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After Lex Luger failed to provide Vince McMahon with what he needed in the battle to replace Hulk Hogan, Vince and the WWF loaded the tank once again, this time with Diesel. Kevin Nash wasn't exactly young at 35, but given that he'd been around for less than five years, and on WWF television for barely over a year, he nicely represented the "New Generation", the WWF's tagline attempting to eschew the balance of age between them and WCW.
Diesel ran in the WWF as the bodyguard of Shawn Michaels. There was once a remark on television that rather than him being there to keep the fans off of Shawn, he was there to keep Shawn off of the fans, such was the not-exactly-far-from-reality idea about Michaels' personality. The role enabled him to largely be silent on the microphone, and used sparingly in a physical capacity. Michaels was a cool heel dripping with charisma, it didn’t really matter than Diesel wasn't, just being in Shawn's presence helped make it so.
The other thing that aided Diesel's rise was his push. It wasn't constant in 1994 (although it might look like that at a glance). Diesel played key roles in three of the pay per views, but was a non factor at Wrestlemania. But given that he cleaned house at the Royal Rumble, and main evented King Of The Ring 1994 against Bret Hart, my comparison between him and Roman Reigns doesn't feel all that jarring.
As for his title win? At Survivor Series 1994 WWF pulled off arguably one of the most effective single man pushes I've seen them do in one match. After ten minutes of nothingness, Diesel tagged in and eliminated people – things had start to happen. Diesel, alongside Shawn (who refused any part of the action until Diesel had it under control) was a star in the making, although many wouldn't have expected him to win the title within a week of that show, he did, defeating Bob Backlund, who won the title on the pay per view from Bret Hart.
It's difficult to be critical of the switch. Well, maybe that Backlund had been so good in his role chasing Hart that he deserved a run with the belt. But getting it onto Diesel seemed to strike while the iron was hot – the fact that it was an eight second victory at a house show at Madison Square Garden all the better. The Rumble and Survivor Series showed fans were ready to cheer the Big Daddy Cool character.
It would be an overstatement to say that Diesel's first Raw appearance as Champion sowed the seeds of his downfall, but looking back it was hardly the most promising start. It would also provide a not-too-welcome bookend when, a year later, Diesel basically pivoted into an angry heel character the day after he lost the title. The Diesel that just won the belt was... different. He was chatty, he was nice, he was Hogan-lite. In the space of one promo he stopped being cool.
The problem that Vince McMahon has seemed to have with Hogan and with John Cena (and this is partly where the Roman Reigns comparison sticks) is that he is guilty of trying to replace a big star with someone to fill the same role. Sure, you could argue they tried a lot harder picking Luger, but in the case of Diesel it wasn't so much about the look (although he had some size) but more that the turn to being Champion attempted to humanise him. There were many positive traits about Diesel's character behind Shawn Michaels, but most of these vanished as Diesel was asked to do long, winding promos on who knows what. His promos definitely improved over the course of his run, but it wasn't the best of starts.
Diesel's first set of title defences were against Backlund – Hart, for what it's worth, was off filiming a TV show. None of these made it to TV, but in the course of a few weeks at house shows it became clear that Diesel vs Backlund was better left to eight seconds, trying to fill long main events just wasn't working. Details are sketchy as to why, but it's not the biggest stretch to suggest the giant babyface Diesel didn't mesh well with the shorter heel Backlund. Backlund was replaced by Jarrett, none of this ever made it to television.
Back on television, Bret Hart returned for the run into the Royal Rumble in January 1995. Bret and Diesel were both babyfaces, so this was going to be a tricky one. Six months earlier at King Of The Ring, Diesel and Bret fought a long and pretty decent matchup, Diesel laid out Bret with a powerbomb before Jim Neidhart interfered (in story – Neidhart wanted Bret to keep the title so Owen could win it off of him). There had been no clear winner, and Diesel had laid down a big marker flattening Bret with the jacknife.
Their match at the Rumble was excellent. Bret played a not-so-subtle heel, working hard to building sympathy on the champion without straying too far from the line. The only time things got really bad was when Bret used a steel chair – that elicited some boos. The match ended in a schmoz with interference from Owen Hart, still clinging to relevancy after an excellent 1994, and Shawn Michaels. For now, at least Diesel was safe from Hart.
Their next turn setup another juicy program – this time with his former ally Shawn Michaels. Shawn had been one of the companies best in ring performers for years and was finally starting to gain some ground near the top of the roster. In a Royal Rumble match curtailed to 30 minutes (due to a lack of star power) Shawn went from start to finish, skinning the cat in a wonderfully executed false finish before eliminating the British Bulldog. Shawn was on a collision course with Wrestlemania, and it was becoming clear that keeping such a brilliant performer a heel who wrestled such a crowd pleasing style was going to be next to impossible.
But much like the match with Bret, it was an unavoidable program. WWF had done a poor job with their heels, not that they didn't have them more that they weren't capable of keeping them over. That being said, Shawn was a heel, and a program with his former bodyguard made perfect sense. But this was the first big failing of his reign – Shawn vs Diesel could have been a big rivalry had they have properly capitalised on their history together. Their attempt was limp.
Sure, Shawn was speaking about how without him Diesel wouldn't be World Champion, the problem with this storyline was that despite being the heel, Shawn was actually telling the truth. How could Diesel, the babyface, respond to a line like that? Otherwise, Shawn was too busy telling people how he was going to steal the show – something that fit perfectly with his real life persona, given thatLawrence Taylor and Bam Bam Bigelow were not only in a bigger match but were placed in the last match at Wrestlemania, Shawn was on an ego drive.
Their match was good, but the praise really ends there. It was an unremarkable show, with the exception of Bam Bam and Taylor putting on a match that exceeded most expectations in the main event. Shawn, unlike Bret however, made few attempts to try and maintain his heel role against the babyface champion. Shawn could've stopped it if he really tried, but fans by this point did really want to cheer him. The turn, unplanned, changed up things for the champ.
Shawn was wiped out of action on Raw the following night by Sid. Diesel came out to Shawn's aid, reuniting the pair this time as babyfaces, and creating a natural next program for the champ. Unfortunately, that natural next program was with Sid (who Shawn had said cost him the match against Diesel the night before). Sid vs Diesel was not a match made in heaven.
Part of the issue, of course, was that the WWF were embarking on a new monthly pay per view project – "In Your House". Had this have been 1994 Diesel wouldn't have had a title defence for two months, but now they needed an opponent for May, and July, and September, and October. The monthly pay per views had changed the game in more ways than one, and Diesel was going to be right at the forefront of that.
Bizarre, mind, was that if you look at the company's early In Your House efforts was that they often left big name talent off of certain shows. Priced at $14.95 they weren't presenting these as big events, so guys liked Undertaker didn't appear and usually only one of Shawn or Bret did to carry the workload in a mid-card match. Diesel, as champion however, was on all of the shows.
The first Diesel and Sid match was predictably poor. The quality of In Your House 1 gradually declined after a hot start between Bret Hart and Hakushi. Diesel and Sid would make a good wrestling poster but the match itself was predictably lackluster, topped off by the fact Diesel landed on his elbow taking a jackknife powerbomb from Sid. Little did we know Big Daddy Cool wasn't the only person about to suffer because of the injury.
Bam Bam Bigelow, by this time, had completed his face turn. Having lost to Taylor at Wrestlemania, Bigelow faced off against Diesel in a match on Raw in April. Funnily enough, the show drew a pretty good rating. Of course, at the conclusion of the match they turned Bam Bam face – stacking the deck even more ridiculously one sided in favour of the faces. Beyond Sid, it was a very barren landscape.
Without a doubt one of the biggest mistakes the WWF made in 1995 was to not get a conveyor belt of heels lined up for Diesel. Sure, it may have looked a bit odd to have Diesel run through a new opponent each pay per view, but that was the way Hogan got over. The company’s inability to create new heels combined with their inability or unwillingness to push the ones they had (see Backlund, Owen, Yokozuna) was about to cause their downfall. It was like they didn't have a plan.
Except, of course, they did have a plan. One plan. One man. One big, purple coloured plan. Mabel. Yep, the masterplan for Diesel's next opponent was Mabel. A man who tipped the scales at 500 pounds and who moved like he weighed more than that. This wasn't the 1960s; size alone – or in this case, girth – wasn't a drawing factor. Unfortunately for fans, Vince McMahon thought Mabel offered the perfect solution.
So turn to King of the Ring. Diesel teamed with new best friend Bam Bam Bigelow against Sid and presumably number two heel... Tatanka, in the shows main event. The injury meant Diesel wasn't fit enough to wrestle a singles match and protracted the feud with Sid out for another month. But that match was by no means the biggest problem on the show.
In their infinite wisdom, the WWF had booked the 1995 King Of The Ring bracket to include almost no top stars. Qualification matches between the likes of Jeff Jarrett and Undertaker, Yokozuna and Lex Luger and The British Bulldog against Owen Hart not only contained far more star power, but often were far more entertaining that the matches in the brackets themselves. But needless to say, with Shawn Michaels, Undertaker and Razor Ramon joining the likes of Mabel, Kama, Yokozuna, The Roadie and Bob Holly – the tournament didn't have to be the shits.
Oh, but it was. Firstly, there was the injury to Razor Ramon that forced him out of the competition. That spot was filled by Savio Vega winning a match on the pre-show prior to the pay per view. As it turns out, plans called for Razor to go from the quarter final right through until the final – as he was one of the most popular faces in the company it made sense. But when Razor got injured the company tried to run the same play with Savio Vega – who'd been on TV all of a month by this stage.
But problems were brewing all over the place. Shawn Michaels and Kama fought to a "double draw" when the time limit expired, and Mabel disposed of Undertaker thanks to interference from Kama. The draw in the Michaels match meant Mabel shot straight through to the final, sparing us all the prospect of seeing him wrestle three times. As for the other semi, The Roadie (w/ Jarrett) against Vega (w/ Razor).
This isn't to get too far off topic, but more to illustrate firstly just how awful the show was, and secondly the kind of priorities the company had. The fact that they were sitting on Bulldog, Owen Hart, Lex Luger, The 123 Kid, Hakushi, Jean-Pierre Lafitte and many other guys that if they couldn't draw a reaction could at least work. Mabel would end up winning the tournament, becoming the next challenger for Diesel's title.
Before that, however, we needed the "blow-off" to the Sid feud. In Your House 2 bought us the main event title match, a lumberjack match. Of course, the best way to prevent any outside interference is merely to ensure it happens. The match was horrendous – the thirty lumberjacks around the ring made the who thing an impossibility. Mabel slams Diesel into the ringpost to setup their match... in the main event of Summerslam.
The card going into Summerslam promised Shawn Michaels against Sid and Diesel against Mabel as the two main matches. The company quite rightly recognised that pairing as death (they were especially concerned given the negative reaction after King Of The Ring), so they did the only logical thing... they left Diesel vs Mabel untouched and moved to Shawn vs Razor for the Intercontinental Title match... in a ladder match.
Shawn against Razor was a masterpiece. Falling slightly short of their Wrestlemania effort (a miracle when you consider they weren't allowed to use the ladder "as a weapon"). Everyone, including Diesel and Mabel, wanted the ladder match to go on last, you'd struggle to find anyone on the roster that was capable of following it, but this?
Their match was predictably horrible. The only real surprise in all honesty that it wasn't any worse than anyone could've expected. One spot that really illustrates it all was Mabel going for his camel clutch like submission move; I say "like", he basically just sat on the base of Diesel's spine. It was a move that put Diesel out of action for a short while, and one amongst many that almost caused the company to fire Mabel.
Around this time the big question that should've popped up from within the company was whether there was a good case in turning Diesel heel. It might seem blasphemous to think about turning the company vision of Hulk Hogan only eight-ten months into his title reign, but poor planning had caused a serious in balance in the top end of the roster.
On the face side, you had Diesel, Shawn, Bret, Undertaker, Razor Ramon, the quickly fading Bam Bam Bigelow, the 123 Kid and others. On the heel side? Once Mabel and Sid had been disguarded there weren't many other players... Owen Hart had disappeared by this stage, Yokozuna (quite rightly) deemed too out of shape and Backlund now focussing on his presidential run.
A Diesel heel turn would've given the company so many options. They could finally do him against Shawn where Shawn was the smaller babyface chasing the larger heel. They could finally do him against Bret where Bret was the smaller babyface chasing the larger heel. They also had options with programs with Undertaker and Razor that at the very least could've given them a years’ worth of feuds.
The less appealing but more likely alternative was to turn someone. Dean Douglas was an arrival with some potential, but it would've been too soon to put him in that spot, in which case they needed to make a heel. Razor was crying out for a heel turn (somehow, in his feud with The 123 Kid it would be the Kid that ultimately turned). Bret, Undertaker and Shawn would've all been massively counterproductive. So they went instead with Bulldog.
And here's the thing, there’s nothing wrong with Bulldog at all, the heel turn was the first of his career and injected some fresh life into a character that was floundering in the lower reaches with Lex Luger – who was about to join WCW anyway. But Bulldog was still Bulldog, he was a good, recognised name. But even though the heel turn improved him it still left you asking the question: is Diesel against Bulldog the answer to the question? And if so, what the hell was the question?
September bought us In Your House 3. The Diesel/Bulldog bout was actually placed on the backburner in place of a tag team main event between Diesel and Shawn Michaels against the tag champions of Owen Hart and Yokozuna. The match, involving all of WWF's male title holders, promised a title change as whoever got pinned would lose their title.
It was a quite innovative idea, a genuinely intriguing one that presented a lot of options and potential outcomes. The most likely outcome seemed to be to give Owen Hart the Intercontinental Title, pivoting that away from Shawn Michaels so that he could get ready (theoretically) for a World Title challenge. They could've even teased a split between the two faces.
Instead we got a proper schmoz. Owen never made it to the match, being replaced by The British Bulldog. Owen ended up getting involved an inexplicably being pinned by Diesel despite not being a participant. Diesel and Shawn won the titles before being stripped of them the following night on Raw. It didn't really damage Diesel, but was more of a giant fuck you to paying customers.
Diesel would turn his attention to Bulldog. The extent of the feud was Diesel being up against not only Bulldog but also Mabel, Mo and often Yokozuna and Owen too. In a big name six man tag match that included Bulldog, Owen, Yoko, Diesel, Shawn and Undertaker – Mabel and Dean Douglas got involved, laying waste to the faces. It was a positive way of building towards the match, even if it failed to properly establish a personal beef between Diesel and Bulldog.
As for the match at In Your House 4, it was a major disappointment. Not that these two promised great things going in, but Bulldog would have fancied himself at being able to get a better match out of Nash than Mabel or Sid did – and he's shown himself more than capable in the past. Instead, bizarrely, we got a match between two big man wrestlers that took place predominantly on the mat.
More puzzling still was the fact Diesel didn't even win clean. A show in Winnipeg that featured exactly zero Canadian wrestlers (both Bret and Owen wrestled separate dark matches after the show went off the air), but did feature Bret at ringside on commentary for the main event, scouting the match as he would be facing "the winner" at Survivor Series. This being important as Bret ended up attacking Bulldog, meaning Bulldog won the match by DQ. While he wasn't the champion, in the eyes of Jim Cornette's attorney Clarence Mason he was still "the winner".
And not for the first time in Diesel's reign was his own benefit put second to other goals and aims. Rather than giving Diesel a decisive win ahead of facing Hart at Survivor Series, they preferred to go with a finish that enabled Cornette and Mason to correctly argue that Bulldog deserved another title shot (which he would get in December).
The match was noteworthy for one other thing, too. After the show went off the air Vince McMahon took his headset off and said "horrible". The reaction was probably more to do with the negative reaction Diesel received during a pull apart with Bret Hart after the match (they were in Canada, what the hell did they expect?) but also the fact that things just weren't improving. It's hard to think it was the only causing factor, but that match was probably the moment Vince fully gave up on the Diesel experiment.
Of course, in the moment after Vince probably gave up on Diesel, he started to become interesting again. Maybe it was against Bret, an opponent he had history with stemming back to two very good matches (King Of The Ring 1994 and The 1995 Royal Rumble), and one that promised not to stink up the joint. Also the no DQ, no count out stipulation – Vince even promised that the pay per view would stay on the air until we got a winner, their previous two battles succumbing to unsatisfying interferences.
Six days before the pay per view, on November 13th, Diesel and Bret Hart sat in separate TV studios to take part in an eight-minute interview with Vince McMahon that would air on Monday Night Raw. Both talked with a cautious respect of their opponent, Diesel quite rightly pointing out Bret hasn't kicked out of the jacknife, Bret quite rightly pointing out he only had one title rematch since losing the title, and that he felt Diesel had been walking around with his title belt for the past 12 months.
It was a compelling segment, Diesel having not dyed his hair before the interview was showing signs of greying – a 36-year-old hardly the ideal candidate for the "New Generation". Bret, somewhat preposterously, only two years older, represented the wily old veteran. It wasn’t a case of telling the audience which side to pick, or simply letting it be, they were drawing battle lines and both men did a great job of making the audience pick a side for themselves.
The story going into the match was quite simple, Diesel wasn’t “paid by the hour”, and as such was here to get the job done quickly – Diesel recognised that a long match would suit the challenger. When the bell rang Diesel turned around and removed the turnbuckle pad, a symbolic “get down to business” move, that Bret immediately copied.
If I had a frustration with the early goings in the match it was that, if they wanted to tell the story of Diesel wanting to get the job done quickly, then why didn’t they? Sure, Diesel was on top in the opening ten minutes, but he never really looked close getting to it over the line. The way of building jeopardy was missed.
After that Bret got on top and the pace of the match slowed as Bret began attempting to chop Diesel down to size, tying hit foot to the turnbuckle post with a piece of electrical cable. The spot, while innovative and a nice piece of storytelling did really bring the pace of the match down. Diesel, to his credit, once he did escape did a stellar job selling it (something that cannot always be said for guys in his position, see Shawn Michaels at Summerslam).
The match built nicely, Diesel sent Bret flying through the Spanish Announcers table, before that would became an infamous spot. Bret crawled back into the ring, unable to support his own weight. Diesel picked him up for a jacknife – Bret collapsed. Diesel (perhaps quite rightly) looked to the ref asking him to call it, he didn’t. Diesel went for the jacknife again, Bret (playing possum) synched in an inside cradle for the surprise win.
After three matches, we probably still had no clear indication who was the better man, but at least we had a clear winner. Diesel quickly sat up and shouted “MOTHER FUCKER”, before picking up Bret and hitting not one but two powerbombs before referees held him off. It was hardly the coronation for the new champ, but it was the first sign of genuine fire we’d seen from Big Daddy Cool in twelve months.
Disappointingly, the next night on Raw Diesel became even more compelling. The one thing lost in his evolution from the cool kid on the block to the boring, Hogan-lite Champion was that his promos actually improved quite significantly. Sure, he was only able to show it in hideously long 4-5 minute segments that put him across as a nice guy, if not a super hero. But after 12 months of improvement and no doubt incredible personal frustration, it was time to let rip.
This was the Diesel that got over in January 1994 at the Royal Rumble, this was the Diesel that cleaned house at the 1994 Survivor Series. He said for the first time in a year he’d slept like a baby, and he saw himself smile. He slammed Vince McMahon for making him become the corporate champion he never should have been. A very real, believable frustration. What a shame it had all come too late.
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