Through different factors, WWE works its way into being segmented by eras. Usually it’s defined by direction and the talent promoted at the top. As it is right now, we’re in the midst of an era shift. John Cena spent years as the focal point of the company with Randy Orton and, for a time, Batista at his side. These days, Cena and Orton are winding down and Batista is long gone.
Instead, we’re now in something resembling the Roman Reigns Era? Will WWE finally give up on him and try something else? Will it be an era defined by smaller guys with fantastic ringwork? It’s still hard to say.
I’m often reminded of the first era shift I experienced, back in the early ’90s. Since winning the WWF Championship in 1984, Hogan represented not only the company, but what the company would become. The Hogan Era (or “Rock ‘n’ Wrestling Era” to some) was about a time when seemingly all wrestlers came off as coked-up cartoon characters and colorful, larger-than-life superheroes, more than any time in the promotion. With Hogan came the likes of the Ultimate Warrior, Randy Savage, Roddy Piper, the Big Boss Man, Brutus Beefcake, Demolition, the Legion of Doom, and so on.
Nothing could last forever and things began to change. Hogan’s matches and storylines became repetitive and annoying. Certain wrestlers either had major fallouts with management or simply lost their luster and had to evolve or move on. The steroid trial forced certain hard-working undercard acts towards the top because of their less-impressive physical stature.
With the slow-burn ending of the Hogan Era and the rise of the New Generation, SummerSlam ’91 sticks out as an anomaly. Usually, wrestling shows are about faces winning a handful of matches and heels winning a handful of matches. A lot of the time, the ratio is nearly equal. Not so much here. There were only two matches won by heels where one had the faces stand tall at the end and the other one was instantly forgettable. The show was, strangely, upbeat on the whole.
SummerSlam ’91 is essentially the Return of the Jedi of 1980s WWF. It’s the optimistic season finale that lets us remember the era before the change starts to settle in. Yeah, Snoke’s going to show up and bring ruin in a few months, but at least we get this PPV as our Ewok celebration.
CLEANING HOUSE ON THE MIDCARD
The opening match is a six-man tag featuring the British Bulldog, “Texas Tornado” Kerry Von Erich, and Ricky Steamboat against the Warlord, Paul Roma, and Hercules. This is basically a who’s who of the previous five years of WWF. Only Hercules and Roma (Power & Glory) were without title reigns and they at least had runs to be proud of. Hell, Hercules had a good thing going as the go-to “first level endboss” of the company.
As the faces won the battle, it was ultimately their last hurrah as other than Bulldog, everyone in this match would be gone within a year. Some of them were lucky enough to at least show up at the 1992 Royal Rumble.
Similarly, the card also featured Irwin R. Schyster defeating Greg “The Hammer” Valentine. Valentine was also on the way out, along with those in the opener. IRS, on the other hand, was an established WWF wrestler (Mike Rotunda, who was at the first WrestleMania), given a new lease on life with his big gimmick change.
The gimmick change would fit like a glove in the coming era as “wrestlers who have a day job” would become a regular trope in the early-to-mid-90s, for better or worse. Better for IRS; worse for nearly everyone else.
THE RISE OF HART AND THE FALL OF PERFECT
Months earlier at WrestleMania VII, the Hart Foundation lost the tag titles to the Nasty Boys for the sake of allowing Bret Hart and Jim Neidhart to move on. Instead of turning on each other like what would happen to most tag teams, Bret became a singles wrestler while Neidhart became mainly a commentator with a bit of singles wrestling mixed in there.
At the same time, the years of bumping hadn’t been kind to Mr. Perfect’s back. The Intercontinental Champion needed to step down from active competition for at least a little while.
And so, Bret Hart’s months of taking down jobbers on Superstars and Wrestling Challenge led to a title shot against Mr. Perfect at SummerSlam. The two put on one of the best matches of the year and Bret came out the new Intercontinental Champion after making Perfect submit to the Sharpshooter.
Mr. Perfect spent over a year afterwards as a commentator and a cornerman for Ric Flair. He would attempt several comebacks in WWF over the next couple years of and while the first one – where he was a fiery babyface – lasted about nine months, the ones after that tended to end before they could begin.
As for Bret? Well, this was the first major step in his illustrious singles career in the company.
ANDRE THE GIANT’S FINAL PPV APPEARANCE
The Bushwackers took on the Natural Disasters and lost horribly because they were a team of comedy losers against two unbeatable behemoths. One of which hospitalized Hogan once upon a time. Naturally, Earthquake crushed Luke with his vertical splash.
While all this was going on, the Bushwackers had Andre the Giant in their corner. The legend of the ring spent much of the final stretch of his career helping build the WWF into what it became, acting as the big, money-making foil for Hogan in one of the biggest angles of all time. Though far past his prime, he still came off as a menacing god for several years.
In August of 1991, he was in a sad state. Partially due to kayfabe injury and partially due to his body breaking down, Andre remained outside of the ring, standing with the help of two crutches. He cheered on the Bushwackers, but after their loss, Earthquake and Typhoon considered laying out the Eighth Wonder of the World.
Instead, the Legion of Doom stepped out and stepped up. Butch joined their side and a hurt Luke eventually did the same. As the Natural Disasters walked off in fear, Andre weakly smacked Earthquake in the shoulder with one of his crutches.
Outside of a couple house show appearances, that was basically it for Andre in the WWF, saying goodbye at the event he once main-evented.
Speaking of which…
THE END OF TED DIBIASE’S SINGLES RUN
“The Million Dollar Man” Ted Dibiase is a lot like Mr. Perfect in that he had a huge run as a major heel that you wanted to get destroyed during the Hogan Era, but then had to step down and basically evolve into something else. Dibiase spent some time as a tag team wrestler alongside IRS, then moved into commentary, managed his own heel faction, then eventually just managed Steve Austin until leaving the company for WCW.
Even as someone who main-evented the first SummerSlam as well as WrestleMania IV, Dibiase’s match against Virgil was essentially his most meaningful loss and something his entire WWF career had been building towards. After years of using a lower midcarder and borderline jobber as a shield, Dibiase’s diamond-encrusted house crumbled when he turned his wrath on his long-suffering bodyguard. Virgil stood up for himself and it led to him not only defeating his old boss, but stealing away his Million Dollar Championship.
Dibiase would eventually get the belt back on an otherwise forgettable prime time special called Survivor Series Showdown (the main event was Roddy Piper vs. Hercules, to show what kind of quality we were talking about here), but his days as a single star were numbered. Hell, by the time the Royal Rumble came around, Dibiase was #2 and was gone within two minutes.
As for Virgil, Dibiase’s kayfabe claims that he was nothing without the Million Dollar Man turned out to be pretty accurate. Without Dibiase to play off of, Virgil became the bottom of the barrel for face wrestlers on the roster. He spent the next few years getting squashed by the likes of Yokozuna and Giant Gonzalez.
THE LEGION OF DOOM HITS THE TOP
Supposedly, Vince McMahon’s interest in a tag division worth caring about was centered around the Legion of Doom. First he had a couple of knockoffs like Demolition and Powers of Pain. Then he had the real deals and spent months building towards their big tag title win.
It was a great, albeit simple story. In the build to WrestleMania VII, the Hart Foundation had the titles. A tag team battle royal was put together to find the #1 contenders. If one guy was eliminated, so was his partner. Three important things happened in this match. First, Shawn Michaels accidentally dropkicked Marty Jannetty out of the ring, causing the first crack in what would later lead to a shatter. Second, the Legion of Doom were cheated out of the match because of Power and Glory’s interference. Third, the Nasty Boys won.
So at WrestleMania, the Nasty Boys cheated to steal the belts from the Hart Foundation while the Legion of Doom completely annihilated Power and Glory in the blink of an eye. That stretched beautifully into a sensible Legion of Doom vs. Nasty Boys match at SummerSlam, which Legion of Doom won.
And with that, they peaked. They were then challenged by the Natural Disasters, but that didn’t do much for LOD’s stock, considering it wasn’t like they could throw these guys around. The feud never had any closure and instead, the Legion of Doom lost the belts to Money Inc. at a house show and split for a while.
They would come back various times over the years, but never for long and never with that early 90s momentum.
WARRIOR RUNS OFF INTO THE SUNSET
During the main event, a handicap match of Hulk Hogan and the Ultimate Warrior vs. Sergeant Slaughter, Colonel Mustafa, and General Adnan (which in today’s terms would be like Cena and Reigns vs. Rusev, JBL, and Zeb Colter), Warrior chased off Mustafa and Adnan with a steel chair. After racing through the curtain and into the back, Warrior was met with a pink slip from Vince McMahon for supposedly trying to hold him up for more money earlier in the night.
It really shows the difference between following wrestling with and without the internet. It took me a long-ass time before I even noticed Ultimate Warrior wasn’t around anymore. Like, months.
Warrior was at one time a potential usurper to Hogan’s throne and was at the very least Player 2 Hogan (or Player 3 if you count Randy Savage). Much like Legion of Doom, Warrior would come back a couple times, but never for very long and never in a way that compared to his initial tenure with the company.
His final run in the company came during the New Generation Era and despite being a few years later than his heyday, he still felt dated and out of touch.
THE CHANGING OF THE VILLAINOUS GUARD
SummerSlam ’91 was the final nail in the coffin for Sergeant Slaughter’s questionable heel run. Originally introduced with, “America is too chicken to go to war with Iraq!” the writers got put in a corner when Operation Desert Storm happened and Slaughter became, “Um… I’m cool with Iraq now? Not the Iraq war. I mean actual Iraq. They’re great.”
That was apparently enough for this past-his-prime GI Joe to win the world title and get a main event WrestleMania feud with Hogan. When it came time for SummerSlam, he got his just desserts and was no longer deemed a threat. In fact, he soon after reappeared as a groveling and apologetic soldier who wanted to be forgiven by his country. He briefly became a tag team with Jim Duggan and then vanished completely.
But if SummerSlam was a comic book movie, it was the kind that had after-credits teasers for the next run of villains. Slaughter was washed up and the Macho King had been dethroned and pacified months earlier. Even Earthquake had just settled down into the tag team division and I mentioned the fates of Mr. Perfect and Ted Dibiase. All the while, WWF was building up new threats in the Undertaker, Jake Roberts, and Ric Flair.
Cleverly enough, they were so intent on making it a feel-good show that none of those three showed up during it. Heenan talked up Flair’s eventual appearance and the other two appeared in a post-show segment to vex Randy Savage, but they were set up as something to fear for another time.
And really, they didn’t last all that long. Undertaker turned face about six months later, Jake was gone as of WrestleMania VIII, and Flair only lasted for less than a year and a half.
Flair’s time with the company was like the bridge between the Hogan Era and the New Generation Era. He was the top villain, but he started it by antagonizing WWF Champion Hogan and towards the end dropped the same title to Bret Hart.
THE MAN WHO WILL ONE DAY RULE THE WORLD
The main event’s special referee was Sid Justice, otherwise known as Sid Vicious or Sycho Sid. A wild card, he ended the show as Hogan’s new friend (which was probably for the best, since his other insane muscleman friend just ran off into unemployment two minutes earlier) and soon found himself in the one storyline that defined the era more than “Hogan fights the monster of the week.”
By that I mean, “Hogan acts like kind of a dick to his best friend, which leads to Hogan having a new heel to fight.” It happened with Paul Orndorff, it happened with Andre, it happened to Savage, and it would happen to Sid. Tugboat was lucky enough to keep his face away from the bottom of Hogan’s boot, but even he turned bad.
Although Sid was going to be a major player and main-evented WrestleMania VIII, he was gone just a couple weeks after.
The crazy thing, though? Sid showed up during the New Generation Era and had his most successful WWF run by far to the point of multiple world title reigns.
THE END OF HULKAMANIA AS WE KNOW IT
This is a weird thing to say, but even in a handicap match with Sid as a referee, SummerSlam ’91 was Hogan’s last true victory for a long, long time. After years and years of the regular formula, this was the last televised time WWF went through the motions with it in the ’90s. After destroying Slaughter one last time and bringing closure to their feud, Hogan’s time in WWF was no longer as dominant.
Now, granted, he was still practically unbeatable and all, but his sporadic appearances for the next two years were far from cut and dry in his favor. Here are Hogan’s televised in-ring appearances for the rest of his tenure:
– Lost the title to Undertaker via cheating.- Won the title from Undertaker via cheating (and was immediately stripped of the belt).- Lost the Royal Rumble like a big baby.- Won a tag match via disqualification.- Beat Sid by disqualification because Harvey Whippleman jumped onto the apron and yelled stuff.- Lost a tag match via disqualification.- Won an impromptu title match against Yokozuna because of (backfired) cheating.- Lost title to Yokozuna due to random exploding camera.
So yeah, it was Hogan’s last true victory in a time when people got tired of Hogan’s true victories. Then again, how perfect is it that one of his opponents in that SummerSlam tag match was the Iron Sheik? It all came full circle.
SummerSlam ’91 then ended with Randy Savage and Elizabeth getting married. It was a happy segment, building up on their entire WWF careers since they first appeared. Yet for both their characters and their real relationship, it was the last smile before things fell apart.
And that’s what the show is all about. Seven years reached its apex and funneled into a three-hour celebration of the world they created. Afterwards, the status quo became chaotic and crumbled. The mainstays lost power and left. The attempts to replace the big men with newer big men for the most part failed. Instead, the meek inherited the company and the World Wrestling Federation became something very different.
Oh, and I’d be completely remiss if I didn’t mention the Mountie. During the show, he lost a match against the Big Boss Man where the loser had to spend a night in a New York City jail. The Mountie lost, leading to a couple of comedic bits that included both Mountie flipping people off and a rape joke.
What I’m getting at is that the Mountie started the Attitude Era and it just didn’t catch on yet. Guy was totally before his time.
Gavin Jasper likes to imagine a world where Sid never actually wrestled and just remained an overgrown, ineffectual doofus of a referee. Follow Gavin on Twitter!
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