At WrestleMania 17, the most popular figure in all of professional wrestling, Stone Cold Steve Austin, won a world title and turned heel. The occurrence sent shockwaves through the business, and WWE in particular. The transformation of such an icon fundamentally changed storylines, and paired with WWE acquiring WCW, signaled the end of the wildly successful Attitude Era. There were creative changes to follow, as well as changes to revenue as the company’s top merchandise mover no longer courted fans but rather actively pushed them away. The best shot at making Stone Cold’s heel turn work came in a feud that paired Austin with Triple H against The Undertake and Kane. The storyline and its matches were well executed, they nonetheless failed in their mission to make The Texas Rattlesnake the biggest heel in the business.
Revisiting Steve Austin And Triple H Vs. The Undertaker And Kane
After Stone Cold Steve Austin turned heel, it didn’t take long for him to strike up a partnership with Triple H. Together, they billed themselves The Two-Man Power Trip and set forth to dominate, reigning as World and Intercontinental Champions, respectively. It only made sense for them to cross paths with The Undertaker and Kane. The Brothers of Destruction set up one of the biggest rivalries of their tag team career, when they won the tag titles from Edge and Christian in the same timeframe.
The two teams squared off at Backlash, four weeks after WrestleMania, and continued the rivalry into the following month with The Undertaker challenging Austin for the WWE Championship in a No Holds Barred Match, and Kane actually defeating Triple H for the Intercontinental title in a Chain Match.
If Anyone Could Make Stone Cold A Heel, It Was The Undertaker And Kane
For much of spring 2001, The Rock out of the picture—in the early stages of his acting career. Triple H was playing a heel character teamed with Steve Austin. Kurt Angle had worked main events as a heel, but wasn’t set up to work as a face at the time. Guys like Chris Jericho were still working his way up the card. So, The Undertaker and Kane, two of the top faces of the Attitude Era, were not only the best choices to get Stone Cold Steve Austin over as a heel, but arguably the only choices.
The Undertaker was very popular in his Biker gimmick and particularly when Kane teamed up with his brother, he was a viable main event attraction, too. So, the premise of The Brothers of Destruction vs. The Two-Man Power Trip certainly had its box office appeal. However, this explosion of star teams felt less like two heroes squaring off against two villains than four huge stars battling—Triple H the only one among them whom fans were prepared to boo with their full hearts.
WWE Fans Still Wanted To Cheer Steve Austin
For as popular as The Brothers of Destruction were, they faced an all but impossible task in having to be more popular than Stone Cold Steve Austin—so popular that they could turn fans against him. The Rock might have had at least a fighting chance of pulling this off, but he’s truly the only star of that generation whose popularity truly rivaled Austin’s.
There was a certain logic to Triple H transferring heat to Austin by association. However, the pairing felt less like The Game moving Stone Cold further to the dark side, than like a dream team aligning—cool and powerful enough to run roughshod over lesser talents. It further didn’t help that, for as popular as The Undertaker and Kane may have been, they were still giants who made Austin and Helmsley look like physical underdogs. As such, it was an uphill battle to truly turn fans against Stone Cold, and it never came together.
The WCW Invasion Angle Was Doomed
Things changed rapidly in the back half of 2001. Triple H tore his quadricep, immediately altering Steve Austin’s trajectory. From there, WWE’s attempted reboot of WCW fell on its face, leading to a rushed Invasion angle with WCW stars teaming with ECW alumni. Positioning Stone Cold as the leader of The Alliance may have drawn some heat, given fans sincerely didn’t like the group. Still, even with The Brothers of Destruction and other top names from WWE continuing to pursue him, Austin was simply hard for wrestling fans to hate.
In the end, it may not have been realistic to expect anyone to turn fans against Steve Austin in 2001. Brutalizing Jim Ross and The Hardy Boyz—in so doing, portraying Austin as a bully–didn’t get the job done. Having The Undertaker and Kane stand up to Austin and Triple H was as good of an idea. Still, the truth remained clearer with each passing week that Stone Cold never should have turned heel.