"Stone Cold" Steve Austin's unannounced return to the ring at Wrestlemania 38 made headlines and pleased long-time wrestling fans, but it also highlighted one of the biggest problems facing WWE. Austin was the most high-profile of several guest stars involved with WWE's flagship event, including part-time "special attraction" wrestlers and non-wrestling celebrities. While many of these guests were well-received, WWE is becoming increasingly reliant on stars from the past or from outside wrestling, showing the difficulties it has had creating new stars.

The legendary "Stone Cold" Steve Austin headlined Wrestlemania 38 night one in what was advertised as a talk show appearance with contemporary wrestler Kevin Owens. Most fans expected that the show would end with a physical confrontation or perhaps a very short match akin to The Rock crushing Erick Rowan at Wrestlemania 32 in a matter of seconds. Instead, what followed was a full-fledged match. It was Austin's first match in 19 years, and a sight that many fans thought they would never see given the star's well-publicized injuries.

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Steve Austin's return would be a big deal under any circumstances, but it is still concerning that a star from two decades prior is headlining WWE's biggest show of the year. Austin was far from the only unusual name on Wrestlemania. His old nemesis Vince McMahon had his own impromptu WrestleMania match the following night against Pat McAfee, the football player turned podcaster and WWE commentator. Brock Lesnar, who has made irregular appearances on pay-per-view since his return to WWE in 2014, wrestled Roman Reigns in the second night's main event for both of WWE's world titles. Special attractions and part-time stars were up and down Wrestlemania, from celebrities like Johnny Knoxville and Logan Paul to UFC icon Ronda Rousey.

Stone Cold Steve Austin Stuns Kevin Owens at WWE WrestleMania 38
Photo: WWE

The inclusion of all of these guest stars came at the expense of WWE's full-time roster. Most notably, secondary champions and tremendously talented wrestlers Ricochet and Finn Balor didn't appear on either night of Wrestlemania, with the latter stuffed into a battle royal on Fox's Friday Night Smackdown. Apart from the four women competing in big championship matches, most of the women's division was crowded into a four-way tag team title match or left off the show entirely. The New Day's match against Sheamus and Ridge Holland was bumped from the first night for time and given just two minutes of in-ring time on the second night, substantially less than retired WWE legends Triple H and The Undertaker's near-wordless appearances.

The focus on past legends and part-time stars has been a problem affecting WWE for years, such as Lesnar largely running roughshod over the WWE roster. Putting Austin in the Wrestlemania main event was the right decision on the night, because no contemporary wrestler would be able to get as big of a reaction as Stone Cold's return match. But this in itself shows the problem WWE is facing: its stars from decades past, and celebrities from other elements of culture, feel more important and interesting than its modern wrestlers. Performing on WWE weekly television, with its repetitive and often misguided writing, seems to make wrestlers less of a star instead of more of one.

From Mr. T's appearance at WrestleMania I onward, celebrity guests and past stars have always been a part of WrestleMania—there is even a celebrity wing of the WWE Hall of Fame to prove this—and Knoxville and Paul both fit great in the world of WWE. But at WrestleMania 38 the guests seemed to eclipse everything else, culminating in "Stone Cold" Steve Austin's main event appearance. A lapsed or casual wrestling fan watching WrestleMania may enjoy seeing familiar faces, but would have little motivation to watch WWE programming the rest of the year. With WWE facing renewed competition from AEW, it needs to focus more on its present and future and less on its past.

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