ON THIS DAY IN PRO WRESTLING HISTORY... 15 years ago, the owner of the World Wrestling Federation (WWF, now WWE) banked everything on his annual Wrestlemania event. No, this wasn't 1985 when Vince McMahon created Wrestlemania 1 as a super wrestling event to gain national attention. No, this wasn't 1987 when Vince put all of his financial chips on a major turnout in the Pontiac Silverdome in Detroit, MI and an event to fully separate his WWF company from the remaining territory companies with Wrestlemania 3. No, this was 1998 when Vince McMahon gambled on paying millions to a former boxer named Mike Tyson and the WWE Title crowning of "Stone Cold" Steve Austin to finally enable him to challenge World Championship Wrestling (WCW) for the top spot in the wrestling industry.
Things were looking up during early 1998. Steve Austin's popularity surged since his babyface turn at Wrestlemania 13 for 1997's "Match of the Year" against Bret "the Hitman" Hart. However, Bret Hart was gone. The WWE opted out of his 20 year deal in order to save about $2 million per year and allow the WWE to push newer stars to the top. In addition, the WWE benefitted from the publicity of the Survivor Series 1997 exit of Bret Hart more than WCW did who signed Bret at the end of 1997. Bret was older and his popularity had already peaked. Hart joined WCW and just became another highly paid former WWE veteran. WWE, on the other hand, could now promote others to the Main Event and the Survivor Series 1997 screwjob made a new villain in Vince McMahon. WWE's Steve Austin vs. Vince McMahon feud would draw crazy money for almost the next 2 years.
But WCW, even during early 1998, was still strong. Despite the major letdown known as WCW Starrcade 1997, WCW was still the industry leader and had a thick roster of talent, possibly the most impressive ever assembled for 1997. Thus, the WWE had to think BIG for Wrestlemania 14. It was becoming very evident that Steve Austin would be crowned the WWE Champion at the show. That was predictable. Shawn Michaels was completing his awesome feud with the Undertaker and Shawn's thought-to-be career ending back injury put the Austin crowning at Wrestlemania 14 in stone. The WWE had to think out of the box...
Professional boxer, Mike Tyson, was absolutely huge during the 1980's. In a time when boxing needed to follow up the Muhammed Ali years, the sport searched for a huge star to promote as its world champion. "Iron" Mike Tyson was perfect for the role. Although he appeared small in stature, Tyson could punch and was knocking out the competition regularly. He kept boxing's lifespan alive for another 20 years and was possibly more famous for his badboy appearance than his in-ring work. Things fell apart when Tyson lost his world championship to James "Buster" Douglas during February 1990 and by July 1991, Tyson was accused of rape. He was convicted by a jury during February 1992. Horrible 2 year run for Tyson... Tyson would be released from jail during March 1995 and immediately returned to boxing. After fighting a few "jobbers" in boxing, Mike Tyson landed 2 matches with Evander Holyfield.
Tyson lost the first Holyfield match during November 1996 via 11th round TKO but the fight was controversial due to apparent headbutts attempted by Holyfield which were ruled as accidental by the referee. For the rematch during June 1997, the heat from the first match carried over as Mike Tyson bit off a chunk of Holyfield's ear! The "accidental" headbutts were too much for Tyson and it set him over the edge. The end result was Tyson being stripped of his boxing license by the Nevada State Athletic Commission and fined $3 million for his actions. Without boxing to rely on for a source of income, one way to "wash out" that fine was to get paid $3 million somewhere else. That somewhere else was the WWE and Wrestlemania 14.
Mike Tyson appeared at Royal Rumble 1998 and was shown throughout the night cheering on the wrestlers. But the following night on Monday Night RAW was where the $3 million paid to Tyson multiplied itself towards Wrestlemania 14. Vince McMahon tried to honor Mike Tyson in the ring when the Shattered Glass theme hit... Steve Austin joined McMahon and Tyson in the ring and all hell broke loose:
With Mike Tyson selling that he was there for fun, he became serious immediately when Austin said he had sign language for him to understand with 2 middle fingers! Tyson went from happy to angry and shoved Austin to cause absolute chaos in the ring between Tyson's handlers and Vince McMahon's stooges. Vince McMahon was pissed off and in addition to Survivor Series 1997, this was the night that the "heel boss" character was officially created. The segment earned the WWE some major mainstream attention and added an element of unpredictability to Wrestlemania 14, especially when Tyson was named "special ring enforcer" for the main event of Steve Austin vs. Shawn Michaels. Things got even worse for Austin when Tyson became an official member of Degeneration X.
Tyson's celebrity and the booking surrounding his appearance helped sculpt great hype heading into Wrestlemania 14. All the WWE had to do was deliver at Wrestlemania 14 and then sell to fans that it had a long term plan to keep them watching. Wrestlemania 14 and the RAW the night after proved to be booking masterpieces and put the WWE on a projectory to become the #1 wrestling company again.
Wrestlemania 14 and the following night's RAW fit perfectly together, particularly in transitioning Steve Austin into his feud with Vince McMahon and the reformation of Degeneration X. Through Wrestlemania 14, DX were heels with Shawn Michaels and Triple H. Michaels was WWE Champion and was on a hot streak since forming DX with his real life friend Triple H. HBK had a hot feud with the Undertaker and after surviving those wars (thanks to the debuting Kane), Shawn was built up strong for Steve Austin to defeat. It was definite that Michaels was going to lose at Wrestlemania after destroying his back against the Undertaker at Royal Rumble 1998.
But on the RAW after Wrestlemania 14, Triple H announced that Shawn Michaels was OUT of Degeneration X because he "dropped the ball" and would add 3 new members with the returning Sean Waltman as X-Pac and the New Age Outlaws joining the group to end the show. The Outlaws lost their Tag Titles to Cactus Jack(Mick Foley)/Chainsaw Charlie(Terry Funk) at Wrestlemania 14 but would get a rematch against Foley/Funk in a cage on RAW. There, they would dispose of Foley/Funk while joining Degeneration X to end the show. With Shawn out of the group, however, fans now cheered for the group and they would become strong midcard babyface stable for the rest of 1998. They would even travel to WCW Nitro shows and cause a scene outside of the arena.
When the newly reformed DX made a fool out of Mick Foley to end that RAW, Mick Foley would return the following week and became angry with fans for cheering for "Austin" to save the day. After Steve Austin refused to become Vince McMahon's Corporate Champion, Mick Foley was more than happy to step up and attacked Steve Austin. It was as if the wrestling Gods gave head booker Vince Russo stone tablets with the perfect booking on them, as Foley gave Austin the perfect punching bag to represent Vince McMahon against Austin. It gave time for Vince to build up his "Corporation" heel stable to feed Austin additional heels for battle.
Steve Austin, injured neck from SummerSlam 1997, defeated Shawn Michaels, with an injured back from Royal Rumble 1998, put on a great match all things considered. The match felt BIG and important, not just for Mike Tyson's involvement, but because it was Steve Austin's time. Austin's popularity exploded after Wrestlemania 13 but he had to wait his turn for the WWE Title. But unlike today's WWE where WWE Titles are granted to wrestlers if they fog up a mirror, Austin required some additional seasoning for another year before winning the WWE Title. In fact, Austin fought over the Intercontinental Title for the latter half of 1997 by dueling Owen Hart and then the newly turned heel, "the Rock" while Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart fought over the WWE Title and then Shawn Michaels continued his Undertaker feud. Steve Austin won the Royal Rumble 1998 and was then set for his official crowning. Wrestlemania 14 ended with Mike Tyson turning on Shawn Michaels and acting as referee to count 1, 2, and 3 for Steve Austin to win his first WWE Championship.
With Wrestlemania 14 successful and the RAW on the night after inching the WWE closer to WCW, the WWE was set to reclaim its throne as the #1 wrestling company and embark on a journey of major promotional growth for the next 3 years that saw them become a Corporation and the buyer of WCW. The Mike Tyson gamble paid off HUGE for the WWE, but better yet, it was the creative booking by lead writer Vince Russo and the willingness of Vince McMahon to become a television character that set the stage for 1998. You can just see the momentum shifting when Mike Tyson appeared on the RAW after Royal Rumble 1998 as Steve Austin not only became a badass by challenging Tyson, but it made the Vince McMahon character.
The rest of the card is rather thin, but what would matter is that Steve Austin was crowned king of the wrestling world and he had something to do after Wrestlemania 14. On this day in professional wrestling history, the Attitude Era made Wrestlemania great again and would set the standard for the following night's RAW to become a serious deal.