For anyone who isn’t a particularly big fan of blood, nudity or cursing — or at least someone with a relatively low threshold for “that’s enough” when it comes to gratuitous use of any of them for the sake of fulfilling the sad power fantasies of neckbeards — the Attitude Era was like a waking nightmare. A poorly lit reality television show that made up for lack of substance with clever video packages and less clever ways to get girls to show skin.
Except instead of being filled with “fun” (for someone, [presumably]) immunity challenges and/or branding opportunities, it involved old ladies going through tables and exposing their breasts on television. Whether or not the beer swilling, foul-mouthed, class warrior “Stone Cold” that became its Hulk Hogan was inevitable is up for debate. That anyone could have done it quite like Steve Austin? Not so much.
A journeyman for the first seven years or so of his career, Austin was able to build up a lot of genuine anger after years of mistreatment by bookers and promoters unable to figure out what to do with him. From the classic Hollywood Blonds tag team with Brian Pillman that was broken up when it became too popular to the … less classic … Ringmaster gimmick that he entered the WWE with, Austin was almost hilariously misused.
Everyone missing on someone who make the industry so much money is more complicated than “stupid”, however.
Baseball has Wins Above Replacement or WAR to quantify a player’s contribution relative to everyone else with baseball’s jobbers, or “replacement” players, as a baseline. If there was a Wins Above Kofi Kingston, Austin would be the all-time single-year leader. But, like Owen Hart, he was such a good all-around player that — without anything nearing a transcendent look until he shaved his head — he often found himself being used to make others look better despite being one of the best performers on the roster.
It been like that from Hennig and Rude through Austin and Jericho to Ziggler and Bryan. Wrestling can be a carnival racket without external pressure. Storylines can stagnate and be milked for every little bit they were worth, blowoffs can be dangled in front of fans for months. Each new installment of the story moves closer to the cathartic denouement like that tiny stuffed tiger next to the six-foot one you’re really trying to win. You don’t have to be efficient as much as consistent.
The Monday Night War forced a change, however. Bryan is and Ziggler may be a viable main eventers in a way Hennig and Rude never were. This is because companies had no choice in the Attitude Era to push the best talent, for fear that not only would they not be able to compete with the “other company”, but that they would leave if mistreated. Wrestling meritocracy has begun permeating through the surface, as the money involved has become both too great and too volatile to risk not running with what was hot instead of getting as bogged down in the politics that wiped out the territorial system. And it was Austin delivering so consistently and so prodigiously that gave promoters the confidence to simply give the people what they want.
Well, at least that happened in the WWF. Unlike WCW, WWF was a promotion company and needed to put its best attraction forward with a view towards long-term growth not short-term ratings pops. Stone Cold’s transcendence after years of wallowing in the muck showed the industry that no one should be taken for granted and that given the right mix of time, talent and drive anyone can become a star if given the chance.
And ultimately that will be Stone Cold’s legacy. Not the boobs or the beers, but the Yesses and the Pipebombs. Not bad for a guy fired by FedEx.