What If Steve Austin Remained The Ringmaster?

Austin 3:16 says... not much in this alternate timeline.

Steve Austin
Source: WWE

Stone Cold Steve Austin is one of those characters that seems so fully formed, so confident in its execution, that it feels like it has always been around. It’s hard to remember a time before Austin was a beer swilling, finger raising rattlesnake.

In reality, Stone Cold was the culmination of Steve Austin’s creative frustrations, a lack of direction and a determination to grab that fabled brass ring. As WWE celebrates 3/16 day, we look back to 1/8/1996, his WWF debut, and ask the question, what if Steve Austin remained The Ring Master?

Brother Love and Ted Dibiase had been there before. Six years prior, they confidently introduced The Undertaker to the WWF at the 1990 Survivor Series. Now, on the January 8th edition of Monday Night Raw, they were ready to introduce the next sure thing to the fans. Way past Stunning, not quite Stone Cold, simply The Ringmaster, Steve Austin.

The 1996 King of the Ring PPV is seen by many as the date The Ring Master transformed into Stone Cold Steve Austin, but the seeds were being sown as far back as February. By the time of the tournament, he had already shaved his head and grown the goatee and Dibiase stopped managing him by May. As such, it’s hard to actually pin down the exact moment that The Ringmaster evolved into Stone Cold. We do know, however, that the prefix was used for the first time on March 11th 1996, three months before the King of the Ring victory that cemented Austin’s complete change of character.

So let us use this date as a starting point instead of King of the Ring. The Ring Master was competing in a match with his rival Savio Vega on an episode of Monday Night Raw. Vince McMahon and Jerry Lawler were still referring to Austin as The Ring Master but the on screen graphic read Stone Cold Steve Austin. What if it didn’t? What if Austin’s ex-wife wasn’t so keen for him to drink his coffee before it got “Stone Cold?” What if the Eureka moment that launched a million t-shirts simply didn’t happen?

The Ringmaster persona was intended to showcase Austin’s technical skills. While he was allowed to showcase glimpses of his now legendary charisma, it wasn’t the main thrust of the character. This was, of course, in an era before untimely injuries reduced his in-ring capacity and so concentrating on this made a lot of sense. He was up there with Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels in terms of quality of work and so billing him as The Ringmaster highlighted to the WWF fans that this was somebody they should take notice of.

Pairing Austin with the cartoon-like Million Dollar Man may seem foolish in retrospect, but it was a product of the time. The company was very much in a transitional period between the New Generation and the Attitude Era and so thematic mismatches like this were commonplace. Just ask Billy Gunn and The Honky Tonk Man.

I think that The Ringmaster would still compete at King of the Ring 96. The infamous MSG curtain call, which halted the rising career of Hunter Hearst Helmsley, didn’t occur until May of that year. Helmsley was being groomed as the winner of the tournament but that was quickly scrapped in favour of Steve Austin. In our timeline, The Ringmaster still beats Marc Mero in the opening round because, well, Mero sucks. The WWF decides against giving him the big victory in the final though, instead telling the redemption story of Jake Roberts, who beats Austin in the final despite being battered by Vader. In times of need, the company has always relied on older established stars so this wouldn’t be too much of a leap.

In the aftermath of his loss, a bitter Ring Master takes his frustrations out on Dibiase, who was in WCW by August anyway and needed an exit. The Ring Master destroys Ted on his way out of the door, putting him to sleep with The Million Dollar Dream. In this timeline, there is no Stunner. It was first used by Austin in June, just before King of the Ring. So The Ring Master continues to use the sleeper hold, which obviously doesn’t get the same pop but fits him more stylistically.

As mentioned, this period of time is very much transitional, but the company is seeing the need for change. The WWF quickly realises that Jake Roberts is struggling to perform at the level they require so move him to a backstage role after Austin retires him with the sleeper. Jake’s demons would resurface and he would be gone by early 97. The company needs to clear out the dead wood and they now have an established legend killer in the form of The Ringmaster.

This added character wrinkle is enough to convince Austin that The Ringmaster gimmick has legs. He isn’t as vocal of his dislike of the character and settles into making the most of it. He is featured well but is tasked with working with past-their-prime performers. As such, Austin is kept away from the likes of Brian Pillman and Owen Hart. This means that we completely avoid the unnecessary home invasion angle (in which Brian Pillman has a loaded gun) and, perhaps most importantly, the severe neck injury Austin would suffer at the hands of Owen.

So, we get more of Austin at the physical peak of his powers but performing lower on the card. The Ring Master can never be the cultural phenomenon that Stone Cold became. He remains a vital member of the roster but never becomes the guy. Instead, he helps elevate the careers of the likes of Hunter Hearst Helmsley, Mankind and eventually, The Rock. His matches are often considered the best of the night but they’re rarely the main event. The WWF never quite reaches the heights it did with Stone Cold at the helm. Without that pop culture cornerstone, the company never manages to catch up to the runaway train that was WCW.

With the tables turned, WCW claims victory in the Monday Night War. Austin had been very publically vocal about his hatred of the company after the poor handling of his release from WCW in 1995. As such, The Ring Master is Jeff Jarretted. He is never picked up by WCW and is ridiculed on air by the triumphant Eric Bischoff. He probably makes a Fedex joke.

Where Steve Austin would go from here would be uncertain, his style of wrestling would never have transformed into his renowned brawling that would ignite the imagination and love of an untapped modern audience, but he would have become known as a consistent and solid hand, possibly an Arn Anderson of the WWF. With WCW still on top of the wrestling world and with Jeff Jarrett guaranteed work, TNA would never have been required, meaning that modern wrestling legends such as AJ Styles may have been kept on WCW’s books and used as pure enhancement talent, Styles accepting the lesser role for job security to provide for his family.

If the WWF hasn’t taken advantage of the growing disenchantment against authority and Mr McMahon’s likely loss of Bret Hart to WCW, then it might likely never have introduced an Attitude to their product, which could mean ECW kept more of their original stars, such as Tazz, The Dudley Boyz (and by extension Spike Dudley), Public Enemy, Brian Pillman may have stayed longer, Al Snow wouldn’t have been picked up by WWF with such a risque gimmick, ‘Dr Death’ Steve Williams wouldn’t have been signed for the Brawl For All and could have become ECW Champion.

Were these stars to stay longer with ECW, Heyman may have been able to survive financial uncertainty long enough to obtain a new network, especially if WWF were failing and were bought out by WCW. Austin might have joined ECW following his ostracization from WCW, and become a big part of the company, but would he have tapped into the current zeitgeist of the public as he did with WWF Attitude?

Another unexpected repercussion would be that with ECW continuing business, they would continue to work with RF Video Inc, who in our original timeline would replace the loss of ECW income by creating Ring Of Honor. Samoa Joe, Christopher Daniels, Low Ki, AJ Styles, CM Punk, Daniel Bryan, Nigel McGuinness, Briscoe Brothers, Adam Cole, Roderick Strong, Jay Lethal, Kevin Owens, Sami Zayn, Seth Rollins, Cesaro, Chris Hero, are just some of the tremendous names who took advantage of the tremendous opportunities afforded them by the reputation and growing impact of ROH, many of them going on to have successful careers in WWE, TNA, New Japan, etc, due to their tremendous work in ROH.

Following this, someone would try to take advantage and create a new world for these wrestlers: NXT. Would the developmental brand have gained such predominance without ROH offering them such tremendous opportunities? What about The Young Bucks, who helped cement their reputation as one of the best teams in the world during their nine years with ROH, helping to bring in Cody Rhodes, who would take on a challenge against Dave Meltzer to see if 10,000 tickets could be sold for an independent show, leading to All In. Would All Elite Wrestling exist in this new timeline? Or would the entire world of wrestling be nothing like it is now?

They say the world can be changed on the want of a single nail, a single moment that can ripple and have huge effects; our current wrestling renaissance of having WWE, NXT, All Elite, New Japan, NWA, Progress Wrestling, to watch and enjoy, may be dependent on the simple moment that Austin’s wife, Jeanie Clarke, chose to make a cup of tea, instead of handing Steve a beer or a glass of water.

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