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  December 4, 1999



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Stone Cold stunner!!!
By BRET 'The Hitman' HART -- For The Calgary Sun

  Whenever wrestling was on TV, I'd be glued to the screen.

 Not so much lately, though. I realized that there are only a handful of wrestlers left who compel me to stop what I'm doing to watch.

 Like Stone Cold Steve Austin.

 I'm a big Austin fan.

 Does that surprise you?

 This isn't about WCW or WWF or allegiance to any particular company.

 What it's about is giving credit where credit is due to individual wrestlers, no matter where they work. I'm not promoting the WWF, I don't and I won't.

 Steve Austin has had more impact on wrestling in the past two years than any other wrestler.

 Back in 1996, after I lost the title at Wrestlemania 12, I worked all over Europe with a guy called The Ringmaster. It turned out to be a pleasure. We had great chemistry and I quickly realized he was the most under-rated wrestler in the business.

 For the first time in my career, I'd booked off for a while just to give my body a break. On TV, I saw Ringmaster turn into Stone Cold Steve Austin. I could feel in my gut that this guy could and should have a big future. I knew he was the best worker in the business -- a heck of a lot better than Shawn Michaels, who had the top spot at the time.

 Michaels was a great wrestler. It's just that Austin has a much more solid, realistic style. Besides, Shawn and his real-life clique loved to stir up political trouble, whereas the Austin I knew at that time was a level-headed guy and a leader in the dressing room.

 I went back to work wanting to have great matches with Austin and do my part to get the guy the respect I felt he deserved.

 We had a really good match at Survivor Series '96, but by the time we locked up at Wrestlemania 13, Steve had a meteoric rise to the top and showed up in great shape. We brought something out of each other in that match that neither one of us had ever found before. It stands as one of the best matches of his career -- and mine -- and it's safe to say it's up there among the best bouts of all time.

 I don't want anyone to misread this and think that I'm taking credit for Austin's success, because I'm not. Actually, I'm grateful that I was in the right place at the right time and ended up bringing the best out of Austin. The truth is that he had so much ability -- he's a great worker and a great talker and has a great look -- that he would have made it with or without me.

 I felt better passing the torch to him than to a prima donna like Michaels, and Austin has never given me cause to regret it.

 To say he made it to the top doesn't do justice to his phenomenal popularity or to the pivotal role his character played -- for better or worse -- in redefining heroes and villains in wrestling as the roles reversed and the lines blurred. I don't agree with the age of the anti-hero, but I appreciate that if it hadn't been Austin, it would have been someone who didn't play the part half as well.

 A couple of weeks before Owen died, the WWF was in Calgary and I went to the show to see old friends in the dressing room that I'd been cut off from upon my abrupt departure from the WWF. I told Austin how pleased I was at how far he'd gone and he told me how disappointed he was at how I'd been underused by WCW. He was a guy who understood from first-hand experience what I was going through at that time, being a great worker asked to sit on the sidelines.

 And now -- at the height of his success -- I was saddened to learn that Stone Cold Steve Austin can't wrestle anymore!

 He was recently alarmed by tingling and numbness in his fingers, arms, and shoulders. I don't care how tough a guy is, that's scary stuff. Austin went through painful medical tests where dye was injected into his spine. The dreaded results confirmed his worse fears, that due to accumulated injuries to his neck, as well as a new diagnosis of stenosis, a narrowing of the spine -- let alone the damage to his knees -- Steve Austin will, for the most part, hang up his tights.

 No sense risking paralysis for a paycheque.

 What a terrible, tremendous loss to wrestling.

 There will only ever be one Stone Cold Steve Austin.

 The thing is, the handful of guys left who still perform wrestling as an art form is getting smaller and smaller. Just based on years of abuse to our bodies, the sun is setting on the careers of Undertaker, Savage, Hennig and even myself. Let alone an irreplaceable, innovative daredevil like Mick Foley, who the clock is ticking on, too.

 Who is left to carry on the art of professional wrestling -- besides Chris Benoit? For him, it will be lonely at the top. It takes two to dance.

 Last week on Raw, a completely phony wedding got the highest 'wrestling' rating in a long time. Tell me, what does that have to do with wrestling? And now, WCW is going down that same road. When they can't play can-you-top-this any more and they need to rely on solid wrestling for their main events, there won't be anyone there to carry on.

 We're at the point where classic matches will be fewer and fewer until they fade away forever. Watch them while you still can. Hidden in the hoopla of ratings generated by a new breed of fans who choose soap opera over sport, few people notice or even care that wrestling, as I know it and as long-time fans know it, is about to die.

 Five stars, Steve.

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