LOOKING AT AUSTIN'S WALKOUT
in terms of the creative issues with his character
What we know and what we don't know
A few months have passed since Austin's walkout, and we still do not know much more than we did when it happened. The discussion on the internet (I don't know about newsletters such as PWTorch, Observer or Figure Four - so far I am not one of their readers) has been rather superficial. People have been analyzing Austin's actions in terms of whether what he did was right with respect to his obligations towards the company and other talent. In other parts of the discussion, some "smarts" were very resolute in saying that either Austin is completely horrible or Austin is God...
WWE also discussed the issue publicly. They aired a piece on Confidential and then talked about things subsequently on RAW where Vince McMahon's interview was actually really "real" - a unique situation that happens very rarely... Mainly Vince McMahon and Jim Ross have shared their views on Austin's walkout, but they are not the only ones - also some wrestlers and commentators have been stressing the fact that Austin "took his ball and went home". From WWE's standpoint, the discussion has seemed to focus simply on the morality of Austin's actions from the perspective of his relationships with and obligations to the company, its fans and superstars. In this sense what Austin did was disappointing, unprofessional and unacceptable. Many people in the company sincerely feel that Austin "let them down". I am not going to try to analyze the whole issue from this standpoint, since it's been done already thoroughly, especially in WWE official media. While the discussion among internet fans has not been limited only to this aspect of the problem, I believe we need to take a closer look at what exactly the creative issues involved were, since we are considering those as the major reason of Austin's conduct.
It is clear that WWE cannot and does not want to talk about this; therefore they attribute the cause of Austin's behaviour to some unknown, obscure internal problems of Austin that he has to deal with, and nobody supposedly knows what these problems are because he hasn't talked to J.R. or Vince about them. Let's also note, though, that Seth Mates and Phil Speer (WWE.com journalists who have noticeably been digging most of Austin's stuff and were willing, maybe even wanting to present his side on WWF.com) did an extended piece on Austin's walkout for the August issue of the RAW magazine where Austin's unhappiness with the booking decisions is talked about. It's never addressed specifically, though; all that Austin and others say is that he was unhappy with the booking in general for a longer period of time. Otherwise, the article also reveals that Austin's behaviour had changed also backstage for several months before his walkout. We do not know at this point how much of this had to do with the booking decisions, and how much had to do with Austin's personal problems. Indeed we don't know what exactly these problems are, other than the fact that there is something in his relationship with Debra that hasn't been working out.
Knowing that there is a lot we do not know, allow me to try to take a look at some of the creative problems. Writing simply from a fan's as opposed to an insider's viewpoint, as somebody who has been watching the WWF for some years on a consistent basis, I feel that in order to understand what Austin's creative problems were, we need to look back to his heel turn at WrestleMania X-7.
The heel run
As Austin has said, the heel turn was his own idea - he wanted to push his character in new directions and try out new things. Both him and creative worked hard to get this across to the fans - something that was very difficult and at which they ultimately failed because Austin turned back face after the Survivor Series. Austin's heel turn has been criticized and people have taken various positions on the issue. Austin personally says that he began to feel he was beating a dead horse, but he still wouldn't have changed anything and feels what he did was right. Some people enjoyed his heel run, while others simply claimed that it did not work. Personally, I loved it, and even if you didn't, you can't dispute one thing - Austin experimented in new fields creatively with his character on several levels. His character actually wasn't constant throughout his heel run, but what was constant was his tweaking of the character. Let's stress that what he did took some guts - he didn't have to do it, but he wanted to challenge himself, even though he had no guarantee of success. He knew he was going into unexplored territories, he was aware of the risk, yet he wanted to go the unconventional path.
Austin worked on several character traits - one was the comic aspect (we remember his hugging of Vince, his guitar playing and singing, his hilarious vegetable tray skits with Kurt Angle, his games with Debra's cookies, and some of the show-offs with the Alliance which definitely had a comedic aspect to them...). There were two other, more important aspects of Austin's character - one was being a truly paranoid, unpredictable, psychotic rattlesnake, and the other was (key to being a heel) being a coward. Even though in the end Austin and the booking team gave up on the heel run, we can say that Austin did an excellent job demonstrating all of the three above mentioned character traits. He was a true paranoid leader (of the Alliance), almost a dictator in a sense. This of course also had an in-ring aspect to it, that being extreme violence and ruthlessness (we remember acts such as his beatdown of J.R., the piledriving on the concrete of Kurt Angle, or the way Austin treated some of the "defectors" from the Alliance).
When we mention the in-ring aspect of Austin's work, though, Austin leaped forward in this area, too. As he says in one of his interviews in the RAW Magazine, he re-focused his in-ring performance to psychology. This is of course something the results of which we could best see in main event or PPV matches which are given time - the prime example here being Austin's match with Angle at SummerSlam 2001. Austin incorporated some new moves into his repertoire and greatly refreshed his wrestling style, so that his matches, especially with Angle, would never be routine - there would always be something new, innovative, refreshing...
As a part of the psychological destruction of his opponents during his heel run, Austin started using the "What?". He actually did this for about two months before the average fan started taking notice. When the fans in the arenas took notice, though, this became a final nail in the coffin of the Stone Cold Steve Austin 2001 heel run. "What" became "mainstream". Everybody started chanting it, which meant Austin couldn't do it anymore as he had used to (place the "What"s irregularly, which was why they were so effective when he started them). Austin's interviews suddenly became rather schematic, filled with a predictable "What" stream, and it seemed as if the "routinization" of "What" routinized also most of Austin's character. The unpredictability of his heel run (we could never quite know back then if he would go crazy or just stay "calm") suddenly disappeared. Sure, the fans chanting "What" was fun at the beginning, but soon everybody except the live audiences got tired of it. Austin himself says in an earlier issue of RAW Magazine, "I've got a bunch of shit to do afterwards, but I'm waiting to see how long this thing lasts because I don't want to kill it off just yet." There is no reason not to believe him, and let's hope we will be able to see some of this "other stuff" at one point. I think, however, that Austin didn't quite realize that all the "What" stuff had after a couple of months of doing it become detrimental to his character. Sure, he was still probably the company's biggest draw and his popularity didn't sink, but in terms of the high standards and vision that he had set for himself after WrestleMania X-7, his game became dull. For me personally, he became very predictable and more than anything frustrating to watch. One could see that somehow Austin himself wasn't very happy with what he was doing - he seemed a little detached, not as driven as before. This being said, if Austin was unhappy with the bookers, it must be noted that he, too, was responsible for his character (and based on all accounts had enough stroke to have influence on company decisions regarding his character development), and therefore he shares a part of the blame he assigned to the creative team - Austin failed to do something different with his work.
One feud worse than the other...
All this considered, though, the fact that Austin was mistreated by the bookers cannot be rejected or denied. The bookers had the idea of bringing in the nWo. There seemed to be some chance of this storyline working after the Hogan return on RAW (the beatdown of The Rock and the truck incident), but after this it became clear that the nWo was not "poison" at all; in fact, the storyline was handled very poorly. Yet Austin, who literally (along with Angle) carried the company through most of 2001, suddenly had to participate in this rubbish. From being a top player he sank to having a match with Scott Hall at WrestleMania. The bookers had to know that this match could be good at best, and that it was inappropriate to have Austin be in such match at what was supposed to be the biggest PPV ever. Austin competed not in the main event, but in the middle of the card, after which he walked out for the first time. It would have been more appropriate to let Austin and Angle battle it out in an epic at WrestleMania. What was achieved by the Austin vs. Hall match? Was the creative team so blind to nWo's failure? Did Scott Hall, who the company had to release later on, mean that match to them that they would gamble with the prospects of their top draw? Did the nWo, which is now already non-existent, matter that much just because of the blindness of the bookers (and Vince) to realize that another one of their "big projects" was miserably failing?
Austin's fist walkout was pardoned. Yet, after he came back to work, creatively, things weren't much better. He continued feuding with the nWo. All those matches on RAW were mostly boring and uninspiring. What was so good about Austin's feuding with Angle was not only that Austin made Angle a bigger superstar, but that also Angle elevated Austin' game, especially in the ring. Scott Hall, The Big Show, X-Pac or Bradshaw certainly did not, and the former two have never even had the potential for doing so in the fist place. The booking was so bad that during one of the RAW broadcasts the fans were already so fed up with Austin feuding with the nWo that in the main event they stayed almost silent, not even supporting Austin. All this had to be tough for Austin to take part in.
The prospects got somewhat better with Austin's feud with Ric Flair, yet in this feud the nWo played a key role, which was a fatal mistake by the booking team. (Of course we should also offer some other solutions when we criticize - who else should have been involved if not the nWo? Indeed, there weren't that many possibilities on the RAW roster, and this is again the responsibility of the bookers for creating a "depleted" roster and not putting more "vision" into the split.) The nWo took a lot of the potential magic out of the Austin vs. Flair feud, and we actually ended up having the two not go one on one at a PPV (instead we had the handicap match with the Big Show which no one was asking for), but on RAW - another stupid decision by the creative team.
What has been done cannot be undone
Instead of being a dream feud culminating in a dream match, the Austin vs. Flair feud was a disaster. Why? First of all, it's questionable whether it was smart to turn Flair heel at the time. Although it was clear he would get booed when feuding with Austin, Flair's heelishness was very artificial. Fans saw him as a legend who they respected and cheered from their heart. In order for a heel turn in this case to be efficient, it would have had to be done in a substantially more compelling manner. Flair was acting like an idiot and was making a fool out of himself. Perhaps Flair would have been able to become a convincing heel had Austin stayed and the angle would have progressed, but because of Austin's walkout Flair's credibility actually got damaged. Unfortunately, in pro wrestling things cannot be undone, and when something has a deep impact on the fans' attitude and mindset, it is hard to change. This is precisely why, when Ric Flair comes out today, even though the fans still think he is great, a legend, etc., to me he has lost a part of his self-respect, he has lost a part of that aura and shine of greatness. When his music hits, one still remembers that a living legend is coming out, but one also remembers how this legend behaved in such a silly way that it is unforgettable. Therefore, while Flair always used to be about emotion, the bold emotion associated with decades of history behind him, now sometimes Flair seems to be more of a comedy act. I somehow have to feel sorry for him. It's sad. And I am sure I this is not only my feeling - Dave Meltzer also talked about this recently on his website.
A similar example of how bad booking has long-term negative effects on people's careers is Chris Jericho. No matter how much he improved, how hard he has worked, and even though he was the first Undisputed champion, there remains a feeling that he is not a "serious player". He is not a serious threat. This feeling about Chris Jericho among most fans is something that will probably never go away, since he was jobbed so many times and the booking of his character was so inconsistent.
Oh, the bookers! Oh, the writers! Oh, Austin! Oh, Vince!
To get back to Austin, perhaps after the bookers saw that the feud with the nWo and Austin wasn't working, they started a program with Guerrero and Benoit. This was certainly on the right track, but then came the proposal of Austin jobbing to Brock Lesnar and Austin walked out for a second time, which gets us to the current situation. I do not feel competent to judge exactly what was on the line behind the scenes for the RAW where Austin walked out, and whether what creative asked him to do was appropriate or not. We can suppose that things were going to go upwards from that point, since they had already been very bad and Austin would be working with Benoit and Guerrero, which by itself would have been hard to screw up completely by bad booking. The bottom line is, Austin did have to go through a lot of rubbish beginning from when the nWo came in until his second walkout, and there is no wonder that his could have affected his attitude profoundly. This is true regardless of whether the bookers actually had malevolent intensions toward Austin, or whether they just sucked overall and couldn't figure out the right thing to do.
We all have to judge for ourselves whether what Austin did was right or not; and there is probably still a lot we do not really know. Vince McMahon is definitely right, though, when he said that when something like Austin's walkout happens, McMahon considers it also his failure. As the owner of the company, he didn't realize how the creative team was hurting Austin, and he certainly is responsible for that. While Austin's walkout is controversial and there are several aspects to it, what I have tried to show in this article is that the creative issues cannot be overlooked in the discussion.
Princeton, by way of Slovakia
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