Casting the first Stone (Cold): Steve Austin’s Memphis wrestling run
It’s laughable in hindsight, really. As a referee for Monday night wrestling at the Mid-South Coliseum on March 9, 1991, I had just approached rookie “Stunning” Steve Austin (Williams) to give him the working handshake (soft grip), saying, “Thanks, brother.” This was the tacit post-match custom practiced by most of the boys when they believed things had gone well moments ago in the ring. I then walked across the dressing-room area at the Coliseum to offer my hand to Austin’s opponent, Jeff Jarrett, who had gone over (won) in a great match to become the new Southern heavyweight champion. Jarrett was talking with Jerry Lawler, who asked how the match had gone, apparently curious about Austin’s ability. The young Jarrett’s reply: “Pretty good. I’ll say this for that guy [Austin]—at least he listens.” Little did Jeff or I realize that Austin had followed me and was standing nearby, overhearing Jarrett’s somewhat backhanded compliment. Awkward silence.
Funny how years later, in 1999, when Austin, who had become the biggest star in the business in the WWF, was approached by Creative about working a feud with Double J (Jarrett’s country-singer gimmick in those days)—and this time refused to listen. The Rattlesnake nixed the idea, claiming that the fans wouldn’t buy a feud between Stone Cold and Double J since they didn’t perceive Jarrett to be in his league. Austin had that kind stroke (no pun intended) to dictate his programs. It’s true—Jarrett wasn’t on the same level as Austin, but he was certainly capable of having great matches with the right opponent. With the proper scenario, Austin perhaps could have helped elevate Jarrett to main-event status in WWF. But Austin claimed that he didn’t like Jarrett’s work, e.g., that he didn’t run the ropes hard enough. Austin also supposedly loves telling a story from those days in Memphis, when he was a flat-broke rookie fresh off the turnip truck from Texas. After receiving a Jarrett Promotions check that was less than he expected, a stunned Steve sat there looking at it grimly when promoter Jerry Jarrett’s oldest son walked by, smacked Austin on the back and crowed in front of the other boys, “Staring at it won’t make it any bigger!” Austin never forgot the slight.
When I knew Austin, the only cash he could count on with certainty was the $40 payoff that Eddie Marlin or Mr. Guy Coffee would drop off in those tiny white envelopes at the end of the night. I was young, but I was already taking notes for a book (Web site? What’s a Web site?) I planned to write about the business one day.
I remember thinking that Austin was a good worker but an even better guy—and in Memphis at that time, it was hard to say which quality made a bigger impression on me. During my time in the business, the three nicest guys I met were Mick Foley, The Rock and Austin—all three would go on to reach WWF stardom rivaling that of the the old-school Hogan, who to this day is still a master manipulator who’s always working an angle.
SIDENOTE SLAM: That’s not an indictment against old-school wrestling or wrestlers; however, the distorted take on reality that some of the boys from the 1970s and 1980s had was annoying and downright disconcerting.
A couple of years before his debut in Memphis, Steve Williams was trained in his native Texas by the late “Gentleman” (scoundrel) Chris Adams. Upon arriving at the Mid-South Coliseum, he was forced to change from Williams to the surname “Austin” by fellow Lone Star State-native Dutch Mantel (arguably the best athlete ever to come out of Oil Trough, Texas), who was booking the Memphis territory at the time. Mantel, citing the notoriety of Dr. Death Steve Williams back then, ordered Steve to come up with a new name; when he drew a blank, Mantel deemed him “Steve Austin” since the greenhorn grew up near Austin, in Victoria, Texas. Like Austin, I didn’t care for the name at the time, as during childhood, I was a huge mark (fan) for that other famous Steve Austin, the Six-Million Dollar Man.
Ironically enough, in 1997, fellow Jim-Ross-buddy Dr. Death Williams was set for a big push in a program against Austin in the WWF; however, the good doctor was knocked out by Bart Gunn in the ill-advised series of shoot boxing matches on RAW. Turned out to be the death-knell for Dr. Death’s career in the states.
The “Stunning” moniker was typical for the time—a lot of the boys (against better judgment) went with the narcissistic (not a Lex Luger reference, although it fits in a sense ‘cause that gimmick sucked, too) heel thing. But back in the early 1990s, I was wondering how far that gimmick would take Austin, especially with that thinning hair of his (which would turn out to be a benefit years later when he became the goateed-, rednecked-hellraiser Stone Cold).
The first time I met Austin, we were going over the finish to a squash match at the WMC-TV studio on Union Avenue in Memphis, where many a future WWF champ (Hogan, The Iron Sheik, Randy Savage, The Undertaker, Mankind, The Rock) had cut their teeth and foreheads in learning the ring ropes of the business. I had gotten my break only two months earlier as a ref when I approached Austin in glib fashion to ask the finish to his match: “OK, what are you doing?” He looked at me like he was slightly offended that I didn’t introduce myself properly. Austin smiled incredulously, gave me the working handshake and asked, “Oh, I’m sorry, who are you?”—perhaps an indictment on my age. (I was only 19 when I started, prompting Jim Cornette to once declare on the air, “This referee reminds me of Beaver Cleaver!”) I apologized, introduced myself to Austin as the ref, and he replied, “OK. Nice to meet you. Here’s what I am thinking we’ll do….” I felt like a jackass for not showing him the proper respect. Austin, however, was cool about it; he just seemed to have the attitude of, “Hey, we’re going to be working together. Introduce yourself.”
Again, I’m reminded of when I met Foley: He had just settled into the Mankind gimmick—and I was coming into my own as a heel manager—when he was sent to Memphis as part of the USWA/WWF working relationship. After the TV taping, Brian Lawler approached me and says, “Hey. Guess what? You’re driving Cactus to Nashville tonight.” I had the feeling that Brian (or his pal Tony Williams) had agreed to drive the WWF star to the town and were now looking for an out so they could ride together without Cactus. Didn’t matter to me—I jumped at the chance.
I picked up Foley later that afternoon at one of the seediest—but cheapest—hotels in Memphis. (For area natives, think of the flea trap across from the Summer Twin Drive-In on Summer Avenue. Yeah…ewww.) Foley answers the door, smiles at me and waves me in despite being on the phone with his wife. Over the next minute or so, he tells her he loves her three times before hanging up. You have to understand what a rarity that is in the business. When we get in my car (the much-ballyhooed “candy-apple red sports car” I often bragged about on the air), the first thing Foley tells me is, “I loved your interview today with Brandon Baxter. That was so great.” I was floored. Although I had already figured out that the boys were ribbing me when they fucked with me about my interviews, praise for a young man in the biz was nonexistent in Memphis. Instead, you were worked with criticism in an effort to keep you in line.
Austin admits today that he often lived off raw potatoes during his early career in Dallas and Memphis. I recall that he was wearing the same set of clothes every time I saw him: tan cotton jacket, white T-shirt, khaki-colored pants and white high-top tennis shoes. With his blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail.
On that Monday night in March 1991 in Memphis, when he dropped the Southern title to Jarrett, I was very aware of how great the match was that was unfolding right in front of me. I had grown up watching some of the game’s best feud over the Southern title: Lawler, Mantel, Savage, Eddie Gilbert, Nick Bockwinkel, Terry Taylor, etc., and this reminded me of those bouts. During the Jarrett vs. Austin match, the crowd popped for everything (a rarity at that point in Memphis), including the bump I took when Jarrett body-pressed Austin right into me, knocking me senseless a la longtime official Jerry Calhoun. Justice prevailed in the end, with Jarrett getting the three count. Luckily for him, I recovered just in time to see him pinning Austin’s shoulders to the mat. That was to be the first and last time Jarrett would get the best of Austin.
In a business riddled with successful guys who will work you without even realizing it, I’m looking forward to once again seeing Austin, who will be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame by Vince McMahon the night before WrestleMania 25 in Houston. Quite a homecoming for the man who grew up watching the Von Erichs, the Freebirds and Ric Flair on World Class Championship Wrestling. Over the years, it’s pleased me to see guys like Austin, Foley and Rock succeed … which may not have been possible if the WWF old guard hadn’t bolted for Atlanta years back. Like Foley and Rock, Austin is living proof that you don’t have to be a rattlesnake in the grass to make it to the top in the wrestling business. But it sure doesn’t hurt to be the toughest SOB ever to lace up a pair of boots.