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    Thursday, March 17, 2016

    Thursday Night Tanders (3/17/16): How a Ringmaster Became the Toughest SOB in Wrestling

    Quoting Staind, it's been awhile. Been awhile since I've been reminiscing with Smark Henrinites from all parts of the Philippines, and maybe different parts of the world. But I'm back with a vengeance, and back to tell you about one of my favorite wrestlers of all time. No prizes if you guess who this Atittude Era favorite is, because this, after all, is "3:16 Week," and yesterday was 3/16/16.

    Prior to "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, babyfaces and heels were as black and white as you can get. No moral ambiguity whatsoever—faces were honorable and virtuous, heels were dastardly deviants who broke the rules. But Austin was not like anybody else in what was then called the WWF. He was a loner who looked out for one man, and one man alone—himself. He delivered Stone Cold Stunners to wrestlers of both alignments, and with a lot of gusto to authority figures. He played by his own rules and nobody else's. And it was this rebellious attitude that got him over with WWF fans of the late '90s, and in the biggest way possible.

    For this week's Thursday Night Tanders, we shall be looking at the early WWF career of "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, specifically his first year in the promotion. But first, let's take a quick look at a man who could have been Stone Cold before there was a Stone Cold—late '80s upper midcard heel Bad News Brown.


    The Prototype for Stone Cold: Bad News Brown

    Younger fans may not realize it, but "Stone Cold" Steve Austin had a prototype of sorts some eight years before he debuted in the WWF. That prototype was the late Bad News Brown, a New York native who had eked out a reputation as a scary, bad-ass motherfucker in stints with Stu Hart's Stampede Wrestling, and with New Japan Pro Wrestling. Brown, real name Allen Coage, was a legit fighter; he was part of the U.S. judo team in the 1976 Montreal Olympics, where he won a bronze medal. Soon after, he would train with the legendary Antonio Inoki as a professional wrestler, and became a top-flight heel away from home under the name Bad News Allen.

    Photo from WWE.com
    In early 1988, the slightly-renamed Bad News Brown made his formal WWF debut—he'd previously done a short stint when it was still called WWWF—and he was promoted through a series of vignettes painting him as the guy you didn't want to bump into in a dark alley. But while he wasn't the first WWF newbie pushed as a bad-ass, he was unique in the sense that he didn't like anybody. WWF booking of the era suggested that if you were a heel, you'd be friends with other heels, and if you were a face, you'd be palling around with the other good guys—the old "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" booking logic, in other words. Bad News, however, didn't have any friends, and didn't want any friends. In the 1988 and 1989 Survivor Series, his inability to get along with his heel teammates caused him to walk out of those matches.

    And, shortly before that, at WrestleMania IV, Brown's treacherous actions at the opening battle royal proved to be the catalyst for Bret Hart's first WWF face turn. He was seemingly on his way to becoming an alpha heel, but alas, it wasn't to be for Bad News.

    Personally, Bad News Brown scared the shit out of me as a young boy. To me, he was pure evil, with no respect for anyone, not even the kayfabe powers that be in the WWF. But he wasn't long for the WWF, due to a couple reasons. First was his age—he debuted as Bad News Brown at the ripe old age of 44. Second was his claim that his WWF run didn't live up to his expectations. He left WWF in the summer of 1990, as Vince McMahon allegedly reneged on his promise to make Bad News the first black champion in WWF history. But short as Bad News Brown's stint in WWF was, he would arguably make a lasting impact when, six years later, a much younger man would transform his gimmick from something laughable into something iconic.

    Becoming Stone Cold: Enter The Ringmaster

    Assume you know nothing about "Stone Cold" Steve Austin. (And no, that's not meant to be a segue into a Jon Snow reference, Game of Thrones fans.) Assume you're on the WWE Network, watching every RAW episode from 1993 chronologically, and you make it to the January 8, 1996 episode. At this point, you see this guy with short, cropped blonde hair getting introduced by his nefarious manager "Million Dollar Man" Ted DiBiase as "The Ringmaster." This Ringmaster guy, who loves addressing "everybody out there in TV Land," speaks like an eager young rookie with a strong Texas accent, and DiBiase is especially excited about him, as he's his new Million Dollar Champion. What's your first impression of The Ringmaster?

    If you thought that The Ringmaster sounds like some sort of cartoon villain and would go nowhere in the then-WWF, then we cannot blame you. The Ringmaster was an absolutely shitty ring name, and the gimmick was not much better. Neither was his use of DiBiase's Million Dollar Dream as a finisher—sleeperhold, followed by stuffing a dollar bill in his fallen opponent's mouth. It worked with DiBiase because he was the Million Dollar Man. But did it work for this seemingly generic rookie? Hell no, it didn't. Austin absolutely hated the gimmick, and he soon asked Creative to change the gimmick up, post-haste.

    As Austin continued wrestling as "The Ringmaster" Steve Austin, even as he shaved his head and grew his trademark goatee, WWF Creative gave him a choice of ring names. These names clearly showed that Vince McMahon, even at the relatively young age of 50, was already, in the words of tito rock favorites Hall and Oates, "out of touch." Just what were these names designed to match Austin's suggested persona as a tough, cold, authority-hating SOB? Emphasizing the "cold" part, these names included Ice Dagger, Fang McFrost, and the outright laughable Chilly McFreeze. And, just in case Austin didn't mind playing an evil foreigner, there was Otto Von Ruthless as well, thrown into the mix. Heck, these names didn't even make good villain names for children's cartoons!

    Our thoughts exactly.
    Fortunately for Austin, his then-wife Jeannie offered a helpful piece of advice as she served him some tea. That advice? "Drink your tea before it gets stone cold." Right then and there, an iconic ring name was born, and in March 1996, "The Ringmaster" Steve Austin officially became "Stone Cold" Steve Austin.

    The Finisher And The Catchphrase

    Although Steve Austin had ditched his unfortunate Ringmaster gimmick for Stone Cold, he wasn't exactly racing up the card just yet. For the first five months of 1996, he was a solid midcarder, feuding mainly against Savio Vega, and losing a strap match to the Puerto Rican at In Your House: Beware of Dog. That match, however, was of great importance, as Austin claimed to have purposely lost that match in order to rid himself of DiBiase, per match stipulations. With Ted DiBiase heading to WCW in real life, that freed up Austin to let his Texas Rattlesnake personality shine through a lot more, and at the 1996 King of the Ring pay-per-view, his transformation from Ringmaster to Stone Cold was finally complete.

    Austin would become King of the Ring by winning the tournament finals against Jake "The Snake" Roberts, and would do so using his brand-new finisher, the Stone Cold Stunner. He had actually used it first to beat future Mean Street Posse member Joey Abs (then using his real name, Jason Ahrndt) in a  June 1996 Superstars episode, but it was on pay-per-view when he showed it off to a much larger audience. Still, the thing everyone remembers about KOTR 1996 is Austin's promo against Roberts, who had seemingly defeated his personal demons and become a born-again Christian. (Or so we thought, though that's probably something else for another time!)

    Now you have to remember that Roberts' becoming born-again was more than just a gimmick; he was actually preaching across America at the same time he made his WWF comeback. But Roberts wasn't above making his art imitate what was ostensibly real life at the time. Instead of his old python sidekick Damien, he had an albino python named "Revelations" inside the bag he'd carry with him to the ring. He openly talked about kicking his drinking problem thanks to his reborn faith, something that Jerry Lawler loved to poke fun at. And he also wasn't above quoting Bible verses instead of going on long, softly-spoken, cryptic drawls against his heel opponents.

    For Austin, who was establishing himself as someone who gave zero fucks about anything or anyone in the WWF, it was all too much. And since Roberts did quote John 3:16 (For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life), Austin came back in the KOTR coronation ceremony with a classic line that many believe served as the seed that planted the Attitude Era.

    "You sit there and you thump your Bible, and you say your prayers, and it didn't get you anywhere! Talk about your Psalms, talk about John 3:16... Austin 3:16 says I just whipped your ass!"

    It was the first of many Austin catchphrases to emerge, but for this writer, it's the most memorable. Heels had long been mocking their face rivals in promos, but Austin was, in effect, appropriating a Bible verse for himself, and making it short, punchy, and effective, not to mention mildly profane. This, for me, sold me on Austin being an effective heel, but that wasn't the last time he'd turn heads and make people pay serious attention to him in 1996.

    Pillman's Got A Gun!

    Later in the year, Steve Austin would kick off a feud with Bret Hart that would culminate in their famous double-turn at WrestleMania XIII. He was clearly on the rise, and more fans were getting behind him despite his heel status. And like Bad News Brown before him, Austin was proving to be an equal-opportunity ass-kicker, taking his frustrations out on babyfaces and heels alike. The first heel of note whom he'd mess with was none other than the Loose Cannon, Brian Pillman.

    Back in their time at WCW, Austin and Pillman held the Tag Team titles as The Hollywood Blondes, and while Austin did turn on Pillman to dissolve their WCW partnership, WWF advertised them as friends who had worked together in the past. With Pillman still sidelined by legitimate injuries, the gravelly-voiced WWF newcomer interviewed Austin in-ring on the October 27, 1996 RAW, immediately saying that they'd been friends for a long time and that he was excited to be interviewing his old buddy. And Pillman was especially excited that Austin had made Bret Hart come out of kayfabe semi-retirement to accept his challenge at Survivor Series 1996.

    Austin, however, was not impressed, instead calling Pillman out for being so excited backstage when Bret announced that he was accepting the challenge. He also mentioned that Pillman had shook Bret's hand as the Hitman was heading backstage. (It bears mentioning that Pillman and several Hart brothers, Bret included, were real-life friends, owing to the then-Flyin' Brian's time in Stampede Wrestling.) After Pillman explained that he got "caught up in the moment," Austin made a few quick references to him carrying Pillman's back during their days as a tag team. Then, while growling at Pillman's face and calling him a "crippled freak," Austin promised to beat Bret at Survivor Series. With Pillman excitedly proclaiming that it would be "Stone Cold" Steve Austin versus the "best there was, the best there is [sic]," Stone Cold interrupted the announcement, laying a vicious assault on his onetime friend, He'd work the injured ankle as the beatdown continued, and, to stress how much he hated authority, tossed road agent and future Stooge Gerald Brisco out of the ring as he tried to break things up.

    That was nothing compared to what would transpire on the following week's RAW, as Austin was apparently on his way to the Pillman residence to attack his injured former buddy. Again. In his own home. Indeed, this was a man so pissed off that a person who saw him as a friend was seemingly kissing up to the Hitman. RAW would follow this angle all throughout the episode, with McMahon himself interviewing Pillman from his home, where he called Austin a "dead man walking" and brandished a gun on live television upon being told that Stone Cold was circling the neighborhood and hunting him down.

    Then, all hell broke loose. Austin broke into the Pillman residence successfully, and gunshots were heard soon after. People at home were wondering what had happened as the live feed went off for a few seconds, and when the live feed came back, Pillman was still ranting and raving as his wife Melanie and his friends tried in vain to calm him down. WWF interviewer Kevin Kelly assured viewers and the announce team that no one had been shot, but was soon screaming at someone, anyone, to call the police, as Pillman, dropping a few profanities along the way, threatened to kill Austin.

    Looking back at this angle, it's a misnomer to say that it was all about Brian Pillman, the Loose Cannon. The fact that one man would be so pissed-off to head to a former friend's home, whose ankle injury he aggravated, for a second beatdown, was all the proof you needed that "Stone Cold" Steve Austin was an antisocial man without conscience. Even hinting at support for his rival and/or patronizing him was enough to set him off, and set him off big-time. And more and more fans were digging it. It would only be a matter of time before Austin's popularity despite his heel status would become too much to ignore, and that finally took place four months later, at WrestleMania XIII, where a badly-bleeding Austin took everything Bret Hart had to dish out, and absolutely refused to give up until he had passed out, cementing him as a tough-as-nails fighter with extraordinary resilience, and the most unconventional babyface of all time.

    Final Words (And That's The Bottom Line, Cos The Throwback Tito Said So!)

    As a teenager in the mid-'90s, I was truly impressed with "Stone Cold" Steve Austin's emergence in 1996. This wasn't a heel who dressed up like a cow or a Viking. This wasn't a heel who needed a manager as a mouthpiece, nor a heel that weighed 400-plus pounds and splashed or butt-dropped his smaller opponents. This was a man of average build for a WWF Superstar, with no weird gimmicks, just himself turned up to eleven, and with a heaping helping of anti-authoritarianism. But for me and for many other Filipino wrestling fans, it took me some time to appreciate Stone Cold as a good guy when he made his face turn.

    Let's face it—Filipinos can be a conservative lot. And that still includes seeing a lot of things in black-and-white, pro wrestling included. Despite my numerous hi-jinks in school, I was definitely a rather conservative teen, in sharp contrast to my liberal leanings as an adult. A guy who takes the Bible in vain and hates or disrespects everybody wasn't my idea of a typical WWF babyface. But that would soon change, when Bret Hart left the WWF and the Austin vs McMahon feud started heating up. Anti-authority guy who hates the corrupt people in charge, not the least his own boss? Now that was right up my alley, and still is. Nobody did it better than Stone Cold, and nobody has since then. And, to quote the man himself, that's the bottom line, son.


    What are your fondest memories of "Stone Cold" Steve Austin? (WHAT?) How did you see him when he debuted as a heel in 1996, and how did you feel when he turned face in 1997? (WHAT?) Any favorite Stone Cold feuds, or least-favorite ones? (WHAT?) If you've got any thoughts on Stone Cold, then gimme a "HELL YEAH!" and post 'em in the comments section!


    The Throwback Tito is Enzo Tanos, a freelance writer and the drummer/manager for garage rock band The Myopics, where he hopes to debut his masked lucha drummer persona “Sin Verguenza” in future gigs. A wrestling fan since childhood, he’s old enough to remember watching Outback Jack’s pointless vignettes, and One Man Gang’s transformation to Akeem.
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    Item Reviewed: Thursday Night Tanders (3/17/16): How a Ringmaster Became the Toughest SOB in Wrestling Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Enzo Tanos
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