Alternate Reality by Vin Tastic – Great memories vs. great matches, part 2…

Last week I discussed the difference between a great moment caused by an epic event in professional wrestling, compared to a great in-ring contest – you might say the feel-good versus the technically good. This week I’ll continue with the next couple of contests that fans tend to remember fondly as great matches, even though the star-ranking system would not be kind to them when viewed without the emotion of the event to bolster their score.

TODAY’S ISSUE: Great memories and great matches, part 2.

One of the two matches I covered last week was Hulk Hogan versus Andre the Giant at WrestleMania III, and it should come as no surprise that this week’s matches will both feature Hogan, and will both take place at the “Showcase of the Immortals”. Hogan’s influence on the modern pro wrestling universe can’t be denied, and it was his showmanship and charisma along with his freakish physique that got him over, not his wrestling prowess. The Hulkster is no ring general, but let’s face it, McMahon packaged him in just the right way and Hogan knew how to carry the WWF ball when it was handed to him in the early 1980’s.

First up this week is the “Ultimate Challenge” from WrestleMania VI, when WWF Champion Hogan defended against the man whom Vince McMahon envisioned as the successor to Hogan’s throne, then reigning Intercontinental Champion, the Ultimate Warrior.

In the mold of Hogan himself, the Warrior was all show and no go, or all sizzle and no steak as some might say. He looked like a million bucks, popped the crowd with his rocking entrance, convulsions, and shaking of the ring ropes, but that was the best his in-ring performance would get. His skills were suited to squashing jobbers with simple attacks like clotheslines and splashes, while his move-set was too limited to even be considered thin. It was more like, nonexistent.

But the crowds loved the Warrior, and with Hogan looking to slow down and start to fade away from center stage, McMahon thought he had the next generation of star to sell merchandise and headline WWF cards in the painted-face and bulging muscles of Jim Helwig. So the first ever face-versus-face WrestleMania main event was set to explode in the SkyDome in Toronto, Canada in April of 1990.

The build to this unique clash of champions began a few months earlier, when Warrior and Hogan found themselves alone in the ring during the annual Royal Rumble match, and tempers flared when Warrior accidentally nailed Hogan on Saturday Night’s Main Event one week later. Hogan rescued the Warrior from Earthquake weeks later, but the proud Warrior was none too appreciative of Warrior’s assistance. Two weeks later Warrior returned the favor but this time Hogan wasn’t happy for the assist.

The drama was off the page, emotions were high, and both titles had never been on the line in one WrestleMania match before, nor had two fan favorites faced off on such a huge stage. With all this going for the match, they would have had to really put on a stinker to disappoint the 67,000-plus in attendance. Thankfully, neither man was responsible for calling the match or carrying his opponent to a coherent performance. Match-building mastermind Pat Patterson designed the entire contest move for move, so Bollea and Helwig simply needed to remember their instructions and follow the chart Patterson drew up for them.

The opening moments of the story were dedicated to “tests of strength” which, when you remove the emotion of the moment and watch with a cold eye, is the same thing as “boring wrestling”. They were trying to establish that both men were evenly matched in power and determination, which they did successfully. But when you watch two muscle men lean on each other for four minutes, you’re not watching a great wrestling match. They traded bodyslams, sticking with the “anything you can do…” motif, before Warrior launched Hogan over the top rope and to the floor with a staple of his arsenal, the less-than-crisp looking clothesline.

It sort of seemed like they picked up the pace a bit, but they wisely spent a lot of time between each move either posturing, making faces at each other, or simply throwing punches, making it seem like more was going on in the match than what actually was. When they did vary the offense, they still kept things very simple, like dropping elbows and raking each other in the face.

The crowd was rabid, so each basic maneuver felt like a monumental event, mostly just because it WAS the two babyface champions doing it to each other. Hogan had the nerve to lock on a rest hold, as if the blistering pace was too much for the two champs. I was surprised to see how much Hogan controlled the match and took all the offense from the get-go. I didn’t remember it that way, and seldom review this show.

They did the double knock-down on stereo clotheslines, and rested some more. Jeez, guys. Don’t get those heart rates up too high now. As powerful as he looked back then, Warrior’s clothesline must have been the worst looking move in pro wrestling. He didn’t even try to look like he was hitting Hogan with it – he just sort of lifted his arm to a 90-degree angle and gently placed it in the general vicinity of Hogan’s head. To his credit, Hulk sold them like they were cannonballs.

And now they went to the heat segment for Hogan, with a long, boring bear hug by the Warrior. That was just what this slow match needed; a cool down. How much money did those 67,000 fans pay to watch Warrior hug the Hulkster? When Hogan escaped the bear hug they bumped the ref, and Warrior gave us the high spot of the match by dropping two double axe-handles from the top rope, and they slowed down again. They bumped Hebner because they wanted to display that each man might have scored the pinfall victory had the ref been coherent. Again, this was far from exciting action, but because of what it meant at the time, the crowd was gasping for anything and everything they did.

Warrior, not quite a cardio wizard, was so blown up he could barely hoist Hogan for his patented gorilla press slam, but Hogan kicked out after the follow-up back splash. The Hulkster then went into his famous finish of three punches, the big boot and the leg-drop, but Warrior avoided the leg and hit a splash for the cover and the win, even as Hogan kicked out about half a second too late.

Certainly this was a major chapter in the story of the WWF championship and the careers of both men, but this had to be the worst ‘Mania main event ever. It was a slow, plodding, boring, stall-fest, but the iconic image of Warrior standing on the second rope, his face-paint sweated completely off, hoisting both championship belts makes people believe they remember a great match, when what they saw was a great moment, wrapped inside a horrible match.

Hogan returned to the Toronto SkyDome 12 years later, this time as a heel and leader of the new World order faction, to face the Most Electrifying Man in Sports Entertainment, none other than the People’s Champ, the Rock. It was Rocky who challenged Hogan to go one on one with the Great One, and Hogan accepted the challenge, cementing this so-called dream match. I’m not sure who was dreaming of it, but that’s what the announcers told me it was, a dream match, pitting icon versus icon. I won’t deny it had the cherished “big fight feel” wrestling promoters would kill their mothers for.

The build to this match in the weeks prior to WrestleMania included the Rock being drilled in the back of the head with a hammer and nearly crushed to death in an ambulance that Hogan drove into with an 18-wheeler, yet amazingly, the Great One entered the ring with nary a scratch. Must’ve been his Samoan recuperative powers.

Once again, Pat Patterson scripted a move-for-move blueprint for the two heat-magnets to execute, and execute it they did. They started with an iconic stare-down, immediately going after the epic aura, which the fans were only too happy to provide. Hogan got his first huge pop ten seconds into the match when he tossed the Rock to the mat from the collar-and-elbow tie-up position, and the place came unglued.

While the Rock was booked as the babyface, defending the honor of the WWF against the “invading” forces of the nWo, the Canadian crowd experienced a sweeping wave of nostalgia, happy to see Hogan back from his stay in WCW. As a consummate professional, the Rock picked up on the vibe and played heel against the returning Hulkster, allowing the fans to have their way.

After absorbing punishment for the first few moments of the contest, the Rock scored a flying forearm attack off the ropes and the crowd verbally mauled him for it. From that moment on, the roles had clearly reversed. The People’s Champ was feeling no love from the people;
they cheered Hogan and jeered the Rock throughout.

But while match told a compelling story, it lacked severely in the “snowflake” department. Hogan employed only the simplest of attacks, and to his credit, Rocky sold like a maniac for the Hulkster. The more Hogan employed dirty tactics like biting, raking the back, and choking, the more the crowd ate it up with a spoon, while the Rock’s comebacks were all greeted with outrage from the fans.

Of course, since this was a big match in the WWF, they just had to bump the ref. I’m not sure why, considering all the cheating Hogan was getting away with while the referee was conscious. Rocky poked the Canadian fans in the eye by locking Hogan in Bret Hart’s own Sharpshooter, and Hogan even tapped, albeit with the referee knocked out.

When Hogan kicked out of the Rock Bottom and went into full “Hulk-Up” mode, it looked like yet another paint-by-numbers Hogan match, until the Rock kicked out of the big leg drop. Now they were one apiece in the shrugged-off finishers department. Rock avoided another leg drop and drilled the Hulkster with another Rock Bottom, much to the crowd’s dismay. A third and final Rock Bottom led to the People’s Elbow and a victory for the Great One.

The emotion of the story and Hogan’s triumphant return made for an entertaining moment, but the match was really terrible. The follow-up face turn by Hogan sealed the deal in the minds of fans, making some believe they’d just witnessed an amazing match, when what they really saw was a very memorable moment.

So does the lack of classic in-ring action make it any less of a great memory? No, but when you do want some hot wrestling action, this isn’t the match you pull up from your archives. If you’re seeking a great moment, this type of match might be worth a look every few years.

And that’s my take on the entire snowflake classic vs. epic moment discussion. Drama, emotion and storyline can entertain just as much as great wrestling, although certainly in a different way. It just depends on what you prefer, and what you’re in the mood for.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled reality.

p.s. – “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put foundations under them.” – Henry David Thoreau