This Sunday marks the return of The Rock to the Survivor Series stage. He will stand alongside John Cena to face Miz and R-Truth in Madison Square Garden. This is really about hyping the upcoming WrestleMania match between Cena and Rock, but it is very fitting that Rock will make his return to WWE in Madison Square Garden at the Survivor Series pay per view; the same venue and event at which he debuted fifteen years ago. The Rock has competed at six Survivor Series shows, all of which give a snapshot of who Rock was and where he was that year.
It was November 17th, 1996 when Rocky Maivia walked the aisle in Madison Square Garden, dressed in blue, to his first pay per view match. He was part of a traditional Survivor Series match with Marc Mero, The Stalker (Barry Windham), and Jake Roberts was his teammates. Their opponents Jerry Lawler, Crush, Goldust, and future rival Hunter Hearst Helmsley. As the match wore on Rocky found himself alone against Crush and Goldust. After missing his heart punch, Crush was pinned by Rocky with a bodypress. Seconds later Rocky put away Goldust with a shoulderbreaker. It was a big win for Rocky in his debut pay per view match with the World Wrestling Federation.
The next several months were very trying for Maivia. He was pushed as a prominent mid-carder, but fans rejected him and chanted “Rocky sucks” during his matches. While Rocky was far from the great performer he would soon grow into, he certainly wasn’t as bad as people made him out to be. He was very much a stranger in a strange land. The WWF was changing and a baby face like Rocky wasn’t popular. Rocky’s character changed as he turned heel and joined the Nation of Domination. He seemed a natural fit as a heel and was improving as a performer.
At the 1997 Survivor Series, Rocky found himself on the other side of his 1996 match. This time he was one of two heels up against a lone baby face. He and his partner, D-Lo Brown, were defeated by Ken Shamrock. Ever since joining the Nation, Rock slowly began to outshine leader Faarooq. Survivor Series 1997 was big step in the right direction for Rock because he was the last one standing for his team instead of Faarooq. His heel run was being received well by both the company and the fans.
The Rock changed so much from the 1996 Survivor Series to the 1997 show. Yet he would undergo an incredible growth by the time 1998 rolled around. Rock spent 1998 in feuds with Ken Shamrock and Faarooq before he entered into a long rivalry with Triple H. The program came to a climax when Triple H defeated The Rock at SummerSlam, but Rock came out of the feud hotter than ever, second only to Steve Austin. He also found himself on the receiving end of the crowd’s approval, this time without asking for it. After a series of controversial events the decision was made to decide a new WWF Champion in a tournament at Survivor Series. Rock was on a roll and seemed destined for the finals with Austin, but a twist of events screwed Austin out of his shot at the finals, leaving the deciding match between Rock and Mankind. It was very strange to see those two in the finals, but it meant that a new face would be champion. Rock ended up turning heel and winning the title with the assistance of Vince McMahon. It was simply Rock’s night. New stars had come out of the woodwork during the WWF’s war with WCW. Rock was a star, but became the company’s number two man on this night.
The Rock found himself in the main event of Survivor Series once again the following year. However, the big story was the absence of Steve Austin. The scheduled main event was to be Steve Austin vs. The Rock vs. Triple H in a triple threat match for the WWF Championship. Austin’s nagging neck injury had become too much and he had to bow out of the match at the last minute. His replacement was not announced until match time. The WWF chose Big Show, who took home the gold that night. Many were asking what would happen now that Austin, the WWF’s main character, was out of the picture. Survivor Series of 1999 was only the beginning of Rock’s climb to the very top. With Austin on the sidelines, Rock was now the top baby face.
The year 2000 was incredible for Rock as he had the best year of his career. His matches with Triple H, Chris Benoit, Eddie Guerrero and Kurt Angle were among the best of his career. He gave wrestling some of the best television of the Attitude Era. Austin eventually came back towards the end of 2000. The Survivor Series 2000 pay per view saw Austin rise back to his rightful place atop the card as Rock became a supporting player again. Yet Rock’s character was showing a more vulnerable side. He went up against family member Rikishi on that night. Rock felt betrayed by Rikishi in his actions to take out Austin and make way for Rock’s rise. Rock was normally able to brush off his rivals and make his witty comebacks. Rikishi was the first rival whose betrayal seemed to shake him to his core.
Steve Austin was one of Rock’s chief rivals during his run with Austin picking up most of the victories. After falling to Austin at two WrestleMania events, Rock gained a huge win by defeating Austin as the sole survivor in the highly-anticipated WWF vs. WCW/ECW Alliance Survivor Series contest. The roles were reversed this time as Austin was the heel to Rock’s baby face. The Rock had just come back from a sabbatical at SummerSlam and he was quickly becoming the focus of television due to the mixed reactions to Austin’s heel run. A few months later at WrestleMania XVIII, Rock would headline the show with Hulk Hogan, while Austin found himself in the middle of the show against Scott Hall.
That was the Rock’s last appearance at Survivor Series, which means Rock has not performed at a Survivor Series event in ten years. That just goes to show how long it has really has been since Rock was a fulltime member of the roster, and how he is coming back to a very different landscape than then one he first entered that November night in 1996.