Wrestling is a strange, strange business. No, just take my next topic for example:
XXXII. Steve Austin
It may be hard for the current generation to fully appreciate, because even I only have about half his career that I was fully able to appreciate, but here’s a guy who literally broke all the rules, rising from a greatly-respected wrestler to full-blown superstar. That sort of thing simply doesn’t happen, either historically or in the present. Unless of course you count CM Punk. I have a feeling that when I get around to talking about Punk directly in a couple months, he’s going to be even bigger than he is now, but let’s get started with his unprecedented precedent.
Austin was indeed an admired, underappreciated competitor in WCW for about half of the 1990s, spending time as a tag team wrestler and mid-card title holder (a model for many other wrestlers I can think of, come to think of it). He didn’t have “it,” so the brass had concluded, and so he was going nowhere fast. Transition to ECW for a few months, and he mostly spent his time venting on the mic. Even when he was signed by WWE in 1995, most observers hardly took notice. Austin became known as the “Ringmaster,” and served as Ted DiBiase’s protégé, even got to be the second officially recognized Million Dollar Champion. He still had hair during this period, I might add.
A feud with Savio Vega followed (if I were Vega, I’d still be peeved that Austin’s most notable angle prior to explosion was never revisited), “Stone Cold” was adopted as a nickname, and the 1996 King of the Ring went down in the history books with the phrase “Austin 3:16.” Should I note here that the “Texas Rattlesnake” won the tournament by defeating Jake Roberts? Can you even fathom how Steve still basically had to wait two years for the company to rebuild itself around him?
It’s true! To be fair, CM Punk has benefited a lot from WWE actually allowing him to get away with previously taboo things completely on purpose. “Austin 3:16” came about as perhaps one of the last great unscripted adlibs in wrestling history (not that I know the history of unscripted adlibs; it may well be the greatest, and probably is). It took time to figure out how to present this new character in its entirety, and the masterstroke of giving this heelish face a corporate boss to play against was simply unheard-of in 1996 (in contrast, Eric Bischoff joined the New World Order with very little fanfare, and was promptly swallowed whole; imagine how things would have been different if that one’d played out differently). Bret Hart did a lot of things, both intentionally and otherwise, to help the Steve Austin era to begin. First, there was perhaps his greatest match ever, at WrestleMania 13, and later on in 1997, the infamous Montreal Screwjob, which very publically exposed Vince McMahon as more than just a color commentator prone to describing every single piece of action as a “maneuver.”
Actually, when you really think about it, you do kind of scratch your head at just how convoluted a lot of the things that came to define the rise of “Stone Cold” really were. Almost every single relevant development in his first year as champion came from his rivalry with McMahon. His notable opponents in the ring included “Dude Love,” the most ill-conceived identity Mick Foley adopted during his career, Kane, and Undertaker, who kept battling him and failing to make any kind of reasonable impact as rivals. Everyone wanted to see Steve Austin, and then an embarrassed Vince McMahon. Ironically, the very wrestling skills that had once gotten Austin noticed were reduced to one of the most limited repertoires since Hulk Hogan. Plenty of that had to do with increasingly limited mobility, thanks to a neck injury we won’t get into here, plus bad knees that only got worse. As a result, the concept of the brawl became so exaggerated it almost made more sense to keep the action anywhere but in the ring. No, Steve had very few worthy opponents in those days.
It got so bad that The Rock was elevated to the world title scene, during Austin’s hottest year, 1998, which set the stage for a record three WrestleMania matches, the only time WWE has counted on the same pair of wrestlers on its biggest card so many times (only Kane and Undertaker have a chance of meeting that total). The Rock was such a perfect foil that even when Austin wasn’t around, a completely different star (Triple H) had to be concocted to keep the ball going. In the fall of 1999, Steve finally had surgery on his neck, which put him out of action for a year, and by the time he returned, all his momentum had effectively dissipated. As I’ve tried to suggest, it was the Invasion angle that brought Steve Austin back to relevance, even if no one seemed to appreciate it at the time. Soon after, probably because of that very fact, he saw his opportunities dry up, and decided to bring his active career to an end, more suddenly than anyone had been expecting, in early 2002.
Another fact that many fans don’t seem to appreciate about Austin is that he had become such an iconic personality, that he could literally keep his character going and stay mostly retired (with a last official match occurring at WrestleMania XIX; as if you have to ask who his opponent was), and he did just that during 2003, and on a much more sporadic basis afterward, realizing perhaps too late that he could transition into movies (which is not to belittle his current career so much as suggest he could have been more successful if he’d started earlier).
Anyway, my point may have gotten away from me. Suffice it to say, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin is a formula that probably no one else could have figured out, except Austin and Vince McMahon. CM Punk is indeed very similar, but the remarkable thing about this particular career revision is that Punk is at a point where he can literally still dazzle in the ring both on the mic and in action. Austin’s revelation came too late, and caught the company completely off-guard. Shawn Michaels was supposed to be the breakthrough champion of 1996, and as it turned out, that was basically the only time he would ever have to shine in that capacity. Bret Hart stole 1997, with only a little rub given to Austin in the process, which he himself never seemed to appreciate (imagine how things could have played out differently for everyone if he’d played his little hissy-fit against a rebellious, don’t-care-about-anyone-else’s-opinions “Rattlesnake,” and not against, say, The Patriot; maybe he’d’ve stayed in WWE, and the other Hart I’m not mentioning by name could possibly have had a different fate, too…).
Austin didn’t have a chance to develop the kind of presence in either WWE or wrestling in general that, to a certain extent, Hulk Hogan still enjoys. Wear-and-tear shortened his career considerably; while it could be said that he burned faster and brighter than anyone else for a couple of years, it’s difficult to imagine that a guy who appeared as a minor figure in “The Expendables” amidst a gaggle of way-past-their-prime action stars can truly be absolutely pleased with his legacy. Then again, for a brief period, he was literally a legend in his own time. Wrestling attained mainstream success during that era, a credibility it hadn’t known for decades, and quickly lost the moment he vanished for that neck surgery. A wrestler who waited almost his whole career for vindication, who won it just at the moment where he was barely able to continue wrestling, well, it could certainly have been worse.
I don’t know. Steve Austin is another topic that absolutely will continue to fascinate me. That’s not such a bad fate.