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Enemy Mine: Our Favorite WWF Feuds of the ’90s

What makes a “feud”?

In professional wrestling, it’s when two or more people engage in a heated, often bitter rivalry over an extended period of time, played out through multiple matches, interviews, and any other segment furthering the storyline.

But that’s just a textbook definition.

Really, a feud is when two guys (or gals, or teams) want to beat the holy hell out of each other so bad until only one man can stand. A feud is when passions boil over between competitors, defying containment. A feud is when mega-powers EXPLODE.

I was watching the WWE’s “Greatest Rivalries: Shawn Michaels vs. Bret Hart” DVD and thought it would be a great idea to revisit some of the most memorable feuds, at least in our opinion, of the ’90s.

What do you think, T.J.?

Frankie, once in a while I still try to catch up with what’s going on in today’s WWE. 

Rarely am I impressed as I think back to the good old days (Sounding like an old man). The WWF of my youth, while not perfect, was just so much better than today’s product. I’ve argued that since Vince McMahon decided to emphasize the “entertainment” aspect of “sports entertainment” that the quality has suffered.

The great part of wrestling, in my book, was the fact that, yes it was fake, the matches were scripted etc., but it was showcased as competition. One guy competing against the other guy and you get to cheer on the good guy to beat the bad guy. Championship belts were supposed to add prestige, not just be some prop carried around by any jabroni. Wrestlers would start feuding with each other, it would build, and eventually there would be a payoff with a pay-per-view battle you would be so excited to see you would beg your father to shell out $39.95 to order. That brings us to this week’s topic, the great WWF feuds of the 90s.

As I said earlier, these days you don’t get the sense of competition in today’s WWE. These days I don’t feel any “heat” between two wrestlers. Great feuds are made when you can suspend disbelief for a little and truly feel that the two guys don’t like each other. So here are just some of the best feuds of the 90s.

Hulk Hogan vs. The Ultimate Warrior

The 1990s can be divided into three distinct parts in regards to the World Wrestling Federation: the end of the Second Golden Age, the New Generation period, and the Attitude Era. And the Golden Age can be identified with one figure: Hulk Hogan.

The Second Golden Age of professional wrestling is largely considered to stretch from Hulk Hogan’s first WWF Championship win in 1984 over the Iron Sheik, to his second exit from the company, in 1992. During that period, Hulk Hogan was unquestionably the most dominant wrestler in the WWF, and as such, the most dominant in the world. And while he was still over with the fans as the ’90s rolled around, there was a fresher face on the horizon, growing in popularity until he was a narrow second only to the Hulkster.

When I was in fifth grade, I made a friend named Megan. For a time, she was my best friend, and we got along pretty well. However, the WWF was pretty well established in the mainstream at the time, to the point that even she had an opinion on the Hogan vs. Warrior matter. She was a Warrior fan. I was a Hogan fan. Our friendship wasn’t long for the schoolyard.

The Hogan/Warrior feud that developed in early 1990 was seemingly developed almost entirely by fan consensus. Hulk Hogan was the company’s top babyface, but the fans went crazy over the Warrior thanks to his crazed look, his ferocity in the ring (which disguised his lacking workrate), and his nonsensical interviews, nonetheless delivered with such intensity that it was impossible not to get swept into the tide of Warrior Wildness.

Warrior won the WWF’s second-tier title, the Intercontinental Championship, which positioned him as the number two guy in the company. And that set him on a collision course with Hogan. After a confrontation at the 1990 Royal Rumble, Hogan and Warrior built in earnest towards a title match–with both belts on the line–at WrestleMania VI. It was a feud built entirely on force of personality.

Surprisingly, the match itself was quite good, considering the two men in it, muscular entertainers who weren’t known for putting on mat classics. Still, it was a great work of ring psychology, and Warrior came out on top, staking his claim as the guy to take the company into the ’90s.

It didn’t last, and Hogan took the belt back the following year.

Hulk Hogan vs. Sgt. Slaughter

The Ultimate Warrior dropped the WWF Championship to Sgt. Slaughter at the 1991 Royal Rumble. The winner of the ’91 Rumble, with the momentum once again pushing him ahead, was Hulk Hogan, now dubbed “The Immortal” for an act of sportsmanship towards the Warrior following their title match.

Sgt. Slaughter was a legend not only in the ring, but outside of it too, a larger-than-life hero to kids thanks to his inclusion on the G.I.Joe animated series and toy line. This is where things went incredibly topsy-turvy. Where everyone else saw an idol to millions of kids, the chairman and guiding vision of the WWF saw a potential turncoat, someone whose betrayal, especially during times of war, would rally not only wrestling fans, but the nation behind the Hulkster once again.

This is where Sgt. Slaughter became an Iraqi sympathizer.

The two men met at WrestleMania VII in Los Angeles, in a brutal battle. Slaughter battered and bloodied Hogan, but the red and yellow ultimately prevailed as Hogan dropped the leg on his foe and won the belt back for the good ol’ U-S-of-A. Still, it wasn’t over. In a bit taped for the home video release, and shown on television later, Slaughter ambushed Hogan in the locker room afterward and threw a fireball into his face, badly burning the champ.

The two men continued to feud, fighting across the country at house shows, before meeting again on pay-per-view. This time, Slaughter had his triangle of terror, Col. Mustafa (the former Iron Sheik, recast as an Iraqi officer) and General Adnan. Hogan teamed with his one-time rival the Ultimate Warrior. The good guys won, and Warrior ran off into the sunset, not to be seen again…well, not until 1992 anyway. (Long story.)

Macho Man Randy Savage vs. Jake the Snake Roberts

Another notable match at WrestleMania VII saw the Ultimate Warrior battle Macho King Randy Savage in a career match; the loser would have to retire from active competition. Savage was a pretty nasty heel at that point, having stolen the WWF’s “crown” from Hacksaw Jim Duggan. He dubbed himself the Macho King and reigned over the competition with Sensational Sherri by his side. But his frustration with being unable to win back the WWF Championship led him to interject in Warrior’s match with Sgt. Slaughter, which put the two on a collision course.

Warrior won the match and sent Savage packing, and to add insult to injury, Sherri started attacking the former Macho King after the match. However, what would have ended in the Macho Man’s ultimate humiliation instead concluded with his redemption, as his former manager (and offscreen wife) Miss Elizabeth rushed in to save him. The tearful reunion put the Macho Man back in fans’ good graces, and he settled into color commentary position on WWF Superstars of Wrestling. The story seemed to conclude at SummerSlam 1991, when Randy Savage and Miss Elizabeth were (kayfabe) wed as part of the pay-per-view’s double main event.

But a near-catastrophic sneak attack at the couple’s reception put Savage on the trail of Jake “the Snake” Roberts, one of the most skilled ring psychologists to ever lace up a pair of boots. Savage, allied with the Undertaker, would taunt Savage into the fall, and like his namesake, finally struck before Survivor Series, ambushing Savage, tying him in the ropes and allowing his pet cobra to bite the defenseless Macho Man. (Backstage legend has it the cobra died shortly after biting Savage.)

An enraged Savage campaigned for his reinstatement in order to combat Roberts in the ring. WWF President Jack Tunney–yes, this was a thing at the time–conceded, and at Tuesday in Texas, Savage finally got his hands on the Snake. The match was relatively brief, but brutal, and ended with Macho Man’s hand raised. But Savage underestimated his foe, who got the drop on him and not only brutalized the Macho Man, but forced Elizabeth to watch. I always thought the snake attack was hard to watch, but Roberts terrorizing the Savages might be the most harrowing clip of that period.

Their rivalry continued into the ’92 Royal Rumble match, but it was shelved when Savage became the number one contender to the WWF Championship, leading to a confrontation with another legend of the ring. T.J., take us through this one.

Macho Man Randy Savage vs. Ric Flair

When Ric Flair got to the WWF in 1991, the expectation was for the dream match to finally take place; Hogan vs. Flair. Wrestling’s biggest star and superhero in Hogan taking on the industry’s best overall wrestler and villain in Flair. Could there be a better main event for WrestleMania VIII as 1992 rolled along?

For whatever reason this money feud didn’t take place. Maybe it was because Hogan was on the way out and there was no good way to book a suitable outcome? Whatever the reason it wasn’t a total loss. Flair, as WWF champion, would feud with Randy Savage. It turned out to be a great one with a lot of heat and energy because Flair would involve Macho Man’s wife, the lovely Miss Elizabeth.

“The Nature Boy,” with Mr. Perfect by his side, rubbed it in Macho’s face that he was with Elizabeth before they got together. And, to add more fuel to the fire, they allegedly had scandalous, centerfold pictures of Elizabeth. Sure, we would never really see those pictures, but you can surely understand why Macho Man, already a crazy bastard, would want to beat the hell out of Flair.

Their match at WrestleMania is still one of my personal favorites. The heat was there, the title was on the line, there was some blood, some chickens*it cheating by Mr. Perfect but eventually the big win by the Macho Man. The feud would continue, Flair would get the belt back eventually, but I’ll never forget the intensity of their WrestleMania match and the fact that Savage protected Elizabeth’s honor once again.

Bret Hart vs. Owen Hart

In the early 90s, Bret Hart would evolve from being one half of the great Hart Foundation tag team, to singles mid-carder and Intercontinental champ to main event status and world champ. It was a great progression and I, and many fans at the time, were thrilled to root for “The Hitman” as he eventually established himself as one of the best ever.

His little brother, on the other hand, had it a little tougher. My first memory of Owen was when he tagged with Koko B. Ware. He had been the Blue Blazer previously, but wouldn’t really be taken too seriously. But when Bret was feuding with Jerry Lawler around the time of Survivor Series 1993, he gathered his brothers together to battle Lawler and his team. Shawn Michaels would replace Lawler for whatever reason, but during that match, there was some miscommunication between Bret and Owen and the younger Hart would be eliminated. They would eventually make up but the seeds were planted.

Bret and Owen then got a shot at the tag team titles against the Quebecers at The Royal Rumble. Bret, in the match, hurt his knee and would take quite a beating. Owen wanted Bret to tag him him, but because of the knee he couldn’t and the ref had to stop the match. After the bout, Owen then kicked Bret’s leg, officially turning him heel. He was tired of wrestling under Bret’s shadow. He wanted his own time in the spotlight and would get that chance as Bret and Owen would open WrestleMania X, in a brilliant wrestling match. And, shocking everyone, especially the 8-year-old version of me, Owen beat Bret fair and square in the middle of the ring.

Bret would win the title from Yokozuna later than night and Owen would have to live with the fact that even on the day he finally beat Bret in front of the whole world, it was “The Hitman” who would once again overshadow him by winning the WWF title, closing out the biggest show of the year. Owen would win the King of the Ring in June and in August he would get a shot at the title against his brother inside a steel cage. (The blue bars version!) It was another terrific matchup that got the whole family involved again (British Bulldog returned too.)

Bret would walk away with the gold but would lose it a few months later at Survivor Series in the classic submission match against Bob Backlund. Backlund put Bret in the crossfire chicken wing for, what felt like, an hour straight. Owen, faking concern for his brother, got their mother Helen to throw in the towel, delivering the title to Backlund. Their feud would continue for a bit, but this felt like the peak of the brother vs. brother feud for me. Their matches were spectacular but the greatness of this feud was the heat between the two, especially coming from Owen. He did such a great job of portraying the jealous, whiny little brother that you couldn’t help but root for Bret to shut him up.

Undertaker vs. Mankind

Mick Foley came to the WWF in 1996. He was best known as Cactus Jack for his days in WCW, ECW and Japan’s FMW (Frontier Martial Arts Wrestling). These crazy vignettes would showcase a deranged guy, in a Hannibal Lecteresque mask, talking about random, creepy things. He debuted the day after Wrestlemania XII attacking The Undertaker and one of the perfect feuds was born. It just felt like a fit, from day one, that The Deadman and Mankind would battle each other; weird over-the-top character taking on another.

They would meet up in SummerSlam of that year in a “Boiler Room Brawl.” First man out of the boiler room and getting the urn from Paul Bearer would be declared the winner. Taker got out but Bearer refused to give him the urn, thus adding another twist to this brutal feud. They would also meet in the first ever “Buried Alive” match, which was bizarre but pretty cool at the same time. Taker would win the match, but Mankind and others literally buried the Deadman alive.

They would battle a few more times after that but their next and most memorable battle next came in June 1998. It was the King of the Ring and the third ever Hell in the Cell match was set to take place between The Undertaker and Mankind. Nothing I could write could explain the magnitude and the brutality of the match, so i’ll leave it to Jim Ross.

“Good God, almighty they’ve killed him.”

“As God as my witness, he is broken in half.”

This is the match that defined Mick Foley and cemented his status as the craziest son of a bitch bumper in the history of pro wrestling. It also added to The Undertaker’s mystique of being more than just a cartoonish, “dead man” character but a “I will so throw you off the roof of a freakin’ cage” bad ass. And it also defined this brutal feud between these two men. They beat the living shit out of each other every time they got together and stepped into the ring (or on the roof of a cage.)

Of course, T.J., we’re forgetting two key feuds, which defined the WWF in the 1990s, by blurring the lines between reality and fiction and stripping the Federation of its family-friendly image. (Granted, the following decade did much to undo that work, but that’s another story.)

Bret Hart vs. Shawn Michaels

What else can be said about this feud that hasn’t been said? Whatever innocence professional wrestling still purported to have died at the climax of this feud. It began as a professional rivalry, but went much deeper, with heavy ramifications for everyone involved.

A lot has been written and recorded by better scribes than I, but it’s predicated on a surprisingly simple hook. Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels were friends, until they grew apart and took their fake enmity too far.

When Shawn Michaels arrived in the WWF in the late ’80s as one half of the Rockers (with Marty Jannetty), Bret saw past Michaels’ hard-partying reputation and knew the Rockers were solid workers who could draw big money if given the chance. As Bret broke away from the tag team scene and built an increasingly impressive solo career, Michaels wasn’t very far behind. The two began to work together, facing off first for Bret’s WWF Championship at Survivor Series 1992.

Michaels was a fill-in for Jake Roberts in that match, and would substitute again for an opponent of Bret’s leading Jerry Lawler’s masked “knights” into battle at Survivor Series ’94 against Bret and his brothers. Behind the scenes, the two enjoyed a fairly close friendship and mutual respect.

Shawn would finally break out of the mid-card and truly reach Bret’s level, receiving a huge push in 1996. After an illness angle began a slow face turn for Michaels, he won the ’96 Royal Rumble, earning the right to challenge Bret at WrestleMania XII. The match was booked as a 60-minute Iron Man Challenge, the first match of its kind. Whoever could win the most falls in an hour would win the championship.

At the end of the hour, neither man scored a fall. Bret was prepared to walk away as champion as the result of a draw, but the match was restarted in sudden death, and Shawn came out on top to win the title. Bret stormed away from the ring and took some time off. When he returned, he verbally dogged the champion. While much of his comments sounded pretty sincere at the time, he and Michaels maintained it was all a work, at first.

But Shawn’s involvement in the “Kliq,” along with Scott Hall, Kevin Nash, Triple H and Sean Waltman, addicted him to backstage power. Add to that his growing drug use, and he became megalomaniacal (according to Bret, though Shawn wouldn’t really deny the account). He plotted to keep the title picture restricted to the Kliq, angering Bret. What’s more, their mutual respect eroded as the two built toward a WrestleMania rematch that ultimately never came. Bret worked a program with Stone Cold Steve Austin–and helped make Austin as a result.

But a rematch with Shawn was ultimately in the cards. Unfortunately, it coincided with Bret’s departure from WCW. You see, Vince re-signed Hart to a hefty, long-running contract, but the WWF’s monetary problems caused a shift in decision-making. When WCW came calling with an even bigger offer, Vince convinced Bret to take it, reasoning that he could never compete with their money. (Bret claims he never really cared about the money, and just wanted Vince’s respect and assurance he’d be a major part of the creative process going forward.)

It all devolves into hearsay and accusation at this point, as Bret and Shawn were slated to face off for the title at Survivor Series 1997, in Montreal. By then, their friendship cooled, replaced by bitterness. Bret felt Shawn wasn’t paying him the proper respect, and Shawn felt the same about Bret. What’s more, Hart, who would be leaving the company that week, didn’t want to lose to Shawn in his home country. Rather, he proposed a smoz finish (a massive run-in that ends in a no contest), then dropping the belt the following night on Raw.

In a match that would forever be known as the Montreal Screwjob, Vince McMahon arranged for referee Earl Hebner to ring the bell when Shawn ensnared Bret in his own finishing hold, the Sharpshooter. A shocked, dumbfounded bret went berserk, ripping apart the announce tables. Backstage, he and McMahon had a physical confrontation, ending with the chairman being punched out.

Bret went to WCW and following a brief push, languished in relative obscurity, lost in the shuffle amidst creative disarray and yet another damn nWo angle. Shawn, on the other hand, went on to help found the “Attitude Era.”

Bret Hart vs. Stone Cold Steve Austin

It should be said that the Hart/Austin feud was a crucial angle in itself. It’s a classic example of a rare angle in wrestling, the double-turn. It’s rare because it’s rarely done right. But Bret Hart and Steve Austin found themselves in the perfect storm.

Bret and Shawn Michaels were the vanguard of WWF’s “New Generation” period, created by necessity when Senate hearing on steroid use in the business forced Vince to resort to pushing smaller wrestlers. These smaller guys were much better workers, but the business was in a downward turn and guys like Hart and Michaels could only stanch the bleeding for so long.

Steve Austin was a man with a mission when he came to the WWF. The former WCW Tag Team, Television and United States Champion was recognized as a top star in the making, but WCW mishandled him more often than not and ultimately fired him–over the phone while he rehabilitated a knee injury.

Austin went straight to ECW for a brief spell, but made the most of his short time there. He cut a series of revolutionary promos about his experience in the business–years before CM Punk’s pipebomb lit the wrestling world aflame. Austin wasn’t long for ECW, and Vince McMahon did come knocking. But he didn’t quite see Austin’s charisma and microphone apppeal, and gave him the gimmick of the Ringmaster, a master of wrestling craft and technique. While Austin hated and continues to hate the Ringmaster period, it’s hard to fault it entirely. After all, here was a wrestler whose premise was that he was TOO DAMN GOOD.

After breaking from DiBiase, Stone Cold slowly evolved into the man we know and came to love. He won the 1996 King of the Ring tournament and cut a blistering promo on his fallen opponent, Jake Roberts, coining the first of his biggest catchphrases: “Austin 3:16.” From there, he was off to the races, and the fans ate it up. It was a paradigm shift, a migration of support to the much cooler bad guy. Steve Austin was a real guy and pissed off a lot of the time. People could relate to him much more than Bret’s staid, stalwart hero act.

So the double-turn. At WrestleMania 13, the two met in a submission match, and after an even, thrilling match, Hart demolished his opponent and placed him in the Sharpshooter. But rather than give up, Austin held on until he passed out from pain and blood loss. When Bret went off on Austin after the match, it was sealed: he was now a heel, while Austin was a fan favorite.

A key rivalry, which led to the most defining feud of the ’90s, which gave birth to the Attitude Era.

Stone Cold Steve Austin vs. Vince McMahon

A lot has been written about this one as well, but it boils down to one question: “Who doesn’t want to beat up his or her boss?”

With Vince McMahon now seen as a villain following the Montreal Screwjob, he positioned himself as the leader of the villainous Corporation stable. The Corporation’s aim was simply to keep power and order situated in McMahon’s lap. Stone Cold Steve Austin bucked that order, and marched to his own beat, which McMahon hated. He threw everything at Austin, and I mean everything. Pretty much every significant part of the Attitude Era spun out of a single rivalry.

It birthed the third Golden Age. But that’s a story that begs its own telling.

Professional wrestling is children’s theater on steroids–and later, a TV-14 blood ballet.

But one thing hasn’t changed.

Sometimes, two guys just need to beat the hell out of each other.

To settle a score.

To see who’s the best.

To change the world.

That’s the way it is in the business.

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