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King of the Ring retrospective part 4

"Stone Cold" Steve Austin begins his meteoric rise in WWE with an unforgettable speech after winning King of the Ring on June 23, 1996. Photo courtesy wwe.com

“Stone Cold” Steve Austin begins his meteoric rise in WWE with an unforgettable speech after winning King of the Ring on June 23, 1996. Photo courtesy wwe.com

King of the Ring retrospective Part 4

posted by Brian Swane
 

This King of The Ring retrospective series is intended to show the importance this PPV played in establishing new WWE superstars, a timely and relevant topic in today’s overexposed WWE product.

Well, 1995 could very well disprove this hypothesis. But 1996 provides unassailable proof.

So let’s quickly take care of 1995, probably the only real true failure in KOTR PPV history.

Mabel, one-half of the newly turned-heel Men on A Mission, became King Mabel with an incredibly underwhelming performance. He used interference by Kama to beat the Undertaker in a poor quarterfinal match, received a semi-final bye (owing to time-limit draw in the Kama/Shawn Michaels) and then beat Savio Vega, who was wrestling his fourth match of the night, in a final that might be worthy of one star. Might.

With his MOM partner Mo serving as his manager/mouthpiece, Mabel was given a push to main-event status at SummerSlam, where he got a title shot and lost against Diesel. And that was it. The fans weren’t buying him as a monster heel. Actually, they weren’t buying him as much of anything, other than a grossly overweight, severely out-of-shape wrestler, who as a face only got over was because of MOM’s crowd-pleasing entrance with rapping manager Oscar.

And so after losing to Diesel, King Mabel slowly faded into obscurity. Today, he’s probably better remembered for his late 90s/2000s WWE runs as Viscera or Big Daddy V.

So KOTR 1995 was a failure. But then again, so was just about everything WWE was doing at this time.

Let’s get to KOTR 1996, or as I think of it, the night that changed professional wrestling forever.

By 1996, the WWE had trimmed down the number of KOTR tournament matches actually on the PPV. The quarterfinals were now being held on TV in the weeks leading up. So no one was going to make an impact with a awe-inspiring display of stamina, athleticism, and ability, like Bret Hart in 1993.

In one KOTR semi-final, Jake Roberts defeated Vader, while Steve Austin went over Marc Mero in the other semi, setting up a classic respected veteran/cocky young gun matchup.

Roberts was getting a significant face push as a reborn Christian that had overcome alcoholism to make a triumphant return to the ring (an angle that was essentially based on reality). He had been attacked by Vader after the semi-final match, suffering major injuries that left his not-so-youthful body battered and bruised. President Gorilla Monsoon tried to stop Roberts from competing, but like the true fighting hero, the Snake limped out to the ring and was promptly beaten to a pulp and defeated by the ruthless, heartless Austin.

Austin was just transitioning from “The Ringmaster”, his original gimmick when he entered the WWE in 1995 as a Ted DiBiase protégé, to “Stone Cold.” Austin was born to play this character, and his KOTR coronation speech sent tremors throughout the wrestling world – though it would take a while for the aftershocks to resonate.

“The first thing I want to be done is to get that piece of crap out of my ring. Get him out of the ring, get him out of the WWF, because I proved, son, without a shadow of a doubt, that you ain’t got what it takes any more. You sit there and you thump your bible, and you say your prayers, and it didn’t get you anywhere. Talk about your songs, talk about your John 3:16. Austin 3:16 says I just whipped your ass.”

(view the entire speech at wwe.com)

And boom went the dynamite.

Austin’s speech is groundbreaking in that it really is the first time anyone cursed on WWE TV (even pseudo-curses like “crap” or “ass”). And it was the first time he used the phrase “Austin 3:16”.

The next night, live on Raw, “Austin 3:16” signs began showing up in the crowd. Never before had a heel character – especially one so heinous — been embraced to this disagree. Pro wrestling fans were beginning a shift in attitude that ultimately forced the WWE’s hand and dictated its direction.

Just two weeks to the day after KOTR 1996 came the other event that changed the course of pro rasslin’ history. At WCW’s Bash at the Beach PPV, Hulk Hogan turned heel (a shocking and unfathomable event at the time) and joined the Outsiders, Scott Hall and Kevin Nash, to form the New World Order.

The NWO became one of the hottest things ever in wrestling, lifting the WCW from perpetual second-tier status to beat WWE in the ratings for nearly two years.

This unprecedented challenge from a rival promotion coupled with the Austin effect to force WWE to completely reinvent itself. From this perfect storm, the Attitude Era was born and by 1998 the WWE product was almost unrecognizable to its fans of just 2-3 years earlier.

Every Monday night, WWE and WCW went head-to-head with Raw and Nitro, both shows drawing millions of viewers as wrestling penetrated the Zeitgeist as it never had before.

Austin went on to become one of the 10 biggest stars of all time. He held the WWE championship on six separate occasions between 1998 and 2001, main-eventing many PPVs and selling countless T-shirts. His “What” chant is a ritual for WWE crowds, even though it’s been nearly a decade since he was a regular on the roster. He’s almost 50 now, but fans fantasize about him returning for one last match, perhaps against CM Punk, or the Undertaker and The Streak at WrestleMania.

Austin set forth a chain reaction of events that forever made pro wrestling more popular and, perhaps most importantly, acceptable in a world that had mostly scoffed at WWE, characterizing its fans as pitiful dweebs of the RPG variety.

It all started June 25, 1996, at KOTR before well under 10,000 fans at the nondescript Mecca Arena in Milwaukee.

The jury rests.

Coming up, the KOTR retrospective will conclude with a look at the final group of winners until the PPVs demise after 2002.

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