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It probably wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the WWF in the middle of 1996 were looking for something; anything to help them out of a rut. With Bret Hart on hiatus, and Kevin Nash and Scott Hall not only no longer under contract, but also beginning to tear it up in Atlanta, the WWF were short of star power. More than that, though, they were really short of hope. Shawn Michaels finally had a clear run on top, but no-one to face. Vader, through nobody’s fault but the company’s itself, was falling a little flat, and they were looking to stars from the past like Jake Roberts and The Ultimate Warrior just to fill in gaps of their talent. And then, and this should hardly come as much of a surprise, Warrior got suspended.
The suspension was contentious, Warrior no-showed some events following a legal dispute and the death of his father. The relationship between him and Vince McMahon had deteriorated (again) and Warrior was on suspension. Even though he was working some brief matches at live events, there was no doubt that he was still a big draw – as was indicated when his return to Raw in April spiked a record rating in a rare week where Nitro wasn’t airing. Warrior’s flame was burning out, quickly, but at least he had one. The timing of the suspension, at the very end of June, also preceded by a few weeks a planned main event that featured him alongside Shawn Michaels and Ahmed Johnson.
So, in a time of need, who do you call? Well, the first man they called was Bret Hart – as you would. I mean, the July pay per view was in Canada after all, and it was following on the coat-tails of another six-man main event with a mystery third member. Still, Bret was in the middle of a well-earned period of time away – even if the story of him having Shawn’s back actually might have worked well here. One they couldn’t work out a deal with Bret, the cupboard was already looking pretty bare. But Sid.
It’s possible that no man that has been pushed so much based on look alone has had so little to back it up. Yet, wherever Sid went he was pushed: he went from being a Horseman in WCW, to a Wrestlemania main eventer against Hulk Hogan in 1992, back to being the star in waiting at the end of 1993 before a fight with Arn Anderson saw him fired. In 1995 he returned to the WWF to be a heavy for Shawn Michaels, but quickly went it alone when Shawn’s babyface turn became an inevitability. He and Diesel had a feud that was just dreadful, and he spent the rest of the time being just a really flat heel as a part of the Million Dollar Corporation that just seemed to be stable of losers. He lasted until the very first Raw in 1996, before leaving after suffering a neck injury. At that stage, he wasn’t over, nor was he any good.
But, needs must. Vince McMahon put in the call and rustled up Sid on short notice. With all of the TV taped ahead of the pay per view, the best they could do was a teaser throughout Raw from a studio with Shawn and Ahmed teasing their opponent before revealing him at the end. On the week before the show they managed to film an angle at a live event that saw Michaels and Johnson get lead into a three on two trap only for Sid to steam in from right of screen in a car, wipe out a load of pallets and just get there as the heels had left. In the circumstances of two taped shows, they’d worked miracles to have two weeks works on angles that not only worked but actually probably did a better job at getting Sid over than anything they’d done the year prior. Still, a pay per view in Canada – they’d have to start all over again, right?
The card itself was a five match show with well, not very much on the undercard. The month after Steve Austin won King Of The Ring he was facing Marc Mero as he descended down the card for the next few months. Mankind and Undertaker, who’s feud was now in full swing, took a break from each other in matches against Henry O’Godwin and Goldust respectively and opening up was the never ending black hole of the WWF’s tag division in 1996 with the Smoking Gunn’s facing The Bodydonnas. As was obvious a mile off – where you’re short on talent and you put them all in the six man main event – don’t be surprised if the rest of the card sucks. Still, we were in Canada, and they wanted somebody to cheer…
And then Sid came out. Maybe it was fans just looking for someone fresh to cheer? Maybe it was respect for a guy who was a former Wrestlemania main eventer. Maybe it was just the only guy they liked – as we’d see later in the year Shawn was really struggling to win over the male section of the audience. But somewhere the people of Vancouver got the memo – Sid was the biggest babyface in the building.
The match itself was barmy, given plenty of time to breath and all six guys having their working boots on it went the better part of 25 minutes. In front of a hot crowd everyone had an incentive to make this match work – and it did. Even Vader, who as I’ve written previously was usually booked pretty badly, was on the receiving end of a positive, pinning Michaels after Jim Cornette had cut off his attempt at hitting a sweet chin music. Still, Sid was the guy left standing at the end, hitting both Owen and Bulldog with powerbombs to send the crowd home happy.
But one night would be a freak, right? The next day they flew from Vancouver to Seattle for Raw tapings – Sid appeared twice and again, with no real explanation, received a heroes welcome. Finding an explanation is not a particularly easy one. This wasn't 2-3 years later, where there were so many over guys it oftentimes translated into everyone being over. This was the pits of 1996 – but maybe that is the point. With Bret away, Diesel and Razor gone, fans just yearned for someone to cheer for – while Shawn was on top he wasn't exactly the first round pick for many adult males who watched the product.
Maybe it was just the thing it always was, Sid *looked* like a star. Not when he was in the ring, mind – not that it particularly mattered in this era. But if Sid looked like a star, and he smelt like a star, and his star burned (if feintly) more brightly than everyone elses... then he was a star, right? That was all that mattered. Never mind his matches were often dreadful, nor that his promos often made no sense... it all added to the aura of Sid Eudy, and in the midst of 1996 that's all he really needed.
Fascinating to think, though, is what happens if Warrior doesn't fall out with Vince and the company? Talk about a guy who's star burned brightly, Warrior's shelf life in 1996 was always beginning to feel coming to a close barely weeks after he started. He no-sold Triple H's pedigree at Wrestlemania, popped a monster TV rating a couple of weeks later then "wrestled" (and I use that term loosely) one of the worst matches of the year – all in the space of about four weeks. Come the end of June Warrior's main use was really as a house show "attraction", another term I'd use loosely – less to do with his drawing power and more to do with the scope of matches they were putting on.
The other player in all of this was Vader. Vader was on a stop/start lift straight to the top, well... if you ignored the fact he was often losing at house shows (usually to Warrior) and the booking of his run to that point had been pretty ropey. If you squinted hard enough you might just be able to make out a mega-push of the WWF's top heel. Still, he was up to facing Shawn Michaels at Summerslam, time to make amends?
Well Vader won... then he won again... problem was the first was by count out and the second by disqualification. Both times the match was restarted – he then kicked out of a superkick (a rare feat in itself) before overplaying his hand after Jim Cornette convinced him to go for a moonsault rather than a Vader bomb. Michaels moved and pinned Vader. Again – Vader had an "out" (he always did) but much like Lex Luger three years earlier, he'd done everything but win the title.
Vader and Sid came to a head in October in a "Battle of the Powerbombs" match to decide the number one contender. Plans at the time called for Vader to face Shawn again at Survivor Series, but after JJ Dillon traded a WWF office position for one in WCW, it was allegedly decided to change route because "WCW would know our plans". This, of course, sounds like bullshit – but it wouldn't be the first time they were doing something that made no sense. There was also the title of December's pay per view "In Your House: It's Time", that seemed to point to Vader being in a top spot.
As it was, in the battle of the move that neither man could do on the other, Sid defeated Vader via a chokeslam. The problems for Vader had started a lot sooner, but there's a case that his run was probably still salvageable at this stage – the beauty behind booking someone quite well is you can heat them up and just showcase the times you got it right. But once he lost to Sid it was probably too late. Things were moving forward at a pace with Bret Hart returning and picking out Steve Austin as his opponent for Survivor Series.
It set Sid, suddenly, on a collision course with Shawn Michaels at Survivor Series. The Michaels story of 1996 is actually a strange one. WWF’s business went up in 1996 as they had their best year since Hulk Hogan departed, Michaels himself had a phenomenal year on top of the company and, in some ways, probably kept them afloat. It’s actually hard to comprehend how bad the WWF would have had it in 1996 had Michaels not been around or got injured. The summer of 1996 was, in some ways, dreadful. Raw’s were frequently irrelevant and often awful, but Michaels was a rare consistent light and again, it should be repeated – business was decent in 1996.
But this was 1996, and traditional metrics like house show sales and pay per view buyrates mattered less given that Raw was being beaten soundly by Nitro on a weekly basis, a problem exacerbated in May when Nitro went to two hours. As it was later described about 8-9 months later when Raw moved to two hours; Raw running 8-9pm while Nitro ran 8-10pm basically meant Raw was just acting as a great lead-in for Nitro’s second hour.
It all added up, Shawn was doing well but one man alone wasn’t capable of combating Nitro on a wave of ex-WWF talent. Michaels, as he would later testify, was also being worn down by WWF’s relentless schedule – one not necessarily unique to him as it would’ve arguably been a lot worse for Hulk Hogan a decade prior, but more that Michaels’ desire to put on a show ever night without any real backup (Hogan did it with an infinitely stronger ensemble cast) meant that things just unravelled.
Which made his match against Sid at Madison Square Garden an interesting one. It always seemed the plan that Shawn would be the man “returning the favour” for Bret at Wrestlemania in 1997, but Shawn holding the title for a year, barring an exceptionally strong run, seemed almost counter-productive. Once the Vader experiment had fallen short then step in Sid? The fact that Survivor Series would be held in New York provided an interesting backdrop for a champion babyface who was starting to wane on the fans and an act in Sid who couldn’t accurately be described as a heel or a face.
As it turned out, in the face of a crowd that probably at best started split when it came to who they favoured ended the match almost unanimously pro-Sid as Shawn’s male stripper act waned on the predominantly male section of the North Eastern fanbase. The evolving reaction added a level of fascination to an astonishingly good match. Sid, for all of his flaws and whirling punches did have an extra gear he could deploy when the time was right. Add that to a rabid crowd, a big match and the best performer in wrestling of 1996 and the match (arguably) was more impressive than the critically lauded Bret Hart vs Steve Austin match that happened earlier in the evening.
As it was, they had decided this was the right time to change the title. Before the month was out the company had formally announced that January’s Royal Rumble would be held in the 70,000 seat Alamodome in San Antonio – something on the surface was a ridiculous idea given the position of the company at the time. Still, San Antonio was Shawn Michaels’ home town, which made him a lock for the main event but also pretty much dictated that for the match to have any anticipation that he would have to go in as challenger, rather than champion.
So he lost. Michaels' manager Jose Lothario climbed on the apron, only for Sid to attack him, before Sid then lamped Shawn with a TV camera and pinned him following a powerbomb. Sid got a huge pop and we had a new champion. The angle was devised with the idea of at least attempting to keep/move Sid to being a heel – which given that his potential opponents as Champion (Bret, Undertaker and Shawn in his home town) did make some sense. It also gave Shawn the opportunity to have another conveniently scheduled period of time off, setting up Sid for a match with Bret at December's PPV.
The thing with motivating Sid for a big match is that well... if he doesn't want it, there's not much you can do. His match against Bret at December's In Your House Pay Per View was by any standards really bad (although, it should be said, Bret was not blameless in that capacity). It was a snoozer, complete with listless Shawn Michaels commentary and a really bad finish (Bret crashing into Shawn who inexplicably found himself on the apron) before Sid hit him with a powerbomb for the three. It was the latest in a string of events that would eventually set up a Bret Hart heel turn but in the short term setup Shawn chasing Sid for the title entering the Royal Rumble in San Antonio.
Trying to fill a 70,000 seat venue was a huge ask – hell it's a huge ask 20 years on and WWE are in a far stronger position now. The WWF threw everything they could at the problem: blacking out the PPV in the Greater-San Antonio area, booking a series of Mexican talent popular in the area and Terry Funk and also selling tickets at (by any standards) incredibly cheaply – lots less than $10 along with a heavily papered building. They ended up getting to 62,000 people – which regardless of how they got there was a phenomenal achievement and one that made things look major league for the first time since Hulk Hogan was with the company.
Despite all the build, despite the fractured response Shawn often received, come time for the match it was heavily pro-Shawn and heavily anti-Sid – in that sense, job done. The match wasn't close to their one two months prior, owing in part to Shawn being ill, but the crowd were into this match far more than anything else on the show, and popped big when Shawn regained the title from Sid.
But much like Sid's reign was only designed to get the belt back to Shawn, it seems like the medium term coming out of this show was for Shawn to drop the belt back to Sid before Wrestlemania, with plans calling for the Shawn vs Bret rematch not to be for the title, enabling them to give the Undertaker/Sid title match equal billing on the card. That was the plan right up until "Thursday Raw Thursday" in February, where things changed quite quickly!
Quite who or what you believe will be down to your own levels of cynicism – suffice to say that Shawn told the company within 24 hours of the show that he would be forfeiting the title, ostensibly to have surgery on his knee that would see him out of action indefinitely. Shawn cut a promo that the live promo reacted to proportionately (by chanting "We want Sid") before leaving the ring and the title with Gorilla Monsoon. While there are no wider doubts over Shawn's knee problems – he'd been wrestling with knee braces on for a couple of years prior – the severity of the problem and perhaps more pertinently the immeadiacy of them cast doubts. Wrestling was full of talent who worked hurt for the "greater good", couldn't Shawn work through Wrestlemania then take the time off to get healed?
If you want to be a bit more cynical, Shawn – as he often would – was creating or exaggerating to avoid dropping the title that he held. As he did in 1993, as he did in 1994, as he did in 1995 – in fact the only title in the three and a half years that we'd been doing the show Shawn lost in the ring was the defeat to Sid three months prior. Funny that. Whether he was wanting to avoid jobbing to Sid on that Raw, Bret at Wrestlemania or (most likely) both. Shawn's knee surgery story along with his general state of mind at the time (said to be a lot of things, few of them particularly positive) - probably added up the most likely version of events.
So the WWF pivoted quickly, axing the planned title match for that Raw, changing Sunday's number one contender four-way between Bret, Austin, Undertaker and Vader into a title match and then guaranteeing Sid a shot a the victor the Monday after. After one of the best WWF matches in years, Bret won the title by dumping Undertaker over the top rope to start his forth title reign. That lasted 24 hours when Sid defeated Bret thanks to interference from Steve Austin – who slipped into the role of Bret's Wrestlemania opponent quite nicely in Shawn's absence.
It was a hell of a lot of work to get there – Sid would have to fend off Bret once again in a title match six days prior to Wrestlemania, in what has to go down as one of the most bizarre builds to a Wrestlemania ever, thanks in large part to a shift to Raw being two hours that threw existing taping schedules completely out of whack. While previously taping three or four Raw's at once, the doubling of the length meant they needed to add in extra dates at short notice – which would've been fine except the venues didn't really exist, and tours of Europe did. It all leant itself to a really odd build that focussed on, of all things, ECW and less on the matches themselves. The fact that Sid faced Bret in a title match a week prior to the show tells you a lot of what you need to know – the fact the buyrate for the show was the lowest for Wrestlemania by some distance says much more.
Not that it would likely have changed the result, but one thing that didn't work in Sid's favour was the TV rating of a match on March 3rd – taped in Berlin – against Mankind. The show, a dingy affair that drew the lowest non-holiday Raw rating in history, was complete by the title match in the middle of the show that drew a 1.5 segment rating, losing by 3 whole ratings points to a segment on Nitro that was so bad the previously impenetrable Roddy Piper ended up being booed. Sid was on a losing path headed into Wrestlemania as it was, but it really didn't help.
Still, Sid vs Undertaker was given the main event billing, something that in the shadow of a phenomenal match between Bret Hart and Steve Austin it was never likely to fit. Thanks to a warm crowd, multiple Bret Hart interferences and a ludicrous (for the time) spot where Sid countered the Tombstone into one of his own the match never got to the point where it was flat, but not for the first time Sid was the fall guy – dropping the title to Undertaker after one interference from Bret too many.
It's hard to put a final point on the Sid run. In some ways he was the beneficiary of circumstances right up until the time he wasn't. Plucked out of a softball league into a main event spot in the middle of one of the company's flattest runs ever, Sid was for a while the character the WWF had been lacking. But once he got swallowed up by politics and the necessities of cowering to more important acts, the one dimension that Sid had going for him fell apart. Ultimately, though, Sid was Sid – an incredibly limited character pushed because of his look and size – he was never going to be a wrestler a company could build themselves around (although, more the shame we never got to see WCW try three years earlier) - but he was still and important act at a very transitional time for the WWF.
But that was always the way with Sid - he got pushed because of how he looked and, to an extent, his presence both in and out of the ring. Sid came on the tail end of the final era where size really mattered, and it's no real coincidence that people kept putting him in big spots, because the audiences by and large were always willing to accept him there. For a brief time in 1996 the WWF audience were willing to accept him as exactly that. And while he will be, by the defintion of the term, viewed as a two-time transitional champion in that term, he was more generally a "transitional" champion in the sense that between July 1996 and April 1997 a lot changed in the WWF.