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 anybody 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 Flair or Anderson could no longer lace up the boots. Hogan, the greatest enemy the four had ever known (both before and behind the cameras) had dropped from the scene, and Randy Savage was proving to be less than an 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 begun to include the rest of the Horsemen in his assaults. His interference in Benoit's Starrcade match didn't sit well with any of the Horsemen, but Pillman took notable exception. The two took part in multiple run-ins, brawls and schmozzes throughout the weeks, all of which were meant to culminate at the upcoming Superbrawl card in a "Respect" match. Since neither had shown even a trace of respect for the other, this would likely have served as a blowoff for their lengthy feud. Their rumored real life troubles behind the scenes, where Pillman felt Sullivan (then the head booker of the promotion) was responsible for holding him back, added a whole new aspect to this already heated war.
In the mean time, 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 house the Sullivan / 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 actions only moments later. Waiting until Savage had issued his challenge, Woman had revealed her true colors by jumping him in the ring.. leaving Elizabeth to console her former husband while the former Mrs. Sullivan joined her new escorts, the Horsemen. Savage would have the last laugh though, tricking Flair into a World Title shot on Nitro weeks later and taking the belt back from his Starrcade opponent. The Superbrawl rematch would still go down, but it had a whole new meaning to Flair now.
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 played the first memorable swerve of the 'smart' crowd by abruptly 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 for his release from the promotion, head booker Sullivan thought he was just playing the role they'd laid out. The WCW offices, however, had bought the gimmick. They gave him the release he so desired, 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. In the moments after his Brian's famous words, though, 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 wrong between the two, 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 crowd was left to try to decipher what they'd just seen.
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 12-time champion of the World, amidst pyro, feathers and the "theme to 2001" while Elizabeth was her timid self next to Savage. The two took their time stepping into the confined metal cube, but started off quickly enough once they were both in. Flair took an early advantage and swiftly took out the ref without much rhyme or reason. Ric then sent Savage into the cage, following up with solid knife edge chops in the corner before going up top; always a mistake. Savage saw the opening and slammed Flair to the mat. Adding a little insult to injury, he then locked the figure four on Flair, but saw it broken before any damage could be done. The Macho Man attempted a dive from the top of the cage, but Flair nailed him on his way down. Ric ran with the momentum and sent him again into the cage wall, before schooling Savage with a figure four done right.
Savage broke it, and quickly jumped to the advantage. Flair made a couple attempts to escape the cage, which Savage blocked with a handful of tights. Flair went into the cage, busting open both the door and his forehead and Woman took notice of the open entrance. While Woman blew powder unsuccessfully at Savage, Miss Elizabeth did the unthinkable. Handing her shoe to Flair through the cage, Savage's former wife looked on as Flair clocked the champion, made the cover, and recaptured his World Title.
With the sudden 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' tag team tournament. An event that created the competing teams through a random drawing, the Battle Bowl had Benoit paired with Sullivan in the opening round against Public Enemy. The brawl turned out to be more Crippler vs. Taskmaster than a tag match. Not surprisingly, the makeshift tandem lost in the opening round, which furthered the hatred between them. Benoit had the Horseman name and reputation at stake, 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 given her the extra motivation she needed to leave her ex. Enraged, Kevin set after Benoit for cauing 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 two 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 smearing each other all over the arena. They took it into the bathroom. They fell down a flight of stairs. They went to the loading docks. Finally, Benoit 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 never stopped him in the past.. why should it be so different with Debra McMichael? While husband Steve 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 and 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 title-hungry Randy Savage in their corner.
By 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 girls chased Greene and McMichael's wives to the backstage area. This gave Benoit and Savage a bit more breathing room out on the floor, though it was only momentarily. While Kevin Greene was on the receiving end of the Horsemen's offense, Elizabeth, Woman and Debra pranced back to the ringside area. Debra carried a sealed briefcase, which she cracked open for her husband to examine. Inside was a large sum 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 made his decision. 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 Savage or Greene could do as the four cleaned house, leaving their opponents lying beaten in the center of the ring.
After the addition of McMichael to their roster, the Horsemen made an attempt to tie up any loose ends. They started their work with the ongoing Dungeon of Doom feud, which still clung to them after months of tedious matchups. Double A and Benoit took on Sullivan and the Giant (then a Dungeon of Doomer himself) at the Bash at the Beach PPV, with hopes of ending the war with a decisive victory. Instead, the Giant held most of the offense and the Horsemen found themselves pinned in convincing fashion.
In a form of 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 young K-Dogg in the palm of his hand throughout. After several failed comeback attempts, Flair quit playing with his prey and brought home the sixth US Title of his illustrious 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 time limit had elapsed. Officials decided a 5 minute overtime was in order, and the former partners quickly drained the additional time as well. Finally, a second 5 minute overtime gave us a decision: Benoit's hand raised high. Though the match was a thing of beauty, the Sturgis crowd paid no heed and sat on their hands throughout. A shame.
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 their other interests 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 their new rivals at WarGames 1996. Realizing their common enemy, Sting and Lex Luger approached the Horsemen and suggested they join forces at the event. Hoping to destroy the faction before it became too strong, Flair accepted. Benoit and Mongo graciously stepped down, offering their spots in the caged match to the new volunteers.
A bit disappointed 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, Benoit's road wouldn't cross with Chris Jericho regularly until years later, when both had left WCW for the greener pastures of the WWF. Regardless, the two tore it up here. Both worked a lot stiffer than their recent meetings under Vince's eye and gave life to a couple moves we haven't seen much of since. As an interesting bit of trivia, Benoit locked Jericho into the liontamer early on here, giving Y2J something to use as a finisher in the years to come. Though Jericho had Benoit beat in terms of speed and aerial maneuvers, Benoit's ring presence and experience gave him all the edge he needed here.
Shooting ahead to the main event, the nWo had won a backstage coin toss giving them the ongoing advantage in the WarGames battle, but still had one more trick up their sleeve. Joined by new leader Hulk Hogan, Hall and Nash were still a man down in the four on four match. Arn Anderson was waiting in the ring, and it would be a little while before the mystery man would stand revealed, as Scott Hall was the lead man for the nWo. Kevin Nash was the next man in and the Outsiders kicked Double A around for a bit before Lex Luger evened the sides. Luger cleaned house for a short period, before the recent WWF pilgrims took their momentum back. Hogan was the next out, and Luger and Anderson began kicking the holy hell out of him before he even got all the way into the cage.
Flair made his entrance, igniting the crowd, as the faces took a decided advantage. As Flair bestowed low blows upon all three nWo-ites, their surprise fourth member made his way out; Sting. The Horsemen in the ring stood shocked at the latest turn of events, with Luger openly questioning his friend's turn for the dark side. Keeping silent, Sting turned, paused, and then attacked Luger, leading to an all out beatdown. Finally, right on cue, another Sting appeared from the back in support of the Horsemen and promptly cleaned house. With the nWo nearly defeated, Sting asked his teammates why they didn't trust him.. and walked right out of the match. Taking advantage of their new strength in numbers, the men in black made an easy comeback 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 to rid themselves of a new threat. Sting, however, was nowhere to be found. When he turned his back on WCW, he meant it. Regardless, Arn 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 defended the belt against former holder Kensuki Sasaki, 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. His US title was vacated. Not long after being stripped of his gold, Eric Bischoff would sic the nWo on Flair, with the Giant beating him to the floor. Bischoff went on to claim the nWo "put Flair out of wrestling."
With the other Horsemen a bit lost in their leader's absence, Flair recruited Jeff Jarrett to fill the role he'd be physically unable to assume. Though this added a bit of salt to the nWo's wound (Jarrett had turned down an earlier offer to join them), it didn't sit well with Benoit or McMichael. Regardless, Ric endorsed him as an unofficial member and Jarrett went about imitating the 13-time Champ as best he could. He debuted the Jarrett strut, continued using the figure four, and did just about anything he could to stay 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 Halloween Havok already upon us, the Horsemen found themselves stretched throughout, with Flair accompanying his sponsored son, Double J, to the ring. Jarrett would be taking on the Giant in a sort of grudge match, as it was supposedly the Giant's blows which had taken Flair out of action. Arn Anderson and Lex Luger would attempt to blow off their brief feud in the middle of the card, and Benoit & McMichael found themselves teaming against the Faces of Fear further along.
Flair by his side, Jarrett climbed in for his match against the Giant and was promptly thrown from one end of the ring to the other. Everything Jarrett tried was met with little or no success, and the match regressed into your run of the mill Paul Wight squash. The two went outside and Flair ended it with a DQ, nailing a low blow on the Giant.
Luger and Arn stepped in next, with announcers reminding us of the reason for this ongoing feud. Arn started right off, working over Luger's arm while the Total Package softened Double A's back. Though Arn hit his trademark spinebuster, Luger used the ropes to his advantage, breaking the count. When the ref went down moments later, the two went to the floor where Lex flattened his opponent with a steel chair. The official came to, saw Luger with the unconscious Double A strapped into the torture rack, and called for the bell.
Benoit and McMichael stepped up next, hoping to turn things around for the Horsemen against the Faces of Fear, Meng and the Barbarian. Following what was otherwise a prolonged squash, Mongo managed to shift the momentum back in favor of the Horsemen with a briefcase shot to Meng's head. Benoit fell on top for the three, avoiding a clean sweep of 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 absence was a tag team encounter, alongside Mongo, facing the Amazing French Canadians. It would be his last, as the infamous WCW doctors botched the operation, leaving his left arm almost useless. So ended an otherwise remarkable career, highlighted with victories over both Ric Flair and Hulk Hogan.
arn anderson, whose career ended in late 1996, seen here victorious over hulk hogan.
When Starrcade finally crept around, Chris Benoit was the only active member 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 noticed it was still plugging away. With Flair visibly backing Jarrett, Mongo failing as a Horseman and Arn fading into the distance after his 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 and sat even worse with Mongo, who was losing his wife to the new teammate. Flair was a face, and the bookers hoped his backing of JJ would lend enough of a rub to launch a full babyface stint.. but the common man 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 a new one, stomping him through the mat, stiffing just enough to remain credible, and having a good time of it. A couple minutes of that was enough for Arn Anderson, who 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 had begun with a cohesive Horsemen unit, apparently 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.