It was January 19, 1997, and Steve Austin was alone in the ring at the Alamodome in San Antonio, taking full advantage of a rare moment of solitude during the usually crowded Royal Rumble. He sat on the top rope and checked the watch that wasn't on his wrist, obnoxiously signaling his impatience in waiting for his next opponent and in the process creating one of the images that would become iconic for his reign in WWF (now WWE).
Less than a year earlier, Austin had been known as The Ringmaster, a disastrous character that had almost sunk his chances at a big-time wrestling career. Now he was on the verge of superstardom—fully inhabiting a new Stone Cold character he'd crafted, inspired by an HBO special on mob killers, as a blend of old-fashioned ass-kicker and hilarious, noxious lip. No one was safe from the bottom of his plain black boots when he was inclined to stomp a mudhole, and his motor-mouth silver tongue spared neither hero nor villain.
And fans couldn't get enough of it.
It was a kind of wrestling character that had never really existed before. Even WWE owner Vince McMahon, the sport's most influential and successful promoter, was confounded. No matter how dastardly, how vile, Austin's behavior was, his popularity only grew.
"I was supposed to be a heel. They weren't supposed to like me," Austin says now, revealing that the conundrum even led to a discussion with McMahon in a parking lot in Lowell, Massachusetts.
"I said, 'Vince, I noticed when I'm watching the show back, you guys are editing a lot of things that I say on commentary.' And he goes, 'Well, quite frankly, Steve, you're popping the guys in the truck.' The TV guys who have seen and heard everything were laughing and getting a kick out of what I was saying. And to Vince, that didn't work. ...
"I told Vince, 'Hey man, you got guys here, 6'10", 7-foot, 300, 320 pounds.' I said, 'I'm 6'2". I got black trunks, black boots, bald head and a goatee. If you take my personality from me, I cannot compete with anybody here. But if you give me my personality, I can.'"
McMahon, to his credit, had taken in what his budding new star was saying and, faced with floundering ratings and a competitor in WCW challenging his supremacy for the first time in a decade, he'd decided to take a chance on something outside his regular collection of stock wrestling characters.
"That's when he took the restrictions off and I started really growing into that character, finding my confidence, flipping people off, flying the bird," Austin says. "And for some reason, I just think people wanted a different brand of entertainment than they had been used to. And I broke from the mold of being a traditional babyface. I was a guy that was running in the gray area. You didn't know what Stone Cold was going to do, but you knew he was going to be wildly entertaining."
Austin walked the fine line between good and evil, and it was one of those magical combinations that led to a boom in business for WWF.
Sitting on that top rope in San Antonio, he had become bigger than the tropes that previously defined professional wrestling.
He was announcing himself as the chosen one in a field of Hall of Fame talent and in the process helping create a whole new era in wrestling—the "Attitude Era," as we now know it—in which the stars were a little more personal, a little more real, and heroes could be villains because sometimes what the world needs is a little righteous justice.
"I was operating as someone with an extreme attitude, and that was highly entertaining to the people just because of the energy I was emitting or giving off," Austin says. "It was captivating, and, in the end, the people thought it was awesome.
"I don't like to sit here and blow smoke up my ass. I just think people were ready for a change."
And his performance perfectly encapsulated how he would deliver that change.
The Royal Rumble match is more than just a vehicle to launch a new star or reestablish an old one. It's an attraction in its own right, an elegantly designed brain child of McMahon's longtime consigliere Pat Patterson. Himself a wrestling star in the 1970s and early '80s, Patterson had marvelled at the yearly success of the Battle Royal in the San Francisco territory when he was there.
The match typically gathered every star in the territory, imported superstar slabs of beef from outside promotions, like Andre the Giant, and threw them into the ring at the same time. The last one left standing without being tossed over the top rope was the winner. Patterson's unique twist was to have each wrestler enter the ring individually every minute or so until all 30 had walked the aisle. The resulting series of countdowns, surprises and WWE's dazzling entrances made the match, now entering its 33rd year, immediately iconic.
"I think it has resonated because of that excitement factor. It's an hourlong match that just keeps building on itself. There's always something happening," says Paul "Triple H" Levesque, WWE's executive VP of talent, live events and creative. "Just when it seems to settle down, the buzzer goes off and a new surprise comes out and everyone says, 'Oh my God.' The dynamic just keeps changing for the whole hour."
While the bones of the Rumble have remained the same for three decades, WWE has perfected the match to the point it's almost its own art form. Today, rather than having Patterson come up with all 29 eliminations like he did for the first Rumble, it takes a team of WWE's top producers to keep the match moving. Every wrestler goes into the match knowing when they are going to be eliminated and by whom. The rest of the canvas, down to the most minute details, has to be painted every year, with the goal of keeping the crowd energized and the action moving for 60 minutes or more.
"It's a huge, huge team effort," says Seth Rollins, who won the Royal Rumble match last year and will be one of the 30 competitors in the 2020 event this Sunday. "You've got all the producers backstage coming up with ideas. Everybody in the match is trying to make moments for themselves too. It's a big, big undertaking, and I think, when it comes out good, everybody feels a huge sense of relief, and then we're moving on towards WrestleMania.
"I give a lot of credit personally to [producer] Jamie Noble. He has been instrumental in really kind of laying groundwork for these things and being the guy that everyone goes to to make sure that the things are sorted. He's one of those guys who's always been real crafty when it comes to seeing things before they happen in the ring. He's been one of the guys in charge of the Rumble matches for as long as I've been up here."
For the performers, the match can be alternatingly chaotic, thrilling and boring. There's a huge spotlight on them, especially when they first arrive in the ring, but then there are also minutes at a time where the entire goal is to stay out of the way and let others shine.
"I think they're fun to work, but at the same time they're a pain in the ass to work because there's a lot going on—there's a lot to remember," Austin says. "You're always going to have a couple of guys—I've been there myself—just standing around in the corner 'trying' to throw the other guy over the top. Doggone it, they just can't leverage him enough, you know?
"Sometimes the ring is so crowded, you really can't lock into anything because if someone tries to do something, it inevitably turns into a cluster because there's too many guys in the ring. They are tedious."
Rollins, while putting it a little more delicately, agrees that it can be easy for a wrestler's eyes to glaze over, especially when they are going to be in the match for 30 minutes or more.
"There's so many stories that are interweaving and going on throughout the course of the matchup that it's hard to get lost in the moment in the match," Rollins says. "There's a timeline for how many people we want to be in different places and at what times during the match. There's so much going on that doesn't involve you that it can be easy to lose focus.
"Whereas in a one-on-one match you have to be focused at all times, sometimes in the Rumble you're in there and you find yourself almost just watching to see what's happening around you. It's almost like an out-of-body experience; you become an observer, a fan in a way."
The match is also an opportunity for wrestlers beyond the eventual winner to make their mark. Each year, someone stands out by working just a little harder than their peers, tossing themselves around for an appreciative fanbase that is savvy enough to recognize the hard work.
"You can really make a case for yourself," Austin says. "Winning sets you up for a designed push, because they've designated you as that guy, but man, if someone goes out there and just shines, like Kane did when he eliminated 11 guys [in 2001], it's like, 'Holy smokes, this guy's badass.'
"That was a planned thing. But you can go out there and ad lib your way to success by doing a lot of things that are entertaining. It's a litmus test. It's an eyeball test. If you do it right, everybody's thinking: 'That guy did pretty damn good. We might be able to do something with that cat.'"
And if you don't do it right?
Mistakes happen, sometimes requiring the carefully scheduled match to undergo some real-time revisions. Austin still shakes his bald head at his first Rumble appearance, in 1996, an opportunity to announce himself to the WWE Universe he badly botched.
"I was supposed to be like the fourth-to-last guy left in the ring, a pretty damn good spot and a pretty good shove from the company for a guy coming in," Austin says. "I did a clothesline spot with Fatu and was going to hang onto the top rope and come back in. Well, the thing was, everybody was wearing baby oil in those days, so the ropes and everything were very, very slippery, and I couldn't grab the top rope, and I ended up on my ass on the floor, eliminated early.
"I had to get Shawn Michaels' attention and let him know I was out. He had to figure out how to fix my mess. I go back to the back, and I'm thinking, 'OK man, here's this company taking a chance on me, and I blew it.'"
The 1997 Rumble was a chance to make that right—and start a revolution.
In some ways, Austin was portrayed as a babyface in his iconic 1997 Rumble, standing tall against all comers, a man apart, even among the baddest men on the planet.
He was the fifth of 30 competitors to enter, and he went the distance, lasting more than 45 minutes and eliminating a then-record 10 opponents along the way.
But just as important as any of that was how the match ended, with Austin reestablishing himself as a heel. After being "eliminated," Austin sneaked back into the ring, unseen by the referees, and dispatched the promotion's staunchest protector of good, Bret Hart, attacking him from behind and throwing him over the top rope and then basking in a glory he hadn't truly earned.
Only the fans still didn't turn on him.
"I didn't feel that I was performing as a babyface. I thought I was totally performing as someone who didn't give a rat's ass, so to speak," Austin says. "God dang it, man, I tried to entertain people whether I was heel, baby, whatever I was, I tried to be that 120 percent, and I believed everything that I was doing was completely real.
"It was all about attitude, just chucking people over the top rope, dropping down and giving them the bird. And then of course, yeah, I cheated at the end."
Twenty-three years later, fans still haven't turned on him. His iconic "Austin 3:16" is still a staple T-shirt for fans at live WWE events—and beyond the wrestling world. Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard even went viral dressing as Austin for Halloween last year.
Wrestlers, too, still feel the impact of Austin and the movement he got rolling at that Royal Rumble.
"I think a huge, huge part of his popularity had to do with his struggles," says Rollins, who grew up watching Austin in his prime. "That's something our audience can relate to. I think everybody in their life in one way or another feels like they're the underdog, and so to have someone like Steve who embodied all your fantasies of wanting to stick your middle finger in your boss' face or punch your boss in the face...he was an every man, the guy who just drank beer and didn't give a damn about anything."
Rollins even plays a part in spreading the gospel of Austin to up-and-coming wrestlers.
"I have a wrestling school, and one of my big things we teach is, when all else fails, What would Stone Cold do? Sort of like WWJD, it's WWSCD," Rollins says. "If you're in trouble in a match, and you don't know what to do, What would Steve Austin do?"
If there is a wrestler today best living up to Austin's legacy of success at the Royal Rumble, it must be Kofi Kingston. No, he's never managed to win, but each year he does something we've never seen before to avoid elimination and commands the audience's attention.
"He's almost made himself a legend in Royal Rumble lore," Rollins says. "It's one of those things that the audience looks forward to every year ... Who's going to win? Who's going to start? What kind of surprises do we have to look forward to? And what's Kofi going to do? How's he going to top himself?"
"The margin for error on that stuff is so slim, but yet somehow he pulls it out every time," Triple H says. "He's a remarkable athlete. He creates these moments where, yeah, you remember the winner, but fans are like, 'Oh my God, Kofi walked on his hands and jumped on a table.'
"There used to be this prevailing notion when I first came into the company that if you weren't winning it, you don't want to be in the Rumble. Now wrestlers recognize you can get over and become a star. You could make the argument that those moments that Kofi had in the Royal Rumble are things that led to him becoming WWE champion. Because without those moments, I don't know that he would have been in that position."
For Austin, the 1997 Royal Rumble win set up a feud with Hart that would carry over to WrestleMania 13. Austin lost that match but was on his way to becoming the headliner who would win two more Rumbles, become a six-time champion and change WWE forever.
"His impact on our industry, on what a babyface looks like, what a good guy, a hero looks like in our stories, it's forever changed because of him," Rollins says. “Without him, the business wouldn't be where it is today."
Today, it's well-established that the Rumble can have that type of impact. It's an event that sets the tone for the first half of the year, establishing the key players leading into WWE's yearly showcase of the immortals, WrestleMania.
While 30 superstars may enter, only a handful are viable potential winners capable of headlining the biggest show of the year. When the final body hits the floor, WWE will have made its case to the fans, asking them to accept the winner as worthy of the honor.
Sometimes that decision holds. Occasionally, it is hastily rewritten to better serve the audience. Either way, it's a statement of intent and a unique vote of confidence that tells both the talent and the wider world of wrestling who WWE sees as the most compelling superstars on the planet.
"As the match wears down and gets into the end, you begin to see, 'All right, here's what they're focusing on,'" Triple H says. "It's almost like in football where, as you start to get to the end of the season, you realize: 'All right, these are the teams that are really good. This team had a lot of hype, but the season didn't pan out. Now you're getting into the playoffs, and we see who's really there.'
"By the end of the Rumble, you're saying, 'Hey, here's your top five or six people in the company right now.' And sometimes there's a surprise that you didn't see coming. Sometimes it's exactly who you thought. When it's done well, there's almost nothing more exciting. You can really make it into something special."
The 2020 Royal Rumble streams live on the WWE Network this Sunday at 7 p.m. Eastern.
Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @JESnowden.