WRESTLEMANIA XII: The Giants Are Squaring Off

WrestleMania 12

WrestleMania XII (March 31, 1996) – Arrowhead Pond (Anaheim, CA) – Main Event: Shawn Michaels vs. Bret Hart (Iron Man Match for WWF Championship) – Announcers: Vince McMahon, Jerry “the King” Lawler, Mr. Perfect, Todd Pettengill, and Dok Hendrix (aka Michael Hayes).

After the celebrity indulgence of WRESTLEMANIA XI, WRESTLEMANIA XII puts the big spotlight back on the wrestlers, featuring a 60-minute Iron Man Match between Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels for the WWF Championship. It’s a smart move – if you really want people to keep coming back for the product, you have to hook them on the product instead of the accoutrements, and there’s no better way to figure out if someone is a wrestling fan than sitting them down and having them watch the Heartbreak Kid and the Hitman wrestle in their prime.

I kinda love WRESTLEMANIA XII – it’s far from the best WrestleMania of all time, but it’s a fast-paced, wrestling-centric program that sees the WrestleMania debuts of Stone Cold Steve Austin, Triple H (in his Hunter Hearst Helmsley role), Vader, and Goldust. Unlike XI, XII displays a company with confidence in its product. Right from the start, when Vince McMahon repeats,” Jerry Lawler’s declaration from the previous year’s intro that WrestleMania is the “greatest spectacle in sports entertainment,” this is almost all about wrestling.

I say almost because this is the WrestleMania where Roddy Piper promises to “make a man” out of Goldust, and “chases” him down the freeway in a white Bronco that incorporates footage of O.J. Simpson’s run from justice from two years earlier.

Wrestling eras neither start nor stop all at once, but WRESTLEMANIA XII contains the first serious hint of the Attitude Era. Every moment has preceding moments, of course, but eras need moments to define their parameters, and while I still think the best moment to mark the Attitude Era’s arrival is either, “Austin 3:16 says I just whupped your ass” at King of the Ring 1996 or the Montreal Screwjob at Survivor Series 1997 (I like to think of them as the Prologue and Chapter One of Vince’s favorite era), WRESTLEMANIA XII is the first event where I think you can see the Attitude Era as rumbling cloud in the distance. Steve Austin is clearly not just another Million Dollar Man flunky, Goldust and Piper have the most homoerotic wrestling match of their day, opening the door to both the WWF’s sexual template and its hardcore division, Jerry Lawler is starting to hone the persona that will make him one of the two key voices of the Attitude Era, entrances are becoming a greater spectacle, and Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart have the longest match in WrestleMania history, which ends with Vince firmly putting the keys to the company’s future in the hands of the Heartbreak Kid.

There are only six matches on the official WRESTLEMANIA XII card, but each of them contains at least one key member of the Attitude Era: Owen Hart, Steve Austin, Triple H, Sable, the Undertaker, Goldust, and Sean Michaels. Diesel also has a match, and he’s one of the key players in WCW’s half of the Monday Night Wars story, to say nothing of Bret Hart himself, who either signals the dawn of the Attitude Era when he gets screwed out of the WWF Championship at Survivor Series 1997, or the moment of no return to a WWF that could no longer pretend there was a backstage reality that was different from the in-ring version.

The opening match is a six-man tag match between the forces of Jim Cornette (Vader, Owen Hart, British Bulldog), and Yokozuna, Ahmed Johnson, and Jake “the Snake” Roberts. While I am not a big fan (no pun intended) of wrestlers who exist largely because of their size, and while Yokozuna looks dangerously obese here (even for him), the big man wrestles what may be my favorite match of his. Unlike the treatment of Andre near the end of his run, when Haku would do almost all of the wrestling and Andre was really just a tourist attraction (Look, kids, Andre the Giant!) standing at ringside, Yokozuna starts the match off with a flurry of energy.

The storyline here is that he’s parted ways with James E. Cornette and if Yokozuna’s team wins, he gets five minutes in the ring alone with his ex-manager. It’s a kayfabe stipulation without much actual teeth – after wrestling a match at his advanced weight, would it really be all that hard to avoid him for five minutes? Heck, maybe it is, but we never find out exactly what Yokozuna would do because his team loses. It’s an odd beginning because what’s there to gain, story wise, with having Team Cornette win? You’ve built up to this match, the crowd wants it, and then you don’t deliver it to them? Worse, there’s no alternate pay-off or set-up.

It’s just deflating for the fans, which is a shame, because this six-man tag match is really well done. Vader, Owen, Bulldog, and Ahmed Johnson all work hard and fast, and Jake works the crowd as well as ever. This is the kind of match that makes you think the company was really starting to figure out how to best utilize their talent. Maybe using Owen and Vader in a six-man tag match is under-utilizing their skills, but the six men work really well together, keeping things moving and playing up the “things could spin out of control” subplot that helps to build drama in matches like this. It’s a smart move – if you’re gonna put six men out there, the match is, by its very nature, too big for one ref to properly manage, and everyone involved gets WRESTLEMANIA XII off to a great start.

Stone Cold Steve Austin gets his WrestleMania debut next in a match with Savio Vega. Austin is under the managerial control of the Million Dollar Man at this early point in his WWE career, but unlike almost everyone else who’s been in that position, Austin isn’t a million dollar flunky. There’s no silly money-themed name or wrestling gear (unless one counts the Million Dollar Belt), and when Austin walks to and from the ring, he’s not walking in DiBiase’s shadow – he’s looking right at the camera.

It’s weirdly disconcerting, but it makes you take notice of Austin. It’s a brilliant move, as he’s using the medium of television to look right into your living room. Face or heel, wrestlers need to connect with the audience, and given that Austin is in a position where he’s been given someone else to do his talking, looking at the camera (and thus, looking at you) is a really smart move. He doesn’t even talk to you – he just looks right through that lens.

Austin is three months away from his declaration to Jake Roberts that “Austin 3:16 says I just whooped your ass!” but you can see right here that he’s not just putting a new spin on his Hollywood Blondes’ persona, but going to a much darker place.

The night’s third match is one of those moments that meant one thing then and another thing now. Hunter Hearst Helmsley makes his WrestleMania debut, escorted to the ring by another debutant, Sable. The entrance is long and wonderfully heelish, as Helmsley oozes with contempt for the audience. He takes his time, in no hurry to get to the ring and disrobe, milking his appearance to get the fans angry with him.

Because they’re not there to see him. They’re there to see his opponent, the returning Ultimate Warrior. The Warrior’s entrance theme hits and the crowd goes crazy, and we’re treated to the Warrior’s posturing and rope shaking and sky pointing. The match itself is typical Warrior idiocy and lasts all of about 90 seconds, shorter than either entrance, but the Warrior isn’t here to wrestle as much as he is to be XII’s version of a celebrity cameo.

And that’s progress, as far as I’m concerned.

Later, Hunter gets into a backstage fight with “Wildman” Marc Mero, reminding you that Marc Mero used to be a thing.

When I review movies, I’ll occasionally refer to a movie as an “AMC flick,” and what I mean by this is that AMC used to show a bunch of movies you’d never heard of starring a bunch of people you had. I loved watching those movies. There would be some film with a title that hadn’t penetrated my film-loving, but not super-knowledgeable high school mind, but full of actors I did recognize and I’d watch it, wondering why I’d never heard of it.

Usually, it was pretty obvious why, and that was because it stunk.

That’s what Undertaker/Diesel at WRESTLEMANIA XII is to me. I get psyched to watch it because of who’s in it, but then the match itself is just sort of blah. I find early Taker matches mostly boring, anyway, and Kevin Nash gets by on size and attitude more than in-ring ability. What Nash is good at is hitting a few thunderous moves, but he’s infinitely more interesting to me now as an ex-wrestler who talks about the industry than he ever was to me in the ring.

After beginning their match with “Back Lot Brawl” earlier in the show, Rowdy Roddy Piper and Goldust have the good sense to bring their car chase back to the Anaheim Pond in time to head to the ring between the night’s last two matches. When Piper is a face, he’s often cast as a defender of white male masculinity. As much as I love Piper (I’m writing this wearing my brand new “Hot Rod!” t-shirt), Piper’s white rage often borders on the uncomfortable for me (see his WrestleMania VI match against Bad News Brown or his smashing of Jimmy Snuka’s head with a coconut), but he plays the role of uncomfortable conservative well, for what it’s worth. Here, he promises to “make a man” out of Goldust, which I think roughly translates to, “I’m going to kick your ass for being weird.”

It’s totally homoerotic. Starting the match outside the arena makes the stakes incredibly personal between the two men because the message this sends is that this is not just a wrestling match. Wrestlers settle personal scores inside the ring all the time, of course, but Piper (he was the on-screen President of the WWF leading up to the event) decided this fight required the freedom of a non-sanctioned match, though one conveniently still on the property of an event. (Essentially, this is Piper and Goldust agreeing to fight after school instead of at recess.) Goldust arrives in a gold Cadillac, which Piper hits with a firehose (just so you know this is about who’s got the bigger dick) and then bashes its driver-side window out with a baseball bat before the two men start pitching each other around the back lot.

I’ll say this for Piper – he’s totally committed to this storyline. When he tosses Goldust around, it sure as hell looks like Dustin’s head is slamming into the garbage dumpster at full force, as if he has the superpower to challenge one generation’s misunderstanding of the next generation. Piper tosses him into a table of food, making one wonder just what exactly a table of food is doing in a back lot area of the Anaheim Pond.

I forget about that, however, when Goldust hits him with his car. Whether it’s the first time I saw this collision or the most recent time, I can never quite believe Piper’s leg doesn’t snap in half. A part of me – that part that always tries to see through the narrative for signs of reality – has always thought Runnels did it on purpose because he was pissed at Piper for having his head busted open, and then maybe crapped his pants a little when he realized that Rowdy Roddy Piper was now splayed out on the hood of his car as he barreled away from the arena.

The use of the OJ Simpson footage is pretty tasteless, but that’s just another sign of the impending arrival of the Attitude Era.

They make their way back into the arena, where Goldust kisses Piper and so Piper grabs Goldust’s junk, and then, in true manly man style, rips Goldust’s gear off to reveal that he was wearing lingerie beneath his outfit. Once Goldust’s inner clothing preference is revealed, he runs away, and I’ve always thought this was the wrong play. By being ashamed at what he was wearing, Goldust’s entire persona is called into question. Better, I think for him to have embraced the reveal, which would have strengthened the character and made a strong social statement to be proud of whoever you are, I think.

Of course, Vince and Company aren’t interested in making social statements, and the WWF isn’t the X-Men, which has long been coded for people with “non-normative” lifestyles to find themselves within its pages. For the WWF in 1996, it’s okay to objectify someone whom society would label as “odd,” so long as they are eventually put in their place through public humiliation.

I know I bash Vince in nearly every review of an event where he’s the play-by-play man, but I enjoy his enthusiasm for the product here; he’s usually so busy starfucking celebrities that he pays little attention to the ring action, but he’s enthusiastically selling the wrestling at XII. He’s still a horrid announcer, which maybe wouldn’t be so bad if that was part of the schtick. At least 48 times a match, Vince calls a pin attempt by shouting, “1 … 2 … 3! He got him! No, wait, he didn’t.”

What’s really bad here, though, is that Lawler has clearly outpaced Vince, at this point. Lawler’s fast-talking, quip-obsessed cackling is coming into his own here, and the dynamic he has with Vince is built on the same template he’ll have with Jim Ross for a good portion of their tenure: McMahon, like Ross and unlike Michael Cole, is largely focused on the match in front of him, taking the approach that he’s calling a big fight and Lawler is there to bob and weave around that, punctuating the action with a bad one-liner or a comment about the ring action.

Lawler is at his best during the Shawn Michaels/Bret Hart Iron Man match. Yeah, there’s the standard snipes at Stu and Helen Hart, but Lawler, for the first time in the announcing chair, really seems to understand his job is to sell what’s in the ring more than it is to sell himself. He provides actual commentary on the match, even putting aside (and making a point to put it aside, which calls attention to it and helps sell the dismissal) his own wrestling feud with Bret Hart, to call the match as if it were a real fight. He questions the strategy of the wrestlers – wondering why Michaels is engaging Hart in a wrestling match early on and then questioning why Hart gets away from this later on.

It’s in this match, too, where Vince had to realize it was time for him to get out of the play-by-play chair as he can’t keep up with Lawler’s questions and rapid-fire verbal punches.

As for the match itself, Hart and Michaels do a slow build, which is important in a 60-minute match. The first twenty minutes are dominated by wrestling moves that are designed to weaken an opponent – lots of holds and mat work, punctuated every couple of minutes by a brief flurry of moves and countermoves. There’s a focus on rope work, which is again a smart, tactical move as it creates movement without a lot of hard bumps. Hart and Michaels had to know this opening third was a bit boring, but that people were going to remember the last forty minutes, so they just had to get through the first twenty.

When they do start to pick up the pace, their wrestling is a joy to watch. The match was framed as one man’s quest for the title versus another’s quest to keep it, and the narrative in the ring enforces that story. Michaels takes hard bump after hard bump – in the ring and out of the ring. A couple of his drops to the floor are from epic heights, but he always battles back, enforcing the narrative that his whole career has been a climb to a mountain top he’s never stood on.

In an Iron Man Match, the wrestler who scores the greatest number of pins, submissions, and count-outs is the winner, and Bret and Shawn make a risky decision by not having either man score against his opponent for the entire 90 minutes. There’s no early lead, no comeback, no opportunity for the crowd to vocalize their feelings through cheering or booing. They just go at one another, through failed submission attempt and failed pin fall. They cover for one another when a ten-second count-out looks imminent. (Which Lawler mentions is a dumb strategy while Vince bellows on about fairness.)

With no clear winner, Hart leaves, thinking he’s won, but new WWF President Gorilla Monsoon decides there must be a winner, and restarts the match. It’s a brilliant move, as it allows Hart to save face and gives him a reason to be legit pissed going forward. Once back in the ring, Michaels makes quick work of the Hitman, delivering two superkicks and pinning Hart clean.

It’s pretty amazing how long both men have been kicking around the WWF – Hart made his WrestleMania debut at way back in the Chicago portion of WrestleMania 2, while it was WrestleMania V for Michaels, yet this is Shawn’s first WWF Championship. It’s a rightly emotional moment, though maybe to back pain and maybe to being a dick, Michaels doesn’t seem to want to share the spotlight with anyone. He had the man who originally trained him, Mexican wrestle José Lothario in his corner, but when Lothario jumped in the ring at the end of the match, referee Earl Hebner quickly and quietly told him to get the fuck out. And then when Hebner tried to help Michaels get the belt on his waist, Michaels turned and shoved him away.

The signal was pretty clear: it was now Shawn Michaels’ WWF, which Bobby Heenan told us all would happen back at WrestleMania VIII at the Hoosier Dome, when he declared, “Someday he’ll be wearing the gold representing the World Wrestling Federation. This man is the star of the ’90s, Monsoon!”

It might have taken longer than Heenan thought, but there was little doubting after WRESTLEMANIA XII that Shawn Michaels was the anointed man to lead the way forward.

Shawn Michaels wins the WWF Championship at WrestleMania XII vs. Bret "Hitman" Hart.

Shawn Michaels wins the WWF Championship at WrestleMania XII vs. Bret “Hitman” Hart.

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1. Camp Cornette (Vader, Owen Hart and The British Bulldog) (with Jim Cornette) defeated Yokozuna, Jake Roberts and Ahmed Johnson (with Mr. Fuji) – Six-man Tag Team Match
2. “Stone Cold” Steve Austin (with Ted DiBiase) defeated Savio Vega – Singles match
3. The Ultimate Warrior defeated Hunter Hearst Helmsley (with Sable) – Singles match
4. The Undertaker (with Paul Bearer) defeated Diesel – Singles match
5. Roddy Piper defeated Goldust (with Marlena) – Hollywood Backlot Brawl
6. Shawn Michaels (with José Lothario) defeated Bret Hart (c) – Iron Man match for the WWF Championhip

__________

MATCH OF THE NIGHT: Bret Hart vs. Shawn Michaels

STAR OF THE NIGHT: Shawn Michaels

MOMENT OF THE NIGHT: Shawn Michaels delivering the Super Kick to drop Hart and get the pin.

QUOTE OF THE NIGHT: Vince McMahon: “This is vintage Piper!” (So that’s where Cole got it from …)

__________

Check out all Atomic Anxiety wrestling reviews here.

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