It was January 19, 1997, and Steve Austin was alone in the ring at the Alamodome in San Antonio, taking full advantage of a rare moment of solitude during the usually crowded Royal Rumble. He sat on the top rope and checked the watch that wasn't on his wrist, obnoxiously signaling his impatience in waiting for his next opponent and in the process creating one of the images that would become iconic for his reign in WWF (now WWE).
Less than a year earlier, Austin had been known as The Ringmaster, a disastrous character that had almost sunk his chances at a big-time wrestling career. Now he was on the verge of superstardom—fully inhabiting a new Stone Cold character he'd crafted, inspired by an HBO special on mob killers, as a blend of old-fashioned ass-kicker and hilarious, noxious lip. No one was safe from the bottom of his plain black boots when he was inclined to stomp a mudhole, and his motor-mouth silver tongue spared neither hero nor villain.
And fans couldn't get enough of it.
It was a kind of wrestling character that had never really existed before. Even WWE owner Vince McMahon, the sport's most influential and successful promoter, was confounded. No matter how dastardly, how vile, Austin's behavior was, his popularity only grew.
"I was supposed to be a heel. They weren't supposed to like me," Austin says now, revealing that the conundrum even led to a discussion with McMahon in a parking lot in Lowell, Massachusetts.
"I said, 'Vince, I noticed when I'm watching the show back, you guys are editing a lot of things that I say on commentary.' And he goes, 'Well, quite frankly, Steve, you're popping the guys in the truck.' The TV guys who have seen and heard everything were laughing and getting a kick out of what I was saying. And to Vince, that didn't work. ...
"I told Vince, 'Hey man, you got guys here, 6'10", 7-foot, 300, 320 pounds.' I said, 'I'm 6'2". I got black trunks, black boots, bald head and a goatee. If you take my personality from me, I cannot compete with anybody here. But if you give me my personality, I can.'"