Twenty-three years ago today, the WWF was embarking on a voyage to finally find a viable top-level face to replace the now-jettisoned Hulk Hogan. While the company still had a very nice roster filled with good wrestlers and memorable personalities, it was clearly lacking THE GUY that could replace the Hulkster as the face of the company and the hero to children. Bret Hart had the credibility and had been well established as a guy that could hang with the big boys, but they clearly wanted someone with more charisma and … well, a bigger dude to take over for Hogan. After Yokozuna defeated Hogan to regain the WWF Title at King of the Ring, the company had to make two decisions: Who would take the mantel from Hogan and how quickly would they become champion?
That second question was a tough one. If you are following the Hogan template, the smart move would be to act aggressively and have your Chosen One wreck the champion and quickly ascend to the top. It worked for Hogan in 1984 and they attempted it later with Diesel in 1994. You can argue the results there, but initially it certainly seemed to work.
So, go for it, right? Put the new guy over fast and strong and then go from there. One problem. They just did that at WrestleMania. With Hulk Hogan. And he bombed and moved on. Do it again and you pretty much kill off Yokozuna and go right back to the well immediately after. It was a tough spot, but not an unmanageable one. And before they could even determine which path to go, they had to first find the wrestler to move forward with.
With the date and place set for the big unveiling of their new top superstar, the WWF had to make this one count. Failed comeback and dimming star or not, Hulk Hogan did not have tiny boots to fill. It was certainly a big task to pull off in a relatively short time. Also, there were now some constraints in place. First off, the event would be taking place July 4 on the deck of an iconic warship, so it had to be steeped in a heavy dose of patriotism, further exacerbated by the fact that the champion was a foreigner. Secondly, the idea was that someone had to body slam the mammoth champion, playing off the fact Hogan never pulled it off.
It was a good storyline: the new Hogan would immediately do what the old, broken down one couldn’t do: Body slam Yokozuna. With those guidelines in place, let us pick through the roster and review all of the candidates for this role. Remember, I am not defending the mindset, but simply searching to see if there was anybody that was a better fit for the specifications the company wanted for the role.
Lex Luger: Obviously we already know how this one worked out, but it was certainly a hasty choice and ended up doing damage in multiple ways: He didn’t turn organically and it felt completely against his current character to do what he did and it also left a decent gap on the heel side of the upper part of the card. They didn’t turn anyone heel to offset all the work they had put in building the Narcissist up as a top player, and due to his lack of natural build (ahem) into the role, the whole thing just felt very hollow. I am not saying he was the worst choice, but they went about it in the worst way possible.
Mr. Perfect: In what is surely going to be a running theme, Mr. Perfect is a great candidate based on name value and workrate, but when you look to what the company wanted in this role, he misses out in a few ways. Plus, he was on borrowed time with his back anyway. On top of all that, him slamming Yoko makes no sense and that was a key part of this. He could have been a good guy to sneak in a challenge on TV but not to ascend to be the guy.
Crush: Here we have a very interesting option that I believe was potentially one of the most viable choices they had. He was still pretty young, he had the look, he was a very believable choice to easily slam Yoko while not looking forced, he had some natural charisma, and was fairly well-protected until a few speed-bumps during his feud with Doink. The big downside here was Crush was pretty rough in the ring and was not a great talker. But I think he at least checks off most of the boxes and matched up well with Luger in Lex’s strongest categories and should have been in consideration.
Bret Hart: I love Bret Hart. I do think he was underutilized in this stretch, but like Mr. Perfect, he just didn’t fit the look they wanted at this point. You can argue about why that is stupid, but the goal here is to find a match for what the company wanted at the time and the Hitman just wasn’t big enough to pull it off. By 1994, the company realized he could lead the way if properly pushed.
Hulk Hogan: I am guessing this one wouldn’t fly … but Hulk Hogan marching off the helicopter and slamming Yokozuna to set up a big SummerSlam rubber match where he wins and then eventually puts over the next star could have been a serviceable stopgap IF he committed to being on TV more. That was unlikely to happen, so we can move along.
Undertaker: I included Undertaker here for two reasons. 1) He was a top star on the face side and has to be in any of these discussions. 2) Seeing Undertaker step off the helicopter would have been awesome, especially if he opened his cape to show off the American flag like he did later in the year. The only issue here is that while the fans loved Taker, he didn’t have the crossover appeal the company wanted in its top ace. A good candidate, but not the candidate.
Tatanka: He was quite over in 1993 and still riding his undefeated streak. It would have been believable enough if he came out and said he never got a title shot despite his perfect record and would force his way into one. Negatives are his size, an outdated gimmick (that could work if they focused on him bringing respect to his Native American heritage) and his promo ability, which was quite weak. Tatanka was a nice choice as the top guy’s buddy, but not really plausible to carry the promotion.
Randy Savage: A sentimental choice and while he still had plenty of gas in the tank, as we would see, he was better suited as the backup to the top guy at this point. He was criminally misused at this point by the WWF, but this role wasn’t the right one for him.
Scott Steiner: This is my favorite case to discuss and while there were some legitimate roadblocks, it would have been a bold option that could have really paid off in a big way. Steiner had the strength, a good look, the credibility, the workrate, and the kind of bizarre charisma that could connect with the crowd to go with some hybrid Hulk Hogan/Ultimate Warrior-style promo work. Even at this time, his promos were a bit off and you can confidently assume he develops on the stick the same way he did in reality. The mark against him is obviously his height, as he checked in at just 6’1″, three inches shorter than Luger. The other major sticking point was that he was unwilling to leave his brother Rick behind. So … you could make Rick the Brutus Beefcake to Scott’s Hogan. They could team still, cut promos together, be the new MegaPowers, whatever. Let him work Japan here and there too. Roll out the red carpet and push the shit out of him. Steiner was fresh and ticked all the boxes. Sure he wasn’t homegrown, but neither was Luger. If I were Vince in 1993, Steiner would have been my No. 1-B choice.
Razor Ramon: And here is my No. 1-A choice. Another guy built to last with a great look and gimmick. He could work and talk and had main-event credibility in the WWF. He was on the verge of an organic face turn anyway in a few weeks and could have still kept the majority of his gimmick in place. Even though he initially was portrayed as Cuban, that can be swept away as part of the fallout of the slam. Or just have him gain his citizenship during the build if you want to stick to the “immigrant realizes the American Dream” type deal. For a guy that was always on the edge of the main event scene, this could have been the chance to give him a reason to break through. He was also getting quite over around this time, so it wouldn’t have been forced and this could have sealed it. The more I write about this one, the more I like it. And of course, he was certainly big enough to be believable as a slammer of the mammoth champion; checking in at 6-7, Ramon had the perfect height and look.
So, after running through the list of possible choices, I think we have two very good options in Steiner and Ramon, one potentially good option in Crush, and then a failsafe in Bret Hart. If you go with the Hitman, you have to take a different path than the slam. The other three give you the chance to follow the course that was laid out. I think Crush is a step behind Steiner and Ramon in both promo skill and workrate so he falls off my list. Steiner was already was the “All American” based on his collegiate work at Michigan and while it could have been a real risk it also may have paid off in a much more successful way than what happened. The issues here are his height and his likelihood to refuse to break up his team or give up his work in Japan. I like the Steiner option a lot, but Razor Ramon feels like the better bet to pay off. He had the size, charisma, promo skills, and was being pushed into face territory by the fans anyway. Plus, in this scenario, we get to keep Luger as an arrogant prick heel, where he was most comfortable and also embroiled in a fun feud with the Hitman. You could turn Lex down the road but it wouldn’t have been as forced as it was this time around. If it happens that way, his run may be salvaged and he sticks around with much more success.
So, let’s go with Ramon and play things out. After Yoko is unable to be slammed by the wrestlers and athletes gathered, Razor Ramon shockingly arrives on the helicopter and says while he hasn’t always been the most patriotic guy in the world, he is tired of hearing Fuji and Yokozuna trash talk America and the WWF fans. He came to America to become successful and will defend it to the death. One (legitimate) bodyslam later and Ramon is a made man. You can even still have the now severed ties to Bobby Heenan, who has been an ally of Ramon since his debut, to help solidify his turn. Instead of the Lex Express, Ramon goes on a victory tour around the country, picking up key wins up and down the roster, saying he is proof that you have to earn what you desire. After grabbing hard fought wins over Mr. Perfect and Randy Savage on back-to-back weeks of Raw, Ramon gets his SummerSlam title shot and wins the gold. If you want to push a guy, push him. Yokozuna is big enough and bad enough to be rebuilt despite losing again here. He can still move on to a feud with Undertaker but now Ramon immediately is positioned as the top dog and it’s proven because he has the gold.
From there, you have plenty of options: Does Mr. Perfect go heel again and challenge the Bad Guy? How about Lex Luger now, still a natural heel? You can still have him feud with Shawn Michaels in 1994 once Michaels gets elevated a bit. With Ramon out of the IC Title picture, you can have Tatanka win the battle royal in September, cashing in on the gold he never got and paying off his undefeated streak with a major win. And at WrestleMania X, we get the big money match between Razor Ramon and Bret Hart. If Razor is clicking, you give him the big marquee win. If things are sagging, Hart goes over and you reshuffle again. But I do know this: In summer 1993, Razor Ramon was a much better bet as your organic, believable long term main event ace than Lex Luger.
July 4, 1993 is a famous date in WWF history, but it could have been even more important if it had actually launched the next Hulk Hogan. Instead, it just launched another failed attempt at filling his massive void and stalled the rebirth of the fallen Titan instead of resuscitating the sagging promotion. It would be four more years before the company stumbled upon that megastar, but with less hasty machinations and a better scrubbing of its roster, things could have been rebuilt even sooner.
Could Razor Ramon have been Hulk Hogan? Probably not. But time has shown, whether it is 1983, 1993, 1998, or 2013, the most transformative stars in wrestling history were those the fans wanted to see pushed. In July 1993, the Bad Guy was it. Lex Luger was not.
¿Quién es más macho?, indeed.