What do 30 years of WrestleMania and the NCAA Basketball Tournament have in common? Find out in part six of this ten-part series.
Just last year, fans of World Wrestling Entertainment enjoyed watching the company’s 30th edition of their grandest annual event: WrestleMania. But no matter how many millions of fans get WrestleMania fever for these past 30 outings, just as many (if not more) are simultaneously in the thick of NCAA Basketball Tournament action known the world over as “March Madness,” arguably the most enjoyable three weeks in all of sports. But what about those fans that are one and the same? As a die-hard fan of both professional wrestling and college basketball (to the point that is almost sickly), there is a tremendous range of emotions and thoughts that I go through every year as WWE wrestlers gear up and step up to the biggest stage in all of pro wrestling at the very same time that college basketball’s finest follow suit in their respective dream: Going to the Final Four and winning the national championship.
Many times (20 of the 30, to be exact), the Final Four or national semi-finals has taken place the Saturday night before WrestleMania and the national championship final has done so the Monday after wrestling’s biggest show. There are some basketball moments in certain years that I have cherished more than the WrestleMania ones, and vice versa in other years, but I have always wondered to myself: Where is the connection? What has gravitated me towards both of these events so prominently over the years, with deep obsession and anticipation for the final match or final game, and left me coming back for more? What does Villanova’s upset over Georgetown and the very first WrestleMania have in common? How about the Bret/Shawn rivalry and the Pitino/Calipari rivalry? What made Rey Mysterio and George Mason such great underdogs in the same year? What about those B-plus players, Daniel Bryan and Shabazz Napier? Get ready to find out as we journey, year-by-year, through 30 years of shining moments and WrestleMania moments.
Final Four (April 1) Florida d. North Carolina, Michigan State d. Wisconsin
WrestleMania 2000 (April 2)
National Championship Final (April 3) Michigan State d. Florida
When it comes to the first NCAA Tournament and WrestleMania of the next century, as we braced for what was yet to come, both events have become noted in history by who did not perform rather than who actually did. For the WWF, despite the still-climbing popularity of its product being higher than ever, the company had to make plans for WrestleMania 2000 without its biggest star Stone Cold Steve Austin, who had to sit out a year due to major neck surgery. While losing a mega star like Austin who helped save the company was a major blow to the WWF roster, the company had clearly distanced themselves from WCW on Monday nights (and even Thursday nights on UPN’s Smackdown) to the point that many declared the Monday Night War unofficially over before the white flag was waved in Atlanta. There were a lot of things done right and wrong that contributed to the WWF’s dominance going into WrestleMania 2000 (the sixteenth edition of the event), but one thing that benefited the company greatly was its youth, no-fear attitude, and depth in talent.
There was no better example of all three of those qualities in the WWF than the tag team scene at the time, which included the vibrant Hardy Boys, former ECW alumni the Dudleys, and Canadian misfits Edge and Christian. While it was important to build characters and mold storylines for premiere talents like HHH, The Rock, and Kurt Angle in Austin’s absence, the WWF’s three tag teams, knowing that they couldn’t win over the fans simply on the microphone, had the mindset of stealing the show every night. WrestleMania 2000 is maligned by many as one of the only middling pay-per-views in a year where the WWF was at the top of its game both in the ring, delivering one great show after another, and by the numbers, with record ratings and a lucrative TV deal with Viacom coming down the pipe. But regardless of all the big names and future studs at the top of the WrestleMania card, the match that every fans would mention in awe coming out of the arena in Anaheim, CA, was the dangerous, death-defying Triangle Ladder Match between the Hardys, Dudleys and Edge & Christian. As Austin was forced to sit on the sidelines, fans were waiting for a hero in many ways, but little did we know that we would get six at one time on equal footing (or, should I say, flying). By the time they were done feuding with one another a couple years later, all three tag teams were as well respected as the superstars that hovered around the main event.
As for the NCAA Tournament, there is no constant transcendent figure like a Steve Austin on the court for any longer than one or two seasons in this century, but in the 1999-2000 season, that figure was embodied by Cincinnati power forward Kenyon Martin, the national player of the year and as imposing a defensive force as amateurs could face. Martin led Cincinnati to a #1 overall ranking in 12 of the 17 weekly AP rankings heading into their Conference USA tournament. It was there, however, that Martin broke his right leg and was done for the season. Bob Huggins’ Bearcats went from Goliath to sitting duck as they lost quickly in the NCAA’s to a Tulsa team coached by Bill Self. Just as Austin’s presence was felt even more strongly in his absence at WrestleMania 2000, K-Mart’s absence in the NCAA Tournament was an open invitation for some young guns to step up and prove their worth. That is exactly what we got out of the two schools that met in the championship final between Michigan State and Florida. There is never a shortage of youth and want-to when it comes to the players on a college team, and it just so happened that three of them (Mateen Cleaves, Morris Peterson, and Charlie Bell) all grew up together in Flint, MI, dreaming of being the ones who listen to “One Shining Moment” as NCAA Champions for their Michigan neighborhoods.
Nicknamed the “Flint-Stones,” Cleaves, Peterson, and Bell (along with diaper dandy Jason Richardson, who grew up in nearby Saginaw) were not only ready to make the locals proud at Michigan State, but they had the talent to pull it off, having already made the Final Four the year before. Now with both Cincinnati and Pac-10 power Stanford eliminated in the second round, Tom Izzo was ready to see these state stars turn into national stars in Indianapolis as they beat conference foe Wisconsin in the Final Four to play a scrappy Florida team in the national title game. Florida’s coach was Billy Donovan. Donovan had been a dead-eye shooter at Providence and coaching disciple under Rick Pitino when the Friars went to the Final Four in 1987. This time, Donovan did win his semi-final match-up against North Carolina before meeting the Spartans for all the marbles. Who better than a guy nicknamed “Billy the Kid” to begin a legacy as one of college basketball’s most decorated coaches in 2000, just as three kids from Flint, MI, looked to make good on a promise they shared with one another before they were even in high school?
In this case, Izzo’s kids beat out Billy the Kid’s kids as Michigan State defeated Florida 89-76 to win what remains the Big Ten’s last national championship so far. The lasting image is of Cleaves, who had lost in the Final Four last season and dreamed as a kid of listening to “One Shining Moment,” crying in Izzo’s embrace. Billy Donovan had once been the top point guard for a Final Four team, but fell short just as he did in his first trip there as a head coach (He obviously would be back some time soon). But while there is a beauty every year in watching wide-eyed kids with talent and imagination find their way on the national spotlight, it was even more rewarding in the year 2000. The same could be said about kids like Jeff Hardy and Matt Hardy, who had practiced wrestling in their backyards in North Carolina watching Shawn Michaels and Razor Ramon in the first WrestleMania ladder match dreaming of being that high flyer at the center of awe. Shawn may have coined the phrase years before, but in 2000, in victory and defeat, the boyhood dream really did come true for many.
Final Four (March 31) Arizona d. Michigan State, Duke d. Maryland
WrestleMania X-7 (April 1)
National Championship Final (April 2) Duke d. Arizona
In the 1996 edition of Mania Madness, the correlation between Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels and Rick Pitino and John Calipari focused on the subject of rivalries and what is needed to make a great rivalry. Longevity is definitely one part of that equation, and when it comes to coaches like Pitino and Cal, there is a lot of background to work with because great coaches at big schools can almost seem as institutional as the team’s colors are. Because of the fact that players usually spend four years at most in the college basketball world, the possibility of an elite rivalry or familiarity between players from different schools is the most difficult element to cook up, especially in an era where great players rarely stay after just one season. The same goes, in a weird way, for professional wrestlers and even the biggest names in its pantheon. Sure, we will always look back fondly at the legends like Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage, Ric Flair, and The Undertaker for their longevity and timeless ability to draw fans into the building, but there is no doubt that all athletes reach some sort of prime, whether it be in terms of work rate, popularity, or self-confidence. No one knows when the twilight is coming, but when it does, it makes you remember not just the good times but the best times.
Rivalries between combatants don’t end as much as they slowly dissolve over time. For the Duke Blue Devils and Maryland Terrapins, the rivalry had a more definitive end as Maryland took the big money and ran to the Big Ten, leaving behind decades of rich history in the Atlantic Coast Conference, where Duke’s basketball team has been a perennial power for ages. For Steve Austin and The Rock, for all the laughter and friendship exuded between the two at WrestleMania XXX in their epic meet-up with Hulk Hogan in the Mercedes Benz Superdome, the blood, pain, and tensions was equally as thick at the Houston Astrodome 13 years earlier at WrestleMania X-Seven. As much as I love college basketball, it is simply unfair to compare what a Duke-Maryland game in 2001 meant to college hoops fans to what WrestleMania X-Seven, perhaps the greatest WrestleMania of all time in many ways, meant to wrestling fans. Merely weeks after ECW closed shop and Vince McMahon bought WCW to officially end the Monday Night War as pro wrestling’s supreme ruler, the WWF was still at the peak of its powers and flexed every muscle it had at the 17th annual event in Houston, TX, with a series of great matches, great moments, and a main event to die for. It is hard to tell when things began to taper downward for Austin or Rock after their second of three meetings at WrestleMania, but their bloody, violent, nail-biter of a WWF Championship match was definitely a showcase of the biggest stars of the Attitude Era at their very best. It was almost serendipitous to see these two transcendent mega stars at the lead of the WWF’s most acclaimed performance.
Austin, in a quintessential moment during a sit down interview leading up to the match on Smackdown, uttered the words that would echo in the minds of wrestling fans forever as he stared at The Rock, who held the WWF gold at the time: “I need to beat you, Rock. I need it more than anything that you could ever imagine.” Whether or not Austin made the right decision in joining forces with the hated Mr. McMahon in his obsession to win back the title from The Rock was overstepped by the shock and outright ballsiness of Austin’s “heel turn.” But it was Austin’s words that turned out to be more ominous than we as fans could possibly imagine, and they stayed with us long after WrestleMania was over. That same deadly obsession to win between two familiar forces, no matter what barriers stood in the way, was very prevalent when Duke and Maryland duked it out during the 2000-01 season. Duke had a team to die for with Wooden Award winner Shane Battier, star guard Jay Williams, and other NBA’ers like Carlos Boozer, Mike Dunleavy Jr. and Chris Duhon. There were strong contenders in an historically tough ACC at that time, but Maryland had quite the punch themselves with Juan Dixon, Steve Blake, Byron Mouton, and Lonnie Baxter. Certainly, like the WWF peaking as a company, there were a lot of great teams like defending champ Michigan State and a loaded Arizona team in the early game for the Final Four in the Metrodome in Minneapolis. But after three scintillating games in ACC play between the two (Including one of my favorite games during my college years, Duke’s miracle minute at Maryland to force overtime and eventually win), the hype was high on Duke and Maryland’s fourth and final meeting in the evening slot after Duke won 2 games to 1 in the regular season and ACC tournament.
Rarely do you get two conference foes and major schools with talented and experienced teams battling one another time after time in college hoops, but the basketball gods were shining on us in 2001. Like Rock and Austin going on last in the Astrodome, Duke and Maryland played in their primes in prime time at the Metrodome, with Maryland taking a 39-17 lead early on before Duke roared back for a 95-84 win, one of the highest scoring games in Final Four history and still the greatest comeback in Final Four history. Battier and Williams would go on to beat Arizona in the national final to help head coach Mike Krzyzewski win his third trophy, but as competitive and talented that match-up was, I will never forget the competitive drive, spectacular level of play, and fierce rivalry that the Blue Devils and Terrapins displayed in 2001. Duke was a great team that year, but it took another great team like Maryland to push them beyond even their best, to do whatever it possibly took to beat Maryland. Steve Austin sealed his comeback from injury in victory, but it was his desperation to win the WWF title again, and beat his greatest in-ring rival in doing so, that thickened the drama. How badly did Duke and Maryland want to beat each other in 2001? More than you could possibly imagine.
WrestleMania X-8 (March 17)
Final Four (March 30) Indiana d. Oklahoma, Maryland d. Kansas
National Championship Final (April 1) Maryland d. Indiana
After an amazing set of games that truly set them apart from the field, ACC powers Duke and Maryland both went into the 2001-02 season as prohibitive favorites at #1 and #2 respectively to get back to the Final Four in Atlanta’s Georgia Dome. While Maryland had everyone back except for Terrence Morris, Duke lost Nate James and Naismith Award winner Shane Battier but still had four future NBA players in Carlos Boozer, Mike Dunleavy Jr., Chris Duhon, and Naismith candidate point guard Jason Williams. In his junior season, Williams was the best point man to roam the college ranks since Mateen Cleaves at Michigan State. Duke stayed at the top spot in the AP rankings all the way until late February, when they lost on the road to the equally loaded Terrapins, who had a bevy of guards in Juan Dixon, Steve Blake, and Drew Nicholas alongside bigs Chris Wilcox and Lonny Baxter. But one team that turned this elite face-off into a three-way dance at the top was Roy Williams’ Kansas Jayhawks with their best team since Paul Pierce and Raef LaFrentz were still walking the campus. While Williams and Dixon battled each other for ACC supremacy, the Naismith Award winner in 2002 was Kansas’ Drew Gooden, who patrolled the paint with Nick Collison, Keith Langford, and Jeff Boschee. Add future pros Kirk Hinrich and Wayne Simien to the equation, and it shouldn’t surprise you that Kansas took the top spot after Duke fell to Maryland.
Because there were three elite teams at the top of the class, two of them were going to wind up on one side of the NCAA Tournament sheet, and that is what happened when Kansas was the 1 seed in the Midwest while Maryland topped off the East. It seemed like Duke had the easiest route back to the Final Four in the South region until one of the most memorable upsets in tournament history occurred in Rupp Arena when the Blue Devils (and a missed free throw in the final seconds by Williams) collapsed against a scrappy Indiana team. The Hoosiers, led by Jared Jeffries and coached by Mike Davis, launched that momentum into the Final Four and even beat a good Oklahoma team to get to the national title game for the first time since 1987. But while Duke did not hold up their end of the bargain, Kansas and Maryland did, comfortably winning their regions to set up an epic match up in the evening game of the national semi-finals in Atlanta. There have been plenty of occasions in which fans and media alike have geared up for a game that did not officially determine the champion but certainly pitted the best teams against one another. It happened in 1974 when David Thompson’s NC State Wolfpack went to overtime against Bill Walton’s UCLA Bruins, in 1983 when the Doctors of Dunk faced off with Phi Slamma Jamma in the Pit, or in 1996 when Rick Pitino’s Cats played John Calipari’s Minutemen.
It happens more often than not that a sensational upset early in the tournament steals the show and the heavily hyped games fall short of expectations. Kansas and Maryland definitely met the hype as Kansas fell apart early in the second half only to storm back before Maryland thwarted them off (thanks in large part to Dixon’s 33 points) for a 97-88 victory. There was still a title game to be played against Indiana, which Maryland won 64-52 to win the school its only national title, but most people were talking about that 1-seed-versus-1-seed semi-final with bated breath. Meanwhile, two weeks earlier, the WWF went into WrestleMania X-8 in a dome of their own in the Toronto SkyDome for their big event but had a similar dilemma at the top of their potential card. There has always been a traditional notion that the championship match should go last, that the title means more than anything else in the WWF regardless of the opponents. Those combatants were Triple H, coming back from a torn quad injury, and Chris Jericho, who had become the first ever Undisputed Champion after unifying the WWF and WCW titles in December. While a beloved wrestler who had earned a chance at the top spot, Jericho was depicted as a sheep in wolf’s clothing who lucked into his throne much like Mike Davis did while coaching the famed Indiana Hoosiers to the title game. It felt even more like that when both Jericho and Davis’ team predictably fell to the higher powers.
The blame can equally be thrown around at the creative team as to why Jericho and Triple H’s championship match finished WrestleMania X-8 with a whimper, but it was going to be impossible to top the visceral boisterousness from the SkyDome crowd only an hour earlier when “Hollywood” Hulk Hogan, in his first WrestleMania match since 1993, returned to the WWF donning nWo colors to face The Rock. There was no actual title or balance of power on the line, but Hogan and Rock’s match was billed as Icon vs. Icon, a once-in-a-lifetime match between two pillars of their generations and a match in star power we had not seen at a WrestleMania since Hogan lost to the Ultimate Warrior at the same SkyDome 12 years earlier. Hogan lost this match, as well, shaking Rock’s hand in defeat, but the fans, reaching for any type of nostalgia after years of continuous Monday night warfare, were more than ready to fully embrace Hulkamania. The fandom was so strong that it revitalized Hulk Hogan’s wrestling career, creating one of the quintessential WrestleMania “moments.” Just like in the 2002 NCAA Tournament, the encounter we were waiting to see (and actually got) was not the one that put everything to a close. Sometimes you don’t always have to save the best things for last