Vince McMahon had it right on his plate. The biggest dream match in the history of professional wrestling. And he flinched.
In the summer of 1991, Ric Flair was unhappy with what was going to be a pay cut with WCW. He was scheduled to lose to Lex Luger at the Great American Bash, but was then subsequently fired as he didn’t want to drop the title without a new contract. Instead, Luger faced Barry Windham in a cage match with very little buildup and started a very forgettable championship reign. Across WCW arenas around the world, the loudest chants weren’t for Sting, or the newly crowned champ. The loudest chants were for Ric Flair. I went to a WCW event in the fall of 1991 and throughout most of the show was a chant of, “We want Flair”. But Flair was gone. He showed up on WWF television in the fall and had the old ten pounds of gold with him. Immediately, fans expected he and then WWF Champion Hulk Hogan to battle. It was a dream match that everyone had been wanting to see for at least 8 years. He started to become a thorn in Hogan’s side immediately. When Hogan lost the belt to the Undertaker at the Survivor Series, Flair was in the middle of it. And then on This Tuesday In Texas, which was just 5 days later on PPV, Hogan supposedly won the title back, but it was the held up. The title would be decided at the Royal Rumble. Ric Flair won the match by wrestling for close to one hour and outlasting everyone. It would seem that the logical challenger would be Hulk Hogan. Vince McMahon could then show the world that his champion was better than the old NWA champion. And it could be decided on the biggest stage in wrestling. Wrestlemania VIII was held at the Indiana Hoosier Dome. It could have been perfect. But McMahon flinched.
There were a couple of reasons why Vince would’ve flinched. For one, they went to Hogan vs. Flair very soon around the house show circuit and after a few runs, it wasn’t special anymore. And also, Vince has always been about pushing bigger guys. He saw a star in Sid Justice, formerly Sid Vicious. Sid was a huge guy with a jacked up physique who was supposed to be someone WCW was going to try and utilize as a top heel. He had one title match against Sting, but didn’t win it in an odd finish that saw Barry Windham dressed up as Sting and taking the pin. But the real Sting came out and then pinned Vicious. Yes, it was hoaky. But Vince came calling and Sid left WCW for New York. Initially, Vince put Sid with Hogan after SummerSlam 1991. Hogan and the Ultimate Warrior beat the team of the Iron Sheik who was at the time Colonel Mustafa, Sgt. Slaughter and their manager, General Adnan. Sid Justice was the referee. When Hogan and Warrior won, it was Hogan and Justice celebrating in the ring with Warrior no where to be found. If McMahon was going to flinch on the Flair vs. Hogan deal, this would be his backup. But who would Flair then wrestle?
In a hokey, but still effective storyline, Ric Flair promised the fans that he “had” Elizabeth before Randy Savage married her. The line was, “She was mine, before she was yours,” as if Elizabeth was some sort of property. Flair then showed pictures of himself with Elizabeth to further “prove” he was with Elizabeth before Savage was. Mean Gene Okerlund showed some investigative journalism later to prove that the pictures of Flair and Elizabeth were in fact doctored. Talk about going a long way for a storyline. Curt Hennig and Bobby Heenan promised to show some risque pictures of the lovely Elizabeth at Wrestlemania where Flair would defend his belt and against Savage. Talk about bait and switch. There were no pictures of Elizabeth. Instead of giving the WWF fans their dream match, Vince decided that Ric Flair vs. Randy Savage and Hulk Hogan vs. Sid Justice was a better fit.
I was only twelve years old, but I knew what was going on. I knew that Hulk Hogan really didn’t fight Andre The Giant for real at Wrestlemania III. I knew that there was a team of people who came up with ideas, though I didn’t know that Vince McMahon was the owner and not just the announcer until a few years later. But still, in February of 1988 as a twelve year old fan who understood some of the business, I was still saddened even though I knew what was coming. Let’s go back slightly.
In 1987, the WWF had their most lucrative WrestleMania yet with Mania III. The buyrate was spectacular and they filled the Pontiac Silverdome. Even though they marketed the match between Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant as the first time they ever wrestled, it wasn’t. And it was a spectacle, even though the match was bad. How can you top that? Well they couldn’t, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.
Fast forward to February of 1988. Ted DiBiase, aka The Million Dollar Man, said he was going to buy the WWF Championship belt. Hogan responded on an episode of WWF Superstars of Wrestling by saying that the belt wasn’t for sale. On The Main Event, which was broadcast live on a Friday evening on NBC, Hulk Hogan and Andre The Giant had their WrestleMania III rematch. When I heard that they were doing a live show on national television a month before Wrestlemania IV, I knew something drastic was going to happen. And then on the morning of the show, the San Jose Mercury News Sports Section did a story on the show, writing exactly what the finish would be. I was heartbroken while reading that Hogan would get double crossed by the referee and lose the belt to Andre. But I was the talk of the school that day. I told everyone I knew what the finish was going to be. But deep inside I was upset about what was going to happen. I was a heartbroken fan that night. I guess that means the angle was played out perfectly. Andre The Giant won the match because the referee was paid off by The Million Dollar Man (they used twin refs, Dave and Earl Hebner for drama) and then The Giant subsequently gave the belt to DiBiase. DiBiase had just bought the championship like he said he would.
But, president Jack Tunney said that DiBiase couldn’t buy the championship and declared the title vacant. Wrestlemania IV would be the place where they would hold a tournament for the championship. It would be a 14-man in the tournament, but Hogan and Andre would have their third match in a year to start off the second round after being given a first round bye. There were also some really good possible match-ups, with the best being Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat and Randy Savage locking up in a rematch of their Wrestlemania III classic, but the WWF decided to screw the fans out of that match and had Steamboat lose to Greg Valentine in the first round. Either McMahon had heat with Steamboat, as was the reason Steamboat dropped the Intercontinental Title so quickly to the Honky Tonk Man in 1987, or he wanted to save that possible match-up for later, even though Steamboat would soon leave to the NWA where he’d have classic matches with Ric Flair and eventually win the 10 pounds of gold. With Savage, DiBiase, Steamboat, and Rick Rude in the tournament, there was a possibility of some really good matches. But of course, the WWF couldn’t give us the good matches. Rick Rude and Jake “The Snake” Roberts wrestled to a mind numbing 15 minute draw, knocking them both out of the competition. And in the worst case of overbooking Greg “The Hammer” Valentine defeated Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat in a decent match. The Hammer would go on against Savage in the second round, who beat “The Natural” Butch Reed in the first round, and we would never see Steamboat vs. Savage part two.
They were pushing DiBiase as the favorite because of what happened at the start of round two. Hogan vs. Andre started off the second round and Ted would face the winner. He beat Don Muraco in the second round who defeated Dino Bravo in the first round. There were two trains of thought by fans. First, Hogan would win and he’d face DiBiase. Or Andre would win, and would forfeit his third round match to DiBiase as he said before the tournament started. But none of those things happened. Hogan vs. Andre was an awful punch-fest that was called a double disqualification and caused most of the fans in the Trump Plaza to groan. Both Hogan and Andre were eliminated, and DiBiase would get a bye into the finals. The problem with having Hogan only there for one match is that WWF fans were always trained to understand that Hogan would be in the main event. This time, Hogan was gone early and it caused a lot of the fans to leave as well. Only the die-hard wrestling fans were going to stick around for four hours without Hogan.
After defeating Reed, Savage also went through Greg Valentine in a decent match. He would go on to face the near 400-pound One Man Gang. The Gang defeated Bam Bam Bigelow by countout earlier. Bigelow was the hottest young wrestler in the federation just one year prior. It was the dumbest finish of the night as Bigelow sat there and watched the ref count him out while he was standing on the apron trading blows with the Gang. Savage defeated the Gang in another terrible finish as the Gang decided to use the his manager Slick’s cane on Savage right in front of the referee.
So the table was set. It was Randy Savage vs. Ted DiBiase in the finals of the tournament to declare the new WWF Champion. There were five other matches outside of the tournament and none of them were very good. Bad News Brown turned Bret Hart face by winning a battle royal to start off the show. They double teamed the Junkyard Dog and threw him out and then Bad News double crossed Hart to win the match. The Barber, Brutus Beefecake beat the Honky Tonk Man by DQ in a meaningless match for the Intercontinental Belt. The one match that was meaningful out of the five undercard bouts was Demolition defeating Strike Force to win the tag belts, though in my opinion they didn’t win it in convincing enough fashion to get them over as a WWF version of the Road Warriors.
Jesse Ventura and Gorilla Monsoon as the announcing team made Savage out to be a complete underdog for having to wrestle four times and with Andre in DiBiase’s corner, they sold it like Savage had no chance. That was until Elizabeth brought out the Hulkster, giving the fans one more chance to see their favorite, and also to even up the sides. The finish was good, albeit a little rushed as Hogan broke DiBiase’s Million Dollar Dream sleeper with a chair shot to the back and Savage was able to hit his elbow off the top to finish the match and be crowned champ. Since Hogan would be doing No Holds Barred with Tiny Lister and David Paymer, Savage would have a full year’s run with the belt. To foreshadow Savage turning on Hogan the following year, they had Elizabeth bring Hogan down to the ring hand in hand. That subtlety was great and it kicked off the single greatest angle they did which would “explode” at WrestleMania V.
There wasn’t a single standout match on this show, and the tournament final was fine, but unspectacular.
In some cool trivia, Ted DiBiase was actually supposed to win the tournament. He was going to get the WWF Championship and Savage would get his IC Title back. But the Honky Tonk Man didn’t want to drop his IC belt to Savage. Vince then changed his mind to go with Savage as the top guy rather than DiBiase.
Results Bad News Brown won a 20-man battle royal Brutus Beefcake defeated Intercontinental Champion Honky Tonk Man via DQ The Islanders & Bobby Heenan defeated the British Bulldogs & Koko B. Ware via pinfall The Ultimate Warrior defeated Hercules Demolition defeated Strike Force for the Tag Team Championship Round One, Championship Tournament: Ted DiBiase defeated Hacksaw Jim Duggan Don Muraco defeated Dino Bravo by DQ Greg “the Hammer” Valentine defeated Ricky “the Dragon” Steamboat via pinfall Randy “Macho Man” Savage defeated Butch Reed via pinfall One Man Gang defeated Bam Bam Bigelow via countout Rick Rude and Jake “the Snake” Roberts wrestled to a 15-minute draw Round Two, Championship Tournament: Andre the Giant and Hulk Hogan wrestled to a double DQ Ted DiBiase defeated Don Muraco via pinfall Randy Savage defeated Greg Valentine via pinfall Semifinals, Championship Tournament: Randy Savage defeated One Man Gang by DQ Finals, Championship Tournament: Randy Savage defeated Ted DiBiase to capture the World Wrestling Entertainment Championship