Afternoon again, intrepid travelers of the internets, and welcome to yet another installment of the Cewsh Reviews Sunday Supplements. In the past we’ve done everything here from listing the worst outfits in wrestling history, to doing a minute by minute breakdown of 12 Rounds where John Cena is the villain. And while these are all good times, the one thing they aren’t is rich with actual professional wrestling matches. So we ALSO have a series where we document the top 10 matches of a particular wrestler, to let you know which matches are required viewing if you’re new to their work, or at the very least, to give you something to argue about. And so it’s appropriate that today’s subject of focus is going to be the man who has returned to the top of the wrestling world, the Rock.
Now what makes the Rock an interesting case is that his actual in ring skill has debated hotly among wrestling fans ever since he first broke onto the scene. He’s been praised, derided, insulted, and had his ass polished, all in equal measure. So today, we’re going to put aside all of the baggage and nostalgia that comes from talking about this man, and break right on through to his 10 best performances inside of a wrestling ring. These are the moments where he shined the brightest and brought it the most. And if we’re doing our job right, you’re in for some surprises.
Oh, I can hear you guys out there loud and clear. “Why is this random match on here? Where’s my favorite Rock match? Argabargabarg!” You may well have a point. After all, the Rock had so many matches that could have gone here at number ten that is was a struggle to figure out which one to include. All by itself, that’s a pretty definitive indicator that the Rock is a guy who specialized in having good, but not great, matches all throughout his career. But when I looked at the gigantic clusterfuck tie for number 10, I picked this one out of the bunch, because when you’re highlighting someone’s best performances and not just their best matches, it’s important to show the times where they not only reinvented themselves, but flat out went completely against everything else they’ve ever done and made it work.
When the Rock returned as HOLLYWOOD ROCK in 2003, capitalizing on the boos he had been receiving from fans for leaving WWE to make movies, he had many major feuds with guys like Steve Austin and Goldberg. But underneath all of them was a comedic feud with WWE’s resident superhero The Hurricane that may well have been more popular than any of his feuds with bigger stars. They traded barbs for months in backstage segments that stole every show they appeared on, and against all expectations, Shane Helms and The Rock turned out to have some really tremendous chemistry. Eventually, a match actually happened, which the Hurricane won in one of the biggest upsets in WWE history, with maybe just the tiniest bit of help from an amused Steve Austin. But the real story here was the Rock, as he took his heel character to the absolute maximum, taunting Hurricane brilliant, and looking genuinely shocked when the Hurricane actually got offense in. This guy who was already becoming a movie star went out of his way to put over a midcard nobody, while playing a role that was somewhat new to him and making himself seem like an even bigger star in the process.
Sound easy? Go and count how many other people have managed it.
I’ll get into what made the Rock/Jericho feud so special a little way down the list when the same feud presents another entry, but for now let’s just say that Chris Jericho had gone full on rogue heel after winning the Undisputed Championship at WWE Vengeance 2001. And while h was riding high on that success, he knew that the time would come when he would have to face a real challenge that he couldn’t run from. Naturally, that challenge came from The Rock, who got his shot at the title at the Royal Rumble and spent the entire build looking on towards Wrestlemania. Jericho was determined to not be a footnote in history though, and that resulted in one of the most memorable matches in both men’s careers.
The interesting thing about this match is that it is probably the lowest key of all of the performances that the Rock had on this list. He was basically his Rocky self and let the attention go to Jericho at every turn. But these two have incredible chemistry, and in propelling Jericho upwards, the Rock delivered his last truly great babyface performance. The man would never quite recapture that good guy magic the same way again, but here he made his definitive statement on the matter.
The Rock wrestled Steve Austin at Wrestlemania 3 times. The first time they wrestled, Austin was the man in the driver’s seat, as he was a longtime veteran and an incredible workhorse, while the Rock was barely into his third year in wrestling. The second time they wrestled at Wrestlemania, two more years had passed, and both men were at the peak of their abilities, delivering one of the all time great matches and proving that they were the best in the business together. Fast forward another two years, and Steve Austin was about to wrestle the final match of his career, age and injuries haven taken their toll at last. And when it came time for this match, it was the Rock who led Austin through the match, bringing their careers full circle.
The Rock did everything he could to make this match live up to their previous ones despite Austin’s limitations, and along the way he gave his greatest rival one of the best walking away matches that anyone has ever had. To say this was a carry job would be putting it too strong, but with his heel game on as good as it had ever been in his career, the Rock made magic out of nothing and gave Austin the send off he deserved.
The book on the Rock for years and years was that he could do sports entertainment, but he couldn’t do wrestling. Whether this was a fair criticism or not seemed to be purely in the eyes of the beholder, as the arguments went back and forth for years in much the same way that the Cena ones have ever since. But when the Rock was given the right opponent and was challenged to prove that he could wrestle with the best of them, he stepped up his game and shut his detractors up more often than not. And perhaps his best purely wrestled match is this one against Chris Benoit.
For nearly 20 minutes on the legendary Fully Loaded 2000 show, the Rock and Chris Benoit brought new things out of one another in a hotly contested match that made Benoit look like a big star in the making, and made the Rock look like one of the most dynamic wrestlers of his era. They suplexed their way to awesomeness, and this match’s greatest accomplishment has to be just how quiet all those haters were the next day.
It’s somewhat stunning to consider that The Rock and Triple H never really feuded, or even really interacted, after their feud in 2000. Especially since that feud is beloved by the vast majority of those who saw it, with this match especially being held up as perhaps the crown jewel of the whole thing. For a full hour, the Rock and Triple H showed why they were the best of a burgeoning class of stars in wrestling, using every sports entertainment trick in the book to keep the people hooked on their every move at a time when 20 minutes made for an unusually long match in WWE.
You can put plenty of this match’s success down to Triple H, great booking and a rabid crowd, but at the end of the day, the Rock walked into the ring with 60 minutes on the clock, and delivered what many consider to be the finest Iron Man match in WWE history.
Here’s the recurring theme of this list, if you haven’t been paying attention. The Rock wrestles an up and coming star, steals the show with him, and gives that guy more credibility and stardom than they’ve ever had before. That’s not a coincidence. It was practically the man’s job description from 2000 on. Wrestling the Rock on PPV was such a fucking star maker from 2000-2003 that WWE should have gone to 60 PPVs a year just to give everyone on their roster a turn. Pretty much the only person the magic completely failed to work on is Billy Gunn, and come on now. It’s Billy Gunn.
This match was no different. Kurt Angle had been getting an incredible push over the year previous, even winning the WWE Championship and holding it for months, but he was still a basically a puppy in terms of where his skills would develop to. But this match is where he turned the corner and began to become the Kurt Angle that we’ve adored for the past decade+. The Rock made him look like someone who belonged in the ring with him, and gave Angle the chance to look downright aggressive and mean in a way that no amount of bangs will ever do for Jack Swagger. Oh, and it just happened to be a great match too. Funny how that works.
I often wonder if Chris Jericho sends the Rock some Christmas cookies every year or something, because no one man is more to thank for Jericho ascension to the main event than the Rock is, and this match is where it all began.
Over the summer of 2001, amidst the crazy war going on between WWE and the Alliance, Chris Jericho and the Rock had a war of their own brewing. Jericho, feeling that it was time for him to recognized as one of the top stars of the WWE became more and more frustrated by the lack of respect The Rock seemed to have for him, and The Rock became more and more frustrated by this upstart who just wouldn’t go away and, ahem, know his role. The simmering tensions led into this match for the WCW World Heavyweight Championship, where Jericho attempted to put behind him his reputation as a choke artist in big matches and The Rock attempted to put down this nuisance once and for all.
The match was sublime. Rock and Jericho melded with a chemistry that few wrestlers are ever able to replicate, and they completely blew away everything else on the show. Jericho looked like he truly belonged in the ring with the biggest and brightest, in no small part thanks to the efforts of the Rock to treat him like an equal and have a fantastic match. In the end Jericho beat the Rock and claimed his spot as a World Champion, and the feud continued to burn throughout the summer, leading to Jericho’s heel turn and everything that followed. But despite his great talent and charisma, none of that would have been possible for Jericho if The Rock hadn’t reached down and given him a hand up in one of the great examples of star making from the modern era. The effect was somewhat spoiled by what WWE did with Jericho afterwards, but for the duration of this feud, and especially this match, The Rock made his abilities as a star maker clear.
Of course that isn’t even the BEST example of The Rock doing this in his career. No, that honor has to go to…
It’s a lesson that has been driven home time and time again in stories about the behind the scenes world of professional wrestling. Wrestlers do not like to lose. They go to extravagant lengths to avoid having to lose matches and put other people over, because the, (not unreasonable,) belief is that losing matches hurts your momentum and makes you a less valuable commodity. Therefore it must say something about Dwayne Johnson that his next three matches are all famous losses, where he put someone else over in a big way. But this match may be the best example of that, because the Rock made something special here, and turned a loss into one of the greatest triumphs of his career.
The success of this match began with the build to it. The undefeated Lesnar had ripped through everything in his path to this point in his career, but had never really been pitted against a top level star, and the Rock was riding high after having gotten back the WWE title not long before. The videos hyping the match showed both men training like Olympic athletes for this match, highlighting the differences between them, and making it clear that the Rock was taking this match 100% seriously. That part is important. The fact that he lost despite giving his best effort is so incredibly significant to making something like this work, and so often ignored when trying to make a new star. The Rock wasn’t surprised by Brock Lesnar, he wasn’t tricked, or outsmarted, or cheated. He gave everything he had and it WAS NOT ENOUGH.
When the match came, the Rock was in charge and he walked the still green Lesnar through an absolutely incredible match. They went at it like two out of control bulls and in the end, Lesnar was just to much for him, and he beat the Rock clean with an F-5 to crown a new king for a new era.
It’s easy to ignore this as a passing of the torch moment, because Lesnar didn’t stick around long enough to really do justice to that, and fan sentiment was leveled against the Rock for leaving for the movies right after this. But none of that should take away from what may be the best torch passing match ever contested, where the Rock carried a green monster to the match of his life, and handed him stardom on a platter. The Rock would have bigger matches, (as we’ll see,) but I’m not sure he ever had a better one.
I hear this match is pretty good. Ever heard of it?
There are a lot of things that you could take away from the Rock’s match with Hulk Hogan at Wrestlemania 19 being named the greatest match of his career. You could take it as proof that a hot crowd can take a match into the stratosphere. You can take it as proof that I am a jerky jerkface with no idea of what I’m talking about, (and many of you will.) And you could certainly take away from this the fact that even the Rock’s greatest matches are flawed in easy to spot ways. And it’s true that this match isn’t TECHNICALLY an incredible match, by the definitions that we usually consider this sort of thing in the smark community. Hogan is pretty immobile, the pace is all over the place, and they pretty much start swapping near falls as soon as they possibly can. But the reason for the wonky pace and the fast forwarded match is that this match was performed in front of what is likely the hottest crowd in the entire history of professional wrestling.
For 20 minutes, the Rock and Hulk Hogan battled in a veritable tsunami of noise coming at them from all sides. And while he may have come into the match as the evil heel who tried to kill the Rock by crashing a truck into an ambulance like 2 weeks, the fans were 100% on his side as nostalgia ran completely out of control. They had gotten a taste for this the week before, so they were likely prepared for this, but you could tell that both men were visibly amazed by the reaction during the near 5 minutes that they spent playing to the crowd before the match even started. But what really makes this the Rock’s greatest match, and indeed, his greatest performance, is that when confronted with a complete reversal of the order of things in one of the biggest matches in Wrestlemania history, he seamlessly shifted into the heel that the fans wanted him to be. By doing that, he made Hulk Hogan the star in a match designed for the Rock to shine, and what resulted was something that anyone who saw it live will remember for the rest of their wrestling watching lives.
It was an act of selflessness and skill, and required all of the skills that he had built through all of the matches on this list. And when he was asked to rise to the challenge of carrying an iconic moment in wrestling history, the Great One quite simply brought it.
Alright, that’ll do it for us this time, boys and girls. We hope you enjoyed the list, and with any luck, we might well see it get added to it while he’s still here. If there’s one thing this list tells us, it’s that the quality of the matches will really depend on the crowd. And if there’s two things that this list tells us, the second is that the Rock brings it in title matches. So fingers crossed that he doesn’t insult women or gays on the way to the ring, and that he makes some more magic inside of it. And as always, remember to keep reading and be good to one another.
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