(Almost) 5-Star Match Reviews: 'Stone Cold' Steve Austin vs. The Rock - WWE WrestleMania X-Seven (2001)

(Almost) 5-Star Match Reviews: 'Stone Cold' Steve Austin vs. The Rock - WWE WrestleMania X-Seven (2001)

If there was ever a match that screamed ‘WrestleMania main event’, it would be this one.

This match took place twenty years ago and is still considered one of the best matches in WrestleMania history. It featured two of the biggest stars in WWE history competing on what is still considered THE best wrestling PPV of all time. It was the culmination of a multi-year storyline. It was the most anticipated rematch in years. And it featured one of the most controversial endings to a match in decades.

Today we revisit the classic main-event battle between The Rock and ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin from the fabled WrestleMania X-Seven.

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.

 The story

This is a continuation of arguably the best main-event WWE feud of all time, Stone Cold vs. The Rock. Both men were, and still are, widely regarded as the biggest WWE superstars ever. Austin was the badass hero that everyone adored thanks to his authority-defying attitude and his ability to take on all comers and come out on top. The Rock had transformed from a goofy white-meat babyface to a cocky heel to the most charismatic superstar to ever live. And while the Rock’s biggest strength by far was his promo ability, he could hold his own against any top star in WWE, including Austin.

These two men had crossed paths many times going as far back as 1997, but their main-event feud didn’t really begin until WrestleMania XV in 1999. Austin beat Rock to reclaim the world title belt in that match and the two fought each other (and sometimes teamed together) throughout that year. Then Austin was sidelined for nearly one year due to major neck surgery, and didn’t have any interactions with The Rock until October 2000, almost a full year after ‘Rikishi ran him down and “DIDDIT FOR DA ROCK”’.

Fast forward to early 2001. The Rock won the WWE Championship after pinning Kurt Angle at No Way Out 2001 and Austin won the 2001 Royal Rumble match. At first, the build to their WrestleMania encounter was tremendous. They teased fighting each other but never did. Fans would tense up as Austin and Rock would get closer and closer to losing control and fighting. Then, a twist was added when Austin’s real-life wife (and then on-screen personality) Debra became The Rock’s manager, despite Rock not wanting her. That added an additional personal edge to their upcoming match-up, especially after Austin stunned Rock when Rock did nothing to save Debra when she was locked in Kurt Angle’s Ankle Lock. That led to many instances of both Austin and Rock hitting each other with their own finishers, and sometimes stealing each other’s finishers as well. On the Smackdown before WrestleMania, they removed Debra as Rock’s manager, so that part of the story was gone.

By the time WrestleMania came around, neither Austin or The Rock could contain themselves. They attacked each other time and again, had tense staredowns and interviews, and stared daggers at each other. You could tell they were both determined to tear into each other.

For The Rock, this was his chance to prove that he was better than Austin, which was something he had not yet accomplished. For Austin, it was his chance to relive his dream of being world champion once more time and proving he was still the best wrestler in WWE. There was immense support for both guys winning as both of them had been built up as genuine megastars. There was simply no way of knowing who would win, how, or after how long. Needless to say, there was a lot of excitement going into this match.

There was also one of the best video packages ever to get us ready for this match as seen below.

WWF WrestleMania 17 Promo - The Rock v Stone Cold Steve Austin (Limp Bizkit - My Way)

The match

This match originally took place on April 1st, 2001 at WrestleMania X-Seven (a.k.a the best WrestleMania). It was originally rated ****1/2 stars by the Wrestling Observer Newsletter’s Dave Meltzer and ***** by TJR’s own John Canton. Looking back now, let’s see how well it holds up as a match.

Right before the entrances begin, the match is suddenly announced as a No-Disqualification match. Austin comes out first gets a monstrous ovation from the crowd. Rock comes out next and gets a big pop, but it’s nowhere near as loud or as sustained as Austin’s.

This is for The Rock’s WWF/E Championship. Austin charges Rock as soon as he’s done posing in a corner and the match is on. They brawl and Rock ducks a belt shot from Austin. Austin lands a Thesz Press and an elbow drop. Austin whips Rock but he counters with a neckbreaker. The crowd noise during these opening moments is WAY louder than anything I’ve heard in WWE in over a decade. Both men escape each other’s finishers. Austin avoids a stunner from Rock and tosses him out of the ring. They brawl into the crowd and Rock gets the advantage. He smashes Austin face-first into an announce table and goes for an Irish whip but Austin counters with a clothesline. Back in the ring, Austin lands more stomps and then launches himself into Rock against the ropes and gets the first of what will be many two-counts.

Austin lands a second-rope superplex and gets a two-count and then removes a turnbuckle pad. That’s allowed because this is No DQ. Austin picks Rock up but Rock fights back with punches and the crowd screams loudly. Austin reverses an Irish whip, Rock ducks him and lands a forearm smash. Overhead arm drag toss by Rock for two. Rock clotheslines Austin over the ropes and out of the ring.

Rock smashes Austin’s face into the announce table again and then into the ring bell. He gets in the referee’s face, then goes back to Austin, but Austin takes advantage by leveling Rock with the ring bell. Rock starts bleeding as Austin smashes him into any hard object he can find. Rock gets smashed into the announce table again and the table collapses from the Rock’s weight (lol).

Back in the ring, Austin unloads on Rock with even more punches as the crowd erupts once again. Austin tries to smash Rock into the exposed turnbuckle but Rock resists and fights back. He whips Austin and goes for a spinebuster but Austin counters into a swinging neckbreaker of his own for two. Austin lands even more punches and stomps until the referee tries to stop him. I’m not sure why the ref’s even bothering since, again, this is No DQ. Austin continues punishing Rock in the corner, and then shoves the referee got trying to make him stop. Well, good for Austin for making the most out of the stipulation. Austin turns around but walks into a clothesline out of nowhere from the Rock.

The Rock lands a second clothesline as half the crowd cheers and the other half boos. Rock continues with punches and then smashes Austin into the exposed turnbuckle and then grabs the ring bell. Then he smashes the ring bell over Austin’s head. Austin’s bleeding now, too. Rock pins. Austin kicks out. Hard right hands by the Rock. Austin staggers around the ring, desperate to stay on his feet. Rock lands hard forearms on Austin as he’s draped on the apron. He goes to smash Austin’s head into the barricade but Austin resists and fights back. Austin drops Rock sternum-first on the barricade and then slingshots him head-first into the steel ringpost. But Austin’s not done. He smashes Rock’s head with one of the announce table monitors. Back in the ring, Austin pins but only gets two.

Austin flips Rock the bird and goes for a Stunner but Rock counters into a sharpshooter. Shades of WrestleMania 13. The crowd is going absolutely insane.  Austin crawls to the ropes but Rock drags him to the middle of the ring. Eventually, Austin makes it to the ropes and the hold is broken (again, No DQ, not sure why that rule has to be enforced). Rock goes for another Sharpshooter but Austin kicks him away. Now it’s Austin’s turn to apply a Sharpshooter on the Rock! Rock screams in pain as he fights out. Austin lands a knee crusher and reapplies the sharpshooter. Rock grabs the ropes. The referee orders Austin to release the hold. Austin flips him the bird instead, but eventually does let go. Million Dollar Dream (Cobra Clutch) by Austin. Rock looks like he’s fading. The ref checks his arm. It slumps down once…twice…thr—no, Rock’s still in this. Rock does the Bret Hart reversal using the corner and counters into a pin. One, two, no, Austin kicks out at 2.8.

Both men get to their feet and Austin starts punching Rock some more. He Irish whips Rock, but Rock counters into a Stunner! Rock Stunners Austin! Both men go down. Rock crawls over for a pin. One, two, t—no, Austin kicks out.

Suddenly the crowd starts booing. Here comes Vince McMahon.

Austin and Rock get to their feet as Vince walks past the ring. Rock charges but walks into a spinebuster from Austin for two. Austin whips Rock, but Rock counters and lands a spinebuster of his own. The Rock’s in position. The crowd goes absolutely nuts. People’s Elbow! Rock goes for the pin. One, two, no, Vince breaks it up. Rock gets up and realizes what just happened. The color drains from Vince’s face as his and Rock’s eyes meet. Rock chases Vince around and into the ring, but walks into a Rock Bottom from Austin. One, two, NO, Rock kicks out.

Austin goes for a Stunner but Rock counters and the referee gets knocked out of the ring. Rock tries to capitalize but Austin lands a low blow. Then Austin motions to Vince. Oh my God, they’re working together. Austin and his biggest enemy are in cahoots. Vince grabs a chair and Austin invites him into the ring. Austin holds Rock up. Vince levels Rock with a chairshot to the face. Austin pins and Vince tosses the ref back into the ring. The referee counts one…two…thr—no, Rock kicks out again.

Austin flips Rock off and raises the steel chair, but Rock counters into a Rock Bottom. Vince gets in the ref’s face. The Rock sees this and tosses Vince into the ring. Rock starts hitting Vince with all he’s got. Then he turns around…and walks into a Stone Cold Stunner. Huge Stone Cold Stunner! One, two, thr—NO, Rock kicks out yet again. Vince hands Austin the chair. Austin levels Rock with it and pins. Rock kicks out! Austin smashes the chair edge into Rock’s sternum and then smashes him in the back with it over and over. He unleashes hell on Rock with that chair and then pins. One, two, three! Austin wins!

Winner and NEW WWF/E Champion after 28:08: ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin

Post-match, Austin grabs the belt and gets in Vince’s face. Then the two of them shake hands. JR: “STONE COLD IS SHAKING HANDS WITH SATAN HIMSELF! FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, SOMEONE TELL ME THIS NOT HAPPENING!” Paul Heyman: “It’s happening. Stone Cold has sold his soul for the WWF title.” Then the two of them celebrate with beers as JR unloads his frustrations on commentary.

Review

Personally, I didn’t have high expectations going into this. Austin was limited and slowing down due to an accumulation of injuries and surgeries and The Rock, despite being the most charismatic wrestler to ever live, wasn’t always the best in-ring performer. So imagine my surprise when these two actually surpassed my expectations and put on one hell of a great main-event match. Was it perfect in every conceivable way? No. Is it something truly legendary and on the same level as many historic, 5-star epics? Close, but no cigar.

Let’s start with the positives: this match had a fantastic big fight atmosphere. The crowd was unbelievably hot and loud here. When people these days talk about how much they miss the glory days of past crowds, this is one of the first matches that come to mind. Even though this was a long show, the crowd was fully immersed in this match and they screamed uproariously at all the big spots.

Austin and Rock didn’t have to do much to get the crowd behind them, which worked to their benefit. They had a simplistic brawl, which, as we’ve seen before, can be tremendous under the right circumstances. They made the most out of the sudden No DQ stipulation and turned this into a violent brawl that made both men look even tougher than they already were and gave the rabid audience exactly what they wanted.

And in terms of selling, The Rock was very much the better man here. His facial expressions, reactions, and even the looks in his eyes told an amazing story. Rock had an incredible ability to ‘talk with his eyes’, which is very hard to do. His expressions told such a great story here. He was intense. He was frustrated. He was determined. He was so great here. Even though this crowd was 95% in Austin’s corner, they cheered for The Rock as well. They loved him as much as the local hero Austin.

Some people look back at this match and think it inferior because of its simplicity. And while I thought so at first, I changed my mind once the match was over. This match was built up so well and the rivalry between Austin and Rock was so intense and personal that there was no way they’d be able to put an end to their rivalry in a ‘wrestling match’. The circumstances surrounding this contest basically required that both guys forego the wrestling route and instead required them to try and destroy each other in the most savage way possible. That translated into lots of brutal weapon shots, finishers, and stolen finishers. And for Austin, Rock’s resilience became too much for him to handle on his own, so he had to go down the most desperate path imaginable: aligning with his biggest nemesis to defeat a seemingly-unstoppable opponent.

The action fit the story perfectly. Can you imagine Austin and The Rock, two men engaged in such a deep and personal blood feud, trying to end their big feud with armlocks and rest holds? This was definitely not the time or the place for that. Doing so would’ve sucked the tension out of the arena and people would’ve started chanting ‘boring’.

But as tremendous as this match was, it had some issues as well. On one hand, it was a fast-paced and intense brawl that went by incredibly quickly. Both wrestlers started off at their maximum and never slowed down. They kept the same pace for almost thirty minutes and only seemed to waver after some brutal weapons shots or finishers. But the reason they kept that pace because 90% of the match was just punching. And not even realistic punching, but open-fisted ‘working punches’. Al Snow once said that punches are one of the fakest things in pro wrestling and this match displayed that theory perfectly. Sure, Austin and Rock did an awesome job convincing people they were genuinely trying to destroy each other. But both guys threw some really fake-looking punches that made it much harder to believe the match was realistic.

Second, the final stretch involving Vince McMahon was just riddled with plot holes. After hitting Rock with the chair, why didn’t Vince just assume the role of referee and just count to three? Better yet, why didn’t Vince take over for the ref after he got knocked out of the ring? He could easily assume authority to make decisions for a match; he’s Vince McMahon for God’s sake. Who is going to challenge his authority on a match decision? Sure there’s the ‘Board of Directors’ that have come up in storylines before. But it’s not like those ‘decisions’ have ever led to a reversal of one of Vince’s match decisions. All those have ever done is led to a rematch for the wrestlers or some sort of punishment for Vince. Given that, Vince had the opportunity to really go all the way with the screwjob decision by interjecting once Earl Hebner was out of the picture. For him to just stand there and basically let Rock kick out because Hebner was too slow counting a pin just didn’t make sense in this situation.

Lastly, the ending itself happened in the wrong place. This match took place in Houston, Texas, and the local Texas fans were NOT going to turn on Austin en masse under any circumstances. Sure, there was a light spattering of boos as Vince started helping Austin screw Rock over. But the sustained fan anger towards Austin that the WWE office hoped to gain here never happened. Even as JR sold this turn as unthinkable and despicable, most of the live audience didn’t think so. It was a case of wrong place, wrong time. Many people have since gone to say that this heel turn was a horrible creative decision and I think so as well. (Austin has admitted it many times as well saying “people didn’t want to hate me.”) But in the moment, it didn’t have the oomph it would’ve had if the audience was fully on board with the heel turn and reacted the way WWE would’ve wanted. Most of them still cheered Austin, even as he had a beer bash with his biggest archrival in Mr. McMahon.

Final Rating: ****3/4

While I don’t think this match was 100% perfect and in that same atmosphere as some of the greatest 5-star epics, it was still a great match and holds up tremendously well. This is especially true when it’s compared to more recent WWE main-events. The crowd reaction here was something modern WWE wishes they could get. It’s both praise for how good this match was (and still is) and an indictment of how inferior the modern stuff is. The same company that produced magic on this level seems to have lost all sense of how to create something similar.

There’s an important lesson to learn from this match, and that’s to have the right kind of match to fit the situation. Every important match on this WrestleMania card was different. This match wasn’t a ‘lots of crazy moves and chain grappling’ sort of match because that sort of contest wouldn’t fit this point in the story between Austin and Rock. This was a simplistic brawl that fit the story perfectly, made sense based on the strengths and weaknesses of the wrestlers involved, and gave the audience the payoff they wanted.

And while the ending really sucked for many people, I don’t think it really harmed the match itself that much. It was still a dumb decision in retrospect, and most people (including Austin himself) were right for calling it that. But it’s still a fantastic match that, despite its relative simplicity, hasn’t gotten worse with time whatsoever and probably never will.

Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here. Thanks for reading.