Subscribe to the podcast via: iTunes | RSS Feed | Email Newsletter
Austin was group in amongst wrestlers like tag partner Brian Pillman, Johnny B Badd, Lord Steven Regal and others. All were good workers, all had signed long term contracts in the early 1990s and (in what would become a crucial point) none of them had a prior track record outside of Atlanta. But within the space of two years between 1993 and 1995 then landscape had shifted significantly.
The rise of Eric Bischoff was a significant one in WCW, even before Monday Nitro came along. Bischoff ascended quickly up the WCW hierarchy, on a manifesto of efficiency. Money losing house shows were cut, Television tapings were streamlined and modernised into highly efficient if slightly sterile blocks. WCW was on the way to become a well oiled machine. Then Hulk Hogan arrived.
Hogan could not be seen as any of these things, but he was a bonafide star. Bischoff could make all of the changes he liked, but these were long term changes, Hogan could make an instant impact. So he was bought in on an astronomic contract, one that not only promised him a lot of money per appearance, but also an insane amount of extras including a big cut of PPV revenues above WCW’s average and a big cut of merchandising revenue. Hulk Hogan had changed WCW.
So where was Steve Austin in all of this? At the start of 1994 (Hogan arrived in the middle of the year), he was still framed as an up and comer in WCW. Superbrawl 1994 is a good yard stick. The semi-main event was a six man tag team “Thundercage” match. Sting, Flyin Brian (Pillman) and Dustin Rhodes against Rick Rude, Paul Orndorff and Steve Austin. Outside of Ricky Steamboat (not on the show) and Ric Flair, Vader and The Boss (in the main event) this was a who’s who of the top of the top end of the WCW roster.
Over the course of twelve months the top end of the WCW roster evolved significantly. Rude and Steamboat retired, Dustin Rhodes was fired and Hogan was the catalyst of the arrival of a wide range of names from the good (Randy Savage) to the bad (Jimmy Hart, Jim Duggan) to the downright awful (Brutus Beefcake, Earthquake and Honky Tonk Man).
Mid-1994 Austin was placed in a feud with Ricky Steamboat. It was the perfect feud for both, Steamboat had just come off a feud with Ric Flair (where he managed the rarity of a genuine draw in the main event of Spring Stampede). Austin, having defeated Johnny B Badd for the United States Title in May, then defeated Steamboat in a 20 minute match in July at Bash At The Beach – Hogan’s first pay per view.
Austin lost the title to Steamboat, but was all set for a rematch against him in September at Fall Brawl. Steamboat got injured, forcing him into retirement, so Austin won the title back by forfeit. But that wasn’t the end of Austin’s duties. He had now defend his title in an impromptu match with Hacksaw Jim Duggan. While Austin was arguing Duggan ran him over with his three point stance shoulder tackle and flung himself on top of Austin for the three. The crowd popped. It was, in isolation, a great angle.
Of course, history shows the defeat to Duggan to be the low point of Austin’s WCW career. Losing to a Hogan guy in less than thirty seconds is something pretty ordinary. But it didn’t have to be. In fact, when the angle started the whole idea was a setup for Austin quite logically winning back the title. Of course, when the time came to booking Austin’s win back you don’t need to guess which wrestler in red and yellow vetoed that!
It would probably be more accurate to call the defeat to Duggan the beginning of the end *and* the low point. To read the wrestling newsletters between Austin losing to Duggan and Austin being released a year later as a fan of Austin would be painful, time and time again reports surfaced of renewed backstage interest in pushing Austin, and something would get in the way.
Firstly there was the alignment with Harley Race – that was until Race got hurt. Then there were the talks of aligning Austin with Sensational Sherri (who had previously been managing Ric Flair)… then she got put with Harlem Heat. Then there were talks of Austin joining a newfour horsemen group alongside Flair, Anderson and Vader (yes, Vader!). As it was Flair, Anderson and Vader formed a trio that eventually self-destructed and Austin was left none the better off.
Austin’s other big issue was injuries. Part of the reason the Duggan match was the beginning of the end was that Austin actually does very little within the company after that. A series of injuries across the next year limited him to a few appearances. By the time he was released he hadn’t been seen on television in months.
When it came to the crunch time, three things played against Austin. His injury record was certain one, his wage tag was definitely another. The third was Austin’s perceived attitude. He wasn’t someone who would tag a low position quietly. An attitude like that cannot help a guy who is barely fit enough to compete.
It all comes down to how you look at it, really. It’s wrong to say that nobody saw star potential in Austin, people like Paul Heyman certainly did. But Austin didn’t look like a star within WCW, however you attribute that failing. Before Hogan arrived, Austin’s push was in probably in line with where a guy of his ability should have been. After Hogan arrived, while he was certainly a victim of Hogan lead politics, the scenario could’ve been different if at any stage he’d have been fit enough to wrestle in 1995.
Austin’s departure barely registered in the wrestling landscape at the time. Having not appeared on television in months, and with the debut of WCW Monday Nitro hogging the headlines he all but snuck out the door and snuck unannounced into a segment on ECW Hardcore TV in September 1995, mocking Hogan with “Steve-a-mania”. A year earlier his career was at a low, a year later he was rapidly ascending up the WWF roster.
As for what he left behind. Brian Pillman, having done nothing for well over a year. Austin departs and Pillman wrestles a great match at Fall Brawl, then gets shunted into a program alongside Ric Flair and Arn Anderson. Pillman wrestled a stellar 28 minute opener against Johnny B Badd on the PPV. Why did they get so much time? After Austin departed, some in the back wanted to prove that guys like Austin, Pillman and Badd couldn’t carry such a huge opening match. If it was a joke, the joke ended up being on those in the back.