After a historic and newsworthy 2022, with the “retirement” of Vince McMahon, and the backstage fights in AEW, the prospects for an interesting 2023 have already began to take shape before the end of this year. The Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer reported that WWE brass offered “Stone Cold” Steve Austin another match for next year‘s Wrestlemania, which is set to be held over two nights in Hollywood. While you have to take most of what Meltzer reports with a grain of salt because that’s the nature of the business, there seems to be some credibility to the speculation since Steve Austin, the 58-year-old former champion, posted a workout video on social media recently and looks to be in great shape.
The rumors of a return of the ring go along with reports that Austin was happy with his comeback against Kevin Owens earlier this year. Keep in mind, Austin was asked to come out of retirement 19 years after his final bout because the company had to sell tickets to two stadium shows, and it’s no surprise that Owens was chosen as his opponent. Despite the fact that the booking of Owens was hit or miss over the course of his WWE run, make no mistake about it, he’s a quality performer that can do anything management ask of him, and that versatility is what made him a great opponent for a returning legend. Owens made Austin look like a million dollars and was safe in the process. As much as some fans on social media will overlook it, the fundamentals of the industry are always key to success.
Of course, with reports of a return to the ring, there will be speculation of who the opponent might be at Wrestlemania.
The first name to jump from the rumor mill was John Cena, which makes sense because of the location and his status as a new star in the film industry. Adding Cena to the card would make another Hollywood addition to the event, with speculation that we could finally see Roman Reigns vs. The Rock on the second night. If I had to to guess, I’d say that Cena/Austin is the bout that has the best chance of actually happening, as well as being the biggest draw. As we know, Steve Austin is the biggest star in the history of the business and sold more merchandise in a relatively short time than anyone else in the history of the industry. Sometimes it seems like within the Pryo and ballyhoo of the Attitude Era, some fans don’t realize that Austin had an abbreviated run because of the injuries, but still sold more merchandise than any other wrestler in the history of the company. Obviously, Austin represented the Attitude Era more than anyone else on a star-studded roster at the time and along with that was the biggest pro wrestling star when more people were watching a product than any other time in history. On the flip side, Cena is the biggest star of a different generation and his character was tailored to the PG era. That dichotomy and stark contrast between the two is a story that writes itself. Steve Austin was the rebel that broke all the rules to become the antihero, and John Cena represented the traditional baby face hero. It’s not often that the two biggest stars from two different generations truly get a chance to face off on a big time stage because the timing usually isn’t right. As disgraced as Terry Bollea might be in real life, the last time a generation vs. generation match on this scale happened, The Rock vs. Hulk Hogan was one of the most memorable matches in pro wrestling history. Aside from the draw and the ability to sign him for an appearance, John Cena is also a safe opponent that will make Austin great during the match. With all those ingredients, Austin /Cena is a match that can print money.
However, nothing is confirmed and there are other rumored names that could be an opponent for Austin, assuming Stone Cold wants to do another match. CM Punk, who is recovering from surgery to repair a torn triceps, is a name that has been thrown around, but I put no stock into that speculation. Besides the fact that punk has been injury prone and has a rocky history with WWE management, he hasn’t finished the negotiations for a release or buyout of his AEW deal. That puts the odds against Punk being cleared, either medically or legally, for such a match. Considering how rare another Austin match would be, it might be taken into account that CM Punk proved not to be at the level of a star that could shift the industry when he showed up in AEW, and by that standard alone, the Cena match should take priority. Don’t get me wrong, Punk is a star, but aside from being difficult to work with, his tenure in All Elite proved that he is just a level below the truly top-tier names of the industry, which isn’t meant as a jab against him, but rather a realistic look at his Impact in All Elite wasn’t comparable to when The Outsiders showed up on Nitro. The ratings for Dynamite were relatively the same so Punk’s ability to move the needle was minimal. That’s why I would say that Cena/Austin is the bigger match. In many ways, the bloom is off the rose for CM Punk so to speak. Fans waited seven years for him to return to pro wrestling and it garnered mixed results so by nature there won’t be the same level of anticipation if he returned to the WWE. It might be harsh, but the ratings were the same, Punk was injured for about a quarter of the time he was there, and he buried the company in what will probably be his final AEW appearance.
Another name throwing around was Brock Lesnar and while it’s undeniable that it would be a huge match for a number of reasons, the fact that Lesnar works such a physical style would not gel with the 58-year-old Austin as an opponent. Especially given Austin‘s history of neck injuries, German suplexes and the vast majority of Lesnar‘s offense would realistically be off the table. In a match at that level, you either have to deliver with the fans expect what would be an authentic Lesnar bout against Stone Cold or it could be a disappointing segment. Given how protective Austin is of his legacy, including turning down several offers to to return to the ring before he actually did earlier this year, I don’t think he would want to risk a disappointing performance if his health wouldn’t allow him to work an authentic match on a stage like Wrestlemania.
Former WCW champion, Bill Goldberg has even been mentioned for what would be the WWF vs. WCW clash that everyone wanted to see 20 years ago, but it’s another one of those matches that is better left to the imagination because neither Austin or Goldberg could replicate what they were two decades ago and thus it wouldn’t be what fans expect from such a spectacle. Similar to the Lesner scenario, Goldberg works a very physical style and while none of it is intentional, The Undertaker bout proved that injuries can happen if he’s not in the ring with someone that complements his style. Let’s be honest here, again with Austin‘s history of neck injuries, is it really wise for him to take the spear?
As mentioned, John Cena would be my pick for Austin’s opponent, but just the fact that the match is a realistic possibility for Wrestlemania 39 shows just how unpredictable the industry can be and as cliche as it might be, anything is possible in the pro wrestling business.
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Until next week
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