The Attitude Era is the most popular period in wrestling history and one main ingredient in the success of that period is the soap opera drama involving the McMahon family. From Vince McMahon’s hatred and long rivalry with Stone Cold Steve Austin to his children seeking to destroy the WWE. Or maybe Vince McMahon and his wife Linda playing out a divorce angle to Stephanie marrying Triple H. The McMahon family saga was the main focus in this period and they even headlined Wrestlemania 2000.
But in 2003, viewership was declining and things were different. WWE has created two separate brands to act as competition and their product was still trying to be edgy and creative. After a relatively quieter period of McMahon drama in 2002, with Raw and Smackdown being separate brands with different rosters, Eric Bischoff was in charge of RAW and newly turned babyface Stephanie McMahon in charge of SmackDown.
Into the summer of 2003, WWE were trying to recapture the McMahon magic with Vince McMahon was on SmackDown and was feuding with Hulk Hogan. The feud started in the build-up for Wrestlemania XIX and they would continue their feud on the blue brand. McMahon fired Hogan only for Hogan to return as a true American hero in Mr. America. Unfortunately, that feud never got to play out as Hulk Hogan would leave the company before it concluded.
On the concept of Mr. America and why it would die off quickly, Bruce Pritchard discussed it on his podcast ‘Something to Wrestle’
“(It was a) Complete ripoff of Dusty Rhodes and the Midnight Rider deal that he did in Florida,”
“I had it all mapped out. I loved it. Then Hulk and Vince got into it over payoffs and money discrepancies and what have you and Hulk left. That was one that had we been able to play that out as we had laid out would have been, at the time for the WWE, one of those we would have said that was fun.”
McMahon, whilst in his feud with Mr. America, would be helped by the returning Rowdy Roddy Piper. We would also see WWE newest superstar Zach Gowen debut. Gowen is remembered for having his leg amputated at the young age of 8 due to cancer and wrestling part of his matches on one leg. Also around this time, Mr. McMahon would employ a new assistant in the newly rehired Sable. With tensions escalating between him and his daughter after it was Stephanie who hired Mr. America, Stephanie took exception to her father’s desire to have an affair with his new assistant. This is a familiar story that Vince and Trish Stratus found themselves in 2001. Stephanie found herself arguing with Sable over her actions with her father. At Vengeance from the Pepsi Center in Denver, Mr. McMahon would be in a match with Zach Gowen while his daughter Stephanie would face his new love interest, Sable.
Zach Gowen had come into the company as a fan of Hulk Hogan. But he’d actually earn a contract for WWE by defeating The Big Show whilst also teaming with Stephanie, and, thanks to the help of Brock Lesnar and Kurt Angle they would pick up the win. The match between Gowen and Mr. McMahon would end with Gowen receiving a standing ovation from the crowd because McMahon had sold brilliantly and allowed Gowen to showcase his incredible move set, ending with a spectacular corkscrew moonsault from the top rope. But McMahon would move out of the way and pick up the win. This was another scenario showing how McMahon would put himself in an angle or match that spotlights one of his performers along with himself to the mass audience. Gowen is still wrestling today and has a tag team with Gregory Iron.
With ratings and attendance falling, McMahons doubled down on the formula that has worked so well for them in the past. On the RAW side of WWE, Kane had lost to Triple H in a World Heavyweight Championship Match and with that loss, Kane famously had to unmask for the very first time. On a rampage, Kane would attack his friend Rob Van Dam, set Jim Ross on fire and tombstone Linda McMahon on the steel stage. An image that Linda would struggle to shake as she moved into politics, her opposition regularly used the image to discredit her as a serious politician. The production of Kane tomb-stoning Linda on the stage was heavily criticised internally within WWE at the time. To give the CEO of WWE the ultimate protection, Kane made sure Linda’s head had more distance than normal from the ground, but the camera work on the live show, aired from the wrong angle allowing viewers to easily see that Mrs. McMahon was nowhere near the ground.
Bruce Pritchard discussed the tombstone spot on his podcast ‘Something to Wrestle’
“When Kane gave Linda the Tombstone, that was one of those days of Linda, bless her heart, man, was just like, ‘Okay… okay.’ Again, she was the last one of the group [the McMahon family] that wanted to be in front of a camera, never wanted to take a bump or do any of that stuff. She was like, ‘Okay.’ Did it like a champ. Crazy”
When footage is shown for the rest of the year, we see the Tombstone being done from behind Kane. But this action brought the return of the fourth member of the McMahon family in Shane McMahon. Vince had come to RAW to confront Kane for delivering a tombstone on Linda but actually, Vince wasn’t even mad. But Shane was and swore revenge on Kane as he made his return.
He demanded from Eric Bischoff a match with Kane but Eric would say that ‘under orders from Vince’ Shane would be denied the match. Austin would book a match between Bischoff and Shane in the main event of RAW but Kane would interfere and deliver a tombstone to Shane on the steel steps.
A rematch was booked for Summerslam 2003 between the pair as Kane battled Rob Van Dam on the show. On RAW before Summerslam, Eric Bischoff visited Linda McMahon at her home. Bischoff put awkward and uncomfortable sexual advances to Linda and when Linda would try and slap Eric, Eric grabbed her arm and held it behind her back. With Linda complaining that Eric was hurting her, he would lean in and kiss her and then invite her to the bedroom.
That scene is made even harder to watch when at Summerslam, Eric boasts that they had sex many, many times. An irate Shane takes out his frustration on Bischoff in their match where he would pick up a win even after interference from The Coach.
The next night on RAW, Linda McMahon would be the special guest on Chris Jericho Highlight Reel. Linda would say that security had turned up and escorted Eric out of the house. Vince would come out and accuse Linda of letting Eric in the house in the first place, this would lead to Shane coming out but Kane would follow to brawl with Shane.
On the way to Unforgiven in September, both Shane and Kane would battle each other week in week out, each week upping the ante. Trying to deliver something shocking in hope of boosting ratings. It didn’t bump the ratings and both men would come back quicker than they should from their injuries making it harder to suspend belief when the next attack would come.
Kane would once again tombstone Shane on the ring steps and in retaliation Shane would drop Kane into a flaming dumpster. Eric Bischoff announced that Kane and Shane McMahon would square off in a Last Man Standing match at Unforgiven and whilst they conducted a contract signing, Shane attacked Kane hitting his signature flying elbow drop from the top rope through the announcer’s table.
At Unforgiven, Shane would perform coast to coast into the steel steps and beat on Kane with a chair. The ending came when Shane climbed to the top of the Titantron and jumped off trying to hit an elbow drop but Kane moved and Shane crashed to the floor unable to answer the ten count.
Whilst McMahon drama evolved around Shane on RAW, SmackDown continued to evolve around Stephanie McMahon. Stephanie has been a heel for the majority of her career. In her role as General Manager of SmackDown, her character was given a fresh approach as a babyface authority figure.
After Vengeance, Vince had started to take out his frustrations on Stephanie. He would claim that Stephanie was a disappointment and wanted her to resign as General Manager. Stephanie would refuse and stand up to her dad, insisting that she wants to be respected not feared. In attempts to make her quit, Vince would make his daughter face A-Train and then another match against Brock Lesnar.
Defying her farther further, Stephanie announced The Undertaker as the number one contender for the WWE Championship. Vince would try to get his daughter to change her announcement and cancel the match. When she refused, he made the match for No Mercy. An I quit match where if Stephanie lost, she would have to resign as General Manager. A stipulation was also added be that if Vince lost, he would step down as Chairman of WWE. Stephanie could win the match by pinfall or submission, but as the event approached, Linda McMahon returned to SmackDown to try and convince her husband not to go through with the match.
The No Mercy match is a prime example of the McMahon family putting the business before their personal lives. The match was booked a week before Stephanie and Triple H were due to get married. This is discussed in the McMahon documentary released by WWE
“When I found out my father wanted to wrestle me six days before my wedding, I was… not too happy. But, you know, like my dad’s always taught me, it’s anything for the business.” – Stephanie McMahon
“I was absolutely livid… I told Vince, I said “If she has a mark on her after this match,” I said “I am never gonna forgive you.”” – Linda McMahon
“You know, I was, like, told, you know, if she comes up with a black eye or-or anything like that, and, you know, much less a broken bone that I was gonna be, you know, destroyed. I’m sure I would have.” – Vince McMahon
“you’d better not hurt her,” you know, “not one mark” type of thing. You know, because, I mean, her wedding. Imagine that.” – Shane McMahon
“How brutal would this be if, for our wedding picture for all time, Steph’s got the big black eye or a tooth missing. I mean, we’ll look like a hockey family or something like that, you know?” – Triple H
The ending of the No Mercy match would see Vince choke his daughter with a lead pipe leading to Linda, who accompanied Stephanie to the ring, throwing in the towel for her daughter. Stephanie would take a break from television after this match as she would resign as SmackDown General Manager as per the stipulation in the match. Vince himself would later interfere in the main event of the show costing The Undertaker the WWE Championship, setting up his forthcoming match at Survivor Series taking place with a buried alive stipulation.
Vince cut one of his most bizarre promos of all time whilst in a rage talking with new SmackDown general manager Paul Heyman. He mentions burning The Undertaker’s house down, seeing his children kidnapped and his wife being raped by a gang of bikers. He would even threaten Heyman, placing his hands around his neck saying he would chock the life out of him.
The bizarreness was not be contained just on SmackDown either, Kane and Shane McMahon continued their battle on Raw. In one segment, Kane would tie McMahon to the ring post and with a car battery electrocute McMahon’s private parts. The war to settle their score would be at Survivor Series in an ambulance match.
With Vince and Shane both heading to Survivor Series to finish their respective feuds, Vince McMahon would approach Shane and ask if they wanted to team up as it was father and son against the brothers of destruction. But Shane would turn down his father offer and lose to Kane in the ambulance match. Ironically it was Kane who would help Mr. McMahon to defeat his brother The Undertaker. McMahon, who had taken a bloody beating from the deadman before Kane’s appearance, stood tall, victorious.
After Survivor Series, Shane and Stephanie took an extended break from being on-screen. Linda will show up once more at the end of 2003 in a segment at WWE Headquarters on an episode of RAW. Vince appeared a few times on SmackDown as he slowly stepping away from being a full-time on-screen character.
This period showed just how much air time the McMahon family were still taking in 2003. They were all over programming as they tried to capture some of the success they had over the years previous. But unfortunately, it wasn’t the McMahons that really drew in fans, they were the perfect foils for The Rock and Stone Cold. A few ingredients mixed together created the biggest boom in wrestling, as exciting and undervalued this period in 2003 is, the McMahon family saga in this time period showed that it was time for change and something new.