Mike Flaherty names the five up-and-comers likely to step out of the defeated champ's shadow
Steve Austin
Credit: Stone Cold Steve Austin: Tom Buchanan/WWF

Who’ll take Stone Cold’s place in the spotlight?

Stone Cold Steve Austin never phones it in, but on Monday night’s ”RAW” (TNN, 9:00 p.m.) he faxed it in…four times, in fact, as color commentator Paul Heyman repeatedly interrupted the proceedings to keep viewers up-to-date on the paranoid rattlesnake’s bilious ranting.

It’s a tribute to Austin’s star power that, even after his humiliating loss of the Heavyweight title belt to Kurt Angle at ”Unforgiven” and subsequent absence from WWF television, he has loomed larger than ever, with both WWF and Alliance superstars wondering what’s keeping him away and what he has planned when he returns. But the really good news is that, despite this overarching ”Waiting for Godot” -like mystery, an AWOL Austin left a healthy chunk of air time to develop some promising lesser lights. To wit:

Rob Van Dam The high-flying ECW vet has taken the WWF by storm and, by all appearances, is destined to reach Austin/Rock-worthy megastardom. His laid-back nice-guy egotism makes for a goofily refreshing persona, and as he gets nudged into the thick of the WWF-Alliance rivalry, expect RVD to be a main-event fixture very soon.

Hurricane Helms The prevailing wisdom is that ”character” wrestlers are a thing of the past, but for reasons even I can’t explain, Helm’s superhero shtick has been a real hoot thus far. Having gained a sidekick last night in Molly Holly, all he needs now is some valiant new theme music and substantial ring time to demonstrate his formidable fighting chops.

William Regal The buttoned-down WWF commissioner has been killing lately, both in the scathing verbal altercations he’s had in his office with various troublemaking ”toerags” and his ring work with Lance Storm, a potentially classic rivalry if ever there was one.

Christian Okay, so we learned last night from his estranged sibling, Edge, that he still wets the bed. No matter; this droll Canadian flake is still arguably the greatest comic weapon in the WWF arsenal. (And how ’bout that awesome new entrance music?) I see a show-stealing cage match in the brothers’ future.

Big Show Sure, this 500-lb. galoot has been given more than his share of pushes, but I have a good feeling about his recent pairing with Spike Dudley (aka Little Show). This Thursday’s ”Smackdown” will find the two enjoying a boys’ night out, so as to cheer up the brokenhearted, Molly-less Spike. Not to be missed.

How are you feeling about WWF television, sans Austin?

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