Mr. Tito Presents... The Day that the WWE Attitude Era DIED

Mr. Tito Presents… The Day that the WWE Attitude Era DIED

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Welcome back to the Mr. Tito Experience that has been presented to you exclusively WrestlingHeadlines.com, a LordsofPain.net company since October 1998. I just want to say a special THANK YOU to all of my readers for continued support and feedback on what I feel are some of my BEST columns ever here in 2020 and Calvin Martin, longtime owner & operator of WH/LoP for allowing me to the freedom to to use his platform to express my Pro Wrestling views. It has been a tremendous 21+ year run and I’m very grateful for the wonderful support of you all.

For tonight, I want to return to my THE DAY THAT (INSERT COMPANY or ERA) DIED series. In case you missed my previous two entries from this series, I attempt to look back in time and pinpoint a specific moment when a wrestling promotion or an expansion period of a promotion (or “era”) ended. Making things more difficult, I try to pick a specific day that planted the seeds of destruction. I want to give credit where credit is due, as the YouTube channel Entertain the Elk‘s “The Day (INSERT) Died” video series has been the inspiration for these columns.

Here are my previous 2 entries of this series:

The Day that World Championship Wrestling (WCW) Died

The Day that WWE’s Hulkamania Era of the 1980s Died

For this series, I have 2 more topics to tackle… (a) The Day that WWE Attitude Era Died and (b) The Day that Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW) Died. Recently, I held a Poll on Twitter to determine which topic to write next. By a vote of 73% to 27%, the WWE Attitude Era’s death story won the pony. Thus, without further ado…

*****

THE DAY THAT THE WWE ATTITUDE ERA DIED

I. Introduction

I honestly had to think on this one… To me, the Attitude Era begins during 1996 when “Stone Cold” Steve Austin arrived and at King of the Ring 1996, he belts his famous “Austin 3:16” phrase to potentially change the WWE forever. WWE also obtained Mick Foley (Mankind) that year and started allowing the Undertaker to wrestle smaller and more active opponents. During 1996, Vince Russo was added to the Creative Team to begin shaking things up with more aggressive and adult themed storylines. Add the Montreal Screwjob that purged Bret Hart from the system and created the heel boss Vince McMahon character, and we’re off to the races to retain the #1 spot and become a dominant force in pro wrestling again…

Until the day that the WWE Attitude died…

In my opinion, the WWE Attitude Era spans from just after Wrestlemania 12 during 1996 and it officially ended with the WCW/ECW Invasion angle of 2001. Fast forward to 2002, the WWE was about to see a massive change with former WCW stars now being allowed to join the WWE and the Ohio Valley Wrestling developmental territory about to unload their top prospects in the form of Brock Lesnar, Randy Orton, John Cena, Batista, and others. Most consider the events of 2002 to be the beginning of the “Ruthless Aggression” Era that ran through about Mid 2007 when Chris Benoit’s murder/suicide caused a forced scrubbing of the WWE into the “PG Era” that we see through today.

The Attitude Era, to me, is all about Steve Austin. Without him, the WWE is in deep financial trouble and would probably endure years of losses in their battle to take on World Championship Wrestling during the Monday Night Wars. Austin came out of no where, as he debuted as the Million Dollar Man Ted Dibiase’s new recruit called the “Ringmaster”. Complete failure of a gimmick… When Dibiase bolted to WCW, Austin had a chance to reinvent his look and gimmick. Then, by pure luck, Steve Austin wins the King of the Ring 1996 (thanks to injuries + Triple H being punished backstage for the “Curtain Call” salute at Madison Square Garden) and cuts a scathing promo against the “religious” Jake the Snake Roberts. “Talk about your John 3:16… Austin 3:16 says that I just whipped your a**”. The night after on RAW, “Austin 3:16” signs were found everywhere and the WWE immediately printed t-shirts that became their #1 seller during 1996. WWE had a star on the horizon but Vince was still hesitant about Austin… If I were guessing, his awesome feud with Bret Hart and the Hitman going to bat for Austin broke that for Vince.

Now, one of the days that I considered for the Attitude Era’s death was SummerSlam 1997 when, in error, Owen Hart tried a sitdown Tombstone Piledriver on Steve Austin that went horribly wrong. Owen broke his neck and that would cause Steve Austin to leave the WWE for neck surgery by November 1999. HOWEVER – I’d argue that this neck injury was a “blessing in disguise” for Austin, as it forced him to do LESS in the ring as a wrestler and focus more on his personality and character. The beauty of Steve Austin is that he didn’t have to wrestle each night to remain over… Just be the Texas Rattlesnake on the mic and play off your foil, Vince McMahon, each night with little effort. Save the big matches for the Pay Per Views… In my opinion, Austin would be over anyway, but his character just speaking on the microphone each week on Monday Night RAW drew more than he would having matches. Fans lived vicariously through Austin as he ridiculed his boss weekly on RAW.

The Austin character grew leaps and bounds during 1998… Following Royal Rumble 1998 on RAW, he gets in the ring with Mike Tyson and flips that man off to his face! Tyson retaliates with a hard shove and this clip would be played on many Sports shows throughout the world. With the help of Mike Tyson, Steve Austin wins his first WWE Title at Wrestlemania 14 and we’re off to the races or major WWE expansion. After Wrestlemania 14, Vince McMahon tries to make Austin a “Corporate Champion” to which Austin rejects. Vince responds by making Austin’s life a living hell by sending an assortment of opponents his way such as Mick Foley, Kane, and the Undertaker… Then, Vince makes The Rock become his true “Corporate Champion”, as he was a foe of Austin’s during late 1997 regarding the Intercontinental Title. Eventually, the pair would headline Wrestlemania 15 together in an epic showdown match.

But it is after Wrestlemania 15 where my story begins…

I could easily argue that Wrestlemania 15 was the PEAK of the Attitude Era and that the rest of 1999 and then 2000-2001 was just riding off fumes. After that show, WWE Creative was tapped out… We kept reliving Austin vs. McMahon, Higher Power angle, the Corporate Ministry, trying to push Billy Gunn and Jeff Jarrett as main eventers, and so on. Throughout the Summer of 1999, we were trying to push a heel Triple H as a new Main Eventer, too, with very mixed results. Him pacing around the ring and calling himself “the Game” was just odd back then. Vince Russo was burned out back then, too… Just the frantic pace that he worked to fill 2 hours of RAW and then 3 hours once-a-month for Pay Per Views wore him out. Then, the WWE obtained a new 2 hour timeslot on the UPN Network for a brand new WWE show called “Smackdown”. After obvious worries about seeing his family (don’t blame him) and seeing an opportunity with World Championship Wrestling to rejuvenate that promotion (with fewer dates to work), Russo was gone by early October 1999.

Good argument could be made that Wrestlemania 15 was the day that WWE died… Maybe October 3rd, 1999 when Vince Russo signed with WCW… However, despite all of the Creative problems during 1999 (just count how many times the Intercontinental Title switched hands), “Stone Cold” Steve Austin held it together. No matter how many McMahon vs. Austin sketches that the WWE put on, the fans LOVED it. Austin was a star and he kept the audience compelled to keep watching.

And then, he had to leave the WWE for a short while…

The Day that the WWE Attitude Era DIED.

*****

II. Seeds of the Attitude Era’s DOOM Were Planted

In my opinion, the day that the WWE Attitude DIED was on November 14th, 1999 also known as Survivor Series 1999.

Specifically, the backstage altercation that caused a car to hit Stone Cold Steve Austin to explain his time off.

Now, don’t get me wrong… I’m not blaming the WWE for having to write Steve Austin off… He had a valid surgical procedure that needed to be performed and you have to present something creatively to fans to explain his absence. However, that could have been easily done with a heel beatdown of Austin in the ring or maybe enduring an injury in his scheduled Triple Threat match with Triple H and Rock at Survivor Series. Instead, the WWE created a “who done it” scenario with a mysterious driver of the car that hit him… And we didn’t find out who hit him until later during 2000.

And who hit him with that car? Rikishi, an upper midcard babyface sensation that really blossomed during 2000.

BUT, who put Rikishi up to it? Triple H.

Just DUMB booking with capital “D”.

However, it’s not so much who hit Austin with that car, but it’s what happened during his absence before those big reveals.

III. Attitude Era’s Slow Death

With Steve Austin GONE, there was a major Main Event void. The Rock turned face shortly after Wrestlemania 15 and he was making good strides as the top guy. Triple H benefited greatly from the Monday Night Wars, as he signed a huge contract to start 1999 and was promised a Main Event push with that. WWE turned him heel at Wrestlemania 15 and with a changed look of wearing different tights, being much more bulky on muscle mass, and having a more wet look with his hair, “The Game” was born. WWE tried and tried to get him over, even making him WWE Champ after SummerSlam 1999. Then, with a stroke of good fortune from the Creative Team, they paired him up with Stephanie McMahon as she developed amnesia while dating Test, ended up being drugged and married to Triple H while in Vegas, and then fully turning on her Dad to complete the heel turn at Armageddon 1999.

Triple H now had a good storyline and people were initially into them as a pair… HHH coupled that with a strong workrate throughout 2000 that had him working amazing matches inside the ring with just about anybody. With time, as well, Triple H and Stephanie McMahon began dating in real life. Throughout 2000, Stephanie was added to the WWE Creative Team with the expectation that she’d actually be leading it by year’s end. Meanwhile, Triple H not only had her ear, but he was also attending the WWE Production Meetings throughout 2000 (a fact that reportedly infuriated Austin when he returned later during 2000). Everything on RAW and Smackdown was about McMahon/Helmsley this, McMahon/Helmsley that… After Wrestlemania 16, which was infected heavily by the McMahons, RAW’s ratings began to slip… WWE’s viewership had peaked.

However, attendance for WWE’s houseshows and merchandise sales started to slip during late 1999 and early 2000 without Steve Austin, according to announcer, Talent VP, and Austin’s real life friend Jim Ross on his Grilling JR podcast. Momentum of the WWE Attitude Era, without Steve Austin, was beginning to cool by the time Wrestlemania 16 happened. As the WWE went further and further away from Austin as their top guy during 2000, the business began to shrink up.

Steve Austin did make a few appearances later during 2000 and then officially returned to the ring by September 2000… But the damage had been done. WWE was now Triple H‘s territory and the Rock had also put in deep roots into his babyface spot as well. Meanwhile, the WWE talent roster expanded during late 1999 as well with the additions of Kurt Angle, Chris Jericho, Chris Benoit, Eddie Guerrero, Dudley Boyz, and Perry Saturn. There was no Vince Russo in place who often had Steve’s back creatively. Meanwhile, the WWE was a publicly traded company and changing into a corporate climate. Austin walked into a different world during September 2000 than the one he left during November 1999.

And then during the Fall of 2000, Rikishi revealed himself as the one who ran over Steve Austin at Survivor Series 1999. *face palm* Remember his reveal? “I did it, I did it for the Rock”.

See, back during 2000, Rikishi Fatu or Rikishi Phatu or just plan Rikishi was a midcard sensation as a babyface wrestler. After many failed gimmicks in the WWE, such as “Make a Difference” and The Sultan, he found a Sumo Wrestler gimmick that had a bold look with blonde hair and actually wearing a thong to the ring. He was different and fans started to notice… Then, when they paired him with the tag team known as Too Cool with Brian Christopher (Grandmaster Sexay) and Scott Taylor (Scotty 2 Hotty), hanging out with them allowed Rikishi to be free and bring out his charismatic side. It was a perfect pairing and got him over quickly. In my opinion during 2000, the WWE had something as a future main event babyface sensation for down the road.

BUT they turned him heel. He ran over Stone Cold Steve Austin with his car.

And when THAT failed, guess what happened? Triple H was behind the scheme the entire time. Completely half-arsed booking.

At least now, Steve Austin could redeem himself against Triple H in their fued… Right?!? Well, if you tune into No Way Out 2001, you’ll observe that Triple H defeated Steve Austin CLEANLY in the “Three Stages of Hell” match. CLEANLY! And then when Steve Austin made a ridiculous decision to turn heel at Wrestlemania 17 by attacking the Rock with a steel chair to join Vince McMahon, what did Austin do specifically after Wrestlemania 17? Oh, that’s right, he JOINED Triple H as a heel team. The “2 Man Powertrip” as they called it back then. Austin could never eventually turn on Triple H, as HHH tore his quad muscle in a tag match classic against Chris Jericho and Chris Benoit on RAW. Austin never got revenge on the man who orchestrated his Survivor Series 1999 attack with a car…

Now, I could argue that the Steve Austin HEEL TURN from Wrestlemania 17 was the “day that the Attitude Era died”, but WWE was already in decline by the Spring of 2001. While that Astrodome Wrestlemania was impressive, WWE’s business of ratings, attendance, merchandise, and cultural impact were beginning to slip. Viewership and attendance erosion actually continued through early 2005… Factually speaking, WWE’s attendance for houseshows began to slip during late 1999, merchandise was cooling throughout 2000 (though Rock’s stuff sold well to offset some), viewership began declining after Wrestlemania 16, and televised show attendance started declining as 2000 wore down.

The WCW/WWE Invasion really drove the final nails into the Attitude Era, as the Monday Night Wars were poorly replicated in that Summer/Fall 2001 angle. By 2002, the WWE began hiring WCW stars to part-time contracts that they refused to pay during 2001 and then began injecting youger Ohio Valley Wrestling performers into their roster after Wrestlemania 18. Then, the WWE split their roster up between RAW and Smackdown brands during the late Summer of 2002. Things were changing quickly inside the WWE and many of the Attitude Era’s top stars (Foley, Rock, and Austin) were about to be gone for good.

IV. SUMMARY

To me, Survivor Series 1999 or November 14th, 1999 is the official Day that the WWE Attitude Era DIED…

Why?

Because it was the official end of the peak performing wrestler “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. When he returned by September 2000, the WWE that he once knew had radically changed.

Without Austin, Triple H was thrust into the Main Event scene and eventually from dating Stephanie, he became a major political force backstage. While HHH is a good performer in his own right, he’s not a drawing personality like Austin or the Rock. He was too dominant as a heel wrestler, as he obtained clean wins over just about everyone and used his Creative power to thrash opponents on the microphone (when they had to read scripted lines). When Triple H returned from his quad injury during 2002, he was slower with his legs and too heavy with the bulk on his torso to perform as well as he did during 2000. Combine that with his wrestler role on the Creative Team, he made everyone on the RAW roster look bad during 2002-2003 (except Shawn Michaels). Ask Kane, Booker T, Scott Steiner, Rob Van Dam, and Bill Goldberg how their feuds with Triple H went back then.

Even if Steve Austin didn’t turn into a heel at Wrestlemania 17, the WWE climate was still different. Triple H, the Rock, and the revamped Undertaker had top roles on the roster. Meanwhile, guys like Kurt Angle were chomping at the bit for a shot at a top spot. Fast forward to 2002, and the Ohio Valley Wrestling “Class of 2002” arrives to put more threats on the roster. Steve Austin left the WWE for a long period of time specifically because he did not want to lose to Brock Lesnar on a random edition of RAW. He became paranoid of his spot, of Triple H’s backstage role, and personal problems were bubbling up backstage.

WWE changed significantly after Survivor Series 1999… They became more Corporate, Triple H began his wrestling dominance and eventual rise to an executive, and it’s likely that fans either got older or began to notice that Steve Austin’s hellraising gimmick no longer fit as well in the newer WWE environment.

And the WWE has never been the same since… Viewership, Attendance, Merchandise Sales, and impact on Pop Culture all peaked when Stone Cold Steve Austin was the top guy.

You could argue that the Rock soared to new heights after the WWE… But don’t forget who helped MAKE the Rock. Those Austin feuds were epic, dating back to late 1997 when the Rock declared that he was the “best damn Intercontinental Champion ever” and Austin replied to that by throwing his IC title into the river! While the Rock probably would have been successful in the WWE anyway, it was Steve Austin being his dance partner that helped make him great.

And I could argue this… WWE doesn’t become a Corporation without Steve Austin in place. He caused the WWE to “rise from the dead” and eventually make them lucrative enough to apply to become a publicly traded corporation. Problem is that without Steve Austin around following Survivor Series 1999, the WWE Corporation operated without him from December 1999 through August 2000. 9 months without him! That’s huge, as the marketing departments could cuddle up to the Rock and other wrestlers for merchandise ideas and promotional appearances instead. Austin was a “fish out of water” when he returned during September 2000.

November 14th, 1999 = THE DAY THAT THE WWE ATTITUDE DIED, specifically the moment when the car hit Steve Austin…

So just chill… Until the next episode!

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