Stone Cold, HBK, and Bret Hart, WWF in the second half of 1996.

Stone Cold Steve Austin, after winning King of the Ring, was on the path to becoming the WWF’s new big star. What no one could have known was that he was about to become one of the biggest stars in the history of the business.

Steve was brought into the WWF under the Ringmaster gimmick, and was seen at the time as only a midcard talent. Steve knew the Ringmaster gimmick wasn’t getting him over, and one night he saw an HBO  documentary about a serial killer for hire nicknamed the Iceman. Richard Kulinski was notorious for putting his victims in freezers and dumping the remains a year later. After watching this documentary, Steve conceived of the idea of a cold blooded wrestler (Austin 141)  

He pitched the idea to Debbie Bonnanzio, Senior VP of WWE Creative Services, who was in charge of gimmick characterizations. The company faxed Steve several pages of possible names for his new wrestling character, including “Fang McFrost,” Ivan the Terrible”, and “Ice Dagger.” Steve himself was considering the name Iceman, but in World Class Wrestling out of Dallas there already was an Iceman King Parsons. Then one day Steve’s wife Jeannie, who is British, made a cup of coffee for her frustrated husband. She then remarked “go ahead and drink your tea before it gets stone cold.” Then inspiration hit her. “That’s your name, Stone Cold Steve Austin. (Austin 142) It was this cold blooded character that would win the 1996 King of the Ring and cut the Austin 3:16 promo.

After King of the Ring, the character continued to evolve. Steve was going bald anyway, so he decided to get a buzz-cut. He liked how Bruce Willis looked in Pulp Fiction where he was bald (Austin 147) and Woody Harrelson’s shaved head in Natural Born Killers also provided inspiration. The office saw a problem with his promos, not because they were to bad. He noticed some of his promos were being edited on TV. Vince McMahon said, “Well, Steve, your stuff is making people laugh back in the studio. We are concerned because, as a heel, we want the fans to not like you.”  

Steve responded, “Man, if you take my personality away from me, I can’t compete with anybody here. You got guys here six-ten, seven feet, three hundred and fifty poinds or whatever. But if you give me my personality, I can compete with anybody. I guarantee it.” (Austin148)

Still using million dollar dream of his former manager Ted Dibiase as a finsiher, veteran wrestler and now agent Michael Hayes suggested the stunner. (Mikey Whipwreck in ECW also used it.) Johnny Ace also did a version of it in Japan called the Ace crusher (Austin 152),  Commentator Jim Ross called it the Stone Cold Stunner, and Hayes suggested kick to gut first, as at first Steve was going straight to the stunner. (Austin 153) As for DTA, don’t trust anybody, Steve came up with that on his own.

While Austin’s star was rising, an old veteran of the business pondered where his future lay. On September 25th of 1996 Bred Hart flew to Los Angeles to voice an episode of The Simpsons. Hart’s agent, Barry Bloom knew WCW President Eric Bischoff. Before leaving, Barry told Bret that Bischoff wanted to meet him. Bret wasn’t considering making a jump, as Nash and Hall had in the spring of that year, but he hit it off when meeting Eric for the first time. They bonded over talking about gunfighters from the Old West, including Butch Cassidy who had spent time in Hart’s home of Calgary Alberta Canada. 

According to Bret Hart’s autobiography, the conversation about Bret coming to WCW went something like this

Eric asked Bret, “So what’s it going to take to bring you to WCW”

Bret replies “I would want the exact same contract as HulkHogan, plus one penny.”

Eric, surprised at his answer, said he couldn’t put anything like that together at the moment,

to which Bret said “That’s fine, I’m not really looking to go anywhere. I’m happy where I’m at.”

Eric keeps prodding though, saying “C’mom, At least give me something that I can go back to my people with. Anything.”

Bret, thinking off the top of his head, and figuring they would tell him no anyway, asked for three million and a later schedule.

Again, according to Bret’s autobiography, Bret himself was surprised when three days later he received an offer for 2.8 million. On October 3rd he talked with Vince McMahon, who told him he couldn’t match the offer (Bret 394)

Bret says, “I wasn’t asking him to match it, just to make me the best offer he could….I hated the thought of being an assassin against him and a company that I’d devoted my life to,” but, he also, quite sensibly, pointed out that “Saying no to this is like tearing up a lottery ticket.”

Vince understood, and also is quoted as saying “WCW would never know what to do with a Bret Hart.” (Hart 395)

Six days later Vince flew to Calgary to present his offer in person. During this visit Vince also approved the idea of a documentary crew following Bret Hart around backstage. This would later become the now well known wrestling documentary Wrestling With Shadows. Its origins lay in the European tour in the spring of that year, during which Hart did an interview where he spoke very honestly about his career. Film maker Paul Jay was impressed by Hart’s sincerity, and later met Hart at the Banff film festival and pitched the idea of the documentary.

Regarding staying in WWF, Hart was offered a twenty year deal for 10.5 million. It would break down to 1.5 million a year for three years as a wrestler, half a million for seven years as a senior adviser, and a quarter of a million for the remaining  ten years. Bret quotes Vince as saying “I’ll never give you a reason to want to leave.” Vince was quite happy when  Bret agreed to the deal.

(Hart 395)

One person that was not happy about the new contract was Shawn Michaels, who earlier that year signed a contract for $750,000 a year and was told that was the biggest contract WWF had. At the time, he says in his autobiography, he told Vince, “I’m just asking that you don’t pay anyone, except Undertaker, any more than you pay me. That would be an insult. Taker is seperate. What he gets he deserves, but I don’t think anyone else deserves more than me.” At the time, Vince agreed. (HBK 241)

After Bret’s deal, Vince and Shawn talked about Wrestlemania and a possible Hart/Michaels match. Learning about Bret’s deal, he now did not want to work with Hart, however, Shawn would injure his knee and not perform at Wrestlemania anyway. In his autobiography Michaels says “If Vince would have pressed me to put Bret over, I would have. I’m sure I would have made life miserable for a lot of people, but I would have done it. When push came to shove, I always did what Vince wanted. (HBK 242) 

As 1996 closed, the seeds were planted for Stone Cold Steve Austin to be one of WWF’s top stars, but not before 1997 would bring the most controversial event in professional wrestling history.

Sources used were the autobiographies for Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, and Stone Cold Steve Austin, all published by WWE. Will update with more details in the future.

Iron Man: WWF 1996 to Wrestlemania

While WWF fired back via their Billionaire Ted Skits at the start of 1996, soon to be champion Shawn Michaels was nervous as two of his close friends, Kevin Nash/Diesel, and Scott Hall/Razor Ramon, were rumored to be WCW bound. Diesel was the WWF champion, but dropped the strap to Bret Hart at that previous years Survivor Series. The plan for 1996’s Wrestlemania was for Shawn Michaels to win the title against Bret Hart, in, as WWF official and former wrestler Pat Patterson proposed, a 60 minute Iron Man match (Michaels 220). In this kind of match, the two would wrestle for an hour, and whoever had the most pinfalls, submission etc at the end, would be champion. Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels were considered two of the best pure athletes in professional wrestling, and few if any other people on the roster would have been able to deliver in a match of this type.

On the road to Wrestlemania, Bret Hart retained his title at Royal Rumble against the Undertaker, via interference from Diesel. Shawn Michaels, who previously teased retirement in an injury storyline, would eliminate Diesel to win the battle royal style Rumble match, which in storyline granted Shawn a title shot at Wrestlemania.

1996’s Royal Rumble, held on January 21rst,  was also the PPV debut of Steve Austin under his Ringmaster gimmick. Fresh off his ECW run, Austin debuted on the January 8th Raw, and was awarded the Million Dollar Championship by his manager Ted Dibiase. The following week he had his first WWF match against then jobber Matt Hardy. A former wrestler known as the Million Dollar Man, Dibiase created the Million Dollar Championship for himself during his own WWF run, after several failed attempts to win the world title.

The following month was In Your House #6: Rage in the Cage, held in Louisville Kentucky on February 18th. Here Bret Hart defended his title against Diesel. This match was held in a steel cage, intended to prevent outside interference. Undertaker emerged from underneath the ring to attack Diesel, as revenge for the  Rumble match interference, leading to Hart retaining via disqualification. In the planning meeting of this match, Hart objected to having two title defenses in a row ending in interference that saved him. The story goes that Undertaker yelled at Hart saying it’s not always about you. Kevin Nash said this incident led him to seriously consider WCW’s offer to jump ship.  

Also at this PPV Shawn Michels defeated Owen Hart, who had kayfabe injured Shawn, starting Shawn’s concussion/retirement angle. Shawn put up his Wrestlemania title shot in the match.

In the Wrestlemania build up, WWF owner Vince McMahon conceived of the idea of Shawn’s victory being labeled as “The Boyhood Dream.” (Michaels 219) The WWF shot vignettes of Shawn training with his former partner Jose Lothario, and the two telling stories etc. Hart was also featured in vignettes training with his father, the legendary Stu Hart. Stu was the patriarch of the Hart family, and trained countless wrestlers in his basement, known famously as the Dungeon. 

Wrestlemania XII was held on March 31rst in Anaheim. The card included the Undertaker defeating Diesel, avenging the Rumble interference, and bringing his mania record to 5-0. 

Rowdy Roddy Piper returned to the WWF to face Goldust in a Hollywood Backlot Brawl (Piper had appeared in Hollywood films and Anaheim is close to Hollywood). While the WWF was not in its Attitude Era yet, the Goldust character pushed the envelope (as did Piper). Played by Dustin Rhodes, the son of legendary Dusty Rhodes, Goldust was an androgynous drag queen obsessed with movies and all things gold. He debuted that previous August, and starting at the Royal Rumble, was accompanied by Marlena, a sexy blonde who would watch Goldust’s matches in a directors chair while smoking cigars. She was played by Terri Runnels, who at the time was married to Dustin. In the buildup to the backlot brawl, Goldust expressed sexual attraction towards Piper, something he often did to his opponents. In an era when homosexuality was still not widely accepted, the Goldust characer pushed the buttons of the audience. Piper won the match, which included an appearance by a white Bronco, an allusion to OJ Simpson’s famous police chase. In fact, the initial idea was for Piper to wrestle O.J. Simpson himself. (Piper Born to Controversy DVD).

Also returning was the Ultimate Warrior, who beat then undefeated Hunter Hearst Helmsley in a squash match. Before being known as HHH, Hunter played the character of a New England snob. Sable made her WWF debut here, accompanying Hunter to the ring. 

Regarding the Iron Man Match, while Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels later had a real life legendary dislike of each other, at this point they got along well. When discussing the outcome of their Wrestlemania match, Shawn quotes Bret as saying “Vince spoke with me and I’m on board. I’m more than happy to do it for you. I don’t have a problem putting you over. I just want the match to be good. (Michaels 220-221) Shawn says “He then made it very clear that he was doing me a favor, and he reminded me that he had told me a few years ago that he thought I would be the guy to take his spot.” (Michael HBK) Bret knew that WCW was getting hot, but speculated that eventually Vince would come out on top. Hart felt like a loyal soldier and wanted to help, figuring that a Hart/Michael’s rivalry would be just the thing.

Specifically planning for Wrestlemania, Bret came up with a numbers system to pace their match, below five was good, eight was time to slow down, and at ten one of them would grab a hold for a breather. (Michaels 221) Shawn made a spectacular Wrestlemania entrance, flying down to the ring on a zip line. The main event would go 60 minutes without a pinfall, known in the business as a Broadway. Shawn’s idea was after the bell Bret would walk up the aisle with the belt, assuming he’d won, but on screen WWF President, and former wrestler Gorilla Monsoon, would order Bret back to the ring for over time (Michaels 222). Then Shawn Michaels would hit his signature move, Sweet Chin Music (a side kick to the jaw), for the win at one hour, one minute and fifty six seconds. Bret had the idea to not shake Shawn’s hand after the match (Hart 381), a move designed to make the perception among wrestling fans and the locker room that the two really did have animosity toward each other, planting the seeds for a return match.

In the moment though, Wrestlemania ended with Shawn Michaels as the WWF champion. The torch had been passed, and the WWF was in the dawn of a new era, but it was an era Shawn would almost face alone. 

Hart, Bret. Hitman: My Real Life in the Cartoon World of Wrestling, Grand Central Publishing, New York and London, 2007.

Michaels, Shawn, and Feigenbaum, Aaron, Heartbreak and Triumph: The Shawn Michaels Story. Pocket Books, New York, London, Toronto and Sydney, 2005.

Rowdy Roddy Piper: Born to Controversy DVD. WWF 2006

Beyond the Mat Documentary Retro Review

In March of 2000 comedy writer Barry W. Blaustein made his directorial debut in Beyond the Mat, a documentary about professional wrestling. He wrote, directed, and produced this documentary about something which he loved all his life, but admits always feeling embarrassed about it.

Beyond the Mat starts with the filmmaker’s own childhood, explaining how he was always a wrestling fan.He recalls seeing a wrestling show as a kid, and feeling befuddled when after the show he saw one of the wrestlers meeting their own family backstage. Seemingly in that moment that wrestler appeared to be a normal family man. Hence, the essential question of this documentary is, who are these people that become pro-wrestlers?

Blaustein starts at the top with the WWF. At the time of this filming the WWF was worth close to a billion dollars, which the filmmaker says is more than the New York Knicks, Rangers,and Mets put together. During a business meeting we hear that WWF was, at that time, the #2 license (I presume this means in retail products) and that they were fighting it out with South Park. WWF is compared to the Muppets, in the sense it’s a family business involving fictional characters. Vince McMahon is interviewed, and gives a very interesting insight into his business. He explains that a lot of people don’t understand what they’re really about, saying “We make movies.” He goes onto say he makes monsters, and compares WWF to the old Hollywood Studio system.

Writer Vince Russo is seen backstage with Sable (Russo would go on to write for WCW). We also see the wrestler and former Denver Bronco Droz, who apparently early on was going to base his wrestling persona around his ability to vomit on cue. It is noted at the film’s end that shortly after the film wrapped, Droz was paralyzed in the ring. There are also a few wrestlers that briefly get screen time sharing their gripes against Vince, including Justin Credible, Koko B. Ware, and Al Snow. While it’s not clear in the initial viewing, Blaustein’s audio commentary reveals Al Snow is in fact talking about his previous run in WWF where he had a different gimmick called Avatar.

World Championship Wrestling is not covered in this film at all. It is only mentioned twice in passing, once by an indy promoter and once by an ECW fan. From the time I saw this in the theater I wondered why that was the case. On the same commentary Blaustein reveals he approached WCW but they would not sign the necessary paper work to let him film. He says WCW wanted creative control of the project. Interestingly enough, he adds that even though they are not covered, WCW programming still ran adds for the show and apparently discussed it on air.

Vince McMahon/the WWF were not as cooperative at first either. The commentary reveals that Ron Howard, who produced the film, lived near Vince McMahon, but amusingly only had a slight understanding that he was somehow involved in the wrestling business. After several meetings Vince finally agreed, but later wanted to control the project, offering to cover the film’s budget. Vince’s request was declined. Apparently after the movie came out WWF stars were told not to do press for the film, nevertheless, Blaustein and WWF star Mick Foley appeared on Larry King Live around the time of the film’s release.

Back to the documentary, Balustein’s favorite wrestler, Terry Funk, is profiled next. Extreme Championship Wrestling is also profiled along with Funk, as Funk wins a match at the first ECW Pay Per View. ECW was a renegade ultra-violent promotion based out of Philadelphia that had a rabid international fan base. Blaustein says in the film “No fans scared me more.” Just after this documentary was made ECW had a TV deal on TNN.

Later, due to health problems, Funk decides to retire and have one last match (It should be no surprise to hear his retirement doesn’t last long). His “last match” is in Amarillo Texas, where he lives and is a local celebrity. His opponent is then WWF champion Bret Hart. WWF and ECW wrestlers are show in the audience. Personally I didn’t see any WCW wrestlers in attendance, but ECW’s Shane Douglas says that only Terry Funk could have brought together people from WWF, ECW, and other promotions. Two fans are also interviewed who came all the way from England for this match.

From Funk the film segues into Mick Foely, perhaps the most unlikely WWF champion. His friendship with Terry is highlighted, and the climax of the film is his brutal I Quit Match against the Rock at the 1999 Royal Rumble, which his wife and two young children had front row seats for.

Also of note are the segments with Jake the Snake Roberts, who was at a low point in his life at the time, and was heavy into drug use. At the time Jake objected to how he was portrayed in this film. He has subsequently got himself through treatment and has been clean for a while. I imagine his feelings on this film might have changed over time.

WWF female superstar Chyna is briefly portrayed, as is former WWF star Koko B. Ware, Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura, ECW’s Spike Dudley and New Jack, and a small California based promotion. From this promotion two indy wrestlers get a WWF try out.

Beyond the Mat is perhaps an unintentional time capsule of a time when wrestling was the in thing. Blaustein on his commentary observes, correctly in retrospect, how wrestling was hot at that time, but adds “I know that will go away pretty soon.” While it is disappointing that WCW is not covered, it seems that was beyond the filmmaker’s control. The goal of the film was to cover the types of people that become professional wrestlers, and I would say it had mostly succeeded at that.

Monday Night Wars Documentary Review Part 8: The Austin Era Has Begun

Stone Cold Steve Austin is undoubtedly the most popular star to come out of the Monday Night Wars. Some wrestling fans even argue he was more popular than Hulk Hogan. Episode 8 of this documentary focuses on his story, and opens with Austin himself saying he had to fight and claw for everything he ever had.

His time as Stunning Steve is covered in WCW, where he went from singles competition, to tag team, then back to singles where he had a great match with Ricky Steamboat. Early frustrations are shown as we see a WCW clip of Mean Gene hyping Hulk Hogan, then going to interview Steve Austin. Austin on camera calls out Gene for hyping Hogan when he’s supposed to be interviewing him.

Bischoff is shown saying how Austin was starting to be irritable to be around, was always hurt etc. Eventually Bischoff let him go. From there he went to ECW, while he was injured he cut promos ripping Bischoff and Hogan and the rest of WCW. It’s here his eventual Stone Cold persona started to come out.

From ECW he went to the WWF where he was the Million Dollar Champion, managed by Ted Dibiase. However, when Dibiase went to WCW Austin was on his own, and had more of an opportunity to develop his character. He’d seen a documentary about a bald hitman for hire, and thinking about that cemented the Stone Cold Steve Austin character. His King of the Ring victory is covered with the famous Austin 3:16 quote, as is his “I Quit” match at Wrestlemania with Bret Hart. His injury at Summerslam in 1997 led to him further developing his mic skills and anti-authority stance.

The Goldberg/Stone Cold comparison issue was inevitable, as it is suggested that Goldberg was WCW’s response to Stone Cold. Leave it to CM Punk to question that analysis, and rightfully so. Their similarities were only superficial, their actual characters were completely different.

The episode ends with Vince selling the idea that Austin was the biggest star wrestling ever had.

Monday Night Wars Documentary Review Episode 6: Hart of War

The Montreal Screwjob is the most written about, over-analyzed and controversial incident in the history of professional wrestling. This episode starts with Bret Hart’s time before that incident and ends with the fallout and his time in WCW.

During the steroid trial of the early 1990s, Hulk Hogan testified against Vince McMahon in court. This steroid scandal partially led to the WWF focusing on stars that were not as large and muscular as Hogan. Bret Hart, a talented long time veteran, fit the bill. He and Shawn Michaels, another star also with a smaller build, were friends. A clip is shown of Bret saying they’re friends on WWF programming.

At Wrestlemania X, the two fought for the championship in an hour long Iron Man match. They were both excited about the match. Sunny is interviewed for this episode and she says there was some professional jealousy between the two but it was not personal.

However as time went on Bret became resentful of the attention Shawn was getting. He felt like he was having great matches and no one cared. Bret was also into the idea of being a role model, whereas Shawn Michaels character certainly was not.

Hart’s contract was coming up, and his business manager arranged a meeting with Eric Bischoff who asked him how much money he wanted. Thinking Bischoff would refuse, Hart said three million a year, to which Bischoff agreed.

Still wanting to stay in WWF, he ended up turning down a three year nine million dollar contract and signed on to WWF for a 20 year deal. Clips from the A&E Television Documentary Wrestling With Shadows is shown, which chronicled this period in wrestling history.

During this time Shawn was the WWF champion, but vacated the title claiming he had a knee injury. In an on camera interview Shawn says he “was not in a good place in 96.” That’s not specified much except that he was taking pills. Hart doubted his injury, and Shawn played up on that, doing a back flip during a TV appearance. Tensions continued as Shawn suggested on WWF programming that Hart was having an affair with WWF diva Sunny. Things came to a boil as Pat Patterson says the two got into an actual brawl backstage in Hartford Connecticut. These incidents, along with Hart being critical of the then new Attitude Era, caused Vince to reconsider his deal.

This leads Hart signing with WCW, and the Montreal Screwjob. At the 1997 Survivor Series in Montreal, Bret Hart lost the championship title to Shawn Michael. In the match, Shawn had Hart in the sharpshooter, a submission maneuver that was Hart’s signature move. Hart did not submit, but says he heard someone yell “Ring the bell.” Vince was at ringside during the match, and this would be Hart’s last WWF appearance for over a decade.

Former WWF writer Vince Russo says Hart was given every possible scenario on how to end the match and Hart rejected all of them. The story is that Hart wanted to win in Montreal, and hand the title over the next night on Raw. What this episode does not mention, but is covered in the women’s episode, was the Madusa incident. In the very beginning of the Monday Night War, on 12/18/95, Alyundra Blaze, the then WWF women’s champion, appeared on Monday Nitro, having just signed with WCW where she’d wrestle under the name Madusa. In the very beginning of the program she threw the WWF women’s title in a trash can. Vince and everyone else in the WWF was concerned that Bret Hart would appear on WCW programming and denigrate the WWF title.

Either way, Sgt. Slaughter gives an interview here and says Bret legitimately punched Vince McMahon backstage. This incident also gave birth to the Mr. McMahon character, that would later feud with Steve Austin in perhaps the most successful story line ever.

Meanwhile the episode suggests WCW didn’t know what to do with Bret. We see clips of him wrestling Disco Inferno and the Goldberg steel plate bit. However he did have a run with their title. His injury at Starrcade is covered, he had a few matches after that, but in October of 2000 he was officially done.

Eric Bischoff has said that when Hart came to WCW he was so upset about the Montreal incident that he lost his passion for the business. Hart says that he “never stopped trying.” That’s the extent that issue is covered.

Like the last episode, I would have liked to have seen more analysis toward the end. I wanted them to break down exactly how Bret Hart was used in WCW, as I said he did have their title. In what ways was he not used properly? How should he have been used?

Aside from that, this episode has a good structure of showing Hart’s story through this time in wrestling history, without overemphasizing the already done to death Montreal Screwjob.