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It’s without question that the WWF were headed in a new direction in 1995. Diesel, as champion, was attempting to become the next Hulk Hogan and Shawn Michaels who’s talent was burning so bright could he could no longer be ignored. While 1995 would become known as the WWF’s nadir – the year 0 – where things became so bad they couldn’t get worse in 1996, why did the WWF forget about these four men?
You could argue quite convincingly that the WWF had got all they could out of Yokozuna. Champion from June 1993 to Wrestlemania the following March; they had squeezed ever little bit out of him that they could. In the territory days, he’d have left and moved somewhere else. He would briefly reprise his main event run against Undertaker in November, but would otherwise be a non-event. He returned at Wrestlemania XI vastly overweight to begin a tag team run with Owen Hart. He’d never get near the main event again.
While there is a very long list of reasons in favour of taking the emphasis away from Yokozuna in 1995, he was over. At a time when guys on the roster simply weren’t, Yokozuna had traction with the audience – you only have to watch Wrestlemania XI to see that. Maybe he was too heavy, but more could’ve been made of a tag team run from him in 1995. He never did get that WWF Title rematch that Bret Hart promised him, either.
Owen proved he had something with his feud with Bret Hart, of that there is no question. He went from a talented mid-carder to a high quality heel act who’s all round game improved considerably. At the Royal Rumble in January 1994, he cut that famous “Bret, I kicked your leg out from under your leg” – by the King Of The Ring, he was cutting a very convincing heel promo. His matches with Bret at both Mania and Summerslam were of top class. The question remained: could Owen do it when it wasn’t a blood feud with his brother?
And the company never gave us the chance to find out. Owen’s role in the Championship match at Survivor Series would be his last near anything meaningful for a long while. His spot in the Royal Rumble was so insignificant we missed his exit. That, was unforgiveable. Maybe Owen would’ve sank against someone who wasn’t Bret, but it’s hard to work out why they never gave him the chance.
Backlund was 45 when he won the WWF Championship for the second time off of Bret Hart in November of 1994. His inclusion in a main event program at a time the company were pioneering the “New Generation” felt almost fraudulent when it became clear that’s where the company were headed, but by the time his brief reign ended you were left asking “What, only three days?”.
The follow up was worse. Backlund vs Diesel, it should be said, bombed on live events – so much so they quickly moved to Diesel vs Jeff Jarrett. This isn’t to say that Backlund should’ve been feuding with Diesel – he had other fish to fry - but Backlund, like Owen, had an all-to-brief Rumble run, before losing a stinker of a match with Bret Hart at Wrestlemania. After that, he turned babyface and partook in some absolutely bizarre “Spring Break” segments. He’d never get near the main event again.
Ok. The damage with Lex Luger was done long before the turn of 1995. His constant failure to do anything decisively caused his stocks as a character to wane. After winning his championship match with Yokozuna by count out at Summerslam 1993, he then “tied” the Royal Rumble in 1994, before losing his WWF Championship match with Yokozuna at Wrestlemania by disqualification. He was then quickly thrust into a mid-card feud and never got near the main event scene again.
The Luger one, like everyone in this list with the probable exception of Owen, isn’t to say they should’ve been in the main event/title picture. It’s more to ask “why did they fall so far?”. Luger had equity with the crowd – maybe he wasn’t the next Hogan, but he was something. Why give up all of that just because he fell short? He was still popular.
What Could They Have Done?
Yokozuna – if his weight gain was sufficient as reported, it may have been the beginning of the end for Yokozuna. That being said, he was still over to a point, and could’ve been a nice program for Bret Hart (tied in with the anti-Japan stuff) or the newly turned Shawn Michaels. Might not have been pretty, but very little was in the WWF in 1995.
Owen Hart – The biggest miss by some distance. Maybe Owen would have failed but to not line him up as a foe for Diesel was very strange indeed. Diesel struggled with good matches and Owen could’ve been a guy that could’ve put on good matches with him without compromising Diesel’s popularity.
Bob Backlund – Backlund’s age meant his shelf life at the top was limited, but not finding a role for him either in ring or in a prevalent speaking role was mind blowing. Backlund was awesome at generating heat on the microphone in 1994, and the Chickenwing was over as a finisher. Shitstorm against Bret probably cost him.
Lex Luger – the damage was already done, but the WWF’s biggest mistake was letting the Luger ship drift so much he’d walk out on the company and become the firework on top of the cake on the debut of WCW Monday Nitro. Had a role to play as a #3 or #4 babyface, for sure.
Ultimately, all four represent not a massive missed opportunity, but a collective representation of how sloppy the company had become. Much like today, if you weren’t at the top or on the way up you could fall very, very fast. Given what was at the top, and what was on the way up in 1995 (with exceptions) they might have been smarter protecting some of the bigger names from 1994.
Not to mention, just more of a continuity thing. Yokozuna and Backlund were both WWF Champions in 1994, Owen and Luger both challengers. What does it say if they all fell so quickly? Given that the likes of Diesel, Sid Vicious and Mabel replaced them in big spots… not a lot.