Tag Archives: Essential Viewing

Essential Viewings: Sabu vs. Rob Van Dam — Hardcore Heaven ’96

Some wrestling matches are great because they feature talented athletes showing off what they can do in the ring. Others are unforgettable because of their theatrics and high-level storytelling. Still more are memorable because of the crowd’s investment in the match. Some matches are all these things. Those are the ones that are truly essential viewings.

It’s Harley Race’s reluctantly agreeing to give up being “the man” and make way for Ric Flair. It’s the real story of Wrestlemania III, when Andre helped Hulk Hogan make as big as he could get by letting him do the impossible. It’s also what Hogan tried to do with the Ultimate Warrior, and would refuse to do for Bret Hart, Lex Luger and even the Undertaker. Whichever popular example you choose, one wrestler “passing the torch” successfully to another rising star boils down to three equally important parts:

  1. Identifying “the next big star,”

  2. Working closely with him, and

  3. Dedicating all possible effort into making him a star.

If you’re looking for a well-executed example of all these steps, consider the following match from ECW Harcore Heaven 1996. Herein you will see an example of the elusive “make job” match, an ECW classic between Sabu and Rob Van Dam.

In the early minutes of the match, commentator Joey Styles refers to Sabu as “wrestling’s human highlight reel,” an apt description of a man who has innovated some of the most spectacularly athletic and acrobatic spots of the last twenty years. However, Styles’ words ring almost too true, as Sabu, while legendary, is a wrestler so many fans know through short clips, “top ten” videos on YouTube, and, of course, Botchamania. The top five spots ever executed by Sabu are among wrestling’s most impressive moments, but he gave his all to a suicidal level, attempting his signature flips and bumps in seemingly every match. Sabu gave every single thing he was a part of “big match” feel, but his body simply couldn’t keep up with being Sabu every night. And that’s why when Sabu, the most innovative performer of an era, was good he was very, very good and when he was bad he was horrid.

Van Dam was famously trained by Sabu and his uncle The Sheik Ed Farhat, so this match represents a fascinating moment in a mentor-student relationship. When his jobber run in Bill Watts’ WCW ended, Van Dam found himself connected to a major player in Paul Heyman’s ECW. Six months before this match, RVD debuted in the territory, and after establishing himself with a few matches, moved right into a hot feud with his teacher Sabu. What resulted was one of the most successful angles of all time, in that Van Dam’s performances against Sabu instantly made him a huge babyface and a made star relevant more than fifteen years later. This match is a testament to both men, but above all, it speaks to Sabu’s immense pride in the brand of his uncle, The Sheik. Sabu trusted that Van Dam could be a top wrestler and had belief in his skills because he had helped trained him. This enabled Sabu to put a degree of energy and thought into his series of matches with RVD that went above and beyond even his own high standards. Sabu helped create Rob Van Dam, who eventually eclipsed the teacher himself, out of old school pride: it was the right thing to do.

Just three months after this match, these two competitors went on to form an extremely successful tag team. RVD and Sabu could have been the biggest babyfaces anywhere because of their athleticism in the ring, but they instead took on the task of playing the heel sell-outs to the invading Jerry Lawler. The teaming worked in that it ensured that both men always had something to do in ECW, even with Sabu’s frequent extended absences from the fed. It also helped build RVD into a bigger and bigger star as he was featured heavily on ECW TV and received the rub of being on WWF Monday Night Raw.

Of course, Sabu was right all along: Van Dam, with his help, Paul Heyman’s help, and Vince McMahon’s help, ultimately became a huge star in the world of professional wrestling. So, here it is, Sabu at the height of his powers trying to get someone over, and Rob Van Dam at the beginning of his big-time run: Hardcore Heaven 1996.

Essential Viewings: “Stunning” Steve Austin vs. “Flyin'” Brian (WCW Worldwide, 1992)

Some wrestling matches are great because they feature talented athletes showing off what they can do in the ring. Others are unforgettable because of their theatrics and high-level storytelling. Still more are memorable because of the crowd’s investment in the match. Some matches are all these things. Those are the ones that are truly essential viewings.
Almost every wrestling fan knows the following story: Steve Austin was an undeniably talented midcarder in WCW, blocked from the main event by paranoid, egomaniacal stars and petty, small-minded bookers. Austin was unceremoniously fired by Eric Bischoff, who thought he was a boring nothing, but overcame that career-low to become arguably the biggest wrestling star of all time in just over two years. Everybody knows that story. But do they all know how great a young, pre-WWF Steve Austin really was?
Consider the following match against another tremendous young star of the era, Flyin’ Brian Pillman. At the time of this match, “Stunning” Steve Austin was WCW Television Champion and a member of The Dangerous Alliance, a group of extremely talented midcard heels comprised of Ric Rude, “Beautiful” Bobby Eaton, Arn Anderson, Larry Zbyszko, and Austin himself. The Alliance was named for ringleader Paul E. Dangerously, a mulleted Paul Heyman playing a younger, brattier version of the character Heyman plays today. Pillman, on the other hand, was coming off of a name-making run competing for the WCW Light Heavyweight Title (a precursor to the later, better-known Cruiserweight Title) against an array of talented wrestlers ranging from Jushin Liger to Ricky Morton. It was on the July Fourth edition of WCW Worldwide that these two grapplers found themselves on opposite sides of the ring and greatness ensued.
The match is fast-paced, simultaneously displaying the grace and execution of a well-practiced acrobatic show along with the grit and desperation of a legitimate struggle. Austin and Pillman whip each other to the ground with mean-looking takedowns and seem to apply great leverage to every pin and great effort to every kickout. Heyman sells tremendous concern at ringside, displaying old-school heelish fear that one of the wrestlers in his stable might lose a valuable championship title. The announcers, Tony Schiavone and Jesse Ventura, don’t shy away from describing the frenetic pace of the match, calling the action with an excitement level now reserved only for main events between top stars. Even the referee plays his part perfectly, never turning a blind eye to cheating, but also responding to pinfalls just slowly enough that a nail-biting true believer at home might say, “Pillman could have won if the ref had gotten there faster!”
Interestingly enough, these two adversaries were only six months away from becoming one of the definitive tag teams of the 1990s, The Hollywood Blondes. The Blondes would have a critically-lauded feud against Ricky Steamboat and Shane Douglas, become two-time Tag Team Champions, and set a standard for work in North American professional wrestling well above what WCW’s well-paid main event stars typically produced. Thanks to the political climate of WCW, however, the Hollywood Blondes were split up under somewhat suspicious circumstances just as they were becoming extremely popular. Despite their obvious skills, neither ever achieved main event status in WCW.
Austin and Pillman, both hungry, young lions at the time of this match went on to make an impressive mark on professional wrestling history in spite of the political forces stacked against them. Pillman became a member of both the Four Horsemen in 1995 and the Hart Foundation in 1997. His innovative “Loose Cannon” character, through which he worked both fans and other wresters masterfully, helped usher in the aptly-named Attitude Era of the late 90s. Stunning Steve, of course, went on to be “Stone Cold,” the definitive star of that same era and one of the biggest moneymakers in the history of professional wrestling.
Austin reached the top of the mountain, ultimately walking away from wrestling on his own terms. Pillman, on the other hand, died in late 1997 at the age of 35, one of the first high-profile victims in what would become a era of premature wrestling deaths. Though Pillman and Austin’s careers wound up going very different directions, this match shows a moment in which the two of them stood at the beginning of the path to greatness, bindles in hand, like two wide-eyed travelers.

Essential Viewings: Bret Hart vs. Randy Savage (SNME November, 1987)

Some wrestling matches are great because they feature talented athletes showing off what they can do in the ring. Others are unforgettable because of their theatrics and high-level storytelling. Still more are memorable because of the crowd’s investment in the match. Some matches are all these things. Those are the ones that are truly essential viewing.

Bret Hart and Randy Savage both reside atop the Mount Olympus of the WWE for good reason. Both were top-notch workers capable of looking great in the ring and making even the lowliest opponent look good. They had unique personalities that divided them from the pack, and while Macho Man’s over the top antics stood in stark contrast to Hart’s subtle charisma and quiet (at least at the time) confidence, each successfully crafted a character that  did what most in the wrestling world failed to do: follow Hulk Hogan.

During the Hulkster’s multiple unsuccessful attempts to become a movie star, Savage and Hart kept the WWF afloat and subtly introduced the crowd to a quality of match that would make it increasingly hard for the returning Hogan to get over. Sure, Hogan had a superstar personality, but the limitations of what he could do in the ring were slowly exposed by the World Championship matches offered by the Macho and Hit men.

At the time of this match, Savage was four months away from a year-long title reign and true main event status. Hart, on the other hand, was still part of a tag team which, while over, was dealing with a jam-packed division that featured the likes of The Killer Bees, Strikeforce, Demolition, and The British Bulldogs. This match is a perfect example of an occurrence all too rare in the “well, these checks are pretty good, so I don’t want to shake the boat” Hogan era: two hungry, talented wrestlers making the best case for their stardom to a national audience.

Consider this match, then consider the fact that immediately after it, Hulk Hogan wrestled King Kong Bundy to a countout.