I don’t think that there is much argument that Vince McMahon was the greatest heel in the history of WWE. For every great story to work, you need both a great protagonist and antagonist. The Mr McMahon character was fully incepted on November 9th, 1997 at WWE Survivor Series Pay Per View, in which Bret ‘The Hitman’ Hart entered his last match for the then WWF before he went to work for competitor World Championship Wrestling. His final match was against Shawn Michaels, and as most wrestling fans know, Hart was legitimately screwed out of the match due to McMahon’s worry that Hart would take the WWE Title over to WCW television.
Instead of shying away from the negative publicity, McMahon embraced it and used it to harness heat from crowd’s that already disliked him for what he had done to Hart. He used the concept of his actual abuse of power and played it into a storyline about the very same thing.
On the flip side to this, ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin in late 1997 was also taking advantage of his infamous ‘Austin 3:16’ promo a year earlier, with his character playing the anti-hero that crowds were starting to get behind. His use of cuss words along with his aggressive presence gave audiences the idea that anything could happen at any time when Austin was on screen.
On 19th January 1998, on Monday Night RAW, Vince McMahon announced that Mike Tyson would be at WrestleMania XIV, introducing Tyson who was in attendance and made his way to the ring. But before anything else could happen, the glass broke and ‘Stone Cold’ made his way down the ramp. Austin and Tyson came to blows, and McMahon proclaimed ‘You’ve ruined it!’ repeatedly at Austin during the pull apart brawl. Steve Austin would go on to defeat Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania to win his first WWE title. The next night on RAW, this feud began its steep escalation, as McMahon presented ‘Stone Cold’ with a new title belt (now remembered as the Attitude Era title), and requested that Austin tone down his language. Austin’s response was a physical one, hitting McMahon with a ‘Stone Cold’ Stunner. The following week, McMahon used Mick Foley’s persona Dude Love to attack Austin, and both men then entered a feud for Austin’s title, culminating in Austin defeating Dude Love at In Your House 22: Over The Edge, in which McMahon was the special guest referee, and Austin knocked him unconscious and made the three count with McMahon’s limp hand.
After McMahon once again stacked the deck against Austin, this time having him lose his title in a First Blood Match against Kane, the Rattlesnake would win the WWE title back the following night on RAW in a rematch. This then led to McMahon making a triple threat match for the following Pay-Per-View, Break Down, that actually ended up being a 2-on-1 affair, with Kane and the Undertaker pinning ‘Stone Cold’ to lose the title. At the end of the Pay Per View, McMahon took the title and fled to his limousine, and in iconic Vince McMahon fashion gave the middle finger to Austin, claiming that the title was his. This led to some truly iconic moments in the weeks that followed, with Austin’s use of a Zamboni, and a cement truck to fill McMahon’s prized Corvette to the point that the window’s burst.
In order to humiliate Austin further, at the next Pay-Per-View Judgement Day, Austin would serve as guest referee in a match to determine the WWE Champion between the Undertaker and Kane. If Austin didn’t count a pinfall, McMahon would fire Austin on the spot. After Austin counted both men out and declared himself the winner of the match, McMahon fired Austin after the match. Austin would abduct McMahon on RAW the next night, using a prop gun to make McMahon ‘pee’ himself, before declaring that Shane McMahon had given Austin a new five year contract.
Austin then competed at the Survivor Series: Deadly Game tournament, reaching the semi-finals, before being screwed by the chose corporate entrant, Mankind, who was later screwed himself by McMahon, as The Rock would be crowned the new WWE ‘corporate’ champion. McMahon and his corporation would try to get the better of Austin at every turn, and in the 1999 Royal Rumble, with Austin and McMahon in and number one and two respectively, The Rock distracted Austin at the end of the match long enough for McMahon to eliminate him and win the Royal Rumble.
Everything up to this point had let to the next chapter. Austin was given the title opportunity that McMahon forfeited the next night on RAW (as The Rock was a part of the corporation), but he put up his WrestleMania main event shot in order to get a match with McMahon at the Pay-Per-View before Mania, The St Valentine’s Day Massacre. Austin said if he won, he’d go to WrestleMania to fight the champion, and if he lost, he wouldn’t. The match was made a steel cage match, where nobody in the corporate team could interfere. The match begun with Austin chasing McMahon around the cage, and McMahon climbing the cage to get away. Austin then climbed with McMahon and hit McMahon’s head against the cage, creating a true moment in wrestling history. McMahon fell spine first onto the side edge of the table, with the table only collapsing after impact. EMT’s then came out, put McMahon on a stretcher, but Austin took the stretcher and pushed it head first into the cage. Austin then took McMahon inside the cage, and beat on him until he bloodied the boss. As Austin was about to end the match, ‘The Big Show’ Paul Wight appeared from under the ring and beat on Austin. He threw Austin into the cage but the cage gave way, allowing Austin to escape and win the match.
Austin would go onto WrestleMania and defeat The Rock, and McMahon would take a small step back during Austin’s title reign, and seemingly, within the confines of storytelling, the Undertaker had been stalking Vince’s daughter Stephanie, and at the end of Backlash 1999, Taker abducted Stephanie and tried to wed her the next night on RAW, but Austin made the save, with McMahon coming out and thanking Austin for saving his daughter. The Undertaker would defeat Austin for the title shortly thereafter, and talked of a ‘higher power’ that had control over him and the newly formed ‘Corporate Ministry’, pitting both Undertaker’s Ministry of Darkness and the Corporation together. The ‘higher power’ turned out to be McMahon, but knowing this, Austin spoke with Vince’s wife Linda, and their daughter Stephanie, and was made CEO of the WWE, which led to some incredibly entertaining television.
Vince and Shane McMahon would re-take control of the WWE a month later, defeating Austin in a ladder match for complete control of the company, but the next night on RAW, Austin had wrote himself into a title shot against the Undertaker, and defeated him, becoming a four time WWE Champion in the process. McMahon would propose that at the next Pay-Per-View, Fully Loaded, Austin would challenge the Undertaker in a first blood match, this time with the stipulation that if Austin won, McMahon would leave the WWE forever. Austin defeated the Undertaker, and this chapter of McMahon vs Austin, was officially finished.
Truthfully, I could continue on, but this was the true essence and meat of the rivalry between Austin and McMahon. The would later cross paths many times with Austin aligning himself with McMahon at WrestleMania X-Seven, Austin turning on the WWE in the now infamous ‘Invasion’ angle, and slightly more recently, with Austin as the guest referee in the ‘Battle of the Billionaires’ at WrestleMania 23.
No rivalry in the history of professional wrestling can say it changed the fortunes of one company any more than this. The financial effect alone probably enabled the WWE to become what they are today and there is no denying that without Austin and McMahon, the landscape of professional wrestling would be very different.
All photos and videos courtesy of WWE.com