“Talk about your psalms, talk about “John 3:16”…Austin 3:16 says I just whupped your ass!”
With those immortal words, spoken by the legendary pro wrestler “Stone Cold” Steve Austin after winning the King of the Ring tournament on 23 June 1996, a momentous wrestling career was about to unfold before our eyes that would see everyone’s favourite beer-swigging, finger-gesturing anti-hero become not just an industry icon but a mainstream icon as well. Here’s to yah, Steve!
The Date: 1 April 2001
The Venue: Reliant Astrodome; Houston, Texas
The Commentary: Jim “J.R.” Ross and Paul Heyman
The Referee: Earl Hebner
The Stakes: Main event, no disqualification match for the WWF Championship
Man, I tell you what, if you were a wrestling fan between 1998 and 2001 you were living the high life! After losing to World Championship Wrestling’s (WCW) Monday Nitro in the weekly television ratings for nearly two years, the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) finally began to turn a corner by ushering their “Attitude Era”, a central focus of which was the rivalry between the loud-mouthed, anti-authority “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and WWF Chairman Vince McMahon.
One key aspect of this feud also involved Austin’s various run-ins with the Rock; the two had previously clashed over the WWF Championship at WrestleMania XV: The Ragin’ Climax, where the Rock (then endorsed as McMahon’s “Corporate Champion”) dropped the belt to Austin but the two had plenty of history prior to that as they had feuded over the Intercontinental Championship some years prior. After Austin won the Royal Rumble and the Rock recaptured the belt from Kurt Angle at No Way Out just a few months prior, tensions began to boil between the two now-friendly rivals; Austin’s wife Debra was forced to be Rock’s manager for a while, the two frequently brawled or left each other at the mercy of other wrestlers, and Austin, still on his big comeback from a career-threatening neck injury, famously warned the Rock: “I need to beat you, Rock. I need it more than anything you could ever imagine”.
Of course, it’s hard to talk about this match without mentioning the excellent video package that told the story of the tumultuous build-up towards it by charting Austin’s big comeback, Rock’s WWF Championship win, and the rising tensions between the two following Austin’s Royal Rumble win. Originally set to Limp Bizkit’s “My Way”, even without this music this is one of the best hype packages the WWE has ever put together and really sold the intensity of this confrontation. Emotions were high going into this match thanks not just to the clearly partisan crowd but also J.R.’s rousing commentary and personal investment in the match; J.R. was widely recognised as Austin’s best friend and, as such, he spends the majority of the match selling the story of Austin’s big comeback and that this match is this the culmination of Austin’s journey through spinal surgeries, injuries, and adversity. Accordingly, he was outraged by the unexplained, last-second announcement that the match had been made a no disqualification contest, believing that there is some kind of conspiracy behind that decision despite the fact that both he and Heyman mention more than once that a no disqualification stipulation actually gives Austin, known for his wild brawling, the advantage.
Austin came to the ring first to a raucous reception; this was during the time when Austin was coming out to Disturbed’s “Glass Shatters”, a rockin’ version of his iconic theme, though the massive ovation he received largely crowned out any music and even the commentary at times. Given that Austin was the home state hero, and that audiences were still high on rediscovering their love for him after all of his time out with injuries, this isn’t all that surprising and meant that the Rock, arguably the most popular wrestler in the WWF at that time, received a showering of boos not only during his entrance but also throughout the match. Honestly, this match was loud and boisterous right from the word “Go!” thanks to the crowd, who are a sea of cheers, reluctant boos towards the Rock, and a cacophony of emotion all throughout. You could feel the tension and anticipation in the air from the moment the match begins and it stayed at a constant level throughout, rising to a crescendo whenever Austin is on the attack. Accordingly, there was no standing on ceremony here and the match began with a full-on slugfest between the two. Austin even went for a belt shot in the early going, which might seem surprising but, watching the match in hindsight, you can see how Austin is pulling out all kinds of heel tactics throughout (shots with the ring bell, using his knee braces to attack the Rock’s forehead, undoing the corner turnbuckle pad, choking Rock with the ropes, among other notable moments). Though J.R. largely glossed over a lot of these elements, Heyman sold it well to remind audiences that Austin is driven, obsessed, with becoming the WWF Champion and willing to do anything and everything to emerge the victor.
Austin dominated the match in the early going thanks to hitting a Lou Thesz Press, escaping the Rock Bottom, and taking the fight to the outside after Rock avoided being hit with a Stone Cold Stunner. The two brawled by the announce table for a bit before heading over the barricade and into the crowd; this wouldn’t be the first time the action spilled to the outside and, if anything, that tactic is a little over-used in this match but it plays to Austin’s strengths since he was largely a brawler by this point and his matches were more about high intensity, a series of punches, stomps, and recognisable spots, and, of course, the Stunner. The emotion of the contest wasn’t lost on the Rock, either, though, and this cost him during their ringside scrap as he allowed himself to get distracted by Hebner, giving Austin the chance to bash him in the head with the ring bell and bust him open. Hebner, easily my favourite referee and, arguably, the WWF’s most recognisable official, could always be counted on to be a big part of every match he was in but in a way that remained professional and subtle. Here, he spends the majority of the match appealing to each man’s reason; it was no disqualification but he still admonished the two for fighting at ringside, using weapons, and forced them to break submission holds when their opponent was in the ropes. However, because of how high the stakes and the personal animosity between the two rivals were, he often found himself being accosted or threatened by both men.
As Heyman was fond of saying during this time, Austin was “like a shark that smells blood” the moment the blood began flowing and began to relentlessly target the Rock’s lacerated forehead with a barrage of fists, shutting down a potential comeback with a Neckbreaker, and stomping away on the Rock in the corner of the ring. It was only when Austin found himself distracted by Hebner’s interference that the Rock was able to finally make a proper comeback by launching Austin into the exposed turnbuckle and gaining a little retribution by bashing Austin in the head with the ring bell, busting him open before Austin was able to regain control of the match with a wicked catapult into the ring post. Rock sold the hell out of that move, snapping his head back at the very last second to really sell the idea that he had collided with the post in a sickening way, which more than made up for the announce table simply collapsing under his weight and, potentially, ruining a planned table spot. Austin continued his assault by bashing Rock in the head with a monitor but Rock managed to finally turn the tide by locking Austin into the Sharpshooter; the crowd was thrust into a tumultuous sea of conflict as Austin screamed in agony, refused to quit, and desperately reached for the ropes but Rock shifted him back to the middle of the ring! Austin, though, was able to reach the ropes and then put the Rock into a Sharpshooter, with the crowd being far less divided about this and even less impressed when the Rock powered out of the move. Annoyed, and growing increasingly frustrated, Austin followed up with the Million Dollar Dream!
J.R. was as surprised as anyone else about Austin dusting off this long-forgotten piece of his arsenal but it was enough to drive the Rock to his knees and set up for the old “three arm” spot. The Rock, of course, kept his arm up at the last second (has this spot ever gone any other way?) and uniquely kicked himself off the corner of the ring to first counter into close two count and then hit a Stunner out of nowhere! Unfortunately, the Rock was too fatigued and hurt to cover quickly enough so Austin kicked out at two and it was at this point that Vince McMahon wandered down to ringside, much to the anger of both J.R. and the crowd. In the ring, Rock and Austin went back to exchanging blows and trading their signature Spinebusters; Rock, of course, followed his Spinebuster up with the People’s Elbow but McMahon broke up the pin. Incensed, the Rock chased McMahon around the ring and ran right into a Rock Bottom from Austin, though he managed to kick out at two for a dramatic near fall.
After the Rock countered out of a Stunner attempt, Hebner got knocked out of the ring and, in the carnage, Austin ordered McMahon to bring a steel chair into the ring. In a sickening moment, Austin held the Rock in place so that McMahon could deliver a vicious chair shot right to his head. It still wasn’t enough to keep the Rock down, though, and Austin was so infuriated that he got caught with a Rock Bottom. Luckily for Austin, though, McMahon distracted Hebner, and the Rock, long enough for Austin to recover and hit the Rock with a massive Stunner (which, of course, the Rock sold with a theatrical panache). Driven to the limit by the Rock’s tenacity, Austin began assaulting him with McMahon’s steel chair; he then delivered another sick shot to the head before driving it into the Rock’s chest and bashing him over the spine with it over and over and over, beating him to a pulp, and finally scoring the three count! The crowd erupted into thunderous applause but they, and J.R,, soon reacted in shock and anger as Austin and McMahon shook hands and shared a beer over the Rock’s bloodied and prone body. When the Rock stumbled to his feet, Austin put him down with one last belt shot to emphasise his sudden and unexpected change of character. J.R. was disgusted, appalled, and betrayed by the alliance between Austin and McMahon but Heyman, though shocked, believed that this was totally in character since Austin had promised to do anything to win and was always fond of the mantra: “DTA – Don’t Trust Anybody!”
The very next night on Raw is War, Austin and the Rock faced off in a rematch inside of a steel cage. It was during this match that Triple H forged an alliance with his much-hated rival and he and Austin came to be known as the “Two-Man Power Trip”. The Rock was subsequently assaulted by the two and suspended by McMahon to allow him the time off required to film The Scorpion King (Russell, 2002). After Triple H won the Intercontinental Championship, the Two-Man Power Trip went on a…well, a power trip, dominating the WWF and coming into contact with the only team big, mean, and powerful enough to oppose them: the WWF Tag Team Champions, Kane and the Undertaker, the Brothers of Destruction. Austin and Triple H were able to best the Brothers, though, but their reign of terror was cut short when Triple H suffered a horrific quadriceps tear.
Austin continued on as a heel regardless, however, changing his music and becoming a more paranoid, unpredictable, and cowardly bad guy who turned his back on both the fans and his friends (resulting in a vicious beat down of J.R.). Although he briefly seemed to be returning back to the “old Stone Cold” in the face of the invasion from WCW and Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW), Austin ultimately joined forces with the WCW/ECW alliance and became this erratic, overbearing, narcissistic heel obsessed with the belt and being treated like the star of the show. Eventually, after the collapse of the WCW/ECW alliance, Austin would return to his roots as a babyface and begin the final stage of his career. Mounting injuries began to take their toll and Austin began to lose his passion for the sport, culminating in one last match against the Rock at WrestleMania XIX but that is a story for another day.
What did you think to the contest between the Rock and Steve Austin at WrestleMania X-Seven? How would you rate it compared to their other bouts and which of their feuds, matches, and moments is your favourite? Were you a fan of Austin’s unexpected heel turn or do you think he should have called an audible and remained as a tweener? How are you celebrating 3:16 Day this year, what are some of your favourite matches and moments from Austin’s illustrious career, and what dream match would you have liked to see him involved in? Whatever your thoughts, drop a comment below and let me know what you think about “Stone Cold” Steve Austin.