When Steve Austin left World Championship Wrestling (WCW), he did so with a chip on his shoulder. He was still passionate about the professional wrestling business but that passion was now accompanied by fire, a burning desire to succeed in the face of those who told him he wasn't good enough, or marketable enough to be a big star.
But while he wound up with Paul Heyman, an old friend who welcomed him with open arms, Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW) was always just a stopgap, a brief detour on Austin's road to the big time in the World Wrestling Federation (WWF).
Sure enough, while he was busy showcasing his talents in Philadelphia, executives at Titan Towers had taken notice. It didn't take long for Austin to sign with the WWF where he was immediately repackaged and put on TV. Little did he know, the company would use him almost as poorly as WCW did, at least at first.
His gimmick? The Ringmaster.
The logic from Vince McMahon and company was that Austin was quite literally a master of the ring. He was a technician who wasn't too terribly charismatic, at least in their eyes. While they scouted him in both ECW and WCW, they weren't altogether impressed with his promo abilities, which led to his being paired up with "The Million Dollar Man," Ted DiBiase, one of the great promos of the past few decades.
Quite frankly, this was madness. Austin hated the character and hated the fact that he was being silenced by getting paired with DiBiase and made to look like not much more than a lackey.
Thankfully, the Monday Night Wars created opportunity, in more ways than one.
During the course of his time with DiBiase, it was made clear to the office that Austin thought they weren't taking him seriously as a performer and he wanted not just a fresh coat of paint but a complete overhaul as a character. The Ringmaster gimmick just wasn't working for him.
As the story goes, they simply told him to come up with a character more suited to his desires. He did so after watching an HBO special on infamous mob murderer Richard Kuklinski, nicknamed "The Iceman" for the manner in which he disposed of some of his victims. He was a cold-blooded, ruthless killer who displayed no emotions or remorse for the many murders he committed throughout the course of his lifetime, said to be upwards of 100 men over 30 years.
This man inspired Austin and he pitched his idea to the office for a similar character. He was sent back a list of names based on his pitch and they were some of the most ridiculous in the history of time, like Otto Von Ruthless, Ice Dagger, and Fang McFrost.
As Austin himself said upon seeing them, "it don't get no more suck ass than that."
Luckily for him, his wife stumbled upon the perfect solution. While having a talk with him and helping to ease his frustration at his situation, she made him some tea and told him to make sure he drank it before it got "stone cold."
Just like that, Stone Cold Steve Austin was born.
He started cutting promos to introduce the name and the announcers made sure to do the same. They slowly phased out The Ringmaster and simply went with the name we still know him as today.
DiBiase was still hanging around, though, and Austin wasn't going anywhere as long as that was the status quo. As mentioned previously, the Monday Night Wars created opportunity for him, as DiBiase was one of many wrestlers who would switch from the WWF to its chief rival, WCW. They booked a match between Austin and Savio Vega with the stipulation that if Austin lost, DiBiase would have to leave the company. This was done as a way to write DiBiase out, of course, but they played it perfectly by having Austin later say he lost the match on purpose in order to rid himself of "The Million Dollar Man."
This all led right into the King of the Ring the very next month, where Stone Cold's true rise to superstar status began. Triple H was originally booked to win the tournament but after the infamous "Curtain Call" incident at Madison Square Garden involving Kevin Nash, Scott Hall and Shawn Michaels, that was scrapped. Circumstances being what they were, Triple H was made the scapegoat in the situation and lost out on his planned major push.
Instead, it went to Austin.
He won the tournament by defeating Jake Roberts in the finals. During that time, Roberts was using a born again christian gimmick and Stone Cold used it for inspiration for his post-match promo. During the course of said promo, he created one of the most wildly popular catchphrases in the history of the pro wrestling industry.
Just like that, it was off to the races. Suddenly, all the charisma he flashed in WCW and all the promo abilities he showed in ECW came bursting through the screen. He got hot fast and was quickly programmed in a feud with Bret Hart, one that saw the two have too many memorable matches to count. It started at Survivor Series in 1996, went on to Austin winning the Royal Rumble in 1997 via smoz over Hart and on through to WrestleMania 13 and one of the greatest double turns in history.
Hart was still a babyface at this time, though the writing was on the wall. The fans were siding more and more with Austin, the guy who acted like a total heel but drew cheers for a lot of his dastardly acts. So they went through with the switch at 'Mania 13 in a submission match with Ken Shamrock as special guest referee.
It was a brilliant display of psychology and technical acumen by both men, who had unbelievable chemistry with one another. They also knew how to milk the crowd for all it was worth, both outstanding performers in all aspects of the art. All of this was on display in the match, one of the greatest of all time.
If he wasn't before, there was no doubting it now. Stone Cold was a main event level player destined to one day win the WWF championship. He had it all at this point and there was no longer any point in doubting or denying his abilities.
He was headed for mega-stardom.
Little did anyone know it would all almost come to an end before it could really kick into gear just a few months later.
After his feud with Bret, Austin started a feud with Bret's brother, Owen. The two had a match at SummerSlam for the Intercontinental championship with the added stipulation that if Stone Cold lost, he would have to kiss Hart's ass.
By the time it was over, none of that mattered.
That's because disaster struck when they went into a planned piledriver spot. Owen insisted on doing a sitdown piledriver instead of going to his knees. Well, when they set the move up, Austin's head was lower than it was supposed to be, so when Hart sat down, it spiked Stone Cold's head directly into the mat.
With where Austin was in his career, this seemed to deal a devastating blow to his standing in the company. Because of his neck, he was forced to take a few months off from wrestling. But that didn't mean he couldn't stick around to cut promos or be involved in angles and storylines.
And it turned out the broken neck was a blessing in disguise.
That's because Vince McMahon used it to their advantage. They made Austin relinquish his Intercontinental strap and in doing so, allowed him to become even more of an antihero. Suddenly, he was painted as the guy the establishment didn't want to succeed but he kept thumbing his nose at them at every turn, giving his bosses hell at all times.
"You talk about me delivering the Intercontinental title; the only thing that I'll deliver is a big can of whoop ass right to your front door," Austin told Sgt. Slaughter when he came back to give up the belt.
The crowd was eating it up. He started dealing stunners out to everyone, from Slaughter to Ross and finally, to McMahon himself. In fact, when he hit the boss with a stunner at the first ever Monday Night Raw at Madison Square Garden in September, it marked yet another turning point. Just months later, the Montreal Screwjob went down at Survivor Series, which saw Bret Hart leave the company and McMahon get thrust into the spotlight as the evil owner who screwed him over before sending him away.
Mr. McMahon, as he would become known in character, was now the biggest heel in pro wrestling. The timing was perfect for Austin to become the biggest babyface in pro wrestling to oppose him.
Unlike when he first signed with the company, the WWF now knew full well what they had. Stone Cold had gone from The Ringmaster to the trash talking antihero with a cool cache of catchphrases who everyone loved and cheered voraciously. The support for him was undeniable and it all came together just in time for the Royal Rumble in January of 1998.
"STONE COLD! STONE COLD! STONE COLD IS GOING TO WRESTLEMANIA!"
Austin winning the Rumble was all but a foregone conclusion, as it was blatantly obvious he was about to become the focal point of the entire promotion. They complimented that by backing a dump truck full of cash up to Mike Tyson's house (reportedly $3 million) to get him to run an angle with Austin and D-Generation X, the group Stone Cold would be feuding with seeing as its leader, Shawn Michaels, was the WWF champion.
Tyson, a big pro wrestling mark, agreed and came in as a fan of Austin, cheering him on during his Rumble win. The next night on Raw, however, McMahon introduced Tyson and "The Rattlesnake" interrupted to voice his displeasure that Tyson had shown up in his ring while calling himself "The Baddest Man on the Planet."
This was an infamous altercation that garnered WWF all sorts of positive press and helped them slowly turn the tide in the ratings war against WCW.
Tyson would then align himself with DX on the road to WrestleMania 14, providing yet another interesting wrinkle in the company's quest to ensure Austin didn't win its title and become its new representative.
It also created even more press and helped draw an even bigger buyrate for the event that would mark the coronation of the new face of the professional wrestling industry.
Coming up -- Part 3: The Austin Era begins