At WrestleMania 18, Hulk Hogan and The Rock met in a match for the ages, and one that goes down as the biggest in WWE history not to be the main event on the grandest stage of them all.
While Shawn Michaels and The Undertaker may argue that their showdown at WrestleMania 25 is right up there, and on an actual wrestling level it far exceeds Hogan vs The Rock, there is simply no debate to be had.
The match was billed as “Icon vs Icon” and that is exactly what it was. Hulk Hogan and The Rock are two of the greatest of all time, feature on most people’s “Mount Rushmore” of pro wrestling and might be the two most recognisable and well-known wrestlers in history.
The match was also one that no wrestling fan ever expected to take place. Hogan had left the WWE in 1993 under a dark cloud and was riding high with arch-rival WCW for the next six years. The Rock only debuted in 1996, as the much-maligned Rocky Maivia.
There was a gap of 19 years in age between the two men to boot, and it seemed as if their paths would never cross in the same company, let alone in the ring.
Everything changed when WCW was acquired by McMahon in 2001, signalling the end of the Monday Night Wars and opening the possibility of countless dream matches between stars of the two biggest companies of the 1990s.
One such dream match was Stone Cold Steve Austin vs Hulk Hogan but due to rumours of creative differences, wariness of Hogan’s history of politics and more the match never took place at any point.
The Rock, either instead of Austin or because of The Rattlesnake’s wariness, was selected for the dream bout. In this period, The Rock and Austin were 1A and 1B, co-leading men in the WWE, a rarity, and a testament to their all-time star power.
Hogan’s return to the WWE after nine years away came because of Vince McMahon’s storyline desire to “kill his own creation” and “inject it with lethal dose of poison” such was his disgust at sharing ownership of the company with Ric Flair.
This poison of course was the New World Order (NWO), and the original three men, Hogan (under his NWO moniker of “Hollywood” Hulk Hogan), Kevin Nash, and Scott Hall.
The NWO debuted at No Way Out, ingeniously given the initials, which was featured heavily on the branding of the pay per view. Following a promo to open the show and announce their return where the three men claimed to simply be fans, their true motivations were revealed later in the night.
First, they interrupted The Rock, mocking his position as “The People’s Champ,” and then cost Stone Cold the Undisputed WWE title in the main event. This set the scene for two WrestleMania matches being made the next night on Raw, Stone Cold vs Hall and more importantly Hogan vs The Rock.
The match premise centred on who was the biggest icon in professional wrestling. Hogan representing the past, The Rock the present and future. Hogan claimed it was him, and credited himself with being the one to put the WWE and wrestling on the map. He also said the fans then turned on him.
The Rock disagreed, stating that the people had believed in Hogan, that he had believed in Hogan, but that he was without doubt an icon, a legend and possibly the best ever, but that it was still up for debate.
He then asked Hogan how he felt about headlining one more ‘Mania with The Rock to the excitement of the live audience. In an iconic moment, Hogan accepted, wishing The Rock luck as he would need it. Cue The Rock responding “Not as much as you, brother!” and putting Hogan down with a Rock Bottom.
The build to the match featured classic NWO beatdowns, notably with Hogan’s belt and even a hammer, and the most star-studded main event in the history of WWE episodic television – The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin vs the NWO in a 2-on-3 handicap match in the main event of Raw.
When WrestleMania rolled around at the SkyDome in Toronto, there was only one match that fans were discussing, yet somehow it was not set for the main event. That honour instead was given to the Undisputed WWE title match between Chris Jericho and Triple H.
It made sense to have the premier title in the company be in the top spot, but this was The Rock and “Hollywood” Hulk Hogan, two stars and a match that transcended the industry and was more important than any belt. This was proven with the billing of the match as “the biggest of all time.”
Jericho has stated since that he tried not to be the last match on the card, given that he and Triple H could never live up to a dream match of such epic proportions. He was not wrong.
Jerry “The King” Lawler called it best on commentary when he outlined the uniqueness and iconic nature of the showdown, likening it to Muhammed Ali coming up against Mike Tyson. It was a legitimate dream match. Generation vs Generation.
When the two men locked eyes in the middle of the ring in one of the most surreal moments in WrestleMania history, it was clear that Hogan, despite being the heel, was the crowd favourite. Jim Ross admitted to this, querying whether it was due to nostalgia or respect.
The two men quickly shifted their initial plan for the bout, with The Rock displaying more heelish traits, using Hollywood’s belt on him (only after it had been used on him) and Hogan eventually calling on the power of Hulkamania and “Hulking Up” much to the delight of the watching audience.
In a feat achieved by few if any, The Great One overpowered Hulkamania, finally putting Hollywood down with two straight Rock Bottoms for the win. As The Rock celebrated, Hogan was waiting for him in the middle of the ring.
The two icons settled their differences and shook hands in a show of respect between wrestling’s past and present, before beating down an irate Hall and Nash who had confronted Hogan for his apparent betrayal of the NWO.
Hulk Hogan and The Rock went on to briefly team up before Hogan’s nostalgia trip continued with one last WWE title run. The two greats would meet in the ring again under vastly different circumstances at No Way Out 2003, but the bout is often forgotten, such was the magnitude of their initial encounter.
“Icon vs Icon” remains relevant 20 years later, a testament to both the match itself and the enduring star power of The Immortal One and The Great One. It is why it will never be rivalled as the biggest match ever not to main event WrestleMania, and possibly the biggest of all time.