As the pissed-off poster boy of the so-called Attitude Era, "Stone Cold" Steve Austin ran roughshod through the (then) WWF in the late '90s, armed with little more than an endless supply of adult beverages and a ruthless desire to reach the very top of the company at any cost.
Taking the wrestling business to heights it had arguably never reached before his arrival – and definitely hasn't approached since his retirement in 2003 – Austin survived injuries, backstage politics and bad ring names (Fang McFrost, anyone?) to become an icon. And in the years since he hung 'em up, he's continued to kick ass, transitioning into reality television and movie roles in The Longest Yard and The Expendables.
One of the highlights of the Texas Rattlesnake's in-ring career was his titanic rivalry with tyrannical WWE chairman Vince McMahon. Their bloody and brutal battles became the stuff of legend, and tonight, they meet once again, when McMahon gives a rare interview as part of a special edition of Austin's excellent podcast, which will air live on the WWE Network following Monday Night Raw.
In the lead up to their interview, Rolling Stone spoke to "Stone Cold" as he relaxed at his aptly named Broken Skull Ranch, and got the bottom line on his feud with McMahon, his thoughts on today's WWE and his newfound appreciation for the finer things in life.
Whose idea was it to do a live WWE Network interview with Vince McMahon?
Back in the day I'd reached out to him just in passing about being on the show. A couple of months ago [WWE] came to L.A. for SummerSlam and we were trying to put it together then, but he didn't have the time to fit me in. Then they were going to fly me to Stamford but I didn't want to go all that way to do a podcast [laughs]. So we've wanted to do this thing for a while. I guess timing is everything and so someone from WWE reached out to me and said, "Hey, what do you think about doing your podcast live on the WWE Network?" and I said, "Man, that would be awesome." It's a win-win for both parties.
Any time you go live with Vince McMahon it's going to be a very interesting experience. To me this is a conversation between us about the wrestling business and the direction the WWE's headed in. There's a few key talent I'd like to ask specific questions about. In doing my research, I've started watching some of the old videos of the work we did as far as angles go and the chemistry we had in the ring, so I'm not there to be Howard Stern. My podcast is a conversation, it's basically a bullshit session: two guys shooting the breeze talking about the business. At the end of the day, Vince McMahon is in the entertainment business, as am I, so I want it to be entertaining and engaging. I'm looking forward to it.
You've been trying to get Hulk Hogan and the Undertaker on the show. Any updates there?
The last time I talked to Hulk was at SummerSlam, but I didn't even bring up the podcast because we were just sitting in the hallway. Now he's been making the rounds calling me a coward, trying to get a match out of me [laughs], so I've not talked to Hulk Hogan. When I asked Undertaker to be on the show it was right before he went to the ring at WrestleMania 30. Of course, the streak was broken that night and I haven't heard from him since. We've never really traded phone calls or text messages, there's just a lot of mutual respect there.
Do you think that Hogan is just having fun with you, or is he seriously trying to coerce you into stepping back between the ropes?
I think he's doing both. It's interesting. Maybe on the live show I'll have a retort.
What did you make of Sting's debut at Survivor Series?
I saw him at the WWE 2K15 panel that I hosted and I was excited to see him there because I'm a big fan. He's had a hellacious run. Some people didn't consider him to be Hall of Fame worthy because of the fact that he'd never been in WWE before. To me it's a no-brainer. When I came to WCW he had been there for several years and was the top guy, so to finally see him come in, dressed in the black and white, I was blown away.
The face-to-face with him and Triple H, they just let it build and build. Triple H tried to sell the big right hand, block, there's the kick and the damage is done, then he hits his finish. I loved it. I'm a fan of good stuff inside the squared circle and it was a good story. The Authority had really built how they needed to win that night in a really long-winded promo by Stephanie McMahon and Triple H. They were setting the table for Sting. All of the guys in that match worked their asses off, and I really enjoyed the work between Seth Rollins and Dolph Ziggler as they went into the finish.
Speaking of which: Are there any wrestlers on the current WWE roster who you see a little of the "Stone Cold" spirit in?
No, not really, just because I think they're running a pretty tight program and no one has been willing to go out on a limb. They're walking on eggshells a little bit as far as how aggressive they can be. They have a roster that's full of talent, no doubt, but it's about guys getting enough time in the ring, going through the maturation process, learning the system, becoming very mechanically proficient and learning more and more about their character. That will allow them to go out on a limb.
When I came to WWE back in the day I'd been working seven-and-a-half years and I was very frustrated. I started getting some momentum and my work was very vicious and it was very believable. Once I came up with the "Stone Cold" thing it was like a snowball rolling down a hill; it just kept getting larger and larger, and I wasn't afraid to push the envelope. It's not about the four-letter words; it's about taking the ball and making things happen with it. We'll see as the future unfolds who that guy is and what his approach will be.
Is there anything from the past that you'd like to see implemented in today's WWE?
People go into that arena and they know the fix is in. They know what pro wrestling or sports entertainment is. That being said, they want it executed to the highest level so that they can suspend their disbelief and buy in, and so in a world of make believe you make people believe in you. It's as real as it can be. It's not about trying to relive the Attitude Era, it's not about putting up middle fingers or using four-letter words, it's about creating a character that people can buy into and believe. Someone they either love or hate, but they're emotionally invested in. That's what I would like to see.
What are your thoughts on NXT? I think that show harkens back to wrestling's past in terms of style and presentation.
You hit the nail right on the head. I haven't watched a whole lot of it but what I have seen I liked. I like the lighting, I like the action and it just feels different. I understand what WWE's trying to do with Monday Night Raw, they want it to look like it's the slickest production in the world, but sometimes it's too slick. When everyone's got a scripted promo, it doesn't breed the same spontaneity that the Attitude Era had. You had a lot of guys out there grabbing a microphone where they might have a bullet point or two, but their words – you can't write that stuff.
What is the most memorable match from your wrestling career?
WrestleMania 13 with Bret Hart where we executed the double turn, and WrestleMania 17 with the Rock were real special to me. Yeah, I turned heel at the end but that wasn't the biggest part of that match. The biggest part of that match was just the action from bell-to-bell, with two guys who loved to be in the ring with each other lighting up 67,000 people. I think there was a match in 2001 where I wrestled Kurt Angle, too. I was working heel at the time and had a blast.
As far as some of the individual moments, driving that Zamboni in Detroit, jumping off the top and clotheslining Vince. All the stuff they had me do with regards to driving vehicles, like the monster truck and crushing the Rock's car. Some of the backstage stuff with Vince, too. I loved working our program because the hatred he generated towards me was the same that I had for him, and he's one of the only people I was in the ring with who reflected exactly what I was giving them, so moments like that in the ring with Vince were extremely important to me.
"Stone Cold" will always be synonymous with guzzling beer. Are you still working on your own private-label brand?
I can't really announce anything yet but we're working on the paperwork right now. I'm also working on another lifestyle-orientated thing that I'm excited about too, but since you brought the beer up, I'm anticipating getting everything finalized so I can get in the tasting room, come up with the formula and create the beer. It's almost a done deal.
You're also quite the wine connoisseur these days.
Back in the day I was really into the big cabs from Napa Valley, and my wife's a big fan of some of the Italian wines, but now I'm more of a pinot noir guy – something a little bit on the lighter side. So yeah, I'm a bit of a wine connoisseur. I wouldn't say I'm the most knowledgeable guy in the world, but all you have to know when you're drinking wine is what you like, and that you don't have to spend a lot of money on a good bottle.
So, I've got to ask: beer or wine?
I'm a beer guy. Right now while I'm on my vacation at the ranch, my nightly deal is about two IPA beers and then I'll finish off with wine. I'm drinking a brand called 667 right now, another one of my go-to pinots, and that's my percentage for the night. Two beers, one glass of wine. Moderation.