For over two decades, this has been hailed as one of the best triple-threat matches in WWE history.
It featured three of WWE’s most revered legends competing for the top prize in the company. It was extremely well regarded in its day, especially since much the quality of WWE’s produc was wildly hit-or-miss for most of the 2002 calendar year.
Given what WWE was producing at the time, was this match really that good, or was it a case of something slightly better than usual looking way better by comparison? Read on to find out.
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.
At King of the Ring 2002, Undertaker defended his WWE Championship against Triple H and nearly lost due to interference from The Rock. Frustrated over Rock getting involved in his business, Undertaker demanded a match with “The Great One” and it was granted by Vince McMahon. However, sandwiched between that match announcement and the actual match itself was a title defense against Kurt Angle.
That match had a controversial double decision that saw Undertaker pin Angle while angle had ‘Taker locked in a triangle choke and the moment the referee counted three, ‘Taker tapped out. Several referees argued over the finish and it was ultimately ruled a draw, which caused an incensed Angle to attack Undertaker post-match. With so much chaos going on, Vince McMahon decided to announce a triple threat match for the title.
This match originally took place on July 21, 2002. It was rated ****1/2 out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer and TJR’s John Canton.
This is for Undertaker’s Undisputed WWE Championship. After a somewhat cautious three-way stalemate, ‘Taker and Rock start trash-talking while Angle does the wrestling equivalent of “NOTICE ME!” and shoves both of them. They punch him down and stomp him, and then he gets taken to the floor with a big boot from ‘Taker and a clothesline from Rock.
Once Angle’s out of the way, ‘Taker uppercuts Rock and lands some strikes in a corner. Rock hits back with punches and goes for a clothesline but Undertaker ducks it and hits a flying clothesline of his own. Rock reverses an Irish whip and ‘Taker boots Angle off the apron. A clothesline sends ‘Taker to the floor and Angle goes after the champion.
Angle sends Undertaker into the steel steps but then Rock tosses him over the rope. Rock goes for an Irish whip but Angle counters into a German suplex. Angle stomps and chokes Rock into a corner and then the two men trade chops. Rock tries another Irish whip but this time Angle counters with an overhead belly-to-belly. Twice. Angle tries his own Irish whip but Rock counters with a DDT for a two-count.
Angle bails to ringside but Rock gives chase and smashes him into various hard surfaces. Angle reverses another Irish whip and hits a clothesline but then Undertaker clotheslines him. ‘Taker hammers Rock with more stiff shots and trash-talks him some more but then Rock fights back. Rock charges but runs into a sidewalk slam that gets ‘Taker a two-count. ‘Taker boots Angle off the apron again but when he turns around Rock nails him with a chokeslam. One, two, Angle breaks it up.
Angle punches Rock and shoots him into the ropes but Rock hits first with another clothesline. Rock applies an ankle lock but Angle escapes and hits a Rock Bottom. One two, Undertaker breaks it up with a leg drop. ‘Taker goes after Angle with punches. Angle counters and tries to land an Angle Slam but ‘Taker counters with his own Angle Slam. One, two, Rock breaks it up. Undertaker reverses an Irish whip and knocks Rock down but Rock kips up, clotheslines ‘Taker, dodges and sends Angle flying out of the ring, and hits a spinebuster. The crowd goes nuts as Rock lands the People’s Elbow! But before he can cover Angle pulls him out of the ring. Angle drops Rock onto an announce table and covers ‘Taker. One, two, Undertaker kicks out.
Angle hits some kicks in a corner but ‘Taker fires back and unloads a barrage of punches of his own. Angle reverses a corner whip but misses a charge and hits the post shoulder-first. ‘Taker smashes Angle into a ringpost but here comes The Rock who spits water in ‘Taker’s eyes. Those two brawl around a commentary table until Rock goes down and Undertaker goes back after Angle. Blood drips down Angle’s face as ‘Taker hits his apron leg drop. ‘Taker hits Old School but Rock breaks up a cover. Rock fires back with punches and goes for a back body drop but ‘Taker counters with a running DDT for another close two-count.
Undertaker teases a chokeslam on Rock, but then lets go to stop Angle from hitting him with a chair. Angle gets bounced between Rock and ‘Taker and then ‘Taker blocks another Rock Bottom. The ref’s preoccupied with Angle and doesn’t see Rock hit Undertaker with a low blow. Rock falls down and his momentum also drops the referee. Angle capitalizes with a chair-shot to Undertaker’s head and an Angle Slam on Rock. All three men collapse and Angle fails to get a three-count on either Rock or ‘Taker.
Angle goes for a kick but Rock counters with a dragon screw leg whip and a sharpshooter. Undertaker breaks it up before Angle can tap out. Last Ride connects! One, two, Angle pulls ‘Taker off with an ankle lock. ‘Taker escapes and goes for a Last Ride on Angle. But Angle does the same counter as the one he did on SmackDown a few weeks earlier. Angle keeps one shoulder up to avoid getting pinned and ‘Taker tries deadlifting him to no avail. Undertaker starts fading as Angle sinks in a triangle headscissor. Undertaker’s arm sinks down once…twice…thr – Rock breaks it up. Angle blocks a Rock Bottom and applies another ankle lock. Rock counters with a roll-up but only gets two.
Rock ducks a clothesline and that sends Angle into a chokeslam from ‘Taker. Rock follows with a Rock Bottom on ‘Taker but only gets two. Angle tries a schoolboy roll-up but gets a two-count as well. ‘Taker boots Rock but then Angle hits ‘Taker with an Angle Slam. Angle fires up and goes after Rock but Rock hits a Rock Bottom. One, two, three! Rock wins the title! Undertaker is literally a fraction of a second too late to break up the pin!
Winner and NEW Undisputed WWE Champion after 19:47: The Rock
It’s much harder to watch some matches in a vacuum without comparing to other, similar matches and this is one of them. This match was once hailed as being one of the best triple threat matches in WWE history. In my opinion, that honor has been taken by GUNTHER vs. Sheamus vs. Drew McIntyre from WrestleMania 39, despite it being somewhat slower-paced compared to this contest. While this match was faster and a bit smoother, it came across as less competitive. The “toss one person away to make a singles match” formula was brought to the forefront here and it highlighted the fatal flaw that formula contains. One person is inevitably going to come out worse for wear and here that person was Angle. He was made to look like a chump and less significant than the other two involved, not unlike Chris Benoit in his match with Triple H and Shawn Michaels. And while Benoit won that match, Angle left this match looking like a much weaker star by comparison.
But it’s not like WWE had other options since they were largely starved for choice here. Rock was only around part-time and they needed him to put Lesnar over at SummerSlam. Undertaker was the only main-eventer on the blue brand at the time and he needed to be protected as Lesnar’s inevitable first challenger. That left Angle to be the fall guy. And while he made the best of a somewhat unfortunate situation, the match still could’ve been booked different so that one person wouldn’t leave the match looking worse than everyone else.
What makes this more of a disappointing conclusion is that Angle fought better than both Rock and Undertaker and showed more skill than both of them throughout the match. He had so many creative counters and looked strong when alone with either man, but whenever all three men were fighting at once, Rock and Undertaker dispatched Angle all too easily. Angle wrestled like a post-2012 Brock Lesnar but didn’t benefit from any booking even half as strong as Lesnar’s.
Aside from Angle’s questionable booking in this match, it was still fun and wild, especially with al lthe last-second counters and a great atmosphere thanks to a great crowd and solid commentary. It was one of the best wrestling matches of 2002, but that really isn’t saying much because that year was largely one centered on rebuilding. It wouldn’t be until after SummerSlam that things would really start taking off in terms of not just great matches but top-tier, must-see ones.
Final Rating: ****1/4
This is still a great match over two decades later but I don’t see it as being something truly world-class. Everyone tried their best but all of them were hamstrung by the triple-threat formula that has hung around in WWE for way too long. Angle was at his best here but he was largely relegated to comedy goof while Rock and ‘Taker just played the hits. That formula worked for this crowd, sure, but looking back this could’ve been a better match if they took it in a different direction.
If the point was for Angle to be taken out often so that Rock and ‘Taker can focus on their feud, then it would’ve been better for Rock and ‘Taker to form a temporary alliance and take Angle out, or at least wear him down so that he wouldn’t be so persistent. But instead of that, Angle was booked to be this persistent and top-tier wrestler who, for whatever reason, was easier to take down than the part-timer and the lumbering giant who was in dire need of time off to rest.
If you’re going to watch one WWE-style triple-threat, I suggest GUNTHER’s at WM39 because that one had all the positives of this match and a few others as well. Even without Jim Ross and Jerry Lawler killing it on commentary as they did here, the in-ring action and booking in that one more than compensated for any shortfalls.