19 years ago, May 19, 1996, the infamous Curtain Call occurred at a WWE house show in the legendary Madison Square Garden.
The Curtain Call has received a lot of publicity over the past few weeks due in large part to WWE’s release of a brand-new documentary on “The Kliq” as well as their newsworthy weekend in Brooklyn — highlighted by three consecutive sold out shows in Brooklyn’s Barclays Center. One of the biggest moments on Saturday’s show saw the “Four Horsemen” of NXT: Sasha Banks, Bayley, Charlotte and Becky Lynch in some ways recreate the famous Curtain Call after the intense Banks vs. Bayley NXT Women’s Championship match.
To keep the Curtain Call motif going, on August 24, Triple H invited the two men who shot the now-well publicized fan-cam footage of the Curtain Call to Monday Night Raw, the third of WWE’s Brooklyn sellouts that weekend.
— Triple H (@TripleH) August 28, 2015
I’m not here to give you a rundown or recap of the Curtain Call, any fan above the age of 15 has had the event beaten into your memory. While I disagree with the notion that it changed the industry forever, it’s certainly noteworthy.
The goal of this particular piece is not to focus on the event itself, but the aftermath. Most notably the aftermath for current Executive Vice President for Talent, Live Events & Creative at WWE, Triple H.
The narrative surrounding the aftermath of the Curtain Call was that Vince McMahon, angered by the brash display of bravado and destruction of kayfabe punished Triple H by taking him out of contention for that year’s King of the Ring, booking him in less-significant matches and making him pay his dues all over again.
Jim Cornette, who worked in WWE’s creative department at the time, recalls how the punishment went down:
“Who got punished? You (Triple H) got punished. Because (Vince McMahon) ain’t gonna fucking discipline (Shawn Michaels) because he’s the champion. What’s he going to do to Hall and Nash? So you’ve got it. So you let these guys get you into a position and you shouldn’t have done it. You shit on the business. All the guys were hot at you.” -Jim Cornette
The Undertaker, in Triple H’s WWE-produced documentary explains, that when Triple H first arrived in WWE, he was an arrogant person who only looked out for himself. However, when Triple H took his punishment after the Curtain Call and didn’t complain, he earned The Undertaker and many other members of the locker room’s respect.
Why did the punishment fall on Triple H? As Cornette mentions, Shawn Michaels, the most important member of The Kliq, was his top star at the time and one of the only draws Vince had at his disposal — Vince wasn’t going to punish him. He couldn’t punish Razor Ramon or Diesel either, as the Curtain Call was their final night in the company. They were off to start a revolution of their own in WCW and form the New World Order.
So with the other three members of the Curtain Call seemingly unpunishable, the brunt of blame went to the then-26-year-old Triple H. As Triple H noted in the above “shoot”:
“They did everything they could to screw with me. They gave me the worst matches possible, gave me lame referees, booked me against guys I had to carry. They took me out of the main event matches and put me in the opening card matches. They cut all my angles on TV. They stopped me from having any hopes of going for titles or belt. I was held back.”
I’ve always contended that this “punishment” is simply WWE narrative and partly Vince McMahon’s classic break them down to build them up motivational tactic. But, did Triple H really break down? Is there any discernible evidence that he was punished?
Triple H won the Intercontinental Title for the first time nearly four months after the famous Curtain Call. Sure, the IC Title is a cursed hunk of crap in 2015, but in 1996 it still meant something. It was a logical step on the path to an eventual WWE Championship run. When Triple H did lose the IC Title, it was to “Ol’ Blue Chipper” himself The Rock, then Rocky Maivia. A year after the infamous incident, Triple H won the 1997 King of the Ring (a year later than anticipated). The KOTR win kickstarted D-Generation X where he would form an alliance with the top star of the company, Shawn Michaels. The rest is history, Triple H would become the undisputed leader of DX when Michaels left the company and, by the fall of 1999, he was a bonafide main eventer with a WWF Championship under his belt. After a great run in 2000, including a series of matches with Mick Foley, Triple H was a made man.
So, let’s circle back to the periods before and after the Curtain Call. Let’s assume the punishment story is true. WWE and Vince McMahon decided to punish Triple H for his taking part in the Curtain Call. Naturally, the most obvious sign of punishment is Triple H not winning the 1996 King of the Ring, instead the crown was given to “Stone Cold” Steve Austin (I think this worked out either way for the company). However, when looking at the booking of Triple H pre and post Curtain Call, nothing really points to him truly being punished.
Now that’s not to say there isn’t evidence to the contrary. Triple H was left off four consecutive WWE PPVs (King of the Ring, In Your House: International Incident, SummerSlam 1996 and In Your House: Mind Games). Financially, the loss was estimated at around $250,000 by Jim Cornette. (Note: There is no chance in hell Triple H was making that kind of money in 1996 with WWE’s PPV business in the toilet)
Booking wise, it’s hard to see much evidence of punishment. Prior to May 19, Triple H’s TV/PPV win percentage was 71.43% with wins over roster members such as Razor Ramon, Fatu, Duke Droese (x3), Aldo Montoya and Bob Holly. He also collected a number of wins over famous jobbers of the time including Vin Grier, Derek Stone, Tim Patterson and of course, the most famous WWE jobber of 1996, Barry Horowitz. In total, Triple H’s opponents (January-May 1996) had a 35.51% win percentage.
Triple H’s only loses in that period were to Shawn Michaels (83.9%), The Ultimate Warrior (83.3%), Bret Hart (66.7%) and Duke Droese (42.9%). The only title match of the bunch was against then-WWF Champion Bret Hart on the Monday Night Raw #148. It was a successful period for Triple H wins-wise, however his wins were against largely lower rung, bottom-tier roster members and jobbers.
The average win percentage among men Triple H defeated was 22% with Razor Ramon (69.6%) as the lone man with a winning record. Remove Razor from the equation and the average plummets to 16.76%.
Month-by-Month (Win Percentage):
- January: 75%
- February: 66.67%
- March: 100%
- April: 66.67%
- May: 33.33%
Let’s now take a look at Triple H’s booking patterns post-Curtain Call, the in-theory punishment phase. In the first set of TV tapings following the Curtain Call Triple H lost to Marc Mero, went to a No Contest with Aldo Montoya, defeated jobber Marty Garner but lost to Jake Roberts in a 1996 King of the Ring Qualifying match. It wasn’t exactly a banner taping for Triple H, adding some evidence to the theory of punishment. The Garner match is of particular importance as it features one of the sickest looking Pedigrees ever.
At the next set of tapings, Triple H defeated jobber Jerry Fox but lost to both Marc Mero and Ahmed Johnson. By the end of June 1996, Triple H had a 2-4 record post-Curtain Call. His two wins came against jobbers with 0% win percentages while his four losses came against men who had stellar years in WWE (72.3%). Triple H would be left off TV and PPV (In Your House: International Incident) in July before returning for August’s set of TV tapings where he defeated jobber David Haskins but dropped matches to Savio Vega and Sycho Sid. The latter of which was in a WWE Intercontinental Title Tournament.
September was much of the same for Triple H, wins against Julio Sanchez (the future Julio DiNero) but losses against The Stalker (Barry Windham), Savio Vega and perhaps the most damning, Freddie Joe Floyd (Tracy Smothers). The Stalker was well protected in 1996 with a 77.8% win percentage but Freddie Joe was not, winning only 21.4% of his WWE TV/PPV matches that year. To be fair, the loss was via countout and not visible pinfall.
An important note as well, during much of this time Triple H was building towards a feud with the returning Mr. Perfect. Many of these losses features some form of interference from Perfect, all building towards a match in October. This is another line of evidence that the punishment/burial didn’t occur. The losses were building towards a huge match with a returning former superstar.
The punishment appeared to be lifted in October when Triple H followed up a loss to “Stone Cold” Steve Austin at In Your House: Buried Alive with the culmination of his feud with Perfect, well, sort of. Perfect was attacked backstage by Triple H (just before their long-built match was to occur). This suckered Marc Mero into defending his Intercontinental Championship against Triple H on Raw as a replacement. With help from his former rival Perfect, Triple H cemented his 1996 with an Intercontinental Title win over Marc Mero. Triple H would go on to defend the title for the rest of the year defeating the likes of Alex Porteau, Marc Mero, Freddie Joe Floyd and Flash Funk. Yeah, not exactly the best competition.
The remainder of his 1996 is a weird period, very similar to today’s booking of Intercontinental Champions as Triple H lost to Sycho Sid in a Champion vs. Champion match on Raw. Though Sid only won by countout, it was a total destruction:
While Triple H collected wins against the likes of Flash Funk and Freddie Joe Floyd, he also had losses to Bart Gunn (via DQ) and Marc Mero (countout at In Your House: It’s Time).
Some use this as clear-cut evidence of Triple H’s punishment but it seems more in line with bad booking of the Intercontinental Champion. If I was punishing someone I probably wouldn’t give them my secondary title and have them get destroyed by my No. 1 champion but then again, I’m not Vince McMahon.
Here’s a snapshot looking at his each of his opponents win percentages in losses through 1996. The blue line and points are all of his opponents before the Curtain Call, the red represents all of his opponents after the Curtain Call.
Overall, here’s how the win percentages break down on average in Triple H losses throughout 1996:
- Opponent Win % (Pre): 69.20%
- Opponent Win % (Post): 63.26%
- Opponent Win % (Pre): 19.72%
- Opponent Win % (Post): 29.72%
What we can conclude from these numbers is that while Triple H had far more losses post Curtain Call, the level of opponent didn’t fall tremendously. Sure, he lost to Freddie Joe Floyd and a few other head-scratching opponents but overall, the win percentage fell by only a little under 6%.
On the win side, Triple H had a roughly equal number of wins both pre and post Curtain Call, but defeated a much better set of opponents — exactly 10% better in win percentage.
What’s the conclusion? I’m leaning towards WWE narrative/propaganda.
There is certainly evidence that he was punished on the house show circuit (including losing literally hundreds of matches in the year to the likes of Jake Roberts and Marc Mero), then again, heels don’t typically fare well on WWE house shows. Nothing statistically or in the Wins/Losses seems to prove the punishment was anything substantial. If anything, he seems to have been elevated above the mid-card for a title, lost a bit as he made the jump then after a few months he was in the IC Title picture.
Sure, Triple H won more prior to the Curtain Call but he was toiling with the lower part of the card and not necessarily rubbing elbows with champions. There’s also no clear signs that he was being built for anything other than maybe the King of the Ring.
We have to remember as well, the King of the Ring wasn’t the spark plug we’d like to think. While Steve Austin made history with his “Austin 3:16” promo, it wasn’t until November, at Survivor Series 1996, that Austin truly arrived, due in large part to a feud with the returning Bret Hart. WWE always leaves the Free-for-All against Yokozuna or the matches against Zip, Tom Mores and Bob Holly out of their video packages.
Mabel won the King of the Ring in the prior year and while main-evented SummerSlam 1995, it was an unmitigated failure. The year prior to that Owen Hart reigned but after his SummerSlam 1994 main event with Bret Hart, he was back doing what he did before.
The original (pay-per-view) King of the Ring winner was Bret Hart who was already a made-man at that point. His victory was more of a storyline vehicle to launch a prolonged feud with Jerry Lawler, not necessarily the crowning of WWE’s next great star. It wouldn’t be until WrestleMania 10 in 1994 that Hart finally reached the pinnacle again.
Would Triple H have fared that much different in the last half of the year had he won the King of the Ring?
It only took a few months for him to ascend to the level of Intercontinental Champion, a title he’d trade back and forth for most of 1996 and the early part of 1997. Instead of winning the crown, he traded a few wins back and forth, won the title and started on that portion of his career. When he won the title, he lost a few higher profile matches before finally finding his footing in early 1997. It wouldn’t be until mid-1998 and really the fall of 1999 until he became a player.
Was that four month period between May and October 1996 enough to derail what was a path to superstardom that was set to occur way before it eventually did?