Gimme a "Hell Yeah!"
If you know me in person, it is no secret at all that I am a huge fan of Stone Cold Steve Austin. I own t-shirts, DVDs, action figures and screenprints of the bionic redneck. I listen to his podcast weekly. I have a life size cardboard cutout of Austin that lives in the corner of my living room. So naturally, March 16th comes as something like a holiday to me. 3/16, in the 3rd month of 2016, is as good of an excuse as any to re-watch my favorite match of all time, Stone Cold vs. The Rock from Wrestlemania 17. So crack open a few Steveweisers and I’ll give you the bottom line, possibly because Stone Cold said so.
Five years ago, Stone Cold brought me back into the world of pro-wrestling. I had completely tuned out around the year 2000 and never expected to come back. Austin was announced as a special guest referee for a match at Wrestlemania 27, and along with The Rock coming back to host that year, I gave that show a chance and was transported back to being a 10-year-old. Everything was fresh and new and exciting.
Wrestlemania 27 is commonly regarded as one of the worst of all time, but I thought it was awesome. Watching that show led to me catching up on a decade of wrestling content that I had missed out on and opened the door to becoming a fan of performers like CM Punk and Daniel Bryan, which ultimately led to me checking out the independent wrestling scene. Here I am half a decade later and I live and breathe pro-wrestling. Time is a flat circle, I guess.
So with my entire personal diatribe said, I wasn’t even a fan when this match took place. This match easily skyrocketed to the top of my favorites when I was catching up on what I had missed. In 2001, Wrestlemania 17 was huge. It was the culmination of the Attitude Era and the end of the Monday Night Wars. WCW had just closed their doors and WWF had won the war. WWF went out on top by putting their two biggest stars, the two biggest wrestling icons at the time, against each other in an epic showdown for the WWF Championship. The most electrifying man in sports entertainment meets the baddest son-of-a-bitch in all of the WWF.
Stone Cold was nearing the end of his career but was still red hot as a character. After nearly three years fans couldn’t get enough of the beer-swilling establishment-fighting anti-hero. Fans also loved the catchphrase-spewing uber-charismatic Rock. There weren’t any clear dividing lines for a face or heel for this match. Shades of grey all over the place. Together Rock and Austin could put on a comedy show and send the crowd home happy, or instantly hit the switch and go back to being feuding rivals out for blood. Either way the two had some of the best chemistry in the entire history of pro-wrestling.
The match opens with one of the greatest video packages the WWE has ever produced. Of course, as a sign of the times, it’s set to Limp Bizkit’s My Way.
I need to beat you, Rock. I need to beat you more than anything in the world.
The hype video sets the tone for the match so incredibly well. Both men need to win this match to cement their legacy as a legendary performer. To Austin and The Rock, the championship means more than fame and fortune. Two bitter rivals will stop at nothing to prove that they are the better man. Losing is not an option. As hilarious as using a Limp Bizkit song would be in 2016, in 2001 there wasn’t a better song choice that could encapsulate the entire culture of WWF wrestling in the afterglow of the 90s. I choose to bask in the nostalgia. On to the match.
Austin comes out first to a huge ovation set to his theme song that was of course done by Disturbed. Austin is the hometown hero walking out in front of 67,000 fans in Texas. The Rock is out next to another raucous ovation. Rock walks into hostile territory as the defending champion and the action immediately gets going. Jim Ross and Paul Heyman are calling the action, serving as battle narrators.
Austin recorded a live commentary of this match on his podcast a while back and it’s a great insight into his side of the story of what was happening. He explains the psychology of the fight, why they did this move at this time and why they would go to this spot next. Austin would take the referee somewhere in order to distract the cameras from The Rock blading his forehead open off-screen. The camera follows Rock out of the ring to grab the bell while Austin does the same thing. Theses camera tricks help build the intensity of the match because when Rock and Austin come back into frame they’re starting to bleed. Blading was a part of wrestling history and while I don’t yearn for the days of Ric Flair and Dusty Rhodes pouring rivers of blood out of their foreheads. A little bit of color goes a long way in the world of pro-wrestling so long as they keep it safe.
Rock and Austin trust each other so much as performers that they allow for “blind feeds,” as Austin calls them, where the two aren’t even facing each other but they’re prepared for whatever comes next. At one point Austin turns around directly into The Rock swinging the ring bell at him that he didn’t know was coming. Rock and Austin have plenty of experience working with each other and they flow together seamlessly.
All sorts of continuity is called on in the match. It’s no disqualification which allows for plenty of creative freedom for Rock and Austin to display. Austin busts out his old finishing maneuver The Million Dollar Dream at one point while The Rock borrows some moves from Bret Hart, Austin’s other notorious rival. The Rock gets Stone Cold in a sharpshooter submission hold while Austin’s face is covered in blood, an exact replica of what happened in Austin’s match with Bret Hart from Wrestlemania 13.
The two go back and forth. With no clear face or heel, there’s never a moment where the villain takes control of the match until the babyface makes a comeback. They’re 50-50. Rock sells Austin’s offense like he’s getting hit by a truck. About two-thirds of the way into the match Austin slowly starts working like a heel, foreshadowing of what is to come. The first finishing move of the match actually comes when The Rock hits Austin with a Stone Cold stunner. Stealing an opponent’s finisher should normally be a heel tactic, but it wasn’t tonight.
Vince McMahon makes his way down to the ring to thunderous boos. Vince is still a top heel at the time and fans still vividly remember the feud between him and Austin. Vince must be here to screw Austin out of winning once again, right?
Rocky sets up Austin for The People’s Elbow and does it with absolute showmanship. Rock covers Austin, McMahon runs in and pulls Rocky off and stops him from winning. Rock goes after McMahon, runs back in the ring and eats a rock bottom from Austin. The fight is starting to wind down as the theatrics are starting to kick in. The referee goes down and Austin hits Rock with a low blow. McMahon grabs a chair and assists Austin by hitting The Rock with it. The fans start to sense that something fishy is happening. Why is McMahon helping out Stone Cold?
The Rock gets a comeback with a huge rock bottom of his own. Vince interferes again and Austin nails his first stunner of the match. Jim Ross is going ballistic as Vince hands Austin the chair. Rocky gets nailed but still manages to kick out. Middle fingers are flying around as Austin pummels The Rock with the chair some more. Vince cheers Austin on as the crowd starts to realize what’s happening: Stone Cold has turned heel. Austin gets the three count and the win after several more chair shots.
The climax of the match comes as Vince and Stone Cold shake hands. To cap it all off, Vince and Stone Cold share a beer together in the ring as Austin celebrates with the title. Jim Ross proclaims, “Stone Cold has sold his soul to Satan himself to win the WWF title,” and you can easily visualize the veins in JR’s neck about to burst. JR can’t believe what he is seeing and neither can the fans. The fans came to see their conquering hero reclaim what should be his and instead they were betrayed as Austin sold out to win. Austin didn’t win the match by out-wrestling The Rock, he didn’t beat him with the stunner, Austin did it by taking the cheap way out and aligning himself with the bad guys. Austin said he would do anything to beat The Rock and he did exactly that.
Austin has gone on record by saying that he shouldn’t have done the heel turn. Austin now regrets it. However, at the time he felt that his character had run its course and he wanted to try something different. With WCW being acquired by the WWF, he wanted to have a character refresh before going into the future with new characters coming into the fray. The fans certainly didn’t buy it as Austin’s merchandise sales took a huge dive while the mainstream interest in pro-wrestling also died off. Austin’s heel turn isn’t the biggest cause of that; WCW folded, The Rock left for a while to start his Hollywood career and the WWF were forced to rename themselves into WWE. The Attitude Era ended at Wrestlemania 17 and so did the boom period.
This match serves as an excellent season finale of the WWE show. The tides changed and different writers and characters were brought on board. Fans dropped off while the diehards stuck around. Rock vs. Austin isn’t the flashiest match of all time but it easily deserves the accolades of one of the most legendary Wrestlemania main events in history, alongside Hogan and Andre the Giant at Wrestlemania 3 and the iron man match between Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels at Wrestlemania 12. Stone Cold Steve Austin had some memorable moments in his run after this match, but this was the pinnacle of his career. Austin earned his spot in the WWE Hall of Fame with this match and his place as my favorite wrestler of all time. And that’s the bottom line.
by Nathan Dimit (@ndimit)