I continue my look back at every WrestleMania in SoCal with a look back at WrestleMania 12 from March 31st, 1996 at the Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim. Featuring Shawn Michaels vs. Bret Hart in an Ironman Match, Undertaker vs. Diesel, and some wild stuff.
Beginning in 1996, the WWF began holding “Free For All” shows that aired 30 minutes before pay-per-views. The shows previewed an upcoming event and aired a match taking place before the pay-per-view would start. Fans could watch the show on the channel showing the pay-per-view, or on the Prevue Channel. The Prevue Channel, which later became TV Guide Network, was a channel that told you what was going to air on television in the next 90 minutes. It was half scrolling text, half video. As time went on, the channel switched formats. It is now known as Pop TV, the former home of Impact Wrestling.
The WrestleMania XII edition of the Free For All featured two matches. Well, sort of.
One match featured on the Free For All was the finals of a WWF Tag Team Championship tournament. The Bodydonnas, Skip and Zip with Sunny (Chris Candido, Tom Prichard, and Tammy Lynn Sytch) against The Godwinns (Henry O. Godwinn and Phineas I. Godwinn) with Hillbilly Jim. Skip and Zip would end up getting the win to become the champions in about five minutes.
The other match, if you could call it that, featured two parody characters of Hulk Hogan (The Huckster) and Randy Savage (Nacho Man). This was the culmination of a series of unfunny comedy skits the WWF was producing that was aimed at bashing their competitor, WCW, for using older talent as main event stars. At the time, Savage was 43. Hogan was 42. These skits also included parody characters of WCW owner Ted Turner and former WWF interviewer Mean Gene Okerlund.
The Huckster vs. The Nacho man
The “match” took place in a warehouse in front of 30 people. Vince McMahon and Jerry “The King” Lawler did some Mystery Science Theater 3000-style commentary. Right from the beginning, they made jokes about Randy Savage and Hulk Hogan being old. It should be noted that both of them were much older than Hogan and Savage at the time. Lawler also made a joke about Ronald Reagan having dementia during this. There was also a reference to Ted Turner being in trouble with the FTC. The match came to an end when everyone died of heart attacks. I’m not making that up. This was bad. Like, really bad. It has to be seen to be believed. I don’t think there’s ever been a segment produced by the WWF/WWE worse than this. None. Not even the Katie Vick segment.
Onto the actual show
We start off with a video hyping the main event. After the video, we head inside the Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim. Vince McMahon welcomes the fans to the show and went over the card with Jerry Lawler at ringside.
Vader,w/ Jim Cornette, The British Bulldog, and Owen Hart vs. Yokozuna w/ Mr. Fuji, Ahmed Johnson, and Jake ‘The Snake” Roberts
The main story of this match was Yokozuna turned his back on Jim Cornette a month before this match. If Yokozuna’s team won, he’d get five minutes alone with Jim Cornette in the ring. When the match started, he started going at it with Vader, who was Jim Cornette’s latest client. In the opening minute, Yokozuna threw Vader out of the ring, which led to Ahmed Johnson doing a running plancha onto Vader. You read that right. There was a dive in the first minute of the WrestleMania XII opener with Jim Cornette at ringside.
On paper, I wasn’t expecting much from this match. I hadn’t seen this since I was a kid, so didn’t remember anything about it. Part of me thought this wasn’t going to be good. Ahmed Johnson wasn’t very good. Yokozuna was rapidly regressing and gaining too much weight. Jake Roberts was also past his prime in this. But it was actually a good match. Vader, Bulldog, and Owen had good performances and made their opponents look good in the process. Jim Cornette also got involved by interfering in the match. They teased him being DDT’d by Jake Roberts, but Vader made the save. This would lead to him hitting a Vader Bomb for the win. As I said, this was pretty fun to watch. It was way better than I expected it to be while re-watching it.
Hollywood Backlot Brawl: Roddy Piper vs. Goldust – Part I
The original plan for this match was Razor Ramon vs. Goldust in a Miami Street Fight. When Scott Hall (who portrayed Razor Ramon) issued his resignation and was bound for WCW, the match was pulled. Oh, and he coincidently also failed a drug test too and was suspended. What timing, right? On an episode of Something To Wrestle with Bruce Prichard, Prichard claimed the match was called off because Scott Hall was uncomfortable working with Goldust.
There was another match pitched for WrestleMania that year: onscreen WWF president Roddy Piper vs. O.J. Simpson. According to Bruce Prichard on his Something To Wrestle podcast, the idea was to have Simpson (who had recently been acquitted of murder) take a beating from Piper. Piper also supposedly had intentions on giving Simpson a legitimate beating instead of a worked one. The idea was canned because of the potential controversy it would’ve caused.
With Hall out and the O.J. Simpson idea nixed, the WWF booked Roddy Piper vs. Goldust in a “Hollywood Backlot Brawl.” The story became about Goldust making inappropriate advances toward Piper, and Piper not playing into his mind games. An argument could also be made that Piper was being a homophobe, but that depends on the viewer’s interpretation of this angle. During the lead up for this match, Piper made a lot of comments in promos that so many people would be outraged over and deemed homophobic in 2019.
The first portion of this match was filmed at Universal Studios three weeks before WrestleMania XII. There were several studio employees on hand watching the filming of the brawl. The match began with Goldust driving a gold painted Cadillac into the backlot. There was also a white Ford Bronco parked nearby. Piper was beating Goldust up pretty badly for several moments and even caused him to bleed. During the filming of the brawl, Piper laid into Goldust with punches so hard that he broke his hand. Goldust ended up getting into his car, ran Piper over, and took off. Then Piper got into the Ford Bronco to chase after Goldust. The absurdity will continue later throughout the show.
“Stone Cold” Steve Austin w/ Ted DiBiase vs. Savio Vega
Before the match, Dok Hendrix interviewed Savio Vega. As he was talking to him, clips were shown of Austin and Savio’s ongoing conflict. Things started off with the two going at it when Savio hit the ring. The two brawled for several moments before Austin started to work Savio over for heat. During the match, Roddy Piper spoke to Vince McMahon from a “car phone” as he was in pursuit of Goldust on the freeway. They really played it up by having sirens going off in the background. Piper would end up being disconnected. While this was going on, the match still happening.
As Austin continued working over Savio, Piper called again. A few moments later into the match, they started showing footage of the O.J. Simpson pursuit. The match continued and Savio began to mount a comeback. During the finishing stretch of the match, Savio Vega accidentally knocked referee Tim White out with a jumping spin kick. While the referee was down, Ted DiBiase brought the Million Dollar Championship to the ring, and Austin proceeded to use it. DiBiase would revive Tim White as Austin had the Million Dollar Dream applied and got the win. While this wasn’t bad, the Piper angle was the most interesting part of the match.
After the match, more footage of the O.J. Simpson chase was shown. Vince McMahon sent it backstage to Mr. Perfect for an interview with Diesel. He asked Diesel about Undertaker’s mind games leading up to their match. Diesel claimed he wasn’t bothered. Then he wished Shawn Michaels luck and said he was going after him next. Another clip of the O.J. Simpson chase was shown after the promo.
Hunter Hearst Helmsley w/ Sable vs. The Ultimate Warrior
This was a pretty memorable match for several reasons. First, it was the Ultimate Warrior’s return to the WWF. Second, it was Sable’s WWF debut. And lastly, it was Triple H’s first WrestleMania match. That, and because he pretty much got squashed in a minute and a half. Warrior no-sold all of Triple H’s offense in this. He even got up from a Pedigree right after taking it. Warrior got the win here. Triple H went on to bury many promising careers for years and years.
Backstage, Todd Pettengill introduces the fans to the “Wildman” Marc Mero. Formerly Johnny B. Badd in WCW, Mero was making his debut in the WWF. He cut a quick promo and was interrupted by Triple H. The two began to shove each other and got into a fight. After the promo, we get more footage of the O.J. Simpson chase.
Diesel vs. The Undertaker w/ Paul Bearer
At the time of this match, Kevin Nash’s contract with the WWF was coming up. When Vince McMahon was unable to match what WCW was offering him because of the WWF’s financial state, he was on his way out. While Nash remained on the roster for a few more months before leaving, this was beginning of the end of his first run with the WWF. Right around this time, Diesel had just turned heel after a long run as the company’s top babyface and a 358 run as WWF Champion.
This was a fairly good heavyweight-style match for its time. Diesel spent a lot of time working over Undertaker, then Undertaker mounted a comeback to win. Undertaker looked to have put in a lot of effort in this match. Diesel was also good in his role by working over Undertaker for heat throughout the match. The only boring part of the match was the midway point where Diesel kept using rest holds. Aside from that, this was a very solid match. Undertaker got the win after hitting a Chokeslam followed by a Tombstone Piledriver.
Hollywood Backlot Brawl: Roddy Piper vs. Goldust w/ Marlena – Part 2
We go backstage and see Todd Pettengill near some security monitors. One of the monitors showed Goldust being chased Piper into the Arrowhead Pond entrance tunnel. Somehow, they made it from the Hollywood area to Anaheim in less than an hour. I can’t even get to Norwalk in an hour. Goldust met up with Marlena backstage while Piper looked for him. They eventually made their way into the arena where Piper chased him into the ring. The two began to brawl for several moments. Goldust wound up getting the better of Piper for a few moments when he attacked his leg.
After taking some heat and getting his leg worked over, Piper mounted a comeback. Piper ended up snapping after being kissed on the mouth by Goldust and started beating on him. He’d follow that by attacking the groin of Goldust. Piper then ripped Goldust’s gear off and revealed that Goldust was wearing women’s lingerie. Goldust would run away while being covered up by Marlena, and Piper celebrated his moral victory inside the ring. Yeah, this was as crazy as it sounds.
Vince McMahon and Jerry Lawler were shown at ringside. They talked about the main event before a hype video was played. After the video, Shawn and Bret cut quick promos about the match. Before the match, Howard Finkel announced Gorilla Monsoon was once again WWF president.
Shawn Michaels was introduced first. As his music played, José Lothario walked out instead. Shawn’s music stopped playing as Lothario entered the ring. Lothario climbed the ropes and pointed to the rafters where Shawn Michaels was. He ended up zip-lining from the top of the arena and to the floor. To this day, it is one of the most iconic entrances in pro wrestling history.
Ironman Match for the WWF Heavyweight Championship: Bret Hart (c) vs. Shawn Michaels. w/ José Lothario
Everything about this match was built around athleticism. The story was pretty much about how both guys were the greatest athletes in the WWF and were about to face off to see who could score the most falls against each other for one hour. Shawn wanted to achieve his dream and lead a new generation. Bret wanted to build his legacy. While this might not be the most dramatic backstory for a WrestleMania main event, I thought it was awesome then and awesome now. it was simple and wasn’t ridiculous. I wish pro wrestling had more angles like this.
The first half-hour of the match was pretty slow. Both men had a feeling out process and exchanged holds. While it wasn’t exciting, it was full of good counter-wrestling. Around fifteen minutes into the match, the two went outside of the ring. It was at that point where Shawn Michaels accidentally hit Sweet Chin Music on the timekeeper. Around this point in the match, I noticed world-famous ECW fan Lenny Bonfiglio, a.k.a. Faith No More Guy, sitting in the crowd. He and Vladimir the SuperFan (who was also in attendance) were awesome. They are true examples of what real fans should be like.
Back inside the ring, the two continued to do hold-for-hold sequences. Shawn began to work over the shoulder of Bret and began to gain some momentum. Bret mounted a comeback midway into the match and things began to pick up some more at the halfway mark of the show. There was even a ref bump around this part of the match, but it didn’t really play into the match.
The story in the second half of the match became about both men trying to earn a pinfall or submission over the other. There were more spots, moves, and pinfall attempts as the match went on. Around thirty-five minutes into the match, Shawn took a crazy bump to the floor when Bret backdropped him from inside the ring and over the ring post. It looked as if Shawn crashed into the camera guy, which made for a really cool visual. After that, Bret began to control things and worked over Shawn’s back.
Around forty minutes into the match, Bret began to show more aggression and Shawn was taking more bumps. There were also some spots with José Lothario involved. Bret would even do a tope suicida on Shawn Michaels during this segment of the match. The story then became about Bret trying to put Shawn away, but Shawn kept fighting back. This continued on for several more minutes before Shawn mounted a comeback in the final five minutes of the match. Shawn began to hit a series of moves on Bret in the closing minutes of the match but had a top rope move countered by Bret with a Sharpshooter and held on to it before the end of regulation.
After regulation, Gorilla Monsoon entered the ring as Bret was walking out with the title thinking he retained. Monsoon then began talking to Earl Hebner, and Howard Finkel announced the match was ordered to continue under Sudden Death rules. Bret, who was almost out of the arena, was visibly upset about this. Bret got back inside the ring and argued for a bit before the overtime period started. The overtime began with Bret attacking the back of Shawn for several moments. After countering an Irish Whip into the corner, Shawn hit two Sweet Chin Musics on Bret to put him away for the win.
After the match, Shawn Michaels was handed the title. He would celebrate in the ring while Bret walked off in anger. Shawn sat in the ring looking at the belt, and Vince uttered the famous “boyhood dream” line. While this was a historic moment in WWF/WWE history, it was also somewhat tainted. Rumors went around claiming that Shawn told Earl Hebner to get Bret out of the ring (in harsher words) since it was his moment. After spending a few moments in the ring, Shawn celebrated with fans at ringside. The show came to a close with a recap video of the show.
While the match wasn’t filled with highspots, it was a really good performance from both men. The wrestling was solid, everything was paced really well, and the storytelling was tremendous. Although I wouldn’t recommend this to casual fans, I’d recommend it to anyone who is a big fan of either wrestler.
When I was a kid, I loved this show. I thought it was great at the time. As an adult, I didn’t think it was as good as I thought it was when I was a kid, but it was still fun. This show was really absurd and monumental on several levels. From the Hollywood Backlot Brawl to the Ironman match itself. This was also the start of a new age for the WWF. It featured the WrestleMania debut of Steve Austin and was the start of the Shawn Michaels-era. Basically, this show was a transition into a new era and set the tone for what was to come over the next few years.
If you’ve never seen this show, I don’t think you’d be missing much. The most important moments are all up on YouTube, so there’s no point in watching this unless you’re a completist. It isn’t bad, but it wasn’t a “must see” show.
Up next, WrestleMania 2000.