While some professional wrestlers have lengthy careers to cement their legacy in the annals of wrestling lore, such as Lou Thesz, Mae Young or Ric Flair, some have made huge impacts in shorter times. One such case could be made for the character of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, easily one of the WWE’s most popular characters of all time. While Steve Austin had wrestled for years prior with competitor WCW as “Stunning” Steve Austin, the legacy he’s left is virtually solely due to his work with the WWE as “Stone Cold”. It was on this date, 15 years ago on March 30, 2003, that “Stone Cold” Steve Austin wrestled his final match in professional wrestling.
FROM RINGMASTER TO STONE COLD: THE BEGINNING
While Steve Austin debuted with the WWF in December of 1995, he was a far cry from his “Stone Cold” persona that would immortalize him in the minds and memories of pro wrestling fans forever. Following a five year stint with WCW as “Stunning” Steve Austin, where he was a successful midcard performer who collected two WCW United States Championships, two WCW Television Championships and two runs as WCW World Tag Team Champions with Brian Pillman in The Hollywood Blondes, Austin had hardly built a career that many would have considered Hall of Fame worthy. In late 1995, he finally came to the WWF, but it was as “The Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase‘s protege, The Ringmaster. But The Ringmaster failed to catch much attention and he was soon repackaged. In March of 1996, he was renamed “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and formed an alliance with Savio Vega, making his “Stone Cold” debut teaming with Vega in the WWF World Tag Team tournament. They were beaten in the first round by The Bodydonnas, Skip and Zip. Austin would then feud with Savio Vega for most of the spring. Their match at April’s PPV, In Your House 7: Good Friends, Better Enemies, didn’t even make the main card – it was a dark match for the live audience only. The following month, at In Your House 8: Beware of Dog, the two finally made the main card, but much like the previous encounter, Vega won. Austin seemed relegated to midcard jobber status.
KING OF THE RING 1996: THE DAWN OF STONE COLD
Still managed by Ted DiBiase, “Stone Cold” entered into the Qualifiers for the 1996 King of the Ring tournament and was considered a long shot by fans and critics alike. After all, he was on the losing end of his current feud against Savio Vega. But on June 3, 1996’s edition of Raw, Austin defeated Bob Holly in a Qualifying Match, guaranteeing his entry into the KOTR tournament. In his first round match, on the June 17 episode of Raw, he faced his arch rival Vega once again. It almost seemed like Austin was set up for failure. But he finally defeated his long time nemesis and advanced in the tournament to the second round. The following week he faced another former WCW face in Marc Mero (formerly Johnny B. Badd in WCW) in the KOTR Semi Finals at the King of the Ring ’96 PPV itself, who was in the midst of a bigger push than Austin had been receiving. And again, Austin defied the critics and pulled off the victory, heading to the finals against WWF Legend Jake “The Snake” Roberts, who was in the midst of another big comeback story. Not only did Austin upset Roberts, he destroyed him. While his previous matches had been lengthy battles, he beat Jake in under four and half minutes. His victory speech, which was the first mention of Austin 3:16, was the spark needed to start the blaze that would become “Stone Cold” Steve Austin’s inferno into the Hall of Fame.
WRESTLEMANIA XIII: STONE COLD ARRIVES
Following his legendary moment at King of the Ring, Austin continued in the midcard, although his status was starting to change. A career heel, fans were slowly starting to bring 3:16 signs to the arenas and cheer the man that was somewhat of an anomaly – while he was a traditional heel in that he was beating on faces like Savio Vega, Aldo Montoya, and Marc Mero, he was also facing the heels as well, like Hunter Hearst Helmsley and Goldust. Austin’s character didn’t care what your “alignment” was – he just wanted to kick your ass. This new break from traditional wrestling archetypes began to catch on with the emerging Gen-X audience who sought rebellion over rules. In September of 1996, Bret ‘Hitman’ Hart returned from injury and in a huge event in South Africa, Sun City Superbowl on September 14, 1996, Austin and Bret finally went face to face. It would be the prologue for one of the greatest stories in WWE history.
Following Austin’s defeat to Hart, the two would meet in November at Survivor Series ’96 in a #1 Contenders Match to the WWF World Heavyweight Championship, with Bret Hart once again emerging as victorious. In January 1997, the two would end up being the final two competitors in Royal Rumble ’97 – but this time, it was Austin who emerged victorious. With a KOTR and now Royal Rumble win under his belt, the time of “Stone Cold” was nearing. And the rivalry between Hart and Austin was far from over. After losing in his quest for the WWF World title to Bret Hart at In Your House 13: Final Four in a fatal four way for the vacant title (that also featured The Undertaker and Vader), Austin would seek his vengeance the following night on Raw, when he attacked Hart during his title defence against Sid Vicious, costing Hart his newly won title. With fans starting to cheer Austin’s wicked ways, the seeds of contempt were sown for what is considered one of the greatest WrestleMania matches of all time: the submission match between Bret Hart and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin at WrestleMania XIII. The match is now the stuff of legend, from the beautiful execution of the double turn (Bret Hart turning heel and Austin becoming the face), to the iconic image of the blood running down Austin’s face. On a recent episode of Edge & Christian’s Podcast of Awesomeness, the two broke down the entire match and what it meant to both of their careers. Definitely worth a listen if you haven’t heard yet. But there was no denying it following that match – “Stone Cold” Steve Austin had arrived on the WWF Main Event scene.
WRESTLEMANIA XIV: THE STONE COLD ERA BEGINS
Nearly 20 years ago today, Austin finally climbed the main event mountain, when he defeated Shawn Michaels for the WWF World Heavyweight Championship at WrestleMania XIV on March 29, 1998. It had been a long time coming, but Austin had finally proved his worth to his fans, his critics and more importantly, his employers, that he was not only main event material, but a box office smash. And with his two rivals, Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels, now gone from the WWF (Bret to WCW following the Montreal Screwjob and Michaels due to injury forcing an early retirement), the road to glory was wide open for Austin. And he hit that ground running, becoming the face of WWF’s Attitude Era, and ring general in the Monday Night War.
His rivalry with Vince McMahon’s evil “Mr. McMahon” character is one of pro wrestling’s greatest feuds, but it was hardly Austin’s only one. He had feuds with everyone from Mick Foley to Triple H to The Undertaker’s Ministry of Darkness. But perhaps no other wrestler proved to be his nemesis more during the Attitude Era than The Rock. While Austin had had run ins with The Rock before (he teamed with the Road Warriors to face the Nation of Domination in 1997 as well as briefly feuded over the Intercontinental Championship), their battles at the top became the fuel to victory for WWF over WCW in the Monday Night War. They main evented two WrestleMania’s together, with Austin defeating The Rock for the WWF World title in both encounters (both of which were No DQ matches) – first at WrestleMania 15 in 1999 and then again at WrestleMania 17 in 2001. But it was their final WrestleMania matchup that proved to also be Austin’s final wrestling match.
On March 30, 2003, at WrestleMania XIX in Seattle, Washington, The Rock and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin faced each other for one last time. That night, The Rock was finally victorious over the Texas Rattlesnake at WrestleMania and Steve Austin quietly walked away from the ring forever. The Rock would move on to Goldberg‘s debut the following night on Raw, but following his defeat to Goldberg at Backlash ’03 a month later, The Rock would also leave the WWE (although he’s since returned for some one off matches. While he’s still a member of the WWE Universe and family, making appearances at WrestleManias, on their podcasts and on the WWE Network, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin is one of the few wrestlers who have retired and meant it.
Much like how The Beatles created a legacy of a lifetime in such a short time (they were only together for a decade), the character of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin accomplished a Hall of Fame legacy in only seven years. Seven years to become one of the WWE’s Mount Rushmore icons and become one of the most beloved characters of all time.