Hulk Hogan. The Rock. "Stone Cold" Steve Austin. It takes a special mix of talent, toughness and charisma to become a WWE superstar. But it’s virtually impossible to make it to the top of the card alone — to go from a superstar to a legend, requires dynamic chemistry and electric rivalry with a fellow wrestler.
The WWE rose to the top of the crowded pro wrestling circuit in the early-to-mid 1980s by emphasizing story and character just as much as athleticism and brawling ability. While wrestlers had always had personalities and worked the crowd, WWE took the heroes and heel (a wrestling term for villain) dynamic to the next level. Rivalries between early stars like Hogan, Andre the Giant, Iron Sheik, and "Rowdy" Roddy Piper injected drama and excitement into both the matches and the “behind-the-scenes” portions of the WWE’s shows, turning spectators into witnesses and very enthusiastic participants.
Here are 10 of the most exciting and iconic rivalries in WWE’s nearly 40-year history:
The Rock vs. 'Stone Cold' Steve Austin
Before Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was a global movie megastar, he was The Rock, a wrestling phenom who took the WWE by storm as cocky, unstoppable, eyebrow-raising People’s Champion. The only wrestler that could rival his popularity in the late ‘90s and early 2000s was Austin, a blue-collar anti-hero who drank beer, delivered threats and whupped ass.
The sheer size of their fan bases guaranteed that they’d feud and their conflicting styles helped make that rivalry believable. They both debuted in 1996 and first locked horns in 1997 in a battle for the Intercontinental Championship belt, which Austin won after The Rock had stolen it from him. But the rivalry really blossomed when The Rock turned into a heel and sided with Vince McMahon for a time in his feud against Austin (more on that below).
The rivalry grew over time and was a main component to the show in 1999 and 2000, They’d throw down at a number of major events, including three at WrestleMania. Those were some of the best matches of the aughts, featuring Austin smacking The Rock 16 times with a steel chair in one shocker of a match and then a finale in which The Rock hit Austin with his own signature move to seal the deal.
Hulk Hogan vs. Andre the Giant
The WWE built its reputation and popularity on big stars in the early 1980s and none were bigger, literally or figuratively, than Hogan and Andre the Giant. A colossal Frenchman who stood over seven feet tall due to gigantism, Andre the Giant joined the WWE in the early 1970s when it was still known as the World Wide Wrestling Federation. He was joined by Hogan a little more than half a decade later, kicking off a foundational rivalry.
Hogan would become a fan favorite who embodied an All-American populist ethos and had his face plastered all over cereals, cartoons, toys and even Time magazine. But before he adopted that persona, he was a heel used as a regular sacrificial lamb for the hulking Giant’s headliner appearances. The two fought a whopping 16 times in 1980, including in an iconic match at New York’s Shea Stadium that summer, and each time, Andre the Giant came out on top.
“Andre the Giant beat me up every day for the first eight years,” Hogan later reflected. “I was so nervous I used to puke on the way to the building.”
But as Hogan’s star began to shine brighter and brighter, their roles reversed, with Hogan becoming the hero. Andre the Giant, undefeated for more than a decade, took on the villain role in 1987 to give Hogan, who had moved on to other rivals, a massive new challenge. By that point, the Frenchman was nearing the end of his wrestling career, which had been enabled by his gigantism and crippled by acromegaly.
When they squared off at WrestleMania III in Detroit’s Pontiac Dome, it was one of the biggest matches in WWE history to that point, with 93,000+ screaming fans watching as Hogan body-slammed an exhausted Andre the Giant, ripping several muscles in the act but sealing his throne as the king of the ring.
'Stone Cold' Steve Austin vs. Vince McMahon
Vince McMahon is not only the founder of the modern-day WWE and its CEO, he plays those roles on TV, too. An embodiment of the company’s blurring and intermingling of fiction and reality, McMahon has run the business while injecting a semi-fictionalized version of himself and his family into the scripted drama. By the mid-to-late ‘90s, McMahon began assuming a bigger role as a scheming heel, feuding with beloved superstars as the nefarious corporate boss.
McMahon fully stepped into the role with his rivalry with Stone Cold. McMahon announced that he didn’t want someone like Austin to ever win a championship — his product was supposed to be family-friendly, he insisted with a wink — and tried to use other superstars like Bret Hart to stop Austin from attaining the title. McMahon would be unsuccessful, even with help from the likes of celebrity guests like Mike Tyson.
The two seemed to reach an accord in which Austin, the title-holder, would clean up his act and wear a suit and tie… until he revealed it was all a ruse, delivered his signature “Stunner” move on McMahon and sent the rivalry to the next level.
After occasionally getting physical with his employees on TV, McMahon became something of a physical specimen himself in order to play a bigger role in the ring. For several years, Austin and McMahon’s feud animated much of the WWE’s main story, with one screwy twist and betrayal after another, until McMahon and Austin began squaring off in official matches, including a brutal cage match at an event called "St. Valentine’s Day Massacre." Perhaps the highlight of it all was Austin delivering his trademark move, the “Stunner,” to each member of the McMahon family in a single appearance.
It all culminated in Austin “owning” half of the WWE, winning a bet that saw McMahon “banned” from the WWE Austin getting hit by a car and the two ultimately partnering up to help Austin win the title again in 2000.
Bret Hart vs. Shawn Michaels
This rivalry began in the WWE’s “Golden Years” and then continued through several successive eras, spanning some of the most iconic days and creating some of the most iconic matches in the company’s long history.
Bret Hart, wrestling royalty, first rose to prominence as a member of the Hart Foundation tag team partnership alongside his real-life brother-in-law, Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart. A few years later, Shawn Michaels broke out with his own tag team partnership, known as The Rockers, with Marty Janetty. The two pairs threw down several times, but it wasn’t until they both went solo that the rivalry really took off.
Hart and Michaels couldn’t have been more different — Hart came from a family of wrestlers and built his career around a strict code of honor, while Michaels was a bad boy who used sex appeal (which back in the early ‘90s included a long mullet) to woo fans and taunt opponents. As solo acts, they helped set the stage for the ‘90s, filled with increasingly creative match structures and insane twists. Hart and Michaels battled for the Intercontinental Championship belt in the first-ever Ladder Match, now a staple of WWE.
Their rivalry blurred into real life as Hart bristled at the WWE’s evolution into a more brash promotion centered around anti-heroes, a big departure from the wrestling world in which he’d grown up. Michaels helped define that new approach, and as they traded shots at one another over the microphone at various events, it was clear that the venom they were spitting wasn’t all make-believe.
Eventually, as WWE faced financial problems, Hart decided to leave for the rival WCW, which could provide the paycheck that his long-time employer had promised but could no longer deliver. The champion at the time, Hart knew that he’d have to give up the belt soon, but he didn’t want to do so during the company’s big Canadian tour. CEO McMahon agreed to that stipulation, then turned around and rigged the match so that Michaels would beat him in their big match at "Survivor Series" in Montreal.
When the referee tapped Hart out, he went ballistic, destroying the announcing table and spitting in McMahon’s face. The event, known as the “Montreal Screwjob,” became one of the most iconic moments in the sport.
'Macho Man' Randy Savage vs. Jake 'The Snake' Roberts
Two of the original superstars, “Macho Man” Randy Savage and Jake “The Snake” Roberts remain two of the most iconic and wonderfully absurd characters in the promotion’s history. Savage was a colorful grenade of muscle and fury, while Jake the Snake was a dangerous, somewhat sociopathic Texan who carried a gigantic python that slithered and wrapped itself around his back. Their psychodrama was more psycho than anything else.
They had a number of memorable matches, none more so than the 1991 "Stars of Wrestling" bout in which Jake’s snake bit Savage in the arm. It was Savage’s idea, as he wanted to show that he could survive a bite that was supposed to be deadly (the snake wasn’t actually venomous), but the snake took it to the next level, hanging on to his arm for what seemed like an eternity.
“My arm blew up like a balloon for days. About five days later, they had to rush me to the hospital with a 104-degree fever,” he later recalled. “It’s unbelievable to walk into the hospital and tell the doctor I had a snake bite. Finally, the fever went down. They gave me antibiotics, and luckily the snake WAS de-venomized, but twelve days later, the snake died.”
The Undertaker vs. Kane
Some of WWE’s best and bloodiest storylines and rivalries have involved blood ties, and few sibling rivalries have been as twisted or complicated as the relationship between the Undertaker and Kane.
The Undertaker was a hulking, sulking menace seemingly sent from the afterlife to take vengeance on just about everyone. Eventually, Paul Bearer, the Undertaker’s consigliere and manager, revealed that the Undertaker burned down his family’s funeral home, killing everyone inside. By 1997, though, Bearer, now the Undertaker’s nemesis, revealed a deep, dark secret: Not only did the Undertaker have a secret half-brother who survived the blaze, but Bearer was the brother’s father, having had an affair with the Undertaker’s mother while working at the funeral home.
The half-brother was named Kane (a nod to the Undertaker’s original name, Kane the Undertaker) and he was just as gigantic as the Undertaker. Any family resemblance was hard to verify since Kane wore a mask to cover grievous burns from the funeral home fire. The two had a one-sided rivalry to start. Kane made his on-camera debut by storming a "Hell in a Cell" match between the Undertaker and another one of his great rivals, Michaels, leading the Undertaker to lose his title. The Undertaker refused to fight Kane, who proceeded to harass his half-brother and cost him more matches, including another title bout with Michaels.
Undertaker and Kane finally threw down at WrestleMania XIV in a tombstone match, then again soon after in a match in which the Undertaker set Kane on fire. Again. The match helped the Undertaker and Kane, sons of a funeral home, bury the hatchet, and they soon became allies and eventually formed one of the greatest tag teams in history, the Brothers of Destruction.
Mick Foley vs. Triple H
Two of the biggest stars in WWE history couldn’t have been much more different than one another.
Triple H — short for Hunter Hearst Helmsley — entered the WWE as a blue-blood aristocratic character, and though he soon dropped that persona, his chiseled figure, hard-driving arrogance, and powerful connections (he’s married to McMahon’s daughter, Stephanie) have kept him in the upper-crust of pro wrestling for more than two decades.
Mick Foley, on the other hand, was scruffy and kooky. In WWE, he was mostly known as "Mankind," who began his run being portrayed as a deranged mental patient who yelled “Mommy” and abused himself, such was his love of pain. That he was missing most of an ear, from an earlier wrestling injury, only added to the effect.
Foley’s extreme gimmick mellowed out over time, as the amiable Foley couldn’t help but emerge. Still, the contrast with Triple H was incredibly pronounced, and their rivalry, which began with a violent championship match at "King of the Ring" in 1997. Triple H took control of the WWE soon after, and while their rivalry simmered for a few years, it picked up again with a storyline in which Foley got fired and then reinstated (and took on his Cactus Jack persona) for an all-time classic "Hell in a Cell" match at "No Way Out" in 2000.
Triple H vs. The Undertaker
While Triple H was the polar opposite of Foley, he was something like the corporeal version of The Undertaker, an authority figure who controlled the bright lights of the WWE in much the same way the Undertaker controlled the darkness.
It was war from their first match in 1996 when Triple H beat the Undertaker via disqualification in a bout held in Kuwait. Their rivalry spanned the globe, including a brawl in Manhattan’s Penn Station, and to the summit of the WWE’s marquee. They battled over and over again for the WWE Championship belt, with nearly every match featuring some kind of outside interference, such was their centrality to the ongoing kayfabe.
Taunts were traded and motorcycles were destroyed during the feud, the high point of which came at WrestleMania in 2012. The Undertaker had ended the in-ring wrestling career of Triple H’s best friend, Michaels, with a brutal beatdown that led to herniated discs years earlier. This match, a "Hell in a Cell" brawl, was refereed by Michaels, adding to the external excitement and piquing the emotions of the aging competitors themselves.
“When the end-of-an-era thing was brought up, for us it was kind of [for real]. It was the end of our run,” Triple H later said. “Probably the last time that all of us would be in a ring, especially at a WrestleMania like that, all together. It was a moment. And at the end of that last match, with Shawn as a referee, with the three of us standing on top of that stage, we turned around and looked back over that crowd; it was absolutely real and emotional. One of my favorite moments ever in the business, and I’ll never forget it.”
John Cena vs. Randy Orton
A quick glance at the two might lead you to believe that John Cena and Randy Orton are brothers, with only their choice of ring attire — the former in giant jean shorts, the latter in more traditional speedo tights — to set them apart. And fittingly, they’re the best of friends outside the ring, having spent several decades together rising through the ranks of the lower wrestling circuits and then on to WWE superstardom.
They eventually became two of the greatest wrestlers of the most recent WWE era, but their friendship didn’t carry over to the squared circle. They clashed in more than just their chosen ring attire style — Cena was the ultimate “face” wrestler, or fan-favorite good guy, while Orton played the “heel,” or the villain people loved to hate. The clash in personalities set them up to throw down in some of the most iconic matches of the last decade and a half. They have nearly 30 titles between them, and while they’re both on hiatus now, Cena and Orton could still headline any event.
Matt Hardy vs. Edge and Lita
As a family business that has always blended the personal and professional, the WWE has had plenty of storylines that involve real-life relationships. Few have been quite as personal as the rivalry between Matt Hardy and Edge in the early 2000s when the pair went from friends to fierce foes on-screen and off after a real-world betrayal.
Hardy, who with his brother Jeff formed the tag-team duo The Hardy Boyz, was a rising star in the circuit, a high-flying fan-favorite who made wrestling his life. For several years, he dated Amy Dumas, better known as "Lita" to the wrestling fans who adored her. A relationship built on ambition and a shared love of wrestling, however, began to fade when Dumas broke her neck and had to recuperate at home while Hardy stayed out on the road. Dumas found herself connecting with Adam Copeland, aka "Edge," who at the time was in a tag-team partnership with a wrestler named Christian.
When Hardy then wound up back at home, healing from an injury, Dumas and Copeland had a short affair.
“When Adam and I started to bond on such a deeper level as well as having the creative outlet with our careers and stuff, both of us, we were kind of like, ‘Oh s**t!’” she later reflected. “Like once we started to realize we were more than just two bros just hanging out. So the hard thing that has always been with this time period is we realized we were going down a path that we shouldn’t and what I mean by that is mentally.”
Hardy eventually caught wind of the affair, which not only ended his relationship with Dumas but also led to the dissolution of Copeland’s marriage. Hardy became erratic on screen and off, leading to the WWE’s decision to fire him… at least for a short time. The company brought him back later in 2005 and launched him into a vicious rivalry with Edge, with Lita as his manager, which fans ultimately learned was undergirded by their real drama. It was awkward and charged, though by that point Copeland and Dumas had called off their fling and Copeland did his best to extend an olive branch.
“You gotta be pros, and also, back to my point of finding positives when it doesn’t seem like there are any on the surface, you gotta dig underneath the surface, this was one of those. And you go, OK, we’re here, now what do we do?” he later explained. “Well, let’s try to make some money together, and let’s try to further both of our careers out of this, and hopefully out of this, we can not only be stronger performers, but stronger people too, and that usually doesn’t happen within the context of a wrestling storyline.”
At least they got some great cage matches out of it. And both men are now happily married. Lita retired soon after but was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2014.