This weekend marks WWE’s 30th annual Survivor Series, set to take place on 20th November 2016.
Survivor Series is one of the only PPV’s under WWE’s lifespan that has lasted throughout the years, mostly unchanged – the others being Wrestlemania, Royal Rumble and Summerslam. An important night for WWE and an event that marks the road to Royal Rumble and then Wrestlemania, Survivor Series has had enough ‘big’ moments to put it in a league of it’s own, no doubt proclaiming it’s right to be part of WWE’s ‘Big Four’ PPVs. With this year’s Survivor Series shaping up to be unpredictable whilst also incorporating the traditional elimination style matches that makes this PPV so unique, will it be one we look back on 20 years later with awe or will it be something better left to the past? Only time will tell, just as time has told with Survivor Series 1996, which is commonly regarded as one of the best Survivor Series out of the lot. Whilst we wait for that answer, let’s jump back in time to 1996 and see how Survivor Series that year holds up with fresh eyes from 2016.
So it’s 1996. What were you doing? I was 5, so I wasn’t doing a whole lot but The USA had just voted on whether to put a Clinton into office, the Pokémon Company were riding high on the success of their brand, Metallica were releasing new music and Nintendo were planning on bringing out a new console for the Western market. Sound familiar?
For WWE at least, the differences are night and day. 1996 was a tumultuous year that saw talent abdicate to WCW and WWF take a nosedive in the ratings due to the rise in popularity of the aforementioned WCW and their flagship show, Nitro. 1996 was on it’s way out by the time the 10th Survivor Series hit our screens and the WWF wouldn’t see a victory over WCW in the Monday Night Wars for almost 2 years since June of 1996. But bearing in mind the context of the era, Survivor Series 1996 still managed to incorporate everything great about wrestling.
The Survivor Series 1996 card is stacked, almost to the point where it feels too full. But this is the problem with Survivor Series and it hasn’t faded in 20 years: When you have so much going on with all the traditional elimination matches and then title feuds thrown in there too, it will start to feel a bit chaotic. Add in the pre-show and the singles matches and it becomes quite a long PPV. However, credit where credit is due, this PPV is still very enjoyable and it doesn’t become difficult to watch at all, even with the multiple elimination matches.
This PPV is full of highlights that have stood the test of time, such as the match between The Undertaker and Mankind in their long running feud, which sort of looks like Mankind asking to be repeatedly punished for no reason other than he just likes it. Notable about this match is The Undertaker’s entrance, which sees him descend from the ceiling with wings (something we don’t see anymore since Owen Hart’s tragic death in 1999). In addition, Paul Bearer (who has now aligned himself with Mankind since Summerslam earlier in the year) is hanging above the ring in a cage, and we’re given a “cage cam” to see him. This match couldn’t be more 1990’s if it tried. But I digress. The Undertaker and Mankind are pros and throughout their feud, they never put on a bad match. So what tends to happen with these two is unless one of them is throwing the other off the top of a cage or something equally outrageous, it tends to be forgettable. This match isn’t a chore to watch by any means but reminiscing about their feud, this isn’t one of the matches to stand out. However, it is definitely a highlight of this PPV and provides a nice break up to the heavy card. Full of typical spots that you would expect from a 90’s match between ‘Taker and Mankind, the match is physical and fun. Sometimes I genuinely wonder how Mick Foley is alive in 2016, but that’s another debate for another time. Undertaker wins with his usual tombstone finisher, but is quickly attacked afterwards by masked wrestler The Executioner which is a continuation of an ongoing story-line.
What can’t be avoided is the admission that Survivor Series 1996 is a product of it’s time and even with all the nostalgic feelings towards this era, the WWF and Vince were far from perfect. Following the high profile departures of Kevin Nash and Scott Hall, who both left for that greener grass at WCW, the bitterness is still evident months later as “Diesel” and “Razor Ramon” are heavily featured in WWF programming and at Survivor Series they’re both in a 4 on 4 Survivor Series tag team elimination match, teaming with Faarooq and Vader against Flash Funk, Jimmy Snuka, Savio Vega and Yokozuna. Fake Diesel and Fake Razor Ramon are actually Glenn Jacobs (you know, Kane) and Rick Bognar respectively, who for most of their time as these characters lost most of their matches. It’s clear to see the hostility that was felt from Vince towards Nash and Hall and this heavily criticized story-line is one of those story-lines that are much better left to just sit in the past. And stay there.
On the subject of Nash and Hall, following the infamous “Curtain Call” incident that happened earlier that year on the eve of their departure, Hunter Hearst Helmsley is starting to shake off the punishment for breaking kayfabe in an era when kayfabe was the truth. After being forced back down the card and supposedly losing the chance to win that year’s King of The Ring (that accolade went to Stone Cold Steve Austin instead, which is regarded as the moment that started his rise to stardom), HHH is currently riding the high of being the Intercontinental Champion after defeating Marc Mero in October. HHH is featured in another 4 on 4 Survivor Series tag team elimination match which saw him teaming with Crush, Jerry Lawler and Goldust and saw them face Marc Mero, Jake Roberts, The Stalker and a debuting Rock Maivia. HHH being overshadowed once more, the plucky underdog Rocky Maivia was the last man standing and ultimately won the match for his team by pinning Goldust. Though almost dorky and squeaky clean at this point, its unmistakable to deny the faith WWF and Vince McMahon had in him as one of the next big superstars. I think Sunny summed up this moment well with her comment on Rocky Maivia: “Look at him! He’s a newcomer and they’re already chanting his name!” Even 20 years later his debut remains an iconic one, made more so due to his recent ‘review’ of the said moment.
The match of the night undoubtedly goes to the next match in the card, which was Stone Cold Steve Austin against Bret Hart to determine the No.1 contender for the WWF Title.
Even with rose-tinted glasses, it’s hard not to look back at this match and just gush with awe. Considered the match of the night and heavily regarded as one of the best matches of all time, the returning Bret Hart faced the upcoming superstar Stone Cold Steve Austin to determine who would be the number one contender for the WWF Championship at the next PPV. From the beginning with the pre-match interviews all the way through to almost the 30 minute mark where Bret Hart managed to secure the win using Stone Cold’s power against him, the match is just perfect. And that’s not even an overstatement or an exaggeration: When wrestling is this good, it’s an absolute joy to watch. Take away the context, take away the flashing lights and take away the rambunctious NYC crowd and what are you left with? Two men at the absolute peak of their careers with an incredible gift for ring psychology who steal the show. I imagine much to the chagrin of Shawn Michaels and indeed the debuting Rocky Maivia, this is the match you think of when you think about Survivor Series 1996.
But just in case you need reminding of the context, here it is anyway. Bret Hart, after a lengthy hiatus where even he didn’t know what would happen next – and being offered an insane amount of money to jump ship to WCW after his WWF contract expired – returns back to WWF to face the upcoming Stone Cold who was fresh off of his win at King of The Ring 1996. Stone Cold had repeatedly taunted the missing Bret Hart and challenged him to come back and face him and that’s how we get here. After watching the bulk of the match which showcases great aggressiveness from both men and delivers a masterclass in build and pacing, we come to the latter stages of the match and Austin is on the offensive, looking as though he’s ready to secure his win. He’s cocky, he’s angry and we’re seeing the dawning of the superstar that is Stone Cold Steve Austin. But by outmanoeuvring Austin, Hart secures the victory by taking advantage of Austin’s reluctance to let up the Million Dollar Dream hold. He leads him to the turnbuckle, throws himself over him and lands on top of Austin to force his shoulders to the mat. Hart gets the three count, with Austin kicking out barely seconds afterwards. Jim Ross says it’s perfectly with “Austin almost pinned himself here!” Stone Cold leaves the ring looking incensed by falling victim to Hart’s manipulation of him and Hart celebrates his victory knowing that luck was definitely on his side that night. Hart wins, but only by the skin of his teeth; Austin lost, but he came so close. We know this isn’t the end of the feud and it is only going to get better.
As a side note, it’s worth noting that the commentary team of Vince McMahon and Jim Ross just adds the icing on the perfect cake that is this match. It mustn’t be ignored that Vince was a damn fine commentator and it obviously goes without saying for Jim Ross, but they sold the match incredibly well for the viewers at home. All these little layers that stack up on each other to create the perfect 30 minute guide to wrestling. If, for some reason you haven’t seen this match, then I don’t know what else I can say to convince you. A 5 star match if there ever was one.
The main event, in which Shawn Michaels loses his WWF Championship Title to Sycho Sid, struggles to live up to match between Hart and Austin before it, even though the performance from both men aren’t anything to shake a stick at. For a main event and one with a shocking end, it fell flat for me. But it’s different for the crowd, who jeer and boo loudly when Sid reigns supreme at the end of the night. With mixed feelings about this match, this PPV and Sycho Sid being champion, I finish watching Survivor Series with an optimistic view that hindsight has allowed me to. The aftermath of Survivor Series sees the continuation of the feud between Bret Hart and Stone Cold Steve Austin, with Shawn Michaels and Sycho Sid thrown into the fray. In addition, the feuds between Mankind and The Undertaker and Marc Mero and HHH respectively, show no signs of letting up as we start the descent into In Your House 12: It’s Time, which airs in December of 1996.
Even with the WWF currently losing the Monday night wars and trying to fill the holes in their steadily declining pocket of talent, retrospect is able to tell us that this time 20 years ago, RAW and the PPV’s that followed were to become the harbinger of success for the WWF. The WWF in 1996 were becoming aware of the possibility that they were no longer the biggest wrestling company in the world and with the continued loss of viewers, they were in a difficult position. Sticking to the same classic formulas that brought them success in the 1980’s and early 1990’s only saw the WWF becoming further alienated from their fan base, who were becoming ‘smarter’ of the business but bored of the one dimensional characters that were taken straight from an 80s cartoon. Change was coming and the latter half of 1996, including Survivor Series, was the beginning of something that would change wrestling forever.