By Mike Mooneyham
June 22, 2002
It was Vince McMahon who once proclaimed that “anything can happen in the World Wrestling Federation.”
Never has that saying rung truer than during the past week as the wrestling world seems to have spun off its axis. Over a seven-day period, old bonds have been broken and new ones have been forged. The once unthinkable has become reality, bringing to mind yet another pertinent maxim: Desperate times require desperate measures.
[ad#MikeMooneyham-336×280]“Stone Cold” Steve Austin, arguably the biggest star of the past decade and the one performer most responsible for the WWF’s dramatic turnaround during the late 90s, has fallen from grace and been excised in one fell swoop. For his increasingly vocal displeasure with the direction of his character and for walking out on his second Raw taping in three months, Austin was removed from the roster (but not released from his contract) on June 13. Two days later – on a heavily hyped Saturday night edition of WWE Confidential – McMahon and right-hand man Jim Ross publicly skewered Austin, acknowledging that Steve Williams (Austin’s real name) had behaved unprofessionally and strongly hinting that the Stone Cold era most likely had come to an end.
“Ten years from now, Stone Cold Steve Austin as a part of World Wrestling Entertainment would have been making speeches, personal appearances and things of that nature,” said McMahon. “He would always be Stone Cold’ Steve Austin. So the investment that we made, he just took it and flushed it down the toilet.”
Particularly surprising was the harsh stance of Ross, a longtime personal friend of Austin’s, who said his recent conduct was akin to John Wayne turning coward in a movie. But then again, business is business, and Ross has never denied his position as McMahon’s “hatchet man,” explaining that the role is “a job description and not a personality trait.”
“I got kicked in the guts,” said Ross, WWE VP of Talent Relations. “I was sick all day Monday. I was physically ill. You’re damn right. Hell, to me, it was John Wayne. He never retreated. He broke his neck and fought back to be the top guy here. That’s guts, conviction, belief in what he does for a living. He’s gone through a horrendous divorce, injuries, personal problems in that regard, and came back to pull the wagon. Then all of a sudden, the wagon got too heavy in his mind’s eye, and he went home. It would be like John Wayne becoming a coward in a big fight. You never saw it happen. You never see it coming. And I didn’t see this coming. And it hurt me. But I can’t get too down about that, because I’ll get back on TV Monday night, kicking ass because I love my job, with or without Stone Cold. Would it be better if he was there? Yes. But Stone Cold ain’t gonna be on Raw Monday night. Stone Cold ain’t gonna be on Raw again, as far as I know.”
As dramatic as Austin’s professional collapse was, a personal meltdown apparently was unfolding at the same time, as reports surfaced that police had been called to a domestic dispute at Austin’s San Antonio residence early that Saturday. His wife, WWE personality Debra Marshall-Williams, told police that Austin had beaten her and had done so several times in the past, but she had never reported it before due to her husband’s celebrity status. Austin, who fled the scene before police arrived, was not arrested since his wife refused to file charges.
The police report said that Debra, a 42-year-old ex-beauty queen who was formerly married to Steve “Mongo” McMichael, suffered a swollen cheek and bruises on her back, and that she was nervous about calling police because “her husband is famous.” She was not hospitalized after the alleged assault. Austin called his house while officers were there and was told to come back, but “he declined,” according to the police report.
As news helicopters hovered above the Austin home in an exclusive gated community on Monday (Austin gave one crew a four-finger salute), finishing touches were being made for Raw later that night in which McMahon would not only once again acknowledge Austin’s removal, but would bring out The Rock at the end of the show to symbolically toss a beer can from the ring and conclude the public burial, challenging any performers in the back who were unhappy to follow Austin out the door.
If the Austin situation wasn’t enough to shake the wrestling world, on Thursday it was announced that the controversial Vince Russo had rejoined the WWE’s much-maligned writing team, a group Austin had steadfastly blamed for the company’s declining ratings. Russo, credited with booking some of the harder-edged storylines during the company’s resurgence in 1997 and 1998, left the then-WWF without notice in the fall of 1999 after accepting a lucrative offer from WCW, where his run as creative chief was considered an abysmal failure. Russo, whose “crash TV” formula was given a wider latitude in the WWF and benefited from McMahon’s fine-tooth editing, hit a brick wall during his tenure in WCW, where he was basically left to his own devices and was routinely overridden by the Turner company’s more rigid standards and practices division.
Russo’s hiring comes as a major shock, not only to wrestling fans, but also to many officials and performers in the WWE, some of whom have carried running feuds with the writer.
It was Russo who masterminded the mean-spirited “Oklahoma” gimmick aimed at Jim Ross several years ago in WCW. Russo had assistant writer Ed Ferrara impersonate Ross in a parody that mocked not only Ross’s announcing style, but also a disability that has plagued the veteran commentator for a number of years.
Russo, who was head writer during the WWF’s most successful business run, also had tried to bump Ross from his main announcing spot in favor of the younger Michael Cole several years ago.
“”Russo would tell people things that he wanted to get back to me about how big a fan he was of my work,” Ross said in a 2000 interview. “I believe at this point and time that he was not being truthful. I think that Russo would have been very pleased had I just faded away. It was the same mindset that (Eric) Bischoff had. It’s that J.R. doesn’t look like a matinee idol, J.R. can lose a few pounds, J.R. sounds like he’s from the South and people from the South can’t have any intelligence and can’t communicate. Apparently the public doesn’t have a problem with me.”
The WWE’s Jim Cornette, who has long been an outspoken critic of Russo, agreed at the time that Ross had been targeted by Russo.
“He was one of the leaders behind making J.R. a buffoon,” said Cornette. “He doesn’t understand why anyone liked J.R. and that Southern accent, and it isn’t even Southern, it’s Oklahoman. He has been a leader to make him look bad.”
Russo’s new job also could put him in close quarters with Hulk Hogan, who sued the writer and WCW following Russo’s infamous diatribe at the 2000 Bash at the Beach pay-per-view in which he called Hogan a “big, bald SOB.” More importantly, Vince McMahon, who reportedly felt betrayed when Russo left him high and dry for a better deal at WCW, will have to bury the hatchet for the two to work together again, only a week after dropping that same hatchet on one of his biggest stars.
McMahon, though, realizes that the writing has been wretched in recent months and that changes needed to be made in light of declining ratings (Smackdown’s 3.1 last week was its second lowest mark in history). Whether actions truly borne out of desperation or ones that McMahon feels will effect positive change in the creative direction and an upswing in ratings, these most recent developments most definitely will create something that’s been missing on WWE television – a buzz.
Mike Mooneyham can be reached by phone at (843) 937-5517 or by e-mail at [email protected]. He is the co-author of “Sex, Lies & Headlocks: The Real Story of Vince McMahon and the World Wrestling Federation,” to be published by Crown next month.