Lee Maughan: The whole concept was so incredibly simplistic that it’s actually amazing no promoter ever thought to do it (at least on such a grand scale) before. The oppressed, speak-his-mind, blue collar everyman, against the snooty, arrogant, pompous billionaire owner. It was every working man’s fantasy come to life – telling the boss to kiss your ass, while you simultaneously kick his. It was a masterstroke. It was a touch of genius. It was Austin vs. McMahon.
With three decades in the business, Jim Ross calls the feud “the hottest, most emotional feud that I’ve ever been apart of.” Earl Hebner meanwhile thinks the two “don’t get along at all”. What is this, Austin vs. McMahon: The Whole Kayfabed Story? And the idea that he merely suspects they might not get along when he’s been in the ring with them on plenty of occasions just speaks to what a complete cretin he must really be. Then again, he and twin brother Dave managed to get themselves fired from their lifetime jobs with the company in 2005 for allegedly selling unlicensed merchandise, so that perhaps shouldn’t come as any kind of surprise.
“Vince McMahon is the most successful practitioner in sports entertainment” notes the voiceover. That may well be true but you still can’t help rolling your eyes when hearing such verbiage on a McMahon-owned and approved release. He bought “a modest North Eastern professional wrestling circuit” from his father and began broadcasting his television nationally, initially serving as an announcer with only “wrestling insiders” aware that he actually owned the company. A devoted family man, Vince’s wife and children also work for the WWF, though none are explicitly named here. I wouldn’t worry about it, they’ll all be headlining WrestleMania soon enough.
Steve Austin (no mention of his real name) was born in Victoria, Texas, and his career in wrestling began with little fanfare. “I was working on a freight dock, loading and unloading trucks. I saw a little ad for a wrestling school on TV, a few months later I had my first match. That match [paid] $40. I paid my dues.” No mention is made of his trainer (‘Gentleman’ Chris Adams) or his first opponent (Frogman LeBlanc). Continuing to gloss over things at a breakneck pace, Austin tore his tricep in Japan and got fired by WCW over the phone. TV producer Kerwin Silfies skirts around the Ringmaster character, but admits that he didn’t think Steve wanted to do it. No shit. Silfies thinks Austin’s insistence that he put the black boots and black trunks back on was the beginning of ‘Stone Cold’. Really? I thought it was the beginning of Ice Dagger. Austin soon started dropping announcers and officials with Stone Cold Stunners so McMahon demanded he give up the Intercontinental title or face the consequences. “A lot of viewers looked at Austin, and lived through Austin voyeuristically” claims JR. I think he means “vicariously” there, “voyeuristically” suggests that people liked spying on the guy with the big bald head as he slapped around his, erm, big bald head.
Quizzed on if he really wants to see Austin as WWF Champion, Vince says it would be one thing if he changed his ways and allowed himself to be moulded, but that Austin as he is now would be “a public relations corporate nightmare.” Vince tops it with an “Oh, hell no!” and warns Austin “That’s the bottom line because Vince McMahon said so!” Austin later takes umbrage with McMahon calling Mike Tyson the “baddest man on the planet”, but no footage is shown of the integral Austin-Tyson confrontation, presumably to save on royalties. Still, much more important to get some cutting insight from Michael Cole on film, right? At WrestleMania XIV, Austin Stunnered his way to the WWF Title with a victory over Shawn Michaels. The next night on RAW, McMahon proudly introduced Austin in order to present him with a brand new title belt, the one more closely associated with the Attitude Era than the ‘Winged Eagle’ that Austin had claimed the previous evening. McMahon claims to be proud of Austin and tries to butter him up by suggesting that if he paired up his physical prowess with McMahon’s mental prowess, Austin could one day become the greatest superstar of all time. Austin responds by promising to cause chaos and give Vince grey hairs. Vince gives Austin a choice of doing things the easy way or the hard way and ‘Stone Cold’ chooses the hard way, dropping Vince with another Stunner to confirm his selection. A classic promo to be sure. In another memorable moment, Vince brings Austin out in a suit and tie as his new corporate-approved champion, but Austin arrives without the agreed-upon Gucci shoes and sporting an Austin 3:16 baseball cap. Vince browbeats Austin for some of his fashion choices, so Austin tears the suit off, punches Vince in the balls and takes a photograph of a doubled Vince. If only Twitter had been around in 1998 that picture would have been a classic. April 13, 1998 proves to be a pivotal day for the WWF in the vaunted Monday Night War with WCW, as the premise of an Austin vs. McMahon match on free TV gives RAW its first ratings victory over Monday Nitro in 83 weeks. Before the two can clash however, Dude Love assaults Austin, setting up a match between the two at Unforgiven. There, McMahon’s interference backfires and Austin gives him a brain busting chair shot across the noggin for good measure. Looking for redemption, Vince baits Dude Love into destroying his friend and mentor Terry Funk to “prove” his worth for a rematch with Austin at Over the Edge.
As the weeks pass, McMahon and lieutenants Pat Patterson, Gerald Brisco and Sgt. Slaughter attempt to make Austin’s life a misery, with McMahon bragging about assaulting ‘Stone Cold’. Austin returns fire by calling Vince “the world’s dumbest son of a bitch”, and getting Vince’s hired police protection to arrest him for the admission. At Over the Edge, special referee McMahon eats another brain cell-reducing chair shot before Austin forces him to make the three count on the Dude. Changing direction, McMahon forces Austin to defend the WWF Title against Kane at the King of the Ring in a first blood match. Austin loses, but only after accidentally being struck in the head with a chair by the Undertaker. Kane promises Austin a rematch the next night on RAW where Austin wins the title back. Skipping Austin’s title defence against Undertaker at SummerSlam (and the introduction of Austin’s personalised ‘Smoking Skull’ belt), McMahon puts Austin in another against-the-odds clash, this time in a triple threat against both Kane and the Undertaker at Breakdown. The brothers manage to pin Austin simultaneously, and the next night on RAW, Vince invites Austin to the title presentation ceremony. That would be the night Austin famously rode a Zamboni into the arena to attack McMahon with.
From there, a “fired” Austin kidnaps McMahon, ties him up, and threatens to shoot him with a pop gun, giving the world “Bang 3:16” as the catchphrase du jour for a week or so. The threat of a bullet to the head causes Vince to quite literally piss himself in the ring before Austin reveals that he’s been signed to a new contract, courtesy of Vince’s son Shane. That leads directly to the 1999 Royal Rumble (as both Survivor Series: Deadly Game and Rock Bottom: In Your House are ignored completely, as is the silly swerve that Shane only re-signed Austin to screw him over) and Vince winning the Rumble match, but forfeiting his designated WWF Title shot at WrestleMania. Not to worry though folks; he’d win the title from Triple H just a few months later anyway. With Vince out of contention for WrestleMania, Commissioner Shawn Michaels designates Rumble runner up Austin the new number one contender, but ‘Stone Cold’ promises to give his shot up… if Vince can beat him in a cage match at St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. That match would see Vince take one of the roughest bumps you’ll ever see, plunging off the side of the cage and landing directly across the edge of the announce table at ringside, which barely gives way. The other notable incident that night saw the debut of McMahon’s secret weapon, Paul Wight, who broke through the ring and threw Austin against the cage with such force that it actually gave way, allowing him to escape for the victory. Wight would of course go on to assume the more familiar Big Show moniker.
Following the famous beer bath angle on RAW, Austin won his third WWF Title from the Rock at WrestleMania XV, a fitting conclusion to the whole entire saga. Only it isn’t, as the WWF starts going to ridiculous lengths in an attempt to milk the issue for all it’s worth, leading to Vince’s terrifically underwhelming reveal as the ‘Higher Power’ and leader of the Corporate Ministry, after months of feuding with Undertaker. Undertaker’s “Where to, Stephanie!?” quote during her abduction still raises an unintentional chuckle, as does some snappily edited footage of Austin’s profanity – “Austin 3:16 says that’s bullshit, you jackass, son-of-a-bitch little bastard! I just whipped your ass!” Vince’s wife Linda, understandably upset with her husband and son for plotting to abduct their daughter just so he could wind up Austin, opts to install Austin as CEO of the WWF, as opposed to anything sensible like, you know, getting a divorce. Austin’s first act is to book himself in a handicap match against Vince and Shane at King of the Ring, which Vince changes to a ladder match. Austin looks to have the match won but the briefcase containing Austin and Vince’s rights to a management position in the WWF is mysteriously raised out of Austin’s reach, but lowered to allow Shane an easy victory. The identity of the culprit would infuriatingly go unrevealed.
That somehow leads to Austin squaring off with the Undertaker in a first blood match at Fully Loaded, which Austin wins, forcing Vince out of the WWF as per a pre-match stipulation, contradicted just seconds later by a talking head from JR in which he states “He is the boss! He does own the company! He’s not an actor playing Vince McMahon, he is Vince McMahon. So he’s playing himself, but it’s him!” Kerwin Silfies finishes with a strong suspicion that, deep down, the two of them really like working with each other.
Summary: Undeniably, the clips on offer here remain wildly entertaining, just as they were at the time, but things do get a little repetitive given the nature of the rivalry, and once you get past the real “blow off” of Austin beating McMahon in the cage, winning the title back from the Rock and into the lousy ‘Higher Power’ stuff, it really begins to fall off a cliff. Not only that, but the late 90s were actually a pretty weird time for the pro wrestling autobiographical video tape, presenting something of a murky grey area as an increasing core of fans began to grow smart to the business thanks in large part to the internet. The upshot saw certain interviewees discussing the business for the work it really was, while some of the more staunch veterans were unable to shake off the glory days of kayfabe, continuing to push that what you’re seeing is actually real. Consequently this tape, along with others like Lita: It Just Feels Right and WCW’s Superstar Series line all came with a very odd mix of what one might term as “shootfabe”, with frustratingly contradictory statements often made as one party tries to push an issue as real, with another talking about what great chums everyone involved is. At the time, it was actually fascinating for hardcore fans to hear so many well known on-screen personalities talk openly about the business, especially on official releases such as this, but just a few years later the shoot interview market went into overdrive thanks to the likes of RF Video, Highspots, Ring of Honor and Kayfabe Commentaries, quickly dating these tapes as out of touch for an audience that was finally able to hear the actual whole true story.