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It would be difficult not to start with the steroid trial, even though (hindsight at the fore) it perhaps doesn't seem that significant. From an on-screen standpoint, things changed very little other than Vince McMahon disappearing for a few weeks, but it's certainly fair to say the company may have been a little distracted during the summer months. In the end, the company were never truly in danger of being found guilty, although that seems to down more to an impossible prosecution task within the remit of the law rather than necessarily their own innocence.
In the ring, things changed quite significantly from a roster standpoint. The year began with Yokozuna and Lex Luger seemingly on a collision course at Wrestlemania, where they would meet but by this time the company had already given up on Luger being a main eventer and it would mark one of the last significant nights for Yokozuna at the top – even if he would main event Survivor Series in November. Bret Hart was given the title, but never the ball; he and his brother Owen one of the few guys who would save the companies fortunes from an in-ring perspective.
But the company did get three people very right in 1994. Firstly, Owen Hart, who's feud with Bret not only produced high quality in ring action but also one of the only storylines worthy of the definition. Their year long feud would see Owen grow in stature, beginning the year as a bumbling heel and ending it as a much more confident one, both with his in ring mannerisms and his mic work. Bret vs Owen at both Mania and Summerslam would end up being among the top matches in the company in 1994.
The second, perhaps more surprising, was Bob Backlund. Backlund only arrived in the middle of the year, a highly entertaining WWF Title match against Bret Hart at the end of July seemed like a one of, an exhibition for a former champion who was no longer relevant in amongst a company who - at least on the billboard – was proclaiming to be focussing on the “New Generation”. Backlund instead was being lined up for a hunt at Bret's title headed into Survivor Series. I'll be the first to admit I was surprised at the idea when it became apparent that was the direction they were going in, but by the end Backlund had proven himself to be one of the highights of the year. He can count himself mighty unlucky to have only held the Title for three days in an era where even a short reign could last six months or more.
Last, and certainly not least, was the rise of Diesel. Diesel began the year as the lackey of Shawn Michaels and didn't appear to be going anywhere all that quickly. But Diesel had been identified by those that matter as the next major star in the company and within the year he was carrying the WWF Title. The only major critique you can have of his ascent was that it was very stop start. He dominated the Royal Rumble, eliminating 7 guys – he had Bret Hart beat for the WWF Title at King of the Ring before interference cost him, then he dominated all comers at Survivor Series. In the mean time he played a largely backseat role to Michaels. The shoots of his demise, retrospectively, perhaps had already began as it became 1995, but the company had done a great job in making Diesel a fresh, popular name at the top.
So why is 1994 overlooked? Well, for one thing – the three major positives from 1994 all go onto do very little going forward. Diesel tanks as champion and Backlund and (more surprisingly) Owen Hart, seem to become far less relevant as early as 1995.
But even looking at 1994 without looking ahead, it was a mixed year. Undertaker – probably their most popular wrestler, had a frustrating time slung in some very questionable storylines. He lost the WWF Title match at the Royal Rumble against Yokozuna after interference from a dozen wrestlers, he faced himself in one of the more bizarre storylines in company history, one that was meant to turn the fortunes of the company around. In the end the 8 minute Undertaker vs Undertaker match stank up the joint in stark contrast to Bret and Owen in the 45 minutes prior.
The company also launched the “New Generation” moniker in response to Hulk Hogan signing with WCW. The line launched around King of the Ring... what main evented that show? Jerry Lawler vs Roddy Piper. New Generation, on paper, seemed like a nice idea, but given that it encapsulated an entire scale from The 123 Kid to Mabel, it's hard to fully understand what it was meant to be about beyond “we've not got those marketable stars we had before”.
It was also a disappointing year just because the company didn't seem to be produce anything truly compelling. Raw week to week was quite good in setting up a hook or a mini-story to keep you somewhat interested week to week, but nothing ever stuck from a storyline perspective. We were also right in the midst of the company looking to make everything into a gimmick or a character. Baseball strike? Knuckleball Schwarz. Bin man? Duke “The Dumpster” Drewse. This was the company at its “cartoonish” height (well, that or 1995), but it often made very patronsing and disappointing viewing.
Match quality, by and large, wasn't all that great. But Bret vs Owen and Shawn vs Razor at Wrestlemania were both phenomenal (they actually lift the overall rating over the show perhaps higher than it deserves to be), Bret and Owen also have a very, very good cage match at Summerslam, which inexplicably came in the middle of the show. But by and large, unless you got a combination of Bret, Owen, Shawn, Razor and/or The 123 Kid – match quality wasn't easy to find. You can read my opinion of the ten best WWF matches in 1994 here.
It'll be known for as much as those who were on the down curve as those on the rise. Yokozuna does main event Survivor Series, but this really is the outlier in a main event run that is otherwise over. He entered the year as champion but didn't even get a rematch after dropping the title to Bret Hart. As for Lex, well, I documented where that wrong in a lot more detail here.
Randy Savage was another significant departure in November, marking the shifting tide in wrestling as he made the jump to WCW. Savage, amongst other things, just wanted to wrestle – the WWF wouldn't give him the opportunity to.
Overall, 1994 is the kind of year you could very definitely put a positive spin on if you wished. But people will look at the respective careers of Owen Hart, Bob Backlund and well, maybe just Diesel rather than Kevin Nash, and say that 1994 was a negative. It was a year where quite a bit happened, but it's very difficult to nail down exactly what the company achieved.