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We all know the story by now, Steve Austin would tread water in WCW before being released while being injured then go onto to be perhaps the biggest star the industry has ever seen. But was there more to it?
Austin certainly had his supporters within the industry in the early nineties. Paul Heyman tried on more than one occasion to get him into ECW for an appearance while he was under contract with WCW, having had Austin within his Dangerous Alliance while the pair were in WCW. People like Wade Keller also saw star power early on.
And so did WCW. It'd be a lie to say that WCW saw nothing in Austin, he was a regular feature of the company in his years in the company, twice winning the United States title – including a near year long reign, and a two time Television Champion – including a 240 day title reign and one that lasted all of about five minutes.
It's that night at Fall Brawl in 1994 that people will always point to. It's the illustration of the deterioration of Austin's stock in WCW. He went from wrestling some excellent matches with Ricky Steamboat to being blindsided by a “friend of Hogan” in “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan.
Steamboat relinquished his title in what would be his last involvement as an in-ring competitor before he retired (oddly enough, WCW would fire him while he was on the shelf, too). Austin, who was the previous champion was awarded the title, but forced to defend his title against Duggan anyway. While Austin argued, Duggan ran him over and got a surprise pin for the three count. If we're being generous, the whole thing lasted ten seconds.
And here's the crux. People often get angry at wrestling angles before they've ever been given time to play out. Austin losing the title in 30 seconds to Jim Duggan, in my mind, was actually a very good angle. The problem wasn't in the story, really, it was in the follow up. Austin was meant to regain his title the following month at Halloween Havoc, but it seems like politics intervened in that, then he was going to win it at the Clash of the Champions in November – then he got injured.
But Austin, it seems, never fell too far from WCW's plans, just often seemed to be the victim of bad luck. He was going to get paired with Sherri Martel – then she got aligned with Harlem Heat as plans for their build into 1995 were prioritised. Then he was put with Harley Race (hardly a bad option, Race was manager of Vader too).
You look back at his years in the company, he was always a guy given a good spot, and seemed to be one of those names that could've broken through. In the finale of Battlebowl 1993 (perhaps the worst PPV you'll ever see) he was in the last four of the battle royal – alongside Sting, Ric Flair and Vader. At Superbrawl 1994 he was involved in a six man tag with Sting, Dustin Rhodes, Brian Pillman, Paul Orndroff and Ravishing Rick Rude. At Spring Stampede he was paired with the Great Muta, then he had a very good feud with Ricky Steamboat. The idea Austin was being laid out to pasture isn't one that seems to stack up.
But unfortunately for him, and many others within the company – Hulk Hogan arrived. He bought with him guys like The Butcher, Avalanche, Duggan and eventually even Randy Savage. The company's philosophy changed – it was about buying talent not creating it.
That's not to say he'd have been done for. Someone like Cactus Jack – now there's a guy who's run with WCW disintegrated. He was a main eventer in 1993, involved in a match and feud of the year contender with Vader. In early 1994 he had a phenomenal run against The Nasty Boys but the company just lost sight of him.
In many ways, by standing still in 1994 Austin was still being seen as an important player for WCW. Given the turn over of talent in the 12 months in between time, not to mention the turn over backstage, to go from an important talent at the start of the year to being seen as an important talent at the end of the year was no mean feat.
Ultimately, though, when 1995 came around the company philosophy had changed. When Austin got injured it's not to say he wasn't a priority, he just didn't matter as much to the 1995 version of WCW than he would've done to the 1993 version of the company. And who knows, if they'd have got it right with him maybe the industry, and his career, would look very different 20 years on?
The parallel universe in which Austin doesn't get fired is a fascinating one. WCW in a very short space of time became a closed shop – you either made it elsewhere or you weren't going to rise up (sound like a modern day wrestling company or two you've heard of?). Austin wasn't that small, plus he at the time was a fine worker, not that he became bad after his injury. It's not like nobody in WCW ever made it after that – it was just damn difficult. If anyone could've got there, it could've been him.