Steve Austin Vs. The Rock: A Genuine WWE Classic With A Regrettable Finish
WrestleMania X-Seven was a full 20 years ago...
Marvin Martian understands the disappointment of AEW fans. He was waiting for that earth-shattering kaboom as well.
Even the truest AEW fan has to concede that the ending to last Sunday's Revolution pay-per-view was a dud in more than just the literal sense. Had Shockmaster stumbled out of Cody's center-wall entrance armed with back-up explosives, only to fall on his face yet again, it's debatable if that would've made for a bigger disaster. Might've been an improvement, actually.
The real crime coming out of Revolution (a very good-to-great pay-per-view by most accounts) is that the ending is what a lot of viewers will remember most.
And that begs the question: does a bad ending completely invalidate a good or great pay-per-view?
Surely, that's in the eye of the beholder. A forgiving AEW fan looks at the positives of the night, and was sufficiently satisfied by Eddie Kingston's later attempt at painting over the blunder. To the opposite end of the spectrum, ridicule followed that ending, either in the form of harsh criticism, or laughter and memes.
It's really up to the individual to decide if the "turd in the punch bowl" finish takes away from a captivating cinematic brawl, a quality Tag Team title match, Christian Cage's debut, and even Kenny Omega and Jon Moxley's war, pre-dud.
And that was evident in a lot of the criticism, the fact that Omega and Moxley had a helluva fight independent of that post-match "stunted stunt". Separating one from the other is something some fans and critics have been willing to do.
Of course, Omega vs. Moxley is not the first well-received main event match to be somewhat tainted by a bungled finish of some sort.
Ric Flair's emotionally-charged win over WCW champion Vader at Starrcade 1993 drew an electric response from the Charlotte crowd, in spite of its ending (Flair awkwardly chop-blocking Vader into a threadbare cradle). Still, it was an excellent match. And hey, given the locale, the fans would've cheered had Flair somehow won with an eye gouge or wet willie.
In recent times, Becky Lynch's double-championship ascension at WrestleMania 35 was a widely-anticipated happening, especially since she got to pin the unbeaten Ronda Rousey to do it. And yet, there were grimaces aplenty when the referee continued counting, despite Rousey's shoulder noticeably rising up in the middle of the ending fall.
Granted, none of these moments involved a glaring pyrotechnic failure, but they can be buzzkills in their own ways.
But what about a marvellous bout, one that concludes perhaps the greatest pay-per-view of all time...but the ending proves questionable to varying degrees?
Twenty years ago, the then-WWF staged WrestleMania X-Seven. The event's reputation precedes itself, as the four-hour card featured a night of great matches and unforgettable sights, as 'Mania made its triumphant return to cavernous stadiums once more.
And Houston's Astrodome was getting a doozy of a main event.
On a night that many consider to be the closing of the Attitude Era book, The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin (the unquestioned pillars of the era, and two of the absolute best to ever do it) were to meet for Rock's WWF title.
Both were babyfaces at or near the top of their game, still as popular as ever. No other main event of the day would've been more sufficient for a crowd of 60,000-plus.
And the build to the fight, that was just as impeccable. Soundtracked by Limp Bizkit's "My Way", Austin and Rock's perpetual one-upsmanship, their psychological games and opportunistic attacks, were underscored by Fred Durst's impassioned, sometimes melancholy warbling.
Any of fan of the time need only hear the line, "Just one...more fight...", and they're immediately taken back to that moment from 20 years ago.
When Rock and Austin weren't committing finisher theft to the strains of contemporary nu-metal, they were sitting down with Jim Ross for a face to face interview. Just two icons opening their hearts, laying out their motivations and intentions for the world to hear.
Though nobody truly grasped it at the time, Austin's imploration that he "needed" to win this match on WrestleMania Sunday was the key takeaway. To an unknowing ear, this was just the stated desire of the fiercest competitor in the sport.
In storyline, there was a more sinister undercurrent to Austin's word choice, and where Stone Cold's mind lay.
Some time before WrestleMania, Austin decided he'd wanted to turn heel. He felt stale as a babyface, and wanted to challenge himself in a way that would be fresh to him in 2001.
While Austin missed most of 2000 due to recovery from spinal surgery, the WWF had functionally become The Rock's promotion. Although Austin's return positioned him back on equal ground with his greatest peer, he was the same Stone Cold that he was before going off to have surgery in 1999.
And he felt he needed a jump start.
Turns out that the in-character declaration that he "needed" to win came from a place of insecurity, an alien concept to the Stone Cold everybody knew.
After an impressive ten-match undercard that included table and ladder spills, a miracle rise from a wheelchair, the return of many eclectic gimmicks, and a golf cart chase, the stage was set for Rock and Austin to bring us home with a thrilling conclusion.
Austin looked pensive as the "no holds barred" brawl began, but the feeling went away as soon as he and Rock began exchanging blows. What ensued was an old-fashioned fight, with enough weapons-grade "sports entertainment" magic to assure the match its place in the all-time pantheon.
Both men were busted open from plunder shots. Each tried to make the other submit, understanding that beating the other by that means would cede the ultimate bragging rights. Then came the expected finisher theft (because doing the other gunslinger in with his own piece is perhaps even sweeter than a submission victory).
Neither man would stay down, though.
Deep into the 28-minute match, it was apparent that we were all probably watching The Rock's greatest match ever. For Austin, it was certainly top five, maybe top three.
In either event, by 11:30 pm EST, as both men were still digging deep into their recesses, most fans felt they were watching not only the greatest WrestleMania ever, but possibly the greatest WrestleMania main event ever.
Then something unexpected happened.
Out came Vince McMahon.
Still a bit rattled from the shoeing he took from son Shane, wife Linda, and subordinate Mick Foley about 90 minutes earlier, heel Vince strode down the ramp, eyeing a ring where two enemy babyfaces cleared the cobwebs.
Murmurs of confusion filled the Astrodome, as nearly 68,000 fans tried to figure out why McMahon was even out here.
They were even more befuddled when he handed Austin a chair - at Austin's request.
For the next several minutes, Austin tried to put a valiant Rock away with the chair, as well as persistent interference from the boss.
Austin and McMahon were working together, and nobody could figure out why.
Finally, after kicking out of chair strikes and a Stunner, Rock ran out of escapes. Austin stood over Rock and delivered more than a dozen shots to the ribcage and back with the cold steel, while McMahon screamed encouragement, looking like a demented bobblehead capable of speech.
Austin ended the flurry with one hard whack of the chair to Rock's torso, and went for the cover.
Somewhat surprisingly (given the plainness of the barrage), that was what kept Rock down for the pin.
Austin "sold his soul" to mortal enemy McMahon, pledging loyalty in exchange for a championship win he "needed" to have. The two shook hands and shared a beer over Rock's ravaged body.
The assembled crowd cheered Austin's win at first, because c'mon, it's Stone Cold winning the title (in Texas, no less). But once the heel turn fully sunk in, and Austin started abandoning his cooler qualities in order to play the time-honored role of chickens**t heel (one beset with deep-rooted paranoia, and the need to be coddled), something unique was lost from the WWF that many held dear.
Austin even admits he regretted turning heel, and regretted it as soon as he did it. As he later noted, he wished he'd called an audible and stunned Vince right there in the ring to stave off the turn, instead of submitting to the plan he was once on board with.
Instead, Austin did what had been agreed to. Stone Cold was a heel.
For as much love as WrestleMania X-Seven gets (especially this match), various takes on the event do come with that little caveat, the one that basically amounts to, "About that ending..."
Does Austin's out-of-left-field heel turn (and the ultimate, if noble, failure of the new character throughout 2001) ruin what had been a brilliant match up to the turn?
Personally, I say no. Brilliant wrestling is brilliant wrestling, at least in the eyes of some. The heavy amount of love given to WrestleMania X-Seven, and Austin vs. Rock, seems to indicate a willingness to overlook the non-optimal finish.
But to its credit, that finish wasn't so heavily maligned in its moment (unlike, say, the uncooperative explosives). It took time for the risk of Austin's heel turn to truly sour people. And for those that it did sour, most would agree that, all things considered, it doesn't damage WrestleMania X-Seven in the slightest.
That's basically pro wrestling in a nutshell - all beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and with one's willingness to see beauty comes their willingness to ignore the ugliness.