This month marks 25 years since Hollywood megastar Dwayne Johnson made his professional wrestling debut. And while he’s carved out a career as one of the highest-paid actors in the world, to wrestling fans he will always be known as The Rock.
To coincide with The Rock’s 25th anniversary, I’ve decided to revisit the night “the most electrifying man in sports-entertainment history” debuted in WWE Survivor Series 1996.
Taking place in New York City’s iconic Madison Square Garden arena, the event considerably planted the seeds for the ‘Attitude Era’ boom that would happen in the following years. Tonight’s card serves up a mix of traditional Survivor Series elimination matches and standalone single matches, with one of them being considered a breakthrough match for one of its participants. Nevertheless, let’s step back in time to 1996 to watch The Rock’s debut and much more.
“Live from New York, it’s Satur… Survivor Series!” After a brief video introduction, we’re instantly given our first elimination match of the night as Tag Team Champions Owen Hart and the British Bulldog (with Clarence Mason) enter. Joining them is the seeming heel team of Marty Jannetty and Leif Cassidy – the New Rockers. Facing them is a team also making their WWE debut – Doug Furnas and Phil Lafon. On commentary, Jim Ross highlights the duo’s credentials including their success in All Japan Pro Wrestling. The Godwinns are the second half of the face four-man side.
There’s no real backstory here. Just four tag teams split off into two teams. Lafon begins the match with Jannetty, who is called a “geek” by Ross. The future Al Snow, Leif Cassidy plays the cowardly heel better than his partner, but they’re second fiddle to the Tag champs. The opening minutes sees members from both sides tagging in and out before Henry O. Godwinn delivers a “Slop-drop DDT” on Jannetty for the first elimination. However, Owen quickly eliminates H.O.G. via a leg lariat.
The Tag champs and Cassidy soon get an advantage as the Bulldog powerslams Phineas I. Godwinn to eliminate him. It’s clear that Furnas and Lafon are the focus, as their opponents cut off the ring to dominate Furnas. Lafon then eliminates Cassidy to make it 2 on 2. It goes back and forth until Lafon rolls up the Bulldog. Owen goes it alone as Lafon and Furnas show off their technical and powerful style. Furnas does a release German Suplex on Hart for the win after 20 minutes.
You’d think Furnas and Lafon would be set for big things going into 1997. However, by the start of 1998, they’d be gone from the WWE having never really got over.
Down in the MSG’s boiler room, Paul Bearer cries “I’m not going in that cage, I’m not an animal!” as he stands alongside Mankind preparing for the next instalment of his feud with The Undertaker. Back in the arena, a shark cage has been lowered as Mankind and Bearer enter. Next, “The Phenom” descends from above the MSG crowd with Batman-like wings.
Bearer goes into the shark cage to get away from ‘Taker before he’s lifted above the ring. This is one of the less remembered encounters between Undertaker and Mankind. However, it’s still compelling as Foley continuously dominates ‘Taker as the NYC crowd chant “Rest in peace.”. A lengthy mandible claw is reversed into a chokeslam, but Undertaker’s momentum is stopped as he misses a dive to exit the ring. Mankind pulls out a sharp object to stab ‘Taker in the forehead, although he doesn’t get busted open. Foley tries to but Taker soon gets him into a Tombstone position for the win. Afterwards, as Bearer is lowered down, The Executioner enters to attack The Undertaker while Bearer quickly leaves.
It’s certainly not on par with their Boiler Room Brawl or Hell in a Cell matches, yet it extends a classic feud.
Sunny joins Vince McMahon and JR on commentary as they throw to Dok Hendrix backstage. He’s with the quartet of Intercontinental Champion Hunter Hearst-Helmsley, Jerry Lawler, Goldust, and Crush. Hendrix mentions their opponents are apparently down to three men with Mark Henry being injured. Triple H aims his comments at Marc Mero while his partners cut generic “We’re going to be survivors.” promos.
The aforementioned foursome enters first individually, before The “Wild Man” Marc Mero, alongside Sable, are the first of their opponents to enter. There’s a brief argument between Sunny and JR on commentary regarding Sable. Next is The Stalker, better known as Barry Windham.
Then it’s the moment that would repeatedly be shown for the next 25 years. “Now there is gonna be the man right there. That blue-chipper right there,” proclaims Ross as Rocky Maivia makes his much-anticipated debut. With his beaming smile, floppy semi-afro, and Samoan-inspired blue attire, Malvia receives a good response from the MSG crowd.
Mero introduces Mark Henry’s replacement as Jake “The Snake” Roberts. With Revelations the snake in hand, a bloated Roberts scares off the heel team. Once the match starts, it’s tedious with members from both sides tagging in and out. Malvia hits a dropkick on Lawler, as JR compares it to his dad, Rocky Johnson. Interestingly, McMahon states “The former Dwayne Johnson” has taken part of his father and grandfather’s (Peter Maivia) names as a tribute. Furthermore, we see him lock up HHH in what would become one Rocky’s biggest rivals.
Veteran Roberts (41 years-old) hits a fury of punches to Helmsley. “The King” mocks a stumbling Roberts, alluding to his drinking “demons”, before Jake serves up a trademark DDT for the first elimination. Goldust evens it up with a curtain call DDT to the moustachioed Windham.
Goldust, Helmsley and Crush wear down Mero as Sable rallies him on. A Merosault sees Hunter eliminated to a big pop. Yet Mero’s eliminated by a stiff Crush punch to no reaction. The same happens to Roberts, leaving the rookie Malvia against Crush and Goldust. Rocky launches himself off the ropes for a double crossbody, before Goldust hits a sneaky low blow. Crush builds up another Heart Punch but misses and hits his partner. Another Flying Crossbody sees Crush eliminated. A dazed Goldust is then lifted up for a shoulder breaker as Malvia marks his debut with a win, and as the sole survivor, to a big ovation. The commentary team praise Malvia’s performance as he exits the arena. This match lasted longer then it probably deserved to, yet achieved its purpose – making Rocky MaIvia a star.
As documented plenty of times, Rocky’s favourable response wouldn’t last. His fired up babyface persona wasn’t appreciated by all. While an Intercontinental title win in February 1997 continued the momentum, it would be countered by “Rocky Sucks” chants. In hindsight, a fortunate knee injury in the spring would allow Rocky to return in August as a heel, marking his evolution into The Rock.
Next up is probably the second standout moment of the night – Bret “Hit Man” Hart vs “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. Since becoming King of the Ring in June, Austin had been used sporadically. While Hart had been absent since losing the WWE Championship to Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania. In the weeks leading up to tonight’s show, Hart returned to WWE television to accept Austin’s challenge. He had been goading Hart whenever possible.
Following a video package, Todd Pettengill interviews Austin backstage. He’s not intimated by the “Excellence of execution” and “That’s the bottom line”. After Austin enters MSG, Pettengill speaks to Hart. He comments on the importance of MSG and he promises Austin will respect him afterwards.
Hart enters to a huge reception and fireworks. McMahon says according to WWE President, Gorilla Monsoon, the winner of this match will get a future WWE title opportunity. Austin flips off Hart right in his face as they lock up. Ross says both men are in their prime. Austin perfectly matches Hart’s technical approach, hold for hold; wrist locks and take downs. Austin’s style is more methodical, compared to the brawler he would become during the “Attitude Era”s peak.
The momentum swings in Austin’s favour following a Stun Gun; dropping Hart throat first on the top rope, targeting the neck. They start exchanging right fists as Hart comebacks with a couple of Clotheslines, an Atomic Drop, and a Side Russian Leg Sweep. Austin drives Hart’s sternum into the corner. Hart avoids a Top Rope Suplex, countering with an Elbow Drop on to Austin. On the outside, Austin beats down Hart. Hart forces Austin over the barrier as referee Tim White tries to get control of the match. Austin slingshots Hart over the Spanish announce table. The Texan drops a stiff elbow on to Hart who rolls off. The MSG crowd chant for Bret, even though Austin is dominating him in the ring. There are soon dulling chants in favourite of best men.
Again both exchange right hands with Bret delivering a Gun Stun of his own. Hart goes up top but Austin delivers a Top Rope suplex. However, Bret attempts a quick pin for a 2 count. Both men get up as Austin hits a Stone Cold Stunner for a series of failed pinfalls. Austin then puts on a Texas Cloverleaf submission. Hart eventually reaches the rope as Austin holds on until White counts four. Austin whips Hart across the ring, sliding back first into the post. A bow and arrow submission from Austin is reversed as Hart attempts to put on his signature Sharpshooter without success. A Sleeper-hold is reversed by another Stunner. Austin puts on the Million Dollar dream sleeper but Hart pushes off the turnbuckle to pin Austin for the win.
In terms of wrestling, this is the highlight of the show. Great pacing with both competitors using each other’s signature moves to gain an advantage. Retrospectively, it helped elevate Austin into WWE’s upper mid-card, and provided Hart with a brilliant return, reminding fans of his in-ring greatness.
Backstage Dok Hendrix briefly speaks to a focused Sycho Sid. Faarooq and The Nation of Domination make their way out to the ring for tonight’s final elimination match. “Razor Ramon” and “Diesel” come out next as JR praises both of them. Vader is revealed as their mystery partner. Jim Cornette joins the commentary team as the opposing team of Savio Vega, Yokozuna, and the debuting Flash Funk (AKA 2 Cold Scorpio) enter MSG. Howard Finkel then announces their mystery partner as Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka. Cornette isn’t happy.
Vader dominates Funk early on, even though he hits a Moonsault on to Big Van Vader outside. Yokozuna steps in for the face team, even though there wasn’t a tag. Vega and Faarooq do tag in for their teams. The fake Razor then comes in briefly, before the man better known as Kane enters to take over Flash Funk. Vega tags back in as he tries to fight off the heel team. Snuka tags in to cheers from the NYC crowd. Cornette complains it isn’t fair to face someone of “Superfly”s stature with no warning, as he bodyslams Vader.
There are frequent tags by both sides as the fake Diesel hits a jackknife Powerbomb on Vega for the first elimination. Snuka then hits a signature Superfly splash on “Razor” to make it 3 vs 3. However, “Diesel” whacks Snuka with a chair as the match completely breaks down and is ruled a double disqualification.
Besides the MSG pop for Snuka, this match was pointless with both teams seemingly being thrown together with no backstory.
A video package recollects how Shawn Michaels has continuously persevered as WWE Champion yet his friendship with Sid being thrown into doubt, leading to tonight’s match. The towering Sycho Sid fist bumps the crowd as he enters the arena. Flanked by José Lothario, the flamboyant Heartbreak Kid is out next.
It’s a see-saw contest as Sid uses his power early on, while HBK tries to keep Sid off his feet, targeting the left knee. The MSG crowd chant “Let’s go Sid” as he is on the receiving end of a figure-four leg lock. It’s clear this NYC crowd weren’t fans of Michaels as he attempts a second submission.
The back and forth contest continues; Sid delivers boots to Michaels, who counters with a Dropkick to Sid’s left knee. Michaels is Clotheslined outside as they take the brawl around ringside. Back in the ring, Michaels attempt a top-rope manoeuvre but is caught by Sid, who delivers a Backbreaker. The San Antonio native is whipped ferociously into the corner before the Champion fights back. A mid-rope jump is met by Sid’s big boot, and Michaels bumps vertically headfirst. Michaels is worn down by a Sleeper and he tries to rally a comeback but his Sweet Chin Music attempt is avoided by Sid, reversing it into a one-arm Chokeslam to a huge reaction. A Powerbomb by Sid is countered for a two count. A flying forearm by Michaels leaves Sid dazed. HBK pops up only to be met by a clothesline and a close pinfall.
Sid grabs a camera and drives it into Lothario, who’s standing on the apron. Michaels hits ‘Sweet Chin Music’ but then goes check on José. Back inside, HBK avoids being whipped in the corner with a Springboard Splash that Sid avoids, hitting referee Earl Hebner. Michaels again checks on Lothario as Sid uses the camera again across Michaels’ back. Finally, Sid Powerbombs Michaels to become the new WWE Champion to a great pop. The show ends with the ruler of the world asking “who’s the man?”, posing with the championship belt.
This main event was better than I expected. It’s clear Michaels’ selling was top notch at this point, making Sid look like a dominating figure. While the finish involving Lothario and the camera weren’t great, it made sense for a heel title change.
Admittedly ‘Survivor Series’ 1996 isn’t as memorable as its 1997 or 1998 counterpart, it did plant the seeds for two of WWE’s biggest ever stars in “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and The Rock. Both men had landmark performances on this night. Even Rocky Malvia wouldn’t stick around, it’s a noteworthy debut for someone who would become bigger than WWE. Whereas Austin’s rivalry with Bret Hart would eventually lead him to become the company leader.
Survivor Series 1996 is available on WWE Network.
Photos and video courtesy of WWE.