Steve Austin, the biggest pro wrestling star of the 1998-2001 heyday of the industry in the U.S., admitted on Monday on The MMA Hour, that he now gets more of a charge watching mixed martial arts than the wrestling business he's loved since childhood.
Austin, 48, who retired from pro wrestling in 2003 due to neck problems, is now a jack of a number of different trades. He's got a reality show that he hosts (Redneck Island on Country Music Television), a twice a week podcast where he regularly interviews people from pro wrestling, and on occasion, MMA, and is doing action movies. His appearance as an adult version of a onetime teenage bully in Grown Ups 2, released earlier this year, was his 12th significant movie role in the past several years. He's also in talks about adding a hunting show to his resume.
But for years, when there is a major UFC fight, Austin is frequently watching it on pay-per-view, and has attended live shows as well. While some would think MMA fans would have disdain for pro wrestlers, very few guest celebrities have ever gotten near the reaction Austin got from UFC fans when shown at ringside during the first Frank Mir vs. Brock Lesnar fight in Las Vegas in 2008.
"Just from the world that I come from, I left pro wrestling behind a couple of years ago when I started doing my own thing," Austin said. "From my world, I can read between the lines of these angles (on a pro wrestling television show), I can guess or tell a lot of what is about to happen. I get a little more charged up in a UFC fight. In some of those championship matches, my heart's already pounding sitting on the couch, when it's about to start. These days I'd rather tip my hat to a badass UFC main event, but with all due respect, pro wrestling is my first love."
Austin, who grew up as Steve Williams in South Texas, can remember as a kid growing up and watching Houston Wrestling with Paul Boesch in the early 70s. While playing college football at North Texas State University in the mid-80s, not far from Dallas, he and his friends would head to the Dallas Sportatorium on Friday nights to watch the Von Erich brothers and The Fabulous Freebirds do battle. A few years later, he was the star of those Friday night shows as pro wrestling's 1990 Rookie of the Year.
He had to drop the name Steve Williams, because at the time, there was another pro wrestler who was a major star, Steve "Dr. Death" Williams, already in the business. So, he took the name Steve Austin, after the television character played by Lee Majors in "The Six Million Dollar Man." He added "Stone Cold" to it in 1996, a name that his wife at the time came up with.
Austin's main events with the likes of The Rock, The Undertaker, Mick Foley, HHH, owner Vince McMahon and others led to the most successful period in pro wrestling history. In 1999, he set all-time wrestling box office records in nearly every city in the country, selling out 70 percent of live shows and averaging more than 12,000 paid per night. In 2001, as the top star, he led WWF, as WWE was known at the time, to selling nearly 8 million pay-per-view orders in a calendar year, the all-time record for any promotion until UFC topped it in 2010.
"They're two different worlds," Austin said about pro wrestling and MMA. "But there's something of a parallel. Pro wrestling is basically what MMA is, just at a worked level with theatrical elements."
Austin noted one of the weaknesses with a lot of fighters is in doing interviews, something he was a specialist in as a pro wrestler, an element very important he feels in building a fan base and attracting sponsors.
"I do it all the time," when asked if he gets frustrated at fighters who don't use their interview time wisely. "A guy gets a chance on the horn and they crap the bed. That's an outstanding opportunity for you, a great way to reach out and let the crowd know who you are and what you are. Some guys talk stupid trash that doesn't make sense. Some of the guys who lose fights get a booboo face. Anytime Brian Stann fought, whether he lost or won, he commanded your respect when he was on the horn. I always liked to watch his promos. He's a smart cat."
While praising Chael Sonnen and Josh Barnett for their talking ability, he felt not everyone needs to study pro wrestling tapes, as both of them do, to be effective, or even be considered a great promo.
"Cain Velasquez basically says what he's going to do, I don't need a wild promo out of him," said Austin. "I just want to hear that he's taking care of business. I'm looking forward to him and Junior Dos Santos No. 3 because those two are pure fighters."
He also felt that Alexander Gustafsson established himself a superstar this past week.
"I tell you, I'm down at the ranch, me and my buddy, watching the fights the other night, and I was blown away by Alexander Gustafsson," he said. "We've seen him come along, but this was his shining moment. He's been a star in the making all this time, but against Jon Jones, a superstar was born."
He had mixed feelings about the decision.
"I think the champion has to get his ass beat a little more than that to lose the title," he said. "I don't know how to score fights, but I had it 3-2 Gustafsson. When they said unanimous decision, it caught me off guard."
Austin knows Jim Ross, the longtime WWE announcer and former head of talent relations, who was forced out of the company two weeks ago and has publicly set his sights on MMA.
"I do, just because the guy has 34 years of experience of storylines, angles, knowledge and booking and just how things work in our world. There are parallels. MMA's a shoot (the pro wrestling term for real), yes, but I think he can help in some capacity, some way, somehow. He can give an idea here and there, a little creative, whether it's a shoot or a work, he can lend some experienced opinions on that."
It's been almost 11 years since Austin closed out his career, and there are always questions as to whether he would come back for one last pro wrestling match. But as each year goes by and he gets a year older, the window of opportunity closes a little more.
It's well known that WWE wanted him to come back in 2014 to headline WrestleMania 30 on April 6, to climax an intricate storyline that is already starting to be played on television. But after being asked about it, it appeared the odds aren't good of it happening.
"Man, I tell you what, the longer and longer I wait, the more time I go down the road, when you really think about it, it may be fun to do, but what's on the other side of that," he said. "It took me three years to get the business out of my system, a long withdrawal. It's been 11 years since I've been in the ring. I know a lot of fans would love to see it. But what if it's not what it should have been or could have been? I don't want to be 90 percent. It would take a three or four months of a UFC style training camp to pull it off, get the timing and the right wind. It would take at least three months of training, period, and then, what next? I was there, did it at the very highest level. I had a great time. I took the business to the highest level it's ever been before. Hopefully someone will take it to an even higher level.
"The chances are pretty damn slim to be quite frank about it."