This week marks the anniversary of the Austin 3:16 promo that gave birth to the most popular pro-wrestling attraction in history. Rather than focus on King of the Ring ’96 and its aftermath, I thought it would be interesting to take a look Steve Austin’s career up until that fateful night.
The later half of Austin’s career is iconic, but his early days wrestling under different names with a glorious array of blonde mullets and bowl cuts in front of audiences in Texas, Memphis and around the world are less known. Here are a few things you might not know about The Rattlesnake’s formative years…
1. Steve Austin was the designated driver in high school. The man who would become Stone Cold was born Steven Anderson in Austin, Texas, in 1964. Shortly after his birth, his mother remarried, and his name was changed to Steven Williams. In contrast to the hell-raising character he would one day play, young Steve was a pretty straight arrow. He was the star of the football team, was on the National Honor Roll and was just generally the most wholesome, Opie-ish looking guy you’d ever want to meet.
Check out this raging badass.
Hell, the guy who was pretty much constantly soaked in beer from 1996 through 2002 didn’t even drink. He tried his first beer at 14, but didn’t really take to it because he was too busy being Mr. Super Student. In fact, Steve was the designated driver for his brothers and their friends pretty much all through high school.
2. Mick Foley met Austin on his first day of wrestling training. Steve managed to land himself some football scholarships, but injuries began to pile up, and it looked like a pro career wasn’t in his future. Thankfully, Steve was also a fan of the Von Erich family’s World Class Championship Wrestling out of Dallas, and during their weekly TV show, he caught an ad for a wrestling school being run by WCCW staple, “Gentleman” Chris Adams.
Steve decided to give this wrestling thing a try, and at his first training session, he’d forge one of his longest lasting and most important wrestling friendships. A young Mick Foley was wrestling as Cactus Jack for WCCW at the time, and happened to be hanging around Chris Adams’ training camp. Foley wasn’t much impressed with any of Adams’ students, with one exception… that muscular kid with the blonde bowl cut seemed OK. Mick struck up a conversation with Steve, and the two remain good friends to this day.
The World Friendship Champions.
3. Austin still didn’t know that wrestling was fake during his first match. Austin has never had a bad thing to say about his training under Chris Adams, but he took an extremely old-school approach. Adams taught Steve a few basic moves, and how to position himself in the ring, but he didn’t teach him any psychology or clue him in to the fact that it was fake. That last one’s kind of a major omission.
So, unbelievably, Steve walked to the ring for his first match in 1989 not knowing pro wrestling was a work. He was only wised up to the fact by referee Tony Falk, who had to talk Steve through his first match with Frogman LeBlanc. Yes, Austin’s first match was against FROGMAN LEBLANC. He was a small man with a Hulk Hogan skullet, who wore green tights and jumped around like a frog. Guess I kind of buried the lede on this fact.
A rare sighting of a Frogman LeBlanc in its native habitat.
4. Zeb Colter gave Steve Austin his name. After kicking around WCCW for a bit, Steve was sent to Memphis to wrestle for Jerry Jarrett’s United States Wrestling Association. At the time, he was wrestling under his real name, Steve Williams, which was a problem because the USWA was home to “Dr. Death” Steve Williams. You don’t want somebody named Dr. Death to think you’re ripping them off, so a name change was in order.
At the time, “Dirty” Dutch Mantel (better known today as WWE’s Zeb Colter) was booking Memphis, and he told Steve he had to change his name mere minutes before his first match with the promotion. Steve couldn’t come up with anything, so Dutch took the reigns and rechristened him Steve Austin moments before sending him through the curtain. Austin didn’t like the name because a character named Steve Austin was already the protagonist of the classic Six Million Dollar Man TV series. For his part, Dutch swears he wasn’t evening thinking of The Six Million Dollar Man (or its amazing Andre the Giant episodes) when his brain farted out the name. Whatever the true inspiration was, the name stuck. Dutch also came up with the “Stunning” nickname Austin would use for much of his time in WCW.
You don’t ignore the advice of somebody this sexy.
5. Austin was managed by Paul Bearer. Austin may have been portrayed as a lone wolf during the height of his WWF career, but he actually went through a long list of “advocates” during his formative years. In addition to valets like Lady Blossom and Vivacious Veronica, he was also managed by the likes of Ted DiBiase, Paul Heyman and even Paul Bearer.
Paul Bearer (real name, William Moody) had a long, eventful career before becoming The Undertaker’s daddy, managing everybody from Rick Rude to Lex Luger as the flamboyant Percy Pringle III. Austin briefly returned to WCCW in 1990 to feud with his former trainer and mentor Chris Adams, and the man who would one day play Paul Bearer was by his side. The alliance didn’t last long, but I’d say it was enough to qualify Austin as at least a Half-Brother of Destruction.
You wouldn’t expect a guy who looks like this to have so many children.
6. Austin broke somebody’s neck with a Tombstone piledriver five years before the same thing happened to him. The spinal injury Austin received at the hands of Owen Hart at SummerSlam ’97 is perhaps the most infamous wrestling injury of all-time. Owen Hart put Austin in position for a Tombstone piledriver, but instead of dropping to his knees, he dropped to his butt like you would for a normal piledriver, leaving Austin with a severe stinger and spinal bruising. Well, Austin’s injury may have been a case of karma coming back to stomp a mudhole in his ass, because Austin inflicted an injury on somebody with the same move, in the same way several years earlier.
It’s kind of been swept under the carpet, but in 1992, Austin challenged the legendary Masahiro Chono for the NWA World Heavyweight Championship in Japan. Near the end of the match, Chono goes for a Tombstone and Austin tries reverse it into his own Tombstone, but loses his balance and drops to his butt instead of his knees, driving Chono’s head into the mat. It’s the exact same scenario that would play out five years later, except in this case, it’s Austin inflicting the injury.
Even the aftermath was the same. Chono was forced to adapt his style after the injury, become more of a hard-hitting brawler, and took on an edgier character that would propel him to even greater success. Sound familiar? It’s all just an eerie coincidence (I think), but, needless to say, the similarities between these two incidents have spawned a few conspiracy theories over the years.
7. Austin didn’t want to team with Brian Pillman. The world really began to take notice of Steve Austin when he made the jump to WCW and teamed with “Flyin’ ” Brian Pillman to form the Hollywood Blondes, but Austin wasn’t exactly thrilled by the team when it was first proposed. It wasn’t that Austin disliked Pillman — they would go on to become great friends — but shortly before the team was formed, WCW booker Dusty Rhodes had promised Austin that he would win the U.S. title with Harley Race as his manager. Compared to that, being stuck in a tag team, even a tag team with the fantastic Flyin’ Brian, sounded like a step down. Thankfully, Austin was talked into it because, without the Hollywood Blondes, there would have been no Stone Cold.
I think Austin was mostly just jealous of Pillman’s hair. I mean, who wasn’t?
8. Steve Austin only wrestled two matches in ECW, both of which he lost. Despite turning a lot of heads in WCW, Austin found himself the victim of a patented Eric Bischoff FedEx firing in early 1995. After being let go for not being marketable (good call there, Eric), Austin got a call from his former manager and friend Paul Heyman, resulting in a brief run with the fledgling extreme version of ECW.
Austin’s time in ECW has become a thing of legend. His kafabe-breaking, Bischoff-bashing promos were groundbreaking at the time, and were arguably where the seeds of his gritty Stone Cold character were first planted. That said, when it came to actual wrestling, Austin’s “run” in ECW was incredibly brief. Austin had a broken arm most of the time he was working for ECW, so he only worked two matches for the company, an ECW title match against Mikey Whipwreck, and a triple threat against Sandman and Whipwreck, and he didn’t win either of them. Heyman desperately wanted to put the title on Austin, even just for a brief period, but Austin was reportedly a big fan of Whipwreck, and felt he was better off chasing the title, so he refused to win. Maybe Austin just had some offers on the table that Heyman didn’t know about because, after only two ECW matches, Austin left the Bingo hall for the glitz and glamour of the WWF.
9. The Stone Cold character was inspired by serial killer Richard Kuklinski. Austin debuted in the WWF in late 1995 as The Ringmaster. No, it wasn’t a circus gimmick. He was the master of the ring, thus The Ringmaster. Basically, Austin had no gimmick; he was just pushed as a guy who was good at pro wrestling, which is, of course, a complete death gimmick in the circus that is WWF/E. He was the Lance Storm of 1995.
Austin knew he needed a real gimmick, quick, and that he was the only person who would put any effort into coming up with one. Austin wasn’t having much luck dreaming up anything, until he came across an HBO documentary on mafia hitman/serial killer Richard Kuklinski. Nicknamed “The Iceman,” Kuklinski was a true psychopath, claiming to have killed more than 100 people for money or simply for his own amusement. Not exactly the kind of guy you want to admit being inspired by, but I suppose it worked out pretty well.
Somehow, James Gandolfini never starred in a movie about this guy.
Steve Austin pitched a similarly cold-blooded character to the WWF creative team, and they liked the idea, but things went awry when it came time to choose a new name. WWF’s writers sent him a list of names, including such gems as Ice Dagger, Fang McFrost and Otto Von Ruthless, and Austin was suddenly on the spot again. He needed to come up with a new name fast, or he’d be walking to the ring as Ruthless Otto Von McFrost. The answer came to Austin during tea time with his former valet and then-wife, Jeanie Clarke (the aforementioned Lady Blossom). Lost in thought, Austin was letting his tea sit, and Clarke told him to drink it before it went stone-cold. Bingo! So, the Stone Cold gimmick came from both a much darker and much lighter place than you probably imagined.
“And I’m gonna kick his–wait, sorry. Can we get back to this later? My tea is getting cold.”
10. Austin’s 1996 King of the Ring push was meant to go to Triple H. We’ve already covered King of the Ring ’96 and Austin’s original 3:16 promo in a fair amount of depth here at With Spandex, so we won’t delve too deeply into detail, but June 23 was the night the Stone Cold phenomenon was truly born. Well, Austin’s ascension would have never happened if the WWF had gone with their original plan.
WWF wanted Triple H to win the 1996 King of the Ring, but changed their plans when they decided Hunter needed to be taught a lesson for participating in the infamous Kliq “Curtain Call” incident. In early 1996, Kevin Nash and Scott Hall were on their way to WCW, so on May 19, 1996, at a Madison Square Garden house show, Nash, Hall, Shawn Michaels and Triple H put aside storyline differences and allegiances and gave each other a goodbye hug in the ring. While this kind of thing would be no big deal today, it caused a lot of monocles to pop up in the mid-’90s, and Hunter had his planned push curtailed as punishment. There were a lot of things that needed to fall perfectly into place for the Austin 3:16 promo to happen, but Triple H, not being the guy standing in front of that throne at the end of the show, was probably the most important.
And that’s where we’ll leave the tale of Stone Cold Steve Austin for now. There are obviously a lot of trials, tribulations and craziness to come, but that’s a story for another time. Know any early career Steve Austin facts I missed? Just want to reminisce about the days when Austin had hair? Let’s crack into a can of comment whoop ass.