Feb 10, 2019
Note: This article was originally published on January 24th, 2016. It is being reposted following www.workofwrestling.com 's migration from Squarespace to Libsyn.
The Attitude Era wasn't great because it was raunchy, sleazy, blood-soaked, extreme, and testosterone-fueled. In fact, all those segments, matches, and angles from The Attitude Era that weren't good were the ones that could be easily reduced to a set of trendy adjectives.
The assertion many modern professional wrestling fans make is that The Attitude Era was "so much better" than today's TV-PG Era, without offering a worthwhile explanation related to the who, what, where, when, and why of the time.
This noisy group of armchair critics likes to cite "Better promos", "getting color", "more interesting characters", "cooler stables", and "better angles" as adequate precedent. Working alongside that lack of an explanation is the unavoidably revisionist history that comes with nostalgia. Moments of time that were distinct, perhaps entirely unrelated, get lumped together and cataloged as the same event; Shawn Michaels chopping his crotch, Triple H sitting on a cannon, Chyna giving low blows, The Rock raising an eyebrow, Steve Austin stunning Vince McMahon, and Mick Foley falling off a cell.
Newer wrestling fans must rely upon increasingly vague, second-hand interpretations of what made these moments great.
Greatness without context (or greatness with revised context) does a disservice to greatness. To allow The Attitude Era to transform entirely into a destructive shadow from which no one escapes is to invalidate the excellence and the sacrifices of Shawn Michaels, Triple H, Chyna, The Rock, Stone Cold Steve Austin, Mick Foley, and even Vince McMahon (as well as those wrestlers currently striving for their own greatness in a variety of beloved wrestling promotions).
No Attitude Era montage and no gushing Attitude Era fan can do justice to the excellence of Monday Night Raw in 1997 & 1998. It's necessary to go back in time and watch these segments, matches, and promos firsthand, in their entirety, to comprehend why they represent more than "WWE's Greatest Hits”.
A TV-14 rating is not magic.
It doesn't make the content of a two hour wrestling show inherently better than the content of one rated TV-PG.
The Moment of Pop is magic, however, and the architects of The Attitude Era (the wrestlers, the bookers, the camera-people, the editors, the commentary, and many more) were all obviously dead-set on moving audiences to incredibly intense Moments of Pop through good storytelling.
One such Moment takes place at the 1998 pay-per-view Over The Edge in a match between Stone Cold Steve Austin and Dude Love. Late in the match, after having been busted open and beaten with a chair, Stone Cold is forced down into the mat and straddled by Dude. Steve's neck is pulled back, and blood pours down his face as McMahon (the dirty referee) screams "Give up! Give up, damnit!"
Despite the insurmountable odds, despite the intensity of the pain, despite the corrupt system (embodied in Vince McMahon), Steve Austin refuses to give up. He bridges, roaring and pushing out from under Dude. As Austin rises, wounded but determined to pay the pain forward, an engaged viewer experiences an indescribable euphoria. Austin's will becomes the viewer's will. Austin's tenacity, blood, sacrifice, and vengeance becomes the viewer's.
If Austin is able to climb out of this hell and raise his arm in victory, then you can too. So you cheer. You scratch and you claw along with Austin. You lean forward in your seat and you scream at Vince McMahon and you fervently cry out in ecstasy when Austin finally hits a Stone Cold Stunner. And everyone involved in the construction of this scene wants you to feel that way. Everyone who built this match, from Vince McMahon to Steve Austin to Mick Foley to Jim Ross to Jerry Lawler, to the director in the back, wants you to believe, with the utmost conviction, that this is the most important moment of your life. And it works. All disbelief is suspended, and your only concern is the survival and the triumph of the valiant WWF Champion.
But how did they get there? How did they make you believe in professional wrestling at that exact moment?
The answer to that question begins several weeks before Over The Edge on the April 6th, 1998 episode of Monday Night Raw (two weeks after WrestleMania 14). If watching this episode on the WWE Network, at 31:25 Mick Foley opens up about his frustrations with wrestling fans and the WWF as only he can. No one, save perhaps CM Punk, has ever been able to deconstruct the hypocrisy of pro-wrestling audiences in such a captivating, convincing fashion as Mick. There is a tinge of Foley's former ECW-angst in this melancholy monologue.
“When I came here two years ago and I was Mankind, there were always people saying y’know why don’t you just be Cactus Jack. And I came out in tie dye and some white boots, and they said y’know why don’t you just be Cactus Jack.”
This is the moment Foley turns, the transformation evident in his eyes.
“Well I gave you Cactus Jack, I gave you every Goddamn bit of energy I had, and when I was lying there, helpless, you chanted someone else’s name!”
Foley is referring to a match he had a week prior. Cactus Jack teamed with Chainsaw Charlie (Terry Funk) against The New Age Outlaws in a cage match. DX, in the form of Triple H, Chyna, and X-Pac, interfered in the match and dismantled Chainsaw Charlie and Cactus Jack in brutal fashion. This is how The New Age Outlaws became a part of Triple H’s reformed, militaristic DX-stable following Shawn Michaels’ departure after ‘Mania 14.
Instead of cheering for Mick & Terry, the audience cheered for Austin to come to their aid. Mick continues in his promo, “This is not a knock on Stone Cold Steve Austin, I’m happy he’s champion. He may not admit it, but we’ve known each other a long time and he’s been my friend. But what you (the audience) did to me and Terry Funk laying in the middle of this ring was not only distasteful and disrespectful, it was Goddamn disgusting, and I’m gonna give you a chance to make it up to me…because I’m gonna accept a group apology right now.”
Mick waits for the audience to apologize. The camera pulls out to reveal him standing in the middle of the ring, pitifully alone (Mick consistently demonstrates his mastery for milking moments of tragedy for all their worth) . After the crowd does not apologize, the camera moves in for an extreme close-up, and a small, ironic smile breaks on Mick’s tortured face.
“Well I can finally say for the first time after thirteen years of blood, sweat, and tears, that it’s not worth it anymore. It’s gonna be a long time before you see Cactus Jack in the ring again.”
Mick Foley is a broken man at this point in the story, struggling to find his place in The World Wrestling Federation. If Mick fights for the love of wrestling fans, but he’s unable to earn their love even after he’s given them “every goddamn bit of energy” he has, what’s left for him to do? That question sets Mick on a collision course with The Rattlesnake.
Act One of Austin vs Dude Love has begun.
Running in parallel with the dissolution of Cactus and Chainsaw Charlie's team is the ascent of Stone Cold Steve Austin. After finishing his feud with The Rock for The Intercontinental Championship and winning The 1998 Royal Rumble, Steve Austin was clearly positioned to usurp Shawn Michaels as the WWF Champion. During that build, the seeds for Austin’s rivalry with McMahon were planted.
At this time in the WWF, Vince McMahon was not yet the high-stepping, cartoonish Mr. McMahon character everyone knows today. He wasn’t evil simply to be evil, and his feud with Steve Austin didn’t start overnight after just one Stunner. It took time to develop and it became more and more intense week after week.
McMahon was much subtler in his performance back then. He was simply a promoter trying to secure deals and position talent in a way that aligned with his corporate manifesto. The character’s goal was to make viewers believe everything he did was fueled by good business sense rather than personal grievances or personal gain.
Steve Austin saw through that charade.
Steve was certain that Vince McMahon didn’t want him to become WWF Champion at WrestleMania 14, that McMahon was purposefully stacking the deck in Shawn Michaels’ favor (hence why Vince was so desperate to secure Mike Tyson’s involvement - it wasn’t just about having another big name on the marquee, it was about preventing Austin's victory). These events aren’t too far removed from “The Montreal Screwjob" where Vince McMahon legitimately conspired against Bret Hart to ensure Bret didn’t leave Survivor Series ’97 for WCW with the WWF Championship belt. That real-world collusion gradually became integrated into Mr. McMahon’s gimmick leading into ‘Mania 14. That added an extra layer of subtle intrigue to the match, and later blossomed into the beloved Austin/McMahon feud.
Today’s wrestling fans will see Austin’s acts of defiance stitched together in fun montages, but they’ll miss out on the nuances of their rivalry, and the true mastery of Austin and McMahon’s performances. Their exchanges are bitterly visceral. Both are justified in their hatred of the other. The essence of Steve Austin’s feud with Mr. McMahon is much deeper than “a blue collar worker kicking his boss’s ass”. Steve’s war with Vince is ideological. Mr. McMahon desperately wants to control his World Wrestling Federation. He believes he has the right to snuff out a talent’s natural personality and manipulate that talent to think, feel, and behave in a manner that he deems proper. He is a dictator, a master manipulator, who pinpoints emotional weaknesses and then pounces.
Steve Austin, therefore, is Mr. McMahon’s worst nightmare.
But not just because Steve's cussing, drinking, and "sign language" makes his company look bad. He’s Stone Cold (the name derived from Richard Kuklinski). He’s not a sensitive creature like Mick Foley, so Austin is not susceptible to Vince’s powers of persuasion (the power Vince relies upon to get what he wants). Stone Cold is only susceptible to physical peril, but even that doesn’t frighten him.
Steve absolutely refuses to be molded in any way whatsoever. The character is an anarchist. The moment “the glass breaks”, everyone is fair game. He is an entity of pure, unadulterated chaos driven by the personal mantra “Raise hell”. He’ll slap cameramen, attack ringside announcers, and threaten commentary because he trusts absolutely no one.
He is certain that the entire world is conspiring against him.
It just so happens that he’s proven right every single week. In any other environment, Stone Cold Steve Austin would be a monster, a paranoid madman to avoid at all costs. But, in the World Wrestling Federation, Steve Austin is the most logical son of bitch on the planet. That is the nuance of the Stone Cold character that gets lost in translation through montages and documentaries. Much like The Attitude Era itself, Steve Austin, Mick Foley, and Vince McMahon are more than a collection of fun clips easily described as "a different time". These characters never did anything without good reason. And all of the performers inhabit their characters so absolutely that one feels the television pulse with life the moment any of them step on-screen.
While these episodes of RAW certainly have their terrible, downright regrettable segments rife with all make and manner of stereotype and prejudice, the primary stories that represent the thrust of these RAW episodes cannot and should not be lumped in with the "Jerry Springer wrestling show" description often leveled at Attitude Era RAW (at least in '98).
In 1998, Steve Austin, Mick Foley, and Vince McMahon were telling Shakespeare through the lens of pro-wrestling.
If Stone Cold's story is about the success that comes with a refusal to conform, then Mick's story, told separately but simultaneously during Austin’s ascent, represents the flip side of that coin. In trying so desperately to conform to the fan’s wishes (by giving them Cactus Jack) Foley finds himself lost and alone. That brilliant parallelism makes Austin & Foley perfect opponents coming out of WrestleMania season, and the depth of their rivalry is only possible thanks to the fact that both are fully formed characters when they finally clash. Mick’s mid-card tag feud against The New Age Outlaws in the months leading into WrestleMania wasn’t treated as an isolated incident. Mick’s friendship with Terry, the pain he endured fed directly into his main event matches with Austin in the subsequent months. The transition is so fluid that Foley and Austin both gain momentum as they move beyond WrestleMania and into the next pay-per-views.
On the April 13th, 1998 episode of Monday Night Raw, Steve Austin finally challenges Vince McMahon to a match. Vince McMahon agrees, but before the match even starts, Dude Love interrupts, supposedly in an attempt to “preserve the peace” and “spread the love”. The segment ends with Dude Love attacking Austin, putting him in The Mandible Claw. Although McMahon pretends to be angry that Dude interfered, in the next episodes it becomes clear that Dude Love is secretly doing the bidding of Mr. McMahon.
We see Foley on the next RAW, as Dude, cutting a promo in a Love Shack segment (a psychedelic, purposefully cheesy version of Piper’s Pit) designed to get under the skin of Austin-chanting wrestling fans. It’s important to remember that Mick initially sought the love of wrestling fans. From Mick’s perspective, they rejected their favorite persona of his (Cactus Jack). So, in the months after WrestleMania 14, Foley instead seeks the love of Mr. McMahon. Foley does what Austin absolutely refuses to do. He conforms and gives McMahon Dude Love. Also, beneath Foley’s desire to be loved by the fans and Mr. McMahon, remains his desire to be WWF Champion. He’s willing to sacrifice his integrity, his identity, and even his friendships if it means becoming the Champion.
That’s the power of the WWF Championship in 1997 & 1998. The belt is the nucleus of the World Wrestling Federation. Everything orbits the championship, the pull of the title drawing in various wrestlers at various times for various reasons. The Championship is so powerful that even McMahon covets it. That significance provides the basic narrative foundation needed when attempting to craft compelling drama, and it also embodies the power of a performer who has truly gotten over with the crowd. It’s not until you’ve heard a 1998 audience pop at the sound of Steve Austin’s entrance music that you really know what "over" means in professional wrestling.
Steve and Dude’s first title match at Unforgiven serves as Act Two of their story.
The match ends with Austin whacking Vince McMahon in the head with a chair, giving Dude a stunner, and then counting himself to victory because the referee was knocked out in the fray. The next night on RAW, McMahon orders Steve to defend his title against Golddust, a decision that won’t sit well with Mick Foley who continues to believe he’s the rightful number one contender.
Tensions escalate between Foley and McMahon a week later on the May 4th, 1998 episode of RAW. The through-line of this particular episode represents some of the best pro-wrestling storytelling ever committed to tape. The show starts with Foley emerging from behind the curtain for another “Love Shack” segment only he’s not wearing Dude Love attire and he immediately demands that the music be cut off because it makes him sick.
“Does anybody here know my name, because to tell you the truth, I don’t know who the hell I am anymore…you see, I don’t have all the answers, but I do know a few things. Number one, I’ll be damned if I’m gonna throw away thirteen years of hard work by sucking up to a lowlife like Vince McMahon. Number Two, I’ll be damned if I’m gonna let my wife and kids see me bumping and grinding with a couple of second rate strippers on national television. And number three, I’ll be damned if I perform in this stuff ever again,” Mick raises the Dude Love attire in disgust.
He has been booked to face his best friend and former tag partner Terry Funk in a No Holds Barred match that night. Fed up with trying to appease Vince McMahon, Foley sees this match as another form of Vince’s cruel punishment and disrespect. After joining Foley onstage, Vince reveals his powers of manipulation in what is essentially a talent negotiation scene.
McMahon explains that booking Mick against Terry wasn’t a punishment, but rather an "opportunity" (keep in mind it’s long been established that everything McMahon says is a bold-faced lie).
“If you seize this moment, if you take your best friend out to this ring tonight and you not only beat him, but you beat him within an inch of his life, if you tear him limb from limb, if you reach into his chest and pull out his heart and hold it up and the blood drips down all over you, then you would have made the kind of sacrifice that’s necessary to be the number one contender, the kind of sacrifice that’s necessary to beat Stone Cold Steve Austin, the kind of sacrifice that’s necessary to be the WWF Heavyweight Champion. I’ve got faith in you. I’ve got confidence in you, because I believe, deep down in that demented cranium, you can do it, you can seize this opportunity, and once again become the number one contender for the World Wrestling Federation Championship”.
The previously determined and fiery Foley succumbs to the charms of Mr. McMahon.
“When I came out here,” McMahon continues, “you threw Dude Love in my face. How does it feel for me to throw the truth into yours?” And then McMahon slaps Foley, and Foley smiles. This is the epitome of an abusive relationship. The abuser recognizes their target's desire to be loved, and then twists that desire into something painful so that the abused cannot distinguish right from wrong, pain from pleasure.
Suddenly, Austin’s music hits and The Rattlesnake literally destroys the scene simply because he can. Austin doesn’t attack Mick Foley. He focuses his rage on The Love Shack set, the embodiment of Vince McMahon’s warped perception of entertainment, a symbol of pure oppression. Austin smashes lava lamps, yanks the set down with a grappling hook, and stomps it into shards of splintered wood.
Jim Ross and Michael Cole are on commentary and their word choice perfectly fleshes out the depth of this moment, and the motivations of the characters.
“Well Mr. McMahon was convincing,” says Jim Ross, “but Stone Cold is even more convincing with his convictions.”
Cole chimes in, “Stone Cold is wrecking…wrecking everything that Mr. McMahon has tried to create!”
Once he’s finished destroying The Love Shack, Austin charges forward down the ramp, flipping McMahon double-middle-fingers, the veins on his neck popping and his eyes ablaze. He rips his shirt to pieces and climbs atop the turnbuckle, glaring down at the pitiful promoter.
Moments such as these demonstrate the power of Stone Cold Steve Austin as WWF Champion, and exactly why Vince McMahon is so afraid of him. McMahon might be a master manipulator. He might be a great salesmen. But no amount of manipulation or salesmanship can contend with a human wrecking ball like Stone Cold Steve Austin.
Stone Cold is hellbent on literally tearing down, brick by brick, Vince McMahon’s image of professional wrestling or what he calls "Sports Entertainment". This undercurrent of chaos defines RAW in 1997 and 1998, and it helps flesh out the fictional world depicted by the WWF.
Well-timed, purposeful glimpses behind the RAW curtain reveal a deeper pro-wrestling kayfabe that suggests characters like Steve Austin, Mick Foley, Paul Bearer, The Undertaker, Kane all have lives beyond the reach of RAW’s cameras. It’s as though Monday Night Raw is the weigh station of these wrestling-personalities, as though Vince McMahon is trying to corral them into one spot, for two hours at a time every single Monday, so that he can document their antics in as controlled an environment as possible and then profit from it.
RAW IS WAR’s opening vignette reveals this to be the case. A scene is shown before every episode.
We see chain-link fences and barking dogs, random explosions, clips from old RAWs projected on brick walls, and a wrestling ring surrounded by fire. It’s eerily reminiscent of apocalyptic visions from the Terminator films. Austin emerges from the dark, entering this bleak madhouse, ready to go to war. While this opening scene is fondly remembered as a mechanism for getting viewers hyped, it’s actually an incredibly effective way to flesh out the world these characters inhabit when RAW isn’t chronicling their exploits. It's as though this is Steve Austin's natural habit the moment he leaves a WWF arena.
After Mick Foley wins a brutal classic against his friend Terry Funk on this May 4th RAW episode, McMahon appears on the entrance ramp holding Dude Love’s attire, surrounded by dancing sirens. The imagery is appropriately sleazy.
Foley is embraced by McMahon and the “second rate strippers”.
The story has revealed, without much dialogue, exactly how the pursuit of love can lead good people astray. Mick's tragedy demonstrates that given the right set of circumstances almost anyone is susceptible to temptation.
The scene disgusts Stone Cold Steve Austin.
As unfeeling as Stone Cold is, he continually expresses his respect for Terry Funk and Mick Foley throughout the match. Steve is legitimately happy to defend his title against a competitor who earns a rightful shot. He only hates dishonesty and weakness. He understands what Vince has done to the impressionable Mick Foley/Dude Love, and he finds it utterly revolting.
After watching this story unfold over the course of several binge-watching sessions, I couldn't help but wonder why this kind of article hadn't been written before (because if it has, I haven't been able to find it).
Where is the DVD about Steve Austin and Dude Love?
Immediately following this two-month program with Steve Austin, Mick Foley segued into his battle with The Undertaker at King of the Ring; the same King of the Ring where Foley was thrown from the top of the cell.
Why is it that Mick's terrifying fall isn't presented today within the context of the deeply emotional story that preceded it? The two most famous bumps in professional wrestling history (truly life-threatening falls) came immediately after a story that examined how Mick Foley, above all else, craved the love of professional wrestling fans and the love of Mr. McMahon.
This context has forever transformed the way I see Mick Foley's collapse through the announcer's table at King of the Ring. Before, I saw it as a blend of bravery and madness, a willingness to do whatever it took to put the WWF over WCW. Now, I struggle to watch it.
It's not about "spectacle" or "the pursuit of higher ratings". It's not about Mick being indestructible. Quite the opposite.
It's about the quest for love. Mankind falls because he wants to be loved.
That's tragically beautiful. That sacrifice deserves the narrative context.
Now Austin and Dude Love move into the third and final act of their story.
In the episodes of RAW leading into Over The Edge, the deck is once against stacked against Steve Austin due to McMahon’s growing disdain for The Rattlesnake. McMahon names himself the special guest referee and his two cronies, Gerald Brisco and Pat Patterson, are named the guest time-keeper and the guest ring announcer respectively. The only assistance Austin gets is in the form of The Undertaker as a ringside enforcer.
The match starts in deliberately slow fashion; side headlock take-downs, a few punches, several covers, a brief exchange on the outside.
After getting tossed into the steel steps, Austin gets a few clotheselines in but, for the most part, he’s on the receiving end of the punishment. As the action spills out to the Spanish Announcer’s Table, the entire dynamic of the match changes as Pat Patterson (at Vince’s command) “reminds” everyone that this is a no disqualification match. The situation appears even more desperate and impossible for Austin now that Vince McMahon has revealed he can change the rules of the match at any moment.
That's when Austin comes back unexpectedly. McMahon assumes adding the no disqualification stipulation will work in his favor, but it backfires as Austin becomes enraged and bashes Dude over the guardrail into the concrete. This is one of the more vicious spots of the match.
“Good God almighty what a clothesline!” Jim Ross roars.
“I’ve never seen anything like it, folks!” Jerry says.
Not long after his comeback, Austin makes a mistake in the ring and Dude capitalizes. Momentum shifts back to Dude. You pop at the explosiveness of an unexpected Austin-clothesline, and each comeback lasts a little bit longer, but just when you start to believe Austin is about to win, Dude or McMahon finds a way to cut him off.
For example, as Dude gets Austin down on the entryway, McMahon rushes over to Pat and commands him to “remind” the audience that the match is actually “Falls Count Anywhere”.
Jim Ross is absolutely disgusted when he hears this, “Since when?! Since when?! That ain’t right!” Jim Ross becomes the voice of the audience, screaming from the gut about the corruption of the WWF. His passionate accompaniment fleshes out the situation for the viewer, making it that much clearer how desperate the situation is for the Rattlesnake. Every fist Austin throws, every time Austin kicks out, Ross erupts in ecstasy, preaching about Austin’s tenacity and Austin's will to survive. The more McMahon tries to screw Austin out of the title, the more intense the audience will pop when Austin finally wins.
After fighting through the set dressing on the stage, bashing in windshields and leaping off car-hoods, the fight returns to the ring with Dude Love firmly in control. Austin is bleeding by now, and Ross says “Austin may be marked for life from this match.”
“There’s nothing like the scar that losing the WWF Title will leave on you,” Jerry replies.
This brings us back to The Moment of Pop described at the very beginning of this retrospective.
Dude Love mounts Steve Austin’s back and wrenches his neck. The image evokes memories to Austin’s masterwork with Bret Hart at WrestleMania 13. His refusal to quit, him passing out out in a pool of his own blood in that past match, informs the intensity of this moment at Over The Edge. Trapped in a similar situation, he now has to contend with Vince McMahon screaming in his face, "Give it up!"
Steve is bleeding, vulnerable, and yet he still refuses to quit. It is as if the WWF Championship gives him a previously untapped power. He rises to his feet and delivers several right hands to Dude’s face. Jim Ross explodes, the audience roars to life, and for just a few moments, they believe in professional wrestling.
Every episode of RAW after WreslteMania 14 contributed to this single moment.
Every word spoken by Jim Ross and Jerry Lawler over the past two months contributed to this moment.
Every one of Vince McMahon’s facial expressions, every pre-match vignette, every promo, every decision in the ring (when to counter, when to cover, when to move to the corner, when to move to the outside), and every vicious bump led to this one Moment of Pop. Any time a handful of masters work together toward a common goal, good things happen. That is the essence of great moment or a great angle from The Attitude Era’s.
Performers like Steve Austin and Mick Foley are masters of their art, who happened to be working in the same place, at the same time, for the same purpose. Whatever their differences, the clarity of their focus is evident in the success of these shows and the power of these stories. All of them were utterly fearless in their performances, and they had the freedom to explore the depths of their imaginations.
That tireless effort and that degree of skill must not be reduced to a handful of high-spot-montages that lack the story which made them meaningful in the first place. We must not allow their work to be summed up with, “WWE was so much better back then”.
The greatness contained in The Attitude Era must be a source of inspiration, not insecurity, and the best of that Era would agree.
When looking back at episodes of RAW in 1997 and 1998, the defining trait of “mastery” gradually becomes clear. A master believes in their art.
When I hear Jim Ross and Jerry Lawler speak, I hear men who believe in professional wrestling.
When I look into Steve Austin and Mick Foley’s eyes, I see people who believe in professional wrestling.
And that’s why we believe in them.
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