1996 – The Year of The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin

Incredibly, The Rock and Steve Austin both made their WWE debuts in the same calendar year in 1996 …but they weren’t exactly STONE COLD and THE ROCK just yet.

A seismic shift came in 1996 courtesy of these two men: The Rock and Steve Austin. This is the story of their unremarkable WWE debuts.
A seismic shift came in 1996 courtesy of these two men: The Rock and Steve Austin. This is the story of their unremarkable WWE debuts.

1996 and the Unremarkable WWE Debuts of The Rock and Steve Austin

In 1995, we lived in a professional sports world that was pre-Kobe Bryant, pre-Allen Iverson, pre-Tiger Woods, pre-MLS and WNBA, and even pre-Mike Tyson biting Holyfield’s ear off.

For sports fans, it’s hard to imagine such a universe. Without those all-time icons, the very landscapes of golf, boxing, soccer, and basketball wouldn’t be the same.

In an even more pronounced sense, the 1995 professional wrestling scene was on the cusp of a seismic shift in style, boldness, attitude, and charisma the likes of which we’d never seen.

Why?

Because in 1995, we lived in a pre-People’s Elbow, a pre-Jabroni, pre-The Rock world while ALSO living in a pre-Texas Rattlesnake, pre-beer smashing, pre-Austin 3:16, pre-Stone Cold Steve Austin in the WWE world.

And if you can picture the modern WWE without the two pillars of the attitude era, then you’ve got one hell of an imagination.

The Story Behind the WWE Debut of Steve Austin

In 1996, Steve Austin had just signed with Vince McMahon after leaving Extreme Championship Wrestling, but his wrestling persona was light years from what it would become.

Steve Austin as The Ringmaster in 1996.
Steve Austin as The Ringmaster in 1996.

He made his debut as "The Ringmaster" but he quickly soured on that and went in search of a new character to mind meld with.

The journey wasn’t easy.

Ever hear of the WWE superstar Otto Von Ruthless?

How about Chilli McFreeze?

Or Fang McFrost?

Or Ice Dagger?

No? None of these ring a bell?

You don’t remember Ice Dagger headlining three WrestleManias or Fang McFrost being a six-time WWE Champion or Otto Von Ruthless becoming a two-time Intercontinental Champion or four-time Tag Team Champion?

The reason you’ve never heard of these painfully cheesy, Saturday Night Live-level fake wrestling names is because, thankfully, the wrestler we all came to know and love as "Stone Cold" Steve Austin rejected that list of moronic monikers the moment they were presented to him at the start of his WWE career in early 1996.

He believed, rightfully so, that if he entered the ring as Ice Dagger he’d be laughed out of town. When a listener asked him about what he thought of those original names on his podcast, Austin didn’t hold back.

"Man, when I was thinking about merchandise," he said with a hint of disgust in his voice.

"Otto Von Ruthless. Fang McFrost. Ice Dagger. Ugh. Those are all so God-danged bogus…

"Fang McFrost is just so corny, and that’s the one I was about to pick. There was almost nothing behind Ice Dagger, either."

According to The Miz, a WWE Champion, 8x Intercontinental Champion, Tag Team Champion, and current star of Miz & Mrs., the names floated to Steve Austin were B-list or C-list names.

"Those names were the kinds of names that sound like mid-card characters," The Miz said. "Those don’t sound like Main Event type players. There are people who are characters and are entertaining and that’s fine. But he was looking for a name that said, ‘I’m a headline guy.’

"One of the best things I’ve heard is that your character is just you turned up to 100," The Miz explains. "Those are the best characters. You take a piece of yourself and elevate it. Those names sound like they weren’t going to do it for him."

Then, over a cup of tea, his ex-wife Jeanie Clark serendipitously let forth the name that would define an entire generation of sports entertainment.

"The [WWE] was sending all these temperature-based names. They were all so hokey," she said. "None of them worked for Steve.

"One day he was just kind of pensive, a little bit worried-looking, and I just said, ‘Drink your tea before it gets stone cold,’ and I went, ‘There it is: Stone Cold.’ He got a big smile on his face, and he liked it, so that’s how it started, over that cup of tea."

The Story Behind the WWE Debut of The Rock

As for Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, the plan Vince McMahon concocted in 1996 was to introduce Johnson as "The Blue Chipper" because of his family lineage in the sport.

To further capitalize on the idea, McMahon talked Johnson into combining the names of his father (Rocky Johnson) and his grandfather (Peter Maivia) to form his ring name: Rocky Maivia. Johnson was reluctant but decided to roll with it.

The Rock as Rocky Maivia in 1996.
The Rock as Rocky Maivia in 1996.

Typically, wrestlers debut in the WWE at smaller venues or after live tapings or at house events, but Johnson’s first match (as Maivia) was in the blockbuster pay-per-view event, Survivor Series, at a tiny arena known as… Madison Square Garden; so much for splashing around in the kiddie pool before being allowed in the deep end of the business.

Also, if you weren’t aware, you should know that this Maivia character was a far, far, far, far cry from ‘The Rock’ persona that would one day take over the WWE.

No eyebrow raising.

No sunglasses.

No dagger sideburns or black wrestling gear.

Rocky Maivia came out in an outfit that was supposed to be a nod to his Samoan background but actually looked like an arts and crafts project from a kid’s preschool.

He wore what can only be described as a giant checkered collar with what look to be plastic white leaves dangling from the edges, interspersed with blue and green and aqua flag-football type strips of fabric.

He had blue elbow pads on each arm and bright blue wrestling shorts.

To top the look off, he had a curly mop of hair on his head that Johnson, watching the entrance twenty years later, called "a f***ing chia pet on my head as a haircut."

Despite the goofy get-up, Maivia found himself as the lone babyface in the ring against two heels: Crush and Goldust.

While he stood, two-on-one, in the center of the ring, the 22,000 fans at MSG spontaneously began chanting, "Rocky! Rocky! Rocky!"

After being duped into a fake "test of strength" with Crush, where he took a boot to the ribs after locking hands, Maivia pinned Crush, then finished off Goldust with a shoulder breaker bang, winning his first-ever match in a huge WWE pay-per-view.

The rocket-like ascent was on. One year later, after fans turned on the entire Rocky Maivia persona, Johnson began to play into the "You Suck" chants, came up with some catchphrases, ditched the planned scripts and reads, and created the one and only: The Rock.

The above are excerpts from Jon Finkel’s new book: 1996: A Biography – Reliving the Legend-Stacked, Dynasty-Packed Most Iconic Sports Year Ever. You can purchase this recommended book here.

The recommended book "1996: A Biography – Reliving the Legend-Stacked, Dynasty-Packed Most Iconic Sports Year Ever" by Jon Finkel is available now for purchase.
The recommended book “1996: A Biography – Reliving the Legend-Stacked, Dynasty-Packed Most Iconic Sports Year Ever” by Jon Finkel is available now for purchase.

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Jon Finkel is the award-winning author of Hoops Heist, The Life of Dad, Jocks In Chief, The Athlete, Heart Over Height, “Mean” Joe Greene, and more. His books have been endorsed by everyone from Mark Cuban and Tony Dungy to Spike Lee, Kevin Durant, and Chef Robert Irvine. He has written for GQ, Men’s Health, Yahoo! Sports, The New York Times and has appeared on CBS: This Morning, Good Morning Texas, and hundreds of radio shows, podcasts, and streams. Jon can be reached on Twitter @Jon_Finkel and by e-mail at jonfinkel@hotmail.com.