Ringside Shadows #134: The Four Horsemen Complete History (part X: 1996)
Following an off center 1994 and a bizarre 1995, the Horsemen had somehow found themselves back on top of the hill. On paper, the roster was one of their strongest ever. Flair held the World Title, with Anderson as strong a backup as ever needed. The future of the stable seemed secure with two hungry young members, Chris Benoit and Brian Pillman. Both were riding their stars to fame at the time, both arguably ready to carry the legacy on into the coming decades when neither Flair nor Anderson could continue to lace up the boots. Hulk Hogan, the greatest enemy the four had known (both before and behind the cameras) had dropped from the public eye, and Randy Savage was proving to be a less than ideal replacement champion.
Brian Pillman had continued his feud with Kevin Sullivan and the Dungeon of Doom, begun during the later months of the last year, and Sullivan had included the rest of the Horsemen in his assaults (as evidenced by Benoit's loss on the big Starrcade card of 1995.) His interference didn't sit well with Flair, Benoit, or Anderson... but Pillman took notable exception. The two took part in multiple run-ins, brawls and schmozzes throughout the following weeks, all of which were meant to culminate at the upcoming Superbrawl card in a "Respect" match between the two. Since neither had shown even a trace of respect for the other, this would likely have served as the big blowoff for their feud. Their rumored real life troubles behind the scenes, however, where Pillman felt Sullivan (then head booker of the promotion) was responsible for holding him back, were another story entirely. If anything, the match had the potential to further distance the two in the long run.
In the meantime, the Horsemen had collected yet another new manager, through their own characteristically sneaky measures. Following his loss at Starrcade, Randy Savage made an appearance on Nitro to challenge Flair to a rematch at the very same Superbrawl event that would see the Sullivan vs. Pillman blowoff. By his side were two lovely ladies, Woman (whose attempts to buy out the Horsemen years earlier never came to fruition) and his own mainstay and ex-wife, Miss Elizabeth. Their appearance was a shock to the viewing audience, but not nearly so much as Woman's turn and attack moments later. Waiting until Savage had issued his challenge, Woman revealed her true colors by jumping him right there in the ring, leaving Elizabeth to console her former husband while she walked out to join the Horsemen. Savage would have the last laugh though, tricking Flair into a World Title match on Nitro weeks later, and taking the belt home with him. The Superbrawl rematch was still slated, but it now held a whole new meaning to Flair.
Pillman and Sullivan were the first in the ring together, and the crowd was naturally rather hot for their "respect" match. A stipulation had been added in the days leading up to the match, making this a strap match, in addition to the existing stip. The two tangled for less than a minute, before Pillman busted out the first memorable swerve of the 'smart' crowd by suddenly grabbing the mic and shouting "I respect you, bookerman!" He then walked from the ring, laughing like the complete nut he was supposed to be.
The real story gets a bit more interesting; Sullivan and Pillman had played the whole scenario as a hush-hush sort of deal, taking every precaution not to let anyone in on what they were about to do. Everything was a work, from the rumored tension between the two backstage to what actually went down at the event. Like I said, they told nobody... not even their coworkers and higher-ups. When Pillman asked WCW for his release a few days later, booker Sullivan thought he was just playing the role, but the WCW office had bought the gimmick. They gave it to him, and he signed his way out of WCW in a whirlwind. He'd used Sullivan for everything he was worth, and now had what he wanted: a golden road that led straight to the WWF. On the pay per view, moments after Brian's famous words, Sullivan stood around in the ring for a couple minutes while announcers struggled to figure out what to say, who to say it about and how to say it. Assuming something had gone terribly wrong, Arn ran out to the ring and threw himself into Pillman's abandoned slot. Those two went at it for a couple minutes, before Flair came out and broke the whole mess up. The whole thing came off as very awkward and strange, even without any knowledge of the backstage scenarios leading up to it. Is it any wonder why Pillman's "crazy" gimmick went over so well?
While officials tried to sort out what had happened earlier in the event, Flair and Savage stepped out to entertain the paying customers in a cage match for the World Title. Woman stood alongside the then-twelve time champion of the World, amidst pyro, feathers and "theme to 2001" while Elizabeth was her timid self next to Savage. The two took their time stepping into the confined metal cube, but jumped right into a heated brawl once both had made their way inside. Flair took an early advantage, and nonsensically floored the ref without much rhyme or reason. Maintaining the advantage, he then sent Savage into the cage, diced him up with solid knife edge chops in the corner, and climbed to the top turnbuckle. As always, this is the signal to his opponent that it's time for the big slam from the top, and in this occasion Savage was more than happy to oblige. Adding a little insult to injury, Savage then locked the figure four on Flair, but before too long the challenger had broken it. Macho Man reached the roof of the cage and attempted a flying assault from way up, but Flair nailed him on his way down. Running with the momentum, Flair sent the champ into the cage wall before locking in with a figure four leglock of his own.
Eventually breaking the hold, Savage took the cue and quickly jumped to the advantage. The champion then sent his assailant headfirst into the cage, effectively busting open both the door and Flair's forehead. Taking note of the open entrance, Woman reached into her pocket and lobbed a cloud of powder at Savage, but the Macho Men managed to duck clear. And then the unthinkable happened. Unseen by the otherwise occupied Savage, Miss Elizabeth passed her high-heeled shoe to Flair through the cage door, who immediately used the feminine object to its utmost advantage. Flair then made the cover, and it was official. The three new companions left head the arena together, skipping to the head of the line for Space Mountain and leaving Savage a mess in the ring.
With the audden departure of Brian Pillman, the Horsemen had a couple problems to deal with: Savage was more pissed than ever and after blood, Kevin Sullivan was stuck in an ongoing feud with the stable that had yet to be resolved, and they were down one member. The problems, though, soon took care of themselves.
Chris Benoit rose to the challenge abandoned by Pillman, making use of a poor draw at the 'Battle Bowl' wild card tag tournament. The gimmick in this tourney had a wild card drawing at the opening, with random singles wrestlers thrown into the mix. One name at a time was drawn, with every two consecutively selected athletes working as a team, for better or for worse. As fate would have it, Benoit ended up paired with Sullivan in an opening round against the Public Enemy, and it was more Crippler vs. Taskmaster than a tag match. Not surprisingly, they lost in the opening round, which furthered the hatred between them. Benoit had the Horseman name and reputation at stake: that was all the motivation he needed, and Sullivan had reasons of his own as well. Woman had begun accompanying Benoit to the ring on a regular basis, and her recent real-life split with the head of the Dungeon was more than an issue. The Horsemen played their cards perfectly, announcing that it was Benoit who had shown her the err of her ways as Sullivan's wife. Enraged, Kevin set after Benoit for forcing the divorce that had 'forced him' to join the Dungeon of Doom.
benoit and sullivan simply mauled each other
at the 1996 great american bash.
The Wolverine and the Taskmaster took it to each other hardcore style at the 1996 Great American Bash PPV. "Since no ring could hold them", it was a falls count anywhere match. "Since there had to be a winner," it was no holds barred. These two just unloaded on each other, letting go with all their on-screen frustrations and, I'm willing to bet, many of their off screen ones as well. The end result was two men nearly killing each other in a wild fight that stumbled throughout the arena. They took it into the bathroom. They fell down a flight of stairs. They went to the loading docks. Benoit finally took home the victory after a suplex from the top of a table. The Horseman had won the battle, but the war was far from over.
Meanwhile, Flair went about business as usual. With Elizabeth anything but a constant by his side and Woman choosing to spend more and more time with Benoit, the Nature Boy was getting a little lonely. The new object of his affections was officially taken (as the ring on her finger told us), but that was never something that stopped the Nature Boy in the past... why should it be so different with Debra McMichael? While husband Mongo was at the announce position butchering calls and letting his attention wander, Flair was hot on the heels of the former Chicago Bear's wife. Once McMichael caught wind of what had been going down, he was outraged. He confronted Flair and was promptly put in his place by the World's champion. Pissed at his wife, himself, but most of all Flair, Mongo recruited the help of his NFL buddy, Kevin Greene. The two signed a one time only tag match against Flair and Arn Anderson, with the reassurance of a gold-hungry Randy Savage in their corner.
Come match time, the ringside area was getting more than a little crowded. Greene and McMichael were escorted to the ring by their wives and Savage, while Flair and Anderson had Benoit, Woman and Elizabeth in their corner. As the match hit the midway point, Flair's lady friends covered for the paused action in the ring by giving chase to the women in the opposite corner. The various escorts ran around the ring for a moment, before high tailing it backstage for the remainder of the match. This gave Benoit and Savage a bit more breathing room out on the floor, if only momentarily. Greene was on the receiving end of the Horsemen's offense when Elizabeth, Woman and Debra pranced back to the scene of the crime. Debra carried a sealed briefcase, which she cracked open for her husband to examine. Inside was an enormous amount of money, covered only by the dark fabric of a Horsemen T-Shirt.
McMichael took a moment to weigh his options, but when Greene interrupted his thought process with a tag, Mongo had seen enough. He floored his former partner with the briefcase, allowing Flair to take the easy pin. Together with the Horsemen for the first time, McMichael joined in as the assault began. There wasn't much that Savage or Greene could do, as the four men cleaned house and left their opponents lying beaten in the center of the ring.
After the addition of Steve McMichael to their roster, the Horsemen made an attempt to tie up any loose ends. The first matter on their plate was this lingering feud with Kevin Sullivan and his Dungeon of Doom, which still clung to them after months of tedious matches. Anderson and Benoit took on Sullivan and the Giant (then a Dungeon of Doomer himself) at the Bash at the Beach PPV, but the Horsemen couldn't get it together for long enough to put the other men away. The Giant held most of the offense, as he was on his way to the top, and Sullivan had the last laugh on this occasion.
In retaliation, Ric Flair was given a US Title shot against another member of Sullivan's stable, Konnan. The match went down on Nitro, and the Nature Boy held the K-Dogg in the palm of his hand throughout. Following several failed comeback attempts, Flair quit playing with his prey and brought home the sixth US Title of his career. Elsewhere, Chris Benoit was enjoying some time away from his long-standing feud with Sullivan. He met Dean Malenko at Hog Wild in a brilliant technical masterpiece. Originally given a half hour time limit, the two were still going strong as the bell rang to signal the match's end. Officials decided that a five minute overtime was in order, and the former partners quickly drained the additional time, ending the match with what appeared to be a second time limit draw. Finally, yet another five minute overtime resulted in a decision: Benoit's hand raised high. Though the match was a thing of beauty, the irritable Sturgis crowd paid no heed and nearly killed the mood for the rest of the night.
the finalized horsemen lineup of 1996:
mcmichael, flair, benoit and Anderson
Elsewhere, a couple former WCW employees had wandered back onto the scene after some years in the WWF. Scott Hall and Kevin Nash had dropped by "where the big boys play", and the ultra-hot nWo gimmick had just begun. Recognizing the immediate threat to their thrones, the Horsemen abandoned each of their other ongoing rivalries to pursue this new challenge. Slowly drifting back to their abandoned roles as the establishment's favorite sons, the Horsemen were granted an opportunity to wipe out the newcomers at WarGames 1996. Realizing their common enemy, Sting and Lex Luger approached the Horsemen and suggested they join forces at the event and, hoping to destroy the faction before it became too strong, Flair accepted. Benoit and McMichael stepped down and offered their spots in the caged match to the new volunteers.
A bit frustrated over giving up his spot in the main event, Chris Benoit opened up the card against a new lightweight making his WCW debut. Though it wasn't their first meeting, nor would it be their last, Benoit's road wouldn't cross with Chris Jericho regularly until years later, when both were members of the WWF. Regardless, the two tore it up here, both working a much tougher style than their later meetings under Vince's eye. As an interesting bit of trivia, during the early moments of this bout, Benoit locked Jericho into a hold that's eerily similar to the liontamer. Weeks later, the young "Lionheart" adopted the maneuver as his regular submission finisher. Their stupendous, curtain-jerking match in this instance ended with Benoit finally gaining the pinfall with a superplex from the top, Dynamite Kid-style.
As the main event grew near, the tension one could sense within the arena was growing almost unbearable. The nWo had won a backstage coin toss, giving them the ongoing advantage, but still had one more trick up their sleeve. Joined by new leader Hulk Hogan, Hall and Nash's "Team nWo" was still one man short in this four-on-four match. Arn Anderson was the first man in the ring for "Team Horsemen," and Scott Hall played leadoff for the nWo. Minutes later, Kevin Nash entered the ring as participant number two, and the Outsiders proceeded to kick Double A around the ring for several moments before Lex Luger evened the sides. Luger cleaned house, hitting several clotheslines and powerslams before Team nWo took the momentum back with Hogan's entrance. Before long, Luger had been isolated by Hall and Nash, while Anderson and Hogan climbed their way into the second ring to face one another in private.
Flair was in next, igniting the crowd, and made a beeline for Hogan and Anderson, over in the second ring. Just as things appeared to be completely in favor of WCW and the Horsemen, the mysterious fourth nWo member revealed himself... it was Sting. The Horsemen in the ring stood shocked at the turn of events, as Luger openly questioned his friend's turn for the dark side. Keeping silent, Sting suddenly turned and attacked Luger, leading into an all-out beat down for the three. Finally, right on cue, a second Sting made his way to the ring, this time supporting Flair, Luger and Anderson. With the nWo nearly defeated, Sting stopped dead in his tracks, asked his teammates why they didn't trust him, and calmly walked out of the match. Taking advantage of their new strength in numbers, the nWo methodically took apart their broken opponents, and finally isolated Luger. Locked in a scorpion deathlock by the nWo Sting, Lex tapped out and cost his teammates the match.
In the days after the WarGames, the Horsemen and Luger had several violent disagreements, as Lex had cost them the match and the opportunity. Sting, however, was nowhere to be found. When he turned his back on WCW, he meant it. Regardless, Arn Anderson put the Horsemen's name on his shoulders and carried it on to a feud against Luger, while Flair defended his US title both here and abroad. In Japan, Flair granted a title shot to former champion Kensuki Sasaki, unfortunately injuring his shoulder during the match. When he returned to America, it quickly became obvious that Flair wouldn't be able to compete for some time, and soon thereafter, the US title was vacated. Moments after being stripped of the title, Flair was the victim of a brutal nWo assault, courtesy of Eric Bischoff and the Giant. Bischoff would go on to claim the nWo "put Flair out of wrestling."
With the other Horsemen a bit lost in their leader's absence, Flair personally recruited Jeff Jarrett to fill the role he had vacated with his absence. Though this added a bit of salt to the nWo's wound, as Jarrett had turned down an earlier offer to join their ranks, it didn't sit well with Benoit or McMichael. Regardless, Ric endorsed him as an unofficial member and Jarrett went about imitating the thirteen-time World Champ as best he could. He debuted the Jarrett strut, continued using the figure four, and did just about anything moral to get on Slick Ric's good side. As the other Horsemen slowly started to accept him, Jarrett began making moves on Debra, which incurred Mongo's immediate wrath. Arn had yet to state his position on the matter, as he was still busying himself with Lex Luger.
With the Halloween Havok card already upon us, the Horsemen found themselves stretched to the limit, with each member, both official and unofficial, in action on the card. Accompanied by Flair himself, Jeff Jarrett matched up with the Giant in a sort of grudge match, as it was supposedly the Giant's blows which had taken Flair out of action. The match was, primarily, an extended squash. Everything Jarrett tried was met with little or no success, and the match regressed into your run of the mill Paul Wight slaughter. The two went outside, and Flair ended it with a DQ, nailing a low blow on the Giant.
Luger and Arn Anderson entered the ring next, as Anderson aimed to decisively exact a sharp means of revenge on the man who had submitted at War Games. Arn grabbed an early advantage and remained true to the Anderson tradition, tearing Luger's arm apart from the very get go. While Luger took a moment to catch his breath, Arn landed a quick spinebuster near the ropes. As the Double A made the cover, Luger used the ring position to his advantage, forcing the break from what should've been a clean pinfall. Sensing victory, Arn looked to land a DDT, but Luger blocked it. As the two took it to the floor, the ref was inadvertantly knocked to the ground. Lex noticed this and grabbed a chair, flattening the Horseman and rolling him back in the ring. As the referee came to, he noticed Luger placing Anderson in the torture rack and rang the bell.
Benoit and McMichael stepped up next, hoping to turn things around for the Horsemen unit in their match against the Faces of Fear, Meng and the Barbarian. Meng started the match in charge, opposite Steve McMichael, who was already looking for a tag. After finding himself isolated in the wrong corner for a couple minutes, the former Chicago Bear found inspiration, landing several dropkicks and making the hot tag to Benoit. As both Meng and the Barbarian find themselves chastised by the ref for extensive double-teaming, McMichael took the opportunity to land a briefcase shot to the head... more than enough to merit successful Benoit pinfall, avoiding a clean sweep for the Horsemen.
After a particularly poor outing at Havok, the Horsemen found themselves stagnating on the verge of the premiere WCW event of the year, Starrcade. Flair was still nursing his shoulder injury, and Arn had taken some time off to undergo neck surgery. His last match before the extended leave of absence off was a tag team encounter, facing the Amazing French Canadians alongside McMichael. Due to a sad twist of fate, this would be his retirement match, as a WCW-recommended doctor botched the operation... leaving Anderson's left arm nearly useless. So ended an otherwise remarkable career, highlighted with monumental victories over both Hulk Hogan and Ric Flair. At the time, there were only a handful of men who could claim such an honor.
years prior to his retirement, arn anderson
stood tall as one of the few people
to defeat both hulk hogan and ric flair
When Starrcade finally crept around, Chris Benoit was the only active member of the Horsemen on the card, facing potential stable-mate Jeff Jarrett. His feud with the Dungeon of Doom was still ongoing, but had become so intertwined and convoluted by this point, few had noticed that it was still plugging away. With Flair visibly backing Jarrett, Mongo failing as a Horseman and Arn fading into the distance after neck surgery, Chris Benoit was sitting on the hot seat for the group. He still came to the ring with Woman by his side, yet his allegiances were constantly under fire. Flair seemed to be making room for Jarrett, which didn't sit well with the Crippler. Flair was a face, and the bookers hoped his backing of JJ would lend enough of a rub to launch a full babyface stint for the young protege, but the audience was just starting to notice Chris Benoit, and they liked what they saw. The end result? A heel that's cheered for his impressive, hard work and a face that's booed proportionally to the top heel.
When it was finally match time, Benoit gave the crowd just what they were beginning to expect from him: a rough, believable match from bell to bell. He tore Jarrett apart, stomping him through the mat, stiffening his blows just enough to remain credible, and having a good time of it. A couple minutes of that was enough for several viewers backstage, as Arn stepped from behind the curtain... followed by Dungeon of Doom members Kevin Sullivan, Konnan and Hugh Morrus. Double A finally revealed his opinion on the whole Jarrett deal, DDTing the guitar-toting pledge right into the mat. Had Benoit been paying attention, he could've grabbed an easy win, but his eyes were on Woman, who was the target of the Dungeon of Doom's assault at ringside. When the Wolverine tried to put a stop to it all, he was greeted with a solid wooden chair to the face... a gift from the taskmaster, Kevin Sullivan. Benoit fell back into the ring, and Jeff threw an arm on top for the win.
While the year began with a cohesive Horsemen unit, apparantly capable of just about anything, it closed with a stable in disarray. Flair had his heart set on Jarrett as the future of the organization, a decision which Benoit, McMichael and Anderson despised. Benoit, despite constantly proving his worth and loyalty, was "on the bubble" so to speak, while Flair pondered the future of the group. With Arn out of contention for the moment (as the surgery was supposed to be non-career threatening), a new slot was opened and Jarrett wanted it to be his. 1996 left us with several unanswered questions, and 1997 would give us more than one answer. See it all in part XI tomorrow, as we hit the home stretch of this epic series.
until next time, i remain