“It is going to be a classic” – Jim Ross.
Sometimes you really can say more with less. That was the case with Jim Ross’s above comment before this match began, and it was the basic lesson by the time the match was over. This isn’t a technical marvel beyond some great grappling in the first third of the contest. Nor is it a realistic, martial arts-inspired combat sport demonstration. What we have here is a thirty-six-minute WAR between two of the top wrestlers in WWE at the dawn of the 21st century. It’s widely considered one of the best matches WWE has ever put on, and now we revisit this classic on the 20th anniversary of it taking place.
Today we revisit the Three Stages of Hell match between ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin and Triple H from No Way Out 2001.
As a reminder, I am reviewing Five Star and almost-Five Star wrestling matches as rated by Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. It goes back to the 1980s and I’m going to pick different matches from different eras to see how they look today. Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here.
This match is the culmination of over a year of storylines that took place during WWE’s biggest boom period. In late 1999, Steve Austin was run over by someone in a parking lot and spent months out of action. The original perpetrator was revealed to be Rikishi; but not long after, Triple H revealed himself to have been the real mastermind behind this nefarious plot. Austin responded to this the only way Austin knew how: by fighting fire with fire. He drove a forklift and lifted a car with Triple H in it and dropped that car from an elevated height. Sometime after, Austin challenged then-WWF Champion Kurt Angle and had the match won but Triple H interfered, costing Austin the match and the title. And when Triple H got a title shot, Austin returned the favor. Then Austin won the 2001 Royal Rumble match, earning a shot at the world title at WrestleMania X-Seven.
But before that, he had to deal with Triple H. Thus, a contract signing took place, which stipulated that if Austin and HHH had any physical altercations, Austin would lose his WrestleMania title shot and Triple H would be suspended for six months. But, Triple H proved to be even more devious because he only pretended to sign the contract. He blindsided Austin from behind in the cheapest of cheapshots. And since Austin couldn’t touch Triple H, he did the next best thing: he gave HHH’s girlfriend Stephanie McMahon a stunner instead.
Needless to say, the tension between them reached a boiling point going into this match. One thing was for certain, this was going to be as intense and personal as it gets, which only fueled fan expectations for a great match.
This match originally took place at No Way Out on February 25th, 2001. It was rated ****3/4 stars by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. Now, twenty years later, let’s see how well this match holds up.
Stage One: Standard Wrestling Match
Austin charges into the ring like a man possessed and the brawl begins. Austin takes HHH down with punches and elbows. Austin stomps him in the corner and then bounces out of a corner whip with a clothesline. He continues to dominate with punches until HHH lands a sort of flapjack into the ropes, stunning Steve Austin. HHH goes for a pedigree but Austin counters into a falling armbreaker. HHH escapes the ring but Austin gives chase and smashes his arm into the steel steps and the steel ringpost.
Austin tosses HHH back into the ring and HHH tries to land a sudden Pedigree but can’t hook Austin’s arm because of the pain in his own arm. Austin works over that arm and goes to whip HHH, but HHH reverses the Irish whip, only for Austin to land a Thesz press and another flurry of punches and an elbow drop. The first pin of the match gets Austin a two-count.
Austin whips HHH and lands a spinebuster and goes for a diving move but HHH gets his foot up, hitting Austin right under the chin. Triple H lands a swinging neckbreaker but again he can’t follow up because of the damage to his arm. The fans chant wildly for Austin as both men get up slowly. HHH lands another neckbreaker and drops his knees on Austin’s neck several times. He and Austin trade corner strikes until HHH pokes Austin’s eye and clips his knee. Sensing an opportunity, HHH smashes Austin’s knee into the steel ringpost but goes for this one too many times as Austin pulls his legs in and smashes HHH’s face into the post. But Austin’s reprieve is short-lived as Triple H clips his knee once again. Triple H brutalizes Austin’s knee in various ways, shutting down each of Austin’s attempts at a comeback. Figure-4 leglock. Austin’s in excruciating pain. He writhes around as Triple H grabs the ropes for leverage behind the referee’s back. HHH pulls a Ric Flair and lets go before the ref turns to him, then re-grabs the ropes when the ref turns his back again.
Suddenly Austin gains a surge of energy. He pulls Triple H away from the ropes and rolls over. The Figure-4 is reversed. Triple H grabs the ropes almost immediately. HHH elbow drops Austin’s badly-weakened knee. Austin fires back with knee shots to HHH’s face. Here comes Austin’s second wind. Multiple punches and turnbuckle smashes. Lou Thesz press. Running elbow drop. He pins but only gets two. Austin goes for a stunner, Triple H blocks it and Austin counters into a big clothesline. Stunner, no, neckbreaker by Triple H. Stunner again, no, HHH counters into a roll-up, No, Austin counters into his own roll-up. Kick-out at two. Austin lands more corner punches. HHH goes low and then goes for a dive. Austin counters with a kick. STONE COLD STUNNER! One, two, three! Austin wins the first fall
Winner of the first fall after 12:20: ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin
Stage Two: Street Fight
Austin doesn’t give HHH time to breathe as he tosses him out of the ring and suplexes him on the apron. Twice. He smashes HHH’s head against anything he can find, including the announcer’s table. Austin grabs a TV monitor and smashes it over HHH’s head. Austin throws some chairs into the ring, then chases HHH down as he tries to escape through the crowd. He tosses HHH into the ring and HHH grabs a chair. But Austin lands the first hit and just smashes the shit out of Triple H. But all of that only gets Austin a two-count. Triple H escapes again but Austin catches him and then grabs a barbed wire 2×4. Austin swings it. HHH avoids it and smashes the 2×4 into Austin’s face. Austin’s busted open. HHH continues there assault. Pedigree through the announce ta—no, Austin counters into a back body drop through another announce table. Damn that landing looked brutal.
Austin lands more hard right hands and tosses HHH into the ring. Then suddenly, HHH smashes the ring bell into Austin’s face. Triple H pins. Austin barely kicks out. Swinging neckbreaker onto a steel chair. Austin kicks out again. Then a second neckbreaker. Austin remains defiant. Sleeper by Austin. HHH counters into a back suplex onto the chair. Austin klicks out at two yet again. Pedigree on the chair…no, Austin back body drops HHH out of the ring. Chairshot to the face by Austin. Then he smashes the steel steps into Triple H’s face as well. Austin charges towards Triple H but HHH drop toeholds him into the steel stairs. HHH grabs his trusty sledgehammer. He raises it over his head. But Austin escapes and fights out.
Back in the ring, Austin lands more punches. Austin goes for the Stunner but Triple H fights out. Sledgehammer shot to the head. Pedigree! One, two, three! The score is tied.
Winner of the second fall after 28:10: Triple H
Stage Three: Steel Cage Match
Austin tries a comeback but HHH smashes him into the cage wall. Apparently, Triple H likes doing that so much he decides to do it a second time, only harder. He’s not done. He grabs the barbed wire 2×4 and rakes it across Austin’s face. A lot. Austin sinks to his knees…and smashes Triple H’s head with a chair. Austin grabs HHH and the 2×4. He tosses HHH into the cage but HHH somehow has enough strength to resist getting his face ripped apart by the barbed wire. HH fights out and charges. Austin ducks…and smashes HHH with the 2×4. Austin pins. HHH kicks out. Austin tries to destroy HHH with the 2×4 but HHH somehow resists. DDT into the steel chair. HHH pins but somehow Austin kicks out. Austin begins another comeback with punches. Another pin and another kickout.
HHH starts climbing the cage, but Austin cuts him off. They smash each other into the cage wall. Austin falls first and gets crotched on the top rope. But Austin gets back up and slams HHH hard from the corner. Again Austin pins but it’s still not enough to keep HHH down. More brawling. Stunner, no, Pedigree! One, two, thr—no, Austin kicks out sat 2.9. HHH drops Austin with a chairshot to the head. He goes for another Pedigree. Austin counters into a slingshot into the cage. Stone Cold Stunner! Triple H returns the favor and kicks out at 2.9. Austin grabs the 2×4. HHH grabs the sledgehammer. Both men hit each other at the exact same time. Austin falls first. HHH falls on top of Austin. The ref counts the pin. One, two, three! Triple H wins the third fall and the match.
Winner after 36:31: Triple H
Fantastic match. They definitely delivered here and put on a classic. If there was ever a match that proved how good Triple H can be, it’s this one. He and Austin put on one hell of a match here. And now, twenty years later, I can honestly say that this match is indeed a genuine WWE classic.
The story here was that the first fall was as close to a technical grappling contest as these two could get. It had some good old-fashioned psychology with Austin attacking Triple H’s arm and Triple H destroying Austin’s legs. And once both men had recovered enough to move, the match got increasingly more violent and reliant on weapons, which benefitted Triple H more than it did Austin. And while Austin got his fair share of hard shots in, Triple H ended up getting more mileage out of fewer big spots. For every one big weapon shot or Pedigree Triple H landed Austin had to bust out thirty punches and double the weapons shots to get the same result. HHH really earned his nickname ‘the Cerebral Assassin’ here by putting on a textbook performance on how to get more out of less.
And yet, it was Triple H that did most of the heavy lifting in this match. Austin’s offensive strategy was composed almost exclusively of his ‘greatest hits’, which was composed of punches, stomps and Stunners. Meanwhile, Triple H was the craftier of the two, playing dual roles as the chickenshit coward that did underhanded things behind the referee’s back and also the remorseless bastard that used increasingly-brutal tactics to win. Triple H did an amazing job of the former during the first match, playing Ric Flair almost to a T. Then, he showed just how brutal he can be by smashing Austin with chairs, barbed wire and his faithful sledgehammer. Triple H also sold like a boss for Austin throughout the match, and even incorporated Austin’s earlier armwork into a later spot in the match. There was a consistent flow to this match that actually made it feel like a single unified story that fell into three distinct acts. Very much like a classic two-out-of-three falls match, but with the violence cranked up to eleven.
This is not to say that the good stuff here was solely due to Triple H’s work. Austin was amazing at controlling the crowd and keeping them in the palm of his hand. He worked hand in hand with Triple H to create some genuinely believable near-falls that made the entire third match one of the most tense and exciting cage matches I have ever seen. Especially since HHH targeted Austin’s neck more consistently than anything Austin threw at Triple H. These elements all led to an extremely loud and excited crowd that gave this match a genuine big fight atmosphere.
But above all else, this match told a tremendous story. It was the perfect way to sum up their bitter rivalry in one match. These two men absolutely hated each other and had gone to great lengths to make each other’s lives miserable. They added more and more as the match went on, hellbent on destroying each other. And yet, at no point did the match really veer off into overkill territory. They kept things simple (perhaps a bit too much so) and relied on weapons and their environment to tell their story. That made perfect sense here. This was neither the time nor the place for complex wrestling maneuvers, chain grappling or sportsmanship. These two men had tried to kill each other in the lead-up to this match, so it stood to reason they’d adopt that same sort of unchained malice once they were free to do so.
And yet, the match didn’t end with a clear winner. Austin and HHH hit each other at the same time; it was only by sheer dumb luck that HHH landed in the way he did and ended in a pinning position. It was a win on paper, nothing more. But that was enough for Triple H to be able to tell the world “I beat Austin”. Triple H had managed to climb to Austin’s level after spending many years beneath him. And with that loss, the seeds of self-doubt were planted in Austin’s head. He no longer had it in him to beat someone like Triple H on his own. He was no longer the unstoppable Bionic Redneck. He needed help to stay on top, and he would find that help a month later…in the form of a handshake with Vince McMahon.
Final Rating: *****
This might come as a shock to some, but this match REALLY was that damn good. It was one of the most intense, hardnosed fights WWE has ever put on, and it still stands the test of time. It doesn’t surprise me at all that so many people look back at this match with such fondness.
The goal of this match was to convince you, the viewer, that these two men despised each other, and it succeeded. It’s incredibly rare for a WWE match to tell such a convincing story with all the pitfalls of the so-called WWE ‘main-event style’. And this match did showcase some of those pitfalls: spotty selling by Austin (particularly with his legs), lots of repetition with the back-and-forth punches from both guys, and tons of finisher spam. But those things are minor sins compared to just how great the chemistry between these two wrestlers was.
And while there’s definitely plenty of matches better than this one, it’s still a tremendous classic that showed how to make the most out of less while still being tense and exciting.
Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here. Thanks for reading.