Scott Steiner vs. HHH (c) – World Heavyweight Championship
It didn’t take long on this trek through HHH matches on the Vintage Vault Pre-Viewing before we encountered this match, one I was masochistically looking forward to rewatching. HHH has some ardent supporters on the internet (Hey Scott Criscuolo) but no one argues that this match is any good. Steiner returned amongst MSG going wild at Survivor Series and set his target as HHH immediately. The backstory involved HHH giving a grandstanding promo before being interrupted by Steiner. Steiner signs with the Raw brand but with the stipulation that he gets a world title match at Royal Rumble. This resulted in a couple of weeks of mano vs. mano contest including arm wrestling contests, posedowns and push-ups. This build up was very ego-infused and felt like two roid freaks at the gym trying to impress the new, cute yoga instructor. HHH even pulls a page out of his mentor Ric Flair’s book and gets stripped to his undies at the hands of Steiner. HHH enters first which is an odd choice. Steiner still gets a good reaction coming out even if it isn’t deafening. Earl Hebner lays down the law and says he isn’t putting up with any crap between HHH, Steiner or Flair.
A slugfest starts us off and Steiner is able to beat down HHH in the corner with chops and forearms. Scott then hits an impressive looking press slam and HHH bails to the outside. Steiner beats down HHH with punches on the outside that don’t look very impressive and he rams HHH into the ring post and guard rail. Steiner hits a suplex back into the ring gets the first nearfall of the match. Steiner remains focused on the back with short forearms. Steiner has dominated this match in the first few minutes. Boston crab is applied and I would have liked to have seen more fight from HHH as he is able to reach the ropes too easily. HHH’s first face buster is no sold by Steiner and HHH gets locked into the bearhug. Belly to belly suplex gets another two count. Steiner looks for the Steiner Recliner but Flair is able to pull HHH out of the ring to prevent that.
HHH is able to get a big boot up to stun Steiner running into the corner. HHH now sends Steiner to the outside and Scott gets sent shoulder first into the ring steps. HHH hits a swinging neckbreaker inside the ring. HHH stomps on Steiner in the corner and Flair chokes him out with his jacket. HHH hits another neckbreaker for a nearfall and this seems to be the focus of his attack. Unfortunately, the “cerebral” assassin fails to attack Steiner with any sense of urgency really hindering the match. HHH methodically places Steiner’s neck over the ropes and Flair shows more vigor going after it in interference. The first Pedigree attempt is reversed into a catapult into the corner.
Steiner hits a T-bone suplex but after a series of reversals, HHH hits yet another neckbreaker variation for a nearfall. In case you are wondering, HHH’s back damage from earlier is a forgotten premise as he fails to sell it at all instead opting for the exhaustion route. Steiner even gives him a belly to belly suplex right on the back again and nothing from The Game. Steiner hits some clotheslines and a back body drop again on the back. We then get the three belly-to-belly suplex spot and the crowd starts turning on the match. I do think this would have had more added emphasis if HHH would have sold the back damage better. I also think the crowd is wrongfully turning on the match. Steiner makes matters worse by botching a tiger driver and this match is now at the point of no return as far as the crowd is concerned.
A superplex gives Steiner another nearfall and HHH bails to the outside. Flair grabs the belt and says the hell with this as him and HHH walk to the outside. Steiner knocks down both and Flair is again much more animated than HHH wanting to fight. Steiner is able to hit HHH with the belt (HHH put his hands up badly) and HHH blades. Now, Steiner throws HHH’s head into the post and hits another belly to belly suplex. Ok Scott, find another move. HHH again sells this with minimal impact by getting right up and walking outside of the arena. HHH’s head gets bonked off the announce table and back into the ring we go. Steiner does a series of push-ups in front of HHH that is not a good idea for a babyface to do. Flair begs Hebner to stop the match due to the cut. HHH dumps Hebner out of the ring but Earl is wise to this game and refuses to call a DQ. Earl tries to steal the show for himself pulling an ump show right in front of the wrestlers. Another belly to belly suplex by Steiner. Sigh. HHH hits a shot to the balls and rolls up Steiner for a two count which felt like the first nearfall the crowd bit on. Desperate times call for sledgehammers and HHH retrieves his. I hate the psychology of this weapon so bad as it makes no sense for it to be at ringside. HHH hits Steiner with the hammer and the referee calls for the DQ amongst a chorus of boos. Steiner grabs the sledge and hits HHH and Flair. The crowd responds by taking a dump on Steiner and the match as a whole. The segment ends with Steiner having a Steiner Recliner locked on before the officials break it up. Ross says on commentary that if a rematch was to take place, Steiner would have to be favored.
The old narrative of this match is that HHH aspired to have an NWA style championship match and that Steiner was so blown up and couldn’t hang with him. I wholeheartedly disagree with this assessment. The match started with a more brawling tone and in fact never featured the type of progression from table-setting mat work, to body control segments to nearfalls featuring numerous pinning combinations that was the staple of NWA title matches from the days of Dory Funk, Terry Funk, Harley Race and Ric Flair. I did get the sense that they aspired for a Lex Luger vs. Ric Flair type narrative of Steiner being like Luger and having a clear dominance over the champion using his power as an advantage. I also don’t recall NWA title matches featuring this much interaction from the manager. Flair was feverous on the outside and seemed to channel Sensational Sherri with his amount of interaction into the match. JJ Dillon would interfere but played a more puppet master role than the crazed desperation Flair conveyed here.
Flair also had another opponent that would display his power advantage and have the champion begging off: Sting. Sting’s star making performance came in the 1988 Clash of the Champions main event. A match some reviewers give ***** (I’m nowhere near that personally). How many repeated spots did that match have? Granted, it was more than twice as long as this match but the repeated spots in that match were just as frequent as the belly to belly suplex in this match. In fact, I would say the belly to belly suplexes in this match were more relevant to the overall narrative of this match as they were focused on the back of HHH. Sting’s powerslams and constant no sells didn’t serve much purpose in the meta-focus of the match vs. Flair except to convey that he was able to go toe to toe with the champion. This begs the question of why that match is revered in many circles of wrestling fans and this one is looked at with disdain. My reasoning falls into the two parts. One, that match made Sting a star with a hot crowd. Two, Flair was really good in the Clash 1 match and HHH in this match was historically bad.
The crowd is the first talking point I will examine. Crowd reactions can certainly make and break perceptions for years to come. The Greensboro crowd hung through every one of Sting’s repetitions and he felt like a made man that hung with the champion for 45 minutes. Steiner was laughed at and humiliated in this match. His positive reaction coming out was replaced with anger and disgust 20 minutes later when he left. I would argue Steiner was presented as just as strong in this match as Sting was in the Clash match. This match lasted 18 minutes long and Steiner was on top for about 15 of those. He even gets the moral victory at the end of having HHH locked into his finisher hold with no escape for the champion. Crowds being wrong is a hot topic that has merits on both sides of the argument. However, I don’t think you can deny that the negativity displayed by the Boston crowd can negatively affect this match and make certain aspects of it even worse than they could have been if they weren’t just dead. Botched moves have happened in a lot of matches and this only has one gratuitous botch in the tiger driver that Steiner hits. Keep this thought in mind, this crowd openly boos three belly to belly suplexes in succession but gives a standing ovation 30 minutes later to a match that featured multiples series of german suplexes. What is the rationale?
Secondly, let’s examine the performances of both men. Steiner is not getting a pass as he turned in a fairly poor performance. He didn’t sell the neck and did a few mannerisms in the match that were decidedly heelish which is not smart for a babyface wanting to conquer the heel champion. I also do think he was winded in the match but not to the great degree that has been built up based on reputation throughout the years. On the positive side, despite the repetition of the belly to belly suplex, Steiner did mix in a lot of other moves and submissions targeting the back. Clubbing forearms, throwing HHH into the post, bearhugs, Steiner Recliners, tiger drivers, and belly to back suplexes. That is a good arsenal of varied attacks that made Steiner’s time on top not as treacherous as it could have been. A match with the babyface being in control this much of the time is a tough sell and varying attacks and moves is a positive that I look forward when evaluating the match.
All of this leads me to HHH, who I think was absolutely atrocious in this match. His attack on top was supposed to be focused on the neck but he intersperses generic kicks and punches. One of HHH’s biggest faults in my eyes throughout the years is that he really struggles in the connectors of the match. These aren’t the spots you will likely remember for years to come but they are little things interspersed into matches that make them flow and become great throughout the body of the match. The biggest problem I had with HHH in this match was his selling. This guy got creamed with hold after hold focusing on his back and didn’t move his hand to check on the damage once. Instead, he went with the marathon exhaustion sell that fails to put over his opponent as a serious threat. HHH trying to escape from the match felt hollow and a DQ finish can be used wisely but felt ultimately cheap here. There wasn’t any desperation with his mannerisms and again he was outshone by his manager at ringside. This is why the nearfalls applied by Steiner were given no reaction by the crowd and why the biggest nearfall of the match was HHH hitting the lowblow and roll up. A champion can be vulnerable and still be The Man. Just ask Ric Flair. HHH can retrospectively blame some parts of this match on Steiner being blown up and lost in the ring, but he can’t ask Steiner to sell for him when HHH failed in every aspect of that key component in this match.
This match has been raked through the coals. Negative ratings abound when reading reviews of Royal Rumble 2003. One of the lesser aspects of this match that works against it is also expectations. I would certainly argue that this match is stronger than the Undertaker vs. Kane match at Judgment Day 1998. In four plus years, the wrestling fan had been conditioned to expect a championship match to have a certain amount of workrate behind it. This match at best was part of a triple main event of this show with the Rumble and the Angle/Benoit grudge match for the WWE Championship. I won’t argue this match is good, but much like the hated Kronik match from Unforgiven 2001, I don’t think it is THAT bad. There was more body control work within this match than plenty of heavily hyped matches. On the surface, the psychology within the match was fair. The match was just a faltering of bad performances, a turned crowd, and increasing expectations by the fans. Scott Steiner would never be seen as a main event player again.
Final Grade: **