On June 23, 1996, Stone Cold Steve Austin won the WWF King Of The Ring tournament at the MECCA Arena. Austin winning this match was another bullet point on his list of accomplishments in professional wrestling, but it was the interview that Austin gave after his win over Jake “The Snake” Roberts that will go down in history.
This moment has been pointed to—mostly by WWE—as the point in their history that everything changed. The way some tell it, Austin did this interview and Vince McMahon’s eyes turned into dollar signs. Austin became a mega-star over night, the company changed their whole attitude instantly, and WCW was destroyed. That’s not quite how it went.
“Austin 3:16” and “Cause Stone Cold Said So” were born in Milwaukee that night and the Austin 3:16 T-shirt that it spawned would go on to be the best selling shirt in company history, but it wasn’t quite as instantaneous as the story is often painted. Austin admits this in his book, Stone Cold Truth, when he says:
“I do have to say that even after I did my 3:16 promo at King Of The Ring and I introduced my new catchphrases, Vince still didn’t listen to my ideas. I don’t think he had ever pushed anybody like me before. I’m not saying I was the best. I was just a different breed of cat. I was trying to be a heel, but I was accepted universally as a babyface. This was new ground for me too. I was just kind of working my way through it, but it was new to me.”
As cool as the idea of the Attitude Era starting in Milwaukee is, it’s hard to make that case when Austin has hair and wrestles Yokozuna on the SummerSlam Free-For-All two months later. The company and Austin still had a long way to go before they’d change the entire industry.
Despite the inflation of this moment in wrestling history, it is still significant and arguably the most important moment in Milwaukee’s professional wrestling history. It was a moment that perfectly melds the unreality of the on-screen product with the reality of what happens backstage. Austin represented the fight for the company’s Attitude future while the rest of the show was filled with the cartoony wrestling that the company desperately needed to leave behind.
Milwaukee has been home to some great wrestling matches over the years and there have been plenty of intriguing behind the scenes stories here as well. The backstage anecdotes of professional wrestling are often more interesting than what appears on TV, and today we are compiling some of the best of those stories that took place in Milwaukee.
Chris Jericho gets heat
Chris Jericho’s WWE debut in Chicago was magical. The company had a countdown clock running through much of the summer that finally culminated on August 9, 1999. The countdown hit zero that night and it was revealed that it was all leading to Y2J. (Get it? Because late ’90s.) Jericho looked like an instant superstar in the segment as he dueled on the microphone with The Rock and the crowd ate it up. Jericho’s second night in the company in Milwaukee did not go nearly as well.
Jericho was told to interrupt one of the top stars in the company, The Undertaker. The longtime WWE star was the veteran leader of the locker room and one of the most respected people backstage. He was the one guy in the company that you didn’t want to cross. The Undertaker was teaming with Big Show and calling himself the “Personification of Evil” at this time. In front of 14,178 at the Bradley Center, The Undertaker cut a long, strange promo about riding motorcycles in the desert and leaving Big Show to die. It was weird, but worst of all it was boring.
When Jericho subsequently called The Undertaker “the personification of boring” in his promo, he was in big trouble. As Jericho tells in his book Undisputed:
He knew it was boring, the crowd knew it was boring, Vince knew it was boring, Funaki knew it was boring. So when I came out and called him on it, I made things even worse because I was kicking him when he was down.
Taker responded to my claims by saying that he had more shower time than I had ring time. At first I thought he was bragging about his personal hygiene (maybe he was a clean and freshly scrubbed Deadman), until I figured out that he was really saying that I was wet behind the ear and should know my role and shut the fuck up. Backstage afterwards, I walked past Shawn Michaels, who glared at my incredulously and offered the following advice: “The next time you cut a promo, maybe you want to avoid calling the biggest star in the company and the leader of the locker room boring.”
Jericho would eventually stop pissing people off and become one of the biggest stars in the world, but his first WWE Milwaukee appearance would prove to be one of the lower points of his run.
Vince McMahon changes his mind
One of the more famous backstage/on-screen stories in WWE history is The Rockers’ “phantom” WWF Tag Team Championship win. The Hart Foundation of Bret Hart and Jim Neidhart were the champions at the time and a match was taped where the Rockers defeated them to win their first titles in the company.
However, during this match both the bottom rope and middle rope broke. The match ended up being a complete disaster, supposedly so bad that it couldn’t air. Later in that same TV taping, the Rockers “defended” the titles against Power & Glory, but a few days later in Milwaukee, both of these matches would be erased from history.
From Bret Hart’s autobiography, Hitman:
“Five days later in Milwaukee, Jim lugged his bags into the dressing room with a huge grin on his face. He’d had a long telephone conversation with Vince earlier in the day and was absolutely stunned when Vince told him that he’d changed his mind. He wasn’t going to air The Rokers winning the belts—The Hart Foundation would keep them, for now.”
One would think Hart would be happy about this, but Vince had already begun making promises about a future singles career for Bret, which were now on hold. While Shawn Michaels, in his own book, would claim the Hart Foundation had successfully campaigned backstage to keep the titles.
With no one happy, Shawn pointing fingers, and Vince playing both sides, this could be considered the first chapter in the long backstage war between Bret and Shawn that would culminate in the most infamous backstage story in wrestling history.
Hornswoggle gets a job
The backstage stories aren’t all drama and fragile egos, sometimes they can actually be positive like the story of Hornswoggle’s hiring by WWE.
The Wisconsin native got a call from another Wisconsin native, Mr. Anderson, because WWE was asking if anyone knew a “local midget” for a comedy segment that the company had planned for Raw in Milwaukee. Dylan Postl, the future Hornswoggle, fit the bill and jumped at the opportunity. The segment—which featured some strange sexual innuendo involving cheese, a jar of peanut butter, and the little person as the punchline—thankfully never aired, but it did give Hornswoggle the opportunity to fulfill his lifelong dream.
Backstage, Hornswoggle learned that the company was looking to hire someone of his stature to be Fit Finlay’s leprechaun sidekick, and he took the initiative to ask him for the chance. He was invited to the next night’s SmackDown in Green Bay to try out for the role. His Irish accent was a big fail, but it must’ve made some impression. Six weeks later, he received a call from Tommy Dreamer looking to hire him. He was lucky to answer, as Dylan tells it in his book, Life Is Short And So Am I:
“Dylan, this is Tommy Dreamer. It’s a good thing you picked up. If you hadn’t, we were going to hire the other midget…”
He would find out later that Mr. Anderson had politicked on his behalf to get him the job, which lead to a 10-year run in the company for the Oshkosh native.
Pat Patterson’s last night in WWE
Pat Patterson was a key figure behind the scenes in WWE’s creative for years, and he most famously invented the Royal Rumble match. In 2004, he decided to call it quits and give up life on the road. His last night was in Milwaukee and the company sent him off with a big party that featured Vince McMahon having Pat sing Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” to the staff and roster.
After the party was over and he had received a big ovation from everyone backstage, Patterson headed back to the hotel. As told in his autobiography, Accepted:
“When I went back to the hotel afterward, I found myself sitting at the bar all by myself and that’s when I started to cry like a baby. What was I going to do now? I think I realized my life as I knew it was over.”
Like nearly everyone who works for WWE, Patterson was called back to duty at some point, but this tidbit might be the most Milwaukee of all the stories on this list. After all, who can’t relate to sitting alone and crying at a bar? Wrestlers, they’re just like us.
Hogan and Beefcake save a naked woman in 70 below
This one will need to be taken with a healthy grain of salt because Hulk Hogan has a unique relationship with the truth, but Hulk Hogan shared this story in his 2002 autobiography Hollywood Hulk Hogan.
“One night in the middle of the winter, my partner Ed Leslie and I wrestled in Milwaukee and started driving back to Minneapolis in a bitch of a snowstorm. It was late, two or three o’clock in the morning, and the temperature must have been seventy degrees below zero.”
“We hadn’t gotten very far when I saw something by the side of the road. I said, ‘I think I see a deer over there.'”
“‘Nah,’ said Ed, ‘That’s no deer. That’s a person.'”
“‘No way,’ I told him. ‘No way there’s a person out there in this kind of weather.'”
“But as we got closer, we saw it was a person. A woman, in fact. And she was as naked as the day she was born.”
Hogan says that the woman told him a Canadian wrestler got her drunk and drove off with her before he got mad at her and threw her out. The two dressed her and got her to a gas station where she was able to arrange a ride home.
“As soon as we were sure she would be okay, we took off. I mean, we had a hell of a long ride ahead of us in that snowstorm. But more than that, we didn’t trust the judgment of a drunk and naked lady to remember which wrestlers helped her that night… and which one dumped her bare butt in the freezing snow.”
Spoken like a real American.
Dean Ambrose has had enough
Wrestling is an art form and just like any other art form, creative fulfillment is just as important to job satisfaction as compensation. No story on this list better exemplifies that than the story of Dean Ambrose (Jon Moxley).
Ambrose was part of The Shield faction with Roman Reigns and Seth Rollins that dominated WWE for the better part of the last decade. The three had many stops and starts along the way, but were finally getting back together when Roman Reigns was diagnosed with leukemia. Real life took over from wrestling and the WWE Universe was shook. Instead of taking this moment to really focus in on Rollins and Ambrose, WWE took the the moment when the fan’s emotions were at their rawest and attempt to exploit them by having Dean turn against Rollins on the very same night. This would begin a strange and unfulfilling run for Ambrose that ultimately lead to him leaving the company.
The worst of this run and the day he decided to leave the company was the November 26, 2018 Raw from the Fiserv Forum. Ambrose didn’t even wrestle that night or even appear in front of the crowd, but he did get vaccinated.
Ambrose hated that segment and said that this was when he knew he was gone from the company. He told his story of that day on his internet breaking appearance on Talk is Jericho:
“We go do the thing, it’s awful. I can’t save it, you know and, uh, we were able to pre-tape that before the show. And it got green-lit by Vince. You know everybody’s high-fiving, ‘Vince loved it!’ I’m like, great. So I was able to get…I got a Southwest flight and I was able to get out that night. I couldn’t have gotten out of that building any faster. Earlier in the day, I’d been like thinking like I gotta walk out. I remember having like a feeling of like dizziness. Like a weird pit in my stomach feeling dizziness and talking to some of my friends like, ‘I can’t work here. What is this? What are we doing? What? Are they trying…like this is so embarrassing.’ You know, like…like actual dizziness. You know what I mean? Like I can’t believe what is happening. So I bolt out of there, I go to the airport and I just like sat at down at the bar in the airport and was just like…so depressed.”
Ambrose would go on to leave WWE a few months later before re-emerging with All Elite Wrestling as Jon Moxley. His leaving WWE and going to AEW would help legitimize the company and create the first true competition to WWE in two decades. While it probably won’t have the same impact as Austin’s 3:16 interview at the MECCA in 1996, Ambrose’s vaccination promo from 2018 managed to change the wrestling world in an equally exciting way.