Today we have the third’Alternative Wrestling History‘ piece. In it we examine what would have happened had, as originally planned, it been Triple H that won the 1996 King of the Ring instead of Stone Cold Steve Austin? In what way, if at all, would the wrestling landscape have been changed?
On June the 23rd 1996 Stone Cold Steve Austin beat Jake the Snake Roberts in the final of the 4th annual King of the Ring (KOTR) tournament and cut the promo that woke the mainstream wrestling audience up to something the hardcore fans already knew, Austin was the next big thing.
But that wasn’t what was supposed to happen. Before he’d taken part in the Curtain Call incident, HHH had been slated to capture the crown and quite possibly follow every previous KOTR winner by having a high profile match at SummerSlam the following August and an upper midcard run for the rest of the year.
It’s well publicised at this point that HHH was being punished by Vince McMahon for taking part in the Curtain Call and taking a step back you can see just how much of a mess the whole affair was. Instead of winning the tournament HHH, bowed out to future finalist Roberts in a qualifying match on the June 3rd Raw.
This was match was of so little consequence that the announcers, Jerry Lawler and Vince McMahon, spent more time talking about the Ulitmate Warrior’s comic book than what was going on in the ring. This was the start of a low period for the Connecticut Blue Blood who wouldn’t win another match on PPV for a whole 9 months, when he defeated Goldust at the 97 Royal Rumble. Austin didn’t fare much better though.
Bret Hart was already an established main eventer when he ascended to the Federation throne in 93, in many ways his victory legitimised the title. Owen Hart in 94, and Mabel in 95 though were on the rise. After Owen became the “King of Harts” in 94 he went on to battle his estranged brother Bret in a classic cage match at Summerslam that year and kept a relatively high profile in the WWF from then on.
Mabel went one better and was given a main event against WWF Champion Diesel, though he ruined that for himself when he recklessly injured “Big Daddy Cool” during the match. That the contest was the pits probably didn’t help either. What did Austin get for his big SummerSlam moment? He wrestled Yokozuna to a no contest in a pre-show match. Creative had nothing for him.
The reason I bring this up is that I think Austin would be largely unaffected by HHH winning the KOTR tournament. The circumstances that allowed him to cut his “Austin 3:16” promo wouldn’t have taken place but rest assured Austin would’ve found another way to light the world on fire. He probably would’ve ended up on the other side of the ring from Bret Hart for a star making turn eventually anyway and I honestly believe he’d have come up with some other catchphrase to spur on the sales of a billion black t-shirts. HHH on the other hand would’ve had a much more interesting run as King of the Ring had history taken a different turn.
It’s hard to imagine that King Helmsley would be given a WWF Championship match against his pal Shawn Michaels at SS 96 in lieu of the newly arrived and still strong challenger Vader. The Undertaker would’ve been a perfect opponent for him but he was in the middle of his first truly great in-ring series with miracle worker Mick Foley as Mankind, admittedly not in a ring but in a boiler room brawl. With Bret Hart away on leave that summer that mean’t there were no established guys to give him a proper rub. Perhaps he could’ve beaten the previous years winner Owen Hart? They were certainly capable of delivering a solid match. Either way, HHH would have to wait for his shot at the Boy Toy. Vince McMahon was desperate for a new main eventer and he was putting his money on the smart bet in Vader, who sadly never got to achieve the kind of greatness he was capable of with the Fed.
Maybe Hunter would’ve supplanted Foley as HBK’s challenger at In Your House Mind Games that September? It makes a whole lot of sense but I don’t think it’d make for the classic match you’d expect from the two. In our timeline HHH actually would win the KOTR by defeating Mankind in the final of the 97 tournament in a fairly lifeless match and I’m inclined to believe the lack of quality wasn’t Foley’s fault.
Mankind had a string of classic matches and feuds throughout 96 and 97 with a host of different opponents, he was already world class. Contrast his 97 match with HHH and their Royal Rumble 2000 Street Fight just three years later and you’d swear you were watching him wrestle a different man and in many ways he was. In his doghouse period HHH was given time to grow slowly and steadily into the performer he’d become and while he and Michaels would go on to have some of the greatest matches of all time together I think in 96 he wouldn’t have been able to keep up. HBK was an unforgiving opponent back then and while he would’ve tried to have the best match he could’ve you’d better believe the only person he would’ve been trying to get over was himself. “HBK doesn’t lie down for ANYBODY”
Coming off a loss to HBK in September, I think things would be looking so-so for the new mat monarch. If his match at Mind Games had pleased the right people maybe he’d be allowed a second main event with Michaels? If not he’d have to hopefully take a win over a fellow mid carder to regain his shine, either way he’d be done on top as he just didn’t have the skills to keep up with the main eventers at that point. Plus McMahon and Co were gearing up to try out Sycho Sid as champion and while Helmsley was certainly more skilled than “The Man Who Rules the World” he wasn’t as tall, which is sadly still an issue with WWE.
Providing he’d been given the same TV time regardless, Austin would still be perfectly positioned as an opponent for the returning Bret Hart at Survivor Series 96. The returning white meat babyface vs the brash, foul mouthed brawler was a match begging to happen and happen it did. HHH would’ve been left to do as he did also at that PPV, make up the numbers in an elimination tag match.
Going into the Royal Rumble in 1997 I honestly think HHH would be in much the same position he was in during our timeline with one exception, he’d have been exposed as lacking the necessary skill to be a main event player. Would Vince McMahon have the patience necessary to allow the erstwhile Paul Levesque to grow into the part or would HHH be tossed aside to aimlessly make up the mid card as McMahon scrambled to find a new top star to combat the white-hot WCW?
While his buddy Michael’s certainly had backstage clout he couldn’t do anything to save Aldo Montoya from the poison pen of the booking office so who’s to say he could’ve done the same for HHH? Vince McMahon was a different beast in 96/97. Whereas today he’s more than willing to bury his head in the sand and wait for someone like Roman Reigns to become popular through some kind of mass aversion therapy back then he would often cut to the quick. Mabel was given his shot and when he blew it that was his lot. Plenty of others were given a brief moment in the limelight but were excised if they didn’t work out in favour of trying someone new out.
If HBK and HHH were to form DX would it have had the same impact on Tripper’s career? When Michael’s left in 98, HHH was in a perfect position to take over the DX name. He was a young up and comer leading a new crew of fresh faces decked out in green and black. The second iteration of DX was a huge success, but would it have had the same impact if someone like Goldust was in charge? Dustin Runnels was a similarly talented grappler who’d been given a stunted main event run which stalled when he wasn’t able to deliver. Would DX have had the same freshness if someone like this was in charge? Youth and freshness was a huge part of DX 2.0’s appeal, they constantly brought it up as something to contrast with the nWo’s more senior membership at the time.
While this may seem a somewhat trivial consequence in this alternate history, I think it could have a far reaching consequence. By 1999 HHH was a newly established main event player in the WWF. He looked like a million dollars, was delivering the best promos of his career and proved himself handily during main events with Steve Austin and the Rock for the WWF title. If, after a stop-start two months in the main events in 96 and a protracted mid-card run from 97-99 without the upward mobility his year in the doghouse afforded him would he be in the position to start a relationship with Stephanie McMahon?
It’s been said a million times that Vince was/is over protective of his daughter and warned the entire WWF locker room to steer clear of her. I’ve no doubt he meant it. When HHH and Stephanie started their relationship in 2000 I’m sure Vince was probably forgiving of it to a degree because lets face it HHH was “that damn good” at the time. HHH was the wrestler of the year in 2000, nobody could touch him and it was obvious. Maybe that sweetened the pot for his future father in law somewhat so he allowed it to continue without taking a shovel to his daughters beloved both literally and figuratively. Something tells me McMahon wouldn’t have been so kind had say Billy Gunn or Jeff Jarrett tried to win her affections.
Now, I’m willing to allow that even without his gestation period allowed by his year in the doghouse that HHH would eventually become the worker he was in 2000 and maybe he’d eventually get his shot at the big one, but would the circumstances that allowed him to become part of the tight knit McMahon family have happened and more importantly would he have been able to exploit and abuse the influence that that position brought as he did from 2002 onwards? Who knows? Maybe we wouldn’t have had to endure the “Reign of Terror” and maybe we’d be left with a more positive opinion of a more democratic and naturally giving HHH? Would his run have lasted as long as it did? While he was a superior worker he was never the star that Austin and Rock were, so maybe without his marriage to Steph he’d be occupying a similar position to the one Kane does now if he was still forced to be active. Its hard to say of course, but I genuinely think there are slow burning consequences to a King Helmsley in 96, and they’re not the obvious ones visible at first glance.
If you have any thoughts on the scenario yourself, let me know in the comments as I’d like to read them myself.
You can read previous ‘Alternative Wrestling History’ pieces here.