By Mike Mooneyham
Five years ago Steve Austin’s career hung in the balance. Newly fired by WCW, where Eric Bischoff had given up on Austin’s character ever making a splash, and coming off a brief stint with ECW, Austin was well on his way to fulfilling Bischoff’s glum prophecy after the WWF saddled him with a colorless gimmick and billed him as The Ringmaster.
Five years later, Steve Austin is arguably the biggest star in the world of professional wrestling, and it’s not just because “Stone Cold” said so. Aside from the marketing and promotional genius of Vince McMahon, no one is more responsible for the dramatic turnaround in business for the WWF than Austin, whose anti-hero, anti-establishment persona made the fans forget about Hulk Hogan, the red and yellow, the milk and the vitamins.
Austin began his dramatic ascension at the 1996 King of the Ring pay-per-view where he coined the phrase “Austin 3:16” and, along with his new “Stone Cold” moniker, put together the two biggest-selling trademarks in wrestling history.
Austin has come a long way since his college football days at North Texas State and working the docks to make a living, later joining a wrestling camp run by veteran Chris Adams, whose ex-wife Austin would eventually marry.
Austin overcame an assortment of injuries during a five-year run with WCW to emerge as the biggest superstar in the business not long after beginning his WWF career. Austin also survived a near career-ending neck injury, embarked upon a new marriage with fellow WWF celebrity Debra (formerly Mrs. Steve “Mongo” McMichael) and helped catapult the WWF into one of the hottest properties in America.
“The Rattlesnake” credits Jake “The Snake” Roberts, the target of his initial Austin 3:16 address, with much of his success. The idea took shape when Dok Hendrix (Michael Hayes) approached Austin while his lip was being stitched up following a 1996 King of the Ring match with Marc Mero.
As for WCW president Eric Bischoff, who unceremoniously released Austin in 1995, the phrase “and the rest is history” immediately comes to mind.
The 35-year-old Austin, who won the recent Royal Rumble to earn a shot at the WWF heavyweight title at Wrestlemania, says he hasn’t experienced any major aches or pains since returning to the ring several months ago, and wants to make up for lost time.
MM: How have you been doing physically since returning to the ring?
SA: I can’t complain. You take a year off, and it takes a little while to get all the rust out of your system. But everything’s been going pretty well so far. I don’t want to put a jinx on myself, but no major aches and pains so far. Just getting used to being back on the road, along with the bumps and the grind and all that stuff. I’m just happy to be back.
MM: Debra told me that you had built a gym at your house. Did that help the recovery process?
SA: Yeah, it has, because now I don’t have to drive 25 miles into San Antonio to go the gym every day. I’ve got everything at the house – tanning bed, good cardio stuff, things like that, so it’s been a good deal.
MM: Do you ever feel self-conscious about the neck when you’re in the ring?
SA: Not really. From an injury standpoint, I’m trying to be careful. From an appearance standpoint, my neck’s not as big around as it was. I had like a 1-plus-inch neck before I left. When I look at myself on camera, I have to build up my neck size-wise to where it used to be. That’s the only hang-up I have about it. You get used to having this big neck, and now I look at this little neck, and say, “Oh, man.”
MM: Eric Bischoff didn’t think they could do much with you. What do you think he’d say now?
SA: That guy … I was in my hotel room the other day and read that Classic Sports network bought WCW. I’m not going to get into a war of words with that guy, but they never had the foresight or the creative ability to create any stars up there. From the time I was there to right now, they’ve never really built any stars. Bischoff can make a lot of claims about this and that, but really he doesn’t have a proven track record. He has never proven himself as a talent in the ring like a Vince McMahon does when he comes on camera. He doesn’t have any substance or presence, and no one really respects the guy. So what he says doesn’t bother me. Him putting limitations on me or ever wondering what they were going to do with me in New York only inspired me, because if you tell me I can’t do something, I’ll always prove you wrong.
MM: Where do you think your career would be right now had you stayed in WCW?
SA: I’d probably be one of the many disgruntled wrestlers up there wondering what the hell was going on, making semi-decent money but not having any real direction or plans for the future, because obviously it doesn’t matter. They’ve got a couple guys up there who are pretty damn talented, and a couple pretty big names up there, but they don’t know how to deal with those guys. They’re just floundering, but I’ve been in the same boat as those guys.
MM: Who was most responsible for bringing you to the WWF? Was It Jim Ross?
SA: Of course, JR did, but at the same time was it was Kevin Nash. We used to travel a lot together. We were riding partners. I was working for ECW at the time. He was the one who told Vince McMahon, `Hey, what are you guys doing with Austin? He’s probably the hottest free agent in the business, and you guys are not making a move to get him.” So it came on the heels of a Kevin Nash comment. They flew me back up for another visit. The first time I went up there, I was kind of treated … a little bit of cold feet, didn’t have much of an offer. Vince called me back on the phone and said, “Yeah, I want to put you with Ted DiBiase,” who was one of my favorite workers. He was a helluva worker. They were going to make me the “Million Dollar Champion,” but it all turned out to be the shits. But it sounded like a million bucks from Vince’s picture to me, and I hadn’t worked in about a year because I was healing up from my traction.
MM: What were some of your fondest remembrances of Brian Pillman?
SA: Oh, man, just traveling traveling up and down the road – me and him and Raven used to get a mini-van and travel. We’d call ourselves “The Comedy Trio.” Our gimmick was plagued by bad service at all the restaurants we frequented. We called ourselves “The Comedy Trio” because all we did was ride down the road making fun of everything and laughing our asses off. They were good times. I remember when they put me and Brian together. It was in Columbus, Ga., and I had had just been promised a big singles push. Brian comes up to me and says, “Hey, we’ve got to come up with a finishing move.” I said, “What are you talking about?” He said, “They’re making us into a tag team.” I said, “What the hell are you talking about?” So they stuck me and Brian out there. He was wearing these Bengals trunks, and I was wearing these stupid black and purple things. We were riding down the road and we said, “Hey, every good tag team has to have a good name,” so we came up with “The Hollywood Blonds.” I think it had been done once or twice. They never had any plans for me and Brian to be hot as a tag team or to be big or to get over. But we blew everybody away. We got over without ever getting the green light. But that didn’t go over with the political structure there.
MM: You two had a lot of chemistry as a team.
SA: They split us up. Brian was one of the smartest guys I’ve ever known. We never got many interview opportunities in WCW, but he was up there ranting and raving so much I knew I had to carry my end of the stick whenever we got a chance, so it forced me to start talking more. And when the bell rang, whether I started or Brian started, I’d see which direction he was going and he’d see which direction I was going, and we’d just kind of go from there. We’d just feed off of what each other was doing. We had a chemistry. He was one of my closest friends in the business. A lot of times when you go home, you don’t want to talk to people you work with because you spend so much time with them on the road. Well, when Brian went back to Cincinnati and I went back to Texas, he’d either call me or I’d call him. We’d laugh and bullshit about stuff. Just being around the guy was a blast, and I really, really wish he was still around. To this day I think about him all the time. He would really have enjoyed how the business has gone and my success, and I think he probably would have been just as successful in his own right doing the “Loose Cannon” deal.
MM: Jake Robert was a big influence on your career?
SA: Jake Roberts, in his prime, was one of my favorite workers of all time. A great interview. I’m a big Jake Roberts fan.
MM: He helped you come up with the 3:16 deal?
SA: If it hadn’t been for Jake Roberts being on that religious kick and cutting a religious interview on that show and then Dok Hendrix telling me about that interview, which I never would have seen because I was at the hospital getting stitched up after Marc Mero kicked me in the mouth, I would have never come up with Austin 3:16 because I would have never had a reason to. When they told me about that, the interview just clicked in my head. It wasn’t so much winning King of the Ring. It was the King of the Ring speech afterward when I said “Austin 3:16” and “That’s the bottom line because Stone Cold said so.” In one night, from wrestling one guy, what he did created two trademark things for me which established my character to this day. I’m real thankful for that?
MM: Did Vince Russo have a lot of input in the stuff you and Vince McMahon did?
SA: I think he did. I think Vince (McMahon) is the bottom line with all the creative here to a large degree. But I think Vince Russo was good when he first came. He got to roll with one of the writers and had a lot of great ideas. But he got carried away with some of the stuff and turned it into complete garbage. I think he was only good in tangents when you could keep a rule on him and not let him get too carried away with some of that sexual horseshit that he did and went over the top with some of that. I think he had some great ideas. His track record was proven when they sent him up to WCW and gave him free rein and the whole place flopped. He knows a few little sizzling things, like in little tangents, but he doesn’t know how to book a whole territory. They proved that in his TV ratings.
MM: What has been the worst rib pulled on you since you joined the WWF?
SA: When I came in, I came with the reputation of someone trying to work hard. I had no animosity, I didn’t have a big head, so I didn’t come here under a lot of uncertainty or expectations. I’ve never really been ribbed since I’ve been here. Some little, harmless bullshit things that friends do to each other, but as a victim of some of the hilarious ribs you’ve heard in the past, I never was a person who was ribbed a whole lot. By the same token, I’m not a person who ribs anybody else either. I just laugh my ass off all the time.
MM: When you were watching the Von Erichs 20 years ago, did you ever think wrestling would evolve into anything like it has today?
SA: No, especially to be right in the thick of it, because when I went to school at North Texas State, I was a big Von Erich fan and I’d go up there to see the Von Erichs wrestle The Freebirds, with Michael Hayes in a glitter robe. We’d go out there and be about 10 rows back drinking beer. I’d just got finished playing college football, and my buddy would be poking me in the ribs, saying, “Damn, you ought to go out there and try it out. You’re just as big as this guy.” Right there in the Sportatorium, with that musty smell of beer and cigarettes and body odor. The crowd down there and the atmosphere was tremendous. Of course, back then, wrestling was real, so to speak. The one light over the ring and everything else was dark. The business has changed, but then again, so has everything. It’s turned into an incredible machine. But I miss those days when I worked down there or I went to Tennessee and you were working a territory. You went to each town once a week, from week to week to week, doing the same thing. It made you a hell of a hand because your gears were constantly thinking about what you needed to do.
MM: You were once touted as “the next Ric Flair.” How did that comparison come about?
SA: I think I was having some really good matches with people like Ricky Steamboat and Sting and so forth on the road in WCW without really getting a main-event push or anything as a single heel up there. I was with Col. Parker here and there, U.S. champion, TV champion, but that was it. Those were all working belts. You didn’t get a lot of publicity. You were expected to go out there and make somebody look good and have a hell of a match and get the hell out so the stars could get in there. So as far as from a talent basis, I think that comparison came along. But Ric Flair was his own man, and he had a hell of a run. The guy was a super talent. And now what I’ve done as Stone Cold Steve Austin has been a hell of a run in a completely different vein, I think, than what a Ric Flair has done. So I really don’t compare myself to anyone. Those comparisons were early on. I think the guy was tremendous, but as far as Stone Cold Steve Austin goes, I’ve done things my way and really copied nobody.
MM: You got the big push a little later than most?
SA: Timing is everything. There’s a reason I started late, there’s a reason I had to pay my dues, there was a reason I got fired from WCW, and then to come up with Stone Cold deal. I never really planned anything, I just let it evolve. To be able to take a year off with a major surgery and come back into a No. 1 spot. It says a lot for the company and the fans. I’m definitely doing my work too.
MM: If you could bring three guys from WCW over right now, who would they be?
SA: I think obviously it’s Goldberg. He’s been a little brainwashed over there, the way their operation works, it’s too much of a “me” thing, whereas over here in the World Wrestling Federation, we’re all about making money and making stars and it’s a show that takes more than one person to carry the load. He’s got a lot of potential, and he hasn’t realized it yet because over there you’re sticking everybody in the back and you’re trying not to get stabbed in your back. I think the other guys are kind of a toss-up. I think Booker T could work over here. He’s got a lot of … once again, I say potential, because they don’t know how to make stars over there. Goldberg kind of did my deal as far as the look and everything like that, but as far as the aesthetic part and the appearance part, what is a Goldberg? What drives him? What motivates him? He has no depth. He doesn’t have a defined character. You don’t know what the hell he is.
MM: I think Hogan got to him early with the “Hey, brother” deal.
SA: That’s how Hogan gets them all. Here’s Hogan, this big star from the past, because he’s definitely not a big star now, but he’ll always have that status. He’s a poison over there and he just gets in everybody’s heads and f—- them over. But definitely a Goldberg could work over here with big-money potential with a lot of our top guys including myself. Booker T could be developed into a character with substance and turned into a better worker than he is. Maybe a Scott Steiner. Above and beyond that, maybe your DDPs, maybe your Nashes. I think DDP is a hell of a hard worker. I think Nash, my former travel partner, needs to step it up a little bit. I’m just telling you like it is.
MM: How did you and Debra meet?
SA: Here at work.
MM: You guys hit it off pretty well?
SA: I don’t know. Not really. I hardly like anybody when I first meet them. Hell, that’s kind of the way I am. Usually the people I dislike the most turn out to be the people I like the most. That’s usually the way it turns out.