A brief history of The Rock at WrestleMania

With the gigantic John Cena vs. The Rock WrestleMania 28 match coming up Sunday (April 1, 2012) it's time to take a look back at their prior matches on the grandest stage of them all.

Today, we're looking back at The Rock's history at Mania; a review of John Cena's WrestleMania matches will be up later this week.

The Rock has pretty much done everything there is at WrestleMania: he's battled legends of the past, present and future, including the two other biggest WWE superstars over the past 30 years, and he's been part of some of the most memorable moments in WWE history.

Let's take a trip down Memory Lane.

WrestleMania 13: Rocky Maivia vs. The Sultan for the Intercontinental title

Before he was the pie-eating, Hollywood trailblazer known as The Rock, Dwayne Johnson was a smiling, eager-to-please fresh face named Rocky Maivia. He was pushed hard and fast after his debut at Survivor Series 1996, winning the Intercontinental title from Hunter Hearst Helmsley (never heard of him). But Rocky wasn't particularly interesting or appealing at this point, and the crowds were tepid at best and hostile at worst.

Speaking of not particularly interesting or appealing, Rocky's first WrestleMania opponent was the Sultan, who was the future Rikishi dressed up in stereotypical "Arabian Nights" garb. The Sultan was accompanied by the Iron Sheik, who had a bit of residual heat from his 1980s infamy but was years away from becoming an Internet sensation for saying crazy things. Also joining him was Bob Backlund, which is not something the world could have fathomed in 1983.

After a lifeless match won by Maivia, the saddest part is watching him team with his legendary father, Rocky Johnson, dispatch the Sultan, Backlund and the Sheik, while the crowd is absolutely silent because they don't know the dad and they don't care about the son. To make the moment even more surreal, the commentary team of Vince McMahon, Jerry Lawler and Jim Ross is joined by an exuberant Honky Tonk Man (the greatest Intercontinental champion of all-time).

It would get better for The Rock soon enough.

Verdict: Awful

WrestleMania 14: The Rock vs. Ken Shamrock for the Intercontinental title

The Rock was a shooting star at this point, after becoming a villain and joining the black-power group Nation of Domination midway through 1997. He specifically cited the "Die Rocky Die" chants from fans who didn't much care for him.

Ken Shamrock spent much of 1997 and 1998 feuding with members of the Nation. In fact, Rock was constantly beaten by Shamrock but somehow escaped with his title through technicalities or chicanery. Shamrock finally showed his superiority by forcing Rock to submit in the finals of the King of the Ring 1998. (This was actually an important point in Rock's initial face turn in fall 1998; it had been firmly established that Rock would submit to the ankle lock if Shamrock locked it in. So the first time he was able to withstand the pain and get to the ropes, it was a big deal and made him seem like he'd found some courage to go with his bravado)

This match also marked the moment that Faarooq, the Nation leader who suspected Rock was out to usurp him, ran out to the apron, teased running in to help The Rock, and thought better of it. Rock ended up submitting, but he retained the title on a reversed decision when Shamrock wouldn't release the ankle lock. The Rock seized control of the Nation soon after, and a summer feud between the Nation and DeGeneration X ended with him becoming probably the second-biggest star in wrestling. So not a bad year for him.

Also, this happened between The Rock with former Bill Clinton mistress Gennifer Flowers.

Verdict: Fun

WrestleMania 15: The Rock vs. Stone Cold Steve Austin for the WWE title

This is the first of three WrestleMania battles between Rock and Austin, a record that is about to be tied by Undertaker and Triple H. The Rock, after teasing the fans that'd he'd changed his ways, swerved the fans by selling out to Vince McMahon's Corporation at Survivor Series 1998, in a finish playing off the infamous Montreal screwjob a year earlier.

He and Mankind had traded the WWE title in grueling matches in January and February, with Rock finishing off the feud by winning a ladder match on Raw. Though Mankind would get involved here with his desire to be a referee for the match (in fact he won a match with Big Show that allowed him to do so).

Meanwhile, Austin was focused on his battle with Vince McMahon, which came to a head after Vince won the Royal Rumble by eliminating Austin (with distraction from Rock, making Austin seem like the dumbest man in wrestling). But Austin emerged triumphant by beating up McMahon and winning their cage match at St. Valentine's Day Massacre (although being tossed through the cage by a debuting Big Show).

There was also a beer bath.

Fans were almost begging to support Rock at this point, but WWE needed a top villain for Austin and he was the best choice for that role. This match certainly shows the unique dynamic Rock and Austin had. WWE sure was lucky to have two once-in-a-generation stars at the exact same time.

This match, while the least of their three battles at Mania, certainly fits the style and energy of the time, with crazy all-over-the-arena brawling, announce table spots, and many, many ref bumps and run-ins. But in an age where those shenanigans have been tempered, they actually make the match stand out a bit more than it would have at the time.

Verdict: Fun

WrestleMania 2000: Triple H vs. The Rock vs. Big Show vs. Mick Foley for the WWE title

WWE added a bunch of superfluous layers to the usual main-event story of a villain (Triple H) v. hero (Rock) battling for the top prize: Having Big Show battle The Rock for the right to go to WrestleMania after a controversial Rumble, allowing Mick Foley to return for one night after losing a retirement match to Triple H, and putting a McMahon in each of the participants' corners.

Overloading was actually the theme of this WrestleMania, which also included a three-team ladder match, a 13-man hardcore battle royal, a six-person intergender tag team match, a two-fall triple-threat match for two titles ... and no singles matches (except a catfight with Terri Runnels and the Cat).

I was going to convey my thoughts on this match simply by showing an animated .gif or a video showing an out-of-shape Mick Foley (who took the match on short notice) falling a few short in his leap from the top turnbuckle and splatting his face on the announce table instead of landing on Triple H The Rock.

But the Internet has failed me, so you'll just have to take my word for it.

The match is mostly a dull affair that falls flat, with a bunch of brawling between Triple H and Rock that seems like time wasting and so much focus on the McMahons, who were becoming more and more grating as characters, including a big sequence with Shane and Vince fighting in the aisle ways while Rock and Triple H are lying in the ring for what seems like 500 years.

The end is a muddled, nonsensical mess, too, with Vince McMahon, after spending the entire match helping The Rock, turns on him and helpsTriple H -- the man who had turned Stephanie against him -- win, giving us a then-novel moment of a heel walking out of WrestleMania with the belt. Whatever sense it lacked, it did nicely set up the remainder of The Rock-Triple H 2000 rivalry.

Verdict: Ho-hum.

WrestleMania 17: The Rock vs. Stone Cold Steve Austin for the WWE title

This was the apex.

WrestleMania 17 was essentially the WWE's victory celebration in the Monday Night War after buying WCW, the peak of its creative and commercial prowess, and what is arguably the greatest collection of professional wrestling matches ever put on a single U.S. pay-per-view.

The story was simple: In Austin's year-long absence from neck surgery (or being run over by a car), Rock had become the man. And now Austin wanted his crown back. In fact, it had become an obsession. (This video package does such a wonderful job illustrating the story and is certainly the best use ever of Limp Bizkit music)

As you probably know, Rock and Austin had a killer match -- I'd call it the greatest main event in WrestleMania history -- that ended infamously with Vince McMahon storming to the ring and, after a bit of mystery surrounding his intentions, helping his hated enemy win the title.

In addition to the brilliant action and storytelling, there's so many layers packed into this match, with several callbacks to Austin's WWE career, including his use of the Million Dollar Dream and a sharpshooter reversal sequence with both men bloodied. It also popularized the use in WWE of opponents using each other finisher as a psyche-out play.

The image of a bloody Austin repeatedly pounding Rock with dozens of blows with a steel chair is one of the iconic moments in both men's careers, as is Austin and McMahon sharing a beer together, after so many moments of them being at odds -- to wild cheers from the Texas crowd.

And that was the problem: Most fans had no interest in seeing Austin being a villain, and especially joining Vince McMahon, and the audience began to turn away despite Austin's brilliance in that role.

Whether you thought Austin's turn toward the darkness is a brilliant foray into a new direction or whether you thought it was a foolish move that made you want to turn away, it was unforgettable.

Verdict: Must-see

WrestleMania 18: The Rock vs. Hulk Hogan

The Rock transitioned into Hollywood stardom in 2001, which made him a natural rival of perhaps the biggest wrestling star ever -- Hollywood Hulk Hogan, who had returned to WWE in 2002 with his New World Order cohorts Kevin Nash and Scott Hall, and targeted Rock and Austin.

The story was simple: Rock made a basic challenge to Hogan on his first Raw to headline "one more WrestleMania with the Great One." Hogan, full of bluster, tried to blow Rock off, but eventually Rock persuaded him to take the match. Rock left the ring, seemingly having accomplished his task, only for Hall and Nash to sneak from behind and the three men to destroy Rock in the middle of the ring. It was glorious (except for the NWO ramming Rock with a semi; that was just silly).

This match is really about the atmosphere from the Toronto fans, fueled by nostalgia and cheering breathlessly, more than any of the action in the match. But these are two masters of working a crowd. They play off the fans beautifully, and every twist and turn makes the crowd hotter and hotter. By the time Hogan and Rock shake hands after fending off the nWo, with Hogan a hero again, the atmosphere is like a Christian revival.

Rock-Hogan was the last WrestleMania match between two icons of different generations, but it delivered beyond reason. If Rock-Cena even gets a fifth of the reaction that Rock-Hogan got, it will be considered a success.

Verdict: Must-see

WrestleMania 19: The Rock vs. Stone Cold Steve Austin

It was kind of shame that this feud got lost in the shuffle a bit behind Vince McMahon v. Hulk Hogan (no, seriously, WWE promoted that as the No. 1 match on the show) and competing with Brock Lesnar v. Kurt Angle and Triple H v. Booker T. It was the first WrestleMania since the brand split, and WWE was still figuring out how to deal all its cards efficiently.

But the buildup between the two was superb again. Rock had recently returned from another movie absence, this time with a new "Hollywood" attitude, and his work as heel for these few months is my favorite of his career, best demonstrated by the Rock concert in Sacramento.

Austin had also returned in early 2003 after walking out on the company because of creative differences in 2002. His star had dimmed a bit over his previous heights, but in what ended up being his last match (after a health scare), he finally gives his longtime rival a big win. Rock even breaks character and offers Austin an extended thank you in the middle of the ring after the match.

This match is more methodical than the previous two, but it's no less dramatic. If you watch the Rock-Austin Mania series back-to-back-to-back, it's a really vivid contrast from how WWE style evolved from wild brawls and out-of-the-ring antics to more big-move-oriented, in-the-ring affairs with lots of reversals and nearfalls.

Verdict: Fun

WrestleMania 20: Mick Foley & The Rock vs. Randy Orton, Batista & Ric Flair

This was primarily a vehicle to further the Foley-Orton feud, odd in retrospect given that it was Rock's last match for seven-plus years. But he really played a supporting role in backing up Foley and reforming the Rock & Sock Connection to counteract the treacherous Evolution, including giving Foley this memorable pep talk before the match.

The match itself is really entertaining and includes a fun sequence with Flair and Rock trying to out-do each other, plus there's the novelty of Rock & Sock battling with two of the 2000s biggest WWE stars. And it led to a memorable brawl the next month with Foley putting over Orton and helping send him toward stardom.

Verdict: Fun

WrestleMania 27: Rock serves as guest host

The Rock returned to WWE in February 2011 after nearly seven years away and immediately stirred things up by badmouthing WWE champion The Miz and No. 1 contender John Cena during his memorable promo announcing that he'd be the guest host. The giant reaction when Rock's music hits and he walks out still gives me chills.

This led to lots of back and forth between Rock and Cena (and Miz) that culminated in a physical altercation between the two (and Miz) and fueled speculation the two might meet in the ring somewhere down the line once Cena managed to beat the champion (who was Miz, by the way) in the main event of WrestleMania.

Rock's appearance at Mania itself, though, didn't quite live up to the hype. His 20-minute promo hyping up the Atlanta crowd felt out of place and included the same things Rock had been saying since his debut (which has been happening over the past year, too). The comedy during the show mostly fell flat, though I did enjoy this segment with Eve, Rock, and Mae Young.

Rock's involvement in the main event was anti-climactic to boot. He didn't appear until late (with the crowd sitting on its hands a good bit knowing the match wouldn't end until he appeared) and only after a double countout (a finish that fell flat for obvious reasons). Then he cost Cena the match and allowed Miz to retain the title, which sort of seemed beneath him.

This was all basically a setup for the next night's Raw, in which Cena and Rock for WrestleMania 28 was made official. I'm not particularly fond of WrestleMania main events that set up the next Raw to set up the next WrestleMania.

Verdict: Ho-hum

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