The year 2002 was a weird one for Stone Cold Steve Austin. He was still extremely popular with the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) fanbase but he was no longer being used as the company's number one guy. In the beginning of the year, he found himself taking a back seat to the debuting New World Order (NWO) and its leader, Hulk Hogan.
Austin had problems with the Hulkster dating back to their days in World Championship Wrestling (WCW) and how Hogan had held him back in the company. It turned out to be the best thing for him, as it indirectly helped lead to his escaping off to the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) to become one of the biggest stars of all time, but his resentment stayed. So when Hogan came back and was given the spotlight over Austin once more, it was like pouring a pound of salt in a very old, and now very open, wound.
The initial idea was to have Austin and Hogan meet for a match at WrestleMania, thinking that would be the biggest money maker in history. Indeed, it probably should have happened but because neither guy was willing to do any kind of job, clean or otherwise, to the other, Hogan ended up working with The Rock (and putting him over). That match resulted in Hogan turning babyface and getting a run with the title after defeating Triple H, who had returned earlier in the year to much fanfare, enough that he won the Royal Rumble (over Austin) and went up to WrestleMania to defeat Chris Jericho (who beat Austin to retain his title at No Way Out).
Stone Cold ultimately ended up the fourth or even fifth match down on the card at 'Mania, a singles match against Scott Hall (who was just about out of the company for his various drug and backstage problems) that was given even less time than the women's championship match later in the evening.
This was causing a great deal of strife for "The Rattlesnake" and he actually took an unplanned night off for the Raw immediately following WrestleMania 18. This drew the ire of the powers that be, of course, and Vince McMahon and company were starting to get more and more fed up with the entire situation.
Austin returned to Raw the next week to choose his side for the brand extension that WWE had just implemented. All would go on as normal over the next few weeks until Stone Cold gave an interview to Byte This where he absolutely buried the company for how they were using him and slammed the Creative team for the direction they were taking him. Kevin Kelly and Howard Finkel, the hosts, tried to play it off, but they were caught off guard by Austin being so forthright with his legitimate issues with how he was being treated. Vince McMahon went on the same show one week later and tried to play it off, as well, saying Austin was demanding as a big star but he wasn't producing like one. "It's like a major artist who usually produces platinum records but is now producing gold ones."
It all came to a head the next week on Raw when Austin was informed he would be doing a job for rising star Brock Lesnar in a King of the Ring qualifying match with no promotional build up whatsoever.
During a phone conversation, Austin said he would not be showing up if that was the plan. He then called McMahon at 2 a.m. and when he was told again that he would be jobbing to Lesnar, he said, "okay." Vince thought that meant Austin was on board but it turned out, Stone Cold had said it as a blow off. He quickly booked a flight home and left.
WWE ran Raw and made sure to get its licks in by having Ric Flair acknowledge that he failed to show up. They also ran an angle with McMahon being told by telephone that he was going to show up but later in the evening he was informed that it was someone else. That someone turned out to be The Rock, who cut a big promo aimed directly at Austin talking about how it was bullshit that he would leave. A notable moment of the promo came when he said something along the lines of, "if anyone in the back doesn't want to be here, like the slogan says, get the F out!"
Taking it one step further, WWE continued what Stone Cold would later call "a smear campaign" by releasing an entire episode of "Confidential" on Austin walking out of the company.
The next episode of Raw happened on this date in WWE history (June 17, 2002) and featured McMahon coming out to give a big speech on what happened with Austin. He told fans that Stone Cold had walked out, again saying he "took his ball and went home."
Not only that, McMahon said he thought Austin was done with the company and toasted him one last time with a drink of beer before leaving it in the center of the ring.
It wasn't until much, much later when Austin was able to tell his side of the story. While it may have seemed as though the bridges between the two sides had been burned, they were rebuilt via Jim Ross correspondence with Austin and he eventually went back and smoothed things out with McMahon and the rest of the locker room before returning in 2003 for another run with the company.
He was never the same as a wrestler, however, and his last match would happen at WrestleMania 19, where he would job to The Rock one last time before retiring from active duty.
It was after his return that he got to tell his whole side of the story in an interview that ran in the Raw Magazine that year, which remains one of its highest selling editions.
Here's a bit of what Austin had to say about that time period. Settle in, folks, it's a long -- but extremely informative -- read:
My problems with WWE had been building for a while, going back to WrestleMania X-7 when I wanted to change the direction of my character. I felt a little stale, and I wanted to switch things up. Maybe it wasn't the greatest idea in the world, but I always think back to that night at WrestleMania when I was whaling The Rock with a chair. I shouldn't have just flipped flat-out and erased the mystique of Stone Cold. Hell, Stone Cold is unpredictable, because you never know what the hell he's going to do next. I should have put the edge back where it needed to be. Instead, it became predictable. Then Rock was gone. Everybody was gone. I didn't have a lot of people to work programs with, and the fans didn't really know how to take me. But anyway, the creative [direction] got real wishy-washy after that, and I wasn't happy with the direction anything was going in.
When I took off for a couple of weeks after WrestleMania X8, I heard and read a lot of people saying it was because I was pissed off about the nWo coming in and because of my match at 'Mania with Scott Hall. I really didn't have a problem with the nWo. Me and Kevin Nash used to be riding partners. He's a damn good friend of mine. When Hall and Nash were in WCW, they stirred up a lot of crap. The only one I heard that was a pile of trash was [Hollywood Hulk] Hogan, because he's a manipulator and does backstage politics; he's proven that to this day. I just didn't think it was going to work out gangbusters like it was planned to be. I knew going into the match with Scott Hall that I was going to go off the next day. I was *bleep*ing fried. I was burned out and frustrated. They had me in a third or fourth main event. It wasn't even a main event; it was just some match on the card. And I wasn't happy with that at all. You can tell me this business goes in cycles, and sometimes you're not as hot as you want to be, but where I was on that card didn't make sense to me. The match wasn't promoted properly. It wasn't built properly. Nothing. People said I had personal problems with Scott Hall, or he had problems with me. I didn't. I like the guy. He's got personal problems; that's stuff he's got to deal with. As far as getting in the ring with Scott, I enjoyed it. But you can't expect that guy to come in here and in three months be in a WrestleMania match. So I wanted to wrestle with somebody different. I got no animosity toward Scott Hall. He's as good as gold with me.
When I went home the day after WrestleMania X8, I was going to get my head together, man. The way things were going, I needed to step back and say, "Man, let me take a breath of fresh air," because when The Rock was off making his movie and Triple H was down with an injury, I was working overtime. When they get me hot and rolling, I'm out doing every single thing they got. I worked my ass off, just like everybody else on the crew. It's a part of being a top guy. I worked every damned show there is. I was burned out physically. Damn it, I'm not a spring chicken anymore. I can go with the best of them, but I was burned out. That's the bottom line. I knew I was going to come back. I just needed some time off, and I didn't need to negotiate it or talk about it with anybody or anything like that. I wanted to go home, and I did.
I go back to that deal with Rocky at 'Mania. That was one of the best promoted matchups in history. To me, it was on fire. It was awesome. And it went down from there. I'll shoulder some of the blame, because I made character decisions that weren't in my best interest. But I wasn't in Vince's ear. His ear was somewhere else. Maybe he was as burned out as I was going to become. When I came back about six weeks later, things were just the way there were. I did an interview on Byte This on WWE.com, and I had a lot of things to say about the creative direction that got me in some hot water. See, here's the problem with creative: You got people writing storylines who ain't never been in the ring, that don't know what the hell's in my head. And here's someone who's going to sit there and write words for Stone Cold? Uh-Uh.
When I came back in 2000 from my neck surgery, it was kind of a different system. I just kind of fell into it because I was insecure. I was worried about getting back in the swing, so I just started going with the new system. But when I was at my very hottest...when I first came around, I started off as The Ringmaster. I came up with my own material. Well, I was coming up with all my stuff myself, and that made me a hell of a hot talent, because I was spitting out all this shit I'd had in Texas my whole life. And that's what made me what I was. All of a sudden you've got someone putting words in your mouth -- you can't do that. The writers are taking the business from the boys, and that's what the problem with creative is. They've got to give the business back to the damn boys. When you got a guy who's been in the business three, six, eight, ten, or fifteen years, it doesn't matter. Asking a damned writer what he's supposed to say? There's a problem.
When I was at my hottest, selling out everywhere we went, no one was telling me what to say. They'd give me a few little bullet points, "I'd like you to cover this or that," and then like all talent should, I'd feed off the crowd and make the rest of. When Ric Flair was at his hottest in the NWA days, he wasn't doing comedy. He was saying what was on his mind, and it came from his heart and his head, because he believed in what he was saying. I believed in what I was doing. Hogan, for what it's worth, when that guy was hot, he was saying what was in his heart and in his mind. He didn't have no one -- some 25 year old, fresh out of sitcom school or whatever the hell it is -- telling him what to say. That's the big problem to me.
I'd made it pretty clear that I wasn't happy, but from where I stood, things had changed between me and Vince. It just seemed like when I had to take a damn year off with my neck -- and that sucked, to be on top of the world and then get shut down and sit there and watch. When I took that year off, that leave of absence, I didn't know if I was going to come back or not, because my neck was a serious deal, and it still is. When I came back, things were different between me and him. When I came back...if I don't see you for a year but you're my friend -- boom -- we're right back on the same page from when I left. That's how I work. Vince, it seemed like he was on a different page from where I was. I know he had to be in tune with the other guys, and that's fine. You can't site there thinking about Stone Cold. I'm at the house. I'm not making money for anybody; I'm not entertaining the crowd. I'm just trying to heal up. But when I came back, in my opinion, things had changed. It seemed like people were in his ear for their own agendas, and not the direction or agenda of WWE.
Man, I'll tell you what, I keep giving it to you and I keep getting tuned out and shut down, I just get fed up. I got so frustrated that I was like, "*bleep* it." That's how I operate. It's probably one of my biggest quirks or faults or whatever -- traits, I don't know. I'm still going to work hard for you, but I know the situation isn't what it needs to be. I know whatever I do at my best, if the situation is dogshit, it ain't gonna work.
And that's where I was in June, right before I went home for what I thought was for good. We were just finishing Knoxville or somewhere in Tennessee, and we were going to go down to Atlanta for RAW the next night. I got to the hotel and J.R. called and talked about my matchup for Monday night, and I said, "Man, I don't like that." He said, "Well that's what we're going to do," and I said, "Well, then I'm not going to be there." He told me I was going to be facing Brock [Lesnar] in an unadvertised RAW match -- no buildup, no promotion, no nothing. I said, "I don't like it." Later that night, at about two in the morning, I called Vince and he ran the same scenario by me. I sat there, listened and said, "Okay." And he's thinking I'm saying okay because I agreed to it. I was saying, "Okay, I'm *bleep*ing fed up. This is bullshit."
I stared teeing the writing on the wall. That's when I decided to walk. Here's the bottom line: I'm Stone Cold Steve Austin. I've drawn more money than anybody else in the business. I've sold more merchandise that anybody in the business, and I've sold more pay-per-views than anybody in the business. I'm not the first in line for Brock Lesnar. I'm the last in line. I'm happy to do business with anybody -- when it's time to do business. That was the dumbest business decision I've ever heard in my life. If you're a stupid S.O.B., you say, "Yeah, Austin, do it." But if you know the business, and you know what is business, then I'm the last one for Brock. That's the money match. That's the promotion. That's the match everyone wants to see. Then whatever the outcome is, it's fine by me. But I'm the last in line, I'm not the first.
So, I packed up my gear and got on a plane back to Texas, and J.R. called me on my cell phone while I was sitting on the plane, waiting for it to take off. He told me to get my ass back to the building. Man, that was a hard day, but I had already made up my damn mind what I was going to do, because I wasn't going to go to the building and negotiate with Vince about working with Brock Lesnar. It's got nothing to do with Brock -- I like the guy. I think he's an awesome talent, and I think he's going to be a big star. But when you sit there and all of a sudden they want me to go to RAW and compete with Brock when it wasn't time, they're screwing with me and the business. They're basically jabbing me in with a stick. And you can't tell me different, because those weren't good business decisions. So I was not going to get off that plane to negotiate. I was going to go to the damned house, because that was the only way I figured I was going to Vince's damn attention and wake him up and say, "*bleep* you, man. This ain't right!"
And everybody said, "That wasn't the way to do it. That wasn't the way to do it." Nobody knows, because nobody back there in the damn dressing room has ever been in my knee braces. I ain't being cocky. I'm just telling you. And then they said, "Okay, well, Stone Cold was holding the talent down, now new guys are going to come up and be big stars." Well, you name me that big star who stepped up that I was holding down. Because I can't think of one. Edge has come up, but when was I holding him down? I helped anybody out there who asked me for an opinion. Could I have gotten off that plane? Yeah, but I wasn't going to go negotiate nothing. I made up my mind. I got a blood mary. I wasn't happy about what I was doing, but I was stubborn. I thought that's what I needed to do, and that's what I did. J.R. said, "That was the dumbest thing you ever did," or "That was the biggest mistake you ever made," and I'm living with it. Whether it was a mistake or whatever, I did what I thought I needed to. And I can't go back in time to change it.
At that point in time, in my mind, I was done. That was it. There was so much in-fighting between these guys jockeying for position, and everybody was saying, "Oh, he's different, he's that, he's not a team player." Man, I saw right through all that bullshit. And when I busted my ass for the company and done what I done, and whenever I said I was hurt -- and I rarely missed shots until I was taken out with serious injuries -- if I tell you I'm hurt, I'm hurt. And I ain't got the sniffles, I ain't got PMS, I'm *bleep*ing hurt. If I tell you something, it's the truth. I busted my ass for that company. I damn near got paralyzed and turned into a quadriplegic -- and that was a very, very lucky damn thing that didn't happen to me. I came back from that. I came back from neck surgery, and I've got bad knees and I've got a lot of other problems. I've given this company everything I got. I'm not complaining about it, because they pay me. They pay me to give that up, and it provides me with income. So I'm not whining about it. I'm just saying, "I give you everything I've got, now you give me everything you've got." I'm not talking about money. I'm talking about the best creative possible. Because I drew you a lot of money and I sold you a lot of shit. Now treat me like it. And not like a prima donna, because I'm not.
And then I got the label of being paranoid. I'm not *bleep*ing paranoid! I mean, Jesus Christ, when I left, people started voicing their opinions and saying I was different or I was paranoid, whatever. I feel what I feel. You can't ask anybody back there. They gave their opinion, but it's not a valid opinion, because nobody back there has ever been in the shoes I'm in.
But that all came during the famous WWE smear campaign, as I like to call the Confidential show and the RAW Magazine article, and all the things that came out right after I left. "Austin took his ball and went home." It was all bullshit propaganda. And, again, it wasn't the whole story, because you never heard my story.
There were some other things that went on while I was gone that pissed me off. Like during the smear campaign when I was sitting at the house and had to turn on the TV and see The Rock making a special appearance on RAW. This was during the "Get the 'F' Out" campaign, when we had to change our name to WWE -- which completely sucks. So all of a sudden, you've got Rock out there saying, "You know, if you don't want to be here, then get the 'F' out!" Well genius, I'd already been out and got out. To me, that was the thing that got my ass the most. Here's a guy who I was a tremendous influence on his career in he ring. He'll tell you the same thing -- and if he don't, he's a liar. Anytime he needed advice for a problem, I'd give him the best advice I could. I always helped that guy out -- I helped everyone who asked. If you wanted my honest opinion, I'd give it. so anyway, the problem was with me and Vince, it wasn't with me and Rock. I thought that was the biggest chickenshit thing I'd ever seen done to me, so far in the business, for him to go out and call me out. That's how he pays me back? That was pathetic.
And the other one -- Triple H's constant reference to me taking my ball and going home. "You want me to pull an Austin?" or whatever. Here's a guy who needs to stop worrying about me -- I"m not even with the company right now. He needs to worry about his own character and drawing big money for the company. "Oh, but the business is in a down cycle." That's very convenient. In my view, he's not where he should be with the amount of TV time invested in him. So, don't worry about Stone Cold because somewhere along the line, in the transition from being a Greenwich snob to being the toughest guy ever to walk in the ring who walks down the ramp all jacked up spewing water, I missed it. And you know what? When I look back at old films from when I was gone in 2000, that was the year Triple H stepped up huge. That was the year Triple H was a hell of a hand. So knock off 25 pounds and go back to doing that and being one of the best. It's *bleep*ing simple.
There are varying opinions on Austin's decision to walk out. On the one hand, it's hard to blame him for wanting more out of his job and thinking he could have had a much bigger program with Lesnar, who was just about to become the top guy in the business.
But at the same time, your job is just that, a job, and you don't get to dictate the terms of it (unless you have creative control written into it, which you would still need to show up for to flesh out).
Ultimately, all was forgiven, by WWE, by McMahon, by Ross, by Rock, by Triple H, by the fans; everyone forgave Austin and he's still revered as one of the greatest ever today.