Television • Stone Cold Steve Austin

Wrestling is for idiots? You tell him.

THE FRENCH COULD NOT HAVE ROOTED ANY LOUDER for Lindbergh to land safely than the sellout crowd of 18,000 is screaming for Stone Cold Steve Austin to shake free of the sleeper hold that has dropped him first to one knee, then both, in the center of the ring at Dallas’ Reunion Arena. (Nor were any Frenchmen spotted on the runway waving large foam rubber hands with just the middle finger extended, but…oh, never mind.) Perched on Austin’s shoulders piggyback-style, applying the pressure that has apparently rendered him unconscious, is a longhaired three-hundred-pound embodiment of evil named the Undertaker. At Austin’s right is a wisp of a referee who is about to count him out, which would allow the ’Taker to retain the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) championship belt he stole from Austin some weeks back. With both hands, the ref lifts Austin’s massive right arm over his head and watches it slump lifelessly down to his side. “One!” hollers the ref to the judges at ringside, holding up a single bony finger to compensate for his voice, which is being drowned out by the increasingly desperate crowd.

He lifts Austin’s arm a second time. It falls limply again, and up goes the ref’s hand. “Two,” he mouths, completely inaudible now.

“Kick his ass, Austin. Kick his ass!” come the cries from the arena as the ref lifts his arm a third and final time. But when the ref lets go…a miracle: Austin’s hand hovers, weakly at first, and then slowly all the fingers but one recede into a fist. Suddenly the crowd recognizes his trademark gesture, the one that might get your car keyed if you do it in traffic—the one that signals to the Undertaker that he is indeed about to get his ass kicked. In a flash Austin is up, shooting the finger at the ’Taker with both barrels. He briefly pummels his face, then quickly applies the Stone Cold Stunner, his unbeatable closing move. He lays the ’Taker flat out, maybe dead. The belt will be his again.

Or so it seems. Before the Undertaker can be counted out, his father, Paul Bearer, reaches under the ropes, grabs the ref’s leg, and pulls him into the crowd. At the same moment, two members of the ’Taker’s Corporate Ministry, a quasi-Satanic cult bent on taking control of the WWF, jump Austin in the ring, allowing the ’Taker to escape. With two Stunners, Austin dispatches the interlopers, but the damage is done: Because he wins on a disqualification, he cannot be the champion.

Unmoved, a defiant Austin storms around the ring. With precious little left from the fight, he hobbles on his battered knees like a rabid, three-legged dog, like Mickey Mantle on one of his gimpy home-run trots, in a swelling, swirling volume greater even than Yankee Stadium’s. Gamely he climbs the turnbuckles in each corner to address his fans with his arms raised over his head, his middle fingers pointed to the heavens. The fans respond in kind. Then a man at ringside throws two cans of beer to the center of the ring, and Austin catches them one at a time in his big right paw. He pours them into his mouth and all over himself and throws the empties into the crowd. The same thing happens in each corner: He faces his fans, slams a beer, and tosses the empty to them. (Understandably, he throws one of the first empties right to an unnaturally busty brunette in the front row who has been leaning over the guardrail since the telltale sound of shattering glass signaled Austin’s imminent arrival in the ring. “When you hear the glass, it’ll be your ass!” goes one of Austin’s many slogans.)

After drinking ten or so beers in this fashion, Austin fetches two folding chairs, sits down in the middle of the ring, and drinks a couple more. The crowd is well past euphoric, unable to hear even themselves. With one hand they flip the bird; with the other, they toss half-full cups of beer. They are not throwing beer and shooting the finger at Austin; they are throwing beer and shooting the finger with him.

All this goes on for fifteen minutes, until it’s time to leave. But the night isn’t over: Outside, thousands of these very same fans stand three and four deep against the fence that lines the driveway to the backstage loading area of the arena, hoping to get a glimpse of Austin in his rented gold Cadillac.

WOULD ANYONE DENY THAT BOERNE RESIDENT Steve Austin is huge? And not just six-foot-two, 254-pound, brick-outhouse huge, but think-piece-in-the-Sunday- New-York-Times, gonna-get-my-picture-on-the-cover-of-the- TV-Guide, cultural-benchmark huge. An Annie Leibovitz picture of Austin with a milk mustache is the latest Got Milk? ad, part of the campaign that has become the most reliable barometer of hipness in America today. The March 27 TV Guide cover, the second within a four-month period to feature Austin and other WWF talent, was easily the weekly’s biggest newsstand seller in the first half of 1999. Most important, this fall the UPN will air WWF matches each Thursday night in what will be the first-ever regular prime-time wrestling series on network television. Already the WWF’s current USA Network show, Monday Night Raw, is the top-rated program on all of cable. Not bad considering that when Austin signed up with the WWF four years ago, its Monday night broadcast was not even the highest-rated wrestling show in its time slot.

The story of how Austin came to carry the fortunes of the WWF on his wide shoulders is a familiar one to the fans who have read about it in magazines from Rolling Stone to Newsweek. It reads like the dream of every high school kid who ever gunned the engine of a jacked-up pickup or threw an empty beer can into his girlfriend’s parents’ yard. Born in Austin a week before Christmas in 1964, Steve Williams grew up in the South Texas town

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