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#2 Steve Austin
An overwhelmingly popular character and the kingpin of wrestling during the industry's highest point, Steve Austin has the distinction of being the biggest draw in wrestling history when it comes to evaluating wrestlers' peaks, and to this day the most popular wrestler of all-time with hardcore wrestling fans. Nobody, not even Hulk Hogan, received the ridiculous amount of universal love from the audience that Austin received in his peak, and although he did not draw for as long as Hogan or Ric Flair, his ride on top of the wrestling world was much more lucrative than either man's respective peaks.
Austin grew up in Edna, Texas and was a star football player in high school, eventually playing in junior college and earning a scholarship to the University of North Texas. While in college Austin began going to World Class Championship Wrestling and figured that he had what it took to become a professional wrestler. He enrolled in British wrestler Chris Adams' training school associated with WCCW and his size and athleticism made him a top prospect for WCCW. A humorous note in Mick Foley's book Have a Nice Day is that Foley, who was working in the territory when Austin was starting out, had Foley watching in the stands during the first seminar Adams gave to his class and noting that while everyone else in the class looked bad, "a big blonde kid" looked like a natural; the blonde kid of course being Austin.
Austin began working in WCCW in 1989 and although he originally wrestled under his legal name, Steve Williams, he soon had it changed to Steve Austin (the name of the main character on the TV show The Six Million Dollar Man) because Steve Williams was already a wrestler in the area (Dr. Death Steve Williams). His first program came against Adams and his manager Percy Pringle (Paul Bearer) before moving onto Memphis when WCCW and the Continental Wrestling Association were merged to form the United States Wrestling Association.
Austin would work in Memphis against Jeff Jarrett but in 1991 he caught a break and was brought into World Championship Wrestling. Although Austin was not an immediate success and the story has been told often about how WCW did not see anything in Austin and did not capitalize at all on his talents; it should be noted that Vince McMahon was not the first person to ever see something in Austin. Even though he was only wrestling for a couple of years, WCW already saw something in Austin and gave him a shot on the national stage.
Going by the moniker "Stunning Steve Austin" which he had begun using while he was still in Dallas, Austin was given an immediate push. After debuting in March of 1991, Austin would defeat Bobby Eaton for the WCW World Television Championship in June of that year. The match took place in Birmingham, AL and since Eaton had been a part of the legendary tag team the Midnight Express that was very big in the South, Austin began to get over early as a mid-card heel. He would have a long feud with Eaton throughout the summer, consistently retaining the championship and having solid matches in the process. At the Great American Bash in August Austin made it to the finals of a tournament to crown a new United States Champion before losing to Sting in the final match for the vacant championship.
While feuding with Dustin Rhodes in the fall of 1991, Austin joined forces with manager Paul E. Dangerously and a stable of other heel wrestlers to form the Dangerous Alliance, a stable that existed purely to torture Sting, the company's top babyface. Austin continued to hold onto the WCW Television Championship for the remainder of 1991, defending it against Scott Steiner and Rhodes. He would eventually lose the title in April of 1992 to Barry Windham in a good 2 out of 3 falls match. The feud between Sting and The Dangerous Alliance reached a boiling point in May of 1992 at WrestleWar, when The Dangerous Alliance took on Sting's Squadron in a WarGames match. The match earned a perfect five star rating from Dave Meltzer and saw the team of Sting, Dustin Rhodes, Nikita Koloff, Windham and Ricky Steamboat beat the team of Arn Anderson, Eaton, Larry Zbyszko, Rick Rude and Austin.
While The Dangerous Alliance was crumbling in the wake of the loss at WarGames, but Austin continued to have success, winning the TV Championship back from Windham shortly after the WarGames match. He would hold onto the title until September before dropping it to Ricky Steamboat in September on an episode of Clash of the Champions. Following his loss of the championship, Austin found more success as a heel, wrestling WCW World Heavyweight Champion Ron Simmons at some house shows and he filled in for an injured Terry Gordy and tagged with Steve Williams and wrestled Windham and Rhodes to a 30 minute draw at Halloween Havoc 1992.
In January of 1993 Austin was put in a new tag team with Brian Pillman, and the two adopted an arrogant persona as The Hollywood Blondes. The Hollywood Blondes filled a vital role in WCW as so many of their talents were older stars and guys who were very popular in the 1980s but were kind of out of date with fans in the 1990s. The Hollywood Blondes were conceited and aggressive talents who mock-filmed each other when they were in the ring, ensuring their greatness was always being documented. They also had terrific matches, as they were both terrific athletes and captured the WCW World Tag Team Championships in March when they defeated Steamboat and Shane Douglas.
The Hollywood Blondes engaged in a long feud with Ric Flair and Arn Anderson where the babyfaces chased the heels for months for the titles, albeit things were thrown for a loop when Pillman legitimately got injured and had to miss some time. At Clash of the Champions in August of 1993, Steven Regal filled in for Pillman and The Hollywood Blondes lost the championships to Arn Anderson and Paul Roma. When Pillman later returned from injury, Austin turned on Pillman and defeated him at another Clash of the Champions in November.
Austin continued to climb the ladder in WCW, defeating Rhodes in a 2 out of 3 falls match at Starrcade 1993 to win the WCW United States Championship. He would hold the championship for eight months before losing it to Steamboat at Clash of the Champions in August of 1994. The match is widely regarded as being the best Austin singles match during his WCW run and also proves something that is often forgotten about Austin today and that is that he was a very good worker in his prime. When he came to the World Wrestling Federation and eventually exploded into a global sensation Austin mainly was just a brawler; but in WCW Austin proved that he was a very good technical wrestler.
Austin was scheduled to wrestle a rematch against Steamboat at Fall Brawl in October of 1994, but Steamboat was legitimately injured and Austin was awarded the title. However, he would lose it a few minutes later when Jim Duggan came out and challenged Austin for the United States Championship and obliterated Austin, defeating him in 35 seconds. This was a sign that WCW was beginning to change as a company. Hulk Hogan had recently arrived and more and more of his friends from his glory days were appearing in WCW and getting big pushes. It was at the expense of young talent like Austin, who despite showing a lot of promise was forced to take a backseat.
Austin chased Duggan for the championship for several months and was then sidelined with a triceps injury. WCW Vice President Eric Bischoff then made the decision that Austin was not marketable enough of a talent and decided to release him while he was recuperating from the injury in 1995. Since Austin would then later go on to become the biggest draw in wrestling and sell more merchandise than anybody else in history; this was a fairly large mistake on Bischoff's behalf.
Before Austin would travel to the WWF and change the tide of the Monday Night Wars, he would stop by Extreme Championship Wrestling, which was being run by Austin's former manager, Paul E. Dangerously (Paul Heyman). While Austin could not wrestle because of his triceps injury, Heyman still knew that Austin had a ton of potential and brought him in just to cut promos at first. Frustrated with the way he had left WCW, Austin began to cut incredible, aggressive promos where his personality began to really shine. True to the name of the promotion, Austin was similar to his Hollywood Blonde gimmick, but more extreme because he wasn't just arrogant, he was borderline insane with his intensity and bitterness. Even if he wasn't wrestling, he came across like a star with an enormous chip on his shoulder.
Austin only wrestled a pair of matches for ECW, both ECW World Heavyweight Championship matches at the end of 1995, losing to Mikey Whipwreck at November to Remember and to The Sandman and Whipwreck in a three-way dance match at December to Dismember. It is a testament to just how good Austin's promos were that he elevated himself to a higher level without hardly wrestling, eventually getting the interest of the WWF who had originally passed on signing Austin after WCW had let him go.
Despite the fact that Austin had cut all his great promos in ECW as a steely-eyed badass, WWF decided to bring him as The Ringmaster, a technical wrestler who was managed by Ted DiBiase and was given the Million Dollar Championship. Austin loathed the new gimmick and suggested a new gimmick to the WWF, one similar to his character in ECW and to their credit they agreed to allow Austin to change his character.
In March of 1996 he dropped The Ringmaster name and the WWF gave him a list of names he could change it to, including Otto Von Ruthless, Ice Dagger, Fang McFrost and Chilli McFreeze. Despite those helpful suggestions, Austin came up with his own name, being inspired when his wife at the time recommended that he drink his tea before it got "stone cold". "Stone Cold" Steve Austin debuted and his first feud was with Savio Vega, defeating Vega at WrestleMania XII. At the next PPV, In Your House: Beware of Dog, Austin would lose a Carribean strap match to Vega with the stipulation being that DiBiase would have to leave the WWF if Austin lost. Austin later admitted that he had intentionally lost the match in order to rid himself of DiBiase.
With his new name and free of DiBiase, Austin's character would continue to fill-out, as he would soon debut a new finishing move, a sitting three-quarters jawbreaker, better known as the Stone Cold Stunner. Although he would eventually become a babyface, it is important to note that Austin was a tenacious heel in the WWF at this point in time. Austin was a rule-breaker and a bully, and his promos became long diatribes about his opponents' inferiorities. At the King of the Ring 1996, Austin won the tournament and in the closing moments he talked about his opponent, Jake Roberts, who at the time was known for being a born-again Christian. Austin closed by uttering the line ""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!"
Austin 3:16 rapidly became a slogan for Steve Austin, and soon it would be printed onto T-Shirts on its way to become the bestselling T-Shirt in wrestling history. The Austin 3:16 promo has been widely accepted as the starting point for the WWF's Attitude Era and the ultimate turning point in the Monday Night Wars, but that isn't really true—the Attitude Era wouldn't seriously come about until at least a year later. However, it was the beginning of the rise of Steve Austin, who would in time become the face of the company and the top star in all of wrestling.
After losing the WWF World Heavyweight Championship to Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania XII, Bret Hart took a hiatus from pro wrestling to work on some different solo projects. Before he returned he let the WWF office know that he wanted to face Austin in his return match. The result was that Austin would repeatedly insult Hart during his interviews leading up to Hart's return in October of 1996. Although Michael's was the champion, Hart was still the most popular babyface in the company and for Austin, who had only been in the company for about 10 months, getting a chance to work with Hart was a huge step forward for his career.
Austin and Hart would meet for the first time at Survivor Series 1996 at Madison Square Garden in a match where the winner would become the number one contender for the WWF World Heavyweight Championship. In a good match, Hart was locked in a sleeper hold but used the turnbuckle to push himself back onto Austin, pinning Austin while still locked in the sleeper hold. They would continue their feud at the Royal Rumble 1997, which saw Hart eliminate Austin from the match, but the referee was distracted and did not see the elimination. Austin ran back into the ring and eliminated Hart to win the match; the first of his three Royal Rumble victories.
Austin's charisma and dynamism began to shift the WWF audience's opinions of him. The year previously WCW had struck gold by producing the nWo, and although they were despicable heels, they also got a significant amount of support from the fans, proving that the fans would cheer for a heel if they were cool enough. Austin certainly was, and he would continue to be virtually the same character when he would become a babyface—the only real difference was that he was abusing heels instead of babyfaces. This led to a well-orchestrated turn by Hart, who began to publically get upset with the fans for supporting Austin. After all, Austin had cheated to win the Royal Rumble after Hart had won the match fair and square. To Hart he felt justified in ridiculing Austin, but he also couldn't get out of the way of Austin's rising popularity.
Hart would win the WWF Championship in February when the championship was vacated by Michaels who had injured his knee. The following night on RAW, Austin interfered in Hart's first title defense against Sycho Sid, costing Hart the title. This led to a Submission match between Hart and Austin at WrestleMania 13. The match would become known for its seamless double-turn, as by the end of the show Austin was a full-fledged babyface and Hart a full-fledged heel. Hart won the match when he locked Austin in the Sharpshooter and a bleeding Austin passed-out from losing so much blood, refusing to submit along the way. Even after the match was called Hart refused to relinquish the hold, cementing his heel status.
Austin would get a measure of revenge on Hart at the next PPV, when he got a number one contender shot when he won by disqualification when the British Bulldog interfered. At the next show, In Your House: A Cold Day in Hell, Austin lost the match to The Undertaker when he appeared to have the match won, but Brian Pillman (who had aligned himself with Hart) interfered and allowed The Undertaker to hit the Tombstone Piledriver to win the match. Austin also fought Hart in a Street Fight on an episode of RAW, which was ruled a no-contest when Austin injured Hart's leg with a steel chair and then a crazed Austin attacked Hart on a stretcher while he was being hauled away.
The feud with Hart's new, anti-American stable The Hart Foundation continued with his feud with Bret's brother Owen. The two had a match at SummerSlam for Owen's Intercontinental Championship, but Austin suffered a severe neck injury when Owen botched a piledriver and spiked Austin's head right into the mat. Miraculously Austin was able to then roll-up Owen for the pinfall, giving him the championship. Of course, since he had nearly broken his neck Austin was forced to vacate the Intercontinental Championship.
Although Austin could not officially wrestle while he was recovering from his injury, the WWF wisely kept him on television and allowed him to do pretty much everything but take a bump in the ring. In September Austin came out on an episode of RAW and attacked Owen, which led to a flood of security guards and NYPD officers entering the ring. Vince McMahon (who had yet to develop his full-fledged evil boss character) came out and said that Austin was not physically able to compete and for his own safety should leave the ring. Austin said that he didn't give a damn and hit McMahon with a Stone Cold Stunner in a predecessor of things to come. A crazed Austin was then led away in handcuffs while the crowd cheered him.
Austin connected with the crowd in such a strong way because his character was so convincing, really the most important aspect in modern wrestling when it comes to getting over. Austin really got over as a babyface while he was a heel not because he was a good guy that always did the right thing, but because there was a certain nobility in his utter conviction in what he was doing. Austin always gave off the impression that what he was doing was the right thing, even if objectively he was doing quite the opposite. It also helped that Austin was a terrific performer, at times coming unglued and vengefully assaulting his opponents while hurling obscenities and giving them the finger. A lot of wrestlers were known for their intensity, but Austin is really unmatched, with his crazed eyes, veins in his bald head pulsating and his piston-like punches, he was able to convince people he was correctly motivated to do these things and get cheered, even if he was really just beating up an innocent bystander who was concerned for his safety.
He would return to action at Survivor Series where he defeated Owen for the Intercontinental Championship. He would then move onto feuding with The Rock and The Nation of Domination. While The Rock consistently used the numbers advantage to beat down Austin, Austin was able to retain the championship. In December McMahon ordered that Austin defend his title again against The Rock because Austin had retained the championship by using his pickup truck the night before. In an act of defiance, Austin threw the championship belt off of the Piscataqua River Bridge in Portsmouth, New Hampshire; although in the process he forfeited the title.
Austin would go on to win the 1998 Royal Rumble despite being a marked man by the heel wrestlers and earned a WWF Championship shot at WrestleMania XIV. The following night on RAW, McMahon brought out boxer Mike Tyson and introduced him by his nickname "the baddest man on the planet." Austin took exception to McMahon calling Tyson the baddest man on the planet and started a scrum with Tyson. This led to a furious McMahon assigning Tyson as the special enforcer for the match at WrestleMania, which looked like a problem for Austin because Tyson had aligned himself with the champion Shawn Michael's stable, D-Generation X. However, Austin would win the title at WrestleMania when Tyson counted the pinfall and turned on Michaels; the victory fortifying Austin's role as the top star in the company.
Revisionist history always seems to mention that Vince McMahon had a hard time embracing Austin as the top star in his company because Austin seemed bland because he wore black trunks and black boots. This makes it seem like the WWF did not do anything to promote Austin and make him a star, which of course isn't true. Austin may have had simple ring attire, but that was the only thing mundane about him. In addition to his volcanic personality, he was given two great nicknames, first the Stone Cold moniker and then "The Texas Rattlesnake." His finisher, the Stone Cold Stunner became the most popular move in the business. Perhaps most importantly, he was given terrific entrance music, with the song beginning with the sound of glass shattering and followed by a simple but heavy guitar and drum beat. Every time the broken glass sound hit the fans knew that they were in for a serious ass-kicking by Austin, and that was what led to some of the biggest pops in wrestling history.
Another thing, and really the reason Austin ranks this high is because he came along during a time when the WWF was in desperate need of a star. WCW was destroying the WWF in the Monday Night Wars and it was not until Austin won the WWF Championship did things finally switch back into the favor of the WWF. Things were very bad for the WWF throughout 1996 and 1997, and it is plausible without the rise of Austin the company could have gone out of business, or at the very least be swallowed up completely by WCW. Hogan may have been the big star that took the WWF national; but that came during a time when Vince McMahon was playing chess while the rest of the regional promoters were playing checkers. Those other promoters did not have the financial resources or the economic understanding to fight off McMahon. But by the 1990s the WWF had a rival that could match (and eventually usurp) them financially and utilized the power of cable TV and PPV in a way that had previously been the exclusive right of the WWF. The WWF needed a hero in the worst way, and Austin came in and swooped up the promotion and was the top star in bringing back from the brink and to the top of the industry once more. By sheer force of talent, Austin may have saved the WWF from extinction; think about that!
The RAW following WrestleMania saw Austin once again give the Stone Cold Stunner to McMahon, and a game of cat and mouse began between the owner of the WWF and its champion. The original idea was that McMahon wanted a corporate champion and Austin's rebellious nature was anything but. So McMahon would constantly try and scheme ways to take the championship from Austin; but most of the time Austin was able to defeat these challenges. McMahon would prove to be one of the very best performers of the 1990s as his egotistic attitude and bravado made him a worthy challenger to Austin. Austin managed to hold onto the championship at Over the Edge in May against Dude Love despite McMahon rigging the match and making himself the special guest referee.
McMahon was able to briefly take the championship away from Austin at King of the Ring in June in a First Blood match against Kane when The Undertaker interfered and ended up busting Austin wide open, making Kane the champion. However, Austin regained the championship the following night on RAW and defeated The Undertaker in a memorable match at SummerSlam 1998. The title was then vacated after a controversial Triple Threat Match at Breakdown in September when Austin was pinned by both The Undertaker and Kane. A frustrated Austin ended up kidnapping McMahon and then taking him hostage with a gun, that ended up being a toy that only shot out a small flag that read "Bang 3:16."
Austin was a part of a Survivor Series tournament to crown a new WWF Champion, but lost in the semi-finals when Vince's son Shane interfered and cost Austin the match. Austin would then defeat The Undertaker in a Buried Alive match at Rock Bottom in December, and he was eliminated from the 1999 Royal Rumble by McMahon during a chaotic finish. Austin would however defeat McMahon in a cage match at St. Valentine's Day Massacre to earn a WWF Championship match against The Rock at WrestleMania XV. In a climatic match between the two biggest stars of the era, Austin defeated The Rock for his third WWF Championship.
Austin would lose the championship to The Undertaker in May, although he won it back on RAW and defeated The Undertaker in a First Blood match at Fully Loaded in July. He would lose it to Mankind in a Triple Threat match at SummerSlam and he was unable to take it away from Triple H (who had defeated Mankind on the RAW following SummerSlam) during a match at No Mercy. Austin was supposed to be a part of a Triple Threat match at Survivor Series against Triple H and The Rock, but was run over by a car before the match and was sidelined because of it (in reality Austin needed to take time off for neck surgery).
After a brief appearance at Backlash in April of 2000 to screw Vince and Shane McMahon out of the championship and allow The Rock to win it, Austin would return in September of 2000 at Unforgiven where it was revealed that Rikishi, a 350lb Samoan, had run over Austin, infamously saying that he "did it for The Rock" meaning that The Rock would get the top spot in the company if Austin was gone. However, it was later revealed that Triple H was the one behind the entire plot, and Austin had a match against Triple H in November at Survivor Series, which was ruled a no-contest when Triple H lured Austin into the arena parking lot with the intention of running over Austin in a car. Austin however figured this out and ended up picking Triple H and his car up in a hydraulic forklift and dropping it some 25 feet to the ground in a hilariously phony and ridiculous finish that ranks high on the all-time unintentional comedy scale.
One of the things that made Austin so popular with fans during this time period was that he was a true warrior. The Attitude Era in the WWF was filled with schemers like McMahon and Triple H, The Rock and even the stoic Undertaker became allied with a large group of wrestlers. Austin differed in that he was a true lone wolf, rarely having any allies and going it alone no matter the odds. It wasn't that Austin was necessarily smarter than everyone else, on the contrary he was just so tough and crazy that it didn't matter what kind of odds he was up against, he would still manage to find ways to smash through all opposition.
Austin would win his third Royal Rumble in 2001 and ended his feud with Triple H in February at No Way Out in a Three Stages of Hell match that Triple H won. Austin was set to face WWF Champion The Rock at WrestleMania X-Seven in a rare babyface vs babyface match, since The Rock largely filled the void left by Austin as the top babyface of the company when Austin was out of action. In a shocking twist, Austin turned heel and aligned himself with McMahon to defeat The Rock at WrestleMania. He then teamed up with Triple H and won the WWF Tag Team Championships at Backlash from Kane and The Undertaker.
Austin as a heel was an interesting experiment in retrospect. Austin was still a super-hot babyface at the time, so unlike Hogan who turned heel in his career after he had grown stale at the top as a face, Austin was still at the top of his game as a drawing babyface (WrestleMania X-Seven had the highest gate revenue in history because Austin was such a draw). As a heel Austin went from being a badass to someone who whined on the microphone and often exclaimed his love for McMahon. This did not generate heat as much as disgust from the fans, who were confounded on why the WWF would change Austin so radically. Austin himself has been highly critical of this turn and in retrospect it remains one of the more puzzling booking decisions in WWE history.
Triple H would tear his quadriceps muscle the night after winning the tag titles, costing them the match. Meanwhile, the WWF was rocked when Shane McMahon announced he had purchased WCW and Stephanie McMahon announced she had purchased ECW, forming The Alliance and came to the WWF with the intent of taking it down. Vince McMahon, now a babyface, tried to form an all-star team of WWF wrestlers to take on The Alliance in a tag team match at Invasion and desperately asked Austin to captain the team, which he reluctantly agreed to do so. However, Austin would double-cross the WWF, giving a Stone Cold Stunner to Kurt Angle and giving the match to The Alliance. Austin would now captain The Alliance and he did a quick title swap with Kurt Angle and then managed to defeat both Angle and Rob Van Dam in a Triple Threat match at No Mercy in October of 2001.
With the invasion storyline reaching a boiling point, it was decided that a winner-take-all match would take place at Survivor Series. Austin captained The Alliance while The Rock captained Team WWF, with The Rock winning the match and forcing the dissolution of The Alliance. Austin would then turn babyface on RAW when it was announced that Ric Flair now owned half of the WWF and put him at odds with McMahon who was once again a heel. Austin would join forces with Flair, becoming a face and battling Angle for the WWF Championship at Vengeance in December. Also during this period The Rock was the WCW World Heavyweight Champion, so McMahon decided to crown one, undisputed champion. The Rock would face Chris Jericho and Austin would face Angle, and the main event would pit the two winners against each other to merge the championships into one undisputed championship. Miraculously it was Jericho who walked away as the first undisputed champion, defeating Austin in the finals when Booker T interfered and cost Austin the match.
By the beginning of 2002 the WWF was beginning to slide back down to earth after wildly profitable years with Austin as the face of the company. Austin became increasingly discontented with the WWF's handling of his character, especially the heel turn and the resulting downturn of business during the Invasion storyline. He would have an unmemorable match against Scott Hall at WrestleMania X-8 and continued to feud with Vince McMahon and the WWF behind the scenes. He would then feud with The Big Show and Flair, defeating both of them in a handicap match at Judgment Day in May of 2002. Austin would then veto working with a young rookie named Brock Lesnar in the coming months because he felt like Lesnar beating Austin so early in his career with little build wouldn't help himself or Lesnar. He then shockingly walked out of the company in June and was publically ripped by Jim Ross, McMahon and The Rock for taking his ball and going home.
Austin would eventually resolve his issues with WWE and came back in early 2003 for one final program with The Rock. The two met for the last time at WrestleMania XIX in a melancholy affair because Austin was likely going to retire after the match and The Rock was leaving for Hollywood full-time. The Rock defeated Austin for the first time at WrestleMania, and Austin retired that Tuesday, citing medical issues with his knees and his neck. Over the next 13 years Austin would continue to appear sporadically for WWE in different roles, as the General Manager of RAW, as a special guest referee and most recently as a podcast host for a show on the WWE Network.
Not only was Austin one of the biggest draws in wrestling history, the man who led Monday Night RAW to record ratings and revenue, but he was also perhaps the owner of the greatest persona as well. The Texas Rattlesnake was always fiercely protective of his character and while some may look at that as an egotistical move, you cannot deny the longevity of Austin's popularity. To this day he sells a lot of merchandise for WWE and during his few appearances he always gotten the largest pop in the arena, most recently at WrestleMania 32. He was a hero when the WWF desperately needed one and despite some disputes with McMahon, was always a good solider and brought the WWF back from the brink. Certainly no wrestler has had a bigger impact on the business than Austin during the last 25 years and he remains the supreme babyface icon of wrestling's hottest period.
So why rank Austin ahead of Hogan? Both men can make the argument that they were the biggest draws of the last 50 years and while Austin was a bit bigger of a draw at his peak, Hogan peaked from 1983-1990 while Austin's peak was only from late-1997 to 2002. Hogan also had a lucrative heel run from 1996-1998 where he was a tremendous draw and while statistically Austin was a big draw as a heel, he wasn't nearly the same draw as he was as a babyface.
I think Austin has the advantage over Hogan for a couple reasons. First, Austin peaking for five years in the late-1990s is I think, more impressive than Hogan peaking for 7 years in the 1980s. Austin peaked during a time when a wrestlers' exposure was so much greater, with Monday Night RAW every week and monthly PPVs, his shelf life was more likely to have an earlier expiration date than when there was no RAW and only four PPV events a year. It should also be noted that Austin never really got stale on top; he left the WWF because of injuries, Hogan left because he had become largely stale on top and was no longer worth his salary to Vince McMahon, among other issues.
I also believe that Austin's challenges were much greater than Hogan's in becoming the biggest star in wrestling. The WWF greatly expanded its audience during Hogan's run in the 1980s, but he was aided by McMahon and the lethargic nature of rival promoters. The WWF harnessed the power of PPV and cable television better than any other company and used those mediums to run other promoters out of business. It also helped that the WWF recruited top names from all the rival markets (including Hogan himself) and ran shows in the rival's cities with those stars, allowing them to easily outpace the older promotions. The WWF just had so many more resources than the competition that resistance was often futile and while Hogan deserves a lot of credit for swinging the pendulum in the WWF's favor, there were a lot of other factors working for him.
On the contrary Austin was working during a time when the WWF was facing stiff competition from a formidable foe. WCW had the resources to match the WWF and were pulling ahead in the Monday Night Wars. Like the WWF in the 1980s, WCW used former WWF stars like Hogan, Randy Savage, Scott Hall, Kevin Nash, Lex Luger and later Bret Hart to run down the WWF. Additionally in the 1980s the WWF grew their fanbase by mainly poaching fans from other territories that they were expanding into; fans that were largely unfamiliar with WWF but enjoyed the company because it was innovative and it had all of the big stars, including the former stars of the territory it swallowed up. In the 1990s Austin and the WWF grew their fanbase mainly by either creating new wrestling fans or by gaining fans back that had been burned out by the WWF in previous years; both strategies are decisively more difficult than what the WWF did in the 1980s and it is a sign of Austin's star power that the WWF was able to succeed using those methods.
Hogan did have a very successful heel run in the 1990s as the leader of the nWo and while that was a very lucrative stretch for Hogan, I find it generally overrated. Hogan was a major factor, but the real star of the show was the nWo as a group, not just Hogan himself. This is reflected in the PPV rates for the early nWo shows; Bash at the Beach 1996 did about 40 percent better than the previous months PPV—and nobody knew that Hogan was even going to be on the show. The next month's show, Hog Wild, actually did about 10 percent less than Bash at the Beach, and that show had Hogan in the main event contending for the world title. The nWo also had a relatively short-shelf life, getting stale by mid-1998 meaning Hogan's heel run only really lasted two years. Now I'm not trying to say that Hogan's heel run in the nWo was a waste; it changed pro wrestling and he drew a lot of money, but I also think that Hogan gets a little too much singular credit for its success as opposed to it being a group effort.
Lastly, Austin objectively was just a better overall performer than Hogan. Hogan was great on the microphone, had tremendous charisma and got the fans invested in his matches at a very emotional level. Austin had all of those tools as well, plus he was a very good wrestler in the ring and did not have to be carried to good matches the way Hogan often had to. Hogan at times was an atrocious worker, particularly during his final few years in WCW. Austin may have been a pure brawler during his peak in WWF, but that doesn't mean he wasn't a great worker. He sold well and his comebacks were fantastic; as big of a star as Hogan was, he never had matches that were close to as good as Austin's bouts with Bret Hart or Ricky Steamboat. I think the quality of a guy's matches is an often-overrated aspect of evaluating two wrestlers, but ultimately it is a factor in determining who the greater wrestler is; and peak-Austin was light-years ahead of peak-Hogan when it came to in-ring ability.
At the end of the day, the differences between number two and number three on the list are fairly minute. You could easily swap Austin and Hogan and it wouldn't be that big a deal; they are both at the top of the pyramid as far as I am concerned.
Next week #1 will be revealed, remember La Parka? It's La Parka.
The Top 50 so far (click link for description of the qualifications of the list):
49. Superstar Billy Graham
47. El hijo del Santo
45. Bruiser Brody
43. Kurt Angle
42. Hiroshi Tanahashi
41. The Sheik
39. Perro Aguayo
38. Ricky Steamboat
37. Toshiaki Kawada
36. Jushin Thunder Liger
35. El Canek
33. Jack Brisco
32. Shinya Hashimoto
31. Roddy Piper
30. Genichiro Tenryu
28. Abdullah the Butcher
27. Keiji Mutoh
26. Bob Backlund
25. Mil Mascaras
24. Nick Bockwinkel
22. Shawn Michaels
20. Riki Choshu
19. Dusty Rhodes
18. Dory Funk Jr.
16. Harley Race
15. Andre the Giant
14. Kenta Kobashi
13. The Rock
12. Jumbo Tsuruta
11. Stan Hansen
10. The Undertaker
9. Verne Gagne
8. Terry Funk
7. Mitsuharu Misawa
6. Giant Baba
5. Bruno Sammartino
4. Antonio Inoki
3. Hulk Hogan
2. Steve Austin