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Desperate times call for desperate measures, as they say. And while the WWF were far from the financial disaster they were the year prior, come the fall of 1996 things were lacking a certain spark. In fact, in the wake of the NWO angle on WCW Monday Nitro, Raw was beginning to feel second rate. In the wake of the departure of Scott Hall and Kevin Nash, along with the hiatus of Bret Hart, Raw's without Shawn Michaels were starting to feel completely miss-able and utterly void of star power. But if there's one thing you can, consistently, say about Vince McMahon, it's that he always finds a way. Right?
When Hall and Nash left for WCW, the angle that they portrayed on Nitros was that they were Diesel and Razor Ramon. While WCW stressed about a name they could actually call the pair, announcers just referred to them as variations as "The two, you know who they are", before collectively grouping them as "The Outsiders" and then eventually just working out that the best names you could give them were "Kevin Nash" and "Scott Hall". Is there a version of Occam's Razor that says the simplest idea is the best?
Amongst two companies that had been battling all year since the Billionaire Ted angles that aired on WWF television (angles that Hall basically referenced during his first Nitro promo) there had been legal issues between both sides. In the initial legal papers, the WWF submitted that they not only claimed ownership of the names and basic characters – but everything. Literally. They wanted credit for Diesel right down to his goatee. This whole thing would go on for ages... I'll probably write more about it when we get there.
Anyway, while in the grander scheme of things the WWF's legal notices didn't do much, they did force Eric Bischoff to abruptly ask both Hall and Nash at the Great American Bash whether they were "under contract with the WWF", to which Hall and Nash both explicitly said no. Fortunately a lot of people were smart to that, and the mere illusion of an invasion was sufficient to drive the angle.
The WWF responded to the beginning of the angle with, well... nothing. I mean, what could they respond with? Save calling Bret Hart and asking him to return six weeks into what would turn into a six month hiatus they didn't have many cards they could play. Diesel vs Shawn, which had been planned to be a summer long feud was cut short, as was it's replacement when a few weeks into the program The British Bulldog handed in his notice too. Fortunately for Vince McMahon, who from a purely main event talent standpoint now was staring into the abyss, Smith was just stopping his contract from auto-renewing. Smith would end up re-signing, but not before almost signing with WCW.
Still though, whether it was by design or just by osmosis, something funny happened in June 1996. Just weeks after Hall had appeared on Nitro both companies proceeded to produce what were almost unarguably their best pay per view efforts in a long time. WCW, at the Great American Bash, had a great mix of hard hitting action (Steiners vs Fire and Ice), high flying action (Mysterio/Malenko) and a great arena wide brawl between Chris Benoit and The Taskmaster. Add to that a barmy main event involving two footballers and a few really well executed angles and you probably had WCW's best pay per view since Spring Stampede two years earlier.
WWF responded too. A year after the infamous 1995 King Of The Ring, they crowned Stone Cold Steve Austin as a somewhat surprising King, famously replacing Hunter Hearst Helmsley who was tipped for the spot. The show featured three really good matches, including Michaels vs Davey Boy in the main event. Michaels, as he had been doing for a while, was making a habit of having the best match in the main event. Come later in the year, he'd be bailing out WWF's pay per views.
But on TV all wasn't well, up against the now two hour Nitro Raw was really struggling. On a taping schedule that regularly saw them taping three or four weeks of television in one evening, programs became disjointed and frequently had to be edited before they eventually aired to fix issues with continuity or, in the case of when the company suspended the Ultimate Warrior, have an entirely new storyline spliced in on a few days notice.
Tape delays were the least of their issues though. It probably took a bit longer than you might think, but once the Outsiders/NWO angle got going Raw went from being competitive, to being narrowly beaten to being hammered. On a night in April where Nitro was pre-empted, Raw did a 4.3 rating. Six months later they hit their nadir, a 1.8.
They tried... but even with an hour to fill they just didn't have enough over talent to keep people interested, particularly in an era where big stars didn't appear on all shows. But don't get nostalgic, beyond Shawn Michaels the WWF really didn't have anyone worth tuning in for at this point, not unless you were a real fanatic. They'd booked Vader quite well, but not as the monster he needed to be, and Mankind while often the most memorable part of the show just hadn't been around long enough to become an attraction. Most of the guys being pushed had barely been with the company a year. In Steve Austin, Marc Mero, (an injured) Brian Pillman and Vader the WWF oddly enough had four of the more exciting talents from 1995 – Pillman and Mero had arguably WCW's best match in 1995.
And that was the road that lead them here. McMahon, determined to believe that it was his vision that made Razor Ramon and Diesel the big attractions they were, felt he could simply retrofit their gimmicks onto other performers and the whole thing would work out. Three years before he had essentially tried the same thing, getting a guy that looked like Hulk Hogan and trying to make him Hulk Hogan. As a funny aside, like Hall and Nash that followed, Lex Luger too was finding life much more over in Atlanta.
It was asking an unbelieveable amount of his audience to try and completely overlook that Razor and Diesel that they knew and loved were not the same. Vince believed that the men behind the hair and the ring gear could be interchanged, people come for the name on the marquee after all, right? But what made the whole idea even more galling was that it wasn't like Nash and Hall had just vanished, they were more visible than they ever had been, in front of more viewers than they ever had been, in an angle way more memorable than anything they had been in previously. Sure, most people don't fully appreciate how separate the two audiences were during the Monday Night War, but for many who still only watched Raw there would have at least been an awareness of what the pair were doing.
But this was Vince's grand plan, fill in the void left by Razor and Diesel by "bringing back" Razor and Diesel. The angle started with a tease from Jim Ross on commentary at the beginning of September 1996 that he had very "trusted sources" that were telling him that both Razor and Diesel were in talks with the WWF, and that was really it. For a company that was firing on precisely one cylinder at the time, their subtlety game in this era was largely on point (see the ECW angle that took place at In Your House that month).
In the weeks that followed Ross repeated these claims – it was becoming a developing story – but for whatever reason the promise of the return of two major characters wasn't really doing it for viewers, Raw's viewers flattening out week by week as the intrigue surrounding the NWO grew. In fact, the only people that may have bought the angle, at all, were WCW, who ended up offering Nash and Hall even more money than agreed to sign contracts they, technically, to this stage hadn't formally signed.
Perhaps most alarming about the full story is that it's quite possible that even Vince McMahon worked out before the angle started that it may be dead in the water. TV ahead of In Your House saw Gorilla Monsoon come on television and specifically mention "Scott Hall and Kevin Nash" hadn't signed with the WWF, it was now becoming Ross' word against everyone else's, and quickly the only two options they had were to stop it dead in its tracks, or turn their best play by play announcer heel. And, well, there's a reason I'm writing this.
Ross finally gave us the big reveal, as emphatic as he had ever been, that next week, live, in the ring, in Hershey PA, would be Diesel and Razor Ramon. The fuse had been lit. The ratings sagged even further. Then, at the pay per view, a tease – never mind that barely 4% of their TV audience was buying their pay per views – but they had a long angle shot of Razor and Diesel beating up Savio Vega (presumably fearing that six matches in two pay per view appearances in Philadelphia might become seven). That, for now, was that.
2.4, 2.1, 2.0 - those were the ratings for the first three Raw's in September (save the Friday night Raw that aired in the first week as Raw was pre-empted). The reveal drew less viewers than at any time in the build before it, the question is, what were those viewers going to get? They left it right until the end with an irate Jim Ross getting angry that his promo time firstly got cut for a video package, then for a commercial. But still, eventually the floor opened up, and Ross had something to say.
Ross delivered, what it should be said, was quite an excellent promo in that it was essentially entirely a shoot. How he ditched a gig with the Altanta Falcons to join the WWF, only to be stuck in a toga, then fired, then suffer a bout of Bells Palsy, then get rehired, then get fired again, only to be rehired again on "50 cents on the dollar". Ross was angry, and basically implied that Scott Hall and Kevin Nash weren't here because of his doing (that bit wasn't really true). But as a giant fuck you to Vince McMahon – here was Razor Ramon.
The crowd, if I'm being polite, mildly popped for Razor's music, and then he walked out... I mean, how did you expect them to act? At this stage, it seems like they knew it was going to be a bust, but hoped by pinning the blame firmly on Ross it might actually draw some heat. Yeah, about that... Razor came to the ring, said the words: "Hey Mang, chico... say hello, to the bad guy... mang" in possibly the worst thing, ever, uttered on wrestling television and then, for the first time in history, we were happy to see Savio Vega who ran out and attacked Razor as the show went off the air.
The show on the 23rd ended up running up against "NWO Monday Nitro" - as the group took over the second hour of Nitro with the bulk of WCW's roster in Japan. That show lost viewers by the bucket load too, with Nitro dropping an entire ratings point before the night was out. But they didn't move to Raw, they just left. And Raw sank to one of its lowest ratings in history, which (if you think about it) can only mean the audience didn't buy it for a second. Not the best sign.
And that was really it. The pair actually stuck around for a while, even featuring in a tag team match on pay per view. But the whole thing was doomed from its very inception, a sign of a company that creatively was at a very low ebb. But it’s weird to think, that arguably with their star power at its lowest the seeds of the future were as good as in place. Less than two months after the fake Razor/Diesel angle Rocky Maivia debuted… so that’s Rock, Austin, Mankind, Triple H, Kane and Undertaker all in the right place. Give it a couple of years, eh?