A wise man once said it’s best not to mix the past with the present. The present tends to paint the past with gold. The past, on the other hand, paints the present with lead. This particular wise man was most certainly not involved in booking WrestleMania XII. The event, which celebrates its twentieth anniversary this week, remains primarily remembered for the Iron Man championship match between Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels; its’ five undercard matches largely forgotten for their less than impactful historical contributions. Still, the twelfth installment of WrestleMania remains one of the more noteworthy chapters in the history of the annual event, at least in terms of pure analysis.

In 1996 the tectonic plates beneath the World Wrestling Federation began to shift; a year stuck between the pedestrian New Generation Era of the early 1990s and the prodigious Attitude Era that would launch a year later. The New Generation Era was supposed to reshuffle the roster with a heavy emphasis placed on younger talent. The larger than life superheroes associated with the great boom period of the 1980s, like Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage, were replaced with motivated athlete-type characters epitomized by Hart and Michaels at the top of the card. Further down the card, cartoonish gimmick characters began to gradually disappear in favor of more personality-driven characters.

Declining profits and an increasingly distracted audience more than tested Vince McMahon’s confidence in the campaign. Less than two years into the rebuilding effort McMahon opted to forgo the New Generation concept, refusing to fully separate his company’s past from its’ present; choosing instead to re-insert older characters like Roddy Piper, Jake Roberts, Gorilla Monsoon and Ultimate Warrior into plotlines. Likewise, gimmick characters like Henry Godwin (a hillbilly pig farmer), Hunter Hearst Helmsley (a blue-blooded aristocrat), and The Bodydonnas (home video fitness gurus) were forced to exist within the same universe as true-to-life characters like Steve Austin, Savio Vega and Owen Hart. And then there was Goldust, a prowling homoerotic character as controversial as it was groundbreaking; a sudden and curious break from the WWF’s longstanding PG-rated brand; a character both well ahead of its time while also predicated on negative stereotypes of the past.

By the time WrestleMania XII was presented in Anaheim, California, this unfocused potpourri of creative choices had dragged the WWF into a confounding identity crisis that all but painted the entire roster in lead. Old characters interacted with new characters, realistic characters intermingled with gimmick characters, edgier content was sporadically presented around kid-friendly content and creative waters were collectively muddied. The ability to suspend one’s disbelief was a taxing undertaking, resulting in perhaps the most docile WrestleMania live crowd of all time.

The opening six-man tag match (Yokozuna, Ahmed Johnson and Roberts vs. Vader, Owen Hart and British Bulldog) was but a microcosm of this stifling creative disorder; a match with no less than five plotlines converging into one 13-minute match. The primary theme of the match was Yokozuna’s departure from Jim Cornette’s camp of heels, choosing instead to stand own his own as a born-again hero. At the same time, there was a running storyline between the massive sumo wrestler and his replacement in Camp Cornette, Vader. The monster versus monster angle was highly appealing, but within the confines of a tag match failed to receive the time needed to create a compelling story. At the same time, there was an angle between Yokozuna and his former tag team partner, Owen Hart. The former tag champions never officially split up yet found themselves on opposite ends of the Cornette wall between them. At the same time, Roberts’ involvement inserted a legacy act into the mix, though he had little to do with any of his teammates and even less to do with any of his opponents. At the same time, team Yoko was fighting for the right to award him five minutes alone in the ring with his former manager. The stipulation ultimately went unfulfilled as Camp Cornette shockingly emerged victorious, withholding the obvious payoff from the audience and destroying what little investment may have been left in the story.  

The confusion got worse before it got better. A Hollywood Backlot Brawl between Goldust and Piper was easily the most violent match in the history of WrestleMania up to that point, complete with tight shots of shoot punches drawing blood, a baseball bat assault, a fire hose dousing and even an attempted vehicular homicide. Part They Live reenactment, part traditional grudge match and part OJ Simpson parody the encounter began with a lengthy pre-taped segment outside the arena before culminating in the ring later in the show. Though the story between the two participants was clear, the match itself presented more questions than answers. No referee was present for either portion of the match, no rules or clearly defined path to victory was ever explained to the audience either. It was, in essence, a violent and often uncomfortable exposé of a virile hero of the past thrashing a present day heel, whose only villainous characteristic appeared to be his pension to make unwanted homosexual advances.

Amidst the haze of this creative fog was the always steady presence of The Undertaker, who entered WrestleMania XII in a simple program with Diesel with a basic face/heel story dynamic. The match between two of the more recognizable figures of 90s WWF was more notable for what it proved to represent than anything that actually took place in the ring.

For much of the early 90s The Undertaker served as the perennial monster slayer of the WWF; his past conquests including Kamala, Giant Gonzalez and King Kong Bundy. Diesel was the last of the giants to fall before Undertaker shifted into a darker character with the added depth provided by the Attitude Era. Perhaps most interesting was the preservation of his yet to be recognized WrestleMania winning streak. After a lackluster run as the top face, Diesel was recast as a top heel. Had he not decided to leave the promotion in April of 96 for wealthier WCW pastures, he would have likely defeated Undertaker in preparation for an extended championship angle with Michaels. The butterfly effect of his departure not only enabled Eric Bischoff to formulate the nWo, but also allowed for the formulation of The Undertaker’s important WrestleMania streak angle down the road.

The Iron Man match is, of course, the crowning achievement of WrestleMania XII. Unlike any WrestleMania main event before or after, Hart and Michaels constructed a timeless masterpiece that is too often ensconced by the shadow of the Montreal screw job. Broken into three seamless acts, the drama of the match gradually increased until reaching a crescendo at just the right moment.

Beginning as a strict catch-as-catch-can match in the style of a 1950s NWA championship match, Hart’s superior technical abilities were allowed to flourish in a rare example of pro wrestling in its purest form allowed to take place in a McMahon-owned ring. It then transitioned into an intriguing back and forth; Michaels proved a surprising ability to go hold for hold with the Excellence of Execution, frustrating the champion and flipping the script on the audience, whose perception of him was that of a risk taking high flier and not a mat-based technician. The last 20 minutes focused on Hart’s ability to finally gain a significant advantage and isolate Michaels’ lower back, creating many dramatic false finishes before eventually locking in the sharpshooter with 30 seconds remaining.

Six years into the decade, Michaels’ overtime championship win was arguably the first significant WrestleMania moment produced for a supreme hero character in the 90s. Sadly, for all its brilliance the match proved to be the high water mark for both the program between Hart and Michaels and Michaels’ first title reign respectively. The creative disorder that sullied much of the undercard was left untreated in the months following WrestleMania and eventually made its way to the top of the card, infecting the title picture and completely engulfing the creative direction of the company.

When comparing the WWF at the time of WrestleMania XII with present day WWE just days prior to WrestleMania 32, the similarities are as striking as they are troubling. Old acts are once again being commingled with new acts as McMahon continues to place an unbalanced weight on the past rather than the present. Attempts at edgy content miss the mark more often than not, ultimately proving counterproductive to whatever the intended goal may be. Most importantly, a general creative malaise, apathy even, resonates throughout a large portion of the viewing audience just as it did 20 years ago. WWE is once again in the midst of an identity crisis fracturing the bond between its talent and its audience.

Unlike 1996, however, the company’s financial standing is hardly in dire straits, in fact many aspects of the company have never performed better. Likewise, pressure from competition is nonexistent. The only incentive to drastically change course lies in sinking television ratings; a telling indicator for industry analysts but little more than hollow numbers for those within the promotion considering the security of television revenues made possible by a long term network deal.

Whether or not the current product can be saved without first dying a slow death as it did two decades ago is still unknown. An examination of WrestleMania XII proves the dangers of failing to implement life saving measures while there’s still time. Above all else, it shows us that not all of the past can so easily be painted in gold after all.