Ranking the Rock’s Greatest WWE Moments 21 Years After 1st World Title Win

Erik Beaston@@ErikBeastonFeatured ColumnistNovember 17, 2019

Ranking the Rock’s Greatest WWE Moments 21 Years After 1st World Title Win

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    Credit: WWE.com

    November 15 marked the 21st anniversary of The Rock's alignment with Vince and Shane McMahon to win his first WWE Championship victory in the final of the Deadly Game tournament at the 1998 Survivor Series.

    The win catapulted The Great One to the forefront of the industry and pushed him one step closer to becoming the pop culture icon he is today.

    In honor of the brightest star in Hollywood's milestone moment, relive these 15 greatest moments from the Hall of Fame-worthy career of The Most Electrifying Man in Sports Entertainment.

15. Intercontinental Champion

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    The February 13, 1997, episode of Raw, a special Thursday broadcast, kicked off with Rocky Maivia defeating the entitled Hunter Hearst Helmsley to win his first championship, the intercontinental title.

    The blue-chip athlete stunned his opponent and the fans inside the Lowell Memorial Auditorium, ending the near-five-month reign of a Superstar who had been building momentum for himself.

    Maivia's win solidified his status as the hottest young star on the roster, even if fans had not yet bought into him as the future face of the company that commentators Vince McMahon and Jim Ross so heavily touted him as.

    The victory resulted in the first championship on young Dwayne Johnson's resume.

14. 'Die, Rocky! Die'

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    To say Rocky Maivia's initial run as a babyface was a bust would be an understatement.

    The third-generation star failed to connect with audiences, who consequently turned on him with chants of "Rocky sucks" and the more egregious "die, Rocky! Die." The hostility from fans was something he did not forget when he returned from a significant knee injury, turned heel and joined the hated Nation of Domination.

    Addressing those same fans for the first time after his shocking return, he cited those chants as he tongue-lashed the audience and showed the first signs of the charismatic heel he would become over the next year.

    The promo proved there was more to the up-and-comer than a smiling, blue-chip athlete with a big grin and rich family history.

13. I Quit

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    For every Superstar, there is one definitive performance that evolves their characters and elevates them to an entirely new level. For The Rock, such a performance came at the 1999 Royal Rumble, where he battled Mankind in an infamous "I Quit" match for the WWE Championship.

    Heading into the event, there was no denying the heel's charisma. He was engaging, funny, captivating and could spout catchphrases with the best of them. The one thing he lacked was a ruthlessness that made him a detestable villain.

    That all changed as he beat, battered, brutalized and bumped Mankind around Honda Center in Anaheim, California. With Mick Foley's family watching from ringside, he bashed his handcuffed opponent in the head with 11 sickening chair shots to regain the most coveted prize in the industry.

    There were no cute catchphrases, no funny one-liners. Instead, there was a nasty bastard with a thirst for violence and a desire for gold who stopped at nothing to satisfy both, and it was exactly what he needed to solidify his main event run.

12. The Great One vs. The Best in the World

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    Some 10 months after defeating John Cena in a Once in a Lifetime match at WrestleMania XXVIII, The Rock returned to WWE to confront and challenge CM Punk for the company's top prize in the main event of the 2013 Royal Rumble pay-per-view.

    After a collection of heated promos between himself and The Best in the World, The Rock entered the US Airways Center in Phoenix and defeated Punk to capture his 10th world title.

    The Rock, for the most part, hung with an opponent who was at the peak of his in-ring greatness. Despite some ring rust, he looked impressive and managed to convincingly win the gold even as some fans denounced the idea of him ending Punk's historic year-plus-long championship reign.

    The win was an emphatic exclamation point on his return to the squared circle just over a year earlier, but more importantly, it was a necessary plot device to set up a rematch with Cena at that year's Showcase of the Immortals.

11. The Rock 'n' Sock Connection Strikes Gold

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    The "wacky, mismatched tag team partners" was a favorite story device of lead writer Vince Russo during the Attitude Era. Despite becoming a punchline over time, that particular storyline netted one of the most entertaining tandems in WWE history and added a new element to The Rock's character.

    By the late summer of 1999, The Rock was reaching peak popularity when he was paired with Mankind to challenge the team of The Undertaker and The Big Show for the WWE Tag Team Championships.

    Bitter rivals turned fellow babyfaces, and polar opposite personalities to boot, they meshed well enough on the August 30 episode of WWE's flagship show to upset the destructive duo and capture the gold.

    The win ignited a run that would result in some of the funniest, most engaging interactions and promo segments in WWE history, including the highest-rated segment in Raw history.

    But we will get to that one soon enough.

10. Houston, We Have a Problem

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    Credit: WWE.com

    There were no two Superstars more popular than The Rock and "Stone Cold" Steve Austin during the red-hot Attitude Era. Their ability to connect with audiences propelled them to heights no one had enjoyed since the golden era of Hulkamania.

    It should be of no surprise, then, that CEO Vince McMahon was eager to bring his two hottest properties together in the main event of his greatest creation, WrestleMania. At the 17th installment of the event, live from the historic Astrodome in Houston, The Great One and The Texas Rattlesnake waged war in an unforgettable main event that still ranks as one of the greatest marquee bouts in pro wrestling history.

    Rock showcased a toughness few realized he had. Battered and bloodied, he kicked out of everything Austin threw at him. Frustrated, Austin turned to his greatest foe, the evil Mr. McMahon, for assistance. Stone Cold aligned himself with the manipulative boss, and after a barrage of steel chair shots about the body, finally put down his opponent for the count.

    The match represented everything great about the drama, electricity and emotion Rock brought to his performances and stands out as one of his shining achievements as an in-ring worker.

9. Climbing the Ladder to the Top

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    Credit: WWE.com

    Rock spent most of 1998 developing his on-screen personality, complete with quotable catchphrases and one-liners. He also spent it as intercontinental champion, narrowly escaping the challenge of Superstars that included Ken Shamrock and former Nation of Domination associate Faarooq.

    Throughout the summer, he feuded with Triple H over the coveted title and, after a 30-minute time limit draw at Fully Loaded, squared off with the leader of D-Generation X in a ladder match at SummerSlam in Madison Square Garden.

    Something strange happened inside the most famous arena in the world, though, as the tough New York fanbase who had witnessed his debut two years earlier turned their boos into rampant support of the charismatic villain.

    Insults of "Rocky sucks" turned to chants of "Rocky! Rocky!" as he battered Triple H. Appreciative of the larger-than-life personality and the toughness he showed while overcoming a laceration to nearly win the match, the audience rewarded him with a positive reaction as he limped to the back as the former IC champion after a grueling war.

    His performance in the match, coupled with the fans' acceptance of him for the first time in his career, gave management all the ammunition it needed to elevate him to the next level of competition, making the contest one of the most significant of his entire career.

8. ...If Ya Smell What I'm Cookin'

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    Credit: WWE.com

    There was an obvious charisma about The Rock that separated him from other Superstars even before WrestleMania XIV hit the PPV airwaves on March 29, 1998. Few could have realized how significant a seemingly inconsequential sit-down interview with celebrity Gennifer Flowers would prove to be for the third-generation competitor, though.

    The reigning intercontinental champion, clad in an overbearing and ridiculously expensive shirt and sunglasses (indoors!) sat across from the infamous star and answered a plethora of questions that included his take on the homeless population.

    He was engaging and entertaining as he addressed each question with the arrogance fans had come to expect from The Great One. At the end of one of his answers, Rock flashed a big, toothy smile and said, "...if ya smell what I'm cookin'."

    With that, he ushered in a new catchphrase that would become as important a piece of the puzzle as any. Suddenly, the young star had something he could use to connect with audiences and slap on T-shirts. An innocent line at the end of an answer to a throwaway question created a tidal wave of phrases, one-liners, and promos that would cement Rock's status as an icon of the era.

7. This Is Your Life

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    The greatest indicator of just how well The Rock 'n' Sock Connection was working by the fall of 1999, not to mention The Rock's incredible star power, was the ratings smash the "This Is Your Life" segment proved to be.

    The September 27, 1999, episode of Raw featured a segment in which Mankind attempted to forge a bond with The Rock by introducing familiar faces from his tag team partner's past. Systematically, The Great One tore them down and dismissed them.

    The segment, in hindsight not the duo's best work but still wildly entertaining, would go on to become one of the highest-rated segments in Raw history, with roughly 8.4 percent of homes equipped with cable television tuned in to the show at that time.

    It was a monumental moment for WWE as it put its foot on the proverbial throat of WCW during the Monday Night War. For The Rock, it was further evidence of his star power and ability to carry a dialogue-heavy segment, something he would become familiar with in the year that followed.

6. Finally, The Rock Has Come Back Home

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    Throughout the February 14 episode of WWE Raw, fans were promised an earth-shattering revelation of the special guest host of WrestleMania XXVII. Speculation ran rampant throughout the two-hour broadcast of WWE's flagship show until ring announcer Justin Roberts introduced the host.

    Anticipation built and built before "If ya smelllll..." exploded over the PA system. The fans in attendance erupted, and The Rock walked through the curtain for the first time in seven years. Returning from Hollywood to the company that had helped to make him a household name, the Superstar and bona fide movie star enjoyed his homecoming before turning his focus to John Cena.

    Addressing comments the biggest star of that era had made about him, he planted the seeds for their eventual match.

    A thunderous ovation, a headline-grabbing promo and the promise of more helped to make the shocking return one of the most unforgettable moments of a career full of them.

5. Surviving His Debut

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    The legendary career of wrestling's most electrifying star began at the 1996 Survivor Series, live from New York City's famed Madison Square Garden, as he joined Barry Windham, Marc Mero and Jake Roberts for a traditional elimination tag team match against Goldust, Crush, Jerry Lawler and Hunter Hearst Helmsley.

    Preceded by weeks of pre-taped interviews and vignettes hyping him up as the next big thing, a blue-chip athlete whose rich family history would ensure he achieved greatness in the rings of WWE, young Rocky Maivia quickly found himself facing seemingly insurmountable odds.

    The last member of the babyface team, he stood across the ring from Goldust and Crush and at a decided numbers disadvantage. Determined to emerge from the famous arena with his arm raised in victory, he dispatched of the heels to earn the win.

    An impressive debut, it introduced the third-generation star to the WWE audience in grand fashion and proved the company's devotion to getting him over.

    Even if it would take another two or so years for him to be widely accepted by the fanbase.

4. Once in a Lifetime

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    The Rock's return in February 2011 set in motion a year-long build to a hotly anticipated showdown with John Cena at WrestleMania XXVIII. Dubbed "Once in a Lifetime," the match between the industry icons was the product of a mass marketing effort by WWE to put over the significance of the match between greats of different eras.

    Emanating from The Great One's hometown of Miami, the dream match did not disappoint.

    The Superstars fed off an electric atmosphere and produced an epic, back-and-forth encounter that concluded with a rare display of overconfidence by Cena. With his opponent down, Cena mocked his People's Elbow. As he hit the ropes, he came off right into the waiting arms of The Rock, who dropped him with the Rock Bottom and pinned him for the monumental win.

    Standing tall in front of family, friends and loved ones, Rock put an exclamation point on his return to WWE and ensured an entire generation of fans had yet another high-profile classic to remember for years to come.

3. Act III

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    "If Hollywood has taught The Rock anything, it's that act one and act two...they don't matter. The only thing matters, everyone remembers...act three."

    That line perfectly set the stage for The Rock's third WrestleMania showdown with Steve Austin in Seattle on March 30, 2003. 

    In their two previous encounters, Rock had failed to defeat Stone Cold. In both instances, he lost the WWE Championship to his Attitude Era rival. This time, though, there was no title at stake. The only thing up for grabs? Personal legacies.

    Determined to exorcise the demon that was his 0-2 record against The Texas Rattlesnake on wrestling's grandest stage, Rock took to the ring more determined and focused than ever before. What ensued was another classic performance from the industry giants unlike either of their previous two matches.

    This one relied heavily on dramatic near-falls and the use of their own finishers against them. In the closing moments of the bout, a beaten and battered Austin staggered to his feet before Rock put him back down with the third Rock Bottom of the match.

    Three seconds later, he had finally pinned Austin in the center in the ring.

    The win represented the changing of the guard, the last stand for Austin and confirmation of The Rock's place in history as the double-tough S.O.B.'s equal.

2. The Corporate Champion

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    The Rock had a ton of momentum rolling in to Survivor Series 1998 and the Deadly Game tournament to determine the new WWE champion. Freshly turned babyface by fans eager to cheer his cool catchphrases and bask in his natural charisma, he was a favorite to overcome the evil Mr. McMahon and capture the top prize in the company.

    Few could have expected how he would go about it.

    Early in the tournament, he thwarted every attempt by McMahon and his goons to screw him over. He advanced all the way to the final, where he would face the Corporation's hand-picked choice to win the title, the gullible Mankind.

    The Superstars waged war, engaging in the most physical match of the tournament. Then, in a moment that would have long-reaching effects, Rock turned over Mankind in the Sharpshooter and McMahon eagerly called for the bell. It rang, Rock was awarded the title and the third-generation competitor embraced both Vince and Shane, revealing a conspiracy that suckered everyone.

    The Rock was WWE champion for the first time, and he sold out to the evil authority figures in order to make it happen. The win set him up as the lead heel in WWE, a corporate champion despised by the fans he had just betrayed.

    After two years of up-and-downs, successes and disappointments, Rock had reached the mountaintop. It was the start of a monumental run, the likes of which would alter the course of wrestling history and provide McMahon an embarrassment of riches in terms of star power atop his company.

1. Icon vs. Icon

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    March 17, 2002, was a day when The Rock's star in the world of professional wrestling had never burned brighter. It was on that day, in front of 68,237 fans in the historic Toronto SkyDome, that The Great One stood toe-to-toe with Hulk Hogan on wrestling's grandest stage.

    Staring into the eyes of the greatest icon wrestling had ever seen, Rock saw before him a chance to write his own legacy, to prove his name belonged right alongside The Hulkster's, not only as one of the greatest to ever lace a pair of boots but also as a star of equal footing.

    Together, Rock and Hogan created magic, leaving fans hanging on every spot. The dramatic near-falls had them on their feet, and Hogan's babyface comeback electrified the crowd in a way not even The Rock could replicate.

    By the time the referee's hand slapped the mat for a third time and Rock was awarded the victory following his trademark People's Elbow, the fans had been on an emotional roller-coaster courtesy of the two greatest crossover stars ever produced by Vince McMahon's promotion.

    The post-match embrace and Hogan's babyface turn served as a nice bow on the gift from WWE to its fans and finally put The Rock on the Mount Rushmore of pro wrestling, nestled right beside the man he had just shared the ring with.