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Posted in: Doctor's Orders
Doctor's Orders: 10 of the Most Important Matches in WrestleMania History
By The Doc
Feb 15, 2014 - 5:51:01 PM

The Snowman is a genius

During Summerslam season in 2013, we opened up a discussion about the event’s most important matches. Importance can be determined by numerous factors. Most frequently, we see the dialogue veer toward the realm of financial success and rightly so. Yet, just as “greatness” cannot be pigeonholed into the tiny confines of star ratings or PPV buys and must encompass a broader scope to fully capture the essence of the word, conversations of importance must also expand to include many different elements. Today, we will attempt to name ten of WrestleManias most important matches from a variety of perspectives.

QUESTION OF THE DAY: What, in your opinion, are the top 5 most important matches in WrestleMania history?

#10 – Shawn Michaels vs. Triple H vs. Chris Benoit at WrestleMania XX - An odd choice to begin the list, no doubt. Its inclusion is not based on the memory of the show closing image, as it has been tarnished by the choices of Benoit’s final hours, and I certainly did not base the decision on economics. Though it is arguably the greatest triple threat match ever, not even in terms of performance does it stand out in a way that makes it a “top ten most important” candidate. However, there is an underlying meaning to it that warranted its position. Chris Benoit had virtually no charisma, none of the presence that people expect of a WWE Champion, and a small stature despite his physique. He was not marketable at all. Yet, he won the main-event at WrestleMania (XX to top it off). The show closing moment was Benoit crying his eyes out and clutching the title, as an exhausted Jim Ross uttered “Chris Benoit is the Heavyweight Champion of this world.” Even if you’re one of the most jaded of disgruntled enthusiasts, from the fan standpoint, if Benoit could main-event Mania and leave with the World Championship in his grasp, then anybody can. What that match meant is that the Holy Grail in sports entertainment is achievable for anyone. If you’re a fan of Bryan, Ziggler, Rollins, etc., there may come a time when the top star of that era (like HHH did in 2004) will look at your guy and say, “I want to have a great match at Mania and I want your guy to help me achieve it – and I’m going to put him over while I’m at it.” Your guy can do it! In 9 out of 10 years, it won’t happen, but, frankly, it might in the 10th out of 10. All it takes is the right push at the right time with the right guy at the top to make it happen. From the wrestler standpoint, it provides that same psychological edge. It should give hope to all non-traditional main-eventers in the WWE and in the independents busting their butts for $50 or less per show. It’s a match that will always provide that sense of hope.

#9 – Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat vs. “Macho Man” Randy Savage at WrestleMania III - In regards to WrestleMania III, the Intercontinental Championship match will always, for some, be overshadowed by the WWE Championship match. For others, it will be the other way around. The mere fact that a match which drew 93,173 people and garnered the highest PPV buyrate ever (10.2 – 10% of the potential PPV audience) could be overshadowed by a secondary title match should go to show how important Savage vs. Steamboat really is. WWE was not about performance back then. Pro wrestling, at its core, was better showcased by the NWA. However, Steamboat and Savage stood up that night in 1987 and said, “This company can be about show stealing performance, too.” They provided a match that lives on through the annals of time and still owns a place amongst some critical opinions as the greatest match ever. It was fourteen minutes of fast paced, high octane action with near falls galore and unbelievably dramatic wrestling with a great story featuring superior workrate and unmatched athleticism for the era. That’s what it was about. It defined what it meant to steal the show. Mania 3 wouldn’t be the blueprint for the “Show of Shows” if it were not for the success, critically, of the Savage-Steamboat match. Also, if you comb through the interviews over the years, then for every talent that said, “I became a wrestler because of Andre-Hogan,” there’s someone who said that they became a wrestler because of Savage vs. Steamboat. It showed that people appreciate more entertaining and exciting work that had less to do with the physique or the personality and more to do with the aesthetics of a match - like appreciating a great movie not because of its special effects, but because of the skill of the actors involved. That was Steamboat-Savage – a critical masterpiece for an event that had yet to have one, setting the tone for the future by giving the wrestlers a measuring stick for the future. It is to the critical side of WrestleMania – performance in the WWE – what Andre-Hogan was to the business side of WrestleMania.

#8 – John Cena vs. The Rock at WrestleMania XXVIII - Cena and Rock’s spot on this list has more to do with forethought and where this match, in my opinion, will rank down the line (on the average). It has the potential to be a hugely important match for the future of pro wrestling. Someday, in the not too distant future, people may view Cena vs. Rock as something that really stimulated their interest in the sports entertainment genre. When you are responsible for drawing 1.3 million PPV buyers, then one of the things that you have to take into account in assessing importance is that, globally speaking, never before had more eyes been on the product. As for the performance, I don’t personally care what anybody says about that match – it delivered in my mind. It was an epic pro wrestling match featuring two of the biggest personalities in wrestling history. Cena is going to go down as one of the greatest ever - if not the greatest ever when all is said and done based on his cumulative statistics. If you’ve read my book, you know how I feel about Rock’s standing in the all-time sense. I think that the broader audience will look back on that match as one that really mattered. 15 years from now, a collection of documentaries and Mania intro videos may show wrestlers talking about it like they talk about Rock vs. Hogan, Hogan vs. Andre, and Rock vs. Austin. I think that is what it is destined to be. We can’t talk too much about its legacy, yet, because not enough time has passed to fully gauge the extent of its bequest, but there’s no questioning what it was - a match that defined, particularly for fans that grew up on the Cena era starting in 2005, what a dream match should be. It was the match of this particular set of WrestleManias (XIX to the present) that nobody thought possible and it set a new record number of PPV buyers accordingly. It’s likely to maintain that record for a long time. There’s nothing on the horizon that comes close to that.

#7 – Shawn Michaels vs. Undertaker at the 25th Anniversary of WrestleMania - Mania 25 did a great job of hitting the right nostalgic notes to make that event feel really, really important. The WWE needed a match that would fit the tone of the silver anniversary theme. HBK vs. Taker was the perfect match for a celebration of history. Mr. WrestleMania vs. The Streak was a great tagline featuring two wrestlers with quite a bit of history. For folks that had been watching since the Austin-led Attitude Era, they might have missed the HBK-Taker series in 1997. Plus, that was 12 years prior, so it felt very fresh. The reason it makes the list is simple: it has become the new standard-bearer for pro wrestling matches. It now defines what a classic match looks like. Every era has its defining match that depicts the best of a certain style. I’ve often referred to the current style of wrestling as “the storytelling era.” The little things have to be accentuated so much more than they once did with HD TV and so many camera angles (and fewer short cuts, such as brawling through the crowd or the use of tables). The style emphasizes drama, counter moves, creativity of climax, lots of near falls, and drawing out emotions in the fan base to a greater extent than I’ve ever seen in 30 years as a fan. HBK-Taker is the model for that style and there’s nothing that compares to it. You can compare oranges and apples like CM Punk vs. John Cena at Money in the Bank, but HBK-Taker is the masterpiece for this generation as Steamboat-Savage was for its generation. It will be the benchmark for WrestleMania and WWE matches, in general, for a long time. If you compare it to basketball’s discussion of Michael Jordan vs. Lebron James, it will lead to continuous debate against other matches that people will claim as the greatest of all-time, stimulating such statements as the following: if you haven’t figured out, yet, that HBK vs. Taker is the greatest match ever, then it is time for you to go back and watch it again. It has to be studied, to be breathed in like a great bottle of wine. You have to pay attention to every detail or else you’ll miss something awesome. That match is pro wrestling at its finest.

#6 – Hulk Hogan vs. The Rock at WrestleMania X-8 - The definition of a dream match is very specific in my book. The phrase gets thrown around too much, similar to how “Hall of Famer” or “great” gets used in situations where it is not applicable. A dream match, by definition, should be a match that you literally thought could only take place in your dreams – that the stars would have to align to make it possible for the match to happen. When Hogan left WWE in 1993, testified against Vince, and was part of WCW’s huge success in the late 90s, most assumed that, though it may be good for business for him to return someday, VKM would hold a grudge and it would never happen. “Too much history,” you might say. The fact that it did happen is still the most shocking event in modern pro wrestling lore. To see Hogan back in WWE was remarkable, especially sporting the N.W.O. black and white that had nearly put WWE out of business. Hogan showed up at No Way Out 2002 with The New World Order. Say that out loud, if you know the history, and tell me you don’t shake your head in amazement. There have only been three dream matches in the WrestleMania Era (Flair vs. Hogan, Rock vs. Hogan, Cena vs. Rock). The first, Flair vs. Hogan, was undoubtedly memorable, but it couldn’t hold a candle to the presentation of Rock vs. Hogan with 68,000 people going bananas from the entrances to the many flash bulb moments that provided an unforgettable visual. Rock vs. Hogan redefined the dream match. The Rock was the #1 star in the company with a huge name in the mainstream that had transcended wrestling in a manner in which only Hogan had done before him. It was truly incredible to see them standing across the ring from each other. There will never be another match that garners a crowd reaction on that kind of scale until we have two more boom periods. That was the greatest crowd reaction of all-time. Chicago was great for Money in the Bank, but that’s a hometown guy and 17,000 people. Hogan vs. Rock is more than triple the audience going just as wild. It came to define how to execute the presentation and performance of a dream match.

#5 – Hulk Hogan vs. “Macho Man” Randy Savage at WrestleMania V - In 1989, WrestleMania had come into its own. The WWE had tried a lot of things to garner interest in their grandest stage, from involving a celebrity in the main-event to a title tournament, but Mania III provided the blueprint and set the tone for what a WrestleMania should be, especially in regards to the main-event. At WrestleMania V, Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage solidified the formula. They built to a match that everyone wanted to see, pitting the two top stars in the business against each other for an epic encounter for which the show would be remembered. The modus operandi became to create stars capable of having eye-popping marquee matches. Remember the awesome poster for Mania V with Hogan and Savage’s faces and the tagline, “The Mega Powers Explode”? It was a clash of the titans. The WWE did a very good job of creating a storyline that people wanted to see involving characters that the fans had emotionally invested in. The Mega Powers were a great example of how to achieve something highly anticipated and, through them, the WWE also discovered how to maintain success. If you want to be successful, you have to come up with a method to sustain it. Years later, WCW failed to do that and that’s why they are no longer in business. They had something that worked, but they failed to parlay the success that came with it into something else that worked. WWE has historically done very well at finding one thing that works and then another and another. Mania III took the “Granddaddy of ‘em all” to a different level that no one thought possible, but the key was to sustain the success that followed. The WWE, its fans, its critics, and its wrestlers can all use Mania V as a historical lesson in how to continue your success. The WWE will be tested this year. Rock vs. Cena captivated the wrestling world and brought huge success (despite what the jaded fans may think). Manias 27-29 were the first three to ever hit one million buys consecutively. Rock vs. Cena did that. They’ll now have to try to sustain the success with something else that works.

#4 – Hulk Hogan and Mr. T vs. Roddy Piper and “Mr. Wonderful” Paul Orndorff at WrestleMania - It’s been said before and I’ll accurately reiterate it now that without Mania 1’s main-event, there would be no WrestleMania. The Mania 1 main-event took on a challenge in the first year that remains important to this day. If you reflect back to Dusty Rhodes vs. Ric Flair and Harley Race vs. Flair, they were great main-events. What they lacked was the intangible quality that the WrestleMania 1 main-event had. They were great wrestling card main-events, those Starrcade battles were, but they did not have the aura, feel, and presence that did the Mania 1 main-event. The NWA brought in celebrities, but they were not the types that could garner the media headlines. NWA got Joe Frazier, the uncharismatic Hall of Fame boxer. WWE got Muhammad Ali. NWA got Kyle Petty. WWE got Liberace. The WWE also made the decision to feature a relevant celebrity in a wrestling match in their first attempt at a Super Bowl. Hulk Hogan toured the country getting people hyped for Mania – the biggest event of all-time, stealing the title “The Granddaddy of ‘em all” tagline from Starrcade. The involvement of the celebrities – Piper kicking Cyndi Lauper, Hogan coming to the rescue, Orndorff jumping to Piper’s aid, and Mr. T coming to Hogan’s defense to set up the actual match – it was a dynamic situation that proved extremely financially successful.

#3 – Stone Cold Steve Austin vs. The Rock at WrestleMania X-Seven - Forget for a moment that Mania 17 holds, to this day, the North American record for buyrates; that no other event ever stimulated so much interest in wrestling on this continent. Concentrate on it from the perspective of competition. The Attitude Era was the most competitive era in wrestling history. When you have so many of their peers readily recognizing that the Rock and Austin were both amazing, all-time great stars packed into one era, it speaks volumes about what the Attitude Era really was. Hulk Hogan dominated the original wrestling boom, with no doubt as to who was “The Man.” Savage, Piper, Andre, Dibiase, and Warrior all had times where they crept into Hogan’s stratosphere, but Hogan was “The Man.” John Cena is “The Man” today. Even though there are guys that tried to stake a claim to his spot, there is no denying that he is the #1 star in the WWE and has been for a decade. The Attitude Era was so ridiculously competitive that it had two guys that are often right there at the top of the conversation for greatest of all-time come about in the same period. Steve Austin exploded onto the scene in 1997 as a viable candidate to take over and become the new great star in the WWE, assumed the throne in 1998, and maintained his place as king through 1999 until he got hurt. He was forced to leave the throne. The Rock burst onto the scene in 1998. By 1998’s end, he was right on Austin’s heels and he stayed there all through the summer of 1999 until, finally, Rock was given the opportunity to be “The Man.” And did he ever take advantage of it. Rock vs. Austin at Mania 17 was so big because it was a clash between two guys with a legitimate claim to make that they were the era’s #1 star. Rock was on Austin’s heels, Austin went down, Rock assumed his spot, Austin came back and was on Rock’s heels. “Houston, we have a problem” – we’ve got two top guys and only one top spot. Rock vs. Austin stands the test of time and will continue to do so as one of the greatest matches ever. It was the climax of the most popular era in sports entertainment history.

#2 – Stone Cold Steve Austin vs. Shawn Michaels with Special Enforcer Mike Tyson at WrestleMania XIV - The previous match was the peak of the Attitude Era, but this match was its launching point. You could make the argument that the era began long before late March of 1998, but you would struggle to make the argument that any other event vaulted the Attitude Era into the realm where the WWE started not just competing with WCW in the ratings but defeating them, swinging the tide in the WWE’s favor in the Monday Night War. Mike Tyson was such a celebrity. He lent his name value from the mainstream and his credibility in sports. Then, you had two incredible entities – the white hot Stone Cold Steve Austin character and the white hot Shawn Michaels-led Degeneration X faction –pitted against each other with a huge name in the mainstream providing a massive stage. Sometimes, DX gets forgotten in its role in helping to create the entire picture of the era as we remember it. They pushed the envelope in similar ways as Steve Austin. DX and Austin were a fascinating example of similar styles clashing in a beautiful way. Without Austin and Tyson, without DX and HBK, the WWE may not have overtaken WCW. Thus, this match is extremely important in WrestleMania history because it was the starting point for WWE winning the Monday Night War. Mania 17 was sort of the Mania 3 of its era in that it provided a new blueprint for what we should expect at “The Show of Shows” – a stacked roster equating to big time matches at the top with a star-studded mid-card. Only once a generation do we get that kind of event. Just as the first WrestleMania was the precursor to Mania 3, making it possible for Mania 3 to provide us with the original blueprint, Mania 14 laid the groundwork for Mania 17 to redefine what to expect from Mania three years later. Austin-DX/HBK-Tyson allowed WWE to become as big as they became in the late 90s and early 2000s, allowed The Rock the platform to launch himself into superstardom both in wrestling and in Hollywood and to ultimately go up against Austin. It was the match that set the tone for the rest of the WWE’s history to date.

#1 – Andre the Giant vs. Hulk Hogan at WrestleMania III - Undeniably the biggest match of all-time…

There’s just not much that needs to be said. Hogan vs. Andre taught us what Mania is supposed to be. The heavy celebrity involvement was cool novelty for the first Mania and they should always be involved to add mainstream, but Hogan and Andre gave a platform for wrestling to be the focus at the biggest wrestling event of the year. Not celebrities getting involved in wrestling, but the wrestlers, themselves, assuming the spotlight alone. They proved that Mania could stand on its own, be its own entity, and that it could thrive with celebrities in the backdrop and the superstars at the forefront. In some ways, Mania III has yet to be topped (the attendance record, the highest buyrate ever). The records still stand to this day – 93,173 people and a 10.2 buyrate. It was incredibly special. Nothing may ever be as big a deal in wrestling as that was. The feeling that it emoted from the crowd and the announcers was immeasurable. It captivated the world – and not just the wrestling world. It was a larger than life encounter between two incredible forces, as Gorilla Monsoon adequately put it – “the irrestible force meeting the immoveable object.” A lot of the early Mania memories have faded over the years. Mania 1 was not particularly memorable for fans that didn’t live it. Mania 2 has largely been forgotten. Mania 4’s title tournament proved to be a mixed bag, both critically and financially. Yet, people still talk about Hogan and Andre. Even 20 years from now, people will still be talking about it. We’ll probably never see something quite like that again where people can suspend their disbelief enough to get lost in the presentation. Simple matters. Championships. Good vs. evil. Workrate didn’t matter. It was absolutely incredible.

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