Chris Jericho once threw a mic to the floor after finishing a promo. When he got backstage, WWE chairman Vince McMahon said “what the hell do you think you’re doing? Those are expensive!” Jericho replied: “Steve Austin does it all the time,” setting up McMahon to reply: “Yes, but you’re not Stone Cold Steve Austin.”
And Chris Jericho is going to go down as one of the all-time greats who did just about everything you can do is the wrestling business.
And yet, he is still not on Stone Cold Steve Austin’s level. You could only say The Rock really even flirted with that level.
Sure, Hulk Hogan was a huge draw in the 1980s and Ric Flair is one of the greatest champions the business has ever seen, but Steve Austin was the biggest star pro wrestling has seen from a box office perspective. There’s no questioning that.
In the mid-late ’90s, the Texas Rattlesnake took wrestling to a whole new level as the Attitude Era boom that was ushered in on his shoulders make wrestling cool again.
By 2002, the neck injury he suffered at the hands of Owen Hart in 1997 and the subsequent surgery he had to try and correct it in 1999 was catching up with the aptly named Bionic Redneck.
Austin, still only in his late 30s, could not keep up with the frenetic pace of being WWE’s top guy and knew his body was winding down.
Also in 2002, the night after WrestleMania where Austin defeated Scott Hall, a young stud named Brock Lesnar debuted.
It was evident from the first time he entered the arena with Paul Heyman in tow, he was going to be a big deal if he wasn’t already.
After only two months on the main roster, Lesnar entered the King of the Ring tournament – which he won – and Vince McMahon had the idea of having Lesnar defeat him in a qualifying match-up.
When the WWE boss tasked Jim Ross with informing Austin this was the plan for Raw the next day, Austin simply told them he wasn’t coming.
“And the time they wanted me to fly down to Atlanta for Monday Night Raw and put over Brock Lesnar,” Austin told Sport Bible.
“The night before, I was working in Columbus, Georgia, working with Ric Flair in a cage, so I was like a kid in a candy store working with the GOAT, so of course I didn’t show up.
“Because it wasn’t time for me to do the favours yet for Brock in an unadvertised match in a tournament-style TV match whereas hey, man, I love Brock Lesnar, I’d lose to him any day of the week, but build it up so we can all make money off of it and it’s going to mean something.
“And when you get a guy red hot, and I just had [Hulk] Hogan on the podcast, and I’ll put myself there, but when you get guys who really, really draw stupid money, it’s a very delicate balance that you just don’t take stupid liberties with or you’ll kill it off and you can never recreate it.
“So I was very protective of myself, maybe too much so, but it took me seven and a half years to get there, so no-one was going to yank the carpet out from underneath my feet, not even Vince [McMahon].”
Austin had sold out arenas for live events over a four year period like no one had before him. Without him, WWE may have never defeated WCW in the Monday Night Wars.
He wasn’t just a ‘top guy’ like a fan might label whoever the current champion is, he was a generation defining talent. He had sold-out live shows, drawn record TV ratings and brought in record pay-per-view buys. As he says, he’s not the kind of talent – whether he’s in the winter of his career or not – that you just farm out.
As Bruce Prichard discussed on his podcast, Austin felt like Vince was short-changing his worth because he had a shiny new toy in Lesnar.
“That was the whole b***h behind the entire match. There were those of us who wanted to build to it and build to an eventual Austin/Lesnar angle and getting money out of that match. So we wanted to go there – Vince didn’t want to go there yet,” said Prichard.
“[Vince] just wanted to get that one match done and move forward. But let Steve go off with Eddie [Guerrero] and continue to build Brock. So it was… there were two camps. There were those who wanted that match, and then Vince that didn’t.”
The result saw Steve Austin no-show RAW with McMahon – and even The Rock – burying the Texas Rattlesnake on live TV.
Austin left the company in the middle of June 2002 and did not agree to return until early 2003. Prichard said nobody was happy backstage – even mentioning The Undertaker – but he said Lesnar didn’t really react.
“The Undertaker was pissed off. I think everybody was just pissed off and upset cause, you know. They felt like he walked out on them.”
“Brock had no idea of the proposed match or that he was supposed to go over Steve or anything. So, I don’t know if Brock had any reaction whatsoever because it never got to that point with him. They had pitched Steve, and Vince was still going back and forth with Steve at that point.
“I’m sure Paul probably let Brock know what the proposed match was, but no I don’t think Brock was anywhere in a point of; I don’t wanna say not caring one way or another but, it wasn’t to that point for it to matter.”
In 2015, Lesnar, who himself took a hiatus from WWE in 2004 and returned in 2012, did a sit-down interview with Stone Cold on the WWE Network.
Of course, that fateful day in 2002 came up, but the Beast Incarnate explained he never really cared.
“I didn’t care. Not at all,” Lesnar affirmed. “You haven’t got to explain it to me, I wasn’t offended. You may have handled it the wrong way, but maybe somebody on the other side could have handled it better too. It’s a two-way street.”
They say you have to pick your hill to die on and Austin chose this one. In truth, Austin only had three more matches after this fiasco and two of them were against Eric Bischoff where he took next to no bumps. His final match would be with The Rock at WrestleMania 19, a match he nearly didn’t make because of his health.
So logic tells us Austin was on his way out anyway and, deep inside, he knew it. While that may be true, the points he was making about building to a Lesnar match and making money off of it are true as well.
Ultimately, the match that never was didn’t hurt either man, but it’s interesting to imagine what it would have done for them both at that time. The closest we ever got was Austin refereeing Lesnar versus Goldberg at WrestleMaina 20.