There is perhaps no singular incident in WWE that changed the course of history the way that the Madison Square Garden curtain call did. “Stone Cold” Steve Austin may not have become the star that he did and the Attitude Era would have taken a very different shape and form. But what was this incident that triggered such a change in what happened?
While no one knew it then, a single kayfabe-breaking moment would alter the course of WWE as we knew it. It all began in 1996. WWE was thick into the Monday Night Wars against WCW. Nitro had been around for less than a year, but WWE was being defeated in the ratings. On top of it all, two top stars in Kevin Nash and Scott Hall decided to jump ship to WCW after being offered lucrative contracts.
Their farewell match was set to take place at a house show in Madison Square Garden, where Nash and Triple H (the heels) wrestled against Shawn Michaels and Scott Hall (the babyfaces). You’re probably aware of the Kliq and the impact they had backstage in WWE during the later years of the New Generation Era.
It only made sense that the four friends worked with each other in Hall and Nash’s final match. After the match, the four men broke character, hugging it out when saying their goodbyes. There was just one problem – it was filmed and kayfabe was completely broken. Kayfabe maybe non-existent in many ways nowadays, but back then, it was an important part of the business.
Naturally, the backstage officials were furious at this, and there was going to be a price to pay. Shawn Michaels couldn’t be punished because he was WWE Champion at the time. Nash and Hall were leaving, so naturally they would face no consequences for their actions. This left Triple H as the odd one out. Now, it’s important to note that King of The Ring was around the corner and the person who was set to win the tournament was none other than The Game himself.
Because of this, his push was taken away and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin was booked to win the tournament instead. After beating Jake Roberts in the finals, Austin would make his famous proclamation: “Austin 3:16 says that I just whooped your a**”. This wasn’t the exact moment he reached his peak, but it was the start of his major rise to superstardom.
Not only did Austin’s “3:16” shirt become the highest-selling shirt in WWE history, but his push came right around the time that WWE was moving away from PG TV. It would still be less than a couple of years before the Attitude Era had fully begun, but even so, his character was perfectly suited to that era, and we know exactly what heights he took the company too.
As for the repercussions of what happened, Shawn Michaels had his title run go up till Survivor Series (before briefly winning it back at Royal Rumble 1997 and vacating it). Kevin Nash and Scott Hall created a major wave in WCW and formed the nWo with Hulk Hogan, who turned heel for the first time in a very long time.
Triple H surprisingly didn’t suffer as much as people thought he would. Sure, his push was taken away on the short-term, but he ended up winning the King of The Ring tournament later on, and his career would take a little longer to truly kick off. But when it did, his dominance was non-stop. He dominated more than just The Attitude Era, he would end up winning World titles in the subsequent eras that followed and main event WrestleMania on multiple occasions.
Steve Austin’s rise to the top was definitely the most vital happening for WWE at that period of time. When Bret Hart had left in 1997, Shawn Michaels was on the verge of retirement due to a terrible back injury. Austin was the star that they needed to create, and his coronation at 1998 turned out to be the Kickstarter of the Attitude Era. Austin was a box office megastar and took WWE to new heights, absolutely decimating WCW in the process.
It was key in the Monday Night Wars and had the Curtain Call not happened, it’s hard to say what exactly would have followed. Triple H may have gotten his main event push sooner, but the crop of superstars that would step up to the plate would truly take the company to a place and era that they had never seen before.
In retrospect, there may not have been an incident that triggered a change in WWE the way that the MSG curtain call ended up doing. It’s definitely something that everyone involved should be thankful for.