3. Stone Cold Steve Austin
Steve Austin made his WWF debut match on the January 15, 1996 edition of Raw, defeating Matt Hardy. His arrival as the ‘Ringmaster’ epitomised everything tacky about the company at the time, in the midst of a phase inspired by the profitability of cartoon-like characters and superheroes. This ‘Cartoon Era’ forced the dominance of superstars like Ultimate Warrior and Hulk Hogan.
The Ringmaster was awarded the Million Dollar Championship in 1996 by Ted DiBiase. Despite this, the gimmick had little substance behind it, lacking long-term potential, apparent from the very beginning. It’s interesting as we now see Austin as this “I don’t take any s***” type of character, but back then it was completely different. He could have had an incredibly different career had it carried on this way. Austin took his own complaints about the character to the higher powers of the WWF. In response, he was offered even worse names, including Otto Von Ruthless, Ice Dagger, Fang McFrost and Chilli McFreeze. Thankfully Austin was made of better ideas, taking inspiration from a cup of tea and a serial killer, shaving his head, growing a goatee, and becoming Stone Cold.
Stone Cold broke out of the creative confines of the ‘Cartoon Era’, becoming a popular anti-hero, famed for being anti-establishment, drinking beer in the face of his enemies. It was this character switch that pushed him onto bigger and better things, and took it upon himself personally, through changing his actual physical appearance for example, to make the transition as smooth as possible.
Stone Cold Steve Austin was essentially years ahead of his time, and was able to recognize his long-term potential better than WWE operatives. As a result of this, he held 19 championships throughout his wrestling career, and was the fifth Triple Crown winner in WWE history.
2. The Rock
When the fall of 1996 came about, the WWE was a part of major internal change. They responded to the criticisms of the ‘cartoon era’ and were beginning to move into something more complex. Wrestlers like Hulk Hogan were switched with schismatic, swearing superstars like Stone Cold, who pioneered a new, attitude movement in the WWE, standing up to Vince McMahon week after week. This became known as the ‘Attitude Era’.
This new period had little room for babyfaces. It’s safe to say Roman Reigns wouldn’t have survived, when arguably, WWE was on its’ best form. Still, it didn’t prevent the WWE from recruiting a legacy superstar in Dwayne Johnson, debuting him as ‘Rocky Maivia’, an alloy of his father Rocky, and grandfather Peter Maivia. This character came out with a fixed smile, always sticking to good morals, a stark contrast to The Rock. It’s needless to say he wasn’t a fan favorite with chants of “Rocky Sucks” echoing around any arena he was in.
After returning from injury, he became the villain that the fans needed. He came back a man who truly embraced the hate, and began going about business with an unrivaled arrogance, becoming ‘The Rock’. Through his third person ‘egotisms’, The Rock was an established heel, the wrestler everyone loved to hate, but with a rare substance to him that led many to predict a future Hall of Fame induction.
From Maivia to The Rock, this “People’s Champion” was the product of successful reinvention, putting the attitude in attitude era, ensuring legendary status as a result.