Perhaps the strangest week in World Wrestling Federation history ended up with three WWF title changes, the tease of the end of Shawn Michaels' career, a strange twist in the working relationship with ECW, the beginning of the live Raw, a television special, a PPV event, a surprise IC title switch, numerous long-term plans switched, steroids appeared back to being somewhat in vogue, and perhaps not even limited to the male performers, and the beginning of Wrestlemania hype all crammed into five days.
When the dust settled, Sid was back with the WWF title--a belt that Shawn Michaels never lost and that Bret Hart never beat anyone for in becoming a one-day wonder, and probably wondering himself if he made the worst career move of his career as second guessers and many in the industry were saying by the end of the week. Undertaker vs. Sid will headline Wrestlemania on 3/23 in Chicago, at least as of this week. Michaels' career was teased as being over due to a knee injury portrayed on television Thursday as being so bad even reconstructive surgery may not to able to repair the damage as a teary-eyed Michaels, whose problem was clearly in the interview not a knee injury, said farewell to the WWF in a classic interview repeated to death on television and PPV about 100 times in the ensuing weekend. It wound up only to have noted orthopedic surgeon Dr. Jim Andrews say Michaels' knee injury wouldn't even require surgery at all, and that after four to six weeks of rehab, he may be able to return. And at press time, it appears the plan is for Michaels to now be put back into the Wrestlemania mix, although not as a wrestler, perhaps doing announcing or as a special referee, wrestle a few major shows during the summer and return full-time in the fall. We're not sure whether plans had been changed at the last minute where Michaels was scheduled to drop the title to Sid on the 2/13 special, but we do know that Michaels' short-term departure threw a total monkey wrench in all the house show and Wrestlemania plans. To the WWF's credit, they didn't pressure Michaels into staying at a time when it appeared emotionally he needed the break, but it was surprising they didn't do an angle to build heat on an opponent for his eventual return.
Rocky Maivia, the former Duane Johnson, with less than one year in the pros, was surprisingly given the IC title on 2/13 from Hunter Hearst Helmsley. There had been some question that Maivia's push was going to wind up in a Van Hammer/Erik Watts like situation, that fans wouldn't buy being a green wrestler being shoved down their throats and push back. If there was any doubt, during the match even before the title had changed were chants of "Rocky sux."
The before-the-camera working relationship with ECW (which has been going on behind-the-scenes to some extent for months now), which had a test run before planned angles were abruptly dropped a few months back, will pick up with a new twist on 2/24 at the Manhattan Center for the second live two hour Raw show. However, this time it appears ECW won't be the heels or the invaders but that ECW will become, like AAA, a babyface promotion working with the WWF. The exposure in that position pretty well guarantees that whatever chance there was that ECW would totally flop on PPV is now exceedingly slim, because the exposure on a wrestling show with actual large mainstream viewership should at least arouse enough curiosity to do a break-even buy rate.
But the biggest story was not the three WWF title changes, the Michaels vacancy on Thursday, the Hart win under Battle Royal rules on Sunday and the Sid win over Hart due to Steve Austin's outside interference on Monday; but the entire strange circumstances involving Michaels, the wrestler who carried the WWF in the ring throughout 1996, and appeared to be breaking down emotionally from pressure at the same time he was wowing crowds in the ring.
On the Raw special, it was announced at the beginning of the show that Michaels would be vacating his title. In a memorable, but now totally over played and emotional interview, Michaels talked about a knee injury so bad it may be beyond surgical repair, how he wouldn't return to wrestling if he was anything less than 100%, and then broke down talking about this past year as being the top man in the business being the happiest year of his life because he got to do everything he dreamed of, and saying it would be okay if it never happened again because at least he got to do it for one year, thanked Vince McMahon for letting it happen, broke down even worse, said he needed to go home to find his smile because he lost it somewhere, and ended it by saying that he needed to go home now as he hugged McMahon in the ring. This sent shock waves throughout the industry because it was all totally unexpected--apparently the WWF higher-ups received word at about 6 p.m. the previous night from Michaels that he was taking time off when Michaels informed WWF officials that his doctor in San Antonio had told him his knee injury could be career ending. WWF sources claim that they chose this tact rather than do an angle on Michaels' knee with a wrestler like Sid or Steve Austin to give him a grudge match upon his return, because they were afraid of doing any further damage to the knee. Perhaps the real-life situation involving Brian Pillman, where both he and the WWF wanted to use him so much when he should have been re-habbing that his ankle healed improperly and he wound up having to have everything redone and start from scratch in an ordeal that will end up keeping him out of the ring for more than one year when all is said and done. Of course, at that same point in time, even with all the damage to Pillman's ankle, they still did the in-ring angle for the storyline explanation and the grudge match built up for the eventual return.
It was announced with the title vacant, that the Final Four match on the Sunday PPV, which was to determine who would get the title shot at Wrestlemania, would instead be for the title, and that the original title contender, Sid, would get the winner the next day. One day before the match, the rules of the Final Four were amended to being Battle Royal rules, which meant eliminations would be by throwing someone over the top rope as well as pins or submissions, although as it turned out all eliminations were over the top, which allowed them to placate more delicate egos and saved all three from doing jobs in a match set up originally to where at least three key performers were going to have to do jobs. Bret Hart captured the title for the fourth time, clotheslining Undertaker over the top when Undertaker was distracted by Austin. The next night it was announced the Hart-Sid winner would face Undertaker at Wrestlemania for the title in the main event. After two re-starts due to Austin jumping both men before the match started, in a gimmick designed to get off to a ratings jump on the most important Monday night ratings war to date (well, at least until next Monday), the match, which started at the beginning of the show wound up as the final match on the show with Sid winning when Austin hit Hart over the head with a chair as Hart had the sharpshooter on Sid.
It appears the top matches at Wrestlemania will be Sid vs. Undertaker, Bret Hart vs. Austin, Hunter Hearst Helmsley vs. Goldust and a Chicago Street fight with Ahmed Johnson vs. Faarooq. The original plan was for Owen Hart & Davey Boy Smith vs. Doug Furnas & Phil Lafon with the tag team title switch that occurs on nearly every Wrestlemania, but that may have already changed. It may be that Hart & Smith, who are more valuable than ever because they need people who can carry time every week with the two-hour live show, will be getting some perks in exchange for dropping the straps. With Michaels out of commission, house shows over the weekend, originally scheduled as Bret Hart & Sid vs. Austin & Michaels main events, changed first to triangle matches with Michaels removed, and then changed again with an injury to Ahmed Johnson, to double mains with Sid vs. Faarooq and the same Final Four with Bret, Undertaker, Vader and Austin that would be on the PPV show on Sunday, giving the wrestlers two try-out matches to get out the kinks. Major house show main events when the group returns from the European tour which starts this week are going to be triangles with Bret Hart, Sid and Austin. With most of the big names gone to Europe, there will be a skeleton crew for the live show at the Manhattan Center, and they are going all out for shocks and surprises for that show.
Exactly what is the true story involving Michaels is anyone's guess. There is no doubt there was a knee injury. Anyone who does what Michaels does is going to wind up with knee damage. Obviously there are serious problems that were a lot more important to address than any knee problems. Just because someone appears on the surface to outsiders to lead a charmed life, in that they have money, looks, ability and can entertain outsiders and are admired and even worshipped by people who don't know them, doesn't mean that on the inside they are any less immune to the same problems that face each of us. A broken heart and broken dreams don't hurt any less if you have a million dollars in the bank or nothing in the bank, or if you having people clamoring for your autograph or blowing smoke up your ass. In fact, if anything, in Michaels position, he's a lot more susceptible because he was put under a microscope and put in a pressure cooker position. You have the illogic from a professional standpoint in his mind that he may be unable to come to grips with. He rose to the top in his profession by doing things a certain way. All the people riding the bandwagon with them on the road up there, many suddenly turn against him and point out his flaws for doing exactly the same thing he did to make it to the top, once he's under the microscope. Despite performing in good matches most nights and great matches on the big shows, and more importantly from the top man position, house show business with him as the key draw and headliner being the best in years--everything he dreamed about being important on paper was going exactly according to plan, suddenly everyone focused on TV ratings and suddenly he was a failure as champion. He was the standard bearer, the quarterback of sorts, on a team that people wrote was on a 33-game losing streak, going downhill fast, despite it really being the most successful it had been in years. And being a perfectionist to his craft in an imperfect world where others make mistakes often, his immaturity showed, particularly when his big buddies left him. If anything, it made the injuries, and the injuries on the inside that are a lot more painful than back and knee hurts, hurt that much worse. And his starting QB position was going to be being taken away either by the former starter who walked out making it somewhat public he was waiting for his rival to self destruct, and came back in with the biggest money offer in company history looking like the wisest clairvoyant in the 20th century; or by someone who couldn't lace his boots but whom fans chanted for while he did the most important and closest to real interview of his life, a cry for help that some people may have understood, but that the fans for the most part thought and the promotion treated as being just business as usual. And maybe his problems had little or nothing to do with the profession that he called his entire life. Maybe it was the fact at 31, he stepped back and realized outside the profession he didn't have a life, which is awfully scary. Maybe it was simply he needed time off to get his house in order, and maybe simply because he was setting up a new home in San Antonio and there's stress moving and all this was to get time away from work to move everything in. Or all of the above. Or none of the above. Maybe his best friends know and are disappointed he isn't getting the help they think he needs. Maybe they don't. The last word appeared to be Michaels returning in a non-wrestling role at Mania, probably to do an angle to lead to his in-ring return, and then he'd work some major shows over the summer before going full-time in the fall, ironically not all that different than the original plans Bret Hart made after he had to drop the title. Rumors will flourish, most of which won't be true and some of which will. The fact WWF after the fact played it up for all it was worth turned it into just another fake-shoot wrestling angle. Michaels has been in them before. The irony was just last year, the last time they played this game and teased Michaels never wrestling again, set him up for the biggest run of his career. Perhaps he forgot, or hoped people wouldn't remember that when he talked in the interview about a doctor telling him he may not be able to wrestle again for the first time in his life, that it may have been the first time a doctor actually said that to him, but it wasn't the first time that story had been told about him. It was the third time Michaels hadn't lost a WWF belt in the ring. In September of 1993, he walked out as IC champion, only to return a short time later. In October of 1995, after being mugged, he wasn't able to return in time for a PPV show and gave back the IC title.