Wrestling’s history has its fair share of legends, performers who stole the show whenever they stepped into the ring. But say the words Icon vs. Icon to any fan and only one match comes to mind.
It was WrestleMania X8 on March 17, 2002 and nearly 70,000 fans packed the SkyDome to witness the greatest wrestler of that era take on the greatest wrestler of the previous one: The Rock vs. Hollywood Hulk Hogan. It’s one of the most memorable wrestling matches of all time, not for its wrestling but for the reaction the two legends drew from the capacity crowd and the sweet taste of nostalgia that came with it.
It was the second time the city of Toronto welcomed the wrestling world to its doorstep for the marquee event (WrestleMania VI was also at the SkyDome, back on April 1, 1990), but it was this match on this card that really made its mark by giving life to what many remember as one of the greatest WrestleMania moments ever.
The anticipation builds
On the 20-year anniversary of that match, Sportsnet spoke with several in the industry who were either involved in the event or greatly influenced by it in their own wrestling careers.
Carl De Marco, former President of WWE Canada: Canada was a hot market and the fans deserved [to have WrestleMania]. We were setting all kinds of records across the country with live events and whatnot, and we felt that WrestleMania should come back here.
Kevin Owens, current WWE Superstar, Quebec native: I was there in person for that WrestleMania. It was my first WrestleMania that I was getting to attend in person so I was obviously super excited.
Jimmy Korderas, former WWE referee: I went out there and hung on the barricades, leaning on them going, ‘Man I remember WrestleMania VI here.’ I’m soaking it all in and all of the sudden I feel this big hand on my shoulder. And I hear, ‘Brings back a lot of memories, right brother?’ And as soon as I heard the ‘brother’ I knew who it was, it was Hogan.
Mike Chioda, referee for the Rock-Hogan match: Canada goes so far back with the Harts, Edge, Christian … so much good talent has come out of Canada, I could go on and on, it’s unbelievable. They just have such a respect for the business. I think they just appreciated what Hogan had done for them in the 1980s. They wanted to see Hogan.
De Marco: Is this Hulk country? I would have to say so. There’s a bond and an attachment between the fans up here and Hulk.
Sami Zayn, current WWE Superstar, Quebec native: I was at a bar called Bar Le Skratch. The place was just jumpin’ … I knew I liked Hogan, but I didn’t know that was going around. If you watched the programming in the lead-up to the match, Hogan was clearly the bad guy and Rock was the good guy. I had this sentimental feeling towards Hogan and this comeback. I didn’t realize that was contagious, I didn’t realize the city of Toronto was buzzing for Hogan.
De Marco: Hulk at that time, I hate to use the words ‘lack of confidence’ in himself [but] he wasn’t sure about things. He wasn’t sure how he was going to be perceived. A lot of people were saying, ‘[It’s] over, your career is done.’ I think he was getting worried with all these people saying it, was there some truth to it?
Chioda: You have to remember that this was such a big build up and there was some doubt whether they were going to come off and really perfect this match.
Welcome to Toronto, Hollywood Hogan
De Marco: The reaction that he got was enormous. He suspected he was going to get it, but he wasn’t sure. We started seeing signs leading up to WrestleMania that the crowd was going to turn for Hulk. Canada, and particularly Toronto, Jerry Lawler said it best: It’s bizzarro world!
Chioda: We talked about which way the crowd might go. I actually thought at one point they might reverse the finish because there was so much talk about how the crowd would react.
Zayn: I later heard that they knew that was going to happen because of the buzz in the city when they arrived. They knew there was a good chance they were going to love Hogan, maybe even more so than The Rock. But I had no idea watching it.
Chioda: When [Hogan] came on that stage and his music hit, they erupted. And then you really found out on the faceoff. The crowd was so intense, so loud. When I looked around and panned the crowd at one point, I don’t think anyone was sitting down in their seats.
Korderas: I knew it was going to be a sellout at all the monitors [behind the scenes] because everybody wanted to see this.
Lita, former WWE Superstar, wrestled right after Rock-Hogan match: [We] had to end up moving further away from gorilla position because it was distracting. … When an arena is just erupting, it’s just like, ‘I wanna see, I wanna see. No! Focus, focus!’ So we had to kind of step away from it and just make sure we could get in our own personal zone and stop being just fans for a minute wanting to watch The Rock and Hogan go against each other.
Owens: The thing that stands out the most is the fans. They just had that match in front of the best audience they could … Toronto rules. That crowd was an international crowd, there’s people from all over the world, but the base of it was a bunch of crazy Canadians. It doesn’t get better than that.
Korderas: I don’t want to downplay how it came across on television, and on pay-per-view, because it was incredible, but being out there and hearing the crowd live … it was insane. It was one of the biggest sounds I’ve ever heard.
Zayn: I have goosebumps just talking about it. Never mind to have been in the ring, I can’t even imagine how awesome that would have been to be Rock or Hogan or the ref … I’m getting goosebumps just thinking about being in that crowd and what that must have been like.
Chioda: Standing in the ring and listening to the way that Toronto crowd, that Canadian crowd, reacted to that entrance of Hogan’s and the way they turned and were so much behind Hogan at that point, just on the entrance, was unbelievable. It gave me goosebumps.
Lita: I remember we started to watch the match and then we were like, ‘No, no, no we need to focus on what we’re about to be doing.’ But it was intense. The crowd was louder than I’d ever heard a crowd in my life there, so we kind of had to go separate from that and get out there and just do our thing.
“That particular match, it just put Hulk’s confidence right back up. I think it meant a lot to him, what the city of Toronto did for him and he never forgot that.”
Zayn: I remember in addition to the electricity of the night, I think I remember the surprise of, ‘Wow I can’t believe this is happening.’ This is off-script for the crowd. They’re doing their own thing here (and) I think that was the first time you ever saw anything like that.
Chioda: I believe we had 30 minutes, with maybe 25 in the ring. It went fast because there was so much, the crowd so unbelievably into it. It had my adrenaline up, it had Hogan’s adrenaline up, and it had Rock’s adrenaline up.
Owens: Even though the crowd was insane, if you watch the match, you can take away from it that they listened to the crowd the whole time. They could have just done whatever they wanted to do and that would have been it because the crowd was so crazy. Anything they would have done would have been fine but they listened to the crowd the whole time and I feel like they really went with what the crowd was telling them.
De Marco: I give credit to The Rock and to Hulk. They had to change things up, on the fly, in the ring to change to the crowd reaction. They were listening to the crowd … If you watch that match, you see that those two were pausing [listening for feedback].
Korderas: It’s amazing because, especially in today’s day and age … a lot of the young talent seem to think they have to do a lot of movement, a lot of high spots to get the crowd invested. [But] Rock and Hogan proved in that moment right there … all they did was stand in the ring, stare at each other, stare at the crowd. And because people were invested in the characters, in the personas … they loved every moment of it and they were waiting for it. They were two gigantic superstars that they just wanted to see get it on.
Chioda: It was great to see them perfect that match. They really hit it on the nose. They did everything they had to do. … There was some doubt that Hogan and Rock were going to have a great match, and they did.
Owens: There’s no match before or since that has touched that kind of energy. It’s just unheard of. Just all the perfect ingredients. All the perfect elements met up and just made for this just incredible experience.
De Marco: I don’t think Hulk ever forgot what the city did for him. He never forgot that. He always appreciated it. That particular match, it just put Hulk’s confidence right back up. I think it meant a lot to him, what the city of Toronto did for him and he never forgot that.
Chioda: I would have loved to see Hogan go over [win the match] on that night, to reverse the finish, and then Rock just beat him next week or something. Get it back another night. But Hogan was a big enough man, he was always good for the business. Of course, he passed the torch at that point.
The match was an unmeasurable success in the moment. However, there were still two matches remaining, the first being the Women’s Championship triple-threat match (Toronto native Trish Stratus vs. Lita vs. Jazz), and the last being the Undisputed Championship match between champion, and Winnipeg native, Chris Jericho and Triple H.
Owens: So, right after that match was the women’s title match and I really wanted to see that so I stayed and watched that. Then, right after that was Jericho and Triple H. I missed their entrances because I was running around SkyDome trying to find the Hogan vs. Rock commemorative t-shirt. I ended up buying one that wasn’t even my size, like way too small, because I just wanted to have a memento of that energy. They were all sold out, every stand was sold out. I had to go to like 25 stands to find it. I came back and the Jericho vs. Triple H match was already happening and my friend was like, ‘Where were you?’ And I was like, ‘I had to get a shirt!’
Chioda: There was talk about how this match shouldn’t be third-to-last. Jericho and Triple H were the last match. And Jericho even said at that time, ‘I don’t think we should be going last, we shouldn’t be following Rock and Hogan.’
Lita: Hometown hero Trish stratus, vs. me and Jazz. Two of my favourite people to be in the ring with. I felt like we were out there just doing it for ourselves because the crowd was so … they needed to take a breath no matter how much they were fans of us. We’re not The Rock and Hogan, Icon vs. Icon, once in a lifetime match.
Chioda: Let’s put it this way — the crowd was out of breath, they had everything taken out [of them]. As far as [Triple H], I think he got his way, he just wanted to be last match which backfired on the company. If anything, [Rock-Hogan] should have been the last match.
Owens: The match that I was least excited for was Hogan vs. The Rock. At the time, I was a huge Steve Austin fan, a huge Trish Strus fan, a huge Scott Hall fan, a Huge Jericho fan … these were the matches that I was pumped for. But I wasn’t patricianly pumped for Hulk Hogan or The Rock because, I have this thing when I was a fan, where I don’t like cocky or arrogant people and The Rock and Hogan were both so arrogant so I didn’t like them as much. To me, that match, everybody was so pumped but I was like, ‘Nah, it’s going to be good but these are the matches that (I’m pumped for).’ And then the energy when the match started floored me. I was so into it just because of how insane everybody was, and it turns out to be one of the most memorable experiences I’ve had as a fan. It was unreal.
Korderas: It was like you didn’t have to speak. Everybody knew it, everybody said, ‘That is a moment that people will remember forever as one of the biggest moments in WrestleMania history.’
Chioda: Vince [McMahon] was thrilled with how everything went. You couldn’t have given the fans a much better story. Icon vs. Icon, Hulk Hogan and The Rock. I mean… the pay-per-view went great and I believe the people went home happy. That’s why it was such a memorable match in Canada and in professional wrestling.