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Austin's better, stronger, nastier


By GLENN COLE -- Toronto Sun

  "Austin 3:16" says that I just whipped your ass.

That phrase tells you what Stone Cold Steve Austin generally is all about.

And his persona fits right into the louder, brasher, more risque pro wrestling of the late '90s. It isn't the wrestling that grandma watched on her black-and-white TV in the '50s and '60s. Nor is it the Saturday-morning wrestling of the '80s and early '90s, which often blended into the cartoons.

Some people think the World Wrestling Federation's approach is no longer family entertainment, that its television programming should be rated PG (parental guidance) because of sexual innuendo and colorful language, that its shows have become a salty soap opera for males.

As a pickup-driving, beer-drinking, deer-hunting Texan, Austin is the right man at the right time. The WWF champion is no cookie-eating, milk-drinking, white-hat-wearing nice guy.

This 6-foot-2, 33-year-old wears black boots and black trunks, tells his enemies to kiss his, uh, backside, and is the biggest hero the WWF has had since Hulk Hogan's heyday in the 1980s.

"I use a few certain words on the air, a little bit of sign language," Austin said. "In defence of myself, the things I do or say on TV are something every kid sees or hears every single day. You either know better than to do that or you don't.

"You go into sexual references or racial stuff, that's an immediate turnoff for me. I'm not into that in any shape or form. I am not on a high horse throwing rocks, because people could throw rocks at what I do."

"Austin 3:16" shocked a few people when it first came out of his mouth after he beat Bible-thumper Jake (The Snake) Roberts at the 1996 King of Ring card. It's a play on the "John 3:16" signs seen at sporting events, which refer to a scripture in the Bible stating that those who believe in Jesus Christ "should not perish, but have everlasting life."

"Austin 3:16" has become the theme for the hottest-selling merchandise in WWF history.

"It was never, ever designed to be sacrilegious, anti-religious," said Austin, the WWF champion who meets Hunter Hearst Helmsley tonight at the SkyDome with WWF owner Vince McMahon as the guest referee. McMahon's angle is to make Austin's title reign miserable.

"(Austin 3:16) is just something I said and it's stuck around. It was tongue-in-cheek," Austin said. "Some people take it seriously, others don't. It's something that has stuck with me and that doesn't bother me one bit."

Austin, whose Ringmaster character received lukewarm attention when he first arrived from the rival World Championship Wrestling faction in 1995, dropped Ted DiBiase as his manager and forged ahead with his favorite move -- the stone-cold stunner.

A former defensive end with North Texas University, Austin relieved Shawn Michaels of the championship in March. In April, the WWF ended an 83-week losing streak in head-to-head TV ratings competition with WCW, which is owned by sports mogul Ted Turner. Monday Night Raw, the flagship WWF TV show, recently had a 5.7 rating on the USA network, a record for a cable sports program. Raw is one of TSN's top-rated shows, outdrawing the NHL at times.

"It's hard for me to describe my success or why I have been successful," said Austin, who this month drew 250,000 viewers to TSN's Off The Record -- the show's highest audience, almost three times its usual size.

"I guess people can identify with me because I am in real life exactly what you see on TV. I happen to turn up the volume a little more when I am playing to a bigger audience. I take pride in what I do. I have fun, but I work my butt off."

Austin souvenirs -- the 3:16 T-shirts, foam fingers, caps -- are sold out almost as soon as they hit the souvenir booths at WWF house shows. Austin's T-shirts, which he designs himself, have brought in far more revenue than former WWF icon Hogan did during his title reign, although the WWF did not provide exact figures.

Austin, whose real name is Steve Williams, took his wrestling moniker from the character Lee Majors used to play on the 1970s TV show, The Six Million Dollar Man. The show happened to be on a TV set in a southern promoter's office the day that the soon-to-be Austin arrived for a card near the start of his eight-year career. There had to be a name change because Dr. Death Steve Williams, now on the WWF's roster, had preceded Austin to the area.

Austin's stay in the WCW in the early '90s brought him some success. He won the U.S. tag-team title with Brian Pillman, who died last summer at 36 of a heart attack. Pillman was a good friend to Austin, a rarity in this back-stabbing business.

And Austin is realistic enough to know his success could end just as quickly as it started. It almost did when Calgary's Owen Hart put a little too much oomph when he drove Austin's head into the mat last summer.

"I couldn't move my arms or my legs (for about a minute) and it scared the hell out of me," said Austin, who thought about quadriplegic actor Christopher Reeves as he lay there on the mat. "I think I'm an extremely strong person and I have an extremely strong neck. But I realize how lucky I am to be able to move around and do the things I do."

How long will it all last? As long as Austin is physically up to it, and as long as he enjoys it.

"If it's not any fun tomorrow, then I'll find something else to do. I'm having a blast right now."

And that's the bottom line, because Stone Cold says so.

More on Steve Austin