WrestleMania XI (April 2, 1995) – Hartford Civic Center (Hartford, CT) – Main Event: Lawrence Taylor vs. Bam Bam Bigelow – Announcers: Vince McMahon, Jerry “the King” Lawler, Jim Ross, and Todd Pettengill.
WRESTLEMANIA XI might very well be the easiest WrestleMania to hate, and not just for the preponderance of mullets. It represents not only the height of Vince McMahon’s starfucking, but sees the company in a decided downturn. Instead of being an assured, confident production, WRESTLEMANIA XI feels much closer to an amateur night at your local high school than it does the “greatest spectacle in sports entertainment” as Jerry “the King” Lawler decrees before he starts rambling incoherently about Hollywood and Broadway.
It should be remembered, though, that if you’re watching WrestleMania as a fan of wrestling, you’re only part of the intended audience. Much like the NFL knows the Super Bowl attracts more people than the hardcore football fan, Vince McMahon has cultivated WrestleMania to have an appeal outside of the typical wrestling fan. I think it’s less about attempting to get Joe Non Fan to buy the PPV as much as it is getting Joe Non Fan to go to Joe Fan’s house and watch; Vince has been very good at promoting the idea that if you’re going to watch one night of wrestling all year, make it WrestleMania.
And so maybe it’s for them that the intro to WRESTLEMANIA XI doesn’t brag about Hogan and Andre and Savage and the Harts, but Liberace and Chuck Norris and Burt Reynolds. Maybe Vince has gambled on wrestling fans tuning in anyway; if he doesn’t bring in Susan Saint James and Rhonda Schear and Regis Philbin, he doesn’t get any of the mainstream press that he so covets.
Even with all of Vince’s previous starfucks, WRESTLEMANIA XI stands out as a desperate orgy of anyone with a name. Instead of the opening intro segueing from the stars who attended the previous ten WrestleManias to namedropping the current roster of wrestling talent, the into uses the wrestlers as props as it runs down the list of attending celebrities: Pam Anderson, Jenny McCarthy, Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Salt-n-Pepa, Nicholas Turturro, and a group of NFL players were all on hand and integrated into the show. And I’ll say this – most of them were used rather well, as far as these things go. Though Nick Turturro tried his best to ruin it by not understanding a microphone is intended to be placed in front of the mouth of someone who is talking as opposed to the person who is listening (is this where Vince decided they should pre-tape this stuff instead of doing it live?), the skit between JTT and Bob Backlund playing chess was pretty funny, as Backlund first complained that “kids today” don’t know anything, and then after giving JTT a pop quiz where he answered everything correctly, Backlund stormed off, complaining “kids today think they know everything!”
As much as I’m not a fan of her scientifically fraudulent opinion that vaccines can cause autism, it’s pretty funny seeing Jenny McCarthy giving Kama (the former Papa Shango, future Godfather, and forever Charles Wright) a snotty, “Not ever, creep, so back up off me” look.
Nicholas Turturro serves as a backstage announcer, which means he gets points for taking screen time away from the cartoonish Todd Pettengill, but gives them all back for making you wish they’d put Pettengill back on your screen. At least Pettengill knows you put the mic in front of the person who’s talking. I’m surprised Turturro isn’t still employed by the WWE given his, “I’ll do whatever you need, Vince.” I don’t want to be too critical of Turturro, though, because even though he doesn’t add much to the broadcast, you can see he’s enthusiastically throwing himself into the work, and that counts.
There was an ongoing subplot about the disappearance of Pam Anderson, which is actually rather smart, as it allows them to keep talking about Ms. Anderson (I’m gonna go out on Assumption Branch and say most of the audience was more interested in whatever Pam was doing rather than Nick Turturro) throughout the show before she was the surprise arm candy for Diesel’s walk to the ring instead of for Shawn Michaels, who replaced Pam with Jenny McCarthy.
Because being a serviceable replacement for Pam Anderson’s was something worth being in 1995, apparently.
And then there’s Vince’s biggest starfuck ever, putting Lawrence Taylor into the main event of WrestleMania against Bam Bam Bigelow and having him win.
While this doesn’t come close to the embarrassment that was David Arquette winning the WCW Championship (an idea, it must always be remembered, that Arquette was firmly against), having Taylor come in, main event WrestleMania, and beat a wrestler at his own sport is certainly a risky strategy, in that it doesn’t raise the profile of the wrestlers. It does raise the profile of the event, however, and in that regard, letting Taylor win likely gets one last burst of media attention from the mainstream press. As much as it might be painful to believe in the kayfabe of Taylor beating Bigelow, Taylor acquitted himself rather well in the ring, all things considered, and Vince got more eyeballs on his product than he would have otherwise.
I think LT winning was the right move – if it hurt wrestling’s believability as a sport, it enhanced its value as a piece of entertainment.
The WWF was also smart to have Taylor beat a guy like Bigelow – the big, fat, freakish looking monster – instead of someone like Michaels or Hart. Bigelow is one of those guys that never really gets the respect he deserves, either, because while he may look like a big, fat, freakish monster, the dude can wrestle. He moves as well as any big man in the company, and getting chosen to wrestle LT in the main event does show that the company has faith in him and recognizes his ability to put on a good match. Bigelow is one of the few guys on the roster in 1995 who can both carry a match on his own and sell out for his opponent.
None of which makes up for the fact that WRESTLEMANIA XI is not a great event. Has there ever been a WrestleMania with so many technical issues? Did Vince fire the tech staff before this event and replace them with a high school A/V club? Virtually the entire event is a prolonged version of that fish flopping around at the end of the “Epic” video. (Like JBL, I like to drop cultural references no one under the age of 35 will understand.) It’s uneven, full of good wrestlers in dull matches, and for me, at least, the way I get something out of WRESTLEMANIA XI is not by watching the product in front of me, but in seeing the future of the company figuring things out. As a fan, it’s fun watching early versions of X-Pac, Road Dogg, and Billy Gunn because you can see that a big part of the company’s resurgence is already on the roster – the company just hasn’t figured out how to best use them.
Heck, the company is even misusing Jim Ross at this point in time, having him conduct idiotic post-match interviews as Vince sits in the play-by-play chair doing his part to kill your eardrums. (The King, at least, is noticeably better than he was at WrestleMania X.)
Most of the matches are less dreadful as they are unmemorable.
The Allied Powers was a short-lived tag team of Lex Luger and the British Bulldog and their match with the Blu Brothers shows why. It’s not that they’re terrible together, but it doesn’t seem the best use of their talents to pair them as uber-patriotic allies. (Vince and Lawler’s extended references to World War 2 was sure to appeal to the kids watching at home.) The Blu Brothers are one of those teams that gets packaged and repackaged over and over again – they’re the kind of pros that are valuable enough to have around, but not so much that the company is ever going to invest much in them.
For contemporary wrestling fans, the best thing they bring to this event is their manager, Dutch Mantel, going by the name Uncle Zebekiah because apparently the name Colonel Hatfield Redneck Moonshine McCoy was already taken.
By the way, I love thinking about that aspect of kayfabe – that there are these two mountainous twin brothers hanging out in the Appalachian Mountains and one day their uncle sees them and thinks, “Shee-oot, I’m gonna take them thar boys and make me some money in the rasslin’ bizniss.” And that this dream is shared by two bodybuilders who love their individual countries so much that they decide to team up together. How does that come about? One day, Lex Luger is sitting back stage, trying on his new patriotic ring gear and looks across the locker room and there’s Davey Boy Smith trying on his own patriotic ring gear and so Lex says, “Hey, Davey. I love my country and you love your country and both countries have flags with red, white, and blue in it, so I’m thinking we form a tag team and make our name a reference to a 50-year old historical event. You in?”
Razor Ramon and Jeff Jarrett fought for Jarrett’s Intercontinental Championship, with 1-2-3 Kid (wearing his dragon gear) and the Roadie in tow, and it’s really not a bad match. Jarrett is certainly not a beloved wrestler, but I’ve always appreciated that he’s a bit of a throwback to the old territorial days, interested not just in wrestling but the business side of things. Maybe Jarrett the Businessman has always overvalued Jarrett the Wrestler’s connection with the crowd a bit, and maybe Jarrett doesn’t get the respect he deserves from fans because he comes off as the mutant love-child of Ric Flair and the Honky Tonk Man, but he puts on a solid match with Ramon that does not need the presence of 1-2-3 and the Roadie to sell its story.
The Undertaker gets his fourth WrestleMania win in a match with King Kong Bundy that seemed to know it was terrible. There’s less action on the match itself as there is the absolutely gargantuan version of the Taker’s urn, which Kama steals and promises to melt down and turn into a chain. The best part of the match is Taker’s bells-and-thunder entrance, and not the attempt to capitalize on the Major League Baseball strike by having MLB umpire Larry Young make his WrestleMania debut.
The Smoking Gunns (Bart and Billy) put their Tag Team titles on the line against Owen Hart and a surprise partner, which turns out to be Yokozuna. It’s not much of a match – serviceable and forgettable – but Owen is always worth watching and you can see that Billy Gunn is destined for bigger things. Owen and Yokozuna get the win.
Bret Hart and Bob Backlund (Bob Backlund! In 1995!) put on the first “I Quit” match in WrestleMania history and it’s one of the few Bret Hart matches I have no interest in watching. It’s painful to watch and the biggest problem with “I Quit” matches is in play as special guest referee Roddy Piper asks Backlund and Hart if they quit about 648 times in a 9-minute march across a Russian winter. Hart wins even though Backlund never says, “I quit.” Instead, I think Piper just decided, “This is dumb. I want to go home” and when Backlund didn’t say the magic words and instead garbled some kind of shriek, Piper interpreted that as, “I quit” and rang the bell, doing the world a favor.
I’m tempted to award Piper the star of the night for this.
Diesel and Shawn Michaels wrestled for Diesel’s WWF Championship and it’s the only memorable (in a good way) match of the night. Is there too much time devoted to Vince hauling out all of his celebrities in a desperate attempt to get Michaels and Diesel over with the audience by intimating sexual relationships with McCarthy and Anderson? Yup. But the match itself is pretty solid, as HBK goes all out, pulling off his own high risk moves and selling hard for Diesel.
It’s matches like this that helped to create the “Mr. WrestleMania” nickname for Michaels. He’s a whirling dervish of action. He knows he’s putting on a show, but he’s also a great wrestler, too. One of the things I really respect about HBK is the way he understands how to sell his opponent. Diesel’s whole wrestling persona is built on him being a tough guy, so Michaels tosses his body around at every opportunity to make it look like Diesel is hitting him with Thor’s hammer.
He also emphasizes his speed and agility to show off the contrast in styles, giving the fans a better narrative to follow – it’s not just face vs. heel, but the big bruiser vs. the undersized wizard. Strip away all the celebrities cluttering up the action and you’ve got a hell of a performer putting on a hell of a performance. Michaels also manages to pivot the focus on him from being about Pamela Anderson to being about the WWF Championship. At the end of the match, after Diesel retains the title, he stands in the ring with Anderson and McCarthy (thus proving his superiority by stealing two women from Michael) and JTT and Turturro, but backstage all Michaels wants to rant about is how he had Diesel pinned (which he did, but ref Earl Hebner was knocked out and so didn’t make the count) and how he was the better wrestler.
It’s one of my favorite Michaels moment – in the midst of all of Vince’s celebrity starfucking, the Heartbreak Kid doesn’t allow himself to become the Heartbroken Kid. After the match, Michaels’ character reveals himself to care more about wrestling than the celebrity trappings that pre-match Michaels focuses on.
As for the night’s main event … Taylor doesn’t embarrass himself and Bigelow does a great job making it all work. Each wrestler has a posse to stand outside the ring and block your view (there’s also an abundance of photographers at ring-side, which is one of my least favorite wrestling things ever), but the action stays focused on the ring. LT botches a few moves and by the end of the 11-minute match he’s pretty gassed, but in total, this match isn’t much different from most of the rest of the card – it’s a wrestling match and it neither totally embarrasses itself nor covers itself in glory.
FULL WRESTLEMANIA XI RESULTS
1. The Allied Powers (Lex Luger and The British Bulldog) defeated The Blu Brothers (Jacob and Eli) (with Uncle Zebekiah) – Tag team match
2. Razor Ramon (with The 1–2–3 Kid) defeated Jeff Jarrett (c) (with The Roadie) by disqualification – Singles Match, WWF Intercontinental Championship
3. The Undertaker (with Paul Bearer) defeated King Kong Bundy (with Ted DiBiase) – Singles match with Larry Young as special guest referee
4. Owen Hart and Yokozuna (with Mr. Fuji and Jim Cornette) defeated The Smoking Gunns (c) (Billy and Bart) – WWF Tag Team Championship
5. Bret Hart defeated Bob Backlund – “I Quit” match with Roddy Piper as the special guest referee
6. Diesel (c) (with Pamela Anderson) defeated Shawn Michaels (with Sid and Jenny McCarthy) – Singles match, WWF Championship
7. Lawrence Taylor defeated Bam Bam Bigelow (with Ted DiBiase) – Singles match with Pat Patterson as the special guest referee
MATCH OF THE NIGHT: Diesel vs. Shawn Michaels
STAR OF THE NIGHT: Shawn Michaels
MOMENT OF THE NIGHT: Roddy Piper ending the “I Quit” Match without Backlund saying he quits
QUOTE OF THE NIGHT: Sid’s promo, where he exclaims: “All your dreams have now become your tonightmares!”
QUOTE OF THE NIGHT #2: Jerry “the King” Lawler, when Bigelow puts LT in the Boston Crab: “A Boston Crab on a New York Giant!”
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