It was a magical time when Stone Cold Steve Austin set the wrestling world ablaze in the 1990s. His first WWF title reign was 98 days, and its story is full of greatness.
A Seismic Shift: The Story of the First WWF Title Reign of Stone Cold Steve Austin
Society and pop culture morphed in the 1990s. The winds of change had blown. The 1980s saw the AIDs crisis, the crack epidemic, an upsurge of crime, Wall Street greed, and many ’90s teens and young adults now felt jaded, angry, and cynical about the future ahead.
Such attitudes weren’t reflected in the WWF whatsoever, as their mid-’90s product was an utter relic with attitudes carried over from a decade before. The gimmicks, characters, and storylines had a distinctly Saturday morning feel. While impressionable young children and their approving blue-haired grandmothers may have enjoyed it, no longer was it Rock ‘n’ Wrestling era hot, chic, or trendy.
Characters like Max Moon, Crush, Doink the Clown, and Sparky Plugg helped contribute to the brand’s overall staleness and tacky cartoonishness with their exceedingly uncool gimmicks and underwhelming matches.
The audiences who previously cheered on during the WWF’s Hulkamania era had either grown up or discovered something else to obsess over. With no new stars on the horizon, it looked like professional wrestling had completed its 15 minutes of brief fame.
But then it happened. A seismic shift was underway in rival WCW with the introduction of the New World Order – the industry’s biggest sensation in well over a decade. Fronted by the previous generation’s greatest star, Hulk Hogan, the nWo grabbed wrestling by the scruff of the neck and, overnight, made it cool again.
The ripples permeated not only the industry but popular culture as a whole. Soon, millions of eyes began watching WCW, and much of its fanbase was the elusive 18-35 demographic the competition had failed to grab. The market for wrestling was still there, but it was WWE’s (then-WWF) product that had kept them away.
Knowing they had to do something immediately, the WWF began throwing anything and everything at the wall and seeing what stuck. So they started phasing out goofy characters and spotlighting edgier talent such as Brian Pillman, Goldust, and Stone Cold Steve Austin.
And Stone Cold started to percolate rapidly. Finally, the anti-establishment anti-hero was “over” with the adoring throngs.
Stone Cold Steve Austin Wins the Big One at WrestleMania 14
WrestleMania 14 in 1998 marked a turning point in the WWF as it signaled the dividing line between the old and the new.
After winning his second Royal Rumble in a row, Steve Austin was headed into Boston’s TD Garden as the most popular babyface the industry had seen for 15 years. The increasing TV ratings and huge merchandise sales were solid evidence that Stone Cold was the man the WWF had sought for so long.
Though those backstage were worried following his neck break the year before, they were adamant that Austin would be the man to herald in a new era, and nothing could stop him.
Except for one thing – the then-current WWF champion, Shawn Michaels, whose own injuries, poor behavior, and infamous reluctance to drop championships presented a major roadblock in Austin’s drive to the top.
Tensions were so high that The Undertaker got involved in the behind-the-scenes politics of the match and threatened to beat up Michaels if he refused to do the honors.
Speaking to the New York Post in 2020, Taker said:
“Early on in my career, and when Shawn was there, I didn’t care for Shawn personally. I thought he was an arrogant little s***. That being said; still no one I would rather get in the ring and work with. That’s just how good he is.”
Facing a combination of Steve Austin, The Undertaker, and potentially even Mike Tyson waiting for him backstage, Michaels duly did the honors for Austin and dropped the WWF title to Austin in Boston.
The Austin Era was now underway.
“Stone Cold will never be an employee of the month!”
– Jim Ross, Raw is War, March 30, 1998
Growing Pains – The Early Days Of Steve Austin’s Title Run
On the Raw is War after WrestleMania, Stone Cold Steve Austin was handed a new WWF title belt by Mr. McMahon.
Austin proclaimed that he wouldn’t ever do things McMahon’s way before promptly stunning the CEO in front of a raucous audience. The fans had fully accepted and embraced Austin at the helm.
Stone Cold’s first feud as champion was against Dude Love – who defeated Austin at Unforgiven: In Your House by disqualification after Austin used a steel chair on Vince McMahon.
Love and Austin met in a rematch at Over The Edge in 1998. However, Love was merely a pawn in this rivalry, as the feud was between Austin and McMahon.
By now, the WWF was incredibly popular, and Stone Cold’s presence in pop culture was everywhere. A true pop culture phenomenon, the bald Texan’s likeness could be found on the front cover of magazines, billboards, and action figures worldwide.
So it seemed logical that Vince McMahon would keep the big belt on Austin for as long as a conventional business would dictate, squeezing every last dollar out.
A Shocking Transition – Austin Loses the Strap to Kane
An Austin/Undertaker feud was being penciled in for SummerSlam ’98. So it was only fitting for the two biggest stars in the company at the time that they would lock horns at the WWF’s second largest event of the year.
There was, however, a twist in the road ahead.
Kane, who had become the number one contender on June 1, was booked to face Austin in the inaugural first-blood match at King of the Ring.
They booked the champion in a match he couldn’t possibly win, considering Kane was almost entirely covered in clothing and a mask. Then, to increase the stakes even more, Kane promised to set himself on fire should he lose the match.
The absurd bout was a sign of the times in 1998 as the competitive and booming professional wrestling industry looked to outdo itself daily.
To engage the viewers’ short attention spans and memories, promoters aimed to make each show headline as attention-grabbing as the last, and King of the Ring 1998 was no exception.
Steve Austin and Glenn Jacobs had the toughest of all acts to follow as Mankind and The Undertaker had just performed one of the most famous matches in wrestling history.
Then, with the blood of Mick Foley still wet on the mat, the two main-eventers began their encounter with the WWF’s top prize on the line.
Usual Attitude Era shenanigans followed as the Hell in the Cell cage was repeatedly lowered and raised from the rafters, and multiple superstars interfered – even the battered and bloody Mick Foley. Finally, a missed chair shot from The Undertaker aimed at Foley’s head resulted in Austin clattered in the face, lacerating him and awarding the victory to Kane.
Stone Cold’s debut title reign ended after 98 days.
Stone Cold Steve Austin would regain the title from Kane just 24 hours later, and it’s easy to forget that Kane’s run with the title even happened.
Steve Austin’s maiden title reign was far from his best. But Austin considerably brightened the WWF’s fortunes during this time, and it was part of a thrilling and unforgettable run that will always be cherished and savored.
These stories may also interest you:
- The Undertaker and Shawn Michaels Fight That Almost Was
- Steve Austin and Rikishi: The Story Behind ‘I Did It For The Rock!’
- Steve Austin – Baby Oil Mishap at 1996 Royal Rumble
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