Steve Austin started learning martial arts for the same reason a lot of young men do, but the pain that fueled him through overwhelming adversity was quite unique.
“I was always bullied,” Steve said. “When I was a little kid, I did not realize how different I was from everyone else, but I had all these people ridiculing me. I felt like an outcast. By first or second grade, kids were already ruthless. It was not until I got a little older that I could see that something was different.”
Steve was born with a hip disease called Legg-Perthes, but it was misdiagnosed when he was 3 years old. That mistake led to a rushed medical procedure, during which the surgeon passed out while abusing pharmaceutical narcotics. It was a botched surgery that Steve did not even need, and its by-product was a series of medical and emotional hardships that still affected him decades later.
During Steve’s childhood, his legs were completely immobilized in a metal A‑frame brace that locked his legs in the splits position. The braces were designed to keep his hips aligned, as the disease deteriorated his hips.
Many years later, the boy with steel braces on his legs became the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt with a vise-grip-like guard. Steve is the founder of Sion BJJ in Southampton, Pennsylvania. He is an active competitor in matches that include Metamoris Challenger and Fight 2 Win. In addition to teaching the public, he also trains police officers, celebrity clients, and Hollywood movie fight choreographers.
Steve began training in Jiu-Jitsu almost two decades ago, but he has been fighting since he was very young.
“The first time I had to defend myself was in second grade, after a kid was making fun of me for still wearing diapers,” Steve said. “A side effect of the botched surgery was that my bowel was cut in half. At seven years old, I still had to wear a diaper to school, so kids wondered what the hell was the matter. I got made fun of a lot for that.”
After three years in the leg braces, he was able to slowly transition out of them.
“I wasn’t allowed to walk around,” Steve explained. “I had to be in a wheelchair or use a walker because my legs were kind of like jello. They never really developed during my childhood because I had to crawl around using my arms.”
Steve’s legs weakened so much while he was in leg braces that he constantly got injured from the slightest fall.
“I wanted to be a normal kid and play sports,” Steve said. “But I wasn’t allowed to play contact sports, so I would run track, do bowling, or anything, but I’d get hurt doing stupid stuff and then I’d be out for two months.”
Steve was not physically able to do the things he craved, but that did not tame his desire to do so.
“I grew up watching all the ninja and action movies,” Steve said. “I ran around the house with an elastic bandage wrapped around my head, pretending I was a ninja, and I idolized Conan and Rambo. Conan was this little kid who had his childhood stolen, but he trained and came back a ruthless fighter—ah, man, I wanted to grow up to be like that.”
Steve begged his mother to let him try martial arts, but she was worried about the risks.
“Of course, she said no,” Steve said, “and I realized I might never get that chance.”
As Steve grappled with normal teenage stress on top of his medical problems, he struggled to find a place where he belonged.
“I went through all these different phases trying to find where I fit in,” Steve said. “I tried different styles—goth, industrial, skater—and dyed my hair blue. I got made fun of for that, but I didn’t really care because at least I had control over that, and it took the attention away from my medical issues.”
While playing basketball, Steve was tripped; he injured his knee and broke his foot, but because the hip disease had caused nerve damage, he had limited feeling in his leg.
“I walked on a broken foot for weeks before realizing it was injured,” Steve said. “Three months after surgery, I remember getting into a fight with a kid I didn’t even know, because he teased me for walking with a limp. I was an easy target and getting picked on a lot, so I really needed to learn how to defend myself.”
As Steve entered his teenage years, he kept getting into fights and asked his mother if he could learn tae kwon do. This time she reluctantly agreed, and he started progressing through the belt ranks.
“I was 15 when things were starting to come together for me,” Steve said. “I had a girlfriend, a lot of friends, and I was hanging out and having fun until suddenly it was all ripped away from me.”
The knee he previously had surgery on began causing problems again. He returned to a doctor, who recommended another surgery.
“I just heard the word ‘brace,’” Steve said. “Fuck, I just about lost it. It felt like PTSD or something, and it set me back mentally. I wanted to do all these things, but I’ve got to go through this again?! It was that second knee surgery at 16 that really sent me down a bad path. Sixteen to 18 were not good years for me physically or emotionally.”
That second knee surgery was the catalyst that ultimately drove Steve to a dark place and caused him to be institutionalized.
“Puberty is a motherfucker, and I just couldn’t handle it anymore,” Steve said. “You’re at the peak of your testosterone, and I had all these issues holding me back. Then I found out that I was a product of an affair. My dad didn’t want much to do with me, so I never had that male role model to teach me to suck it up and be a man. It was very difficult feeling unwanted by my own father. It was just a lot of things, and I reached a point that I had a mental breakdown.”
Following surgery, Steve was prescribed narcotic painkillers, which he realized would numb him from feeling any emotional pain.
“I didn’t really care about anything when that stuff was in my system,” Steve said. “I was introduced to really hard drugs, and I was getting high as hell. I lost the ability to care about myself or my life, and I probably made my knee worse because I didn’t want to wear the brace or use crutches. I wanted to be back to normal as fast as possible. I rushed the recovery and hurt myself a couple times overdoing it, but I didn’t give a shit.”
When everything collided in adolescence, it was like mixing baking soda and vinegar, and Steve became reckless.
“I didn’t care, because there was nothing anyone could do to hurt me more than I had already been hurt. I almost felt invincible, but when I looked ahead, it scared the shit out of me because it felt hopeless.”
While taking drugs, Steve cut his wrists and later accidentally overdosed on ketamine, an animal anesthetic referred to as Special K when used recreationally.
“I went through a phase where I just didn’t feel any pain,” Steve said. “I was so used to pain, but I would wonder why things stopped hurting me.”
Steve had a bad reaction to ketamine, collapsed to the floor in the middle of science class, and was rushed to the hospital.
“It’s very emotional even bringing this up now,” Steve said. “That overdose was a wake-up call. I didn’t really have a grip on what was happening, but I remember being rushed to the hospital and feeling like I was slipping into the abyss. I was trying not to let go, because I really wanted to stay alive.
“It was almost like the scene at the end of the Rambo movie, First Blood. I was so angry, but it was all bottled up, and then I just exploded in anger. After going through that meltdown, I felt my life being taken away from me, and I was scared.”
After the hospital, Steve was sent to counselors, who attempted to help.
“It was scary because I had to tell them everything that had been going on in my head,” Steve said. “I was dealing with a lifelong battle of health issues, and nobody could relate. Everyone treated me like shit because of it, and I just wanted to know why. All they could say was, ‘I don’t know what to tell you, man. I’m sorry. God works in mysterious ways.’
“I joke that what does not kill you just puts you in the hospital. There are a lot of people used to having it easy, and when they finally face a challenge and fail, they break because they don’t know how to handle it. You have to build mental toughness to survive life.”
The hospital visit was Steve’s wake-up call, but what really turned his life around was when his girlfriend got pregnant.
“I was only 19, so it was not planned whatsoever,” Steve said. “As a matter of fact, I was completely blown away that I could even have a child. When I found out I was having a son, I decided to become a better person. I wanted to have a child who would be proud to have me as a father. I knew what it was like growing up without a dad, and I didn’t want my child to go through that, and the path I was going down, I was either going to end up dead or in jail.”
Steve wanted to find ways to bring positivity back into his life, so he thought of the time he was most happy. Steve remembered how much he enjoyed kempo, so he returned to martial arts. His instructor started studying Jiu-Jitsu and introduced it to the students.
“I immediately fell in love,” Steve said. “When I went through the ranks in kempo, I started seeing some mystical hooky kind of bullshit. I’ve been in a lot of fights, and I’m never going to get into a fuckin’ cat’s stance. But in Jiu-Jitsu, I got my ass handed to me. I had gotten the worst of it in some fights, but I never got manhandled in a fight like that I did in Jiu-Jitsu.
Steve technically started Jiu-Jitsu at 19 years old, but he said he had been practicing it since he was 2. When he attended his first classes, he was surprised by what they were teaching.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Steve said. “This is what we’re doing? I was doing all these Jiu-Jitsu movements and drills since I was a kid. It’s almost like I was a savant across the mat, because getting around on the ground was all I could do as a kid. It felt natural.”
When people first train with Steve today, they’re surprised by the strength of his guard.
“Your guard feels like you’ve got metal legs,” his opponents have said.
“Yeah, because I wasn’t able to use them the first half of my life,” Steve has said. “I cannot open my legs more than an 80-degree angle, but that space is extremely well trained. It’s perfect for playing guard.”
The more Steve immersed himself in the sport, the happier he became.
“When I started Jiu-Jitsu, it became my center, and everything gravitated toward it to make my life better.”
Jiu-Jitsu motivated Steve to stop using drugs and alcohol, and his relationships changed.
“I started to improve all my habits,” Steve said. “I can’t go out Friday night drinking and eating crap, because I have training in the morning. It became a reason to improve all other aspects of my life. Suddenly, I started seeing these major ripple effects, like who I surrounded myself with. I didn’t need negative people in my life, and I started treating people better.
“Jiu-Jitsu gave me peace in my life because it gave me a healthy way to get my stress and aggression out. I think all men have such a buildup of testosterone and aggression, and we don’t have a healthy way to release it. We’re like a steam kettle: You’ve got to release some pressure or it’s going to blow.”
Steve explained how men in modern society lack a rite of passage.
“We no longer have a test of manhood,” Steve said. “As a matter of fact, we’re almost pussifying everyone now. I feel like the blue belt is your first rite of passage into manhood because you’ve got your ass kicked for about two years. You could have easily quit, but you decided to continue to suffer because there’s a reward at the end. For most people, blue belt will be the hardest thing they’ve ever done because you’re going to fail over and over, but you continue to persevere through failure and start to come out on top a little.”
This growth process becomes addicting for many reasons, some of which are explained by science. Steve described the chemicals that flow through our body—endorphins, dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin, which affect how we feel. Humans get endorphins from exercise. Today most people get dopamine from unhealthy addictions like social media. We get a rush of serotonin from positive feedback and oxytocin from interaction with others. Jiu-Jitsu is addicting because we receive all these benefits while training.
“When they’re out of balance, it’s a recipe for disaster,” Steve said. “But let’s face it, oxytocin is really what addicts me to Jiu-Jitsu. There’s a camaraderie in Jiu-Jitsu unlike in any other atmosphere. The only thing I’ve seen that is somewhat similar is the military.
“We’re going through this journey with each other that’s dangerous, experimental, extremely difficult, but so rewarding. Somebody that doesn’t do Jiu-Jitsu has no idea how many years you’ve gotten busted up and broken on the mat or how many times you’ve gone home to ice, take ibuprofen, and grab a bottle of rum.”
Having Jiu-Jitsu as an outlet has helped Steve find acceptance.
“I had to accept my life for what it was,” Steve said. “I was angry for years and blaming people for doing me wrong. I was playing victim and holding onto resentment. I was a victim of that doctor. I was a victim of my dad. I was a victim of people bullying me. I was that dog that was just poked and backed into a corner for so long that anytime somebody walked by, I would just growl, ‘Stay the fuck away.’ I was always in fight mode.”
Steve told the Cherokee tale of the two wolves that live inside of us. One is bad, one is good, but both are hungry; which one will you feed?
“I was fueled by anger,” Steve said. “I was holding onto things—plotting out revenge against that doctor, and I visualized the day I met my dad and just punched him in the mouth. They were all negative, and the more I fed that wolf, the more life sucked.”
Steve described a dog with three legs that does not go through life depressed. It wakes up, eats, and is usually happy.
“As humans, we start to feel sorry for ourselves,” Steve said. “We limit what we’re capable of because we feel shame, guilt, and depressed about our situation. It’s this awful spiral where it infects everything in our lives.”
Jiu-Jitsu gave Steve strength, not just physically but mentally.
“I realized that not only can I defend myself, but I can beat most people if I have to,” Steve said. “I was no longer weak, nor was I weak-minded. I started noticing little changes, like smiling about things instead of getting pissed off and punching a hole in the wall.
“When I was younger, if somebody made fun of me, I would get angry and go into fight mode. I was insecure and felt like I had to defend myself. Today, I can talk about something because I know 100 percent that if it came down to me having to defend myself, you’re going to regret it.”
“I don’t want to fight by any means,” Steve said. “Now I can defend myself and I have the confidence that I don’t feel like I have anything to prove. If people really want to fight me, I give them business cards and invite them to the gym, and they kind of think twice. Verbal Jiu-Jitsu is one of the coolest side effects of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.”
Jiu-Jitsu taught Steve what success really means.
“Most people look at failure as trying something and not getting the outcome you were looking for,” Steve said. “To me, failure is the moment I try something, it doesn’t work, and then I quit trying. That’s true failure in my eyes.”
When an instructor teaches a new technique, it takes students repeated failed attempts before it begins to work.
“Were those hundreds of times that I did not get the outcome I was looking for, a failure?” Steve asked. “To me, it’s just part of the learning process. You must learn to thrive and grow in failure because that’s the only way you’re going to succeed.”
Did you enjoy this story? Click HERE to get the book with other interviews.
You can read the rest of the stories in the book, “Motivation: Stories of Life and Success From Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Black Belts.” Click HERE to get it at Amazon.
To be notified of new articles, enter your best email below: