The WWF’s King of the Ring was a pretty big deal back when the Federation held an annual pay-per-view around the tournament. Winning the crown, while not a guarantee of success, was an indicator that big things were coming a wrestler’s way. Of the tournament-winners from 1993 to 2002, Owen Hart, Mabel, Kurt Angle, and Brock Lesnar all challenged for the world title at Summerslam two months later. Everyone else, while not immediately shot into the main event, was at least booked on the biggest pay-per-view of the summer, even if it was, say, a Kiss My Ass match. With one exception:
A little-known grappler by the name of Steve Austin, who got slotted into the pre-show.
See, Austin was only a second choice to earn the King of the Ring crown, winning the event due to Triple H being punished for the MSG curtain call incident. And it showed. It seemed that nobody behind the scenes knew what to do with Austin, despite his growing popularity as an anti-hero. Yes, despite what WWE documentaries may imply, Stone Cold’s famous “Austin 3:16” promo at King of the Ring ’96 didn’t instantly launch him to the top; Vince followed up on what would become a multi-million dollar catchphrase by booking Austin into a match on the Preview Channel.
And to make things worse, the reigning King of the Ring’s match wasn’t even the feature attraction of WWF’s Free-For-All program, the free pre-show before the Summerslam pay-per-view. That honor went to the Bikini Beach Blast-Off, where the mid-card wrestlers hung around an above-ground pool backstage in the Gund Arena and pretended they were at the beach. And yes, this was inducted onto this site long ago, making this half-hour program perhaps the most highly-concentrated exhibition of Wrestlecrap ever aired.
In order to even get through the curtain, Austin had to walk past TL Hopper, The Bushwhackers, Goldust in a G-string, Peter Polaco in a jock strap, and Todd Pettengill.
And if you thought the silliness was over once he stepped into the ring with the former champion Yokozuna, you must not be a very astute reader, because this article would be finished by now if it were.
From the moment Austin entered the squared circle, something seemed a bit… odd. Notice how he never actually touched the top rope when he mounted the ropes to pose?
Or when he delivered a clothesline? Either he was trying to recreate the experience of play-wrestling with your brother and pretending to run imaginary ring ropes, or Austin had developed a crippling fear of the top rope (not unlike Bill Watts during his stint in the early 90s booking WCW). Or maybe Austin was playing “the rope is lava” and doing his damnedest not to get burned.
How else could you explain Stone Cold repeatedly darting backwards, only to halt his momentum completely before delivering a clothesline? Was this originally a no-ropes barbed-wire match, later digitally altered by WWE to fit its PG standards?
Probably not, given this very non-PG two-finger salute by Austin, who flips off his opponent on national television. I can’t think of anything more badass, except maybe if he had followed up the obscene gesture with — and this is just an idea — something other than pretending to bounce off the ropes for an imaginary speed boost.
Yokozuna soon took control with a Samoan drop and a leg drop, then paused to groove to the kickass guitar solo playing in his head.
The 665-pounder then dragged Stone Cold to the corner to finish him off with his dreaded Banzai Drop. Unfortunately, Yokozuna had paid no heed to Austin’s irrational aversion to that red ring rope, as he grabbed the top strand and ended up pulling it off the ring post!
Austin rolled out of the way and took advantage of Humpty Dumpty’s great fall by pinning the behemoth for the 1-2-3. Hey, shouldn’t this pin not have counted? Yokozuna is clearly holding onto the rope the whole time.
After that stunt, it became obvious why Austin was miming for the entire 2-minute match; the top rope had been rigged to snap off its turnbuckle. It also turned out that this match wasn’t so much about putting over Austin as it was about making fun of Yokozuna’s weight. Austin didn’t so much win the match as Yokozuna lost the match by virtue of sheer fatness.
If Vince hadn’t wanted to send Yoko a message to lose weight, the big man wouldn’t have had to be forklifted out of the arena on Raw earlier in the year…
…or be taken off TV for months (before surfacing one last time larger than ever at Survivor Series)…
…or, in this case, have to lose a match in the most embarrassing way since Wrestlemania X.
But at least Steve Austin got a flukey, completely accidental victory out of it.
And what should happen a year and a half later but a WWF title reign for the Rattlesnake! Could that really be a coincidence? No, maybe it’s not superior wrestling ability or a popular catchphrase that makes you the top star of a company. Maybe it’s simply a matter of avoiding getting squashed.