In professional wrestling, very few moments captivate the fans, stirring their imagination, finding the deepest corners in their minds, carrying not just the mere seconds of the incident, but remain as a tale — a folklore, passed down from generation to generation.
From the iconic image of Hulk Hogan body slamming Andre the Giant, to Shawn Michaels trapping Bret Hart in the Sharpshooter – there have been instances, which have taken a life of their own, becoming legends. Two decades ago, on this day, we witnessed such an occasion.
Not only was it monumental for the birth of arguably the single greatest rivalry in professional wrestling history, but it also had a domino effect – a boon for the fans, while a bane for other promotions. In 1997, one man’s defiance resulted in WWE being catapulted into mainstream attention.
The reason for this is intrinsic; you don’t have to do outlandish antics to capture the imagination of the audience. All WWE did, was to take the frustrations of blue collar workers, and give them a character they could vicariously live through. At a time when the norm was in a state of flux, WWE and Vince McMahon had their finger on the pulse of their audience.
‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin kick-stars his rivalry with Mr. McMahon
The seeds for the Austin – McMahon rivalry were planted on September 22nd, 1997. Austin, who broke his neck during his match with Owen Hart, was sidelined due to the injury, and had to relinquish the Intercontinental title.
This did not sit well with The Rattlesnake, who only had vengeance on his mind. But no one at the time would’ve foreseen the unraveling of events — the chain reaction it would have, and the fans, who were already behind Austin, saw him as their messiah. While the general public have always wanted to rebel against the authority, only in a scripted world could it happen, with the protagonist going on to achieve incredible things.
In Vince McMahon – the authoritative autocrat, the fans had the pantomime villain. After the devious chairman “screwed” Bret Hart out of the WWE Championship — and out of the company, the fans longed to see Mr. McMahon get his comeuppance.
In Steve Austin, they found an outlet, not only for Bret, but even for themselves. Vindication and schadenfreude are polar opposites, yet at a basic level, represent human nature. So when Steve Austin mustered up the courage to stand up to Vince McMahon, who at that point still wasn’t a ‘heel’, it evoked an organic reaction, something that is a promoter’s dream in the industry.
Steve Austin – Mr. McMahon rivalry redefined the ethos of the business
In the industry today, we have at least one heel authority figure in every promotion. While the likes of Jack Tunney did represent a changing trend in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, pertaining to the roles of on – screen authority figures, no promoter stepped in front of the cameras, extending their personal lives, transforming themselves into a villainous character.
However, fuelled by the Bret Hart controversy, and the rising consensus among the fanbase regarding the future of Steve Austin as WWE’s next golden boy, Mr. McMahon found his golden ticket. With the cultural transformation in North America, and the growing influence of the millennials — teenagers who did not want to see goody two shoes on TV sets, WWE stepped away from the norms, creating a product that not only appealed to the blue collared workers, but also to the teenagers, who themselves were going through a rebellious phase.
Thus, the character of Steve Austin resonated with the masses. Soon enough, “flipping the bird” was considered ‘cool’. Austin gained mainstream attention as a cultural icon, and the fans found someone they could get behind. No longer were the fans fascinated with clean – cut characters, but gravitated towards rebellious personalities.
The New World Order started this transition; however, Austin took it a step further. The rivalry between The Rattlesnake and Mr. McMahon soon rubbed off on the other Superstars. Attitude Era highlighted the depth of the talent pool in the company, but more importantly, the diverse set of characters the promotion had at its disposal.
But none of this would’ve happened, had Austin not stunned Vince 20 years ago!