Fight Forever is our series where we put classic feuds under review, examining what made these rivalries as great as they are and whether they stand the test of time to this day. In this edition: the legendary rivalry of Steven Austin vs The Rock!
Even now their rivalry is talked about in the kind of hushed tones people used to reserve for the likes of Flair vs. Steamboat or Misawa vs. Kawada or even Michaels vs. Hart. If there’s one reason the Attitude Era is still so idolized by so many fans, it’s down to two men, one legendary feud: Stone Cold Steve Austin vs The Rock.
In an era like today’s where a high work rate, pure wrestling still is worshipped by so many fans, the Austin vs Rock feud might seem like a quaint artifact from a time gone by. Punches, kicks, and ringside brawling are the order of the day, and the total sum of actual wrestling moves per match probably averages around ten, and two of those are finishers. Oh, and don’t forget the sharpshooter.
But the reason Austin vs The Rock still capture the imagination is that their respective charisma and their chemistry together was stratospheric and, as we shall see, when combined with the right story, their matches transcended their simplistic stylings and became immortal.
Wrestling, in fact, at its best, doesn’t need to be complicated. It can just be two competitors wanting to be the best and preparing to take themselves to limit to be just that. It was this story that laid the groundwork for one of the greatest WWE main events on arguably the greatest WWE pay-per-view, WrestleMania 17. And if nothing else, no one will ever be able to take that away from Stone Cold and ‘The Great One.’
So, without further adieu, let’s take a look back over the legendary battles between Steve Austin and The Rock!
In Your House: D-Generation X (7th December 1997)
This is a fascinating match in hindsight, as Austin was clearly on his way to the main event, but The Rock was just starting on the path that within less than 12 months would see him become a superstar in his own right.
The Rock had only turned heel and ditched the ‘Rocky Maivia’ persona a few months previously in the summer. At the D-Generation X pay-per-view, you can see the cocky heel schtick in place, but The Rock is yet to add in the touches that will push him into supernova, like the numerous catchphrases, the electrifying presence, the eyebrow. The elbow is there, but the hand crossing isn’t – hell, he hasn’t even given it a name yet, people’s elbow, corporate elbow, or otherwise.
The motivation behind the match is that The Rock was so desperate to be a champion, or deluded that he was an uncrowned one, that he stole Austin’s Intercontinental title belt. The match itself is short but sweet, although most of the good spots in the match involve Austin fending off other members of the Nation of Domination rather than his interactions with The Rock. His backdrop to D’Lo Brown, dropping him over the top rope onto the windscreen of the truck, cracking the screen, is a great moment, as is the follow-up Stunner on top of the truck. Farooq fares little better, as Kama misses Austin with a chair and cracks Farooq across the head with the steel with a quite nasty-looking shot.
Because of all the shenanigans in a short match, there isn’t much to The Rock and Austin’s interactions. They’re perfectly adequate but there’s no hint of what was to come. Austin took the win with a Stunner and left with his belt. In only three months, he would be lifting his first Heavyweight belt.
Raw Is War (16th November 1998)
Less than a year later and the difference is uncanny. The Rock has transformed into the superstar we all know and love, although here he’s raising a Corporate Eyebrow at us.
This was the night after the Survivor Series: Deadly Games pay-per-view that saw both Austin and Mankind screwed by the McMahons in the Heavyweight title tournament and The Rock betray the fans to claim the benefit of the McMahon’s patronage as it were. As the Rock says at the opening of this edition of Raw, he might have kissed ass, but he’s the star of the promotion and has millions of dollars now – what have you got?
The crowd heat is incredible for The Rock’s turn and when Austin appears to drop the bombshell that he has a legally binding contract to face The Rock that night for the belt, the crowd could almost riot, so excited are they to see Austin put things right.
The match itself is again short, being a TV match of the time, but what it lacks in length it more than makes up for intensity and action. The crowd is totally into this, giving major heat to proceedings, arguably more so for their next match at WrestleMania 15.
The reason for the heat? Austin and The Rock go hell for leather at each other the moment Austin hits the ring, exchanging punches and kicks, while Austin batters Rock on the ground, hitting him with a clothesline that rattles Rock’s head off the ramp. Still going full pelt, Austin hits a suplex and a jumping elbow while we get a neck breaker from Rock. They hit the floor, where Rock clotheslines Austin over the barrier, only to be met by a melee of fists by Stone Cold.
Rock prevents Austin from taking his head off with a chair and gives him a kicking, followed by ringing his head off the good ol’ Spanish announce table and choking him with a cable. Austin retorts by smacking the taste out of Rock’s mouth, throwing him on the table, and hitting him with a hard forearm. A piledriver on the floor is a mistake though, as rock counters to a hard backdrop.
Back in the ring, the Corporate Elbow hits hard, but Rock follows up with a chin lock so he can have a rest. Austin gets up and out of it, but the Rock hits a clothesline for a near fall that the crowd goes ballistic for. The Rock and Austin do a neat spot where they block each other’s finishers and Shamrock pulls the ref out of the ring after the eventual Stunner lands, but here things get a bit silly, as Mankind arrives to brawl with The Corporation and The Undertaker arrives to hit Austin across the head with a shovel.
Before that though, The Rock and Austin put on a heated, vital little match that must have seemed like an absolute gift to the TV audience at the time. It proved Rock could hang in a main event with Austin and it proved the live audience would lap it up. Vince must have seen the dollar signs as the bell rang.
People point to the next match on my list as the beginning of this legendary feud but really, the Austin vs The Rock feud as we know it starts here.
WrestleMania 15 (March 28th, 1999)
I know what I’m about to say is going to annoy some of our readers, but…this match is good, very good at times, but it’s not great.
I know, I know, it’s the first installment in the famous Rock/Austin Wrestlemania relationship, and criticizing it is like criticizing other first parts like Godfather 1 or A New Hope, but to take the Star Wars analogy further, A New Hope was good but Empire was great! I believe the same applies here.
To be clear, I don’t dislike this match. I genuinely do think it’s good. The Rock and Austin solidify here the chemistry that their match on Raw hinted at, and the crowd help to create a good atmosphere. The match very much follows the WWF main event format of the time, featuring a wild brawl around ringside and through the crowd, taking in the entrance set, before returning to the ring and finishing off on the mat.
The brawl itself is satisfactory and features Austin taking a tough bump to the knee when Rock backdrops him at the entranceway and his leg hits some metal scaffolding with a nasty crack. But it doesn’t have the wild heat of Austin’s collisions with Dude Love the previous year. In fact, despite both grapplers’ strongest efforts, the match is noticeably lacking in big-time heat. This is even more noticeable back in the ring, where rest holds come out with a bit of a vengeance.
What keeps the match on track is the impact of the good moments – Rock hitting Austin’s injured knee with a chair, Rock hitting a ref with a Rock Bottom, only to get up and walk into a Stunner, and the great countering spot where they each reverse each other’s finishers, a spot that always looked so crisply done and believable when these two did it. The Rock’s obvious frustration at being unable to finish the job is entertaining, as Rock always put things like that across so well. The finish was ultimately satisfying too, with Austin countering a last Rock Bottom attempt and finally hitting the Stunner, a symbolic representation of the battle to be the biggest star.
As per a lot of WWF main events then, especially ones involving Austin and a representative of Vince, there were a lot of shenanigans that just come across sometimes as so much unnecessary overbooking. There are no less than three ref bumps, a change in ref at the start as Vince is removed from ringside, and Mankind arriving in the end to count the three. Looking at the period, sometimes the overbooking could work if relevant to the story of the match (like Austin vs. Dude Love at Over The Edge ’98), but often could detract as was the case here.
Still, the blueprint for the Rock/Austin classic was laid here and would be perfected from here on out.
Backlash, 25th April 1999
What a difference a month makes! Many long-time fans have said that this is the match Austin and Rock should have had at WrestleMania 15 and I don’t disagree with them.
Between Mania and Backlash, things had heated up between the two rivals, revolving around Austin demanding the return of his ‘Smoking Skull’ variation of the WWF Heavyweight title belt from Vince. While Vince was distracted by his power struggle with son Shane, The Rock took to wearing the Smoking Skull belt, luring Austin to a high bridge by a river, where he supposedly threw both the belt and its owner into the water! The next week on Raw, ‘The Great One’ held a ‘funeral’ for Austin, which The Rattlesnake crashed with a monster truck, whilst The Rock revealed he still had the Smoking Skull belt.
Theft, attempted murder, a false funeral: it’s no wonder the resulting showdown at Backlash was so heated. Where WrestleMania had been a match of two halves, a brawling outside half followed by an in-ring half, this was a tough, aggressive scrap from bell to bell, barely taking in the ring at all and losing nothing for that.
Starting up the aisle, the two men pulled the set down around them, throwing each other into the chain-link fences on either side of the entrance, which buckled and collapsed under their weight.
Austin smashed The Rock with a production case, running him over, but then missed an elbow from off the case, taking a punch to the gut instead.
Back at ringside, the Spanish announce table falls victim to an awesome Rock Bottom on Austin. The Rock then lays Austin out on the American commentary table, takes a camera, and berates Austin as he lies at Rock’s feet. Jericho, I’m sorry, but you didn’t do it first.
Then in one of the all-time great moments, we are looking through the camera being held by The Rock. He looks over the crowd, and as he turns back, Austin has sprung back to life and is flipping the bird, before dropping Rock with a Stunner right through the table! It’s funny and exhilarating and brutal all at once.
The shenanigans start but it’s commendable that they were kept to a minimum throughout. Guest ref Shane McMahon tries to help the Rock but accidentally lays him out with the title belt. Austin hit the Stunner but Shane refuses to count the pin, flipping Austin off. Luckily, Vince is here to save the day and because he’s so furious with Shane, he decks him and sends Earl Hebner to count the 3 count for his mortal enemy after a final Stunner puts The Rock away.
An excellent brawl, with some genuinely heated moments, this was the best Rock-Austin match to this point.
But we all know what match is coming next.
WrestleMania 17, April 1st, 2001
Just under 2 years since their last confrontation, the distance both men had traveled since then and the journey they had been on was remarkable.
Austin was still the most popular wrestler on the planet when his neck, injured two years previously in a match with Owen Hart, could withstand no more punishment and needed urgent treatment. The infamous hit and run angle was implemented at Survivor Series ’99 to write Austin off TV and when he returned in September 2000, whilst he was still exceptionally popular, there was another who had become his equal in the popularity stakes during his absence.
The Rock was already massively popular and a huge star before Survivor Series ’99, but in Austin’s absence the fans clutched ‘The Great One’ closer to their hearts and, without Austin as competition, The Rock was undisputed ‘The Man’ in the WWF.
So, when Austin came back in late 2000, the scene was set for a showdown. This town wasn’t big enough for the both of them. Who would be the true face of the WWF?
The WWF cleverly played into this when building up the match, having the two men work a tense, uneasy truce that spilled into violent altercations and bitterness. For The Rock, he wanted to dismiss any other claims to his position as ‘The Main Guy.’ Austin’s story was a little more nuanced: he was afraid his time was up, that his days at the top were over. Never vulnerable until now, he needed the title to prove to himself that his best days hadn’t passed him by.
(This led to one of the greatest pre-match videos ever made, famously and aptly soundtracked by Limp Bizkit’s ‘My Way: “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/Missing me”)
The match itself was sublime, taking the intensity of their Backlash match and imbuing it with great psychology, storytelling, and heart.
This was full-on from the bell and yet what makes it is that it doesn’t follow the typical Attitude-era main event template, keeping the action relative to the ring and ringside area. It also tells the story of two men at the top of their game pulling out every last trick in the book to defeat the other.
And so we get excellent callbacks to the past. Austin pulls out the Million Dollar Dream from his days as ‘The Ringmaster’, only for The Rock to walk the turnbuckles and push back into a pinning move for a neat fall, recalling Bret’s same counter to the same move at Survivor Series ’96 (except Bret won, of course). Later, The Rock slaps a Sharpshooter on a bloody Austin, recalling another classic match with Bret Hart, this time at WrestleMania 13. This time Austin made it to the ropes and avoided passing out. He even caught The Rock in a Sharpshooter of his own to no avail.
The desperation Austin had to win the title again saw him pull out some heelish moves not usually seen from our favorite anti-hero, such as removing the top turnbuckle and cracking Rock around the head with a bell (quite old-school heel moves in hindsight). It’s this desperation that gives Austin the motivation to do the unthinkable and turn to Satan himself, Vince McMahon, to ensure The Rock was screwed out of the title. The frustration Austin shows at every Rock kick out, the brutal flurry of chair shots he decimates The Rock with, shows an Austin every bit as dangerous as the rattlesnake of old, while The Rock looks courageous, heroic for not giving in until he was overwhelmed by the odds.
The heel turn, although faulty in the long term, made perfect sense at first. It freshened Austin up as a character and gave some different options for the main event scene. It also meant that the WWF didn’t have to act and confirm who the ‘Main Guy’ was, the heel turn neatly circumvented that.
One of the greatest matches in Sports Entertainment and perhaps the greatest WrestleMania main event. It’s that good a match.
Rebellion, 3rd November 2001
This is a curious match, in that the rivalry between The Rock and Austin was not the focus for their match on this UK-only PPV, which were often seen as lesser Super Cards from WWE’s point of view, although financially lucrative.
This match took place near the end of the ill-fated WWF-Alliance feud that should have been a massive money-spinner but ended up a disaster due to idiotic power and a lack of real legitimate WCW star power on the Alliance side. This is why Austin, already a heel, turned his back on the WWF to join the Alliance (ironic when you consider how WCW fired him when injured).
This was the last stop before the Survivor Series 2001 event that would put the Alliance feud to rest and stamp the WWF’s superiority all over their dead competitors (nice one, Vince!) So, this match was the last opportunity to gain some advantage over the other, whether that be by having the psychological advantage of having the Heavyweight title or knocking the other side’s confidence by taking a win over their rival.
This match does not hold a candle to their Backlash or WrestleMania 17 but in and of itself is pretty entertaining. Austin is in full-on heel mode here, flipping off the audience, the ref, The Rock every opportunity he gets to the point that it gets pretty funny whenever he does it. My favorite instance is when he decides to bounce off the ropes three times before dropping his FU elbow, flipping the bird each time he came off the ropes. When The Rock repeats the same move later in the match, bounce for bounce and bird for bird, you can’t help but laugh. Karma is a bitch, Steve.
There’s a cool brawl to start, which see Rock backdrop Austin on the metal stage at the entrance. Austin gets revenge later by suplexing Rock on the announce table. Austin misses a charge and crotches himself on the rope, no-sells, and flips the bird back at The Rock in a cool moment. Austin traps Rock in a Boston Crab, Rock returns the favor with a Sharpshooter. Earl Hebner takes a bump and ends up having the entire top half of his body hanging out of the ring comically.
As this was the tail end of the Attitude Era, here comes the shenanigans. Out comes Kurt Angle to interfere on Austin’s behalf with a chair shot to Rock, but Chris Jericho comes out and hits Angle with a chair shot of his own. Rock stands back up to see Jericho holding the chair, gets the wrong idea, and gives Jericho a leathering, goes for the People’s Elbow but gets tripped by Kurt and cracked with the title belt to the head. Stunner, 1-2-3, we’re outta here!
Not necessarily essential but a lot of fun.
WrestleMania 19, 30th March 2003
And so we come to the end, not only the last match between Rock and Austin but Austin’s final match ever before retirement (something he’s kept to in terms of in-ring action). This adds poignancy to proceedings that no one watching would have been aware of at the time, but it’s certainly fitting that Austin’s greatest rival was the man to give him his last ride, and at WrestleMania too, with which their feud has become forever synonymous.
In hindsight, it’s easy to see this match as the closure of the Attitude Era, as the Ruthless Aggression era was now in full swing. The previous year, 2002, had been difficult for both men. Austin had been critical of the WWE’s creative plans for him (including losing to Brock Lesnar) and walked out of the company in the June of that year, only returning in early 2003 once he and Vince had smoothed things over.
The Rock, meanwhile, had seen a dip in his popularity as the fans were aware he was going to be leaving for Hollywood. The message was loud and clear when Lesnar defeated him for the Heavyweight title at Summerslam and the fans booed: the fans wanted something new and were not prepared to remain loyal to wrestlers who were not committed.
Both men came back at roughly the same time, Austin as a face and The Rock as a smug, self-satisfied Hollywood heel, like Hogan years before. The heel turn was a shrewd move. Instead of fighting against any resentment, WWE fans might have against him for deserting them, he played up to it, making himself come across as he was bigger than them. Still, insecurity remained: he had never beaten Austin, especially at WrestleMania. This was a bit ingenious, as it promoted the idea that The Rock couldn’t claim true greatness until he had beaten Austin. But it conveniently covered up the fact that Austin had screwed The Rock at WrestleMania 17 by having Vince McMahon help him to put ‘The Great One’ down, otherwise, The Rock was likely to have won. It didn’t fit the narrative they were pushing here, I suppose.
The match itself is good, solid, with a sprightly start from Austin who pounded on Rock from the start. From there, though, The Rock took over the match and noticeably dominated, with the occasional comeback from Austin. In hindsight, it was clear Austin was on his last legs so to speak, and couldn’t go like he used to. The Rock had to carry the match.
Still, with that in mind, The Rock did a great job, doing his best obnoxious routine, flipping the bird Austin-style and wearing Austin’s leather vest. Austin looks good when he manages to hit offense, like a solid Thez press and an FU elbow. In the end, though, he couldn’t withstand a People’s enemy and three Rock Bottoms to finally take victory over Stone Cold.
After the bell, you can see The Rock on the mat talking to Austin, and The Rock recently revealed that he thanked Austin for finally putting him over and telling him he loved him. A beautiful end to a beautiful feud and a beautiful in-ring career, for the stunning one, the ringmaster, Stone Cold Steve Austin.
It could be said that The Rock and Steve Austin found a successful formula and repeated it to diminishing returns. But that’s not quite true. As Backlash proved, that formula could be refined and improved upon. And as WrestleMania 17 proved, with the right story they could go to new places and dizzying heights.
If ever there was an argument for Sports Entertainment, that wrestling doesn’t have to be high work rate, pure wrestling to be great, then that argument is embodied in the Rock/Austin feud. They knew that with their phenomenal charisma, all they had to do was go out and tell a story. And that they did, a modern update of Hogan/Warrior, the desire to be the best, and the lengths they would go to to be just that.
You can argue the Attitude Era hasn’t aged well in places. Hell, I’d probably agree with you. But there’s a reason that wrestling has never been bigger or more popular than when The Rock and Austin were at the top of the game, and why so many people crave some of that energy, so sorely lacking, in the contemporary WWE.
They were stars. Plain and simple. And when the right two stars connect, sometimes that’s enough for eternity.