WWE Hall of Famers like Hulk Hogan and “Macho Man” Randy Savage brought pro wrestling into the limelight in the 1980s, becoming household names and mainstream sensations in the process. Most anyone, wrestlers and fans alike, will tell you people like Hogan and Savage are the reason WWE is what it is today and that they’re responsible for wrestling, as a whole, not having died as a form of art and entertainment many years ago.
But there’s an argument to be made that the “golden age” was only a piece of a puzzle and that those men alone are not responsible for building WWE into the global monster that it has become. In the 1990s, business was down following a massive steroid scandal and WCW was winning big time in the ratings. Vince McMahon decided it was time for a new take on his product if he was going to reestablish dominance, and the “Attitude” era was born. The man to become the face of that era and lead WWE into modern times was a bald, foul-mouthed, beer swilling Texan known as “Stone Cold” Steve Austin.
The rest, as they say, is history. Every wrestling fan in the world knows what Steve Austin is arguably the biggest name in wrestling history, perhaps second only to Hulk Hogan. Austin led the charge for the most popular time in WWE’s storied past, but his career reached far before and after the Attitude era and wasn’t always filled with highlights. Here are the biggest ups and downs in the career of the legendary Steve Austin.
15 Up: Authority Figure on Raw
The imagery which comes to one’s mind when they think of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin is pure chaos. Even if you’re not picturing Austin “stomping a mud hole” in someone during a match, he’s usually “opening up a can of whoop ass” on someone outside the ring. No doubt, throughout most of Austin’s career, especially as the “Stone Cold” character, he was almost always involved in some sort of physical role because that’s just who Austin is.
But it’s easy to forget that Stone Cold can be a compelling character even when he’s not throwing fists and dropping people with Stunners. Austin got to stretch his acting muscles shortly after he retired from the ring when he was placed into an authority role alongside Eric Bischoff on Raw in the early 2000s. First a co-general manager, and later known as the “Sheriff” of Monday Night Raw, Austin got to raise hell in a whole new way during this storyline as a counter to Bischoff’s tyranny. Austin has said in interviews that it was some of the most fun he ever had in his career.
14 Down: Getting Fired From WCW
In the 1990s WCW was about to start beating WWE in the ratings, although the company’s tactics would ultimately fail and Vince McMahon would buy them out. One of the tactics most commonly blamed for WCW’s fall was their lack of letting younger talent make names for themselves. That was a big problem when, in 1995, WCW’s Eric Bischoff fired the man who would become his competition’s biggest asset because Bischoff felt he wasn’t “marketable.”
Steve Austin’s star was on the rise in WCW, but while he was away with an injury Eric Bischoff sent him packing via a phone call. In a recent interview on Austin’s podcast, Bischoff stated that there were probably a lot of misunderstandings because WCW was very disorganized at that time. Nonetheless, it was an unfortunate moment for Steve Austin who, at the time, could not have known the success which was coming his way when he would eventually sign on to work with WWE’s Vince McMahon.
13 Up: WWE Hall of Fame
Every year on the night before the biggest annual event under WWE’s umbrella, WrestleMania, the company inducts a class of wrestlers and other personalities who have made an impact on the business into the WWE Hall of Fame. It’s an honor which most professional wrestlers say is the greatest one that they can achieve in their career because their peers are recognizing them as having done something truly special.
But what is the Hall of Fame if it doesn’t include the biggest names to ever step foot in a wrestling ring? Sometimes it takes a lot longer than it should for some icons to get inducted into the Hall, but “Stone Cold” Steve Austin’s 2009 induction felt just right. Austin only officially retired in the early 2000s and had years of time with the company afterward in various on-screen roles. Austin has almost always been on good terms with the company and there was never anyone more fitting for the Hall of Fame than the man who carried the most popular era in wrestling’s history on his shoulders.
12 Down: The Brian Pillman Scene
Before becoming known as WWE’s resident “Rattlesnake,” Steve Austin competed in WCW. Despite being one of the company’s fastest rising stars, that relationship ended badly, but not before Austin gave fans some wonderful tag team memories alongside his partner Brian Pillman. Together, Austin and Pillman called themselves the Hollywood Blonds and they captured the WCW Tag Team Championship.
Both men ended up in WWE and started to feud together, but few knew the controversy that would ensue when WWE decided to air a live segment involving Steve Austin breaking into Brian Pillman’s house. There was an “F” bomb dropped, but what really got the USA Network, the channel on which the segment aired, and fans at home riled up was when Pillman pointed a gun straight at Austin. It was utter chaos and Vince McMahon and WWE made a public apology for the skit. Some say it changed wrestling for the better, but there’s no doubt the aftermath presented a stressful situation.
11 Up: His Final Match
“Stone Cold” Steve Austin’s illustrious career saw him wrestle the greatest stars of his time, including the Undertaker, Triple H, and Kurt Angle, but Austin’s greatest rivalry was definitely against Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Austin and The Rock wrestled one another so many times that it’s impossible to count their matches together, but on three separate occasions, they went to war on the biggest stage of the year, WrestleMania.
The final time Steve Austin and The Rock would meet at WrestleMania was booked as nothing more than an opportunity for The Rock to finally beat Austin at the show of shows, something he’d been unable to do in their two previous bouts. It was enough to set the stage for an instant classic, but following the match, which Austin lost, the Rattlesnake would announce to the world that it was his final time lacing up a pair of wrestling boots. WWE didn’t get the chance to market WrestleMania as the final wrestling appearance of the greatest star of all time, but regardless it went down as one of Austin’s greatest moments.
10 Down: Domestic Abuse Allegations
During Steve Austin’s time leading the WCW/ECW Alliance against WWE in a storyline which followed Vince McMahon buying out those two companies, Austin was accompanied by his on-screen and real-life wife, Debra Marshall. Debra initially saw her rise to fame alongside Jeff Jarrett as his fictional girlfriend, and during her time with Austin mostly remained in the background and was used for the occasional flavor.
In a 2007 interview, Debra claimed that, during the period of time when she and Austin were on screen together, Austin used steroids and would abuse her in his fits of rage. This came shortly after the tragedy that saw WWE wrestler Chris Benoit murder his wife and son before taking his own life, and Debra said she felt she needed to finally speak out. Debra claimed that WWE knew of the situation but kept it silent because they didn’t want to ruin their biggest star. The claims were never proven but Austin’s reputation has suffered greatly for it.
9 Up: First WWE Championship Win
One can’t talk about the distinguished wrestling career of perhaps the most beloved WWE Superstar of all time without mentioning the moment he reached the peak of the mountain at WrestleMania XIV in 1998. Leading up to that event, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin was embroiled heavily in a rivalry with WWE Champion Shawn Michaels, a member of D-Generation X, and would face him at this show with the title on the line.
Michaels had recruited boxing star Mike Tyson as his special guest enforcer for the match, but despite pulling out all the stops to win, he lost the WWE Championship to Steve Austin. To make matters worse Tyson, who made the three count, turned on Michaels afterward. It’s credited by many in the wrestling industry as the moment which started the revered “Attitude” era and, as the beginning of Austin’s first WWE Championship reign, stands as one of his greatest career accomplishments.
8 Down: Lackluster Heel Run
Following WrestleMania in 2001, “Stone Cold” had signed a deal with the devil, so to speak, aligning himself with the man whom he’d made miserable for the duration of his career up to that point, his boss Vince McMahon. Austin had almost always played a hero, albeit a rule-breaking hero, but for the first time since his popularity had skyrocketed he was playing the antagonist. Austin was teaming with notorious wrestling villain Triple H in a team that called themselves “The Two-Man Power Trip.”
Later, a lengthy storyline that saw WWE fight the collective unit of WCW and ECW known as The Alliance saw Stone Cold turn on the company where he’d made his career. Austin led WCW and ECW against WWE, now once again on opposite sides of the fence from Vince McMahon. It was a wild time, but the fans didn’t know what to do with themselves. They knew Austin was the bad guy, but they didn’t want to boo him. Austin has said in interviews that the heel turn was a bad decision, one that he takes credit for and that he would do it all differently if he could do it over.
7 Up: The Beer Truck
Stone Cold’s first WrestleMania match with the man who would turn out to be his greatest rival was quickly approaching. Austin was set to challenge The Rock for the WWE Championship at WrestleMania XV just one year after the Rattlesnake defeated Shawn Michaels for the same title at WrestleMania XIV. The Austin 3:16 bandwagon was already well on its way to Hall of Fame status, but the WWE Universe had no idea that they were on a ride that had only just begun.
One of the most memorable moments in WWE history happened just before Austin and The Rock were to meet for the first time on the ‘Mania stage, when The Rock, Vince and Shane McMahon, known collectively as “The Corporation,” were standing in the middle of the ring trash talking Austin during an episode of Monday Night Raw. Stone Cold’s music hit and he drove a beer truck all the way down to the ring. He then proceeded to pull out a giant hose and drench the Corporation in gallons upon gallons of beer. It was a hilarious and unforgettable moment for Steve Austin, but it was sold to perfection by the men receiving a beer bath in the ring.
6 Down: Refereeing Goldberg Versus Brock Lesnar
It was supposed to be a dream match, a showdown that sold out the event all on its own just by merely being announced to the public. Since showing up to dominate WWE, Brock Lesnar had been compared to the famous Goldberg of WCW fame. The two were likened to one another through their fast rises to the top of their respective companies and their intensity and in-ring styles. WWE fans had waited years for them to clash and they were finally set to do so in 2004 at the twentieth annual WrestleMania.
WWE could see that the match was not going to go as they’d hoped. Goldberg and Lesnar had both planned to leave the company following that match and the WWE Universe knew it. In order to give the match a little something special, WWE added “Stone Cold” Steve Austin as the special guest referee. When the match actually went down the WrestleMania crowd turned viciously on Lesnar and Goldberg, booing them both out of the building, not just for the stinker they wrestled that night but also for the fact that the audience wasn’t invested in two guys leaving the business. Austin’s association with this blight on WrestleMania is one of the lowest points in his career.
5 Up: WrestleMania 13 Submission Match
“Stone Cold” Steve Austin is credited as one of the most valuable players at WrestleMania, having had more classic matches and moments at the biggest show of the year than just about any wrestler to ever step through the ropes. It’s fitting, being Austin is one of the greatest icons in wrestling, but one match that doesn’t get spoken of nearly as much as Austin’s WrestleMania battles with The Rock is his submission match at WrestleMania 13.
Austin’s opponent for the match was another WrestleMania legend and WWE Hall of Famer Bret “The Hitman” Hart, and it’s a shame the match doesn’t receive more credit than it does. The match was phenomenal, one of the best to ever take place in WWE, let alone at WrestleMania. It was a physical brawl that saw a bloody Steve Austin pass out to Bret Hart’s Sharpshooter submission move, losing the match. Despite the loss, it’s seen as the match that put Stone Cold on the map as a serious player, and fans loved Austin so much that, by the end of it, he was cheered as the hero despite playing the villain.
4 Down: Broken Neck
The show was SummerSlam and the year was 1997. Two of WWE’s most popular Superstars were set to do battle over the Intercontinental Championship when “Stone Cold” Steve Austin defended against Owen Hart. Owen was respected as one of the most solid ring technicians in the history of the sport, coming from the famous Hart family that also brought us Owen’s brother Bret. Austin’s career was surging at full speed to the top, but there was one huge road block awaiting him.
Well into the title match, Owen set Austin up for a piledriver but a miscommunication saw Austin legitimately spiked right on top of his head, breaking his neck. Fans instantly knew something was wrong because the match slowed down drastically and Austin wasn’t very responsive. The finish went through just barely as Stone Cold managed to roll up Hart for a quick pinfall, but the damage was done and the disturbing injury forced WWE to strip Austin of the Intercontinental Championship.
3 Up: WrestleMania X-Seven Against The Rock
There’s no denying that Steve Austin is one of the greatest performers in the history of WrestleMania, and his most legendary WrestleMania opponent is Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. The two had an on-again, off-again rivalry that stretched over the course of both their careers, both seeing rises to the top of WWE at almost the exact same time and both also winding down their careers near the same time. It can be said that, without one, the other might not have been quite as iconic.
Austin and The Rock had three epic battles on the grandest stage of them all, but the most memorable in the eyes of most fans is their second round, which took place in 2001 at WrestleMania X-Seven (or WrestleMania 17). The match itself could stand alone as the standard bearer for what every WrestleMania main event should strive to be, worthy of being inducted into the Hall of Fame on its own, but what followed was so shocking and surreal that it nearly overshadowed the match itself. “Stone Cold” won the match with the help of his arch rival, Vince McMahon and after the bell, the two shook hands in the middle of the ring.
2 Down: Quitting WWE in 2002
Steve Austin is one of the most accomplished, decorated, respected and revered men to ever compete in a wrestling ring. There have been a few low points in his career but he is seen as almost always being professional. However, there is one blemish on his career that left even the most loyal of “Stone Cold” fans with a sour taste in their mouth. In 2002, Stone Cold was booked to wrestle the up and coming Brock Lesnar on Monday Night Raw, but Austin hated the idea and instead of doing as his boss asked of him, he went home and quit the company.
WWE was put in a sour spot, having advertised Austin and Lesnar for that match before the day had actually come. They were forced to tell the live audience and the viewers at home that Austin had “taken his ball and gone home.” They smeared his reputation, which Austin today says he deserved. He claims rumors of his refusal to have the match had nothing to do with plans for him to lose it, but had everything to do with the fact that such a big match was being given away for free on television. Stone Cold now takes full responsibility for the incident and calls it the worst professional decision he’s ever made.
1 Up: The “Austin 3:16” Speech
Many fans believe Steve Austin is the biggest wrestling star the world has ever known, while others will say Hulk Hogan, The Rock and John Cena are just as popular, if not more so. It’s hard to deny the fact, though, that “Stone Cold” has been at the center of more critical and special moments in WWE’s history than anyone else. His battles with The Rock at WrestleMania are the stuff of legend, while his brawls with his overbearing boss, Vince McMahon, defined an era.
But we wouldn’t have any of that if it weren’t for the one moment that lit the fuse. The Attitude era was not quite in effect at the King of the Ring pay-per-view in 1996, but fans were about to unknowingly see a seed planted that night which would bloom into a lifestyle for pro wrestling nuts. After defeating Jake “The Snake” Roberts to win the King of the Ring tournament, Austin gave an interview during which he referenced Roberts’ religious views. Austin then created his own Bible verse, which was, “Austin 3:16 says I just whipped your ass!”
That line exploded into the most iconic catch phrase to ever be uttered in professional wrestling and would make the company truckloads of cash through merchandise such as t-shirts. It was the night “Stone Cold” Steve Austin caught on fire and signaled the beginning of something that would change not just wrestling, but the world.