When you watch a reality show competition on television, there’s a certain level of, “I could do that,” to the events. Whether it’s some Real World cast members attached to bungee cords on up to the first obstacle or two on American Ninja Warrior, you think, “I might not be able to do the hard stuff, but I can do that.”
We got a chance to visit the Broken Skull Ranch ahead of season 5 of CMT’s Broken Skull Challenge, and let me be brutally honest: we wouldn’t be able to do ANY of it.
“This is a challenge show,” host and legendary WWE Hall of Famer Steve Austin told us. “I don’t know if you can put this in the reality classification. I don’t. This is a challenge show. This is a competition show. The fact is there is a lot of reality here because the reality is you are going to win or you are going to lose. And you are going to go home or take on the Skullbuster. If you’re looking for a challenge, you’re going to find it here. I just call us a bad ass challenge show with a lot of reality.”
If you haven’t seen the show, Austin’s goal is to bring together the toughest men and women from around the world to compete in head-to-head physical challenges, with the winner moving on to tackle Austin’s personally designed obstacle course, the “Skullbuster.” If they can beat the course, they win a lot of money. If they can’t … well, they’re like everyone else, because that course is a mother.
One thing Austin wanted to make clear to the media there that afternoon is that while still physically looking like he’s been torn out of the WWF of 1997 and running an obstacle course covered in camo and skulls that kicks people’s asses, he’s just Steve Austin now, and the days of being Stone Cold are long behind him.
“Being ‘Stone Cold’ was a lot of fun. That was a guy who was in his element talking a lot of trash…That was the business of pro wrestling. It was entertaining, but I was a pro wrestler. You have to remember it’s been 14 years since I was doing that job …. These days when I wake up, I am Steve Austin, period…Here, I never want to be a blowhard. I don’t want to trash talk them, belittle or demean anybody. Our job is to bring these athletes, who are some of the best in the United States, and give them a fair platform. That’s the guy I try to be.”
With Stone Cold in the past, I asked him if the Stunner he’d hit on Xavier Woods at WrestleMania 32 would be, as Woods has mentioned, the “last Stunner ever.”
“I don’t know. I got him with a good one, though, didn’t I? I never think about it. … I got a lot of great memories of that business, but I got it out my system.”
If you were wondering, Steve Austin’s still got that intense stare that even during pleasant conversation makes you wonder if he’s going to suddenly snap and try to run you over with an ATV.
“My dad and my mom taught me that when you’re born, you gotta work your ass off for every single thing you got,” he told us, “so I believe in hard work. And now, through all these years of pro wrestling, and the other stuff that I did to come here and be able to do a show like this, I don’t really have anything else. I was never out to prove anything … I just wanted to be a pro wrestler because I thought it’d be cool because I loved watching it on TV. Hell, it turns out I did pretty good at it.
“I mean, you know I’m not bragging, so I don’t really have anything to prove to myself, I just know that, at this point in my life I can be picky about what I want to do, and if it’s not a passion project that I don’t believe in, or I don’t want to do, I don’t have to.”
When we were done with the Q&A, he took us on a personally guided tour of the course in his custom Broken Skull Ranch four-wheeler golf cart of death and drove us to the top of “Heartbreak Hill,” looking straight down. He drove us around in the dirt at full speed, laughing casually about how he’s now the “California Rattlesnake” and how the move from Texas to California has killed his gimmick. Meanwhile I’m clutching a handrail, trying to figure out if my heart’s doing backflips or trying to leave my body before we fly off a cliff.
Austin’s been doing the show for five seasons now, and he thinks the experience — and his performance as the king of bionic redneck Mt. Midoriyama — is getting better and better.
“I think with more experience, more reps and everything in life, you get a little bit better. I’ve been doing a podcast for four years. I’ll never be NPR-quality. That ain’t who or what I am. This show has a rough edge, and that’s the way we run it. It’s lean, mean. We got to be efficient. We have about 90 people out here on our crew. I wasn’t ribbing when I say we have the toughest crew in the business because it gets hotter than hell out here.
“We will carry a couple of challenges season through season, so some of them will be the same. We also want to make new ones. Sometimes I scratch my head, as well. I’m not the only brain here. I’m the face and voice, but there are a lot of smart people who come up with this stuff. It was my idea to create the show and pitch it to CMT, but there are many people behind the scenes who are coming up with great ideas. That’s how they tackle the task at hand. I let them do their job.
“You have to dig deep here if you want to make it through. I was talking to [executive producer] Vince [Cariati] the other day. We were talking about how our model is we bring eight great athletes here, and your chances of success are really slim because seven are going home and only one gets to take on that Skullbuster. We make it as tough as possible on every one of those people. We give them a fair shot, but we make it tough. That’s the way we want it.”
I think the biggest compliment I can give the Skullbuster is that I went into the interview purely as a pro wrestling fan, asking the guy questions about the Dangerous Alliance (because of course I did) and which member of the Dangerous Alliance would do best on BSR — it’s Rick Rude, in case you’re wondering — and left blown away by the scale, intensity and brutal work that goes into crafting a physical nightmare for the toughest people in the country.
We did ask him about a WWE season of Broken Skull Challenge, though, because that needs to happen. Who does he think would be good at the show? A few names you’d expect, and one surprising name who’d get his ass whipped. Per a specific scripture in the Austin Bible, of course.
“Cesaro, because of his strength endeavors. He is a workout freak and physical phenomenon. I know Seth Rollins is in the CrossFit as well, but I’ll say those two names and stop right there, because it would be a really short list. Now Brock would do great in The Pit, though. He would do good in the brackets and The Pit. But put him in the Skullbuster, and Brock is a very good friend of mine, but he wouldn’t do great on that because it would chew him up and spit him out.”
The season premiere of Steve Austin’s Broken Skull Challenge is at 10/9c this Tuesday, September 26, on CMT. You should make sure to check it out, especially if you haven’t seen it, because it’s a point of pride for a guy who spent the most talked-about years of his life driving zambonis into wrestling rings, filling Corvettes with cement, and saving the daughters of billionaires from being Satanically wedded by undead zombie wizards.
“There are things personal to me that I want to accomplish. Not so I can brag about them, just so I can do them,” Austin told us between affectionately corny stories of why he and his wife get along (“she loves to cook, and I love to eat”), notes on his future goals (learning how to build neon clocks) (seriously) and wistful notes about how sometimes when he’s on set at night with nothing to do he’ll drive an ATV up to the ranch’s landing pad and stare up at the California stars. “I want a hobby, so when I start getting up there and I’m not doing this, I have something to fall back on and still entertain myself.”
“I love this show and a few other things, but I want to spend a lot of quality time with my wife and my dogs.”
Not a bad goal for the next stage of his career. Even if it’s a little low on wizards.