WrestleManias may be more iconic. Royal Rumbles may be more action packed. Even SummerSlams may be more high-profile. But in the late 1990s, there was no event more pivotal than Survivor Series. Each instalment contained events of huge historical importance in wrestling. Not only that, but they acted as pivot points between key eras in WWE.
All this week Paul Benson, one of the co-hosts of Hooked On Wrestling’s 90s podcast HOW Mania, will be publishing mini-essays about the Survivor Series events from 1995-1999.
The first of these columns covers Survivor Series 1995 and can be found here. This column, part two, covers the 1996 edition that was held at Madison Square Garden in New York City on 17th November 1996.
In yesterday’s column I discussed how the 1995 Survivor Series rang the warning bell for the New Generation era and signalled the huge changes that were coming in the attitude (for want of a better word) of WWE’s programming.
If 1995 was the start of the long walk for the neon clad characters of the mid-90s, Survivor Series 1996 was where the axe fell and the death blow was struck.
For many reasons this event was hugely pivotal to the future of the company. On the macro level, it was an overnight change in how the audience perceived babyfaces and heels. A perception that directly allowed for the blurred lines that allowed the ascent of the biggest genre busting stars in wrestling history . Stars that would soon transcend traditional roles and wrestling itself.
On the micro-level, this night was so pivotal for a number of those stars on an individual basis. In a number of cases, this was the night that would see them make changes that would set the course of their careers forever.
Let’s start with the macro. Simply put, the stars aligned that night to show wrestling fans, or WWE fans in particular that there was another way. You didn’t just need to slavishly cheer for the babyface because that’s what you were told to do. Instead, you could cheer who you thought represented you, your values and your idea of excellence.
When I say the stars aligned, I mean that the right match was presented in front of the right audience at the right time for this transformation to become a true movement rather than a one night anomaly.
The event was took place at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Well known as the home base of WWE, the MSG crowd has always been the most influential in the wrestling world. Where their tastes trended, the rest of the wrestling world soon followed.
On this night, those tastes trended away from world champion Shawn Michaels. Quite simply, he didn’t represent them. The New York wrestling crowd has always felt like a fanbase that appreciates graft. They like their heroes to toil, to be both physically and mentally strong. New York is a tough, hard place and they revered men they felt could withstand the harshness of that social environment and push back harder.
Shawn Michaels simply wasn’t that guy. To that point, no WWE champion less embodied that Big Apple grit than HBK. Where most of the country still revered his cheeky, charming, boyish ways, New Yorkers just saw a pretty boy who couldn’t connect with the attitude of the city they loved.
Sid could. Good lord, Sid could. He was a scrapper, he oozed strength and stoicism. He, frankly, took no shit. Psycho Sid was The Garden’s guy and boy did they show it that night. The physical embodiment of the power and roughness that this crowd felt in themselves.
By rejecting Michaels, the babyface and embracing the mean, nasty heel in Sid, they lit the touch paper on the firework that WWE was clearly trying to launch with Bret Hart vs Diesel the year before.
Because if the MSG crowd say it’s OK to make your own minds up who to cheer then the wrestling world are going to take note. Things genuinely were never the same again. After Survivor Series 1996, fans wanted a work ethic from their stars. They wanted them to toil, to sacrifice. To be a reflection of them in some way. And if you weren’t? You were getting the Shawn Michaels in MSG treatment.
It genuinely changed the wrestling world. More specifically, the way wrestling fan cultured moulded the wrestling world.
There is no better example of this than one of those micro examples we talked about earlier.
It is well known that this event marked the debut of the soon-to-be Rock. It is also well known that he entered the event as ‘The Blue Chipper’, slapping babies and kissing hands (Is that right?). The general feeling is that WWE made a mistake with his presentation but do you know what? They really didn’t.
Before this event, Maivia’s persona was what WWE fans wanted in a babyface. They wanted a smiling, good looking, easy going guy and that was what Maivia was. In spades. He was presented in a way that appealed to what WWE knew their audience wanted at that time.
The problem was, ‘that time’ was coming to an abrupt end that very night. What the fans previously wanted no longer applied. Suddenly Maivia was past his sell by date before he even got started. A pitch perfect New Generation babyface star who missed that particular bus by seconds and now found himself in the sleazy part of town with no idea how to navigate out.
In short, he was dead on arrival because what fans wanted him to be changed literally minutes after he arrived.
To their credit, WWE quickly sensed the way the wind was blowing and pivoted not just Maivia but the whole company to ensure both entities were fuelled by this new renegade attitude, not flooded under it.
But Maivia wasn’t the only star who changed their path that night. What about The Undertaker?
Before this event, he was still essentially a cartoon. Purple gloves, wide brimmed hat, trench coat, no depth. He was a gimmick about to be rendered obsolete by the new reality based characters demanded by the audience. Once you miss that opportunity to change, you don’t get it back. If Taker had gone into this new post-MSG era in the same way he had been since 1990, he would have been eaten alive, rejected and consigned to the wilderness with Yokozuna, The Smoking Gunns and others.
Instead, this event marked the start of the Undertaker having a character rather than just being a character. There is a distinct difference between the two. No longer was he a zombie. He was a man. A man with motivations, with vulnerabilities, with relationships like a true human being. The change was crucial to allow that character to build and evolve in the shifting landscape. If they hadn’t made that change here, it might already have been too late.
We haven’t even touched on Bret Hart & Steve Austin. For Hart, this was the start of the next chapter of his career.
He more so than anyone benefited from this new freedom the crowd took to make decisions of their own. Without that change there is no world in which Hart is a heel in the USA and a babyface everywhere else. It simply doesn’t happen and he misses out on the most critically acclaimed work of his career. If we apply the fabled ‘Butterfly Effect’, if we miss that, do we miss out on Montreal, Mr McMahon and all that came after that? It is an interesting question to ponder.
For Austin too, this was the start of it all. King Of The Ring and the Austin 3:16 speech birthed a catchphrase and a successful t-shirt but it didn’t birth a main eventer.
Bret Hart did. Their match here did. Hart gave Austin his seal of approval as ‘the guy’. As the top heel he would feud with for the next few years. And Austin took that chance.
What neither men surely knew was that the crowd in MSG gave Austin their approval too. On the same night that they made Sid ‘their guy’, they bore witness to a heel that scrapped, clawed and fought for every inch. A heel that wasn’t happy unless he was pissed off. A heel who came from lowly beginnings who didn’t want or expect to be given a thing. He wanted to take it.
In short, has there ever been a bigger role model to the men and women of New York City? One that encapsulated their way of life and attitude. An attitude that they gave to WWE, that was about to be given a capital letter, packaged up, branded and marketed to take the WWE to previously unimaginable heights.
Steve Austin the man was born in Texas.
‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin the megastar was born in New York City.
He, along with the most successful era in WWE history was truly born at Survivor Series 1996.
If you want to read more of this column series, you can find the rest at the following links: