Wrestling Through The Ages: The Rock & Russo Connection (Vince Russo, Mankind, Shawn Michaels)

I recently saw an online poll posing the question: Was Vince Russo the Best Wrestling Writer of All Time or The Worst? Of course, this isn’t a question that your average wrestling fan could possibly answer. The oft-repeated line about Russo when it comes to his contribution to the vastly successful Attitude Era is that Russo was best utilized when subjected to the oversight and editorial authority of Vince McMahon. That being said, Russo certainly had a good deal of influence in the WWF’s heyday and his stance on what he feels wrestling should be has been consistent and unwavering. The hallmarks of Russo’s booking have been labeled crash TV; short segments with new storyline developments occurring in each one; a booking style with more of an emphasis on character and story development and less emphasis on in-ring action and championships. (This is a man who famously booked C-List actor, David Arquette to win the WCW World Heavyweight Championship, thus allowing Arquette to join a lineage that includes Ric Flair, Harley Race and Lou Thesz.)

The results of Russo’s storytelling were hit-or-miss but its hard to argue that it didn’t contribute to the success the then-World Wrestling Federation enjoyed in the late 90s, especially in reaching the “casual fan,” something that doesn’t really exist anymore. In fact, I have born firsthand witness to Russo’s touch converting someone into a fan.

THE EVENT: Survivor Series 1998. The Rock turns heel and wins his first WWF Championship. This was an event heavy on storyline with far less of an emphasis on in-ring action (which is ironic because the show was booked to have 14 matches!). Here’s a short summary of what had occurred leading into the PPV: “Stone Cold” Steve Austin was the take-no-shit, renegade champion that Vince couldn’t control. Vince didn’t like that and sent a variety of challengers after Austin to get the belt off of him; first Mick Foley in a corporate version of his Dude Love character, then Kane and finally, Kane and Undertaker at the same time. In a triple threat match, Kane and Undertaker pinned Austin at the same time rendering the title vacant. A match for the vacant title pitting Kane and Undertaker against each other with Austin as ref the following month ended in a no contest when Austin refused to declare a winner. Austin was fired for this but was reinstated the following night with a contract signed by Vince’s son, a babyface Shane McMahon. A tournament was set up to declare a new champion at Survivor Series. Meanwhile, The Rock was getting over as “The People’s Champion,” and let Vince know that, like Austin, he wouldn’t be a corporate stooge and Foley, who had reverted back to his Mankind gimmick, was doing everything in his power to ingratiate himself to Mr. McMahon, and, as such, was seen as McMahon’s choice to win the tournament. Got all that?

I watched the pay-per-view with my brother, Chris, who hadn’t watched wrestling since the Ultimate Warrior was champion. We were both in college and had attended a play that night so I recorded the Pay-Per-View. Chris just happened to be in the room as I began watching. The following things happened for the main event players during the course of the evening:

  • Mankind’s first round mystery opponent, as selected by McMahon, and after a grandiose introduction, was revealed to be—lifelong jobber Duane Gill—a move that reinforced the perception that Foley was Vince’s choice to win the tournament.
  • “Stone Cold” advanced to the second round but not without suffering a brutal nightstick beating at the hands of McMahon Corporation member, Big Boss Man.
  • The Rock’s first round replacement for his injured opponent, Triple H, was Boss Man, whom The Rock rolled up in four seconds to advance.
  • In round two, The Rock “intercepted” a nightstick Boss Man was attempting to toss to his opponent, Ken Shamrock, and use it to defeat him.
  • Mankind advanced to the finals by defeating Austin when referee, Shane McMahon, turned heel and screwed Austin.
  • The final match of the evening saw The Rock defeat Mankind for the title in a reenactment of the Montreal Screwjob a year prior. The Rock, an ideal corporate champion, revealed his allegiance to Vince, cut a killer promo and began one of the most successful main event runs in the history of the business.

My brother was hooked.

HOW I SEE IT NOW: Let me get this out of the way: The actual wrestling on this program was not incredible. Unlike other columns, I didn’t go back and re-watch the pay-per-view in its entirety. I watched the Rock’s (excellent) promo the following night on Raw to catch the bullet points. Even at the time, since I taped the show, I fast forwarded through a good deal of it. Would this have been a better show with fewer matches and better in-ring storytelling? Absolutely.

However, and I know I am opening myself up to a great deal of criticism with this statement, this show was and remains a winner and is, in my view, arguably, one of the most important shows of the Attitude Era. This is, after all, the show hooked my brother and he stayed around as a fan until 2002 or so and then left with the rest of the casual fans. He stopped caring about the characters and was no longer interested in the outcomes of their matches.

The storyline developments were surprising at the time and, with some suspension of disbelief, made sense. The show launched the build to Wrestlemania and set up a series of great matches between Mankind and The Rock. My brother became a fan that night because, just based on that one show, he understood who all of the players in the main event scene were (Austin, Rock, Foley, Taker, Kane—that’s a lot of top of the card depth) and cared about the outcomes of their matches.

Many would point to this show as being overbooked and they would have a strong argument. I think the answer for long-term compelling wrestling is to split the difference. The post-Summerslam episode of Raw was a perfect example of just enough story to make fans care about the matches. The Dudley Boyz returned setting up a feud with New Day, a new Wyatt member was revealed furthering their issue with Ambrose and Reigns and strengthening Wyatt’s character, Jon Stewart’s heel turn was effectively explained and, consequently, well paid off when John Cena nailed him with the Attitude Adjustment, and Sting was surprisingly revealed as Rollins’ next opponent. That, my friends, is a show with just the right amount of Russo.

All of that coming off a Summerslam weekend featuring all sorts of good wrestling (Sasha/ Bayley, Rollins/ Cena, Owens/Cesaro, Owens/Balor) indicates that it doesn’t have to be sports or entertainment. You can have it both ways.

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