TJR WrestleMania’s Greatest Matches #5: Steve Austin vs. The Rock @ WM17

There are just five matches left in the countdown of WrestleMania’s Greatest Matches. For this one, we take a look back at the third match from WrestleMania 17 on this list. It was the main event of that show with the WWE Title on the line as The Rock defended the gold against “Stone Cold” Steve Austin.

If you’ve missed anything in the countdown so far, the WrestleMania’s Greatest Matches archives are here.

Who: WWE Championship No Disqualification: The Rock vs. “Stone Cold” Steve Austin @ WrestleMania 17

When: April 1, 2001

Where: Astrodome in Houston, Texas

The Build

There was a lot of history between them. It started in late 1997 when they were upper midcarders feuding over the Intercontinental Title. In 1999, Austin won the Royal Rumble while Rock was the heel WWE Champion and Austin beat him for the WWE Title in their first WrestleMania main event match. Rock turned face at that point, so they went on different paths.

Austin missed most of 2000 due to a serious neck injury that required surgery. He returned in October 2000 looking healthy. I remember they had brief interaction at the Armageddon PPV in December 2000 in a Hell in a Cell match. The crowd went wild for it. That was the moment where it was obvious they had to go back to these two guys in the WrestleMania main event again.

Austin won the 2001 Royal Rumble even though he was attacked by Triple H before he entered the ring. Austin was a bloody mess, but still managed to eliminate Kane, who had dominated a great match.

One month later at No Way Out 2001, Rock won back the WWE Title from Kurt Angle, who he dropped it to in October 2000. The stage was set for Rock vs. Austin at WrestleMania for the second time. At the same No Way Out show, Austin lost to Triple in an amazing 2/3 Falls Three Stages Of Hell match.

In the build up to the match, WWE Chairman (and evil boss on TV) Vince McMahon named Debra as The Rock’s manager. The conflict there was that she was the wife of Austin. She was put in harm’s way a few times and even given an Ankle Lock from Angle. It led to issues between Austin and Rock, who were both faces at the time. On the Smackdown before WrestleMania, they dropped the storyline without a reason given other than they likely wanted to do the match without her there.

I also recall a fantastic sit-down interview with both men conducted by Jim Ross. The key thing from that was that Austin talked about how he really needed to win and needed it more than Rock can imagine.

This match also led to the greatest video package in WWE history, in my opinion. I know a lot of fans agree with me on that one. Here’s the video to the tune of “My Way” by Limp Bizkit.

What I Thought Back Then

My anticipation for this match was very high. I was a huge Austin that missed him a lot when he missed most of 2000 due to neck surgery. It looked like he was in better shape at this point than he was in 1998 and 1999. His matches were better because he was feeling good with the neck injury. The match I mentioned with Triple H at No Way Out 2001 was a five-star match, so I figured he would be just as good, if not better, in this match with The Rock.

As for The Rock, he improved a lot while Austin was out of action. He went from being a good in-ring performer to somebody that was consistently very good and sometimes excellent on the big stage. Rock also had great chemistry with Austin due to their matches in previous years.

WrestleMania 17 is the best WWE pay-per-view. It’s the only show that I’ve rated a 10 out of 10. The fact that these two men were in the main event was a big reason for it because they are two of the biggest stars in WWE history that were big match performers. I don’t want to say they were both in their prime because Austin retired two years after this, but he was putting on incredible matches on a regular basis.

Going into the match, it was face vs. face, so the expectation was that the crowd was going to cheer both guys a lot. I also expected a win for Austin since it would have been a great comeback story after he missed one year of action.

Here’s my full review of the match, which was written in 2012.

No Disqualification Match for the WWF World Title: The Rock vs. “Stone Cold” Steve Austin

Both guys were shown preparing for the match with Rock walking backstage while Austin was looking in the mirror. Ross was calling Austin the “Bionic Redneck” around this time. Then we get the video package. Normally I don’t insert video packages into the reviews, but this was arguably the greatest video in company history. It exemplifies what this match was about. Austin was coming back from being out a full year with a neck injury. He returned in the fall of 2000. They weren’t in a story together. Austin won the Rumble and then he had a feud with Triple H that led to a five star match at No Way Out 2001 that you should watch if you’ve never seen it. Rock won the World Title from Kurt Angle at that same PPV. There actually was a storyline with Austin’s real life wife at the time Debra being appointed the manager of Rock by Vince McMahon, but after they realized it wasn’t working that was simply dumped about a week before the match. Then they did this interview with JR in the locker room where Austin had this crazy look in his eye and said: “I need that title.” This set up Rock vs. Austin for the WWF World Title in a match that saw two babyface wrestlers that were at the top of the business meeting on the grandest stage of them all. Here’s the “My Way” video package.

With the video done, the announcers (Jim Ross and Paul Heyman) set up the match. Howard Finkel announced that there’d be a no disqualification stipulation for the match. Jim Ross wondered when that was added. That’s a key point. Stone Cold Steve Austin made his entrance. The pop he got was arguably the loudest ovation I’ve ever heard for any wrestler upon entering an arena. There were a number of factors that caused the big ovation because it was in his home state, he was coming back to WrestleMania after a devastating injury and he was the most popular wrestler in the history of the business at the time. Rock made his entrance with the WWE Title. Like I said, they were both babyfaces. His response was favorable although Austin’s pop was louder since he was in the home state.

As soon a Rock turned around after posing on the apron, Austin met him with punches. The brawl began. Rock avoided a belt shot and Austin hit a Thesz Press. The crowd was rabid. Holy crap I forgot how loud they really were. Rock came back with a neckbreaker. Rock countered a Stunner and Austin threw him over the top to the floor. Austin was rocking the two knee braces at this time. I was amazed that he could bump on his neck the way he did upon his return. They brawled into the crowd. I’m having Hart/Austin flashbacks. Rock dumped him back over the railing. Austin hit a clothesline on the floor. This crowd was similar to WM3 Hogan vs. Andre because there was constant noise for every single move. Austin hit a superplex that earned him a two count and then Austin took the turnbuckle pad off. Even though he was a babyface, the story of the match was that he was desperate to win. Rock came back with a clothesline and a belly to belly throw for two. Rock clotheslined Austin over the top to the floor. Rock rammed Austin’s head into the ring bell repeatedly. There was a small botch here. Earl Hebner went to pass Rock the blade as he told him to stop attacking Austin, but Earl tripped over the ring steps and dropped it. Rock nonchalantly bent down to pick it up. Then he turned around, Austin hit him in the head with the ring bell and there was the blood. Seven minutes into the match it was such a wild brawl, which Heyman pointed out. Rock didn’t bleed that often and it wasn’t a big cut at least early on. Rock was just lying on top of the table and just from moving on the table it broke. I guess that tells you how light they make those tables. They went back in the ring and Austin decked Rock with a barrage of punches. Austin even choked him. Austin wasn’t working the babyface style, which again played into the idea that he would do anything to win. Neckbreaker for Austin got two. Rock’s cut opened up a bit more thanks to Austin working it over so much. Austin worked on him in the corner, but Rock came back with a huge clothesline to knock the challenger down. Rock rammed Austin face first into the top turnbuckle that was exposed. Rock went outside the ring, grabbed the ring bell and hit Austin in the head with it. Austin was busted open from the exposed steel bump. Nice nearfall for Rock there as the odds evened up since both guys were bleeding now.

The intensity continued with JR yelling at the top of his lungs while Rock was beating up the bloody challenger with a series of punches and elbows. They fought outside the ring again. Austin dropped Rock throat first on the security railing and then gave Rock a slingshot right into the steel post. Rock did an excellent job of taking that bump. Austin grabbed a TV monitor from one of the broken tables. He hit Rock in the head with it. As I wrote earlier, the crowd was loud for all of this, chanting “Austin” at this point. Austin covered him in the ring for two. Rock countered the Stunner, but grabbing the leg and he put Austin in the Sharpshooter. The camera focused on Austin’s bloody face as I had flashbacks of Hart/Austin once again. Austin fought out of it while the crowd reached a fever pitch, screaming at the top of their lungs. The noise in the building was incredible. Wow. Austin made the ropes to break the hold although technically it was no DQ so there wasn’t anything the ref could do. Austin tripped up Rock and put Rock in the Sharpshooter. JR was calling them both a bloody mess. Rock powered out of it, which Austin sold by having a surprised look on his face. Austin put him in the Sharpshooter again. Rock grabbed the ropes, Hebner was telling him about it and Austin gave Hebner the middle finger. Haha that was fantastic. Austin applied the Million Dollar Dream submission as the announcers noted he used that move when he was the Ringmaster, which put over the idea that Austin would do anything to win. Rock countered by climbing the ropes and pushing back, but Austin let go of the hold to save himself from getting pinned. Awesome nearfall there with the counter wrestling to set it up. The beauty there was that was the finish to Austin/Hart at Survivor Series ’96, but Austin didn’t release the hold there and it led to Hart’s win. They had another exchange of moves, Rock reversed an Irish Whip and Rock hit a Stunner! One…two…no. Amazing nearfall there.

JR: “Hey wait a minute. What the hell is this?” That was his reaction as Vince McMahon walked down to the ring. The crowd, which was already loud for everything in the match, chanted “Asshole” at the sight of the Chairman. The announcers wondered what Vince was doing out there. Both guys in the ring struggled to their feet. Austin hit a spinebuster. He was mad when Rock kicked out at two. Rock hit a spinebuster of his own. Rock hit the People’s Elbow. A massive reaction for that. Rock covered and Vince McMahon pulled Rock off of Austin. Heyman: “What the hell did he do that for?” Was he screwing Rock or helping Austin? We didn’t know yet. Rock chased Vince around the ring. Rock ran right into Austin’s arms for a Rock Bottom. Huge reaction to that too. That got two. I loved that each guy hit the finishing move of the other guy. Austin went for the Stunner, Rock shoved him off and Austin bumped into Hebner, sending him into the floor. I’ve always felt that it wasn’t necessary to have a ref bump in a no DQ match, but that’s really only a minor gripe because it made sense for this match as you’ll see in a few moments. Austin hit a low blow. Austin pointed to the Vince and told him to get a chair. This was surreal because Austin and Vince were feuding for three years before this. Austin held up Rock. Vince hit Rock with the chair. Vince threw the ref back in and Rock kicked out. That’s why the ref got knocked down, so Rock could kick out of that pinfall attempt after a delay. Austin started swearing, yelling “Shit! Shit!” to sell the frustration. That was a great little thing that added to the desperation story. Austin was going to hit him with a chair again. Rock hit a Rock Bottom while Vince distracted Hebner to prevent him from counting the pin. Rock destroyed Vince with punches. Austin hit the Stone Cold Stunner on Rock for the one…two…no! Rock kicked out! The crowd was ready to cheer loudly, but Rock kicked out. I thought that was it. McMahon handed Austin the chair. Austin hit Rock in the head with it although Rock got his hand up like he usually did, which was smart. Austin covered for one…two…no! I thought that was it too. Austin hit Rock in the ribs with the chair five times. Then Austin hit Rock in the back with the chair 11 more times. It was a violent attack although no head shots, so that’s good. He covered for the one…two…three. The crowd exploded into cheers even with the heel turn. Match went 28:07.

Winner by pinfall and New WWF Champion: Steve Austin

Post match, Austin shook hands with Vince McMahon. JR was freaking out about it. Ross: “I don’t believe this. What the hell!?! Son of a bitch! Son of a bitch I don’t believe this! Stone Cold has sold his soul to Satan himself to win the WWF Title. Why Steve? Why this way?” That’s why JR was the best. He put the angle over so much and had so much emotion when he called the action. Austin enjoyed beers together post match. Heyman said that Austin had sold out his fans to win the title. Ross continued to question it saying he thought he knew Austin and that he was his friend that was there when Austin got out of the hospital from neck surgery. Rock stumbled back to his feet. Austin knocked him down with a title shot to the head.

Analysis: ***** Five stars. Best WrestleMania main event ever. I think what’s most impressive about the match was it never slowed down. Neither guy stopped. It was full of action with memorable moments happening all the time. There wasn’t a point in the match where you could say it lagged for three minutes. It didn’t lag ever. It continued to flow from the minute the bell rang until the match was over. I thought each guy was phenomenal, which is no surprise when you’re talking about guys that are the caliber of Austin and Rock. I don’t know if Rock was ever better than his performance here. His chemistry with Austin was always amazing. They had several good matches before this, no doubt. It’s just that this one went up another level. His bumping was phenomenal and the heart he showed in kicking out after all the big moves made him a tougher guy in the eyes of the fans. He took a beating, yet he kept on coming.

The work Austin did here was the real story. He was, simply put, a machine. There was nothing flawed in his performance. The crowd was cheering him, but he wrestled as aggressively and as viciously as the best heels of any generation. The facial expressions he used when he couldn’t pin were great. I loved how he sold the Rock’s late kick out by yelling “Shit!” repeatedly because he was frustrated that he couldn’t put him away. You could look in his eyes to see the emotion. That’s what professional wrestling is at its best. It’s one thing to have a great brawl, but to have that plus each performer doing exactly what you’d hope for during the match shows just how great both of them were on this night.

This is one of those matches that will never get old with me no matter how many times I watch it. I’ve probably watched it a dozen times or so, yet it still feels fresh. When it comes to defining moments of the best era in WWE history, this match was it. I don’t think they could have asked for anything better as an example of what the Attitude Era was. Looking back, was it a great move to have Austin turn heel considering how much the crowd loved him? They did pop when he won, but there were boos when he shook Vince’s hand too. He’s said over the years that maybe they should have adlibbed and not done it, but that was the plan that they stuck with. Because of the WCW angle that dominated the company, the turn didn’t turn out as well as it could have. It doesn’t hurt this match, though. The story was that Austin heeled it up (I like that term) by doing what he had to do to win. That meant aligning himself with his enemy Vince McMahon and using a ridiculous amount of chairshots. The match was a classic. If I had to list my favorite matches ever, this would unquestionably be in the top five. It helps that it was an amazing brawl too.

The show ended with replays of the finish followed by Austin leaving with McMahon while Rock was trying to recover in the ring. Ross sold it tremendously by asking for answers and ended it with: “Things will never be the same.” The Austin heel turn would be something new, so it was very interesting to see where things were headed.

You can read my full recap of WrestleMania 17 right here.

What They Said

There’s a lot that I could put here since WWE did numerous DVDs on the careers of both men. I don’t even know how many they did total, but both guys were featured in them talking about this match quite a bit.

Here are some comments from Austin on the Chris Jericho podcast:

“Worst call I’ve ever made other than refusing to job to Brock Lesnar at Atlanta. But, you know, that was my idea. Vince always likes to do something big at Wrestlemania. He didn’t have anything big planned. So, me being The Rocket scientist that I am, I figured okay. You’re a hot babyface, and if you turn heel, you’re a hot ass heel to draw money like that. Or vice versa. By and large that is true for the most part if the time is right to turn. Well clearly the time wasn’t right for me to turn. It was like everybody loved John Wayne for what he stood for and so he did not ever have to be a bad guy in his movies. He never was. People didn’t want to hate me. Me, because I always loved working heel more than a babyface. Thought it was going to be a chance for me to have fun, go back to working heel, doing what I loved to do and with that being said, I love working babyface too. Obviously it’s where I made my money, but I like working heel. I like being a piece of trash. I like talking trash. I like cheating. That was my style of wrestling. Man, I did a lot of that as a Stone Cold babyface. So it was a bad idea, but Vince bought into it with me.”

Austin also talked to Jericho about working with The Rock:

“Man, you want that, Chris [having more than one mega-star in the company at once such as Austin and the Rock] because you know you want the person you’re dancing with to be as over, more over, whatever, because you want the best dance partner you can have. The fact is, Rock and I had great chemistry. We loved working with each other. We were built for each other. I brought out the best in him. He brought out the best in me. So we had that, but on top of that, when you add the people that were loving me or hating him, or later loving me and loving him. From a Wrestlemania 17 standpoint, we were Houston based so he had a little bit of a heel dynamic. Just two over guys, hey, man. That’s something that you pray for every single night, is to work with a guy that’s over like hell.”

Austin also dedicated an entire episode of his podcast where he talked about the match while he watched it. I remember listening to it. It’s great because it gives you insight into what he was thinking while they competed in this match. The link to that is above.

What I Think Now

I feel like I said a lot in the “Analysis” part after the play by play. You can probably tell how much I loved the match just by reading that.

The heel turn at the end is the biggest talking point about this match because Austin has said many times that he wishes they didn’t do it. In the build up to the show, it was apparently his idea to do it in the first place. I think he felt like maybe he wasn’t as popular coming back from injury due to the presence of The Rock, so he wanted to see if he should turn heel. I didn’t really mind his heel work in 2001 because he had so many awesome matches and entertaining promos, even when he would do comedy bits.

Another thing I wanted to mention about the match is the endurance of both guys. They went over 30 minutes and did not slow down. A lot of times if you see guys get that much time they might do a bunch of rest holds. These guys kept going. I admire their endurance a lot because it didn’t seem like they got tired at all.

Also, Jim Ross and Paul Heyman did an incredible job of calling this match. It was probably their best performance together because they put over everything perfectly. JR was mad about what Austin did while Heyman tried to explain what Austin was doing. I thought it was brilliant by both guys.

What Happened Next

Austin had an amazing 2001. It was probably the best year of his career in terms of great matches, but I think 1997 was his best year overall. Austin stayed heel until after Survivor Series 2001, when his WCW team lost to the WWE team led by The Rock. Immediately after that, Austin was back in the face role doing the “WHAT?” thing. Unfortunately, things went bad for Austin in the spring of 2002 when he walked out of the company because he didn’t want to put over Brock Lesnar on Raw without any build to it. He also hit Debra repeatedly and was arrested for it, but did not serve jail time. WWE had Rock do a promo ripping on Austin after he walked out. Austin returned to the company in early 2003.

Rock’s movie career was starting to take off. He missed a few months post WrestleMania due to movies, then returned for SummerSlam to win the WCW Title from Booker T and lead WWE’s team over WCW at Survivor Series 2001. In 2002, he was on a part time schedule because his movie career really started to take off.

Their next big singles match against eachother was at WrestleMania 19 two years later. It was Austin’s last match ever in 2003. That’s where Rock finally got a WrestleMania win over Austin. I covered it in depth here.

Final Thoughts

This was one of the greatest rivalries in the history of wrestling. Some people say it is THE greatest because they were the two biggest stars during the hot Attitude Era. This is a classic match that’s always going to make me smile because of how hot WWE was at the time and how good Austin and Rock were.

It’s a match I can watch a hundred times and never get sick of. Why do I love pro wrestling? For matches like this. It’s special. I don’t know how else to say it.

Rankings So Far

  1. Steve Austin vs. The Rock @ WrestleMania 17
  2. Ricky Steamboat vs. Randy Savage @ WrestleMania 3
  3. Owen Hart vs. Bret Hart @ WrestleMania 10
  4. Edge & Christian vs. The Hardy Boyz vs. The Dudley Boyz (TLC) @ WrestleMania 17
  5. The Undertaker vs. Shawn Michaels @ WrestleMania 26
  6. The Undertaker vs. Triple H @ WrestleMania 28
  7. Chris Benoit vs. Triple H vs. Shawn Michaels @ WrestleMania 20
  8. Shawn Michaels vs. Bret Hart @ WrestleMania 12
  9. Ultimate Warrior vs. Randy Savage @ WrestleMania 7
  10. Brock Lesnar vs. Kurt Angle @ WrestleMania 19
  11. Money in the Bank Ladder Match (won by Edge) @ WrestleMania 21
  12. Shawn Michaels vs. Chris Jericho @ WrestleMania 19
  13. The Undertaker vs. CM Punk @ WrestleMania 29
  14. Daniel Bryan vs. Randy Orton vs. Batista @ WrestleMania 30
  15. Edge vs. Mick Foley @ WrestleMania 22
  16. The Undertaker vs. Triple H @ WrestleMania 27
  17. Randy Savage vs. Ric Flair @ WrestleMania 8
  18. The Undertaker vs. Edge @ WrestleMania 24
  19. John Cena vs. Shawn Michaels @ WrestleMania 23
  20. Daniel Bryan vs. Triple H @ WrestleMania 30
  21. Kurt Angle vs. Chris Benoit @ WrestleMania 17
  22. The Rock vs. Steve Austin @ WrestleMania 19
  23. Brock Lesnar vs. Roman Reigns (vs. Seth Rollins) @ WrestleMania 31
  24. Eddie Guerrero vs. Kurt Angle @ WrestleMania 20
  25. The Rock vs. Hulk Hogan @ WrestleMania 18
  26. Shawn Michaels vs. Ric Flair @ WrestleMania 24
  27. Charlotte vs. Sasha Banks vs. Becky Lynch @ WrestleMania 32
  28. Bret Hart vs. Roddy Piper @ WrestleMania 8
  29. Ultimate Warrior vs. Hulk Hogan @ WrestleMania 6

WrestleMania’s Greatest Matches archives are here.

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