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Say the year "1995" to any wrestling fan and they'll either stare at you blankly or recoil in horror. Sure, Nitro started in 1995 but in the documentaries the story quickly skips forward to the debut of Scott Hall in 1996. The truth is that 1995 was a horrid year for wrestling on a national level in the United States, and the WWF more than pulled its weight in those stakes. Never has a company misused such a high proportion of its roster (although 2015 WWE is getting very close) and never has the WWE quite stared financial oblivion in the face. Perhaps the only positive was that the end of 1995 showed the briefest, smallest of shoots for recovery.
It was a year that was meant to crown Diesel as a star, as the next Hulk Hogan. Instead, the company worked hard to either put him with feuds against other babyfaces that would siphon his popularity (Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels) or big, lumbering heels that could match up with Nash on size, but could not match-up with him on delivering a big time match. I could dedicate this entire article to Diesel's title run, but I've written 4,200 words on that here.
Things don't get much better as you look around the card. WWF had a massive imbalance when it came to money faces and money heels, not helped by the fact that by the end of April they had taken their two big heels from Wrestlemania (Shawn Michaels and Bam Bam Bigelow), and turned them both. Shawn – who's rise was perhaps the only positive in the company all year – was an excusable decision. But turning Bam Bam – who was one of the few big heels in the company that could have got a workable match out of the champion, was quite another. Worse still was Diesel vs Bam Bam drawing a 3.9 rating (Raw's highest to date) in a WWF title match in April – 5 minutes later they turned Bam Bam and destined him to a downward spiral that within six months would see him go from Wrestlemania main eventer to mid-card enhancement talent to basically vanished from the company. Worse still, in six months people seemed to stop caring about him. You can read more about Bam Bam's decline here.
For their big show of the year the WWF turned to Bigelow as they decided that former NFL Linebacker Lawrence Taylor was the answer to their issues in finding a big name to headline Wrestlemania. Taylor and Bam Bam did a fine job building a rivalry out of nothing, and the match more than delivered, but Taylor didn't equal buys and the pay per view will go down as one of WWF's worst on record. Bret Hart vs Bob Backlund was abysmal, Undertaker vs King Kong Bundy no better. Even Diesel vs Shawn, while good, was a disappointment of a match to cap off the disappointment of a feud that could, and should have delivered so much more.
The company made simply too many mistakes when it came to pushing guys, particularly heels. Sid Vicious wasn't the right act to be opposing Diesel at a time where Diesel desperately needed to find traction as champion. But the choice of Mabel – over the dozens of other options – to be Diesel's big opponent headed into Summerslam was one that made no sense at the time, let alone 20 years later. Jeff Jarrett, a man pushed beyond his station, was on the cusp of something in the summer with The Roadie, before the pair walked out and cut that storyline off dead in its tracks.
More perplexing though wasn't the hideously small list of talent they decided to push, but the long list of talent that they didn't. Coming into 1995 the top end of their heel roster included Yokozuna, Owen Hart and Bob Backlund. Hardly the most stellar of line-ups but that was the hand they dealt themselves in 1994. There was a big question hanging over whether Owen could transition having a great feud with Bret to a great feud with someone who didn't share his name. More abhorrent than him failing was the company decision not to even give him the chance to succeed.
But with a list of babyfaces as long as your arm (seriously: Diesel, Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, The Undertaker, Bam Bam Bigelow and Razor Ramon) the company could hardly complain they lacked popular workers. But such a one sided roster leant itself to a number of issues, largely being nobody on the heel side to work with, but also being stacked lower and lower down the card. Undertaker instead got lumbered with one bad feud after another; Bret Hart went from being the mid-card champion of 1994 to the champion of the mid-card in 1995. With Diesel on top, and Bret, Shawn and Taker all popular babyfaces, the hard work had been done.
Imagine a heel roster than contained Owen Hart, the hideously misused Shane Douglas, Razor Ramon (who, incredibly, wasn't the man to turn heel in his feud with the 123 Kid, which defies belief) and Bam Bam Bigelow. The company could've had their rotation of enticing match-ups with even a modicum of forward planning a good eyes for talent. Failing that, they could've bit the bullet and turned Diesel. Diesel as a heel with a conveyor belt of babyfaces could've given them over a year's worth of hot angles. By the time they worked this out it was already too late.
Instead Bret Hart was left picking the mid-card for scraps. Against Hakushi and Jean-Pierre Lafitte he proved, if it ever needed proving, that he was about as good as it got once you put him in the ring with someone capable. But too often his mid-card feuds fell flat – the abomination with Backlund at Mania, the never ending program with Jerry Lawler and Isaac Yankem. His program with Lafitte was literally: "Lafitte stole my jacket".
But if Bret thought he had it bad the treatment of Undertaker was far worse. Convinced that Undertaker was money only against guys of similar size, he was crowbarred into programs with Mabel, Bundy, IRS and Kama. The legend of the Undertaker, when he eventually does retire, will forget large swathes of his early run, but not many people will appreciate how close 1995 came to doing lasting damage to the character – few, other than Mark Calaway, could've survived it.
If there was one positive in 1995 it has to be that of Shawn Michaels. While his babyface turn was an inconvenience for the champion, it was an unavoidable one for the company. Michaels was simply too popular and too good to stay hated any longer. After a superstar performance at the Royal Rumble, he went through the year as one of the company's most consistent performers, having an excellent match against Jeff Jarrett, and another great ladder match with Razor Ramon. It was also the year that saw him get attacked by nine marines in Syracuse, and take part in a memorable "collapse" on Monday Night Raw.
People might think it's hard to mention this much about 1995 without talking about The Kliq... but they probably don't feature quite as much as you might think. From a newsletter standpoint they only turn up in November and, while their influence was undoubtedly felt, there's a good case that the main damage they did was in cutting people off (see Bam Bam, Douglas and others) rather than necessarily being able to improve their own positions massively.
Shawn was a star, Kliq or no Kliq. Diesel was getting a superstar push even at the 1994 Royal Rumble and, really, how much influence could the Kliq have had? Would anyone in their right mind produce the litany of opponents for Diesel given the choice? If the group were that smart wouldn't they be pushing for the likes of Bam Bam Bigelow to get a shot up the card so Diesel had someone good to work with?
Razor Ramon, too, another guy who in many respects had a hideous 1995. If the Kliq had that much power couldn't they have saved him from a listless year feuding with Jeff Jarrett and The 123 Kid (you might think 1995 Hall vs X-Pac was money, you'd be wrong). For all the talk that the Kliq had a massive amount of influence, at best you could describe it as massively counterproductive, and worst hideously misguided. If the idea was to stop anyone stealing their spots, it worked. If the idea was for each of the members to make the most money for themselves by stopping people from stealing the top spots – it was an awful miscalculation.
While the quality of pay per views lunged from bad to absolutely horrendous – only really recovering late in the year, not-so-coincidentally around the time Diesel lost the title – their TV outputs were actually pretty solid. Certainly, compared to the three hour marathons 20 years later there's something to be said for an hour program, even with WWF's wide range of quality, being far more watchable. TV matches often did a far better job pitching people against each other who could work – Jarrett and Undertaker, Razor and Owen, Bam Bam and Diesel – it's not clear why this same attitude wasn't adopted when assembling pay per view cards, or why guys like Mabel and Sid featured far less frequently in TV main event than they did pay per view matches.
As for the pay per views, the bar became so low that even the mediocre stuck out as being good. King Of The Ring, while shambolically booked, at least had the edge on In Your House 4 in that is was almost so bad you needed to see it. For all of the histrionics surrounding King Of The Ring, up against a couple of horrendous WCW efforts there's a decent case it wasn't even in the worst three pay per views of the year.
Elsewhere, things varied. Wrestlemania was a big disappointment, but still probably in the upper half of efforts. The In Your House shows (other than 4 – horrid, and 5 – surprisingly enjoyable despite having very little of substance before the main event) can probably be given a pass given that they were priced differently, and at the minimum always included a Bret Hart or Shawn Michaels match, often worth the bulk of the $15 price tag alone.
It was also a year that peddled a ridiculous amount of "characters", Vince McMahon's idea of progression seemingly was throwing shit at the wall and seeing what stuck. Mantaur, Aldo Montoya, Avatar, Henry 'O' Godwinn, The Blu Brothers, Kwang, Isaac Yankem DDS joined the cast of the whacky and the wonderful with perplexing lower card gimmicks, that never game them a chance.
All in all, 1995 is definitely a year WWF fans and officials alike want to forget. Business tanked, the product in large part stunk (although the Raws are very watchable, if somewhat unremarkable), the direction was awful, the decision making saw ten misses for even the remotest hit. Diesel might be used to sum up the WWF in 1995, but Bam Bam Bigelow's fall from Wrestlemania main event to obscurity in less than six months was the sign of a company that simply wasn't well.
But, at least, there were a few signs of hope headed into 1996. Diesel, after he dropped the title, gained back the heel edge he lost when he became champion. Undertaker, after a year treading water was finally being featured in the main event. Him, Diesel, Bret and Shawn was a tantalising top four headed into the New Year. And with Steve Austin signed, and Cactus Jack very close behind, the WWF had just made two of their most important talent acquisitions.