“The Austin Era has just begun!” It’s one of the most iconic and memorable calls in pro wrestling history, and it marked the official passing of the torch from Shawn Michaels to “The Texas Rattlesnake” Stone Cold Steve Austin. Austin is a former WWF Champion, Intercontinental Champion, Tag Team Champion, King of the Ring, and a three time Royal Rumble winner. His achievements inside the ring alone would’ve made him a Hall of Fame inductee, but his influence outside the ring is what puts Austin on wrestling’s Mount Rushmore. If Hulk Hogan was the star that put WWF on the map, and Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels gave it substance, then Stone Cold is the star who gave it a face lift. He arrived to a struggling promotion and helped restore it to its past glory. He took a very silly and almost cartoonish product and helped give it an edge and touch of realism. At a time when kayfabe was beginning to disappear, Austin showed up and blurred the lines of what was real and what wasn’t. Degeneration-X, Mick Foley, and The Rock were all huge contributors to the success of the Attitude Era, but Stone Cold was the catalyst to the entire movement. He was rebellious, and was hell bent on opening up a can of whoop ass on the entire World Wrestling Federation. He’s the ultimate example of the fans telling a promotion who they wanted to be the top guy. They helped propel Stone Cold to the top spot and he rewarded them with unforgettable moments throughout his entire run. Whether he was refusing to submit to Bret Hart, filling Vince McMahon‘s Corvette with cement, or giving The Corporation a beer bath, Stone Cold Steve Austin has provided the wrestling world with some truly iconic moments, and he might very well be the best wrestler to ever step foot in the squared circle.
Steve Austin started his wrestling career in 1989 where he wrestled for USWA and other small territories before arriving to WCW in 1991. Austin had moderate success in WCW. He was part of Paul E. Dangerously‘s (Paul Heyman) Dangerous Alliance and was one half of The Hollywood Blondes, with tag team partner “Flyin” Brian Pillman. He would win the WCW Television Championship, WCW Tag Team Championship, and WCW United States Championship. Despite his multiple title reigns, Austin wasn’t seen as an asset by WCW Vice President Eric Bischoff, and was fired by Bischoff in 1995 while recovering from injury. It was a crucial mistake on the part of WCW. In 1996 they created the revolutionary NWO faction, and were beginning to overtake WWF as the top wrestling promotion in the country. Had they kept Steve Austin and given him the chance to reach his potential, then maybe WCW would’ve had another huge star to compliment their successful heel stable, and they would’ve stayed in possession of WWF’s eventual savior. WCW’s mistake was their loss and Austin’s gain. Despite still being injured, Austin went to work for Paul Heyman and ECW. While in the “Land of Extreme,” Austin began developing the foundation to what would eventually become his Stone Cold character. He’s gone on record saying that during his time in ECW it was Paul Heyman who taught him how to cut a promo. Austin used his new learned skills to attack his former employer, cutting some scathing and entertaining promos directed at Eric Bischoff and WCW. His time in ECW was short, but it was essential to getting him ready for the next level. The next time Austin got his shot at the brass ring he would take everything he learned and seize the opportunity
In 1996 Austin left ECW for WWF and was driven to take his new promotion by storm. However Austin’s ambitions would run into a bit of an obstacle at first, as he was saddled with a horrible gimmick. WWF had repackaged Austin as The Ringmaster, and had given him “The Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase as a manager and mouthpiece. Needless to say, the gimmick didn’t get over with the fans, and Austin eventually went to Vince McMahon and requested a character change. After a bunch of horrible name suggestions, Austin found a name and a character that fit. The Ringmaster would cease to exist and Stone Cold Steve Austin was born. After a successful first feud with Savio Vega, which saw him drop DiBiase as a manager, Austin would enter the 1996 King of the Ring tournament. He would go on to defeat Jake “The Snake” Roberts in the finals to be crowned King. It was a huge achievement for Austin, but the true boost to his career came during the post match promo. During his coronation, Austin mocked Roberts, who was working a born again Christian angle, by dropping one of the most unforgettable lines in wrestling history. “Talk about your Psalms, talk about John 3:16, Austin 3:16 says I just whipped your ass!” With that line Austin became a star. The next night on Monday Night Raw, “Austin 3:16” signs filled the arena, and it looked like WWF had a star on their hands. All they needed was an established star to put their stamp of approval on him, and boy did they ever pick the perfect guy for the job.
The biggest break in Stone Cold Steve Austin‘s career was getting the opportunity to work with Bret “The Hitman” Hart. After WrestleMania XII Bret Hart took an 8 month hiatus from the WWF, but when he returned he entered a legendary feud with Stone Cold that received critical acclaim, and launched Austin to a new level of stardom. Their match at Survivor Series 1996 was a great encounter and was a solid start to their feud, but their match at WrestleMania 13 was an absolute clinic on in ring story telling, and is the most successful double switch in the history of pro wrestling. The image of blood pouring down Austin’s face before he passes out in Bret Hart’s Sharpshooter is perhaps the most iconic WrestleMania moment aside from Hulk Hogan slamming Andre The Giant. Bret Hart gave Austin’s character the finishing touches that it needed to be a true success. Their matches proved Austin could hang in the ring with the very best in the world, and his new babyface status made him a huge box office draw for the WWF. Austin’s feud with Bret Hart spilled over into a feud with Owen Hart and the rest of the Hart Foundation. Austin and Owen would face off for the WWF Intercontinental Championship at SummerSlam 1997, and in an unfortunate turn of events, a misexecuted tombstone pile driver would result in Austin breaking his neck during the match. He and Owen would manage to improvise a finish that saw Austin roll up Owen for the win, but the damage had been done. Austin had claimed one of the most prestigious Championships in wrestling history, but was forced to forfeit it due to his injured neck. Despite his injury Austin remained on WWF programming. By keeping him on television, but out of competition, WWF made fans rally behind him and made him someone who fans genuinely wanted to see wrestle. Austin would return to the ring at Survivor Series 1997 and defeat Owen Hart to once again win the WWF Intercontinental Championship. It was a huge step towards making Austin the top guy in the company, but his speedy return from such a serious injury would have repercussions later on in his career. For the time being though, Austin was holding the second most important title in the promotion, and was well on his way to being a mega star.
Austin left Survivor Series ’97 with two very important things, the WWF Intercontinental Championship, and a new arch nemesis, Mr. McMahon. The main event of Survivor Series had seen Bret Hart get screwed over by Vince McMahon before leaving for WCW. There was plenty of fallout from the incident, but perhaps the most important was the backlash and hate directed towards McMahon for double crossing his best performer. McMahon embraced the hate and transformed from an over excited play by play announcer who just happened to own the WWF, to the tyrannical Chairman of the Board who abused his power in attempts to rid himself of Stone Cold Steve Austin. Their feud is widely regarded as the greatest feud in wrestling history. Austin’s character was made to defy authority and Mr. McMahon was the ultimate authority figure, it was a match made in booking heaven. What makes the rivalry so special and unique is that Vince McMahon wasn’t a wrestler. He did step inside the ring on multiple occasions, but the magic in their feud wasn’t seeing if Vince could beat Austin clean, we all knew he couldn’t, rather it was seeing what McMahon had up his sleeve to try and gain the upper hand on Austin. The angle intensified when Stone Cold won the 1998 Royal Rumble and began his quest to become WWF Champion. The night after the Royal Rumble, Vince McMahon announced that Mike Tyson would be the Special Guest Enforcer for the main event at WrestleMania between Austin and defending champion Shawn Michaels. While McMahon was in the ring with Tyson making the announcement, Austin crashed the party and got in Mike Tyson‘s face. It’s one of the most important moments in Austin’s rise to the top. By standing face to face with “The Baddest Man on the Planet” and seeming every bit his equal, Austin got over with main stream wrestling fans who maybe hadn’t been aware of what was going on inside the WWF. The next day newspapers all around the country were talking about Stone Cold Steve Austin, Mike Tyson, and the WWF. Austin would defeat Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania to win the WWF Championship, and officially become the top guy in Vince McMahon‘s promotion. The struggling company had found it’s new superstar, and they were beginning to show signs of life, but an old injury would rear it’s head and halt all the momentum Stone Cold had.
After a hellacious year and a half run at the top of the WWF card, which included the first of his three WrestleMania matches with The Rock at WrestleMania XV, Austin began experiencing neck issues stemming from the botched pile driver he received at SummerSlam ’97. Despite the pain he was in, Austin continued to work through his neck issues until the problem became too serious to ignore. At Survivor Series 1999, Austin was in a backstage altercation with Triple H, who was one of the men Austin would be defending the WWF Championship against that night. The scuffle resulted in Austin chasing Triple H to the parking area of the arena, where a car hit Austin before speeding off. It was all part of the story line that had been written to explain Austin’s upcoming absence. He would be undergoing neck fusion surgery and would be out for over a year. It was a tough blow for the WWF, their biggest and most popular star would be forced to step away at a time when he and the company were on fire. Austin watched from the sidelines as Triple H and The Rock became the new focal points of The Attitude Era, and he even missed WrestleMania 2000 due to his injury. He would make his triumphant return to action at No Mercy 2000 against Rikishi, who had been written in as the driver of the car that struck Austin. The fans were happy to have him back, but the angle with Rikishi felt weird and almost forced. Austin would regain his momentum however, and at the 2001 Royal Rumble he would earn the right to once again main event WrestleMania with The Rock. WrestleMania XVII is considered by many fans and critics to be the best WrestleMania of all time, and the historic event was capped off by The Texas Rattlesnake vs. The Brahma Bull. The match ended with Austin turning heel and joining forces with Mr. McMahon, it was one of the most shocking heel turns in WWF history.
WrestleMania XVII is kind of bittersweet for both Austin and the WWF. It was an amazing event full of great matches and story telling, but in hindsight it marked the end of the Attitude Era and the end of WWF’s creative genius. In Austin’s case WrestleMania XVII marked his final WrestleMania main event, and only two years later he would be completely retired from wrestling. However immediately after WrestleMania XVII Austin was back on top of the wrestling world. He had just main evented perhaps the best ‘Mania ever, and he was once again holding the most prestigious championship in the business, but the fairy tale ended the next night on Monday Night Raw. Despite Austin’s heel turn being a classic WrestleMania moment, his ensuing heel run was not well received. Fans didn’t want to boo Stone Cold, they still wanted to cheer for him while he opened a can of whoop ass on Vince McMahon, but sadly those days were gone. During the summer of 2001 WCW “invaded” the WWF and were joined by ECW to form The Alliance. The Invasion angle is one of the most disappointing in wrestling history. It should’ve been a dream story line that even the most incompetent booker couldn’t have messed up. Somehow though, we got a confusing story that didn’t feature any of WCW‘s big stars, and that saw Austin become the leader of The Alliance, which was kayfabe owned by Shane McMahon and Stephanie McMahon. The Alliance angle mercifully culminated at the 2001 Survivor Series with the WWF coming out victorious in a traditional 5 man elimination match. After that, Austin would go back to his hell raising anti authority character and for a short time everything in the wresting world was right again.
Despite being on the losing team at Survivor Series, Austin was still the WWF Champion, and was one of the four men in the running to become wrestling’s first Undisputed Champion. Many people assumed that the two incumbent champions, Stone Cold and The Rock, would win their respective matches against Kurt Angle and Chris Jericho then face off to crown the Undisputed Champion, but that’s not how things went down. In a shocking twist, it would be Y2J Chris Jericho who would over come Austin to be crowned the first ever Undisputed Champion. Chris Jericho is one of the greatest wrestlers to ever perform, but that was flat out the wrong decision. Stone Cold Steve Austin should’ve had the honor of being the first Undisputed Champion. He wrestled for all 3 major promotions just like Jericho, but unlike Jericho, Austin had changed the course of wrestling history and revolutionized the business. Austin would chase the title for a bit, and would even be one of the final four men in the 2002 Royal Rumble, but sadly he would never wear championship gold again. In 2002 the original NWO made its way to the WWF and many thought we would get a clash between Hollywood Hulk Hogan and Stone Cold Steve Austin. Both men were icons and both had been the top guy for Vince McMahon at one point, but the match never developed. There’s plenty of speculation and rumors on why the match never materialized. It’s been said that neither man would agree to lose to the other, and Austin has said that he didn’t think that Hogan could’ve kept up with him at the time. Regardless of the reason, the match was re-booked with The Rock instead of Austin. Austin would go on to work with Scott Hall at WrestleMania X8 instead, but it was a big step down for him. Around the time of the NWO‘s arrival, Austin started becoming an issue backstage, he was unhappy with the direction of the story line and was growing increasingly frustrated with the direction the company was going.
The Night after WrestleMania X8 Austin no showed Monday Night Raw, the incident was dismissed and explained as him simply being burnt out, but it was foreshadowing for what was to come. Austin’s frustrations with the booking continued and everything boiled over when he was booked to lose to Brock Lesnar in the first round of the King of the Ring tournament on an episode of Monday Night Raw. Austin’s didn’t agree with giving Lesnar, who was a new comer at the time, such a big win over such a big name without the proper build up. The disagreement lead to Austin famously “taking his ball, and going home.” In all reality that moment marked the real end of Austin’s career. He would return to the company in early 2003, but he would only wrestle 3 total matches between then and the time he retired. The company had changed in his absence, they were now WWE and they were beginning to focus on creating new stars at the top of their card. It seemed like there wasn’t much room for the aging superstar in the very company he had helped save. Austin would have one last match at WrestleMania XIX against his greatest rival from the Attitude Era, The Rock. Most fans were unaware that it would be Austin’s last match, and were oblivious to the fact that possibly the most important wrestler ever was wrapping up his career before their very eyes. The Rock would finally get his WrestleMania victory over Stone Cold that night to wrap up their classic rivalry and send Austin riding off into the sunset. The next night on Monday Night Raw, Austin was “fired” by Eric Bischoff and he officially retired from pro wrestling the next day.
Austin would return to WWE programming as the co General Manager of Monday Night Raw and then again as the Sheriff of the WWE, but he never made a full in ring return. He was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2009 and would continue to make sporadic appearances to the delight of fans. At WrestleMania XXX Austin made a surprise appearance to start the show and found himself in the ring for a segment with Hulk Hogan and The Rock, it was a great moment. At WrestleMania 32, in his home state of Texas, Austin made another surprise appearance, this time alongside Shawn Michaels and Mick Foley to fight The League of Nations. Despite being retired for almost 15 years, Austin is still one of the most popular figures within the WWE Universe, and many fans hope Vince McMahon will be able to persuade him to have one more match some day. Stone Cold Steve Austin is easily the most unique candidate for best wrestler ever. His character honestly wouldn’t have worked in any other time than in the 90’s, he was too anti-establishment and way too rough around the edges to have thrived in the 70’s, 80’s, or even the early 90’s. Austin didn’t fit the mold of what a top babyface was supposed to be, so he broke the mold and completely changed the way professional wrestling was looked at. His character was the polar opposite of Hulk Hogan‘s, yet it’s Austin who’s the highest drawing Champion in WWE history not the Hulkster. He was the undisputed top guy in the WWF during the golden age of wrestling. The entire landscape of the wrestling business would look a lot different if Stone Cold Steve Austin hadn’t come along. He blazed a trail for other anti-authority figures like Dean Ambrose and CM Punk, and that influence can even be seen overseas in Tetsuya Naito‘s anti-authority character in New Japan Pro Wrestling. The man couldn’t even be stopped by a broken neck. He went from a Hollywood Blonde, to The Ringmaster, to the Toughest S.O.B. In the World Wrestling Federation, and took us all along for the crazy and historic ride. Stone Cold Steve Austin is the best wrestler ever, and that might very well be The Bottom Line!