Doctor's Orders: The Road to Wrestlemania Rankings (Performance Part 1)
By The Doc
Mar 11, 2013 - 11:58:46 AM
Official Rankings (Intangibles and Business)
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25th Anniversary of Wrestlemania
(Doc’s Note – Performance rankings were based solely on the star rating average of the matches at each Wrestlemania. Unofficial matches were not taken into account, counted instead as segments and scored with the intangible rankings)
For half of this event, the WWE seemed to be getting it right in terms of balancing the celebrity involvement with the actual wrestling. In that regard, I think that is what the first Mania should’ve been aiming for, definitively stating that “Hey, look at all these awesome, mainstream people that wanted to be a part of this spectacle, but did you see the actual in-ring product offered by the WWE?” In each of the three venues, I thought that there was something for the unique viewer who’d never watched wrestling before to sink their teeth into and gain some respect for what was happening. I’m just a mark for Battle Royals so I thoroughly enjoyed that match despite all the non-wrestling talent involved, for instance. It was not the ideal way to showcase some of the major talents like Andre, but it was certainly fun. You also had matches like the Funks taking on JYD and Tito Santana, in which four future Hall of Famers did some stiff work to mix up the styles and display the diversity of the performances. There was Ricky Steamboat vs. Hercules in a bout that showed the audience the athletic capabilities of the roster.
The two best matches were the main-event cage match from Los Angeles between Hulk Hogan and King Kong Bundy and the Chicago main-event for the tag team championship involving the British Bulldogs and the Dream Team. Hogan has managed to develop a bad rap as an in-ring performer over the years, perhaps due to the bias that he carries for all the political maneuvering that he’s been accused of since the mid-90s, but he and Bundy had a match that while not overwhelming was still a bit underrated by the general critic population. The key was for them to make Hogan look vulnerable and they accomplished that feat. Frankly, the WWE should learn from this, because having a gimmick helps improve the quality of matches that otherwise would not be that memorable. Take the cage, for instance, and place it around Andre and Hogan a year later, give them the same booking, and maybe that bout is thought of in a better light by all people instead of just some people.
The match of the night was clearly the tag match, though. The Bulldogs were the best tag team, workrate-wise, in North America at the time, even trumping the heralded NWA duos. I would have loved to have seen what they could have accomplished if they were given opportunities like they received at Mania 2 more often, as they would have in the NWA. They might’ve ended up remembered as the greatest of all-time (and some still think they are). Mania 2 provided them the platform to have the third best tag team match in Wrestlemania history.
Unfortunately, the other seven of the twelve matches on the card were downright awful. The worst of the night was the women’s championship match featuring the already Fabulously old Moolah. God love her, but only one geriatric was capable of doing quality work in the ring. Mr. T and Roddy Piper had a boxing match that was certainly entertaining, but not enough to garner much success in the match rating department. An extremely short flag match between Sgt. Slaughter’s All-American replacement and Nikolai Volkoff ended up being a waste of time and a poor attempt at overcoming the unnecessary, ego-driven loss of an all-time great. Paul Orndorff and Don Muraco should have been better, but when you don’t give them any time and then go to the 80s-centric (but nonetheless annoying) count out finish, what do you expect? Adrian Adonis could’ve made magic out of mincemeat with a few more clock ticks his way, but he and Uncle Elmer were shortchanged as they tried to cram too much on the card. Jake Roberts got a convincing win over former football player, George Wells, but squash matches are better served for television (never gonna back down from that stance). Finally, Randy Savage, as great as he was, could not muster up the chops to carry an aging and increasingly ridiculous George Steele to a contributory piece of work in the mid-card.
In the end, it was just too many misses outweighing the hits and the end result was the worst performance-ranked Wrestlemania of all-time.
I love Toronto crowds. I’d have loved to have heard the Mania VI crowd live or in the same sound quality that made Mania X-8 so special. Hulk Hogan vs. Ultimate Warrior would have been quite the experience, I would imagine. I doubt it could have been everything that was Hogan vs. Rock twelve years later, but it was such an epic encounter for its day that I also couldn’t imagine that it was too far behind Icon vs. Icon, in terms of atmosphere. The crowd, the energy, and the intensity during the Hogan-Warrior match, even with rudimentary sound quality, is still unmatched for its era given the unique nature of the bout. Face vs. face was a rarity – two irresistible forces colliding, essentially. For a long time, I had that match in my top 10 of all-time, but while I cannot state that it does not stand the test of time (b/c it does, in my opinion), other matches have simply surpassed it. It was a showcase of how far Warrior had come after (basically) learning to wrestle during his feud with Rick Rude in 1989 and of how Hogan could get it done. From now until eternity, it will remain surprising that those two worked so well together. Whether heavily rehearsed or not, they both rose to the considerable occasion and delivered what was expected of the Mania main-event.
The only other truly memorable match was the Jake Roberts vs. Ted Dibiase encounter that had been building for over a year. Count outs are never how you wish to see a visual narrative reach its conclusion, especially since both were such good storytellers, but that was just commonplace back then. It was one of my dream matches to see these two go at each other for 20-minutes on a stage like Wrestlemania. Neither got the time to steal the show very often. Macho Man did, though, and I thought his mixed tag match that saw him team with Queen Sherri Martel to face Dusty Rhodes and THAT SWEET SAPH-IRE was the third most entertaining match on the card. Brutus Beefcake ending Mr. Perfect’s winning streak wasn’t exactly what anyone wanted to see, but their match was pretty damn good, as was the Roddy Piper vs. Bad News Brown bout up until the double count-out ending. Jimmy Snuka and Ravishing Rick could have really had a solid match if they’d have been given a few more minutes to work, but even what they did muster up in less than 4-minutes was thoroughly enjoyable, which would be an applicable description for the Rockers (a little less hungover in year two) against the Orient Express and Andre the Giant’s last Mania match, as part of the Colossal Connection dropping the tag straps to Demolition.
What I did not much care for was the somewhat lackluster opener between Rick Martel and Koko B. Ware. The talent involved suggested a better outing and, while at times they did perform like a hot opener would call for, it was an overall dull, slow, and plodding affair. The Hart Foundation were given all of 20-seconds of work to do, so they contributed nothing to the quality of the show. Tito Santana vs. the Barbarian really didn’t either. Hercules vs. Earthquake wasn’t a dud, but it wasn’t anything to write home about. Jim Duggan took on the sack of potatoes known as Dino Bravo. HOOOOOO-rrible. Big Bossman vs. Akeem? No thanks.
Shawn Michaels stole the show at Mania X, but he stole the spotlight at Mania XI, making sure that fans unfamiliar with pro-wrestling circa 1995 knew that there was a new type of top guy in town and that, while people may have tuned in to see Lawrence Taylor in the squared circle, they were leaving thinking about watching the Heartbreak Kid again. In his unsuccessful bid to take the WWE Championship from Diesel, the ’95 Rumble winner displayed the kind of athleticism that pro-football fans were used to seeing from skill position players, dazzling with his vast array of high risks that connected with ridiculous precision. With HBK, I don’t think it was ever about the creativity of the moves that he performed ala Rey Mysterio; instead, it was about the athletic grace involved. Dunking a basketball is standard fare, but watching Lebron James do it is made so much more impressive by the ease with which he flies through the air. That was Michaels. Subsequently, his heel character started getting over as a babyface with nights like Mania XI against far inferior opponents like Kevin Nash (all due respect to Diesel, who did very well in this match and always did against HBK). This is probably a match that gets lost in the shuffle amongst HBK’s Mania bouts simply because of comparisons.
I thought that the work done by Bam Bam Bigelow was exemplary. The way that he carried a football player to a solid main-event wrestling match was something that he could hang his hat on for the rest of his career. LT did his best and I think he, too, deserves a pat on the back, as well as the men responsible for training him (I think Pat Patterson was heavily involved, if memory serves me). Bigelow, to me, was the most outstanding player for Mania XI. To do what he did was special, but it was not the type of performance that you would fully appreciate unless you were completely engaged in breaking down the match to the smaller details. They had the second best match on the show, which isn’t stating much but the sentiment remains. The only other challenger was the Razor Ramon vs. Jeff Jarrett match for the Intercontinental title. They had better matches and the finish was head-scratching given that Mania had seemingly gotten away from the days, by then, where such endings to high profile matches were acceptable. Otherwise, they had a solid match that would’ve been a good addition to most cards; unfortunately, this was a card that needed it to be more than it was. The same could be said for the tag title match that did well to deliver a good surprise in Yokozuna being Owen Hart’s partner, but did not click well enough to reach the 3-star mark. Owen and Yoko vs. the Smoking Gunns could have been better.
The only other decent bout was Bret Hart vs. Bob Backlund. I think Bret thought that he’d reached his peak with Backlund at Survivor Series and performed accordingly. It was one of the rare times when the Hitman was unable to take something like this and turn it into a memorable outing. I loved their Survivor Series match, but this left a lot to be desired. Mania XI would have been better served to try something different with both guys. Imagine what this PPV could have been had Backlund wrestled 1-2-3 Kid and Hart wrestled Hakushi. Mania XI might have ended up much more fondly remembered, performance-wise. The main-events did their part, but the rest of the roster failed to step up. Completely forgettable work by the Allied Powers (Luger and Bulldog) and the Blu Brothers, plus a dud between Undertaker and King Kong Bundy didn’t help.
It’s going to amaze many of you how highly ranked is Mania 13. Based solely on performance, Mania 13 is often labeled as one of the worst Wrestlemanias of all-time by a great deal of the fan base. This really was a one match show. Only one match, which just so happens to be on the short list for greatest AND best match of all-time, is worth a second viewing. Obviously, that would be Steve Austin vs. Bret Hart. In fact, I’m so disinterested in the rest of the card that I’m simply going to name the other matches and move onto the awesome one that helped skew the data so vastly in favor of Mania 13. The New Blackjacks vs. Doug Furnas and Phil Lafon vs. Headbangers vs. The Godwinns sucked; Rocky Maivia vs. The Sultan was bad; Legion of Doom and Ahmed Suge Knight vs. the Nation of Domination was overrated; Owen Hart and British Bulldog vs. Vader and Mankind should have been better; Undertaker vs. Sycho Sid was an average main-event (good considering Sid's involvement, but still not worthy of the last match on the grand stage).
What can be said about Austin vs. Bret that hasn’t already? I think it’s one of the most fascinating matches in history, especially when you take historical perspective into account. People like to talk about what effect it had on Stone Cold, citing the classic moment of him straining to break the Sharpshooter with blood pouring down his face. I, however, like to look at more from the Hitman’s point-of-view. For five years, Bret was the biggest star in the WWE, whether the WWE wanted to admit it or not. He was the most over, he was the best wrestler, he piled up the most impressive resume of matches, and did all of that despite being continually pushed to the backburner so that Vince and Co. could find their “real” next top guy. He was meant to be the transitional guy, but refused to be defined by that label.
At Wrestlemania 13, Bret Hart and Steve Austin did the rarest thing in sports entertainment when they pulled off the double switch. It was the beginning of the end for Bret Hart; it was the end of the beginning for Steve Austin. Bret Hart’s era ended that night; Steve Austin’s era was unofficially launched. Bret Hart’s run as a babyface ended; Steve Austin’s began. Bret Hart’s last truly epic match was wrestled; Steve Austin’s first truly epic match was wrestled. Bret Hart would never be the same again…and that was a bad thing; Steve Austin would never be the same again…and that was a good thing.
It was arguably the most amazing story ever told in a wrestling match, acted out by two guys with the utmost respect for one another. I’ll always look at Bret’s performance in that match as the best of his career because he morphed into a completely different person by the time his feud with Austin was over. Stone Cold was the defining personality of “attitude,” but Bret enhanced the shifting paradigm with his own willingness to adapt. He was the last remaining top star in the WWE that was holding back and sticking to tradition. When he let loose with the tirade prior to Mania and then did what he did at Wrestlemania, it signaled the final root to the days gone by being broken.
Mania 2000 better thank its lucky stars that the Dudleys, Hardys, Edge, and Christian came to work that night motivated to steal the show and stamp themselves as more than just the standard, old tag teams. Otherwise, I’m not sure I’d ever bother watching it. The Rock vs. Mick Foley vs. Triple H vs. Big Show was a good match, but it was not the kind of memorable main-event that makes you want to come back every year for another look at it, as you would expect of a match with that kind of hype surrounding it and with the performers involved. I’ve often called it a “disappointment” despite my rating it reasonably in the mid-3-star range. What I have come to appreciate from it was Triple H retaining the title. Several hundred thousand people watched that show to see Rock win the big one or Foley emerge victorious, only for Trips to shake the thunder down around them and solidify himself as the top heel of the era. Heels should win at Mania more often in those big match scenarios – not all the time, but often enough to keep it respectable.
It was the Triangle Ladder match that clearly provided Mania 2000 with its “moment,” though. Say what you will about my rating it higher than any of the TLC bouts that proceeded it, but it’s hard to top the eye-catching, holy sh*t nature of that first, unofficial version. I was literally blown away by what I saw them do – over and over and over again - to their bodies. There have been more impressive stunt bumps in wrestling’s history, but none so repetitive as the 22-minutes of what those guys put themselves through at Mania 16. Matt Hardy gets the gold star from me for that flipping spot through the tables in the ring to put the finishing touch on a job excellently done. The WWE Superstars, themselves, agreed with me about ten years ago, putting it ahead of TLC 2 when it came time to vote for the top 10 matches in Mania history (at that time).
The only other match worth a second viewing is triple threat match for the European and Intercontinental Championships, but beware that the quality is not what you’d expect from the three guys involved. Jericho was still very much learning the WWE style and was a few months from really turning on the juice. Angle, while a prodigy, was about six months from things truly clicking in his brain about what he needed to do to be successful in the ring. Benoit was spot on, for the most part, but he was working with two guys that were not yet sure of themselves, by the looks of it. The result was a solidly unspectacular match that I wouldn’t even rate at the 3-star level. I think that anyone that rates it highly is going on the reputations and not what actually happened.
The rest of the card was a collection of turds. The Cat vs. Terri is my pick for worst Mania match of all-time, the 15-man battle royal for the Hardcore title was just one giant mess, and the tag match that saw the team of Al Snow and Steve Blackmon focused more on their mascot than their opponents (who I can’t actually recall off the top of my head and don’t care enough to find out). Rikishi and Kane vs. Road Dogg and X-Pac was very average, and while the opening tag team match featured some athleticism from D’Lo and Bull Buchanan, it was not enough to keep it, too, from being fairly pedestrian. Too Cool and Chyna vs. the Radicalz was entertaining enough, but not memorable to the point that I didn’t have to look at a list of matches from the event to recall it.
I would imagine that people will be surprised by this event’s performance ranking. What fans tend to forget in ogling it over the last ten years is that it was top heavy. The top four or five matches were as good as the top four or five matches, on star rating average, that any other Mania has produced. Where it suffered a bit was the lower card matches. The Women’s Championship match between Ivory and Chyna, for instance, did not rate well at all. There was also the 6-man tag team match that saw the APA and Tazz defeat the Right to Censor and the Gimmick Battle Royal which, fun as it may have been due to nostalgia, was not something that was going to receive a flattering objective(ish) score. Other events had maybe a match or two at the most that were poorly received, critically. Chris Jericho vs. William Regal was not near the quality that you might expect from talents of their caliber and, as such, they failed to help make up for the three dud ratings.
Eddie Guerrero vs. Test was the best of the under-card matches, offering up a surprising European title match that did well to support the top five bouts. Chris Benoit vs. Kurt Angle has been a tad overrated, historically, as their 16-minute match has often been cited as one of the best ten in Mania history. It barely made my top 50, which is not to take anything away from the work that they did (they had a helluva mid-card match), but to help set the stage for why Mania 17 is not at the tippy top of the performance ranking, as I’m sure many would have thought it would be. Part of that comes from my not seeing this event live. I saw it a year after it happened (I ended my self-imposed wrestling hiatus during the Invasion a few months later). Most of the work that I saw from Angle and Benoit was of the all-time classic variety – Raw ’01 cage, Unforgiven ’02, Rumble ’03. Their Mania match did not stack up, comparatively.
Shane and Vince McMahon hit as much of a homerun as was possible for them, using the Street Fight gimmick to tell their story as dramatically and entertainingly as possible. I will hand it to Shane ‘O Mac; that guy has been involved in more of my favorite non-wrestler wrestling matches than anyone else in history. You have to give credit where it’s due to Vince, as well. Barring the Mania 26 disaster, just about every one of his matches has been booked to perfection, allowing those bouts to far exceed low expectations. Undertaker and Triple H had high expectations and lived up to them with their era specific brawl and, while I don’t believe their initial encounter holds a candle to either of their more recent Mania matches, the Mania 17 “fight” was memorable and rightfully well-received. I especially enjoyed the finish, which has been repeated numerous times over the last decade to create a dramatic near fall.
By many scales, there were two damn near five-star matches on this card in TLC II and Rock-Austin II. The unofficial third TLC match was my least favorite of the original trio, mainly because they tried to do more than was possible and did not crisply execute what was to be Jeff Hardy’s spot of the match of walking several ladders like a tightrope. I give him a ton of credit for trying it, but the thing that separated the initial versions from this one was the incredible accuracy of the high risks. The percentage dropped a tad in TLC II – only a tad, but you’ve got to have some way to separate them. I rate it at ****1/4 and place it in the conversation for the top 25 in Mania history, but many, as discovered during last year’s countdown, would flip flop my ranking of the Mania 2000 triangle ladder match (#10 all-time pre-Mania 28).
The Rock vs. Stone Cold Steve Austin was and may always be one of the greatest Wrestlemania matches of all-time. I think what sets it apart from the pack is that it was truly the ideal Wrestlemania main-event. It’s OK to bring back stars from the past, it’s just fine to elevate giants with undefeated records, and it’s great to have big names with sterling reputations face the new guy on the championship block. To me, though, the perfect main-event pits two guys against each other for the WWE Championship that are at the peak of their powers – a Manning vs. Brady Super Bowl, a Lebron vs. Kevin Durant NBA Finals, or a Heisman winning Tim Tebow vs. a Heisman winning Sam Bradford in the national title game. That has not happened often in Mania history, but the best example is Austin vs. Rock. When they met for the first time at Mania XV, Rock was peaking as a character, but still needed seasoning to be on Austin’s level as a wrestler. By 2001, he was firing on all cylinders and Austin was back in the swing of things post-injury. So, the X-Seven clash of the titans was just unbelievably timed. The brilliance that we saw, the twists and turns, and the attempted heel turn were all part of a modern masterpiece for what you’d hope to see from two top guys on the active roster at the same time meeting at the right place and time.
One match can sometimes be the difference between an event being considering epic or mediocre, depending on its universal acceptance as either classic or average. Such is the case for The Rock vs. Hollywood Hulk Hogan from Wrestlemania X-8 in 2002. Some, like myself, believe that the combination of the talents, the crowd, and the very nature of the first honest-to-God dream match in Mania history made for an unquestionably brilliant and iconic contest. Others choose to strip away the crowd and the aura and focus solely on the two competitors, thus putting the match in a bubble and stripping away a big portion of what makes it special. It depends on the tastes of the fan – if you love Rock-Hogan, then Wrestlemania X-8 ought to rank right up there amongst the top 5-10 Manias of all-time, but if you don’t then it may fall anywhere from the middle of the pack to the bottom 10.
As stated a year ago when I claimed Rock vs. Hogan to be the #2 match in Wrestlemania history, I gave all the sentimental reasons for it; the main one of which was that there would be no “Doctor’s Orders” column had it not been for that match bringing my fandom level back to its peak. I also want to go back to a statement made in the paragraph above about it being Mania’s first dream match. With Cena vs. Rock last year, it gave the critical community an opportunity to better define what truly constitutes a “dream” scenario in wrestling. It’s a term that has been thrown around a lot, by myself and others. We have now been privileged to two clashes of titans that conceivably should never have happened in anything else but a dream (or a video game), so that needs to be the revised definition for all to follow. Hogan, after all he’d done to the WWE as the prominent star in WCW, was never coming back to a contract from Vince McMahon. Until he did, making Rock vs. Hogan a possibility. The Rock had no reason to come back two years ago, having made it as a successful actor with a never ending run of new projects. Until he did, making Cena vs. Rock a possibility. Those were two situations in which hope was held out solely because of wrestling’s “never say never” cliché. You cannot strip away the intangibles and look at Rock vs. Hogan solely based on what they did inside the squared circle. Besides, that would do a disservice to what they did do in the ring, which was more than respectable. That match had every x-factor, every indescribable little thing that you could ever ask for. Subsequently, I think Mania X-8 is one of the best of the best.
Undertaker vs. Ric Flair nearly stole the show until Rock-Hogan did what was expected. It was one of the finer performances of the Deadman’s career up to that point, as Flair was struggling mightily to remember that he was one of the greatest ever. Chris Jericho losing the Undisputed title to Triple H was not as dramatic as the WWE had hoped, but the match was still very good and unfairly gets a bad rap. It was not the best match that they’d ever had, but they could have a *** ½ match in their sleep. Kurt Angle vs. Kane was the type of match that boosts the overall profile of an event. RVD vs. William Regal and Christian vs. DDP were, too. Edge vs. Booker T was only a step behind. The Fatal Fourway tag title match was only a step behind that. Scott Hall vs. Steve Austin was entertaining for what it was, though still a bit disappointing given the talents involved. Trish Stratus, Lita, and Jazz did well to not detract from the card – like the Hardcore title mess and it’s 24/7 rule did its best to accomplish.
It’s virtually unheard of for a wrestling PPV to feature six matches that garner a 3-star or better rating. As I sit here, I’m struggling to think of another PPV that matched the feat accomplished by Wrestlemania 22…and I cannot do it. SIX three star matches should put Mania 22 right at the top of the list, right? Well, for starters, there was only one match that I’ve rated at 4-stars. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, two of the worst matches in Mania lore also took place on this event, skewing the data opposite its favor. So, unfortunately, without a standout, MOTY caliber piece of work and a couple of alarming duds, Mania 22 does not reach the top 5. Yet, because of the strong efforts from several pairings and one trio, it does crack the top 10.
It all starts with Triple H vs. John Cena, for me. That’s my favorite match that I’ve ever seen live. It was utterly incredible to be there and listen to that crowd officially begin the anti-Cenation. What a polarizing figure he became after that match, in particular. Triple H did not need to guide Cena in any way. Cena was prepared for what he had to do and what noise he had to endure and he knocked one out of the park. It was not a catch-as-catch-can classic, but it did not need to be. They told precisely the story that was called for under the circumstances and proceeded to have one of, if not the most underrated match in Wrestlemania history. I hope that, one day, the haters will look back on Cena’s career and point to this match as one of his best. Take all things into consideration and this was some of the finest work of both their careers.
Edge vs. Mick Foley usually gets the love for being the best on the show, but I don’t think they stole the show so much as they enhanced it. Their match was excellent and I’ve probably underrated it at just under four-stars over the years. Perhaps one day my scale will evolve and my rating will change. If so, Trips-Cena will probably get bumped to 4.5 stars and Edge-Foley to 4, still giving the main-event the nod for the top bout of the evening. Edge got what he needed out of this match and came away as one of the major talking points, while Foley added the great match to a fairly lacking Mania resume. Shawn Michaels carried Vince McMahon to a challenger for MOTN, shocking me in the process. I’m surprised HBK’s back did not give out on him again. Much like Cena-Trips, HBK and Vince told the story that they needed to and it was quite entertaining and crowd pleasing. You really wanted to see Vince get his head kicked off; HBK gave him a beating worthy of the four months of hype.
The other three matches to eclipse the 3-star mark were the triple threat match for the World title, best described as a rapid fire bout that showcased each man’s ability to connect fluidly with a half dozen intricate spots; the second installment of the Wrestlemania Money in the Bank ladder match, highlighted by Shelton Benjamin and RVD’s high flying, Finlay’s stability, Matt Hardy’s experience, Lashley’s power, and the drama of Ric Flair leaving with an injury only to return; and the women’s title match between Trish Stratus and Mickie James that remains the greatest ladies bout that I’ve seen in 25 years and that garnered a better crowd reaction than 99% of the matches you see today.
Chris Benoit and JBL also had a solid match, as did Mark Henry and the Undertaker (kudos to the Deadman for that one; Henry had a stinker with Kurt Angle, of all people, two months prior). Kane and Big Show’s successful tag title defense against Carlito and Chris Masters was okay. If it were not for the Boogeyman vs. Booker and Sharmell debacle or the atrocity that was the Torrie Wilson vs. Candice Michelle match, then Mania 22 would rank higher.
At the top, Wrestlemania 23 ranks right up there against the best Manias of all-time. Shawn Michaels vs. John Cena, Undertaker vs. Batista, Money in the Bank 3, and Chris Benoit vs. MVP (hell, even the Battle of the Billionaires) stack up against Manias 28, 24, 17, and other such highly touted versions of the Show of Shows, quality-wise. Yet, there were only eight matches, which meant that the poorly rated work by Kane, the Great Khali, Ashley Massarro, and Melina (who combined for two of the worst matches in Mania history) would have a greater, negative impact. Mania 23, thus, just misses out on the top 10.
HBK vs. Cena was the best story told, despite Batista vs. Undertaker getting higher praise as the most exciting match. The battle for which was better will continue to rage on for years, especially considering the stature of the four men involved. I have stated numerous times throughout the years that HBK-Cena was the match of the night, for my tastes; but as last year’s Mania Countdown proved, I am in the minority on that opinion. That is not likely to change. I would say it’s about 70-30 in favor of Batista vs. Taker. Fair enough, as far as I’m concerned, as I can certainly see the appeal in a hard-hitting, faster paced affair. There is no questioning that Batista vs. Taker blew away expectations. Not in my wildest dreams could I have predicted a match of that caliber for Batista without a gimmick (ala his match with Trips inside the Cell). He earned my respect that night, proving himself to be a big game player. He turned the corner and never looked back. As for Taker, that was the match that began his Streak within the Streak. Some may call them “spot heavy;” I’d call them dramatic.
Both title matches were proving grounds for the younger talents, but in different ways. Cena had already proven that he could have the MOTY (he did it in 2006 against Edge, in my opinion), but he needed to show that he could work a feature length match nearing 30-minutes to prove that he was elite. That was his last step toward being “The Man” and HBK was the perfect guy to help him through it. Oddly, it wasn’t epic. That’s my only gripe with it and I have to keep in mind that expectations might not have been realistic. To his colleagues, I get the impression that Cena’s performance was exemplary. To critics, it was lacking. For Batista, it was more about showing that he had what it took to be kept in the conversation for face of the WWE after Cena swooped in two years prior and took the moniker from him. He needed an epic performance and he delivered. It ultimately did not matter since Cena, too, delivered and retained the thrown, of sorts, but props to Bats for trying.
The first 8-man MITB match was thrilling upon first viewing. Though I do not feel it has stood the test of time amidst the other renditions of the gimmick, I think that #3 was the most star-studded and felt like the biggest match. Edge, Randy Orton, Jeff Hardy, CM Punk, and Booker T, plus Matt Hardy, Finlay, and Mr. Kennedy all worked hard to produce a 4-star caliber match. MVP and Benoit put together a great mid-card bout that has aged well, initially rating lower than I now have it starred. It was less than ten-minutes in length, but they backed up all of the praise given to their house show matches. MVP was awesome; it is a shame that they never elevated him to the next level. He could have succeeded as a top guy. The Terrell Owens-type persona was ready made, at the time, for main-event stardom. MVP was Benoit’s last great opponent. Lashley vs. Umaga was a pleasant surprise, with all the shenanigans involving Vince McMahon, Steve Austin, Shane McMahon, and, of course, Donald Trump accentuating the solid in-ring work done by the primary combatants.
ECW Originals RVD, Sabu, Tommy Dreamer, and Sandman had a very good match with the New Breed’s Elijah Burke, Marcus Cor Van, Matt Striker, and Kevin Thorne, but it took place on ECW television and not Wrestlemania. So, unfortunately, there wasn’t much to the 8-man tag match of substance and it did not add to the card; it was neither here nor there.