Posted in: Doctor's Orders Doctor's Orders: The Road to Wrestlemania Countdown #1 and #2
By The Doc
Mar 31, 2012 - 10:41:14 PM
Well, this is it; the final day of the Countdown. It’s been fun. I started working on this project in February 2011 and have essentially written a book, here. If there’s a publisher out there reading this, then shoot me an email and let’s get this thing bound and copyrighted. I want to say “Thank you” to a few people, quickly. First, thanks to the Snowman for the Countdown logo. Second, thanks to Super Chrisss for teaching me how to do html code for this column. Last, I want to thank all the readers and commenters for the discussion generated in the last few months. I don’t know that I’ve ever been as hyped to see a Wrestlemania that I wasn’t attending and that is, in large part, because I’ve had so much fun chatting with you all about Mania’s past. I will always try to find a way to help get you as hyped for Mania as I. Last year, it was the RTWM fantasy tournament. This year, the Road to Mania Countdown. Next year, I’ve already got something in the works. Enjoy Wrestlemania, everybody, and thanks again. BTW, to conclude these discussions on other social media outlets, please follow me on Twitter @TheDocLOP or hit me up on Facebook (Doc Lop). I’m happy to follow you, but I’d request that you ask me to do that.
10. The Dudley Boyz vs. The Hardy Boyz vs. Edge and Christian at Wrestlemania 2000
Setting the stage: Tag Team wrestling had seen a bit of resurgence in the fall of 1999, in large part thanks to the tag team ladder match at No Mercy between Edge and Christian and the Hardy Boys. Matt and Jeff had come into the WWE that year as a high flying tag team and Edge and Christian had been part of the Brood together. The New Brood feuded with the old Brood, leading to a series of matches that included the classic and redefining ladder match that took stunt brawls in the WWE to an unprecedented level and put all four of these guys on the map. The Dudleys debuted soon after as maniacal partners who put all that stood before them through tables, culminating in a tag team tables match at Royal Rumble 2000. The Hardys and Dudleys tore the house down with their creative blend of false finishes within the confines of such a unique and challenging match. Edge and Christian were reinserted into the fold as mutual victims of the Dudley Boy’s wrath, but still had unfinished business with their former foes, as well. The Tag Team titles were put on the line in a special Triangle Ladder match at Wrestlemania to determine the best tag team in a popular new era for tag team wrestling.
The match: If you ever wanted to show a person who constantly called wrestling fake a match that would make them rethink their stance and/or gain a little bit of respect for what some guys are willing to put their body through to make it in the business of sports entertainment, then this might very well be the match that you should offer up. Six men that were hungry to make their mark on the WWE and to steal the show at the biggest show of the year spent nearly twenty-five minutes beating the living hell out of each other in what was really the first, yet unofficial TLC match. Tables were used liberally, as were chairs to go along with the ladders that had been advertised in the match title. If people thought that the No Mercy ladder match was extreme, then the introduction of many a broken table off of a ladder really took things to a new level. This was about as extreme as the WWE could get on purpose. Jeff Hardy’s famous dive from the top of a 20-foot ladder through one man on top of a single table came during this match. By the end of the match, where Matt Hardy was thrown ass over elbows off a platform table set up on top of two ladders and through a table set-up below on the canvas, the six men that had walked into the match as Mania rookies walked out as the leaders of a new golden era that would eventually be called TLC.
The reception: Most heralded the match one of the craziest stunt brawls ever witnessed in the WWE. ECW had really made its mark on the WWE with a match of this magnitude. It stole the show at that year’s Wrestlemania and really elevated all six guys to positions of prominence that would last for quite awhile. It was the match that sparked the main-event careers of Jeff Hardy and Edge. Of course, it also gave birth to a classic new match type in TLC, which officially came to be a few months later at Summerslam, but which has spawned its own PPV in the modern era. It was groundbreaking in that sense and there’s nothing like the original. The Triangle Ladder match went on to get voted as a top 5 match in Wrestlemania history by the wrestlers themselves, as of Wrestlemania XX. It will usually be found anywhere from the top 5 to the top 20 matches on most best of lists. On a personal note, I had taken a wrestling hiatus from Summerslam ’99 to the Invasion. When I came back, I got caught up on what I had missed and this was the first of the ladder/table/TLC matches featuring these three teams. I could not believe what I was witnessing. I was in awe of everything that they were doing and the punishment they were willingly taking. This was the greatest stunt match I’ve ever seen and I’d be surprised if anything ever made me change my mind.
CMV1 rating - ****1/2
9. Macho Man Randy Savage vs. Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat at Wrestlemania III
Setting the stage: Some of the greatest feuds in wrestling history have been centered on very personal stories. People are drawn to things that they can relate to. If a man gets attacked from behind by another man and that other man’s motives are to protect his position in his workplace, then it may not necessarily be the act itself that we can relate to, but simply the consideration of said act. Yet, we can also relate to the man that suffers the attack because most of us have been in his shoes; the victim who got his knees cut out from under him before he could accomplish his goal because someone in power didn’t want to lose it. People will do crazy things to protect themselves. They will throw others under the bus or even act out in a violent rage to ensure that they’ve covered their own backsides. This was the story at Wrestlemania III with Savage vs. Steamboat. Savage was the Intercontinental Champion and had no interest in losing the title. That was, at the time, the second best position in the WWF behind Hogan and whomever was the current challenger. Along comes the good looking, very talented Steamboat, with the goal to achieve that spot of second from the top. Savage doesn’t play fair, though, and decides to take out Steamboat prior to one of their matches. He even goes so far as to crush Steamboat’s larynx and put him out of action, temporarily taking away his ability to make a living and putting the long-term outlook of his upward mobility in question. Mania III was the stage of proving ground. No shenanigans. No attacks before the match. This is all about who’s the best for that job of being the IC Champion. Macho Man vs. The Dragon to settle the score…simplest, most relatable story in wrestling…
The match: A story in the ring about who’s the best only works at its best if the two wrestlers in each corner can actually make a legitimate claim to being the best. The WWE has long since made it so that you don’t have to be the best wrestler to be the World Champion. It became known for some time about twenty years ago that the best wrestler usually wore the IC title. Where did that begin? At the Pontiac Silverdome with Savage vs. Steamboat. Savage was just so intense in everything that he did. As a heel, that intensity helped bring something extra to the assaults he laid down on his babyface foes. It helped that Steamboat was the consummate babyface, able to sell wonderfully the offense of his opponent and get the crowd behind him with his mannerisms. Those little things helped make what happened throughout this 16-minute match so special. Look at today’s WWE. It is the by-product of a generation or two that made high spots the norm and near falls involving an elaborate mix of finishing moves. You have to understand that it wasn’t like that back in the 80’s. A false finish didn’t have to involve a match-ending hold or spot to get the crowd out of their chairs. So, if you watch Savage vs. Steamboat and have wondered what all the fuss is about, then you need to go back and watch it again by putting yourself into the mindset of an 80’s era fan. The match featured over a dozen legitimate near falls in the form of roll-ups and small packages and cradle pinning combinations. Sure, there were high spots, but they weren’t the types that you’d see today. It was a simpler time where moves with less impact meant a lot more and were able to garner a much larger reaction from people. Steamboat won the match with a small package…it was just that simple.
The reception: This has been hailed by many as the greatest match in Wrestlemania history that stands the test of time as a phenomenal contest between two of the all-time greats. You can thank it for Mr. Perfect, Bret Hart, and Shawn Michaels all wanting to be IC Champion in order to be known as the best wrestler in the WWE. Sadly, the IC title hasn’t been at that level in years, but it was back then.
CMV1 rating: ****1/2
8. Shawn Michaels vs. Razor Ramon at Wrestlemania X
Setting the stage: I think time has not necessarily done this match justice. A big new chunk of the current viewing audience just may not understand how important this match was and how influential it has been to the last thirteen or so years of wrestling. Think of all the ladder matches that we see today and about how there are even two PPVs named after two variations of the original two-man, one-on-one ladder match…all of that began with Wrestlemania X at Madison Square Garden, where two guys desperately trying to obtain the status of undisputed Intercontinental champion ascended the ladder of immortality. That’s a cheesy way of putting it, but if you think of that match in the proper historical context, that’s just simply the way it was. The IC title meant a lot back then. It meant you were quite possibly the best wrestler in the company, in management’s eyes, and it had also recently come to mean more of a launching pad to the World title. The storyline was great. HBK never lost the title. Ramon had won the so-called vacant title. When Michaels returned, he naturally wanted to be known as the rightful champ. Ramon had a legitimate claim, too. So, they hang the belts high above the air and prepare to make history. Someone has to do it first in a huge setting and Michaels and Scott Hall will always hold that distinction.
The match: The first time you see a gimmick match that you’ve not yet seen before, you can’t help but get excited about the unknown and unpredictability. Most of the WWE fans hadn’t seen a ladder match before, so Hall and HBK entered uncharted territory along with the rest of us. People have always said that HBK had a match with a ladder, but Michaels will readily admit that the best part about their ladder match was that they were telling an already personal story and that the ladder was just a nice prop to help tell that story. A lot of ladder matches nowadays get criticized for making the story about the ladder and less about the storytelling. So, in many ways, this was the best pure ladder match by HBK’s definition. I think for the fans, though, this was the match that took bumping to another level. The stuff they did looks fairly routine by today’s standards, but back then it was just very unusual to see guys putting themselves at risk to that degree. The fact that they made it look easy and didn’t botch a single thing is quite a marvel. A pen pal and I have often talked of HBK being like Michael Jordan and we’ve gone so far as to compare HBK’s top performances to moments in MJ’s basketball career. For instance, the HBK-Razor ladder match came at a time when HBK was so superior athletically to any of his WWE peers (like MJ in the NBA) and such a huge moment in HBK’s career – the first real all-time classic he’d had – that we compare it to MJ’s double clutching shot over Craig Ehlo to beat the Cavaliers in Game 5, capturing his first all-time classic Playoff moment.
The reception: While future generations of stars were able to top this match with the crazy bumping going to level I never thought imaginable, HBK vs. Razor remains the top dog when it comes to storytelling and historical context. HBK’s ladder match with Chris Jericho three years ago was a better match with a superior story told, but it will never be able to touch the original for what it came to mean for the wrestling business and what it did for the career of one of the greatest if not THE greatest wrestler of all-time. People sometimes like to argue that there were better wrestlers than HBK…that may be true. But there’s never been a performer like Shawn Michaels…ever…period. The reason is Wrestlemania. It would be like someone trying to compare best quarterbacks ever without heavily involving Super Bowls. You can’t do it. Dan Marino is not a better QB than Montana, Elway, Aikman, Brady, or Manning because he never got the big one. HBK has six of the top 15 matches in Mania history.
CMV1 rating: ****1/2
7. Bret Hart vs. Owen Hart at Wrestlemania X
Setting the stage: In the fall of 1993, Bret Hart was trying to find his way back to the top after losing the title to Yokozuna and never having gotten a rematch. During this time, an idea was pitched that Bret do an angle with his brother, Bruce. The Hitman suggested that a different brother be used. He had a Survivor Series match where he tagged with his brothers, including his brother Owen – who was the only Hart to be eliminated. Owen blamed Bret for his taking a pinfall and later challenged Bret to a fight. The Hitman wanted no part in a match with his own brother, but Owen was steadfast in his desire to find out who the better man was. Bret managed to get the two of them back on the same page heading into the New Year, even getting them a title shot for the World Tag belts. Bret got hurt in the match and was unable to tag Owen, so the Harts ended up losing. Owen was furious, citing how Bret still got to be in the Rumble, but how he had nothing. He kicked Bret’s injured leg and that turned out to be the straw that broke the camel’s back for Bret’s tolerance of Owen and his outrageous claims that were hurting their family.
The match: This was the classic example of two brothers trying to outsmart each other. The wrestling was tip top, as they channeled their past experiences with each other as two kids that grew up in the business with their youthful expertise and talent. Owen showed flashes of his being perfectly capable of hanging with Bret, but the Hitman took control. Vince McMahon and Jerry Lawler argued on commentary over who was ahead on points. Owen eventually got control of the match, but not after Bret Hart had already worked over his arm for a lengthy period. The younger Hart proceeded to dazzle the live crowd with spectacularly efficient moves. He was a very fluid wrestler really getting his first chance to have a showcase match. He made the most of it. Bret came back for a brief time, but Owen nearly put the match away with a Tombstone piledriver. He tried to follow with a diving headbutt, but Bret moved out of the way. Moments later, Bret injured his knee doing a plancha over the top rope. Owen quickly took advantage and got Bret locked in several different submission holds, including a spinning toehold, a figure four, a modified Indian Deathlock, and (finally) the Sharpshooter. Bret countered out of Owen’s Sharpshooter and placed his brother in the hold for a moment before Owen reached the ropes. The Hitman nearly had his comeback complete when Owen blocked his Victory Roll and scored the pin.
The reception: The critics were acclaiming this match from the get-go, praising the two Harts for their excellent work, but by the time the Ladder Match happened later on that same night, Owen vs. Bret was already swept under the rug by many. While it is unquestionably considered a wrestling clinic that young superstars learning their craft should try and emulate, it got overshadowed by HBK vs. Razor, which regularly outranks Bret-Owen on most of the top Mania match lists that I’ve seen. Yet, if you scan the dirt sheets and gauge the overall opinion of the match, it is still considered to be a classic. It stands the test of time and harkens back to a time when things were simpler when telling a story. Brother vs. brother was simply enough and no further bells and whistles were required. I personally wrote years ago that this was the best match in Wrestlemania history. I no longer give it that title, but I do believe it to be one of the finest displays of in-ring performance that I’ve ever seen, Mania or otherwise. I subsequently feel it was the better match at Wrestlemania X. I always have, to be honest. While the ladder match has been topped, Bret-Owen stands the test of time and, I promise, will always be one of my top ten Mania matches. It could fluctuate, from year-to-year, from second to tenth, but it will always be right up near the top for me.
CMV1 rating: ****1/2
6. The Ultimate Warrior vs. Macho King Randy Savage at Wrestlemania VII
Setting the stage: Randy Savage was out of the title picture for a while after he concluded his feud with Hulk Hogan in 1989. He spent a year working near the top, but not at the top where he felt he belonged. The Warrior had come on strong during that time and taken the belt from Hogan at Mania VI. All Savage wanted was a title shot, but Warrior would not grant it to him. He emphatically told Queen Sherri “NO!” Savage took action during Warrior’s Championship match with Sgt. Slaughter (the turncoat), costing the Warrior the title at ’91 Royal Rumble. The WWF had a huge main-event on their hands in Savage vs. Warrior that could’ve helped solidify Warrior as their go-to guy. However, Warrior was a bit of a business headache and they had media attention grabbing heel in Slaughter, so the title was taken off him. Still, there was a great rivalry in the works, so they pushed forward with the Warrior-Savage match. It was treated as a co-main-event at Mania for that reason. People paid to see this match. This is the single most underrated match in wrestling history.
The match: Savage came to the ring with much pageantry and Warrior joined him at a much slower pace than his usual high energy run. Bobby Heenan spied Miss Elizabeth sitting in the stands. The Brain and Gorilla really set the stage well with their commentary. A Career Match was not as often seen back then as it is today. Warrior got the first offense in and sustained it for quite awhile. Savage used Sherri’s brilliant managerial tactics to keep Warrior distracted early and often, allowing the Macho Man to come right back and sneak attack Warrior on multiple occasions. Whenever it looked like Warrior would take control, Sherri got involved and allowed Macho a window. There was a great atmosphere for this match. The live crowd was really into it. Warrior was unusually smart about his move set throughout. Everything he did had a more meaningful purpose than usual. Savage gave off the feeling that nothing could stop him from winning the match and keeping his career going. For about the first twelve-minutes, it was nothing but non-stop action. They traded momentum shifts and then Savage looked to have the match won when he gave Warrior not one, not three, but FIVE flying elbow drops. Warrior shockingly kicked out and went on to give Macho Man the press slam and jumping splashing combo. When Savage even more shockingly kicked out, Warrior wondered aloud if the Gods above meant for him to win the match. Gorilla did a nice job on commentary selling Warrior’s self-discussion. Savage attacked him, so Warrior took control of the match and hit two diving shoulder tackles for the win. After the match, Sherri turned on Savage. She beat him up and berated him until Miss Elizabeth got over the rails and made her way to the ring. Liz fended off Sherri, much to the Macho King’s surprise. When Savage realized what was going on, he embraced Liz and the two of them celebrated as if he’d just won the match.
The reception: Warrior had always been known as a very limited worker who had very few good matches on his career resume, but he should be praised for holding up his end of the bargain in this one. Anyone who says otherwise wasn’t paying close enough attention to the psychology that Warrior employed throughout the match. Savage was his usually brilliant self, leading a match that was so amazing in every aspect, including the post match drama (which is considered to be one of the most genuine feel good moments in Wrestlemania history). I personally think it was one of the best matches of all-time, proving that you don’t always have to have two great workers to have an amazing match that stands the test of time as one of the best of the best. I believe that this was the first display of what became the very definable WWE main-event style. Most people believe that this should have been the main-event for the title, as only adding the title could’ve made this any better.
CMV1 rating: ****1/2
5. Stone Cold Steve Austin vs. The Rock at Wrestlemania X-Seven
Setting the stage: When Austin finally had surgery on his injured neck in late 1999, Rock took over as the face of the company and became the top star. Ratings and PPV buyrates stayed strong and steady and it vaulted Rock to the brink of a new career in acting. When Austin came back, it was no longer a foregone conclusion that he would simply pick up right where he left off as “The Man.” Rock and Austin both entered the 2001 Royal Rumble looking to secure their main-event spots for Mania. It turned out to be Austin that got the win, but Rock would go on to defeat Kurt Angle to win the WWE Championship at No Way Out, setting the stage for a monster showdown and rematch from Mania XV in Houston’s Astrodome. To spice up the feud, McMahon assigned Debra, Austin’s wife, to be Rock’s manager. Austin warned Rock that, should something happen to her, it would be Rock’s responsibility in his eyes. It was only a matter of time before Debra was targeted, leading to the first altercation between Rock and Austin in quite awhile. The WWE topped off the feud with easily the greatest hype video compilation they’ve ever done, with Limp Bizkit’s “My Way” playing in the background. The crowd at Mania 17 was very pro-Austin, obviously, putting Rock in what became the all-too-familiar situation where he was a face that had to adapt.
The match: The crowd was just fantastic throughout the match, but the energy in the building during the entrances was awesome. Rock and Austin exploded out of the gate with a quick flurry of offense that included several of their usual high spots and counters of their finishers. Then, they took the match to the outside in typical Attitude-era fashion and brawled throughout the crowd. When they finally made it back into the ring, they traded momentum for long stretches. We saw everything from Rock slapping on the Sharpshooter to Austin reversing into one of his own to Rock channeling his inner Bret Hart from Survivor Series ’96 and countering Austin’s Million Dollar Dream by pushing off the top rope and turning the hold into a pinning combination. It was turned into a no-disqualification match just before the entrances, so there were also chairs and ring bells and TV camera cords used. They did a spot through the announce table and they both did blade jobs (it looked like Rock did two of them, actually). Things got a little weird when McMahon came down to the ringside area, but it took awhile for him to make his presence felt. When he did get involved, it was to pull Rock out of a pin cover. The champ didn’t take too kindly to the interference, but he made the mistake of getting distracted and going after McMahon, allowing Austin to regain control. Austin was unable to put Rock away with the Stunner on two different occasions, which is when one of the most shocking moments in WWE history occurred and the Rattlesnake accepted and promoted help from his long-time archrival, Vince. McMahon handed him a chair, which Austin proceeded to use over and over again by bashing Rock in every which way. Even though Rock kicked out several times, frustrating Austin to no end, the chair turned out to be the final straw and Austin eventually pinned Rock to win the title. Austin and McMahon shook hands and shared a beer after the match. Surprisingly, though, the fans in attendance did not boo the “hell frozen over” type alliance; they were just happy to see Austin win the title from Rock.
The reception: While the shocking heel turn really didn’t get over and the fact that they tried it was questioned from the outset, the match was praised up and down. Most critics have called it the defining moment of the Attitude era and also its end. It’s arguably the greatest Wrestlemania main-event of all-time. I personally think of it as the best match in the Attitude era. Everything from the atmosphere to the aura surrounding the match to the hype video before it to the opening few minutes to the near falls and false finishes was just spot on.
CMV1 rating: ****3/4
4. Bret Hart vs. Stone Cold Steve Austin at Wrestlemania 13
Setting the stage: Bret Hart left the WWF after Wrestlemania XII to recharge his batteries and renegotiate his contract. While he was gone, the WWF underwent some changes. The product was beginning to be a little edgier in nature and a big part of that transformation was the momentum being built by Steve Austin’s character. Austin had a disregard for the usual way of doing things that rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, but appealed to a lot of people, as well. Stone Cold made Bret a verbal target of his and stated that he felt he could kick the Hitman’s ass. To perfectly give you an idea of how Austin felt about Hart, just place an “S” at the beginning of Hitman. When Bret returned, he immediately addressed the changing ways brought about by Stone Cold and set out to right what he felt was wrong. They battled in a classic at Survivor Series 1996, with Bret picking up the victory, but that was just the tip of the iceberg. Austin cost Bret the 1997 Royal Rumble match, despite being eliminated by Hart – the refs did not see it. Bret was outraged. He began to undergo his own transformation amidst his feeble attempts to thwart the ever-changing landscape of wrestling. Bret gained retribution when he won the first Fatal Four Way to capture the vacant WWF Championship in February, but Austin cost him the title on Raw. Hart could not take it anymore and completely snapped.
The match: In a preview of what would become the norm as the WWF transitioned further into the Attitude era, Austin and Hart took their match almost immediately into the crowd. Many matches had begun to showcase what the wrestlers could add to their stories by battling around the ringside area (Foley’s influence), but we did not often, if ever, see two wrestlers take their war to the crowd. Austin and Hart pummeled each other on the unforgiving concrete steps and floor, with thousands of people around them in Chicago loving every second of it. They made their way back to the ringside area and brawled into the ring. Bret controlled for long stretches, but then Stone Cold would come right back. It was a clear cut difference in styles, as Bret focused most of his attention on Austin’s leg in preparation for locking on the Sharpshooter. Austin was not a submission wrestler and, although he did bust out a few nice submission maneuvers, it was clear that his goal was solely to beat the holy hell out of Bret until he could not get up. Just when you thought Austin’s leg would give out, he would find a way to gut through it and regain control. The crowd began the match favoring the Hitman (not by much), but Austin managed to further and further earn their respect and win them over fully to his side. You could somewhat sympathize with Bret’s frustrations, but he was taking it a bit too far and people were starting to turn on him. Nevertheless, it was Bret who appeared to be headed to victory when a combination of chair shots and heavy work on Austin’s injured knee put him in position to end the match with his patented submission hold. Austin countered and made a last ditch effort to knock Bret unconscious. The Hitman proved resilient and blasted him with the ring bell. By this point, Austin had already been a bloody mess for close to 15-minutes. When Bret took advantage of the situation and locked Austin in the Sharpshooter, Stone Cold struggled mightily to escape with blood literally pouring down his face from the open wound. It was one of those iconic wrestling moments, as he forced himself up off the ground using every last ounce of strength, screaming in agony all the while and nearly breaking the hold. Bret held on, though, and reapplied the submission & Austin passed out.
The reception: This is heralded, rightfully so, as one of the greatest matches in history and one of the most historically significant matches in history. The in-ring product was unique and became somewhat normal when Austin became “The Man,” but it was also a match that kick started an era. This bout made Austin into the budding star that would go onto to break every financial record in wrestling. It took years for me to warm up to this match. Bret was one of my all-time favorites and Austin came in and, seemingly, turned Bret into a whiny jackass that ultimately got screwed out of the WWE. It’s taken maturity to fully appreciate this match and let go of the ill feelings toward Austin held by the 13 year old kid watching this in 1997.
CMV1 rating: *****
3. Shawn Michaels vs. Kurt Angle at Wrestlemania 21
Setting the stage: The first time that this match was hinted at was back at the Survivor Series in 2004, when Angle cited a part of Edge’s book that talked about Shawn Michaels. Angle said that he could make HBK tap out in seconds. So, when the 2005 Royal Rumble rolled around and Angle was a surprise entrant, during which time Michaels was in the ring competing already, the time seemed right for them to interact. Angle went on a furious offensive onslaught, using his vast array of suplexes to put everyone on the mat, including Michaels. Yet, just when it seemed Angle was going to start going on an elimination spree, Michaels tried to superkick him out of the ring. Angle countered by catching his foot and trying to turn it into the ankle lock, but Michaels rolled forward and nearly tossed Angle over the top rope via the momentum. However, Angle managed to steady himself....only to be hit with Sweet Chin Music and be eliminated. Angle eventually came back into the ring and eliminated Michaels despite having already been ousted. It was later revealed that Angle had issues with HBK dating back to 1996, when he won a gold medal but was “overshadowed” by HBK’s classic Mania 12 entrance and title winning performance in the Ironman match. To show HBK that he was better, Angle recreated some of Shawn’s signature moments, including a ladder match, an in-ring session with Sherri Martel, and a very good match with Marty Jannetty. HBK got some revenge here and there and started referring to himself for the first time as “Mr. Wrestlemania.”
The match: It was a classic story of Michaels trying to frustrate Angle by taking him completely out of his game. Instead of using his high flying style right away, Michaels annoyed Kurt by outwrestling him and using a ton of mat holds. Angle took offense and eventually gained the upper hand by abandoning his usual mat-based offense in favor a more brawling style…almost as if Michaels goaded him into it since it played to HBK’s usual strengths. HBK connected with a beautiful modified Asai moonsault that sent he and Angle across the announce table, but Angle used an equally impressive Angle Slam into the ring post. It was suplex city from there, with Angle more or less maintaining the momentum for a lengthy portion of the match. HBK’s comeback was thwarted by a series of counters into a flurry of false finishes and finishing move teases. The Angle Slam connected and the ankle lock was applied, but Michaels refused to be pinned and would not tap out. He tried to make another comeback and headed to the top rope for his patented flying elbow drop, but in a counter that I had personally hoped we’d see, Angle ran up the ropes like stair steps (one of my favorite moves of all-time) and gave Michaels an Angle Slam off the top rope for easily the best near fall of the match. Angry and upset, Angle looked to up the ante with a high risk move that he had not performed in quite some time – the moonsault. No one in the WWE’s history has ever done a more athletically graceful looking moonsault than Kurt Angle and he pulled it off beautifully. Yet, he hit nothing but canvas. Michaels would then hit the super kick, but Angle kicked out. When they reached their feet, Angle turned out to have been playing possum and locked on the ankle submission once again. After a brave and valiant struggle to escape, Michaels tapped out.
The reception: At one time not too long ago, I felt that this was the best match in Mania history. Sadly, there’s more to the memory of a match than just what happened on that given night. Angle left years ago and has tried to help build TNA. My memories of him have faded accordingly. There are not many people out there that would rate it any lower than 4.5 stars, but it can no longer be considered “best ever.” It was immediately hailed as a great match and some gave it equal praise as I did originally. Bobby Heenan called it the greatest match that he’d ever seen and up until recently I agreed with him. Other matches are close to this for different reasons, but I put this very close to the top of my list.
CMV1 rating: *****
2. The Rock vs. Hollywood Hulk Hogan at Wrestlemania X-8
Setting the stage: Hulk Hogan was making his return to the WWF for the first time since leaving during the year of the steroid scandal. He came back to a raucous ovation from the live audiences, who refused to treat him as a full heel despite his alliance with the New World Order, brought in by Vince McMahon to destroy his own company amidst split ownership with Ric Flair. The Rock challenged Hogan to a match on Raw after Hogan claimed to be the biggest star in WWF history. The feud after that night was a series of moments where you wished the WWE would finally move past the shock TV nonsense that was so popular during the Attitude era, what with the truck ramming the ambulance and the hammer to the back of the head. Here’s the thing, though – and this is something for those of you that haven’t enjoyed the Rock-Cena feud should keep in mind: once the match actually took place, nobody remembered the crap build. You could basically sum up the hype for that match with the following words from Rock. “Hulk Hogan…you talk about headlining…main-eventing…Wrestlemania after Wrestlemania after Wrestlemania. Well, the Rock says, ‘How bout headlining one more Wrestlemania WITH THE ROCK!?’” And that was it…all you needed to set that stage.
The match: When Hogan’s NWO music hit that night in Toronto, the building erupted into a roar that was quite possibly the loudest I had ever heard while watching at home. I think my TV shook the reaction was so strong. Rock had to play the heel because of how over Hogan was. The fans turned on the Rock and chanted “Rocky Sucks.” Rock had been positioned as the WWF’s top babyface for a couple of years by that point, so it was quite a sight to see. The match that they performed was very basic, but the crowd ate up everything that they did. If Hulk did a signature pose, the crowd went bananas. When he did a heel tactic, the crowd went wild. It was just such an amazing atmosphere. The thing that I think people forget about this match was that it had been so long since we had seen Hogan play his WWF role. When he kicked out of the Rock Bottom and “Hulked Up,” I nearly came out of my seat. The drama in that match was unmatched, so when Rock kicked out of the big boot and leg drop combination, it was just unreal. Remember…Hogan’s big boot-leg drop combo had put down Andre and Macho Man, among others. When you thought back to Hulkamania, you didn’t think of anyone kicking out of that combo. That was one of the single most emotionally invested false finishes of my entire wrestling fan life. Rock putting him away shortly thereafter made sense, but you found yourself wanting Hogan to win. He won me over…and I was never a Hulkamaniac; merely a guy who grew up watching Hogan main-event while other guys I preferred tried to steal his show.
The reception: This is a polarizing match. You rarely see someone say it was very good. It’s either average or its awesome. I don’t get that. I see people saying it’s a 2-star wrestling match. Bullshit. The wrestling was at least worth 3-stars for that near fall from Hogan’s finish alone. The wrestling was just what it needed to be and nothing less. The Rock carried the load and showed why he’s in the top 5 in all-time Mania headliners. It was one of the truly defining performances of his career. Of course, the crowd energy was unmatched in the history of pro-wrestling. 68,000 people going bananas in the unique scenario of seeing two all-time great stars from different eras collide in a match that no one ever thought possible. This wasn’t Rock-Cena or Hogan-Andre – those guys faced each other when they were still on good terms with the WWE or both in the WWE. Hogan was persona non grata. His return was HUGE. When he stepped foot in the ring with Rock…WHAT A MOMENT! I think that Rock and Hogan put on a performance that was damn near flawless in its overall presentation and a million thanks goes to the live crowd in Toronto for helping elevate the match to the level it achieved. It takes a couple of seasoned professionals to do what they did despite the obvious limitations you have when there’s a 50 year old man in the ring. One lasting memory is of the fan shown as the camera panned the audience after Hogan first performed one of his signature poses (early on in the match). If you’ll recall, said fan jumped into the forefront of the screen as he was doing the classic hand twirl on its way up to the ear that Hogan always used to help get the crowd riled up. I would not be sitting here writing this series if it were not for Hogan vs. Rock. I was a returning fan during the Invasion that was looking for something to reinvigorate my fandom to the level it had once been when Rock-Hogan came along. Thank you, Rock-Hogan…
CMV1 rating: *****
1. The Undertaker vs. Shawn Michaels at the 25th Anniversary of Wrestlemania
Setting the stage: HBK had been JBL’s employee after losing much of his (storyline) fortune in the stock market, but he eventually broke free from Layfield with his integrity and bank account intact. He then turned his attention to the Taker. Citing that the special occasion of Mania 25 needed to be honored with a special match, Michaels renewed a rivalry with the Deadman that had lain dormant since a Casket Match in 1998 pushed HBK’s injured back over the edge and to surgery/subsequent retirement. Michaels set out to playing mind games almost immediately, saying that while he respected Taker, he was not afraid of him and that he wasn’t going to let any of Taker’s usual tricks scare him into a mental disadvantage. HBK was Mr. Wrestlemania and as far as he was concerned there was no one more capable than he of ending the Streak. Taker told HBK that it was “Hell trying to get to Heaven.” Thus, the story took on a light vs. dark theme, including one classic SD segment where HBK came out to Taker’s music but with a white robe and hat on. He quoted passages from Holy scripture to further toy with the Deadman, setting the stage for one classic all-time encounter. I remember stating that it was the most heavily hyped match, in terms of potential star rating, since Angle-HBK.
The match: The pre-match intros were excellent, with HBK descending from above surrounded by white light and Taker ascending from below surrounded by darkness and fire. It was HBK’s quickness that gave him the early advantage, but Taker showed his power and ability to be the Goliath to his David. The Deadman and Heartbreak Kid traded momentum until HBK managed to latch on his reverse Figure Four submission. Taker would counter a minute or so later with the Hell’s Gate submission. The match was already great, by that point, with spot on commentary from Jim Ross in particular. Then, Taker swatted Michaels out of the air during a moonsault attempt to the outside. Taker tried a few moments after to leap over the top rope and clobber HBK with everything he had left, but Michaels moved and threw a camera man in the way. Sim Snuka, the camera man, did a poor job and Taker literally landed on his head. Upon initial viewing, I thought the match was over right then. My friend and I were interns at a health center and our doctoral instincts immediately kicked in. He said, “HBK’s arm has got to be broken.” I said, “And Taker’s neck might be broken.” We paused for a long stretch, pondering the consequences. To be honest, it took me out of the match on my first viewing. It honestly was not until HBK skinned the cat, got Tombstoned, and then shockingly kicked out that I was really back to being fully invested. Subsequent viewings have negated that initial ill feeling that the match might be stopped due to injury. In fact, every subsequent viewing his revealed a layer of excellence that I failed to see the previous time. The crispness of the counters, the athleticism, the near falls, and especially the manner in which they executed those two Tombstones just made this the modern definition of the perfect pro-wrestling match. Greatest match of all-time, in my opinion, made odd by the fact that I didn’t initially feel that way.
The reception: Some of the more prominent match reviewers immediately heralded this match as a 5-star classic and one of the greatest Wrestlemania matches of all-time. It was Taker’s best performance of his career and the story that these two told was a marvelous one that no one who watched will ever forget. I personally did not put it at 5-stars immediately (mainly because of my initial reaction to HBK’s moonsault and Taker’s head-first landing), but it has gained that status over time. There are so many layers of drama to this match for me, though, due to my live viewing experience. It makes it quite the roller coaster ride, emotionally. The commentary from Ross helped set the stage for it all and two of the all-time greats in the WWE brought it like few have ever done before. It took a couple of years, but after repeated viewing and enjoying the match more and more each time that I watched, it eventually took over the #1 spot for me. I’ve never seen a better, more complete display of athleticism and storytelling in professional wrestling and I’m not sure we’ll ever see anything this good again. When a fan of nearly a quarter century can say that about a match, you know it’s special…