I wondered how I would cope with the necessity of remaining home-bound during the COVID pandemic. I knew I would inevitably be watching copious amounts of pro-wrestling. It is the very thing that has served to distract me and provide escape from the outside world since I was 9 years old. So far, it’s continued to do just that. It so happened that my playlist was on Wrestlemania 17. I consider this to be one of the best all-around shows WWF has put on, with quite possibly the best main event of all time. For that reason, I chose to reflect on the lead up to the WWF Championship match between Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock. This is not meant to provide earth-shattering insights, simply a reflection and appreciation of the story told by arguably two of the best to ever lace up their boots.
This is a rivalry and a PPV match in particular that has been long talked about as one of the top feuds in all of pro-wrestling, let alone the WWE. The points on why each wrestler connected so well with audiences has been well documented. Many in the pro-wrestling industry cite this match as one of the best of all time…with the exhaustive exegesis of this feud and the match, why do we continue to come back to it time and again?
Since signing up for a WWE Network subscription, I’ve attempted to re-watch every Raw/Smackdown of the attitude era (I used the Raw after Survivor Series 1997 as my starting point). Needless to say, this has been a labor love. I’ve seen great storytelling take place as well as some of the most ill-conceived and poorly aged segments in wrestling history, but back to the point of this. From my re-watching of events leading to Wrestlemania 17 it looked like a perfect storm of characters connecting well with fans, the believability of each guy to have claim as TOP GUY, and the scarce appearance of long form storytelling from WWE booking…again that statement is purely speculation given WWE’s tendency to “shoot on a whim” with booking decisions and remains very plausible this was all “a happy accident” as Bob Ross would say.
My takeaway from re-watching also provided me with the theory that the story of Rock and Stone Cold was longer than the final month leading to Wrestlemania. It seemed to me it was slowly being unfolded almost as soon as Stone Cold returned in September 2000. For that reason, let’s focus specifically on the month after Stone Cold returns from neck surgery, starting with No Mercy in October 2000. As we walk through each PPV leading to Wrestlemania 17, we can touch on what I saw as significant in the building of this feud and ultimately the surprise turn at the end of their main event match:
No Mercy 2000- In the weeks leading to this event the commissioner Mick Foley was leading an investigation into the running down of Stone Cold at Survivor Series 1999. Austin is back, and pissed off that a year of his career was taken. He’s on a rampage to find out who ran him over last year. The investigation produced evidence painting Rock as the prime suspect until his cousin Rikishi admitted to driving the car that ran down Austin. Rikishis gives the explanation that he did this to help Rock, and other “Island boys” get a fair shake in the WWF. Rock is shaken by this admission, and clearly distracted heading into his title match against Kurt Angle. As it turned out, this was all the distraction necessary for an opportunistic Kurt Angle to cash in to win the WWE title from Rock, with some unexpected “help” from a bloody Rikishi. Austin got his hands on Rikishi in brutal fashion, attempting to commit vehicular homicide, and all of us sickos cheered for it. This was a short-lived feud for Austin, as we would eventually come to find out next month Triple H was in fact the one who orchestrated the hit on Austin last year. This leads to the next chapter in the collision course.
Survivor Series 2000-Leading up we get Rikishi now accusing Rock of being his accomplice, which puts Rock in the crosshairs of Austin. We see the first interactions between the two-as Rock would respond via promos to the accusation from Rikishi that Rock put him up to driving down Austin. This came to a head on the Nov 2 edition of Smackdown where Rock pleads his innocence, Austin claims he doesn’t trust anybody, and the segment ends with Rock on the receiving end of a stunner. This is as much interaction as we get until the lead up to the final PPV of the year. In a “twist”, it is revealed that Triple H was the mastermind behind the rundown of Steve Austin. With this revelation, both Rock and Austin get to divert their attention from one another to Rikishi and Triple H. Both men win their matches at this PPV event. Rock wins a match where his resiliency is on display. Rock wins despite “broken ribs” from one of the many attacks from Rikishi leading to the show. The heart of The Rock exhibited in the match continued to endear him to the fans as the people’s champion. On the other hand, Austin displays more brutal, vengeful and heartless characteristics in his match with Triple H. His match ends by dropping a car (with Triple H inside) from a crane.
Armageddon 2000- Rikishi and Rock are still engaged in their family feud. Austin and Triple H’s rivalry continues to heat up. As fate would have it, the final act of Commissioner Foley is putting these four men, plus Kurt Angle and Undertaker into a 6-man Hell in a Cell match. Lead up for the PPV features Rock gives one of his all-time great promos(youtube it) during the last Raw before the event-where he roasts all the competitors in the 6-man HIAC match, including Stone Cold. The following Smackdown Austin and Rock find themselves in an impromptu title match and exchange some blows but are largely kept apart. The crowd’s responses to the stare down was an indicator that although both wrestlers were babyfaces, they wanted these guys to go at it. They get another chance encounter in the HIAC match itself. This time we see a small sample match between the two, and again Austin comes out as quasi-victor. It was Austin’s stunner to Rock that led to Kurt Angle scoring the pin fall on Rock and retaining the WWF Championship.
Royal Rumble 2001-Austin makes his presence felt before the rumble match begins by interfering with Triple H’s title match, costing him a victory over Kurt Angle. Upon Austin’s number being called in the rumble match, Triple H returns the favor before Austin can enter the ring. However, this doesn’t keep Austin down and out for long. At this point we can smell the desperation from Austin beginning to arise, in his mind the comeback can’t be complete without punching his ticket to the main event. To the Championship. Yet again we get an abbreviated match with Rock and Stone Cold as part of the final three in the rumble along with Kane. The corner stare down was greeted with an electric response from the fans. The atmosphere was palpable during their brief exchange. Once again, Rock found himself on the losing end of the confrontation as he was eliminated from the rumble by Kane whilst trying to toss Austin over. While Austin wins the rumble, securing his spot at mania, pay attention to the Rock, who was still at ringside while Austin celebrated. This was purposeful, and gives us further confirmation that Rock was going to find a way to the main event, find a way to Stone Cold. If it wasn’t clear until this point it was now: There was no way we weren’t going to be seeing them fight at Wrestlemania. The how of this would be answered at the final stop before Wrestlemania.
No Way Out 2001-At this event, we come full circle on Austin and Rock’s stories, providing closure and leaving no further distractions on their road to Wrestlemania. Austin entered his final match against Triple H in a well done, vicious “3 Stages of Hell” take on a 2 out of 3 falls match. Austin ends up on the losing side of this contest, only by sheer luck as Triple H collapses over Austin for the pin following simultaneous final blows. Despite the loss, Austin mustered one final stunner to Triple H post-match, solidifying to us at home that Stone Cold still had fight left in him, and wouldn’t hang his head in defeat. Conceivably this was a sign for Austin that he didn’t have it in him to win the big one anymore, another watering of the seed of self-doubt, perhaps this was the beginning of Austin considering implementation of an “insurance policy” going into Wrestlemania. In the main event, Rock and Kurt Angle deliver in a classic championship match (sans the brief Big Show interlude) that ends with a clear Hebner botch and Rock visibly pissed off but nevertheless he is victorious, winning back the title from Angle and avenging his loss in October. By the closing shot of this event, the stage is now set.
Wrestlemania 17-The verbal attacks began the night after No Way Out with the first face-off. As the weeks progressed, we had Rock once again being on the receiving end of two stunners after being held responsible for Austin’s wife, Debra who was made Rock’s manager by Vince. Rock gets his comeuppance-delivering a Rock Bottom and in a shocking move- a stunner to Austin. This was a first. One of the standouts to me during this build was the sit-down interview they had with JR. in this interview both men clearly started playing their hands, Rock showing that he was ready to give his all to beat Austin, and Austin admitting a level of desperation that in hindsight foreshadowed his eventual alliance with McMahon. “I need to beat you Rock” is a powerful statement, and something we hadn’t seen from Austin to this point in his character. I saw this as a crack in the armor of Stone Cold. It was a sign that for all the fierce confidence exuded during this time, he was unsure of himself. This version of the Rock was more sure of himself, skilled, and formidable than their previous encounter two years prior. Stone Cold had been gone almost a year, and fought his way back to the main event picture, and knew a championship win over a wrestler the caliber of Rock would complete his comeback story, and could validate his place in the wrestling world. However, the loss to Triple H still fresh in his mind, coupled with clearly peak performance Rock causing growth of insecurity in Austin. The lead up ends with an expletive filled promo as SmackDown goes off the air again displaying Austin in desperate need to leave Wrestlemania with the WWF championship.
Now we’re in Houston in front of a then record-breaking crowd in the AstroDome. One final time we get the now famously acclaimed build up video accompanied by Limp Bizkit’s “My Way”. In examining this match, I need to provide a disclaimer: My views were heavily influenced by the podcast “The Work of Wrestling” hosted by Tim Kail. For years he has provided commentary on pro-wrestling through the lens of wrestling as a form of art. This has challenged my views of wrestling, and simultaneously evolved how I watch wrestling, and I believe for the better. He provided commentary on the match during one episode. In this he provided insights into the nature of both competitors, the themes of the match and remembered thinking to myself -how could someone be so eloquent in their description of pro-wrestling?! I never allowed myself to dive into pro-wrestling to this level. I agreed wholeheartedly with his insights on the match. Full credit to Tim and his remarkable podcast. For any fan of pro-wrestling and art, give it a listen.
This match was focused on Austin bringing the fight to The Rock, and Rock’s unrelenting resilience and fighting spirit to come back from underneath throughout the duration of the contest. Austin’s desperation swells throughout the match, as Rock exemplifies the “Just Bring It” moniker in his resistance to the onslaught of offense Stone Cold brings his way. As the match develops, so does the frustration, desperation of Stone Cold that he cannot put The Rock down. Vince comes down towards the end of this match, signaling to everyone that something was going to happen. Then we get the shock of all shocks: Stone Cold aligns himself with Vince McMahon. We see Rock display grit throughout the final act of the match. Stone Cold’s rock bottom-kicked out. Stunner-kicked out. Chair shot-kicked out. Rock even hits a last-ditch Rock Bottom, his last offensive maneuver of the match. It takes one final fury of brutal chair shots to finally put the Rock down. There we have it. Stone Cold “sold his soul to the devil” to win the WWF title. This chapter is now over. It would be yet another two years before we got to the final encounter of these titans in 2003.
I realize this appears to be an exhaustive re-telling of the Rock/Austin rivalry in 2000-2001. I might be regurgitating what we already know about this feud. Explaining the significance to see it play out the way it did. What we know from reflecting on this story is it was compelling from start to finish. Perhaps this was something that serves as a damnation of present-day creativity in pro-wrestling, but my intention is not to make us groan at today’s pro-wrestling landscape.
The goal was to appreciate how artful the storytelling was in this specific instance, with these specific characters. I believe that pro-wrestling is a form of live theatre, and when done right it is just as intricate and emotion inducing as other forms of the genre. I cannot help but be moved by the recounting of this epic rivalry-and whether booking decisions were well thought out or not is inconsequential to the final product that we got at this point. We revisit this feud because it felt authentic. We knew it was fiction, but their performances were superb, so we found ourselves emotionally invested in both these characters. We are not looking back fondly on this because of nostalgia-we’re not shouting from our porch “back in my day wrestling was wrestling” and throwing cans of PBR at the younger wrestling fandom. We look back fondly on this story because it was great art. It was two of the best, and their best. It let us forget the world around us and immerse ourselves in the crazy, at times nonsensical alternate dimension of professional wrestling. And that’s the bottom line.