Three things define a pro-wrestler: their athletic ability, their look, and their promo skills. It takes time and a lot of work to perfect each of those things, but when they finally come together in a complete package, an icon is born. For Steve Austin, it took seven years of trial and error, setbacks, and adversity across numerous different promotions until on the night of June 23, 1996, a now "Stone Cold" Steve Austin was crowned the WWF's King of the Ring and was expected to cut a post-match promo live. What happened next, improvised live on the spot by Austin, became the most quoted and iconic promo in wrestling history, generated millions of dollars in merchandise sales, and was the spark to light the rocket that would launch Austin and the WWF into becoming pop-culture phenoms.
Let's turn it all back a little first. Austin was brought into the WWF in 1995 as The Ringmaster, a gifted technical wrestler who barely spoke and was managed by "The Million Dollar Man" Ted DiBiase. This didn't work at all and both Austin and the company knew a change was needed. Inspired by a TV special on serial killer/mob hitman Richard Kuklinski (known as "The Ice Man"), Austin created his new "Stone Cold" persona, which would see him become a cold, ruthless, and violent wrestler who showed no compassion or humanity for his opponents.
Now totally clad in black, Austin incorporated some of his own personality into his new character, giving him a heavy metal edge. While Austin cut short promos here and there in his new character, he had yet to be given a big stage. This changed at the 1996 King of the Ring event when the company decided to change the tournament winner from Hunter Hearst Helmsley (as punishment for his involvement in the "curtain call" incident at Madison Square Garden) to Austin. Austin was set to have a big moment now and would get to cut a big post-victory promo.
After defeating Jake "The Snake" Roberts in the finals, Austin was interviewed live by Dok Hendrix. Roberts had earlier cut a promo using bible verses and scripture and upon finding out about this, Austin had an idea. He would hammer home his new ruthless attitude by mocking Roberts' religious beliefs, surely something that would generate heat in classic wrestling. But Austin was about to turn classic wrestling rules about who was the good guy and the bad guy right on their heads.
In one promo, Austin created two iconic catchphrases for himself ("and that's the bottom line, cause Stone Cold said so!" also debuted here, but it's not as remembered for that). It was just supposed to be a nasty heel promo, but instead, every week following, "Austin 3:16" signs in the crowd grew and grew.
In a move of marketing genius, Austin then designed a t-shirt to capitalize on his popular new catchphrase. The result would become the highest-selling piece of wrestling merchandise in history.
As someone who was in school at the time, I can honestly tell you that from 1998 through 2001, there probably wasn't a day at school where there wasn't at least one kid rocking some variation of the "Austin 3:16" t-shirt. It was everywhere back then and I still see people with it on today.
As we all know, Austin would soon after become wrestling's greatest antihero character and become the industry's most popular talent ever, leading the industry into its greatest boom period in history and making wrestling a legitimate part of the entertainment world.
All great things start small, maybe as an off-the-cuff comment or idea and then they evolve and grow into something larger than anyone could have imagined. On the night of June 23, 1996, "Stone Cold" Steve Austin was just trying to get over with an edgy promo and threw in a line to stir it all up.
25 years and millions of dollars in revenue later, it might be hard to think of it as just that simple, but then that's the appeal of the exceptional everyman character that is Austin. It's the total package; his abilities, his look, and his promos, that are all so deceptively simple. Yet when all those pieces come together at the right time, they create something iconic and unforgettable.