Never Such Confidence Again
It was April 1st 2001 when the World Wrestling Federation held Wrestlemania X-Seven, smashing revenue and attendance records at the Houston Astrodome.
Vince McMahon, the owner of the WWF, was riding high. He had seen his bitter rival, World Championship Wrestling, gracelessly decline, and had bought it himself for a few million dollars. Ten years before he had been in danger of going out of business, and was facing legal troubles over steroid charges. Now, he was a billionaire.
Headlining the pay-per-view were perhaps the two most talented all-round performers in WWF history: Stone Cold Steve Austin and Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson. Both men were so charismatic it defied belief – so charismatic they could make boiling a pot of coffee or doing their taxes seem unmissable. Their classic promo package featured “My Way” by Limp Bizkit – a band whose music was in every sense absurd, crass and superficial but had so much arrogant swagger that they caught on nonetheless. It was the perfect soundtrack.
Elsewhere was a match between perhaps the two most talented technical wrestlers in wrestling history: Kurt Angle and Chris Benoit. Three tag teams were set to face each other in a revolutionary, and death-defyingly dangerous, “tables, ladders and chairs” match. McMahon himself would face his son, Shane, with his wife and daughter also being involved in something like a soap opera with added trashcans and steel chairs.
The show was a tremendous success. Stone Cold and the Rock, and Angle and Benoit, had battles for the ages. The “TLC” match was a brutal and uncompromising triumph. Even the match between the McMahons, neither of whom were full-time wrestlers, was perversely entertaining and whipped the audience into a frenzy. It was a mark of how insanely popular wrestling had become that McMahon’s wife, who had as much charisma as a boiled potato, brought to crowd to their feet just by standing up.
But it also marked the ending of an era. The WWF, which soon became the WWE under its new name World Wrestling Entertainment, would have many triumphs over the coming decades. But its popularity had peaked.
McMahon made several bad decisions. He launched the XFL - a rival football league to the NFL which soon collapsed because there was no appetite for one. He didn’t even like the sport. It was just an ego trip.
McMahon launched an “invasion” angle, pitting WWF wrestlers against performers whose contracts he had adopted from WCW. Unfortunately, he had not picked up the contracts of most of the stars – like Hulk Hogan, Kevin Nash and Goldberg – who had had contracts with AOL Time Warner rather than WCW itself and were in the fortunate position of being paid millions of dollars to sit at home. Thus, it had all the excitement of watching Barcelona take on Real Madrid's third team. Finally, the megastar Steve Austin “turned heel” – becoming a bad guy. This was not the worst decision in the world, because he had beaten everyone in his current role of the ass-kicking, beer-drinking antihero and did not have much else to do. But with the Rock bound for Hollywood it left McMahon with a dearth of babyfaces, or good guys, to pit him against. A frustrated Austin ended up walking out of the WWF and being arrested for domestic violence.
The explosion of wrestling in pop culture had had a lot to do with its transition from a bombastic, colourful product marketed to kids to an edgy, bloody product marketed towards young men. Some of the consequences of this era would catch up to the WWE. Chris Benoit, the greatest technical wrester of all time, ended up killing his wife, his son and himself. One cannot prove that brain damage from years of chair shots and diving head-butts contributed to his deeds but it seems probable. Eddie Guerrero, meanwhile, the federation’s great Latino star, died from a massive heart attack after spending years inflating his body with steroids.
Really, as “Hungry Bandaid” observes on Twitter, the peak of the WWF was also the peak of the United States. The US had coasted through the 90s on a wave of post-Cold War enthusiasm. Sure, the 90s had dark moments, like the botched intervention in Somalia or Monica Lewinsky’s unwashed dress, but it was also a time of smooth techno-optimism, economic attainment, military hegemony and the sort of cultural excess that could turn men hitting one another with chairs into a multi-billion dollar industry. Wrestlemania X-Seven was America itself: a rough, tough regional tradition elevated into a fantastic spectacle, and vitality straining in a corporate powerhouse.
In September, 9/11 came. That atrocity shocked and angered Americans, naturally, but what was more wounding for the American consciousness were the subsequent catastrophes of the “War on Terror”. Getting bogged down in Afghanistan, to take just one example, had deflated superpowers before and would do so again. The Great Recession that lasted between 2007 and 2009, meanwhile, jolted America, and much of Europe, out of the economic complacence of the 90s and the early noughties. As with McMahon, the ego and optimism of American leaders, as essential as they were, had outgrown their abilities.
In 2003, Limp Bizkit released Results May Vary – one of the worst albums of all time, which did not feature Wes Borland, their guitar player and only real musical asset, but which did feature a soggy, nauseating cover of The Who’s “Behind Blue Eyes,” on which cocky frontman Fred Durst sobbed “no one knows what it’s like to be hated.”
“Never such innocence again,” wrote Larkin in “MCMXIV”, his poem about young men preparing for the First World War. “Never such confidence again,” one thinks, watching Wrestlemania X-Seven. Never such confidence again.
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