Some had wondered if the team concept was becoming outdated, but the with the onset of addition pay-per-views in 1995, Survivor Series needed that unique selling point more than ever to differentiate it from the plethora of other shows, WWF or otherwise. Prior to his departure, Bill Watts had proposed a twist on the tried and tested formula; a match mixing heels and babyfaces on the same team, competing against another team with similar composition. Previously, it was almost unheard of to muddy the lines in such a manner, but Vince agreed to run with it and the "Wild Card Match" was born.
Pitting Shawn Michaels, Ahmed Johnson, Davey Boy Smith and Sid against Yokozuna, Owen Hart, Razor Ramon and Dean Douglas, the bout was as interesting politically as it was on the screen. The fraught tensions between many of the performers and the coming together of various rival cliques and factions, both as partners and opponents, made for a potentially volatile situation. For the road agents dealing with structuring the bout, keeping the egos of everyone involved happy was like being asked to solve the riddle of an international crisis.
Shawn Michaels was reluctant to work with Dean Douglas, whom the Kliq had no desire to have any further involvement with. Yokozuna was at the head of the BSKs and had little time for Michaels, and he certainly wouldn't tolerate any of his prima-donna displays of petulance. Shawn had no problems with Smith or Hart though, because he respected them as workers. Davey was someone he would hang out with the Kliq were not around, and pretty much everyone from any political leaning had a soft spot for notorious practical joker Owen. But one man Michaels wasn't so keen on was newcomer Ahmed Johnson.
Johnson was pegged by Bill Watts as the WWF's answer to the Junkyard Dog (who had the best run of his career under Watts) or Ron Simmons (the first black WCW Champion, another decision made by Watts). He was to receive a huge promotional push and become a black hero, something Watts had felt the lily-white WWF was sorely lacking. As it was Johnson's televised in-ring debut, there was no question he had to be presented well and protected in how he was booked. It would have been entirely counterproductive to have him get beat. Quite the opposite; Ahmed Johnson had to win and he had to win well. Michaels was wary of him, considering him a threat to his spot, as he looked like he was chiselled out of stone and yet could move like a cat.*
(*Though as one member of the locker-room later quipped, he might have moved as quick as a cat, but he did so with all the grace of an elephant.)
Smith and Owen were not part of a named clique, they, along with Bret Hart, were simply family members who occasionally rode together and watched each other's backs. Unlike the other groups, they were far from exclusive road partners, and would often hang out and travel with others. Generally well liked the majority of the locker-room, Davey and Owen didn't have heat with anyone coming into the match.
The soon to be departing Tory Martin did. As well as Michaels, serious tension still simmered between he and Scott Hall, and the potential for another verbal blow-up between the two was always on the horizon. They had exchanged oral barbs more than once, and a full-on fistfight always seemed just a moment away. Martin had also lost the respect of Yokozuna after the back injury incident in Germany, so he came into the match with guys who disliked him on both sides.
The novelty of the contest made it entertaining for the fans, and almost unbelievably it played out without any serious issues between the participants. Unsurprisingly, given that his tenure with the company was drawing to a close, Dean Douglas was the first man scripted to be eliminated from the match. He was the victim of a pact amongst the Kliq that they would only work together, or with the boys in their favour. Douglas quickly fell to Shawn Michaels, who made sure the secure a decisive and clean win over Martin before his departure, in one last snub to the former 'Franchise'. But Martin couldn't care less, he just wanted to get out of the WWF as quickly as possible.
The Kliq had engineered the match so they had a hand in nearly every elimination, and while Yokozuna was covered by Johnson for the match winning pinfall, it was only after having absorbed a Michaels superkick to the chin. The three men who stood tall as the victors were little surprise; Ahmed Johnson was being pushed hard and fast, Davey Boy Smith was working with the WWF Champion again at In Your House 5 the next month, and Shawn Michaels was about to have a promotional rocket strapped to his back.
The match was Michaels' first televised outing since the Syracuse incident a month earlier, but he hadn't missed a beat. There was an unspoken concern amongst some in the booking office about what reaction Michaels would get, and whether his credibility had been shattered, or if fans would perceive him as being a phony. They didn't. Michaels was more popular than ever, and the portrayal of the Syracuse assault on Titan television had actually helped generate interest in his subsequent storyline quest for the WWF Championship, just as Vince McMahon had intended it would.
The positive vibe didn't last long. The trial verdict was shortly followed by Randy Savage jumping the rapidly sinking WWF ship and pitching up with Hulk Hogan in Atlanta. Savage had been a major star for Vince in the eighties, second only to Hogan, whose unique look and trademark growling voice had made him a much-imitated mainstream star. Vince paid glowing tribute to Savage when he left, looking into the television camera and seemingly speaking directly to Randy through the lens:
"Obviously conspicuous by his absence is the Macho Man Randy Savage. I'd like to announce, unfortunately, that Randy Savage had been unable to sign a contract with the World Wrestling Federation. Not unable, but rather come to terms with the World Wrestling Federation for a new contract. But Randy, I know you're out there listening, and on behalf of all of us here in the World Wrestling Federation, all of your fans and certainly me, the number one fan, I'd like to say thank you for all of your positive contributions to the World Wrestling Federation. Thank you, Randy Savage for all of the wonderful memories for so many years here in the World Wrestling Federation. We wish you nothing but the best. Godspeed, and good luck."
Despite how Vince presented it on television, Randy's exit upset him greatly. The past few years he had grown close to Savage from the time he had spent doing commentary with him on Monday Night Raw, and he considered him a close friend. It was the nature of Savage's departure that hurt McMahon the most. Randy hadn't given any notice, he had just drunkenly phoned in the middle of the night and ranted at him in his intoxicated state, declaring that he was quitting. Vince simply dismissed it as just the high-strung wrestler having had one drink too many and being unable to control his mouth. He would reprimand him the next day at television for the insubordination, he thought, but he wasn't going to lose sleep over it.
He never got the chance. Randy didn't show up at the Fernwood Resort in Bushkill, Pennsylvania, the venue for that evening's Raw television tapings. He really had quit, he had been serious about that, and he wasn't even going to let McMahon give a counter offer to convince him to stay. Vince thought back about how Randy had manipulated the situation so that his contract would be up, allowing him to leave in that manner, and he realised that it was pre-meditated. Savage had wanted out and nothing Vince could have said or done would have changed that.
The boys couldn't believe it. Many thought it was a rib because they saw how close Randy was to Vince, or at least it seemed so. "They rode together," exclaimed one shocked member of the locker-room, who added, "Everyone, every single person in the building was shocked that Randy would ever leave Vince."
Savage had become irked by McMahon relegating him to the role of announcer as he looked to establish a new, younger group of performers as stars. He was bored behind the announce desk. He understood the business was changing and he was a remnant of a dying breed of grapplers who had come through the territories when they were hot, but he wasn't asking to be Vince's top guy, he just wanted to work, and help build the next generation. Plus, he had been financially hit by his divorce from real-life and on-screen wife Elizabeth Hulette, and the lower paying salaried announcer role that Vince wanted him to take permanently - which would also mean calling time on his in-ring career- was not something he was willing to consider.
Deep down, Savage wanted that one last great match, something he could leave as his legacy. He had already achieved near perfection once, at WrestleMania III against Ricky Steamboat, where the two performers contested an intricate ballet of crisp counters, explosive bursts of energy and gripping near falls, in a match for the ages. That wasn't enough to satisfy Savage; he was hell-bent on topping it. Once could be perceived as a fluke, he reflected, but doing it again would prove he was still great. It was his firm belief that Shawn Michaels was the perfect opponent with whom to recapture that bottled lightning, so he proposed a program with Shawn to Vince. He envisioned a long feud which would culminate in putting Shawn over at WrestleMania, and as the wrestlers referred to it, "give him the rub".
McMahon refused, again citing the WWF's new youth movement, before advising Randy that he was better served behind the announce desk. Randy was left feeling slighted and he grumbled, "I didn't realise I was considered elderly, I think I will seek a second opinion."
"That would have really pissed him off," noted one of his friends from the time, "If someone had told me that I was too old, I would have wanted to show them that I could still go too." Subsequently, Randy felt like he had no choice but to leave the company in order to prolong his in-ring career, so he could seek that one final defining moment elsewhere.
Randy knew he should have given Vince proper notice and acted more professionally towards the man who had made him into an international star, but he had an old score to settle. Back in November 1987, the WWF had held a battle royal at their monthly Meadowlands Arena house show, with the twist being that it only featured legends from a previous era. Men like Lou Thesz and Nick Bockwinkel, who had little time for Vince and his twisted carnival brand of what they knew as pro wrestling, but still appreciated the payday. In his own heyday, Savage's father Angelo Poffo had worked with a number of the veterans booked in the match, and hadn't seen several of them in years. A few had called him and said how they were looking forward to seeing him in New Jersey, but Angelo had to grudgingly admit that he wasn't booked.
Angelo confessed to Randy that he would love nothing more than to have been booked at the show to catch up with his old friends, some of whom he expected he might never see again due to their advancing ages. "Don't you worry, I'll get it done," Randy declared to his father confidently. Not long after that conversation, Savage talked to the office and asked them if they could accommodate Angelo in the bout, but as his brother Lanny Poffo would recall, "The reason was vague, but the answer was no."
Savage was fiercely loyal to his family and it had devastated him that he was not able to give his father that final swansong with his contemporaries. He mused that he was one of the biggest stars in the company and yet Vince couldn't even do him one small favour on a throwaway house show. "From now on it is just business," he told his bemused brother, "Fuck the WWF." Savage carried the resentment and bitterness about that night with him for the rest of his life, once ruminating to Lanny, "I did it like Martin Luther King, I should have done it like Malcolm X; by any means necessary." Vince had no idea what damage the slight did to Savage's psyche. He didn't even know there was a problem, it was just another one of many requests on a typically busy day that had slipped his mind.
Vince wasn't the only one that Randy held responsible; he also blamed veteran road agents 'Chief' Jay Strongbow and Pat Patterson for the rebuff. He had vowed from that day onwards to never give either of them any respect in front of the boys ever again. Strongbow actually competed in the battle royal on that fateful night. He was eliminated from the action early by Lou Thesz and he landed awkwardly on his arm and broke it. Backstage Strongbow complained to the other boys, "Thesz broke my arm!" to which Savage instantly shot back at him, "Lou Thesz didn't break your arm, you broke your arm because you're too fat to be in the ring; you're an embarrassment."
As Lanny remembers, "From that point on, Randy intentionally became a locker-room asshole, and he was good at it. He could get away with it because of who he was, and he refused to give anyone any respect if he didn't like them."
When Savage was given the opportunity to trade in his lower paid WWF announcing gig for a high six-figure deal with WCW, he remembered the insinuation that he was old, he remembered the Meadowlands snub, and he simply walked away. McMahon tried to remain stony-faced in front of the boys, a defence mechanism he had always employed. As Jim Cornette observed, "If you were at television or pay-per-views, then unless Vince had been anally probed by aliens, you wouldn't know that anything was going on with him. Once he got to the arena he was all about the show and he always tried to no-sell everything. He would frequently give his opinions on things that pissed him off, but he would always no-sell anything that happened to him."
Despite McMahon's outwardly unflappable demeanour, Bret Hart could see the truth; losing yet another of his former headliners had truly bothered him. Hart recalled how Vince had tears in his eyes that night when he went into the chairman's office and vowed never to be disloyal to him in the same way.
A few weeks later, Vince was furious when officials from major sponsor Slim Jim contacted him and informed him that they were pulling out of Titan, and taking their product to Turner Entertainment along with Savage.
On many occasions, McMahon had attended NASCAR events to meet with potential advertisers, with his belief being that the fan bases were a very similar demographic, and that anyone who sponsored NASCAR could be potentially wooed into supporting the WWF. Savage frequently attended with McMahon dressed in his full Macho Man regalia, making the extra effort to bring the Macho Man character to the suits in attendance rather than simply being Randy Poffo.
After the racing had finished, Savage often wined and dined with potential partners and in particular the representatives from Slim Jim, learning their names and becoming friends with them. He was going the proverbial extra mile, whereas McMahon treated them as just another sponsor. The relationship grew and evolved as time passed, and when Randy left Vince, he went to the Slim Jim executives with a pitch.
"Here's the deal," he started in his distinctive growl, "I'm going to WCW, what I would like for you to do is un-invest the money you have put into Vince and instead invest in Ted Turner." Three days later they called up Randy and told him they were going to follow him to Atlanta. "It must have been some pitch," noted Lanny before adding, "Vince doesn't like losing even one round, so that pissed him off." Despite how much Savage's leaving and stealing Slim Jim away bothered Vince, he insisted that Randy would be welcomed back with open arms in the future.
In late 1996, his opinion of Savage suddenly underwent an unexplained shift. People who worked closely with McMahon recounted that after a few years of him having championed a potential return for Savage, he would now behave completely out of character whenever his name cropped up. On one occasion when agent Michael Hayes pitched an idea that involved Savage coming back into the company, Vince stared into the distance and forlornly stated, "I have no interest in doing business with that man," but on other occasions he would fly off the handle at the mere mention of him. Vince's staff were warned never to bring Savage's name up for any storyline, merchandise idea or feature ever again. Many years later when the Poffo family contacted the WWE after the passing of Angelo in 2010 and asked for a message of condolences from them to be recited at his funeral, McMahon repudiated the request.
Vince's dogged refusal to even consider working with Savage seemed strange to both onlookers and insiders, who couldn't understand his sudden change of heart. They knew that Vince had been furious when Savage had taken the lucrative Slim Jim endorsement over to WCW with him. It had cost the company millions in potential advertising revenue that at the time would have helped pay the mounting legal bills, but even that didn't add up as a viable reason for the sudden bitterness. After all, Vince had known about that for years; it wasn't new information that would have suddenly discoloured his opinion of Savage.
As former Heavenly Bodies grappler Tom Prichard remarked, "Out of all the guys who screwed Vince, Randy was the only one of that magnitude that he never brought back. A few people have told me over the years that Vince doesn't hold grudges, and that if it is good for business he will bring anyone back."
Randy was a big name who could make the company money, and McMahon had fallen out and made up with countless wrestlers who had done far worse to him than just jump ship with an endorsement deal. Down the years, people who had tried to put McMahon out of business, physically assaulted him, testified against him in court or who had sued him themselves, were always forgiven and ended up working with him again. "It's just business," was always his philosophy, yet Savage was different to the others...