The People's Champion: Ranking The Rock's Greatest Championship Matches
“These jabronis cut The Rock, and the People’s Blood is flowing from the People’s Champ, and he’s tasting the People’s Blood! But like the heroic figure that he is, The Rock endures it all and walks out of the ring the same way he walked in: as the one true champion…”
- The Rock, WWF Breakdown, 09/27/1998
Over the course of the several years that has seen his career sprawl across the worlds of professional sports, sports-entertainment and celebrity legitimacy, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has earned an abundance of aliases.
Miami Hurricane. Rocky Maivia. The Most Electrifying Man in Sports-Entertainment. To some, he is even known as The Tooth Fairy.
One moniker, however, has developed into a recurrent theme in his career and has ostensibly followed him through every step of his lifework: champion.
In professional football, The Rock is a former NCAA National Champion. In the world of the silver screen, he owns a glowing reputation as the “franchise saver” and, as reported by Forbes, is sitting comfortably in the top 10 bracket for most profitable Hollywood actors.
Notably, in the domain of professional wrestling, The Rock has perhaps raked up the most success of his career. Over his 15+ year on/off relationship with WWE, Johnson has carved out a distinguished résumé that lists a number of prestigious accolades including WWF/E Champion (x7), WCW/World Champion (x2), Intercontinental Champion (x2) and Tag Team Champion (x5). More often than not, The Rock was referred to as “the champion”.
And, of course, The Rock is currently in the midst of his 8th reign as WWE Champion.
With the dust now settling on the new championship belt’s unveiling (via WWE.com) and the focus shifting towards his upcoming title clash with John Cena at WrestleMania 29, it is more relevant than ever to take a closer glance at The Rock’s previous championship matches in WWE and reflect upon the impact of the Great One on the titles that the professional wrestling world holds in such high regard.
And so, this article ranks The Rock’s 10 greatest championship matches to date, from his early days as the squeaky-clean Intercontinental babyface to the People’s Champion that is sitting at the top of the WWE mountain today.
A collection of matches that fell just short of the list…
Rocky Maivia vs. Hunter Hearst Helmsley (c)
Taking place several years before their headline run in 2000, The Rock and Triple H’s solid Intercontinental Championship bout on the 1997 Thursday RAW Thursday special handed The Rock his first title reign in WWE, and foreshadowed the stellar matches between the two that were to come.
No Holds Barred Match: The Rock vs. Stone Cold Steve Austin (c)
A superior showing to their previous main-event encounter at WrestleMania XV, the scrappy rematch for the WWF title featured gripping action between the two and guest referee Shane McMahon. After an enthralling 17 minutes of brawling, Austin emerged victorious in one of the most memorable bouts of the Attitude Era.
The Rock & Mankind vs. Undertaker & Big Show (c)
The beginning of the short-yet-memorable Rock ‘N’ Sock Connection partnership consisting of former rivals The Rock and Mankind, the duo’s tag title victory over the gargantuan team of the Undertaker and Big Show clearly illustrates just how entertaining the World Wrestling Federation was in the summer of 1999.
The Rock (c) vs. Chris Benoit
Occurring during The Rock’s babyface summer of 2000, the technically sound WWF title bout from Fully Loaded showcased the champion’s often overlooked in-ring ability and picked out Chris Benoit as a champion for the future.
Triple Threat Match: The Rock vs. Kurt Angle vs. Undertaker (c)
Widely regarded as one of the best Triple Threat matches in WWE history, The Rock’s victory over Kurt Angle and champion the Undertaker saw all three men trade signature manoeuvres and kicked off his then-record seventh WWE title reign in style.
10. WWE Royal Rumble 2013: The Rock vs. CM Punk (c)
At the 2013 Royal Rumble event, The Rock and WWE Champion CM Punk locked horns in one of the most anticipated title showdowns in the last decade.
Heading into the January extravaganza, CM Punk had held the strap for a monumental 434 days, a feat unheard of in the professional wrestling landscape of 2013. The Rock, on the other hand, had only made sporadic WWE appearances over the previous year, mostly involving the high-profile programme with John Cena. However, the challenge was issued on the RAW 1000 special from July 2012, in a show that saw the beginning of Punk’s slow-burning heel turn.
A dream match that divided the audience almost cleanly in half, the Punk/Rock clash from the Royal Rumble delivered an electric main event that saw The Rock secure his first heavyweight title since 2002. Whilst not being the best match of either man’s career, the sheer drama carried the bout into spectacular territory, and eclipsed The Rock’s previous effort against Cena at WrestleMania XXVIII.
In a captivating finish that was only slightly marred by The Shield’s interference and the resulting appearance of Vince McMahon, The People’s Champion achieved what the likes of Cena, Chris Jericho and Ryback had been unable to do since late 2011 - lay the champion down for the three-count and put an end to Punk’s historic championship run.
Following the event, the inevitable re-match occurred at the Elimination Chamber show in February. The Rock was again victorious in a somewhat lacklustre affair compared to the Rumble classic, but the match did an admirable job of establishing the groundwork for the upcoming return bout with John Cena on April 7 in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
09. WWF RAW Is WAR (04/01/1999): The Rock (c) vs. Mankind
On an evening that has been referred to as “the night that changed wrestling”, Mick Foley defeated The Rock in an absorbing RAW main event to lift his first WWF Championship.
The match, taking place before a rabid audience in Worcester, Massachusetts, demonstrated the organic chemistry between the champion and challenger whilst benefiting from the entertaining interference spots from D-Generation X and Vince McMahon’s Corporation stable. In a back-and-forth clash that eventually saw the finish arrive courtesy of a steel chair wielding Stone Cold Steve Austin, Mankind pinned The Rock in a red-hot main event that typified the first-rate entertainment that was being offered by the WWF in the late 1990’s.
Although the bout contained exemplary action in the ring, the match is perhaps better known for its significance outside of the squared circle. Taking place at the height of the bitter television battle between the WWF and Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling, the match went head-to-head with WCW’s blockbuster title match between Kevin Nash and Hollywood Hulk Hogan.
At the time, RAW is WAR was pre-taped, and aired several days after the show took place. Ever the opportunists, WCW routinely capitalized on this in an under-handed tactic that saw WWF match results revealed on the flagship Monday Nitro programme.
On January 4, 1999, WCW revealed the outcome of the Rock/Mankind match live on Nitro. However, as announcer Tony Schiavone sarcastically uttered the now-infamous line “That’ll put a lot of butts in the seats”, a reported 600,000 viewers switched television channels from the Nash/Hogan bout to RAW in order to witness Mick Foley capture his first-ever world championship (via WWE.com).
The momentum of Mankind’s title win carried the WWF into its most prosperous business period to date, whilst the ratings victory contributed to the irreversible decline of WCW that saw the company lose the battle to bankruptcy just two years later. The World Wrestling Federation went on to rule the pro-wrestling world and The Rock and Mick Foley’s title bout from the first RAW episode of 1999 can now be viewed as the defining moment of the Monday Night Wars.
08. WWF SummerSlam 1998: The Rock (c) vs. Triple H
In the summer of 1998, the WWF was in the midst of a (kayfabe) gang war, with several stables looking to stand out in the increasingly-crowded mid-card.
Amid the likes of Los Boricuas and the Disciples of Apocalypse, however, two groups stood out as fierce rivals.
The Rock’s black-supremacist Nation of Domination faction of heels was one of the most disliked groups of the Attitude Era whilst, conversely, the sophomoric D-Generation X, spearheaded by leader Triple H, was at the height of its popularity.
The two leaders fought regularly throughout 1998, and following on from the controversial time-limit draw between the two at the Fully Loaded: In Your House pay-per-view the previous month, the Ladder Match at SummerSlam was booked as the pay-off bout between The Rock and Triple H, two of the WWF’s fastest rising stars, with the then-relevant Intercontinental Championship on the line.
The secondary main event to the Austin/Undertaker WWF title classic, the match featured several remarkable moments of action, including a spot that saw a People’s Elbow performed on a ladder-strewn Triple H. Despite NoD member Mark Henry’s attempted interference (a move that was thwarted by Helmsley’s long-time ally Chyna), the champion was eventually defeated when Triple H climbed the ladder and retrieved the IC belt that was hanging from the rafters of Madison Square Garden.
The SummerSlam Ladder Match is often mentioned as the contest that propelled both The Rock and Triple H towards the next plateau of their careers in the main event scene, a fact that’s hard to argue as by the end of 1998, Triple H was beginning to dominate singles action and The Rock was the centrepiece of Vince McMahon’s Corporation faction as the reigning WWF Champion.
07. WWF Judgment Day 2000: The Rock (c) vs. Triple H
Although the vast majority of professional wrestlers are incredibly well-conditioned, to perform for a solid 60 minutes is a mammoth task for any athlete. Whilst an hour’s work was the norm in the heyday of the likes of Ric Flair and Harley Race, the modern performer is more accustomed to short TV bouts and the odd 30 minute pay-per-view contest.
At Judgment Day 2000, however, The Rock and Triple H took on the enormous pressure of a 60 minute match in an Iron Man bout for the WWF Championship. Much like the confrontation between Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart four years previously, the two flourished in the weight of expectation and delivered a modern pro-wrestling classic.
An understandably slow-burning yet fascinating match that saw a variety of decisions such as pinfalls, submissions and disqualifications, the Rock/Triple H contest was a cleverly designed and executed piece of work.
With the score tied at 5 falls apiece with time winding down, the inevitable interference from the McMahon-Helmsley faction prompted a returning Undertaker - now known as the American Bad Ass - to enter the ring and attack the heels (including a hapless X-Pac receiving a particularly brutal Chokeslam).
Unfortunately for The Rock, the Undertaker attacked Triple H before the time-limit ran out, causing a disqualification. Alas, the guest referee Shawn Michaels awarded the deciding fall, and the WWF Championship, to The Game.
Following the contentious events of Judgment Day, The Rock and Triple H went on to feud for the remainder of the summer 2000 period, swapping the WWF title once again at the King of the Ring event in June. The Rock held the belt until the No Mercy pay-per-view in October, where an entertaining clash with Kurt Angle saw the Olympic Hero emerge as the new WWF Champion.
06. WWF Royal Rumble 1999: The Rock vs. Mankind (c)
The hotly-anticipated rematch of the glorious RAW main event that occurred several weeks before, the Rock/Mankind “I Quit” brawl from Royal Rumble 1999 featured several high-spots that were not only thoroughly enjoyable, but also pushed the boundaries of WWE violence into previously uncharted territory.
In the bout, both The Rock and Mankind delivered the kind of “garbage” wrestling that had only been exposed beforehand in niche promotions such as Paul Heyman’s Extreme Championship Wrestling or in overseas concepts such as IWA Japan’s King of the Death Match tournament (a competition in which, incidentally, Mick Foley had been victorious in 1995 under the guise of Cactus Jack).
The most potent example of this came in the form of 11 carelessly unprotected chair shots to the head and face of an incapacitated Mankind – a segment that is still tough viewing to this day.
After several other high-risk stunts that spilled across several sections of California’s Arrowhead Pond, the innovative ending occurred when The Rock fooled the referee into believing that Mankind had declared defeat over the arena sound-system, when in fact it was an altered promo that had been aired to give the impression that Foley had uttered “I Quit”.
Original, eventful and, at times, painful to watch, The Rock’s victory over Mankind earned The Great One his second WWF Championship, and set the wheels in motion for his titanic confrontation with the red-hot Stone Cold Steve Austin at WrestleMania XV. More importantly, however, the “I Quit” Match from the 1999 edition of the Royal Rumble entered the history books as one of the most violent title exchanges ever witnessed in American professional wrestling.
05. WWE SummerSlam 2002: The Rock (c) vs. Brock Lesnar
The electric events that occurred on night of August 25, 2002 can be defined as a watershed moment in the young careers of both The Rock and Brock Lesnar.
During the WWE Undisputed title affair at SummerSlam, a seismic change in dynamics occurred. Similar to the happenings in the “Icon vs. Icon” bout with Hollywood Hogan at WrestleMania X8 six months previously, the intended babyface/heel dynamic was openly (and audibly) rejected by the famously ravenous New York crowd. Lesnar, portrayed at the monster heel that is so often a staple of professional wrestling, was flagrantly cheered, whilst The Rock, the beloved People’s Champion, was subjected to the distantly familiar “Rocky Sucks” chants that dogged his fledgling career (and confidence) back in 1997.
Several theories can be held accountable for this.
Firstly, fresh off the incredible success of both The Mummy Returns and The Scorpion King, it had been widely reported throughout 2002 that The Rock was interested in pursuing a career as a full-time actor. The famously loyal pro-wrestling fans perceived this as an almost betrayal, and believed that The Rock, like Hulk Hogan before him, had turned his back on the company (and, indeed, fans) that had made him a household name.
On the other hand, the WWE landscape was in a transitional period in 2002, and times were changing. The Attitude Era was over, Stone Cold Steve Austin had left the company, and Brock Lesnar was clearly heralded as the man to lead the pro-wrestling world into the next generation (eventually known as the Ruthless Aggression period). Therefore, by the time his title match with The Rock rolled around, Lesnar was in the midst of an unconsciously natural face turn (something that was sensibly acknowledged by WWE several months later when Lesnar split from heat-magnet manager Paul Heyman).
The SummerSlam clash itself was a competently fast-paced matchup overall, but also featured impressive sections of scientific ring work in which Lesnar targeted the champion’s ribs and The Rock worked on the Next Big Thing’s knees. With both athletes having notable periods of control, the match flowed consistently under the idea that both men had met their equal.
The finish was stalled by an intense amalgamation of false-finishes and near-falls, but eventually arrived when Lesnar stylishly countered The Rock Bottom into the deciding F-5 manoeuvre. The resulting three-count not only awarded Lesnar the Undisputed Championship belt, but also gave him the prestigious title of youngest WWE champion in history, a record that The Rock himself had previously set in 1998.
The title defeat to Brock Lesnar was The Rock’s last match in WWE until early 2003, and, in effect, set the groundwork for his Hollywood heel turn. Upon returning from his sabbatical, The Rock embraced the boos that had engulfed him at SummerSlam, and used them to his advantage as he entered lively angles with Hulk Hogan, The Hurricane and Stone Cold Steve Austin.
04. WWF No Way Out 2001: The Rock vs. Kurt Angle (c)
The last pay-per-view before perhaps the greatest professional wrestling show ever in WrestleMania X-Seven, No Way Out 2001 was a gripping event that featured several first-class performances. The stunning main event title match between The Rock and Kurt Angle, however, stole the show.
By the beginning of 2001, The Rock had become one of, if not the, hottest commodity in sports-entertainment. In Stone Cold Steve Austin’s year-long absence from competition due to injury, the People’s Champion had risen to the top of the industry, and had slid into the role of the No. 1 babyface in the World Wrestling Federation.
Similarly, throughout his rookie WWF year of 2000, the emerging Kurt Angle had enjoyed an abundance of success that featured such feats as a King of the Ring crown and headline programmes with the likes of the Undertaker and Triple H. Angle’s year culminated in his first run as WWF Champion, via a pinfall victory over The Rock at October’s No Mercy pay-per-view.
Following an entertaining No. 1 Contender’s Match on the February 8th edition of SmackDown that saw The Rock best the Big Show, the long-awaited Rock/Angle title rematch was booked for No Way Out. The definition of the “big fight” aura, the match would not only determine the course of the WWF Championship, but would also decide who would face Stone Cold Steve Austin in the main event of the Attitude Era’s biggest show.
Despite being slightly hindered by the unnecessary interference from the lumbering Big Show and a seemingly botched ending that required The Rock to perform the finishing Rock Bottom twice, the match adequately showcased two genuine WWF superstars at the top of their game. Filling the bout with effective chain wrestling and dramatic false finishes such as Angle’s repeated attempts to lock The Rock in the dreaded Ankle Lock submission hold, the competitors delivered an admirable match that put over both men heading into WrestleMania.
Ultimately, The Rock prevailed, securing his sixth WWF Championship in a match that could be included as one of the best of both men’s run in the World Wrestling Federation. The title swap was especially well-executed, as all too often out-going champions are not adequately protected, but in the case of the No Way Out showdown, Angle went over as a bone-fide headliner whilst The Rock simultaneously looked the dominant babyface. Shortly after the show, Kurt Angle would go on to engage Chris Benoit in a scientific dream feud that was perfect for mat wrestling enthusiasts, and The Rock would feature as one half of the biggest WrestleMania rematches of them all.
03. WWF No Mercy 2001: The Rock (c) vs. Chris Jericho
Taking place during the much-debated Invasion storyline that featured a fresh influx of talent from World Championship Wrestling and Extreme Championship Wrestling, it speaks volumes that The Rock and Chris Jericho were booked in a WWF vs. WWF programme that revolved around the WCW Championship. Namely, in 2001, both The Rock and Jericho were amongst the elite performers in the professional wrestling industry.
The build-up to the bout at No Mercy centred upon the idea that Chris Jericho, throughout his career in the WWF, WCW, ECW and overseas, had never won a heavyweight title, thus rendering him, to quote Paul Heyman, a “choke-artist”. However, once the competitors entered the ring at the event, the Missouri crowd was in full force, and was firmly behind Jericho in his quest for the big gold belt.
The clash itself was an incredibly heated affair, with both The Rock and Jericho trading high-impact moves (at one point, the Rock Bottom saw Jericho viciously driven through an announce table) and believable near-falls. The conclusion of the match came in the shape of a surprising interference spot from Stephanie McMahon-Helmsley that unintentionally aided Jericho, as the challenger used the steel chair that the Billion Dollar Princess had brought to the ring to pin The Rock, and wrestle away the WCW title in the process.
The No Mercy match marked the start of a long and personal feud between The Rock and Chris Jericho that would lead into early 2002, and would feature several title changes involving both the WCW Championship and the WWF Tag Team titles. This match remained the best of the series however, and the unscrupulous way in which Jericho finally “won the big one” foreshadowed his slow heel turn that would be cemented a month later at the Survivor Series event, and would result in his shocking Undisputed Championship win over The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin at Vengeance.
02. WWF Backlash 2000: The Rock vs. Triple H (c)
As is evident in previous sections of this article, The Rock and Triple H have a storied history in the World Wrestling Federation. From their early battles over the Intercontinental title to the feud between D-Generation X and The Corporation and beyond, The Rock and Triple H climbed the WWF ladder seemingly side by side. This match at Backlash 2000 occurred at a time when both men had truly realised their full potential as genuine attractions, and this marquee bout for the WWF Championship stands out as the greatest match between the two.
In early 2000, Triple H was sitting atop of the company as the focal point of the McMahon-Helmsley faction and reigning WWF Champion. With powerful backing from the McMahons and the remaining members of DX, The Game had beaten all challengers and, as a symbol of his validity as champion, had even put an end to the illustrious career of Mick Foley. The Rock, so to speak, was also on fire, taking over the reins of Stone Cold Steve Austin as the top WWF babyface. When The Rock was cheated out of the title by Triple H and Vince McMahon in the main event of WrestleMania 2000, the stage was set for a blockbuster one-on-one showdown at Backlash.
The match was a professional wrestling masterpiece, and featured a shining role for Shane McMahon as the heel referee. The action was cleverly designed as it showed Triple H as a vulnerable champion, and was accentuated by the fact that The Rock’s efforts were constantly thwarted by McMahon’s obvious bias towards The Game.
The unavoidable interference from the likes of Vince McMahon and his stooges Pat Patterson and Gerald Brisco added to the drama, and supported the match theme that The Rock was once again going to swindled out of the title. In one of the most memorable finishes in American pro-wrestling history, Stone Cold Steve Austin returned from a lengthy spell on the injury shelf to level the playing the field and, through several chair shots to Triple H and the rest of the McMahon-Helmsley lackeys, gave The Rock the opportunity to pin The Game to begin his fourth run with the WWF Championship.
2000 was the year that kick-started The Rock’s run as a top babyface, and the match at Backlash solidified The Great One and Triple H’s reputations as two of the most gifted performers in the company. The feud extended into the summer months of the year, and saw the WWF title swap hands several times during this period (the belt changed owners at both the Judgment Day and King of the Ring events). Eventually, the title found itself steadily in The Rock’s possession, and the champion moved on to participate in acclaimed programmes with Chris Benoit and, later, Kurt Angle.
01. WWF WrestleMania X-Seven: The Rock (c) vs. Stone Cold Steve Austin
It has often been said that for every generation of fans, there is a rivalry that defines the allure and entertainment value of the product known as professional wrestling.
Hulk Hogan vs. Andre the Giant. Bret Hart vs. Shawn Michaels. John Cena vs. Randy Orton.
For the audience that witnessed the fabled Attitude Era boom of the late 90’s and early 2000’s, The Rock vs. Stone Cold Steve Austin was the pinnacle of pro-wrestling and embodied everything that the WWF stood for. Their iconic headline match at WrestleMania X-Seven, whilst undoubtedly the greatest title match involving The Rock, can stake a genuine claim at being one of the best matches ever staged.
The match unquestionably benefited from the first-rate build up that occurred during the months leading up to the event. In late 1999, Austin was written out of storylines in order to take a leave of absence from the company in order to rehabilitate several injuries. Austin marked his return with a Royal Rumble win in January 2001, and would challenge for the WWF title in the main event of WrestleMania 17. Conversely, The Rock was the reigning champion, and had beaten such challengers as Triple H and Kurt Angle on the long road to the top of the company. Against Austin at WrestleMania, he wasn’t going to let that go easily.
Shortly before WrestleMania, it became abundantly clear that both men needed to win. Austin needed the win in order to prove that he was back in his rightful spot as the top guy in the WWF, whilst The Rock needed a victory to cement his legacy as Austin’s equal, if not superior. It was crystal clear – irrespective of who walked out of the Reliant Astrodome in Houston, Texas as the champion, it was going to be incredibly significant.
The WrestleMania match was a genuine classic. Highly energised and intensely competitive, the personal war between the two raged on as both men traded each other’s signature manoeuvres, and the bout deteriorated into a violent brawl as a result of the last-minute No-DQ stipulation. The finish, widely considered as one of the most surprising events of the modern era, saw Austin turn heel in front of his hometown fans by aligning himself with his long-time enemy Vince McMahon. Together, Austin and McMahon brutalised The Rock and, after numerous steel chair shots, the Texas Rattlesnake pinned the champion to the mat and was declared the new holder of the WWF Championship.
Although the WrestleMania match marked the start of the ill-fated Stone Cold heel turn (Austin was a babyface again by the end of 2001), the bout itself is fondly remembered as one of the greatest performances from a time when the WWF was one of the most popular platforms in all entertainment. The formula was simple, and it delivered a classic that defined the Attitude generation.
Stone Cold Steve Austin vs. The Rock, WWF Championship, WrestleMania.
A true spectacle.
“People’s Champion? Corporate Champion? It’s all the same to The Rock. Just as long as he’s champion…”
- The Rock, The Rock Says…
Throughout his career, The Rock has had an influential hand in some of the most significant championship bouts in recent memory. From his violent exchanges with Mankind to his scientific exhibitions with Kurt Angle and beyond, The Rock has more than earned his popular moniker as the People’s Champion.
At the time of writing, The Rock is currently on a collision course with John Cena, with their blockbuster rematch scheduled for WrestleMania 29 on April 7. In that match, one of the most prolific champions of the last era will face off against the most decorated champion of this generation with the gold on the line.
Heading into the event, The Rock will be in the middle of his eighth run as WWE Champion. Ironically, the only performer to enjoy more WWE title reigns is his upcoming adversary, as John Cena currently holds the record for most title reigns in WWE history (incredibly, Cena has held the strap a remarkable 10 times since 2005).
Therefore, in effect, The Rock vs. John Cena II will be the true battle of champions.
In all likelihood, John Cena will walk out of New Jersey’s MetLife Stadium as the new WWE Champion. However, as the memorable matches and moments mentioned in this list can attest, The Rock will always be a champion, whether or not he is carrying a belt over his shoulder.
Thank you for reading!
Comments welcome below and on Twitter: @matthewtsquires
Matt Squires is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report, and covers other sports for websites such as This Is Futbol. For more on Matt, please visit his personal website Matthew T Squires.