The Rock Vs. Stone Cold Steve Austin: One More Round
As flashbulbs engulfed Safeco Field on March 30th, 2003, Steve Austin knew that it was the end, even if he didn’t even understand quite what that meant.
After 17 of the hardest minutes of his career, a beleaguered Austin slowly rose from the mat and started to make his way up the ramp. This return journey was a far cry from the forceful march that he had arrived with less than half an hour earlier. A true professional to the end, Austin was still selling the damage from battle as he slowly limped to the top of the stage.
The crackling atmosphere of expectation had been replaced by an air of uncertainty. This felt like goodbye, but Austin had only been back for 35 days. Surely he wouldn’t be leaving so soon?
On commentary, Jim Ross paid tribute to his close friend, careful not to reveal that this final salute, really was just that. Although it was clear that the WWE Hall of Famer knew he was providing the soundtrack to the end of an era.
Steve Austin Takes His Ball And Goes Home
To fully understand the slightly surreal scene that played out in Seattle, you need to go all the way back to early 2002.
By the start of the year, Steve Austin was back as a babyface after his ill-advised heel run in 2001. He enjoyed a strong showing in the Royal Rumble match and was still popular with fans, but trouble was on the horizon.
Just a few weeks later Hulk Hogan, Scott Hall, and Kevin Nash were back with the company, and Austin was wary. All three men were known for using backstage politics to their advantage which put them in Austin’s firing line, who was never shy about doing the same. Speaking on his podcast, Kurt Angle revealed that Austin “wasn’t the happiest man in the world” as the nWo strolled into No Way Out.
Interestingly, Austin later disputed this, noting that he and Nash were friends.
Austin’s hesitancy appeared to be well-founded as by the time WrestleMania rolled around The Rock was battling Hulk Hogan in one of the biggest matches ever and Austin was tucked firmly into the middle of the card. To make matters worse, his opponent Scott Hall had reportedly succumbed to his well-documented demons and was in no fit state to deliver a WrestleMania-quality match. Although Kevin Nash has claimed this wasn’t the case.
No matter the details of the journey, the outcome was the same. Upset with creative and how he saw his role in the company, Austin no-showed the following episode of Monday Night Raw in a form of personal protest. Although he returned to work quickly, his unrest was clear.
After blasting the company publicly, on its own magazine show no less, the Texas Rattlesnake then walked out of Monday Night Raw rather than lose to Brock Lesnar in a King of the Ring qualifying match. Not that things were better outside the ring, as he was arrested and charged with domestic violence following a dispute with his wife Debra.
To emphasise just how far his star had fallen, WWE called The Rock back into action early in June where he cut a scathing promo aimed at arguably his biggest rival. Meanwhile, on commentary, JR went to work burying his friend further.
However, after paying a hefty fine, and delivering an apology via an interview with Raw Magazine in early 2003, Austin was back. His first action was to defeat Eric Bischoff in a short brawl at No Way Out before resuming his rivalry with The Rock. It perhaps speaks to the culture at that the time that Austin was cheered to the rafters despite his domestic violence case, while The Great One had all but been forced into a heel turn after “turning his back on the fans” and finding success in Hollywood.
With The Rock failing to become the number-one contender for the World Heavyweight Championship, he set his sights on doing the one thing he’d never done, beating Stone Cold at WrestleMania.
“This Is The Big One, I’m Going Down!”
Unknown to fans at the time, Austin almost didn’t make it to the ring at WrestleMania 19. The day before the show Austin was returning to his hotel room after working out with Kevin Nash when disaster struck. By the time he made it to his floor, the star’s heart was “beating out of his chest” and he had to be helped to his room by WWE employee Liz DiFabio who also called an ambulance.
What followed was the truly comical scene of Austin being taken to a waiting ambulance surrounded by what he described in 2019 as a “giant shower curtain.”
By his own admission, the former World Champion had never done anything by half measures, and as he lay in a hospital bed, he wondered whether he would even make it out of the hospital in time for WrestleMania. However, once it was established that the cause of his issues was severe dehydration, he was adamant he was making the show.
Speaking on his now-defunct podcast in 2019, Austin broke down the problem as only he can.
“And, of course, there’s nothing wrong with me other than the fact that I was severely dehydrated, drinking way too much wine at night, drinking way too much coffee and all those caffeine drinks I had before I worked out. And after running so hard for so long, it finally caught up with me and the sh*t hit the fan and my heart just wigged out.”
Austin spent the night in the hospital and finally got some rest via a helping hand from some somas he had in a backpack, but that didn’t mean he was out of the woods. As he admitted in 2022, no doctor would clear him to wrestle, but by the same measure, he wasn’t told he couldn’t wrestle either. So naturally, this was a red rag to a… rattlesnake? And Austin cleared himself for combat.
“Thank You For Everything That You’ve Ever Done For Me”
Many fans and critics argue that the Attitude Era ended the very moment that Steve Austin and Vince McMahon shook hands in the middle of the ring at WrestleMania 17 as The Rock lay broken at their feet. Wrestling’s favorite anti-hero had done a deal with the devil and laid waste to The Rock with a McMahon-endorsed steel chair to reclaim with World Championship.
If that night in 2001 was the night wrestling’s favourite era came to an end, March 30th, 2003 was the night it got the band back together.
Rock and Austin (in the now famous ‘one more round’ vest) stood nose-to-nose in the ring, Howard Finkel announced their arrival, Earl Hebner was the third man in the ring, and Jerry “The King” Lawler and Good Ol’ JR called the action on commentary.
The problem was, that much like every band that has broken up and gotten back together a few years later when they’re all sober and married with kids, something was missing. Austin and Rock ran through their greatest hits, the Brahma Bull worked the crowd with aplomb, threw in a People’s Elbow, and delivered his cartoon-ish Stunner sell without missing a beat. While for his part, an exhausted Austin delivered a firey comeback, talked trash, hit a Stunner, and shoved Earl Hebner while JR screamed like it was 1999.
Everyone involved did all of the right things, but it’s simply impossible to capture lightning in a bottle twice.
That being said, the “pride of Edna, Texas” and the soon-to-be Hollywood megastar kept the fans onside throughout, bringing them to their feet for a chaotic final stanza that included multiple Stunners, a People’s Elbow, and three Rock Bottoms.
Having kicked out of the Rock Bottom twice in quick succession, Austin was nigh-on out on his feet when Rock hoisted him into the air a third time. Rock paused for a brief moment with Austin in position, surveying the scene, the gravity of the moment, what he was about to do was not lost on him.
When it was finally delivered, the third Rock Bottom was thunderous. The exclamation point on not only the match and Austin’s career but a rivalry that helped define a generation. After the famous “championship three-count” from referee Hebner, Rock leaned over Austin and the pair shared a noticeably emotional moment, but only after he had pushed Hebner out of earshot.
In an Instagram Q&A years later, Rock revealed that he needed to make sure Austin knew what he meant to him.
“I whispered to him ‘thank you so much for everything that you done for me.’ I said ‘I love you.’ He said ‘I love you too.'”
Austin said in the years that followed only a handful of people knew that this would be his last match, namely his famous opponent, Vince McMahon, and the commentary team. In hindsight, it’s clear to see Rock knew that this night and this moment didn’t belong to him.
After quickly saluting the fans in opposing corners, Rock shared a quick hug with his then-wife, mother, and grandmother and left the scene. This, uncharacteristically, left the loser of the match to take in the adoration of the crowd.
For a man whose WWE career represented one giant act of defiance, and who was so often against losing, it was a strange sight to see him end the match looking at the lights and almost meekly shuffling back up the ramp. But Austin always was a traditionalist at heart.
Exit Steve Austin, Enter Goldberg
One of the most overlooked parts of the Steve Austin farewell story is that he actually appeared on Raw the very next night. In a short promo, he called out The Rock, but not before putting him over as the better man.
However, he was met with General Manager Eric Bischoff instead. From here, Bischoff blended fiction and reality by explaining to the crowd that Austin had spent the night before WrestleMania in the hospital for what was rumoured to be an anxiety attack. He then went into detail about Austin’s neck injuries, noting that a doctor wouldn’t clear him to compete, closing by firing the Texas Rattlesnake.
In a call-back to Bischoff firing Austin in WCW, he even said that his termination was on the way to his house in Texas via FedEx.
Later in the night, The Rock took to the ring as part of ‘Rock Appreciation Night’ and despite being a heel, briefly broke character to pay tribute to his rival in a moment that only grew in importance in the years that followed.
After declaring that he had done it all, Rock was interrupted by a different bald, goatee-wearing, former World Champion. Goldberg.
The Rock and Austin had gotten the band back together and delivered one final greatest hits tour but now their work was done. With Austin’s career over (At least until a brief comeback in 2022) Rock wrestled Jeff Hardy on Raw before losing to Goldberg at Backlash. His full-time career was well and truly done, and he wouldn’t wrestle another singles match for nine years.
While their match wasn’t the best match on the WrestleMania 19 card or even their best match, its importance shouldn’t be underestimated.
Steve Austin made no secret of the fact he didn’t want to retire when he did, but as he lay in the middle of the ring with the din of the crowd fading into the background, he felt a weight lift from his shoulders. He had no idea what was coming next, but that wasn’t as important as knowing one thing he definitely wouldn’t be doing.
He was only 38 years of age but had spent years living on a knife edge, running beyond capacity to make sure that he topped the card, night in and night out. But as Earl Hebner’s hand fell for the third and final time, that pressure was lifted and the battle was over.
“It was like someone lifted a thousand pounds off my back… I was at peace.”