WWF RAW IS WAR (10/06/1997)

10/06/1997

Kemper Arena, Kansas City, Missouri, United States

(reviewed 08/03/2019)

[cw: lots of gay slurs]

After a brief cut-in during the commercials for the reruns of Walker, Texas Ranger, Vince McMahon opens the show with the solemn declaration of Brian Pillman’s death. He asks the crowd to rise and join the members of the roster already on the stage in showing respect for the man with a ten bell salute.

We get the intro video and theme after that, at which point Michael Cole is joined in the ring by Shawn Michaels, Hunter Hearst Helmsley, and Chyna. Shawn commandeers the microphone from Cole as Chyna and Helmsley give the new interviewer a wedgie and rough him up. Last night the WWF hoped to put an end to Shawn Michaels but he’s still here and the Undertaker isn’t. He took down the Phenom, thus proving that he is the one and only icon of the World Wrestling Federation—and unlike other icons, he isn’t an ancient fossil. If you’re not aware, that’s a dig at the older guys in WCW who were describing themselves with that term around this time.

Continuing on, Shawn says that maybe these people don’t believe in his claims about last night’s PPV, so he requests that the production team show footage from the Hell in a Cell match. Instead they play the fancam footage of the Curtain Call incident from ‘96 up on the tron, with Shawn and Helmsley acting astonished at these babyfaces and heels cavorting together. Sitting at commentary, Vince is clearly uncomfortable with these proceedings and murmurs to himself. Shawn asks if Vince’s father is rolling over in his grave because of that and calls him an ass repeatedly. Vince orders production to cut to commercial as the two continue berating him.

Back from the break, they’re interrupted by the Hart Foundation. Shawn scampers to find an escape route, claiming that the Harts are burying him. Bret Hart, shouting over “USA” chants, runs down Shawn’s lack of self-respect and respect for others. The way he sees it, Shawn’s a disgrace to professional wrestling, the lowest form of scum he’s ever come across. He calls Shawn a degenerate, really leaning on the word, and also claims that the H in their names stands for ‘homo’. Helmsley quickly denies being a queer as Bret continues to say that Shawn has barebacked his way into PPV main events year after year. Ultimately, until Shawn has the WWF Championship, he’s nothing compared to the Hitman. Sooner or later he’s gonna run them all out of town and he’s starting tonight with Helmsley.

During that Bret sadly makes a not-so-subtle jab at Chyna, bringing our ratio back up to 10 transphobic jokes in her 41 appearances. While Bret’s certainly danced around (or directly through) some homophobia in the past, he later claims that Shawn and Helmsley put him up to his bigoted tirade here tonight, which is way more overt and hateful than any he’s gone on before. This isn’t to absolve him of any wrongdoing but it’s not hard to imagine Shawn and pals putting a guy they hate up to the task of being publicly homophobic on the off chance that he catches some flack for it. Lord knows they’ll do worse to him before the year is out.

After the Hart Foundation leave, Shawn continues on with a tired diatribe about how he’s actually got more money than Bret and the only way Bret will ever main event a show is if he wrestles HBK and blah blah blah. Shawn has always been a bad promo and the exhausting DX gimmick does not help that in the slightest. If I had been a fan of wrestling back at this time (and also not, like, three years old), there would be no chance of me sticking around to watch these segments.

When that finally ends we get the first mention of Melanie Pillman, Brian’s widow, giving some sort of an interview later on tonight. We’re shown images from their living room, where photos of the two of them and their family are hanging up alongside memorabilia from Brian’s days in football and wrestling. Hope you’re ready to hear more about this push for people to tune into that segment because there’s a fucking lot of it tonight!

Third part of Sable’s lazer tag adventures airs next:

The Godwinns (Henry O. Godwinn & Phineas I. Godwinn) vs The Headbangers (Mosh & Thrasher)

Lumberjack Match

Lumberjacks include the likes of the Legion of Doom, the Nation of Domination, the Truth Commission, Flash Funk, and some other dorks. Generally they’re all ok with the Headbangers, who crowdsurf in their arms early on before embarking on yet another listless tag match. Ref eventually gets squashed between Mosh and Phineas so the lumberjacks rush the ring and initiate a big brawl for whatever reason. When that clears out Mosh rolls up Phineas to get some retribution for losing the titles last night.

Jim Ross and Jerry Lawler weirdly fumble through the rundown of the upcoming house shows and RAW tapings, with Lawler repeatedly missing his cues and JR roughly prodding him into participating. After that we get another shot of the Pillman family home in Kentucky, which includes a photo of Brian and Stone Cold Steve Austin as WCW tag champs back in the day. They also hype up some “personal diatribe” from Jim Cornette later on and in a brief glimpse of him preparing backstage he urges the producers not to miss what he says about Eric Bischoff. I’M SURE THAT WILL BE ANOTHER FUN SEGMENT HERE ON RAW IS WAR.

Miguel Perez vs Marc Mero

After, like, a bazillion years on the shelf due to a big knee injury, Mero makes his return to RAW. Now his gimmick is a lot more attuned to his Golden Gloves boxing experience and he’s far grittier as a character than he used to be. Does that mean he’s actually good now? Sooooort of? His punches are awesome but he’s only doing that maybe a third of the time he’s on offense, sticking to some real basic elbow drops and chinlocks otherwise. Perez doesn’t help to spice things up either. Mero cleans up with the TKO in two minutes.

From there we get the first of ENTIRELY TOO MANY rants from Jim Cornette in the coming weeks. Forgive the dumb bumpers at the beginning and end of this video as well as everything in between.

To give this a little context, this speech is more or less the exact thing Cornette said a few weeks back on WWF Byte This, a long-running call-in show on the dot com. That program is the brainchild of Vince Russo, who took the edgy, kayfabe-challenging content of the WWF Magazine and translated it to the ever-evolving internet. Since they already had the material written, he convinced Cornette and Vince to put it on TV in the hopes that it could be a weekly segment where they could voice their woes and whines. Thankfully it doesn’t stick around long but unfortunately this isn’t the last of it.

Hits don’t stop coming after that.

The British Bulldog vs Rocky Maivia

Full force of both the Nation of Domination and Hart Foundation are out here in support of their boys. Jim Ross suggests that the animosity here stems from last night’s Owen Hart vs Faarooq match, so this is what these teams will be doing for the last few weeks that they’re both in the company. This match ain’t bad but it doesn’t get enough time to develop into much of anything. Rocky is so much more confident in his movements now than he was earlier in the year and he does well to transition between working underneath and playing to the crowd as a heel when he’s in control. He also hits a dramatic elbow drop here, the first appearance of the proto-People’s Elbow on RAW. It can’t put away the Brit, though, as the Bulldog cuts off his momentum and puts the kid away with a running powerslam.

Faarooq runs in and decks the Harts with his leather strap, kicking off a big pull-apart brawl that takes a while to unwind. Because wrestling fans are the worst, this doesn’t get nearly as big a reaction as the various Nation/DOA/Boricuas brawls in months past.

Top of the hour finds Stone Cold Steve Austin stomping up to Vince McMahon in the ring to hear the boss’ verdict on his employment. Austin threatens to whip his ass if he doesn’t make the right call. Vince asks Austin why he did what he did last night, attacking Faarooq so that Owen Hart could regain the Intercontinental title, and Austin defers in the usual way. He doesn’t have to explain his actions to anyone so Vince cuts to the chase. It doesn’t look like Austin’s got any paperwork from a doctor so either he signs this contract in his hand, which states that Austin cannot hold the WWF liable for anything that happens to him in the ring moving forward, or else he’ll fire the man here and now. Austin says it’s the damn true that he’s the toughest S.O.B. in the WWF but if he signed this contract he’d be the dumbest S.O.B. The only way he’ll sign is if Vince gives him a title match with Owen Hart. Love Austin’s reasoning for going after Owen and his continued distrust of the boss man:

Cutting in from the tron, Faarooq and the Nation of Domination stop Austin before he leaves. Faarooq says that a bald head and a bunch of tattoos don’t make Steve Austin tough. Tough is waking up on a cold morning and fighting your brothers to see which one of you gets to wear a jacket to school. Tough is eating collard greens with your hands because you don’t have a fork to go around. Tough is waking up on Christmas morning and crying for a lack of presents. Austin stuck his nose in the Nation’s business so now his ass belongs to Faarooq. Stone Cold tells him to shut up, saying that he’ll be happy to take every one of their sorry asses on once he gets through his contractual issues. He shoves Vince a little and punts Lawler’s crown into the crowd before leaving to a big ovation.

We get another hype-up of Melanie Pillman’s big interview, this time by zooming in on a photograph of Brian kissing his young son. That’s followed by a quick Road Warrior Hawk promo, which is maybe the worst tonal disparity in the history of wrestling.

Owen Hart interrupts JR recapping the events of last night’s PPV, saying that he’s glad Austin’s staying in WWF. If he ever wants to take a swing at him again he shouldn’t let some contract or some injury hold him back. “Come in here and take your best shot, son.”

Owen Hart (c) vs Road Warrior Hawk

WWF Intercontinental Championship

Recognizing that Hawk is the better of the two LOD members and recognizing that Owen is, after all, Owen, I tentatively prepared myself for a decent little title defense. Alas, this sucks pretty bad. Owen just lets Hawk steamroll him early before Hawk returns the favor, with both guys on autopilot for the three and a half minutes we get. The Godwinns wander toward ringside and whack Hawk with their slop bucket at one point but that doesn’t keep him down. Animal makes an appearance to drive them off as his partner rallies but he can’t handle the both of them on their own, so Henry Godwinn attacks Hawk a second time with a different, unidentified foreign object and that allows Owen to retain.

COMING UP NEXT AFTER THIS BREAK: GRIEVING WIDOW SPEAKS TO DECEASED HUSBAND’S FANS AND COWORKERS ON LIVE NATIONAL TELEVISION A DAY AFTER HIS DEATH. THIS IS NOT AT ALL A GROSS PLOY FOR RATINGS OR EMOTIONAL MANIPULATION OF A BEREAVED SPOUSE, NO SIR.

I won’t be linking to a video of this interview because it’s as hard to watch as anything I’ve ever seen in wrestling. I would also urge you not to go and see it for yourself. It is a disgusting and infuriating segment, among the most heinous things WWF has ever done.

First I should get some facts straight. Sometime after Sunday evening, when the news about Brian’s death reached his family and employer but before any tests had been done to determine his cause of death, Melanie and Vince shared a phone call. There she expressed wanting to warn other wrestlers and their families about the use of painkillers, for fear that something like this could happen again. Vince wanted her to say as much on television and while Melanie had reservations about doing it live, she eventually relented. Melanie had dated the Ultimate Warrior in the late 80s/early 90s before getting together with Brian, so she’s been tangentially related to WWF and the wrestling business in general for a long time. Years after the fact she would note that she felt “obligated” to Vince in this moment because she “knew [she] would be relying on this man for food.

This ends up being an interview between Vince and Melanie directly. To put it mildly, Vince assaults this grieving widow not 48 hours after her husband’s death with probing questions that seem designed to get her to break down on camera and publicly absolve him of guilt. The camera itself repeatedly zooms in on Melanie’s face, hoping to get her reactions to these invasive inquiries. Those questions, taken verbatim, are as follows:

1. Can you please tell us, to end whatever speculation there may be—what can you tell us about what you have been told as far as Brian’s death is concerned?

2. There was some speculation last night, when we spoke, that Brian, because of his injuries, has had to take a great deal of prescribed medicine. There’s some speculation that he may have taken too much. If, in fact, that is proven to be the case, which it is yet to be, is there anything that you would want to say to aspiring athletes who do get hurt and have to resort to prescribed medication and painkillers?

3. Melanie, how are the children taking this news and do they understand?

4. Have you had any opportunity to think about what you, now as a single parent, will do to support your five children?

5. How would you like for Brian to be remembered by WWF fans and fans all over the world?

Melanie does the best she can to answer these questions, holding her head in her hands as she fights back tears. She can’t answer the first question for sure, being that the toxicology and autopsy reports have yet to come in, but as far as anyone can tell Brian’s death came from a great deal of stress to his heart. In answering the second question she acknowledges that all professional athletes deal with pain medication but she hopes that her husband’s death serves as a wake up call, that people realize they or their husbands could be next.

It’s questionable whether or not this interview happened too soon, or that it should have happened at all. It’s questionable whether or not it should have gone on live or been taped ahead of time. It’s questionable whether or not it should have appeared on television in the first place.

It is unquestionable that several of these questions range from inappropriate to downright cruel. It is unquestionable that they were asked in order to get Melanie to cry on camera and to publicly acknowledge that Brian’s death was a freak accident in which WWF played no role. It is unquestionable that this interview was placed toward the end of the show and teased repeatedly throughout the night in order to garner ratings.

Brian’s death is as tricky as it is tragic. We eventually learn that he died of a heart attack due to natural causes. Painkillers did not play a role, nor did any other form of drug use. Brian’s heart had suffered a great deal of stress throughout his life from family genetics, dozens of surgeries early in his childhood, and steroid use in his late teens and early twenties. Eventually it was all too much.

Even if pill-popping was not the cause of his death, it impacted his life and the lives of those around him in terrible ways. The chronic pain from his fused ankle led him to taking copious amounts of prescription medication, which left him even more erratic than he was naturally. When he was singled out for a rare drug test by WWF (the first the company had ordered in years), he was furious about being asked before the likes of Shawn or Road Warrior Hawk, who’s had his own drug issues lately. Melanie wanted to check him into rehab but he famously loathed the concept and refused to go. What’s more he hated the idea of sitting around and collecting a paycheck instead of doing what he loved, which forced him back on the road as much as WWF did. In a last ditch attempt to get Brian to clean up, Melanie served him divorce papers and a restraining order, and those legal proceedings were ongoing at the time of his death.

Here, removed from the situation, you and I can point a lot of fingers. Should Melanie and WWF have tried to enter Brian into rehab or at the very least downplay his involvement with the company, especially in the ring? Sure, but there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that he would’ve left rehab, left her, and/or left the company had that happened. Should they have tried anyway in spite of that? Maybe. It’s always easier to make that call given the benefit of hindsight.

Even without the benefit of hindsight, the way WWF responds after the fact is unfathomable. Trotting out the man’s grieving wife—a non-wrestler, mind you, a non-entertainer—for paranoid and selfish reasons, not to mention the sort of shit they’ll do next week in his name, is nothing short of despicable. Even under the guise of tribute, even under the pretense of a heartfelt warning, even if Melanie is compensated to the tune of thousands of dollars, this cannot read as anything but cruel, callous greed. This sentiment is shared by certain sections of the locker room too and we’ll get to that before long.

Before moving on, Jim Ross narrates an uplifting look at Pillman’s life and career through the lens of his many valiant triumphs over adversity.

The teenage Hardy Boys are in the ring for a match with the Truth Commission next but all of a sudden the lights go out, pyro goes off on the stage, and Kane appears with Paul Bearer. Kane lumbers to the ring and obliterates the two of them, hitting a double chokeslam before tossing them both to the floor. Bearer speaks, saying that these fans can laugh at the fat man all they want but they really should be laughing at the Undertaker. No one believed him about Kane but here he is, in all his horrifying splendor. Together he and Kane are going to walk through the WWF, destroying everyone in their path to the Undertaker. Taker, meet your worst nightmare.

Hunter Hearst Helmsley vs Bret Hart

Simple match. Bret tries to do his thing with Helmsley but soon finds himself distracted by Shawn Michaels sauntering down to ringside, allowing the blue blood to take control. This is the match where Shawn famously sticks the Canadian flag up his nose, which takes all of the heat this match would have had otherwise. Owen Hart and Jim Neidhart come down to sort things out and they’re joined by the British Bulldog during a commercial. Bret and Helmsley trade control back and forth as the match continues but Chyna lands a sweet punch on Bret when he goes for the cornerpost figure four. He goes after her but is treated to a superkick from Shawn for his troubles, leading to a countout.

The show ends remarkably quick after that, so Chyna avoids catching any more shrapnel from the Hart Foundation or other sources. That brings our ratio to 10 awful jokes sent her way over 42 appearances.

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