The Road to WrestleMania is always an exciting time to be a wrestling fan. Beginning in January with the Royal Rumble, the journey ends in early spring at the Showcase of the Immortals. Competitors battle over titles, glory, and shampoo commercials. At WrestleMania X-Seven on April 1, 2001, The Rock defended his WWF Championship against “Stone Cold” Steve Austin in a classic match. The build was exciting, but the match itself was actually years in the making.
In 1996, Steve Austin’s star was on the rise. At King of the Ring, he cut his famous “AustinAustin 3:16” promo and at Royal Rumble 1997 eliminated a then-record ten men on his way to a tainted win. At WrestleMania 13, Austin and Bret Hart had one of the best Mania matches of all time. The match ended with arguably the best executed double turn of all time and made Austin a full fledged, if not traditional, babyface. Soon, Austin began his legendary feud with Mr. McMahon and by 1999, fans wondered if he was the biggest wrestling star of all time. Near the end of the year however, Austin would be forced to take almost a year off after undergoing neck surgery.
The Rock’s rise to stardom ran almost parallel to Austin’s. The difference was Austin was never meant to be more than a serviceable mid carder while The Rock was pegged for stardom from the beginning. Rocky Maivia debuted in 1996 and was pushed immediately. He wrestled his first match at Survivor Series , was the sole survivor for his team and shortly after defeated the man who would arguably become his greatest rival, Hunter Hearst Helmsley, for the Intercontinental Title. Wrestling had changed however, and Maivia’s clean-cut babyface act was detested by fans. In 1997, Maivia had the most fortunate knee injury ever and was out for months. When Maivia returned, he turned heel in his first appearance back and cut the “Die, Rocky, Die” promo than began his rise to superstardom. Soon The Rock was born and somehow the WWF had two once in a generation stars on the roster. By the time Austin took off to heal, Rock was ready to be the top guy on the roster and the stage was set for an epic clash.
WrestleMania X-Seven would not be the first time the two had ever met — it wasn’t even be the first time the two main evented WrestleMania against each other. But the stakes were never higher than they were in 2001. Austin was so far above The Rock when they feuded for the Intercontinental Title in 1997 that he literally gave him the belt instead of losing to him while at WrestleMania XV Rock was simply a prop in the greater Austin vs. McMahon story. By 2001 however, Rock was not only Austin’s equal, but had actually surpassed him in some people’s eyes. Wrestling has always been prone to hyperbole, but at WrestleMania X-Seven, fans truly would learn who was the biggest star in wrestling.
The two had brief brawls in recent months at Armageddon and Royal Rumble but in the early build to their Mania match, they barely touched. In a day where grappling hooks and pointless two hour matches are the big angles on Monday nights, playing mind games and false finisher attempts seem silly. But there was The Rock prepared to hit the Rock Bottom on Austin before simply staring him down as the crowd cheered wildly. The less is more approach added to the anticipation for the match.
Even mistakes made during the build still ended up working out. In order to stir up the tension between the two, Mr. McMahon made Austin’s wife, Debra, The Rock’s manager. Debra was a horrible promo, a fact that was made more evident by having to work with two of the greatest talkers of all time. This whole aspect of the angle was dropped before Mania, but not before Austin gave The Rock the Stone Cold Stunner for putting Debra in harm’s way.
The build hit the next level at this point, with Austin getting the better of Rocky on a few occasions before The Rock was finally able to hit Austin with a Stunner of his own. The WWF’s production team also created a great video package that is the only time in history that Limp Bizkit was listenable. All of this culminated with a tense sit-down interview conducted by Jim Ross between the two men in which an uncharacteristically somber Rock vowed to keep the WWF Title, while Austin explained how badly he needed it.
A great build only becomes memorable if the match itself delivers. The WrestleMania X-Seven match exceeded all expectations and while many have questioned the Austin heel turn, the kayfabe reasoning behind it was solid. For months, Austin had been acting paranoid and out of control. He constantly said he needed to be WWF Champion and he would go to any length to get it. The gradual turn was subtle at the time and obvious when watched in retrospect.
Steve Austin and The Rock are two of the biggest names in wrestling. Their WrestleMania X-Seven match is one of the greatest matches in WrestleMania history. The two had a years long rivalry, yet the build to their match was about the present and future. In two careers full of highlights, WrestleMania X-Seven still manages to stand out.