I bought these two classic Wrestlemanias as they cover a key period in my time as a wrestling fan. I stopped watching wrestling towards the end of 1995 (I may have just about endured Royal Rumble '96) before getting back into it in late `99. This was due to my age (I was 13 and older than the target audience) and because the WWF was going through a frankly dire patch. As a result, I saw Wrestlemania XI at the time, but had never seen Wrestlemania XII. I have reviewed them here separately.
The aforementioned dire patch that the WWF was experiencing in 1995 is pretty much summed up by the card they put together for this Wrestlemania. Even on paper it looks bad. Moreover, the entire event smacks of budget restrictions, a lack of star power and poor booking. None of the matches have any real substance to speak of, and the show feels at best like another edition of the interminable `In Your House' pay-per-views that were introduced that year, or at worst like a slightly upmarket episode of WWF Superstars. It is surely one of the worst Wrestlemanias ever.
The opening match pitting Lex Luger and the British Bulldog against the useless Blu Brothers is mercifully short, and is followed by one of the card's better matches with Razor Ramon and Jeff Jarrett battling for the Intercontinental title. Both were good workers at the time although the match doesn't flow particularly. Ramon eventually wins via a disqualification, which was a fairly common finish in the pre-Attitude era. Following this, the Undertaker is saddled with a large and useless lump - as he would often be in the 1990s - in the shape of King Kong Bundy. Needless to say the match is only saved from being a complete lemon by Mark Callaway's efforts to make Bundy look competent, and he emerges the victor, as is par for the course at Wrestlemania.
Owen Hart and Yokozuna defeat the Smoking Gunns in another forgettable encounter, while Bret Hart beats Bob Backlund in an `I Quit' match which should have been much better than it ultimately was. Roddy Piper is the guest referee for this and is sadly underused. Speaking of being underused, this Wrestlemania took place at a time when Vince McMahon was still lead commentator, relegating Jim Ross - arguably one of the greatest wrestling commentators there has ever been - to an interviewer role previously reserved for the likes of Sean Mooney and Todd Pettengill. McMahon was never a great commentator, and his partnership with Jerry Lawler didn't quite work at this Wrestlemania or the next.
The WWF Championship is on the line between Shawn Michaels and Diesel in what is ultimately a very average and disappointing bout. In fact, the focus seems to be more on the "celebrities" at ringside (Pamela Anderson, Jenny McCarthy, Jonathan Taylor Thomas and some bloke nobody has ever heard of), who add nothing and celebrate with eventual victor Diesel at the end for some totally unknown reason.
The main event of the night is a bizarre one. Clearly, Vince McMahon was desperately trying to increase the company's fan base and his chosen method was to use NFL superstar Lawrence Taylor as a wrestler. This certainly sparked interest in the mainstream media, although the decision to pit him against Bam Bam Bigelow was probably not the best. Bigelow was my favourite wrestler at the time, but he was not a star. Had Taylor been pitched against Hart or Michaels, the interest may have been greater. As it turned out, Bigelow's profile was not high enough for a defeat to matter much, and his resistance to Taylor's incredibly stiff offence probably go some way to explaining his involvement. Taylor would have taken most people's heads off with some of his blows. The match is actually not bad, partially because WWF road agent Pat Patterson was used as referee in order to guide Taylor, who eventually wins.
The final match perhaps saves the event to a degree, but in truth as a major pay-per-view it is best forgotten. It wasn't the only low point that year though - it was only a few months later that Mabel (later to be come perennial jobber Viscera) was crowned King of the Ring...
I was intrigued to see this Wrestlemania, mostly because it followed such a poor effort the year before, but also because I had heard good things about it. I had already seen one match from it: the Hollywood back lot brawl which is featured on the Roddy Piper retrospective DVD.
The event only actually features six matches, as confusingly the WWF tag team title match takes place during the 30-minute pre-Wrestlemania show. This involves the Bodydonnas with their delightful manager Sunny (Tammy Sytch) beating the Godwinns in the final of the tag team title tournament, which is extremely average. This show also contains a totally unfunny and bitter skit which depicts `ironic' versions of Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage (the Huckster and Nacho Man) in a match refereed by `Billionaire Ted' (a reference to WCW owner Ted Turner). If anything was likely to make even more WWF viewers switch over to WCW, this kind of desperate attempt to claim the moral high ground was.
The first match of the actual event sees Vader, Owen Hart and the British Bulldog defeat Yokozuna, Jake Roberts and Ahmed Johnson in what is actually a good match with some strong story-telling. The excellent Yokozuna takes centre stage while Vader and Roberts both turn in good performances. The next match is interesting for the sea-change that it signifies: Savio Vega, a typical mid-card nobody from this era of the WWF, is beaten by Stone Cold Steve Austin, soon to be one of the sport's biggest stars when the Attitude era kicked off. Austin had arrived in the WWF under a `Ringmaster' gimmick which never took off, but on this evidence it was somewhat apt as his technical proficiency is clear at a time before injuries took their toll. In June 1996, he would memorably win the King of the Ring tournament.
Sadly, the WWF reverts to type in the next match with a typical short-term, headline-grabbing segment. The Ultimate Warrior returns for the umpteenth time to a huge ovation, and pointlessly beats another future megastar, Hunter Hearst Helmsley, in under two minutes. Things fortunately pick up soon after with a good big-man tussle between the Undertaker and Diesel. The Undertaker inevitably wins but not before an enjoyable encounter which both men emerge from with credit. In amongst all of this is an unusual bout for the WWF at the time: a Hollywood backlot brawl between Roddy Piper and Goldust, which is as brutal as it is ultimately silly. Its overt viciousness and laughable ending was in many ways a blueprint for WWF matches of the future.
Finally, Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart meet in an Iron Man match (another departure for the WWF) for the WWF title. Naturally the match is strewn with rest holds, but it is actually very good and doesn't drag on as would be the danger in such matches. Both men put in superb performances and make the closing stages essential viewing. This match and some of the others on the card certainly make for a better spectacle than the previous year, which wasn't hard to achieve but is still noteworthy.
Overall, these two Wrestlemanias depict a massive transitional period for the WWF, which was struggling to compete with WCW in almost all areas (an issue which would only get worse as 1996 wore on). Slowly but surely though, Vince McMahon was trying to make the transformation to the Attitude era, and evidence of this can be seen in Wrestlemania XII. By all accounts Wrestlemania 13 is very similar with things only really taking off Attitude-wise the year after that, as is well known. In 1995 and 1996 though, the WWF were just trying to keep their heads above water, and it shows.