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The two most popular wrestlers of the Attitude Era were unquestionably Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock. Fans stood up and cheered wildly whenever they made their entrances. They were both huge draws and true megastars in every sense of the word. A lot of times I hear people say that neither Austin (after he broke his neck) or Rock were all that great as workers but were mainly just great talkers. Jim Cornette said something to this effect, as have a lot of internet wrestling fans. While I admit that their interviews were by far the biggest reason they were both so popular, I don’t think it’s accurate to say that Austin and Rock weren’t anything special as workers. In fact, I think both of them were very good to great workers, and they are very underappreciated for what they brought to the table with their in ring work. If you are one of the many fans who look down on them as in ring performers, then I hope by the time you’re done reading this you will have a higher appreciation for that aspect of their wrestling careers.
Let’s start with Stone Cold. After Austin broke his neck, his offense was very limited and very repetitive. His offense consisted mostly of punches, kicks/stomps, Irish whips, clotheslines, Lou Thesz Presses, knees to the stomach, driving the elbow into the chest, slamming someone’s head into something, and a Stunner. Besides the Stunner, which he saved for the end of his matches, he often used the aforementioned moves over and over again. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I thought the fact that he always did them with such intensity made me rarely get tired of seeing it.
He didn’t do a whole lot of technical wrestling after he broke his neck, but this worked out well because it didn’t fit his character to wrestle like Dean Malenko. His character was a bar room brawler, and you’re probably not going to see freestyle wrestling in a bar fight. He would lock up to start some matches, did headlocks and occasionally some other technical moves, like a fireman’s carry, a side suplex, a drop toe hold and even rarely a sharpshooter. He did do some traditional pro wrestling moves, but it was largely just brawling. Most fans pay to see the characters first and foremost, and everything a wrestler does and doesn’t do should fall in line with their character, even if it upsets the wrestling purists in the IWC. Sometimes you see wrestlers doing lots of advanced pro wrestling moves when they have characters that don’t seem refined and sophisticated enough to have learned to wrestle like that. Stone Cold didn’t usually make that mistake after he broke his neck, most of what he did during his matches was in line with the character who chugged beer, used foul language, and was far from traditional.
He did other things to play up his character during his matches. On many occasions he would give two middle fingers to his opponent and to the referee when he was admonished for something. At No Way Out 01 he shoved Earl Hebner out of the way and could be heard yelling “Get the fuck out of my way!” This made sense as Austin’s character was very anti-authority and had no respect for anyone. Often times he would cheap shot his opponents with a low blow, even as a face, to show he was willing to break the rules in order to win. He did serious character development while he was wrestling, not just during his interviews.
A lot of people look down on brawling as a wrestling style and think it is inferior to technical wrestling and high flying. I don’t agree with that. If brawling is done right, it can be just as entertaining as anything Bret Hart or Chris Benoit ever did. Austin did it right and had lots of great, exciting matches with that style of offense. Austin seemed like he was going to war with his opponent. He always wrestled with a lot of intensity and looked like he was pissed off at his opponents. During almost all his matches there were multiple times when he would do a succession of punches and stomps, and he often times did them with a lot of fire, if he wasn’t too tired by that point in the match. A lot of the punches and stomps he did looked like they were really intended to hurt someone, and the omnipresent angry expression on his face helped convey that. In WWE, Dean Ambrose was a brawler who always got criticized for throwing weak looking strikes, and that was a fair criticism. Because of the way he would throw a punch, it didn’t look like he was hurting anyone. But Austin always appeared as if he was trying to cause damage with his punches and kicks. In 2001, something he would do in no holds barred matches was to take a steel chair and wildly wail away on a prone opponent several times in row. He would repeatedly slam the chair onto the back, the legs, and drive the edge into the chest. This use of the steel chair really made him look vicious.
In my opinion, the best in ring style for a wrestler to use when they need to convey that they are angry and pissed off at someone is brawling. Constantly throwing punches, kicks and clotheslines helped Austin express his character’s anger better than he would have if he’d done a bunch of drop kicks or German suplexes. Not that wrestlers can’t express anger with more advanced technical wrestling, but it just seems more logical that if someone is fuming mad their go to move in a fight would be to throw a fist. If the story calls for someone being angry, like Austin’s character always was, brawling is the most sensible way to wrestle.
He or his opponent would use a rest hold or two in his matches, but when he was on the offense he usually wrestled at a good pace for someone who was 250 lbs.. It wasn’t usually a slow, methodical pace like we’ve seen many times from Triple H. Some of Austin’s matches started off slow but matches generally don’t start off at a high level. They start off mundane and then the action picks up. In most of Austin’s matches the action quickly picked up, if they didn’t already start off that way. Not that you can’t have good matches where a good chunk of the action is slow and methodical. Undertaker had some great matches wrestling like this. But when you do that you run the risk of having a boring match, which is what happened to Triple H many times when he had big pay per view matches. Austin never fell into that trap.
Austin did have some below average matches with Undertaker in 1998 and 1999, but that wasn’t his fault. At the time Undertaker was at his heaviest, and I heard Taker was wrestling hurt and wasn’t at his best from an in ring standpoint. It also didn’t help their match at Summer Slam 98 when Austin got a concussion early on. But later, after Undertaker became the American Bad Ass, they had some really great matches together. In general, after Austin broke his neck he usually had very good and many times great matches even with his limited, repetitive move set. In 2001 he was probably the In Ring Performer of the Year for WWE, as he delivered great, exciting matches all year long against Triple H, Rock, Undertaker, Chris Benoit, Chris Jericho, and Kurt Angle. Even after Austin broke his neck, he had a lot of matches that felt like wars, and he physically expressed hatred in the ring as good as anybody ever has.
Now let’s talk about The Rock. The first thing I want to address about The Rock is his use of facial expressions during his matches. Rock has always had the gift of an overly animated face, and the facial expressions he used added an extra element of emotion to his matches. When someone would kick out of his Rock Bottom, he conveyed a strong sense of disbelief with his face. When he was selling another wrestler’s offensive moves, he was very good at showing on his face that he was in pain or almost knocked out. When he would stare down his opponent from across the ring or would get angry at someone for interfering against him in his matches, he had a very serious expression on his face, like he was intent on hurting them. Because his face was always so animated, it gave him better facial expressions than almost anyone in the business. Not as good as Vince McMahon, but still great. Bret Hart sometimes got criticized for always having the same flat expression on his face during his matches, and that is a valid criticism. Now Bret Hart was still a great wrestler despite this but expressing emotion with your face is an expected part of pro wrestling matches, and Rock was a master of it.
As I said before, it is important for a wrestler to wrestle the way their character is expected to. Rock’s character just had so much more style and swagger than most other wrestlers and he incorporated that into his matches. When he would give a succession of right hands, often for the last one in the succession he would spit into his palm before slapping his opponent. This just added some more style and personality to his matches. Another thing he would do to wrestle like his character was to shake his leg before he stomped on someone. This added more entertainment value when he stomped on his opponents.
Rock, the ultimate trash talker, could also be seen talking trash to his opponents during his matches. Unless he had a microphone or had a head set on, you couldn’t tell exactly what he was saying unless you were good at reading lips. But just from the expression on his face you could tell he was talking trash, like his character always did, and it raised the stakes between him and his opponent. A lot of times wrestlers will do something to signal they are about to try their finisher to build anticipation for it, and Rock did this with his Rock Bottom. Many times when an opponent was struggling to get to his feet and Rock wanted to finish the match, Rock would stand a little hunched over with his hands on his knees, staring intently at his opponent. Fans could tell he was ready to try the Rock Bottom as soon as possible.
Rock was a huge showboat and the People’s Elbow was the epitome of that. He set it up with style, throwing his elbow pad into the crowd and throwing his arms back and forth. The fact that he would run back and forth across the ring and feign a leg drop just to set up a simple elbow drop really made him look like a show off, and fit Rock’s character perfectly. It was usually believable that Rock’s opponent would stay down that long waiting for the Elbow, depending on the move that preceded it and how much damage they had taken earlier in the match. A problem many people have with the People’s Elbow is that he sometimes used it as a finisher. When he hit the Rock Bottom right before hand and then did it to pin someone, that was fine. But if he would just do the spinebuster into the People’s Elbow and get the pin, they had a problem with that. I too had an issue with it. When you take away the flair of the move when you set it up, it is just a standing elbow drop, which should not be enough to finish someone. But then again, depending on how you look at it, maybe it should have been enough to finish a match. Rock usually did a lot of damage to his opponent earlier on, so you might say all he needed was one more elbow drop to get the job done.
When it came to selling for his opponents, Rock was normally great. As I said before, he used his overly animated facial expressions to convincingly show when he was hurt or almost knocked out. He made a lot of opponents moves look like they really caused damage to him. At WrestleMania 20, when he was in the ring with an aging and past his prime Ric Flair, Rock sold his knife edge chops like they were incredibly painful. He briefly made the 50 something year old Flair look like the credible threat he was back in 1989. A lot of times he would let out verbal groans of pain after taking moves from someone. When Rock took a move that was meant to nearly knock him out, like getting hit with the championship belt or a steel chair, or taking a pedigree, he did a great job with his eyes to make it look like the move messed him up in the head, showing that he was sort of out of it. When he would make it to his feet, he often would stagger around a little bit, showing he was still feeling the effects of that knockout blow. When Rock sold the Stone Cold Stunner, he did do it in a very cartoonish way, as he flopped around the ring a few times before he got pinned. I personally thought it was awesome and made the Stunner look devastating. It was unrealistic, but I feel it’s just one of those times in wrestling where you have to sit back and say “Just go with it. We know wrestling is staged.”
During Rock’s prime he was one of the best athletes on the roster and had great conditioning for someone who was 275 lbs. He could move around the ring quickly for a guy his size and really ran with a lot of energy back and forth against the ropes and into the corner. Rock was able to do kip ups to add some flair to his matches, something many smaller wrestlers can’t even do. I never timed them, but it seemed like he had plenty of pay per view matches that lasted around 20 minutes. He would use a rest hold or two in his matches and would have periods of time where both he and his opponent would be down from a big move, allowing him to catch his breath. Many times he did the classic wrestling routine where his opponent would put him in the sleeper, and the referee would raise his arm three times. I can’t fault him for using one or two rest holds because a lot of wrestlers did that. The double down parts of his matches helped make his matches seem more dramatic.
Rock did mostly brawling with some power moves sprinkled in. He did mostly right hands, stomps, clotheslines, Irish whips, DDTs, spinebusters, Samoan drops, sharpshooters, and some other moves. His DDT really looked impressive, one of the best in the business. During the Attitude Era the Internet Wrestling Community really criticized Rock for throwing too many right hands. I don’t think that criticism was warranted. He threw the right hands, as he did all his moves, with a lot of intensity and in a very explosive way. The way he threw his whole body into his right hands made it seem like he put a lot of force into them. They were just really entertaining. Most of the time his offensive moves were done explosively, whether it be a spinebuster or Samoan drop or whatever, making them fun to watch. When he would make a comeback in his match, he would hit a succession of right hands with a lot of fire and looked like he was really digging down deep, which got the fans into his comeback. His execution of the sharpshooter looked ugly as can be, but he did always scream when he had the move on someone, and made the situation feel dramatic.
When Rock started wrestling again in 2011, he was not the same worker we saw during the Attitude Era. He was older, had increased his muscle mass and had spent so many years away from the ring. Because of this, his conditioning was terrible. Cena and CM Punk had to compensate for Rock being so winded by overusing rest holds, and it really hurt the matches. I’m not faulting Rock for his match at WM 29 with Cena, as Rock tore his abdomen early in the match and they had to start their sequence of finishers and kick outs earlier than planned. Even though Rock still had his good facial expressions, selling, intensity and character work during his matches, that wasn’t enough to make up for his horrible conditioning and from 2011-2013 he really was a below average worker.
But The Rock we saw during the Monday Night War really was a very good worker. He had plenty of particularly good to great matches with Triple H (who he wrestled many times), Benoit, Chris Jericho, Kurt Angle, and had some of the best pure brawling matches ever with Stone Cold. Rock even got decent matches out of Rikishi. Rock had lots of matches that were exciting, full of action, and told a good story. It was just fun watching him wrestle. His return matches from 2011 through 2013 should not stain his reputation as a worker.
The point of this column is not to make you think Austin and Rock’s in ring work was the main reason they were each so popular. It wasn’t. They both got as over as they did because of their phenomenal mic work, and neither of them really needed to be all that great in the ring. But that doesn’t mean that they both didn’t have a lot to offer inside the ring. If you were one of the many fans who look down on Austin and Rock’s in ring work simply because they were brawlers, then I hope now that you’re done reading this column you’ll look at them both at least a little bit more favorably.