#WF168 – Shawn Michaels – Heartbreak Express Tour
Lee Maughan: Hosted by Dok Hendrix, the world’s biggest Shawn Michaels shill, bedecked in ‘Heartbreak Kid’ emblazoned sunglasses, baseball cap, t-shirt and denim jacket. I know Michael Hayes has a reputation as a deeply unfashionable man, but this ensemble is down there amongst the worst collection of materials I’ve ever seen, especially on his pudgy, middle-aged physique. Oddly enough, he hosts the tape from Titan Towers, and principally its custom-built gym. Perhaps Vince McMahon had been on the blower telling him to get in shape for TV? Can’t have all any fatties running about the place, can we?
– Our tale begins with Shawn training for his upcoming Iron Man match against Bret Hart at WrestleMania XII, in the murky gym of his trainer and mentor Jose Lothario. It’s pretty interesting actually to see Shawn running through a bunch of lucha libre spots you’d never otherwise see from him. It’s crazy to think actually that given San Antonio’s proximity to Mexico and Shawn’s smaller physical stature (particularly by 1980’s standards), he very well could have been convinced he’d have a better shot at this whole wrestling thing south of the border. Kid Rotura del Corazón! Incidentally, Bret hated these clips which were presented in stark contrast to his own, depicting him running through the icy tundra of Calgary and training with his dad Stu in the famous Hart family dungeon. The dichotomy was pretty obvious, but Bret couldn’t stand the fact that the icy roads made it look like he ran like a broken down old man and all the dungeon clips featured him getting beaten up by an 80-year old grandfather, while Shawn was tarted up to look like an ultra-athletic Greek God.
Iron Man Match
Bret Hart (c) vs. Shawn Michaels
One of the most discussed matches of all time, this bout has already been covered in-depth by Arnold Furious in his WrestleMania XII review in Volume III of The Complete WWF Video Guide, and in passing by James Dixon in this very book (as part of the 1996 Year in Review tape) so I’ll not delve too deeply into the entire thing here. In fact, it’s tough to do that anyway since the entire middle portion of the match is removed completely. That’s right, they show the first 15-minutes, have Dok Hendrix explain the next 30 in a brief cutaway, then rejoin for the final 15. It’s hard enough as a fan to invest yourself in a 60-minute match that you know is going 0-0, but why even bother including the first 15 at all? Could they not have just chopped together all the highspots (like Shawn accidentally superkicking the timekeeper) and excised all of the headlocking? All it does is serve to make a boring match even more boring. That’s right, I’m firmly in the camp who think this match to be arse-numbingly tedious, nowhere close to the “classic” status some perceive it.
Just to be fair about things, I will say this – the quality of what the two wrestlers do is never in question. The believability in terms of the execution of moves and the timing of spots is awesome, and the home stretch in which Shawn looks to finish but gets caught in Bret’s Sharpshooter is edge-of-the-seat stuff. It’s just that so many of the 60-minutes are wasted lying around in headlocks in lieu of anything interesting it’s unforgivable. It’s believable, but it’s believable at the expense of any genuine excitement. Yes, it’s a match that could be appreciated by any fan from the 50s or 60s, such a throwback is the work on offer, but this is the New Generation, this is the future of the company, and these are the reckless 90s. It’s no wonder thousands of fans, who primarily attended WrestleMania XII for the return of the Ultimate Warrior, left the building during this. I think the best thing I could really say about it is that it’s simply the right match, but in completely the wrong era.
And then to rub salt into the wounds after the 0-0 finish, returning president Gorilla Monsoon opts to restart the match on a call interim president Roddy Piper previously made, that being his decree that there “must be a winner.” Lifelong NWA fanboy Michaels finally pins Hart with a superkick 1:47 into overtime to achieve his “boyhood dream” of winning his first, erm, WWF title, a call that I really resented as a young Bret Hart mark, feeling he’d been cheated out of his title by being forced into a situation not previously agreed upon. This was of course all storyline that was supposed to have led to the eventual Bret-Shawn title rematch, but that booking didn’t do Michaels any favours, and you can actually hear the growing fan resentment towards him as the match builds to its climax. That resentment would continue to bubble, finally coming to a head at Survivor Series ‘96 where he was booed out of the largely adult male populated Madison Square Garden in his title defence against Sycho Sid. But we’ll get to that match later.
No star rating here because of the length of the match, the amount of it that was missing, and the lazy nature in which it was cut. Would you be happy rating The Empire Strikes Back if all you saw was the Rebel Alliance on their ice base before the action suddenly jumped to Luke arriving at Cloud City for the showdown with Vader, with only George Lucas pumping iron on a weight machine popping up for 30 seconds right in the middle of that to explain what was actually going on? You’d at least want the highspots with AT-AT Walkers, the X-wing crashing onto Dagobah, Yoda’s training and Boba Fett’s arrival.
No Holds Barred
Shawn Michaels (c) vs. Diesel
Some critics (including our own Arnold Furious in his Mega Matches ‘96 review in the aforementioned Complete WWF Video Guide: Volume III) have called this the best match of Kevin Nash’s career, even better than his excellent WWF Title defence against Bret Hart at the 1995 Survivor Series. Once again however, it’s kind of hard to tell with this tape as another huge chunk of the match gets cut. In this instance, it’s nothing to do with the length of it, more down to the fact that Diesel chokes out the referee, steals his belt, then actually tries to lynch Shawn alive with it, hanging him over the ropes like an executioner on the gallows. Certainly not something you’d get past the folks at the BBFC. Due to that, the match loses a certain level of intensity, and the visible on-screen cut is so blatant that it really takes you out of the action.
That said, everything else about the match is terrific. For once, Shawn is no longer playing the attention-seeking show-off feeding off the crowd, but the ultra-determined David on a quest to finally slay the Goliath he himself created, while Diesel projects the aura that he really is the baddest dude on the entire planet. The story runs even deeper than that too, as Diesel basically forces Shawn to start taking advantage of the No Holds Barred stipulations just to stay alive. And the highspots! Oh, those highspots. Diesel teases a powerbomb on the floor, but without warning turns his body at the last second and Jacknifes Shawn through the announcers desk! Similar to how Bret crashed through the Spanish announce table at Survivor Series, there was no overt preparation for the spot, no clearing the table of monitors for a cleaner landing, and the result was jaw-droppingly organic. Vince McMahon’s reaction to it is just the icing on the cake. Shawn, resilient as ever, refuses to stay down and blasts Diesel in the eyes with a fire extinguisher, before Diesel rustles up another never-before-seen shocker, grabbing dear old Mad Dog Vachon from the front row, decking him, and actually ripping his prosthetic leg clean off! That backfires as Shawn punches Diesel in the nuts, cracks him square between the eyes with the wooden leg and lands a superkick to retain the title, before stopping off to briefly mock Hulk Hogan’s posedown routine during his victory celebration.
Again, like the Iron Man match, this is hard to rate properly here because the clipping hurt the flow and took the intensity down a couple of notches. I do also have a couple of minor quibbles about the match. Firstly, I know the bout was about Shawn, not Mad Dog Vachon, but it didn’t sit right with me to see Michaels parading around the ring with the title after the match as the beloved Mad Dog continued to writhe around on the floor with only one leg. They should have at least offered some resolution to that by having Shawn return the false limb and have Mad Dog thank him. It would have been a nice touch too for long time fans too, given Shawn’s brief on-screen relationship with Mad Dog’s adopted niece Luna Vachon. Secondly, we obviously know in real terms why this match happened (Diesel was on his way out of the company and wanted to put his buddy over in grand style as way of recompense for all the mentoring Shawn had given him), but in a kayfabe sense, how come Diesel got the title match instead of the Undertaker, the man who’d cleanly beaten him in what was essentially the co-headliner at WrestleMania XII? I guess we just put it down to Shawn owing Diesel a shot since Diesel had beaten him clean at WrestleMania XI and not think about it too much. After all, picking faults with a match this good is really rather pedantic.
Shawn Michaels (c) vs. The British Bulldog
If you’ll recall, Beware of Dog was the pay-per-view that almost wasn’t, as a severe thunderstorm knocked out the power in the building, leading to a blackout in the arena and the loss of the satellite feed to those watching at home. By the time the generators got whirring again, there was just enough juice left in the tank and just enough time left on the clock for Vince McMahon to decide the show must go on, and wheel out his main event. Unfortunately, the amount of air time for the remainder of the show was less that had been originally budgeted for this match, resulting in Shawn throwing a rather infamous hissy fit after referee Earl Hebner informed him, mid-chinlock, that the match had to be cut from around 30-minutes to just 18. Michaels’ childish tantrum and lack of selling from that point on is naturally removed, but the action does pick up just in time to catch the “Heartbroken Kid” attempting to sabotage the match on purpose, taking a ridiculous bump to the outside and selling it like death despite having successfully ducked a clothesline attempt. Smith has absolutely no idea how to respond to that, and duly spends the next couple of minutes slowly walking around ringside as very little of note happens, until a brutal ref bump from Hebner and a German suplex from Michaels leads to the dreaded double-pin and Davey being declared champion. That’s right, having only delivered one solitary match before the power outage, the WWF rewarded its loyal, paying customers with an inconclusive finish to a match Shawn purposefully tried to ruin anyway, in order to get a rematch in. Alas, it was not to be, but they did finally get their rematch at King of the Ring, which of course, isn’t included here. Brilliant. So not only is more than half the match missing, but so is the entire return bout this double pin finish was designed to set up! Shawn Michaels in 1996 was an incredibly worker, but some of the judicial edits on this tape are making it extremely difficult to enjoy.
Shawn Michaels (c) vs. Vader
Not only are we skipping King of the Ring, but we’re also not bothering with In Your House 9: International Incident in which Camp Cornette of Vader, Smith and Owen Hart downed the trifecta of Michaels, Ahmed Johnson and Sycho Sid (replacing a fired Ultimate Warrior, and wouldn’t you have just loved to have seen Warrior and Vader mix it up?), Vader scoring the pin on Shawn to set him up as the challenger to Michaels’ title at SummerSlam, only for ‘HBK’ to selfishly make his own comeback and kick Vader’s ass immediately after the finish, helping to extinguish if not entirely put out the flame that was Vader’s credibility going into the match.
And wouldn’t you just know it? Once again, the bulk of the match has been removed, leaving it with very little flow at all, all trace of Shawn’s pathetic tantrum when Vader is out of place on an elbow has been removed, and the first count-out finish has gone as well, killing the story they were compromised into telling. As you’ll gather from reading elsewhere in this book, Michaels was actually booked to drop the title here in order to build up a monster rematch in San Antonio at the 1997 Royal Rumble, where Shawn would take the belt back before moving into a program with a returning Bret Hart to build to a rematch between the two at WrestleMania 13. Shawn, facing all sorts of pressure as champion, began to develop a distinctly selfish, arrogant real-life personality and, after months of beating Vader around the horn on house shows (precisely the opposite of what should have been done when building a future main event), refused to comply with the original plans, complaining in particular that Vader was much too stiff. The result was a messy conclusion to SummerSlam in which Vader first beat Shawn by count-out and Jim Cornette demanding the match be restarted, then Michaels getting disqualified on the second go around. Another restart sees Shawn finally win with the superkick, and although the finish was booked that way to protect Vader as much as possible, the damage had been done – He’d been beaten clean with the champion’s finisher, and that was the end of his potential as a legitimate top-line player in the WWF. Not only that, but the WWF had to scramble the Michaels-approved Sycho Sid into the slot intended for Vader. It’s all conjecture now of course, but the Michaels-Sid match at the Royal Rumble was not, and never threatened to get close to being a sell-out, which it arguably could have done had Shawn not cut his nose just to spite his face here. Again, tough to rate with all the clipping, but a full review of the match can be found elsewhere within these pages.
Shawn Michaels (c) vs. Mankind
Infuriating. Absolutely infuriating. Yet again, the WWF’s crack production staff jettison a good portion of this, one of the absolute best matches of the 1990s, whilst keeping Shawn’s entire male stripper ring entrance routine intact. I get that it’s all part of the show and whatnot, but seeing him run through the same routine five matches in a row while quality action gets left to rot on the cutting room floor is a disgrace. In fairness, I’d have to presume that part of that is down to tape classification ratings. Indeed, Mankind stabbing himself in the leg with a pencil to try regain feeling in it is creepily awesome, like something out of a horror movie, but so mentally deranged that you can see why it would have to come out to keep the content of a more PG nature.
I don’t know if I would necessarily call this the best match of Mick Foley’s career (he had awesome brawls with Sting, Vader and Triple-H at Beach Blast ‘92, Halloween Havoc ‘93 and Royal Rumble 2000 under the Cactus Jack moniker, a hell of a scuffle with Steve Austin at Over the Edge ‘98 as Dude Love, and killer bouts with Randy Orton at Backlash 2004 and Edge at WrestleMania 22 under his real name), but I’d probably peg this as the best outing he had with the Mankind persona. Too bad then that so much of what makes it great is missing from this tape, too bad that it has a lame disqualification ending, and too bad it gets so criminally underrated owing to its nature as a somewhat “forgotten classic”. It perhaps wouldn’t have been the case had it headlined a larger card like SummerSlam and been given the requisite build, but it instead headlined a B-show that fewer people saw, with Mankind presented as more of a threat to Shawn’s health than he ever was to his title.
The DQ finish is at least chaotic enough to be entertaining, with run-ins from Vader and Sid, and Undertaker magically teleporting into a previously unoccupied coffin at ringside to brawl with Mankind, but as far as this tape goes, that’s three somewhat inconclusive endings in a row (the double pin with Bulldog, the double restart with Vader and this) and my patience is beginning to wear thin for a tape that promised so much.
Shawn Michaels (c) vs. Sycho Sid
What a tease this is. Sid’s ring entrance is kept intact, along with Shawn’s, making you think they’re actually going to show the match in its entirety. Wrong, it’s another clipjob special with a big chunk scooped out of the middle just as you’re starting to get into it. It really takes you out of the action and as a consequence, you no longer feel invested in the finish. Just terrible editing work all around. Making matters worse is the fact that this is undeniably the best match of Sid’s entire career, even better than his shockingly good claret-soaked belter with Bill Goldberg at WCW’s Halloween Havoc ‘99 event. All you need to know here is that Sid belts Shawn’s manager and mentor Jose Lothario with a ringside camera (in a spot curiously seen the night previous at ECW’s November to Remember) and finishes Michaels off with a powerbomb to an enormous reaction from the mostly adult male, Shawn-hating New York crowd. Everyone knows how great a worker Shawn was and what a lunk Sid could be, but man was that pop ever satisfying.
Sycho Sid (c) vs. Shawn Michaels
I’m sure you know the routine by now – full entrances for both guys and the post-match celebration in full, all at the expense of a great deal of the action. In fact, things are joined in progress here right as Sid clasps Shawn in a bearhug, a more uninspiring cut-in point you could not possibly hope to find. Shawn of course soon begins running through his flying forearm/nip-up/flying elbow routine, but Sweet Chin Music is blocked and that leads to a powerbomb on the outside, with Sid stopping to attack Jose Lothario’s son Pete for good measure. That’s followed by a ref bump and Sid hits a chokeslam for a visual pin. A second ref hits the ring but Shawn kicks out at two so Sid knocks the ref out and jaw jacks with Jose, allowing Shawn to belt him with a camera in retribution for Survivor Series. Viewed in isolation, that’s a bit of a dickish move for a babyface, but there’s 60,000 people going absolutely nuts here so c’est la vie. Sweet Chin Music regains the title for Shawn in a match that was shooting for epic but fell short by some distance. Still, Shawn went into the match with a bout of the flu so he can at least be commended for his performance under those conditions.
Summary: How do you take one of the best workers on the entire planet, put together a compilation of (most of) his major pay-per-view world title matches and still make it suck? You rip the heart right out of everything, but leave the arteries. Okay, that’s a terrible analogy. What you do is offer up the starter, the side salad, the French fries and the chocolate pudding, but you don’t bother with the steak. There’s no meat to this tape at all, with every match stripped of the drama, the build and the emotion. It comes across more often than not like a guy going through the motions rather than a guy fighting to defend his title, and it’s a shame because this should have been one of the greatest tapes of all time. Personally, I’d have cut the Iron Man down to the final couple of minutes, jettisoned the mostly pointless Bulldog match entirely, and cut down on the tiresomely samey ring entrances in order to give more air time to the Diesel, Vader, Mankind and Sid matches, all of which deserved better coverage. Yes, tape space was limited in 1997 in a way DVDs and Blu-rays weren’t, but the editing choices here were absolutely infuriating and this tape could have been so much more.