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: “Stone Cold” Steve Austin vs. The Rock, WrestleMania X-7
WrestleMania X-7 (or 17 to those who the words “attitude” and “extreme” do not apply to) is regarded as the best WrestleMania of all time, and for good reason. It features several classic battles and marks the distinct end of the Monday Night Wars and showcased the deep WWE roster during their most successful period. No other WrestleMania looks and feels like this one, including the ones that came immediately before and after it. This is the singularity in the center of the WWE Universe, and more than any other event is the reason the company is still going strong today. This is modern wrestling distilled into its most basic form, and at its nucleus is the main event between Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock.
Even though these two faced off two years earlier at WrestleMania 15, circumstances had changed so much in the wrestling world that their previous encounter felt like ancient history. It would be like if the WWE decided to put John Cena vs. The Rock on at WrestleMania 34 after Cena becomes the new Superman in the Justice League movie and it grosses $3 billion worldwide. Both men had reached absurd levels of mainstream success since ‘Mania 15, and I would rate The Rock and Stone Cold as numbers one and three respectively of wrestlers normal people are likely to recognize (two is Hulk Hogan and Cena is a distance fourth due to the memes). If both men stuck around I could have seen a scenario where these guys constantly headline every other WrestleMania until…well today and fans would still be into it all.
It’s unimaginable that WWE would have one super hot megastar on their roster, let alone two, so this is already catapulted into the top ten. It also doesn’t hurt that the crowd for this match is on fire, the story leading into it is on point, and both men happen to be damn good wrestlers. This moment is proof that WWE had the most success when they gave the wrestlers a chance to adapt to what the crowd wanted and let the most talented people on the roster shine on their own merits instead of trying to lead audiences by the nose (makes coughing noises).
We start off with one of, if not the best video packages WWE has ever produced (the fact that I say that with Limp Bizkit playing over it is mind boggling). Stone Cold won the Royal Rumble, The Rock beat Kurt Angle at the next PPV, and here we are. The only two things I would really change is jamming Debra (Stone Cold’s then real wife) into the picture, and Stone Cold’s look. I know it’s an iconic look, but the dude’s knee braces/shorts combo makes him look like an old man with garters on. Every staredown, every line of their sitdown interview we see, every physical blow between the two is pure gold, and it all revolves around the WWE Championship, as it should be.
Howard Finkel is here to announce this is a No-Disqualification match, and WWE should have him announce the main event of every WrestleMania since he named the damn thing. Stone Cold comes out to the best song Disturbed every recorded (again, licensed music makes wrestlers seem so much more legit) and a massive pop. Rocky gets a mild pop and his classic movie sounds like call holding music to me. Commentator Paul Heyman reminds us that Stone Cold is a man of integrity which is why Texas loves its native son (not because of the swearing, beer drinking, and ass kicking). Speaking of ass kicking, things immediately break down as the two trade blows. This is how to start a WrestleMania main event, and if Brock Lesnar and Goldberg just stand there after all that has happened between them (as I assume they will headline) I will be pissed. We get brawling around the floor and flurries of punches and kicks with the occasional big move through in. Heyman and JR sell everything so well, and I do not think there has ever been a better commentary team despite their brief tenure together.
Rocky ends up bleeding due to a shot to the head via ring bell and then flops on a table that breaks under his weight. One of the funniest accidental moments in WrestleMania history, and The Rock almost got away with it not being on camera. These guys are such master craftsmen that simple things such as mounted punches makes the crowd go crazy. This is why WWE needs to let their product breathe a bit more. Many “big time” matches these days usually consist of one person hitting a move as the other stands there with a “OMG I can’t believe they hit that move!” look on their face (for an example of this, see Sting vs. Triple H from WrestleMania 31). Here both men work a normal pace, but they exaggerate every move so that it feels like a move that is championship caliber. Just look at the way The Rock flies through the air when taking a simple hip toss and the way Austin flops around when hitting the exposed turnbuckle. When people mention how selling is important to wrestling, this is an essential match that shows why. The only other people I can think of that goes to such lengths to make their opponent look like a million dollars these days is AJ Styles and Sami Zayn.
Steve Austin, perhaps to show Rocky how a real Texas SOB blades, soon has his entire head turn red under the crimson mask. Both men get a turn to grimace under sharpshooters and look like maniacs as they scream and writhe in pain. There are no finishing moves done in the first few minutes, so once we actually get one it actually means something – and in a twist it’s Rocky hitting the Stunner on Austin! It’s one of my favorite moments of the match that for some reason never really gets mentioned.
Fresh off getting beat up by his son and formerly comatose wife (did that come up during Linda McMahon’s congressional confirmation hearing?), Vinny Mac is here to creep on the match. The crowd has gone from booing The Rock to cheering his People’s Elbow, but Vince breaks it all up. Heyman has been hinting that Stone Cold may be up to something dastardly all night, and this is clue number two to what’s going to happen next. Vince hits Rocky with a chair while Austin holds him up. Honestly, I think they could have done the turn better. For example, have the turn come at the very end with a sudden Austin heel turn rather than having him cheat (in a No-DQ match by the way) and selling out to his boss and mortal enemy. The Rock sells a stunner as only he can (acting 101 ladies and germs), but when it does not get the three count Austin just goes berzerk and beats him with a chair until he wins. What should be the biggest betrayal in wrestling history falls slightly flat when the crowd still cheers.
This is like watching Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, and Judas Priest touring in 1978 with Motörhead as the opening act. This is undefeated 1972 Dolphins vs. undefeated 2007 Patriots in the Super Bowl. This is a blockbuster movie with Humphrey Bogart, Clint Eastwood, Denzel Washington, and Meryl Streep as the main cast. Nothing else comes close to wrestling fans as the holy grail of an event, and this match solidified the evening as one of the greatest. From here we transitioned to The Invasion and the gradual decline in wrestling’s importance, but the match between Stone Cold and The Rock will be the lasting image of the sport for decades to come. The Rock’s career has soared since leaving WWE full time, and Austin has enjoyed plenty of his own success after retiring two years after this (in poetic justice, his last match would also be against The People’s Champion at WrestleMania XIX). Neither man truly passed the baton to a successor who could match them, but their gift to modern WWE wrestlers is a standard that they should all strive for. With the talent WWE has in their wheelhouse I can see a revival eventually happening, and when it does happen I see this match being the one people pointing to as the bar. It replaced Steamboat/Savage at WrestleMania 3 as the showcase match example, and for good reason. For ending an era the right way and giving causal fans, smart fans, and wrestlers themselves a masterpiece on ‘Mania main events this match is my number three pick for WrestleMania moments.