WRESTLING MAGAZINES HAVE never been short on hyperbole. So when, in awarding Steve Austin the 1990 Rookie of the Year award, we wrote that Austin immediately became a “household name” upon joining the USWA 30 years ago, there may have been a little bit of exaggeration going on.
But fans rightly saw something special in the broad-shouldered, blond-haired Texan who broke into sport as a protégé of “Gentleman” Chris Adams. And, over the next decade, their instincts would be proven right, as Austin would become not only a bona fide household name, but one of the biggest stars pro wrestling had ever seen.
“I think I was given that thing [the Rookie of the Year award] in Louisville, Kentucky, backstage. A couple of guys took the picture and I took my plaque and went about my business,” said Austin, who becomes just the fifth wrestler ever to win both the PWI Rookie of the Year award and the Stanley Weston Award, honoring lifetime achievement in wrestling.
The award, named after PWI’s founder and longtime publisher, was previously earned by former Rookies of the Year Ric Flair, Rick Steamboat, and Owen Hart.
“I was just fortunate to come along when I did. And now, to get this thing … It’s full circle,” Austin said in a recent telephone interview. “That’s pretty dang cool.”
Austin spent most of the first half of his career achieving modest success, including in WCW, but it was his seven-year run in WWE that transformed his life, and transformed the wrestling business.
After briefly being miscast as the stoic “Ringmaster,” under the tutelage of Ted DiBiase, Austin began showing off the lone wolf spirit, and unparalleled trash talk, that would define his career.
Unfortunately, some of Austin’s earliest verbal gems were never heard outside of a WWE production truck. When Vince McMahon witnessed WWE’s backstage personnel “popping” for the promos of a bad guy, he ordered Austin’s more entertaining remarks to be edited out.
“I said, ‘Vince, you’ve got guys here that are 6-10, seven feet, 310, 320 pounds. If you take my personality from me, I can’t compete,’” Austin recalled. “’But if you give me my personality, I can compete with anybody you got.’”
McMahon obliged. What followed was the most successful business period for any wrestling promotion in the world. After years of failed attempts to recreate Hulk Hogan’s all-American good guy character, it was Austin’s working-class anti-hero persona that captivated fans, and ushered in WWE’s Attitude Era.
“I think I was, without a shadow of a doubt, one of—if not the—biggest draw in the history of the business,” Austin said confidently. “That’s just the way it is. That’s not bragging. That’s the truth.”
In addition to his multiple box office records, Austin’s accomplishments in wrestling are astonishing: six world titles, three Royal Rumble victories, three PWI Wrestler of the Year awards, and two number-one rankings in the “PWI 500.” In 2000, he was inducted into the Wrestling Observer Hall of Fame and, in 2009, the WWE Hall of Fame.
Unfortunately, nagging injuries forced Austin to retire in 2003 at the relatively young age of 38. But despite having been retired longer than he wrestled, Austin’s rebellious influence is still felt throughout the sport.
“I don’t know what was different about me. I’d say intensity was the one defining thing,” Austin said. “I was a damn good worker, but when you put it all together, as far as a package, yeah, I’m in every conversation you can have.”
And that’s the bottom line, because, well, you know.