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The WWF's annual Summerslam Pay-Per-View emanated from the Gund Arena in Cleveland, Ohio at a time where the fortunes of the company were on a real downturn. Defeats by WCW in the weekly ratings for the last two months, coupled with the red-hot NWO angle suggested that things were starting to look bleak for Titan. Not that you would have known that from the admittedly very impressive setting for this Pay-Per-View, and the fact they managed to sell-out virtually all of their 17,000 ticket allocation. Whilst the product itself was already looking extremely tired (and more on that later!) the World Wrestling Federation 'brand' was still strong...and it needed to be.
The event was both predicated and sold on the two main-events: Shawn Michaels defending the WWF Title against Vader, and The Undertaker facing off against Mankind in the first ever 'Boiler Room Brawl'. Barely any heed or favour was paid to the undercard at all, leaving it to look like the ultimate in afterthoughts. Although plans did have to be amended due to the very real injury sustained by Ahmed Johnson, the sheer paucity of the WWF's roster was laid all-too-bare. Even the meaningless tagline for the event - "Opposites Attack!" - suggested a major lack of invention and ideas. With all that in mind, let's take you back to 18th August 1996, although be warned..you probably won't want to stay for long.
Owen Hart v Savio Vega
We begin with the ultimate example of a match which has clearly just been thrown together for no real reason. The small matter of Owen Hart being a superb worker does help soften the blow slightly, until you realise he is in there with a glorified scrub like Savio, who hasn't meant anything since King Of The Ring 1995. Owen does his best to hold the match together but all Savio can offer is spin-kicks and air-punches. Hell, even Picasso needed a canvas...
The crowd get firmly behind the heel Owen as they obviously appreciate his vastly-superior workrate. He secures the victory after knocking Savio-out-cold with his now ever-present cast (how did Tim White miss that?!) then locking him in the Sharpshooter. It would be great to think that Owen will be rewarded for his excellent in-ring skills, but it's clear that the office clearly just see him as the dreaded 'Good Hand' at this point.
Clarence Mason joins Owen to celebrate after the match, as Jim Cornette is busy geeing up Vader for the title match. I always appreciate little touches like that, and in an event this poor I will take anything I can get! Speaking of which...
The Smoking Gunns(c) v The Bodydonnas v The Godwinns v The New Rockers. WWF Tag-Team Title Elimination Match
Oh dear. Oh dear oh dear. (Editors note: oh dear). Four tag-teams who nobody cares about, who have already fought each other a million times, who are competing for titles which have become all but worthless. The match is every bit as good as that introduction suggests. Ten minutes of listless 'action' sees The Bodydonnas get eliminated after a trip-up on the apron (yes, really), The New Rockers after a slop drop, and the eventual victory to the Gunns after a cheap distraction finish after Bart comes off the top rope onto PIG. Awful. They simply have to get the belts off the Gunns at this point, but who is out there? Indeed, who would even want to lower themselves to this level?!
After the match, Sunny - who at this point is probably the only reason the tag titles even exist - treats us all to a huge centrefold picture of herself. Again, I'll take what I can..!
Sycho Sid v The British Bulldog
After returning at 'International Incident' to a hero's welcome, Sid gets another very big pop upon his entrance here. It would take a greater mind than I to deduce why he is so popular at the moment, but lightning-in-a-bottle and all that I guess. This match is decent enough for what it is: two power guys hitting each other with standard power stuff for five minutes. Any longer though and it would have become a chore to watch. Bulldog has the contest won following the running powerslam but he gets distracted (sigh...) by Mason and Cornette bickering outside. Sid recovers and gets the three-count after a huuuge powerbomb. Davey was headlining PPVs two months ago, but now his stock is falling at quite the alarming rate. Sid on the other hand just keeps on being Sid. Would we want him any other way?
Goldust v 'Wildman' Marc Mero
At this point the often-excellent work these two came up with in WCW looks a very long time ago indeed. This is has been the very definition of a "cold feud", and the in-ring display proves this. Both men do little more than go through the motions with very basic maneuvers and transitions. Mankind comes down to ringside to leer over Sable and call her "Mommy" in the only interesting point of the match before the finish (Sadly Sable's sub-Disney Channel "I'm Scared!" acting lets it down a bit). The aforementioned finish is Mero debuting a new move - as promised by Jim Ross before the match. That move turns out to be a Shooting Star Press called The Wild Thing. It's impressive, but after all the fanfare it doesn't give Mero the win! He only gets 2 off a delayed cover (yep, more distractions....), then Goldust recovers to hit a Curtain Call for the 3-count. A real missed opportunity all round here.
Jerry 'The King' Lawler v Jake 'The Snake' Roberts
Yep, that's right. Third-from-the-top on your second-biggest PPV of the year. In 1996. Lawler v Roberts. Neither man should be anywhere near a ring at this point. Especially when you consider the appalling taste in which this rivalry has been carried out. Lawler's attempt to get heat via Roberts' all-too-real alcohol problems go way too far and enter the realms of real ugliness. The match itself is four minutes of stalling and slapping, which ends after Lawler hits Jake with a bottle. He tries to pour two of them down Jake's throat, but Olympic Weightlifter Mark Henry makes the save. Appalling stuff here, and a serious contender for worst match/feud/everything of the year.
Mankind v The Undertaker. Boiler Room Brawl
On paper this probably looked fascinating. Put The Undertaker into Mankind's own dwelling - a boiler room - and see how he can cope. If you were writing a story for a comic based on this premise, there are a great many ideas you could come up with to make it compelling. However, as this was taking place in the context of wrestling in front of a live and television audience, the one major flaw of this concept is exposed. Namely, there are very few things that the talent can actually do in a honest-to-goodness boiler room that wouldn't involve legitimately maiming each other. So as such we are treated to fifteen minutes of The Undertaker and Mankind gingerly hitting one another with bits and pieces, in a room which is too-poorly lit to really make anything out. Okay, so Mankind does fall off a ladder and lands pelvis first onto concrete, but you'd expect that.
Vince deciding that there should be no commentary for the match, and "technical problems" covering up obvious edits didn't help either. When the two finally emerge back in the arena (the boiler room segments were taped the day before) things do pick up slightly. Mankind takes a sick Nestea Plunge down to the floor off the apron, allowing Undertaker to enter the ring to take possession of the urn....but Paul Bearer doesn't give it to him. Instead he laughs as Mankind stages a comeback, then slaps The Undertaker in the face. He then cracks Undertaker over the head with the urn, handing it to Mankind who then wins the match.
A heel Paul Bearer is a potentially interesting move, although at the moment it looks like he will be playing little more than Generic Bad-Guy Manager, which I don't think suits what the Mankind character is supposed to be about. I'm sure The Undertaker will be fine though. He's The Undertaker.
Everybody involved here did their absolute best with what they had - and the WWF deserve a whole stack of credit here for at least trying something a bit different - but in the end they were defeated by perhaps thinking the match could achieve a lot more. Perhaps an all-out 'Anything Goes/Unsanctioned' brawl which actually spilled into the boiler room for a while might have been a better choice...
Shawn Michaels (c) v Vader for the WWF Title
Not for the first time this year, it falls to Shawn Michaels in the main event to attempt to save the whole PPV. Does he manage it? Well, almost.
The story of this match in the beginning is terrific. Michaels knows that he won't have a hope if he tries to go toe-to-toe with Vader, so he has to use his agility and speed as a method of keeping Vader off his feet. He manages this with offence which both pops the crowd AND fits the context of the bout - a trick many would do well to imitate. A victory roll over the top rope which he then skins-the-cat back in on in particular has to be seen to be believed. Vader is no slouch either of course, and is able to hit back as the match progresses and lays in some extremely tight work in doing so, including a devastating powerbomb on the outside. In what seems a rather curious finish, Vader drops Michaels on the guardrail then hops back in for a count-out victory.
After his music plays, Cornette gets on the mic and tells us that they came here to win the title. He challenges Michaels to get back in the ring and for the match to restart. He does - to a massive pop - and we are underway again..but not for long after Michaels whacks Vader and Cornette with the tennis racket. That calls for a DQ....and of course we then get a rinse and repeat with the match restarted again*. At the third time of asking it looks like Shawn is about to secure the victory with trusty Sweet Chin Music..but Vader kicks out at 2!! Everybody is stunned by that. I make this the first time that the superkick hasn't secured a win for HBK since he started using it as a finisher back in 1993.
Vader rallies and hits a bridging powerbomb but Earl Hebner gets bumped in the process. Mike Chioda runs down for the count, but Michaels escapes before the 3 as the crowd are going loopy! Vader drags Michaels' carcass to the turnbuckles for a Vader Bomb...but Cornette tells him to go up to the top for a moonsault instead. Of course, Michaels is able to evade this - which deflates some in the crowd who saw that coming a mile off. Michaels recovers to hit his own moonsault press (of a fashion), roll into the cover, and get the victory. The very-real looking smirk he allows himself just as the show goes off the air says it all..
There is some cause to think that Vader should have won the title here, but I still don't think at this point he is quite credible enough - mainly due to the way that he was mis-used shortly after his debut. He is certainly almost there though, and in getting two victories AND kicking out of the WWF Champion's finisher AND securing a visual pin he should get another shot against Michaels down the line.
The false-finishes might have been booked as olive branches for Vader, but they killed the flow of the match which up to that point was threatening to be one of the finest story-led main events we have seen in the WWF for a long time. As it is, we were left with a conclusion which was both convoluted and somewhat uncomfortable.
(* So 'successful' was the two-false-finishes-then-the-other-guy-wins trope that WWE brought it back in May 2016 for the Roman Reigns - AJ Styles main event at 'Payback'. I hope we have to wait at least another 20 years before we see it again...)
Score Rating: 2.5/10. This score might seem unduly harsh, but it is not unfair to expect more from a Summerslam. This felt like an extended 'In Your House' at best, maybe even a RAW. Too many people phoning it in, matches which meant nothing, situations that weren't paid off, conceptual failures, a Main Event which tried too hard to please everybody. Maybe that WWF brand I talked about at the start of this piece won't be so strong for long after all...
Go Back And Watch: Absolutely nothing before the two big matches. For all its flaws you really have to check out the Boiler Room Brawl, if only to give yourself a blueprint for your own fantasy re-booking of it. The performances in the WWF Title match are typically excellent and probably deserve your attention, but be ready to shake your head a lot for the final ten minutes...