The number one way to make money in pro wrestling is with a great feud. Nothing draws bigger at the box office than an exciting rivalry pitting good vs. evil. Some rivalries are based on hatred, some are based on championships, and some are based on nothing more than a motivation to be the best. Today I spotlight one of professional wrestling’s greatest feuds.
“Stone Cold” Steve Austin vs. Vince McMahon
It is funny because most of the feuds I have highlighted in this series over the last five years have come from my childhood. I am that annoying older wrestling fans who will tell you, “They don’t make them like they did in my day.” Yet I could agree that the most exciting feud I ever watched as a wrestling fan came long past my childhood. That feud was Stone Cold vs. McMahon.
This was never a feud that was planned. This was a feud that fell into place due to a number of different circumstances in the WWE. Business was starting to pick up when everything came to a halt at the end of the summer of 1996. Steve Austin was starting to pick up steam when he became sidelined with a career threatening injury at SummerSlam 1997. An injury suffered at the hands of Owen Hart stopped Austin’s momentum right in its tracks. Steve Austin’s career was in serious jeopardy.
Vince McMahon was not having a whole lot of luck either. Vince found himself in one of the strangest situations where his world champion had signed with the competition, while holding the belt. Not only that, but everyone seemed to know about it. WCW was crushing the WWE and Vince seemed to be a few steps behind a new era of Attitude in the pro wrestling business. The stress that Vince McMahon must have been under at this time had to have been enormous.
The first seed was planted when McMahon stripped Austin and Dude Love of their tag team titles and Austin threatened McMahon. The seed was watered on September 22, 1997. RAW was live from Madison Square Garden for one of the biggest RAW shows of the year. Austin, still not cleared to wrestle, attacked Owen Hart, violating a restraining order. Vince tried to talk some sense into Austin and was rewarded with a Stone Cold Stunner. The crowd went insane and you could start to smell a money feud in the air.
McMahon turned the Bret Hart/Survivor Series 1997 fiasco into a positive and slowly began to morph into the heel maniacal CEO we would eventually see. We saw glimpses of it when McMahon yelled at Austin for ruining Mike Tyson’s appearance on RAW. Once Austin won the WWE championship from Shawn Michaels, Mr. McMahon was unleashed! It became Vince’s personal crusade to either turn Austin corporate or take the title away from him.
What proceeded was one of the most exciting years in WWE history. Every week McMahon would try and outwit Austin only to get outplayed by the Texas Rattlesnake. The chemistry between these two is unrivaled. They could turn even the silliest situations into some of the most entertaining moments in WWE history, such as Austin attacking Vince in the hospital.
The storyline was so simple in retrospect that you almost wonder why nobody did this sooner. Austin was the blue collar man who stood up against his rich boss and didn’t give a damn about the ramifications. What fan couldn’t relate to that? I remember going to house shows during that time and Austin was like a rock star coming out. Fans whether smart to the business or not didn’t like Vince. He was the perfect foil in this story. It was magic!
The key to this entire feud is that it took almost a full year before Austin would get his shot at McMahon in the ring (sans a match on RAW that saw Dude Love jump Austin). It is funny that in today’s environment Vince rarely lets anything simmer, yet his biggest money feud didn’t even see a match for almost a year. It’s a different time and there is more television to fill but there is certainly something to this formula that is lost in today’s WWE booking.
The Royal Rumble 1999 remains one of my favorite Rumbles ever simply due to the interaction of McMahon vs. Austin. The vignettes with Vince and Shane leading up to the match were priceless. Austin and Vince starting 1 & 2 was brilliant. The entire match was pure intensity as somehow or another you knew Austin was going to get screwed, yet he got the better of Vince for most of the night. The open with Austin stomping a mud hole in Vince was just tremendous.
But it was the steel cage match at St. Valentine’s Day Massacre that is the gem of the feud. This is a match you should fire up and watch immediately on the WWE Network. How would McMahon survive against Austin in a cage? The match was a one-sided affair but it was one of the most fun matches you’ll ever see on the network. Austin got screwed again by the debuting Big Show but the match certainly paid off in excitement after such a long wait.
The feud would play out for many years in many different forms but it was this period between the fall of 1997 and 1999 that was what I’d call the golden period of the feud. This feud singlehandedly turned the entire WWE business around and only a couple of years later Vince would wind up buying the same company that tried to put him out of business. No matter what WCW tried, there was just no way to compete with Austin vs. McMahon.
Even today I really enjoy seeing Austin and Vince interact on television. They haven’t done it in a while but there is always this fun tension between them whenever they are a few feet apart. It is a feud that defined an era and maybe had more impact on the pro wrestling industry than any rivalry in the history of the business. The feud sustained for several years including helping draw one of the biggest events in WWE history in WrestleMania 23.
Without this feud there may not even be a WWE today. Would Vince have been able to compete against WCW and the n.W.o. angle? Would the company even be in business today? Take a look at the roster at the time and while the supporting cast was great, nobody was going to light the world on fire like Austin did with McMahon. I think it is fair to say that this feud saved the company.
And for that reason alone, Austin vs. McMahon is not only one of the greatest feuds in pro wrestling history, it may be the greatest.
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