Photo by Mandy Coombes.
Rolling into WrestleMania 14 in March of 1998, it was clear Stone Cold Steve Austin was going to win the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) championship from then titleholder Shawn Michaels. Insiders knew "The Hearbreak Kid" was leaving the business due to a back injury that helped necessitate the need to get the title off him but this was happening no matter what.
"The Rattlesnake" was ready to finally take that last step.
It was a sweet moment for Stone Cold. He battled through politics and low expectations in World Championship Wrestling (WCW) early in his career, honed his craft in Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW) after he was fired, and overcame some early obstacles when he finally made it to the big stage at the WWF.
After eight long years and countless struggles along the way, Austin's time had come, just like he said he would two years before. He demanded as much but more importantly, the fans demanded it.
And so it came to be. And it was glorious.
Over the course of the next two years, Austin became the most popular pro wrestler in the history of the business. Vince McMahon himself would later say in an interview with Off the Record, "In terms of merchandising and licensing, and pay-per-view and live events, [Austin is] unquestionably the most popular performer we've ever had."
You want to talk about memorable moments? No one had more than Austin during his time at the top.
What about McMahon trying to make Stone Cold a corporate champion and getting tagged in the nuts for his troubles?
Or how about when he drove up to the ring in a zamboni, crashed into it, then jumped from the top of it to clothesline McMahon, leading to his being arrested and led out by police as the crowd went absolutely fucking insane crazy.
Or how about Austin kidnapping McMahon and holding him up at gunpoint in the ring, only to reveal it was a toy gun with "Bang 3:16" popping out when he pulled the trigger. This gave birth to the new expression, "McMahon 3:16 says I just pissed my pants.
Perhaps his pouring concrete into McMahon's corvette suits your fancy:
Surely you remember Austin disguising himself as a doctor so he could visit McMahon in the hospital and blast him over the head with a bedpan before giving him a forced enema.
And who could ever forget the beer truck and McMahon swimming in the middle of the ring as Austin showered him with booze:
Those are just a few but there were many, many more.
In fact, there were too many to count. Throughout those two years, Austin was always on top, either holding the WWF championship or having it revolve around him in some way or another. He was also having incredible matches along the way, including a ridiculously fun match against Dude Love at Over the Edge '98, a First Blood match against Kane at King of the Ring '98, a match against McMahon himself at St. Valentine's Day Massacre in '99, and an awesome WrestleMania main event against The Rock, his second in a row.
Unfortunately, his neck was bad enough at this point from the botched Owen Hart piledriver that he left for almost an entire year to get surgery and rehabilitate.
After that much time away, there were questions regarding how good he would be once he came back.
It was like he never left.
At first he was a babyface, winning his third Royal Rumble in 2001. He turned heel when he won the championship at WrestleMania by defeating The Rock and not long after formed the Two Man Power Trip with Triple H, a badass tag team that was set to do incredible things until "The Game" tore his quadriceps and was forced out of action for eight months.
Austin's character changed greatly at this time. He was still a badass heel but he was also whiny and suddenly became obsessed with Vince McMahon. More injuries led to Stone Cold getting the chance to show off his comedic chops in various backstage segments with McMahon and Kurt Angle.
They were amazing.
Austin continued to be popular as a top star in the company but the business started to release its stranglehold on the public at large and his star started to wane.
Combine that with a boatload of creative issues with those in power and by 2002, Austin was gone from the organization. He was still big, his merchandise selling well and his name a valuable commodity in the pro wrestling world, but the times had changed from just a few years prior.
Plus, his body was broken down beyond the point of return. When he patched things up with the company, now rebranded World Wrestliing Entertainment (WWE), he did so for one final run in the ring as an active wrestler. Naturally, he went out with a third WrestleMania match against The Rock, one final classic before he hung up the boots for good.
Austin would continue in an on-screen capacity as co-General Manager and later "The Sheriff" of the WWE. He was still over and many fun times were had but the end was near. Slowly but surely, he faded off into the sunset, only to make sporadic appearances to promote his movies later on or for special occasions, like Raw anniversary shows.
His impact will be felt forever and there's no questioning that he when he was at his best and at his peak, there was no one bigger or better than the redneck from south Texas.