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As I look down on fly over country from my mythical 30,000 ft. view, I see hundreds of thousands of black and white dots converging from all directions. Half of this huge checkered flag appear to be holding bright dots over their heads. This is among the strangest things I have ever seen. As I ponder the bizarre sight underneath me; a flight attendant walks the aisle. I stop her:
“What am I looking at?” I ask.
Her answer was only matched in curiosity by the sight itself. “Those are sheep masquerading as WWE fans, I fly all over and see this once a week.”
Before she could clarify her observations, she was serving cocktails across the way. As a wrestling fan myself, I wondered what would make her say such a thing. Can I jump in my DeLorean and find out?
When contemplating this possibility, several questions come to mind:
If WWE fans have turned into sheep, who was the shepherd and when did this phenomenon start? Sheep come across as passive. Wrestling fans surely are not that? As a kid, fans were loud, passionate and logical. At least as logical as millions of us can be when told our art form is not real, and we defend it anyway.
Wrestling was good versus evil and fans reacted to what they saw. For the most part, promoters stayed behind the scenes. Hell, most of us didn’t know who the promoters were until we were teenagers.
The hamster in my head is running furiously as I take the DeLorean back to 1996, outside the old Mecca in Milwaukee. Shawn Michaels was coming off the classic, if not oddly booked, Iron Man Match with The Hitman at Mania XII. Michaels and Bulldog worked on top. Undertaker and Mankind hadn’t even been in most of their brutal matches yet.
Steve Austin debuted in WWF in the two-month window between shows. After an aborted run as The Ring Master, Austin began using what would become the “Stone Cold Stunner” in the lead up to King of The Ring. Austin pinned Marc Mero clean and a “newly religious” Jake Roberts beat Vader by DQ to meet in the tournament finals. After a quick win to become King of The Ring, Stone Cold cut the “Austin 3:16 says I just whipped your ass!” promo. Raw the next day saw a ton of Austin 3:16 signs in the crowd. Shirts would follow very soon.
After leaving that Raw, the DeLorean drops me off at Mania XIII in Chicago.
Bret Hart was a pro, but American audiences were slowly turning him heel and digging Austin’s realistic intensity. Hitman’s map-driven heel turn begins to congeal on the go home Raw, after shoving Vince McMahon after a cage match, screaming into a mic: “…Something isn’t the word for it. This is bullshit!” Austin wasn’t a submission specialist. The Mania Match was an “I Quit” match. Intentional or not, the double-turn in the states was sealed when Austin passed out bleeding rather than giving up.
A final trip in the DeLorean to find the reason for the sheepish nature of modern wrestling fans takes me to The Montreal Screw Job.
Bret was on his way to WCW and McMahon turned heel to insure Hitman would drop the belt. Okay, the owner/promoter turns heel. Who is his foil? Stone Cold Steve Austin. Don’t get me wrong. They had a great run. Beer bath, bed pan etc., two problems:
First, Austin’s promos were awesome, but fans started following along just like sheep. ‘WHAT?” So much so, “WHAT?” that I wish “WHAT?” he’d never said it “WHAT?” with a live mic. “WHAT?”
Second, a heel gets beat enough, eventually, they turn baby face, or GO AWAY! We know the owner ain’t leavin’ the territory, but Vince NEVER left TV. His temperament was just transferred to his children in a similar vein to Jerry Jones. Obnoxious with experience, just not as actively involved as before.
These two examples, plus fans’ knowledge of plans before they are executed are the main reasons marks are booing his hand-picked baby faces, drowning out promos, and sleeping thru everything but high spots and false finishes. Promoters, including Vince used to read the crowd and pay attention to reactions without thinking we were stupid in most cases.
My conclusion? Marks are following Steve Austin’s example because we’re as mad as Austin was. Except, in our case it’s not a work. Twenty Doinks would respect the current WWE circus and its patrons more than Vinnie and family appear to now. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must park the DeLorean.
Sources For Chronology: Something to Wrestle With, Episodes 37 & 47
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