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By Stuart Carapola on 2011-03-25 14:00:00
Okay, we're pretty deep into this New WWF Generation thing, and we've already seen some of the decisions that got them in trouble in the first place and how they tried stuff like booking Lawrence Taylor for Wrestlemania, the Billionaire Ted skits, and getting new wrestlers to play Razor Ramon and Diesel to try and right the ship. None of it worked, and not only did it not produce results, but it also had the side effect of making them look inept at best and outrightly petty and jealous at worst.

We all know now that Steve Austin, The Rock, Mick Foley, and Triple H became four of the biggest stars of the much more successful Attitude Era, but Austin 3:16, the People's Elbow, and Mr Socko were still a ways off because those guys were all given typically goofy mid 90s WWF personas when they first came in, and none of them with the exception of Rock were ever intended to hit as big as they did. For all the different things they had tried for nearly half a decade by this point, they still stubbornly (and arrogantly) refused to believe that their way of doing things was not working and they needed to try something else.

So what were the future kings of the Attitude Era doing at the beginnings of their WWF careers? Well, let me tell you about it...

Part 6: The Tale Of Chilly McFreeze

Before Stone Cold Steve Austin was having beer bashes, flipping double birds, and whoopin' asses, there was a guy named the Ringmaster who came into the WWF in early 1996 as the latest protege of Ted Dibiase. The Ringmaster, who was declared the new Million Dollar Champion by his manager, was given Dibiase to do all the talking for him since the WWF didn't see much charisma in Austin and didn't think he'd be able to carry promos on his own. That's obviously a ludicrous thought looking back on it, but Austin sure enough kept his mouth shut while Dibiase proceeded to do as much for Austin's career as he did for anybody else he ever managed.

The Ringmaster name didn't stick for long, and it was a matter of weeks before he was rechristened with the Stone Cold name we all came to know and love, but there's a pretty telling story behind how he got that name that ought to give you more insight into the mentality of the WWF braintrust. When he was trying to decide what direction he wanted his character to take, he suggested portraying himself as a coldhearted serial killer type, so the WWF creative team sent him a list of ridiculous names based on the cold part and kind of overlooking the serial killer part. My personal favorite was Chilly McFreeze, and while it sounds more like an ice pop than a name for a wrestler, it was a totally serious suggestion. Then came the famous story where his wife was nagging him to drink his tea before it got stone cold, a light bulb went off, and the rest was history.

Now that he had a decent name, Austin wound up in a preliminary feud with Savio Vega that carried him through Wrestlemania 12 and into the spring, but as luck would have it, Dibiase informed the WWF of his intentions to jump to WCW and would need to be written out. Dibiase departed after a Strap Match between Austin and Vega where Dibiase said he would leave the company if Austin lost, which he did indeed do, but the Austin character took an interesting twist when he cut a promo the following week insinuating that he intentionally lost the match to get rid of Dibiase.

Austin would of course go on to win the King Of The Ring the following month, but he wasn't the original choice to win the tournament, Hunter Hearst Helmsley was. Helmsley, who you know today as Triple H, had jumped from WCW in mid-1995 and was given the gimmick of being a rich snob from Greenwich, Connecticut. I'm as mystified as you are as to where they could have come up with an idea like that, but the original Hunter Hearst Helmsley character was diametrically opposed to the Triple H we know today. He came out wearing high boots and velvety tights that made it look like he just got done riding his horse, he bowed and curtsied to the crowd, and he wore a jacket with long tails like you wear when playing cricket. He stared down his nose at everyone, and spoke in an eloquent fashion to reinforce his elite pedigree, which is where the original name of his finish came from.

As silly as the gimmick was, the WWF got behind him and gave him a strong push and an undefeated streak, and he was set to win the 1996 King Of The Ring when fate intervened. He had become buddies with Shawn Michaels, Scott Hall, and Kevin Nash, and then in Madison Square Garden on Hall & Nash's last night in the company before leaving for WCW, the four of them engaged in a group hug after the main event that made for a nice feelgood moment, but to the WWF was a heinous brech of kayfabe. Shawn was the World Champion and Hall & Nash were gone, so Hunter was the only available target and he paid the price by being pulled from the PPV entirely and spent the next six months doing jobs.

The WWF did eventually decide that he had learned his lesson and began pushing him again and gave him the Intercontinental Title, which he held for four months before losing it out of nowhere to a rookie named Rocky Maivia. Who's that, you ask? Well, before he was dropping the People's Elbow, laying the smackdown, or turning things sideways and sticking them straight up people's candy asses, the Rock was known as Rocky Maivia, a name that was taken from his father Rocky Johnson and grandfather Peter Maivia, both of whom were WWWF/WWF stars in days gone by. Billed as the first ever third generation wrestler, Rocky Maivia was anything but the cool guy the Rock became. Instead, he was a smiling, high fiving babyface who came to the ring wearing blue and white streamers and wanted to honor the legacy of his father and grandfather by winning the WWF World Title.

The Rock would eventually do that, but Rocky Maivia quickly became one of the most hated men on the WWF roster. This was the 90s, and the fans didn't want a sappy babyface who cared about his family and fought for justice, and it didn't help that he was green as grass and sucked in the ring. The WWF tried everything they could to get him over, but he would still come out every night and see "die Rocky die" signs being held up by fans would boo everything he did in the ring.

Winning the Intercontinental Title didn't help one bit, and if anything made the fans hate him even more, especially after having what was regarded at the time as the worst IC Title match in Wrestlemania history against the Sultan, the aftermath of which saw him get beat up so badly that his dad had to run out of the audience to save him. The WWF knew that they risked ruining him forever if they kept doing what they were doing with him, so he dropped the IC Title to Owen Hart shortly after Wrestlemania and disappeared from TV for several months.

Fortunately for Hunter Hearst Helmsley, losing to Rock didn't hurt him one bit, and if anything he rebounded and finally got to win the King Of The Ring in 1997, defeating Mankind in the finals. Speaking of Mankind, he's another interesting story because Mick Foley would go on to become maybe the most beloved star of the Attitude Era and we'd see more and more of Mick Foley the person come out on TV as time went on, but his original character was that of a kid who failed to live up to his parents' expectations, so they slammed a piano lid on his fingers and shattered them, then sent him to live in the sewers to be raised by rats.

It was a ridiculous character even though it was par for the course in those days, but Foley ended up getting over in spite of the gimmick because he beat the Undertaker clean and then would go on to beat him several more times, and also had great matches while working the hardcore Mick Foley style that really hadn't been seen in the WWF up to that point. It's a testament to how talented Mick Foley is, regardless of what Ric Flair will say about him, that he was good enough to overcome being handicapped with such a dumb gimmick.

After losing the finals of King Of The Ring, Mankind did a series of sitdown interviews with Jim Ross talking about how he was a WWF fan when he was growing up on Long Island and hitchhiked to Madison Square Garden to see Jimmy Snuka do the Superfly Splash off the top of the cage onto Don Muraco, and how all he wanted was to be Dude Love, a good looking babe magnet who got all the girls and won all the titles. But as he got older and the girls and success never came, and it drove him to madness that would cause him to evolve into Cactus Jack and eventually Mankind.

The interviews were framed in such a way that it mixed Mick Foley's realy life with the Mankind character, but it connected with a lot of fans who could relate to a guy who dreamed of being a big wrestling star in spite of everything he had working against him, and overnight Mankind started being greeted with cheering crowds as he came out for his matches. For all the years that Vince McMahon had been crafting dumbass gimmicks for people, this was undeniable proof that letting people incorporate elements of who they really are into their wrestling character could be successful, and they didn't need to be a pirate or evil clown to do it.

Foley was quickly turned babyface and soon won the WWF Tag Team Title with Steve Austin on the same night he finally got to wrestle as Dude Love, but let's backtrack a bit and see how Austin got here from when we left off with him at King Of The Ring 1996. Austin won the tournament and delivered the Austin 3:16 speech, but rather than become the overnight sensation WWE's revisionist history says he did, he spent months floundering around without a direction and wasn't even on the main Summerslam PPV, wrestling a five minute preshow match against Yokozuna instead. He did get elevated in the feud with Bret Hart, but then spent the rest of the year feuding with Owen Hart over the Intercontinental Title.

By the end of 1997, the WWF was badly losing the war and WCW seemed unstoppable as they steamrolled toward Starrcade 97, which was supposed to be the big blowoff show that would be headlined by the long-awaited Hogan vs Sting match. It was at that point that finally, after years of unsuccessfully trying the same things over and over, and with Bret Hart off to WCW and Shawn Michaels forced into retirement with a back injury, the WWF was left with no choice but to elevate Austin, Rock, Triple H, and Foley and see how they performed as headliners.

Austin literally threw the Intercontinental Title away and set his sights on the WWF Title, winning it at Wrestlemania 14 and going right into a long feud against Vince McMahon, who himself had become a compelling character after the fallout of Bret's departure. Their feud, and Austin in general, drew higher ratings and bigger PPV buyrates than anything ever seen before in the wrestling business, and Austin drew more money for the company over those years than even Hogan had during his prime.

Rocky Maivia had come back as a member of the Nation Of Domination and began to develop the cool Rock persona that the fans finally took to in a way they never would to Rocky Maivia. He regained the Intercontinental Title and held it for nine months, then won the Deadly Games tournament at Survivor Series 1998 to claim the destiny Vince McMahon had foreseen for him and become the Corporate Champion that Steve Austin refused to be. He would go on to win multiple World Titles, headline many PPVs, and would be second only to Austin in terms of money drawn.

Mick Foley continued to gain fan support until turning heel in shocking fashion and becoming Vince McMahon's handpicked first challenger for Austin after he won the WWF Title. He failed to beat Austin, but continued to be heavily involved with Vince in storylines until McMahon screwed him at Survivor Series and left him for dead. The screwjob just served to get Foley even more over, and he finally achieved his lifelong dream a month later when he beat the Rock on Monday Night Raw to win the WWF World Title.

Hunter Hearst Helmsley ditched the Greenwich Blueblood character and became more of a normal guy before being teamed up with his buddy Shawn Michaels as the original Degeneration X. When Shawn went down with the back injury, Triple H reformed the group with himself as the leader and reignited his feud with the Rock, finally beating him for the Intercontinental Title in a Ladder Match at Summerslam 98. He turned heel again in 1999 and joined Vince McMahon's Corporation, and within months had won his first World Title by beating Mick Foley the night after Summerslam. He is now married into the McMahon family and is probably the most powerful wrestler in the world.

* * *

After years of the WWF shooting themselves in the foot with all the dumb stuff I've talked about in this series, they had finally faced up to the fact that their choice was to either cave in and give the fans what they wanted or possibly let WCW run them out of business. Against every one of Vince McMahon's instincts, he finally gave in and started pushing guys he never would have pushed otherwise, and allowed them to do things on TV that were absolutely taboo mere months earlier.

It was undoubtedly a difficult move for Vince to make, but one that had to be done because, despite Bret and Shawn killing themselves to overcome how badly the company was being booked, the WWF was putting out a poor product that was a clear step down from what they were doing less than a decade earlier. They had been able to get away with telling the fans what they wanted to see for years, but WCW became more competitive than they hever had been in the past and, for the first time ever, forced Vince's hand by posing a legitimate threat to his business.

You'll also notice a strange similarity between the New WWF Generation and the way they do things today. Because TNA hasn't been able to provide a strong enough product of its own that they can truly challenge WWE, they can take John Cena, their top star, and portray him as a dumbass. They can try and convince us that Randy Orton, Drew McIntyre, and Wade Barrett are the greatest things in the world when they couldn't carry the jockstrap of some of the guys in TNA and ROH. They can fill the place up with Communists Russians, Leprechauns, and guys who go Woo Woo Woo because kids will accept those guys if they tell them to.

Oh yeah, they'll also take really talented guys like CM Punk and Daniel Bryan, who could blow everybody else in the company away if you just turned them loose and let them do their thing, and they'll kinda push them and let them brush against the top, but they won't really elevate them all the way because that would mean that they were wrong to get behind John Cena and Randy Orton, and they'd have to admit that the big muscular guys and the Supermen they've been cramming down everybody's throats all these years aren't all they're cracked up to be. The difference is that this time around, they'd also have stockholders to explain that to!

This is why it's so crucial for TNA, or if not them then somebody else, to step up their game and become true competition, because otherwise we're going to get the same WWE we've gotten for years now, and Vince McMahon won't see any reason to give us anything other than what he's been giving us all along. It's what he's wanted to give us all along and what he would have been giving us if Nitro and the NWO never happened.

There's a saying that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it, and I have no idea who first coined the phrase, but I wouldn't be surprised to discover it was Vince McMahon's high school history teacher.

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