Wednesday, March 16, 2016

“Stone Cold” Steve Austin Appreciation Month

It’s March of 2016.

That means it’s 3/16.

And today is 3/16 in 2016, so it’s time for me to talk about the Texas Rattlesnake, the Bionic Redneck, the baddest SOB in professional wrestling, Stone Cold Steve Austin!

GIMMIE A HELL YEAH.

*pauses for “Hell Yeahs”*

You damn right.

Stone Cold is the man I pick as the greatest professional wrestler of all time. No other performer in the History of Our Great Sport (™Tony Schiavone) has combined in-ring skills and character work as skillfully or as successfully as the man once known as The Ringmaster. And certainly none have gotten over as big with the wrestling audience and the world at large. While Hulk Hogan was the first huge crossover star and The Rock completely changed the meaning and possibilities of “Crossover Star”, neither of those men had the skillset that Austin possessed. And Austin’s name is just as recognizable to the general public.

He might not have headlined some of the biggest movies of all time, but Stone Cold has done his fair share of acting and now hosts his own successful podcast and two hugely popular television shows on CMT – Broken Skull Challenge and Redneck Island.

But I’m not here to talk about all of that. I’m here to talk about what I saw of the Rattlesnake’s in-ring career and how I felt about him as a performer at various points through the years. Today I’ll just be covering highlights of what I witnessed of Austin’s career as it happened from when I started watching in 1997. No other history or WCW days or stuff I went back and watched on the Network or the various Austin DVDs I own. This is about my own personal experience watching Stone Cold’s career. This isn’t Wikipedia, so I’m not going to run down Championships or anything like that.

Back in 1997 me and my roommates at the time were all about WCW. We had been watching since the prior year’s Bash at the Beach, where Hulk Hogan turned heel and joined the nWo. I’m pretty sure we had checked out WWF’s product from time to time, but the production quality just wasn’t on par with what Ted Turner’s company was offering. 

When I think back to those first episodes of RAW is War that I saw, I picture dirty, smoky arenas with lights that were slightly too bright and an entrance stage that seemed bland in comparison to Monday Nitro’s banners, signs, scaffolding, and fancy lighting set-up.

At the time professional wrestling was huge in a way that I don’t think it will ever be again. Between cable, the internet, and streaming entertainment there are so many options now that I don’t think any televised product can be that big. People watch what they want when they want and are no longer compelled to watch things that they might only be tangentially interested in due to a simple lack of choice. My point is that everyone was at least aware of what was going on in wrestling, even if they weren’t actually watching.

And everyone included my friend James, who not only watched wrestling, but spent his afternoons throwing himself off of his back porch to practice bumping as part of his pursuit of a pro wrestling career.

Side Note: “Bumping” is the art of taking a fall in professional wrestling. When you fall down, it hurts. Period. It doesn’t matter if you knew you were going to fall. But there are ways to fall that protect your body and hurt less. This is what James was practicing. Off of his back porch.

In talking to James one day, I learned that WCW was “bullshit” and that the real stuff was going on over in the WWF. I didn’t necessarily agree with his assessment of WCW, but if there’s one thing that I’ve learned in this life, it’s that you don’t argue with a man that has thrown himself off of his back porch 163 times in a single afternoon.

James went on to elaborate that the WWF was being dominated by some crazy son of a bitch called “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. Austin drank beer and flipped people off. He used salty language. He’d whoop anyone’s ass and didn’t give a damn who they were. Hell, son – he’d mouthed off to Jake the Fucking Snake and gotten away with it. This guy was the real deal.

While nothing was going to derail my fandom of WCW, Lionheart Chris Jericho, and the sassy and agile Nitro Girls, I was intrigued by the thought of this Austin guy. After all, you weren’t going to see Alex Wright pouring beer all over Juventud Guererra at 8:30 Monday night on TNT.

I honestly can’t remember when we tuned into RAW is War for the first time. I just know that we were instantly invested in Austin, who was slightly (only slightly) more multi-dimensional than the redneck lunatic James had described. By the time WrestleMania XIV rolled around, we were all-in and that was the first WWF pay-per-view that I ever ordered.

Oh, and as for James – I talked to him some time after we got into WWF and was excited to trade tales and opinions about the company. But he shot me down with the news that WWF was “bullshit” and that the real stuff was going on over in ECW. There was some crazy son of a bitch called “The Sandman” that drank beer, flipped people off, used salty language, whooped asses, and smoked cigarettes. Because of the success of James’ WWF recommendation I gave ECW a look, but I was not won over by Sandman’s mullet and Zubaz pants.

WrestleMania XIV was a huge deal. It’s still one of my favorite ‘Manias, if more for nostalgic reasons then actual quality, though it was a dammed good show. There was a TON of spectacle that would hook any would-be fan into the company, but the Main Event of Stone Cold challenging Shawn Michaels for his World Heavyweight Championship was titanic.

I didn’t know at the time that Michaels was hurting as badly as he was. All I knew was that between HBK’s stablemates in D-Generation X, Mike Tyson as the special guest ring enforcer (whatever that means), and Mr. McMahon’s hatred for Austin, it didn’t seem like there was any way that Austin could overcome the odds. Despite the fact that I had only been watching this guy for a few months at this point, I was more invested in that match than anything I had seen in WCW. It remains one of the matches I consider myself to have gotten the most caught up in, perhaps the most. Only recently did I even remember that I had once had the capacity to care so much about fake fighting, when Bayley beat Sasha Banks for the NXT Women’s Championship. It had been years since I truly cared about the outcome of a match in an “edge of my seat” kind of way.

Austin was the Champ after ‘Mania, which might seem to close a book, but since we’re talking about wrestling, we all know that thigs were just going to get worse (better).
Entire DVDs have been released detailing the conflict between Stone Cold Steve Austin and Mr. McMahon. I don’t want to belabor that whole thing. It was incredible to watch. Absurd in the extreme, but Stone Cold Steve Austin – and, to a larger extent the WWF in general – had this magical quality that made suspending your disbelief not just easy, but natural.
Mr. McMahon (the character) was so ridiculously over the top. I give Vince McMahon (the performer) all the credit in the world for going out there every week and showing ass, over and over again. He was vicious and cruel and hateful, but no man has ever suffered as much televised indignity as he did.

Side Note: Okay, maybe Kane.

We ate it up. The storytelling of that entire feud was masterful. The timing and twists and turns (who will help Austin? Who hates Austin more than McMahon or vice-versa?) kept us tuning in every single Monday night. I remember genuinely wondering how the heck it could all end. Unfortunately, it mostly ended with the Corporate Ministry, which was a fantastic angle that turned out to be awful. But that’s a whole other post.

Before that Austin was the centerpiece of RAW every night. Whether he was working a match, getting in unsanctioned fights, or just talking shit on the mic, he was the constant draw. Don’t get me wrong – without the WWF’s strong undercard and a supporting cast for Austin, the company never would have seen the success that it eventually did. Heck, I would say that Jim Ross deserves a certain portion of the credit for Austin and the WWF’s success at the time. But I firmly believe that no other performer in the history of the business could have carried the company to victory over WCW in the way that Austin did in the late 90s. I don’t think anyone has ever combined such a strong work ethic with such a natural understanding of what it means to be a professional wrestler. I don’t know that even Austin himself knows how or why he’s so good.

I suppose I should get at least a little specific.

When I’m talking about a pro wrestler being good, I’m looking at how comfortable they are more than anything else, followed by how real they behave. I know that’s poor grammar, but it’s the best way to say it. With the former, I would say there are only a very few wrestlers in my lifetime that felt born to the business – as though they have to think about how to be a wrestler as much as I have to think about how to sit on the couch.

That’s not to say that it’s easy or that they’re not actually putting thought into what they do. I just mean that it looks like that. Having great, logical matches and cutting convincing promos seems to be as easy for these guys as any everyday task you or I might perform, but to the viewer they are still compelling and astounding feats.

The latter – the behavior – is something else that I don’t think can be taught. Here I just mean that I buy into their character one hundred percent. This is more rare than the other qualifier, especially at the higher levels of the industry. The first guy since Stone Cold that has me scratching my head over how much of his act is real was CM Punk. Prior to Stone Cold I’d probably say Jake the Snake. Now we’ve got Kevin Owens, who seems to have all of the same natural tools that those guys have. And maybe just those four in my lifetime. To one degree or another, even the best wrestlers can be seen to be putting on an act. I’m not knocking that. Hogan, Piper, Flair, Michaels – those guys were all top-level performers that I can appreciate for different reasons. But what Austin brought to the ring was next level. Something truly special, if not unique.

I don’t know if I explained that well or not, but for me that’s what it comes down to. And Austin is the greatest.

Austin turned heel at WrestleMania XVII. Nobody wanted to boo Stone Cold Steve Austin. It was confusing and weird and off-putting. It wasn’t the best time in the Rattlesnake’s career, and yet he still managed to produce some moments that stand out in the vast history of pro wrestling. Because whether the audience wanted to boo Austin or not, he was going to show up each and every night and work his ass off. And – to his credit – show almost as much ass as Vince McMahon had during their feud. I can’t say I totally appreciate the decision to turn Austin, but we did get some comedy gold from it.

From my front row seat at RAW on 3/1/2004 in Atlanta!
Stone Cold’s final run in the WWE was as the Co-General Manager of Monday Night RAW. Austin’s knees and neck were in such bad shape that he was forced to retire from the ring, but he was still able to be part of the company’s on-screen product. This was a time of pure fun. Just seeing Eric Bischoff – the other Co-General Manager – have to deal with the man he had fired in a previous life every week was great. Austin got to ride around on his four-wheeler, drink beer, and run his mouth as he saw fit.

Before I wrap this thing up, I want to run down some of the most notable Stone Cold moments that come to mind. These are just the things that stick out to me when I think of the man’s incomparable career. They’re all combinations of booking, J.R.’s top-notch announcing, the talent of whoever Austin was working with, and hot crowds, but Austin is the guy that made the moment what it was.

***

The first thing that comes to mind isn’t actually one of my favorites; or even one I particularly like. Austin spent an entire episode of RAW hunting Mr. McMahon, Elmer Fudd-style. The climax came when Stone Cold finally got ahold of the Chairman (in the middle of the ring, of course) and pulled a gun on him. The gun was, of course, fake and produced nothing more harmful than a little flag that said “BANG 3:16” when the trigger was pulled. McMahon wet his pants and a good laugh was had by all.

I’m not squeamish about guns and feel like anyone that has been trained and has a permit should have one, but I also think that this was a grossly irresponsible scenario for the WWF to portray. I’m not gonna lie – the final outcome was funny, but the whole thing makes me uncomfortable.

***


Nobody will ever forget the time Stone Cold drove a Coors truck to the ring and doused The Corporation with gallons upon gallons of the cold, watery domestic. Do beer trucks actually have hoses? Would any normal human being flail theatrically around a wrestling ring the way that the Rock, Shane-O-Mac, and Mr. McMahon did rather than just leaving? Were the front rows furious to be covered with beer? And in retrospect, are they all glad that they didn’t have cell phones back then?

Who cares? It was amazing. So amazing that it has been aped a few times, most successfully by Kurt Angle with a milk truck.

***

Stone Cold versus the Undertaker. Not any specific match, but any time the two faced off. Nobody faced down ‘Taker like Austin did. Whatever the circumstances and however stale the storyline might have gotten at times, any time those two actually got in the ring together, it was magic. People reference matches involving Steamboat, Flair, Savage, and Bret Hart as classics all the time. Those are the matches that you have to watch to see the best in wrestling. That’s true, but you can’t discount the hard-hitting psychology that Austin and Undertaker displayed every time they got in the ring. From the mythology that they had both built around their characters to their mastery of storytelling in the ring, those matches are just as much clinics in professional wrestling as anything you can find.

***


Mr. McMahon’s Corvette. Oh, man. I’m not a car guy, but watching Stone Cold destroy that Corvette was brutal.

***

Stone Cold Steve Austin shirts at Hot Topic. I worked at Hot Topic from ’97 until ’99. We started getting wrestling shirts in shortly after I started and I thought that was so odd. But they sold like mad because at the time nobody else was carrying them. And we had more Stone Cold shirts than anything else. The biggest seller was always the classic “Austin 3:16”, but that man must have had twenty different t-shirt designs come through there in the time I was there. And we didn’t even carry all of the shirts that the WWF produced. I liked the classic one, but my least favorite was this silly design that was a picture of Stone Cold with actual rattlesnakes for arms. I think it sold okay, but I always thought it was stupid.

***

I can’t say I loved it at the time, but the Two-Man Power Trip was awesome in retrospect. Triple H teamed up with Austin was two total bastards at the top of their heel game. Holding all three major titles and dominating everyone on the roster, the pair definitely made history. Sadly, it ended before it had a chance to really get rolling when Triple H suffered his infamous first quad tear in a match against Chris Benoit and Chris Jericho.

***

Finally, the middle finger. J.R. liked to refer to it as “the one-finger salute” and Lawler would say, “He’s telling ‘em they’re number one!” (because every sentence out of Lawler’s mouth gets an exclamation point). I always thought it was weird that we all cheered when Austin got up on the turnbuckles and flipped us off. But those middle fingers weren’t aimed at us. They were aimed at everything. They meant “fuck you”, but they also meant exactly what King and JR were saying. That Austin was number one – the best – and that he was acknowledging that “the workin’ man” was out there supporting him. That any one of us could be Austin given the right kind of hard work and the right set of circumstances. John Cena’s literal catchphrase is “Never Give Up”, but that’s what Austin was saying every time he threw up those twin digits.

***

Stone Cold Steve Austin is a wrestling legend and a WWE Hall of Famer. His career is unequaled in the industry. For decades to come, any “tough guy” or “rebel” characters will be compared to the Rattlesnake. He was the defining element of the WWF’s victory over WCW in the Monday Night Wars – the one thing that WCW could never replicate or equal. His character was over-the-top, but every single time the glass shattered, we were on board for whatever wild ride Austin was about to take us on.


Swig o’ beer for ol' Stone Cold Steve Austin. Happy 3/16!

Buy some Stone Cold stuff from Amazon and Needless Things gets a ha'penny!:



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