As was covered with the Rock in 1997, you need more than just talent to become a top star. Luck is required and things that are beyond the control of the individual need to line up for that person to take a huge step forward. Steve Austin spent much of 1995 on the shelf with an arm injury, fired by WCW. After a stop in ECW that served to hone his promo skills, Austin made his way to the WWF in 1996 to presumably serve as a midcard mechanic type. Little did Vince McMahon know that he was hiring a guy who would make him even more money than Hulk Hogan. This is the story of Steve Austin for the year 1996.
Austin debuted as The Ringmaster on the January 8 episode of Monday Night RAW. He was introduced by Ted DiBiase as the new Million Dollar Champion on a Brother Love segment, which if anything dates the entire thing terribly. Vince McMahon puts over Austin and vaguely refers to his accomplishments in the oblique WWF way. (Nowadays, it’s “he’s wrestled all over the world!”)
Before the Royal Rumble, Austin had squash wins over a couple of guys who would go on to success later: Matt Hardy and Scott Taylor. But there was an issue at the Royal Rumble: he was clotheslined out by Fatu and according to Austin’s story from his podcast, he was supposed to stay in the match to the final four which explains Kama’s inclusion in that group. Vince McMahon on PBP didn’t see him get eliminated and it was off camera, and was unsure that Austin was actually out.
To his credit, Austin realized the Ringmaster character was pretty aimless and he wanted a new direction. His own story is that the name “Stone Cold” came from his then-wife telling him to drink his tea before it became stone cold. The change was gradual: Vince would describe the Ringmaster as “stone cold” on a February RAW match but it would not be until March that the change would be made.
Austin was paired up with Shawn Michaels for a Texas house show tour in March in advance of Wrestlemania. But his TV angle would be with Savio Vega, with whom he had a staredown on the March 11 RAW. They would end up teaming in the tag title tournament as Austin filled in for Razor Ramon and turned on Savio to set up a Wrestlemania 12 match. Austin was a regular on Superstars during this time, squashing job guys every other week. He might be the last star created using the Superstars show.
After a win over Savio Vega at Wrestlemania 12, that feud was continued even as manager Ted DiBiase offered $1 million to anyone who could break out of Austin’s finisher the Million Dollar Dream. Stone Cold would actually get into it with new WWF world champion Shawn Michaels on the April 27 Superstars after HBK’s match with the 1-2-3 Kid. Earlier in April, Austin had his first ever match with Bret the Hitman Hart during the European tour. Hart was committed to foreign tours only through the summer and he expressed interest in working with Austin, who would lose a dark match to Savio Vega at the April In Your House: Good Friends Better Enemies PPV. This would lead into their strap match the following month.
Something would happen in May that would change Austin’s fate. At the May 19 Madison Square Garden show, the Kliq engaged in the famous “curtain call” and broke kayfabe in the WWF’s signature arena. Since Diesel and Razor were leaving, 1-2-3 Kid was on the way out and Shawn Michaels was world champion, only Hunter Hearst Helmsley could be punished for this breach of wrestling etiquette. His planned 1996 King of the Ring win would be postponed for a year and Austin would end up in that slot. Things would change for Stone Cold along the way: he would lose the strap match to Savio and Ted DiBiase’s services since he would be departing for WCW (and the nWo angle). This would be a blessing as DiBiase was not a good fit and Austin explained the loss in storyline by saying he lost so that he could proceed on his own, since the stipulation was that DiBiase would have to leave if Austin lost.
Before the King of the Ring, Austin would debut a new finishing move: the Stone Cold Stunner. He would use that to beat his nemesis Savio Vega in a KoTR quarterfinal on RAW to proceed to the main PPV where he would face Marc Mero in the opening King of the Ring semifinal match. Stone Cold won with his old Stun Gun move, dealing Mero his first loss on TV in the WWF. Austin suffered a busted lip and went to the hospital to get stitched up and missed part of the show. When he came back, Austin spoke to Dok Hendrix (Michael Hayes) who told him that Jake Roberts, his KoTR final opponent, cut a religious based promo earlier. This gave Austin the idea to use religion when he would defeat an ailing Jake (who had been attacked by Vader post match and left for dead) in the final, saying that “You talk about your Psalms, your John 3:16. Austin 3:16 says I just whooped your ass!” It was the line that sold a billion t-shirts.
Success would not come right away, at least in ring. For a bit, Austin ran a “I refuse to wrestle this schmuck” gimmick, primarily on Superstars which is why you won’t see him on RAWs during this period. He would beat Marc Mero again at the July In Your House: International Incident PPV in an okay match.
Ring work was only going to get Austin so far, he would need mic time to bring his personality out. On the July 22 RAW, Austin was a commentary tour de force, going places where Vince would be uncomfortable talking about (like the allusion to the failed Lex Express push of 1993) and challenging Bret Hart to come back and face him. Much of 1996 RAW sucks, but that one episode is a must see just for Austin’s commentary work. While Austin got a countout win over Undertaker on RAW, he was merely a background figure to advance the Undertaker’s storyline with Mankind. Stone Cold didn’t even appear on the main Summerslam card, winning a match with Yokozuna in under 2 minutes due to Yoko falling off the ropes. I suppose that gave him something in common with Bret Hart.
The Hitman was just around the corner, and they would face off in a match in South Africa on Sept. 14. By 1996, it was acceptable for people to play Sun City again. The match can be seen on the Bret Hart Dungeon Collection which is on WWE Network now. Bret would win by reversing a move by kicking off the turnbuckle like at Wrestlemania 8, and would be repeated with Austin later. Bret’s status was up in the air at this point, but he was probably going to return to WWF.
Bret was not at the September In Your House: Mind Games, and Owen Hart mused that maybe his brother was scared of Austin. Stone Cold famously said that if you put an “S” in front “Hitman” you’d see his exact opinion of him. Austin would get a match on the Oct. 14 RAW against Shawn Michaels but it did very poorly in the ratings against Nitro. The WWF was in the early stages of their 84 week losing streak. But Austin was still put on commentary to allow him to show personality and this was a big factor in getting his sociopathic character over.
Austin would have a very strange matchup for the October IYH: Buried Alive, facing fellow heel Triple H, subbing for old rival Savio Vega. Austin would win the match, but the future Two Man Power Trip partner would win the Intercontinental title the following night on RAW.
On the same RAW from Fort Wayne, Indiana, Bret Hart announced that he would be staying in the WWF. Backstage, several heels were shown reacting to this and Brian Pillman was giddy about this development. Stone Cold was rather pissed about Pillman’s reaction and would take it out on him in the next episode of Superstars, taped the next day (the video is mislabeled, this was Superstars not RAW):
This allowed Pillman more time to recover from his pre-existing injuries and got Austin over as more of a psychopath. But he wouldn’t stop there on the infamous Nov. 4 RAW, the first to start at 8 PM on USA Network. Austin vowed to attack the laid up Pillman in his own home and would break through a phalanx of security to get there, until Brian Pillman pulls a gun on him and the feed is cut out. This angle was based strongly on Pillman’s and Austin’s earlier friendship even dating to WCW and the Hollywood Blonds. The shame was that Pillman would never be truly healthy again.
Lost in all of the bravado was that Austin before his 1997 neck injury was one hell of a technical wrestler and could go move for move with Bret Hart, and was a perfect opponent for the Hitman. The Survivor Series match starts a bit slow with some old school wrestling but picks up to the point where it easily rates 4 1/2 stars from most reviewers. Hart got the win by kicking off the turnbuckle while in the Million Dollar Dream. What made it so great was how Austin emptied his arsenal, going to his finisher from earlier in 1996 in an attempt to put the Hitman away. Despite the fits and starts early in the year and even after his King of the Ring win, this match made Austin for good. He would not be filler for episodes of Superstars anymore.
The feud with Bret gradually spread to Owen Hart and the British Bulldog and would lead nicely into the greater Hart Foundation angle of 1997. Things had only just begun for Steve Austin and he was off to the races, even winning the Royal Rumble in January and being the undisputed number 1 star of the match. Great heels generally become great babyfaces but no one could have predicted how big Stone Cold Steve Austin would become.