The summer of 1998 was dominated by hype surrounding the so-called "Highway to Hell," as WWE champion Stone Cold Steve Austin was preparing to defend his title against The Undertaker in one of the most anticipated matches in SummerSlam's history.
The promotion surrounding that match and the entire event was outstanding. WWE was returning to Madison Square Garden for the first pay-per-view event since battling back and overtaking WCW as the No. 1 wrestling promotion in the world. It was one of the first times that the New York fans would get a taste of the in-your-face attitude the company had ridden to new heights.
By the time that event ended, however, the wrestling world would not be buzzing about Austin, Undertaker, the evil Mr. McMahon, the blonde bombshell Sable or Jeff Jarrett's new haircut. Instead, all of the focus would be on two young stars who stole the show in an epic Ladder match for the WWE Intercontinental Championship.
The match would help define the careers of Triple H and The Rock, both of whom would achieve tremendous levels of success in the year that followed it.
To say that Triple H and The Rock were not new to one another by the time their rivalry intensified in 1998 would be an understatement. In fact, Rock scored the biggest win of his young career against Triple H a year earlier, earning his first Intercontinental Championship in one of the most shocking upsets in Monday Night Raw history.
It was a loss that ended The Game's first singles championship reign and one that he never forgot. While few knew it at the time, it was the ignition for a rivalry that would become one of the best of the Attitude Era and the launching point for both Superstars.
In spring 1998, The Rock assumed leadership of the Nation of Domination. A brash, arrogant and cocky Superstar, he began capturing the attention of the WWE fans thanks to superior mic skills and a catchphrase that was perceived to be cool. "If ya' smell what The Rock is cookin'" accompanied the conclusion of all of his interviews, and the people soon joined in, singing along.
At the same time, Triple H took over as the face of D-Generation X, leading Road Dogg Jesse James, Bad Ass Billy Gunn and X-Pac as the faction wreaked havoc and brought an edginess to Raw that personified the Attitude Era. With both factions playing prominent roles on WWE programming, it was only a matter of time before they butted heads.
The groups waged war with each other, both trying to get over on one another, either via humiliating and embarrassing or physically assaulting the other.
The Rock cost Triple H the European Championship in a match to D-Lo Brown, while DX mocked the entire Nation faction in an infamous comedic promo full of entertaining impersonations.
The competitive nature of the rivalry intensified at Fully Loaded in July when Triple H and Rock battled for the Great One's Intercontinental Championship in a 2-out-of-3 Falls match. The Superstars withstood interference from members of the other's faction, tying the match at one fall apiece. Before a definitive victor could be determined, however, time ran out and the bout ended in a draw.
The August 17, 1998 episode of Raw featured a Street Fight between DX and The Nation that saw Triple H left bloodied and brutalized at the hands of Rock, Brown, Mark Henry and Kama. For the first time, the quick-witted Triple H was forced to come to the realization that no jokes or impersonations would win his the war against The Rock.
The self-proclaimed People's Champion further infuriated Triple H a week later when he publicly humiliated Chyna in the center of the ring, just six days before the scheduled Ladder match between he and Triple H at SummerSlam for the intercontinental title. Shawn Michaels made the save and the villainous Nation hightailed it out of the arena before they could face the wrath of DX, who had been trapped inside a locker room.
With tensions high, Triple H and The Rock arrived in New York City for the culmination of their long rivalry.
The match featured The Rock's breakout performance. While he had proven quite capable of coming up with hilarious one-liners and had perfected a catchphrase, he needed to show that he could up the intensity and aggression when the time presented itself. He needed to be mean and nasty and demonstrate that side of himself existed.
He did during his title defense at SummerSlam, and the fans inside the historic Madison Square Garden showed their appreciation, raining down on him with chants of "Rocky" and greeting his exit from the squared circle following a devastating loss with a standing ovation.
Triple H, to his credit, also showed a new side of himself. After a year of portraying the smartass babyface whose sarcasm and wit got him out of trouble more times than not, he proved that he could be the scrappy, resilient babyface who overcame tremendous physical punishment to achieve his goals.
Despite a knee injury and eyes full of powder, he scaled the rungs of the ladder and retrieved the intercontinental title. It was a watershed moment for Triple H, who demonstrated that he could be an incredibly effective, sympathetic hero when he wanted to be.
The involvement of Chyna and Mark Henry played right into the story that had been told the Monday prior to SummerSlam and helped to enhance the match as a whole.
Overall, it was an outstanding match that is every bit as good as Bret Hart vs. Mr. Perfect for the same title some seven years earlier in the same arena and at the same event. It is somewhat underrated by historians who focus more on the death-defying stunts pulled off by the Hardys, Edge and Christian and the Dudleys in the years following the bout rather than the sheer brutality unleashed by Triple H and Rock on the hot summer's night in 1998.
Triple H and The Rock's careers would forever be linked coming out of the match.
Rock gained main event status much quicker than his rival. Three months after SummerSlam, he rode a tidal wave of momentum into the Survivor Series, completed a shocking heel turn and joined Vince McMahon's Corporation as the new WWE champion. It cemented the Great One's status as one of the top stars in the industry. Triple H was forced to watch from the sidelines, his knee legitimately injured and requiring surgery.
The year 1999 would see the renewal of their rivalry. First, they met in an "I Quit" match for Rock's WWE title on Raw. Matches at Over the Edge in May and Fully Loaded in July featured more mature and main event-ready Superstars than the men that shared the ring the previous August. Triple H would emerge from Fully Loaded as the No. 1 contender, and he would be the top heel in all of professional wrestling and a two-time champion by the end of the year.
The feud raged on, dominating the year 2000 and resulting in several Match of the Year candidates, including a phenomenal Backlash main event in which Rock won the title away from his enemy.
A month later, Triple H regained the gold in a controversial Iron Man match.
The feud would soldier on, the two Superstars never quite able to get away from one another for long periods of time. It would become one of the best in WWE history, a case in which two very different men came together to create a special chemistry and a magic story that propelled both to heights they could have only dreamed of.
The Rock and Triple H are future Hall of Famers for a variety of reasons. But it is arguable that neither would have achieved the success he did without the time he spent wrestling the other during the Attitude Era.