It's not an exaggeration to say that most wrestling fans knew Steve Austin was going to be a huge star from the first time they saw him. The weird part is that everyone who predicted superstardom for him early on was also very wrong: They thought he was the next Ric Flair. He instead ended up as the next Hulk Hogan.
Back in 1989, when Steve Austin was still Steve Williams (he's since legally changed his name), he went to "Gentleman" Chris Adams' wrestling school at the Sportatorium in Dallas, Texas. At that point, it was also the home of two shows a week from the United States Wrestling Association. Late in the year, he started as a prelim-level babyface before leaving for a short run in the Memphis, Tennessee end of the USWA at the beginning of 1990.
It was in Memphis that Williams met Dutch Mantell (now Zeb Colter in WWE). Dutch felt that the rookie needed a new name, as Steve "Dr. Death" Williams was a fairly big star in WCW at the time, and dubbed him Steve Austin after the "Six Million Dollar Man" character. Austin returned to Texas after about a month, where he was going to get as good a crash course in pro wrestling that someone could get in 1990.
Adams, a British expat, had been one of the top stars in Texas since 1983, arguably the most popular wrestler who wasn't a member of the Von Erich family. When Austin returned, they were to feud in a teacher vs. student rivalry. A lot of the time, that would be enough for a solid storyline. Adams had a lot more in mind, though.
At the time, Adams' valet was his second wife, Toni. He was on good terms with his first wife, Jeannie Clark, to the point they lived in the same apartment building to make things easier on their kids. He decided to bring Jeannie into wrestling as Austin's valet. While she first showed up on TV as a British mystery woman, Adams soon ran out fuming because "THAT'S MY EX-WIFE!"
It soon turned into the craziest and best feud in wrestling. Adams was good enough to hide Austin's weaknesses, but Austin improved rapidly by working with Adams and having to keep all of their matches (and his promos) unique each time out. It was full of sleazy tabloid ridiculousness: Austin bragging about having Adams' wife, wrestling boots (an old gift) and dog, Jeannie brandishing old nude photos of Chris, many catfights between the women and so on. Actual supermarket tabloid The National Examiner even did an article about the feud.
Unfortunately, the feud didn't get to have a proper ending, as the USWA pulled out of Dallas due to a legal dispute and the feud fizzled out under the new promoters. When Jarrett and the USWA came back to town in early 1991, Austin was splitting time between Memphis and Dallas while Adams wasn't brought back. It was still enough for the program to place highly in most "feud of the year" awards for 1990.
Please note I'm not really doing this feud justice: Not enough of it is online, but some is on those "Steve Austin: The Early Years" DVDs you can find cheap, and you should really check them out.
It wasn't long before Austin moved on to bigger and better things. He debuted on WCW television at the beginning of June and won the WCW World Television Title within days (weeks on TV), ending the short reign of Bobby Eaton. After initially being saddled with unknown valet Vivacious Veronica, Jeannie followed Austin to WCW as her replacement, Lady Blossom, and debuted during the Eaton match. Yes, your suspicions are correct: They had gotten together in real life and eventually got married.
Austin quickly settled into being an upper-midcard wrestler, a role he had for much of his run, holding titles throughout. Barring a few weeks where Barry Windham got the belt, he dominated the TV title through September of 1992. He followed that up with a tag title win (along with Brian Pillman as the Hollywood Blondes) the following March that netted a five-month reign, and a nine-month United States title reign that started at Starrcade that December.
In WCW, Austin grew from a great prospect into one of the best young wrestlers in the business. Always willing to learn, he was surrounded by great talent: He was part of Paul Heyman's Dangerous Alliance stable with Rick Rude, Arn Anderson, Larry Zbyszko and Bobby Eaton, had lengthy feuds with Ricky Steamboat over all three of his titles, teamed with Brian Pillman...it would be hard not to thrive in that environment. The matches with Steamboat were all particularly excellent.
The beginning of the end for Austin in WCW came at the end of his U.S. title run in 1994. After losing the title to Steamboat, they were set to have a pay-per-view rematch when it turned out that Steamboat suffered a freak back injury in a house show match, which soon proved serious enough to retire him. To replace the big rematch, Austin was awarded the title by forfeit, only to lose to surprise opponent Jim Duggan (brought in by new top WCW star Hulk Hogan) in seconds.
Austin was quickly pushed down the cards and injuries got the better of him for most of the next year. Eventually a variety of disputes with WCW boss Eric Bischoff (who felt action figures of Austin wouldn't be marketable in plain black trunks and boots) led to his firing. While he was the hottest free agent in wrestling, with both WWE and All Japan Pro Wrestling expressing interest, Austin was still hurt. Heyman, his former manager, was now running ECW, and invited him to spread his wings and experiment on promos.
While not the same character, the real Steve Austin who was cutting angry, bitter promos about WCW as "Superstar" Steve Austin was a lot closer to Stone Cold that he had ever been in his career. While some of the "shoot" references come off as dated and/or corny, he turned from a solid talker to a great, compelling promo. He only wrestled a couple matches in ECW when he had recovered enough to sign with WWE...who rebranded him as The Ringmaster?
Managed by Ted DiBiase and crowned the new Million Dollar champion, he got to cut a good promo in his debut, but was soon stuck behind DiBiase as a mute technical wrestler. That wasn't the only problem.
For a very long time, it was wrestling fan lore that "The Ringmaster" was some kind of stock WWE gimmick, a generic name they happened to have had cleared by their legal department for a rainy day. Lore is all it was until a few months ago, when WWE unveiled a slew of old concept drawings, including one with Bryan Clark as the Ringmaster dated April 1993. Being thrown into a generic gimmick was absolutely the wrong thing for Austin, and thankfully Vince McMahon figured this out quickly.
Wanting to reinvent himself, Austin was inspired to try out a new persona. He found his inspiration watching a HBO documentary about mafia hitman Richard "The Iceman" Kuklinski, as he was struck by just how scary it was to see Kuklinski be so matter of fact and emotionless about his horrific crimes. While WWE tried to come up with and clear a new ring name, The Ringmaster started doing promos clearly inspired by his interpretation of an emotionless killer as a pro wrestler.
As far as the name went, WWE sent Austin a now infamous list of cold-themed names that included Ice Dagger and Chilly McFreeze. He was stewing over what to do one day when Jeannie pointed out his untouched cup of tea on the table: "You better drink your tea before it gets stone cold." It immediately clicked in Austin's head, and the name change was made official in a match where, on commentary, Vince McMahon always used the full name "'Stone Cold' Steve Austin" to make sure it stuck with fans.
The gimmick didn't stick, as Austin still didn't talk much, but the name sure did.
DiBiase was gone a few months later so he could head to WCW (he promised to leave if Austin lost a strap match to Savio Vega). The following week on TV, Austin admitted he threw the match (in pro wrestling!) because DiBiase had become an albatross. In spite of the nickname, he was no longer cold-blooded, and the old Steve Austin was coming back through. He still had some new twists up his sleeve, though.
Triple H (then Hunter Hearst Helmsley) had been scheduled to win the King of the Ring tournament that year, but those plans went out the window for disciplinary reasons. Being a heel of similar stature, Austin got the nod. To take the crown, Austin beat Bob Holly and Savio Vega on TV, followed by Marc Mero and Jake Roberts at the PPV event. During the coronation ceremony, he got to cut a promo, which the winner always got to do. Austin made the most of it.
Roberts had invoked Christianity into his persona, talking about how his faith had helped him defeat his addictions (ahem) and even naming his new pet snake "Revelations." Austin locked onto these aspects of his defeated opponent's identity:
The first thing I want to be done, is to get that piece of crap outta my ring! Don't just get him outta the ring, get him outta the WWF! Because I proved son, without a shadow of a doubt, you ain't got what it takes anymore! 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 servin' notice to every one of the WWF superstars, I don't give a damn what they are, they're all on the list, & that's Stone Cold's list, and I'm fixin' to start runnin' through all of em! And... 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 lookin' at the next WWF Champion! And that's the bottom line, because Stone Cold Said so!
It was going to take some time to put everything into place, but it was clear who the next big WWE star was. Bret Hart, who was working only on overseas house shows while taking time off, requested that he face Austin in his return program. Austin needled Hart on promos for months, leading to their first PPV match, an incredible bout that Hart won by the skin of his teeth by countering a sleeper hold with a roll-up.
In the meantime, "Austin 3:16" signs were cropping up at shows. If Austin was wrestling a lower level babyface or another heel, he was usually the one cheered, and instead of being WWE's top heel, he was on the path to being a top babyface. How it would happen was cemented when Bret Hart was given a list of prospective opponents and realized his own best prospects were as a heel.
Their rematch at WrestleMania, a submission match refereed by the newly signed Ken Shamrock, was to be the culmination of a carefully-executed double turn. In the buildup, Austin kept doing what he was doing (since it was what was making him popular), while Hart's character became a whiner who even snapped and started swearing after losing a title shot.
While billed as a "Submission match," which evokes technical wrestling, it was more the type of brawl you'd expect from an "'I Quit' match," the likes of which was rare in the WWF at the time. In one of the greatest wars in WrestleMania history, they brawled from the ring to the dividers that end the hockey rink at Allstate Arena and back. Austin had been busted open when Hart put him in the Sharpshooter in the middle of the ring.
He fought and fought, but amidst extreme pain and blood loss, Austin passed out and Shamrock stopped the match as Jim Ross screamed that "HE NEVER GAVE UP!" For his part, Hart continued pounding Austin afterwards to help cement the turn, with Shamrock stepping in. After they left, WWE officials helped Austin to his feet. He thanked him by attacking with his Stone Cold Stunner finisher.
For months, Austin feuded with Hart and his newly reconstituted Hart Foundation stable, which included his brother Owen, brothers-in-law Davey Boy Smith and Jim Neidhart and family friend/Austin's rival and former friend Brian Pillman. As part of Austin's ongoing push to the top, he was to win Owen's Intercontinental Championship at SummerSlam '97.
As they were going over the match, Owen and Austin agreed that a series of reversals leading to Owen hitting a Tombstone Piledriver would be an eye-catching sequence that would pop the crowd. Austin says he clarified that it had to be a traditional knees-first tombstone, as he had broken Masahiro Chono's neck doing the sit-down "K-Driller" variation of the move. Owen smiled and said "No, I drop on my ass," even repeating the sentence when Austin insisted. Austin figured it was a rib.
It wasn't. Owen didn't protect Austin on the move and dropped him right on the top of his head, breaking his neck and temporarily paralyzing him. When Austin regained some semblance of mobility, Owen maneuvered himself into an awkward looking roll-up, so the title change still happened as planned.
There are still questions about what happened: Why did Owen, normally one of the safest wrestlers around, decide to be so reckless? Why did he go against Austin's wishes? Why were they planning on doing a Tombstone on a show headlined by The Undertaker? Owen never answered them before his death, and Austin has never explained why the spot was planned underneath a main event featuring a guy who used it as his trademark move.
Austin was out of action for months resting up. He would show up to hit the Stunner on WWE officials who were keeping him from getting revenge on Owen, culminating in an attack on Vince McMahon (still an announcer, but sometimes acknowledged as WWE's owner) at the first Raw ever held at Madison Square Garden. Austin had to vacate the title, which he helped Owen win back in a tournament final so he could get his title with his revenge.
It's the type of thing that would probably never happen today, but Austin returned when he was nowhere close to ready at Survivor Series '97 (yes, that show) to regain the title in a four-minute match. He spent most of the next few months getting by on smoke and mirrors, but all of the plans to push him to the moon were kept in place. Since he had no more need for the Intercontinental title but it wasn't right for him to lose, he forfeited the belt to The Rock a month later in an odd angle.
Austin started 1998 by winning the Royal Rumble match and thus earning a title shot against Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania. That night, a couple other important things happened: Michaels sustained his own spinal injury when he took a back bodydrop on the edge of a casket, and Mike Tyson made his first appearance on the road to being "special enforcer" in the WrestleMania title match.
The next night on Raw was the big official unveiling of Tyson, who McMahon repeatedly called "The Baddest Man on the Planet." Austin, being "the toughest S.O.B." in WWE, took offense, and brawled with Tyson and his entourage. As it was broken up, McMahon lost it in a way fans had rarely ever seen him on-screen, having to be held back from Austin as he screamed "YOU RUINED IT!"
The build-up to WrestleMania featured a champion who couldn't wrestle and a challenger who barely could. Tyson was a key part of this build, especially once he was revealed as the newest member of D-Generation X alongside Michaels, Triple H and Chyna. In a side story, McMahon, now fully out of the closet as owner of the WWE, was asked if he wanted Austin as WWE Champion and emphatically admitted he didn't with an Austin-esque "AWW HELL NO!"
It culminated in what was about as good a match as you could expect, with Michaels and Austin both toughing it out through obvious severe pain. In what's become an iconic finishing sequence, the referee was bumped, Michaels tried the superkick, Austin ducked, Michaels tried again when he turned around, Austin caught it and spun him around, hit the Stunner, and Tyson slid in to count the pin. The era of Austin had begun.
As for Tyson? Michaels protested after the match, so Tyson knocked him out. At the post-show press conference, Austin and Tyson admitted they had been working together all along in what's probably the biggest angle in wrestling history to be barely acknowledged on television.
The next night, McMahon presented him with a new belt, but explained he expected compliance, and that Austin could do things "the easy way or the hard way." Austin chose the latter and hit McMahon with another Stunner. Austin vs. McMahon via a variety of surrogates dominated the main event scene for well over a year, while Austin adjusted to a new in-ring style heavy on brawling to work around his neck injury.
In the fast-paced, "crash TV" world of WWE's "Attitude Era," it's impossible to nail down all of the key angles. McMahon enlisted Mick Foley (as Dude Love and later Mankind), Kane, The Rock and others to try to dethrone Austin, stacking the deck whenever he could. Against Foley, stipulations were changed on the fly while McMahon was referee. Against Kane, then decked out in a leather mask and a body suit that covered everything but one arm, Austin lost the title (he regained it the next night) because it was a "First Blood" match...where Kane had a brand new outfit that covered his entire body.
Austin lost the title long term in a Triple Threat match where Kane and Undertaker pinned him simultaneously. A month later, a Kane-Undertaker playoff for the title went to a no contest when Austin attacked both and was "fired," only to be rehired the next night when he threatened McMahon with a fake gun. The title stayed vacant, to be decided in a one-night tournament at Survivor Series, which was won by The Rock, cementing himself as the new top heel and Austin's obvious WrestleMania opponent.
En route to regaining his title, Austin finally got a match with McMahon, beating him from pillar to post in a wild cage match on Valentine's Day 1999. He regained the title at WrestleMania in the first (and least great) match of his trilogy with The Rock. The title bounced around a lot more that year, as Austin lost it to The Undertaker, became WWE C.E.O. in one of the most convoluted angles of all time, won the title back the night after he lost control of the company, lost it to Mankind who then lost it to Triple H. As the Triple H feud heated up, Austin got bad news: He needed neck surgery immediately.
To explain the injury, he was "hit by a car" at Survivor Series, and was out for about a year. WWE changed a lot while he was gone: Detail-oriented Chris Kreski replaced Vince Russo as head writer, ending the "crash TV" era. Chris Benoit, Eddy Guerrero, Dean Malenko and Perry Saturn jumped from WCW while recent arrival Chris Jericho got a bigger push, which led to an increase in the in-ring standards of the company. How would he adjust?
In his first match back, he took on Benoit and they put on a clinic. Having healed, Austin was every bit the wrestler he was before the 1997 injury and then some. He got right back into the main event scene, winning the Royal Rumble, putting him in line to headline WrestleMania X-Seven in Houston at the Astrodome. The Rock won the title at the next PPV event, setting up a rematch from two years earlier. Rock and Austin's performances and WWE's impeccable production team (they produced an amazing hype video) saved an iffy storyline (Vince McMahon forces Austin's then-wife Debra to be The Rock's manager? Huh?), and the show drew WWE's largest domestic PPV audience ever, a record that still stands.
After a long, epic match, Austin couldn't put the Rock down. So he nodded to McMahon...who gave him a chair? Austin beat the hell out of Rock with the chair to win the title. Being in Texas, the crowd went nuts. Austin then...celebrated with McMahon!?!?!
Yes. He turned heel.
Regardless of whether or not he should have turned heel (and he shouldn't have), they still did it the wrong way. That night in Texas, the fans loved him too much to care, and siding with Vince just didn't work. The whole turn fell flat, and no matter what he did, including beating Lita with a chair, could get it to click.
Austin soon completely changed his character into a guy who literally went insane (he would talk to himself, show signs of paranoia and was clinging to McMahon), which, while entertaining, didn't work, either. Neither did putting him on the heel side when WCW "invaded" after WWE bought the company.
The WCW invasion was done away with at Survivor Series 2001, and Austin turned babyface the next night on Raw as if nothing had happened in the previous seven months. It was the beginning of the end of him as the top guy, though: Triple H was getting the top babyface slot in his return, The Rock was going to be right there with him and this left Austin as number three. At WrestleMania X8 in 2002, Triple H won the WWE Championship from Chris Jericho and The Rock beat Hulk Hogan in one of the most famous matches in WWE history. Austin beat Scott Hall in a thrown-together match.
Austin's future seemed bright as spring was about to turn into summer that year. Eddy Guerrero had recently returned to the company after being fired in late 2001 when his addictions spiraled out of control. He had turned his life around so drastically in his time on independent shows and Japanese tours that he immediately (as in he still had independent commitments to fulfill) got the Intercontinental Championship as a vote of confidence. As if that wasn't enough, Austin requested that they do a program together when Guerrero lost the title to Rob Van Dam.
Right as they shot the angle to start the feud, Austin buried WWE's creative team on Byte This, WWE's internet radio show. On the next episode of Raw, he was to lose cleanly to new arrival Brock Lesnar, who was in the midst of being rocketed to the top. Austin had no problem with losing to Lesnar, but he didn't want to do it on a random TV show; he wanted to make everyone money by building up a big PPV match. Wanting to keep his "punishment" in place, they wouldn't budge, so he went home.
He didn't come back for eight months. WWE buried him on TV for "taking his ball and going home." After returning by squashing evil Raw General Manager Eric Bischoff at No Way Out, it was time for one more WrestleMania feud with The Rock, all built around Rock needing to finally beat Austin at WrestleMania to avenge the two losses. Beat Austin is exactly what he did in a great match that, depending on the person, is considered either their second best (behind WrestleMania X-Seven) or best match together.
The next night on Raw, Bischoff "fired" Austin for not being medically fit to compete. The day after that, Austin released a statement explaining that while he wasn't really fired, his spinal issues had worsened to the point he had to retire. A year later, in the "Mania of WrestleMania" documentary focusing on the events of WrestleMania 19, it was explained he also had a heart scare that weekend that was exacerbated by energy drinks and anxiety.
He stuck around for the rest of the year as a TV character, but since then he's really stayed retired as a wrestler. There's always buzz about whether he'll return for one more match at WrestleMania, either with Brock Lesnar or a heel CM Punk. Only he knows if he'll ever do it; he's always made it clear that he would only come back if he could be as good as he was when he was as an active wrestler and he was able to be a focal point.
Obviously, he couldn't be a focal point the last few years with The Rock headlining. With The Rock injured and possibly retired for good? Who knows? If Austin can do it, and do it safely, I'm all for it.
Especially if it's for CM Punk to lecture him about beer drinking.