Jim Ross once wrote, “One of the best things to happen in WCW was Eric Bischoff firing Steve Austin.”
In the aftermath of unceremoniously getting fired over the phone, Austin would go on to become one of the greatest the business of professional wrestling has ever seen. With that in mind, did Eric Bischoff regret his decision to fire Austin, and has Steve truly forgiven Bischoff for the disrespectful way he was dismissed?
“Stunning” Steve Austin accomplished a respectable amount of success during his four years in WCW. He was a two-time WCW World Television Champion, two-time WCW United States Heavyweight Champion, and one-time WCW World Tag Team Champion alongside Brian Pillman with their tag team “The Hollywood Blonds”. That said, every time it looked like Austin’s star was on the rise in the company, plans would get shut down without much reason given.
In February 1993, Austin was promised a big singles push from WCW with Harley Race pegged to be his manager. This would have been a huge opportunity for the rising star as Harley was a legendary, seven-time NWA World Champion and a legit tough guy that had wrestled all over the world. Race was a damn good manager, too. In WCW, he quickly got Lex Luger to the WCW Championship and later, Big Van Vader, too. Having Race as a manager would have been a huge learning experience for Austin as well as could have meant him winning the top prize in the company.
Still buzzing off of this news, Austin arrived to a show in Columbus, Georgia for a TV taping when Brian Pillman approached him.
“Hey, Steve, how’s it going? We need to think of a finishing move since we’re a tag team now!”
This came as a total surprise to Austin as he had heard nothing of these plans. He was still preparing for his big singles push.
Looking to see what was going on, Austin went straight to Dusty Rhodes who was handling WCW booking at the time.
“Yeah, baby, we changed our mind. Now we’re going to make you and Brian a tag team. Just trust me, baby. This tag has legs.”
Austin didn’t really have much choice so he ran with it.
The Hollywood Blonds would find success in the ring and produced some very entertaining segments which started getting over with the fans. This got Austin and Pillman legit heat with the office because it was turning them babyface. Right as Pillman and Austin started to become really hot, the office shut them down and buried them as a team. Those in power in WCW didn’t want them to become popular which was ridiculous because the fans wanted to see them and there was a great opportunity there for the company to make some money. At this time, the fans were changing and what they liked were changing. The office just didn’t see that. But that’s pro wrestling office politics for you.
The two would split as a team and Austin would go on as a single’s competitor with the company. During this time, he would win the WCW United States Heavyweight Championship twice, but a knee injury would keep him out of action for some time.
A few weeks after returning to action in 1995, Austin sustained another injury while wrestling on a Japanese tour, this time to his right tricep. This would spell the end of Austin’s time with the company and he was soon later fired by WCW Vice President Eric Bischoff. Bischoff and WCW did not see Steve Austin as a marketable wrestler. Additionally, Bischoff thought Austin was hard to work with.
Steve Austin: “Eric Bischoff actually told me that I’d never amount to anything, and then he fired me. He should have fired me to my face. The way it went down was totally disrespectful.”
In his New York Times bestselling book, The Stone Cold Truth, Steve Austin revealed his feelings about being fired by Eric Bischoff:
“I had hurt my knee wrestling in WCW, so I was out of action a little bit. I came back as soon as I could and WCW sent me on a wrestling tour of Japan. It was a three-week tour that included me, Arn Anderson, Ron Simmons (Faarooq), Chris Benoit, Eddie Guerrero, Dean Malenko and a couple of other guys, all great workers.
“On the third night of the three-week tour, I jumped off the ropes to give a guy a splash. A simple, stupid splash! Unfortunately, he moved and I landed wrong on my right arm and tore my right tricep muscle off my elbow.
“I ended up wrestling for two and a half weeks with a torn tricep and a sore knee, which I don’t recommend to anyone, and didn’t miss a single show. After I got back to the U.S. and went and got the medical exams, the doctors told me how bad it was. The next day I was in surgery getting my tricep reattached to my elbow. While my elbow was healing, I went to a WCW TV taping every now and then, just to see the boys and to watch the matches.
“I remember seeing Kevin Sullivan, the booker, in the hallway. He said, ‘Hey, how’s it going, Steve?’
“I said, ‘Oh, pretty good. I’m rehabbing and hope to be back soon.’
“Sullivan was short, well under six feet, had been around the world with the wrestling business, was a good ‘office politician’ and had one helluva Napoleon complex. I don’t think he liked me a whole lot for some reason.
“Looking back, I think Sullivan had a hand in what was about to happen to me.
“Soon afterward, I got a phone call from Janie Engle, who worked as Eric Bischoff’s assistant. Bischoff, a former announcer, was running WCW for Ted Turner at the time.
“Janie said, ‘Hey Steve, give Eric a call when you get a chance.’
“Now, Janie was a good person. You talk about someone who knows all the dirt on the old WCW and where all the skeletons are buried, she does. Before WCW, Janie had worked for NWA promoter Jim Crockett Jr. and UWF owner Bill Watts, in Dallas.
“I was at my buddy’s pawn shop when I got the call, so I went back to my house. To tell you the truth, I knew exactly what was going to happen. I gave Eric a call and got put on hold. Then he picked up the line and said, ‘Steve, it’s Eric.’
“I said, ‘What’s going on, Eric?’
“He said, ‘I just wanted to let you know that, based on the amount that we’re paying you and based on the number of days you’ve been incapacitated, we’re going to exercise our right to terminate the agreement.’
“I thought about it for a second and said, ‘Well, basically you’re telling me I’m fired, right?’ Fired from my contract, which was bringing me $300,000 a year at the time!
“And he said. ‘Yeah.’
“I said, ‘Okay, are you going to send me something in writing?’
“He said, ‘Yeah, it’ll be there tomorrow.’
“And that’s how I got fired by WCW.
“To this day, I don’t know exactly why they did it. Maybe they thought I was an injury problem. I wasn’t—I was working my ass off.
“But the thing that really pissed me off was the way I was fired. You know, I only lived thirty miles from CNN Center in Atlanta. It wasn’t like I was going to kick Bischoff’s ass for firing me. I mean, treat me like a damn decent human being and invite me down there and say, ‘Steve, we know you’re hurt and we’re sorry about that. But we ain’t got nothing for you.’
“In other words, I thought he should have fired me to my face. The way it went down was totally disrespectful.
“On the other hand, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Some time before, Bischoff had actually said to me, ‘You know, Steve, you might need to find something else to do for a living, or somewhere else to go—maybe New Japan or ECW—because you go out there in those black trunks and black boots, and there’s not a whole lot of ways for me to market that.’
“He actually told me that I’d never amount to anything, and then he fired me. I’ll never forget that day. At the time, it wasn’t much fun.
“But looking back, it actually turned out to be one of the best days in my career.”
Jim Ross: “[Steve Austin] was hired in WWE to be a mechanic, which meant he would never go higher than the Intercontinental Title.”
After being let go from WCW, Austin got a call out of the blue by his old friend Paul Heyman to come and do a stint in ECW. Austin, still healing from his tricep injury, warned Heyman that he was still injured and wasn’t ready to take bumps in the ring just yet. Heyman didn’t mind and was willing to pay him $500 a night to cut promos for his company. Austin had just lost a job in WCW that was earning him almost six thousand dollars a week, but the opportunity to have any money coming in to help him and his family was a welcome one. And to get paid to cut promos? It was an opportunity that was hard to refuse.
While with ECW, the newly dubbed “Superstar” Steve Austin, with the direction of Paul Heyman, was able to fine-tune his mic skills and compose arguably one of the greatest promos of all time. Austin was pissed about being fired from WCW and had the forum and creative freedom to express his true feelings openly. This is where Austin really began to shine and show the world that he wasn’t just a great technical wrestler with a good physique, but also one of the best promos in the business.
Austin began turning heads, and as a result, Jim Ross took notice.
“I used to stay up late on Saturday nights in Connecticut and watch Paul Heyman’s ECW Wrestling on the MSG Network,” Jim Ross recounts in Austin’s book, The Stone Cold Truth.
“When Paul [Heyman] picked Steve up for a few shots after Steve was canned from WCW, I saw a side of Steve that I had not seen on TV before. He was cutting promos that were unbelievably entertaining and thought provoking. It was as if he meant every word he said and for the most part, at that time, he did. Steve was angry about being fired. He was injured. He had a family to take care of and he was only making about five hundred dollars a week instead of the six thousand or so that he was pulling down with WCW. He was wounded in a variety of ways and he began expressing it. Paul Heyman gave Austin the forum to speak his mind on ECW television and Eric Bischoff provided Steve with the motivation. Interesting what has to happen in someone’s life to allow him to get to where he wants to be.
“Both Kevin Nash and I spoke to Vince McMahon about Steve. Steve was looked at as a very solid in-ring hand, but lacking in charisma. That was the book on Austin at that point in time. Obviously, not enough people in our office were watching Steve raise hell on ECW television programming. Steve was hired by WWE because he could wrestle, because he could work with anyone and have a good, solid match. He was hired to be a mechanic, which meant he would never go higher than the Intercontinental Title.”
Jim Ross later shared his thoughts on Eric Bischoff firing Steve Austin.
“I have told Eric Bischoff several times since he joined WWE that one of the best things he ever did while he ran WCW was to fire Austin, because we would wind up signing him and the rest is history. Eric did many good things managing WCW, especially when you consider the success of Monday Nitro. That was great competition, which made both companies work smarter and more aggressively. Actually, Eric was not the first boss to fire a talent who went on to become a star, and he will not be the last. I’m just happy that Bischoff pulled the trigger prematurely on the ‘unmarketable’ guy with the short black boots and black tights.”
So looking back, does Eric Bischoff regret firing Steve Austin, who ended up going on to become one of the most successful wrestling stars of all time?
“Not at all,” Bischoff admits in an interview with CultOfWhatever.com. “During his time in WCW Steve was injured a lot, he was down and he had a bad attitude about it, he didn’t like the way he was being used and the fact that he was inured made it an easy decision to let him go.
“People forget when we let him go he went to ECW where he didn’t really become a star and then he went to WWE where he was all kinds of different characters before he finally stumbled into Stone Cold Steve Austin. It wasn’t like he left WCW and then instantly became a huge star in WWE, that’s not the case at all, he struggled for a long time.
“Now would he have become Stone Cold Steve Austin if he stayed in WCW? I would find that highly unlikely but he became Stone Cold Steve Austin because of what he went through.
“He and I actually joke about it, a couple of years ago we had a chance to work together and it was the first time I had seen him since I fired him, and we laughed about it over a few beers, he thanked me because he knew if I hadn’t fired him he would never have found that character. Some things are meant to be and that was one of them.”