By Liam Byrne @tvtimelimit
Steve Austin vs Yokozuna 8/18/96
To the victor, the spoils. With (at least currently) WWE the only American promotion of real significance in terms of power, they often choose to rewrite or reimagine their immediate history in ways that aren’t always apropos of how things actually played out. Depending on who is the wrestler du jour that the offices want pushed or presented in a certain way, then the WWE can sell fans the story that they want to, even to the extent of leaving out key things or ignoring events to tell a more linear, inspiring or engaging story.
One of the ways in which this has been seen is in the rise of Steve Austin. The ‘Austin 3:16’ promo after his victory at the King of the Ring 1996 is often seen as the moment that sent Austin’s star into orbit. If you’d believe how the WWE portrays this moment, it was the catalyst that saw Austin instantly become a main eventer, start duking it out with the likes of Bret Hart and the Undertaker, and saw him become the anti-establishment figure that would so rile the Vince McMahon character over the years.
The truth of the matter: it took a little while for this all to happen.
Nothing can highlight that what is perceived as Austin’s meteoric rise off the back of the King of the Ring was more laboured than WWE would have you believe is how he was booked in the immediate aftermath. Between defeating Jake Roberts and facing Bret Hart at Survivor Series, Austin wrestled on only two pay-per-views out of four. More notably, he wouldn’t make it on to the main card for Summerslam. Instead, his match would be on the Free For All, the show available to all pre-event that tried to grab those last few people who were still undecided about plonking down good money to watch the PPV.
What Austin’s match with Yokozuna arguably does highlight though, is a concrete passing of the torch between a member of the ‘New Generation’ era of the WWF that wasn’t long for the company, and a star who would become synonymous with the ‘Attitude’ era that was to follow. Naturally, a two minute match on a pre-show before Summerslam didn’t engender the match with that much significance, but these were two workers whose trajectories couldn’t have been more opposed at this point in time.
Yokozuna, with his weight continuing to be a significant issue, was no longer going to challenge near the top of the card. Having been one of the few bright sparks of a time period that offered little to the wrestling fan, it was a sad ending for someone who many considered a very capable big man whose athleticism belied his size, at least at his peak. Following this match against Austin, Yokozuna would compete against Shawn Michaels on Raw in August, turn up in a match at the Survivor Series, and then was gone from the company by the end of 1996.
As a means to entice people still on the fence about the show, the Free For All wasn’t going to sell people off the back of the strength of this contest. Attacking Yokozuna before he’d fully taken off his kimono, Austin got in some early punches before a huge right hand sent him down to the canvas. The same fate befell him after a headbutt and a chop, but a rake to the eyes sought to halt the big man’s momentum. Some punches and two clotheslines were not enough to take Yoko off of his feet, whilst a third attempted clothesline allowed Yoko to land a Samoan drop to drive the air out of Austin.
A huge legdrop had Austin down and in trouble, with Yokozuna looking to finish early. Dragging him towards the corner, Yokozuna would head to the second rope for the Banzai drop. As had become a finish to somewhat protect the big man whilst also factoring in his size, the top turnbuckle would snap, sending Yokozuna careening backwards (with Austin luckily rolling just far enough away to avoid getting crushed) to the canvas. Austin would hook a leg and get the three count for victory within two minutes.
It wouldn’t be until his series with Hart, culminating in their match at Wrestlemania 13, that Austin truly ascended to the top. Between ‘Austin 3:16’ and that, he would spend his Summerslam on the pre-show trying not to get squashed. How times would change.