Wrestling fans thrive on polarities.
A match is either the greatest of all time or an abysmal failure that will certainly ruin the future of the industry; a wrestler is either the greatest athlete ever, or they’re a prime example of everything wrong in the industry. Perhaps no other wrestling event garners as much attention or analysis as WrestleMania, the flagship pay-per-view of WWE’s year, and presumably the most important annual event in all of wrestling.
Of the 27 WrestleManias to take place thus far, none has received the same amount of hatred and scorn as WrestleMania IX, which took place on April 4, 1993 at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, Nevada. Criticism tends to focus on three general areas: the absence of main event WWF/E staples on the card, the Roman coliseum aesthetics of the event, and the haphazard booking of the main event match between Bret Hart and Yokozuna. While I agree that the main event of WrestleMania IX was flawed, the former two critiques ignore what the WWE was hoping to accomplish in the next five years.
Many of the complaints aimed at WrestleMania IX attacked the lacklustre card, which was void of the illustrious talent fans were used to from previous pay-per-views.
However, this argument fails to acknowledge the transitional period the WWE was going through at that time. By WrestleMania IX, much of the roster that defined the Rock n’ Wrestling generation was on the way to the greener pastures of WCW or elsewhere. Macho Man Randy Savage remained with the company as a commentator, but folks like the Ultimate Warrior, Rowdy Roddy Piper and Ric Flair were slowly slipping out from Vince McMahon’s grasp. Even mid-carders from a year earlier at WrestleMania VIII had skipped out by WrestleMania IX, including Jake Roberts, Sgt. Slaughter, and Jim Duggan. Yes, some would come back in different capacities, but for the most part, the WWE was evolving and moving into the next era in pro-wrestling history. The next few years, until roughly 1997 or 1998, would come to be known as the New Generation and WrestleMania IX served as a launching pad for its biggest and brightest stars.
The WWE was on a mission to revitalise its talent and create a new crop of superstars, which is evident when one considers the vastly different cards between WrestleMania VIII and WrestleMania IX. Men who would become superstars in the WWE during the mid-1990s, like Shawn Michaels, Bret Hart, Undertaker, Yokozuna, and even Razor Ramon, took prominent billing at WrestleMania IX. Furthermore, we saw both Michaels and Bret in championship matches for the Intercontinental and WWF Championship, respectively, at WrestleMania IX. Just a year previously at WrestleMania VIII, Shawn had just a singles match, while we saw Bret vying for the mid-card Intercontinental title. Shawn even had the second longest match on the card, a mere 14 seconds shorter than one featuring the veterans Ted DiBiase and Hulk Hogan. A year later, at WrestleMania X, Shawn Michaels and Scott Hall would both steal the show with one of the greatest WrestleMania bouts of all time in their legendary ladder match, while Bret would successfully fight for and win the WWF Championship against Yokozuna, his very opponent from WrestleMania IX. The future superstars of the WWE (and WCW in Scott Hall’s case) were on the rise, and WrestleMania IX acted as Vince McMahon’s means to introducing these men to a global audience on the grandest stage of them all.
With the critique of a lacklustre card, many fans denounced the WWE’s misuse of superb talent the Undertaker at WrestleMania IX in a terrible match with Giant Gonzales. Granted, Undertaker’s match with Gonzales was hardly one for the record books, however there is a distinct logic behind Vince’s booking decision. The importance of the match lies in the simple fact that the Undertaker was on a WrestleMania card for the third straight year in a row. While other gimmick wrestlers like Skinner and Repo Man fell to the wayside, the Undertaker reigned supreme as more than simply a flash-in-the-pan character, but instead a valuable member of the roster. It’s unheard of to consider the Undertaker simply a gimmicked wrestler today, but in 1993, ‘Taker was yet to prove himself to all fans as the insurmountable legend that he now is.
Before criticizing this event because the Undertaker we know today fought the likes of Giant Gonzales, we must take ourselves back to 1993 and imagine how exciting it must have been to simply see this man being recognized for his talent and placed on the card for the biggest show of the year. If we saw a tremendous talent like Daniel Bryan fight the Great Khali at WrestleMania, would you have really cared about the opponent? Or, would you have simply been happy to see Daniel Bryan on PPV? Putting someone on a WrestleMania card simply means that Vince has hope that you can draw money and get a reaction. The Undertaker’s match with Giant Gonzales should not be remembered for Undertaker’s opponent, but instead for the simple fact that his appearance in the event solidified his position as a viable competitor in the WWE, and as a person in whom Vince McMahon invested a great deal of confidence.
Another contention most fans have with WrestleMania IX lies in the fact that it simply looked different. The event more resembled a movie set or sitcom focusing on the Roman Empire, albeit with a large studio audience, than the packed arenas most fans were used to. The entirety of WrestleMania IX’s aesthetics mimicked a Roman coliseum, complete with live animals and even trumpeters dressed in togas. Having every individual at ringside, including commentators, in costume allowed the WWE to establish a unique atmosphere that redefined what wrestling fans might expect when they ordered WrestleMania each spring. WrestleMania IX was unique and truly felt like a special, theatrical event; it felt like nothing before or after it. Before we accuse WrestleMania IX of being gaudy or campy, consider the fact that Vince McMahon attempted to deeply immerse the audience in the aura of Caesars Palace, a venue that I’m sure the company paid top-dollar for. While the WWE certainly makes a spectacle of WrestleMania and builds it up to the greatest show of the year, they don’t often treat the PPV as a once-in-a-lifetime moment.
When WrestleMania was in Boston, it didn’t look or feel any different than when the event occurred in Chicago. WrestleMania IX truly existed in a vacuum, where commentators and even the staging around the arena made time and space obsolete. The next week on Superstars, there were no more Roman guards or trumpeters, and Bobby Heenan unfortunately ditched the toga. However, for that one special night, everyone involved in WrestleMania IX was 100% devoted to the setting and theme of the pay-per-view with a dedication that is rare to see today. WrestleMania IX’s unconventional design and layout was a great trial run of a concept that we see often today: gimmick PPVs. Today a type of match, gimmicky or not, can become an entire pay-per-view. We have Money in the Bank, Elimination Chamber, and even Extreme Rules, all of which were single match types in the past. In the same vein as WrestleMania IX, the above pay-per-views are contemporary examples of the WWE trying to change the entire aesthetics of the company for a single night, for better or for worse, before reverting back to the “business as usual” approach for their weekly programming.
This was a landmark event because it was the first WrestleMania to be held outdoors (and the last until 2008’s WrestleMania XXIV). Both attendance and buy-rates for the event dropped from the previous year. However, interestingly, the buy-rate was higher than it would be for the next four WrestleManias. WrestleMania IX was a risk for the WWE. They truly made the event into a cartoonish fantasy world that harkened back to an ancient period. However, it was a surprise for fans used to the previous eight WrestleManias to see a homogenous structure and format.
The main event match of WrestleMania IX is a large point of criticism for fans and, in fact, the only point of which I will totally agree with. The main event was awful. It was poorly planned, poorly booked and it was clear that none of the talent involved were passionate about it given the lacklustre ending. Despite the large number of veteran WWE talent missing at WrestleMania IX, one man certainly arrived for the dance: Hulk Hogan. In addition to teaming with his pal, Brutus Beefcake, as the MegaManiacs against Money Inc. (Ted DiBiase and IRS), Hogan surprised fans and returned to defeat Yokozuna in a 21-second match to earn the WWF Championship moments after Bret Hart dropped the belt to Mr Zuna. Yes, 21 seconds. For fans excited to see a star like Bret Hart finally shine in the main event spotlight, a loss to Yokozuna left mixed emotions. Sure it was great that another young talent like Yoko was on the rise, but Bret’s loss seemed improbable. The Hitman was being built as the next flagship superstar in the industry.
What went wrong? Hulk Hogan went wrong.
Bret Hart’s autobiography, Hitman: My Real Life in the Cartoon World of Wrestling, notes that WrestleMania IX came at an interesting time. Vince McMahon was reeling from a high-profile steroid scandal and the loss of talent to WCW. After firing the Ultimate Warrior, whom Bret was supposed to beat at WrestleMania IX, Hart was left without an opponent. When Yokozuna won the Royal Rumble in 1993, he was set to be the heel facing an ultimate babyface Bret Hart at WrestleMania IX. Bret was a lock to win, until April 2, 1993, when Vince called Bret into his office to say, “I want you to drop the belt to Yoko tomorrow.” Furthermore, Hogan would rush to Bret’s aid and win the belt immediately. Bret argues that he knew immediately this storyline was terrible, “the hokey finish would stink, maybe not immediately, but in the weeks to come my fans […] would gag on it”.
What was Hogan’s response to this dismal finish? Bret was supposed to retain the belt at WrestleMania IX and fight Hogan at SummerSlam that very year for the title. However, Hogan was unhappy with the finish and dropped the belt to Yoko at the King of the Ring in 1993. Vince McMahon at one point told Bret that Hogan refused to drop the belt to him, while at the same time telling Hogan he could win at WrestleMania IX and drop the belt to Yokozuna at the King of the Ring 1993. When all three men met in the same room, McMahon denied everything. In the end, what was supposed to be a main event match built to usher Bret Hart in as the leader of the WWF into the mid-1990s became yet another excuse for Hulk Hogan to saunter his way back into the WWF and force-feed Hulkamania down the fans’ throats.
Don’t get me wrong, WrestleMania IX is not the greatest pay-per-view of all time; it isn’t even the greatest pay-per-view of the mid-1990s. Instead, I would argue that much of criticism against WrestleMania IX fails to see the importance of the event in the larger context of WWE’s transition from 1980s WWF into the New Generation. Stars like Bret, Shawn, ‘Taker, and even Razor Ramon needed a launching pad to achieve greatness and WrestleMania IX was essentially an exorbitantly expensive house-show that did just that. The event aesthetically appears to be ridiculous now but at the time, it was fresh and new. Seeing an entire arena transformed for a single PPV was unheard of and truly a revolutionary decision.
In the end, as with most situations in pro-wrestling, it’s best to critically analyse WrestleMania IX not as a single occurrence, but instead as being part of a grander scheme orchestrated by the WWE to revitalise its brand.