Thursday, April 28, 2011

Jabroni Companion #2

If that’s not enough for you, then maybe WWE’s greatest legacy, WrestleMania might satisfy you. This year’s card was a few weeks ago, and so maybe the rush of it is still flowing in your veins, and you’re still energized. Rather than attempting to analyze all of it, I’m going to limit myself a little, with a nifty little exercise that looks at what is ostensibly the most important part of the show.

II. Ranking the WrestleMania Main Events

Oftentimes, when fans look back at WrestleMania, they remember the matches that stole the show, and they aren’t always the main event. In fact, although the hype traditionally rests at the top of the card, it’s perhaps just as traditional for superstars other than those who perform last to leave the lasting memories. You may know those better, actually, so rather than preamble further, let’s jump into the list, and revisit the intended attractions.

1. XII (1996) Bret Hart vs. Shawn Michaels
This is the famous Iron Man match, which in itself is perhaps special in the annals of WWE lore, but as many purists will tell you, broadways have often been used to test, and on a regular and frequent basis, the best wrestlers in a given promotion. That WWE actually headlined a WrestleMania in such fashion, however, required a ton of hype, and two very particular competitors. Hart had been champion off an on since 1992, and that’s the year he and Michaels first clashed for the title, at Survivor Series. Nicknamed the “Heartbreak Kid,” Shawn had for years pushed himself to be one of the best wrestlers in the world, but had long been denied headliner status because of his comparatively small stature. WWE had attempted to fill the vacancy of Hulk Hogan in many ways, and seemed as happy as it was reluctant to do it with the “Hitman” for the past several years. His most notable opponent over the past four years was Yokozuna, who was not exactly best attuned to fight the kind of match Hart was best suited for. Neither was Ric Flair, or Randy Savage, or maybe the company simply believed Bret deserved someone of his own generation. That would turn out to be HBK. By the time this match took place, Hart’s time as champion was effectively over. He’d have another run in 1997, and another Survivor Series title match with Shawn, but the perfect confluence was here, when all points came together, and the best pure wrestling match WWE had seen was finally allowed to happen.

2. XIV (1998) Shawn Michaels vs. Steve Austin
It’s ironic, since 1996 also saw Steve Austin’s transformation from gifted but generic wrestler to a bona fide star, when he preached the “Stone Cold” gospel at King of the Ring, and he still had to wait, like HBK, several years before he was granted what he had earned. So despite a lot of pain, Shawn helped make the transition official, took the next four years off, and allowed the Austin era to begin. It might be said that the only stars WrestleMania itself was ever allowed to make were HBK and “Stone Cold,” and so that’s reason enough to place those main events at the top of this list. Hulk Hogan had a succession of these things to make his legacy, but it only took once to make it stick for the main event to make the appropriate statement and moment for these two.

3. XXVI (2010) Undertaker vs. Shawn Michaels
The other great legacy of WrestleMania is “the Streak.” The Undertaker, since WrestleMania VII in 1991, has overcome each and every one of his opponents, a total record as of 2011 of 19-0. A couple of stars (Kane, Triple H), he’s defeated twice, and this match marked another one, but there was even more significance. There have been a few deliberate rematches in WrestleMania history, but none moreso, when HBK chose to end his career in much the same way he’d helped Ric Flair two years earlier. I had something of a problem with this match initially for that very reason. It seemed too obvious, and didn’t seem to honor Shawn in the right way. The match itself, as it first seemed to me, seemed nothing more than a methodical rehash of the original encounter, a classic version of “epic encounter” where the point really seems to be to slip almost immediately into desperation mode, into one giant climax. Then I watched it again. And then again. The final moments of the match are what really make it, when Shawn finally brings his own unique stamp to the occasion. He briefly flares up into the defiant imp he’d become in his original DX days, when everyone started to legitimately hate him, when they thought the selfishness and destructive impulses he himself would admit to truly had permeated his professional career. All that in a flash, a show of defiance in the face of what Undertaker, and everyone watching already knew, from that other match, that Shawn couldn’t win. Suddenly the booking made sense. All of it made sense. If Shawn wasn’t ready for this moment a year earlier, he helped make it better by making everyone stew on it for a little while longer. A WrestleMania main event where a world title isn’t defended is pretty rare. This was the best of them.

4. 21 (2005) Triple H vs. Batista
Triple H is kind of a funny case. He has appeared in six of the twenty-seven WrestleMania main events to date, more than Hulk Hogan, more than Shawn Michaels, more than any other WWE superstar. About the only year of the modern era when he was healthy that Hunter skipped that honor, ironically, was 2003, the year everyone agreed he’d reached the apex of insufferability. Part of what skewers his legacy, despite a sustained and inspired career, is the fact that, unlike HBK and Steve Austin, he didn’t have his championship breakthrough at WrestleMania. “Stone Cold” had to pass the torch in the summer of 1999 so he could go off and have career-salvaging surgery, and that’s how Triple H finally won the gold. We’ll get to his first WrestleMania main event with it a little later, but there’s a sense that his momentum was a tad sabotaged before it was even begun (something of the story of his career). But Hunter still did wrestling good. He built a whole stable, along with one of his primary inspirations, Ric Flair, around Randy Orton and Batista, both of whom would go on to have arguably even more successful careers. What makes this particular main event so fascinating is that it was exactly the opposite of what everyone expected. Orton was supposed to be “The Man,” and 2004 was all about making that happen, but “The Game” instead tapped the relatively unproven Batista for the WrestleMania honors. It turned out to be the right move. “The Animal” proved to be WWE’s revision of Ultimate Warrior and Goldberg, a reliable and consummate champion with his own brand of unusual charisma, and this match had the whole story. Batista might not be Shawn Michaels, or even Triple H, but he’s as close to the next Hulk Hogan that the company has ever found.

5. 25th Anniversary (2009) Triple H vs. Randy Orton
But getting back to Orton, he’s perhaps still more fascinating. As I said, he was, by all signs, intended to be the main beneficiary of the Evolution stable (even in the early days, when it seemed like just a bunch of goons to keep the gold around Hunter’s waist). The “Legend Killer” came into WWE in the same year as John Cena, 2002, but was fast-tracked to world champion status almost a year sooner than “The Champ.” Turns out, however, it was a little premature. Orton spent three years waiting for his next run with a heavyweight title, during which Cena spent the majority of that time with just such a title firmly around his (neck?), and Triple H not so far away with another. He spent that time developing a calculating persona even more coiled than his mentor’s, becoming “The Viper,” and turning his attacks on and relationship with the McMahon clan even more personal than Triple H’s from the McMahon-Helmsley Era. Much of it was a new version of what had made Steve Austin a star, but what made this match so special was that it inverted just about every bit of conventional wisdom, from the fact that Hunter would finally draw inspiration from his real marriage with Stephanie McMahon to having a grudge match that was constrained to conventional rules. Even an Orton-Hunter match, which had been seen many times, felt special. Most WrestleMania matches should be exceptions because they’re uncommon encounters. This one really was the reverse of everything fans had grown to know.

6. 2000 (2000) Triple H vs. The Rock vs. Big Show vs. Mick Foley
I don’t know how many other fans have a special place in their hearts for WrestleMania 2000 (fun trivia that never gets old: this is the only card in WrestleMania history to not feature a single one-on-one match), but it’s the only one I’ve seen on PPV, so there’s that at least, and beyond that, it’s almost the one most like the first WrestleMania, at least in terms of the main event, that WWE has done since. This match should have been Triple H and The Rock. Everyone knows that, or at least should. The two had engaged in feuds long before either one was a world champion, and this particular feud continued for several months afterward. Mick Foley, one of the most unlikely world champions ever (whether you consider his titles in WWE or TNA), won his way to the main event thanks to sentiment (and, no doubt, literary prowess, having become the most successful wrestling memoirist ever at that point). Big Show had his only WrestleMania main event, probably to round out the match, make it even less predictable. Hunter had done his best to enrage Vince McMahon, as only Steve Austin had managed to accomplish previously, by stealing power, and the boss’s daughter, and there was a McMahon in every corner for this match (watch out for Linda!). The finish is still a classic for me, even though the exact same thing was done the next year, with Vince screwing over The Rock to give Hunter the win. It was a win Triple H needed to be a legitimate champion, even though I still kinda wish Rock would have been successful (his anemic wins later in the feud did nothing to make him look better, but it’s not as if his legacy needed a strong run as champion).

7. 23 (2007) John Cena vs. Shawn Michaels
The constant knock on John Cena is that he isn’t much of a wrestler, and this match was clearly designed to counteract that argument (well, beyond the fact that HBK was subbing for an injured Triple H). For an improvised feud, it worked surprisingly well, and it really didn’t hurt that it was probably Shawn’s last great card (the two would but on an even better match several weeks later on Raw), the better for its spontaneity (not to knock the ones with Chris Jericho or Undertaker, but you can still hear the same desperation from them that Edge wrung from HBK not long before this match). Not surprising, then, that Shawn’s next three WrestleMania matches basically summed up his career. He really had nothing left to prove.

8. III (1987) Hulk Hogan vs. Andre the Giant
It seems a little perverse to list this one so low, but that has nothing to do with the momentous nature of seeing these two titans clash so much as the actual quality of the match. Andre was a living legend, the Undertaker of his day, with a mystique that had seen him, to this point, remain undefeated, and he was basically retired by the time he agreed to it. He enjoyed a career resurgence, and in turn gave Hogan the legitimacy two previous WrestleManias couldn’t. Still, maybe there’s a reason why everyone still argues that the best match from this card was Savage-Steamboat, the first time in WrestleMania history, in the first one that lived up to the hype, where a match other than the main event stole the show. That has got to say something. But it’s still weird to say that this match shouldn’t, by definition, be at the top of the list. That’s the evolution of wrestling, folks.

9. XV (1999) The Rock vs. Steve Austin
In a perfect world, the first time Austin and The Rock clashed should have been something like Hogan-Andre, but the truth is, Rock hadn’t hit his stride yet (that was the thing that was basically squandered at WrestleMania 2000, even though it turned out to be a good thing), so as good as The Rock was at this point, he was basically cannon fodder for “Stone Cold,” even more blatantly than Andre. That’s what makes a blockbuster encounter like this rank so low. The Rock’s greatest WrestleMania match was against Hogan. Everyone knows it. That’s where the magic is. It’s not here.

10. XXVII (2011) John Cena vs. The Miz
This year’s WrestleMania is still pretty fresh, and in point of fact, I haven’t even seen it yet, but I am still willing to rank it, in terms of importance, because of what was quickly announced in its aftermath. If it really happens, it’ll be the biggest thing to happen to WrestleMania since Hogan-Andre. I’m talking Cena-Rock. WrestleMania III ignited an arc that continued at least through WrestleMania V, an uninterrupted story that saw Hogan’s quest to regain the title after his war with Andre evolve with the emergence of Randy Savage as an unexpected threat. So this is not to say that The Miz is akin to Andre the Giant, much less Hulk Hogan. But John Cena is on that level, and The Rock, even though he has not actively participated in a wrestling match since 2004, is beyond even that. To have The Rock push around the company’s top star is comparable to Vince McMahon helping Triple H win at WrestleMania 2000, and to have the promise of Cena-Rock finally happening (a dream match Cena has actively pursued for years) is like having the biggest blockbuster imaginable, and between two stars who will actually be able to perform at more or less the same level. So cheer up Miz, that’s what you’ve accomplished so far!

11. V (1989) Hulk Hogan vs. Randy Savage
If Hogan were at the same level as the “Macho Man,” this match would serve as a precursor to the kind of action we might expect next year. But while Savage was at his best (though reports have it otherwise, much like Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania XIV), bouncing and leaping all over the place, Hogan does his usual, almost making a mockery of the occasion. I’ve never really gotten around to actively loathing the “Hulkster,” but I can see how he came to actively support his own career at the detriment of others. Charisma is not the only thing that makes a career, but Hogan came as close as anyone to creating that illusion.

12. VI (1990) Hulk Hogan vs. Ultimate Warrior
What Savage couldn’t do, Jim Hellwig did his best to achieve, which was to meet Hogan at his own level, and this was an epic clash that had all the kids in the schoolyard buzzing, which is something I remember vividly to this day. If anyone ever came close to truly subverting Hulkamania, it was the Ultimate Warrior, who offered an equally overblown and one-dimensional hero for fans to believe in, and a limited ring presence worked to its most efficient capacity. Warrior had a better match with Savage, not surprisingly, one year later (and just imagine if that had been a WrestleMania main event; you’ll hear about that one again later in the Jabroni Companion), and Hogan subsequently did everything he could to get the attention back on himself. More on that later.

13. XIX (2003) Kurt Angle vs. Brock Lesnar
This was a dream match between amateur wrestling stars, and a clash of styles, and all you really needed to know was that “The Next Big Thing” was supposed to receive his crown as the new Hulk Hogan that night. Well, one botched shooting star press later, and even Lesnar seemed to have second thoughts. Gone from the company a year later. Still, those of us who experienced Lesnar know that Batista still owes him big-time. A monster who could do whatever he wanted (except, it seemed, when “the lights are on bright,” as JBL liked to say), Lesnar gave Angle his only WrestleMania main event (something that TNA clearly feels was a huge oversight, and this journalist agrees with). Another match that could be ranked higher, without a lot of argument necessary.

14. IV (1988) Randy Savage vs. Ted DiBiase
I have nothing particular against “The Million Dollar Man,” but a tournament that deliberated eliminated Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant was the only way he was ever going to find himself in a WrestleMania main event, whereas for Savage, it was exactly the scenario that would best differentiate himself from either star. He was everything they weren’t (including DiBiase), and while this was definitely a case of being in the right place at the right time, more often than not, that’s exactly the opposite of what the career of the “Macho Man” came to symbolize.

15. X (1994) Yokozuna vs. Bret Hart
I loved the idea of an unstoppable monster being champion of WWE, and Yokozuna was far more capable of filling that role than just about any other big man the company has seen before or since. He was predictable and unpredictable. He could do anything that was required of him. The only problem here is that the truth could not be said of Bret Hart. I love Bret Hart, but he never had any business competing against Yokozuna. That much was proved the first time around (more on that later), and only because Vince was annoyed that Lex Luger told somebody what would have been obvious to anyone, he was given the chance to do it against, this time even more lamely. Still, on Yokozuna’s end, this particular main event was still pretty awesome, at least the build-up.

16. X-SEVEN (2001) The Rock vs. Steve Austin
Much like HBK-Undertaker II, very little was done to make this sequel very sensical other than that, for practical reasons, it simply had to happen. The Rock was in better form, but the company was more interested in rebuilding “Stone Cold,” but that didn’t really happen until the WCW/ECW invasion (more on that later), so this just seemed lazy. But good lazy!

17. I (1985) Hulk Hogan & Mr. T vs. Roddy Piper & Paul Orndorff
I realize that in order to make it a spectacle, to make it feel like something special, something out of the ordinary had to be featured in the main event, but the first WrestleMania could have fulfilled that imperative without bloating the match. It should have been, simply, Hogan-Piper, and that match would have been, to this day, one of the greatest encounters in wrestling history. But instead, and no disrespect to “Mr. Wonderful,” we get Mr. T and Orndorff plugged in, plus a half dozen others, and nothing much at all. But at least there have been twenty-six other WrestleManias since!

18. XI (1995) Lawrence Taylor vs. Bam Bam Bigelow
Like the above, though it was good for business it’s still baffling historically. And while it’s also good that Bigelow, the “Beast from the East,” did get into a WrestleMania main event, well…

19. XXIV (2008) Edge vs. Undertaker
I’ve been one of Edge’s biggest admirers from the moment he first appeared in WWE, but I would never describe his wrestling style as anything but “controlled awkwardness.” Some argue this to be one of the best matches they’ve ever seen. It’s a good match, but I would never be able to say that. Sorry, Edge.

20. VII (1991) Hulk Hogan vs. Sgt. Slaughter
The only time Slaughter was relevant as a WWE competitor was when Hogan needed someone to make him seem like the greatest symbol of patriotic valor imaginable. So naturally the company turned to the only other guy who had literally built his career around that model. Yes, it makes sense. No, it is not actually compelling to watch as a match, at least not on this level. But Hogan had done worse in this regard.

21. XX (2004) Triple H vs. Shawn Michaels vs. Chris Benoit
Let me just start out by saying I’m not ranking this so low because my opinion of Benoit dropped like a stone in 2007. Quite the opposite, really. I remained a supporter of Benoit’s legacy through the most vicious reactions that year. 2004, however, belonged to Eddie Guerrero, if it belonged to any former WCW cruiserweights matriculated as Radicalz in WWE. As much as I loved to watch the “Rabid Wolverine” compete, it was always a bit like seeing, well, a rabid version of Bret Hart throwing himself around the ring, with less charisma, and to make that man world champion was like endorsing “Hitman” as champion, and I was never able to do that, either, except during the summer of 1997, when Hart really seemed to get into his character for the first time (ironically, as it turned out). Triple H and HBK are there to round out this match, in the same way Big Show was at WrestleMania 2000. How is it that two out of three competitors are there to round out a match? Exactly.

22. 22 (2006) John Cena vs. Triple H
The year after John Cena became a heavyweight champion he was still fighting to form the definitive statement for what it meant for him to have that title. He didn’t have that statement in this match, and neither did Triple H.

23. X8 (2002) Chris Jericho vs. Triple H
It’s a damn shame that “Y2J” competes in the WrestleMania main event, and becomes completely invisible, not because Triple H hogs all the glory, or Rock-Hogan had already stolen the show, but that Jericho himself is completely uninspired. If you’ve read either of his memoirs, you’re probably wishing he’d gotten a second chance. That would have been froot!

24. 13 (1997) Sycho Sid vs. Undertaker
I like Sid, and I’m a big fan of the Undertaker, but WWE had so many other plans and things going on, you could almost completely overlook this one, and also forget that it led to Undertaker’s most sustained run with the world title, and not really miss anything. Word was the Ultimate Warrior, who’d attempted a grand comeback the previous year, was supposed to be featured in this one. Against Undertaker? Well, that would have been awesome indeed.

25. IX (1993) Yokozuna vs. Bret Hart
Seriously, who booked this stuff? If anyone has any real memories of Hart’s first championship run that seem significant, please let me know, because it seems like, even though 1992 seemed to have a succession of transition champions that should have been better than that, its sole purpose was to transfer the ball to Yokozuna (and then, to Hulk Hogan, and then back to Yokozuna, and then back, improbably, to Bret Hart).

26. VIII (1992) Hulk Hogan vs. Sycho Sid
Speaking of 1992...! If he ever had a blatant misuse of influence, and a baffling one, this was it. He reportedly vetoed a match with Ric Flair, and opted for this last effort at dragon slaying, in what was basically his WWE swan song. Apparently he forgot about:

27. II (1986) Hulk Hogan vs. King Kong Bundy
Bundy, and no great offense to him, or Sid, but he was no Andre, as Andre himself had to prove a year later. Why this was a WrestleMania main event is somewhat beyond me. But as we all know, WrestleMania managed to survive it, and I guess that’s what really counts.

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