Please be advised that in the interests of maintaining contemporaneous consistency I will be referring to WWE as WWF throughout this article. This clarification should prevent you from imagining giant men in spandex fighting pandas for money.
On August the 29th 1992 the WWF came to Wembley Stadium for its annual SummerSlam. It was the first time the organisation had strayed outside the States for an event of this scale, and the reason was purely financial: Vince McMahon and his backers realised that while enthusiasm for the sport was waning – or at least plateauing – in the US, fans in the UK were in the fevered grip of Wrestlemania, Hulkamania, and – perhaps most crucially of all – Gladly-Spend-Thirty-Pounds-on-a-Giant-Foam-Finger-amania. The WWF’s instincts proved correct: the first round of tickets for SummerSlam sold out in five minutes, and the event helped to shift over a million pounds in merchandising. UK fans would do anything to see their favourite heels and heroes in the flesh, and while Hulk Hogan was conspicuous by his absence, the promise of title fights between the Ultimate Warrior and “Macho Man” Randy Savage, and Bret “The Hitman” Hart and “The British Bulldog” Davey Boy Smith, more than justified the price of a ticket.
Bulldogs and Englishmen
SummerSlam promised Britain a spectacle of colour, pomp and flash the likes of which we’d never seen. Our home-grown wrestlers were big, gruff and hairy, and about as exotic to us as fish-and-chips. American wrestlers were bona fide superstars, and their fights transcended mere entertainment, offering something closer in scale to battles between Gods. Men with He-Man bodies growled at each other in apocalyptic tones, as fireworks and motorbikes and amped-up entrance music roared and exploded all around them. We lapped up Wrestlemania for the same reasons we eschewed the kitchen-sink miserabilism of our native soap operas in favour of the sun-kissed, happy-go-lucky climes of Summer Bay and Erinsborough: we wanted distraction from our cold, rainy lives – and the bigger and bolder and brighter that distraction, the better.
Promos leading up to SummerSlam tended to focus more on the coming World Heavyweight Title clash between Macho Man (defender) and Warrior (challenger), which was being touted as the tent-pole match. Hardly surprising given that Warrior was, at one point at least, being groomed to replace Hulk Hogan as the new face of WWF. “Macho Man” Randy Savage was gloriously psychedelic in appearance; a drug-crazed Dr Hook who’d stolen Elton John’s glasses and Steven Van Zandt’s dressing gown. The Ultimate Warrior looked like Pat Sharp on steroids. Both of them sounded like they’d been smoking gravel for thirty-five years.
Ultimately, though, it was the battle to become Intercontinental Champion between Bret Hart and Davey Boy Smith that would wow audiences and stand the test of time. Their fight remains one of the most thrilling and highly regarded matches in WWF/E history. But we’ll deal with that fight – as SummerSlam itself did – last.
Off to a Slamming Start
SummerSlam opened tastefully and subtly with commentator Bobby Heenan dressed as an English King, and owner/commentator/future-scandal-magnet Vince McMahon togged up like a Royal butler. The reportedly 80,000-strong audience was ready to scream and shout itself hoarse with the sort of excitement only tranquilliser guns filled with several liquid tonnes of Ritalin could quell.
The first card was a tag-team match pitting The Bushwhackers and “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan, against The Nasty Boys and The Mountie. And isn’t it immaculately on-brand for a testosterone-fuelled US-organisation to lump the Canadian in with the bad guys? Take your socialised medicine, your scenic beauty and your pleasant demeanour, and shove it up your moose-loving ass!, the choice seems to exclaim.
Although the match was won by “Hacksaw” and The Bushwhackers, few outside of Wembley would have known that. This match and the one immediately following it were excluded from Pay-Per-View, having been taped for later showings on WWF Prime Time Wrestling.
That second omitted bout was between El Matador and Papa Shango, two among many of the WWF’s most highly problematic characters of the time. They may as well have been called Signor Stereotypo and Black Badguy. The wider, whiter world wasn’t fully ready to engage with concepts like political correctness and cultural sensitivity in the early 1990s, though we shouldn’t really have expected all that much from the people who invented shell suits.
Bust and Doom
The first proper contest, as far as the millions watching at home were concerned, was Legion of Doom vs Money Inc. Legion of Doom (Hawk and Animal) were by far the coolest and most poster-worthy duo in the WWF. With their giant, spiked shoulder-pads and ready-for-rucking stares, it looked like two of the Lost Boys from Peter Pan had grown up and joined a biker gang in the apocalypse. Money Inc. comprised the ageing “Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase and his bespectacled, braces-wearing cohort Irwin R. Schyster (aka IRS). They were clearly the heels, to which an almost solid cloud of boos testified (it’s a good job that WWF promoted the message to would-be voters of the future that greed is bad, and that we should never trust rich, money-grabbing braggarts who employ dirty tricks to get ahead in life, or God only knows the sort of president the US might have ended up with). Legion of Doom roared into the stadium on motorcycle, and left in triumph, after Animal power-slammed and pinned DiBiase.
Later that year Hawk quit the WWF in protest at his tag-team being saddled with a little wooden dummy called ‘Rocco’ as a gimmick. He went on to join a London chapter of the Hell’s Angels for a time. And if HBO aren’t planning to turn that into a miniseries then what are they even doing?
Above the Law
Nailz vs Virgil next: the former an unbalanced convict who’d had beef with the Big Boss Man; the latter Ted DiBiase’s former dogsbody who’d turned against him at the 1991 Royal Rumble and earned himself the adulation of wrestling fans. After a reasonably one-sided bout, Nailz took Virgil out with a choke-hold, but later that year Nailz (real name Kevin Patrick Wacholz) would take himself out of the WWF altogether when he attacked Vince McMahon over a pay dispute. Wacholz later testified against Vince McMahon when the WWF magnate was indicted on charges relating to supplying his wrestlers with steroids. The jury acquitted McMahon.
The match between Shawn Michaels and Rick Martel kicked off with an unusual stipulation: neither man was allowed to hit the other in the face. This had been decreed by Sensational Sherry, Michaels’ manager and a one-time wrestler herself, who courted the affections of both men (and vice versa), and didn’t want either of their handsome faces damaged. Naturally, Michaels and Martel broke the rule, and, because it was 1992 and women were still largely expected to conform to the Scarlett O’Hara template of female emotional reactions, Sherry fainted. The bout ended in an amusing farce, with both men fighting over who would carry the damsel to safety. When Martel tried to rouse Sherry back to consciousness with a splash of water he hit Michaels instead, who promptly dropped Sherry and chased Martel backstage to continue their fight. By this stage the referee had counted both men out, and a now-conscious Sherry was screaming and crying. Less a wrestling match, and more a dramatic recreation of what happens in most city centres on a Saturday night after the pubs have shut.
Next up, the Natural Disasters bested the Beverley Brothers to retain the Tag-Team championship, and Crush defeated Repo Man, although the latter match wasn’t broadcast in the UK.
After that, it was time for the first of SummerSlam‘s main card events.
Dr Hook vs Pat Sharp
It’s easy for the old or the uninitiated to sneer at the garish costumes, gimmicks, storylines, feuds and the flip-flops that form the backbone of this kind of wrestling, but without them there would be neither foam fingers, nor fans foaming at the mouth for more action. The storylines provide the hook, the suspense and the entertainment, elevating the craft into something that’s as much art as it is sport. Sometimes the only thing separating a low card event from a high card event are the stakes provided by the backstory.
Mr Perfect (the Sixth Doctor with a ponytail) and Rik Flair (Peter Stringfellow’s little brother) had been whispering in Macho Man’s and Warrior’s ears, hinting at fealty and support from Mr Perfect, but really just sowing the seeds of confusion and conflict to mess with the men’s heads. Ringside, Perfect and Flair showed fealty only to their inner sense of dastardliness, teaming up to distract and attack the contenders in a seemingly arbitrary fashion (the original plan had been for Warrior to turn heel and join forces with Mr Perfect, but Warrior refused the storyline).
After the referee was knocked out cold when Warrior accidentally hurled Savage in his direction, the two meddling heels upped their game. One of the strange things about wrestling is that you can cheat with abandon as long as the referee doesn’t catch you doing it, even though millions of people are watching your every move. That would be like the British Prime Minister throwing a brick at the Leader of the Opposition when the Speaker’s back was turned, and everyone in the country just smiling and chalking it up to good timing.
Macho Man soon witnessed the gruesome twosome assaulting Warrior, quickly sussing out what was happening. Macho Man leapt from the top rope to attack Flair, but caught a chair to his knee, which left him rolling on the ground in agony long enough to be counted out by the now-conscious referee. Warrior then intervened to rescue Macho Man from Perfect and Flair, and the two heroes returned to the ring, bathing in the deafening cheers of almost 80,000 souls as they embraced. Warrior won the match, but Macho Man retained his title. This bout, with all of its honour and betrayal and twists and turns and catfights, was an almost perfect melding of Shakespearian Tragedy and The Real Housewives of Wrestlemania.
A Grim Undertaking
The Undertaker won his match against Kamala due to disqualification, because one of Kamala’s entourage ran into the ring and assaulted the Undertaker with a safari helmet. That’s not a sentence you get to type every day. The match itself was nothing special, but if The Undertaker knows anything it’s how to make an entrance, and it doesn’t get any weirder or funnier than being chauffeur-driven to the ring in a hearse led by the immensely creepy Paul Bearer. His exits are pretty good, too. This time, having suffered repeated beatings by Kamala after the bell, he suddenly sat up and fixed his opponents with a malevolent stare that had them scurrying backstage as if the devil himself had just arisen. Tatanka vs The Berzerker followed, a lacklustre match the exclusion of which from the main broadcast was no great loss.
Brothers-in-Law Battle for the Belt
We all know that WWF/E matches are rigorously planned and co-ordinated in advance. Some might be tempted to write off wrestling as mere pantomime for that very reason, but that would be to deny the Herculean levels of skill, training, and dedication that goes into the craft, not to mention the ever-present threat of death that accompanies every wrong move or slip of concentration – rehearsed or not. Wrestling can be deadly. And that’s not even factoring in the sheer number of competitors who have been lost to drugs, or died in their 40s and 50s from heart disease (the two aren’t always mutually exclusive).
When real-life brothers-in-law Bret “The Hitman” Hart and “The British Bulldog” Davey Boy Smith went head to head for the Intercontinental Title, the concern on the face of Diana Hart-Smith – sister to Bret, wife to Davey Boy – may well have been real. Davey Boy’s real-life struggle with drugs meant that Bret and Davey reportedly hadn’t fully rehearsed their match, and what little Davy had practised he’d forgotten. It’s no surprise, then, that their fight is considered one of the greatest in WWF/E history, perhaps because the stakes were very, very real. Bret Hart had to lead the whole match himself and hope that Davey Boy would be able to follow, while still crafting a thrilling contest, and somehow keeping them both alive. The fight, infused with family rivalry and almost drowned out by the hoots, roars and cheers of the capacity-bursting crowd, was full of thrills, shocks and surprises. Future champion Bret exhibited great technical skill and ingenuity, but both men gave it their all despite the daunting nature of their task. When Davey Boy moved in for the final three-count, the cheers could probably be heard as far away as his native Lancashire. SummerSlam then ended with the two men, exhausted and sweating, hugging each other, then being hugged in turn by Diana. The crowd, again, went wild.
Thirty years on and the sound of that hope and joy still reverberates in the hearts of all who witnessed SummerSlam, either in person or on TV, and whether then or since. Wrestling itself may be ‘fake’… but there’s nothing fake about that.