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History is written by the victors, so the story goes. Twenty years on from the notorious Curtain Call in the WWE we are left to bask in the lauded wake of The Kliq as one of the most influential groups of wrestlers on the industry. With an increased sense of worth as the years have gone on has also inflated the mythology surrounding the group, coupled with the war stories of 1995 undercard wrestlers who felt they were “held down” by the group and you have yourself an insurmountable recipe.
One of my biggest surprises within the last twelve months of covering the WWF in 1995 into 1996 has been how little the Kliq have featured, directly, within the news. Watching on Raw you’d know who the Kliq were - they were Shawn Michaels’ fans. In April 1996 Diesel, firmly a heel again, said to Vince McMahon on Raw “I’m a part of the Kliq, isn’t everybody?” when ask when he was wearing a Shawn Michaels t-shirt.
In a promotion evolving quickly in the aftermath of the departure of Hulk Hogan in 1993 you could find the early formation of the group. Razor Ramon arrived a year prior and quickly found himself in the main event picture, feuding with Randy Savage before filling in for the departed Ultimate Warrior against Bret Hart in the main event of the 1993 Royal Rumble. Such a hard early push for the gimmick got it over with fans, even as a heel, but oddly enough it was the closest Razor would get to the main event scene in the WWF.
Another arrival from WCW was in the form of Oz. Kevin Nash was repackaged as “Diesel” as the bodyguard for Shawn Michaels. Or well, as he put it, “I’m not here to keep the fans off of Shawn, I’m here to keep Shawn off of the fans”. The story was Shawn went to Vince McMahon having seen Nash on WCW TV and told him to bring him in. For Shawn it was a big act that would enhance his case as a rising heel, and for Diesel it gave him some significant TV time while.
As for Michaels himself, a guy who had been in the WWF seemingly forever as a tag team wrestler, his Heartbreak Kid gimmick paired with the new bodyguard seemingly gave him the tools to ascend up the WWF's roster. As the steroid trial became headline news in 1994, there was a definite push to defocus on the more obviously 'roided up wrestlers – it was the perfect opportunity, and one that Shawn Michaels wasn't going to miss.
At the 1994 Royal Rumble, Diesel managed to steal the show, despite being the thirteenth man eliminated from the match. Entering at number seven, Diesel eliminated seven men and – for one night only – had become the ass kicking anti-hero that fans wanted to get behind. Fans chanted "Diesel", "Diesel" for a guy who in his six months on television had been almost exclusively a mute bodyguard. It was probably the night that convinced Vince McMahon that Diesel had long term potential to be the lead babyface in the WWF and the long term replacement to Hulk Hogan.
Of course, this was 1994, so Diesel's coronation as the champion would have to wait. The Rumble went to a draw, with Bret Hart and Lex Luger executing a very risky and highly believable double elimination – the live feed hid a camera round the other side of the ring to get an ambiguous view of the finish. They needn't have bothered – up close the finish looked excellent. Unfortunately for Luger, who should've won the title six months earlier, this was probably the night where Vince gave up on hopes of him being lead babyface in the WWF and the long term replacement to Hulk Hogan.
Of course, this was 1994, so Luger was going to get his title match at Wrestlemania regardless, an unnecessarily elaborate triangle of matches that would see Bret face Owen, Luger face Champion Yokozuna and then ensure that whomever Bret met in the final both had wrestled once. But for the Kliq, there were eyes on another match.
Michaels and Ramon had been feuding for much of the previous few months, and it was decided that the Intercontinental Title would be contested in a ladder match, the WWF's second after what is (on reflection) a very low key pre-taped match in 1992 on Superstars between Bret and Shawn. The match at Wrestlemania was one for the ages, redefining the ladder match and setting the standard and eventual course for how we know the match today. Diesel was an unwanted third wheel, ejected early doors, but he wouldn't have to wait long for his opportunity.
With Bret now as champion, there were a number of potential opponents for him. Had this have been 1995, and the WWF were embarking on a pay per view every month, then he likely would've faced all of them. Lex Luger had a case (having been screwed during his Mania title match by Mr Perfect), Yokozuna had a case having been the former champ and, perhaps most intriguingly, Owen Hart - who had defeated Bret in a Mania classic earlier in the evening.
All the more surprising, then, that Bret's first opponent was actually Diesel. Yokozuna and Luger would never get their shots (Owen would, at Summerslam). Quite what Diesel had done to earn a shot was anybody's guess, but it pitted the holding champion Bret in his first title defence. Had this have been a few years later then Diesel likely may have won the match, but instead we had an unsatisfying finish where Bret took the powerbomb from Diesel before Jim Neidhart interfered. But it wasn't a sign that Vince had given up on Diesel, far from it. Diesel was the champion in waiting, it was just a matter of when. Bret turned his attentions to Owen at Summerslam, so Diesel stood in for Shawn Michaels in a match against Razor Ramon.
While all of this was going on a young graduate of Killer Kowalski's school by the ring name of Terra Ryzin was getting some TV time on WCW syndicated television. He was seen as a big prospect for the future in Atlanta.
As the year moved into the Autumn (Fall) the WWF were gearing towards Survivor Series. Another left turn in Bret Hart's list of title opponents was Bob Backlund, a big surprise that turned into a pleasant one as the maniacal heel Backlund had created for some of the most entertaining television of the entire year. Meanwhile, Diesel and Shawn Michaels would team up in a ten man Survivor Series match against a team that included Razor Ramon and The 123 Kid.
This was a match which probably emphasised the old adage that telling a simple story is often the best approach. After ten minutes of nothing-ness, Diesel tagged in and steamed through "The Bad Guys", eliminating three guys in 90 seconds with his increasingly over jackknife powerbomb. Razor ended up being the sole survivor on The Bad Guys team after Diesel finally turned on Shawn in a really well executed storyline (the entire "Teamsters" team ended up being counted out). After an up and down year, Survivor Series was the realization of what was teased at the Royal Rumble, Diesel was going to be a big babyface, and delaying the inevitable was about the best you could do.
So they didn't... Bret dropped the title to Bob Backlund on the pay per view (a Wednesday evening) and at the very next show at Madison Square Garden on the Saturday the title changed again. Backlund, as it turned out, was the very definition of a transitional champion, a point no quicker rammed home by Diesel winning the title at MSG in eight seconds. That still stands to this day as the last WWF Title change that didn’t occur on pay per view or television directly.
You can find a much more detailed breakdown of Diesel's title reign here (along with similar pieces here, here, here and here), but it would be fair to say that the beginning of the downfall probably happened on Diesel's first Raw as Champion. Diesel had got over by being the following: (1) almost mute, (2) an ass kicker and (3) basically a cool heel. His first promo on Raw basically went back on all three of those things.
Firstly was the length of the promo – by standards of the time the seven minutes or so was an absolute marathon. Secondly was the topics; Diesel spoke about respecting Bret Hart and talking on all comers. They were turning Diesel into Hulk Hogan.
From a backstage perspective, as the group ascended up the card they gained an element of power almost by default. Sure, strength in numbers helped, but Hulk Hogan is well known for having leverage, as has basically every lead player/players in every major wrestling promotion. As for the Kliq, the end of 1994 represented a different landscape than the one they assembled in two years prior. Three of the lead acts in the WWF at the foot of 1993 Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage and (lest we not forget) Ric Flair were now all big names on WCW. The WWF were over six months into the New Generation era but all they'd really done is bust out on a few hands – namely Lex Luger and, to a lesser extent Bret Hart. By the middle of 1995 you could add Owen Hart and Yokozuna to that list. Times really were changing.
Back in WCW, Terra Ryzin was now going by the name of Jean-Paul Levesque. Portraying a french version of Lord Steven Regal's gimmick, his push was very much in full flow. The match between him and Alex Wright at Starrcade in 1994 might feel like a footnote now (noteworthy exclusively for being Triple H's only WCW pay per view match) but at the time it represented a face-off between two of WCW's brightest young stars - a lot can happen in six months! The match is actually quite an interesting watch, noting the crowd weren't into their stuff Hunter calls an audible to get them more invested with some more impactful offense. While Levesque's run in WCW doesn't warrant a piece in itself, I cover much of it in this article about Alex Wright.
With his contract up for renewal, Levesque weighed up offers from both the WWF and WCW and decided to sign with the WWF, citing better upward mobility within the company. For someone so highly regarded by WCW at the time it was a brave move, it'd be a while before it looked like a good one, though. For all of what Paul Levesque has gone on to become in the wrestling industry, making such a decision shows a high level of wrestling IQ.
As we ushered in a new year in 1995 a few things became more clear than usual. Firstly, as has been Vince McMahon's mantra in the entirety of the time I've been following wrestling, do not underestimate how far a formerly main event act can fall if McMahon decides they're not up to the task. With the swift demise of Yokozuna, Luger, Hart and Backlund – the landscape at the top of the WWF roster looked very different, and Diesel was suddenly shorn of three heels (+ Luger) who all could've provided logical if probably underwhelming heel opposition. Although, they did run with Diesel and Backlund at House Shows in December, only for matches to be so badly received that they switched it to Diesel vs Jarrett.
For the short term though Diesel had enough on his plate. Firstly defending his title against Bret Hart at the Royal Rumble. Not for the last time Bret would compromise Diesel's chances of a true babyface reaction, even when he did attempt to heel it up it mostly did damage to Hart more than it helped the champ. Diesel won in an unsatisfying fashion, a double interference from Owen Hart and Shawn Michaels ensuring that Bret wouldn't take the fall. In the circumstances, and given Bret's often telfon-like abilities, it may have simply made more sense for Diesel to definitively win.
Razor Ramon, meanwhile, was continuing his somewhat mystifying run of never appearing in the Royal Rumble match itself – his appearance in the 1993 WWF title match the exception as he was otherwise defending or chasing the Intercontinental Title at every edition of the show he was around for. The match with Jeff Jarrett ended up being quite good, but it was an unsatisfying use of what was now one of the promotions better known and better liked characters. As a face or, more likely, as a heel he could've been a difference maker in 1995. In fact, he probably should have been.
The night belonged to one man – Shawn Michaels. With the Rumble shortened to 60 second intervals basically due to a lack of star power, Michaels convinced McMahon that he was the right man to go from the beginning to the end. The addition of The British Bulldog, who was in the first two and was the last man eliminated, was hoped to mitigate Michaels survival leading to a babyface reaction – it barely worked. After outlasting a lacklustre field, Bulldog flipped Michaels over the top rope and celebrated as his music played. Michaels shimmied back into the ring, dumped Bulldog over and replays revealed while he had been thrown over the top, he had skillfully hung onto the top rope. A great piece of skill, if not one quite befitting of a man who was basically the number one heel in the company.
There-in lied the issue: Michaels was a heel that people really wanted to cheer – basically Diesel from six months prior. They bought back Sid Vicious 18 months after he had a fight with Vader that saw him fired from WCW, but that just delayed the inevitable. Long term plans were annexed after Wrestlemania and Sid turned on Shawn, turning him babyface and leaving the WWF with basically no main event heels... we'll come back to that.
Shawn's match with Diesel was a bit of a disappointment. To an extent, both men would've had their tail up after being told Bam Bam Bigelow vs footballer Lawrence Taylor was going to go on in the main event spot. That coupled with the hoards of photographers at ringside that riled the easily annoyed Shawn no-end. As the pair showed a year later at In Your House – they were capable of having a fine match. This just wasn't their night.
It wasn't really anyone's night, in fact. Razor Ramon had an underwhelming rematch with Jeff Jarrett, Bret Hart had probably the worst match of his career with Bob Backlund and The Undertaker added another win under his Wrestlemania belt with a match against King Kong Bundy which was absolutely as horrendous as you'd expect it to be.
The star performer of the show was probably Bam Bam Bigelow, who stared in a main event that exceeded its low expectation. Carry Taylor through a competant match in a losing effort it was about as much as anyone could have expected from the pairing. Despite the loss, Bam Bam was coming out of Wrestlemania as one of the major names in the company, unfortunately that night the start of a babyface turn allegedly promised to him.
What followed for Bigelow might be the single quickest descent from a Wrestlemania main event – yes, significantly faster than The Miz. You see, coming out of Wrestlemania Bam Bam Bigelow probably was the biggest heel the company had. Sure, he'd just lost to Lawrence Taylor (the loss being used as a catalyst for his turn), but heels lose and regain their heat – Ric Flair made a career out of it. Bigelow would've made a worthy opponent for every single person on the babyface side – Diesel, Shawn, Bret, Undertaker, Razor – you name them.
And much worse – HE DID! On April 24th, a few weeks after Mania, the still heel Bigelow faced Diesel in the main event of Monday Night Raw. The pair had a really good 12 minute match (it crept into #9 on my top ten WWF matches of 1995) and, worse still, the main event drew a 3.9 rating. The rating (along with another 3.9 from a few weeks later) held as the highest Raw rating ever until the 4.7 show a couple of weeks after Wrestlemania XII. Diesel, like Hulk Hogan, was showing that if you put him compelling opponents that people would be interested.
As it was, they completed the turn in the minutes that followed the main event. Rather than Bam Bam being the #1 or #2 heel, he'd switched and become the #6 or #7 babyface. Within weeks, he was coming out to the ring as the smiley babyface (complete with tattooed bald head) and clapping along to this theme song. He spent the rest of the year in decreasingly interesting programs with the likes of Davey Boy Smith and Goldust. By the beginning of 1996 he was released... less than a year following his headlining effort at Wrestlemania.
Bam Bam is recorded in a shoot interview talking about the Kliq... he talks about the pack mentality of the group and how they held the power to "hire and fire". But it also might be, if we want to look at it from another angle, that people that weren't being pushed found an excuse for their woes by blaming the Kliq.
Another guy who fit that mould was Shane Douglas. Arriving from ECW on the back of a stellar 1994 and carrying a reputation with him, Douglas was repackaged as a gimmicked "Dean Douglas" - a school teacher character based on his real life profession. Gone was just about everything that made the Shane Douglas character compelling, in it's place a gimmick that was, in a word – horrendous. Douglas may blame the Kliq for his issues, and not necessarily without merit, but the gimmick in that form would have died a death either way. His run ins with Shawn and Razor probably accelerated his departure and return to ECW at the beginning of 1996. Six months of hell, indeed.
But the idea that the Kliq were pulling the strings in the WWF at the time really fails to address a few questions. The biggest one, by some margin, is why were Diesel's opponents so bad? With no real heels to speak of, WWF decided to shunt Sid Vicious (now part of the Million Dollar Corporation) into the main event feud. Diesel as a guy who was a big (e.g. tall) babyface, needed guys of similar stature for main event matches as babyfaces traditionally do a lot of selling in main events. This is a point that makes the turn of Bam Bam Bigelow (and the non-turn of Razor Ramon) even more perplexing.
If guys like Kevin Nash really were directing traffic in Titan Towers, then why not direct it in your favour? There is certainly something to be said that guys who were already unfancied (see Skip – Chris Candido, and Jean Pierre Lafitte), being given a helping hand by the striking hand of the group, but what about steering Vince McMahon into getting you some better opponents?
And that's really the fundamental point – if they had that much pull, then why didn't they exercise it? Talk the powers that be into getting Razor Ramon the heel turn he needed, keep Bam Bam Bigelow a heel, turn Lex Luger back heel and at least extract the relevant value out of the clearly misused Shane Douglas. By the autumn of 1996 both Luger and Douglas were being far, far more compelling within WCW respectively than they ever were in 1995 WWF.
As it was, the rest of the year played out with a slow decent into mediocrity. Diesel, still on top as a babyface, was shoe-horned into horrible programs with both Sid and Mabel – read more about those here and here. Razor floundered in a feud with the 123 Kid that was way worse than it sounds, and Shawn Michaels ended up being beaten up by an exponentially growing group of thugs in Syracuse.
It was October when the game was fully up for Diesel's run on top – again, you can read about it in more detail here. It might be incorrect to call it the straw that broke the camels back, but it was at the end of an underwhelming match with The British Bulldog where Diesel got into it with Bret Hart (who was at ringside for the match). The segment ended with Diesel being booed after getting into a confrontation with Bret, which nobody could've seen coming. After all, it's not like they were in Canada or anything...
A month later Diesel faced and finally dropped the title to Bret at Survivor Series, and a year after his reign of babyface terror started it finished. Mysteriously, right after this, he started getting his edge back. Starting off the slow burn of a heel turn by shouting "MOTHER FUCKER" in the immediate aftermath of losing the title. His promo on Raw the following night – shouty and pissed off, was everything the Diesel champion character was missing.
Speaking of missing, Shawn once again was "accidentally" finding a way of missing TV. This time they had him return to TV following the attack, only to collapse in a highly effective angle during a Raw main event with Owen Hart. The claim being (in storyline) that Shawn was suffering from Post Concussion Sydrome, a storyline that was preposterous even in 1995. Worse still was six weeks later when Shawn confirmed that doctors had advised him never to return to the ring. A month after that (prior to the Royal Rumble) Shawn held a press conference reiterating that he was going against doctors advise to return to the ring, the group of assembled press howled with cheers at this announcement.
As for Razor... you kinda know the story by now! He was in the middle of a gripping (read: pretty abysmal) program with a new character called Goldust... won't last!
The Royal Rumble offered something different. Razor once again missed out on the Royal Rumble to defend his Intercontinental Title, Hunter Hearst Helmsley was busy losing a pre-show match with Duke "The Dumpster Droese" (one that granted him the #1 spot in the Rumble), Diesel was also in the thirty man match as Bret defended the WWF Title against The Undertaker.
With Bret vs Undertaker being a highly disappointing, plodding half hour match, all eyes coming out of the show were on the now two time winner of the Rumble Shawn Michaels. Not for the last time, the WWF would deploy a little bit of revisionist history, essentially pretending that this was Shawn's first major shot at the title and that the match last year with Diesel never happened. Still, after Bret retained his title thanks to interference from Diesel, they had setup their Wrestlemania main event, provided both men could navigate their respective matches at the In Your House pay per view in between. It wasn't lost on many that Bret's title reign was essentially being used as a foil for a storyline between Diesel and Undertaker. Mind you, that wasn't the first time.
While all of this was going on there was a much more serious situation going down. In the final week of February Scott Hall (Ramon) had exercised the right within his contract to not have it auto-renew 90 days later. It was the pre-cursor to Hall signing a contract with WCW. Two weeks later, Diesel formally handed in his notice, he too had signed an agreement with Eric Bischoff. For two of the WWF's half a dozen most recognisable acts, it was horrid timing.
Both, it seems, left for WCW for the improved conditions in WCW contracts. WWF, up until that point, worked on contracts that almost exclusively paid talent based on gates and their position on the cards – when house shows were curtailed, talent got paid less. In WCW things were significantly different: they worked far fewer house shows and got paid a much more fixed salary. For Hall and Nash, two guys both the wrong side of 35, the prospect of getting paid more money to work fewer dates was a no-brainer, particularly as neither man would likely become the #1 headliner in the WWF. Given how much WWF business struggled in 1995, it's not hard to imagine the prospect of a much more reliable stream of income would be attractive.
In Your House 6 in February 1996 would feature all five members of the group. Hunter Hearst Helmsley needed a dust bin lid shot to defeat Duke Droese, Razor Ramon a and The 123 Kid faced off in a crybaby match and Shawn Michaels and Diesel were involved in two matches that would decide the fate of the Wrestlemania main event. Shawn Michaels facing the man who took credit for his absence (Owen Hart) in a grudge match where his title would be on the line, and Diesel finally getting his rematch for the WWF Title.
The crybaby match was just quite sad. A prolonged rest hold in the middle of an average match, if nothing more. Razor won the match but the look of pity he gave the crowd having put The Kid in an adult diaper was pretty telling. Razor had it all to be a lead WWF star in a post-steroid trial world, but Vince McMahon had the gimmick pigeon holed. If Vince McMahon favoured giving members of the Kliq favoured positions on the card, he had a funny way of showing it. As for the Kid, despite threatening to break-through, by this stage he was undercard fodder, having lost a serious amount of weight too.
The two matches higher up the card were very revealing. Shawn and Owen had a classic, one that perhaps belied the seriousness with which Shawn built up the "biggest match of his career" (particularly after his match with Diesel last year that we were seemingly meant to forget about). Shawn came out dancing on top of the In Your House set before rope swinging onto the aisle-way and dancing his way to ringside. One comical moment in the early goings saw Shawn slide through Owen's legs to the outside and high five fans around ringside. Two minutes later, Owen repeated the spot only to find thin air when he attempted an exchange with fans at ringside.
That inconsistency aside, this was a classic match. Owen, who's stocks had dropped significantly since being one of the most improved acts of 1994, was still a top performer, and a motivated Shawn Michaels had no peer in 1996. They even had time to recreate the collapse spot from a few months earlier, this time Shawn was playing possum and soon won the match with a superkick to book his place in the Wrestlemania main event for the second time.
If there's one thing that makes even less sense than a cage match where escaping the cage is a method of winning, it's a cage match where the *only* method of victory is escaping the cage. Not for the first time, Bret was completely hamstrung by a stipulation that belied any drama that could've been generated. He and Diesel had a disappointing match (their fourth main event in less than two years, and easily the worst). The match ended when Undertaker climbed out from under the ring and "dragged Diesel under". Nothing says "heroic babyface champion" quite like Bret making a bee-line up the cage as the camera focuses its attention almost entirely on Diesel. But Bret had won, and would face Shawn Michaels at Wrestlemania.
The setup had left the Wrestlemania card looking a bit babyface heavy. The introduction of Vader to the roster, at the time, felt like he could re-address the balance but plans originally called for him to miss Wrestlemania altogether to get shoulder surgery. After an effective debut, and a barn-burning segment which saw him attack Interim President Gorilla Monsoon, Vader was eventually bought back to partake in a six man tag at Wrestlemania. Still though, they still had Razor, right?
Not quite, in what will go down as a twist of timing, in the week following him handing in his notice, Hall was suspended for a drug policy violation... the six weeks he missed would put him out of Wrestlemania. His program with Goldust was wrapped up and Roddy Piper parachuted in. In the first week in March Diesel formally handed in his notice with the company, telling McMahon he was joining WCW (Razor followed not long after). Despite all of the fall out that following his disappointing title run, Diesel as a man who was slowly turning back into a full fledged heel, was still a big part of the WWF's roster at the time.
When you look back at The Undertaker's streak, it’s quite easy to gloss over his match with Diesel. For one, it's part of the early years of the streak and, while certainly better than the other Wrestlemania matches Undertaker had at the time, not comparable in quality to that of some of his matches a decade later. But one factor that doesn't get anywhere near the recognition it perhaps should, is that had Diesel not have handed in his notice a few weeks prior he probably would defeated The Undertaker at Wrestlemania.
I've written a piece about the subject here, but suffice to say it's not a big stretch at all to say Diesel would've won the match. Sure, it likely wouldn't have been clean (although Undertaker basically lost clean by submission less than three months later to Mankind), but given that a heel Diesel vs babyface Shawn Michaels was going to be the company's main program going into the summer, Diesel losing made no sense. Nefarious finish or not, the streak nearly died before it ever really got started.
But all eyes on the show were focused on Shawn vs Bret. The night after In Your House Roddy Piper (in a segment where he scalded some fans for booing Bret) said that their match would be a sixty minute match, where the man with the most falls would win – one which Vince McMahon coined an "Ironman Match" on commentary. As I've explored here, the decision was a strange one, particularly in the pairs first major match. In a funny kind of way, by telling them to go an hour they basically hamstrung the pair in what otherwise could’ve been a classic match-up.
The match itself was neither great or awful. Given that the entire show lasted around two hours 45 minutes it was the entirety of the second half of it. Shawn rappelled down from the rafters on a zip line in an entrance that screamed “I’m winning this match”. Bret, perhaps justifiably for his character, didn’t want anything to do with any grand entrance. The move fit both men (both on screen and off it), but Bret’s ordinary/serious entrance looked a bit shit in comparison.
Once the bell rang the match settled in very quickly, for two men supposedly leading the WWF’s “New Generation” this quickly became a very old school match. The main issue being that most WWF fans of the mid-nineties didn’t know how to watch a match of this length, certainly a group that had mainly turned up to see the Ultimate Warrior.
In the end, both men overplayed their hand with the idea of normal time going 0-0 (it had been deliberated whether to try 1-1 or 2-2). The crowd basically sat in once they realised nothing was coming in normal time, and with Shawn not being able to lose a fall and Bret not having an impact finisher there was no drama at all. Bret got Shawn in the sharpshooter, finally, after spending the entire hour working the leg without going to his key move went with 30 seconds to go. Finally the match had some drama.
Speaking of not going for your finisher, Shawn barely even attempted a superkick during the match. It made it even more stupid when after sixty minutes of nothing Shawn went for and hit the move twice in quick succession to pick up the win and his first WWF title. Shawn, as was his way, wanted Bret out of his ring as he started celebrating. Shawn was now the man on top, and soon two of his closest allies were going to be leaving.
Life after Wrestlemania felt a bit… weird. Bret had essentially buggered off, a couple of brief video clips aside. This hiatus in theory cleared the way for Shawn to establish himself as a top guy, but with Bret going, Ramon suspended and Vader’s push floundering he didn’t have many opponents. The planned feud with Diesel had to be curtailed to one match, but the WWF were so short of star power that they had no choice but to keep Diesel in a key position. Diesel, half way out the door, was probably at his most compelling – almost a completely new character compared to the stereotype he was trying to play last year.
We were left with one final pay per view,In Your House 7: Good Friends, Better Enemies. Razor was in a nothing match with Vader, one that had next to no build and was surprisingly even. Razor kicked out of the Vader bomb before being pinned cleanly after Vader just sat on him. Ramon’s four years in the WWF had shown people that he was capable of excellence, but there were few flatter sights than him phoning it in, as it often felt he had in the previous six months or so.
Hall has documented subsequently how a conversation with McMahon sealed his fate. Seeking to find out why he wasn’t being pushed a top guy. He was tall enough, charismatic enough, good enough; he had it all, didn’t he? Unfortunately, Vince McMahon wasn’t the most flexible of bookers, the Scarface character was destined a main event position, so why bother trying when you can focus on Lex Luger or Diesel instead? Within about two months it would become clear that even if Razor Ramon wasn’t cut out to be a star attraction, Scott Hall was.
The main event of the show pitted Shawn against Diesel in what would be only their second major match on pay per view, the first being a disappointing outing at Wrestlemania the year prior. Perhaps with a point to prove, both men had a fantastic match. Going after the No Holds Barred stipulation both men left little in the tank: Diesel hanging Shawn by his belt on the second rope, then powerbombing him through the announce table (basically a wooden table). Shawn hit the deck and was immediately engulfed by monitors – it was only the second time the announcers table had been broken.
Shawn deploys a fire extinguisher in Diesel's face, before Diesel goes to the front row, yanks Mad Dog Vachon over the guardrial and removes his prosthetic leg, before Shawn uses the leg to hit a sweet chin music with it, before hitting a real one and retaining the title. For all of the bravado, the could be no doubt that Shawn Michaels was the best performer in the business in 1996; when motivated. And that was surely the key, with Diesel on his way out both men surely wanted one last hurrah. That plus the one and done nature of the future (save a prolonged one that would've seen both men somewhat protected throughout the coming months).
And that, essentially, was it. They announced the entire line-up for May's pay per view on the April show, and neither Diesel and Razor were anywhere to be found. All the men had to do was complete a tour of Kuwait, of all places – where it's said that the pair were the two most flagrantly breaking the rules. Oh, and a house show at Madison Square Garden.
It's a story so well worn it almost isn't worth telling (but it'd hardly be a 6,000+ word Kliq piece without it). In short: at WWF's spiritual home, the place where Bruno Sammartino had sold out so many times, Nash, Hall, Michaels and Levesque took part in a post show "curtain call". Following a cage match between Michaels and Diesel, Michaels revived Diesel with a frogs kiss before Hall and Levesque came out. The quartet of two babyfaces and two heels embraced in the ring before posing in all four corners.
The impact and significance of the event has been significantly overblown. Hell, the story wasn't even the lead in that weeks Wrestling Observer (that fell to UFC 9 – which you can read about here). And quite honestly, how big of a deal was it? If it wasn't at Madison Square Garden it probably wouldn't have even been a story. The only person's career that was remotely changed by it was Levesque's – and even that is a hand overplayed by history, his push was slowed but it was hardly going that hard in the first place. Hall and Nash went and joined WCW anyway, and Shawn had such a stranglehold on the top end of the roster that punishing him was unfathomable.
History is written by the winners, the WWE have gotten away with telling a very insular story of how four guys that came through their system went onto monopolize the industry during its biggest boom period. How they controlled things from a top the tree. If you dig a little deeper, you start to uncover how the only reason Hall and Nash left was because their pushes were botched so badly, their supposed control limited to seemingly keeping down what Vince McMahon didn't want to shine a light on anyway and a guy on top who was always destined to be there. Kliq Rules? If you say so.