Well lovers it’s the day after Valentine’s Day. Back to the real world. In WWE land we’re getting ready for a pair of PPVs—Elimination Chamber for Raw and FastLane for SmackDown—that will bridge the gap between the Royal Rumble and WrestleMania.
This is the most exciting, action-packed, twisty and turny stretch of time on the WWE Calendar, every year. The big feuds we expect to see erupt at WrestleMania start percolating in the weeks immediately following the Royal Rumble. Just this week John Cena dropped a not-so-veiled reference to Undertaker, planting the seeds in our minds for another Icon vs Icon match on the grandest stage. The Road to WrestleMania is filled with moments like that, year in and year out.
But I’ve been in the Valentine’s Day mood a little more than usual this week, so indulge me one more time as I get the sweet sweet thrill of eating a whole thing of candygrams out of my system.
Nineteen years ago the WWF bridged the gap between the Royal Rumble and WrestleMania (15) with a show that also celebrated Valentine’s Day...in the WWF’s own inimitable fashion, of course.
The show was memorable for a couple reasons.
For one it was the debut of Paul Wight, known to all today as Big Show. He’s still
choke-slamming punching people dramatically almost two decades later (but he’s still got a few more years to go before he equals the career-length of his daddy Andre).
The big story of the show, however, was the first-ever one-on-one match between Stone Cold Steve Austin and the evil Mr. McMahon. At stake was the number-one contendership for the WWF Championship at WrestleMania. The title itself was fought over on the same night in a match between Mankind (the champ) and The Rock, giving the PPV an almost Final-Four feel to it.
It’s easy to look back, in hindsight, and say “well of course Rock and Austin would win and face each other at WrestleMania...” We’ve spent fifteen years hearing about their rivalry, punctuated by three epic WrestleMania clashes; it’s easy to forget what it was like to be a viewer back then. It’s also easy to look back with your “logical and reasonable wrestling booker” hat on and say “Rock vs Austin was the money match to promote in the WWF at the time, so of course they’d clash at WrestleMania that year.” But back then the stories were not so linear and any number of things could have happened (and, in fact, did) to make you wonder just where things were heading.
After all, just one month before, at the Royal Rumble, any logical thinker would have predicted “Austin wins the match, of course.” That made the most sense; it’s not like there were two world titles, two brands to accommodate, and a six hour Mania with half its running time devoted to so-called “main-event” matches. Of course Austin was the logical winner. How else are you going to get him in the main-event of WrestleMania?
Instead SWERVE: Vince McMahon won the Royal Rumble.
It was a terribly criticized move at the time, because people went into the match thinking logically when there’s rarely any logic to be had in the WWF/E, and especially back then, and especially especially when Vince McMahon was mid-story and on the road to a big conclusion.
Giving Vince the Rumble win was brilliant. It accomplished three things.
1. It swerved the audience’s expectations. That’s a common booking trope today in WWE and usually it falls flat. Why? Because today there are swerves for the sake of swerves. Vince winning the Rumble didn’t just swerve the “smart” fans...
2. It broke up the redundancy of what would have been an Austin three-peat. Stone Cold won the 1997 Rumble (shenanigans aside) and the critical “coronation-teasing” 1998 Rumble too. Winning three in a row was more than logical, it was boring. That’s something else WWE does today: It bucks a trend just to, as Vince likes to say, “shake things up.” Often times it fails to produce a positive result, however. Why? Because it’s often done with no forethought or endgame in mind. It worked in 1999 though, but there’s a third reason it worked, and it’s the most important one of all...
3. It kept the audience engaged in the story.
Why not just give Austin the Rumble win, a by the book two month feud with Rock and another WrestleMania title win? Because that would be playing it safe. The characters and story might have been next-level popular, but the WWF needed more than just popular faces and heels, they needed their audience to feel like fools if they ever even thought about changing the channel.
The WWF had WCW breathing down their necks. It was critical that they keep jerking the fans’ chain, stringing people along without a final, ultimate resolution until it was absolutely necessary (Mania). As long as you’re along for the ride and the driver is entertaining (and Austin vs McMahon was entertaining) you’ll keep going on the ride, not wanting it to end. Thus, Vince kept the ride going, and every time the fans reached a climax in the story, Vince jerked the chain and swerved them into a new chapter. And on it went until, when the fans were at the peak of their...well, “mania” Vince pulled the trigger and sent them home happy...
That’s the secret to Attitude Era booking. It’s not about blood or bewbs or plot twists that make no sense. That stuff, in and of itself, is why Nitro failed when they brought over Russo to write their show. Their stories lacked a singular focus driving the crazy twists to the eventual conclusion. Instead it was just a jumbled mess of nonsense and convoluted stupidity.
For all the twists and crazy turns in WWF booking back then, there was always a grounded, simple story at the core. I mean just look at this entry from prowrestlingwikia on Austin vs McMahon. Just look at the twists and turns and utter insanity here...
McMahon devised a plan to put Austin in a triple-threat match at In Your House:Breakdown against both Kane and the Undertaker for the title. However, the match was a “triple threat” only in name, as Kane and the Undertaker were forbidden to fight each other. In the end, they had both incapacitated Austin, but could not decide on who got the pin. In a compromise, they both pinned Austin simultaneously.
To solve the confusion, McMahon declared the title vacant, and had Undertaker and Kane wrestle each other at Judgment Day: In Your House for the vacant title. In an attempt to humiliate Austin, McMahon named him the referee for the match. However, Austin betrayed his duties, and refused to make the count for either one.
Note: he whacked them both with a chair and declared himself the champion, because he’s Stone freaking Cold.
Because of this, McMahon fired Austin. However, Austin would return later on, and point a toy gun at McMahon’s head that, instead of bullets, shot a sign that said “Bang 3:16.”
Do you see the roller coaster ride? And that’s only three months of storytelling...three months between SummerSlam and Survivor Series (today’s deadzone for WWE)! But strip away the insanity and you’re left with a simple “guy vs his boss” story.
Back to Valentine’s Day, 1999.
The big title match between Rock vs Mankind did not end with a Rock victory but instead a draw, leaving the fate of the championship in doubt. “Tune in to Raw to see what happens!” Was it a disappointment not to have resolution? Why would you want resolution? It’s the month before WrestleMania! Besides, this wasn’t the main-event; it was the prelude...
The main-event of Austin vs McMahon did not disappoint. Was it a masterpiece of wrestling or even mayhem? No. But it was seven minutes of hysteria from fans happy to see Austin and McMahon locked in a cage.
And it ended with Big Show bursting out of the ring to aid Mr. McMahon but throwing Austin into the cage...which then broke, sending him tumbling out to victory. So there: Resolution. But it’s okay to have that kind of resolution here because the real story was Austin’s quest to reclaim the WWF Title. The fans got a taste of victory here, but would have to wait till Mania to experience the true ecstasy of celebration.
Looking back, it’s easy to hand-wave the Attitude Era as the time when big stars elevated crappy writing. The era, but for the superheroes who populated it, is mostly scoffed at, with up-turned noses.
Late 1998-to-early 1999 in particular is decried as the worst-storytelling year of the era, with bad booking across the board, nonsense writing, etc.
Not me. Yes I know there was plenty of trash to forget about, but I also see an era of attention grabbing, frenetically-paced, emotion-manipulating storytelling, with victories and setbacks that ebb and flow along a roller-coaster ride ending in a top-ten WrestleMania main-event.
When I reflect on the February 1999 PPV—the penultimate show—I don’t see an era that I’m glad is in the history books, at least not entierly (I could do without the wrestling quality and the booking of today’s women > the divas of old). I see an era where the twists and turns of WrestleMania season happened all year long, with a storytelling-focus that blows away the passive, slow, drain-circling “creative” approach of the modern era, where the finish line is obvious and the few swerves that come along the way are met with shrugs and eye-rolls, instead of excited-frustration and enraged-elation.
More of that aspect of the Attitude Era would be a most-welcome sight in today’s WWE.