Today we have the second ‘Alternative Wrestling History‘ piece. Today we examine the situation surrounding the main event of Wrestlemania XIV. It’s been well documented that Shawn Michaels wasn’t the most stable champion the World Wrestling Federation has ever had during his third reign and there were many things that could’ve gone askew during one the most important main events of all time as a result.
Looking back with hindsight, its easy to see that Shawn Michael’s 3rd and final WWF Championship run was a transitional one. HBK was a poor long term prospect, admitting himself in many interviews that he was riddled with both addictions and injuries. After Survivor Series 97 and Bret Hart’s flight to Atlanta the WWF had a drought of true main eventers. Vince McMahon’s situation was so dire that he was forced to place Michaels in a position of vast importance in the hope that he could use HBK’s status to build the burgeoning Steve Austin into something special.
Besides HBK, the only other established top line player was the Undertaker who was involved in what would become a star making feud with his long lost brother Kane. This meant Michaels was holding the title for Steve Austin, who was the WWF’s only breakout star in years and really their only hope. Problem was, the ‘Heartbreak Kid’ was holding on to the belt a little too tightly. Vince needed Michaels to lose, but as the history surrounding the Montreal Screwjob shows us, things are rarely that simple.
With his fragile body and even more fragile ego it was a miracle Shawn even made it to the building on March 29th 1998, though make it he did. It was still an ordeal to get him to do business the right way though, even prompting the Undertaker to tape up his fists ready to hit the ring and pound the tar out of him if he looked like he was going to ruin Austin’s moment, and the company’s future. They needed to present Austin as being THE MAN and ultimately they did it kind of perfectly. Fans could totally buy into the guy who’d fearlessly faced up to Mike Tyson and who started off the Attitude Era by defeating the face of the New Generation once and for all. . Everything NEEDED to happen the way it did.
So what if Michaels had indeed no showed the event like many worried he would? If he’d walked out with his tail between his legs much like he had at the press conference following Mania? What options would Vince been left with and what would this mean for the career of the would be Mr Wrestlemania in the long term?
Who would be left to face Austin?
When I initially looked back at the Attitude Era I thought through rose tinted specs “there’s plenty of guys Austin could have wrestled instead of HBK” but on further inspection there really wasn’t. Mick Foley was one of the best wrestlers in the world but he was positioned and presented as an upper mid carder at the time. He needed his spring series with a white hot Austin as champ and his summer matches with Undertaker to truly ascend to the main event, though only after he’d famously plummeted from the Hell in a Cell.
By the end of the year The Rock would grow to be the hottest heel in the business, but he needed the months between Mania and Survivor Series to get ready for that spot. If he’d been hotshotted into the main event against Austin at 14, there’s probably little chance he’d be ready to face him at 15 having been chewed up and spit out the year before. Plus moving him from the Intercontinental Championship match to the main event would’ve been jarring even with his past feuding with Stone Cold.
HHH? Forget it. Son-in-law was not the man he’d be in two years, not by a long shot. In our timeline, Trips was given the time to grow slowly into a main event prospect. He’d filled in for Michaels on TV and house shows, but he had no business being anywhere near a Wrestlemania main event in 1998 and Austin would’ve eaten him alive as a result. The lights out ladder match with the Rock at Summerslam that year was the first time he’d show true big time potential. His quick ascension in 99 would’ve been much harder to achieve if he’d been a jobber on the biggest stage of them all.
All three of these guys needed time to grow underneath Austin. With Stone Cold running wild in the main events, the WWF could give its undercard performers chances to do something special and that’s what they did. They’d all become credible challengers to Stone Cold eventually, but at Mania XIV they’d be worthless. At this point it’s worth pointing out that the rest of the roster wasn’t anything to write home about either. Outside of the men mentioned above, the main prospects at the time were the likes of Ken Shamrock, who sadly never quite caught on. You had guys like the Rock n Roll Express making their debuts while both in their 40s. On episodes of Raw heading into Mania substantial TV time was given to a feud between Tom Brandi and Marc Mero because they had nothing better. I promise if you go back and take in the attitude era, you’ll be shocked by the amount of pure guff making up the middle ground in early 98.
Which leaves us with the WWF’s only other headliner at the time, the aforementioned Undertaker. Heading into Mania, the Dead Man had been involved in a brilliantly plotted feud with Kane. The Big Red Machine was like the shark in Jaws, he was used sparingly to great effect. It was made clear that we were only going to see Kane’s full potential realised at Wrestlemania. It was one of those rare occasions when a feud truly didn’t need a championship to be important. In a sense Kane had already been made before the bell rung. If Michaels had no showed on the day though, it would’ve been all for naught had Undertaker taken his place.
Taker seems like a logical choice in the absence of Michaels, but here I’m going to argue that he’s the wrong one. If Undertaker were to face and lose to Austin, their SummerSlam match and the WWF’s main event consistency would be scuppered completely. Austin would no doubt defeat Taker in an even showing, but their Mania match would lead to rematches at Judgment Day and Over the Edge, which only makes sense.
If Undertaker is to forgo his feud with Kane, he had better make that WWF Championship seem like the most important thing in the world to him. He would have to be blinded by the glimmer of the gold, which would in turn give the storytellers an excuse for reneging on the WrestleMania showdown with his brother. They would also need to try and make good on their investment in Kane. Perhaps the WWF would feel like they’d need to switch the title from Austin to Taker at Over the Edge to make up for Taker’s loss at Mania and to keep him strong going into his postponed yet inevitable feud with his brother.
In our timeline Kane would dethroned Stone Cold at King of the Ring that year, albeit briefly. In an effort to get him over would they this time have him win the title from his brother? Austin famously won the title back from Kane on the Raw after King of the Ring. Maybe they’d do the same here? But what would that mean for SummerSlam? Would they have to bring up the Rock sooner rather than later to face him? Would they go with Foley, who in the alternate timeline hadn’t yet achieved stardom as he did in ours? While Austin vs Taker would probably be the best match for the crowd in Boston the night of Wrestlemania XIV, I honestly think it’d be the worst in the long run. There were just too many variables and crossed streams.
When I sat down to try and solve this problem, I actually shocked myself when I arrived at what seemed like the best solution, but here it is. I honestly think if Shawn Michaels had lost his smile on the way to the Boston Garden the best opponent for Steve Austin would be Vince McMahon himself.
The Austin vs McMahon feud started in earnest the night after Wrestlemania, so why not kickstart it there and then? Sure the match would be the absolute pits, Vince himself became a passable worker through a protracted process and only when he had multiple gimmicks around him to hide his shortcomings. But Vince was and is one of the greatest talkers of all time and one of wrestling’s best ever heels. He would need to work some serious magic, but I honestly think that the only thing that could save Austin’s moment there an then would be the sight of a furious Vince trying the last thing he had to stop Austin from claiming the title only to be squashed proper by Stone Cold. This would not only allow their famous feud to take off, it might even give it some more fuel.
Throughout their feud McMahon always seemed furious with his roster for not being able to beat Austin and bring the precious WWF Championship into the fold, but what if they only person McMahon had to truly blame was himself? I as a young fan back then could’ve easily believed that McMahon’s ego had gotten the better of him and would’ve delighted to see Austin “stomp a mudhole in his ass”, just as I would for the next three years. It would take a leap of faith on the behalf of the fans for sure, but I think history shows it’s one they’d be willing to take.
If McMahon were to be the sacrificial lamb the rest of the card could go as planned and history could take its intended course. Austin could’ve transitioned into his feud with McMahon stooge Dude Love while Undertaker and Kane could continue their high profile rivalry. Beating McMahon wouldn’t have the same oomph that Austin stunning and pinning Michaels had, but it would’ve been better than, well, everything else.
Examining this time period, and all that could’ve gone wrong really gave me perspective on how fortunate McMahon and co were that night in 98. If you want to see how important Austin beating Michaels was go back and look at the well publicised ratings of the time. Nitro viewers turned over to see the aftermath of Mania in their droves, and when they saw Austin on top they stuck around. It was the perfect storm and I’m sure Vince McMahon slept soundly for the first time in 88 weeks.
Now it could be argued that Austin just needed to win the title period, that he was over anyway and that it didn’t really matter who he defeated on that fateful night. But I would argue against that train of thought if you’ll allow me to. There was a feeling of broad poetics at play when Stone Cold vanquished Michaels. The New Generation era had turned rotten in 97. Its heroes were villains and its audience had grown into bloodthirsty teens and adults. Wrestling fans back then wanted change, and they were getting it elsewhere, leaving the WWF behind. ECW and WCW were fast making the WWF look obsolete. Austin replacing Michaels on top was almost like a gesture of goodwill, the Old Generation was dead and the Attitude Era had begun. It was so obvious they actually came out and said it in plain English.
Shawn Michaels, it seemed, needed to go. But what would the greater ramifications be if he hadn’t turned up to lose on the night? At the time his back injuries were reportedly so bad that every step he took was a gift, yet four years later he was back in the ring and putting on the greatest matches of his career. HBK had yet to defeat his addictions, could he have numbed himself to the pain with some chemical assistance and joined his buddies Nash and Hall in WCW at some point? He met his wife, Nitro girl Whisper, through watching the product after all. If so what would that have meant come the time of the Invasion? Would the WWF been able to resist the chance to finally present Austin as Champion vs a returning Michaels? We know from experience that Vince will take just about anyone back if it makes for good business. There also exists the possibility that if Michaels had gone to WCW maybe he’d be tempted to sit out his contract like so many others and collect cash for sitting on his couch.
Something strange I see occurring though is just how many similar things would happen in the alternate timeline as happened in ours. For instance it only makes sense that HBK would get involved in feuds with both Triple H and Vince McMahon though maybe the heel/face dynamics would be reversed. If he were to return as part of the Invasion you’d better believe his first task would also to be to stare at the lights for Austin as soon as possible. Though if his return were to happen in the lead in to X7 would the WWF have turned Stone Cold heel knowing that they had a perfect opponent for him in the months after?
It’s hard to say though just how important that four and a half years away from the ring was to Michaels. If he’d rushed a comeback maybe he’d have shortened his career considerably, ultimately robbing fans of his best work.
The immediate and long term ramifications of HBK not playing ball at Wrestlemania XIV are fascinating, and that’s only focusing on the main players. The fallout from an alternate main event at that show would ripple throughout the Federation for years. From what history tells us this was a very real possibility. A google search should turn up multiple accounts of the scene backstage at the time. One thing is for sure though, the attitude era was always going to be an interesting watch no matter what happened.
Have I missed any important parts of this puzzle or do you have any theories on how an alternate Wrestlemania XIV could’ve gone down? Let me know in the comments.
You can read previous ‘Alternative Wrestling History’ pieces here.