Voice Of Reason 6.15.01: Timing Is Everything

In wrestling, just like in real life, timing is everything.

In early 2001, the WWF was cranking on all cylinders, with two wildly popular babyfacs (Stone Cold Steve Austin and the Rock) and one widely hated heel (Triple H). With three legitimate major money draws, the WWF used various combinations of them to headline PPVs for a long time. However, their future as major draws was in question, so something had to be shaken up.

With WCW gone, the industry was already headed for a decline after Wrestlemania. As a promotion, the WWF had largely been on ‘cruise control’ for the better part of a year, and recognized that at least one of the top three draws had to be turned to create new storylines.

Turning Triple H to the good side would be the worst of the three to turn. It is much more difficult to build heels than it is faces, and with three major faces, there would be no real threats to the big three. The Rock’s last WWF match for months was the main event at Wrestlemania, so turning him before he left would be pointless and kill his drawing power. The only logical choice, if the WWF wanted to turn anyone, was Stone Cold Steve Austin.

While his drawing power was still large and his popularity was still strong, his act was undeniably getting stale. Without a fresh opponent, Austin’s drawing power as a face was coming to a close. A heel Rock might have extended the babyface Austin’s shelf life, it wouldn’t be by much.

So, unlike the last 18 months of booking, the WWF took a major chance and pulled the trigger on turning Austin, bringing in the heavy guns and turning him the only way it was possible- aligning Austin with Vince McMahon. Austin was getting boos, and aligning with Triple H seemed to seal the deal.

However, the ‘Two Man Power Trip’ had to be built as a major heel force before the babyfaces got revenge. It just so happened that the ‘build up’ of HHH and Austin coincided with a horrible drop off for the wrestling industry as a whole.

The WWF always uses the few months after Wrestlemania to set the tone for the rest of the year. But with the industry in the condition its in, the WWF took a gigantic risk turning Steve Austin on the fans. Without the Rock around, a large amount of WWF fans simply stopped watching the shows instead of giving Austin’s new character time to develop.

Two and a half months into the turn, Steve Austin, without the albatross of HHH’s refined heel persona holding him back, has become one of the most compelling characters in the WWF. The WWF tried to make Austin a ‘cowardly heel,’ but the fans did not buy into it. Instead, they have changed Austin into a psychopath, but not a loveable cool crazy-man, a creepy type of whack-job the likes of which I cant remember seeing in wrestling ever before.

Only now can the WWF really start using Austin’s major heel persona as a big time draw to create new faces. However, is it too late? Was the incubation time for Austin’s character just too long without the Rock and with the wrestling business on a decline? Can the WWF regain not only its lost fans (nearly 33%) in addition to all the fans who have simply stopped watching wrestling without WCW around?

Sadly, it looks like it could be too late. Had the WWF used a face Austin vs. heel HHH feud to last through the Spring, and turn Austin with the Rock closer to a return, then maybe they could have maintained their momentum after Wrestlemania. Instead, the company has been in a freefalling tailspin since April 1, and nothing already they are hotshotting a weak WCW angle to generate interest.

Stone Cold Steve Austin, on June 15, 2001, is perhaps the freshest, most compelling heel character in wrestling history. He maintains his ‘bad ass’ persona, stays aligned with Vince McMahon and manages to create genuine, memorable moments in every TV show. He is loathsome in his actions, and elicits a negative reaction due to the sudden consistency of his disturbing behavior. While other tried to maintain their ‘coolness’ on the dark side, Austin has thrown all his popularity out the window in his attempt to draw a real, negative reaction, and he has succeeded.

Months ago, this Austin turn could have boosted the WWF heading into Wrestlemania, and allowed them to set up post-April 1 angles that could keep the wave going strong. Or had the WWF waited to turn Austin, they could better have defended themselves against the demise of WCW and the downturn in wrestling’s popularity. Instead, it seems as if they chose the absolute wrong time to turn Austin and allow him to grow into his current state.

The question on everyone’s mind: Is Steve Austin’s heel turn a success? In terms of redefining and reinventing himself, the answer is yes. But in terms of a money drawing and business increasing turn, it has been a failure, and if things don’t improve, it will almost certainly be blamed for the decline of the WWF.

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