For most modern day wrestling fans, the timeline is divided very simply into two parts: Everything that came before June 23, 1996, and everything that came after it. There simply is no other event that can be pointed to which launched the trajectory of the business to unheard of heights at a time when World Wrestling Entertainment badly needed a win. For those keeping track of such things (and, recently celebrating a birthday, consider me among them at this particular point in time) it's been EIGHTEEN freaking years since that amazing day that changed everything for all of us.
It's amazing to me that some people reading these words may not have even been alive when the former "Stunning" Steve Austin turned the world around. It's even more astonishing to me that the lessons learned that day have never been more relevant. As we sit on the precipice of another in a series of moments that might change the business but don't, it's both disturbing and refreshing to harken back to another shot in the dark slice of theater that did just that. The story is well known to many, but the moral of it may have been lost on those that came after. In short, we remain in a constant state of vigilance for that next "Austin 3:16 moment."
The information that follows could be said about any myriad of wrestling performers that came up through the '90s: a slight name change and a trip through the crowded and impressive roster of the USWA; a valet with whom the performer had a very real off-screen relationship; titles success in WCW and a slot in an impressive stable managed by one of the best; tag team dominance with a talented but different partner that ultimately resulted in a messy breakup and feud; the invariable mid-decade stall where mid-tier title belts was all one could hope for while they acted as placeholder for the acts of yesteryear.
I vividly recall knowing all of these things about "Stunning" Steve Austin when he arrived in ECW. The details leading to his dismissal from WCW are far less clear, and haven't gotten any less murky over time. There's always been a whiff of the urban legend concerning major moments in the business, and this follows that credo to a tee. To hear Austin tell it, then-VP Eric Bischoff felt Austin was not "marketable" main event material and used the occasion of an injury sustained during an overseas tour to fire him. Making it even more humiliating to Austin was the fact that it was a "Fed Ex" firing, done over the phone rather than face-to-face. Bischoff has disputed those events to some extent, claiming that Austin refused to execute a task put before him. We may never know the truth, but what I am one hundred percent certain about is that something clicked in Austin that day that turned him into a legend.
To say that I have respect for Paul Heyman more than most people in the business would be a massive understatement. Anyone that crowded into that bingo hall to see what went on there most certainly feels the same. Heyman, familiar with Austin from the Dangerous Alliance days, saw an opportunity in another Big 2 castoff and recruited him. What Austin did while in ECW for that brief time was nothing short of remarkable. How much of it came from Heyman and how much was Austin's is left to those men to describe, but Austin was received like wrestling royalty due to his gimmick in ECW. For this group of counterculture roughnecks, having a former pretty boy champion from down south run down the absurdity of Steve McMichael calling Nyquil (er, Nitro) shows was catnip to the nth degree. Austin did what seemingly all great wrestling angles do: he took his personal animus and put it on display for us all. The ECW Arena already hated Bischoff, but this was lampooning to a whole new level. This was reality in a way that the stiffest chair shot and the bloodiest thumb tack match could never be. And it was exhilarating.
The seeds for Stone Cold were without question sown in those days. But the story, as most good stories are wont to do, does not end there. Austin was too big a name to remain in ECW for long, and to his credit, he never booked himself as dominant. It was about other things for him at that time, perhaps, and thus came his return to glory, this time with the WWE. Or was it? Having convinced Vince McMahon to take a chance on him (yes, there was a time when wrestling promoters didn't immediately scoop up anyone with a modicum of success that had hit the open market), Jim Ross and others promptly found him mired in not much of anything. Whatever scintilla of heat remained from being labeled as "The Ringmaster" and Ted DiBiase's Million Dollar understudy disappeared in a puff of smoke when his manager bolted for the promotion that had canned him. Ouch.
In essence, the WWE had taken one of the hottest angles in any of professional wrestling and gone in a completely different direction with it. Austin lacked input, was bland and boring and seen before, and gave nobody any reason whatsoever to think he would be any different than Shane Douglas, 2 Cold Scorpio, or anyone else who had left ECW and been handed a horrendous gimmick. WWE creates its own superstars, thank you very much, so those from the outside have to work harder. That tradition has been lessened but continues to this day. Draw what similarities you wish. The initial pieces to the puzzle were already in place: "Ringmaster" had been discarded in favor of the way cooler "Stone Cold," and the "Stunner" (thanks, Mikey Whipwreck!) was a finishing move to be reckoned with, rather than someone else's tired hand me down.
Then of course came yesterday eighteen years ago, when Austin participated in King of the Ring. The card itself is almost laughable when you look at it now. Plastered all over the poster is the dearly departed Ultimate Warrior, who had temporarily patched things up with Vinnie Mac long enough to take on Jerry "The King" Lawler. That match being selected as the money shot should give you some idea about the rest of the lineup. Shawn Michaels retained the championship against British Bulldog, Ahmed Johnson became Intercontinental Champion, and the Smoking Gunns wrestled the Godwinns. Ouch.
The KOTR tourney was always a sort of bastard child for the WWE, and they made the conscious decision to show only two semi-final matches, as well as the final itself, on the pay-per-view. Lost perhaps in the sands of time is the fact that the majority of the solid talent booked in the tourney didn't even make it to the final couple of matches. Goldust, The Warrior, Triple H, JBL, Chris Candido, Yokozuna, and Owen Hart didn't make the cut. This left WCW castoff Vader to face '80s favorite Jake "The Snake" Roberts and Austin to do battle with..you guessed it, WCW castoff Marc Mero. Roberts was woefully out of shape, and it showed as he was booked to defeat Vader by disqualification in under four minutes. Austin, on the other hand, needed over fifteen to take care of the former Johnny B. Badd.
Roberts/Austin looked like a mismatch on paper, and the real version stood up to that characterization. "Stone Cold" pinned Roberts in under five minutes in rather dominant fashion, and then dug into his ECW bag of tricks to unleash the pipe bomb for the Attitude Era. In taking Roberts's born again Christian gimmick (as always, rooted in reality) and displaying not just aggression but active disdain for it, Austin put himself first and foremost in every fan's mind. It didn't matter that he defeated two guys who really shouldn't have been there in the first place. It didn't matter that he barely wrestled in ECW. It didn't even matter that his semi-distinguished WCW career ended with a whimper. What mattered is that Austin had placed himself not only before Jake and the idea of what a great wrestler was in the WWE, but Jesus himself. You can't pay for that kind of nuclear heat.
When discussing the topic later on Chris Jericho's excellent podcast, Austin explained that Michael Hayes had let Austin know about Roberts's deeply religiously-overtoned screed, and that in turn led Austin to contemplate the famous "John 3:16" seen at sporting events all over the world. It was the turn of that phrase that launched a million T-shirts, as it were. In one seminal moment, Austin had left the steroid-laden, cartoony magic of the eighties in a headlock from hell and brought everyone watching along for the ride. Whether you cared for him or not, whether hero or heel, he tapped into the zeitgeist and frustration of people longing for a break from synchronicity and didn't let go until he was finished. It's as awe-inspiring to watch it now as it was when it happened. And that's saying something.
Eighteen short years later, wrestling finds itself desperately searching for another "3:16" moment. Certainly for another Steve Austin. You can count me among those who is a huge fan of Austin and his work, and never wants to see him wrestle another match. There is simply no need to add to his legend and plenty of unfortunate opportunity to take away from it. One of the lessons to be gleaned from this tale is that those guys (and girls) are out there, right now, in arenas and promotions around the world. Austin wasn't some hand-picked top-tier guy; he was a wrestler who had been through the wars and come out the other side looking for an opportunity to prove everyone wrong. Anyone frustrated with creative direction or writing or management or pushes or what have you would do well to take heed of that simple fact. And the large majority of them, unfortunately, have not and will not.
The second lesson is equally simple: Speaking from the heart with something to prove gets the fans on your side. As obvious as that is, it's often the last road traveled by those who write dialogue for a living. The disconnect is obvious. To be a great writer, you don't actually have to live what you write. To be a great wrestler, you absolutely do. Unless you're playing for laughs, which is a skill in itself, there's just no fakery in this sport always on trial for being just that. Austin took his rage and irritation and brought it front and center. He worked through the highly individualized hiccups during his stay in ECW and brought it into full focus when the WWE gave him the opportunity. In that moment, he became the biggest star wrestling had ever seen. Is it the biggest star wrestling will ever see? I imagine even he'd admit he would prefer that not be the case.
Eighteen years ago, a performer broke the mold by being true to his emotions and dragging each and every fan along with him. Eighteen years later, in a different era with vastly changed ratings and scripts, we still tune in waiting for that next moment. Let's see what 3:17 has in store.