On June 10th, 2002, Stone Cold Steve Austin walked out of the WWE. Nineteen years ago today; it feels like just yesterday.
It was a historic moment and one that still lingers over the entire company (heck, industry!) as a huge turning point from the Attitude Era to the Ruthless Aggression Era. However, in order to cover all of our bases, we need to rewind a bit. While some of this column will be cited with facts, nobody truly knows all that went into ‘walkout.’ Austin has spoken about it numerous times before calling it one of the biggest mistakes of his life, but I don’t think the real, true 100% honest story will ever be told. Here is my opinion, looking back on everything…let’s go…
In late 2001 and early 2002, it was clear that the company was attempting to move on a bit from The Rock and Stone Cold as their main stars. Right or wrong. Austin was getting up there in age and had a few ailing injuries. Rock was getting ready to explode in Hollywood; everybody was preparing for that crossover to officially take place. It was a matter of time. Plus, the roster was only going to expand with the ECW and WCW brands being out of business. Tons of free agents were poised to sign, and the massively popular (to cheer and boo) Triple H was on his way back after being out of action for a lot of 2001.
At Vengeance 2001 in December, Chris Jericho was crowned the first ever Undisputed World Champion. With them now being the only true game in town, it was only fitting to crown ONE champion. One man on top of the mountain. That honor was going to Jericho. Again, showing that others were about to be put in different main event positions. The days of Rocky and Austin trading the title was coming to an end, as both were defeated that night. A huge sign of the changing of the guard. On top of that, the rumors were true, and MANY former WCW were about to jump ship. Ric Flair had just signed, Kevin Nash was coming soon, Scott Hall was in the same boat, as well as the immortal Hulk Hogan – who has always had a bit of a ‘feud’ behind the scenes with Austin.
Come WrestleMania X8, early 2002, Stone Cold was being paired up with Scott Hall. Scott Hall? For the biggest event of the year? Um, okay. Austin had just been hot off a streak of headlining pay-per-views and being THE main event at multiple WrestleManias in the title picture. Yet, here he was getting a match versus Scott Hall. Probably not the best spot for him when you consider Hulk Hogan was back to wrestle The Rock in an epic clash, while Triple H returned to win January’s Royal Rumble match to challenge Chris Jericho for the Undisputed World Championship. Those were the big selling points for Mania in 2002. Austin was far, far away from that picture.
Obviously not a good sign. Even worse was word leaked that Hall was going to BEAT Stone Cold. Ouch. Eventually, that decision was changed, but that was not before Hall apparently had too much ‘fun’ WrestleMania weekend and was not in the best state of mind. Let’s just say all of that nicely. I would feel the same as Austin: forgotten, thrown to the wayside, undervalued, etc. The match went as it did in the middle of the card, Austin won with a bunch of Stunners…and he was fed up.
He went home. While the June 10th, 2002 walkout is the most memorable incident, Austin actually did it the night after WrestleMania X8 first. That is why he disappeared. That is why he wasn’t even a part of the inaugural Draft episode in late March, 2002. He was sitting at home out of frustration. After cooling off for two weeks, he did return and was back in the spotlight on RAW, as HHH and the Hulkster were over on Smackdown. That left Stone Cold as ‘the guy’ again on the red brand…at least for a little bit.
The Undertaker defeated him at Backlash 2002 to become the number one contender to the Undisputed Championship. Stone Cold feuded with Big Show after that. No offense but Show was not quite hyped up at that time. He didn’t even have a match at Mania a month prior and had spent a lot of 2001 LOSING. Not really a big marquee story line for Stone Cold Steve Austin. That couldn’t have been a vote of confidence. More like a slap in the face to the supposed biggest star in company history. Still, it was something to showcase on RAW…until Ric Flair was added to the mix. The Raw “owner” didn’t wrestle a lot, but suddenly there he was teaming with the nWo and Big Show to take down Austin. Not a lot of this made sense.
That was made all too clear when reportedly Big Show was set to beat Stone Cold on an overseas tour. Not only are the flights long and tedious, but for live events and special pay-per-views overseas, the faces tend to go over the heels. Why was Show going to defeat Austin? Why? Again, not a lot of this made sense. The finish was changed to Austin going over Show clean, but the damage was done. The company was very CLEARLY moving on from Stone Cold as a top drawing act. Not the best time as RAW needed a top face/good guy, and Stone Cold wasn’t quite ready to retire. He had plenty of gas left in the tank, but there was WWE simply emptying out the tank in front of our very eyes.
While all of this drama was kept behind closed doors, it boiled over on the WWE website series “Byte This” when Stone Cold publicly vented for the first time. He ripped the creative writing team. He wasn’t a fan of what he was doing on television, dating all the way to before WMX8. It was pretty shocking to hear, but fans tended to just nod along and agree. The TV product had seemingly been changing and not necessarily for the better. Vince McMahon appeared the following week on Byte This to take the blame for everything, yet called Austin one of the more difficult talents to deal with as he demanded perfection. I believe he likened it to putting out gold records instead of platinum records, and that wasn’t going to be good enough.
On June 3rd, 2002, Stone Cold Steve Austin main evented RAW to defeat Ric Flair where the loser had to be the winner’s servant. Kinda lame but hey, we got Austin vs. Flair! Again, we all just went along for the ride not thinking much of it. After Stone Cold won, RAW went off the air. Little did we know that would be the last time Stone Cold F’N Steve Austin would be on RAW for the rest of the year. his impending feud with Eddie Guerrero (and Flair by his side) would never materialize.
Later in the week, Jim Ross and Vince McMahon talked to Austin about plans for the June 10th, 2002 edition of RAW. According to stories and all three of the parties involved, Austin was going to lose to newcomer Brock Lesnar. The biggest draw in the company and WrestleMania main event MEGA STAR was just going to lose to a rookie, just like that on RAW. No hype. No build. No advertising. No big hoopla about the showdown. Nothing. Just Brock decimating Stone Cold. That was one slap in the face too many.
Austin knew then and there he was done. The injuries, the stress, the work issues, the marriage problems at home – everything was piling up, and Stone Cold made the decision Sunday night that he wasn’t going to be on Monday night’s episode of RAW. He booked flights to leave town before the show (Atlanta I think?), and nothing was going to stop him. As the company got wind of this, he ignored all phone calls…except one as he was boarding the plane. That call was from Jim Ross, good ol’ JR, his long-time best friend and WWE executive.
Their conversation was very frank and to the point. Austin needed to show up to the arena. Whatever differences there were, they had to hash them out. Face to face, man to man with Vince McMahon and whoever else was causing all the dissension. It fell on deaf ears. Austin went home, and that was it. Fans at home and in the arena that night were shocked when Ric Flair came to the ring and point blank announced Stone Cold didn’t show up. No story line, no make believe, no BS. He took his ball and went home.
The following week, Vince McMahon explained things on television and gave him a ‘beer toast’ in the middle of the ring. Later in the show, The Rock made a surprise appearance (as he had been away to Hollywood) and verbally DESTROYED Stone Cold. Completely made him out to be a chump that QUIT on the locker room, quit on the fans, and quit on the company that made him a household name. Rocky was called in as a favor, due to the fact that Austin was no longer there. The Rock delivered an epic promo, and it seemed as if fans had taken to it in spades.
Their weekend show Confidential did the same – explained what happened but made Stone Cold out to be the bad guy and just RIP him to shreds. It was bad.
The Rock was back (for a few months anyways), and Stone Cold was gone. With such a huge hole to fill, Vince McMahon came to the ring in the weeks to come to ask or BEG the roster to step up. They needed a new top star, they needed new faces, they needed to move in a new direction. Austin was gone, Rocky was gone, the older WCW stars were nearing the end of their rope – it was time for the Attitude Era to lay to rest and usher in the Ruthless Aggression Era.
In came John Cena, Batista, Rey Mysterio, Brock Lesnar, Randy Orton, Charlie Hass and Shelton Benjamin, Stephanie McMahon and Eric Bischoff were introduced as General Managers to oversee the company, Edge, Rob Van Dam, and Eddie Guerrero and countless others were all stepping up. Within a year, WWE had a new crop of guys/gals, and their rebuild was in full effect. The company had successfully turned the page from the late 1990’s to the 2000’s – all thanks to the process being sped up immensely with The Rock going to Hollywood and Stone Cold walking out on June 10th, 2002.
As history shows us, the two sides did inevitably mend fences. Stone Cold received a holiday card from Jim Ross in late 2002, and that got the ball rolling once again. Vince McMahon met with Austin face to face and in early 2003, Austin was brought back into the fold with the sole purpose being to have a proper farewell match and say goodbye in the RIGHT way. No bitterness, no walk out, no hard feelings. As fate would have it, Stone Cold had his final match at WrestleMania XIX on March 30th, 2003 versus The Rock. The irony of it all, as after the bout the two shared a special moment in the ring with each saying “I love you” to the other. The Rock meant it, and Stone Cold meant it.
He walked to the back one last time at the grandest stage of them all, as he was officially done as a wrestler. A much better way to leave than what took place on June 10th, 2002…
By Justin Watry (TWITTER: @JustinWatry)