WWE TOUGH ENOUGH, 8 tonight USA.

PASADENA, Calif. - Though he doesn't admit it, "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, the Hall of Fame wrestler from World Wrestling Entertainment, is warming up.

He gave up wrestling eight years ago after a mishap in the ring left him with two crushed vertebrae in his neck that had to be fused.

But looking at him today you'd never know he quit. Tall, muscular, with a shaved head and blondish mustache and goatee, Austin is back in the game.

As host and drill sergeant from the new USA series, "WWE Tough Enough," Austin imposes the same rigorous standards he once used on himself.

The show pits young WWE hopefuls against each other in the ring, both men and women. "Those first few weeks, you're really judged on your in-ring performance because you're going to have to weed through those who really don't belong," he said in a tony restaurant here.

"And then things start to get tougher. And that's truly based on performance - some people just don't have it."

When he was 7 years old he happened to catch wrestling on TV. It was love at first sight. "We call it 'sports entertainment' these days, but that's what I know and love. So I can watch somebody get in that ring and within five or 10 minutes tell you whether they belong or don't belong, whether they have a chance to make it or 'Hit the road and good luck in your future endeavor.' "

Austin never wrestled in high school, but was an all-around athlete. "I was a pretty shy kid growing up; I was a regular-size kid," he said, ordering salmon for lunch. "In Edna [Texas], the first year you can play football is the seventh grade. . . . Because Edna is a little town with not much going on, the coaches would let me work out as a seventh-grader.

"My whole career from fifth grade on until I was a senior in high school, I didn't drink, didn't party - I played athletics. I had a weight bench outside on our cement slab. And when the high-school gym wasn't open, I would be at home on Friday and Saturday nights working on my concrete slab. . . . I played football, ran track and played baseball."

He earned three football scholarships, chose one to junior college, another to the University of North Texas. "I blew my knee out and rehabbed and played 11 games the next year as weak side defensive end, then I got into the professional wrestling business," he said.

"Over the course of the next 15 years I screwed up some more ligaments in my knees. But my neck is where I ultimately got out of the business."

So impatient to try wrestling, Austin dropped out of college with 17 hours left to finish his degree in physical education. Avidly, he'd watch the matches Friday nights and the workouts the next morning.

"One of the guys, Gentleman Chris Adams, was having a seminar after the show. I knew I was going to that seminar. I paid my $45, all dressed up in black Gibo pants, and a purple shirt, had long blond hair and didn't have any facial hair. I was a pretty good lookin' kid back then before all this happened."

He was already working on the freight dock earning $12 an hour and had no idea what a fledgling wrestler earned. "I was making $15 and $20 a night," he said, shaking his head.

"Because I didn't have any money for food, I went to the store and bought 10 cans of tuna fish, a bag of potatoes and some disposable razors. I would shave using soap.

"For breakfast, lunch and dinner I'd have a can of tuna fish and a potato. I didn't have anything to cook with, so I peeled the potatoes with my pocket knife. After three or four days of that my tuna fish ran out and I hadn't got paid yet. So for 3 1/2 days - until my paycheck came in - I'd peel a potato for breakfast, lunch and dinner. That went on for several months. But I was having the time of my life and learning every time I went to the ring."

The 46-year-old admitted that he took steroids while he was wrestling, and that with the WWE the outcome is predetermined.

"If people think you really don't like each other, it's going to be a heck of a match. But there's cooperation going on out there. Now you're going to be snug and make things look real good, but two guys fighting out there is ugly. It's not what the fans are there to see. They want to be entertained, they want to see the story unfold, what psychology you're going to use, how they can get involved. It's a lesson in psychology which separates the best from the also-rans."

The laws of gravity and physics still apply, he said. "And you can't fake that. When you get a 250-pound guy slamming you, it hurts. Now you're hoping that he slams you down flat because that's the best landing, but bad things happen."

Married to wife No. 4 and the father of two girls, 18 and 14, Austin lives on a 2,100-acre ranch south of San Antonio. "The name is Broken Skull Ranch, because I had to break my skull to get it," he said, smiling.