When you actually listen to other wrestling fans talk or comment on wrestling itself, you find that they often have a funny relationship with the action inside the ring. It’s weird, but more often than not they’re not really all that impressed with most matches, as if the thing they’re actively enjoying doesn’t really interest them all that much, that they’re simply waiting for that one moment, that one match, that truly seems to fulfill the potential of what they follow. In essence, they regard most of wrestling itself as so routine as to hardly be worth considering all that seriously. Take any blow-by-blow commentary of a typical wrestling show, and if you look at results for the most recent Raw or Impact Wrestling, you’ll quickly see what I mean. In one sense, maybe these guys are right, and maybe most wrestling really is junk wrestling, instantly disposable, and maybe most wrestlers, faced with the pressure of constantly performing throw just any old match together, completely uninspired, focused more on the demands of the particular timeslot they have than entertaining the fans. I would rather believe otherwise. When I watch a wrestling show, I actually have an easier time following a TV show than a PPV, when the pressure should theoretically be reversed, that the wrestlers should put more effort for the big card than the smaller one, but it’s always the reverse. It’s the TV matches where they must establish themselves, work what makes them special. On PPV, they’re expected to shine, and for some wrestlers, that’s the way they always wrestle (and for some of them, this always works). I’m not saying a quick match that’s designed to put one particular wrestler over is preferable to a competitive match, but rather that distinction shouldn’t always be necessary. A short match can be a competitive one, and if you make the distinction that a short match is a TV match, and a long one is a PPV match, if that makes it easier, than fine, we’ll go with that. I happen to like short matches. There are few wrestlers who can have compelling long matches, fewer than many observers usually recognize.
Anyway, that only brushes the top of what makes good wrestling matches, and I could probably write a whole series of columns just on that, and still only brush the top (and that’s essentially what makes a truly committed wrestling fan, not just the personalities that bring in viewers). The topic today narrows this subject a little, and maybe will give you an idea of what I truly appreciate in this regard:
XIII. Favorite Matches
What follows is a fairly relative ranking of encounters I’ve truly enjoyed over the years, and is something I’ve been working on for some time, and for the record, this is not particularly definitive. With time and opportunity, I would prefer to rank any number of TV matches that are eminently worthy of inclusion. Outlets like YouTube have made it far easier to access matches of this kind, but not all of us live on the Internet (and god knows I’ve certainly had my moments where I spent too many hours on it, and come to regret it every time; there’s a fair amount of addiction involved, an inability to stop once you get rolling, and I hope at some point there will be studies available to cite for exactly what kind of cumulative effect this actually has on someone), so I won’t try for that kind of list. Here’s one that references DVD listings for where these matches might be found in a physical sense.
1. Ric Flair vs. Shawn Michaels, WrestleMania XXIV (2008; DVD of same title)
The matches Michaels had with Undertaker at subsequent WrestleManias were all about WWE realizing how powerful a moment this match really was, a culmination of an entire career, of experience and familiarity, and emotion, and pure will, not to mention a mastery of ring psychology, and when all that comes together, it’s instant magic. Perfect opponents come together for the ultimate opportunity, and it has nothing to do with championships, which is something fans can sometimes forget, that a great match doesn’t have to have a title involved. That’s something Shawn Michaels realized very quickly after his comeback in 2002, the last year he wore a heavyweight belt. To imagine that he actually spent eight years without one, and maintained his status as an elite competitor (whether that was always acknowledged or not) is almost unbelievable, and something Ric Flair took years to realize himself (“Nature Boy” had after all assembled a record number of world titles in some twenty years, a trend that tapered off so gradually he never got used to the idea of not having one). Flair spent pretty much the same amount of time as Michaels’ comeback regaining his confidence, and arguably his last match was the moment he finally reclaimed it, and as a result is probably the best match of his career, the one moment he could really share with his legions of fans, and who knew that this what he’d been waiting for all that time? Just imagine if Ric Flair had been more like Ricky Steamboat…?
2. Shawn Michaels vs. Bret Hart, WrestleMania XII (1996; WRESTLEMANIA: THE COMPLETE ANTHOLOGY)
As wrestling contests of pure exhibition go, there will never really be a match that tops this one, a deliberately staged Iron Man, sixty-minute match where not a single pinfall was recorded until, technically, the time limit had expired. Before that, it was simply move for move, will versus will, a show of endurance, and not a single shenanigan to taint the results. This is what many wrestling fans have always considered the ideal, and so there’s very little argument needed to justify its inclusion. I don’t believe Hart ever had a better match, and for Michaels, it was the standard for everything that came after, which was probably a tall order, even for him. For that reason alone, can you blame him for avoiding any immediate rematches?
3. Shawn Michaels vs. John Cena, Raw 4/23/07 (THE SHAWN MICHAELS STORY)
This is the famous near-hour long match that followed their encounter at WrestleMania 23, put on to cover the absence of Randy Orton from the show. They had nothing to prove, and could have easily phoned it in, but instead engaged in a contest that easily eclipsed their earlier encounter, and proved that Cena was, after all, a consummate wrestler, who simply didn’t need this particular kind of match against the majority of his opponents. Who else better to bring this performance out of him than Michaels? Given that “HBK” is in the top three matches on this list, can you guess who I pick as the best pure wrestler I’ve ever seen?
4. Bret Hart vs. Steve Austin, WrestleMania 13 (1997; WRESTLEMANIA: THE COMPLETE ANTHOLOGY)
When he called himself the “Excellence of Execution,” what Bret Hart always served to obscure was that he could just have easily replaced Ric Flair as the “Dirtiest Player in the Game,” maybe something he learned in his wars with Jerry Lawler and his brother Owen. This match is the prime example of that impulse, one of the grittiest matches to never degenerate into a hardcore mess. Like the Iron Match against Shawn Michaels, this was a contest of pure will for the “Hitman,” and never was that particular moniker more appropriate than in this grudge match with “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, who was still making his way through the ranks of WWE at the time. The most dramatic Sharpshooter ever actually caused Austin to pass out from blood-loss, for him preferable to submitting. Hart didn’t win this match. The fans did.
5. Batista vs. Eddie Guerrero, No Mercy (2005; DVD of same title)
This might best be remembered as Guerrero’s final PPV, but for me, it’ll always be remembered as the most heartbreaking and bittersweet moment in wrestling history. You’ve got to remember that he had spent most of the preceding year as a heel, feuding with Rey Mysterio, and fans genuinely hated him. This was only a year after he’d finally become a world champion. What many fans didn’t appreciate was that the feud with Mysterio made him a legitimate player on the Smackdown brand, a man with a story and a mission, and the match and the lead-up with Batista was a direct culmination of all this work. The story of this match was that he was struggling to turn over the leaf, but Batista didn’t believe him, and so this brought everything Eddie had ever learned into the contest, both his wrestling skills and ability to draw the fans into the match, teasing heel tactics, forcing Batista to address something other than what his opponent was actually doing. Other than Flair/Michaels, this is the best story I ever saw in a match. Clearly the direction past this match would have seen a lot more from these two opponents, and all the talk from the McMahons in the tributes after Eddie’s death saying he would have been champion again…they clearly weren’t empty words. When I write about Batista directly, I’ll get into it a little more, but suffice it to say, no career was more affected by Eddie Guerrero’s death than Batista’s. This match would only have been the beginning, and it was already a classic. Now it’s simply timeless.
6. The Rock vs. Hulk Hogan, WrestleMania X8 (2002; WRESTLEMANIA: THE COMPLETE ANTHOLOGY)
The Rock had a lot of matches like this, maybe not on this scale, but with this kind of feel, but Hulk Hogan, who had tried many times, never really did, and maybe that’s why there’s such a contrast between their careers, and such electricity in this encounter. Let me explain in a little more detail. The Rock became one of the most famous wrestlers in history, but he never had to carry the company on his shoulders quite in the same way as Hogan. He had these matches against men like Steve Austin, Brock Lesnar, Bill Goldberg, and only some of these were for world titles. WWE had Hogan in this kind of match for most of the first decade of WrestleMania, and they were always for a world title, and he was always the one to come out on top. Anyway, contrasts aside, this one was history from the word “go.” You don’t need me to explain it.
7. Kurt Angle vs. Eddie Guerrero, Summer Slam (2004; DVD of same title)
Angle seems to have become something of a polarizing figure; either you’re in awe of his abilities, or you think he’s one-dimensional and boring. I’m squarely in the former category. I believe he’s incomparable, and that’s a little of why this is his first match on the list, because he’s so hard to match up with, even if your name happens to be Shawn Michaels. This match is actually a rematch from WrestleMania XX, and is equally obscured by circumstances that put the spotlight elsewhere, and subsequently a tad lost to history (both cards prominently feature Chris Benoit). It’s actually the rematch aspect that puts this one over the edge, past its predecessor, and onto this list, the momentum evident throughout the encounter, even though Angle had spent a fair number of months in between outside of the ring to help his body recover. It’s equally the most unsung story of that year, the feud between Angle and Guerrero. To watch Kurt seethe at the thought that Eddie actually outsmarted him is like watching the evolution of a wrestler who was already pretty good, but who has suddenly realized there’s a whole new level to reach for (the spirit of his early TNA days and epic feud with Samoa Joe). This one’s basically like watching Bret Hart deliberately try to reach the point where he’ll make Steve Austin pass out in that sharpshooter. Angle is bloodthirsty the whole match, looking for his ankle lock at every opportunity, and using Guerrero’s previous tactics against him (when he unlaced his boot at WrestleMania so his foot would slip out of the maneuver). It’s brilliant ring psychology.
8. The Ultimate Warrior vs. Randy Savage, WrestleMania VII (1991; WRESTLEMANIA: THE COMPLETE ANTHOLOGY)
The would-be heirs of Hulk Hogan in the match they were apparently destined to have against each other, after both had had their chances and been tossed aside by WWE, never to be trusted with the opportunity again (which was certainly true of Warrior, and pretty much with Savage). Never mind that this could easily have been the main event, and just bask in the drama of it, another culmination match, Warrior’s ultimate statement with the company (to watch his desperation for victory unfold easily eclipses anything he did with Hogan the previous year). It’s no surprise in hindsight that his career went nowhere after this, since there really was nowhere left to go. Even on shaky legs with the company, Hogan was still preferred over Warrior. How do you work with that?
9. Ric Flair vs. Lex Luger, Starrcade 1988 (STARRCADE: THE ESSENTIAL COLLECTION)
In many ways, this is that exact match, substituting Luger for Warrior. Watching Luger’s emotions develop during this match is a revelation for anyone who ever wondered if the “Total Package” was truly invested in wrestling. You’ll never wonder again, or that is, you’ll be wondering something else entirely, and that’s how all that passion seemed to go nowhere. You’ll wonder why Flair was perfectly happy to work extended programs with Sting, but not with Luger. You’ll certainly scratch your head over the fact that WWE found it perfectly acceptable to screw Luger out of the world title. For shear drama, no one ever quite match Ric Flair like Lex Luger. At least on this occasion.
10. Kurt Angle vs. Mr. Anderson, Lockdown (2010; DVD of same title)
I talked a little about why this match worked so perfectly when discussing Anderson directly a little earlier in the Jabroni Companion, so suffice it to say, this was a perfect moment, unlike anything he’d experienced in WWE. That’s right, I just included TNA in the phrase “perfect moment.” I would very much like to include an Angle/AJ Styles match on this list, and perhaps at some later point, when I’ve studied my DVDs a little further, I’ll slap myself for not doing so (they had certainly reached a point in their working dynamic in early 2010 to equally meet the same criteria used for many of the matches in this top ten), but for me, this Angle/Anderson encounter is more important, and better, and is directly responsible for finally making a world champion of Anderson (twice-over now!). Everyone talked about this match at the time, but it was still overlooked by the end of the year, and that’s simply incredible to me. To me, Anderson is very much like Luger and Warrior in terms of what he brought to this match, which was after all not even for a world title, yet it fought it with an intensity that reflected and augmented the kind of acumen he’d displayed throughout his career to this point, but Angle was able to bring it to another level, with a classic finish that reflects another match later in the list, sheer bravado that wasn’t necessarily called for but put the whole encounter in greater context than what came before it.
11. Sting vs. Hulk Hogan, Starrcade 1997 (STARRCADE: THE ESSENTIAL COLLECTION)
WCW wasn’t alone in hyping this one to a remarkable degree, and that alone helps make the case. Arguably Hogan’s most important match with that company (something he himself didn’t seem to appreciate at the time), and easily Sting’s, even though earlier in the decade he’d been groomed to be the new Ric Flair, which was already quite an accomplishment. Maybe not the greatest quality of actual competition, but that’s not always the most important factor in a truly memorable wrestling match (which as I’ve been suggesting requires intangibles that a lot of fans don’t often appreciate, much like Hogan). Also notable for the participation of Bret Hart, a moment that’s often overlooked in the overall legacy of the Montreal Screwjob (a topic that will actually round out the Jabroni Companion), an element that even overcomes the fact that, technically speaking, the finish was botched and thus obscured the impact of the match once it had actually happened.
12. Eddie Guerrero vs. Dean Malenko, Starrcade 1997 (STARRCADE: THE ESSENTIAL COLLECTION)
There is something a certain amount of exaggeration involved in wrestling. That is, in all fairness, one of the essential ingredients. So when I say that a lot of people tended to exaggerate the importance of the cruiserweight division in WCW, hopefully I won’t be stoned immediately. What made the division work was a confluence of elements, more than the mere existence of the division, and history has generally proven that even those elements, when moved to a different context, did not immediately prove the theory that the cruiserweights, given the chance, could have easily carried the company, if they’d simply been given the chance. Eddie Guerrero, Chris Jericho, Rey Mysterio, and Chris Benoit, who arguably were the greatest cruiserweights to emerge from the WCW cruiserweight era, never reached the Shawn Michaels level in WWE, and even Shawn Michaels probably never reached the level of Randy Savage. So when I say the impact of the cruiserweights was exaggerated, don’t take it as a disparaging remark, or an inability to appreciate their contributions. (Even TNA, which in many ways tried even harder to make their equivalent division, “X,” dominate the spotlight, never quite succeeded, and they never had any qualms of elevating their signature star, AJ Styles, participate in the main event.) To wit, even though I just talked about the intended spotlight of Starrcade 1997, I must always acknowledge that the match that actually stole the show, much like Savage/Steamboat at WrestleMania III, was Guerrero/Malenko. Malenko was so beloved by wrestling purists that he captured the top spot on the annual PWI 500 ranking that year (to be noted is the fact that this match was well outside that particular grading period, which is something of an irony). The Guerrero in this match is far different from the one to be found in the previous matches on this ranking, which again, as I stressed when talking about him earlier in the Jabroni Companion, was one of the reasons he became my favorite wrestler. You only need to see this match to appreciate both of them all over again.
13. 40-man rumble match, Royal Rumble (2011; DVD of same title)
Easily my favorite rumble match, which I knew even before I watched it, and when I finally had the chance, it confirmed everything that I believed worked so well, the flawless execution of each participant’s actions during the match, how every single wrestler and angle as they were then relevant were used to perfection. More often than not the rumble match is chaotic, maybe with a few moments designed to facilitate certain future events, and more often than not simply geared toward the finish, with momentum for the winner toward WrestleMania. Alberto Del Rio won this one. He had barely started with WWE at this point, and he didn’t win his match against Edge a few months later, and he still isn’t champion. There’s nothing wrong with that, and there was everything right about all the other moments that made up this match.
14. Batista vs. The Great Khali, No Mercy (2007; DVD of same title)
The longer Batista pursued the Smackdown, often unsuccessfully, the less respect he got as a wrestler, and it goes without saying that Khali never really got any, and yet this Punjabi Prison Match was magic. The PPV is probably better known for Randy Orton finally reclaiming world champion status (and the series of matches that followed, also including Triple H and Umaga), but I dare you to tell me with a straight face that it wasn’t awesome when Batista leaped from the ring to the bamboo cage and narrowly beat Khali to the outside. That moment, the ending, alone deserves immortality.
15. Samoa Joe vs. CM Punk, 12/4/04 (STARS OF HONOR)
Most of my experience with Ring of Honor can be summed up with a single word: limited. This is not meant to be a judgment on the promotion that quietly amassed a reputation for some of the best wrestling, and wrestlers, of the past decade, but rather an acknowledgment that my access itself is limited, so I was pretty grateful to find a few compilation DVDs, and this is the best match from those sets. Joe is someone I’ve often considered lazier than the hype around him, a little too comfortable with his reputation, which is not to say I don’t appreciate his legacy, but that he could have been so much more than he’s currently amounted to, whereas Punk, whom I’d love to have represented more on this list, has been hungry throughout his career, and it’s shown. I don’t know that his true WWE potential has been reached yet, so this example of his ROH work will have to suffice.
16. Chris Sabin vs. Alex Shelley, Genesis (2009; DVD of same title, included in a “Cross the Line” triple pack)
Sabin and Shelley are TNA’s unsung all-stars, and this is their shining moment, easily. Most fans now know them as the Motorcity Machine Guns, and the more exposure they receive from their tag team work the better, but they’re just at the cusp of joining AJ Styles as the signature homegrown talent of the company.
17. Kurt Angle vs. Jeff Hardy, No Surrender (2010; DVD of same title, included in a twin pack)
Hardy long ago won the respect of the fans, eclipsing his familiar daredevil tactics with sound wrestling technique, but his career has been so topsy-turvy that those same fans have found it easier and easier to forget just how good he is (which may or may not be what is currently troubling him, but that’s just speculation). Anyway, he’s one of the few wrestlers who can genuinely keep up with Kurt Angle, and it’s the momentum gained from this match that propelled him to the TNA world title. Forget how that reign ended, and appreciate the work that led to it.
18. Goldberg vs. Brock Lesnar, WrestleMania XX (2004; DVD of same title)
It’s easy to remember the notoriety of the match, but it was difficult even then to remember it. Yeah, even in 2011 neither is very likely to make a WWE comeback, so question where their hearts were all you want, but Goldberg and Lesnar still gave everything they needed to for a memorable clash of titans, the likes of which are so rare that is was as hard for fans to understand what they were watching as to get over the fact that neither would be around after it. So why care? Because it’s still a standout match a unique encounter, and something that absolutely refused, defied, expectations. These days old WWE stars will work a climax for an entire match, and fans will call it genius. When two dominant stars refuse to bludgeon each other like sacks of meat, it’s seen as a letdown. What else could they do but feel each other out? What else could they do but surprise each other? It was like an old school test of strength, only instead of standing there gripping each other’s fingers, they exchanged maneuvers. Sometimes a finisher really should be a finisher. Goldberg always had the edge in that department, so that probably dictated the outcome, as it always should have. And then Steve Austin gave each of them a Stunner.
19. Triple H vs. Randy Orton, WrestleMania 25 (2009; DVD of same title)
Like the above match, calculated to defy expectations, and worked better for it, once you get past said expectations. Bloodier does not always equal better.
20. Hulk Hogan vs. Goldberg, Nitro 7/6/98 (HISTORY OF THE WORLD HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPIONSHIP)
Speaking of expectations, Goldberg is the only rookie in history to basically have his way with an icon, and have the fans totally lap it up. If WCW had somehow figured out how to maintain that momentum, it’d still be in business today. Instead a mediocre reign followed, then an ignominious defeat, no more championships, increasingly dubious fans, and bankruptcy.
21. Team WCW vs. Team nWo, Fall Brawl: War Games (1996; THE RISE AND FALL OF WCW)
Probably the best match to come out of the early days of the New World Order, and conveniently enough, the one that led directly into the climactic match between Sting and Hulk Hogan listed earlier. No real coincidence there. The best thing about the nWo was that it added a whole layer of intrigue to WCW that hadn’t existed there previously, whether with individual wrestlers or any previous angle, and there’s a whole story and momentum to this match that maybe didn’t even need a bogus Sting to exist. The company had been doing War Games cage matches for years previous to this, but all due apologies to the Four Horsemen, was never truly relevant until then.
22. Eddie Guerrero vs. Rey Mysterio, Smackdown 9/9/05 (VIVA LA RAZA: THE LEGACY OF EDDIE GUERRERO)
After an extended series of PPV matches, the chemistry and potential between these two should have been exhausted, but that simply wasn’t the case. Mysterio had won all of those; now it was Guerrero’s turn, and he did it in spectacular fashion. Long after the standard cage match had been devalued and relegated to TV, Eddie won the match by climbing out the door, and then re-entering to deliver an emphatic frogsplash, an act of sheer bravado Kurt Angle would later emulate against Mr. Anderson. Who said there wasn’t any drama left?
23. Hulk Hogan vs. Randy Savage, WrestleMania V (1989; WRESTLEMANIA: THE COMPLETE ANTHOLOGY)
“Macho Man” had every reason to be bitter; after a years-long build and the chance to replace Hogan as WWE’s top star, he was about to be tossed aside and virtually forgotten. Yet once again he brought the most energy to the ring, bouncing all over the place, leaping over the top rope, doing everything possible to make the occasion special. He lost, but in that moment it didn’t matter. Rest in peace, Randy.
24. Tatanka vs. Shawn Michaels, WrestleMania IX (1993; WRESTLEMANIA: THE COMPLETE ANTHOLOGY)
The best match on the card didn’t include Hogan, Hart, or Yokozuna, but rather the rising star Shawn Michaels, and a wrestler in the midst of an extended winning streak, who had all the potential in the world at this point, and everything to prove. That man was Tatanka. His career quickly went nowhere. But like Savage above, in this moment, that didn’t matter. He was the first man to make Michaels the “Showstopper” at WrestleMania.
25. Motorcity Machine Guns vs. Beer Money, Genesis (2011; DVD of same title)
The only real tag team match on this list may indicate to you how often this particular wrestling fan believes that division has truly reached its potential. To make it plain, not often. Yet these two teams, which during 2010 had developed a unique chemistry that had finally propelled Chris Sabin and Alex Shelley to prominence, not only eclipsed all their previous work, but clearly demonstrated how truly great tag teams should perform, with a clash of styles that actually complement each other, and propel all involved not only to a great tag team match, but a great match period.