Nov 7, 2015

Retro Report Card: WWF Title Tournaments


The video catalog of World Wrestling Entertainment has no shortage of tournaments.  The first King Of The Ring tournament took place at a non-televised event in  Foxborough, Massachusetts just over three months after the first Wrestlemania.  Four months later, the WWF promoted the second pay-per-view in company history - The Wrestling Classic.  This show was centered around a 16-man single elimination tournament.  It featured only one non-tournament match, in which Hulk Hogan defended the championship against "Rowdy" Roddy Piper.

The next chapter in the history of WWE tournaments will be written in three weeks at the Survivor Series.  Seth Rollins was scheduled to defend the World Heavyweight Championship against Roman Reigns in the main event, and it seemed as if the undercard would include a traditional Survivor Series elimination match between the Wyatt Family and a team fronted by The Undertaker and Kane.  This all changed on November 4th, 2015 when Rollins tore his ACL, MCL and meniscus in a non-televised event in Dublin, Ireland.  The title is now vacant, and although the details and participants have not yet been named, the Survivor Series is being rewritten as a tournament to crown a new World Heavyweight Champion.

This is not the first time that a championship will be decided in a tournament.  In fact, it's not even the first Survivor Series to host a title tournament.  With this in mind, let's take a look at some of the WWF/E tournaments that were held to crown a champion.

South American Championship
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - 01 Sept 1979
Maracanãzinho Gymnasium
A+

As a child, I watched every Coliseum Home Video that I could get my hands on.  One of my favorites was The History of the Intercontinental Belt.  This is where I learned that Pat Patterson became the first Intercontinental Champion after winning a grueling, one-night tournament in Rio de Janeiro.  It was mentioned on WWF television and pay-per-view events once in a while, but it received perhaps its greatest attention during the Attitude Era when Pat Patterson and Gerald Brisco appeared as Vince McMahon's "stooges".  By this point, it was common knowledge, even for many casual fans, that the tournament in Rio de Janeiro was fictitious.

If you're not a pro wrestling fan, your first reaction might be to point out that the entire business is fictitious, and you would be right, but that's not what I'm talking about.  The tournament in Rio de Janeiro - the matches themselves - never happened.  They just gave Patterson the title and they came up with a thin backstory to explain why, and they stuck to their story for the next 33 years.

Fast forward to April 1st, 2013.  WWE.com columnist Zach Linder dug deep into the archives and made a discovery.  In one of the best storylines featured on the website, his article explained that Pat Patterson, the reigning North American Heavyweight Champion, wrestled in a one-night tournament for the South American Championship that was held at the Maracanãzinho Gymnasium in Rio de Janeiro.  This tournament also featured a young Ted DiBiase, who Patterson defeated for the North American Championship earlier in the year.  The article explains that the tournament took place years before DiBiase would inherit his wealth and become the Million-Dollar Man.

The first round saw Patterson defeat Butcher Vachon and DiBiase defeat Frank "The Moose" Monroe.  Another first round match saw WWE Hall of Famer Johnny Rodz defeat a wrestler named "Gypsy Rodriguez", who I have never heard of outside of this article.  Additionally, the masked Mr. X (reported to be Nikolai Volkoff) and The Great Hussein Arab (who would later become The Iron Sheik) eliminated each other with a double count out.

Patterson got a bye in the second round, and he was reported to have interfered in the match between DiBiase and Rodz by smacking his rival with a pair of brass knuckles to allow Johnny Rodz to get the victory.  The well-rested future stooge then had a easy time defeating Rodz in the finals to be crowned the South American Champion.  Pat announced that he was unifying this new title with his North American Championship, thus making him the first Intercontinental Heavyweight Champion.

The article concludes with an image of the Berzerker declaring that this recap of the tournament in Rio was an April Fools joke, but damn it, I've waited for over 30 years for an explanation for the origin of this title, so I'm accepting it as canon.  It's also one of the most creative storylines I've seen come out of the WWE this decade.  I'd love to see them piece together footage of matches from the late 70's and early 80's and try to create a "highlight reel" for the events written about in this article, just to give a video presence to this mythical tournament.  It wouldn't be much different from the "tournament" that TNA has pieced together for their vacant title, except for the fact that people might actually watch the IC Title footage.

Wrestlemania IV
Atlantic City, NJ - 27 Mar 1988
Historic Atlantic City Convention Hall
(identified as Trump Plaza on television)
A

The seeds for what is arguably the most famous title tournament in WWF/E history were planted on NBC at The Main Event on February 2nd, 1988.  Ted DiBiase, who had been screwed out of a title by Pat Patterson in Rio de Janeiro, was now in a financial position to screw Hulk Hogan.  The Million Dollar Man paid a bogus referee to work the rematch of the Wrestlemania III main event.  As a result, Andre the Giant defeated Hulk Hogan via pinfall to win the WWF World Heavyweight Championship, even though Hogan kicked out at two.  Andre immediately sold the title to Ted DiBiase, who then became the 12th champion in the history of the company (a title reign that is not recognized by the WWE and the majority of wrestling fans, but that's another story for another time).  Jack Tunney declared the title vacant, and a 14-man tournament was set up for Wrestlemania IV.

To this day, this is my favorite Wrestlemania.  Even though there were quite a few wrestlers who were obviously not going to win, every match felt like a big deal.  At the time, I really expected Don Muraco to win the tournament.  He walked to the ring with "Superstar" Billy Graham and the music from Jesus Christ Superstar, but he was knocked out of the second round by Ted DiBiase.

I'm sure many fans believed that Hulk Hogan would win, and who could blame them.  He and Andre had an automatic bye into the second round, and he went over in the main event of every Wrestlemania up to this point.  The second rematch between the two ended in a double disqualification, which gave DiBiase a bye in the third round to head straight for the finals.

Looking back on this event, I'm disappointed that they didn't book Ricky Steamboat to go over Greg Valentine to set up a Wrestlemania III rematch with Randy Savage, but it didn't bother me as a kid.  Savage defeated "The Natural" Butch Reed in the first round, Greg "The Hammer" Valentine in the second round and The One Man Gang in the third round before finally defeating Ted DiBiase in the finals to win the championship.

The moment of the night was Hogan's facial expressions as Miss Elizabeth dragged him to ringside.  It begins with the most comical look of confusion you have ever seen on the face of an adult, and then transforms into an even more comical look of anger.  It was like watching a Popeye cartoon come to life.  Hogan's presence not only allowed him to end Wrestlemania in the spotlight, but it set up the next 12 months of booking with the run of the Mega Powers, which led to the Mega Powers exploding at Wrestlemania V.
European Championship
Germany - 20 Feb 1997 to 26 Feb 1997
WWF Xpress Tour and Monday Night Raw #199
B+

To look at the first round brackets of this tournament, you might think that the WWF European Championship was a big deal.  This read like a who's who of talent from the late 90's.  It included The Rock, Triple H, Bret "The Hitman" Hart and Mick Foley.  It featured the current tag team champions, Owen Hart and The British Bulldog.  There was also Too Cold Scorpio, a four-time ECW Television Champion who had just recently signed with the WWF.  And oh, by the way, it also included Vader, a three-time IWGP Heavyweight Champion, and a three-time WCW World Heavyweight Champion... not that you'd ever know that from the way he was booked on Raw.  With all of this raw talent, how can you go wrong?

Well, to start with, the characters of many of these superstars had not yet developed.  In reality, The Rock didn't wrestle in this tournament; Rocky Maivia did.  This wasn't "the most electrifying man in sports entertainment."  This was the smiling, babyface "blue chipper" and "the son of Rocky Johnson" who Jim Ross raved about to a chorus of boos and "Die Rocky Die" chants.  This wasn't Triple H - the cerebral assassin, or even the member of DX.  This was Hunter Hearst Helmsley, the "Connecticut blueblood" who came to the ring accompanied by Mr. Hughes.  This wasn't even the Mankind who everyone came to know and love.  This was the guy who lived in the boiler room with "Uncle Paul" Bearer.  Bret Hart was the superstar that you think of when you hear the name, but his popularity was beginning to fade, and his heel turn at Wrestlemania 13 would happen less than a month later.  Vader was not the monster heel of WCW and NJPW.  He was "The Man They Call Vader" - a guy who was treated like a jobber-to-the-stars, not unlike the way that the WWF booked Dusty Rhodes at the start of the decade.  Too Cold Scorpio was not the high flying innovator of ECW.  He was "Flash Funk", who could best be described as the Poochie of professional wrestling.

Although these characters were not presented in their best light during this tournament, it didn't really matter because the only people who saw their participation in the tournament were the fans who were in attendance at house shows from the WWF Xpress Tour in Germany (I've heard that it may have aired on German television on Deutsches Sportfernsehen, but I haven't been able to find it).  The only match that could be seen by most of the world was the finals, which aired as the main event of Raw on March 3, 1997.

So, how does this tournament score a B+ when it has so much going against it?  The answer is: Owen Hart vs The British Bulldog.  Simply put, the final match of this tournament was one of the greatest matches in the history of Monday Night Raw.  It's a match that has become lost to history because it happened during a transitional period for the WWF.  It was almost perfectly sandwiched between the birth of Austin 3:16 (about eight months earlier) the Montreal Screwjob (about eight months later).  It happened at a time when Vince was experimenting with a number of ideas to win back the audience, including an ECW invasion, a number of awkward shoot promos, and a mix of aging veteran characters with fresh talent who hadn't found their character.  It also didn't help that the title was horribly booked in the years that followed, so its lineage was rarely discussed in a serious way.

You can find this match at the end of Episode #199 of Raw on the WWE Network.  The cheap shots at WCW taken by Vince McMahon and the Honky Tonk Man on commentary are a vivid reminder of just how far behind the WWF had fallen at this point, but the match is worth the $9.99 monthly fee for the WWE Network by itself.  If you haven't seen it, check it out.

Light Heavyweight Championship
various locations - 3 Nov 1997 to 7 Dec 1997
Monday Night Raw #234, 236, In Your House: Degeneration X
C-

WCW attracted mainstream attention to Nitro with the addition of main event talent from the WWF, and with the New World Order.  They attracted the attention of professional wrestling fans with a roster of cruiserweight wrestlers that was perhaps the greatest collection of talent ever assembled in a single promotion.  From 1996 - 1997, the WCW Cruiserweight Championship was the centerpiece of a division that included Chris Jericho, Eddie Guerrero, Rey Mysterio Jr, Dean Malenko, Ultimo Dragon, Juventud Guerrera, Silver King, Super Calo, Psychosis, Syxx, Chavo Guerrero, Billy Kidman and quite a few others.  Taking notice of this, Vince McMahon resurrected the WWF Light Heavyweight Championship and held a tournament to crown a new champion.  Unfortunately, it could have just as easily been called the Brian Christopher Welcoming Party, because nearly every moment of this tournament appeared to serve the sole purpose of building a character for Jerry Lawler's son.

The biggest tragedy of this tournament is that they really did have some talented wrestlers.  Aguila would go on to become Papí Chulo, and later Essa Rios in the WWF before returning to Mexico.  Super Loco (better known to everyone on earth as Super Crazy) was incredibly talented, and he had a hell of a feud with Tajiri in ECW shortly after this tournament.  They had a decent match (far from perfect, but good) on the November 3rd episode of Raw.  Jim Ross and Jim Cornette did their best to call the action and sell the fans on the new division in the company, while Brian Christopher argued that Jerry Lawler isn't really his father.  If that wasn't enough, they periodically cut to a split screen so that we could see Christopher's facial expressions as he watched the match.

The same song and dance happened when Taka Michinoku wrestled Devon Storm (Crowbar from WCW).  Brian Christopher did commentary at ringside, and he interjected himself into the match.  Gee, I wonder what the tournament final is going to end up being.

Speaking of Christopher, he defeated Flash Flannagan in an average match that heavily featured Jerry Lawler on the outside.  Throughout the match, he appeared to channel the physical mannerisms of The Red Rooster with the most obnoxious laugh you have ever heard in your life.

In the only quarter final match that did not feature Brian Christopher, his future tag team partner Scott Taylor defeated Eric Shelley in an absolute mess of a match on the 11/17/97 episode of Raw.  Taylor would go on to much greater fame as Scotty 2 Hotty.  Frankly, I have never heard of Eric Shelley outside of this match, but he apparently worked for a French Canadian indy promotion called Northern Championship Wrestling until his retirement in 2001.

The semi-finals had one match that gave fans of cruiserweight wrestling a glimpse of what could have been.  Taka Michinoku defeated Aguila in an excellent match on Raw that was thankfully free from an appearance from Brian Christopher.  The semi-final match between the future members of Too Cool was also free from an appearance of Brian Christopher, as it was used for a segment to put Kane over as a monster who attacked people randomly.  This caused Christopher to get a bye into the finals.  Perhaps Lawler called in one last favor from his favorite dentist.

Taka defeated Christopher in the finals at In Your House: Degeneration X.  Decent match, but nothing spectacular.  The feud with Brian Christopher and Jerry Lawler would continue for a bit longer, giving Lawler and Christopher more opportunities to refer to the champion as "Taka Michi-no-clue."

Following the tournament, the division would continue for the next 11 years in some form or fashion with varying degrees of success, but it never attained the heights of the Cruiserweight Division in pre-Russo WCW.  The title became a staple of Attitude Era weekend shows like Shotgun Saturday Night, Sunday Night Heat, Metal and Velocity.  Some of these matches featured indy talent, including a fantastic match between Taka Michinoku and "The Fallen Angel" Christopher Daniels, which had the crowd popping despite many of them having no idea who Daniels was.  It's a shame that they weren't able to participate in this tournament.

Survivor Series: Deadly Game
St. Louis, MO - 15 Nov 1998
Kiel Center
A-

Whether it ends up being a classic or a dud, this is the event that the upcoming 2015 Survivor Series will forever be compared to.

The WWF World Heavyweight Championship had been held up after The Undertaker and Kane simultaneously pinned "Stone Cold" Steve Austin in a match for the title at In Your House: Breakdown.  A match was scheduled between Taker and Kane (with Austin as the guest referee) for In Your House: Judgement Day.  Austin attacked both men to end the match without a winner.  He was fired by Vince McMahon only to be signed to a new five year contract drawn up by Shane McMahon.  Much like Wrestlemania IV, a 14-man tournament was scheduled to crown a new champion.  As was the case with Hogan and Andre ten years earlier, The Undertaker and Kane would each receive a bye into the second round to face each other in a rematch.

What the tournament lacked in pro wrestling (nearly every match ended in some sort of screwjob, weapon attack or disqualification), it made up for in storytelling.  This event was the high point for the evil Mr. McMahon character.  In the weeks prior to the event, Vince selected Mankind as his chosen favorite to win the tournament.  He was gifted with the Hardcore Championship (a broken belt that began as a character gimmick, but took on a life of its own), and he was scheduled to face a mystery opponent in the first round, who ended up being jobber Duane Gill.  Mankind would defeat Al Snow in the second round, and he pinned Steve Austin in the third round with assistance from Shane McMahon, who had revealed that he was aligned with his father all along.

In a promo that was repeated in television and on the ppv numerous times, Vince McMahon explained that he had a problem with the people, so he therefore had a problem with the People's Champion, The Rock.  Rocky defeated The Big Bossman (who substituted for Triple H, and thus worked two first round matches in the tournament) in four seconds.  He defeated Ken Shamrock in the second round by intercepting a nightstick that Bossman seemingly tried to throw to Shamrock.  He went on to defeat The Undertaker by DQ, once again with involvement from The Big Bossman that appeared to be an attempt to screw The Rock.

The twist played itself out in the finals, which saw The Rock take on Mankind for the title.  The match ended with Rocky putting Mankind in a very awkward-looking Sharpshooter, and in a recreation of the Montreal Screwjob from the year before, Vince McMahon ordered Earl Hebner to ring the bell and award the match to The Rock via submission.  Bossman and McMahon were assisting The Rock all along.  In the Raw after Survivor Series, Rocky cut one of the greatest heel turn promos in the history of the business, citing that he never forgave the fans for the Rocky Sucks chants in his pre-Nation of Domination years, so he will represent the WWF as The Corporate Champion.

Although it had moments of being sloppy, the 1998 Survivor Series was booked brilliantly.  It resulted in perhaps the greatest heel wrestler of the 90's.  This tournament was the catalyst that pushed both Rock and Foley to being next-level, main event talent.  It set up The Corporation as a heel stable, and it was the starting point of the main event feuds between Rock, Austin and Mankind (and later, Triple H) that would carry the company for years to come.  If any single program could be called the game changer in the Monday Night Wars, the 1998 Survivor Series was arguably that show.  In the years that followed, you didn't hear the cheap shots on commentary against WCW like you heard in '96 and '97.  There wasn't any time to waste on the competition.  They had their own stories to tell.

The professional wrestling landscape is very different in 2015 than it was in 1998, but the situation facing the WWE is similar to what it was in the Monday Night Wars.  Although there is no rival company who can compete with the WWE, their ratings are down, mainstream interest is a fraction of what it once was, and much of the talent who they have relied on to carry the main event will not be available for the immediate future.  Time will tell if McMahon has any more rabbits to pull out of his hat.

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