Earlier this month, when I told some friends I was going to be drinking beer and talking rasslin' with "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, most shared my enthusiasm. More than a decade after he retired from in-ring competition, he remains a huge star in the wrestling world – not to mention one of the more famous beer consumers on the planet. There's a reason we call them "Steveweisers," after all.
Still, his reputation as a no-nonsense badass hasn't faded any since he last laced 'em up. Which is probably why one longtime peer chuckled and cautioned me, "He's going to wipe the floor with you."
In my gut, that felt much more likely. Happily, the Texas Rattlesnake – gotta love wrestlers' abundance of alternate handles – was nothing but affable and accommodating. Or maybe he was just weary after a gauntlet of press appearances, from yakking it up on the Today show to getting a buzz on at Buzzfeed. By the time we sat down in a corner booth at Manhattan's Grey Bar and cracked a couple of his namesake El Segundo Broken Skull IPAs (Austin wouldn't come across the country without a new product to promote), he was just happy to shoot the shit.
Not that he fails to be on message. We spend a few minutes warming up to one another and discussing his surprising foray into the craft-brewing world, him matter-of-factly sharing, "I don't expect to turn into a millionaire selling beer," but rather, "I wanted to come out with my own brand based on my palate, so now I'm in the beer business." He takes out a prototype of a signature Cold Steel pocket knife he's been developing and similarly points out that it's not exactly a stretch for Steve Austin to market a line of outdoorsmen accessories. And as for the twin reality shows he hosts on CMT – Redneck Island and Broken Skull Challenge, currently in their fifth and third seasons, respectively – they couldn't be more squarely in his comfort zone.
"I'm not trying to be a character," he says. "I don't have the talent of Daniel Day-Lewis. I'm Steve Austin, so when I get to hang out and be who I am and I live on set, it's like a paid vacation man."
The "be who I am" bit is central to understanding Steve Austin. Always has been. That can be confusing given the former six-time WWE Heavyweight Champion has legally changed his surname twice, first from Anderson to Williams after his stepdad came into frame, and more recently from Williams to Austin to, per his own website, "save a lot of headaches." Plus, he rose to fame portraying a character that wasn't precisely like any of those three Steves. "I don't live as 'Stone Cold,'" he offers by way of clarification. "I live as Steve Austin. I was 'Stone Cold' Steve Austin back in 2003, then I rode off into the sunset."
It is hard to fathom that Austin's spent more than twice as many years carving out his post-retirement niche than he did raking in bucks and reinvigorating an entire industry at the height of "Stone Cold" mania during the late Nineties and early 2000s. Some of that's owed to his frequent cameos at high-profile events like WrestleMania, as well as WWE Network's occasional simulcast of his podcast. (To say nothing of the company's continued reliance on his likeness for marketing new merchandise and media.) Part of any disconnect has to do with the singular impression wrestling left on mainstream pop culture during that half-decade, and how sentimentalized it's become since. But mostly, it's got to do with the fact that Austin – as opposed to his friend and former on-screen adversary the Rock – never fully crossed over into the mainstream. Much more akin to fellow Attitude Era emblem Mick Foley, Austin remains an avid wrestling junkie. He extols El Rey Network's Lucha Underground for doing a "fantastic job of the presentation of their product," and heaps similar praise on New Japan Pro-Wrestling, which he admires for being "presented as a real combat sport" despite the fact that "we know it's pro wrestling." Overall, he confesses to preferring how independent promotions "stick to a more true version of my expectations of what pro wrestling should be."
As listeners to the Stone Cold Podcast well know, he reserves his most nuanced critique for WWE itself. As the company navigates injuries to several main-eventers while plowing ahead to WrestleMania 32, Austin diagnoses their conundrum as "trying to entertain such a diverse universe of fans that they miss out on the people who truly love wrestling for what it is: personal issues with awesome action and storylines and great work inside the ring." He doesn't envy their position, and it's why he's both largely shied away from more of an integral role in operations and urges audiences to appreciate the enormity of what's at stake, even if WWE has arguably backed itself into a corner.
"When you get down in the trenches and realize how tough it is to do three hours of live television every Monday, and then 'SmackDown,' I can sit here and nitpick it, but it's a grind, it's a process, it's a 24-7 job," he says, not so much backpedaling as delineating the line between his candor about WWE and his commitment to it. "I know how hard it is. A lot of the stuff they come up with, I'm not such a fan of, but I do know they're trying the best they can."
And despite Austin's best efforts to stay cool underneath his camo jacket and matching cap, he relents to the muggy conditions on this unseasonably warm winter afternoon, paring down to a Broken Skull tee and laying bare the visible scars just above his forehead, no doubt a direct result of taking tables, ladders and chairs to the cranium. Still, he's in remarkable shape at 51 years old. Like all wrestlers you meet up close, his stature isn't what's impressive so much as the dimensions of his physique, particularly the python arms that bear down with their weight when he shakes your hand. He's not a skinny guy, never was, but Austin's arguably more naturally fit than just about any contemporary his age you can name, past or present.
"Part of my genetics I probably got from my mother," he reasons. "She was one of the strongest people I know, and I am exactly like my mother."
Though he also credits his prosperity to an even-keeled social life, which might not square for fans more enamored with "Stone Cold" than acquainted with Steve Austin.
"I was able to get away from the party," he explains, fully aware of the seeming contradiction as he pops a second IPA. "I don't mean the party of pro wrestling. I mean the party that was part and parcel with it. I was never a drug addict or an alcoholic. I never was a pill-popper. I took my share of Vicodin when I needed it, a couple with a cup of coffee, but that was it – end of story. When I'm interviewing guys on my podcast, I'm hearing them [talk about] taking 40, 60, 80 Vicodin, Percocets. It blows my mind, because that wasn't me."
Not that he was a teetotaler (that, he reminds, was more the line folks like Jerry Lawler toed), as he readily concedes, "I ran with the drinking crowd, or I was the drinking crowd, drinking Crown Royal or vodka. And when I got out of the business, I like to enjoy my beer here or there, but hey man, everything in moderation. You can't push the envelope at 10,000 RPM and expect to come out smelling like a rose and feeling like a million bucks on the other side."
These days, Austin's happy to report that, "issues with my lower extremities" not withstanding, "On a 1-to-10 pain scale, I'm not in any pain." He has full flexibility in his neck, the same neck that was traumatized by an errant piledriver from the late Owen Hart in 1997. And he can still enjoy a few beers every now and again without it leading him down some dark path. The subject does, however, lead to thoughts of his more tormented friends and colleagues, whether those who died young due to drug abuse, such as "Mr. Perfect" Curt Hennig ("If that guy ever had a bad day in his life, I don't know about it," Austin recalls, smiling his biggest smile), or passed too soon from assorted health complications, like "Macho Man" Randy Savage.
"When Savage died, that was hard on me," Austin confides. "I didn't even hardly know Randy, but I just turned 51 this past December, and he was 58 when he died. I'm like, 'Hey man, just because I'm in that line of work, do I have an expiration date? Am I supposed to go?' I always wonder, but I don't harbor it."
Perhaps a bit tipsy, I wonder aloud what it might be like if all the talent who succumbed to their vices or the physical toll of performing could offer insight about how to carry on happily and healthily once their in-ring days are done. Austin, not immune to the effects of a couple large-format IPAs, follows my train of thought. "Goddamn, that would be a hell of a thing if we could all get together – wherever you go, when you get on the other side – and pass on the message to these young bucks and buckettes: 'Here's what happened and here's what went down, and you should stay away from it.'"
Fortunately, as Austin is quick to emphasize, "I'm not there yet."
He has, by all appearances, many years to kick back at his Broken Skull Ranch, at peace with moving further away from his heyday as "Stone Cold," while relishing memories that can never be matched. "Goddang, I'll tell you what," he beams, his voice as close to that animated, Attitude Era-growl as I've heard thus far. "When you walk out, and that fucking glass breaks, and those motherfuckers jump out of their seats, there ain't nothin' like that in the world. As drunk as I ever got, nothing touches that feeling. In my life, what replaces that or comes close? Nothing."
It took him about three years, he surmises, to withdraw from his addiction to that electricity after fighting his final fight. Now, he's found his happy place at the ranch, "riding with my dog Hershey" after a day's work, toward "the top of the landing strip. I'm walking around and the sun's going down. I'm at peace with myself." And just to assure me that he has not, in fact, wiped the floor with me, nor begrudged being summoned thousands of miles to shill and chill, he surveys the now-buzzing bar, cocks his head and confirms, "I'm hanging out with you drinking beer, and I'm loving life."