Welcome to the first in what I hope will be several articles about disastrous moments in wrestling history and how they affected the business. Today we kick off with one of the scariest moments in the WWE's history.
Today in the WWE they are a taboo word (unless you can ignite fire from the ring posts or rise from a casket)- something that is talked about like it was used by the wrestling equivalent of the Death Eaters or the Sith. When CM Punk pulled one out against John Cena during his match last year on Raw, the fans did not cheer so much but gasp inwardly- already wondering what the punishment would be for the Straight Edged Superstar.
But once upon a time piledrivers were performed by all- even the nicest and safest guys that the business had to offer. And unfortunately, sometimes it went very wrong.
King of the Ring 1996 had established that Stone Cold Steve Austin was ready for the big time. His rant at Jake the Snake Roberts had established to the crowd that he was a babyface in everything but name. However, the WWE took its time cementing the turn waiting for the big stage of Wrestlemania 13 to ensure that his babyface run would be as legitimate as possible (and, it could be argued, to help cement Hart as a heel). With the Undertaker now off on a championship run, many wondered when this new superstar was going to get his turn with the belt.
If it seemed like Vince McMahon was being overly cautious with who to give the ball to during 1997 there was a very good reason for it. WCW, with the help of the nWo storyline had now begun really substantially beating the WWE in the ratings. In times of crisis Vince had always gone back to what he knew worked. Unfortunately, what he knew worked was giving Hulk Hogan or Randy Savage the title and both of those guys had jumped ship to WCW. Vince's inability to commit to new stars like Shawn Michaels or Bret Hart with any true level of commitment was now biting him in the bum while WCW was running off the coat tails of stars that McMahon had helped to make.
However, Austin at Summerslam was still in a very good position. The creative team realised what a hot property they had on their hands and was gearing up to give him the WWE Intercontinental Title- a prestigious championship that meant infinitely more than it does today. He would be facing Owen Hart- one of the best workers and nicest guys in the business who was well known for being able to put on a great match with almost anyone.
Unfortunately it all went awry that night.
It is difficult to get a full idea of what occurred- partly of course because one of the main participants is sadly no longer with us. It seems however that the idea was for Hart to 'steal' the Undertaker's Tombstone Piledriver move in some sort of gesture of solidarity to his brother who was on next against the Deadman in the main event. However, Hart did not do a kneeling reverse piledriver (which is what the Tombstone technically is- smirk, smirk), but dropped on his rump, causing Austin to severely injure his neck.
Again, not to get too technical but from what I understand, the reverse (or belly to belly) piledriver is much more dangerous than the normal piledriver- which has the wrestler and his opponent facing the same way (albeit upside down in the case of the opponent). In the case of the normal piledriver, the opponent can brace himself with his arms against the legs of the wrestler as he sits down, as well as tucking his head in to reduce impact. Furthermore, the wrestler can essentially 'lean back' into the move- allowing the 'drop' to be more controlled.
Against Hart, Austin could not do any of these things- he was facing the wrong way to use his arms to brace himself, and he couldn't tuck his head in because it had nowhere to go. Likewise, Hart could not 'lean back' into the move because he was too upright- meaning he essentially just had to drop down without any slow acceleration or control. This is why the Undertaker plants his opponent by essentially leaning forwards and kneeling- with a reverse piledriver it's the far safer option (and the fact that it allows him to look cool of course with the Rest in Peace pin).
There was no doubt that the announce team was braced for a proper Tombstone piledriver- even after the move had finished JR claimed it had "shades of the Undertaker". However soon it became crystal clear that something was horribly wrong. When watching it back today you are fully aware of how much that Hart, the referee and the announce team are swimming in uncharted waters after it occurred. None of them know quite how to approach the situation, with Hart half-heartedly taunting the fans while the referee checks on Austin and the announce team not knowing quite what to say.
Austin's injury could have spelt almost doom for the WWE. Their biggest rising star could have been off television for months and though McMahon had given the Championship to Bret Hart, there was already rumblings that the Hitman was perhaps moving to Atlanta. But Austin continued to come to TV to interfere and become even more popular as the fans loved his passion for the business. For this he should be applauded as not only did he manage to get his character even more over than it was before, but he managed to manoeuvre himself as the automatic first choice to feud with McMahon when Survivor Series came about.
The other obvious effect of this botch was also on Steve Austin in that it shortened his career. Austin would have a great run on top- but his time on top was limited. While John Cena has been top guy since WM21 (or 22 if you want to be picky), Austin went from WM14 to WM 19 and it could be argued after WM 17 he was no longer numero uno on the list of top guys. His neck injury therefore would perhaps help him to become more popular, but there is also no doubt that it meant that he was wrestling on borrowed time thereafter.
Perhaps the big question that should be asked about this match is how significant was it in Austin's career? If he was not injured, would he have been stuck with the IC Championship at WM 14 and missed the boat? Would Vince have not gone to him as the anti-establishment babyface to his Mr McMahon character? Or would he have actually got the belt sooner- perhaps he would have been placed in the Survivor Series main event in order for McMahon to ensure that the screwjob did not happen (Hart himself said he would have been happy to drop the title to Austin, Foley or Taker but not to Michaels)?
But if Survivor Series did not happen- would WWE have the perfect heel to lead them out of the dark ages?
That's it for the first article in this series guys. Next time we look at a moment where Vince McMahon refused to see the iceberg. All he had to do was put the Best in the World on the helm...