by Frank Lucci
Welcome to Spaceman Frank’s Top 10 WrestleMania moments! Rather than just create another generic Top 10 list, I will be discussing the greatest moments from WWE’s biggest show of the year and explaining why I consider them the cream of the crop. This is based on in-ring quality, storyline quality, meta quality, as well as my own unique bias. Be prepared to read about triumph, heartbreak, and above all else, some truly unique moments in this unique form of entertainment.
The Moment: The Rock vs. Hulk Hogan, WrestleMania XVIII
Whenever two of the all time greats come together and compete it’s always a spectacle that demands attention. Even if it ends up disappointing like Mayweather vs. Pacquiao huge amounts of people dissect every aspect of the contest right up until things actually kick off. What’s even rarer is when the best of different generations come together and have a contest worthy of all the hype, which is why Hulk Hogan vs The Rock at WrestleMania 18 is such a special moment in wrestling. While such contests are either improbable or even impossible, this not only happened but it was a pretty damn good match to boot.
The Rock was inching his way out the door in 2002, and while he would stick around for a little bit after this, it was clear he was moving on to bigger and better things. He guided the WWE through the dreaded Invasion angle and was looking for something to do to follow up his spectacular match at the previous WrestleMania with “Stone Cold” Steve Austin.
How do you follow up on the match that is widely considered the greatest main event in WrestleMania history and the end of the Attitude Era?
Enter Hulk Hogan. He collected on his guaranteed contract from the now dead WCW, missing the Invasion entirely. This probably helped himself and many other big names from tarnishing their legacies and made sure they were able to pop up in WWE with some actual fanfare and hoopla. When he showed up with the rest of the NWO in tow it was a big deal, and I can only imagine how much this match would have suffered if Hogan and his cronies were forced to plod through the Invasion and kiss up to Stone Cold.
Instead we get Hogan being quite the evil bastard. The video package highlights his cartoon villainy as he blames the fans for making him walk out of the WWE in the early 90’s and running into his ambulance with a freaking semi truck. This match is famous for the double turn during the match that the fans started by cheering Hogan over The Rock, but to be fair Rocky acts like a dick during this hype video. Despite the choral music that accompanies his first appearance in the video he does attack Hogan first, and I can excuse an old man for getting his buddies to help him face off against a man half his age.
Hogan is out first and he definitely gets some cheers, but nothing like he would receive later. At some point people are just happy you’re still around and conceded that yes, you are one of the best of all time. It happened to Hogan, it happened to Flair, and it’s even starting to happen to the greatest heel of all time, Tom Brady. Thankfully, Jim Ross and Jerry Lawler do not try to ignore or cover up the fact that Hogan is getting cheered like today’s WWE announcers would (and if we had to listen to JBL yell “THESE CANUCKS JUST LOVE TO HAVE FUN MAGGLE!” during this match I would have shot my television). Poor Rocky again gets a pretty lame pop for the second ‘Mania in a row, and the dude just cannot seem to catch a break.
Then the magic happens. Toronto just goes nuts when both men stare at each other and they never really stop. The two stars know how to work a crowd, and being the pros that they are they milk the reaction for everything it’s got. Hulk has a reputation for not wanting to put people over, but props to him for agreeing to lay down for The Rock here. Hogan pushes Rocky down and crowd acts like Jesus Christ just came down from heaven wearing a Maple Leafs jersey and the sky was raining poutine down like manna. One shove was all it took to people to lose their minds.
I cannot help and have a flashback to Mayweather v.s Pacquiao at this point. I watched that fight expecting a slugfest between two of the greatest of all time, and instead we got a lame duck boxing match. That legitimate sporting event collapsed under the weight of it’s own hype. Brock Lesnar vs. Goldberg fell into the same trap when they first wrestled at ‘Mania 20.
Wrestling is a much more forgiving form of entertainment, and due to it’s unique nature we can see the fantasy matches we want and they can be just as good as they were in our head. Hogan was never the best technical wrestler (and neither was The Rock, for that matter), but when you book dream matches for him they look exactly like this.
This match goes back and forth pretty evenly for the first part, and Hogan pulls out some excellent heel moves. He really knows how to cheat in that old-school way that makes the internet lionize people like Kevin Owens and the like. Hogan worked like a bad guy even when he was America’s favorite hot dog in the 80’s so it is no surprise when he pokes eyes, rakes backs, and literally starts choking The Rock. Like Flair’s retirement match, this is essentially a greatest hits montage for Hogan. Rocky being the future actor that he is, bounces around like a cruiserweight.
It is so engaging to see, even if Hogan’s reluctance to leave his feet is stupendously obvious. They work the crowd like the two bosses that they are, and it still feels surreal that this match actually happened. Hogan vs. Michaels and Cena vs. The Rock tried to mimic this match, but they just could not follow in this match’s footsteps. Blame ego, blame age, but this is damn near as perfect of a big time wrestling match as you get. This is the wrestling equivalent of a Mark Twain book. It may not have the pop of modern day writing, but you can appreciate the wisdom and wit on display.
The end is wrestling 101. The referee gets knocked out and misses Hogan tapping out to the Sharpshooter from the People’s Champion. Hulk regains control with a low blow/stolen finisher combo because WrestleMania is one of the few times a year wrestlers resort to stealing finishing moves. Hogan whips The Rock, but Rocky channels his future self playing Black Adam and returns the favor while looking like a menacing bastard. He hits a Rock Bottom but Hogan gets his seizure of strength and we get the moment that lives on in a million YouTube ‘Mania countdowns.
In this moment it does not matter what Hogan has said and done in his personal life, because brother he is coming for Rocky! Rocky sells this like he is having an out of body experience. He has realized that he is the villain in all this, and he is standing across the ring from his childhood hero much like Roddy Piper, Andre The Giant, and Randy Savage have done before him and is staring down at his doom. I cannot say this enough, but the crowd is unreal.
When people talk about suspension of disbelief, this is what they are talking about. There are no crazy athletics or extreme violence to sell you on the fact that these guys are tough. In a vacuum this scene is slightly ridiculous. An actor is staring in fear of an old balding man as he grimaces and shakes his fists, but to wrestling fans, this is like watching The Power Rangers form their Megazord right in front of their eyes.
In the end, Hogan’s comeback is cut short, and the legendary Leg Drop of Doom cannot put The Rock away and The People’s Champ must chain together two Rock Bottoms and The People’s Elbow to put down the old lion. Despite Hogan’s monstrous face pop this was the right call, and we get a sign of respect from both men as the torch is officially passed. This is how it should be, as one man gives his endorsement of the other in front of a stadium of people and millions around the world.
Oftentimes in wrestling, backstage drama and politics get in the way so that these dream moments either don’t happen or are not of this quality. Hogan himself is guilty of doing this many times over his career, and Rocky would leave before he could put his stamp of approval on many of the superstars of the new millennium. I think the decline of wrestling after the Attitude Era can be linked to the lack of these critical transitional matches, as many of the Superstars of old were either unwilling (Triple H, Hogan) or unable (Stone Cold, The Rock) to give their blessing in the ring to a replacement, but for one night the right move is done properly.
Looking back at other singles matches I singled out for this list, most have a No-Disqualification stipulation around them. This may be the biggest non-gimmick match in WrestleMania history, and it certainly is my favorite. These two colossus are bigger than gimmicks, and they did not need the shortcut of weapons or bloodshed to tell the story that they wanted. All that mattered was the two men in the ring, and everything else was just icing on the cake. For delivering a real Icon vs. Icon moment rarely seen in any entertainment medium, Rock vs. Hogan is my number two WrestleMania moment.
For more of Spaceman Frank’s antics, check out Spacemanfrank.com and listen to our pro wrestling podcast, Manopera!