The 1996 Wrestling Observer Awards: Cultaholic Time Capsule - January 1997
Some love for Japan, a lot of hate for Hulk Hogan
Greetings and Happy New Year, everybody.
Traditionally in this feature, I pluck 15 news items and tidbits from a Wrestling Observer Newsletter of five, ten, twenty, etc, years ago, but this week, I decided to change it up a smidgen.
Seeing as it's "awards season" in wrestling and other forms of media, I thought it might be interesting to see how diehard wrestling supporters of a different era viewed the business of that particular time. And so, I found the Observer issue that posted the voting results of the 1996 WON Awards, to see where wrestling sentiment lay 25 years ago.
And the results are at least a little fascinating.
In all, 42 categories were voted upon by the vast readership of the long-running newsletter, and Dave Meltzer provided not only the winners in each, but the top ten or so finishers for every category.
Listed in this here lookback are each of those winners, as well as some modern context and thoughts. I've found that some of these picks aged well, while others were maybe a little funky looking even then.
With 42 categories to run through, let's not waste another second. Away we go.
Best Wrestler: Kenta Kobashi
Kobashi held the All Japan Triple Crown for the latter half of 1996, and wrestled in at least six matches that Meltzer personally rated four stars or better during the year (including a ****1/4 title win over Akira Taue).
Kobashi had about the same amount of first-place votes as Shawn Michaels, but the second and third place votes carried Kobashi to a 1,668 to 1,598 point win over HBK. Interestingly, Michaels has never taken home Wrestler of the Year in the WON Awards. Kinda surprising, to be honest.
Most Outstanding Wrestler: Rey Misterio Jr
A sizable win in this more showmanship-oriented category for the masked marvel, who'd gained a greater appreciation stateside through his work in WCW and ECW.
To have seen Misterio (let's go with the classic spelling here) in that era was to have been patently wowed - he did stuff that nobody else was doing, and his influence on wrestling of the future cannot be underestimated.
Best Babyface: Shawn Michaels
A curious choice, seeing as a number of WWF fans repelled the "squeaky clean" version of Michaels, as he was far too watered down from what made him so cool in the first place. Second place went to Bret Hart, who was absent for eight months during the year. Apparently, 1996 was a dud year for heroes.
Best Heel: "Stone Cold" Steve Austin
Watch enough WWF programming in the latter half of 1996, and you'll see that Austin was virtually carrying the promotion on his back. He was the freshest doughnut in the box by a wide margin, with character work that was truly inspired.
Best Feud: WCW vs. nWo
How could it not be? The momentum in the Monday Night Wars firmly swung WCW's way once the all-too-delectable nWo drama reached high gear. Each ensuing Nitro presented the question of what in the hell would (and could) happen next. Even with those higher expectations from many, the angle still managed to hit its marks.
Second place went to Mankind and Undertaker, but it wasn't close: WCW vs. nWo had six times the first-place votes of Mankind/Taker.
Best Tag Team: Mitsuharu Misawa and Jun Akiyama
To go along with a four-month reign as All Japan World Tag Team Champions, Misawa and Akiyama starred in a number of acclaimed bouts, three of which that ol' Uncle Dave graded at a perfect five stars (one of which we'll visit a bit later on).
Most Improved: Diamond Dallas Page
Across his first few years as an active wrestler, Page was objectively bad: spirited but clunky. However, DDP (as we've come to learn) has an unparalleled work ethic, and by 1996 (at age 40, no less), he'd found his groove as an ascendant talent. Factor in his ever-popular Diamond Cutter finish, and Page put a winning formula together, against the understandable odds.
Most Unimproved: Hulk Hogan
First off, what an amazing name for the award, as it seems to be celebrating stagnancy instead of deterioration (perhaps Most Stagnant would work better).
As for Hogan winning, it was his third straight year taking the "honor". The timing was a bit poor, seeing as he was starring in the hottest storyline in years, for the US' new top promotion. "Yeah, he's making bank, but his work's in a rut." Not sure the math totally checks out here.
Best On Interviews: Steve Austin
Most Charismatic: Shawn Michaels
Even as a way-too-cheery babyface, Michaels' flamboyance and showmanship still shined through. Though not the game-changer that Austin was in 1996, Michaels still made do with milquetoast material, and delivered in a number of excellent bouts. This was a runaway win for HBK (tripling runner-up Ric Flair in first-place votes).
Best Technical Wrestler: Dean Malenko
After two straight years of Chris Benoit victories, Malenko dethroned his occasional tag partner in '96. Just as Misterio was for dazzling acrobatics, Malenko was for scientific brilliance, as he had few peers when it came to precision, execution, and panache.
Best Brawler: Mankind
The sixth straight year that Mick Foley took this award, and he'd win it four more times from 1997 to 2000. Today, the award is named for Bruiser Brody, though I don't feel it'd be out of line for Foley to share the namesake.
Best Flying Wrestler: Rey Misterio Jr
Well duh, Part II. Misterio finished with about seven and a half times more first-place votes than runner-up Great Sasuke. Nobody was beating Misterio in this category in 1996.
Most Overrated: Hulk Hogan
Hulk's third year in a row taking home the award, even as he re-established himself as the biggest draw. Think the WON readership still hadn't gotten over Hogan acing out Flair as WCW's top dog in 1994.
Most Underrated: Leif Cassidy
Cassidy was Al Snow, playing a deluded teenybopper in The New Rockers. Snow always had talent and personality, and Leif Cassidy was a woeful misuse of his skills.
As a footnote, at this point, "Most Underrated" may as well be redubbed The Cesaro Award. Our favorite Swiss Cyborg won it every year from 2013-16.
Best Promotion: New Japan Pro-Wrestling
This marked the sixth win for NJPW in this category, who've gone on to earn the award 16 times (in 38 years).
Certainly, they'd have won it more times if the voting took place in the Tokyo Dome... /s
Best Weekly TV Show: Extreme Championship Wrestling
While ECW was cutting edge and a sought-after product in 1996, the fact that Nitro didn't win (and in fact came in fourth) is a bit suspect. Both shows shaped the industry for years to come, but still: Nitro set the template for Monday night wrestling going forward.
Match Of The Year: Mitsuharu Misawa and Jun Akiyama vs. Steve Williams and Johnny Ace (June 7)
This AJPW World Tag Team title bout was one of those aforementioned five-star bouts in the Misawa/Akiyama Tag entry.
And yes, John Laurinaitis has wrestled in a five-star match. Look it up, you'll love it.
Rookie Of The Year: The Giant
No doubt, Paul Wight looked mighty impressive in his first year in the biz, demonstrating awing grace for, well, a giant.
Third place went to The Rock, at the time hampered by the scarlet letter that was smilin' Rocky Maivia. For the record, second place went to Yuki Kondo, a mixed martial artist that has fought in over 100 bouts, and still fights as of December 2021. But Kondo's greatest achievement might just be receiving more votes than The Rock from wrestling fans in a niche newsletter poll from a quarter-century ago.
Manager Of the Year: Jim Cornette
Taking nothing away from Cornette, pickings were getting fairly slim by this time, so much so that Meltzer discontinued the award after 1996. Managers had gone the way of the dodo by this point.
It might be worth bringing back these days, however, with Heyman, Taz, Callis, MVP, and others revitalizing the role.
Best TV Announcer: Joey Styles
The excitable voice of ECW earned the award for the third straight year, though he never won it after '96.
This was during a period where Jim Ross was relegated to the WWF's secondary programs, allowing Styles to end JR's six-year run of dominance in 1994. From 1997 through 2009, though, Ross and Mike Tenay won the award every year except 2008 (that one went to ECW's Matt Striker).
Worst TV Announcer: Dusty Rhodes
I take serious umbrage with this one, especially since this was the year in which Dusty gave the world, "He got a bi-thickle!" C'mon, it's Dusty! He was to WCW Saturday Night what Taz is to AEW Dark, a living, breathing quote machine!
Best Major Card: WAR Super J Cup: 2nd Stage
A brilliant night of junior heavyweight action, sure, but it technically took place in December 1995. Guess it missed the '95 balloting. For historical significance, WCW Bash at the Beach should've won this, but whatever.
Worst Major Card: WCW Uncensored
Hard to argue against this one, thanks in large part to ... well, I'll explain later.
Best Wrestling Maneuver: Ultimo Dragon's running Liger bomb
A fine choice, though it's perhaps surprising that none of Misterio's moves won. Of course, when Meltzer listed the top ten vote-getters, I see that four distinct Misterio maneuvers finished seventh through tenth. Guess they all canceled each other out in the voting?
Most Disgusting Promotional Tactic: WWF uses fake Diesel and Razor Ramon
Though the ploy was a cruel con to fans that might not have known better ("Razor and Diesel are coming back!"), this feels less disgusting and more desperate. There was a larger legal motivation for doing the bit with the impostors (establishing which company owned the trademarks and perhaps character tics), but it still looked bad in any arena.
Best Color Commentator: Jerry Lawler
Another award scrapped after 1996 (the TV announcer category covers all announcers now), it really says a lot when Bobby Heenan didn't even finish among the top ten vote-getters. Of course, he was admittedly phoning it in in WCW, but still: he's "The Brain".
Reader's Personal Favorite Wrestler: Ric Flair
Well, that explains all the votes for Hogan in the negative categories...
The award was jettisoned after 2003, though it did provide a compelling snapshot of where popular "smark" sentiment was for a given year. For the record, the ten top picks for 1996 were Flair, Manami Toyota, Misterio, Terry Funk, Shawn Michaels, Toshiaki Kawada, Kobashi, Jushin Liger, Sabu, and Bret Hart.
Reader's Least Favorite Wrestler: Hulk Hogan
Like I said...
And just to run through these: Hogan, Jim Duggan, Lex Luger, Psycho Sid, Shawn Michaels, Randy Savage, Shane Douglas, Ultimate Warrior, Steve "Mongo" McMichael, and Ed Leslie (I'm gonna need the 21 people that picked Savage and Mongo to step outside, please).
Worst Wrestler: Loch Ness
Loch Ness was ageing superheavyweight wrestler Giant Haystacks, an English mainstay of the seventies and eighties that didn't fare too well in a brief run with WCW, where he chiefly feuded with The Giant. Sadly, Loch Ness left after he was diagnosed with lymphoma, to which he would succumb in 1998 at age 52.
Worst Tag Team: The Godwinns
Though a decent brawling duo, the "happy go lucky" farmer shtick was woefully misplaced in 1996 wrestling. Really, the WWF tag scene of happy farmers, evil cowboys, passive fitness buffs, and groovy seventies partiers was emblematic of a New Generation in dire need of a personality transplant.
Worst TV Show: AWF Warriors of Wrestling
The AWF was a syndicated outfit filled with ageing ex-WWF stars, and employed a "round system" similar to European-style wrestling. The overly-sweetened crowd noise and low-rent feel (along with the pointless round system) played a part in assuring AWF this win.
If you're ever inclined, Brian Zane has a nifty recap of the short-lived AWF, going into great detail about its general shoddiness.
Worst Manager: Sonny Onoo
Who could possibly vote against the man that clearly inspired Austin Theory and Tyler Breeze's "selfie" gimmicks? And why the hell did Col. Robert Parker finish second? Who voted in this?
Worst Match: Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage vs. The World, Doomsday Cage Match (WCW Uncensored)
You've never seen a match that made less sense. By comparison, Seth Rollins vs. The Fiend was a logic puzzle.
Worst Feud: Big Bubba vs. John Tenta
I love both Big Boss Man and Earthquake, but yeah, this wasn't either man's finest hour. If you like your feuds to include a man having half his beard shaved, before getting his revenge by whacking the other guy with a tube sock full of coins, you're in luck, because it's all on Peacock for your edification.
Worst On Interviews: Ahmed Johnson
The fact that Hogan finished second (in the year in which he cut his all-time greatest promo, right after he turned heel) makes one's head spin.
Fun fact: the seventh-highest vote-getter? Hunter Hearst Helmsley. Apparently, the "Connecticut Blueblood" wasn't striking a chord verbally with viewers.
Worst Promotion: The AWF
If you stopped reading long enough to watch Brian's video, I need not explain further.
Best Booker: Paul Heyman
Yeah, the WON readers loved them some ECW stories. I do wonder if anyone for Best Booker ever voted "T". Only Dave knows for sure.
Best Promoter: Riki Choshu
This marked the second of three straight years that Choshu took home the award, after previously winning Best Booker in 1992. A true driving force in New Japan's golden nineties.
Best Gimmick: The New World Order
It was either this or Stone Cold, who took second place. Both influenced countless knockoff characters and derivatives over the years to come, which is the mark of great source material.
Worst Gimmick: The Fake Razor and Diesel, as well as Road Dogg as "The Real Double J"
Speaking of knockoffs and derivatives, many of them don't work. Like these.
Most Embarrassing Wrestler: Hulk Hogan
I'm sure Hogan wiped his tears away with all those substantial checks from Turner.