In this top ten, I have asked of you a number of questions. What is WWEís magnum opus? What is WWEís most historically significant performance? How do you retire a man? What is Vince McMahonís vision? All of these I have answered, and though you may not always agree with my conclusions I am sure you will always know that they are not reached lightly. The same is to be said of number six.
As this list reaches its grand conclusion, I am soul-searching; I am looking into my eyes as a fan and the WWEís eyes as an entity and trying to determine just what I am as a fan, just what WWE is as an entity. In doing so, there is one more question I must ask before this final few moves away from asking questions and turns to the identification of wrestlingís grand concepts. And that question is, if you could put the WWE and everything it is into a bottle, a bottle shaped like a wrestling match, what do you pick? You see, I have chosen its magnum opus, I have chosen its historic watermark and I have chosen its conceptual vision. I just havenít chosen it. In a list of 101 WWE matches to see before you die, I owe to the list, to myself, to you the reader and to the company to select the one match I think best represents the organisation we love, and its unique product. To do that, I now turn my thoughts towards feuds, the pairings that are the building blocks of any given wrestling show and the catalyst through which we identify, historically and in our individual pasts, a particular promotionís worth.
They are our quantifiers of quality, and in lieu of that, here is where I make a sizeable assumption Ė the greatest matches in WWE more often than not stem from its greatest feuds. In a place where the emotional resonance of a match is as significant as the action itself, one cannot exist without the other. These are not mutually exclusive concepts that we can separate. They are symbiotic and only during times that they have perfectly coalesced can we truly distil into thirty minutes the very essence of World Wrestling Entertainment.
So then, what is WWEís greatest rivalry? How do I possibly make that choice? For a man known for scientific writing and clinical analysis, and depending how well you know me, it may come as a surprise to know that I always consciously opt to forego scientific methodologies in making such choices. After all, WWEís product, as previously explored in this series, is all about stories, pulling at the heartstrings and evoking raw emotion from the pit of your soul, and so I must turn to my gut to guide my pursuit because formulae and equations simply wonít do. And whether it is through childhood sentiment or nostalgic attachment or not, my gut makes me turn to one feud ahead of all others, and ahead by quite some distance.
In this series I have already discussed with you at length what the WWE is, and it is many things Ė entertainment, performance art, storytelling, emotion Ė but at the front of the queue is the reason why we all, deep down, watch professional wrestling and live vicariously through it.
The WWE is a superlative of life. As you will come to see in the review that follows, this feud, and this match that saw it culminate in a final ending, is exactly representative of just that Ė a superlative of life.
101 WWE Matches To See Before You Die
The Top Ten
Stone Cold Steve Austin vs. The Rock
March 30th, 2003
Stone Cold vs. The Rock is one of those rivalries that transcended its time. The fact there is a small group of historical elitist fans that would clamour at the opportunity to see them wrestle once more, even though their feud has failed to be relevant for more than ten years now, should speak volumes about the gargantuan level of nostalgia that permeates its memory. But what was it that made their encounters so riveting?
We can, if you like, take the pragmatic view. Simply put, these two men are two of the most charismatic professional wrestlers to ever lace up. Both individuals knew how to work the microphone, if in incredibly different ways. Both individuals knew how to work an enticing and exhilarating match Ė this has already been explored once before in this series. Usually their work together would prioritise a break-neck pace over complexity of content, and that is a facet this match, as we will discover later, makes some attempt to combat. Both individuals had a great look, memorable catchphrases and have since crossed over into the mainstream with a success some pro wrestlers, and most certainly Vince McMahon, could only dream of. In short, both men simply had it, whatever it may be. Often performers of their calibre come along only once in a generation. The fact we got two of them in the company at the very same time, coupled with the historical machinations of Austinís neck injury and Rockís ascension in his absence, seems to make it feel inevitable that they would put together such a memorable series of programmes.
Itís certainly one way of looking at it, and the wrestling analyst in me would suggest this match as proof of just how rare a thing it is for two truly talented men to come along at once and work successfully with one another across multiple platforms. Itís a formula the WWE have tried to replicate in its most recent generation of talent with John Cena and Randy Orton. Rather embarrassingly though, the lack of a reaction from live crowds when those two men have your stereotypical stare-down in a Royal Rumble, for example, speaks volumes for just how impossible it is to manufacture something mother nature decides upon exclusively.
This leads me onto my second point Ė why this one of the three? This series has previously argued the importance of recognising that WWE history is not centred on Wrestlemania, using Match 23, the wonderfully fun encounter the two had at Backlash in 1999, to prove their feud expanded successfully outwards from the Grandest Stage. Ultimately though, itís fruitless to not recognise the importance their Wrestlemania encounters have had within the company, and what the success of those encounters meant for the WWEís Wrestlemania Renaissance that could be seen to have begun with Wrestlemania X-Seven Ė the oft-mooted curtain call show for the fabled Attitude Era. As a matter of fact, it would be easy to pick that second instalment of their famed trilogy; I have already stated that the WWE is a superlative of life, and if anything the Attitude Era has so far been the companyís loudest amplification of that philosophy. If I am looking to distil the essence of this promotion into one match, would not the crowning achievement of that entire period be the most fitting choice?
Perhaps. Being who I am, however, I cannot escape that boutís particular lack of content. Rock and Austinís matches were always matches of their time and so a certain degree of forgiveness is a necessary deployment when analysing any of them, but for me their 2001 clash was simply too far one way and, in the end, I am first and foremost a fan of wrestling. And to follow suit with my opening pragmatic take on this encounter, this match, to my mind, better exhibits both menís more admirable qualities.
First off, for the closing chapter of their epic on-off feud, the two men returned to my favourite of their varied dynamics Ė The Rock was the heel and Stone Cold was the babyface. More importantly, this was The Rock as good as The Rock has ever been. I have already spoken of my love for his Hollywood character, one that was executed with incredible intelligence and a level of creative complexity thatís difficult to comprehend, and that character was never better than at this point in time. And while Austin may have been far beyond his prime, indeed even suffering hospitalisation the night before the event, that simply makes his performance here, arguably, the most superlative of his entire career.
So while it may not be the best exhibition of their defining period and while many others would claim their encounter two years prior to be a great deal more fun, no other match these two wrestled achieved quite as much as this one.
Our pre-match promo is what immediately sets up this otherwise simple one-on-one match as a high stakes ball game. This was Austinís homecoming after his walking out the previous year, while at the same time it was The Rockís search for validation by searching for that one big victory that would crown his full time WWE career Ė defeating the Rattlesnake, perhaps in whose shadow he had always performed, at Wrestlemania. This may not have been for the title gold their previous two efforts had been for, but it was most definitely a battle to decide whose legacy would become the defining one. That it was booked second only to the WWE Championship match that night should tell you how important the company considered those stakes to be, because the truth is that while Wrestlemania X-Seven closed the door on the Attitude Era, this opened up the debate about its defining performer.
Itís interesting hearing JR promote these two combatants as they enter too. His cynical attitude towards The Rockís poisonous obsession with defeating Austin at Wrestlemania contrasts powerfully with his reverential adulation of the latterís reputation, an adulation that has come to ear-mark the relationship he had with the man in question. Itís also immediately apparent that these two men are men of experience, a seasoning that has altered the blustering whirlwind open to their ĎMania X-Seven encounter to a far more cautious, in some ways more silently intense stare-down. Itís almost a tired clichť, but these two menís characters know each other inside out by this point and they exhibit it perfectly, having adjudged the hot temper of their youth two years ago to now feel outmoded.
When the action does begin, with Austin exploding with a salvo of right hands and an early attempt at a Stunner, it does straight away take on the exact same tone of swift intensity that we have come to expect, but itís interesting to note that what I imagine to be the limitations of Austinís health at this stage lend a heavier appearance to his strikes. Heís notably slower, and while, on a practical level, that may seem to indicate he was not able to perform as well as he once did, it seems accidentally beneficial. As they state in their silent motionless opening, these are now veteran seasoned performers and so it stands to reason that the action would feel slower than it once did.
They flirt with previous structural safeties, with Rock escaping an early Stunner to mouth off at the crowd and try to leave up the entrance ramp, immediately delving into a ringside brawl. Itís nice to see things escalate as quickly as they always did before, but itís an even nicer surprise as the match unfolds into a slightly more traditional affair that you might associate more with the Stone Cold whose neck had not yet broken than you would a Stone Cold wrestling his final match.
As a matter of fact, the overriding narrative feels rather New Generation in one sense. The psychology takes the somewhat standard approach of the babyface maintaining the early momentum before the heel gains an underhanded advantage, here with a chop block to the knee as Austin is distracted by the official, before continuing to then focus upon that body part to maintain a prolonged upper-hand. Itís simple and, yes, itís effective, though given their incredibly different previous outings one may be loath to admit it. It does, as a result of that fact, admittedly feel like something of an oddity for sure. A nice one though, I would venture.
In fact I would even go so far as to say that this column series has made this bout something of a revelation to me. I have, by the very nature of what Iíve now done for two years, analysed in increasing depth the ins and outs of the in-ring style of each defining WWE period Ė the innocent simplicity of The Golden Age, the complex content of the New Generation, the unapologetic debauchery of the Attitude Era and the modern day sophistication, albeit with its increasing bad habits. What intrigues me as I watch and review my choice for number six is how it so successfully relates each of these in turn to the viewer, perhaps barring the now historically distant style of the 1980s. Iíve already touched on how the psychology fits more with a pre-í97 Austin, one that sat firmly in the quarter of the New Generation, and it does maintain the same sense of restrained maturity that went with such psychology as well. Their opening is a respectful nod to their previous matches, ones that didnít just sit within the Attitude Era but perhaps came to best represent it, and the fact they more than once retreat to the safety net of the ringside brawl means they permeate that New Gen foundation with an Attitude undertone. And as the match reaches its conclusion, it gives us a display of the worse indulgences of todayís predominant style, with a near endless series of finishing moves followed by near falls to round off their story. Whatís even more fitting is that said bad habit is always at its worst come Wrestlemania time.
The Rock is entirely in-character, and thatís an important factor to understand. It is his work that makes what could otherwise feel dangerously standard instead far more emboldened. In the previous entry on the list, with the presence of Mayweather I touched upon the kind of famous individuals who seem to feel themselves above the rest of society; itís exactly the same ingratiating superiority complex we get from The Rock here too. His vanity and ego is relentless, escalating further and further and further until you fully expect it to prove his undoing. From tapping his head after a counter to wearing Austinís own vest as he continues to give the Rattlesnake an open-top bus tour of Know Your Role Boulevard, The Rock is an enraging individual to watch. He takes on the age-old role of that egomaniac you hate to love and canít help feeling drawn to. If Austinís state of health led to any flaws in how these two men performed this match, The Rockís exhibition of charismatic bravura more than makes up for them Ė itís that sort of generosity in performance that, I feel, always allowed their encounters to ascend to such lofty critical reception.
Not to underrate Austinís own performance however. I keep returning to his health issues at the time because, truthfully, they dominate much of how we should receive his effort. He is here more limited than ever because of them, even if, ironically, it does feel like something of a return to his WWE in-ring roots, but that creates a sense of escalation all its own Ė because of his slower execution and handicapped starting point, it means heís constantly on the back foot, at least after the initial swing in momentum. Thus, as The Rockís advantage becomes ever stronger, Austin is allowed to portray himself as the grittiest, toughest bastard to ever step into a ring. Much of Austinís characterís success relied as much on the integrity of his reputation as a tough son of a bitch as it did his misanthropic brutality to those around him. As a result, by the time heís kicking out of the second Rock Bottom and his face is red raw in its grimace of genuine and seriously legitimate physical anguish, the awe you hold the manís pain threshold in is undeniable. Whatís more is that it makes the ending all the more emotionally accessible Ė Austin was already in the zone of nostalgia, so to make him the underdog in a story based on his past success is a stroke of creative genius.
Itís important to remember though that he still does have his own fair share of the advantage, and out of the three times The Rock gets the upper-hand itís by underhanded means. We get enough from Austin to believe he has a chance of winning, but not too much to make him the favourite. Heís also the first man to nail a finishing move, opening up the beginning of the end as the two indulge in that simple sense of wrestling irony by using one anotherís finishers Ė Austin utilises the Rock Bottom and Rock utilises a Stunner in return. What then kicks off is a tour through both menís most famous weapons. They each hit one anotherís finish, they each hit their own and they each kick out of the lot.
And it is the final physical dialogue that always impresses me the most. Itís an interesting approach to the excessive false finish I so often decry, one I feel is forgivable in lieu of the fact it proved to be Austinís last match to date. It also happens to fit perfectly with the story they built this entire match around. The Rock has a firm advantage by the end, so much so that Austinís loss feels inevitable. Austin gets a final spurt of potential offence but is in too much of a hurry to regain the momentum that he literally walks straight back into a second Rock Bottom. Having already kicked out of a Stunner, a Peopleís Elbow and the first Rock Bottom, The Rock exhibits an appropriate emotional response when Austin refuses to stay down Ė he looks as shocked as he does pissed off. As he gets to his feet and stalks the recovering Rattlesnake, so valiantly battling on, the close-up of his hardened gaze makes clear his ill intentions. This is a man possessed Ė fittingly, a man as possessed as Austin had been with winning the WWF Championship back at Wrestlemania X-Seven. By the second Rock Bottom, Austin is in visible physical pain and his expression canít help but remind this particular viewer of the same ardent grit he showed in 1997 when locked in that bloody Sharpshooter. And just like then, Austin refuses to give in and kicks out again. By this time, thereís a palpable degree of failing energy emanating from the screen and the emotional turmoil at play is drawn more from our desire to see The Rock fail than to see Austin succeed. As Austin helplessly clings on, The Rockís anger increases further, pacing the ring and mouthing offÖand then, he pauses. He stops still. His expression of rage is replaced by an intense intent. Austin staggers right into position and The Rock holds him there, pausing. Then he hits it, gets his three count and what does he do? Nothing. He sits there and does nothing.
In a real sense, no doubt it was so he could take in what would prove to be his final big match in the WWE for a very long time, and the words he speaks to Austin after, we know by Rockís own admission, to be real words between real friends. But in a tribute to the talent of both men, what that closing turn of events reads as is an almost reluctant sense of respect growing in The Rock as Austin continues his other-worldly effort to never give in, the same effort that made him a star in 1997. But where his opponent that night devolved into a bitter, spiteful man, The Rock, while maintaining the same professional jealousy that kicked off the feud, at least allows his reluctant respect to afford Austin a dignified exit.
I realise there was a deal of play-by-play in that description of their closing salvo, but it was a conscious choice. The way they allow this story to end is a thing of beauty, performed almost cinematically. Austinís final walk from the ring feels poignant, and his last salute as an active performer a humble one. Itís too easy to allow ourselves the vanity of a victorious farewell; for Austin to be victorious only in defeat, and through that doing a favour for the man that for so long had performed in his shadow and, obediently, laid down for the Rattlesnake perhaps in the name of nothing other than greater longevity, makes it one of the greatest farewells of all time, and one final testament to the professional generosity both Austin and The Rock were never afraid to show to their opposite number.
Thereís just one problem. Yes, from a pragmatic point of view it achieves a great deal Ė affirmation of The Rockís legacy as the pervasive lasting memory of the Attitude Era, as well as his final escape from Austinís shadow; Austinís final match being paradoxically a homecoming and a farewell, reminding him and the world that WWE was his home and was where he deserved a proper last bow; the overcoming of physical obstacles through consummate professionalism, generous performances and a ridiculous amount of talent; the final act of the WWEís most famous modern feud. In one way, itís almost the right choice for my label of ďWWE in a bottleĒ if for nothing other than the fact it was the exclamation mark on the end of the featured feud of their most financially profitable period, but none of it relates to the idea I posited in my prologue Ė that the WWE is a superlative of life, that pro wrestling is a superlative of life.
The truth is that itís not the wrestling analyst in me that finds this match so appealing; itís the story-teller, the soul-searcher I made reference to in my opening.
This is a practical triumph, for sure, but itís also a match of contrasts. That story hinges on the basic principle that one of these two men has always been victorious in the position they find themselves in, while the other has only ever lost. One is a straight-laced no nonsense Texan redneck with black trunks, no hair and a sense of function that makes him strike at the heart of his objective, while the other is a tanned verbose Hollywood actor straight out of the LA lifestyle, adorned with tattoos and unique ring gear that vainly proclaims his own name in tasteless text and who is willing to put his mission on pause if only to appreciate himself. One had become known as the most profitable star in the companyís history, the progenitor of a new kind of wrestling product that took the company to heights it didnít even see under the leadership of Hulk Hogan and who, even when absent, continued to dominate the entire product, while the other was a man of similar talents who picked up the slack when the former wasnít there, that catapulted himself to mainstream success but who was always forced to languish in the shadows with the label towering over him that he just wasnít Stone Cold. Even the commentary was one of opposites, with JR preaching passionately about the wrestling involved between two of the greats, an attitude embodied by the old school Austin whose attributes he so vehemently defended, while the King instead focussed on the outside accomplishments of The Rock, now a hit movie star with renewed vanity and an exponential sense of narcissism.
Where does that superlative of life factor in? Austinís success was often attributed to the fact we lived vicariously through the man who got to beat up his boss, drink on the job and still succeed. While that may be a simplistic attitude to have, itís nevertheless true that Austin always represented an accessible everyman. Most of us drink, swear, dream of being able to lash out at those we donít like, but all of it is done in the mundane moderation a good society demands. Austin said fuck the society, trust no one and do it anyway. He had the life that many of our inner-anarchists dream of. Austin, in short, was us. And in this match, thereís Hollywood Rock, the representation of societyís modern obsession with fame and the fake sense of superiority that comes with it. He is a man that turned his back on his roots and allowed his new found success in a world none of us could ever know, and many of us shun and criticise because of how abhorrently alien we find it. The Rock returned as a stranger and challenged our greatest hero, challenged us and our world, to an out-and-out fight. The Rock is the kind of sickening superficiality we canít touch but that considers itself and actively crusades to prove itself as above us.
What we have in this match is a battle between two states of existence that very much define how a lot of us see the world. Thereís the world of fame that the tabloids, music, television and most other mainstream enterprises, including the WWE may I add, obsesses over, idolises and purveys as the ultimate desirable state of life to which we should all aspire if we are to mean something Ė that here is The Rock. Then, thereís our world, a world that seems filled with small pleasures that appear so mundane in contrast to the excess of the Hollywood life style. We drink, we fight, we swear; we are flawed and we are often proud of being flawed. We trust few and respect fewer. We consider ourselves above those that consider themselves above us because we know exactly where we came from Ė that here is Austin.
Weíll never be able to shout as loud and appear as successful and will no doubt always fail to convince the world that itís perfectly fine being perfectly fine, just as Austin fails in his match here. But while The Rock leaves with the lasting legacy, the adulation and the fame and fortune he considers to be success, and enjoys now the lionís share of propaganda Austin had enjoyed then, Austin, who once again represents the everyman that is you and I, leaves with his dignity intact and the respect of those around him. Precisely because of this metaphorical take, if wrestling, or more specifically if WWE is a superlative of life and thatís what I have to put in a bottle, I choose this match.
To me, itís not just a wrestling match. Itís a war for your soul in which the everyman is victorious in defeat. Austinís final defeat was as cathartic a justification of how we choose to live our lives as was his entire career in the WWE under the Stone Cold moniker, and there in is his secret to success. Thus I find this match, on a metaphoric level, to be almost existential.
One last word. I know this one got deep. Some of you may agree, some of you may disagree, and many of you may think it all a bit of a stretch. But the truth is I donít do this for adulation, like The Rock. I do it because itís what I know how to do, like Austin. Never have I been prouder of Austin than in the moment of his final salute; perhaps because of that, never have I been prouder to be an everyman either.