James Dixon: Yet another Steve Austin tape then, with this one following a similar format combining a new interview with the man himself alongside footage from 2001, a period that saw him turn heel and revitalise his character, even if it was a bad move from a business perspective. We open up with Steve talking about fighting each year to earn his spot in the WrestleMania main event, which leads to footage of the epic match against The Rock at WrestleMania X-Seven. Austin says the match meant everything to him because it was in his own backyard, but also because it was so good, and he rightly names it the best bout between the two. It really is, it’s absolutely brilliant in every way. From the wonderful pacing to the impeccable timing and the superb series of near falls, each one of which could genuinely have been the finish. The match is a titanic clash between the two biggest stars of the Attitude Era, and in many ways is the final exclamation point on that period. We get tons of highlights from the match set to high-tempo, frenetic music. There are so many cute moments that ape other bouts, such as Austin with a bloody Rock in the Sharpshooter in an homage to WrestleMania 13, and Rock trying to get the same fall over Austin that Bret Hart did at Survivor Series 1996, and then Vince gets involved and effectively ends the Attitude Era with Austin turning heel. He needed freshening up but once he turned heel, interest in the product dropped because the fans’ hero had done the unthinkable. Losing a lot of other main event stars didn’t help the company either of course.
We go to Austin’s promo the next night on RAW, where he says he owes no explanation for his actions. He goes at it again with Rock, this time in a cage, laying a 2-on-1 beating on him along with Vince. Triple H, Austin’s perennial rival of the last few months, comes down seemingly to save Rock from the pounding and begin a babyface run opposite Stone Cold, but instead they put the last few months of war behind them and align to form the Two-Man Power Trip. Back to the “live” interview, and Austin puts Vince over for his toughness, bringing up his nasty table bump at St. Valentine’s Day Massacre and the manly chair shots and punches he has given Vince over the years. He talks about Hunter tearing his quad a few weeks later and still finishing the match, something he can empathise with on a personal level having had a similar thing happen to him. JR brings up the Austin-HHH feud and the match at No Way Out 2001, which Austin says he wasn’t fully fit for, but that he thinks the build-up to the bout was WrestleMania main event quality. I think is very good, but often slightly overrated. It was certainly brutal, but 40-minutes of Hunter is just too much for me. There are plenty of shortcuts in it of course and the Three Stages of Hell gimmick certainly helped keep it mostly interesting, though I didn’t really agree with Hunter going over when Austin was winning the WWF Title next month. Especially when he himself was just putting the Undertaker over at WrestleMania anyway. Speaking of WrestleMania, I have no idea why this was shown after the highlights from that show. Typical goofy editing from Video Control on this.
To SmackDown! in Oklahoma taped two days after ‘Mania, and Austin participating in the long-standing cruel WWF tradition of humiliating Jim Ross in his home town. It’s a brutal attack, with Austin potatoing the hell out of Ross with his big wild fists, busting him hardway before choking him out viciously with a belt. “We knew that was going to be a chance to get some heat” says Austin while stood with his victim when discussing it in the tape’s interview. Austin follows the sympathy-generating attack on Ross by beating the piss out of Michael Cole. This didn’t garner anything like the same response, because who cares if Michael Cole gets his ass kicked? The majority of viewers, much like me, were thrilled by it. We see more clips of Austin being a complete dickhead to people, with everyone from Tajiri to Tazz to his wife Debra getting either verbal or physical lashings from the new Stone Cold. Hmm, perhaps the less said about that last one the better. On SmackDown!, little Spike Dudley stands up to Austin when he calls girlfriend Molly unflattering names, and rips up a petition that Austin was trying to get people to sign so he could get his triple threat title match at King of the Ring 2001 against Christ Benoit and Chris Jericho cancelled. They have a match later in the show and Austin batters him of course. The thing with Austin as a heel is that he WAS superb in the role and did a great job making himself hated with his actions, taking everything out of his character that people loved. But fans just played along, underneath they still wanted to cheer him.
To Austin’s incredible match against Chris Benoit in Edmonton on SmackDown! (yes, important matches and angles really did used to take place on this show), which was utterly brutal. Even though Austin had just come back from serious neck surgery, he spent 2001 having the best matches on the card time after time, putting in some truly brilliant, career-defining performances against nearly everyone that he worked with. Well, expect the Undertaker. Their 2001 feud was the pits. The levels of effort from Austin as a heel when he could have conceivably and comfortably cruised by, deserves much credit. The most memorable moments of this particular contest include Austin dropping Benoit headfirst on the floor by the announce table in a cringe-inducing bump, and then Benoit hitting no less than ten German suplexes… IN A ROW! Considering the state of Austin’s neck, that showed incredible confidence and faith in Benoit’s ability. It’s a brilliant match, one of the best ever on SmackDown! and clocks in at around ****½, if not higher. Without question it is worth going out of your way to see if you have never done so.
For no good reason, we then go back to the start of Austin’s career and see him in action as ‘Stunning’ Steve Austin in WCW, with guys like Ric Flair and Arn Anderson putting him over. Anderson says WCW didn’t have a clue how to market Austin because they didn’t see anything in him. Geniuses. Though, let’s not forget that the WWF didn’t have a clue how to market him either for a good while, even after the Ringmaster was consigned to the annals of WrestleCrap and Austin had cut his “3:16” promo. Back in VHS real time to Austin, who dismisses comparisons to Mad Dog Vachon (who he is stylistically similar to) because he never saw him work, instead saying he was influenced rather by guys like Ricky Steamboat (who Austin calls his favourite opponent and says is one of the greatest ever), Jake Roberts and Ric Flair. We see the excellent Clash of the Champions XXIII **** match pitting the Hollywood Blondes against Arn Anderson and Ric Flair (which readers can check out in high quality blu-ray format on the WWE’s The Best of WCW Clash of the Champions release), with Flair complimenting both Blondes for making him and Arn look good and being so easy to work with, which is something he prided himself on for years when he was reigning as NWA Champion.
Taking a moment out from wrestling, we see Steve Austin appearing in a number of segments on MADtv, including one where he played a long haired trailer park dude, which wasn’t the biggest stretch for the gruff redneck. “It’s like having Laurence Olivier turning up on set” says show star Michael McDonald, worryingly without a hint of sarcasm in his voice. Will Sasso does a dead-on Austin impression in another skit, while Austin plays a fitness instructor failing to get a word in because “Austin” keeps responding “What?”. Oh, and Debra is there too, standing around and being wooden while smiling and nodding like she somehow belongs. Famous by association, love. In another skit, Austin sings and plays the guitar really badly, but he does know he is real bad at it, which is something at least. He tells how his dad was in a country and western band and has tried to teach him how to play the guitar, but he just has no musical talent whatsoever. That segues nicely into the classic backstage skits with Austin, Vince McMahon, Kurt Angle and a guitar, which were done by necessity to keep Kurt and Austin on television when both were injured. Angle had stepped into the gap in the unholy union left by Triple H’s injury, and the lowering of the serious tone and foray into immensely entertaining comedy led to some of the most rewarding segments of the era. In the first one, Austin outlines Vince’s problems to him (“your kid’s stabbed you in the back”) and thoroughly demoralises him, but then says he is here to give him inspiration and solve his problems with music. It’s chicken soup for the soul, he says. Austin then serenades Vince with the worst rendition of ‘Kumbaya‘ in history, all the while staring deep into his eyes with a steely, unfaltering glare. It’s harrowing, and the crowd loves it. Austin then lets us in on the secret that it took two takes to get the segment right because he was laughing so much, and we actually see the blooper, which is a delight. Austin just can’t control himself and then Vince bursts out laughing uncontrollably too! Vince! Next, Kurt Angle gets a chance to sing, and he asks Austin to budge up on the couch they are sitting on because he makes him nervous. Instead, Austin scoots closer like a purposely difficult child. Angle tries to start his song, but Austin loudly clears his throat to put him off with perfect comic timing. Kurt eventually sings an equally bad number, busting out ‘Jimmy Crack Corn‘, which causes Vince to walk off. Things get even better still when Austin starts doling out hugs, including one to a taken aback Vince in a parking lot. Austin’s wide-eyed, complete psycho expression while hugging Vince is unbelievable. Maybe the best facials I have ever seen. Just thinking about it again now is tickling me to the point that I feel the need to watch it again. He basically turned into a comedy heel in the last few weeks of these skits, and the crowd can allow themselves to love him again, even if they are not really supposed to. It takes the edge off for sure, but makes him far more entertaining. During an in-ring segment on RAW, Austin gets pissy with Angle getting in the way of he and Vince, saying he wants him out of the group because the team is Austin and McMahon. Vince tells them to settle their differences with a fight, but instead they both take turns hugging Vince. In another backstage skit where he gives Kurt a present (a tiny cowboy hat), Austin gets in a line that Angle says Steve used to use for real backstage a lot: “I like ya, not much, but I like ya”. Kurt then reveals that most of these segments weren’t planned at all, they just ran the camera and went ahead and did it. Spontaneity and letting guys be themselves can result in television gold like all of this was. It is yet another in a long list of marks against entirely scripted and overly-produced corporate sports entertainment.
We go to an impassioned Vince promo from SmackDown! in the midst of the WCW/ECW invasion, where Vince begs for the “old” Stone Cold to help him deal with the threat, rather than the new guitar strumming, hug giving bag of needy emotional wreckage that the character has become. Austin walks off with his tail between his legs as Vince pleads for him to Stunner him or knock him on his ass. Eventually he gets what he wished for, and Vince repays Austin in turn by singing to welcome him back. At first Austin seems to enjoy it, which is not the “old Stone Cold” at all. But then he smashes the guitar over Vince’s head in a great spot, and all the rights are restored. For a couple of days at least.
Austin tells the tale of how the whole “What?” thing came about. The story goes that Austin was driving between towns and was bored out of his mind, so decided to call up Christian and bug him to whittle away the time. Christian didn’t answer but Austin was undeterred, and spent the next 15-minutes having a conversation with himself on Christian’s answer phone. On occasion he would ask a question, and respond “what?” as if he hadn’t quite heard the answer. The thing got over with the boys and then Austin decided to try it out on television, and it exploded. Debra says Austin is always saying “what?” at home because he is half deaf and can’t hear things in one ear. Austin says he likes how it took off, especially because it pissed off Kurt Angle so much, and the crowd were utterly merciless chanting it at him, to the point he could no longer do a promo. Eventually, the crowd took to chanting “You Suck! What!?” during his entrance as well, but that was a little bit after this tape came out so isn’t shown on here unfortunately. One example of the crowd hijacking a segment with the chants is shown though, during Lillian Garcia singing the National Anthem no less! Austin had created a monster. A decade and a half later, audiences were still doing it at WWE shows up and down the country.
Back to in ring action and we see the incredible tour de force between Kurt Angle and Austin at SummerSlam 2001, which is a bloody, brutal and epic match, tarnished only by a disappointing finish non-finish. It’s another incredible performance from Austin in 2001, as he continued to have great matches seemingly every other week. I am not sure there has ever been a run of so many ****+ matches in a single year from a guy at any other point in the WWF, and that is including guys like Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart. People rag on 2001 because of the horrible botch of the WCW invasion, which is fair comment, but they forget that the in ring work was often excellent.
Talk turns to the post 9/11 SmackDown! show, and Austin recounts a conversation with Vince McMahon when he was told the show was going ahead, and he questioned if it was the right thing to do. “The show must go on, we have to keep doing what we do” was the gist of Vince’s response, and Austin agreed. I do too, the WWF was right to do that show and did it in a mostly classy, tasteful way… Stephanie’s inappropriate comparisons of the attacks to Vince being on trial for steroid pushing aside, of course. With Austin being a heel, he didn’t do a great deal on the show, but after it went off the air he stayed around to entertain the fans. We get some great never before seen footage of Austin dicking around with his brother in the crowd, and doing all manner of improv where he asks fans their name and their occupation, then proceeds to tell them how much he hates whatever that occupation might be. One woman says she is involved in Christian literature publishing, and that one breaks Austin, who has a good belly laugh at the absurdity of it all. It looks a lot of fun. We get plenty more rare footage of Austin doing the same thing at other shows, plus other stuff such as giving a live rendition of ‘Kumbaya‘. He says that he does it because he wants to make sure the fans are entertained and thus more likely to return to next time the company is in town. Commendable indeed.
We discuss beer, with Kurt Angle giving a guide to how Austin does his beer drinking routine, and he expresses immense jealousy that he didn’t come up with the idea first. Timekeeper Mark Yeaton gets some camera time, as he is the man responsible for throwing ‘Stone Cold’ the cans. He claims Austin “drinks” up on 24 beers on average per night, though as is pointed out he only ever gets around an ounce in his mouth, with the rest going everywhere. More insight into the man at home follows from Debra, with her noting that on television Austin doesn’t crunch the can, but he does at home and it drives her nuts. That is probably exactly why he does it.
The final piece of non storyline footage involves Austin’s feud with one of the WWF cameramen, who Austin frequently chases around the building when the live shows are off the air. Austin tortures him, grabbing his wire, making him run backwards and just generally goofing around. We get an interview from the cameraman in question and during it Austin turns up behind him. The cameraman asks if Austin is serious because he can never tell, and Austin says he is and that the only thing saving him from a whuppin’ is the expensive camera. Then he slaps him heartily on the back, lets out a big belly laugh and cracks a joke. What a riotously entertaining guy to hang around with he must be.
Summary: The footage we get here, and indeed all over this tape, is brilliant. It does a tremendous job of not just repeating the same overused footage from the past and instead giving a different insight into the character and a glimpse behind the scenes that you rarely get to see. Considering this is one of over half a dozen Steve Austin tapes on the market, the fact it remains fresh and entertaining throughout is a testament to the man and a creditable job from WWF Home Video. Austin was involved in some of the most entertaining matches and segments of his career during the few months featured on this, and it makes for a really fantastic viewing experience. Very highly recommended.