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Cup of Coffee in the Big Time: Sweetness at SummerSlam

Hello, and welcome to the very first installment of Cup of Coffee in the Big Time, a recurring feature here on Fight Game Media where we take a look at professional athletes from around the world who found their way into the pro wrestling world.

If there’s an athlete YOU would like to see profiled, hit me up on the Twitter machine @hard_seltzer or shoot me an email at acmarshall@gmail.com.


In August of 1994, the World Wrestling Federation was smack in the middle of a transitional period. Their longtime marquee star, Hulk Hogan, had recently signed with the company’s main competitor, World Championship Wrestling. This left a void at the top of WWF’s booking plans that would stretch through 1998, when Stone Cold Steve Austin would assume the mantle.

While their actual, homegrown star was now hamming it up for Ted Turner’s wrasslin’ company down in Atlanta, one thing the WWF never strayed away from was their interest in having mainstream, non-wrestlers make appearances in support of babyface wrestlers to get the crowd on their side. This was something the company had deployed from their earliest days, with 1980s megastar Cyndi Lauper making regular appearances in support of WWF Women’s Champion Wendy Richter, or Billy Martin, Liberace, and Muhammad Ali appearing at the first WrestleMania. This also included a main event tag featuring pop culture icon Mr. T alongside Hogan, which saw Hogan and T co-host Saturday Night Live the night before.

Choice of a New Generation

As this became the company’s calling card, the impact of celebrity appearances waned a bit going into the company’s self-described “New Generation.” That year’s WrestleMania, the very first the company would present without Hogan, saw names such as Burt Reynolds and Donnie Wahlberg show up for guest ring announcer spots, but the event itself is much more fondly remembered for two classic matches: Bret Hart vs Owen Hart and Shawn Michaels and Razor Ramon in the company’s first televised ladder match for the Intercontinental Title.

Payton poses with the late Luna Vachon, 1994

Fast forward a few months, and Razor Ramon was still in the thick of the Intercontinental Title scene, but now his adversary was the seven-foot-tall, 300+ lbs. Diesel, who Razor lost the belt to following WrestleMania 10. As if dealing with a larger opponent wasn’t enough, Shawn Michaels had settled into the role of Diesel’s manager for the time being, while also managing to win the WWF Tag Team Titles with Diesel on a house show the night before SummerSlam to boot. The story was simple, how would Razor even the odds against the former and current champion going heading into the show?

It’s strange that a man the caliber of Walter Payton appearing on WWF television isn’t brought up more by the company so desperate for mainstream attention. At the time, Payton was almost certainly the greatest offensive player in the history of American football.

If your answer was “Have the all-time NFL rushing yard leader and Chicago legend Walter Payton in his corner,” you are a liar, but also step forward to claim your prize!

With the show taking place at a sparkling new United Center in Chicago, Ill., the WWF found themselves a Chicago sports icon to trot out alongside the Bad Man to give the Windy City faithful a little something extra to cheer for. At this point in time, Razor was probably the second or third biggest babyface on the roster, but adding Walter Payton to the mix seemed like a slam dunk— apologies for the basketball mixed metaphor.

For international fans, or people who simply do not know the history of American Football, Walter Payton was about as big a name as they could have possibly gotten, even if the show wasn’t held in Chicago, where Payton played 13 seasons, making the Pro Bowl nine times and winning a Super Bowl in 1986. At the time of the show, Payton was the career rushing yards leader in NFL history, and had the single game rushing record of 275 yards. He is considered perhaps the greatest player of all time, credited with inspiring other superstar running backs who came after him, notably the man who would eventually eclipse Payton’s all-time rushing record, Emmitt Smith.

 

Walter Payton

Payton was also celebrated for the content of his character, with the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award given by the NFL to the player making the greatest contribution to the community he lives and plays in being named in his honor. 

To say the very least, this was a huge get for WWF in 1994. While Payton had been retired for about seven years at that point, no one man besides Michael Jordan himself would have been a bigger star to that Chicago crowd. Whether the WWF capitalized on that or not, however, is certainly up for debate. To look back and see such a highly esteemed player and person yukking it up next to the company’s leading Scarface impersonator is certainly something.

Payton would make his on-screen debut in a few pre-taped promos alongside Razor Ramon and lightly threaten Shawn Michaels about interfering in the Ramon/Diesel match at SummerSlam. There really wasn’t much to this, a theme that will sadly carry on throughout this appearance. Payton would not appear on WWF programming in-person until the night of the show.

During the show, Shawn Michaels and Diesel were both presented as a big deal, with a promo showcasing their newly-won tag belts and Diesel’s Intercontinental title, which was held by either Shawn or Diesel for 16 out of the previous 24 months. Shawn, Diesel, and Ramon were the core members of the infamous backstage clique known as … The Kliq. To say they probably enjoyed working together on this evening, with the biggest guest star on the whole show is probably an understatement. (With all due respect to Leslie Nielsen, who appeared in-character as Frank Dreben from the Naked Gun series while on the search for the returning Undertaker.)

How sweet a summer

Payton appeared wearing one of the finest pieces of mid-’90s WWF merchandise available: a full print of Razor’s face on a dyed yellow shirt, one that I would pay upwards of $50 for in 2021.

Payton and Ramon celebrate at SummerSlam 1994

Before the match, it’s pretty clear Shawn Michaels knows exactly who Payton is, and makes sure the camera is fully focused on himself and Payton, mockingly referring to him by his nickname of “Sweetness” while dressed in his zebra-striped motorcycle gang apparel. During the bout, Payton is mostly on standby mode. At some point, he tore his shirt straight down the middle, but this is not caught on camera, nor really explained. 

The match, which was a back and forth affair with mild Shawn Michaels interference, finally builds to the finish, where Payton intercepts Michaels entering the ring with the Intercontinental Title belt. Payton would sort of awkwardly carry the belt around with him for the remainder of the match following this. We then saw Michaels attempt Sweet Chin Music on Razor, as Diesel held him in place, which as you may have guessed if you’ve ever watched wrestling, Razor moved and Diesel was hit instead. Payton would hold Shawn’s leg and prevent him from breaking up the pin attempt and three seconds later, we had a new Intercontinental Champion.

Just like that, Walter Payton’s first and only appearance on WWF television had concluded. Razor, sans Sweetness, would hold the IC gold until losing it to Jeff Jarrett at the 1995 Royal Rumble.

Payton’s appearance, which was hyped on television a few times and saw him directly involved in the finish, is an oddly glossed over cameo in WWF history. Perhaps it’s due to the state of the company in 1994, which saw business on a downturn. The 1994 SummerSlam main event, the extremely goofy Undertaker vs Underfaker angle, which is rarely mentioned at all. The man he appeared in support of, Razor Ramon, would leave the company within the next two years, which also could have led to the company downplaying his involvement. Payton himself would pass away roughly five years later from bile duct cancer at the age of 45. 

It’s strange that a man the caliber of Walter Payton appearing on WWF television isn’t brought up more by the company so desperate for mainstream attention. At the time, Payton was almost certainly the greatest offensive player in the history of American football. 

Less than one year later, in a much more fondly remembered appearance, New York Giants legend (and arguably the greatest defensive player in the history of American football) Lawrence Taylor would actually main event WrestleMania 11 against Bam Bam Bigelow, but that’s a story for another time.

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