Icon vs. Icon Was the Right Call

WrestleMania X8 was well-received upon its original air date on March 17th, 2002, and continues to be looked on fondly in fan retrospectives. However, despite generally being regarded as a good WrestleMania, it usually falls short of fans’ hypothetical top1 ten2 rankings3. Sometimes it’s even denigrated as a “one-match show,” which, aside from being untrue, is also a diversion from what it was in reality, the crossroads of the WWF becoming what they are today.

It’s telling that the biggest star for the WWF, now WWE, during their fabled Attitude Era was not the one lined up to face “Hollywood” Hulk Hogan at WrestleMania X8, that being “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. Many have appended upon the faulty “one-match show” premise by further stating that “Icon vs. Icon” was not the match we should have gotten, but rather, “Icon vs. Rattlesnake.” The truth was, after Austin’s 2001 dual heel turns and the subsequent Invasion angle, his role in the company was aimless. Austin himself said, “everything sucks,” and then further detailed that he wasn’t happy with the direction he or the company was going in a May 31st, 2002 episode of WWE’s internet show, WWE Byte This!4 He then stated, “I think the writing has been substandard, I’ll go one better than that, it’s been piss poor, I guess if that pisses some people off, then that’s just the way it is. I think it could be a hell of a lot better creatively, and it’s been going on; it’s been pretty shitty, as a matter of fact, and I haven’t been happy since before WrestleMania or after, WrestleMania as we speak presently.” He also alluded to the issues with his neck in this segment5, so it’s not illogical to presume Austin already had thoughts of retiring from in-ring work at this point.

Some have theorized Austin retired purely due to mental health issues6, and while they played a large part in his retirement, he did miss most of 2000 due to neck surgery for lingering issues resulting from his 1997 neck injury. It’s hard to say the neck and later knee issues weren’t a real problem he dealt with while wrestling, as he did alter his in-ring working style after receiving the injury and rushing back in ‘97. His later surgery only underscores the reality of lingering issues, so to state his retirement was purely due to stress and paranoia is a reach. However, Austin himself has admitted to not being in the best health and living too fast around this period; denying that his mental health also played a large part in his decline would be understating its severity. Look no further than the night before his final match at WrestleMania XIX, when he was admitted to a hospital7 and was released just hours before his match with The Rock.

He checked in thinking he was suffering a heart attack, but doctors told him he had been overcaffeinated, drinking too much alcohol, and sleep-deprived. Austin cites the injuries he racked up as the significant factor for his retirement; however, years later, Austin said he was forced to retire8. Austin has also stated in interviews that he declined a match with Hulk Hogan at WrestleMania X8 because he did not think Hogan could work at his level9 at that point and did not want to disappoint fans. To further confuse matters, Austin, in later interviews, stated that he regrets not working with Hogan10, adding that while Hogan could still go, Austin could not. These conflicting statements only prove Austin did not want to work with Hogan at the time, and whatever the reason, despite Austin now regretting it, it was still the right call.

The landscape of wrestling had changed suddenly and drastically by the end of the Monday Night Wars. Steve Austin was undeniably the lead guy of the WWF in 1998 and 1999, but with his absence throughout much of 2000, the company continued posting record profit margins behind The Rock and Triple H. I have already covered11 how the ratings began declining by 2001, so it’s not Austin’s fault ratings were down during his initial heel turn after WrestleMania X-Seven. By the time he returned to in-ring action on October 22nd, 2000, at the No Mercy pay-per-view event, the high 5’s, 6’s, and low 7’s the WWF had gotten throughout the year had reduced to high 5’s at the most by this time. Meanwhile, WCW had been regularly pulling in ratings from the high 1’s to high 2’s for over a month; the late ’90s wrestling boom was already winding down.

The crowded main event upon Austin’s return is most (in)famously highlighted by the six-man Hell in a Cell match at the Armageddon 2000 pay-per-view event, the kind of balls-to-the-wall approach of presentation that eventually tires people out on the product after sustained doses. Having Austin win his third Royal Rumble to guarantee a title shot at WrestleMania and then have that opponent end up being The Rock, all culminating at the end of the Attitude Era, this was all a step in the right direction; back to basics. However, even then, the ratings never got above five during March ’01, and Austin’s heel turn only paid off, ratings-wise, in the same month he turned heel, with the ratings dipping below five once more by April 30th, 2001. Ratings would improve in July due to the Invasion angle adding ECW into the fold and Austin turning babyface again. However, ratings would dip down again not long after his second heel turn at the InVasion pay-per-view event that same July, stabilizing in that range for a while. Once Team WWF had defeated The Alliance at the 2001 Survivor Series event and ended the Invasion storyline, Austin lost the WWF Championship to Chris Jericho the following month at the Vengeance 2001 pay-per-view event. Austin was being pushed down the card as Jericho was crowned the Undisputed Championship due to having defeated The Rock for the WCW Championship earlier that night; only so Triple H could later defeat Jericho at WrestleMania and become the top guy in the process.

It’s vital to designate WrestleMania X-Seven as the definitive ending point for the Attitude Era. WrestleMania X8 was the final WrestleMania under the WWF banner; even though its Wikipedia article currently describes it as the last WrestleMania of the Attitude Era, the company was already heading towards the direction they have found themselves lost in today. While the top stars of the Attitude Era were still on the roster, wrestlers from the rival promotions began showing up. Meanwhile, younger guys who would later become stars for the company started matriculating into the locker room in the next couple of years, starting with Brock Lesnar’s debut the night after WrestleMania X8. On the June 24th, 2002, episode of Raw, Vince McMahon stated he wanted to see “ruthless aggression” from the roster; on SmackDown later that week, John Cena debuted and promised to deliver ruthless aggression. By this point, Austin had already walked out12 on the WWE for the second time.

His first was a no-show on Raw the night after WrestleMania X8, citing exhaustion as the reason, and returned to Raw two weeks later, on April 1st, 2002, the first episode of the new brand split era. He chose to sign with the Raw brand over SmackDown, entering a brief feud with The Undertaker where he lost a No. 1 contender’s match for the WWE Undisputed Championship at Backlash 2002. The finish saw special guest referee Ric Flair miss Austin putting his foot on the bottom rope during Undertaker’s pin-fall victory, leading to Austin working an underwhelming angle with Flair and Big Show. Flair feigned ignorance of the rope break, attempted to make things up to Austin by booking him in a tag match against the nWo, teamed him up with Big Show after his original partner got injured before the match, where Big Show then turned on Austin. Gradually, Flair did as well, and the two men also joined the nWo in the process, but Austin beat both of them in a handicap match at the Judgement Day 2002 pay-per-view event. This level of booking and his position on the card wasn’t enough to satisfy Austin, who went off on the company’s creative team shortly after that event during the earlier mentioned segment on Byte This! The company had re-hired Eddie Guerrero, attempting to appease Austin, and the two worked a quartet of house matches in late May and early June 2002, with two of those matches coming before the rant on Byte This!

However, being asked to lose to Brock Lesnar on free television with no build was the straw that broke the camel’s back13, and Austin walked out. While the Ruthless Aggression Era had moments of great technical wrestling and good character work, as well as deeply talented rosters, the WWE also had more soap-opera-like aspects in their programming. Do I need to mention the horrific Katie Vick angle14 between Triple H and Kane or when Rey Mysterio had a ladder match with Eddie Guerrero over custody of his son? Spectacular storylines and flashy moves have become even more emphasized ever since the WWE has gone PG. We’ve come full circle since 2002, as the spectacle of Hogan vs. Rock is something the sanitized WWE of today attempts to replicate with every match they produce, leading to a stale product that bores people.

In the eyes of WWE creative, Austin’s character had culminated at WrestleMania X-Seven. He had helped carry the company to greener pastures and could continue working for the company; it just wasn’t ever going to be the same as it was during the Attitude Era. Austin shaking hands with Vince McMahon at WrestleMania X-Seven, alongside the purchase of WCW just days before the event, is the perfect emblem of the end of an era and a harbinger of things to come. It’s impossible to shake the image from memory, and no matter how popular Austin was or continues to be, Austin turning heel is the lasting imagery from that event. Austin was unhappy about the WrestleMania X8 match with Hall; he didn’t want to work with Hogan, his heel turns had come when business was down for the first time in years, and WWE had him out of the main event scene by spring 2002. Austin had headlined WrestleMania XIV, XV, and X-Seven, working his way to the top of the card after years of being stuck in the mid-card for other promotions. He wasn’t going to start doing jobs and further damage the credibility of his Stone Cold persona.

That’s where the injury issues become interesting because even though Austin wanted to be at the top of the card and headlining shows at this time, he also admitted having neck and knee issues slowed him down. His mental health issues were undeniable at this time, as he assaulted his then-wife on June 15th, 2002, went on the run, and later turned himself in and was subsequently charged with domestic abuse15 on August 14th, 2002. Austin’s anger over not being in the main event scene during WrestleMania X8 contrasts heavily against Austin being okay with not closing the show16 at WrestleMania XIX. It’s here where I finally state I believe Austin’s hospital stay before his final match was the result of a mental breakdown; his acceptance of not closing the show was him finally accepting retirement. Austin could still receive pops, but the casual viewers’ tuning in every week to see Austin beat up his boss was never going to see him the same after shaking McMahon’s hand to end the Attitude Era. Going out against The Rock at WrestleMania was the most fitting end for Austin’s in-ring career, especially considering a few other outside factors.

Austin’s heel work after WrestleMania X-Seven isn’t looked at negatively for his in-ring work or promos, as he was still delivering fantastic character work and wrestling; it was all due to timing. He turned the year after The Rock had gone from another top guy to a true main event star, or “the most electrifying man in sports entertainment,” as he continues to be known to this day. The Rock’s character was always far more malleable than Austin, able to transition seamlessly between babyface and heel once he joined the Nation of Domination and was allowed to show the natural charisma that has made him one of the highest-grossing actors ever. The Rock was on the verge of becoming a Hollywood star, as his first lead role came in 2002, The Scorpion King, just a month and two days after WrestleMania X8. These inescapable facts meant a potential Hogan vs. Rock match was always easier to market as a spectacle for an international audience, and Hogan could still get over after the match with poses to the crowd alongside The Rock. That was never going to happen with Austin, who was already unhappy with Hogan, the nWo, and other WCW wrestlers coming over to the company he had helped establish during a rating war against those same wrestlers. The timing of the event and every man’s position on the card was in such a way that not doing Hogan vs. Rock may very well have kept The Rock from later becoming the box-office attraction that he became.

It sounds laughable, but remember, even in 2002, Hogan was still one of the most famous and merchandisable wrestlers on the planet. Hogan was the only wrestler who had gone to Hollywood and attempted to become a film star at that point, and he wasn’t known for starring in cinematic masterpieces or box-office successes. The Rock’s victory over Hogan, while somewhat overshadowed by Hogan turning babyface and posing in the ring afterward, ended up assisting his catapulting to the top of the film industry. He and Hogan were still competing for the WWE Championship that year, and The Rock continued generating acting roles until he left to become a full-time actor in 2004; what would this match have done for Steve Austin? Despite arguably being more beloved by fans than The Rock, Austin would not have been able to put on the same kind of match with Hogan that The Rock did. Anything other than a clean win for Austin would have diminished his character even more; why take the chance doing a job for Hogan when you’re not sure if you’ll ever get the favor returned? Hogan’s always been adamant he would have done the job for Austin, but Hogan was WWE Champion a month later as Austin continued sliding down the card. One can see why Austin wouldn’t believe WWE creative would make him look credible without Hogan getting his win back eventually.

By not doing the match with Hogan and walking out of the company twice, Austin avoided his character becoming devalued to a mid-carder, and fans never watched his downfall as a result. If he couldn’t be the main guy anymore, then maybe it was best for business and his overall well-being if he rode off into the sunset. He protected his character by avoiding jobs that put others over at his expense and went out at WrestleMania against who many consider his greatest in-ring rival. The Rock, now with consecutive WrestleMania victories over Hogan and Austin, made the jump to Hollywood with plenty of momentum behind him. The media coverage of Hogan vs. Rock was massive, and the crowd made their presence felt enough to change the in-ring working style of both performers and put on a show for the Toronto crowd; can you see that happening between Austin and Hogan? The entire presentation and tone of the match would have changed; despite Austin’s undeniable draw, the match wouldn’t possess nearly the same allure. The Rock’s charisma and ability to improvise made it possible for Hogan to be cheered by the Toronto crowd and give the WWE an international marketing angle; “Icon vs. Rattlesnake” certainly would have delighted wrestling purists; but it wouldn’t have the same draw. The new spectacle-generating, sport entertainment-driven focus of the soon-to-be WWE was on full display for “Icon vs. Icon,” and it laid the foundation for modern-day PG WWE.

Hogan ushered in a boom period of professional wrestling for the WWF in the ’80s; some fans at the time criticized the cartoony WWF style, but it was massively popular and financially successful. While the WWF always possessed certain pageantry, the company began presenting a more real-world tone and level of violence into their programming by the late ’90s, in part due to the success of characters like Steve Austin. After the Monday Night Wars, with the WWE running virtually unopposed as the top wrestling promotion in North America, there was no need to continue providing as much risque content like that anymore, especially after the company had gone public in 1999. Sure WWE would continue attempting to shock their audiences with controversial storylines in the future, but with much less frequency than during the Attitude Era. The period between WrestleMania X-Seven and Raw on June 24th, 2002, was not the end of the Attitude Era, nor was it the beginning of the Ruthless Aggression Era; it was simply a transitional time for the company. “Icon vs. Icon,” despite not being the match some fans claim they wanted in retrospect, continues to prove itself to have been the right call for everyone involved.

Editor’s Notes

  1. One37PM – 3/30/2021 – The Best of WrestleMania: The Wrestling Classic Ranks Every Event in WWE History
  2. The Wrestling Estate – 4/6/2020 – Ranking Every WrestleMania Ever
  3. YouTube/Cultaholic Wrestling – 4/7/2018 – Every WrestleMania Ranked From WORST To BEST
  4. YouTube/Rocka – 8/22/2018 – Stone Cold Steve Austin quits the WWF / WWE (2002)
  5. TWPNews – 5/31/2002 – WWE Byte This Report
  6. YouTube/Stamford Wrestling Secrets – 12/27/2020 – The REAL Reason Stone Cold Steve Austin Retired In 2003 – What Stone Cold Doesn’t Want You To Know
  7. Wrestling World – 10/6/2019 – Steve Austin on Being Hospitalized Before WrestleMania 19
  8. YouTube/Grilling JR – 7/17/2020 – Steve Austin shoots on Wrestlemania 19
  9. YouTube/nWoWolfpacTV2016 – 8/31/2015 – Steve Austin turned down working with Hulk Hogan at WrestleMania X8 (read description)
  10. Pro Wrestling Stories – Hulk Hogan and Steve Austin Match Was Planned | Why It Fell Through
  11. Havarti – 9/12/2021 – The Waning Popularity of Professional Wrestling
  12. Sun Sentinel – 6/14/2002 – STEVE AUSTIN’S ABRUPT WALKOUT LEAVES WWE IN DISARRAY
  13. Sport Bible – 12/23/2019 – Stone Cold Steve Austin Explains Why He Refused To Lose Against Brock Lesnar In WWE Match
  14. RichAthletes.com – Who is Katie Vick? WWE’s Worst Storyline Ever
  15. Entertainment Weekly – 8/14/2002 – Stone Cold surrenders on wife-beating charges
  16. Sportskeeda – 3/31/3020 – WWE Legend reveals whether Stone Cold Steve Austin was upset about not main-eventing WrestleMania 19

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