As The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin locked eyes on January 21st 2001, there was only ever going to be one one match that was going to headline WrestleMania X-Seven.
With the 2001 Royal Rumble drawing to a close, The Rock was eliminated by Kane, who’d already gotten rid of what felt like half the roster. This left Stone Cold staring down the Big Red Machine. Following a Stunner and three chair shots, Austin accomplished what looked impossible, but felt inevitable. He was going to stand in the main event at WrestleMania X-Seven.
By the time Austin and The Rock made it to Houston, the wrestling world had changed forever. Not since the infamous Black Saturday in July 1984 had professional wrestling witnessed such a seismic shift. On that occasion Vince McMahon had just purchased Georgia Championship Wrestling and the Saturday night time slot that came with it. New York’s top wrestling promotor was going national.
Vince McMahon appearing TBS that Summer night in 1984 ensured professional wrestling would never be the same. It laid the groundwork for what was then the WWF to become the biggest wrestling company in the world. Furthermore, it set into motion events that would lead to the growth of Mid-South Wrestling, which was eventually brought out by Jim Crockett Promotions, which in turn became Turner Broadcasting’s WCW. The same Turner broadcasting that was angered at the plummeting ratings when WWF acquired that time slot in 1984. The same Turner Broadcasting that would wage war against McMahon and the WWF until March 2001.
On March 26th, WCW Nitro took to the airwaves for the airwaves for the final time. As “The name on the contract did say McMahon, but it said Shane McMahon.”
In storyline, Shane McMahon had brought WCW from under the nose of his father. In reality, Vince McMahon was once again announcing a wrestling takeover on a television station owned by Turner Broadcasting.
Elsewhere, North America’s third major promotion ECW was also heading towards financial oblivion. The brainchild of Paul Heyman had punched above its weight almost since its inception. ECW overspent, owed money left, right, and centre and most importantly couldn’t get or keep a solid TV deal. The results were stark but by Spring 2001, utterly predictable.
ECW’s final television show broadcast on December 30th 2000, and the company’s final pay-per-view followed on January 7th 2001. The company officially closed its doors on April 4th.
From being trounced in the ratings by WCW for 83 weeks in a row, starting in June 1996, WWF was all of a sudden the only game in town. What had effectively begun in July 1984 ended in March 2001.
The Road To WrestleMania X-Seven:
On February 25th 2001, The Rock pinned Kurt Angle in the middle of the ring at WWF No Way Out to claim the WWF Championship.
The stage was set. The Rock would defend his newly won WWF Championship against Stone Cold Steve Austin inside the Houston Astrodome at WrestleMania X-Seven.
Stone Cold and The Rock had met at WrestleMania before, two years previously, but this time it was going to be different. This time, the two would meet at the peak of their powers.
Despite the obvious draw of the two biggest Superstars in the company meeting for the world championship, the journey to the match was somewhat convoluted. Debra, Stone Cold’s wife, was assigned to The Rock as his manager, something neither man was a fan of. Things didn’t begin to click until the two combatants sat down with Jim Ross to discuss the match. The segment was worth it’s weight in gold. It solidified The Rock as the champion, with Austin as the challenger would would stop at nothing to reclaim the title he saw as his.
He was going to win, and he was going to do it, his way.
By the time the two men stood across the ring from one another, the show had already been a landmark success. The pure soap opera of Vince vs. Shane McMahon had seen arguably the biggest crowd reaction of the night, as Lina McMahon rose from her chair to hit a low blow on her husband. While the TLC match between the Hardy Boyz, The Dudley Boyz and Edge and Christian was everything that fans could have wanted and more.
On another night, the main event would have been under pressure. But this was Stone Cold Steve Austin. And this was Texas. Not only that, Austin was going one on one with arguably the biggest wrestling star on the planet. A future Hall of Famer, who was coming off of the biggest year of his career. The Rock.
The pair battled, bled and nigh on went to war over the WWF Championship. Austin had declared that he needed to win the title. The Rock needed to beat Austin. For just under half an hour the pair went toe to toe. Meeting fire with fire.
The Rock later revealed that much of the match was called in the ring, due to Austin’s mounting neck issues. But the rivals created magic. The pair used every trick in the book to try and defeat the other. Rock applied a Sharpshooter, and Austin responded in kind using the Million Dollar Dream, a move he hadn’t used in years.
The duo exchanged finishers, but neither could score the pin on the other. In the midst of the chaos Vince McMahon made his way to ringside. After The Rock attacked McMahon he escaped another near fall, before Austin, with the McMahon endorsed steel chair, laid waste to the champion, eventually pinning him to claim victory.
The show faded to black with Stone Cold and his one-time arch nemesis Vince McMahon sharing a beer in the ring.
As Vince McMahon and Stone Cold Steve Austin shook hands in the middle of the ring, the wrestling landscape had changed forever. The Attitude Era’s sworn enemies had joined forces, signalling the beginning of a new era. Austin vs. McMahon had been the story the WWF had used as their main weapon to defeat WCW. But now WCW was gone. Stone Cold did a deal with the devil to win the WWF Title, but it didn’t matter because McMahon had won the war.
Even though Stone Cold turned heel in the biggest way possible and worked more of a heel style throughout the match, in his home state he was never going to be hated. It was a theme which continued until Austin turned face again following Survivor Series.
While it led to some entertaining moments, especially in conjunction with Kurt Angle, the Austin hell turn was a relative failure.
Austin’s long-time friend Jim Ross, has recently given his thoughts on the change in Stone Cold’s character, revealing that he was told to “shut up” after expressing his concerns over the move.
On the following night’s Monday Night RAW, Stone Cold faced The Rock once more. This time in a Steel Cage Match. The match saw shenanigans galore as Triple H interfered and joined forces with Stone Cold. This would all lead to The Rock being suspended by Vince McMahon. The Great One wouldn’t be back in action until July 30th.
Austin and Triple H would go on to team together until May, when Triple H tore his quad in a tag team match against Chris Jericho and Chris Benoit. Following the defeat, Austin came to the ring on SmackDown and blamed Triple H for loss, breaking up what had become known as “The Two-Man Power Trip.”
The Slow Goodbye:
As the Invasion kicked into gear The Rock, and Austin would cross paths at they competed for their respective teams. (Austin joined The Alliance) However, the careers of both men changed immeasurably following that WrestleMania night in 2001.
While Austin was still a major presence on television, his time with the WWE was becoming ever more fractious. After a somewhat lacklustre match with Scott Hall at WrestleMania X8, Stone Cold took issue with the company’s creative direction for his character and walked out. He retuned in early 2003, and embarked on a new feud heading into that year’s WrestleMania.
Almost two years to the day after WrestleMania X-Seven, The Texas Rattlesnake wrestled his last match. With somewhat poetically, his swansong at WrestleMania 19 coming against The Rock.
For The Rock’s part, his storyline suspension was write him off television so that he could film The Scorpion King. It’s something that would become a feature of the next phase of his career. Eventually Rock’s stints inside the ring became shorter and shorter. As his absences became longer and longer. The Rock had peaked. It was now time for the Dwayne Johnson to take up a new challenge and conquer Hollywood.
The Rock vs. Stone Cold at WrestleMania X-Seven is rightly remembered as one of the best WrestleMania main events in history. The WWE had seen off all of their competition and this was their coming out party. There were 67,925 fans in attendance, of which 62,885 were paid, making this the 2nd largest crowd in United States wrestling history. That live gate brought in $3,530,905 which was the largest gate figure outside of Japan. The evet did over one million buys on pay-per-view and the merchandising brought in another $1,111,343 more than doubling the company’s previous record.
By any metric, WrestleMania X-Seven was nothing but a success.
While the main event is obviously remembered for it’s shocking conclusion, the action which preceded it, was more than worthy of the stage. The Rock vs. Stone Cold Steve Austin was billed as a battle of the ages and it undoubtedly delivered. The match itself still stands up, 20 years later.
As Monday Night RAW went live on April 2nd, WCW was gone, ECW was all but finished and Vince McMahon reigned supreme. Triple H and Stone Cold who had been rivals teamed up, and the other biggest star in the company was gone, if only for a while.
Stone Cold vs. The Rock signified not only end of possibly the greatest WrestleMania of all time, but the end of an era. The Monday Night Wars were soon to be a thing of the past, and the Attitude Era was on the way out. The handshake between Austin and McMahon, was the handshake heard around the world. It not only signalled a new alliance, it also represented that the owner and his top star had done it, they’d taken over the wrestling world.
Change was in the air. The battle was won. It was almost time to see who had Ruthless Aggression.