Mr. Tito Presents... WHAT IF Owen Hart Caused Steve Austin to Retire after SummerSlam 1997
By Mr. Tito
Aug 4, 2013 - 12:48:15 AM
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NOTE FROM TITO: August 3rd, 2013 marked the 16th anniversary of SummerSlam 1997. Thanks to Hustle and Matt Snyder for the reminder of that event! Thus in honor of the day Owen Hart injured Steve Austin, I have completed the column I had about 2/3 written back during April. Enjoy!
SummerSlam 1997... The WWE promotion held its collective breath as its future main event babyface, "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, suffered a major neck injury at the hands of Owen Hart. For whatever reason on the move calls between the wrestlers, Owen Hart went for a sitdown version of the Undertaker's Tombstone Piledriver finisher. All of Austin's weight came crashing down as the top of his head hit the mat between Owen's legs and Austin broke his neck. Austin wasn't moving... Something was very, very wrong... Owen Hart stalled as he tried to taunt the crowd as Austin lay in the middle of the ring in shock from the injury. Instead of ending the match in a "no contest", the WWE actually forced the booked finish by having Austin "roll up" Owen for the pin in one of the weakest pins ever, exposing the business on how fake the finishes truly are.
Austin's neck was destroyed, but for over the next 2 years, he dealt with the injury. He adjusted his in-ring style to protect his neck and Vince began using him more for non-wrestling segments. The infamous "20 minute" interview was probably created as a means to showcase Steve Austin without having him wrestle due to the neck injury. For Austin's drawing ability, the neck injury could have been a blessing for his drawing power because it forced Austin to work more on his "Stone Cold" character rather than his in-ring ability (which was already great). The Steve Austin vs. Vince McMahon feud drew lots of money between 1998-1999 and made stars out of many wrestlers who did Vince McMahon's bidding. Austin was the closest version, if not actually exceeding him for a 2 year period, to another 1980's version of Hulk Hogan that we'll ever see. He's the special case where 1 wrestler captivates the audience with his character and actually creates new wrestling fans from scratch to significantly grow the business.
The neck pain and probably the numbness in his limbs caused by pressure on the spinal cord forced Steve Austin to take time off and have surgery just before Survivor Series 1999. Austin's time off forced the WWE to evolve and wrestlers like Triple H and the Rock stepped up while many other wrestlers (Jericho, Angle, Benoit, etc.) were able to elevate quickly because of the WWE's need for star power without Austin. By Survivor Series 1999, the WWE was cash rich from Steve Austin's crazy merchandise sales, live event gates with Austin on the card, and Pay Per Views featuring Austin prominently. The WWE went public during October 1999 and was now a billion dollar company. They could NOT have done it without Steve Austin, along with overtaking World Championship Wrestling (WCW) as the #1 wrestling company, and the WWE is very fortunate that Steve Austin "sucked it up" with a neck injury for 2 years.
But WHAT IF SummerSlam 1997 was Steve Austin's last match? What if Owen Hart's Sitdown Tombstone Piledriver did more damage? What if Steve Austin actually listened to doctors and retired from wrestling as a result of the SummerSlam 1997 injury? Believe it or not, during 1997, this was a very close possibility. Austin, however, chose to work through the injury and the rest is history...
Without Steve Austin, however, the wrestling industry is significantly different. He was the main person responsible for the WWE's turnaround. The WWE was screwed during 1996 when Kevin Nash and Scott Hall jumped to WCW after being key stars on the WWE roster. Bret Hart took time off after Wrestlemania 12 and was actually pondering a WCW jump himself. WWE went overboard on the Shawn Michaels babyface push, years after he terrorized fans as a heel. Meanwhile, the WWE was stuck in a 1980's business model of goofy gimmicks and taping 4-5 shows at a single live event. But on one fateful night, a repackaged "Stone Cold" Steve Austin delivered his famous "Austin 3:16 says I just whooped your ass" at King of the Ring 1996 and the popularity grew exponentially from there to give the WWE it's #1 babyface draw 2 years later.
However, if Steve Austin retires from SummerSlam 1997, a domino effect is in order. Suddenly, the WWE's plans of crowning Steve Austin as WWE Champion at Wrestlemania 14 (booked well in advance) are GONE. Those great Steve Austin vs. Rock feuds that you remember? GONE! Who is the heel boss character of Vince McMahon going to feud with? How will the WWE compete with WCW in the Monday Night Wars without its top babyface draw to allow Monday Night RAW to eventually begin to defeat WCW Nitro regularly? All down the drain if Steve Austin opts or is forced to retire after Owen Hart destroyed his neck at SummerSlam 1997.
The biggest consequence of Steve Austin retiring from SummerSlam 1997 is the WWE being forced to retain Bret "the Hitman" Hart and honoring the 20 year contact that he signed during 1996 before Survivor Series 1996. One of the reasons that the WWE could use the "opt out" clause after 1 year of the Bret Hart deal was Steve Austin. With Steve Austin's popularity soaring, the WWE could afford releasing a veteran like Bret Hart. Letting Bret Hart go during November 1997 not only saved the WWE about $2 million per year for the first few years of the contract, but it opened up the WWE Main Event scene for Steve Austin to take over without question. Additionally, having a Steve Austin on your main event bench could allow Vince McMahon to do something more drastic: screw Bret Hart at Survivor Series 1997. Bret Hart was WWE Champion heading into Survivor Series 1997 and Vince McMahon forced referee Earl Hebner to ring the bell when Hart was in a Sharpshooter applied by Shawn Michaels. Completely unscripted.
No Steve Austin, no Montreal Screwjob at Survivor Series 1997 because the WWE is forced to retain Bret Hart. The opt out clause is NOT exercised and the outcome of the Bret Hart vs. Shawn Michaels Survivor Series 1997 match (if it still happens) probably results in a Bret Hart victory to retain the WWE Title. Reportedly, Bret Hart was supposed to avenge his Wrestlemania 12 loss against Shawn Michaels at Wrestlemania 13. However, Shawn hurt his knee and "lost his smile", and thus the match was reworked to Steve Austin vs. Bret Hart instead. Survivor Series 1997, if it still happens in this alternative timeline, is where Bret Hart gets his win back. Chances are, we'd see a 3rd WWE Title rematch at Wrestlemania 14 between Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels instead. With Bret Hart still around, the WWE could shift into a full blown stable war between the Hart Foundation and Degeneration X to lead into Wrestlemania 14.
With Bret Hart winning at Survivor Series 1997 and likely to retain the WWE Title until Wrestlemania 14, chances are that Shawn Michaels enters the Royal Rumble 1998 battle royal elimination match to become the #1 contender. As you'll recall, the real timeline had Shawn Michaels as WWE Champion and he took on the Undertaker in the Casket Match that briefly ended Shawn's career. Shawn took a bump over the casket during the match that kept Michaels out of the WWE for 4 years with a back injury that herniated 2 discs and badly damaged another on his spine. It would require spinal fusion surgery and it would take a while for Shawn to muster the courage to take bumps again at his wrestling academy and then return to in-ring action with the WWE at SummerSlam 2002 in an amazing match with Triple H. With Bret Hart around, the focus is fully on Degeneration X vs. Hart Foundation and the Badd Blood 1997 match between Shawn Michaels vs. Undertaker is considered the final match OR the Casket Match is moved to In Your House: Degeneration X (December Pay Per View back then) instead. Regardless, no back injury for Shawn Michaels.
What happens with Shawn Michaels still healthy and Bret Hart still around in 1998 is anybody's guess. Their backstage rivalry was extremely intense during 1997 and chances are that if Hart vs. Michaels happens at Wrestlemania 14, the finish will be disputed by both Hart and Shawn politics. Without Steve Austin for the WWE to grow significantly during 1998, the WWE is at a weaker $$$ position. They won't be able to afford Mike Tyson without Austin drawing money through late 1997 and with the WWE still having to honor Bret Hart's $2 million per year contract (Tyson cost $3 million for Wrestlemania 14). Television ratings without Austin are lower, as well as that ratings boost in the aftermath of Survivor Series 1997 when Bret was screwed. WWE might be hurting on revenues for 1998 and that situation might tempt Shawn Michaels to jump to WCW following Wrestlemania 14 along with issues involving Bret Hart. Michaels could then join his buddies Kevin Nash and Scott Hall and be a fresh WWE acquisition. By late 1997 and throughout 1998, the WWE locked down their top stars to keep them away from WCW. With revenues strained from Austin's retirement, the WWE can't afford button down all top stars.
The one wrestler who possibly benefits the most from Austin's departure is the Undertaker. If you look back to 1998, Undertaker becomes a "second fiddle" to Steve Austin and acts somewhat as a flunky for Vince McMahon's Corporation. The Undertaker did an incredible put over job for Austin at SummerSlam 1998 and then teamed up with his arch-nemesis brother Kane to put the screws to Austin for Vince. Without Austin, the Undertaker gets more favorable booking and possibly fills the void. Quite possibly, Triple H's late 1999 push gets moved up and maybe Owen Hart, who is now protected by his brother Bret in the WWE, will put in the good word for Owen to be pushed. Owen, however, did injure Austin and Vince doesn't forget things like that.
Two wrestlers needed Steve Austin to exist or else their climb to the top is much more difficult. The Rock was a failed forced babyface during 1996-1997 and it took an injury to cease the stale booking. "Rocky Maivia" returned as a heel to join the Nation of Domination and soon became "the Rock". But he needed Steve Austin's starpower during late 1997 to help the Rock climb up the WWE ladder a little faster. Needing something to do as Shawn Michaels was completing his Undertaker feud and saving Austin's WWE Title moment for Wrestlemania 14, the WWE fed Austin the Rock. For its time, it was a great feud that put the Rock on the map as he proclaimed that he was the "best damn Intercontinental Champion of all time" against Austin, the current Intercontinental Champion. The feud had many classic moments and great mic work, along with a great ending of Steve Austin tossing the Intercontinental Title into the river. No Steve Austin after SummerSlam 1997, no Rock feud. The Rock will have to work harder to attain the success he'd achieve in the WWE and possibly with time, he'd get there. Could Rock be as big of a star without Steve Austin?
But no Austin, no Rock vs. Austin at Wrestlemanias 15 and 17. Ouch. That is painful to think about.
Then there's Mick Foley. After some initial consideration for Main Event status during 1996 after he debuted as Mankind (slated to win WWE Title at In Your House: Mind Games 1996, but booking was changed during the match by Vince McMahon), Foley became a midcarder through 1997 and was tagging up with Chainsaw Charlie (Terry Funk through 1998. After Wrestlemania 14, Steve Austin needed an opponent for future Pay Per Views. Shawn Michaels was out with the back injury and the booking didn't make sense, at the time, for other wrestlers stuck in other feuds or had other plans (Undertaker feuding with Kane, DX reforming and turning face, Rock was not ready for Main Event, etc.). For the night after Wrestlemania 14, Mick Foley and Terry Funk took on the New Age Outlaws in a match that saw DX rebooting with Triple H, X-Pac, and the New Age Outlaws joining at the expense of Funk/Foley. Mick Foley took serious exception with wrestling fans chanting "Austin, Austin, Austin" in the aftermath of this DX attack and channeled his anger towards Steve Austin. Foley acted as the punching bag for Vince McMahon to start the whole Vince McMahon vs. Steve Austin feud and began to establish Mick Foley as a regular main eventer. Foley's losses with Austin, however, would put Foley at odds with McMahon and eventually led Foley to the head-on collision with the Rock for late 1998, early 1999 as the Rock awaited his Wrestlemania 15 feud with Steve Austin.
No Steve Austin, no chance to shine in the Main Event during 1998 for Foley. Certainly, no Steve Austin presents a chance for Foley to rise up to the top, but his feud with Steve Austin after Wrestlemania 14 put him on the correct trajectory to become a valid WWE Hall of Famer who gets respect even when being inducted alongside Bruno Sammartino and Bob Backlund for the 2013 class. Foley needed the interaction with Vince McMahon to change-up his character in 1998 as a heel. But again, without Steve Austin, no reason to drink the McMahon Koolaid as the Corporation suck-up. No reason to then revert back to a confused Mankind character who thinks he's a member of the Corporation stable by wearing a white shirt and tie. NO MR. SOCKO! Quite possibly, no King of the Ring 1998 match against the Undertaker, either. Foley needs his the Vince McMahon Corporation for that to happen.
What made Steve Austin HUGE was the simple storyline of being a rebel against an overbearing boss. Vince McMahon was that type of boss and Vince had credibility from screwing Bret Hart at Survivor Series 1997. After Survivor Series 1997, it become widely known that Vince was in fact the official WWE owner (some still thought he was just an announcer, what a maneuver!) but also a vicious boss for what he did to Bret Hart. Vince milked the Survivor Series 1997 screwjob for all that it was worth and began to observe the legitimate heel heat he was receiving. During 1997, there was some worked confrontations between Bret Hart and Vince McMahon in which a frustrated Bret Hart character would get mad at Vince for various outcomes of matches or Steve Austin being uncontrollable. It was like a NBA player repeatedly looking at a referee for fouls but nothing was being called. Even before Survivor Series 1997, Vince might have seen potential in his character. Then, a real life screwjob occurs at Survivor Series 1997, in which it's clear that Vince was 100% behind, presents itself and the WWE is set for 1998 to have one of the greatest storylines of all time with Austin vs. McMahon.
No Austin after SummerSlam 1997, Bret Hart is likely to stay, and therefore NO Survivor Series 1997 screwjob. A slight chance could occur that Vince McMahon recognized some of the heated on-screen confrontations between Bret and Vince's characters and may have acted as a thorn in the sides of Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels for 1998, maybe siding with one of them. It's extremely difficult to predict how Vince McMahon's on-screen character would be received without Steve Austin's rebel character and without the Survivor Series 1997 screwjob. Vince needs those 2 things to succeed as an on-screen characters and might be hesitant about putting himself out in the open without one of the greatest draws of all time and a controversial finish to a Pay Per View. No Corporation, No Corporation Ministry, no Corporate Champion, etc. Steve Austin was the in-ring wrestler while Vince McMahon was the meddler. Many wrestlers were either introduced or were made bigger by being funneled through Vince's Corporation stable. Those same wrestlers would have to work harder due to not having Austin to wrestle or belonging to a successful heel stable. 3 of the eventual WWE Champions, Mick Foley, the Rock, and Triple H would have to work harder to get over. Triple H was feuding with the Vince McMahon character and who knows if Stephanie McMahon becomes an on-screen character if no heel boss character is created. To piss off the Vince McMahon character, Triple H drugged up Stephanie to marry her in Las Vegas. Without Vince as a character, this probably doesn't happen...
But what about the guy who injured Steve Austin? Owen Hart's future would definitely change, but it's cloudy as to how. Reportedly, Steve Austin always had heat with Owen due to the SummerSlam 1997 neck injury and for all we know, Austin may have used his star to recommend that Owen Hart be kept away from him. Instead of Mick Foley after Wrestlemania 14, it could have easily been Owen Hart doing Vince McMahon's corporate bidding. But no, Owen Hart was stuck in midcard hell since SummerSlam 1997 and remained there until the day he died. It's difficult to say how the WWE management would treat Owen Hart after SummerSlam 1997 if Steve Austin was done for good. Vince McMahon was banking his WWE comeback on Austin's shoulders and without Steve Austin, the challenge made to WCW during 1998 would be much more difficult. Owen could be punished severely for the Austin retirement, moreso than what happened in real life anyway with being stuck in the midcard.
However, in this alternative timeline, the WWE is likely to keep Bret Hart with Steve Austin out of the picture. With Bret Hart still around, he can protect his brother Owen from poor booking and punishment for injuring Austin. I would at least think that with Bret around during 1999, Owen Hart isn't parading around in the Blue Blazer costume or being forced to enter the ring from the rafters. With time and Bret's influence, Owen Hart might have a chance at elevation during late 1998 and beyond. I wouldn't doubt that the WWE even tries Owen as a babyface and go up against a heel Bret Hart. Who knows? In addition to Owen Hart being protected by Bret, Davey Boy Smith and Jim Neidhart don't jump to WCW. It would be interesting to see if Davey Boy would be granted a WWE Title push or not without Austin around in this alternative timeline.
The biggest issue with Steve Austin retiring after SummerSlam 1997 is the Monday Night Wars. Without the resurgent WWE, World Championship Wrestling (WCW) remains on top for much of 1998. As bad as things became for WCW in 1998, this is the top rated product. WWE's growth during late 1997 and 1998 actually EXPANDED the wrestling business by creating brand new fans. WWE didn't just steal WCW's viewers, as WCW Nitro's ratings were still high during 1998... But with Steve Austin, Vince McMahon, and a babyface Degeneration X, the WWE created brand new fans out of thin air. The Hart Foundation vs. Degeneration X feud that may extend through Wrestlemania 14 could be a decent draw, but it lacks the massive drawing power that 1 guy, Steve Austin, was able to present. WWE would have to rely on lower members, like Owen Hart and Triple H, to catch on with fans during 1998 because Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels had their opportunities during 1995-1997 to be the top guys in the WWE during the Monday Night Wars. However, if my prediction of Shawn Michaels vs. Bret Hart III at Wrestlemania 14 becoming politically charged would have held true and Shawn Michaels jumps to WCW... That's a painful moment for the WWE.
You have to remember that WCW began feeling the pressure of the WWE during 1998 and began performing desperate measures on WCW Nitro. They began giving high profile matches away for free in attempts to salvage their mid-1996 through Spring 1998 dominance in the Monday Night Wars. WCW gave away Hulk Hogan vs. Bill Goldberg for the WCW Title on free television on July 6th, 1998. They wouldn't do that if they were firmly in the lead in 1998, which they may be without Steve Austin leading the WWE charge. Speaking of Bill Goldberg, does he get over without Steve Austin? I would actually think so... In fact, Goldberg could fully take Austin's momentum from 1997 and be even stronger in WCW during 1998. WCW could have been patient with Goldberg instead of hotshotting the World Title to him that early. They could have let him chase the WCW World Title for the latter half of 1998 and possibly crown him at Starrcade 1998 instead. The chase could have been something to watch and without Steve Austin, Bill Goldberg becomes an even bigger star. That's interesting.
Without Austin, WCW remains on top longer, if not indefinitely. WWE is now unable to purchase WCW during March 2001 and become the lone superpower in the pro wrestling industry. As long as the WWE can remain profitable, as they were reportedly struggling with finances during early 1997, we could have seen a longer Monday Night Wars. Those who were booking WCW during 1998 would have stayed around for 1999 and maybe 2000. Someone like Vince Russo is unable to claim "I made the WWE successful" and doesn't get hired by WCW during the Fall of 1999. Without Austin, Russo's writing doesn't look as great and maybe the WWE releases him and attempts to get some of WCW's bookers (Terry Taylor, who had a few late 1990's WWE stints, gets a better look). WCW probably would have run out of steam by 1999, but it's not like WWE is as strong to challenge them. Without any new superstars to rise up, chances are that the pro wrestling industry's popularity and fanbase are lower. Unless, of course, the Rock and Triple H become big stars anyway or if Bill Goldberg steals all of Austin's momentum for himself.
The wrestling industry is drastically different without Steve Austin, had Owen Hart retired him at SummerSlam 1997. No Austin, chances are strong that Bret Hart remains with the WWE. Therefore, no Montreal Screwjob at Survivor Series 1997. Therefore, no heel boss Vince McMahon. I bet Shawn Michaels doesn't get hurt and then headlines Wrestlemania 14 with Bret Hart. Sparks may fly and Shawn Michaels might jump to WCW. Without Austin, WCW remains on top and maybe Bill Goldberg steals the "bald and goatee" loving audience from Austin completely. WCW could remain on top for a longer period of time and Monday Night Wars are extended for we, the fans... No death of WCW in 2001 and who knows, WCW might still exist to this day...
But lucky for the WWE, Steve Austin boldly elected to work for 2 whole years with a damaged neck and helped make them into the wrestling empire that they remain to this day. 16 years ago, however, just a few additional pounds of pressure on a sitdown Tombstone piledriver could have changed the wrestling landscape forever.
Credit: @TheSharpShoot first and a few others who recommended the "What If" topic or something close to Austin/Owen from SummerSlam 1997
Hope you enjoyed the new WHAT IF series... Many more to come...
So just chill til the next episode...
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