WWE: 5 men’s matches that changed the company’s direction

Apr 2, 2022; Arlington, TX, USA; Stone Cold Steve Austin celebrates with beer after defeating Kevin Owens (not pictured) at WrestleMania at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 2, 2022; Arlington, TX, USA; Stone Cold Steve Austin celebrates with beer after defeating Kevin Owens (not pictured) at WrestleMania at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports /

There are several big matches that set the tone for professional wrestling. These five matches stand out as those that changed the direction of the WWE.

Over the years the stand-outs are clear; the individuals that essentially carried the company and industry on their very capable shoulders. Names like Bruno Sammartino, Andre The Giant, Hulk Hogan, Bret Hart, Stone Cold Steve Austin, John Cena, and now, the aforementioned Roman Reigns.

But what was it that caused the changing of the guard, the paradigm shift to occur? Most times it was one single match; one cataclysmic event that would change the course of history and in one night seemingly make the career of a single superstar.

These following matches were such occasions. Join us as we look back on them.

Hulk Hogan vs. Andre The Giant at WrestleMania 3

Before The Undertaker was considered a locker room leader, or rather the locker room leader, there was Andre The Giant. Hulk Hogan has stated that the veteran gave him a very hard time when he was starting out, but as the years passed and Andre saw that Hulk could do the reps and do the work, an admiration grew out of what can be considered skepticism.

Well, by WrestleMania 3, Hulk Hogan had definitely been showing that he could helm the ship that was WWE—especially after the first two WrestleMania events and the iconic draw the company became largely in part to Hogan’s rising popularity.

But many would argue that the cementing of Hogan’s legacy would not be complete until he faced Andre the Giant one more time in what can be called an iconic battle for the ages. Here’s some of what Hogan had to say about the match and what it meant for him:

"“I’d never beaten the giant before, and there was no shame in getting beat by him because no one had ever beaten him. I asked Vince. I said, ‘You know here we are the night before, what are we doing tomorrow?’ Vince goes, ‘I don’t know…I’m sure Andre will do the right thing.’ ……All of a sudden, when the match was almost over he (Andre) goes, ‘Slam!’ I thought I heard what I heard, and as he came towards me I took a step back and scooped him, and then got his momentum and I barely got him over. Then I dropped a leg thinking that he was going to kick out, and he didn’t kick out…I realized what he had done for me. He had just made my career there brother. I was on a roll anyway, that was like hitting double nitrous buttons for me…”-Via 411mania.com (transcription)"

Bret Hart vs. Steve Austin at WWE WrestleMania 13

Since the exodus of stars like Scott Hall and Kevin Nash in 1996, Brett Hart was left in WWE (then the WWF), and was considered a main draw; he was even more popular than the remaining Shawn Michaels many would argue, who had major attitude/behavioral problems during that time. Hart stepped up and worked as the company’s main draw for that period, but with wavering support from the chairman Vince McMahon— he was always on the lookout for the next star to bump up those merchandise earnings.

In 1995 and 1996 the company was doing very badly financially, and despite Hart’s loyalty, McMahon was willing to push Shawn Michaels over Bret at times as that main draw, which was something he desperately needed to have.

With WCW breathing down his neck, he needed to make a choice and fast, but as it turned out, a man that Bret Hart himself suggested Vince hire was brought in, and despite a terrible first gimmick, Stone Cold Steve Austin would emerge in WWE and it wouldn’t be long before the two would clash and clash hard.

The match at WrestleMania 13 has gone down in history as one of the greatest of all time. The story that was told, the pace of the match, and even the length of it… all perfect. Even Ken Shamrock did his part as the special guest referee.

Steve had been gaining momentum big time by that point and he was gaining that steam for sure, but by the end of that match the two changed positions, Hart turning heel and Steve tuning face. It was a big night and a night that changed the course of history.

The Rock vs. Steve Austin at WrestleMania 19

Steve would dominate and despite the rise of many stars, Steve would have an iconic run for three years at the top, carrying the company and taking it to new heights…places WWE had never been to before.

He had to step away in 2000 to fuse his broken neck, an injury he had suffered back in 1997 at SummerSlam against Owen Hart—a broken neck!—and yes, he worked through that and wrestled with the debilitating injury during that time, and all not to lose the momentum he had garnered for himself up to that point.

But it was during his time away that The Rock really rose amongst the ranks. Heel or face the man really stepped up and became a household name. The two feuded often, before Austin’s leave and after, but the two would face off one final time at WrestleMania 19. The Rock had never defeated the Texas Rattlesnake and was hell-bent on doing so, so the feud was on.

No one knew at the time of the match, but because of the injuries suffered, this was to be Austin’s last match in WWE until he would return at WrestleMania 38 to face Kevin Owens.

The Rock would win and go on to dominate in Hollywood, but not before garnering for WWE a load of new fans who adored the entertainment side of wrestling far more than they appreciate the blood and guts of in-ring action.

Rock vs. Cena II at WrestleMania 29

Enter John Cena. Cena carried the company on his shoulders for 15 years arguably, which was longer even than Steve Austin, and he often got no support from the older portion of the crowd for his efforts. Regardless, he pedaled through and drew big time—predominantly amongst the female portion of the audience and the youth.

It was only natural that he would face the former captain of the ship and no, it couldn’t be Steve Austin, but The Rock, which of course made a heck of a lot of sense to anyone paying attention to statements John had been making in an interview over the years, would make the perfect adversary. (Cena would often question Rock’s love of the industry.) But the fans would have to wait.

But The Rock would return in 2011 after 7 years away and he had a beef it seems, with the one and only John Cena. The two entered into a year-long feud and eventually faced each other at WrestleMania 28. Cena would lose and the loss would tumble John into a year of loss and depression. He even got divorced in real life for crying out loud.

But a second fight was planned (the entirety of their feud and interaction would span over 3 WrestleMania events culminating into the match at WrestleMania 39, in which The Rock was actually Champion after a brief full-time run. Cena would win, ultimately doing the impossible and overcoming the monstrous presence of the past icon, only to become the icon himself.

He would eventually become an icon/obstacle that stars like Roman Reigns and many others would have to overcome to be well on their way to dominate during their own proper reigns.

Cody Rhodes vs. Roman Reigns at WrestleMania 39

And despite criticism, Roman Reigns would go on to dominate after he faced John Cena a few times. He has broken records holding the Universal Championship for over 1000 days as of this writing, placing him at number 5, recently beating Pedro Morales, in the longest reigns of all time under Hulk Hogan, Bob Backlund, and the aforementioned Bruno Sammartino, who holds two distinct records—one at fourth place (1,237 days) and one in first place (2,803 days).

It’s been frustrating as a fan of the game and other superstars, and although many who have faced him have come close, perhaps it was the returning Cody Rhodes that did the most amount of damage.

No, Cody did not win at WrestleMania 39, but he seems to have dented the armor of the Tribal Chief, the Head of the Table, Roman Reigns. The Tribal Chief has been on a downward spiral since WrestleMania of this year, the bloodline is falling apart and he got pinned for the first time in a whopping 3 plus years!

Looks like Cody did some damage indeed and the next time these two face off maybe Rhodes will have the chance to finish his story after all and dethrone the Head of the Table for once and for all, thus becoming the company figurehead.

Next. 5 standout Canadian pro wrestlers in the industry today. dark

Not bad for a guy who had to step away from the company, start his own company and give WWE the biggest competition they’d seen in the business since the heyday of WCW, and then return, the prodigal son incarnate. It sure sounds like a figurehead if ever I saw one, dear readers.