Fight Forever is our series where we put classic feuds under review, examining what made these rivalries as great as they are and whether they stand the test of time to this day. In this edition: the legendary rivalry between The Rock and Mankind!
Rock vs Mankind clinched the Monday Night Wars for the WWF. The WWF in late 1998 was blossoming. Austin vs McMahon turned the momentum in the Monday Night Wars. WCW was trying to stay afloat by pushing rising stars like Goldberg and DDP. The road to Starrcade was taking shape but this was a rare time the WWF was captivating before the Road to WrestleMania. Going into Survivor Series 1998, the WWF Championship was vacant. With all the Russo booking in the WWF, they pivoted the title picture to a more grounded feud in Rock vs Mankind.
The WWF managed to pull the trigger at the right time to end the Monday Wars Wars in the eye of the casual fan. Everybody remembers the infamous ‘butts in seats’ night. WCW fumbled with handing the belt back to an aging Hulk Hogan, while the WWF created two new stars. There is a lot more to this feud that gets left out and that’s why Rock vs Mankind truly deserves to be included in the Sports Obsessive’s Fight Forever series.
While other feuds are compelling because of the work rate of the matches, Rock vs Mankind hooked me as a wrestling fan because of the promos, smart storytelling, comedy, and the dichotomy of characters: third-generation wrestler vs the fan, the athlete vs the freak, good looking vs ugly, cool vs uncool, corporate kiss ass vs the family man, and bully vs loser. While the Attitude Era gimmicks and storylines have not aged well, the best feuds from this period were relatable.
Rock and Mankind faced off (TV and PPV matches) a staggering 7 times for the title in 4 months. This is typical in current-day wrestling. Rock vs Mankind kept the audience engaged for the entire feud. Each match built off the previous one while also delivering something new.
If there was a Fight Forever Hall of Fame, Mick Foley would be the first inductee. He elevated every big name he wrestled while still getting himself over. Every match felt like an epic fight. His matches with the Rock were no exception. The goal was to get one of the most charismatic characters over as a heel. Their Royal Rumble 1999 “I Quit” match went overboard but was successful in achieving this goal.
Not only did they have brutal matches, but they also tugged at your heartstrings too. The January 4th edition of Raw was the crowning achievement for Mick Foley. The pop for Stone Cold Steve Austin still gives me chills. The post-match victory promo by Mick is pure elation.
At the risk of not sounding very cool, I’d like to dedicate this match to my two little people at home and say..big daddy’o did it!
As a father, every time I watch this promo I tear up when Mick delivers this line. This comes from the deranged Mankind character, that won the fans over and conquered all odds. The corporation had finally paid for meddling with other wrestlers (Stone Cold, DX, and Kane). With all the faults from WWE over the years, they can still pull off the emotional moments better than anybody.
Meanwhile, on the other channel, a big main event was promised with Kevin Nash vs Hollywood Hulk Hogan. Instead, it was a joke “match” handing the title the Hulkster. WCW managed to devalue their title while the WWF championship was the crowning achievement for Mick Foley. This night didn’t kill WCW but it didn’t help retain the casual fan.
The rise of Mankind and the Rock rewarded fans for sticking around to see how these characters develop. In WCW, the NWO and many of the other wrestlers were stagnant.
Matches to check out:
Rock Bottom 98
The work rate from their Survivor Series match was the worst out of all their bouts. Mainly due to the tournament structure and being storyline-driven. At Rock Bottom, their chemistry clicked. This match should have been the main event. The violence had stepped up a notch with Mankind taking more dangerous bumps. The Rock would pass out from the Mandible Claw. Vince declared Mankind the winner of the match but not the title. He did not say I quit which would perfectly foreshadow their Royal Rumble match.
Royal Rumble 99 – I Quit Match
Everybody remembers the chair shots. With the documentary Beyond the Mat chronicling this match behind the scenes, it is hard not to think of Foley’s family screaming in horror. Minus the commentary from a green Michael Cole, this match is worthy of a revisit.
The Rock promo before the match is a must-watch. What can you say about the Rock in his prime? Not a single word out of place. Perfect emotional beats. A master class in the promo work.
St. Valentine’s Day Massacre 99 – Last Man Standing
Mankind regained the title on Halftime Heat in an empty arena match. This was the first empty arena match for the WWF. The ‘Rocky Sucks’ chants returned in droves at St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Another brutal match filled with table spots, suplexes on the concrete, and chair shots to the head. The Rock’s only hope was to target Mankind’s legs to keep him down. The double count-out was controversial at the time, but it has aged great as a conclusion this trilogy of PPV matches. Both wrestlers proved they were worthy of being called WWF champions.
The feud would conclude with a physical ladder match on Raw following their last man standing match at St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. The Rock naturally became a face later in the year. Rock and Mankind would form the Rock and Sock Connection. Their final singles match would be a pink slip-on pole match (this was the end of 1999, so Russo already went to WCW) on Raw.
These 4 months will always be the most memorable. WrestleMania had to get it in the way. Nothing was stopping Austin vs The Rock (you can find their Fight Forever entry here). Mick Foley’s health was in jeopardy going forward. The Rock would quickly become larger than wrestling by pursuing an acting career. Looking back, they laid it all out in the ring. I wish they could fight forever.