite having been eliminated (his elimination went unseen by the refs), and with Shawn Michaels’ tearful forfeiture of the gold (due to an apparent shoot knee injury; Bret and others were dubious about that and saw it as Michaels refusing to do a job to Bret in a big rematch from Wrestlemania XII), the final four of the reverse battle royal were booked in a match where pinfall, submission or going over the top rope would cause elimination, with no DQs or count outs. The last man standing would be champion, facing Sycho Sid the next evening on Raw for the title they’d only just attained. You have to applaud the way Vince and his brain trust were able to change plans on the fly when HBK dropped his bombshell, and the way this match and its aftermath played out led to one of the most iconic roads to Wrestlemania in history.
What you essentially have here is everything that’s fondly remembered about Attitude: gore, brawling, outside interference, swearing, breathless pacing and an intensity that matches anything 1998 to 2002 can offer up. Right from the start, the tone is set by Vader and Austin getting up closer and personal, flipping the bird at each other while rather obviously shouting “F___ you.” As the bell rings, the two feuding pairs (Austin and Bret, Vader and ‘Taker) go right after each other and the brawling is utterly convincing. They look like they despise each other. The no disqualification stipulation comes into effect very early on, with Vader taking The Fink’s chair and setting about The Phenom with it, something that backfires when that very foreign object is viciously booted back into the Mastodon’s face, following that up with a steps shot. Vader is soon bleeding like a stuck pig; he’s legitimately busted open rather than the blood being the consequence of a blade job; the visual of the cut eye and masked face smeared in claret is arresting and gives the bout that brutal feel from the off. Meanwhile, Austin and Hart have heated right back to volcano point; this bout is the vital bridge between the singles matches at Survivor Series and Wrestlemania, and they really work a hard hitting, yet relatively technical style as the two hosses in their midst smash the holy hell out of each other. People forget that this was Austin’s first WWF main event and his first WWF title shot; he performs brilliantly, debutant or not. Watching Stone Cold around this time, his starpower is just so blindingly obvious, even if you didn’t know that a year later he would be the biggest name in the business.
When the four begin to mix more freely and organically, there are high spots a-plenty: Austin is backdropped onto the concrete while trying to execute a powerbomb on ‘Taker, Bret is hurled like a baseball into the steel steps by Vader, Bret superplexes the 450ib Vader in an incredible display of power and technical ability and Austin hits a top rope clothesline that shows just how agile he was before his neck injury. The eliminations don’t really come until the match has been running for a long while; this effectively builds suspense for the crowd, as the four men seem inseparable. The entire finish hinges around Stone Cold being the first man out; surprisingly he goes quietly, but then returns to viciously assault Bret Hart just as Undertaker is uppercutting Vader over the top rope. As the referees get the Mastodon down the aisle, Austin continues his assault on Hart. The ironic twist is that the Texan’s interference actually helps the Pink and Black Attack to win, as a frustrated Deadman tries to remove Austin from the apron, leaving himself open to the clothesline that eliminates him. Bret Hart wins his fourth WWF title, and moves onto Sid, who comes out at the end to press his claim.
As well as being a luridly brilliant wrestling match in its own right, Final Four set in motion a chain of memorable events that culminated in the epic submission match at Wrestlemania XIII, and what people forget about that build was the fact that all four of these men were up in each others’ business right up to the go home show; who would wrestle for the title did not fall into place until the last minute. Ultimately, Austin and Hart would perform the double turn theyn will forever be remembered for, whilst Sid lost his title to The Undertaker after the newly heel Hitman interfered. By the time the post-Wrestlemania show Revenge of the Taker came around, we were effectively living in The Attitude Era, and so the importance of a show like Final Four really can’t be underestimated.
I’ve never really considered how many of my readers watch a lot of back catalogue; for me, it’s the single most attractive thing about the WWE Network. It’s not only going back to watch the shows I loved when I was younger, it also affords the opportunity to really understand history and how certain things came to be. So if you’re looking for February shows to go back and watch in these early stages of the Road to Wrestlemania, do yourself a favour and check this one out. At an hour and 43 minutes it’s not going to tax too much of your time, and as well as being an incredibly balanced and enjoyable show, it contains so many fascinating historical wrinkles that you’d have to regard as must see. For me, it’s the very best WWF/E pay-per-view that nobody ever talks about.
This is Maverick, requesting flyby.
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