365 Wrestling, Day 39: Undertaker vs. Hunter Hearst Helmsley (WWF Shotgun Saturday Night, 2/8/97)

365 Wrestling, Day 39: Undertaker vs. Hunter Hearst Helmsley (WWF Shotgun Saturday Night, 2/8/97)

365 matches in 365 days, each from that specific date on the calendar? Challenge accepted. Welcome to 365 Wrestling.

What makes a good match? And, when evaluating a match, how much does what happen before and after the bell influence things? How about the surrounding environment?

These questions prove relevant in this entry of 365 Wrestling: The Undertaker taking on Hunter Hearst Helmsley in this episode of Shotgun Saturday Night from February 8, 1997.

Lest we offend the copyright gods, I’ll just tell you you can find this match online through a little bit of shrewd searching.

The Match

Shotgun Saturday Night started at the beginning of 1997. and the initial run of episodes aimed to present an edgier product and wrestling matches from unlikely venues — such as Penn Station, the site of this match.

If you’re going to judge this match solely by what happens from bell to bell, you’re going to be disappointed. There are two commercial breaks — one right as Undertaker hits the ring. Much of the action unfolds in the punchy-kicky style that was more common than it should have been during the Attitude Era. Helmsley’s Intercontinental Title is on the line but he retains when Undertaker drills Helmsley in the head with the belt, right in front of the referee.

The setting — smackdab in the middle of Penn Station — adds so much to the presentation. Helmsley’s snob gimmick perfectly fits the environment. He arrives in a stretch limo that pulls up outside, says a few quick words about how he wouldn’t get caught dead riding one of the trains at the station, and then descends a staircase into the concourse. Undertaker’s entrance is even more surreal in the context of Penn Station, coming through the crowd.

Standard WWF/WWE programming carries a sameness from show to show and week to week… and has since the promotion truly “went national” in the late 1980s. Here, we get wide panning shots to take in the crowd and the limited space, unlike the glut of camera cuts that characterizes WWE shows today. The ring looks considerably smaller than the 20-by-20-foot squared circle WWE typically uses. It catches the eye and draws your interest.

The post-match is the best part of the entire endeavor. After taking a chokeslam, Helmsley tries to retreat and a chase ensues up the stairs, where the Deadman grabs Hunter and delivers a tombstone at the top of the escalator. Taker stands tall, soaking in the cheers of the crowd as Helmsley’s unconscious carcass heads down the escalator.

Final Rating: 6.1

The atmosphere, the entrances, and the post-match make this highly entertaining even if the in-ring action is nothing special. Given the status that both Undertaker and Triple H have achieved in WWE lore since then, it’s surprising to me that this match has flown under the radar. That tombstone on the escalator should have been fodder for so many video packages.

Up Next

Some good ole-fashioned geopolitical tag action.

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365 Wrestling, Day 22: Diesel vs. Bret Hart (WWF Royal Rumble, 1/22/95)

365 Wrestling, Day 22: Diesel vs. Bret Hart (WWF Royal Rumble, 1/22/95)

365 matches in 365 days, each from that specific date on the calendar? Challenge accepted. Welcome to 365 Wrestling.

There are certain wrestling tropes that always will hook me. One of them is the matchup between a big person and a smaller person… power versus speed. Height and weight against quickness and savvy.

I think you’ll enjoy this version of that tale, coming from the 1995 Royal Rumble when Bret Hart challenged Diesel for the WWF World Title.

You can watch this match on Peacock.

The Match

This is the first major challenge for Diesel (aka Kevin Nash), who became champion in November of 1994, defeating Bob Backlund in eight seconds at Madison Square Garden just three days after Backlund dethroned Bret at Survivor Series. That included a banner 1994 for Diesel. After eliminating seven wrestlers from that year’s Rumble, he went on to win the tag, Intercontinental and World titles in WWF before the calendar turned to 1995.

Bret is seeking his third reign as champion but finds he can’t match up against the size and power of the champion. As a result, he comes at this match with a more aggressive attitude than at any point since his days as part of the Hart Foundation tag team when they were heels in the 1980s. Working over Diesel’s legs around the ringpost becomes a repeated tactic of the Hitman, as is keeping submission holds applied after Diesel has reached the ropes to break. Bret actually plays the de facto heel for most of the match with his rule-bending, relentlessly attacking Diesel’s left knee.

Hart takes a few chances that are not part of his standard approach, diving through the ropes on Diesel and then going for a plancha over the top to the floor. The latter works out poorly for the challenger; Diesel runs him back into the ringpost, and note the priceless expression on Bret’s face prior to impact.

Diesel gets Hart back in the ring and delivers his Jackknife powerbomb, and here’s where the match enters strange new territory. Shawn Michaels, Diesel’s former partner turned rival, hits the ring and attacks Diesel–albeit a beat late, forcing Bret to kick out of Diesel’s finisher. Despite Michaels’ beatdown, the referee says the match will continue. Later, when Bret hooks Diesel in the Sharpshooter and Bret’s brother-turned-nemesis Owen Hart attacks, once again the match continues. It takes a ref bump, which cues a slew of rule breakers to storm the ring and attack both competitors, before the match ends in what is ruled a draw.

This match represents a great example of why Bret Hart is held in such high regard. His fingerprints are all over the match layout. Bret comes up short against the size and strength of the champion, but shows his savvy as the more experienced competitor and actually controls the majority of the match. I’ve seen this referred to as a carry job by Bret Hart but I don’t see it that way. Diesel serves a needed presence here with his presence and power. I thought he does a solid job selling the work done on the knee/.

One thing is certain: in today’s wrestling climate, the interference / draw finish would have been roasted on social media. For good or for worse, fans will not accept non-finishes in major title matches today.

Final Rating: 7.3

This is a challenging match to rate. As mentioned, I think Bret puts in an all-time performance here and Nash deserves a share of the credit as well. In this case, I think the efforts of the wrestlers are hamstrung to some degree by all the interference. This is definitely the best match involving Kevin Nash I’ve seen so far, but all the shenanigans held it back for me from all-time-great territory.

Up Next

Two really good wrestlers walk into a bar in Asheville. Good wrestling ensues.

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365 Wrestling, Day 17: The New York Rumble (WWF, 1/17/94)

365 Wrestling, Day 17: The New York Rumble (WWF, 1/17/94)

365 matches in 365 days, each from that specific date on the calendar? Challenge accepted. Welcome to 365 Wrestling.

It’s January, and that means it’s Royal Rumble season!

I.

Love.

The Royal.

Rumble.

It is appointment viewing for me every year, no matter whether I have been following WWE from week to week or haven’t watched in months. I watched the very first one — not the pay-per-view in 1989, but the original Rumble that aired free on USA in 1988 — and was enraptured. I think I wore out my VHS copy of the ’89 Rumble, which was used for background and time cues while re-enacting my own Rumbles with action figures.

Even as my interest in WWE has wavered as of late, I still parachute in for the Rumble, so I figure I had seen them all.

Or had I …

I discovered a Rumble held at a house show at Madison Square Garden on January 17, 1994, five days before the Rumble pay-per-view took place that year. Some hearty individual toted a Camcorder (after all, remember, this was 1994) into the Garden and recorded the whole thing. You can find it on YouTube or Dailymotion with some shrewd searching.

The Match

In several ways, this serves as a dry run for the Rumble on pay-per-view a few days later. The final four, for example, is almost the same: with Fatu, Bret Hart, and Shawn Michaels in at at the end. Owen Hart joins them, in a spot that would be filled by Lex Luger five days later.

The other most significant harbinger to the pay-per-view Rumble is an early run of eliminations by Diesel. Crush and Randy Savage, who have their sights set on a meeting at WrestleMania, lock horns in the Garden and, in both Rumbles, Crush tosses Macho Man.

I got a kick out of the rather random selections who fill out the 30-man field. As I mentioned on Day 13, this era of WWF is one of my biggest gaps as a fan and I forgot that certain mainstays of the 1980s are still hanging around on the roster at this point: Iron Mike Sharpe, Virgil, Jim Powers, Rick Martel … I’m looking at all of you. Sgt. Slaughter also makes an appearance in what marks his first match since September of 1992, according to Cagematch.

A few other highlights that stood out for me:

–The 1-2-3 Kid (who you may know better as X-Pac) and Diesel have a nice exchange early in the match.
–Crush looks strong throughout his approximate 15 or so minutes in the match, ousting Savage and Bam Bam Bigelow, until a dropkick from Bret Hart sends him to the floor.
Johnny Polo (aka Raven) makes an appearance and does his damnedest to sell for others. Note a heedless-looking sternum-first collision into the turnbuckles not long after he enters.
–Michaels and former partner turned nemesis Marty Jannetty going at one another like The Chicken and Peter Griffin when HBK enters at #29.
Doink delivering a suplex to Bart Gunn near the ropes that dumps Bart out to the floor.

The major story here, though, is the one between the two Hart brothers. Despite all of their issues, Owen saves his big brother from elimination on several occasions. Once the Rumble is down to the final two — Owen and Fatu — Samu comes out to support his fellow Headshrinker while Bret heads back down ringside to cheer on Owen. The final few minutes play out more like a standard wrestling match than the end of a battle royal, but the action is solid, with Owen ultimately prevailing.

Final Rating: 5.8

Even a bad Royal Rumble is still pretty fun to watch at least once, and this one is better than some of the offerings that made pay-per-view. Owen was such a talented performer and seeing him win here makes you wonder what might have been had he gotten more of an opportunity during this era.

Here’s the complete, ongoing list of matches in this project.

What’s Next

Back to Japan for a match featuring the fastest wrestler I’ve seen in person.

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