There is a delicious irony in the midst of Steve Austin hosting Vince McMahon on a special WWE Network edition of his no-holds-barred podcast. Austin, for whom tiptoeing is a sin both in character and out, objectively grills his old boss on a number of topics, one of which being the interminable yammering sessions that open Raw. Austin professes to being a wrestling guy, and he wants to see wrestling. The irony, of course, is that Raw began its ascent to its greatest heights when Raw set aside 15 to 20 minutes at Raw’s entrance to allow for interminable yammering (although with more salable talking points), with Austin himself as master blue collar orator.
Most of the internet turned their ears to McMahon’s apology to Punk for firing him on his wedding day, and here’s where we get diplomatic Vince. His remarks about Punk being a loner that may have some regrets about the way he did things were far from backhanded. It’s here that we see the McMahon as I understand him: a businessman who will employ ruthless tactics, yes, but feels a nagging sense later on, and wants everyone to be happy.
McMahon most often puts his happiness first, absolutely, but you get the sense that he hates loose ends in spite of his F-You fortune. When you see the likes of Bret Hart, The Ultimate Warrior, and Bruno Sammartino participate with the company after mending fences, I get the feeling that, from afar, McMahon is not so much thinking, “Suckers; I can buy anyone back,” but rather genuine happiness that he was able to reach these disgruntled’s, human to human.
The biggest takeaway I got from the podcast wasn’t even anything Vince said, but rather his early demeanor. Going in, McMahon seemed sober to the fact that Austin wasn’t going to dull his blade any, and was bracing himself for anything and everything. To watch the first ten minutes of their back-and-forth, McMahon’s eyes are deer-like, and the light of the Buick hasn’t even been flashed at him. It’s the look of a man who finds himself in a real situation, no plastic-coating. It’s not a seat McMahon likes to sit in.
He’s seated across from a man whom brought him to new, uncharted heights, and vice versa. Much of Austin and McMahon’s current fortunes were stacked by the other, and this is an ally who’s preparing to ask the tough questions. This isn’t Bob Costas or Armen Keteyan or even Sean O’Shea, the prosecutor from the 1994 steroid trial, holding the gun. It’s Steve Austin with a paintball projectile. Those things can sting.
And yet, there’s McMahon, apprehensive, sober as a Quaker. A few nervous chuckles early on, that patented yuk-yuk laugh, only momentarily distract from the tension. The McMahon who purportedly gets angry when he sneezes because he couldn’t control his own body (Chris Jericho’s book is the most credible authority that reports this urban legend as legit) is in a place where he has no control. Short of lurching forth and slitting Austin’s throat, the boss can’t control the words that emanate from Austn’s lips. With a three-camera set-up trained on them, and millions of eyes dying to see and hear the boss in this environment, McMahon was in quite a spot. That debonair Vince that charms with a defiant stride was checked at the door.
McMahon clearly trusts Austin just as he did in 1998, when he put his body into Stone Cold’s hands for a number of rating-spiking thrashings. Even then, McMahon looked a bit ill at ease when chaos reigned all around. When Austin or Undertaker or Foley or whomever was instituting some malevolent act, McMahon’s bug-eyed grimace was only half-worked. The control freak can’t control the outcome of the stunt that he’s a bystander to or, better yet, the victim of. That’s why McMahon remains a hands-on despot; ceding control makes him fidgety.
It’s through this discomfort that we get McMahon at his best. The boss becomes an open book on a number of topics, the most reported of which was the apology to CM Punk. He also asserted, his own words, that Savage needs to be in the Hall of Fame, that the UK fans have been done dirty by the Network delays, that Cesaro isn’t connecting with crowds (that one may be a bit off base). Most fascinating was McMahon’s plain-speak statement that today’s locker room is full of ‘millenials’ that don’t aggressively reach for the brass ring, aside from Dean Ambrose, Seth Rollins, Roman Reigns, and Bray Wyatt, all of whom he referred to by name.
Austin dropped McMahon into a raging river to see if he would swim, and McMahon absolutely did. Vince was kicking and flailing his feet before Austin relinquished him into the choppy waters, but once in there, McMahon was doing the backstroke against the current, gaining strides a placid look painted on that jowly kisser.
I think it’s fair to say that it’s more than just the locker room that doesn’t push themselves at Vince; it’s the company at large. When Raw, SmackDown, and PPVs feel like the same thing over and over and over again, and each day in the wrestling sphere is Bill Murray passively sitting up in Groundhog Day, that sort of stagnancy either drives zealous fans to watching other TV shows, sticking to old school wrestling or, worse, rooting for WWE’s demise, even if they don’t mean it.
Leave it to Austin to once again be the one to get McMahon out of that insulated box and make him swim. It may only be a one-off bit, McMahon’s participation in this podcast, but it did more to engage the weary viewer than almost anything McMahon’s cookie-cutter presentation has offered in these paint-by-number times.