Stone Cold Steve Austin had a lot of memorable moments during his WWF/WWE run, but my favorite happened fifteen years ago today. May 31, 1998 was the WWF Over The Edge pay-per-view featuring Austin vs. Dude Love (a.k.a. Mick Foley/Cactus Jack) for the WWF Championship with Mr. McMahon as referee, Pat Patterson as ring announcer and Gerald Brisco as timekeeper. Richard Hattersly has a long writeup on the match at Collar and Elbow
detailing the events leading to the match and how the match went down.
I found the match memorable for several reasons. It was in Milwaukee (where I grew up), and even though I was living in Los Angeles at the time (I was working a summer internship between my junior and senior years at U.S.C.) I still always go out of my way to watch wrestling from Milwaukee. May 31, 1998 was also the date of an epic NBA Eastern Conference Finals Game 7. The Chicago Bulls had won five of the last seven NBA championships while the Indiana Pacers had flirted with an NBA Finals for a half decade. Those two teams were meeting with a trip to the NBA Finals on the line.
I remember wanting to watch the Austin vs. Dude Love match with a group because I just knew it would be great. The Austin vs. McMahon feud was really only about two months old, but it was at its peak in many ways. The promos the heat and the work were all so good on almost every show that Raws and pay-per-views were becoming events that you not only had to watch, but discuss with your friends afterwards.
I told my friend Ignacio that I wanted to get the pay-per-view at his place because he lived with roommates. The next day we were moving into a fraternity house on campus for the summer ($100/month will make you put up with communal showers and general filth), so his rental house had no furniture aside from some folding chairs (one of which was used by yours truly to deliver a chairshot to a semi-suspecting Ignacio a few months prior) and a television. We put the television on one of the chairs and used the other chairs to watch.
WWF was healthy by May of 1998, but the war with WCW was certainly not over. In many ways, WCW was still the stronger company. Though WWF began winning the Monday Night Ratings wars certain weeks beginning on April 13, 1998, the general perception was that WWF's only real advantage was Steve Austin. WCW pay--per-views were the shows with strong matches throughout the card. For a WWF show, you might have to wade through some crap. And, oh boy, was there some crap on Over The Edge.
The first two hours of Over The Edge '98 were uncomfortable to me and painful to my friends. I was watching bad matches and depressing angles. (Details of The Crusher's participation shall be omitted out of respect for the Milwaukee legend.) My friends were pissed off that they were missing the game. The Rock vs. Farooq (Ron Simmons) was a match I was eager for (I had called my student web space "The Rock Report" when I would write about wrestling and UFC), but they went five bad minutes and everything else on the undercard disappointed. The Pacers ran out to an early lead and my friends possibly missing being witnesses to the end of the Jordan era. Instead they were watching Jeff Jarrett wrestle a long (at least it felt really long), flat match.
The Bulls had vanquished the Pacers by the time the main event came on, and I could tell that something good was coming. The Dude Love vs. Austin match the previous month at Unforgiven was just O.K., but this was different. The backstage promo where a sleeveless McMahon pantomimes counting three -- but then gets distracted by his own flexing biceps -- is one of my favorite moments of the Attitude era. And they just had to deliver. WCW had booked Dennis Rodman to return after the successful Bash at the Beach '97 appearance, and Goldberg was threatening to get over at or above Austin's level. A bad start-to-finish pay-per-view would put the whole Austin vs. McMahon angle at risk.
Mr. Hattersly's piece referenced above covers the play-by-play of the match, so I won't repeat that here. I will say that the match ended up being everything pro wrestling should be. The babyface was up against steep odds. The internal logic of the match and storyline stayed true. The accoutrements (which include Undertaker, Brisco, Patterson and even Dude Love) to the match enhanced the match without distracting from the principals. And the ending was both unpredictable and satisfying (which is a difficult balance to achieve).
In the 15 years since Over The Edge I've often wondered if Austin vs. Dude Love was a turing point. The match was so great and so memorable, but did it lead to so much bullshit? Wrestling is bad now. And the reasons it's bad is the same reason Austin and McMahon were so good. The backstage angles, the outside interference and the screwy finish worked to perfection for Austin vs. Dude Love. Those same things (done poorly) work to drive intelligent people away from wrestling today.
Hopefully some day someone will realize that today's pro wrestling promoters are leaving countless dollars on the table, and some savvy booker will dole out the screwball aspects of pro wrestling judiciously. Until then, I'll just hope the current product gets better and remember May 31, 1998 as my favorite Stone Cold Steve Austin moment.