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TORCH NEWSLETTER FLASHBACK (Jan. 1998) - "Austin confronts Tyson, brawl breaks out"

Jan 11, 2010 - 11:25:58 AM
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Torch Newsletter Flashback
Torch Newsletter Issue #476
Cover-Dated: January 24, 1998
Cover Story Headline: Austin confronts Tyson, brawl breaks out
By Wade Keller, Torch editor


Steve Austin-mania is running wild, brother. Not since the Rock and Wrestling Connection and the launch of Hulkamania has wrestling been so on the forefront of the mainstream media's radar screen. Like Hulk Hogan in 1985, Steve Austin is set to be the centerpiece of the campaign.

Hulk Hogan became a household name thanks to tie-ins with famous tough-guy/movie star Mr. T, rock star Cyndi Laupre, and a heavy run of publicity on MTV, including the highly rated "War to Settle the Score" -- a Hogan vs. Roddy Piper match on MTV that included 50 minutes of hype and less than five minutes of actual wrestling. It was the highest rated hour in MTV history. MTV hasn't forgotten, and neither has Vince McMahon.

The first major step was taken toward Wrestlemania's apparent main event -- Austin challenging Shawn Michaels with Mike Tyson as the special referee when Austin won the Royal Rumble. On Raw the next night, McMahon invited Tyson to the ring. Tyson came to the ring with five members of his entourage. McMahon said it was an honor to have Tyson standing in a WWF ring. Tyson said he was just happy to be there because he was a big WWF fan going back to the days of Bruno Sammartino (probably not McMahon's preferred point of reference). Just as McMahon was about to announce Tyson's planned role at Wrestlemania (as special referee), Austin's music began to play.

Austin came out and received a much, much, much bigger pop than Tyson received. Austin said he is sick of Tyson shaking everybody's hands. He refused to shake Tyson's hand. Said Austin, "When you step into this ring, you are messing with Stone Cold Steve Austin and that's something you don't want to do. I want a piece of Mike Tyson's ass." Austin added that he could beat Tyson every night of the week, "and twice on Sundays." Austin said if Tyson didn't understand him, he had some sign language for him -- then flashed him the double middle finger right to his face.

Tyson got mad, shoved Austin, and a brawl broke out. Tyson was quickly held back, and Austin was dragged out of the ring, but not before he pounded a member of Tyson's entourage into the mat. McMahon, frothing with a look of venomous anger, also had to be held back as he kicked at Austin and reached out to try to punch him, screaming, "You ruined everything!"

After a commercial break, they went backstage where Tyson was pointing his finger in McMahon's chest, yelling at him to bring "that faggot ass" Austin out. McMahon stammered as Sgt. Slaughter and Dave Hebner looked on.

Jim Ross on commentary called it a SportsCenter moment. Indeed, it was. Besides coverage in newspapers everywhere the next morning including USA Today, that night ESPN's SportsCenter, Fox Sports Net Primetime, NBC's Today Show, and various other news and sports shows showed clips and talked about the incident. It was treated as tongue-in-cheek at the end of the programs, not as a legitimate news story, but the publicity was there that the WWF was looking for.

McMahon told the AP after Raw that Tyson is now refusing to be a guest referee. "Austin embarrassed Mike Tyson and the WWF with his remarks," McMahon said. "It was uncalled for and very unprofessional." The article said that Tyson now wants to fight Austin and that McMahon would be asking the Nevada State Athletic Commission to let Tyson wrestle.

Three days earlier, AP ran a story in which Tyson's spokesperson said that Tyson would be a special referee at Wrestlemania and definitely would not actually be wrestling in order to avoid upsetting the Nevada State Athletic Commission. That comment could have been as much a part of the storyline as McMahon's comments after Raw.

The angle, in fact, could be going in several directions. But one of them almost assuredly isn't a Tyson vs. Austin match. The WWF may want publicity to point that direction for the next week or two for a variety of reasons, though. The more Austin rubs up against a celebrity as well known as Tyson, the more well known Austin becomes. Add that to Austin's 15-times-per-day appearances on MTV hyping MTV's SuperBowl halftime show and he is well on his way to becoming a household name outside of just the wrestling audience.

But in the end, the Tyson-WWF relationship has been established to be mutually beneficial. The WWF is helping Tyson rehabilitate his image by portraying him as just an ordinary guy who loves WWF wrestling and just wants to be pals with the wrestlers and fans. After biting the ears of Evander Holyfield in his last boxing match, resulting in his indefinite suspension from boxing, Tyson's image has hit an all-time low. Associating with pro wrestling usually isn't the direction celebrities go to rehab their public image, but in Tyson's case, it is a step up.

If Tyson were to fight Austin at Wrestlemania (or at any time, for that matter), Austin would get a huge babyface pop and Tyson would get booed out of the arena. That wouldn't help Tyson. Instead, expectations are that over the coming weeks, Austin and Tyson will grow to respect each other and Tyson's real beef will be with Shawn Michaels and Degeneration X. The likeliest scenario is that Tyson will enter Wrestlemania as a special ringside referee for the Michaels vs. Austin title match. The question will be -- on whose side is Tyson? Tyson will reveal it at the end of the match where his knock out punch on Michaels leads to Austin's pinfall victory.

Backstage at Raw, a photo shoot took place with Austin, Michaels, and Tyson standing together, posing for the cover of the Cable Guide. That photo will likely be used on the cover of the March edition hyping Wrestlemania on pay-per-view.

There are other possible scenarios, but none appear likely at this point. It's possible the title match could be put off and there will be a mixed tag match instead featuring Tyson teaming with Austin against Michaels & Hunter. It's also possible this situation will somehow lead to a Tyson vs. Hulk Hogan match after all. Hogan has yet to sign a contract extension with WCW despite various major concessions and bonuses offered to him. Hogan might be lying low and just waiting to make a surprise jump sometime in February. Given Hogan's heel persona, it's likely Tyson would get cheered against Hogan, especially if Austin accompanied Tyson to ringside. Hogan staying in WCW this year isn't a lock by any means, but at this point odds appear to be against him jumping to the WWF in time to be part of Wrestlemania.

McMahon already has the man he thinks is the "next Hulk Hogan." He hoped Lex Luger, Sid, and Bret Hart, among others, would turn out to be the "next Hogan." None of them came close. Austin has shown signs of that potential. MTV is interested in doing more with Austin using the line, "If you like that music video, give me a 'Hell, yeah!'" In the last few weeks Austin has received at least three feelers from movie producers interested in casting him.

McMahon is paying millions to Tyson (and no dollar figure at this point is truly reliable). What he gets in return is Tyson's appearance at Wrestlemania to help the buyrate, Tyson's appearances on several editions of Raw over the next ten weeks which helps TV ratings, and most importantly, the launch of Steve Austin into the mainstream consciousness. It is no secret that Austin is the likely victor at Wrestlemania and will begin a run with the WWF Title. Michaels is said to be okay with dropping the title given the scenario that has been worked out.

Austin is selling more t-shirts than Hogan did during his prime run, Austin has a noticeable affect on TV ratings, he gets the biggest pops at house shows, and now he is being featured alongside Shawn Michaels as the primary focus of the WWF's biggest Wrestlemania in ten years. There is a mitigating factor, though, in McMahon's investment in Austin: the condition of his neck.

Austin is working a modified style in the ring to avoid any neck trauma. He suffered paralysis after a piledriver by Owen Hart at SummerSlam last year and since then has seen a number of doctors. The answers range from "retire" to "be very careful," but all doctors agree that his neck is always going to be at risk for further injury. Austin skipped his last scheduled appointment a couple of weeks ago to see a specialist in San Antonio where he lives, and instead plans to go ahead and continue to wrestle -- albeit carefully. All the wrestlers in the WWF know of Austin's condition and to avoid blows that impact the neck. But otherwise, Austin is able to work a full-time schedule. Austin is popular enough with fans that he doesn't need to be the best, most versatile wrestler in the industry. Workrate is not a necessary ingredient to being a huge box office attraction. It doesn't hurt, but with enough charisma, interview skills, and general star power, a wrestler can get by without it. Roddy Piper and Hulk Hogan are two of the biggest draws of this era and neither has ever been considered even a good worker. Austin is still capable of being a good worker.

Vince McMahon believes that Austin -- who is only one year into a five-year contract -- is the wrestler who will become the biggest star in the sport, thus allowing the WWF to regain the perception as the top wrestling group in the country. McMahon captured the nation's attention the first time by associating with mainstream celebrities and MTV. He is hoping, with wrestling now as hot as it's been in ten years, he can repeat history with Austin.


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