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When I first started this 20 years ago project we were in the middle of 1993, half way through a year long WCW title reign by the then “Big Van” Vader. After a barnburning match with Cactus Jack at Halloween Havoc, Vader lost the title to Ric Flair in a great matchup at Starrcade in 1993. Vader would never truly return to the top in WCW, especially once Hulk Hogan arrived, but when a fight with Paul Orndorff saw Vader ending up fired, there was a behemoth free agent ready to go at the beginning of 1996.
WWF, as we have documented at length on both the podcasts and here in 1995 were woefully short on the heel side, with King Mabel and Psycho Sid being used as opponents for the babyface champion Diesel. At the year became 1996 WWF’s four top performers were all babyfaces in some way or form, The road could not be more perfect for the arrival of Vader, who was announced on the first Raw in 1996 to be debuting at the Royal Rumble later in the month.
There was a good case that Vader could’ve easily have won the Rumble that night. Much like prior editions of the match there was only a handful of likely winners, and given the weeks of television dedicated to deciding his future, there wasn’t ever really going to be any other winner than Shawn Michaels. That all being said, Vader’s debut had been highly impressive if somewhat short. So far, so good.
But if things were good at the Rumble, they were great the following night on Raw. Vader got into a shoving match with Interim President Gorilla Monsoon, Vader dropped him to the mat then laid him out with a Vaderbomb. It was a fantastic angle that presented Vader as a beast, at a time where laying your hands on any kind of authority figure (be that Nick Bockwinkel or Gorilla Monsoon) was unheard of. It also provided WWF with due cause to suspend Vader so he could go away and have shoulder surgery.
The plan, as it was outlined at the time, was to have Vader return after Wrestlemania. With Shawn and Bret basically being the only major selling point of the show, and promising to take up well over half of it, there was due cause not to rush their big signing back too soon and get him ready for his first major feud.
Which, of course, is exactly what they didn't do. Despite being suspended Vader's name was never too far from our screens. With Roddy Piper filling in for Monsoon as the WWF President, he and Jim Cornette got into a really heated promo exchange at February's In Your House (one that gave the ring crew the time to assemble the cage for the main event). Piper said: "Someone tell Vader that's not where your jockstrap goes... or maybe it your case that’s where it should be". We left with the promise of Vader and Yokozuna as a marque match at Wrestlemania, but that's one we'd end up waiting a little while for.
As for whether Yokozuna was a good program for Vader it's difficult to say. WWE's roster wasn't exactly thick at the top end by that stage – there were enough babyfaces but they were all tied up largely with each other. Shawn and Bret were in a face vs face Wrestlemania main event, and The Undertaker was taking on Diesel – a man himself who was starting a long overdue heel turn right as he handed in his notice with the company. Vader needed to be bought in as a monster, but Vince McMahon wanting to protect his star attractions probably quite rightly kept Vader out of their immediate path.
But whether Yokozuna, a guy who had turned babyface a couple of months earlier, who had fallen from relevance in the 18 months prior, was the best bet is difficult to say. It created the prospect of an intriguing match between two massive guys, but it also presented a guy that Vader couldn't do a lot with. As it was, Wrestlemania they were bundled into a six man tag – Vader teaming with Bulldog and Owen Hart, Yokozuna with Ahmed Johnson and Jake Roberts. The match was fine – Vader won and even made the pin, but it was the latest step in presenting Vader as a (very good) mid card act. But still - a mid card act.
One thing that Vader seemed to struggle with, perhaps more than anything else, was momentum. After Wrestlemania he wasn't instantly put into a feud with Michaels, in fact, he was some way down the pecking order. News of the imminent departure of Diesel meant that the planned summer-long program with Michaels had been curtailed into one match (a bloody good one at that, too), but when Vince McMahon went looking for a replacement he turned to Davey Boy Smith who'd been reheated so many times by this stage he was essentially a bowl of cold baked beans.
Vader was instead put against Razor Ramon – another guy soon to be on his way to WCW and another one who was on a hiding to nothing. One thing about Scott Hall that became clear in his last few months in the WWF (along with WCW down the stretch) is that the difference between a motivated Scott Hall and an unmotivated Scott Hall is pretty stark. Hall's timely suspension in the immeadiate aftermath of him announcing he would be leaving for WCW meant that come two months later he wouldn't appear on TV once to promote the match with Vader, it was about as cold as you could get.
The match itself actually wasn't that bad. Vader throwing hard strikes is rarely dull, but if you were expecting a one-sided squash with Ramon on his way out you'd be wrong. The match was actually quite an even contest – Ramon even kicked out of the Vader bomb. Vader did win "cleanly", although sitting on Ramon after a backdrop was hardly a ringing endorsement. Despite defeating one of the most popular babyfaces in the company this was still quite a flat moment.
But again, when you talk "presentation" the important thing to remember is that you can't ignore the small things. If you watch a tightly enough edited package of Vader's run in the WWF you might wonder why he was so cold, such was the strength of some of his moments. In the weeks following Wrestlemania Vader attached Yokozuna so badly they had to use a forklift to drag him to an awaiting ambulance. Vader completed the attack by beating him with a chair as he was about to get in the ambulance. Strong stuff.
But away from television and you begin to see how Vader was treated a bit more questionably. A series of house show matches with Warrior were frequently very short, with DQ and sometimes clean losses. Some it makes sense... Vader didn't work the kind of house schedule with WCW that was asked of him in the WWF, nor was he really built for it. As Shawn Michaels once protested after being pummeled by Vader during a live event: you can't work like that on our schedule. As we documented in our July 1996 WWF show, it was during a series of house show matches with Vader that Warrior's relationship with the company irreparably fell apart.
On television, Vader was getting geared up for his big showdown with Yokozuna. The angle in April on Raw was writing off Yoko so he could go to Fat Camp. Reports claimed that Yokozuna on his return was telling people he'd lost 50 pounds (as Craig on our podcast said: "did he lose his wallet?"). If you were being polite you'd say that Yokozuna looked exactly as he did when he left, but this entire run you can help but be sad at how his weight problems just spiral – the Yokozuna of 1996 was nothing on the WWF champion of three years prior when it came to his in ring work. Still, his facial expressions were still unparalled.
The match itself actually didn't happen the first time, as the power went out at the now imfamous "In Your House: Beware Of Dog" show. Vader, like most of his non-televised matches, lost that one too. They went again two days later in the pay per view replay. There were no grandeurs of trying to make it anything more than the sum of its parts, and it featured a lot of stalling and a significant three point stance face-off spot. Vader won, but only after pulling Cornette out of harms way from a Banzai drop before pinning Yokozuna. Again, Vader “won” – they more than had plausible deniability that they were booking him fine. Again, though, read between the lines.
Still, in the two years previous the King Of The Ring winner had gone on to face the WWF Champion at Summerslam. With Hunter Hearst Helmsley in the dog-house following the Curtain Call, surely it was Vader’s time? Instead they chose Steve Austin – a move that in hindsight seems like a no brainer – but Vader was a far more logical choice. The ref bump -> DQ was, by any standards, hideously unsatisfying. Still, though, Vader hadn’t “lost”, right?
The DQ loss aside, it seemed like plans had turned far enough to at least prepare for Vader vs Shawn Michaels were in motion. Firstly, the matter of a filler pay per view in Canada teaming Vader, Owen Hart and Yokozuna against the unlikely trio of Shawn Michaels, Ahmed Johnson and the Ultimate Warrior. Well, until Warrior got himself suspended.
That ended up turning the show in a vastly different direction as Warrior’s replacement, Sid, received an inexplicable babyface reaction on his first in-ring appearance in nearly a year. Sid’s hero’s welcome gave the lengthy match enough juice to prop up not the first or the last one-match In Your House pay per views. After Jim Cornette grabbed Michaels’ leg going for the sweet chin music, Vader hit a Vader bomb for a clean-ish win over the champ. Decisive it wasn’t, but it was a logical step ahead of Summerslam.
Shawn Michaels himself was having a weird year. Not to say that winning his first championship and being involved in consistently excellent matches was weird, more that other than a three week programme with Diesel most of his feuds had been really, really dull. With Bret it was about respect and conditioning (yawn) and with Bulldog it surrounding his supposed infactuation with Davey's wife, Diana. With Vader? Things seemed to be more focussed surrounding both of the managers involved. In the case of Vader, this involved Jim Cornette – which was good. In the case of Shawn, this involved Jose Lothario... less good.
The match, it should be said, was really rather excellent. Say what you want about Shawn Michaels in 1996, but he really had his working boots on unencumbered at the top end of the roster. Vader too, who hadn’t been involved a match of this magnitude since facing Hogan at the beginning of 1995, worked hard two and two guys who's styles didn't necessarily mesh that brilliantly all of a sudden did.
What stopped the match from really going over the top was probably the critique that it was overbooked. Vader wins firstly by count-out, then, after the match is restarted disqualification. In amongst all this, and perhaps this was the strongest booking of Vader, was him kicking out of the superkick. But Michaels still won through in the end, and it's hard not to draw comparisons to Lex Luger three years earlier, who needed the title to validate a less than 100% push and "won the match" without winning the title.
Whether he should've is another question entirely. Would a title win for Vader have simply patched over 8 months of oftentimes excellent but still flakey booking? In the grand scheme of things Vader as a champ in 1996 felt like quite and odd fit given what was going on in WCW at the time. Shawn, for all of his flaws, offered the most bankable option and probably the WWF's trump card at the time.
But the issue with Vader, as it was in WCW once Hulk Hogan arrived too, was that the if you don't book him as the unstoppable monster, then how do you book him? While Vader went from being a star attraction to something less in WCW in 1994, they had the advantage at least of him still being over, even if not the #1 act. Vader still drew, even if he wasn't the #1 guy. The last few months of 1994 just seemed to be one giant setup to getting to him vs Hogan. 1995 seemed to be mostly him against Hogan until he was fired for getting into a fight with Paul Orndorff.
The WWF perhaps could've drawn from the same well had they have gone with Vader at least for a few months in 1996. After his debut, bringing him in for a six-man tag match at Wrestlemania if anything defined him down. Him vs Yokozuna, as ghastly as the match-up felt, could've been a big deal if it had been framed correctly. As it was it felt like Vader was struggling to beat a guy three years past his prime.
That being said, by August it most certainly wasn't too late. It would've represented a significant change in direction, but given the then uncertain future of Bret Hart it may not have quite been the disaster some may have thought. The problem for heel Vader, as it was already for babyface Shawn, would be who did you put him up against?
The answer in both cases followed in the next few months. The bad news was – it was Sid. Now, Sid's inexplicably return and rise will have to be written another time, but while it was still Sid, the version of Sid it was incredibly popular. While we'd have to wait until In Your House: Buried Alive to see Sid and Vader struggle through a match based on a move neither could hit on the other, it was actually Shawn who faced losing the most thanks to his rise. Had it not have been Sid, it likely would've been Vader and Shawn at Survivor Series (it almost was, anyway) and given that match, Vader was very likely to win. Not just because Sid eventually did, but because Shawn's run as title holder was kinda falling a bit flat, and change was needed somewhere. Even if that was all designed to get back to Shawn vs Bret at Wrestlemania 13 (in whatever guise/formation that came in), having a placeholder champion while things were re-organised would've been a very likely option.
As it was, Sid was picked over Vader as Sid's popularity became very very difficult to ignore. Vader, like most of his run in the WWF in 1996, had been booked well, just not very well. And the difference between how he was booked in WCW from 1994 onwards and how he was booked in the WWF was that in WCW he was already over. In the WWF, to make the character work, it needed legitimising. By the time Survivor Series came and went, it was too late.
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