While he was a former US champion in WCW and enjoyed a successful couple of months in ECW, it was the year 1996 that would change Steve Austin’s wrestling career forever.
Shaking off his ‘Stunning Steve’ tag, Austin’s WWF (as it was known then) career did not get off to the best of starts – his Ringmaster gimmick did not work and, at the Royal Rumble, he made an almighty botch when, attempting to hang on to the ropes after being clotheslined over the top by Fatu, his grip slipped and both feet touched the floor.
He had been scheduled to finish in the final four of the Rumble, and so that botch cost Austin a huge push – although it wouldn’t be too long before he made a decision that would change his career, positively, beyond all recognition.
Often in life, inspiration can come from the unlikeliest of sources. And, for Austin, it was Bruce Willis that was the difference-maker in convincing him to shave his thinning hair. After growing a goatee beard, the Texan’s look was complete – this would carry him to the end of his career seven years later.
In ECW, Austin had worked hard on his mic skills alongside the man he called his early mentor, Paul Heyman, and he started to develop the traits that would become a feature of his ‘Stone Cold’ persona.
He had the look, he had the attitude… now all he needed was a big break.
The King is Here
Austin’s breakthrough in the WWF came at the downfall of another.
Triple H, or Hunter Hearst Hemsley as he was known back then, was scheduled to win the 1996 King of the Ring but, having been punished for breaking kayfabe on Kevin Nash and Scott Hall’s last night with the company, Vince McMahon was looking for somebody else to literally take the crown.
He opted for Austin, who – still injury-free at this point – was respected as an excellent in-ring performer, and a happy quirk of fate confirmed that was definitely the right call. Cutting a promo after defeating Jake ‘The Snake’ Roberts in the final, Austin used his 3:16 catchphrase for the first time, and that would consolidate his brand and cement his status as a rare anti-hero in the company.
Soon he was feuding with Bret Hart, and their ultra-aggressive and violent battles were believed by many to be the spiritual awakening of the Attitude Era that would follow for the next five years or so.
Austin was a cover star of the VHS (remember them?) tape that accompanied Survivor Series ’96, although he would suffer defeat to Hart in a number one contender’s match for the WWF Championship.
But he would soon have his revenge. The betting sites like Space Casino tend to offer odds on the Royal Rumble these days, but back in 1997 wrestling fans were left to make their own predictions as to who might win the battle royal. Stone Cold would have certainly been among the favorites and justifiably so, it would turn out.
Entering the ring as the number five entrant, Austin eliminated ten rivals on his way to a final showdown with the likes of Hart and The Undertaker.
He was actually eliminated by Hart at one point, but with the referees at ringside failing to spot his feet touched the ground, 3:16 got another bump to his cult heroism when he slipped back into the ring and eliminated the Hitman to win his first Rumble.
From there, the rest is history – but 1996 was undoubtedly the year that Austin’s wrestling career reached all-new levels. And now, 25 years later, we can raise a beer to the incredible entertainment he provided thereafter as the WWF’s main man.