Ringside Shadows #135: The Four Horsemen Complete History (part XI: 1997)
The Horsemen were in disarray by the time 1996 came to a close. They'd successfully missed with a "can't miss" roster that included Brian Pillman, Chris Benoit, Arn Anderson and Ric Flair, though it wasn't thanks to a lack of effort. Fortune just wasn't smiling upon the fabled four in '96, as Pillman left the promotion in the opening months and the Horsemen never really recovered from that initial shock. Steve McMichael couldn't hope to fill the boots Flyin' Brian had left behind, and injuries crept up on Flair and Anderson. The only man unaffected by year's end, Chris Benoit, found himself questioned by his peers. Jeff Jarrett had been introduced to the stable by Flair, and was immediately disliked by the others. To make matters worse, the nWo had stolen the spotlight from WCW's first and foremost stable. If the group's historic legacy was no longer good enough to merit a slot atop the promotion's cards, they'd just have to go about building it back from the ground up... and that's just what they did.
As the year began its cold start, Chris Benoit and Kevin Sullivan picked up the pieces of their ongoing feud, only to throw them back to the floor again. Sullivan was still hot over Benoit's "stealing" of his wife, Woman, and countered her presence with a woman of his own: Miss Jacqueline. Everywhere Woman went, she now had a shadow in Jacqueline, and this shadow wasn't afraid to get physical with her. Early in the year, though, it was widely recognized that the Benoit / Sullivan series had gone on for long enough, and it was quickly becoming obvious that Chris had the upper hand after a solid victory at the year's first Clash of the Champions card. Still, the two signed the dotted line and agreed to meet yet again in a "San Francisco Death Match" at Superbrawl VII.
Meanwhile, Ric Flair was finally convinced that the Crippler was suitable as a member of the Horsemen, and had moved his critical gaze to Steve McMichael. Mongo would meet Jeff Jarrett at the same Superbrawl card, with the winner claiming a spot in the timeless stable. It was a final proving ground for Jarrett, and a chance for Mongo to redeem himself. As an added bonus, it seemed Debra was ready to make up her mind with this match. Though she'd never left Mongo's side, her infatuation with Jarrett was becoming more than a professional matter.
Leading off the night for the Horsmen, McMichael and Jarrett wasted no time in tearing into one another. When the action became too frenzied and the official was subsequently knocked unconscious, Debra indescriminately slid a briefcase into the ring. Double J was the first to his feet, and after knocking Mongo cold, took the pinfall and a slot on the Horsemen roster.
Later in the evening, Chris Benoit and Kevin Sullivan were finally ready to end their long standing feud once and for all. With Woman and Jacqueline chained to each other at ringside, the Taskmaster and the Crippler went through the usual motions. After a brief fight backstage, they returned to the ring where Benoit set up a table. While Benoit draped his exhausted opponent over the table, Jacqueline drug Woman into the ring and fell on top of her man. Benoit took a moment to make sure Woman was out of harm's way, before diving from the top rope and putting both Sullivan and his escort through the wood simultaneously. A pinfall later, and Benoit had sealed the feud in decisive fashion.
After losing his slot to Jarrett at Superbrawl, McMichael appeared less often with the group, though his wife was just as visible as ever... living it up beside Double J. In the weeks after the match, Ric Flair surprisingly announced that Jarrett hadn't taken McMichael's spot after all. He was merely keeping Arn Anderson's space warm while the Enforcer was out of action. Though this appeased McMichael, Benoit was far from content. His membership in the Horsemen had taught him the benefits of teamwork, and the Crippler was ready to take the next step. That is, he would have, if the original storylines had followed through.
the radicals? hardly.. the apocalypse planted
the seeds, vince merely harvested them
Booking was calling for a new youth movement. The group was set to be named "The Apocalypse", and would've served to give several latent midcard talents their first big chance to shine. The roster reads like a who's who of the midcard talent that made WCW so strong in the mid '90s. Benoit, Malenko, Guerrero and Steven Regal were set to begin a public protest of Jarrett's new membership in the Horsemen, and were more motivated than they'd been in yaers. It was all to come to a head with Benoit leaving the Horsemen in disgust, leading his own stable of four... and it would've likely worked to perfection. Instead, politics got involved. Hulk Hogan saw his spotlight fading, and the Apocalypse angle was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Benoit's on-screen frustrations would never play out to a logical conclusion, and were eventually dropped altogether.
Back on screen, the nWo was becoming a thorn in the side of the Horsemen again. Without a strong leader in action and a subsequent lack of direction, Benoit, Jarrett and McMichael had a serious problem. Coincidentally, Roddy Piper had just signed a match for the upcoming Uncensored card, pitting himself and three partners of his own choosing in a triangle match against the nWo's four top names (Hogan, Savage, Hall and Nash) and WCW's biggest stars (Luger, the Giant and the Steiners). Problem was, Piper hadn't really recruited anyone since signing the contract. He'd "tested" a couple Power Plant students on Nitro, a segment which flopped tremendously, and was becoming visibly concerned as the event neared. With Ric Flair's blessing, the active Horsemen signed on as Piper's partners against the nWo.
The match was to be fought in a fashion similar to WarGames, as one man from each team would start in the ring with three fresh men entering every two minutes after. Instead of falling victim to a pinfall or submission, though, workers were eliminated in battle royal fashion; over the top rope.
Before the match, WCW was handed an early disadvantage; Rick Steiner had been attacked backstage, and would not be able to compete in the main event. Benoit, Hall and the Giant started things out, and the Giant calmly sat outside and watched while the Crippler cleaned house on Scott Hall. Finally, the future Big Show stepped between the ropes and almost instantly took the advantage. With ten seconds remaining before the next wave of participants, Big Paul made a kamakaze charge at Hall, who stepped out of the way and eliminated WCW's big man. Jarrett, Savage and Luger entered the fray next, followed by Mongo, Scott Steiner and Kevin Nash. Steiner became a man with a mission, tiger bombing Hall and suplexing Nash out of his boots. Steering clear of the stampeding Michigan native, Nash got up and promptly clotheslined Jarrett out to the floor. Hall was still being beaten down, this time by Mongo, when he reversed an attempted piledriver and flipped McMichael over the top to join his teammate.
Piper and Hogan made it complete, while Steiner was eliminated by a Kevin Nash boot. On the inside, Benoit was still going strong, but appeared to be fighting a losing battle against both Outsiders as Piper made an immediate beeline for Randy Savage. After a brief exchange of blows, Hogan awkwardly eliminated the Rowdy one with a little help from ringside. Moments later, Chris Benoit fell victim to a double team Outsider's Edge and was eliminated. With all of Piper's team eliminated and 2 of the 3 WCW members joining them, the nWo seemed to have things pretty well in hand. They slowly surrounded the last opposition to their domination, Lex Luger, but the Package wasn't about to go down without a fight. While Savage had turned his back, Lex took advantage of the distraction and racked / eliminated him in seconds. Nash, turning to see what was going on, quickly found himself on the receiving end of a clothesline that sent him to the floor. Hall didn't have time to think before he'd suffered the same fate. While Hogan backpedaled, Dennis Rodman hopped to the ring apron and sprayed paint into Luger's eyes. A Hulkster shoulder drove him over the top, and the match was at an end.
The following night on Nitro, Flair cut a promo on Piper, verbally berating him and tearing his reputation as a leader to shreds. After announcing that Piper had dropped the ball, fans and critics alike saw something that had been missing for months. The fire had been reignited, the desire reclaimed. This was the Ric Flair we knew and loved, and he was here to stay.
Meanwhile, Mongo and Jarrett had, despite their personal dislike for one another, begun representing the Horsemen in the tag team ranks. After costing the Public Enemy a series of matches, the Horsemen had gained the team's full attention and a match at the upcoming Spring Stampede card. In the meantime, Benoit found himself in the first significant title shot he'd been granted since joining the Horsemen, a US Title shot against former tag team partner Dean Malenko.
The night didn't go according to plan, however, and McMichael let personal issues with Jarrett get in the way during their match. They lost the fight they'd requested against the Public Enemy, after a briefcase shot floored Double J and Mongo didn't bother to stop the count. Meanwhile, Benoit seemed to be well on his way to federation gold when Kevin Sullivan made his way to ringside. The Wolverine was readying himself to put Malenko away when Sullivan's role became more than that of a spectator. A bit of physical exchange later, and the ref had thrown the match out, ruling it a no contest. Sullivan had taken Benoit yet again.
chris benoit made a man of his former tag team partner,
dean malenko, at the 1997 spring stampede
Interestingly enough, Kevin Sullivan dropped from the public eye just after costing Benoit his US title shot. In his place stood Meng, who aimed to do the Taskmaster's dirty work for him in a "Death Match" at Slamboree. A bit peeved that Sullivan couldn't be bothered to do the deed himself, Benoit set out with a renewed vigor... ready to make an example out of the islander. Elsewhere, Flair and Roddy Piper had reformed their uneasy alliance against the nWo, who refused to go away. Despite their ongoing dislike for one another, their shared hatred of Hogan's stable was enough to unite the two in a six-man tag match on the approaching Slamboree card. Surprisingly, the two called on Kevin Greene to complete their roster, though Flair and the Carolina Panther had been butting heads less than a year before. Steve McMichael, the man who had turned his back on Greene to join the Horsemen, was nowhere to be found.
When the bell rang for Benoit, he wasted no time in throwing almost everything he had at the Samoan monster. After repeated attempts at wearing his opponent down had failed, Benoit went for a submission. Twice, he locked in the Crippler Crossface and twice, the Dungeon of Doom member reached the ropes. Benoit threw him out to the floor and used his only ally, his momentum, to fling himself out in pursuit. His suicide dive landed successfully, but moments later they were back into the ring. When Meng tried to fight back, Benoit reversed his efforts into a pair of crisp german suplexes. It was enough to wind Meng, and Benoit went up the top for his diving headbutt. The monster had been waiting for this moment, and clamped his Tongan Death Grip on at the moment of impact. Benoit was trapped in the middle of the ring, and after several failed attempts to punch his way out, finally lost consciousness. What should've been a relatively easy victory had gone the other way entirely for the Crippler, who dropped the match cleanly.
The unhealthy tandem of Flair, Piper and Greene were up next, meeting the original Wolfpac in its entirety, Kevin Nash, Scott Hall and Syxx. The match served as a homecoming of sorts for Flair, finally returning to action before a friendly Charlotte crowd. Ric showed us all he hadn't missed a beat, as he slipped into his old form as though it were an afterthought. Apparantly out to prove a point, Flair spent the majority of this match representing his team, and the nWo couldn't come up with an effective counter to his years of experience. When Scott Hall finally mounted an offense, Flair tagged in a fresh Roddy Piper. Before long, all six men were in the ring, and the ref had taken a fall. While the others brawled out on the floor, Flair and Hall were duking it out on the canvas. Kevin Nash smacked Flair through the ropes, giving Hall the chance to hit his Outsider's Edge, but instead of taking the plunge, Ric slipped out backwards and locked in the figure four. Nash came in to put a stop to that, but Greene took Big Sexy's knees out from under him and Piper was there to slap on a sleeper hold. Syxx desperately ran towards the melee, but the football star was waiting with a powerslam. With his comrades gasping for breath, Scott Hall passed out in the figure four, and referee Nick Patrick called for the bell.
The following night on Nitro, Syxx demanded a shot at the man, the myth, the legend, Ric Flair. Surprised and perhaps a bit amused, Flair wasted no time in strutting down to the ring. Smiling all the way, he accepted the smaller athlete's challenge and the match was set for later that very night. Not long after the match was made official, Waltman revealed the reasoning behind such a bold challenge: The Horsemen were to be banned from the arena, effective immediately.
Despite their protests, the group was indeed out of the arena by the time Flair's music filled the arena. The Nature Boy, manly man that he is, still stood proud on his way to the ring despite immeasurable odds. Syxx lay waiting in the ring, and the two almost instantly locked up. When Flair took the early advantage, the nWo wasted no time and jumped him, ending the match before it could really begin. As his teammates slaughtered the Nature Boy, Kevin Nash grabbed a mic and announced he was going to personally put Flair and Piper out of wrestling.
Hall and Nash put their tag team titles on the line against Flair and Piper at the Great American Bash, and the old rivals once again found themselves aligned against a common enemy. Many felt this would be the Outsiders' greatest chance to disable their older opponents, making good on Nash's promise earlier in the month. Others thought a loss might send the nWo as a whole spiraling downward, eventually falling like dominoes. Something had to give, and all signs pointed to the Bash as the instigator.
Early in the card, Chris Benoit and Meng went to the finish we should've seen a month earlier, as both men just kicked the ever-loving crap out of each other. Benoit somehow found a way to harm Meng, and finally locked in the Crippler Crossface in the middle of the ring. Meng passed out, granting Benoit the victory he needed on the home stretch of his ongoing feud with the Dungeon of Doom.
Piper and Flair tagged surprisingly well, for two guys who hate each other, and held a relatively comfortable advantage early in their match. Eventually, though, their years of experience as a team gave the Outsiders the advantage. Flawlessly merging their unique offensive styles as singles, they isolated Piper to their half of the ring, all the while taunting Flair, who remained helpless in his corner. Just as Piper appeared to be on his way to making the hot tag, Syxx ran out to ringside. Flair hadn't forgotten the beating he'd suffered as a result of his match with the cruiserweight, and took the opportunity to exact some revenge. With Piper slowly rising to his feet in the ring, Flair gave chase and ran Syxx to the back. Without a partner to tag, Piper was lost and Scott Hall eventually scooped him up for the win.
The next night on Nitro, Piper was furious. He demanded an explanation from Flair himself, who told the rowdy one he'd done what was best for the both of them. The explanation didn't satisfy Piper, and he made sure Flair knew it. One week later, the Scotsman continued his questioning of Flair's actions... only this time he got more than he bargained for. Flair again confronted him in the ring, now backed by his Horsemen (sans Jarrett). While Flair remained somewhat silent, Mongo and Benoit confronted Piper, who promptly attacked the two men. Ric was caught off guard by this turn of events, but when forced to choose between the Horsemen and Roddy Piper, his opinion was crystal clear. He assaulted Piper, who fought off the younger Horsemen and backed Flair into a corner. "The man" begged off in his own unique fashion, giving Mongo enough time to deck Roddy with his briefcase. As Benoit locked in the crippler crossface, Flair and McMichael stomped away on the Scot's exposed head. Just before the show went to commercial, the Horsemen left the ring together; the first sign of unity they'd shown in many months.
ric flair wasted no time, grooming curt hennig for
an immediate membership in the horsemen
Bash at the Beach was the next scheduled event for WCW, and the Horsemen were ready to make a name for themselves once and for all in the modern world of professional wrestling. With Arn still out, the three that stomped Piper out on Nitro became tighter than ever before, and to an increasingly disgruntled Jeff Jarrett, the roles were becoming pretty clear cut. The golden-haired superstar saw his spot in the fabled group fading away and there was nothing he could do about it. Luckily for him, Eddy Guerrero was there to lend an open ear. The two began spending more time with one another before the cameras, and it was no surprise to the viewing audience when they began accompanying each other to the ring on a somewhat regular basis.
On the Bash card, Benoit and Sullivan had once again decided to finish their feud, with Sullivan putting his career on the line for one last chance to embarrass the man who'd stolen his wife. In the same fashion they'd used to build their feud, these two tore it down in front of Woman and Miss Jacqueline, their respective valets. Though Benoit had his share of offense, the advantage was becoming clearly Sullivan's. As the older man readied himself for the finish, Jacqueline suddenly flattened him with a wooden chair. Benoit, surprised, gathered up what was left of his opponent for the pinfall, and Kevin Sullivan's active career came to a close. With Sullivan's departure, though, so came Woman's. Her appearances were becoming fewer and further between, and she soon stopped coming to the ring altogether. Benoit didn't seem to mind, as he jumped into the slot he'd been ignoring as a Horseman. With his partners in crime by his side and his long standing feud with the Dungeon of Doom finally at an end, Chris Benoit was ready to pick up the fight against the nWo.
Elsewhere, the former Mr. Perfect, Curt Hennig, had made his much-anticipated WCW debut. He immediately announced himself as the "biggest free agent in all of wrestling", proclaiming his services would go to the stable or organization that most impressed him with their offer. Flair took notice, as did Jarrett. In the weeks to come, the Horsemen, the nWo and WCW would all make an effort to acquire Hennig's services.
After weeks of rejection from his peers, Jeff Jarrett decided that he'd had enough. In the middle of a tag match with Steve McMichael, he turned his back on the Horsemen and devoted his focus to the sprouting partnership with Eddy Guerrero. Two weeks later, Flair made the split official when he announced the Horsemen didn't want anything to do with his failed protege. The remaining three stablemates attempted to break his pride with violence, but Jarrett had the last laugh. He'd walked away from the stable of his own free will and brought Debra McMichael with him. He and Mongo feuded briefly, which all ended when Double J left for the WWF.
In mid August, Arn Anderson stepped into the ring for one of the most memorable promos you're ever likely to see. Before a hushed crowd, the former TV and Tag champion announced his official retirement from the sport. A botched neck surgery had left him without full use of his left arm and would put his life in danger if he continued. The interview was particularly emotional, to the point where Ric Flair himself was weeping openly in the ring. Many backstage echoed the sentiment, including Sting and Roddy Piper. Eric Bischoff's response to the touching scene? "That's great TV."
Double A quickly proved he wasn't about to let his retirement affect the Horsemen, and nearly topped his retirement speech within the month. After Curt Hennig had avoided the issue of his promised spot in the stable time and time again, Anderson demanded an answer from the former Mr. Perfect. In another superb promo, Arn vacated his slot in the group, stepping into the empty managerial position Ole had left behind years ago. He immediately offered the space to Henning, but gave the words extra meaning, saying "I'm not just giving you any spot... I'm giving you my spot." Hennig finally accepted, and the four were complete again.
Not long after, the nWo assaulted the Horsemen head-on, mocking Anderson's retirement, Flair's mannerisms and Hennig's joining the group in a skit that's gone down in infamy. Flair and company were furious, and made the gravest of challenges; WarGames. So secure with their new lineup were they, that they were willing to risk it all in one of the most historically dangerous matches of all time. An almost B-team nWo roster accepted, and the match was set as such: Flair, Benoit, McMichael and Hennig against Nash, Syxx, Konnan and Buff Bagwell.
The night started off on a sour note, as Mean Gene was interrupted mid-shill by an early nWo attack on the newest Horseman, Curt Hennig. Flair and company didn't arrive on scene until it was too late, and Hennig showed a bit of frustration over their lack of assistance.
In the ring, Benoit and Bagwell started it off for their respective stables, as Benoit took a sound advantage. The nWo won the backstage coin toss, and Konnan was the next man in the ring, followed by Mongo, Syxx and Flair. The Nature Boy had things in the palm of his hand by the time Kevin Nash finalized the heel roster. Hennig finally completed the roster, arrived wearing an arm sling, and hesitated initially before turning full-fledged nWo. He reached into the sling, pulled out a pair of handcuffs, and locked his former partners to the cage while the rest of the heel faction took Flair apart. Hennig drug the thirteen time World Champ to the cage door and threatened to guillotine him, which forced Mongo to submit the match. Despite their compliance, though, Hennig slammed the door on Ric's head anyway, leading to a series of the most horrific screams you'll ever hear from a living man.
Days later, a defeated Flair disbanded the Horsemen through a telephone interview. As Starrcade approached, the Horsemen were scattered like dust in the wind. Instead of soaring with the eagles at the promotion's top card, the famed stable was in shreds. Benoit dropped his match to an unfamiliarly green Perry Saturn, Steve McMichael jobbed to a rookie named Goldberg, and Flair wasn't even on the card. Curt Hennig, though, carried the US Heavyweight title... a belt he dropped to DDP at that very event.
And so, 1997 ended... not with a bang, but with a whimper. Though Benoit was slowly building an unstoppable amount of momentum (eventually losing a best of seven series against Booker T in the TV title ranks), his former teammates were in a bad way. Flair's personal problems with Eric Bischoff had intensified to the point that Ric was sued by the promotion he'd helped create. It was all leading to one helluva triumphant return, and we weren't about to be let down. Check it all out as I wrap things up with part XII tomorrow.
until next time, i remain