Monday, October 6, 2014

Austin Training for a Comeback, or The Only Part of the Attitude Era I Want to See Return

Austin coming back would be rad, but he should bring back WWE's ability to protect wrestlers with him
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Steve Austin retired in 2003 after one final match with The Rock at WrestleMania XIX. Barely anyone ever thought he'd come back in a full time, meaningful, wrestling role again because of the state of his neck at the time. Injuries suffered at SummerSlam 1997, exacerbated by six years of off-and-on full slates of scheduling, caught up with him, and he seemed like he would only come back for the occasional guest referee role, interview pop, shill for Tough Enough, or obligatory comedy Stunner. He'd also found his niche as a B-movie action star first and then the leader of the mainstream wrestling podcast boom. Even in a field where Shawn Michaels could make the improbable comeback several years after his first "retirement" or where Terry Funk is still taking dates and bumping hard into his 70s, the never-say-die itch for a former pro wrestler to return to the fold never seemed to bite Austin for whatever reason, which appeared to be the biggest upset in the history of pro wrestling. Even bona fide, Hollywood superstardom couldn't keep The Rock from coming back, but even though Austin's neck, by all reports, had seemingly healed up enough for him to presumably hit the canvas again, he didn't seem interested.

But then, on the September 9 edition of his clean podcast (with special guest Ric Drasin), Austin casually lit a the fuse on the biggest powder keg announcement left to make in pro wrestling. He said he was training for a comeback. Of course, he didn't really make a big stink about it, and the lack of details has sent everyone commenting on it so far into a spiral of conjecture. The least likely scenario would put Austin on the road for a full slate of dates, but even the Shawn Michaels or even Brock Lesnar schedule would be enough for him to make an impact. Or would he just return for one, final, memorable match that would put an exclamation point on his career that not even the final duel with his most visceral rival could have done.

Then, what would role would he fill? I doubt someone who comes off as savvy as he does on his podcast would agree to cosplay as himself from 15 years ago, but would WWE have the gumption to go forward with a character radically different? If anyone could pull off an Americanized version of the Grumpy Old Man archetype from Japan (most ably executed by former WWE special guest Genichiro Tenryu), I would imagine Austin is that guy. If I had to make a guess, I would imagine that Austin's character wouldn't be too far off from the Attitude Era, mainly because WWE is a creatively gutless company, and even the forces within that seem to want to move forward may not want to chance ruining a good thing that it used to have. While his ill-fated heel turn happened now 12 years ago, I know I at least remember it like it happened last year. Creatively, turning the biggest populist icon into corporate toady was an absolute genius move, but the fans at large rejected it. By year's end, Austin was back rousing the rabble, drinking beers, and stunning people indiscriminately.

However, I am oddly at peace with any attempt at reviving the beer-drinkin', hell-raisin', bird-flippin' Texas Rattlesnake, mainly because it might show why the Attitude Era was a success and why specific storytelling tropes, "adult" trappings, or parental advisory ratings need to remain in the past. If Austin can provide the same spike in the quality of the programming that he did 15 years ago on a regular basis - which is not a guarantee, mind you - and nothing else on the show changes, then it will be a proof that stars drive the show, not writing or the amount of "edgy material" being transplanted onto the script. The biggest myth propagated by anyone is that the curses and the sexual innuendo were what made wrestling back in the day. The then-WWF might have been a cultural anomaly if "Stone Cold" Glenn Ruth were wrestling against a Corporate Ministry led by Big Viscera and Al Snow. Sure, the anarchic atmosphere and the loosening of the language suited Austin and Rock and Triple H and Mick Foley as an overall oeuvre, but the wrestlers helped the writing more than the other way around.

In fact, the best thing the writing ever did for the stars of that era wasn't so much provide them with a free reign on what to say as much as it was the protection offered to them. No one who got over like gangbusters did so through parity booking or being offered up for sacrifice to the established stars. Rock, Triple H's DX, Foley, and especially Austin were all protected entities. They were allowed to justify the crowd's belief in them by winning through their rise through the card. Sure, guys like Austin and Trips could have stood to put a few more guys over, but Rocky wasn't exactly jobbing all the time in embarrassing fashion to people on the way up, and by the time he was laying down for dudes like Hurricane Helms, he was already a Big Swinging Dick™.

WWE has stood on this precipice before recently. CM Punk, Daniel Bryan, and even Mark Henry during his Hall of Pain run in the fall of 2011 were all dynamic cults of personality who made the tension in the arena grow as thick as pea soup whenever they were allowed to ply their trades. Bryan's potential may never be able to be gauged since he got hurt before he was allowed to build off his climax at WrestleMania XXX. Henry actually moved all the indicators - crowd pops, story investment, ratings, house show gates - during his time as World Heavyweight Champion working mostly on Smackdown, but even if he was allowed to keep his belt into Mania the following year, he was a dude nearing the end of his effective shelf life as a main, full time wrestler. Punk, however, may have been the biggest travesty WWE has incurred upon itself in its history.

The company followed up its hottest angle in the last ten years by far by having Punk used as a pawn in a larger feud between Triple H and Kevin Nash before getting plunged into a title feud against a guy who'd have his metaphorical wings clipped by John Cena outing his luxury car gimmick as FAKE FAKE FAKE. Then, when he was given a long run with the title, he spent nearly his entire run as second banana to Cena before he had to sacrifice the title to The Rock. If you wanted to know how exactly not to book a wrestler, WWE's handling of Punk would be the definitive instruction guide. The actual content written for him didn't help him. Punk, through his fire mic skills and preternatural (even if sometimes sloppy and lazy) work in the ring, made himself a big thing. WWE held him back with its recursive and tepid booking.

If Austin can come back and replicate the kind of goosebumps he used to produce back in 1999, then he will be the second person on the roster currently who can provide that. Right now, Dean Ambrose provides an eerily similar air of unpredictability that Austin did. He stands on the precipice of being a part of the next truly transcendent roster in WWE's history. The question remains whether WWE wants to pull the trigger on him the way it did eventually on Austin. Even though the company has never been known for top-to-bottom sound booking, it did at least know how to stratify a roster and protect more wrestlers than just the tippity-top guys. Somewhere along the way, WWE lost that touch, and basically, the show is a disparate quagmire of souls languishing beneath John Cena and maybe Daniel Bryan (who's currently injured). Everything else from the Attitude Era's institutional design can stay in the past, but if WWE is insistent on bringing things back from said era, I want it to relearn how to protect wrestlers and help people get over the way that they did back in the last salad days of the company. Having Austin come back will be thrilling from a fan's standpoint, but he alone can't replicate the magic back from when he was the company's ace. In fact, even if this comeback was a gimmick for a reality show or something else cockamamie, the answer to bringing back some semblance of sense to the WWE's narrative order exists how it protects its wrestlers.