It was 2004, and Steve Austin needed to make a change.
Following the final match of his illustrious professional wrestling career in March 2003, Austin began spending lots of his time at home in Texas, drinking heavily and re-watching footage of the 1997 wrestling accident that ultimately forced him to retire.
Worst of all, he wasn’t working.
As a 39-year-old retiree, Austin was living a life that contradicted the very essence of both the on-screen “Stone Cold” persona that made him famous and his own real-life self-perception.
Off-screen, he came from a middle-class family in Edna, Texas, and drove a forklift to make ends meet when he entered the wrestling business in 1989.
When he rose to stardom in the World Wrestling Federation (now known as World Wrestling Entertainment) in the late 90s, he did so portraying a working-class character who became popular for drinking beer out of a can and beating up his boss, the real-life WWE owner Vince McMahon.
“I’ve worked my arse off my whole life,” Austin, now 49, explains in a phone interview with Business Insider from the Broken Skull Ranch, the 2,000-acre south Texas property that serves as his part-time home. “That’s just how I was raised. If you’re able-bodied and able-minded, you should work.”
And so, Austin had what he calls a “come to Jesus” conversation with himself, deciding to move to Los Angeles and get back to work in show business.
It took about a decade, but today, he has reinvented himself as a reality television and podcast host, a man who has taken on a special place in the wrestling world that made him famous while simultaneously forging a new path for himself on his own.
“It was almost like a maturation process,” he says. “I said, ‘Hey man, it’s time to put your suspenders back on, get your arse out to L.A., and get to work.’ And that’s what I did.”
Austin started out in acting, playing a small part in the 2005 Adam Sandler movie, “The Longest Yard,” and being a featured member of the ensemble cast of the 2010 action movie “The Expendables” alongside the likes of Sylvester Stallone, Jet Li, and Mickey Rourke.
But while he has since acted in a handful of straight-to-DVD movies, Austin didn’t find his second love, reality television, until 2011. That’s when he was tapped to be the host of “Tough Enough,” a show in which contestants compete for a WWE contract.
Austin enjoyed having the opportunity to be himself without having to memorize a bunch of lines, a part of the acting process he never enjoyed.
His performance caught the eye of Country Music Television, which asked him to be the host of “Redneck Island,” a country-fried version of “Survivor” with competitors from the American South. Austin agreed, and the show’s fourth season premiered December 4.
But perhaps what Austin is most proud of is his second CMT reality show, “Broken Skull Challenge,” the result of a promise the network made to him that if he hosted “Redneck Island,” it would listen to a proposal for a show he himself had dreamed up.
Austin describes “Broken Skull Challenge” as his baby, and it’s easy to see it as a reflection of his no-frills personality.
Simple by design, the show is like an outdoors version of “American Gladiators,” where muscular men and women battle it out in tests of strength and agility that take place inside moats, dirt courses, and sand pits. Austin offers the contestants encouragement and calls the action.
“I just enjoy seeing competition on TV, and I figured there was a space out there for a show like this that is very organic, very down and dirty,” Austin says. “There’s no fancy equipment, and you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure it out if you haven’t seen an episode before.”
It’s a different kind of pressure from the live broadcasts of pro wrestling, but Austin says he loves the fact that the entire CMT network and a crew of 80 people are all depending on him to deliver.
So far, it seems like he has. The show’s second season debuts January 4, and already, Austin says he has been stopped in public by people who recognise him not as “Stone Cold,” the six-time WWF Champion, but as Steve Austin, the host of “Broken Skull Challenge.”
“Now it’s happening all the time,” Austin says. “I’ll always be ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin to many people, but to be recognised for some things that I’ve done on my own is very flattering, and I’m very proud of that.”
At the same time, he has kept one foot in the wrestling world through his podcast, which debuted in April 2013 and broadcasts twice weekly.
Currently ranked No. 1 in iTunes’ sports and recreation category, “The Steve Austin Show” gives its host a chance to channel the creativity and spontaneity that went into his on-screen wrestling interviews as he schmoozes with other wrestling personalities and opines on the state of the industry.
The show has turned him into an elder statesman of sorts, someone whose everyman appeal and legendary status allow him to serve as a liaison between the hardcore fan who calls into his podcast and the WWE management whose product the fans obsess over.
Recently, he conducted a surprisingly candid interview with McMahon, in which Austin drew praise for prodding the WWE owner on some of fans’ most pressing questions.
As part of his preparation for the interview, Austin went back and watched footage of his on-screen rivalry with McMahon from the late 90s. Doing so dug up a wellspring of old memories that made him miss the adrenaline rush of performing live on television every Monday night.
Ultimately, though, the nostalgia was fleeting.
“At the end of the day, I think we all aspire to be successful at what we choose do to do. I was successful in pro wrestling, I’ve been successful in reality television, and I’ve been successful with podcasting,” he says. “And I’m not bragging, but I’ve done that. So yes, I can honestly say I am as fulfilled now as I was when I was in wrestling.”
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