14. Stone Cold Steve Austin turns face at WrestleMania 13 (1997)
In WCW, Stunning Steve Austin never did progress beyond the midcard. Despite being United States Champion, TV Champion and co-holder of the tag team titles with Brian Pillman, a proper world title run would never come his way in the early 1990s. After being fired over the phone by Eric Bischoff (who didn’t see a bright future for him) and a brief run in Extreme Championship Wrestling, Austin joined the WWF at the end of 1995.
He shaved off his blond locks and was rechristened The Ringmaster. Managed by Ted DiBiase, who represented a stable of wrestlers under the name, The Million Dollar Corporation, the character change never clicked with the audience. But once The Million Dollar Man relocated to WCW, Austin’s career quickly started to gain steam.
By the Spring of 1996, The Ringmaster had become Stone Cold Steve Austin, a tough talking villain who went on to deliver a memorable promo about his King Of The Ring nemesis, Jake Roberts, which finally garnered him some heat (“Austin 3:16 says I just whipped your ass!”). But it would be his program with Bret Hart that would culminate in yet another important WrestleMania moment.
While Hart was recovering from legitimate injuries, Austin started cutting him down in promos hoping The Hitman would face him in a match. When he came back, he accepted Stone Cold’s challenge and they first squared off at the 1996 Survivor Series. As their feud continued into 1997, they would be booked in a No DQ submission match officiated by Ken Shamrock at WrestleMania 13.
Going into the match, Austin was the villain and Hart was the hero. It was a pretty stiff, highly energetic brawl right from the get-go and it all led to one important question: would Stone Cold tap out to The Hitman’s sharpshooter? His face a bloody mess (thanks to being hit by the timekeeper’s bell earlier on), Austin screamed in agony but refused to quit. In the end, he only lost the match because he passed out.
Normally, that would be the end of it but Hart decided Austin hadn’t gotten enough punishment. Because of this crucial decision, the fans turned on The Hitman and started cheering for the once hated Stone Cold. This clever booking by the WWF began Austin’s road to superstardom as he would go on to feud with owner Vince McMahon for the next two years (and then shockingly align with him and his corporation before one more face turn in the new millennium) and become an important figure for the next several WrestleManias.
Eric Bischoff never thought Austin was worthy of WCW’s World Title but the WWF felt differently about their own championship in 1998. At WrestleMania 14, WWF World Champion Shawn Michaels, one of the most hated wrestlers at the time because of his involvement in the Montreal Screwjob, passed the torch to Austin in the main event. The Texas Rattlesnake would win two more world titles, both against The Rock, at WrestleMania 15 and 17.
By 2003, Austin’s troubled history of severe injuries (starting with the botched reverse piledriver at SummerSlam 1997) were making it difficult for him to continue on a full-time basis. He wrestled his final match against The Rock at WrestleMania 19. The People’s Champion came out on top.
Despite being retired, Austin has continued to appear from time to time at the Showcase Of The Immortals. At WrestleMania XX, he refereed the Brock Lesnar/Goldberg match as well as the Battle Of The Billionaires confrontation between Bobby Lashley and the late Umaga at WrestleMania 23 and the Jerry Lawler/Michael Cole debacle at WrestleMania 27. Also, he was Rowdy Roddy Piper’s guest on Piper’s Pit at WrestleMania 21.
During the years where Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels were absent from the height of the Attitude Era, whether you love him or hate him (and you can make a strong case for both), Stone Cold Steve Austin was the biggest reason anyone cared about WrestleMania. And it all began with that unexpected face turn in 1997.
15. Shawn Michaels defeats Chris Jericho in his first WrestleMania match in five years (2003)
On the same show that saw Austin wrestle his final match in the WWE, a familiar face made his first appearance at the annual supershow in the new millennium. After a long absence from the event, he would make a triumphant return and redefine it for the rest of the decade.
After losing the WWF title to The Texas Rattlesnake at WrestleMania 14 in 1998, Michaels would not wrestle in any shape or form for the next four and a half years (due to serious injuries) until he worked a tremendously brutal “Unsanctioned Street Fight” with longtime real-life pal, Triple H, at SummerSlam 2002. Late in the year, he started a program with Chris Jericho and it all led to the last truly influential moment in WrestleMania history.
At WrestleMania 19, Jericho and Michaels put on a clinic in a fast-paced 23-minute back-and-forth battle that, in many observers eyes’, stole the show. The Heartbreak Kid got the victory. Afterwards, a tearful Jericho hugged his real-life idol and then, without warning, kicked him in the kiwis. What a bastard. Great post-match finish, though.
Without a doubt, that match reestablished Michaels as a must-see pay-per-view main event-worthy talent in the Aughts, and at some point during this second golden period, he began referring to himself quite accurately as Mr. WrestleMania. The following year, he tangled with Chris Benoit and Eddie Guerrero in the highly regarded Triple Threat Match for the WWE Championship at WrestleMania XX which ended the show. Benoit won the title.
At WrestleMania 21, he grappled with Kurt Angle in an epic 27-minute battle that saw the Olympic Champion come out on top. The following year, Michaels put away Vince McMahon in a No Holds Barred match. By WrestleMania 23, The Heartbreak Kid was not only delivering consistently strong performances every year at WrestleMania (these encounters were annual candidates for Match Of The Year), he was also greatly improving his professional reputation, something that had to happen after his much loathed primadonna period in the 1990s. Because of his efforts, he was earning a great deal of respect in the dressing room.
At WM 23, he battled his tag team partner John Cena for the WWE Championship. In the match’s most memorable moment, Michaels piledrived the champ right on the steel steps causing a huge gash on his head. (I might be a strange person for saying this but because it’s rarely done anymore I get very warm and fuzzy when I see a traditional piledriver used in a match, especially in this spectacularly brutal way. I just miss it so much.)
The next year, Michaels had the thankless task of putting Ric Flair out of the WWE. On paper, it should’ve been a disaster in the making. A 59-year-old well past his prime against a 41-year-old who looked up to him as a kid. Who would want to see two old guys tangle at WrestleMania?
That’s why we have storylines that go on for several months before the big show (no pun intended) happens. In late 2007, Vince McMahon made it a stipulation of every Ric Flair match from that point forward that his career would be on the line every time he stepped into the squared circle. The next time he loses, he would be forced to retire. At the 2008 Royal Rumble event, Flair beat MVP, and at No Way Out, he defeated Mr. Kennedy. But at WrestleMania 24, he met his match in Michaels.
It was, to my personal surprise, sensational. The slaps to the face at the beginning, the missed moonsault by Michaels on the announce table, Flair uncharacteristically connecting with a flying body press from the top rope (usually he gets body slammed from that position) and that remarkable ending. A tearful Flair begging Michaels to do his job and finish him off. Michaels saying “I’m sorry. I love you.” before putting him away with that superkick. You could say it was another WrestleMania “pass the torch” moment.
Michaels would finish his final two years in the WWE by becoming obsessed with his old nemesis, The Undertaker, and his undefeated WrestleMania streak. They would have two highly acclaimed matches at WM 25 and 26. After coming oh so close to winning in 2009, Michaels demanded a rematch for 2010. The Dead Man wasn’t interested. But then Michaels interjected himself into the Smackdown Elimination Chamber match at EC 2010 costing Taker the World Heavyweight Championship.
He ultimately got his wish. But Taker wanted to raise the stakes. He’d take the match if Michaels would put his career on the line. The Heartbreak Kid agreed and the match was booked as the main event of WrestleMania 26. But once again, Michaels didn’t get the job done. He hasn’t wrestled since.
If you were to pick the five most important superstars in WrestleMania history, the five guys who truly defined the event and made their appearances essential during their specific eras, the list would include Hulk Hogan, Bret Hart, Steve Austin and The Undertaker. Who’s the fifth guy on that esteemed list? Shawn Michaels. Without his return to full-time wrestling in the WWE, Undertaker aside, would WrestleMania have mattered in the last ten years?
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Thursday, March 15, 2012
CORRECTION: Austin’s famous catchphrase is actually “Austin 3:16 says I just whipped your ass!”, not kicked as originally noted. My apologies for the mistake. The correction has been made to the original text.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, March 18, 2012