Stone Cold Steve Austin, after winning King of the Ring, was on the path to becoming the WWF’s new big star. What no one could have known was that he was about to become one of the biggest stars in the history of the business.
Steve was brought into the WWF under the Ringmaster gimmick, and was seen at the time as only a midcard talent. Steve knew the Ringmaster gimmick wasn’t getting him over, and one night he saw an HBO documentary about a serial killer for hire nicknamed the Iceman. Richard Kulinski was notorious for putting his victims in freezers and dumping the remains a year later. After watching this documentary, Steve conceived of the idea of a cold blooded wrestler (Austin 141)
He pitched the idea to Debbie Bonnanzio, Senior VP of WWE Creative Services, who was in charge of gimmick characterizations. The company faxed Steve several pages of possible names for his new wrestling character, including “Fang McFrost,” Ivan the Terrible”, and “Ice Dagger.” Steve himself was considering the name Iceman, but in World Class Wrestling out of Dallas there already was an Iceman King Parsons. Then one day Steve’s wife Jeannie, who is British, made a cup of coffee for her frustrated husband. She then remarked “go ahead and drink your tea before it gets stone cold.” Then inspiration hit her. “That’s your name, Stone Cold Steve Austin. (Austin 142) It was this cold blooded character that would win the 1996 King of the Ring and cut the Austin 3:16 promo.
After King of the Ring, the character continued to evolve. Steve was going bald anyway, so he decided to get a buzz-cut. He liked how Bruce Willis looked in Pulp Fiction where he was bald (Austin 147) and Woody Harrelson’s shaved head in Natural Born Killers also provided inspiration. The office saw a problem with his promos, not because they were to bad. He noticed some of his promos were being edited on TV. Vince McMahon said, “Well, Steve, your stuff is making people laugh back in the studio. We are concerned because, as a heel, we want the fans to not like you.”
Steve responded, “Man, if you take my personality away from me, I can’t compete with anybody here. You got guys here six-ten, seven feet, three hundred and fifty poinds or whatever. But if you give me my personality, I can compete with anybody. I guarantee it.” (Austin148)
Still using million dollar dream of his former manager Ted Dibiase as a finsiher, veteran wrestler and now agent Michael Hayes suggested the stunner. (Mikey Whipwreck in ECW also used it.) Johnny Ace also did a version of it in Japan called the Ace crusher (Austin 152), Commentator Jim Ross called it the Stone Cold Stunner, and Hayes suggested kick to gut first, as at first Steve was going straight to the stunner. (Austin 153) As for DTA, don’t trust anybody, Steve came up with that on his own.
While Austin’s star was rising, an old veteran of the business pondered where his future lay. On September 25th of 1996 Bred Hart flew to Los Angeles to voice an episode of The Simpsons. Hart’s agent, Barry Bloom knew WCW President Eric Bischoff. Before leaving, Barry told Bret that Bischoff wanted to meet him. Bret wasn’t considering making a jump, as Nash and Hall had in the spring of that year, but he hit it off when meeting Eric for the first time. They bonded over talking about gunfighters from the Old West, including Butch Cassidy who had spent time in Hart’s home of Calgary Alberta Canada.
According to Bret Hart’s autobiography, the conversation about Bret coming to WCW went something like this
Eric asked Bret, “So what’s it going to take to bring you to WCW”
Bret replies “I would want the exact same contract as HulkHogan, plus one penny.”
Eric, surprised at his answer, said he couldn’t put anything like that together at the moment,
to which Bret said “That’s fine, I’m not really looking to go anywhere. I’m happy where I’m at.”
Eric keeps prodding though, saying “C’mom, At least give me something that I can go back to my people with. Anything.”
Bret, thinking off the top of his head, and figuring they would tell him no anyway, asked for three million and a later schedule.
Again, according to Bret’s autobiography, Bret himself was surprised when three days later he received an offer for 2.8 million. On October 3rd he talked with Vince McMahon, who told him he couldn’t match the offer (Bret 394)
Bret says, “I wasn’t asking him to match it, just to make me the best offer he could….I hated the thought of being an assassin against him and a company that I’d devoted my life to,” but, he also, quite sensibly, pointed out that “Saying no to this is like tearing up a lottery ticket.”
Vince understood, and also is quoted as saying “WCW would never know what to do with a Bret Hart.” (Hart 395)
Six days later Vince flew to Calgary to present his offer in person. During this visit Vince also approved the idea of a documentary crew following Bret Hart around backstage. This would later become the now well known wrestling documentary Wrestling With Shadows. Its origins lay in the European tour in the spring of that year, during which Hart did an interview where he spoke very honestly about his career. Film maker Paul Jay was impressed by Hart’s sincerity, and later met Hart at the Banff film festival and pitched the idea of the documentary.
Regarding staying in WWF, Hart was offered a twenty year deal for 10.5 million. It would break down to 1.5 million a year for three years as a wrestler, half a million for seven years as a senior adviser, and a quarter of a million for the remaining ten years. Bret quotes Vince as saying “I’ll never give you a reason to want to leave.” Vince was quite happy when Bret agreed to the deal.
One person that was not happy about the new contract was Shawn Michaels, who earlier that year signed a contract for $750,000 a year and was told that was the biggest contract WWF had. At the time, he says in his autobiography, he told Vince, “I’m just asking that you don’t pay anyone, except Undertaker, any more than you pay me. That would be an insult. Taker is seperate. What he gets he deserves, but I don’t think anyone else deserves more than me.” At the time, Vince agreed. (HBK 241)
After Bret’s deal, Vince and Shawn talked about Wrestlemania and a possible Hart/Michaels match. Learning about Bret’s deal, he now did not want to work with Hart, however, Shawn would injure his knee and not perform at Wrestlemania anyway. In his autobiography Michaels says “If Vince would have pressed me to put Bret over, I would have. I’m sure I would have made life miserable for a lot of people, but I would have done it. When push came to shove, I always did what Vince wanted. (HBK 242)
As 1996 closed, the seeds were planted for Stone Cold Steve Austin to be one of WWF’s top stars, but not before 1997 would bring the most controversial event in professional wrestling history.
Sources used were the autobiographies for Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, and Stone Cold Steve Austin, all published by WWE. Will update with more details in the future.