WrestleMania is the cherry on top of the WWE's year -- a season finale, if you will, as a year's worth of escapades build up to the biggest matches and most memorable moments that fans will remember forever. While certain matches seem set in stone as much as a year out, some rivalries don't really begin until well after the Royal Rumble is in the books.
The "Road to WrestleMania" takes many twists and turns along the way, between pay-per-views like Fastlane and Elimination Chamber and two key months' worth of TV on "Monday Night Raw" and "Smackdown Live." The end result is a breeding ground for some of the most iconic matches in WrestleMania history.
So for those fretting the fates of the favorite superstars with just a few weeks to go before WrestleMania 34, perhaps these examples can offer a little bit of hope.
The Rock vs. Stone Cold Steve Austin
At No Way Out in 2003, Stone Cold Steve Austin made his first appearance since quitting the WWE seven months prior, in a match against "Raw" general manager Eric Bischoff. The next night on "Monday Night Raw," there was a 20-man battle-royal in which the winner would get to challenge Triple H at WrestleMania for the World Heavyweight Championship.
During that match, The Rock slid under the bottom rope and hopped onto commentary while still technically in the match, and directly called out Austin, talking about all the reasons he wanted one more shot at Austin at WrestleMania. After sending some unrepeatable verbal low blows in Austin's direction, Rock returned to the ring only to be the last person eliminated, by Booker T.
The next week on "Raw," Bischoff offered The Rock an opportunity to face Booker T that night, with the stipulation that if he won he could choose to take the title shot away from Booker T or face Stone Cold at WrestleMania for the third time, having lost in two previous WrestleManias. Through somewhat convoluted means, including a match that involved The Hurricane beating The Rock, the WrestleMania date was set -- and in the weeks leading up to their final major match, Austin and Rock instantly reignited old tensions.
It's hard to find two men with more chemistry, history and tension between them than Rock and Austin. While this was the third WrestleMania where they crossed paths, there was nothing stale about this match. There was little to separate them throughout the match, and neither competitor had an obvious advantage. In the end, it was finally The Rock's time to win, after dropping the first two WrestleMania matches to Austin. But this match represented the end of an era for both of them; it was the final match of Steve Austin's career, and the beginning of the end for The Rock, who'd wrestle only three more times before stepping away from the ring for more than seven years.
The Rock vs. Hulk Hogan
After leaving the WWE in 1993 for WCW, Hulk Hogan was gone for almost a decade before making his return to the company at No Way Out in February 2002. With his nWo comrades by his side, Hogan approached The Rock backstage that night, telling The Rock that he was his son's favorite wrestler and asked him for a photo. The Rock obliged, but not without insulting every member along the way. It was a short, sweet segment, but sometimes that's all you need when you have two icons involved.
In one corner you had The Rock, coming in hot as his Hollywood career was just starting to take off. In the other you had Hulk Hogan, making his first WrestleMania appearance in nine years. The atmosphere for this match between icons from two different eras was absolutely electric before the two men even touched, and worth watching just for the crowd reactions inside of the Toronto Skydome.
But then something the WWE hadn't anticipated happened. Despite Hogan being brought back in with the nWo as part of a Vince McMahon ploy to drive Ric Flair out of his ownership stake, Hogan was instantly embraced by the WWE fans. It changed the way the match played out, with The Rock playing the de facto villain, and even though Hogan ultimately lost, you couldn't tell based on the moment he enjoyed afterwards. After Hogan soaked up the cheers from the crowd, he and The Rock shook hands; it ultimately changed the direction the nWo was headed in too, as the handshake didn't sit well with Scott Hall and Kevin Nash. The pair ran out and attacked Hogan, but Rock then stepped up to help defend his former foe.
In just one match, Hogan went from villain to resuming his role as one of the most beloved good guys in WWE.
Daniel Bryan vs Triple H
On the March 10, 2014, episode of "Monday Night Raw," Daniel Bryan welcomed a crowd made up of fans into the ring to stage a sit-in that was called "Occupy Raw." While it seems almost counter-intuitive to stage a peaceful protest to demand a fight with a company executive, it worked; Triple H charged out to the ring and gave in to all of Bryan's demands. He got a match with Triple H at WrestleMania XXX, and if he could win, he'd earn his way into the WWE world heavyweight championship main event against Randy Orton and Batista.
From the moment Triple H first cost Bryan that title at Summerslam in 2013, which ultimately led to Bryan being shuffled to the back of the line in the world title picture, fans had gotten louder and louder by the week in voicing their displeasure. Triple H orchestrated attacks and conspiracies throughout the months that followed, but it appeared as though the calls would go unanswered. Then, just a few weeks out from WrestleMania, Bryan finally got the opportunity that he and fans around the world all desired.
This match opened the show, and started with Triple H entering on a throne, dressed in a red cape and surrounded by three similarly attired women (who happened to be future women's champions Sasha Banks, Alexa Bliss and Charlotte Flair). He was the king sitting on the throne of the WWE, and did not intend to let his grip on the company slip. Triple H was dominant through the entire match, focusing his offense on Bryan's arm, but then the unthinkable happened -- Triple H set up the pedigree, but Bryan countered out of it, hit the ropes and struck Triple H in the face with his running knee to win.
Later in the night, Bryan cashed in on his opportunity by earning a submission victory over Batista. After winning the WWE championship, the capacity crowd at the Superdome chanted "Yes!" and threw their hands into the air in celebration, in what instantly became one of the most memorable moments in WWE history.
CM Punk vs. The Undertaker
Long before The Undertaker's WrestleMania undefeated streak grew to 20-0 after his second straight win over Triple H at WrestleMania XXVIII, challengers were lining up to try to become the first person to defeat him on wrestling's grandest stage. On the March 4, 2013, edition of "Monday Night Raw," CM Punk threw down his own challenge, as he and Paul Heyman walked to the ring with microphones in hand. Punk expressed how he was mad at the fans for stripping him of the WWE championship (after he lost to the Rock at the Royal Rumble) and the WrestleMania main event that accompanied it. To get back at them, Punk said that he needed to take something the fans cherished: the Undertaker's streak at WrestleMania.
Randy Orton, Big Show and Sheamus all came out in succession saying that they, too, wanted a shot at the undefeated streak, and so naturally, Raw general manager Vickie Guerreo booked a Fatal 4-way for that night to determine who would face The Undertaker at WrestleMania. CM Punk won, but the hook for the match seemed to be tenuous at best -- until tragedy struck the following day as The Undertaker's longtime manager, Paul Bearer, died.
The rivalry was taken to the line of good taste, and in the minds of some fans went over it, with CM Punk's actions the following week on Raw. Punk rudely interrupted The Undertaker's tribute to Paul Bearer, and Punk immediately made it clear that he was going to go as low as he needed to go to try to gain a psychological edge. In the weeks to come, Punk stole an urn that was purported to carry the deceased Bearer's ashes, used it as a weapon against The Undertaker's (storyline) brother, Kane, and poured the "ashes" of Paul Bearer onto a fallen Undertaker.
The build to this rivalry is arguably the most controversial on the list, but it ultimately led to a big payoff once they reached their match at WrestleMania 29. This was the peak of CM Punk at his most evil, and Paul Heyman carrying the urn to the ring was a tremendous final touch. Each time Punk tries to pin Taker and failed, Heyman was there to shout some variation of "That was two seconds, you're one second away from defeating the streak." Undertaker would ultimately win the match and extend his streak to 21-0, and while Punk's challenge was stifled, Heyman would be back the following year in New Orleans -- and Brock Lesnar would ultimately get the job done.
Shane McMahon vs. Vince McMahon
The go-home Raw before WrestleMania X-Seven was one of the most significant episodes in the show's 25-year history. Vince McMahon announced at the top of the program that he intended to buy WCW and that the show would be a simulcast as both Raw and WCW Monday Nitro would be playing at the same time.
Vince McMahon fortified his position as the ultimate heel in the wrestling business by buying out his competition, or so he thought. At the end of the show, and just days before WrestleMania, Vince's son Shane came out on the Nitro broadcast in Panama City Beach, Florida, to announce that a McMahon's name was on the contract to purchase -- but it wasn't Vince's, it was Shane's. This struck the ultimate blow to a family already in a fragile state, with Shane and Vince already scheduled for a street fight at WrestleMania X-Seven. However, this feud was not limited to just father and son; the entire saga between the two stemmed from Vince's alleged infidelity with Trish Stratus, and by WrestleMania, she, Stephanie McMahon, Linda McMahon, and Mick Foley (who became the special guest referee) all got involved.
Generally, fans want to see wrestlers wrestle, and fans have occasionally chafed at various members of the McMahon family inserting themselves in matches and rivalries. But when it comes to a street fight, and a chance to see Vince and Shane pummel each other, there were few such complaints. The match itself was absolutely brutal, but impossible not to watch. It felt special because of all of the moving pieces. Stephanie, who had originally sided with her brother, saved her dad from Shane's diving elbow drop onto the Spanish announce table. Stratus brought Linda, in a wheel chair and "comatose," out to the ring. The match swung after Linda got up and delivered a shocking low blow to Vince -- a WrestleMania moment in its own right -- and Foley, who had been "fired" from his on-screen role as commissioner by Vince, eventually picked sides. Shane eventually won, but this was not the final chapter of the family drama or WCW sale by a long shot.