Thursday, September 24, 2015

Pro Wrestling: A Mark's History, part 15 (Stone Cold! Stone Cold! Stone Cold!)

As 1998 began it was clear the WWF was taking back some of the momentum from WCW.  Steve Austin was now poised to challenge for the WWF Title and become the new face of the company, while Vince McMahon turned the volume way up on his new heel persona following the Montreal Screwjob.  The seeds were planted for Austin to become a constant thorn in Vince's corporate side, and I knew this was going to make for some wild television.

Not unlike Shawn Michaels' rise in 1996, Austin seemed to be a mortal lock to win the '98 Royal Rumble match, thus earning a title shot at WrestleMania.  The departure of Bret Hart and Davey Boy Smith left two large holes in the roster and therefore the Rumble match itself contained little suspense or star power.  But to me it was okay because the focus was on Austin's journey to the Championship and I couldn't wait to see it all unfold (I've always held the belief that in wrestling, predictability is fine as long as it makes sense dramatically and financially.  I'd rather see the obvious next top star make the trek to the Championship in the traditional fashion, than see swerves that don't make logical sense.).  The company was creative about putting obstacles in his way and creating a bit of suspense, but Austin predictably triumphed.  Another standout in this Rumble match was I-C Champion The Rock, who lasted about fifty minutes and was the final man eliminated.  I think this was the first time I really became a Rock fan.

King of the wrestling catch-phrase

The main event of the Rumble was a Casket Match between WWF Champ Shawn Michaels and The Undertaker.  This annoyed me a little because it seemed like the returning Owen Hart should've been given a PPV Title match to capitalize on the residual heat from Montreal (not to mention it would've been an incredible match).  Still the Casket Match was excellent and furthered Taker's impending feud with Kane.  Unfortunately it also resulted in Shawn's suffering a severe back injury that would have dire long-term consequences.

A legendary RAW segment took place the following night, as Vince announced that Mike Tyson would be appearing at WrestleMania.  Tyson's name immediately garnered huge mainstream attention, and his first WWF altercation with Steve Austin made for spectacular television.  Everyone played their parts perfectly and the whole segment felt very real.  Even after a decade-plus of watching this stuff I remember wondering at the time if Vince may have actually been upset about Austin's antics.

In WCW they were dealing with the aftermath of the botched Sting-Hogan match.  Sting had won the WCW Title in unnecessarily controversial fashion and the belt had been held up pending a rematch.  This took place at SuperBrawl and was another pretty weak bout, but at least Sting won decisively this time.  Of course the bloom was rather off the rose by this point due to how poorly the Starrcade fiasco went over, so Sting dropped the belt only two months later.

A new star was making big waves in Atlanta at this time, almost completely by accident.  His name was Bill Goldberg, and upon seeing him for the first time I said, "Really?  A Steve Austin lookalike?"  In hindsight Goldberg is a very different character of course, but I'm sure I wasn't alone in thinking the timing and his appearance were much more than coincidence.  Goldberg's matches were all 90-second massacres and my feeling was that the magic would wear thin very quickly unless he learned to wrestle a full match.  To WCW's credit they did an excellent job of preserving his mystique by not giving him mic time or allowing anyone to fight back for a while.  Goldberg's offense looked very credible (though his constant mugging for the hard camera after every big move was unintentionally funny) and the roster was so deep he could beat literally dozens of guys before facing a real challenge.  Long-term it was smart booking, and it's something that is often missing these days when a new star emerges.  This is why jobber matches in the 80s were so effective - a new wrestler could beat up a whole lot of guys without damaging any of the current stars.

How'd they screw this up?

The problem was they rushed to make Goldberg the WCW Champion before he or the company was prepared for him to consistently headline PPVs and have full-length matches with real contenders.  Goldie won the US Title from Raven early in the spring and probably should've spent the next six months or so destroying that division before finally challenging Hogan late in the year.  Hogan could've ducked Goldie from September through December while Goldie took out each of Hogan's nWo henchmen one by one, before finally vanquishing the Champ at Starrcade.  Goldberg should have been the one to finally bring down the nWo since that well was long dried up by the end of '98.  Instead they quickly booked Goldberg to beat Hogan at the GeorgiaDome on free television with only a week's notice (thus losing a potentially HUGE PPV buyrate), and then unceremoniously ended his massive undefeated streak at Starrcade, at the hands of Kevin Nash.  Such a streak should've been stopped by a rising star who could have benefited from it.  Instead WCW botched yet another huge babyface push for the sake of appeasing yet another ego. 

WrestleMania XIV was a big one for me, as it took place in my hometown of Boston, MA, and the main event featured my two favorite wrestlers at the time.  I salivated over a Shawn Michaels-Steve Austin 'Mania main event.  I attended the DX Public Workout held in Government Center the week before, and while I couldn't see jack squat from where I was standing, it was very cool to be a part of the hype. 

At the time I didn't know if it was only because 'Mania was in Boston, but I could really sense just how red-hot the WWF brand (and wrestling in general) was becoming.  Local papers were printing wrestling-related stories which seemed so surreal since the last time I had seen a mainstream paper cover wrestling was in 1987.  The A&E Network also aired a documentary around that time called The Unreal Story of Professional Wrestling, which was a really amazing thing to see in a prime time slot on a network not called USA or TNT (It's still a very enjoyable doc).  Mall stores were even carrying wrestling T-shirts and posters, which blew my mind. 

I toyed with the idea of going to WrestleMania, but between the ticket price and wanting to immediately rewatch the tape of the show I decided to order the PPV as per usual.  I loved the show overall and it felt like a big deal in the same way 'Mania III did.  The Triple H-Owen Hart match, the long-awaited Undertaker-Kane showdown, and the main event all carried that special major-event aura.  I was disappointed with Shawn vs. Austin at the time since Shawn's back injury prevented him from performing at 100%.  But watching it back now, the agony Shawn must have been in conveyed palpable drama (Having suffered through a nasty bout of sciatica myself I now appreciate how miraculous Shawn's performance was).

Whoa doctor....

Austin's title run made for excellent, groundbreaking television, as Vince McMahon threw everything at him to get back the Championship.  From the teased Austin vs. McMahon match on April 13th, to the return of Dude Love as a corporate heel, to Kane and Taker getting involved, it was all very well-executed.

As Austin et al held down the fort, the midcard talent was ripe for growth.  The Rock had already become one of the most entertaining stars in the company and like most fans I started cheering him for his innovative "cool heel" persona.  Triple H and the reformed DX (including the returning Sean Waltman as X-Pac, who for a while was actually one of the most exciting stars on the roster) created a new type of anti-hero that was totally different from the Steve Austin character.  Instead of bucking authority and beating people up, DX simply mocked convention and got everyone to see how ridiculous it was.  The DX-Nation of Domination feud was one of the best things about RAW at this time - two factions comprised of rising homegrown talent trying to steal the show from the Austin-McMahon feud.  RAW in 1998 was more often than not awesome TV.

The WWF followed WrestleMania with two great summer PPVs.  King of the Ring featured one of the most violent matches of all time in the Taker-Mankind Hell in a Cell (there's probably nothing I can say about this match that hasn't been covered already, but holy shit), and SummerSlam was a stacked card headlined by Austin vs. Taker for the WWF Title, and Rock vs. Triple H in a main-event caliber Ladder Match that established both men as future headliners.

SummerSlam also featured the in-ring debut of one of the most intriguing new stars in a long time - a moody, goth-influenced character called Edge.  From the series of intense vignettes displaying his dark persona, to his innovative ring style, Edge immediately caught my attention and I was a fan from the start.  Edge would be joined by the vampire character Gangrel and his own onscreen brother Christian to eventually form The Brood - yet another fresh stable of exciting young wrestlers that made RAW memorable.

This stable probably should've stayed together a while longer.

Down in Atlanta the nWo had split in half and began feuding with each other.  The Hogan-led nWo Black & White heel faction battled the tweener team of nWo Wolfpac comprised of Kevin Nash, Sting (in awful-looking red facepaint), Lex Luger and Randy Savage.  While this was certainly an unusual way to go, it made for a very watered-down version of the nWo angle and it seemed to me like WCW was out of ideas for the group.   Not to mention Sting had gone from WCW's "savior" to just another nWo guy - what a waste of a tremendously-built character.

Around this time I started noticing how good some of WCW's midcard talent was.  Chris Benoit, Chris Jericho, Dean Malenko, Eddie Guerrero, Booker T, and Rey Mysterio were all routinely stealing the show with their fast-paced, modern wrestling style and I remember thinking, "These guys should OWN this place, why aren't they in the main event slots?"  But WCW stubbornly reserved all the top spots on the card for aging former WWF talent, and somehow even managed to totally botch Bret Hart's run.

One of the few reasons I watched any of Nitro.

Bret had come over after the Montreal incident and while his departure from the WWF upset me quite a bit, I took solace that Bret would be able to wrestle a fresh set of opponents and not only steal the show, but help elevate some new talent.  Unfortunately that isn't what happened at all.  Bret drifted through a series of one-off matches and haphazardly joined the nWo, but seemed to jump back and forth between babyface and heel without any rhyme or reason.  Consequently he ended up lost in the shuffle.  How a company could take a ready-made top-flight star and actually make him LESS of a draw I still don't understand.

The WWF's fall season unfortunately got a bit tiresome (which over the years has been the norm for some reason - the company always seems to tread water from September to December), as the Austin-Vince feud chugged along without much change.  Austin was still primarily feuding with Kane and Taker while stars like Ken Shamrock, Mankind and The Rock fought to break the glass ceiling.  The Rock had become somewhat of a babyface after his enormous fan support at Summerslam, and was clearly on the verge of cracking the top tier.

Then at Survivor Series '98 in the finals of a tournament to crown a new WWF Champ (after the title was declared vacant following an Austin/Taker/Kane triple threat), The Rock and Mankind became made men amid an ingenious swerve.  The PPV was built around the story that Vince had handpicked Mankind as his intended corporate Champion, and made his journey to the finals easy, while throwing roadblocks in Austin's and Rock's paths.  But in the finals it was revealed that Rocky had been working for Vince all along while Mankind was just a patsy.  The Rock took the belt and became the company's new top heel.  While the show had terrible wrestling, it was a brilliant piece of storytelling and I was tremendously excited to see The Rock (now my favorite wrestler) take the strap.

The WWF's calendar year ended with a continued surge in ratings and mainstream success, and the stage was set for a massive Austin-Rock showdown in 1999.  WCW on the other hand managed to screw up the one thing they had been doing well - pushing Goldberg.  It was obvious (and satisfying) to me that remaining loyal to the WWF during this ratings war was the right move.

Part 14                                                                                                                                           

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