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(Almost) 5-Star Match Reviews: Chris Jericho and Chris Benoit vs. ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin and Triple H – WWE RAW, May 21st 2001

This is the best match in Monday Night RAW history according to Dave Meltzer, or at least one of the best Raw matches. When it first took place, the match was hailed as one of the best matches of the year. It was praised for its excitement, story, psychology, drama and atmosphere. Twenty years have passed and much has changed in pro wrestling, but fan attitudes towards this match largely haven’t. So, with the twenty-year anniversary of this match upon us, it’s time to look back at this legendary RAW tag team match to see how well it has held up to time.

Today we look back at the classic match between ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin & Triple H and Chris Benoit & Chris Jericho from May 21st, 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.

The story

Around one month earlier, Steve Austin turned heel and aligned himself with Mr. McMahon. That alliance soon expanded to include Vince’s daughter Stephanie and her (then only on-screen) husband Triple H. Together, Austin and HHH became ‘The Two-Man Power Trip’. By the time this match came about, Austin was world champion and he and Triple H held the tag team titles together as a duo. They were seen as the most unstoppable, dominant force in WWE, and it seemed like no one could stop them.

This is where Benoit and Jericho come in.

Going into this match, Benoit and Jericho were uneasy allies. They had spent the prior year fighting each other in an extended back-and-forth feud that had spanned numerous PPV events, big matches, and title changes. At the 2001 Royal Rumble event, Jericho beat Benoit to win the Intercontinental Championship but lost it to Triple H almost immediately after WrestleMania. Then, Benoit and Jericho found themselves thrown into a tag team turmoil match at Judgment Day 2001 (which took place the night before this match), with the winner earning a shot against the champions on the next episode of RAW. And even though Benoit had wrestled Kurt Angle in a near-thirty-minute match on the same card and lost, he still had enough strength to team with Jericho to win the turmoil match to earn a title shot.

For Benoit, this was a major opportunity. He was still seen as an underneath guy and not someone ‘worthy’ of rubbing elbows with bona fide main-eventers like Austin and HHH, so he had something to prove here. For Jericho, he was willing to put his rivalry with Benoit on hold if it meant getting revenge on Triple H, who had screwed him over in the past and had taken his IC title from him in the more recent past.

The two Chrises were very much the underdogs here. Austin and HHH were in a league of their own and both had shown before how brutal and dangerous they were in the ring. Both of them were willing to do whatever it took to win, so people were expecting lots of shenanigans and weapons-based violence to take place.

And yet, there was hope that the two smaller Canadians would come out on top…somehow. The question was, could they?

The match

This match was rated ****3/4 by Dave Meltzer in the Wrestling Observer Newsletter.

Austin and Jericho start things off. Austin lands some punches and stomps on Jericho in a corner. Austin lands more hard shots in the corner then whips Jericho, but Jericho ducks two clotheslines and lands a flying forearm for a one-count. A sudden cradle gets him another one-count. Jericho lands some chops and tries an Irish whip but Austin reverses it and tosses Jericho out of the ring. Jericho lands on the apron and lands a double ax handle from the top rope. He tries to follow up with an arm wringer but Austin fights out and tags Triple H. HHH walks into a hard chop from Jericho who then tags Benoit.

The two Chrises land a flurry of corner kicks to HHH’s stomach and Benoit tries to follow up but HHH pokes his eye and tags Austin in his corner. HHH holds Benoit as Austin kicks him and start landing hard strikes, but Benoit fights back. They trade chops to the chest in a corner and Benoit whips Austin but Austin tackles him down. Austin charges but Benoit ducks and lands a big knee lift and a snap suplex. Benoit lands a superplex and covers but HHH makes the save.

Jericho charges across the ring and nails Triple H, while both Austin and HHH double-team Benoit. Benoit fights back against both men and gets the crowd behind him, but Austin shuts him down with a thumb to the eye. Then out of nowhere, Benoit locks in a crossface and the crowd erupts. Triple H tries to break it up but Jericho triangle dropkicks him out of the ring. The referee tries to get Jericho back onto the apron as Triple H grabs a chair. The referee doesn’t see (or hear) Triple H smash Benoit with a steel chair, breaking the hold, and then drag Austin into a pinning position over Benoit. Triple H knocks Jericho off the apron and the ref makes the count. One, two, no Benoit kicks out. Frustrated, Austin lands mounted punches on Benoit as the crowd chants ‘Austin sucks’. Man, it feels weird seeing those two words together.

Austin foot chokes Benoit against the ropes, and when the referee makes him back off, HHH whips Benoit shoulder-first into the steel stairs, all behind the referee’s back. HHH tosses Benoit back into the ring for Austin to cover him, but Austin only gets two. Austin tags Triple H, who starts kicking the upper arm and shoulder that went into the steel steps moments ago. HHH lands more punches but Benoit starts fighting back. Benoit whips HHH and goes for a back body drop but HHH counters into his facebuster for another two-count. Austin tags in and lands a belly stomp and chokes Benoit on the second rope. He continues his onslaught on Benoit with a running body press and more stomps to Benoit’s ribs. Austin cheap-shots Jericho and Jericho tries to enter the ring but the referee stops him, while Triple H tags in and stomps on Benoit’s torso as well.

HHH lands shoulder thrusts in the corner and applies an abdominal stretch, and then gets Austin to grab his arm so they can add more pressure onto Benoit. This unfair advantage goes on for a bit, and when the referee finally catches on, he breaks it up himself and Benoit takes advantage of that with a hip toss on HHH. Benoit makes a comeback with a shoulder block, but HHH counters a second one with a sleeper. Benoit starts fading. He galls to his knees. The referee checks his arm. It drops once…twice…thr—no, Benoit still has some fight left in him. Benoit fights back and lands a German suplex. Benoit crawls to his corner. HHH pulls him away by his foot. Benoit lands an enzuigiri. Both Jericho and Austin are itching to enter the match. Jericho and Austin tag in. the crowd goes wild. But wait. The referee never saw Jericho’s tag. He pushes Jericho back as HHH throws Benoit to a fresh Steve Austin.

Austin manhandles Benoit as Jericho tries to save his partner. Chaos ensues as Jericho brawls with Austin and the ref tries to regain control of the match. Meanwhile in the ring, Triple H lands a Pedigree and covers Benoit. The ref’s distracted by checking on Austin. Jericho takes advantage and lands a missile dropkick on Triple H. Both Jericho and Austin get back to their corners and reach out to their respective partners. The referee sees both tags. Jericho and Austin tags in. The crowd explodes in wild cheers.

Jericho drops Austin with clotheslines, counters an Irish whip and lands another flying forearm. Big right hand for Triple H as well and Jericho knocks him out of the ring. Austin tries a cheap-shot but Jericho ducks. Austin goes for the Thesz Press but Jericho blocks it. Walls of Jericho. Triple H breaks up the hold from behind. But Triple H goes down badly. He goes after Jericho hobbling on one leg. HHH starts dismantling the announce table. He goes for a Pedigree on the announce table. Jericho counters into the Walls once again. Meanwhile, Benoit lands a diving head-butt in onto Austin in the ring. He pins but he’s not the legal man; Jericho is. Benoit goes over to the referee, who’s distracted ringside with Jericho. Benoit turns around and walks into a Stone Cold Stunner! He goes for the pin. Benoit’s not the legal man. The ref counts anyway. One, two, no, Jericho pulls the ref out of the ring. Jericho lands a bulldog on Austin. Lionsault, no, Austin gets his knees up. Austin goes for a Stunner but Jericho blocks it. Lionsault connects. Jericho covers Austin. Triple H comes in with his sledgehammer. He goes to hit Jericho with it…but Jericho dodges and HHH hits Austin instead. Benoit drags Triple H out of the ring. Jericho covers Austin. One, two, three! That’s it! New champions!

Winners and NEW WWF/E Tag Team Champions after 13:55: Chris Jericho & Chris Benoit

Review

Before we look at the actual breakdown of the match, there’s something important we need to address first. For anyone that might not be aware, this is the match in which Triple H suffered his first quad tear. It happened when he broke up the first Walls of Jericho in the ring (around 16:55 in the above video). When he followed Jericho ringside towards the announce table, you could clearly see he was trying not to put any weight on his left leg. Which made sense, considering – as we learned afterwards – that he tore his quad muscle completely off his bone. The pain he must’ve been in at that moment must’ve been excruciating. But the match didn’t stop, oh no. Triple H, for all his faults and for all the criticisms people have levelled against him, was and is both a consummate professional and a tough sonofabitch. He continued the match as it was planned, which included being placed in the Walls of Jericho on the announce table for a good thirty seconds.

With a completely torn quad muscle.

And even after having his leg stretched, he still got back into the ring for the final moment of the match and did what was necessary to finish the match. I can’t emphasize enough how much toughness it must’ve taken for him to do this. He finished the match despite suffering a debilitating injury instead of calling for the match to stop then and there. Some people would call that stupidity. I call it dedication and respect for one’s craft.

As for the match itself, I think it was great, but not as amazing as originally described. It was as intense and exciting as a 14-minute match could possibly get with lots of great back-and-forth sequences and fun near-falls. The match was carried by a great story of Benoit and Jericho fighting as true underdogs against the wily champions. And the ending was terrific because it did wonders to elevate Jericho and Benoit to another level. But there was also another, fifth player that was central to the match: the referee. The ref and his blunders were integral to moving the match’s story forward. From focusing too much on Jericho on the apron, to ignoring a critical tag, to being focused on the wrong two people as Benoit had Austin in a pinning predicament, the referee’s actions and inactions played too big of a role in this match for my liking. The match reached that point of senseless chaos where not even the referee could keep track of what was going on and who was legal.

That said, the match did have some positives as well. First, the match took place in front of a rabid crowd that went absolutely nuts for the whole match. Seriously, crowds like this simply don’t exist anymore, so hearing an arena full of fans actually expressing themselves in a match really does make it feel more exciting and tense. Secondly, the action that didn’t involve the referee was really strong. Both teams displayed great teamwork and built the match up incredibly well, to the point that it was impossible to predict a winner until the final seconds of the match. Unpredictability is critical in wrestling because it keeps people guessing on how the match will go and how it will end. These four wrestlers did a great job keeping viewers on the edge of their seats from bell to bell, even if the match itself was relatively short. Finally, the match was also complemented by great commentary from Jim Ross and Paul Heyman. The differences between their work here and what’s heard on today’s broadcasts are like night and day. JR and Heyman furthered the story, gave proper background, and sold the significant of stuff happening in the match with emotion. These days, every commentator is so bland and sanitized that none of them show any passion or excitement in what happens in the ring, which makes them feel less like excited viewers and more like bored sportscasters.

Final Rating: ****1/4

Despite its intensity and great story, this match was weakened by its short length and the chaotic nonsense that took place throughout most of it. I think that people look back at how things were on RAW twenty years ago and see a match like this and think it’s something marvelous. But the problem with that approach is that they’re comparing it to what’s on now, which isn’t a good comparison because most big matches today are vastly inferior to what took place back then. If we compare this match side by side with some of the best matches of its day and the matches that preceded it, it falls incredibly short of great match status.

There are only two real reasons to watch this match. First, there’s the nice hit of nostalgia from seeing how exciting things were on RAW two decades ago. And second, to see the exact moment Triple H tore his quad the first time and powered through it like an absolute boss. Beyond that, the match was solid but nothing truly out-of-this-world. Had the referee not become such an unnecessary focal point here, then there’s a good chance the match would’ve held up much better over time.

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