EVERYTHING GREAT ABOUT SPORTS ENTERTAINMENT
(WHAT A MAIN EVENT LOOKS LIKE, SOUNDS LIKE, AND FEELS LIKE)
You think you're special.
The year was 1999. The Rock was WWF champion, Stone Cold Steve Austin was the challenger, and the two men faced off for the richest prize in the World Wrestling Federation. The WWF had finally crawled out from under the boot of World Championship Wrestling after years of being number two but in early 1999, though the WWF was once again the ratings winner on Monday night's, there was still a healthy competition between the two promotions for North American pro wrestling dominance.
Fast forward two years and WCW was out of business, the WWF was at its absolute peak of popularity, and the stage was set for the 17th edition of WrestleMania to be more than just the annual blow off to the big feuds; it was going to be a celebration of WWF's victory in the Monday Night wars.
Little did we know it would also be the Attitude Era's swan song.
But let's back up a bit shall we? Austin won the championship from The Rock at WrestleMania 15 in a great match (which they surpassed the following month at Backlash). Austin went on his way main-eventing and continuing his long running feud with Mr. McMahon. The Rock, meanwhile, kind of meandered. He was too popular to stay a heel so he turned babyface.
His character was in a standstill, however. Were it not for his immense popularity (which only increased with every passing week), he might have slipped off the radar entirely. He had a one-off match with Undertaker for the WWF championship, and went back and forth with Triple H on a few PPV's, but nothing as commanding of the spotlight as what he had between Survivor Series 1998 and WrestleMania. He was wasted in a feud/SummerSlam match with Billy Gunn (designed primarily to get the latter over as a singles star, and secondarily to give the former something to do).
Austin, on the other hand, was at the undisputed top of the food chain. He main-evented every show from Royal Rumble to SummerSlam that year, and though he was everywhere, he was never in danger of overexposure. Fans could not get enough. The freshness of the 1998 feud with Mr. McMahon may not have been there in 1999, but the crowds were still hanging onto every blistering redneck promo and flipping out for every Stunner.
Rock's popularity could not be denied either. He was not Steve Austin-lite; he was his own brand of babyface. His promos were flashy where Austin's were gritty. His insults were designed to demean his opponents whereas Austin's were designed to demonstrate his alpha-male dominance over them. Austin's casual attire was a pair of jean shorts and whatever new release t-shirt was debuting that week. Rock was sporting $5,000 shirts and slacks with sunglasses (indoors!). They were polar opposites sharing one thing in common: they were both beloved by the audience. In mid-1999 Austin was the unquestioned #1 guy. The Rock had risen to become #1a. The two looked destined to meet on PPV (and again, I'm aware that they had already met twice earlier that same year, but The Rock's growth as a character meant the next encounter would surpass the previous). Survivor Series 1999 looked to be the date and place when they would collide (along with perpetual third wheel of the era, Triple H).
Unfortunately, nagging neck problems put Austin at risk for serious injury or even forced retirement if left untreated (mind you it had gone largely untreated for two years). Austin stepped away, knowing he would be walking away from the weekly "glass shatters, mark out" reactions of the fanbase.
With Austin out, The Rock naturally and easily slid into the #1 babyface spot. He didn't just keep Austin's seat warm either. With Stone Cold out, The "Great One" flourished. He set house show records in 2000 that surpassed Austin's accomplishments in 1998-1999. His style expanded the mainstream attention the WWF was already nabbing and helped it grow in popularity and PPV viewership. Who would have thought that when Austin took a hiatus?
Then, almost a year after leaving, the Rattlesnake returned.
I can see it in your eyes.
I can see it when you laugh at me.
Walk down on me and walk around on me.
Apart from a tease here and a backstage segment there, the two were largely kept separate. In January, Austin set his sights on the Rumble, and along with it, a chance to main event WrestleMania in a match for the WWF championship. In February, The Rock set his sights on regaining his WWF championship from Kurt Angle. The beginning of 2001 confirmed what everyone expected as soon as Austin came back to full-time work: WrestleMania 17 was destined to be Austin vs. Rock.
Words can not express how wonderful the build up to this WrestleMania was. Not just the main event, but the entire show. Looking at the now-famous stacked-card and working backward, you can follow the storylines that culminated in matches that helped make WrestleMania 17 the best of all time. There's not a storyline to be had that didn't offer some measure of entertainment. Raw and SmackDown were shows packed wall to wall, with non-stop two hours of entertainment from Hall of Fame talent. It was a true renaissance era for superstardom and fan enthusiasm. And one we're not likely to ever see again.
Austin and Rock's interactions as they inched toward the main event were extraordinary. The reason is largely based on circumstances outside either man's control. Austin was a fresh character after a year away. Again, he didn't seem to be in any danger of being boring in late 1999, but "creative" seemed to be running out of ideas for him. The segments he and Rock had on the half-dozen Monday and Thursday shows leading up to WrestleMania showed that the writers needed the time away as much as Austin did. Rock's character was allowed to flourish away from Austin's spotlight, giving him much more of a presence than he had in spring of 1999. Back then he was merely a wrestling avatar of Mr. McMahon. By the spring of 2001, he was the hottest babyface in all of pro wrestling.
And yet, so was Austin.
There'll never be another two superstars like these two. The circumstances that allowed them both to come up to the top of the mountain under the same umbrella are impossible to duplicate. The natural chemistry between them, true talent on the microphone, and unique connection to the crowds are once-in-a-lifetime, lighting-in-a bottle kind of circumstances.
When you think of WrestleMania "dream matches" or "Icon vs Icon" matches, most think of the Hulk Hogan vs. Ric Flair match that never happened. Most think of Hogan vs. Rock. Most think of Rock vs. John Cena. This is different. Hogan and Flair were the top guys in different promotions, come together for what everyone knew would be a limited time. Hogan vs. Rock and Cena vs. Rock involved guys from different eras colliding.
In 2001 this was a dream match that was brewing right under our noses, and speaking as someone who was watching every Monday and Thursday, we all knew it was a dream match. We all appreciated it for how special it was. We knew it was something we might not ever see again.
The segments, again, were marvelous. Most of the big spots were immortalized in the GREATEST OF ALL TIME VIDEO PACKAGE EVEN IF IT IS SET TO A LIMP BIZKIT SONG.
The dueling toasts of beer between them on the go-home SmackDown before WresteMania was surreal to say the least. It's maybe my favorite go-home segment: Here are these two guys, both who could lay claim to being the best, having had a long history between them, and they are just sharing a drink before they head to Houston (in front of the biggest WrestleMania crowd since WrestleMania 3).
But, of course, the drink turns into a slug fest because ENOUGH TALK LET'S GET IT ON.
Just one more fight
And I'll be history
Yes I will straight up
Leave your s#!t
And you'll be the one who's left
There's a shot of Steve Austin as the main event approached that, looking back, provided some insight into the now infamous finish to the match. Austin is in his dressing room, ready to head out in front of the hometown crowd. Weeks earlier he had sat down with Jim Ross and The Rock and proclaimed "I need to beat you, Rock." As he prepared to walk out the door, he took one last look in the mirror for one long look at himself. He was prepared to do whatever it took to win the championship, and judging by his long stare into the mirror one thing was clear: No matter what, he was going to be able to live with himself when it was all said and done.
The match was fast and furious with both men connecting and reversing signature moves on the other. Though the crowd had been treated to the greatest WrestleMania and arguably the greatest PPV of all time, and though they had showered the event with cheers and boos where appropriate, they had saved enough of themselves to give the main event a crowd befitting such a spectacle. Ross was in great form and played off Paul Heyman (whose thick and gruff accent sometimes could grate) solidly.
The story of the match was two-fold. First, Rock was not the same man he was two years prior. Everything Austin threw at him, Rock had a counter, a reversal, a kick out, a block, something. Second, everything Rock withstood only angered Austin more and more. Toward the end of the match, Stone Cold was busting out Rock Bottoms and Million Dollar Dreams but still, Rock refused to give up. As the match wore on, the challenger seemed to become more and more desperate.
And then Vince McMahon appeared.
My way or the highway.
I can't do it justice. Not the build up, not the match, not the finish. I've rewritten paragraph after paragraph trying. Just watch it for yourselves and enjoy it.
I'll say this: I refuse to let the disappointment of Austin's initial heel turn (by the way, once he found his groove I think he did some of his best work as a heel in 2001) take away from the awesomeness of the story told with this main event on April Fools 2001. It doesn't matter that the follow up was a letdown. What matters is the story told with this main event. The story was a desperate challenger doing everything he could to win the match, being so insecure before the match ever started that he made a deal with the devil himself to ensure his victory, and then, with victory achieved, shook hands with that devil in triumph.
That story, played out on that stage, between those two primary actors, at the absolute peak of not only their popularity but the popularity of their medium around them, makes this the greatest WrestleMania main event of all time.
Sound off, Cagesiders. We will have a retrospective look at the countdown tomorrow, and a week after WrestleMania 30 we'll have a quick look back at that main event (whatever it may be). For right now, let us know your thoughts on this main event. It is, as far as I'm concerned, the only time two contemporary superstars were at the top of the pro wrestling universe and squared off in the main event of the biggest pro wrestling show for the biggest pro wrestling championship.
Whether you saw things my way or not, thanks so much for sticking with this series through each of the 29 installments.
- Ranking Mania main events #2: Shawn Michaels vs. Undertaker
- Ranking Mania main events #3: Hulk Hogan vs. Andre the Giant
- Ranking Mania main events #4: Hulk Hogan vs. Macho Man Randy Savage
- Ranking Mania main events #5: Chris Benoit vs. Shawn Michaels vs. Triple H
- Ranking Mania main events #6: Hulk Hogan vs. Ultimate Warrior
- Ranking Mania main events #7: Brock Lesnar vs. Kurt Angle
- Ranking Mania main events #8: Triple H vs. John Cena
- Ranking Mania main events #9: Steve Austin vs. The Rock
- Ranking Mania main events #10: Shawn Michaels vs. Bret Hart
- Ranking Mania main events #11: John Cena vs. The Rock
- Ranking Mania main events #12: Shawn Michaels vs. John Cena
- Ranking Mania main events #13: Undertaker vs. Edge
- Ranking Mania main events #14: Steve Austin vs. Shawn Michaels
- Ranking Mania main events #15: Batista vs. Triple H
- Ranking Mania main events #16: Mick Foley vs. The Rock vs. Triple H vs. Big Show
- Ranking Mania main events #17: Bret Hart vs. Yokozuna II
- Ranking Mania main events #18: John Cena vs. The Rock II
- Ranking Mania main events #19: Randy Savage vs. Ted DiBiase
- Ranking Mania main events #20: Hogan & Mr. T vs. Piper & Orndorff
- Ranking Mania main events #21: Triple H vs. Chris Jericho
- Ranking Mania main events #22: Hulk Hogan vs. King Kong Bundy
- Ranking Mania main events #23: Triple H vs. Randy Orton
- Ranking Mania main events #24: Hulk Hogan vs. Sid Justice
- Ranking Mania main events #25: John Cena vs. The Miz
- Ranking Mania main events #26: Undertaker vs. Sycho Sid
- Ranking Mania main events #27: Hulk Hogan vs. Sgt. Slaughter
- Ranking Mania main events #28: Bret Hart vs. Yokozuna
- Ranking Mania main events #29: Lawrence Taylor vs. Bam Bam Bigelow