One night I had been drinking. I was greatly discouraged about the obstacles in front of me—not finding the job I wanted after college, letting myself go physically, and letting people go, too. Instead of getting sad, however, I felt anger and when I felt anger I began to think of an era defined by anger and attitude. I looked in the mirror that night in May of 2012 but I didn’t see me. I saw past me. I saw Steve Austin standing on a stage at King of the Ring. I thought about how easily he could have quit when Eric Bischoff fired him over the phone. Instead he used anger to come back and overcome all excuses. I made a decision that night. If I do one thing, I want to open the book of Austin and retell his story—from King of the Ring to retirement—chapter by chapter and verse by verse.
A list of names you probably haven’t thought about this week—Bob “Spark Plug” Holly, Savio Vega, and Marc Mero.
These were the men who stood in the path of Steve Austin’s trek to the 1996 King of the Ring Finals.
These men possessed varying talents but none of them would ever rise above a certain level in the WWE no matter how long or short they stayed. These men were of the mid-card, and Steve Austin was exactly one of them in 1996.
He had barely emerged from the noose of his Ringmaster gimmick. So close to those days was Steve Austin that Owen Hart—who was in the announcer booth—would say that Steve Austin was preparing Marc Mero for the Million Dollar Dream. For the price of his dream, the Texas star had been given another man’s finisher and another man’s title and another man’s guidance. Steve Austin—who would ultimately make it saying, "Don’t trust anybody"—had been shackled by everybody.
Yet, it was Jim Ross who continually pointed out that Steve Austin had a new move that he had only introduced in the previous matches.
It was called the Stone Cold Stunner.
It represented a break from all the things WWF wanted to place upon Steve Austin. It did not signify the million dollars he had probably never truly earned with WWF. It signified his new name—Stone Cold.
It signified a new attitude; it would signify a new era.
Steve Austin—though considered one of many like Bob Holly, Savio Vega and Marc Mero—was never truly one of them. He had been a star, a bright one, from his WCW debut and his quick ascension to the Television Title. He also dominated in the U.S. Division and the Tag Team as well. It was clear to anyone watching he was on his way to the top of WCW.
Until he ran into Hulk Hogan; then "Hacksaw" Jim Duggan ran over him.
It was men past their primes that prevented him. The reheated and warmed over cast of the 80s WWF had hijacked the WCW and guys like Ron Simmons went to the WWF, and Sting was forced into the mid-card.
Steve Austin—potential world champion—was jobbed out and, after injury, fired over the phone.
So what must it have been like to discover your King of the Ring finalist opponent was another former star from the 80s WWF? Did he see "Hacksaw" Jim Duggan or Randy Savage or Hulk Hogan when he looked at a tired, over-the-hill Jake Roberts?
This much is for sure: there was enough disdain on his face to cover every one of those mentioned above and the rest of the cast that dominated mid-90s wrestling.
That night, Steve Austin unleashed Stone Cold upon Jake Roberts. He had no mercy in the ring and would have less, after winning, as he approached the King of the Ring Stage.
A quick trivia question: When Steve Austin stepped into his coronation, which ‘kingly’ object did he give his attention to?
- The Crown
- The Scepter
- The Robe
The answer: It was not the crown, the scepter or the robe—it was the platform.
Steve Austin barely stopped to observe the meaningless and gaudy objects that could, at best, lead him back to a Million Dollar Man gimmick and, at worst, make him another King Harley Race.
The guy who comes from another company and when you don’t want to make him a main-eventer or a world champion you ask him, "What’s better than being world champion? King!"
Steve Austin had seen all the traps and tricks of the business, and he was not interested in any such entrapment. He had elevated over the mid-carders and finally—finally—vanquished the 80s WWF roadblock that stood in his way.
Now he’d go straight to the microphone, and he’d take advantage of the platform King of the Ring had won him. It didn’t matter if Vince McMahon had plans for him or not—he had plans for the next couple minutes of his wrestling career.
He would prove something in this promo—words can change reality.
The lesson to be taken by every wrestler looking back is this: If you are given a platform and stand on it, own it.
Again: If you stand on it, own it.
Steve Austin stood high above the WWF and looked down displeased. He targeted Jake Roberts who was being carried from ringside. And the question has to be asked, If Jake Roberts hadn’t been an alcoholic with religious tendencies or an over-the-hill wrestler, would Steve Austin had been able to launch himself at King of the Ring?
The answer, I believe, is yes.
Steve Austin was speaking directly to Jake Roberts but he was defining an era. He and Brian Pillman, former tag-team partners at WCW, had put their finger on the pulse of wrestling and found it close to dead.
Steve Austin opened his mouth that night in 1996 and spoke 209 words. Those 209 words would forever change the face of professional wrestling.
The first thing I want to be done is to get that piece of crap out of my ring. Don’t just get him out of the ring—get him out of the WWF. Because I proved, son, without a shadow of a doubt, you ain’t got what it takes any more. You sit there and you thump your Bible and you say your prayers and it didn’t get you anywhere. Talk about your Psalms; talk about John 3:16—Austin 3:16 says I just whipped your ass. All he’s gotta do is go buy him a cheap bottle of thunderbird and try to get back some of that courage he had in his prime. As the King of the Ring, I’m serving notice to every one of the WWF Superstars—I don’t give a damn what they are—they’re all on the list and that’s Stone Cold’s list and I’m fixin’ to start running through all of ‘em. [Vince McMahon began to talk and Steve Austin looked around.] Piss off. As far as this championship match is considered, son, I don’t give a damn if it’s Davey Boy Smith or Shawn Michaels—Steve Austin’s time has come. And when I get the shot, you’re looking at the next WWF Champion, and that’s the bottom line ‘cause Stone Cold said so.
There are things you notice when you watch this promo again. You notice the eyes of Dok Hendrix, which seem to say, “I don’t think I’m in Bad Street USA anymore.” You notice one of the referees who is ‘helping’ Jake Roberts—he turns his head to watch Steve Austin as he is walking away.
I noticed that I got chills when I watched the promo today. I didn’t expect it because I’ve seen it so many times. But when Steve Austin was saying that he had proved himself and that Jake Roberts (and his era) no longer had what it takes and when he was going book-to-book-and-verse-to-verse building to what would be the greatest catchphrase of a decade, my body responded as if it had never heard the words before.
How is that? Because greatness is never out-dated.
What Steve Austin did that night was to take a seldom-given inch provided by a wrestling company and turn it into a mile that still extends to this day.
When you watch his matches, it’s an extension of that moment. When you watch his movies and his new reality show, all of it is an extension from the moment Steve Austin took what WWF gave him and ran with it.
Just this morning, I opened a bag of shrimp that was in the freezer.
It couldn’t be resealed and was difficult to open, so I took a knife and stabbed through the top of the bag. That didn’t finish the process—I still had to work the knife. But when I heard the knife cut through the bag, I knew I was in.
That’s what Steve Austin did at King of the Ring 1996.
He didn’t become a main-eventer or a world champion. He didn’t slay all of 80s wrestling or 90s cartoons.
But he heard the sound of the knife cut through.
He made contact; he made himself known.
He would still have to work at it. He’d need the right opponents and the right opportunities, but he had stood, angry, at the top of WWF’s highest stage and declared himself to the world.
“When I get my shot,” he said, “You’re looking at the next WWF Champion.”
But hold on, Steve Austin, there is still plenty of ground to be covered before that shot.