In the wake of one of the more pathetic Road to Wrestlemanias for the guy they seem to want to crown as the next top guy, I decided to take a look back at a previous Road to Wrestlemania and compare and contrast the two situations. For my own entertainment purposes, I decided to go with 1998, because it features my favorite wrestler of all time.
So, like all Road to Wrestlemanias, we start with the Royal Rumble match:
In this Royal Rumble, Stone Cold Steve Austin enters at number 24. From the start, Austin is painted as the biggest deal imaginable. Something like 10 guys in the ring, all of them stop to prepare for Steve Austin. He comes out of the crowd and starts fighting everyone. He eliminates 2 men immediately, and ends up eliminating 7 guys, staves off a 4 on 1 attack by Los Boriquas during the match, and ends it by eliminating Rock, after Rock pulls a fast one on Farooq (setting up another story while still making Austin look strong because he eliminates Rock clean off a Stunner, and had 6 more eliminations).
The week after the Royal Rumble, we enter the Reality Era early as Shawn Michaels quips about how he lays down for absolutely nobody. True, true.
Then, in the main event segment, we start the Mania build as Steve Austin steps right to Mike Tyson and threatens to kick his ass because he's insulted that Tyson is referred to as the Baddest Man on the Planet when Austin is the Toughest SOB walking the earth. He then flips the double birds and starts openly fighting a former world heavyweight champion boxer as a sea of humanity has to separate these two absolute titans.
On January 26th, we see HBK cowardly trying to get out of defending his title by offering to referee the Austin and Tyson fight at Wrestlemania.
When Austin appears later in the show, JR makes the point that "there has never been another like Steve Austin." This is a small, but important point about 1998 versus now. In 1998, they actually presented their current stars as the biggest stars available, rather than trying to make them inferior to past performers. Austin proceeds to promo about how he's going to kick Mike Tyson's ass and will fight him anywhere he wants.
On February 2nd, we see DX cut a promo, Austin interjects down 3 on 1, gets right in Shawn's face, cuts a promo on him to his face, and DX just leaves with their tails between their legs.
In the main event, Austin works his first match since the Royal Rumble against Road Dogg. Billy Gunn interferes immediately, Austin beats the shit out of both of them, DX comes down, 4 on 1 assault on Austin, they tie him in the ropes, Michaels rubs the belt in his face and tells him he'll never have it as Austin looks on defiant until Cactus Jack and Chainsaw Charlie (who are feuding with NAO) make the save. Austin still ends the show on top, ripping up a DX shirt after they get chased.
February 9th, Austin immediately calls Michaels out, wants to beat his ass. Michaels rebuffs Austin until Austin lets him know he stole the title belt.
In the main event segment, Austin, with just the title belt, backs down Hunter, Shawn, Chyna, and the New Age Outlaws all at once until Jack, Charlie, and Owen Hart join Austin to set-up the 8 man tag at No Way Out as the show goes off the air.
At No Way Out, Austin takes virtually no offense, gets the hot tag, wins the match via Stunner. Stunners Billy Gunn as well. Then Chyna gets in his face, starts shoving Austin around, finally flips him the double bird and he hits her with a Stunner as well as we go off air.
The next episode of Raw, February 16th, Austin explains why he stunned Chyna. "When you step through these ropes, your ass belongs to Stone Cold." Yet again threatens to knock Tyson's teeth out and make a gold necklace or ring out of his golden tooth. "Austin. Michaels. Tyson. The shit's on." And there's your Mania setup.
The next episode sees no DX or Austin, and instead just a four minute vignette of Austin raising hell.
On March 2nd, we're back to Austin/Michaels with a DX promo to start the show. Yet again, Austin doesn't take their shit and interrupts the promo. Austin stares down DX, but the lights go out from Kane, Austin's opponent for the night. DX then uses that opportunity to run away. Austin grabs one of the commentary headsets and explains that lights on or light out, he's gonna beat everybody's ass.
Later on, Mike Tyson joins DX, which further stacks the odds against Austin at Mania.
Austin enters for his main event match with Kane, but as he walks down the ramp, he gets distracted by HHH, and HBK hits Sweet Chin Music, only the second even slight chink in the armor for the Texas Rattlesnake shown since the Rumble. Austin stills gets up a few moments later and chases down DX who hightailed it out of dodge.
On March 9th, Shawn Michaels is referred to as arguably the greatest champion of all time, yet again, emphasizing the present at the expense of the past, making contemporary stars feel important. DX is basking in the glow of finally getting offense on Austin, replaying their superkick over and over again. First time in the entire build that Austin doesn't confront DX when they are in the ring talking crap about him, but don't worry, a much bigger Austin segment is coming.
About a half hour later, Austin finally arrives, and has a bigger issue to worry about, and that is Vince McMahon yet again calling Mike Tyson the baddest man on the planet last week. He shows a replay, and then threatens to set the production truck on fire because they're too slow when he asks them to rewind the clip so he can hear it again. Austin feels personally insulted by these comments from Vince, and is going to sit in the ring until Vince comes out. Occupy Raw v.1! At this point, Austin is basically feuding with everyone. Echoing Austin chants as he just sits in the ring on a chair glowering. At first, Brisco and another official come out to reason with Austin, he tells them to get Vince, and the show isn't going on until he comes out. Next up is Commissioner Sgt. Slaughter as Austin exclaims, "Please tell me this is a rib." Austin then tells Slaughter to "Get your ass up there and bring Vince down here, and that's an order." (Because he's a Sergeant, you see.) Finally, Austin says, "What are you gonna do? Suspend me? Fire me? Hell, son, Wrestlemania is right around the corner, you ain't gonna do nothing to Steve Austin." (Brilliant, logical explanation for why Austin can run wild, they need him for the Mania main event). Austin then explains that if he doesn't come down here, he's going to beat Slaughter's ass, and then go to the back and beat Vince's. Slaughter walks to the back, we go to commercial with more echoing Austin chants that are still going as we come back. Next up, security comes out. Austin explains that they "Ain't got no mace, ain't got no pepper spray, more than that ya ain't got no guns so you ain't gonna do a damn bit of good." "Austin doesn't need to make any more enemies, already gave the Stunner to half the company," says JR as security leaves. Finally Vince comes out with all the officials, security, everything, and is still afraid to enter the ring. Never forget that he stepped man to man to Roman Reigns at 70 years old and then kicked him in the dick. Finally gets in the ring, and Austin confronts him about calling Tyson the baddest man on the planet. Vince explains, "It's a figure of speech. Baddest man on the planet. It's just a figure of speech." "This is a figure of speech too" as Austin flips Vince the double bird. He then implores Vince to hit him, and then when Vince won't, gives him a 10 count to get out of his ring or Austin will kicks his ass. Vince scurries away like a coward.
In the main event, Triple H takes on Savio Vega with a bunch of referees, security, and officials at ringside trying to protect the match from being interfered with by one person. Austin faces that head on, charges through, Stunners Brisco, Stunners a Ref, Stunners Vega, and then Michaels sneaks up from behind, after pretending he was home in Texas, and hits Sweet Chin Music once again.
Next week, on March 17th, now with Austin not here, Vince talks tough to Kevin Kelly. Explains that he didn't punch Austin because, "How could Steve Austin compete at Wrestlemania with a broken jaw?" He continues talking tough as the audience is openly laughing at him. Then Kelly gets to the question Austin asked Vince the previous week about whether Vince wants Austin to be champion. Vince tries to talk away from it saying that "if Austin would be molded into a respectful champion that would be one thing" but Kelly pushes for a Yes or No answer and Vince exclaims, "Hell no! And that's the bottom line, because Vince McMahon said so."
Finally, we get to the go-home show for one of the most important Wrestlemanias in company history. Austin comes out right off the top to cut a promo. He explains that you can't mold Steve Austin, and feels insulted by Kevin Kelly and threatens to whip his ass to a huge ovation from the audience. He's interrupted by Sgt. Slaughter who informs Austin he's going to have to wrestle The Rock tonight (Note: Michaels has not had to wrestle a single match during this entire build for both health and heel reasons) in the main event, six days before Mania. Austin says he's gonna wrestle Rock, but Slaughter informs him that if he doesn't, he'll lose his title match. Austin explains "I said I was gonna do it already, and now you've insulted me." Stunner on Slaughter, crowd pops huge, commercial.
In the main event, Austin goes toe to toe with Rock with The Nation at ringside. They interject throughout, Austin handles them easily, pins Rock clean of the Stunner, D-Lo comes in with a Steel Chair, also gets a Stunner, and DX stands on the entrance ramp. Austin encourages them to come down to fight, but Shawn and Hunter back away and we cut to black.
What you have there is Steve Austin being the complete and total focal point of the program, feuding with Vince McMahon, D-Generation X, and "Iron" Mike Tyson, getting to raise hell pretty much constantly, and being presented just like he says, as the toughest Son of a bitch on the Earth. At no point does he back down to anyone, often being massively down in numbers. He comes across as a genuine worldbeater.
Now let us fast forward to 2016.
First, we start with the Royal Rumble. Reigns comes out first, stays in for a while, then gets beat up by the League of Nations, walks to the back, gets medical attention, and comes back about 25 minutes later. Then he proceeds to be eliminated cleanly by Triple H.
Next week, The Authority buries Reigns on the mic, and he doesn't even confront them, just sits in the back and takes it from all three of them. He then works a tag match in the main event, wins, and gets another title shot for reasons.
After that, we see Dean Ambrose be the one to confront Brock Lesnar while Roman Reigns sits in the back. In the main event, Dean takes an F-5 from Brock as Reigns is having a slumber party with Kofi Kingston.
The following week, Brock takes everyone out at the contract signing, and Dean calls out the Beast yet again, goes for a low blow after a Reigns distraction.
Then Heyman cuts a promo to Reigns, and Reigns gets jumped by the Dudleyz, and after Dean makes the save, almost hits Dirty Deeds on Reigns.
Finally, we have Fastlane, which Reigns wins, and then the next night, sits in the back all night on his cell phone, and then gets the holy hell beaten out of him by Triple H in a one on one confrontation. Note, Austin was down a minimum of 2 on 1 in every single situation, and usually 4 on 1, and they still only managed to even get offense against him at all on three occasions from the middle of January to the end of March, with only one small beatdown where he still ended the show standing tall.
And this week, not on the show, getting surgery.
First observation, seriously, Austin is the greatest performer of all time, as if that's news.
But more pertinently, to me, this showcases the twofold problem with Roman Reigns and other faces WWE has tried to make over recent years. On the one hand, Austin is clearly, without a shadow of a doubt orders of magnitude better than any of these guys. Even watching the stuff back 20 years later almost, I'm still hanging on every word just like I was in 1998. He's just an intensely compelling presence and an absolutely incredible speaker.
On the other hand, the differences in booking and presentation are absolutely staggering, so even if the person was as compelling as Steve Austin, there's no way that person would get as over as Steve Austin did. I don't know if Roman Reigns is good enough to be a top face, but with the way they book him, it doesn't matter, because he has no chance. Austin was presented as a completely larger than life figure. Reigns is presented as a sub-Daniel Bryan type underdog while looking like a Samoan badass and evoking no similar underdog sympathy. A lot of the Reigns pitfalls apply to other people, like presenting them as inferior to past performers and such, but it's stark with Reigns because he's the guy being pushed as the top face right now, and they're certainly not acting like it. Ambrose, at least is a convincing underdog, but with all these beatings, he kinda does need to win at some point over one of these two titans he's facing.
1998 is what it looks like when you really commit to making someone your top star, not trying to make sure no one gets too over relative to the brand or the part-timers. Reigns is probably too damaged at this point (and arguably not a good enough performer when it comes to talking or character), but if they start presenting Dean Ambrose, or whoever the next major NXT call-up is even slightly like the fed presented Austin in 1998, they might actually have the new star they seem to desperately want.