Subscribe to the podcast via: iTunes | Spotify | Google | Youtube
Over the past six and the next twelve months we will be looking at the WWF Title run of Diesel, the one that was supposed to revive the fortunes of the company following the departure of Hulk Hogan. Diesel was picked by Vince McMahon as Hogan's successor, but 12 months after winning the title Vince had gone sour on him in the midst of the companies financial nadir. Diesel's face just didn't fit, but could it have all been different?
The major crux of the Diesel issue came down to the ability and the star power of his opponents. Diesel went from the cool heel to the sappy babyface, but his ability to carry the company on top would be more reliant on the quality of in ring work that many would perhaps give credit for given what preceded it. Diesel was in a bizarre position where not only was he limited in the ring, but because of his size it was difficult to build up believable opponents for him while he was a face.
In the beginning, the company didn't even try. After he disposed of Bob Backlund in eight seconds to win the title the company axed a series of follow up house show matches given how bad they were received. Backlund was replaced by Jeff Jarrett, a useful mid-carder who could generate acceptable heat and go up for Diesel's finish, even if Jarrett was chasing the Intercontinental Title himself.
Diesel's first championship defence on pay per view came at the Royal Rumble. His first opponent? Bret Hart - a babyface. Bret, at least in this instance made sense, given that he was deserving of a title rematch, even if it should have been against Backlund. Bret, a bigger babyface at the time, had to work the match nearly as a heel - treading the line quite nicely until he hit Diesel with a chair for some proper boos. Diesel retained thanks to interference from both Shawn Michaels and Owen Hart.
Another problem with Diesel's run throughout was his inability to get the job done. Hulk Hogan rarely failed as a babyface in the WWF, he certainly didn't win his first WWF Title defence in a disqualification. It wasn't the first time the company had tried to replace Hogan and had the guy fall at the first hurdle - Lex Luger defeated Yokozuna in his first WWF Championship match, which would've been all well and good except Luger won by countout as Yokozuna laid sparko at ringside.
Diesel's next program was against Shawn Michaels. Now, here was a heel that was capable of getting a great match out of the champ. The pair even had some big history to draw back on over the previous 18 months. Only... they largely ignored their back story in the build up, and Shawn Michaels tried so little to come off as a babyface in the Wrestlemania semi-main event the company had little choice but to change course and turn him babyface too.
It probably wasn't a good sign that Diesel's first Wrestlemania as Champion wasn't in the main event. Hogan, in one form or another, was in the main event of each of the first nine Wrestlemania's before he upped sticks. But in this case, Diesel did fall short because the company had gone with Bam Bam Bigelow against footballer Lawrence Taylor. While it didn't translate into pay per view buys, the presence of Taylor on the show drew a significant amount of mainstream attention, more than any WWF show in recent years. The fear was that if the press came for Taylor, and he didn't go on last, they might up and leave before the main event.
But Bam Bam Bigelow put in a fine effort, he and Taylor put on a match that while still pretty average, was far better than it had any right to be. After losing, Bam Bam departed the Million Dollar Stable in a highly entertaining Raw segment in mid-April – he too had turned babyface.
And you may have noticed the problem here… The line of heels Diesel could’ve faced was disintegrating, and not just because his likely opponents are all turning. You can also look to Owen Hart, Bob Backlund and Yokozuna (three major heels in 1994) as guys who’s stocks declined sharply in 1995). If Diesel was to be limited to existing heels on the roster, the list of names declined pretty fast: Sid Vicious, Jeff Jarrett, King Kong Bundy and, mercifully, Mabel.
The answer should have lied in the WWF seriously shuffling the deck. A babyface roster of Undertaker, Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, Diesel, Bam Bam Bigelow and Razor Ramon was excessive. Razor really should’ve turned, Bam Bam probably shouldn’t have, that would’ve been two names that could’ve been lined up to face a babyface Diesel. Lex Luger could probably be added to that list too.
Another answer could, and perhaps should, have lied from the outside. While Shane Douglas to many inside the WWF was seen as someone jumping from being a big fish in a small pond in ECW to being a plankton in the WWF ocean; Douglas was a guy tearing it up in ECW and could’ve easily been a guy positioned as a major heel opponent once he’d been properly placed on the roster.
But the more simple answer may have simply lied in turning one man, that man being Diesel. While his title win the previous November had coincided with an inevitable heel turn, and we were in an era when a guy turning once was probably it for a while. But a Diesel turn would’ve given him a massively deep list of opponents that could’ve kept him going for a good year, perhaps more. It also would’ve stopped this jarring factor of a 6ft 10 wrestler having to sell for opponents often much smaller than he was.
In the end it was probably a fanciful hope of him turning heel. But the WWF’s inability to see the bigger picture over the balance of their roster was a significant mistake. The British Bulldog would eventually turn, but it was probably too little too late. Bulldog himself was a lukewarm act. Opponents wouldn’t be the only reason for Diesel’s failure, but it was a significant section.