Thursday, March 10, 2016

Top Ten Thursday: WrestleMania Matches

With WrestleMania season upon us, it seems only fitting that my latest top ten feature my picks for the top ten matches in the history of the "Show of Shows". Considering it has spanned 31 years and featured the biggest stars in the industry, it was extremely hard to narrow this down. Matches that I love like Daniel Bryan vs. Triple H, Edge vs. The Undertaker, Macho Man vs. Hulk Hogan and Roddy Piper vs. Bret Hart, are all missing from the list. This is based on pure match quality. Hogan/Andre was a massive deal and had a great moment, but it's not on this list because the match itself isn't great in my eyes.

10. Retirement Match: Randy Savage vs. Ultimate Warrior – WrestleMania VII

Sometimes, all a match needs to really put it way over the top is some good old fashioned emotion. At WrestleMania VII in Los Angeles, one match stood above all. Randy Savage took on the Ultimate Warrior in a high stakes match where the loser would be forced to retire. Savage in the midst of a heel run as the Macho King and he cost Warrior the WWF Title a few months prior, setting this encounter up. The little things about this match, right from the start, totally stood out. From Ultimate Warrior’s fantastic jacket to seeing Elizabeth in the crowd, it all worked perfectly. The crowd was on the edge of their seat throughout the entire match and reacted to each and every near fall. Ultimate Warrior’s best opponent throughout his career was, hands down, the Macho Man. Something about these two just clicked in a manner that others couldn’t match. Savage hit FIVE of his patented elbow drops but it somehow wasn’t enough to keep the Warrior down. After Savage kicked out of his signature stuff, Warrior ended his career (temporarily) with three shoulder blocks. This was a situation where the post-match stuff added to it as Queen Sherri attacked Savage until Elizabeth hopped the guardrail to stop her. It led to one of the most emotional moments in wrestling history as Savage and Elizabeth reunited and fans all around the world cried tears of joy.

9. WWF Intercontinental Championship Ladder Match: Razor Ramon (c) vs. Shawn Michaels – WrestleMania X

The Ladder match that kind of changed everything. Sure the WWF put on at least one Ladder match before this, but this was the first one on a major stage. Shawn Michaels reigned as Intercontinental Champion but had the title stripped by President Jack Tunney. Remember when authority figures were just a guy that rarely appeared on TV to make decisions? Behind the scenes, there were rumors that he was in talks with WCW during a contract negotiation. Razor won the vacant title and when Michaels returned, he began carrying around his own Intercontinental Title and saying he was still the rightful champion. Both titles were hung high above the ring at Madison Square Garden and the two men proceeded to have a classic. Looking back, a lot of people that weren’t watching at that time may not understand the hype. We’ve seen some incredibly athletic things done in Ladder matches since then but this was groundbreaking. They beat the hell out of each other with the ladder, while making both the careers of both the winner, Razor Ramon and especially the loser, Shawn Michaels. Both guys were stars, but without this match, they may not reach that next level. Not only one of the best matches ever but it’s also one of the most influential.

8. Kurt Angle vs. Shawn Michaels – WrestleMania 21 

Yes people, Shawn Michaels will appear on this list more than anyone else. During the 2005 Royal Rumble, Kurt Angle was a favorite to win but was eliminated by Shawn Michaels. He hopped back in and attacked Michaels. The feud was only built on that though. Angle went all the way back to nearly a decade earlier when he won the Olympic gold medal, only to hear everyone raving about a guy named Shawn Michaels wrestling for an hour at WrestleMania. The match was highly anticipated and ended up stealing the show on a very strong WrestleMania from Los Angeles. This was two of the very best to ever lace up a pair of wrestling boots going out and having a classic. The intensity that Angle display throughout the contest is unmatched. You truly believe that the story he told about hearing so much about Michaels after winning the gold medal really ate away at him. You believed that the match meant the world to him. It wasn’t something that happened often, but Michaels ended up tapping out, giving the win to Angle. They would rematch this later in the year and it would be great, but nothing tops their first match for me.

7. WWF Championship: The Rock (c) vs. Steve Austin – WrestleMania X-Seven 

Throughout the history of WrestleMania, there are only two trilogies. The Undertaker vs. Triple H and the Rock vs. Steve Austin. For my money, Rock vs. Austin is the far better trilogy. This match, which closed out arguably the greatest WrestleMania of all-time, was their best effort. Their WrestleMania XV match two years earlier was really good and their final match two years after was truly great. Everything worked masterfully here. The molten hot crowd in Houston was rabid and heavily in favor of their home state guy, Steve Austin. These two had met so much in the past that their chemistry worked so well. They had the epitome of the WWF main event style match for that era. The last minute no disqualification stipulation gave them the freedom to wow everyone. If it wasn’t for the finish, this would rank higher and be a perfect five star match for me. Vince McMahon showed up and aligned himself with Austin, who turned heel and beat the holy hell out of the Rock. It made sense for the story of Austin being willing to do anything to become champion again, but the crowd, especially the one that night, wanted no part of a heel Austin. Even with that ending, this was, in my opinion, the best WWF/E Championship match in WrestleMania history.

6. World Heavyweight Championship: Triple H (c) vs. Chris Benoit vs. Shawn Michaels – WrestleMania XX 

It seems like every tenth WrestleMania is a night for the fans of good old fashioned technical wrestling. WrestleMania X closed with Bret Hart as the WWF Champion and XXX ended with Daniel Bryan on top of the world. Smack dab in the middle of those events was WrestleMania XX, held in the historic Madison Square Garden. Chris Benoit, one of the best technicians in history, won the Royal Rumble from the number one spot (in a far better performance than HBK winning from #1 in 1995). Shawn Michaels, on that same night, went to a draw with World Champion Triple H and found a way to inset himself into the title match at Mania. The match itself was given the headlining position and they more than delivered. Three of the best ever went out and put on one of the best Triple Threat matches I’ve ever witnessed and possibly the best in WWE history. After thirty minutes of back and forth action, Benoit realized his dream of becoming World Champion by making Triple H submit. The image of Benoit and then WWE Champion Eddie Guerrero standing tall to close out the biggest show of the year is still one of my favorite moments in WrestleMania history.

5. WWF Intercontinental Championship: Randy Savage (c) vs. Ricky Steamboat – WrestleMania III 

The earliest match on this list is still considered by many to be the best in WrestleMania history. In front of a record crowd in Pontiac, Michigan, Ricky Steamboat and Randy Savage went toe to toe and wowed that audience. This was the first WrestleMania done in a stadium as opposed to a traditional arena, giving it a much bigger feel. The show was moving along and proved to be good, but this took it over the top. This wasn’t just a traditional Intercontinental Title match either. It was personal after Savage crushed Steamboat’s throat with the ring bell during a televised match they had. The amount of near falls in this match had to be some kind of record. Almost every minute saw at least one close call and the fans ate up every single one of them. Steamboat used a small package to not only get his revenge but become the Intercontinental Champion. The storyline, build and execution of this entire thing was just so well done. Some people believe this is the greatest match ever and, while I disagree, I wouldn’t argue too hard against it.

4. WWF Tag Team Championship TLC Match: The Dudley Boyz (c) vs. Edge & Christian vs. The Hardy Boyz – WrestleMania X-Seven 

One of only two WrestleManias to make the list twice. At WrestleMania X-Seven, not only was the main event a classic, but the Tag Team Title match was even better. At WrestleMania 2000 a year earlier, these three tag teams ushered in a new era with a tremendous Triangle Ladder match. Later that year, they had the first ever Tables, Ladders and Chairs match at SummerSlam and they somehow bested themselves. The WWE decided that if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it. They went with the match again in TLC II. In a move that I did not expect in any possible way, these six men topped themselves yet again. They called back to their previous matches and did thing that not only were high stakes, but they did them all in original ways that were seamless. Sometimes in matches like this, you get botches or just moves that don’t come out right but everything was perfect in this one. The added dimension of each team having a third, Lita, Rhyno and Spike Dudley, only gave this that little something extra to put it over the top. Edge and Christian pulled down the titles to win the third Ladder match between these teams, sweeping them for the year.

3. Bret Hart vs. Owen Hart – WrestleMania X 

To this day, this remains the best opening contest I have ever witnessed. Bret Hart is one of my all-time favorites. Everything Bret did was practically flawless and he was truly one of the best in history. His little brother, Owen Hart, was nearly as good, but also had an all-around game that was even better than Bret. He had a charisma and high flying ability that allowed him to stand out among the Hart family. This storyline featured brilliant long term booking. At the Survivor Series, Owen started to show that he was jealous of the attention Bret got, which led to him infamously turning on Bret at the Royal Rumble. Bret didn’t want to wrestle Owen but finally gave in, leading to this match. According to an interview Bret gave on the 30 Years of WrestleMania podcast, he and Owen had planned several high spots but had to change them after knowing the kind of match that Razor and Shawn would have later on. The fact that they had to redo their ideas and still put on one of the best matches I’ve ever seen is a testament to how good these guys were. Owen eked out a win over Bret, solidifying himself as a star, while Bret went on to win the WWF Title later in the show. This was not only wrestling done right, but it was pitch perfect booking.

2. Shawn Michaels vs. The Undertaker – WrestleMania XXV 

The Undertaker and Shawn Michaels are synonymous with WrestleMania. Shawn is the greatest performer in the history of the Show of Shows, while the Undertaker went undefeated for over 20 years. With the Undertaker standing at 16-0, Shawn Michaels set his sights on the streak. Mr. WrestleMania was the perfect choice to really threaten it. Add in the fact that Shawn and Undertaker had classic matches in the past (including the best Hell in a Cell match ever) and the tidbit that the Undertaker had never beaten Michaels and you’ve got a recipe for success. WrestleMania 25 was, overall, a relatively disappointing show but the thing that totally redeemed it was this battle. It played out wonderfully, with neither guy giving an inch. Shawn was desperate and open to beating Undertaker in any possible way, including a countout. At one point, he looked like he might have broken his wrist on a moonsault and shortly after, Undertaker nearly broke his neck on his trademark dive. The false finishes in this were tremendous and not overdone. Undertaker’s reaction to the Tombstone not ending the match was perfect. He finally caught Michaels mid-moonsault and won with a second Tombstone after a half hour of fantastic wrestling.

1. Submission Match: Bret Hart vs. Steve Austin – WrestleMania 13

Not only is this my pick for the best WrestleMania match of all time, it could also possibly be considered the most important. After winning the 1996 King of the Ring, Steve Austin was set on a course for superstardom. He targeted the returning Bret Hart and faced him in an instant classic at the Survivor Series. Austin looked like Bret’s equal throughout before making a small mistake and losing. Originally, the plan was to do a WrestleMania 12 rematch between Hart and Shawn Michaels. Thank goodness that fell through because instead, they did a rematch of Austin and Bret, which proved to be far superior. Adding in the submissions stipulation was crucial since neither Austin nor Bret had ever submitted in their respective careers. WrestleMania 13 was a one match show but at least this one was tremendous. Their match felt like a personal war, with fighting around the arena and use of weapons, but not to the point where it was overdone. Austin got busted open and it led to the most iconic image in WrestleMania history as he struggled to survive the Sharpshooter. In a very badass moment, Austin refused to submit, instead passing out. By the time the match ended, Austin’s toughness was more than proven and the fans fell even more in love. It solidified the best double turn ever and put the rocket on Austin’s ass that led to him becoming the top guy the following year. I don’t only believe this is the best WrestleMania match ever, it may very well be the best match ever, period.