Stone Cold Steve Austin’s heel turn at the conclusion of WrestleMania X-Seven is widely regarded as one of the biggest missteps in modern wrestling history.
After spending years feuding with and beating up Vince McMahon to the point that the two became considered mortal enemies, the show ended with the two men shaking hands as Jim Ross expressed his disgust on commentary.
Many fans saw it as the end of the Attitude Era, which is considered the biggest boom period in WWE history. that sudden swerve, coupled with Austin’s character change post-WrestleMania, was seen as a clear sign that the days of Austin stunning McMahon and otherwise being the anti-corporate hero people loved so much was gone.
And while that turn was largely undone later that year, by then the damage was done. WWE was seen by fans and outsiders as closing the chapter on an incredible era.
Internally, however, the turn and Steve Austin’s subsequent character shift were both seen in a different light.
“Steve Austin thought he could make this work” – Matt Hardy
On an episode of his Extreme Life podcast, Matt Hardy explained that Steve Austin pushed for this character change. Hardy claims Austin was confident that he could pull off this new gimmick well enough that fans would still want to watch WWE programming, even though their iconic hero was no longer the same person.
Steve [Austin] was really confident in himself and he thought he could make this thing work and I like that mentality, I like the approach of trying something different and new.
You have to always change, you have to always evolve, right? Stone Cold became a character that was so beloved, it was very hard to get him booed and that was gonna be problematic all the way through that.
To me, it feels very similar to Jeff Hardy. It would be hard to make Jeff Hardy a full-fledged heel because he’s just such a beloved character and people connect with him in a way that very few people do. Stone Cold was that way too. I know he went out, and it was in Texas of all places where he is absolutely put on a pedestal, and he was getting cheered when he was beating The Rock’s ass after aligning with Mr. McMahon or whatever.”
Steve Austin more or less returned to his “old self” by the end of 2001, but by then cracks began to form in his relationship with WWE.
There were issued with his match with Scott Hall at WrestleMania X8 and the relationship between Austin and the company’s creative department deteriorated months later due to a proposal that would see Austin lose to Brock Lesnar instead of building that up as a big-money PPV match.
These issues, coupled with more and more stress being put on his body and mind from wrestling and traveling, caused him to walk away from the company in very acrimonious fashion.
h/t Fightful for the transcription