Sunday, July 5, 2015

WWE Network World Tour: WrestleMania 13

Wrestling historians tend to point to WrestleMania XIV as the beginning of the "Attitude Era:" that oft-romanticized period of unprecedented profitability for the then-World Wrestling Federation during which competition with WCW pushed Vince McMahon & co. into new, more adult-oriented (read: high school male-oriented) creative arenas. Most wrestling fans prefer to remember the Attitude Era as a time when raunchier storylines were accompanied by a marked increase in hardcore wrestling styles and a continued uptick in in-ring workrate that began with the ascension of Bret Hart during the "New Generation" era of roughly 1993-1998. (They either prefer to ignore the rampant sexism and outright misogyny or insist that it wasn't a big deal because of the target demographic, but inches upon inches could be written about the more problematic aspects of having "Attitude.") But let's be real here--the Attitude Era started long before "Stone Cold" Steve Austin's ascendancy to the WWF World Title. By March 1997, there were plenty of cuss words and middle fingers being thrown say nothing about the pistol "Loose Cannon" Brian Pillman threatened Austin with in an infamous segment of a late 1996 episode of Raw:

So if we're going to use a WrestleMania as a signpost to the beginning of the official "Attitude Era," i suggest we use the moment where Steve Austin, the next face of the company, transitioned from the despised villain that broke into his former friends' homes to the authority-cursing antihero whose hell-raising antics caused more audience glee than consternation--the WrestleMania 13 Double-Turn. (If nothing else, this 'Mania was the turning point that caused the ramp-up to what was probably the real beginning of the Attitude Era: the Montreal Screwjob at Survivor Series '97, which, if you're actually reading this and don't know what that is, demands your attention be directed to this phenomenal Radiolab episode.)

Man, have i been waiting for this one. Not for the main event--the WWF World Title picture in Spring 1997 was a complete mess and that it shook out into Undertaker vs. Sycho Sid was pretty unfortunate...but it did free up Bret Hart and the rapidly ascending (and already super-popular despite his status as a "heel") Austin to settle their burgeoning blood feud with one of my favorite 'Mania matches ever: their semi-main event submission match.

OK, here's the story: Shawn Michaels held the title he won at WrestleMania 12 all the way until the 1996 Survivor Series, where he lost the title to Sid after the big man cleaned Michaels' clock with a TV camera. Shawn won it back at the Royal Rumble in January '97 by delivering a taste of Sid's own medicine courtesy another camera, but before the February pay-per-view, Michaels ended up vacating the title. The reasons why are left to the speculative lens of history; the storyline involved a knee injury and Shawn's need to "find his smile again," while more nefarious theories point to Michaels choosing to forfeit the title rather than lose it back to Bret Hart in a scheduled rematch at WrestleMania 13. 

So regardless, the title was vacant and thus, a four-way elimination match was booked at In Your House: Final Four featuring Vader, Undertaker, and the final two Royal Rumble competitors, Steve Austin and Bret Hart. Austin won the Rumble under controversial circumstances that prolonged what was already a growing feud between Hart and him, and at Final Four, as the Hitman eliminated Austin en route to winning the match and his fourth WWF World Title, Austin refused to let it go. (Somewhere in here Austin's guaranteed title match at WrestleMania was conveniently forgotten about--probably because he got a shot at Final Four? I guess?) The next night on Raw, Bret defended his new title against Sycho Sid and Austin interfered, leading to Sid's victory for the title and a fresh layer to the grudge between Austin and Hart. If that wasn't enough, after Undertaker/Sid and Hart/Austin were set for WrestleMania, a cage match for the title was booked for the March 17 Raw between Hart and Sid, which could have affected which match actually ended up being for the title. After Sid won again due to interference from the Undertaker, Bret launched into an expletive-laced tirade as he complained about the WWF being out to "screw" him. all that? Shawn Michaels gives up the title and goes bye-bye for a spell, the title changes hands twice in 24 hours, and Bret's growing frustration with the company, which started during the build to WrestleMania 12, was boiling over as more and more people were slowly beginning to cheer for established "bad guys" like Austin. How can you argue with that buildup? Hell, you almost don't even need the undercard--although, who's gonna argue with Rocky Maivia vs. The Sultan? Wait--don't answer that. Let's just watch the damn show.