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Steve Austin in ECW: Stone Cold Before Stone Cold

Adam Van Winkle goes back twenty-five to look at the birth of attitude in one Steve Austin, when the future ‘Stone Cold’ arrived in ECW.

You’ve all read the line a thousand times. 

You know the story. Stunnin’ Steve Austin got fired by Bischoff from WCW while injured then “after a brief stint in ECW,” debuted as the Ringmaster in the WWF in late 1995, using his mega-awesome mic skills to get himself way over by the end of 1996.

But what of that “brief” stint 24 years ago?  How did Steve Austin go from a Hollywood heel that generally had Paul Heyman or Rob Parker as a manager and mouthpiece to “Stone Cold,” the amazing mic man and performer?  What exactly happened in ECW to spur the change? How did it happen so fast?

Steve Austin may not have had many matches in ECW – two to be exact – but the time spent there was transformative for his career.

Austin was brought in by his former Dangerous Alliance manager Paul Heyman after his WCW firing, even though his injuries prevented him from wrestling in ECW initially.  Convinced Austin could be a star, Heyman pushed him to explore creative freedom on the mic and allowed Austin to target whomever he wanted.

The results are amazing and worth your time to YouTube around.  You’ll see Austin dressed with a yellow ripped tee and yellow bandana, lampooning Hulk Hogan. You’ll see him in a black fluffy wig imitating Bischoff, welcoming you to Monday NyQuil, where “the big boys play with themselves” and you can see a “bottle of Geritol on a pole match.”

Heyman has discussed that time, 24 years ago in September 1995, as Austin finally getting the freedom to cut an unscripted promo. Heyman maintains that a major problem with WCW was the scripted nature of promos. If company heads didn’t see you as a main stage player, there wasn’t much freedom to break through with fans. In ECW, Heyman gave Austin total control of his promos, and Austin didn’t disappoint.

As Heyman recalls, Austin demanded, during promo taping, to go last.  He wanted to see what everyone else had done. He wanted to top everyone else.

It’s that drive that would catapult him past the Ringmaster gimmick and get him over with WWF fans as Stone Cold Steve Austin.  It’s that creative freedom that led to a King of the Ring mic job when he coined “Austin 3:16.”

His two ECW matches were world title bouts. Heyman badly wanted to put his ECW title on Austin, but Austin maintained he would get over more as the one going after the title than the one with it. And perhaps Austin had his eyes on jumping to the WWF and didn’t want a sticky situation with the title.

Both ECW matches involved Mikey Whipwreck. Whipwreck’s finisher in the ECW was the Whipper Snapper, a move that Stone Cold would take and make his own as the Stone Cold Stunner.  The second was a three-way match with the Sandman and Whipwreck. If you’ve ever seen a Sandman entrance, you’ll see where Stone Cold got some of his gimmick.  The Sandman always swills beers from the crowd. An observant Austin observed the huge pop this got and in the WWF, would bash and swill beers tossed from ringside after winning.

The lasting impact of his ECW days was immediate in the WWF.  Though he was gimmicked as “The Ringmaster,” with no other name on his title card, the announcers couldn’t help but refer to him as “Steve Austin” on broadcasts. Recognising quickly that Austin did not need Ted DiBiase as a manager or mouthpiece, WWF storyline wrote DiBiase off (he was also departing to play the benefactor to WCW’s NWO storyline).  

Austin won such creative control and when he asked the “Ringmaster” name be dropped, the WWF agreed.  They trusted him so much, in fact, they let him reject the list of names they suggested for him (the “Iceman,” “Otto von Ruthless,” and “Fang McFrost” among the list of suggestions).  Instead, Steve Austin came up with his own name, supposedly inspired by his wife’s comments about a cup of tea going cold, and “Stone Cold” was approved by WWF creative.

Think about that: in a company that notoriously demands gimmick control and in which many wrestlers have laboured under a gimmick they did not dig, Steve Austin, considered washed up and injury prone by WCW, was given total control.

His most famous storyline in the WWF also comes from his ECW days.  His most successful promos there were the ones where Austin blasted Bischoff and the higher ups at WCW.  This Wrestler vs. the Corporate Structure idea was fully realised in the WWF with one of the most famous, if not the most famous, feuds in company history, Austin versus McMahon.  No doubt Austin carried this off so well in the WWF by channelling his real feelings towards Bischoff, and his practice in lampooning him in ECW.

Austin went on to have the most lucrative title run of all time and is regularly listed in the top three among all time great wrestlers.

Short of shaving his head in ECW, Stone Cold was born of Heyman’s promotion. The Stunner, the beer swilling, the mic skills, the confidence to carry himself as a title contender, the rebellion against the big company—all that made him great in the WWF were part of what made the ECW great.

It’s a shame no one has risen to be the next Stone Cold yet. And it probably won’t happen. WWE scripts are so detailed there’s little room for real personality or tensions to come through (except when the WWE scripts real-life drama into the show).  But that’s just what Austin used to get over. He was really pissed off at the big wrestling companies for not seeing his greatness before ECW and his promos were more a man letting it fly than cutting a staged match hype. Thank goodness Paul Heyman and ECW saw the potential in that 24 years ago. Thank goodness the WWF didn’t get in its own way in late 1995 and 1996 when Steve Austin came over from the ECW after a brief three month stint and changed wrestling.

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You can find me on Twitter @gritvanwinkle.

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