#StoneColdWeek: Better Know a Wrestler

After spending last month talking about the Hart Foundation, we’ve decided to talk about WrestleMania greats for our Wrestlers of the Week. Our criteria is somewhat nebulous — the performers that are most synonymous with the Grandaddy of Them All — and the order of who we pick has less to do with their actual significance and more to do with how important they are to telling the “story” of WrestleMania, but these are definitely the performers who to us most represent “WrestleMania” outside of HBK, who we covered late last year. From 9-time headliners like Hogan to his opponent from the main event of WrestleMania V, Randy Savage, we’ll be looking at the most immortal parts of the showcase.

In addition to looking at their careers in totality, we’ll also be spending some time going over their work at WrestleMania to go along with what will be a month (and a week-)long celebration of professional wrestling’s Super Bowl. Up first is the Texas Rattlesnake, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin.

Of all the What-Ifs in WWF history, “what if the Curtain Call never happened” should be at the top of the list. For those unaware, the Curtain Call — in addition to being one of Goldust’s finishers — was the fourth wall shattering public goodbye that Shawn Michaels and HHH gave Razor Ramon (Scott Hall) and Diesel (Kevin Nash) at a house show in MSG.

Now, to begin, I don’t like the Attitude Era. It’s less of a “good or bad” thing, and much more a personal preference. As someone who isn’t a particularly big fan of blood, boobs or cursing — or at least someone with a relatively low threshold for “that’s enough” — the entire thing feels like I’m watching a reality television show that makes up for its complete lack of substance through clever video packages and a cavalcade of skin.

And while it’s not his fault, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin is the avatar for the entire thing. Whether or not a character like “Stone Cold” was inevitable is up for debate, but what isn’t up for debate is that there was no one who could have done it quite like Steve Austin.

However, if not for the Curtain Call, “The Ringmaster” may have never became “Stone Cold”. The incident, which has become as much a part of HHH’s legacy as the aborted push that came with the punishment, led directly to Austin winning the 1996 King of the Ring. Which, of course, meant that it also led directly to the “Austin 3:16” speech that would make him the most popular wrestler of all time.

Essentially a journeyman for the first seven years or so of his career, Austin was able to build up a lot of genuine anger regarding his situation following years of mistreatment by any number of bookers and promoters unable to figure out how or what to do with the Texan. From the highly enjoyable Hollywood Blonds alongside Brian Pillman to the … less enjoyable Ringmaster gimmick that he found himself saddled with when he entered the WWE, Austin was nearly always misused by people unable to fit his square peg in a round hole.

Which begs the question: How could they miss so completely on someone who make the industry so much money? A brilliant psychologist who was as gifted a “hand” as there has ever been before he broke his neck, it was the promos — filled with the type of genuine vitriol that comes from years of feeling held down — that made Austin capable of achieving juggernaut status. Even if they don’t necessarily explain why he became the hottest star in the history of the business, they certainly make it confusing why it took so long for him to be put in the position to succeed.

That is a significantly more complicated question.

In baseball, there’s a comprehensive measure of player value known as Wins Above Replacement or WAR. It’s a way to not just quantify a player’s contribution in a vacuum but relative to everyone with “replacement players”, baseball’s equivalent to jobbers, as a baseline. And while there’s no historical stat quite like that yet for wrestling — though, rest assured, Timmons is working on it — if there was Austin would be the all-time single-year leader.

But, so good as an all-around player, without anything nearing a transcendent look, he often found himself being used to make others look better. And such was the path for everyone like Austin from Hennig to Rude, because wrestling was for a very long time not a meritocracy. It was, more than anything, a carnival racket. Instead of prizes, blowoffs to feuds were dangled in front of fans for months at a time, with the next installment of the story moving closer to the cathartic denouement like that tiny stuffed tiger next to the six-foot one you’re really trying to win.

It wasn’t until the Monday Night War that competition forced that to change. As those companies who had the best talent had no choice put push them to the forefront for fear that not only would they not be able to compete with the best talent on the other show without them, but that those performers would leave the company if they were mistreated. This meant, for the most part, that wrestling was slowly becoming a meritocracy as the money involved became both two great and too volatile to risk not running with what was hot instead of getting as bogged down in the politics that wiped out the territorial system.

Well, at least that happened in the WWF. Unlike WCW, WWF was a promotion company and needed to put its best attraction forward with a view towards long-term growth not short-term ratings pops. Stone Cold’s transcendence after years of wallowing in the muck showed the industry that no one should be taken for granted and that given the right mix of time, talent and drive anyone can become a star if given the chance.

And ultimately that will be Stone Cold’s legacy. Not the boobs or the beers, but the Yesses and the Pipebombs. Not bad for a guy fired by FedEx.

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