WRESTLEMANIA VIII: This Place Has Turned Into an Asylum

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WrestleMania VIII (April 5, 1992) – Hoosier Dome (Indianapolis, IN) – Main Events: Ric Flair vs. “Macho Man” Randy Savage (WWF Championship) and Hulk Hogan vs. Sid Justice – Announcers: Gorilla Monsoon, Bobby “the Brain” Heenan, “Mean” Gene Okerlund, and Sean Mooney.

WrestleMania VIII is the golden era of Gorilla Monsoon and Bobby Heenan, the pinnacle of all wrestling announce teams. What makes Monsoon and Heenan so good is that they are simultaneously able to call the match in front of them, bicker like an old married couple, keep the audience informed of ongoing story lines, and promote the rest of the card. Compare that to the current WWE announce team of Michael Cole, JBL, and Jerry Lawler, which can’t do any two of those things at the same time: Cole and JBL can bicker well enough, but that turns the King into a third wheel telling canned jokes like he’s on the rubber chicken circuit. There’s almost always one or two matches on RAW where their job is to specifically talk about some future event.

Monsoon and Heenan, though, can do it all and do it all well. No one has ever set up a match better than Monsoon, laying out each wrestler’s strengths and weaknesses, and Heenan is his perfect foil, managing to play the heel commentator from such a solid foundation that it feels completely natural. Jim Ross is the best ever announcer during a match – especially in the biggest moments of the biggest matches – but Monsoon and Heenan make every match entertaining. The Undertaker/Jake Roberts match here in WrestleMania VII is one of their finest moments, making us feel the Undertaker’s “otherworldly” powers every bit as much as Jake’s nastiness. By properly setting up each match – both the story and the wrestlers – it makes each moment of the night feel important.

Monsoon’s legendary catchphrase, “Will you stop?!?!” has never sounded better.

WrestleMania VIII is the culmination of the seven previous spectacles, as it finally appears the company knows exactly what it is and what it wants: an emphasis on wrestlers with personalities instead of cartoons. This is truly a turning point for the company, as this is the debut WrestleMania for Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels as singles competitors, as well as the first WrestleMania go-round for Ric Flair, Sid Justice, and Owen Hart in non-Blue Blazer gear. All three of the opening bouts see a future superstar getting over on a veteran: Michaels over Tito Santana, the Undertaker over Jake Roberts, and Bret Hart on Roddy Piper, setting the company up for a new age.

The card has been condensed, too, from the fourteen matches and 3.5 hours of the past two years to nine matches and just over 2.5 hours. It makes WrestleMania VIII a leaner and meaner event. (Also making it leaner and meaner – the coming steroid scandal that saw a good number of wrestlers look noticeably smaller than they did in previous years). There’s much less focus on telling us how amazing everything is, and more just doing it. Heck, even the celebrity wattage has been blessedly dimmed; other than the appearance of Family Feud host Ray Combs as a special ring announcer for an eight-man tag match, there’s nary a celebrity in sight.

The company still can’t fully commit to the wrestling-first credo, however, as the WWF title match between Ric Flair and Randy Savage takes place in the middle of the event instead of at the end of the night, but this is a fantastic event, even with a noticeable dip in quality after the Flair/Savage WWF Championship match, resulting in a weak final hour.

The opening match at the Hoosier Dome kicks of the “Mr. WrestleMania” era, as Shawn Michaels makes his first post-Rockers appearance at company’s flagship event, taking on Tito Santana, who’d been re-christened as “El Matador.” Thankfully, unlike the current “El Matadores,” there’s no pretense here that El Matador is someone new. Santana is the perfect foil for the single debut of the Heartbreak Kid; he’s experienced in the ring and still able to put on a really solid match, but he’s also just on the other side of his best days, making Michaels’ win feel like a changing of the guard and not just another win.

Michaels comes to the ring with Sensational Sherri in tow (and on the speakers, as he’s using the Sherri-sung version of his entrance theme), a sign that the company isn’t yet ready to give him the keys to their future. You can see why – while Michaels has obvious skill and charisma, it’s still a bit stilted at this point, like he’s playing a jerk instead of being a jerk, like he has to tell himself, “Go stand there. Wave Santana out of the ring. Turn to Sherri. Motion Sherri into the ring. Toss Sherri to the ground. Pose.” Sherri helps to smooth out (or scream out) some of the rough edges, and provides good commentary foil for Monsoon and Heenan.

“That’s her man!” Heenan bellows at one point.

“That’s her meal ticket!” Monsoon counters.

Santana is a savvy-enough ring veteran to help bring out the best Michaels has to offer at this stage in his singles career. Santana jumps over and steps under several of Michaels’ moves, which helps to sell both his own counter moves as well as Michaels’ arrogance. The fact that Santana is just a bit older and slower is sold in the match by Tito continually taking his opponent to the ground. It’s a great narrative technique, because while Santana is the face and Michaels the heel, it also reinforces that Michaels is the more exciting performer.

You can see Santana’s limits in a minute long stretch in the match’s second half; he delivers a fantastic flying elbow but then struggles to use the ropes to launch himself back into the ring. Michaels gets a clean (though lame) win, and Heenan’s vocal crowning of Michaels now looks like the proclamation of the Oracle of Delphi, as he promises, “Someday he’ll be wearing the gold representing the World Wrestling Federation. This man is the star of the ’90s, Monsoon!”

And he really was.

Next up is another definitive 1990s WWF wrestler, the Undertaker. Most of the early Taker matches at WrestleMania are pretty lame, but I like this one between him and Jake “the Snake” Roberts. While far from a wrestling clinic, Jake and Taker put on a hell of a psychological match. The Undertaker is still in his plodding, “impervious to pain” days (though he flashes some athletic skill with an explosive flying elbow), and he’s the fan favorite here. Roberts is one of the few wrestlers who can put this version of Taker to the test because he’s just a mean, psychologically-strong, bad ass, even without Damien at ringside.

When you have a supernatural monster that you’re selling as nigh-indestructible, you need a proper opponent to make it look like something more than a squash, and the Snake does that. After a bit of plodding around, Jake hits a solid DDT which puts the Taker down, leading to the Taker’s patented lay there for a bit and slowly rise up bit. The DDT makes you believe Taker has taken real damage, and the Taker rising up makes you believe there’s nothing he can’t get up from.

Jake hits a second DDT, then slides out of the ring to go after Paul Bearer. Behind him, the Undertaker rises up again, then exits the ring to deliver a pile driver on the floor. “I’ve never seen Jake ‘the Snake’ defeated as severely as I’ve seen him at the hands of the Undertaker!” Heenan yells.

Showing their great chemistry, Monsoon and Heenan occasionally put aside their differences to get the wrestler over with the audience, as when Gorilla asks, “How are you going to stop this guy?” and Heenan instantly replies, “You’re not!”

It’s moments like the above exchange that demonstrate what makes the Monsoon/Heenan pairing the best of the best. Announcing teams often employ the same face/heel dynamic as the wrestlers in the ring, but Heenan and Monsoon agree quite a bit, too, and challenge each other beyond their advocation of one wrestler over another, as they do in the night’s third match, a brawling back and forth between “Rowdy” Roddy Piper and Bret “the Hitman” Hart. Heenan plays the inquisitor role, asking Monsoon for his opinion on how the two wrestlers should approach one another.

I love the Piper/Hitman match. Not only does it feature two of my all-time favorite wrestlers, they put on a hell of a match that bounces back and forth from a street fight to a wrestling clinic, depending on who’s in charge.

Prior to the match, Piper and Hart combine for one of the best WrestleMania promos. Standing together with “Mean” Gene Okerlund between them, Piper is playing the loud jokester, reminding Bret he’s known him his entire life. Piper tells Hart, “I loves ya family!” and then tells stories about how Hart wasn’t potty-trained until he was seven, how his mom made them bologna sandwiches that contained only one slice, and how his shoes were always tied together. He pinches Hart’s cheek and Hitman flips, instantly turning up the intensity of the interview.

The match itself is fantastic. I love the story the two wrestlers tell, with both of them playing possum at different times to get the advantage on the other. When momentum is on Piper’s side, the match tends towards brawling, but when it switches to Hitman, he throws move after move at Piper. It builds beautifully off the interview, where Piper was selling himself as the wild man as he reinforced the Hart family legacy, and thus Bret’s technical skills.

It’s a simple thing, to merge the interview with the match, but it’s still not done as much as it should be done, and Piper and Hart give a master class on how to do it.

"Rowdy" Roddy Piper vs. Bret "Hitman" Hart at WrestleMania VIII.

“Rowdy” Roddy Piper vs. Bret “Hitman” Hart at WrestleMania VIII.

The action gets a little scary after Hart blades himself because it looks like he perhaps cut a bit too deep. Hart pulls off the actual blading with great skill. After he and Piper tumble to the floor, Hart digs out his razor without the camera catching him, but you can see him holding something when he climbs back into the ring. After Piper convinces the ref to make Hart tie his boots and then sucker punches him, Hart cuts his forehead while he’s on the ground and all the attention is on the ref chastising Piper.

The blood doesn’t just dribble out of Hart’s face, though. Unlike Flair’s cutting later, this isn’t an example of the bloodletting looking worse than it is because it mixes with sweat to ooze down his face. Hitman’s cut not only gushes, it’s gushing before there’s any reason for it to gush. Piper tries to cover it a minute later when he “bites” Hart, but by then there’s puddles across one corner of the mat.

I’ve made mention several times during these WrestleMania reviews that Hogan expertly and overtly plays the crowd, but few people (if any) create better in-ring stories than Hart, and in this match, Piper is right there with him. I love the bit where Piper grabs the bell and brings it into the ring to stand over Hart and threaten him with a killshot. Piper works the crowd expertly, hesitating with the bell held high. After all the swerves earlier in the match where one of them play possum to deliver an offensive attack, Piper reverses course here – the bell promises an attack but then he changes his mind and tosses it out of the ring. He puts a sleeper hold on Hart, who counters by putting his feet on the ropes and pushing backwards, rolling Piper over for the pin and the win. On a night with a lot of less-than-steller pins, it’s Hart’s execution of an “ad-libbed” move that stands out.

Heenan’s excitement seems genuine when he bellows, “I knew it was going to be good but I didn’t think it was going to be this good! This is a hell of a match!”

Well said, Brain.

We get a palette-cleanser next with a goofy eight-man tag match. It speaks to the strength of the first half of WrestleMania VIII that despite the melting pot full of lesser lights, the match still contains a former WWF Champion (Sgt. Slaughter), Tag champions (Nasty Boys), the first winner of the Royal Rumble (“Hacksaw” Jim Duggan), an Intercontinental Champ (the Mountie), a Tag champ repackaged as a solo star (Repo Man), a Million Dollar champ (Virgil), and a future Hardcore and Tag Champ (Big Boss Man).

That’s eight for eight.

That ain’t bad.

Ray Combs is the only celebrity in attendance this night and he does a sorta funny bit insulting the heel teams using the Family Feud gimmick of polling 100 fans. The match itself isn’t either good or bad, really. It’s the sort of match that allows fans to reset (either physically or emotionally) between two bigger matches and this match delivers that. There’s plenty of sloppy action, plenty of running around, and it only goes about six minutes. The WWF doesn’t even bother wasting time giving them the slow entrance walk.

Randy "Macho Man" Savage versus WWF Champion Ric Flair at WrestleMania VIII.

Randy “Macho Man” Savage versus WWF Champion Ric Flair at WrestleMania VIII.

The second great match of the night should have closed the show, as Ric Flair puts the WWF title on the line against Savage. This match has everything: a great build-up (Flair had been insinuating that he’d had a relationship with Elizabeth before she married Savage and that he had sexy photos of her that he was going to release if he won), two great talkers, two great performers, a smarmy pre-match interview with Flair and Mr. Perfect, an outstanding match, a post-match brawl, and two fiery post-brawl interviews.

Plus, it has Curt Hennig saying, “Shut up, Mooney!” twice. And it’s hilarious both times because if there’s anyone in the company Mr. Perfect would be completely dismissive of, it’s Sean Mooney.

Flair has the final word pre-match, proclaiming, “And Liz, you’ve got one last shot at Space Mountain!”

Flair and Savage get nearly twenty minutes to tell their in-ring story and they do it masterfully. Their moves are a bit sloppy, but given how emotional both men are over this contest, the sloppiness actually works to their benefit. Flair dominates early, then Savage rebounds for a powerful back-and-forth. Without all the pre- and post-match theatrics, this would still be a great match, but Flair and Savage give performances on the mic that demonstrate why they’re at the top of the industry (though not at the top of the card). I love how frothingly irate Perfect and Heenan are after the match, where Flair takes a moment to compose himself and then comes out firing. He’s just as pissed, but he’s in control of himself, so his declarations of rage feel less like they’re about what just happened and more about what’s coming.

Unfortunately, after Savage has won the WWF title, the rest of the card is downhill. Rick Martel cuts a pointedly racist promo on Tatanka (saying he’s not sure they’ll even be a match because Tatanka is still outside “scalping tickets”) and then deliver a snoozer of a match that’s only notable for Tatanka taking the prize for Best/Worst Mullet of the Night. The Natural Disasters and Money Inc. fight for the Tag titles in a match that sort of happens until DiBiase just walks out, taking the belts with him. It’s as stupid an ending as you can imagine, which only adds to the stupidity of Ted DiBiase being managed by a one-coat-for-the-night-wearing Jimmy Hart. For some reason, the WWF also jams in an incredibly brief squash match to put “The Rocket” Owen Hart over on Skinner, who in other incarnations was in the Fabulous Ones with Stan Lane and served as one of the multiple Doink the Clowns.

Here, he’s Skinner, a tobacco-spitting dude who takes time off from wrangling alligators to wrestle.

Thanks for playing.

One of the worst main events ends the night, as Sid Justice becomes the latest victim of Hulk Hogan’s now-tired act. The WWF was selling this as potentially Hogan’s last match, but I don’t care, given that Hogan doesn’t even seem committed to it. His taped, pre-match interview with Vince McMahon comes off as a guy about to go out on a double dose of NyQuil and Xanax instead of guns blazing. I don’t care about Sid Justice, who looks like a wrestler more than he wrestles like a wrestler. I don’t care that he’s managed by Harvey Whippleman who doesn’t add anything to this match and gets his name spelled wrong on screen (but hopefully not on the check).

The ending of the match is yet another botched, poorly sold ending. Papa Shango was supposed to come in and get Sid disqualified because people had run out of ideas or something, but he shows up late and Wippleman has to do the deed. It’s a bad match that seems to exist so Hogan can pose as much as possible, but all that posing is better than the lame ending.

By which, of course, I mean the Ultimate Warrior running in to save Hogan.

It’s a pity those last four matches are such stinkers given the awesomeness of the first five matches, but WrestleMania VIII makes for a fantastic watch, especially if you cut out after Flair/Savage. We even get the first on-screen appearance of Lex Luger and a rare early cameo from Shane McMahon. The real selling points of the night, however, are those four excellent matches that are made even better given their historical importance and the legendary work from Gorilla Monsoon and Bobby Heenan, who deliver what just might be the finest announcing performance in WrestleMania history.

__________

Full Card Results

1. Shawn Michaels w/ Sensational Sherri def. “El Matador” Tito Santana
2. Undertaker w/ Paul Bearer def. Jake “The Snake” Roberts
3. Bret “Hitman” Hart def. “Rowdy” Roddy Piper (c) (Intercontinental Championship)
4. Hacksaw Jim Duggan, Sgt. Slaughter, Virgil & Big Boss Man def. The Mountie, Repo Man & Nasty Boys w/ Jimmy Hart
5. Randy “Macho Man” Savage w/ Elizabeth def. Ric Flair (c) w/ Mr. Perfect (WWF Championship)
6. Tatanka def. “The Model” Rick Martel
7. Natural Disasters def. Money Inc. w/ Jimmy Hart by count out (World Tag Team Championship)
8. “The Rocket” Owen Hart def. Skinner
9. Hulk Hogan def. Sycho Sid w/ Harvey Wippleman by DQ

__________

MATCH OF THE NIGHT: Ric Flair vs. Randy “Macho Man” Savage (WWF Championship). The Piper/Hart match is better if we just look at the match, but when you combine all the interviews, all the back story, all the emotions, it’s Flair and Savage that standout above the rest of the card.

STARS OF THE NIGHT: Gorilla Monsoon and Bobby Heenan. They make the bad matches tolerable, the great matches legendary, and the legendary matches immortal.

MOMENT OF THE NIGHT: Piper tossing the ring bell aside.

QUOTE OF THE NIGHT: Bobby Heenan as Hitman and Piper have a stare-off: “Two ugly people looking at each other. That’s fun.”

RUNNER-UP QUOTE OF THE NIGHT: Bobby Heenan, on the Roberts/Taker match: “Somebody’s gonna get hurt here!”

RUNNER-UP QUOTE OF THE NIGHT #2: Piper to Hitman: “I remember when they were changing your potty pants!”

RUNNER-UP QUOTE OF THE NIGHT #3: An ironic Heenan verbally rolling his eyes as Taker and Paul Bearer come to the ring: “Look at these two! They’re normal!”

RUNNER-UP QUOTE OF THE NIGHT #4: Heenan during Hogan/Sid: “This place has turned into an asylum!”

_________

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