365 Wrestling, Day 45: Steel Cage, Steve Austin vs. Vince McMahon (WWF St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, 2/14/99)

365 Wrestling, Day 45: Steel Cage, Steve Austin vs. Vince McMahon (WWF St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, 2/14/99)

365 matches in 365 days, each from that specific date on the calendar? Challenge accepted. Welcome to 365 Wrestling.

Nothing warms my heart like hearing from readers who are enjoying the project, and also seeing people share, retweet and like the social media posts promoting entries. So far, one of the biggest supporters of the 365 Wrestling project and this site has been Matt Griffin, who currently is the promoter of ACTION Wrestling (which this site sponsors).

I want to make things here a bit more interactive, so when I came up with the concept of offering guests the chance to pick matches, Matt was an easy choice.

His selection? Stone Cold Steve Austin vs. Vince McMahon in a steel cage, from the main event of WWF’s St. Valentine’s Day Massacre on February 14, 1999.

Why did Matt choose this match?

“It’s Vince — the figure that has dominated and changed wrestling. Everything in the Wrestlemania era, always comes down to Vince McMahon. And Austin vs. Vince is his first real singles match up, when he was well into his 50s. Never let anyone say that for better or worse, Vince will show his locker room that he will step in the ring and do the same thing he asks them to.

“Vince vs. Austin is likely the most important feud in WWF history in any case, it carried the water to take the 83 week dominance away from WCW, but this match also happened on the show that was the lead-in to Wrestlemania XV.”

You can watch this match on Peacock.

The Context

The Austin-McMahon feud began about a year ago when Stone Cold first became champion and this is hyped as the “final chapter” between them. As we all know, this was far from the end of the hostilities between Austin and Vince, but there is a transition after this as The Undertaker’s group, The Ministry of Darkness, also gets involved… along with the McMahon kids, Shane and Stephanie.

This specific match came about after Vince won the Royal Rumble in January and, with it, a shot at the WWF World Title at WrestleMania. Vince didn’t want that match, since at the time The Rock — part of McMahon’s Corporation stable — was champion, so he turned down the title shot… only to have WWF Commissioner Shawn Michaels explain the honors would go to the runner-up in the Rumble, Austin. That led to Austin putting his WrestleMania title shot at stake to get Vince inside the cage for this match. In the build-up, Vince agreed no members of his Corporation faction would interfere, while Austin wasn’t allowed to touch McMahon until the match.

Vince does his best to trick Austin out of the match with various antics, including spitting in Austin’s face during a segment also involving Michaels on the Sunday Night Heat pre-show earlier in the evening.

The Match

My take: The WWF held this pay-per-view in Memphis, and I can’t think of a more fitting setting for a match that relies heavily on smoke and mirrors and shenanigans. What we see here is an updated, amped-up, more “adult” version of the battles between Jerry Lawler (who is on commentary and fights an ongoing battle with laryngitis) and Jimmy Hart from the early 1980s.

This match is all schtick from beginning to end. It’s also another example of what we saw in the entry for February 11, with the bad guys — or bad-guy boss in this case — finally getting a comeuppance. There are a few minutes of stalling but that just brings an already-engaged crowd to a proper boil. When Austin feigns a knee injury on the floor to lure Vince within reach and then levels him with a clothesline, there’s a huge roar.

Everyone remembers this match for Vince’s huge bump, where he falls off the side of the cage through a table. It’s a gruesome landing; Vince hits the table and bounces off it before it collapses under him. Based on my research, Vince fractured his tailbone on the spot, and I am not surprised. That would have been enough but when Howard Finkel comes in the ring to announce Austin the winner due to injury, Stone Cold grabs the mic and says he’s not finished. It’s a great touch that further engages the crowd, and gives Vince several valuable minutes to recover, also extending the match through smoke and mirrors.

A beatdown ensues inside the cage that leaves Vince a bloody, battered mess… but when Austin goes to leave the ring, McMahon lures him back in by taunting Stone Cold with what my father once called “the single digit of friendship.”

Just typical behavior by the CEO …

Everything works until the finish, which is like the wrestling equivalent of a goofy Looney Tunes comic where a faux pas by Elmer Fudd allows Bugs Bunny to escape down the rabbit hole. Vince just coaxed Austin back in the ring a second time and eats a Stunner when the Big Show (or, as he’s announced here, Paul Wight) comes up through the ring in his WWF debut after jumping from WCW. Wight manhandles Austin a bit, then throws Austin into the cage, which snaps a section free, allowing Stone Cold to drop to the floor and win the match.    

Matt’s Take: “This was great! Vince as a performer has always been fantastic and a character. He looks completely jacked as he walks to the ring, a lifetime interest in bodybuilding paying off in spades. Several times before Vince flies off the cage, you can catch him quickly looking back and making sure he is in the right place to land. Austin rams Vince’s head into the cage and he explodes backward, downward and through a table as if launched from a high powered slingshot.  A requisite gurney spot (oh yes, the match hasn’t started officially) with Austin jumping him in the aisle is pure heat, tossing refs and officials aside to get Vince back in the cage.

“A heating beating ensues, with Vince taking multiple cage shots to the face (to ensure he has reason to blade for extra heat). A stunner, with Austin talking trash to Vince’s face and then… “THAT’S PAUL WIGHT, THAT’S PAUL WIGHT!”  The former Big Show is in WWF and lays Austin out. At Vince’s behest he throws Stone Cold into a section of the cage… which busts completely through. Austin ends up on the floor and wins, keeping his shot at the WWF title at WMXV.”

Random Thoughts

–Lawler sums up the appeal of the Austin-McMahon feud in a single line during the ring entrances: “How many rednecks around the world would love to get the chance to slap around their boss?”

–Speaking of commentary, Michael Cole is the lead broadcaster for this one, part of a several-month stint in late 1998 and early 1999 when he stepped in after Jim Ross suffered his initial bout of Bell’s Palsy.

–Some of the Austin-McMahon stuff has been affected by the fact that the wrestling business as a whole took the “evil authority figure” concept and proceeded to drive it into the ground over the ensuing two decades, but the energy and heat here still cannot be topped.

–Is there a more dramatic and more effective transformation in wrestling that Austin evolving from Stunning Steve into Stone Cold?

–It’s influenced by hindsight but the entire debut of the Big Show here just reminds me of all the later instances in TNA where a former WWE wrestler would make a surprise appearance and, to avoid any copyright infringement, Mike Tenay and Don West would introduce them with something ambiguous like, “We all know who THAT is…”

Final Rating: 6.7

This is one of the best matches I’ve seen involving a non-wrestler. It’s got historic value because, as Matt mentioned, this is Vince’s first match ever. Austin beats Vince to a bloody pulp after about a year of build. This would have been an ideal time for Vince to take an extended break in front of the cameras, but I guess that works better for a territory than a major televised wrestling company. There may not be a better example of a match working on nearly every level despite very little wrestling actually taking place. It would rate higher for me but the finish knocked it down a peg or two.

Here’s the complete, ongoing list of matches in this project.

Up Next

Another gimmick match. This time, we head to the Carolinas for a match that’s all about making your opponent say those two little words…

Are YOU interested in making a match suggestion for the 365 Wrestling project? I’m accepting limited guest submissions for the remaining entries in the year. Just reach out on Twitter or fill out the contact form on the site.

365 Wrestling, Day 28: Last Man Standing, John Cena vs. Umaga (WWE Royal Rumble, 1/28/07)

365 Wrestling, Day 28: Last Man Standing, John Cena vs. Umaga (WWE Royal Rumble, 1/28/07)

365 matches in 365 days, each from that specific date on the calendar? Challenge accepted. Welcome to 365 Wrestling.

I don’t care if you are the most devoted fan of something, you’re going to have gaps. Especially when it comes to something as diverse as wrestling, when there are so many different varieties and flavors out there, only so many hours in the day, and the current era where there’s an overwhelming amount of footage out there to watch.

But anyway… gaps. I’ve written about these gaps before (like here and also here), And, one of those gaps was the 2007 Royal Rumble. I’ve written before about my love of the Rumble but this was one of those years that I did not watch live. I caught the Rumble several years later, but never the undercard, and in the process, I missed out on the John Cena vs. Umaga Last Man Standing match, which is generally regarded as one of the best non-Rumble matches in the history of the Rumble events.

This oversight has been addressed. If you’ve not seen the match, or just want to relive it before reading further, it’s available on Peacock. Just go to the 1:04 mark of the video.

The Context

This is Cena’s third reign with the WWE Title and he is about two years into his decade-long run as a “top guy” for WWE. He’s met quite the obstacle in Umaga, who is in his second run in the company after previously spending time in the tag division with Rosey in 3 Minute Warning. Umaga went undefeated on WWE TV from the time he debuted in the gimmick in April of 2006 until January of 2007, when he challenged Cena for the title and lost on a roll-up. That outcome led to this rematch thanks to heel authority figure Jonathan Coachman (and hasn’t THAT become an overdone storyline trope in wrestling, Dear Reader?)

On the go-home episode of Raw before the Rumble, Umaga put Cena through a table with a splash off the top, aided by Coachman and Umaga’s mouthpiece, Armando Alejandro Estrada. Cena has to be helped to the back, and earlier on the Rumble, he’s in the trainer’s room getting checked out by the doctor — complete with an unexpected visit from Vince McMahon who seems downright gleeful at Cena’s condition and the slim chances of him retaining the title.

The Match

Cena comes out with taped ribs still showing the effects of the attack by Umaga and his cohorts six days earlier. Umaga comes off super impressive and dominates the majority of the match. When Cena does rally and start mounting some offense, oftentimes it ends with Umaga clobbering him. I’ve written before about escalation of violence as an effective way to structure a match and it definitely works here. Cena, who already took a beating against Umaga in a straight-up wrestling match and won in flukey fashion, eats more punishment in this one until he ramps up the violence–first and foremost by throwing the STEEL(!) steps out of the ring and into Umaga’s face. I let out a gasp when it happened, it was so unexpected. The crowd loves it, and it draws the biggest cheers yet for Cena, but Umaga also reaches his feet well before the 10 count.

Steps become the great equalizer for Cena… for a while, that is. Eventually the steps come into the ring and Cena attempts to deliver his FU (soon to be renamed the Attitude Adjustment when WWE goes PG later in the year) across the steps, but is unable to hoist Umaga. The champ crashes facefirst into the edge of the steps, and comes up bleeding, soon forming the proverbial crimson mask that stands out as the last effective, memorable use of blood in WWE until the promotion makes its PG pivot–and also a storytelling device that WWE has continued to avoid to this day.

Since the steps aren’t getting it done anymore and a bloody Cena is being pushed to his limits, he continues to escalate the violence. He rams Umaga shoulder-first into the ringpost, leaving him dangling there while he yoinks a monitor from one of the ringside broadcast tables and smashes it into the challenger’s head, which is resting against the post. This also provokes a fabulous and completely genuine “oh Jiminy God!” call from Jim Ross on commentary.

Even through brutal moments like taking the STEEL(!) steps to the face and becoming the meat in a TV monitor concussion sandwich, there seems to be little doubt in the overall story of the match or in the crowd that Umaga is going to get to his feet. That changes when the action spills to the floor, where the two combatants take advantage of the three announce tables (one for each brand, you see). Umaga stacks Cena on the ECW commentary table, then climbs on the far edge of the far table and takes a run at Cena. He leaps off the middle table for a splash, Cena rolls out of the way, and Umaga destroys the table in a fantastic-looking moment. Umaga barely beats the 10 count in a delightfully close and completely believable false finish.

What follows? Another escalation of violence, of course. Estrada undoes one of the top rope turnbuckles and Umaga tries to wield it for a version of the Samoan Spike. Cena avoids it, uses the turnbuckle as a weapon himself, and finally fells Umaga, using the top rope to throttle the challenger into unconsciousness. The fact it takes two separate stranglings to finish the job only underscores the unstoppable monster atmosphere surrounding Umaga at this time.

What really makes this match work is the performance of Umaga, a fantastically athletic big man who ends up in a perfect position thanks to being slowly and steadily built up through booking as an unstoppable juggernaut. Would this match have so much sizzle if Umaga had been trading wins and losses, instead of a nine-month undefeated streak prior to his first meeting with Cena? Wins and losses matter.

Random Thoughts

–Of Cena’s 16 reigns with one of the two world titles in WWE, this was by far his longest reign: 380 days from winning the title on Sept. 17, 2006, until Oct. 2, 2007, when he vacated the championship due to a torn pectoral.

–Estrada really did an effective job as a manager and mouthpiece for Umaga. He got lost in the shuffle during the build to the hair vs. hair match at WrestleMania 13 that spring.

–Umaga, who was released by WWE in the summer of 2009 after two violations of the company wellness policy, died that December of a heart attack brought on by acute toxicity from taking several painkillers. He was just 36 years old.

–The crowd proves whatever negative stereotype you prefer regarding wrestling fans when they start a “we want tables” chant while there are STEEL(!) steps lying in the ring and being used.

Final Rating: 9.0

This is a fantastic match. I know plenty of people, especially those who are wrestlers themselves, who hold up the Kurt Angle vs. Chris Benoit match from the 2003 Rumble as not only the best non-Rumble match ever, but one of the best wrestling matches ever. If Angle-Benoit is the wrestling equivalent of a symphony, this is the equivalent of a blockbuster action movie. Is one better than the other? That’s really in the eye of the beholder, as the two products are so different that it’s difficult to compare them outside of the shared setting of a WWE ring.

Cena is at the peak of his fan favorite status, before a sizable percentage of the WWE audience starts turning against him. It helps that his act still has some edge to it at this time; Cena, and everyone else, end up de-fanged when WWE tames down its product in the wake of the Benoit murder-suicide that summer. Umaga ends up losing his monstrous aura after losing to Bobby Lashley at WrestleMania in the hair vs. hair match that involved McMahon and Donald Trump as managers.

The only match thus far in the project that has been on this level, to me, was the Rockers vs. New Orient Express tag match from the ’91 Rumble. I personally give this one the edge because of the higher stakes. Now, let’s see what can top it.

Here’s the complete, ongoing list of matches in this project.

Up Next

We head to 1999 and a packed high-school gym in the Carolinas to see one of the most beloved tag teams in wrestling… as heels?

What’s your favorite non-Rumble match from Royal Rumble pay-per-views? Agree or disagree with my take on this match? Let me know by using the contact form on this site, or reach me on Twitter.