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EDITOR'S NOTE: Eric Benner is SLAM! Wrestling's regular Friday columnist.

Friday, October 13, 2000

Who needs Steve Austin?

Eric Benner
Special to SLAM! Sports

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Maybe Rikishi really is the best choice for the driver who struck Steve Austin. Better than Shawn Michaels, Debra, or any of the other names frequently guessed by SLAM!'s readership. He'd better be, because if he's not, then that could spell trouble for Steve Austin, whom wrestling fans are already beginning to tire of.

Bob Backlund, a man not exactly known for his innovation, once held the WWF heavyweight title for several years without losing it. Stone Cold Steve Austin, once the pinnacle to which all wrestlers aspired, is out of action for almost a year, returns, and finds himself getting old to fans - especially Internet fans - before he can say "and that's the bottom line".

Granted, Steve Austin's return was far from perfect. It was shrouded in disappointment, as he came to the ring at Unforgiven expecting Shane McMahon to produce his vehicular assaulter, only to have McMahon take revenge on Steve Blackman by accusing him. Stunners all around was fun to watch, but not exactly compelling. Following that, weeks were spent trying to discern the identity of the culprit, and finally this week it turned out to be Rikishi.

Strangely, Austin, the man who is largely credited with helping to rebuild the fan base of the World Wrestling Federation in 1998 and 1999, could not keep the attention of fans for even a few weeks without signs of waning. Forget what Jim Ross said at Unforgiven, Austin's initial welcome was only barely more than that received by Billy Gunn or Shawn Michaels a short while later, hardly deserving of one of the best entertainers of our era.

AUSTIN Stone Cold at a WWF Toronto house show on April 23, 1999. (Toronto Sun Photo - Greg Henkenhaf)
It's as if fans realize they no longer need Austin, that the gap he left in the WWF was filled mostly by The Rock and Austin is just extra weight now. Everything that was so popular about Stone Cold - the gimmicked character, the catch-phrases, the formulaic matches, the charisma - can now be found in The Rock, arguably in greater quantities. Who needs Steve Austin?

It surprises me, though, that fans as tuned into wrestling as those attending WWF events should "forget" what Austin has done, and fail to remember to cheer him as if he's here to save the world, as he did from Vince McMahon a short few years ago.

Perhaps this is the best evidence that Vince McMahon has succeeded in taking the emphasis away from the performer, though his top performers are as popular as ever, and focusing it on the WWF. It's all about Attitude, and so what if one wrestler leaves the federation. After all, the Attitude stays. Someone else, perhaps anyone else, can just take the reigns and keep going. If not Austin, then The Rock. If not Rock, then Triple H. If not Helmsley, then maybe Kurt Angle or Kane or Chris Jericho. There's an endless supply of main event talent in the WWF right now, to the point where by this time next year we're sure to have entire pay-per-view cards consisting of nothing but "main events". Chris Jericho vs. Chris Benoit, Kurt Angle vs. Kane, Undertaker vs. Triple H, Steve Austin vs. Stone Cold, Edge vs. Jeff Hardy. Each and every one of those matches could be the big marquee match at a pay-per-view a year away.

Steve Austin has become redundant. Well, perhaps not quite. He's still a top star, and despite what I've suggested, he's still very popular. Maybe he's just suffering from a slow start, and maybe he'll catch some fire with his angle with Rikishi. Or maybe not.

Austin returning to the WWF says more about the WWF, which draws back even the biggest of its stars. Even with movie careers, and television appearances, and Playboy centerfolds, the biggest and brightest can still be found in the squared circle. That's the message. The people make the party, but then the party takes on a life of its own, and makes its own people. And then those people make the party all over again. Ultimately, it's the host who benefits from this never-ending rave.

This is probably good news for wrestling fans. I hate to say it, but the talent having the power in this business has always been bad for fans. Cliques, backstage politics, and generally power playing never seem to make for better shows. Don't get me wrong, I think that unions are a good idea and I don't want to see anyone get mistreated, hurt, or manipulated, but the show is just better when the boss is, well, running the show.

I love Steve Austin. I think he's as talented as anyone out there, and he's one of the few faces in wrestling I'm willing to cheer for, loudly and proudly. He's energetic, cool, and has a strong, three-dimensional personality. I'd love to see him prove me wrong and gather his whole following all over again, then clash with Rock or Triple H at Wrestlemania. That would be fantastic. But ultimately, that may not happen.

Or maybe it will, if the WWF says so.

Here's that mailbag thing.

Here's the mailbag. Thanks for all your guesses about the Austin hit-and-run this week, though unfortunately, no one came close.

John Durant, from, writes:

Debra is the most likely suspect and since she is now married to Austin and since he is still not in ring shape yet, when he faces her at the next PPV it won't be in the ring.

Even if Austin were in ring shape, and I'm not positive about his current status - I thought he was about ready - it's not like he can go have a match with Debra, who's not exactly a wrestler. That's why I disagreed with this choice from the get-go - why I didn't even include her in my list of suspects, that's because she wasn't at Survivor Series. The roster as of that night was the group I evaluated, partly to show that if it was someone who had nothing to do with that event that it might not make sense. Turned out I was wrong there, too.

Though I did guess a Samoan.

Ryan Fanning, from, writes:

Hey there is someone you forgot to include in your suspect list, HBK Shawn Micheals. He has blonde hair, his last match was against Austin so they could play it out as Austin ended Shawn's career and now Shawn wants revenge, and a long time ago on RAW Austin got ht in the head with a cinder block and Shawn was seen in the area. So who knows, could be him.

Though the reason I didn't include HBK in the suspect list is the same as for Debra, the reason I didnít think it was him was that I couldn't see a payoff. I can't imagine Austin and Michaels, someone just returning from injury and someone pretty much injured forever, putting on much of a match, if at all.

The other most popular suspects were Linda McMahon, admittedly a smart choice, and Vince McMahon, which I suppose serves him right for the whole Higher Power angle letdown.

All in all, a good angle, I think.

That's all for this week. Thanks for reading, thanks for writing in, and have a great week!

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