Tony Schiavone Receives a Telegram (1997 Week 4)

Two weeks ago, I wrote a little about “meaningless wrestling,” specifically how to pry something from a match whose worth to the larger context of professional wrestling’s rich history is the labor performed by the men and women who won it.

This week, the thing I am most excited about is Tony Schiavone reading a telegram.

Some theoretically important stuff happens in all three promotions, but nothing great outside of a fantastic Terry Funk promo where he talks about his dream of becoming a World Champion in the context of watching his father die of a heart attack in pursuit of the same dream. It’s wonderful and lovely and not at all the point of that episode of Hardcore TV, which is split between the Triple Threat and more Raven/Sandman/BWO drama. Meanwhile, on Monday Night Raw, the four competitors in the Final Four match say their piece in front of Shawn Michaels.

The Greatest Year in the History of Our Sport

Part of the listlessness I’m feeling this week comes from the fact that I know what happens, even if I haven’t seen all of it. Shawn Michaels goes on hiatus. The man chasing Shane Douglas is Rick Rude (or is it???), whose impact on ECW is short-lived because he gets signed by the WWF. Terry Funk makes good on his dream. Tony’s telegram is about a Hogan/Piper match at SuperBrawl, which makes me want to weep.

And, in-between all of that, professional wrestling. There isn’t going to be a Matches of Note section because there really weren’t any unless you’re a freak who lives for anthropomorphic representations of construction barriers wrestling The Giant, or you want to see Rick Steiner nearly die a couple of times. Raven vs. The Sandman and the re-debut of Mike Awesome (not yet MIKE AWESOME) aside, every single show on the slate this week felt like it was booked for the B-town, even the new pairing of Mankind and Vader making their debut.

We are not on the Road to WrestleMania—that didn’t really exist yet. A dud week of television wasn’t going to pause the momentum of a show that was still made up of a bunch of tenuously stitched together matches, and outside of WCW’s eternal pissing contest where they boasted of being live or beating the WWF in ratings, WCW’s chose to fire back with a convoluted version of the Hogan/Piper program while talking about being the youngest, hippest show in town.

This, friends, is meaningless. It probably isn’t the nadir of wrestling in 1997, but it feels like everybody decided to pump their brakes simultaneously. Is there something in all of this that’s worth pulling out? Let’s see.

Mankind and Vader Team Up, Waste Time

One of my favorite rivalries in wrestling is the one between Cactus Jack and Big Van Vader. It is the classic meeting of masochist and sadist, a man who lives to absorb pain meeting a man who lives to dish it out. Its details are famous: Vader powerbombing Jack on the concrete floor; Jack getting lost in Cleveland; a brilliant Texas Death Match; and, most importantly, Jack losing his ear during a match against Vader in Germany.

In the World Wrestling Federation, what’s more important than all of this is that they’re both managed by Paul Bearer.

Vader Mankind WWE
WWE

On one hand, it’s understandable to not approach the history between the two, which happened in the ancient past of 1993, under the auspices of World Championship Wrestling. It’s the kind of thing that gets poked at on the show across the dial, the kind of thing that’s really only for the die-hards. One thing that holds true then, now, and forever is that WWE is not a promotion for the die-hard wrestling fan, so the animosity between Mankind and Vader got flattened out into a kind of differing personalities thing. Had this resulted in a singles match between the two, that would have been fine. But outside of a house show loop in the late summer of 1998, that clash never came.

So instead, you get stuff like this, Mankind and Vader against the Godwins. Vader has a certain fascination with Mankind, who has a simmering dislike of the Mastodon. Mankind spends the match mostly refusing to tag Vader in while the big man screams for it, rocking back and forth in the corner before taking the fight to Henry or Phineas. Given that Vader is going to be one of the guys in the Final Four and the Godwins are pig farmers, the match is way too even, built around Mankind’s “accidental” betrayal of Vader, which comes way too soon in their four match run as a duo. It is such a waste.

Tony Schiavone Receives a Telegram

It is real jobber hours on Monday Nitro, a number of “he’s making his WCW debut” guys who obviously aren’t going to stick. Here’s a dude who’s there to get racked. Here’s a pair of dudes (Ace Darling and Devon Storm, neither of whom are slouches) here to get got by The Outsiders. Here’s a Saturday Night job guy come to take a choke slam, and another who has to negotiate how to do monkey flip spots with the Ultimo Dragon. The closest any match comes to good is a United States Championship match between Eddie Guerrero and Jeff Jarrett, but that’s got some Horsemen drama, so poor Jeff doesn’t really get to show out for Ric Flair.

There are two Hulk Hogan related threads weaving through this show. The first thread is Souled Out fallout where he is challenged to a title match by The Giant. Hogan accepts and dedicates the match to The Outsiders, so guess how the match ends and who interferes. I enjoy Hogan’s cartoon heel selling, but that only goes so far.

The second thread is the continuing feud between he and Roddy Piper. They don’t show the clip of Piper speaking “ancient Gaelic,” but the truck has the finish of Starrcade 1996, where Piper won by putting Hogan to sleep, queued up. Hogan’s hand drops twice, and Eric Bischoff takes the tape out of the VCR, pulling the tape out of its shell. This being 1997, that tape represented the only way anybody, anywhere, could find out who won the match, so his control of the master tape meant that he and Hogan could claim that Hogan won. Or something. Along with firing referees and stripping wrestlers of their titles, it was just a petty show of force from Bischoff, who is an extremely grating presence beyond the fact that that’s his intent.

That moment of ancient technology was usurped later in the night, when Tony Schiavone was hand-delivered a goddamn telegram.

I don’t know why I’m so taken by this—surely telegrams were still an important means of business communication in a world where e-mail wasn’t yet ubiquitous—but there’s something delightful about watching the process of receiving such a thing and having to relay the information on it by reading it into a mic so that the arena could hear the news. In the future, J.J. Dillon is introduced to the WCW audience as the representative of the shadowy WCW Championship Committee, but that hadn’t been established yet, so this was just practical. But it rules at the same time.

The WCW Championship Committee is made up of the worst bastards in wrestling, though, as they watched Hogan vs. Piper at Starrcade 1996 and said, “more of that, please.”

Rick Rude Is His Name

This week’s episode of Hardcore TV features a fair amount of men assaulting women, which isn’t particularly fun. There are a lot of promos and recaps on this match, which is fair enough—the reformation of the Triple Threat is important, Taz’s shoulder injury is important, Terry Funk is important, and Raven is important. The most important thing here is that Raven steals a win over The Sandman by falling on top of him after taking a Stevie Kick from Big Stevie Cool, but the mechanics of this angle, the question of whether or not Stevie had left Raven’s Nest, has no juice because he’s obviously left—only Joey Styles is asking if it’s a ruse or not.

More importantly, Shane Douglas knows that the Masked Man is Rick Rude. Furthermore, he knows that he’s not after Douglas’ ECW Television Championship, but his head cheerleader, Francine. The three men in the Triple Threat can defend themselves, but Francine can’t. So, as a protective measure, Douglas has hired Mike Awesome as her bodyguard.

This rules, though it won’t last very long. Mike Awesome is a complicated figure in ECW history, but regardless of whether or not you think his later exit from ECW for WCW sank the company, his presence and and taste for incredibly violent powerbombs makes him the Greatest Wrestler of All Time. Douglas teases that a fight will happen between Awesome and Rude, which is absolute brain candy to me, but outside of a taste at the end of this show—a taste where Awesome looks decidedly regular—all Douglas is doing is teasing.

I don’t know where I stand on this Masked Man angle yet. Obviously I don’t like the way Francine is essentially currency—the last piece of the show-closing angle starts with Rude saying he’ll let Douglas off the hook in exchange for Francine—but I like how engaged Rude is in the angle. He’ll be joining D-Generation X and the nWo this year as a dude in drab brown suits, so this is like the last hurrah of his sleazeball womanizer character from the WWF, without the limiting factor of being on a show for children.

rick rude masked man ecw
WWE

I think the overarching storyline would be easier to stomach without Lori Fullington getting throttled by Raven or Francine nearly getting chokebombed by the Pitbulls or the multiple ads for Extreme Warfare Vol. 2, featuring The Night Kimona Wanalaya Danced Atop the ECW Arena, but as a complete package, it’s all part of the reason I’ve largely avoided diving more deeply into ECW beyond their pay-per-views. It’s not that I have thin skin, but it’s like hearing a slur (or reading it on someone’s lips when it’s bleeped out)—it’s a signal that a certain kind of person isn’t seen as a potential fan, but as a target the existing fans can safely mock or objectify. I suspect this is something I am going to struggle with when it comes to ECW for the rest of the year.

The final angle, tacked on to the end of a Pitbull #2 vs. Brian Lee match, is really sloppy, almost something in the “let’s put on a show!” spirit. Tommy Dreamer and a recently returned Pitbull #1 rush the ring, evening the odds, only most of the odds-evening happens out of frame. As mentioned, Francine nearly gets chokebombed but is rescued. Pitbull #2 has to save Pitbull #1, who is fresh from a broken neck, from the Triple Threat, while Pitbull #1 says that his neck is broken.

Now, Pitbull #1’s neck injury was a major part of ECW storytelling, including an angle where Shane Douglas grabbed him by his halo and threw him to the mat. Pitbull #1 saying he’s broken his neck should be the focal point of the show, but into all of this chaos emerges the Masked Man, who doesn’t have time for any of it. Straight to the point, he demands Douglas hand Francine over, which he does. The distraction brings out Mike Awesome, but Masked Man isn’t really distracted, so Awesome is quickly chumped out with a Rude Awakening.

That last bit at the end is great, especially if you’re a fan of Rick Rude. It’s a brief moment, but the way he executes the Rude Awakening is quick and smooth, and he takes a full back bump to do it, as if he hadn’t been injured and forced to retire in 1994. I have no idea what a Rick Rude in-ring return would have looked like before he died in 1999, but I’m here for whatever brief flashes of his teasing one that I get.