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Sting Rounds the Bases

Five years ago, the Icon thought he’d wrestled his last match. Heading into 2023, the Stinger reflects on his four-decade career in the squared circle.

AEW/Ringer illustration

Like too few comeback stories, it all started with a baseball bat. “(I) got a text message out of the blue from some guy named Tony asking me if I’d sign a baseball bat and give it to his team, the Jaguars.” Steve Borden—the iconic professional wrestler better known as the man called Sting—was home in 2017, two years removed from what he believed to be his final match. Following years of hope, self-preservation, and anticipation, he’d started down the path many Monday Night War veterans had dreamed of: a run with World Wrestling Entertainment. In 2014, he was initially cast opposite Triple H and Stephanie McMahon’s Authority, seconding an outnumbered Dolph Ziggler to help Team Cena win a traditional Survivor Series elimination match. After losing to Triple H in a nostalgia-fueled WrestleMania match, he’d return six months later to challenge Seth Rollins for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship at Night of Champions. During the match, Sting landed awkwardly after being powerbombed into the turnbuckle and injuring his neck. It would be the end of his WWE run, and in his estimation, the final match of his career.

Admittedly, his time with WWE hadn’t met his expectations. His white whale—a program with fellow living legend/urban myth the Undertaker—never came to fruition. So to have what could have been a memorable run cut short both physically and creatively would have, in his view, left a stain on a storied, winding career. That 2017 text was the start of what would become the blueprint for a wrestling megastar’s final act: a swan song of both reverence and respect for those hoping for similar stories. Sting would do his research; the text came from Tony Khan, chief football strategy officer for the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars, with whom he’d made contact almost two years earlier. After the unceremonious conclusion to Sting’s WWE tenure, Khan would text him again with an offer to work for his new promotion, All Elite Wrestling. “He said something along the lines of ‘Steve, hey, I hear that your deal with WWE might be over with,’ or ‘you might be leaving’ or whatever, and just want to know if you might be interested in coming back to play over here for a little while…’.” The casual text got an even more casual response, as Sting simply texted back “great to hear from you, and I hope to see you down the road,” not directly responding to the offer he’d received.

There was serious doubt on Sting’s end if he’d ever return to the ring. He recalls the moment in the match with Rollins, and how his immediate response could’ve had more serious consequences. After taking the powerbomb, he knew something wasn’t right with his body. “I actually did [think I’d had my last match] at the time. It was a pretty scary thing. My legs just turned into rubber and … maybe really not smart, but the whole time I’m thinking, ‘I got to get up, I got to finish it, I got to finish. We got to take this thing home.’ So somehow or another, [I] got myself back up to my feet. I started to get a little bit of feeling back in my legs and we finished and went off and had my CT scans and MRIs and all that kind of stuff. And I really thought that was going to be it.” The doctors he consulted recommended surgery, but there were two other sources he’d speak with that gave different advice. Steve Austin, former locker room acquaintance–turned WWE torchbearer, had years of his career taken away due to neck and knee injuries, and Adam “Edge” Copeland was also forced into early retirement due to neck issues. Both elected to have surgery for their ailments, but strongly suggested that Sting wait it out and see if he could heal on his own.

“They’re saying, ‘don’t do it, don’t do it.’ So I held off from getting it done, and probably four, five, six weeks after it, I had pain in my left trap coming down on the left side in the back there. [I] couldn’t get it comfortable.” As time passed, the pain decreased, and Sting was able to resume exercising and training—not expecting to wrestle, but staying ready to keep from getting ready. Ultimately, it was Sting reaching back out to Tony Khan that really set his return in motion. He’d call Khan in early 2020, directly responding to the aforementioned text message. He had cautious optimism; Sting was hungry to get back on the field, but knew that technique and savvy can only do so much when a fastball’s coming down the pipe. He’d been the young lion chasing the Ric Flairs and fending off the Big Van Vaders, the dark warrior keeping the World Wrestling Federation’s Outsiders at bay, and, ultimately, the fully realized Main Event Mafioso that TNA’s new generation of wrestlers wanted to topple. His storied run at the top had lasted longer than just about everyone else’s, and with that comes physical limitations. Sting remembers what he messaged Tony: “‘I got your text a year ago … what were you thinking?’ And he just said, ‘Man, I just want to know if you’re willing to come back and play a little while.’ And I said, ‘Well, Tony, I’m not going to be able to wrestle these young guys. I’m not going to be able to do half the stuff that I used to do. I’m not sure what I have to offer at this point.’ And he asked me if I would do or if I was interested in cinematic matches. I knew that WWE had done some of those. And I said, ‘well, if it’s filmed … like a Hollywood movie, basically. OK, let’s light the scene and set it all up.’”

Originally, Sting was only going to be brought in for a one-off tag team match, assisting Darby Allin in his feud with Team Taz’s Brian Cage and Ricky Starks. Khan was very hands-on with Sting’s reintegration into wrestling and familiarizing him with today’s talent. “They came out here to my house. We had a ring set up. I’ve got a climate-controlled facility here. It’s a barn, basically, and there’s a gym inside here, but we had a ring set up inside here. Tony sent one here, and these guys were good enough to come and work with me and just kind of see where I’m at. I didn’t even know for sure, and it was a little rough to be quite honest in the beginning, but they found out where I was and then I was able to improve and shake off even more of the rust and it got better over time. But Allin, in the aspect of knowing my limitations and knowing some of the guys that we’ve wrestled … has just been worth his weight in gold to me.”

As the actual filming of the match went on, then-executive vice president Cody Rhodes would verbalize what others in AEW were thinking and whispering. “We got halfway through the filming, and I had Cody saying, ‘Steve, you can still go. You can still do this. Just stop it.’ Tony Khan, same deal: ‘Steve, oh my gosh, you can still go. You can do this, man.’ I stayed away from it as long as I could, but they were so persistent. And then the guys I was in [the] ring with were saying the same thing, and I thought maybe I could try a couple. So we renegotiated.” The match itself was the cinematic format both WWE and AEW had been tweaking fully realized: Elaborate entrances via truck and skateboard, a warehouse built to showcase the kind of torture Allin’s willing to put his body through to illicit emotion, and the presence and physicality the man they call Sting can still provide, four decades into his career. Sting was not only celebrated, but was fully entrenched into his final act: wrestling’s true Iron Man, in both durability and relevancy.

In the grand scheme of WCW’s success, Scott Hall’s Blockbuster card may be as important as Ted Turner’s Diners Club card. Al Pacino’s turn as the cocksure, ruthless, aggressive Tony Montana in Brian De Palma’s Scarface helped Hall craft his “Razor Ramon” WWE persona, which he’d parlay into his given name’s gangland enforcer character in WCW. Later, when helping form his new faction’s ultimate foil, Hall recommended Steve Borden check out Brandon Lee’s solemn, haunting portrayal as the titular character in The Crow. Sting’s always wanted to be something new, something people haven’t seen and something they wouldn’t expect. “Surfer” Sting—with his bright tights, usually emblazoned with a large scorpion, his Bart Simpson–esque bleached blonde haircut and cowl-shaped warpaint—was meant to separate him from the gruff and grizzled look of typical ’80s professional wrestlers. But the introduction of the New World Order would help Sting develop his most enduring persona, that of the reticent, mercurial “Crow’’ Sting. This version of Sting would share the black and white color palette of the nWo, but would engage them in combative sleight of hand, appearing from the arena’s rafters, looking down on their guerrilla tactics from on high. He would at times seem to further their agenda, attacking those they’d also call foe, ominously pointing his Louisville Slugger at past partners, while ultimately keeping his focus on his primary target, “Hollywood” Hulk Hogan and his World Heavyweight Championship. “It came about at just the perfect time in wrestling. It was the perfect storm,” Sting says. “[WCW] launched Nitro, and wrestling was changing so fast during that era. We launched Nitro and Scott Hall jump[s] ship. Lex Luger, jump[s] ship. Kevin Nash, jump[s] ship. Characters were changing, and all of a sudden … Hall and Nash film that real cool, grainy-looking video where they were the nWo and Hollywood Hogan appears. I knew that it was time … everybody really needed to change at that time. And it’s like, ‘What am I going to do? Neon tights, blonde hair, this beating on your chest, this is not going to last much longer. Something’s got to change.’ And so Scott Hall was the one who gave me sort of an idea for the look for the Crow Sting.”

It wasn’t just fulfilling from a creative standpoint. The numbers helped to direct the longevity of “Crow” Sting. When Jonathan Elias’s “Monday Night Nitro Theme/Mean Streets” would play as the cameras scanned the crowd before and after matches, you were likely to see fans adorned in one of two things: a black and white nWo t-shirt or a Sting mask. In a world of gray, fans would alternate between silver and stainless steel. “Fans everywhere, people, even closet wrestling fans were coming out during the excitement of that time,” Sting recalls. “It just elevated my character, the Sting character, into a place where I’d never been. You know, I’ll never forget Eric Bischoff telling me 40, 48 percent of all the merchandise sold at this particular time for WCW is all Hogan (and) nWo merchandise, and the other 52 percent is Sting merchandise, and I was shocked. I couldn’t believe it … ‘less is more’ really worked. And it just put me on a level that I’d never been. It sort of solidified me as being at that level.”

Even with this iteration of Sting’s character only having a three-year run, it would be his most recognizable, with him, Steve Austin, Goldberg and the Rock being the most popular babyface characters of the most lucrative period in pro wrestling. His only real regret for the character at that time would be the lack of a defining moment, including overcoming Hogan and the nWo in proper, definitive fashion. Starrcade in 1997 was to be the apex of the “Crow” Sting character, with Sting, aided by Bret Hart, defeating Hogan and giving WCW the victory in the company’s 18-month civil war. Even though Sting would ultimately win the championship from Hogan, the match was not without its politically-influenced twists and turns, having Hogan look strong in defeat. “What didn’t work,” Sting remembers, “is everyone’s on the same page and moving in the same direction. We have a plan, we have a goal. We get to the building … that day, and everything changes. We didn’t know for sure what we were going to do, literally, until we walked through the curtain. It was a day of just confusion and chaos. Last-minute, behind-closed-door meetings, and it was old-school pro wrestling, man. A lot of chess-playing.”

Sting would defeat his most important rival, Ric Flair, on the final episode of WCW Monday Nitro in 2001. While the history was there, the match itself was a reference to that, not an ongoing program. Sting would take a lengthy break after WWE’s purchase of WCW, riding out his AOL/Time Warner contract. He’d return to wrestling full time in 2003, debuting with Total Nonstop Action Wrestling. He elected to maintain the “Crow” persona, and as time passed, would incorporate more off-the-wall aspects to the character: using different voices, intonations, mannerisms, and breaking the fourth wall. Affectionately referred to as “Joker” Sting, you could see homages to both Cesar Romero and Heath Ledger’s versions of the anarchy-addled Batman antagonist. The most surprising aspect of this was that between his original post-apocalyptic character “Blade Runner Sting,” the Venice Beach bodybuilding “Surfer,” and the brooding avenger “Crow,” the “Joker” Sting is apparently as close to real-life Steve Borden as had been presented on screen. “That’s really an extension of me. Most people don’t see that unless you get to know me. But I do have a personality, and I love to have fun. That’s why I can do the [AEW wrestler and noted funnyman] Orange Cassidy spots with ease. I love that kind of stuff. But I don’t know, it was something that I felt like I needed to, again, evolve and try something different and step out of the box and take risks. I did, and I had so much fun. That one there was [over] more than any other character over the years.

“You talk to somebody like Kevin Nash,” Sting continues. “Marcus Bagwell … Lex Luger … the Steiner Brothers. They’ll tell you. It was just kind of who I was. I was constantly doing impersonations, doing voices and accents. I can remember playing cards with Randy Savage in the dressing room. Every hand I was beating him, and every hand I was playing the part of a different person. And I was just on him and on him and on him. And he got so mad because I was taking his money and he [yells] ‘Knock it off! I feel like I’m playing 10 different people. It’s not fair.’ I love that kind of stuff with the ‘Joker’ Sting.”

Like wrestlers before him (and to a greater, more pronounced, and renowned level after him), Sting tried his hand at acting, but nothing ever really took off. The “Joker” Sting, which had, at best, mixed reviews among American fans and critics, had some of its biggest supporters overseas. “We went to the U.K. and went to Wembley and they absolutely loved it,” Sting explains. “They ate it up, and I had a lot of fun doing that.” Unfortunately for Sting, TNA proved to be another spot that lacked a proper finish. While not specific about any one moment, there are more than a few instances, specifically with on-screen stories and matches, that would lead one to believe they could sour a longtime veteran. “I had the Joker thing, but I didn’t like the way things were going toward the end there. I had to walk away and I thought, ‘Wow, this is a couple of times now that I’m sort of disappearing with my tail between my legs.’”

Sting has hoped for, but never chased, “that moment,” as he realizes that even without a proper sendoff, he’s had a career where the things he may not have celebrated at the time could fill out the meat of most other wrestler’s biographies. He reflects on some of his key Monday Night War–era matches with a kind of “that DID happen, didn’t it?” realization. “Man, I’ll tell you,” he starts off, processing a match that was dubbed one of the best of the Nitro era. “The ones with Dallas [Page] I took for granted at the time, and I got to give him most of the credit for those matches. He really poured in and he wanted these things to be good. I [won’t] say that I was going through the motions, because I always wanted it to be good, too, and willing to sacrifice and do whatever it takes, but he was just more zealous to make it all happen in an awesome way, more than I was. So I regret not being more into it at the time.” While naming some of the matches that really stand out during that time—“the Flair match [at Clash of the Champions I], March of 1988, and some of the great matches I had with Rick [Rude], some of the great matches I had with Leon [Vader] White, Great Muta”—Sting realizing that “those kind of matches didn’t really happen again for me until Dallas Page. As I look back now, I have much more appreciation for them than I did, that’s for sure.”

The matches with the Great Muta aren’t just revered on Sting’s end. The Great Muta, who had his own memorable moments during his brief time in NWA/WCW as well as during the Monday Night Wars, has asked Sting to partner with him for his retirement match. The two (along with Darby Allin) will team up to take on three opponents yet to be named on January 22, 2023, at Japan’s Yokohama Arena. Sting’s motives going into this match are threefold. First, he wants to honor a contemporary that’s done so much for his career. “I was honored, first of all, that Muta wanted me to do that. I talked to him a couple of years ago … he was asking me if I’d want to come back, and I said I would consider doing it. A couple of years went by, and he’s now coming to the end of his career. He reached out again and said, ‘Man, I’d love to have you involved, whatever you’re willing to do.’ I’m looking forward to that, and [I’m] just blown away that he’s like the last one of our era in Japan standing, and the similarities between the two of us. We were always so much alike as far as our size and abilities, styles were different. But I loved working with him in Japan. I loved working with him here in the United States. I mean, the Fukuoka Dome and the Tokyo Dome, 65,000 people. I’ll never forget those times with the Great Muta.” Being able to get a final, bookend moment to some of the great memories he’s had of competing in Japan would be Sting’s second motive. “I’m looking forward to coming back, realizing it will undoubtedly be the last match that I’ll ever have in Japan and maybe the last appearance in Japan, as far as wrestling goes.”

His third reason extends beyond history, past previous relationships of Glory Days. In 1998, Sting gave his life to Jesus Christ. When you ask him about his success, his longevity, his outlook on life, he always circles back to his faith. “I was the guy who wasn’t going to be a lifer in this. I was the guy who didn’t even know what pro wrestling was when I got in … I wanted to be in and out, and here I am all these years later. It’s been 36, 37 years or something like that … there’s life after wrestling. There’s something bigger and I’ve already touched on it already. But if you got kids, you got a wife at home, you got a husband at home, that’s got to be first and foremost, and of course, God. There’s a lot of people out there, a lot of the guys in Hollywood and everywhere. It’s crazy times we’re living in right now and it’s causing a lot of people to be depressed, and [go to] drugs and anger and all that kind of stuff. I’d like to inspire them to look to other places of healing, like God.”

What makes Sting’s particular testimony so powerful among the younger generation is that he gave up so many vices at the height of his fame, not as a last resort. When asked about his longevity in relation to his peers, his answer is succinct. “I stopped doing steroids in 1990,” he says. “A lot of the guys just couldn’t stop. They’ve all got new knees, new hips, shoulders reversed. I have still all the same original body parts, thank God, but that’s part of it. Also, my life changed drastically in August of 1998 when I gave myself, my life to Jesus Christ. I attribute, really, most of anything good that comes out of me [to that], and my longevity is one of the things that’s good, I guess that comes from him and no one else. I was addicted to painkillers and drinking and steroids and drugs and a lifestyle for so many years. The human body can only take so much. A lot of the guys, especially in my era, they couldn’t stop. I was on my way to being one of them, so I attribute the longevity to cleaning out the drugs and the alcohol, the overall lifestyle. Everything got cleaned up. Treating others the way you’d like to be treated and trying to take care of myself in the gym and learning how to train differently over the years as your body ages and the business evolves, and just trying to stay ahead of the game.”

It’s lessons like this he wants to impart on the AEW locker room, most of which were at their most impressionable points at the tail-end of WCW. The man who saw the most success with his colors muted and his words spoken at a premium feels that less will always mean more. “There’s just too much going on [in this business],” Sting explains. “They’re trying too hard with gimmicks and one-liners and taglines and they’re jumping into it too early to let it all sort of evolve organically and see where that leads. As long as you’re not dogging it in the ring and wrestling fans see that you’re out there, balls to the walls, they’re going to appreciate that. And over time, it will elevate you. So as a matter of fact, on that, losing a match, losing match after match after match … losing done right elevates, in my opinion. One thing that I learned how to do is I learned how to lose. I learned how to lose in such a way that by the time the match was over, I was elevated. I always tried to put out so much effort during the match that when I did lose, wrestling fans might think it was a horrible thing.”

Darby Allin, Sting’s aforementioned protégé and tag partner, is more like a kindred spirit than a little brother to Sting, as he’s quick to point out their parallels, both in presentation and mindset. They both have the white and black accented face paint. They’re both quick to action, only speaking when the moment calls for it. And they both understand the importance of drawing their audience into your cause, your message, your very being. But what’s being imparted on Allin runs deeper than arenas, wins, and championships. Sting’s time around Allin helped him understand that regardless of the world’s rotation, some lives, some paths, some struggles, almost stand still. “He’s got the blonde hair kind of like I had when I first started the ‘Surfer’ Sting. He’s like the young guy who didn’t know anyone in the wrestling industry,” Sting says of Allin. “He didn’t have an uncle, a father, a cousin, a brother, a friend, nobody that helped him to get into the pro wrestling industry … He slept in his car. His address was his car. Same with me. He didn’t have a lot of food to eat. At times it just stayed with me. He came in and busted his butt. And he thinks outside the box. He is willing to risk. He never dogs it in the ring. I talk about ‘balls to the wall.’ Well, that’s Darby. He’s got a work ethic that is really good. He loves to think of innovative and creative ways to entertain, whether it be the physical aspect of the match or even just a video promoting a match. Even with his attire and his gimmick and what he does, he puts so much effort into these things and doesn’t want to do what everybody else does, just the same way I was when I first started.”

When Sting brings Darby Allin along for Muta’s farewell match, it’s about more than wrestling. It’s Bernie Mac’s Stan Ross helping T-Rex Pennebaker score, showing a student that the world is bigger than one venue, bigger than one country, bigger than one dream. We didn’t get Steve Borden, the character actor. We didn’t get Steve Borden, the world-renowned bodybuilder. We may eventually get Steve Borden megachurch (or small ministry) pastor, but that’s for another conversation. But Steve Borden looks at all of the things Darby Allin’s working toward when he clocks out, and wants to make sure that the world sees that work. “For Darby, there is life beyond wrestling as well,” Sting explains. “He’s a very creative guy and he’s got ties with some pretty influential people all over the country. I believe that if he stays in the wrestling industry, if he stays here with the AEW, that eventually he’ll have some sort of creative control and some sort of leadership role where he’s coordinating. I believe that he has the ability to do something in film. Anything that has to do with art, anything that has to do with risking your life, he’s going to do. This guy is jumping off bridges 100 feet high. He’s jumping over houses with cars. He has [an] interest in skateboarding. He loves to just be out and about and rubbing shoulders with people that love to experience life to its fullest.”

Sting’s won his world championships, he’s wrestled the very best the world has to offer. He was one of the focal points of wrestling’s pop culture apex, and he defeated demons, both spiritual and corporeal. He’s already plotted out his endgame, which he plays very close to his trench coat’s inside pocket. “Well, I know Darby is going to be a part of it for sure. I won’t have a singles match at this point. Darby will be along with me and I’ll be along with him and we can add more to it as far as I’m concerned. But I have a few people [in mind] and I really don’t want to say now.”

Through the politics of WCW, the managerial shortcomings of his time with TNA, and his ill-timed injury with WWE, the man called Sting’s faith has helped him put things into perspective, and the desire to show the power of living for others has him in position to walk away from the game healthy, humble, and on his own terms. “I want them to just be left with a memory that they’ll never forget, a good positive memory. I want fans to be thoroughly entertained and just having a good time and reminiscing with me. As history begins to come to an end, as the last wave comes into shore, I want to ride it with all those who want to come on with me. Absolutely.”

Cameron Hawkins writes about pro wrestling, Blade II, and obscure ’90s sitcoms for Pro Wrestling Torch, Pro Wrestling Illustrated, and FanSided DDT. You can follow him on Twitter at @CeeHawk.