AUSTIN! AUSTIN! AUSTIN!
(THE ONE WHERE MIKE TYSON FIT IN TO THE PRO WRESTLING CARTOON WORLD A LITTLE TOO EASILY)
The year was 1997. Bret Hart was on his way to WCW by way of Montreal. No need to rehash that fateful night; suffice it to say, the World Wrestling Federation needed to replace a top draw and one of its biggest stars.
Shawn Michaels had walked out of Montreal the champion, oozed charisma, seemingly had yet to hit his peak in the ring, and it looked like he would remain at or around the top of the card for years to come. Still, he had been at or around the top of the card for a few years already, and business wasn't exactly a-booming.
I know WWE-produced revisionist history will tell you the trend-setting antics of Triple H and his cross-eyed buddy were the catalyst for the salvation of Vince McMahon's empire, but 1997's D-Generation X vs. Hart Foundation feud did not set the TV wrestling ratings on fire. WCW was still firmly in control of the Monday Night War and it didn't look to relinquish that control anytime soon.
Steve Austin, meanwhile, had been slowly climbing up the card. His 1996 King of the Ring win and subsequent "Austin 3:16" promo is one of the few true defining moments that sparked the launch of the Attitude Era. Still, that was in June of 1996; by the time of Survivor Series 1997, Austin was very popular but had yet to be a consistent title challenger. He was not "the guy."
That's not to say the powers that be were holding him back. On the contrary: Austin won the Royal Rumble in January of 1997, main-evented the February PPV, and co-stole the show in the number two match of WrestleMania 13. He main-evented the April "In Your House" event and then challenged Undertaker for the championship on the undercard of the May "In Your House" show. He stole the show again in a match against Shawn Michaels at King of the Ring 1997 (recommended viewing despite the finish) and co-main evented a big tag match at the brilliant July PPV (Canadian Stampede; also recommended viewing).
Then came SummerSlam 1997.
Who knows what his career trajectory would have looked like had he not been injured. His time out of the ring allowed his personality to shine, however, and his already-popular character only became more so. After months away from competing he returned to action at Survivor Series in Montreal and won the Intercontinental championship from Owen Hart.
With Bret gone, however, Michaels needed a dance partner for WrestleMania, RAW needed a franchise player to build the show around, Vince needed someone to spark ticket sales, and the WWF needed to strike back -- now or never -- at WCW (remember that the hottest match in WCW history happened in December of 1997, between Sting and Hulk Hogan, and things started steadily going downhill for them from there).
Though Austin was still hurting from his SummerSlam injury, he could not pass up the opportunity to be under the spotlight at the top of the card. For the first time, Austin was given the ball to run with. No longer was he just a featured player around the top of the card; he was going to be the central attraction of the promotion. He didn't have the belt yet, but in the buildup to the Rumble, Austin made it clear he was the man and it was just a matter of time.
Sure enough, Austin won the Rumble for a second straight year and headed to WrestleMania to take on Michaels.
"The Heartbreak Kid", meanwhile, was dealing with a crippling injury of his own. Everyone knows about the back injury that would eventually sideline him until 2002 and it's a shame that it hindered the potential match the two could have had on the biggest stage. Their King of the Ring match proved they had great chemistry together.
After the Rumble came the race to WrestleMania. The build up to the main event is legendary. It's easily one of the best WrestleMania main event feuds ever. Mike Tyson himself got in on the action right after the Rumble, and tussled with Austin from the word go. There have been a lot of celebrities and "celebrities" to come and go from one WrestleMania to the next, but none, I don't think, fit in to the crazy world that is pro wrestling quite as easily as Mike Tyson. His role was played to perfection too. Twists and turns would lead to Iron Mike declaring himself a member of DX, while Vince McMahon vowed that Austin would never be the WWF Champion.
Oh noes! The odds! Stacked against the challenger!
By the time the main event happened, the crowd (who had been treated to a very good WrestleMania 14) was at a fever pitch. Austin was "their guy" and they had cheered him for two years straight. Finally, he was getting his WrestleMania main event. Finally, he was getting the ball and a chance to run with it.
Unfortunately, the match was hindered by Austin's neck (which would limit him for the rest of his career) and Michaels' back. It featured a lot of ringside brawling and little technical work apart from some submission/rest holds. It also wasn't the fastest-paced match ever, again due to Michaels' injury. It's a shame that the bell-to-bell action didn't live up to everything around it, and that's the single biggest reason this match is outside the top 10.
Still, the finish of the match is one of the greatest in WrestleMania main event history. I don't know who laid out the match -- probably Pat Patterson -- but it was brilliant the way the two guys flowed from blocked superkick to blocked stunner to blocked superkick to STUNNER. HE GOT IT! MIKE TYSON IN...AUSTIN IS THE CHAMPION!
It's the Attitude Era's Andre slam.
Michaels didn't even connect once with Sweet Chin Music. In the era of unlimited kickouts and cheat codes making finishers worthless, it's strange to see one connected finisher win the match.
Stone Cold won the championship, ushered in the Austin era, and took the industry to new heights.
It makes you wonder how many guys have come and gone who could have remade the business into their image and sparked a renaissance the way Austin did, if only they'd been given the ball and the chance to run with it as the undisputed top guy. Mind you, Austin was pretty much all the company had in the first half of 1998. Hart was gone. Michaels was gone. The rest of the main event scene was comprised of "guys who work with the guy." Austin had to be the guy. If he had flopped, the WWF might not have recovered. Instead, a few weeks after WrestleMania 14, Monday Night Raw beat WCW Monday Nitro in the ratings for the first time in almost two years.
Without the ball being given to Austin at the peak of his popularity, who knows where the fortunes of the company might have gone.
Sound off, Cagesiders. I'm sure a lot of you think this match should be higher, but I think it's the weakest of Austin's three (only three!) WrestleMania main events. I also think it was very limited due to HBK's back problems. To be honest, for a long while this match was in the top ten. I switched it with another match that is coming in a few days. Nevertheless, the match is where the match is. You may disagree, and that's okay. That's why we have a comments section!
Tomorrow's main event was the very good show-closing bout that capped off a very good night filled with very good top matches, none of which felt worthy to close the show.
See you then!
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- Ranking Mania main events #17: Bret Hart vs. Yokozuna II
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- Ranking Mania main events #19: Randy Savage vs. Ted DiBiase
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- Ranking Mania main events #21: Triple H vs. Chris Jericho
- Ranking Mania main events #22: Hulk Hogan vs. King Kong Bundy
- Ranking Mania main events #23: Triple H vs. Randy Orton
- Ranking Mania main events #24: Hulk Hogan vs. Sid Justice
- Ranking Mania main events #25: John Cena vs. The Miz
- Ranking Mania main events #26: Undertaker vs. Sycho Sid
- Ranking Mania main events #27: Hulk Hogan vs. Sgt. Slaughter
- Ranking Mania main events #28: Bret Hart vs. Yokozuna
- Ranking Mania main events #29: Lawrence Taylor vs. Bam Bam Bigelow