These days WWE is the king of professional wrestling with its Raw and SmackDown shows dominating cable ratings, as part of a brand of “sports entertainment” that’s recognized worldwide. But 20 years ago wrestling was at one of its lowest points, with attendance, ratings and cultural impact reaching new lows every week. People were waiting for something fresh but WWE and its then-competitor WCW were offering stale stories that weren’t catching on. Then, within the span of two weeks in 1996, a couple of iconic moments happened that changed pro wrestling forever.
The Austin Era Begins
When Steve Austin arrived in WWE, he was seen as an above average performer who’d never reach above a certain level. He’d been losing momentum on the way to the 1996 King of the Ring pay-per-view event. But thanks to hard work and some good luck, Austin was the surprise winner of that contest, defeating ’80s superstar Jake “The Snake” Roberts to leave the 16-man tournament as the winner. Then, in an age of cartoonish characters and purple crowns to coronate Austin King of the Ring, Stone Cold took his first true step towards immortality.
The response to that single unscripted speech sent shockwaves through pro wrestling and beyond. Steve Austin’s popularity would only go upwards from then on, signalling a shift towards antiheroes in the world of pro wrestling, leaving behind the traditional golden good guys of older eras. That moment on June 23, 1996, would be when Stone Cold Steve Austin really took off as a personality, and it invented a phrase that became ubiquitous all across America. Austin 3:16 shirts, hats, and other paraphernalia were everywhere you looked from 1996 onward, and Stone Cold’s popularity would help raise the ratings of Monday Night Raw to become a phenomenon on TV, as well as making WWE a billion dollar company. All that began with one self-styled redneck’s off-the-cuff, blasphemous tangent, and he’d go on to raise a lot more hell from then on — usually with massive machinery.
But that was just the first half of a couple weeks that forever altered professionally wrestling back in the summer of 1996.
The New World Order Takes Over
Scott Hall and Kevin Nash had been moderate successes before coming to WCW, but no one expected them to make much of a splash. Meanwhile, Hulk Hogan had gone from the biggest superstar of the 1980s to being one of the stalest performers of 1996. As Nash and Hall were starting to make headlines with fourth-wall-breaking storylines and edgy moments that discussed the once secretive behind-the-scenes personas of WCW, they were gaining popularity just as Hogan seemed to be losing legitimacy.
Then came Bash at the Beach 1996 on July 7. Nash and Hall were destroying WCW’s greatest hero, Sting. Then, just when you thought Hulk Hogan was coming out to save the day, he attacks the good guys and made his change in attitude known.
Hulk Hogan shocked the kids who’d grown up watching the Hulkster battle bad guys, now seeing him tell fans to “stick it.” Nash and Hall teamed with Hogan to begin the New World Order that created the kind of cool bad guys that young men could easily identify with. The NWO did everything they weren’t supposed to, getting away with cheating and insulting competitors at every turn. For every Austin 3:16 shirt, there was an NWO shirt to match in those days. It seemed like millions of folks were wearing that shirt, and seeing the heroes of the ’80s turn into the villains of the ’90s struck a cord with viewers, who turned up every Monday to make WCW’s shows the highest rated on cable television.
The Monday Night Wars Had Begun
Incredible to think that 20 years have passed since Stone Cold Steve Austin and the NWO began their rise to pop culture dominance, making both WWE and WCW some of the most popular groups in America. The next four years saw wrestling gain more prominence than ever before, and modern day wrestling hasn’t approached that level of popularity or profitability ever since. It could be another 20 years before anything approaching the impact of Austin 3:16 or NWO happens in a pro wrestling ring, and here they happened within two weeks back in 1996. It was truly a unique time to watch pro wrestling, and both moments still feel powerful even two decades later.