Or…The one that drove the final nail into the coffin of the Attitude Era
A peek behind the curtain (no pun intended) before we begin. When I first started putting these rankings together a few months ago I had a pretty good recollection of the vast majority of these matches. I knew which two were going to be numbers one and two from the get-go and I had an idea what the bottom of the list looked like.
I made a quick Word file while each matched ranked in order and emailed it to my co-worker Carlos. He called me up and said "2002 is too low." I said "Really? All I remember from that card is the Hunter-Michaels match" and Carlos said "Watch Brock-Rock tonight and come back to me tomorrow with where you think it should go."
I watched it that night and immediately vaulted into my top tier. After some more moving around, it ended up here. I've seen people call this match overrated. That's cool, you can think whatever you want, but all I ask is that you watch this match start to finish before you pass judgment and consider the greater historical considerations.
Anyway, back to the countdown.
Brock Lesnar was like nothing we'd ever seen before. He was well over 6 feet and was 280 lbs or so of fluid muscle. He had a top-notch technical wrestling background but was also a supremely talented athlete. He debuted in the World Wrestling Federation (right before it got the "F" out) and squashed Jeff Hardy so badly the referee declared a stoppage. This tactic of winning a match was seldom used so it immediately got "The Next Big Thing," as Lesnar was called by his manager Paul Heyman, noticed. By the way, Jeff Hardy wasn't a slouch either. He was a former Intercontinental champ (back when that mattered) and was part of one of the most successful tag teams of his era. It wasn't like Brock was squashing, say, Funaki or someone of that nature.
Speaking of tag teams, Lesnar and Heyman tagged up and beat the Hardy Boyz at May's Judgment Day. This match alone is worth watching solely for Heyman's outfit – he was wearing a black adidas tracksuit with dark Triple-H inspired fist wraps and a backwards Yankees ballcap. Plus Brock has different music than one we are used to. Same great opening guitar riff that gets the crowd popping though. Brock got some "Goldberg!" chants too, but those were gone by SummerSlam.
Brock won June's King of the Ring in a near-squash over Rob Van Dam – himself a former Intercontinental Champion – which earned him a championship match against the undisputed champion at SummerSlam.
That's how Brock went from dark matches to on the cusp of the title in about ninty days. Let's talk about his opponent for a bit.
After beating Hollywood Hulk Hogan at WrestleMania X8 and defending Hogan when the latter turned face on Scott Hall and Kevin Nash, Rock took some more time off. He was making movies by this time (The Mummy Returns and The Scorpion King were already released by the spring of 2002) and everyone could tell that he was destined for a full-time role in Hollywood.
Before he got there, he had some business left in TitanLand. Rock won his then-record seventh WWF/WWE Championship at Vengance in a great match against Bikertaker and Kurt Angle.
Brock put his number one contendership on the line against Hogan. During the match (which was better than you might think but not that much better than you might think) Brock was booked so strongly that be "knocked out" Hogan with a bearhug and then smacked him across the skull with a steel chair. Think about that for a second. Brock was pushed so hard he caused the most-famous wrestler of all time, a man who was legendary for playing the politics game, to look like crap in the ring with no chance of getting his victory back. It was nothing less than astonishing at the time.Main Event Time!
The crowd was on fire. They had just witnessed a near-miraculous performance from Shawn Michaels, back for the first time in over four years, as he and Triple H led them on a over-thirty minute story of highs and lows and chair shots and backbreakers. There wasn't the usual "cooldown" match there was a goofy segment with Howard Finkle, Trish Stratus and Lillian Garcia that was about two minutes long) between the main-event and the semi-main, but this New York crowd didn't need one. They were rabid the entire time.
Brock comes out with his now-familiar music to his now-familiar pop. He was so over it was startling. Remember, at the time he was the bad guy, but clearly the crowd had something else in mind. Have I mentioned that the crowd was awesome? They were awesome. Chants and cheers and applause and everything you want from a crowd at a big card. Rock is introduced (to his customary big pop) and we are off to the races.
Rock's injured ribs were the story here and Brock wasted little time targeting them. Both guys were at their absolute peak in terms of in-ring ability and each did a great job selling and telling a story.
A funny thing happened only about a minute in: we got a loud "Rocky Sucks!" chant. One of the most underrated parts of the Rock was when a crowd turned on him he was good enough to turn on them. As opposed to a guy like John Cena, who says all the right things about not caring if the crowd is with him or against him but then wrestles the exact same match regardless of the crowd, what makes a guy like the Rock so special is that he listened to the crowd and changed his wrestling style.
That was evident here. Rock started playing with the crowd, smirking back at their "Rocky Sucks" chants. Instead of playing to the crowd, he embraced the heel and just ran with it. When we got a "Let's go Les-nar" chant, Rock got a nasty look in his eyes and showed a ghost of a smile and said to himself "screw it, I'll be the heel." The ability to change everything on the fly in front of an unforgiving crowd who's almost literally out for your blood and be good enough to help carry a still-green rookie like Lesnar to a match this good is why the Rock is one of the all-time greats.
Rock makes his comeback to nuclear heat, hurt Brock and then Rock-Bottomed Heyman though the Spanish Announce Table. Tazz, calling the match with Michael Cole, cheered. I guess Heyman still owed him money from EC-Dub. Rock then hit Lesnar with a Rock Bottom, but Brock kicked out, then hit a vicious (B)Rock Bottom of his own (needless to say, the crowd loved all of this). Rock went for the People's Elbow but Brock sprung up, hit a hellacious clothesline and a F5 for the clean-as-a-sheet win as the crowd went supernova. Can't put a man over any stronger than that Rock. Job well done to you both.
This match marked the dawning of a new era. Mick Foley and Steve Austin were gone, the former retiring and the latter leaving the company. We still didn't know what we had left in Shawn Michaels (remember, the SummerSlam match was supposed to be a one-time-only affair so his kids could see him wrestle live. It wasn't until a few weeks later that Michaels felt good enough to tour fulltime). We all knew the Rock wasn't long for the top of the card. For better or for worse, this match definitively ended the Attitude Era. Other than Triple H, Attitude Era mainstays were either gone entirely or off to the periphery. It was time for a new era, with guys who were either not in the company at all during the Monday Night Wars (like Brock or newcomers Randy Orton, John Cena and Dave Batista – all three of whom were on the main roster by SummerSlam, but were basically dark match guys until Orton and Batista joined Evolution in early 2003) or guys who were lower on the card (Eddie Guerrero, Edge, Chris Benoit, Rey Mysterio, Jeff Hardy, even Chris Jericho among other guys) being main-event players.
For better or for worse this match is our line of demarcation, a border between two distinct eras, as definitive as the meteor that ended the dinosaurs and is the border between the Age of Reptiles and the Age of Mammals. Thanks for making the kid look like a million bucks, Rock.
Curtain Jerker's Star Rating – The match itself is "only" a solid 4 stars. The historical significance makes it the number three entry in our countdown.
Up Next – Let's make this one as ambiguous as possible: One of the best technical wrestlers of his era wrestled a bigger man for a championship in front of a raucous crowd.Also in this series:
#7 - Angle vs. Triple H vs. The Rock
#9 - Steve Austin vs. The Undertaker
#11 - Triple H. vs. Mankind vs. Steve Austin
#18 - Triple H vs. Brock Lesnar
#19 - Hogan/Savage vs. Andre/DiBiase
#22 - Hogan/Beefcake vs. Savage/Zeus
#24 - Hogan/Warrior vs. Slaughter/Mustafa/Adnan