Among the shirt-folding instructions, clips of puppies hugging babies, and trailers for gritty superhero movies that make up most of YouTube, there are certain videos that seem like they were created to dare viewers to watch them all the way through.
There’s a nearly 24-minute compilation of Stone Cold Stunners by Stone Cold Steve Austin. I’ve watched the entire thing. It’s the equivalent not of a montage of home runs, but of the specific moments when a bat makes contact with a ball for a home run. Watching a seemingly endless stream of the Texas Rattlesnake crushing beers and slamming jaws, a thought dawned on me: The Stone Cold Stunner is the quintessential wrestling move.
The Stunner has a history that predates Austin, even though he was the one to make it iconic. Johnny Ace (real name: John Laurinaitis) seems to have invented the move in the early ’90s, calling it the Ace Crusher; it would become more popular as Diamond Dallas Page’s Diamond Cutter. A few years after Johnny Ace, an ECW wrestler named Mikey Whipwreck started using a similar move, which he dubbed the Whipper-Snapper. There were clear variations in style. Ace went flying, the way Randy Orton does when he hits an RKO, while Whipwreck, who was under six feet and had a self-destructive persona, used his own body against his opponents with acrobatic slams off of turnbuckles and ropes. The 6-foot-2 Austin, though, was accustomed to staying on his feet like the brick shithouse he was (and still is).
The Stunner’s true genius is in its setup. Wrestling is about the shocking moments: the heel turns, the sudden entrance music, the reveals. The point of watching is to see the unexpected. But it’s also literally a performance. The movements need to be timed in order to be absorbed, and wrestlers need to tip their pitches, so to speak. Fans require a stimulus to telegraph the surprise that demands a response, and Austin developed the greatest sequence of all—a simple kick to the gut, delivered before unleashing the Stunner.
You can see how important this is to the whole routine by comparing it to the Whipper-Snapper, which didn’t really have a single emphatic, theatrical setup, and could occur at any moment. Whipwreck’s finisher was versatile, as he’d use it off of turnbuckles, while running, or as an immediate reversal, but it didn’t give the audience a beat of anticipation before the inevitable occurred, an important and intentional adjustment Austin made.
In 1995, Whipwreck and “Superstar” Steve Austin faced off at ECW’s November to Remember. The Whipper-Snapper wasn’t used, and the Stunner didn’t exist yet. Whipwreck won with a sunset flip, pantsing Austin before pinning him.
The next month, Austin and Whipwreck were part of a three-way match with the Sandman at December to Dismember. Whipwreck tried the same move, and got stomped. Austin eventually eliminated Whipwreck, but Sandman pinned Austin.
After his ECW stint, Austin came up with his own version of the Whipper-Snapper in 1996 while training with Michael “P.S.” Hayes in North Carolina. Austin wrote about the Stunner’s origin on his site—the section has since been deleted—in 2012, claiming his version was descended from Ace’s, not Whipwreck’s, and explaining how he came up with the crucial tweak:
When I first started using the Stunner as it would come to be named (I’m not sure who named it, maybe Jim Ross or someone in the office), I simply went into the maneuver without a set up. It was simply delivered with no anticipation. And I’m a little fuzzy on this, but I’m almost positive that Michael and I were talking about the move happening too fast, and that the crowd could not anticipate the action because it happened out of the blue. I needed some type of setup maneuver ala Jake “The Snake” Robert’s signature short arm clothesline that he delivered before unleashing one of the most devastating finishers of all time…The DDT. An easy, and quick solution to this was the kick to the gut, which perfectly set the victim into an effective ‘ready position’. Not only was the kick effective as a weapon to neutralize my opponent, it was also a visual ‘signal’ to the crowd that the Stunner was next…Or was it? Any kind of curveball could be worked into the equation at that point, but from a storytelling standpoint, the Stunner was ‘supposed’ to happen next.
Austin’s explanation points out the necessary hook for success in pro wrestling. The audience wants to be surprised, but at the same time, the audience wants a second to process before what comes next. The kick to the stomach is the appetizer, the warmup, or whatever you want to call it. Mankind put a sock on his hand before the Mandible Claw. Shawn Michaels stomped before his Sweet Chin Music. The Undertaker reached into the sky when he was ready to dish out a vicious chokeslam. The Rock took a good 30 seconds to set up the People’s Elbow. Austin found his opener with a boot to the gut.
Over the course of his career, Austin delivered the Stunner to practically everyone. A few of these remain unforgettable.
Austin’s Stunner to Vince McMahon in 1997 on Monday Night Raw was unprecedented. McMahon was the untouchable chairman, who could be loathed, insulted, but never struck. Austin changed all of that two years into his WWF career, reinforcing his anti-establishment personality by telling the man in charge to kiss his ass and leaving him “motionless” on the floor in front of an overwhelmed Madison Square Garden crowd. Austin was “arrested” as one of the best wrestling rivalries of all time kicked off.
Later that year, Austin wrecked Santa’s shit a few days before Christmas on Raw. To hell with your childhood; Santa got the Stunner.
Austin was cast as the hero in an ECW vs. WCW vs. WWF melee in 2001, fighting his way through enemies as the most ridiculous imaginable action hero. He brawled with opponents normally at first, but the climax of the event had him stunning practically everyone in the ring.
In the main event of Wrestlemania XIV, Austin stole all the anticipation that Shawn Michaels built up with his Sweet Chin Music stomps, reversing HBK’s signature move not once but twice. When he finally hit the Stunner, the crowd lost it as guest ref Mike Tyson counted to three.
One of the most bizarre sequences came when Austin gave the Stunner to not only Vince, but to the whole damn McMahon family, one by one. Austin even delivered one to matriarch Linda McMahon. She sold it poorly, but can you really rag on her for not selling a Stunner?
On the other end of the spectrum, there were those who could make Austin look like he had just paralyzed them for life. The Rock is an ideal example. The masterpiece happens at 1:05 with the double-stunner that’s simultaneously ludicrous and awesome:
Scott Hall was also proficient at taking a Stunner, as he briefly converted the ring into a bounce house:
One of the most important Stunners occurred at Wrestlemania 23, with future presidential candidate Donald Trump as the recipient. It’s notable, because it was perhaps the moment the Stunner fully left the realm of wrestling. (When you vote in the election this November, ask yourself: Do you really want a president who can’t sell a Stunner?)
Austin sold his finisher well in the few instances it was turned on him, showing he understood the mechanics required on both sides of the move:
There are two types of people when it comes to opinions on pro wrestling: Those who hate it for being “fake” and staged, and those who love it for what it is. The Stone Cold Stunner is one of those rare elements of the business that ought to win over both crowds. Imagine a Venn diagram of the “real”—a folding chair to the head, an eye rake, or an arm bar—and the theatrical—a piledriver, chokeslam, or aerial trick from the turnbuckle. The Stunner fits right into the overlap, like few other moves do. The kick is painful; the jawbreaker is performance. It would absolutely never work in an actual fight, but given the internal logic of wrestling, with its Bugs Bunny physics, it worked. It felt like anyone could do it, even a Bills fan.
As Austin explained, the Stunner was versatile. There were entirely different ways to sell it that would still garner positive reaction. Wrestlers could act like they were legitimately injured; the crowd would freak out. Someone like Hall or The Rock could ham up their responses, bringing viewers to the point where they thought they were watching a cartoon; it still worked. There is probably no other wrestling move that had as wide a range of outcomes as the Stunner.
Austin’s entrance theme started with the sound of glass breaking; his entire persona was brash, a metaphorical kick to the gut. The Stunner was a perfect representation of him, and of all the things that have ever been great about wrestling.