Austin versus Rock at WrestleMania 15 solidified both competitors as the top two guys within the WWE. Their rematch two years later, during the WrestleMania 17 main event, cemented their status as the two biggest stars in the entire industry.
World Championship Wrestling, the WWE’s biggest competitor had recently been bought by Vince McMahon. Making WWE the only major promotion in the United States and with all eyes on them, they delivered arguably the greatest WrestleMania of all-time. At the top of that card was Austin versus Rock part two and like any great sequel it expanded the mythos of its predecessor.
For Stone Cold Steve Austin, the first significant moment in the build to WrestleMania 17 took place at Survivor Series 1999. That night Austin was scheduled to face WWE Champion HHH and The Rock in a triple threat match for the WWE Championship. However, early in the show, Austin was run down by a car with a mystery driver, forcing him out of the main event.
In reality, Austin’s neck injury at SummerSlam 1997 had finally caught up to him and he needed time off for neck surgery. With Austin on the shelf, The Rock took the ball as the company’s top guy and ran with it. First winning the 2000 Royal Rumble, before headlining his second WrestleMania in a row, this time in a fatal four-way match.
With a McMahon in every corner, The Rock, HHH, Big Show and Mick Foley put on an exciting main event.
The following month at Backlash, The Rock won his fourth WWE Championship when he defeated HHH. That night he received an assist from Stone Cold Steve Austin who was slowly returning to WWE programming but hadn’t made his in-ring return yet. After trading the belt back and forth with HHH, The Rock remained champion until October when he was defeated by Kurt Angle.
It was in the fall of 2000 when Stone Cold Steve Austin made his triumphant return to the ring. But, before he could reassert himself into the WWE Championship picture he had to settle the score with the man who ran him down, Rikishi.
Claiming he took Austin out for The Rock, Rikishi found himself on the wrong end of an Austin beating at No Mercy 2000. Eventually, it was revealed that HHH was in fact the man behind the plot to take out Austin. A no DQ match between the two was set for Survivor Series. That same night, The Rock further distanced himself from the delusional Rikishi after defeating him in a one on one contest.
Heading into the month of December, Kurt Angle was still the WWE Champion, but the main event scene was about to hit an apocalyptic level of chaos.
The final pay-per-view of 2000 saw a match that was so unique, it has never been duplicated by WWE. During the event, the WWE Championship was on the line in a six-man Hell in a Cell Match. WWE Champion Kurt Angle was joined inside the vicious structure by The Rock, Stone Cold Steve Austin, HHH, The Undertaker and Rikishi.
The Rock’s promo on Monday Night Raw before the show is the stuff of legend. Imitating each one of his opponents, it truly is one of his greatest promos ever.
The match itself was a wild, bloody brawl that saw the Undertaker chokeslam Rikishi from the top of the structure into the bed of a truck. Eventually, a bloody Kurt Angle picked up the win after pinning The Rock. Ironically it was a Stone Cold Stunner that put The Rock down for the three count.
The mid-match stare down between The Rock and Austin is one of the WWE’s finest pieces of foreshadowing they’ve ever done. With the ring cleared the two most popular stars in the industry came face to face and you can feel the anticipation in the crowd before they began brawling.
Their eventual road to WrestleMania was on the horizon, and the fans could feel it.
The Royal Rumble 2001
Neither The Rock nor Stone Cold Steve Austin was scheduled in the WWE Championship match at the 2001 Royal Rumble. So, with a guaranteed spot in the WrestleMania 17 main event on the line, the two rivals entered the 30-man battle royal.
The Rock entered 13th and played one of the iron man roles in the match, lasting 38 minutes. The only wrestler to be in the Rumble longer was Kane. But it would be Rock, Kane, and Austin as the final three. With Kane eliminating The Rock before Austin used two chair shots to the head to eliminate the big red monster.
This was Austin’s third Rumble victory, something that has yet to be repeated.
Austin’s WrestleMania ticket was punched, but he had one more rivalry to close before the biggest show of the year. As for The Rock, his time without the WWE Championship was ticking down.
No Way Out
Stone Cold Steve Austin and HHH’s rivalry was at a fever pitch in February 2001. The only way to solve it was for them to wrestle in a two out of three falls match. The first fall was a regular singles match, followed by a street fight before the two would end up in a steel cage. Surprisingly, HHH picked up the 2-1 victory after he and Austin simultaneously hit each other with a sledgehammer and 2×4 wrapped in barb wire.
A victory I feel should have earned him a spot in the WrestleMania main event, making it a legendary triple threat match. But nonetheless, it was a bloody end to a fierce rivalry that pushed both men to their limits.
On the same show, The Rock ended the reign of Kurt Angle as WWE Champion. Finishing off their underrated gem with a Rock Bottom. The main event for WrestleMania 17 was set. It was a rematch featuring the two biggest stars in sports entertainment.
Before diving into the match, the WWE’s hype video for this match set to Limp Bizkit’s “My Way” could be the greatest hype video WWE ever made. That and the sit-down interview between Austin, Rock, and Jim Ross helps make this one of WrestleMania’s greatest main event builds.
Austin enters first to a raucous ovation from his home state. The Rock follows to a large cheer that quickly transitions into boos. Something quickly noted by Ross on commentary, calling the audience a bi-partisan Texas crowd there to cheer on the revered folk legend that is Stone Cold Steve Austin.
Much like their first encounter at WrestleMania 15, Austin cuts The Rock off during his standard turnbuckle pose and the fight is on. The two brawl to the outside, each looking to take advantage of the no disqualification ruling announced before the match. When they finally get into the ring, Austin pulls off a superplex from the top turnbuckle before removing said turnbuckle pad.
Any time The Rock gets the advantage the cheers he receives quickly turn to boos. Once again reinforcing the fan’s love for Austin. The match spills to the outside again where a distraction from referee Earl Hebner allows Austin to hit The Rock with the ring bell.
Paul Heyman’s commentary during the early portion of the match foreshadows what’s to come. Continuously pointing out how vicious Austin is and how bad he wants the WWE Championship.
Back in the ring, Austin continues his assault on a bloodied Rock. Before the champion busts Austin open by slamming his head into the exposed turnbuckle. The fight spills to the outside once again before one of the best segments of the match unfolds.
With The Rock reeling, Austin gives him the double middle finger salute before attempting a Stone Cold Stunner. A block by The Rock leads to the People’s Champion locking Austin in the Sharpshooter.
With blood streaming down both men’s faces, Jim Ross nails the moment. He references back to Austin’s iconic WrestleMania 13 “I Quit Match” with Bret “The Hitman” Hart.
Austin eventually gets to the ropes, forcing The Rock to release the hold. Before then applying the submission hold to The Rock.
When The Rock powers out of the hold, Austin dives deep into his repertoire. He locks The Rock in the Million Dollar Dream chokehold. But The Rock counters by using the turnbuckle to reverse the hold into a pin. But Austin kicks out at two.
In a shocking display, the Rock hits Austin with his own Stone Cold Stunner. Giving the match its first false finish. This close call brings out Vince McMahon, who walks down the entrance ramp with devious intent. The Rock looks to have the match won when he hits the People’s Elbow, but Vince interrupts the three count.
This enrages The Rock who chases Vince around the ring before eventually leading him into a Rock Bottom from Austin.
Amazingly the Rock kicks out at two, causing Austin’s frustration level to rise. After referee Earl Hebner is taken out inadvertently by The Rock, Austin hits a low blow. In a shocking display, Austin holds The Rock allowing Vince to strike him with a chair. But once again The Rock kicks out at two.
With The Rock reeling, Austin attempts his own chair shot. But Rock hits a Rock Bottom. His last-ditch effort is thwarted by McMahon distracting the referee once again.
The next false finish comes when Austin hits a Stone Cold Stunner. Leading to a vicious chair shot delivered by Austin.
When that doesn’t lead to the final pin, Austin proceeds to strike the Rock 16 times. Finally putting him down for the three count.
In one of WrestleMania’s most shocking moments, Stone Cold Steve Austin and his fiercest rival, Vince McMahon, shake hands before sharing a beer. Jim Ross loses his mind on commentary as his well-documented friend aligns himself with the evilest person in pro wrestling.
A moment Paul Heyman sums up perfectly accusing Austin of selling his soul for the WWE Championship. The audience responds more apathetically than furious, seemingly unwilling to accept Austin’s turn to the dark side.
Stone Cold Steve Austin’s heel turn over the years has been a source of much debate. Some feel the fans weren’t ready to boo their hero and it failed. Others like myself, feel it had potential. But was slowed due to outside circumstances like HHH’s injury and the forced invasion angle.
Either way, Austin and Vince embraced in a handshake is an iconic WrestleMania moment at the end of one of the illustrious show’s biggest matches.
Tomorrow, join me when we finish up the Austin-Rock trilogy retrospective with a look at WrestleMania 19.