Survivor Series 2003, right in the middle of the original brand split, saw both Raw and Smackdown present a pair of traditional elimination tag team matches after their absence the prior year, where they opted to use other elimination formats to fit the theme of the event (most notably the first Elimination Chamber). While the Smackdown effort was more bizarre than anything, with Brock Lesnar and a choice selection of big lads fighting Kurt Angle and his midcard friends, the Raw contribution was much better. Steve Austin and Eric Bischoff had been warring for a while as the co-general managers of the brand so this match was to settle that issue, with the winning team’s GM gaining full control and the losing team’s GM getting fired from the company. Forever!
Team Bischoff was represented by Chris Jericho, Christian, Mark Henry, Scott Steiner and, fresh off killing Mark Cuban earlier in the show, Randy Orton. Meanwhile, Austin brought along Booker T, Rob Van Dam, the Dudley Boys and Shawn Michaels. There was a plentiful selection of personalities at ringside too, as in addition to both Bischoff and Austin there was Teddy Long and Stacy Keibler. Teddy was in that brief period where he was absolutely furious at the white man. Fortunately this show concluded with the death of The Undertaker, an event that would lead to his revival the following year, ultimately creating Teddy’s golden era of tag team matches. The first signs that this may have been a Survivor Series match of note were on display right from the get-go, as wrestlers kicked out of actual moves and didn’t get eliminated after their first bump. Steiner worked a fairly absurd amount of the match at the start, telegraphing the first elimination, as he was distracted by his own valet Stacey, causing him to turn right into a reverse 3D and a Book End. Steiner actually didn’t look particularly bad with what he did here, although it did mostly consist of suplexes, pushups and telling the babyface wrestlers to shut up (sadly not repeating the potty-mouthed mistakes of the previous year’s Survivor Series). Steiner always seemed a fairly weird babyface in the WWE and by the time they turned him heel he was on the way out and past the point of no return. His storyline at this point, which saw Steiner and former enemy Test form a misogynist tag team with Stacy forced to be their manager (likely due to an old contractual loophole from the Tunney era), didn’t really fit. Peak Big Poppa Pump loved his freaks and this Titan interpretation of the character was not at all consistent with the previously established canon.
Speaking of quick eliminations, Steiner’s departure lead to a quick flurry of them under “winner stays on” rules, as Henry squashed Steiner’s conqueror and 2003 Wrestlemania title match challenger Booker T with a World’s Strongest Slam, only to meet doom himself soon after courtesy of a 3D and a Five Star Frog Splash. Henry’s elimination was particularly fun because, as is well known, Mark Henry is a big fat man, a big fat man who can and will bend innocent frying pans without showing mercy, but still essentially a big fat man, so of course the Dudleys and RVD all jumped on top of him to pin him. Orton soon took out RVD with an RKO (setting up their Intercontinental Title match the following month), Jericho eliminated D-Von with the Flashback, then Christian pinned Bubba with the Unprettier after a low blow. This wasn’t all as abrupt as it sounds as it was worked at a fairly fast pace, helped by the fact that in 2003 RVD didn’t wrestle in slow motion and was still quite fun to watch, so him just rolling through his greatest hits was entertaining enough on its own. Nobody looked overly weak in defeat either, aside from maybe D-Von who got pinned by one of Chris Jericho’s awful finishers from his Undisputed Title run in 2002, a move that may not have defeated a single person after this.
This set the stage for why this match is really great, as you were left with Shawn Michaels against three of the top heels on Raw. The few minutes where Orton, Jericho and Christian each garnered those eliminations following distractions/interference from the other two were incredibly effective, as you not only made all three look like impressive wrestlers (and equal threats) but you established them as an effective trio in this particular sort of match. To stand any chance against this pack of dogs Shawn would have to avoid that sort of teamwork. He didn’t do such a good job of that as all three worked him over and each comeback on one heel invariably ended in the other two stopping him in his tracks. One such attack resulted in Christian catapulting Shawn into the ring post. Shawn then started bleeding all over the place. Like, everywhere. Over himself, over the floor, over the mat, over his opponents. Shawn had a habit of doing this around this time, usually to make his matches with Triple H all the more epic (in their mind at least), but this was definitely on the severe side. Christian began mocking Shawn but soon paid for it as Shawn caught him running out of the corner with a superkick, collapsing backwards onto him to make the pin. Over the years I’ve sensed that type of cover isn’t particularly popular, usually because it’s used in “double pin” scenarios, but it was pretty awesome here, as it seemed less like Shawn had intended to kick and pin Christian, more like Shawn’s muscle memory had kicked in (pun fully intended) and gravity had done the rest of the work. It was overly dramatic but seriously, Shawn had suddenly transformed into the walking dead, I think this was the time to be overly dramatic. Stone Cold was appropriately motivational from the outside, willing Shawn to fight back against the forces of evil.
There’s an episode of the Superman prequel television series Smallville where Clark Kent is “murdered” by Zod, stabbed with a blue kryptonite knife before falling off a building. This sends him to a spiritual plane of existence, where he meets with his long dead father Jonathan Kent and is convinced by both the ghost of his dead human father Jonathan Kent and the voice of his dead space ghost computer father Jor-El that he is earth’s saviour, leading to the epic comeback. The comparison between their motivational tactics and the approach of Steve Austin is obvious, although it’s hard to argue that it wouldn’t have been improved with the quietly charismatic presence of John Schneider at ringside as a celebrity guest. This moment truly was Shawn’s spiritual plane of existence. Austin’s encouragement seemed to succeed to an extent, as the Walls of Jericho was countered swiftly into a cradle by Shawn to level things up at last. Jericho did twat Michaels about the head with a chair after his elimination though, allowing for more bleeding and more jelly-legged selling. The referee got bumped after Orton hit him with a crossbody off the top, leading to a whole load of bullshit involving Bischoff and Austin. Austin stunned Orton then carted Bischoff down the aisle like he was attempting to claim a bounty, only for Batista to stealth his way into the ring and powerbomb Shawn, allowing Orton to pin him to win the match.
The story of this match was obviously Shawn’s performance, although the booking around it was incredibly smart too. Much like a well-booked Royal Rumble, it laid the foundations for a lot of their plans over the next few months at the very least, with one eye also on making Orton into a main man in the long term. Orton, at this point in time portraying the cocky prettyboy, didn’t look overly strong or weak in victory, but those credibility-affirming wins would come in 2004 against Mick Foley. This wasn’t about giving him the credibility in his performance, it was about establishing his “Legend Killer” persona and giving him something to gloat about, namely pinning Shawn Michaels and forcing Steve Austin out of the WWE. It didn’t matter how he did it, it just mattered that he had done it and pissed people off. This period of time, with Orton as the Intercontinental-level future star of Evolution, is easily Orton at his best in my opinion, a view only strengthened by him being thoroughly tedious for most of the decade and a bit that has followed. As for Shawn, this is the type of performance you’ll certainly never see again, at least intentionally. I appreciated this when I watched it as a kid because even then the Survivor Series matches were a bit naff. This was the first one I’d seen that actually came across like a main event match with significant consequences involving wrestlers of note. His selling will not have been for everyone but I thought it completely worked, and I remember this match years later almost entirely because of his performance. Shawn’s masochism did not go unnoticed, nor underappreciated. ****