The Rock & Steve Austin vs. NWO: The True End of the Attitude Era

Courtesy: WWE

Imagine for a moment that the Millennium Falcon, piloted by Han Solo and Luke Skywalker, enters a wormhole, and splits the fabric of their universe and reality apart. Han and Luke enter what appears to be the same space they’re accustomed to, but a transmission hits their communications. They’re being hailed by the Starship Enterprise, helmed by Captain James T. Kirk and his trusted team, including Mr. Spock and Bones McCoy.

Suddenly, it happens. Han and Luke transport onto the bridge of the Enterprise, and they stare each other down, waiting for the other to make their move. Who would strike first? Who would strike next? What would a Han Solo and James Kirk showdown look like? Who would win this battle? 

The idea of a Star Wars/Star Trek face off is a fun fantasy, but one that will (probably) never have a resolution. For a time, the idea of a WWE/WCW face off was nothing but imaginative hypothetical – until it wasn’t, and it felt like the fantasy booking of an entire generation of professional wrestling fans might actually come to fruition. But when fantasy does become reality, it’s not a guarantee that it lives up to the expectations. Fantasies are high bars to meet.

Folks have argued for years about the impact of WrestleMania X8 as the culmination of both the Invasion and the Attitude Era, but most forget about a handicap match in Detroit just before WrestleMania X8 that felt like the definitive end of the Monday Night War: The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin’s match against the New World Order on March 11, 2002. Five of the most consequential talents of the era were finally in the ring together for an ultimate showdown.

Looking back, the match itself feels like a standard fare handicap match. There were no special stakes, no titles to defend, no stipulations to meet. It was just a general wrestling match, and a good one at that. But it was a match that allowed WWE to provide fans with a goodwill moment, a mulligan in the rubble of the Invasion, and a moment where fans felt like they finally got what they wanted and deserved.

There are many moments as a wrestling fan that stick with you: The first wrestling match you attended. The first time you saw your favorite wrestler live in the ring. For a ‘90s kid like me, I’ll never forget the Monday Night War. It was the ultimate showdown between the two biggest professional wrestling companies of all time, WWE and WCW. Monday Night Raw and Monday Nitro competed for the top viewership spot of the night, and ultimately for the soul of wrestling. Everyone had a side, even my house with the living room TV tuned to Nitro and the basement TV tuned to Raw. Monday Nights were sacred and you couldn’t miss a minute of the Attitude Era. 

The fall of WCW has been well documented. As a summary about the very end of the company for the uninitiated (trust me, this is the Reader’s Digest of Reader’s Digest summaries), Eric Bischoff, then the Senior Vice President of WCW, made a bid to purchase WCW from AOL TimeWarner through a venture with Fusient Media Ventures. The deal collapsed after AOL TimeWarner canceled all WCW programming on their channels, effectively killing any financial viability for the company. Vince McMahon purchased the video library and the intellectual property in a fire sale from AOL TimeWarner, and the Monday Night Wars were over. 

Any time a major shift happens in professional wrestling, whether it’s a major talent jumping to the competition or the collapse of one company, wrestling fans immediately begin to fantasy-book their dream matches and set lofty expectations. Immediately upon the news of WWE’s acquisition of WCW, wrestling fans assumed they’d be seeing the dream matches they were clamoring for throughout the Monday Night Wars era. Goldberg vs. Steve Austin, The Outsiders vs. DX, the list from that era is lengthy and extensive.

While Vince McMahon and Co. acquired the IP and video archives of WCW, they didn’t assume all the guaranteed contracts signed with WCW talent, leaving a significant amount of top-level talent at home collecting money from TimeWarner’s guaranteed contract structure. The dream matches fans envisioned sat on the shelf while the “Invasion” storyline sputtered and stumbled. 

Going back to that original hypothetical, imagine if they actually combined the Star Wars and Star Trek universes. You’re thinking you’ll get to see Han Solo face to face with Kirk, only for the show to be two hours of inept, faceless Stormtroopers missing every shot they take at Red Shirt Away Team members (who died anyway). 

The Invasion storyline and its surrounding plots played out like this. They failed to even meet most fans’ lowest expectations. Instead of delivering a Goldberg/Austin showdown, it delivered lackluster angles like Diamond Dallas Page as the “deranged stalker” of The Undertaker’s wife, a far cry from DDP’s everyman persona that made him one of the top stars in WCW, and even farther from the “People’s Champ vs. People’s Champ” faceoff with The Rock that DDP pitched himself. 

Time would bring more of the WCW top level talent into the WWE fold. After Ric Flair joined the organization and revealed himself in storyline as the new co-owner of WWE, McMahon was intent on being the one to kill his own creation by injecting “poison” into the company – the New World Order.

Courtesy: WWE

It was the first time the NWO had been discussed on WWE programming and would see the return of Hulk Hogan to a WWE ring for the first time in nine years. For most fans, it was the most anticipated WCW introduction to WWE programming post-acquistion. While the overall narrative created for the trio in WWE wasn’t exactly what fans had expected, the buildup to the main event of WrestleMania X8 was incredible, gassing fans up for a spectacle they had only been able to dream of until now.

WrestleMania X8 was a murderer’s row of future Hall of Fame talent, and the first true WrestleMania card that integrated talent from both WCW and ECW. The biggest match on the card was the titanic showdown between The Rock and “Hollywood” Hulk Hogan. Icon vs. Icon, the past vs. the future. The match followed an additional Monday Night War what-if scenario, albeit not as impactful, with Stone Cold Steve Austin squaring off against the NWO’s Scott Hall. The matches showcased each company’s most popular talent together in one ring. On the road to WrestleMania, Rock and Austin spent weeks being chased and harassed by the NWO, going so far as to have Hogan drive a semi truck into an ambulance carrying Rock.

The storyline between Austin and Hall was, well, kind of dreadful and really poor taste looking back, but the build to Hogan and Rock was magnificent. The build to “Icon vs. “Icon” was capped with this once in a generation showdown, one that looked just as wild on paper as it did seeing it in the ring. The stage was set like a modified WWE 2K game for wrestling fans of the era: Austin, Rock, the NWO, officiated by legendary referee Earl Hebner, and called by Jim Ross and Jerry “The King” Lawler.

The match itself goes just under ten minutes, and the crowd is white hot for it bell to bell. It would be the only time Steve Austin and Hulk Hogan squared off in a wrestling ring. A 24-second exchange of body slams and chokes is all we’d ever witness in a face-off between the face of WWE and the face of WCW, arguably the second biggest “what-if” in modern professional wrestling next to Sting vs. Undertaker.

The match ended when Hogan delivered his famous leg drop to Rock in the middle of the ring and pinned him for a three count. Hogan and the NWO laid waste to Austin and Rock, a final message and reminder to them both that WrestleMania was coming, and there was no way out of the fight they brought to their doorstep.

It may not have been a five star classic (whatever that really means) fans were hoping for, but it gave some closure to fans who were anxious to see something – anything –close to what they played out in their minds for years.

This handicap match, just an ordinary match on the surface, was the last electrifying moment, the last fire strike, in a war that dominated an entire industry. The champions of WWE grappled with the WCW stars who revolutionized the industry, followed by the biggest WrestleMania match of its time – potentially the biggest ever – and a new direction for the company.

After Hogan’s loss to Rock at X8, the NWO booted him and he began his last run as a fan favorite main eventer in WWE, which included his final WWE Championship win.

The Rock began his descent into a heel turn as Hollywood (the industry town, not Hogan) called for him and gave us the best version of his character (prior to the Final Boss incarnation he’s currently working) when he returned in 2003 as “Hollywood Rock.”

The NWO could never recapture the magic it had in WCW as a new faction in WWE. Hogan’s face turn removed him from the stable after X8. Scott Hall was released in May 2002 due to his involvement in the now infamous “Plane Ride from Hell.” Kevin Nash was plagued with injuries to his biceps and quadriceps, and was out of action for nine months. By July 2002, less than five months after the introduction of the NWO to the company, it was officially disbanded by McMahon.

Austin’s injuries continued to affect his in-ring career and lead to his retirement the following year at WrestleMania 19.

The magic of the Attitude Era was over, and WWE marched on into the Ruthless Aggression era, making new stars like John Cena, Brock Lesnar, and Batista household names.

Fan service can be beautiful when it’s done right. Wrestling fans will argue until they’re blue in the face about whether the payoff for WrestleMania X8 went the way they wanted, and whether the payoffs for WrestleMania X8 went the way they “should have,” and whether the match yielded the “right” outcomes. 

We may never get Kirk, Spock, and Bones facing off with Han and Luke, but the professional wrestling fantasy booking dream match actually did take place once upon a time, in a galaxy not so far away, and gave its fans the payoff they deserved, whether we realized it at the moment or not.