The Rock vs. Stone Cold Was America’s Last Decent Sociopolitical Conversation

We’ve been on quite the decline since Wrestlemania XV, huh?

On March 28, 1999, the stage was set for the ultimate American showdown between The Rock and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin at Wrestlemania XV. As professionals, this was the culmination of two men’s arduous decade-long journeys from relative pop cultural obscurity to relentless pop cultural omnipresence. As performers, this was the end of the first chapter of their uber-antagonistic 14-month long storyline that coincided with a journey for the then World Wrestling Federation from near company death to being two years away from being a publicly-traded corporation on the New York Stock Exchange worth $1 billion. As well, given that there’s a megalomaniac CEO, the Super Bowl, beer, flipped middle fingers and yes, MANKIND (in the personage of one-eared journeyman brawler turned main eventer Mick “Mankind” Foley), but no racism or misogyny involved, it’s ultimately the last time that millions of Americans passionately cared about a fair, and very much stereotypically American, sociopolitical fight. Moreover, it was a fight where, if either guy won, we’d still ultimately be okay and generally unified as a nation.

In 1999, the World Wrestling Federation was in the midst of it’s “Attitude Era,” aka a time wherein adult-oriented programming content that included a greater reliance on legitimately violent acts, politically incorrect characters, and a seeming non-stop flurry of shocking moments. The two most charismatic wrestlers in the company who benefited the most from this presentation were The Rock and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. Thus, their showdown at the 15th annual Wrestlemania was maybe the company’s most important match since Hulk Hogan defeated The Iron Sheik for the WWF Championship in January 1984, kicking off the WWF’s 1980s boom period of global renown.

Up until that point, Steve Austin was one of the best of the “wrestler’s wrestlers.” In layperson’s terms this means that he was much more of the “bring his lunchpail to work and get any job in the company done amazingly well” blue collar worker and much less “corner office Executive Vice President.” The Victoria, Texas native had excellently toiled with less-than-glamorous results for seven years in three different promotions: Dallas, Texas and Memphis, Tennessee’s United States Wrestling Association, Atlanta-based megapromotion World Championship Wrestling, and a brief stint in ungerground beloved WWF-influencing upstart Extreme Championship Wrestling.

By 1999 though, Austin he’d successfully tapped into his boiling angst at just being seen as a “blue collar guy” but wanting more by literally gesturing “fuck you” to the man — WWF CEO turned on-screen villain Vince McMahon — and locking his bicep around his head, jumping in the air, and crushing his chin with concussive force into his shoulder. Stunningly enough, when beer drinking, a devil may care attitude, and causing general mayhem was added to the mix, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin finally became the superstar with “blue collar wrestler’s wrestler” roots he was likely always destined to become.

As for The Rock, he was born Dwayne Johnson, aka the son of Rocky “Soulman” Johnson, one of the 1970s and 1980s most charismatic African-American wrestlers. As well, The Soulman was, by marriage, a part of the Anoa’i family’s three generation Samoan heritage in professional wrestling. The similarly charismatic Dwayne literally sat on Andre The Giant’s lap as a child, but chose to attempt to first excel at professional football. Though he graduated from the vaunted University of Miami, his football career stalled as, by 1994, he ended up destitute, with seven dollars in his pocket, and only his family’s wrestling legacy to turn to for career opportunity and ultimately life salvation.

By 1999, Dwayne Johnson was WWF-signed superstar and WWF World Champion “The Rock,” a 6'5" 275 pound super-athletic entertainer-as-wrestler. As a character, he called his opponents “roody poo candy asses,” while colorfully threatening to shove any and every object into their aforementioned rectums during in-ring competition. In accepting the call of the man — via his on-screen storyline association with the evil and corrupt Vince McMahon — to embody that corner office Executive Vice President type of person that, on multiple levels, “Bionic Redneck” Austin was never to become, an epic feud that evolved into America’s last civil sociopolitical conversation, emerged.

In the past decade, we’ve seen society and politics devolve into an ugly mess wherein our many uniquely American divisions have been exploited for political gain. In 2008, 96 percent of all African-American voters voted for Barack Obama. In 2012, Hillary Clinton’s inability to best Barack Obama’s 55% of women voters spelled her downfall. Moreover, in 2016, Donald Trump’s 67% of Caucasian voters lacking a college degree and 53% of overall male voters drove him to victory on November 8.

By comparison, the intriguing thing about the World Wrestling Federation in 1999 was that, even though he was the “bad guy,” there were likely as many black fans of the half-Samoan/half-African American The Rock as there were white ones, as there was a similar ratio for the fully Caucasian “Stone Cold.” As well, the lack of division among women, children, older fans and likely rich and poor fans as well made this a unique encounter. Couple this with the inclusion of Vince McMahon, plus Mick “Mankind” Foley — a man who just two years prior to this match had, in one encounter, taken numerous un-staged 20 foot long falls from the top of a steel cage enclosing the ring — and the stage for something truly epic was set.

After a 16 minute and 53 second tilt, Steve Austin, the blue collar hero of pretty much everyone in attendance at Philadelphia’s First Union Center or watching worldwide on Pay-Per-View defeated The Rock, the similarly universally heroic charismatic champion and crown jewel of Vince McMahon’s evil conservative on-screen coalition. What followed next for the WWF was nothing like what happened on January 20 and 21 after Donald Trump’s inauguration. Throughout the rest of 1999 into as late as 2001, Rock and Austin continued to not so much fight, but rather consistently entertain and create a compelling roller coaster of entertainment that never truly divided anyone, but moreso unified people worldwide to the tune of one billion dollars in stocks and revenue.

Rock vs. Austin is the last time America had a decent sociopolitical confrontation.

Anyone else down to shove a (insert Planned Parenthood sticker, oil pipeline, PBS documentary, Trans-Pacific Partnership) straight up Donald Trump’s candy ass?

If you smell what I’m cookin’, oh hell yeah.

*glass shatters*

Thanks for reading, and being a fan of classic professional wrestling in the modern age!

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