Another tactic was the phantom title switch. The idea behind this was that the local wrestler would defeat the outsider champion in front of his home crowd, and because fans from the outsider’s home promotion would never see it—this was before the internet existed, remember—the title switch would be ignored. This happened on several occasions, which is why to this day long-time fans in the San Francisco area are able to delineate about the night Ray Stevens beat Bruno Sammartino to become WWWF Champion. As title history aficionados know, that reign has never been acknowledged or even alluded to by WWE. If it were, Bruno’s mythical seven-year title run would be truncated somewhat. This phantom tactic is one of the reasons Ric Flair has such a disputed number of World Title reigns. WWE has settled on a manageable low-ball 16 (so they can beat it with a current star), but historians will vehemently argue otherwise, citing numbers in the 20s as the true figure.
As the territories dwindled into obscurity, wrestling dream matches became increasingly contained to within a single promotion, with varying degrees of success. When the WWF finally signed NWA/WCW lynchpin Ric Flair in 1991 and matched him with long-time company alpha Hulk Hogan, the box office results were nowhere near as impressive as they likely would have been three years earlier. Vince McMahon instead settled on creating his own stars and pitting them against each other, drawing huge money in the Attitude Era with self-made creations ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin, The Rock, The Undertaker, and Triple H. The future generations of talent that followed all came through WWE’s developmental system, with notables such as John Cena, Batista, Brock Lesnar, and Randy Orton graduating from OVW then becoming stars on the main roster. WWE had no choice—they had systematically killed off the territories and their competition; there was nowhere left to poach stars from.
For a time, it seemed like the dream match concept was dead. A relic of the past with no chance of returning due to WWE’s status as the only game in town. As WWE was now the only promotion anyone was watching and it was creating its own talent in Ohio, there was nobody left to bring in to work with their stars. Unfortunately, that self-sustaining approach came with problems. Grooming newcomers to be money-drawing acts is not an exact science, and there were as many misses as there were hits. Without a competitor to raid for ready-made names, WWE instead turned to its past, bringing back former stars for one last run in order to program them with a top draw from the modern era. When they did it at WrestleMania X8 in 2002, with The Rock and Hulk Hogan, it was captivating. Inevitably, when they did the same match again one year later at No Way Out 2003, the magic was gone. As with all dream clashes, it was one and done.
WWE persisted, dusting off Hogan and others on a regular basis over the next decade. At SummerSlam 2005, ‘The Hulkster’ was the focal point again, this time against Shawn Michaels, a man who made his name in the WWF only after Hogan and his fellow dinosaurs left for WCW. This allowed the likes of Michaels and Bret Hart to pick up the pieces and help bring the company forward into a new, work rate centric era. Both Hogan and Michaels were infamous for their political machinations behind the scenes over the years, with Hogan holding an ungodly amount of influence in WCW (it was even written into his contract that he had final say over any storyline in the company) and Michaels having more sway with Vince McMahon in the mid-90s than was healthy for locker room morale. So, inevitably, when it came to agreeing a finish, there were problems. Similar to the dream intra-promotional clashes of old, egos came into play and neither man wanted to be on the losing side. When Michaels eventually agreed to put Hogan over, he did so with a secret plan in mind: he was going to show-up Hulk in the match. Showing his colours of old, Michaels entered the sort of brash, unprofessional performance that had marred his run on top in 1996. Purposely comically overselling everything that Hogan did, ‘HBK’ made ‘The Hulkster’ look like a chump.
Feeling this was an isolated incident, WWE persisted with the formula. For three consecutive WrestleMania’s between 2008 and 2010, Shawn Michaels became the central figure in one-off supershow dream bouts, facing off with veterans Ric Flair (2008) and The Undertaker (2009 and 2010) in a trio of emotional, high- drama clashes. Michaels had worked with both several times before, albeit not in several years, and never on the grandest stage. The results were spectacular both creatively and commercially, though as per the norm, they did not help the company going forward. Nobody new was elevated in those matches; Flair retired after his clash with Michaels, Undertaker wound down his schedule to one match per year, and Michaels called it quits immediately following the 2010 event.