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THE FINAL COUNTDOWN - The Top 10 Most Important Matches in WWE History
By Mr. Tito
Feb 23, 2014 - 1:00:12 AM
IT'S THE FINAL COUNTDOWN!! Recently, fellow LoP columnist, the Doc, wrote a column titled "Doctor's Orders - 10 of the Most Important Matches in Wrestlemania History" which was a great column and had the Mr. Tito offices thinking... What about the most important matches in overall WWE history? Certainly, Wrestlemania holds its share of imporant and groundbreaking matches, but there are other influential matches that have changed the WWE forever.
To be fair, this list is not necessarily the "best WWE matches" list. The matches listed here have grave importance to the growth of the WWE or created a major influence among wrestlers or the industry itself. Some were either groundbreaking or some had endings that caused ripple effects in the industry. WWE's history would definitely be different had these 10 matches or their endings did not occur.
As usual, no FINAL COUNTDOWN column can be read without listening to this awesome cover of the Europe song, "The Final Countdown".
TOP 10 MOST IMPORTANT MATCHES IN WWE HISTORY
#10 - John Bradshaw Layfield (JBL) vs. John Cena - Wrestlemania 21 (2005) One match that could have and should have been here was the SummerSlam 2002 match between Rock and Brock Lesnar. There, the Attitude Era, with Rock as the representative, put over Brock Lesnar as the "next big thing". However, by 2004, Brock Lesnar left the WWE... Thus, the impact of the Rock's put over was blunted... The real "next big thing" was John Cena to follow the Attitude Era wrestlers and Wrestlemania 21 was the night John Cena became WWE Champion.
John "Bradshaw" Layfield (JBL) held the WWE Title for about 10 months and was the perfect polar opposite of John Cena to oppose at Wrestlemania 21. Bradshaw had various gimmicks before, as he had various cowboy gimmicks and then the Acolytes... By 2004, the WWE needed someone to fill the Smackdown void after Brock Lesnar left. WWE quickly repackaged JBL into a J.R. Ewing (from the show Dallas) like character and pushed him hard as a heel. Meanwhile, the WWE had a growing babyface on their hands that the fans actually turned babyface. John Cena started off as a very plain wrestler but thanks to luck chance at putting on a different costume, the "Thug Life" rapping John Cena was introduced. Coming off the heels of rapper Eminem and 8 Mile's popularity, John Cena's personality of tearing down other wrestlers with raps quickly got him over and naturally converted him from a heel to a babyface. He was emerging as the next big superstar.
At Wrestlemania 21, John Bradshaw Layfield did business the way pro wrestling should do it... He put Cena over 100% clean and John Cena was instantly made into a credible WWE Champion. Cena would be soon moved to RAW later during 2005 and has dominated RAW ever since. Think about it... Almost 9 years after JBL put over John Cena cleanly for the WWE Title, Cena is still dominating and drawing well for the WWE.
#9 - Shawn Michaels vs. Razor Ramon - Wrestlemania 10 (1994) - First ladder match on the BIG stage. Granted, there have been ladder matches before this one, notably by Bret Hart. This one, however, was on the big stage and the quality was off the charts. Many give Shawn Michaels credit for taking the big bumps, but Razor (or Scott Hall) was a great worker too. For a "Match of the Year" candidate, it typically takes both wrestlers putting in a great effort.
Heading into the match, there was a dispute over the Intercontinental Title. Michaels was the Intercontinental Champion when he suspended for disputed reasons. While he was gone, the WWE held a battle royal to determine a one-on-one match for the vacated Intercontinental Title. Razor Ramon would win the Intercontinental Title but would soon be challenged by the returning Shawn Michaels who was claiming that he never lost the belt. With both wrestlers claiming to be champion, there had to be a way to determine who was the rightful champion. Thus, a Ladder Match was used.
By succeeding on the big stage, Michaels/Razor gave the WWE an exciting new match to market. Later, Edge/Christian and the Hardys would put on an incredible tag team ladder match and then the Tables, Ladders, and Chairs matches were created. Better yet, Money in the Bank. Think about it, folks... Two Pay Per Views actually feature Ladder Matches in namesake and with the matches themselves. The Money in the Bank event seems to be gaining in popularity by the year, especially.
#8 - Bret "the Hitman" Hart vs. "Stone Cold" Steve Austin - Wrestlemania 13 (1997) Wrestlemania 13 isn't exactly high on many critics' Wrestlemania rankings. However, there is this one match that might be considered the best Wrestlemania match of all time. Originally, Wrestlemania 13 was supposed to feature a rematch between Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels. However, Michaels "lost his smile" and "retired" with a knee injury before being able to defend the WWE Title against Bret Hart. Instead, the WWE continued the Bret Hart and Steve Austin feud that began at Survivor Series 1996 and continued through Royal Rumble 1997 when Steve Austin cheated to win the Rumble by re-entering after he was eliminated (not seen by the referees). By Wrestlemania 13, the fanbase's perceptions of wrestlers was changing.
WWE started to notice that Bret Hart was getting boos while Steve Austin's popularity was surging. The old model of clean cut babyfaces was ending, as WCW saw great business with the NWO acting as "cool heels". Steve Austin gave the WWE an opportunity to have a badass redneck babyface wrestler and the fans were tiring on the likes of Bret Hart. Thus, at Wrestlemania 13, the WWE saw an opportunity to perform a double switch. The end saw Bret Hart using the Sharpshooter on Steve Austin but Austin refused to give up. In fact, he passed out... Bret Hart refused to let go of the hold despite special guest referee Ken Shamrock (remember him?) calling of the match. Then, Bret Hart started attacking Austin and had to be further stopped by Ken Shamrock.
Fans sympathized with Steve Austin for not submitting to Bret Hart and began giving heat to Bret Hart for his heelish ways after the Wrestlemania 13 match. Furthermore with Bret, he put over Steve Austin by letting Austin appear as an equal to him during this match. Bret was the dominant wrestler in the WWE since 1994 and he let Austin appear as a wrestler who could legitimately defeat him in a regular match. The psychology of this match was off the charts and Austin would become WWE Champion by the next Wrestlemania. Better yet, Austin's star grew so big that it probably convinced WWE management to take a chance on letting Bret Hart go later during 1997.
#7 - "Macho Man" Randy Savage vs. Ricky "the Dragon" Steamboat - Wrestlemania 3 (1987) If you listen to any younger wrestlers of the late 1990's, especially ones driven by in-ring workrate, they'll tell you that Savage vs. Steamboat at Wrestlemania 3 convinced them to become a wrestler. For Wrestlemania 3, many actually suggest that despite the hype of Hogan vs. Andre, this match "stole the show".
In my opinion, this was the first technically sound match on the big Vince McMahon Jr. big stage. WWE has had other great matches before this, but nothing in the new Wrestlemania era. With due respect to Wrestlemania 1 and 2, they didn't have anything on the midcard close to this match in terms of workrate. You had the veteran in Ricky "the Dragon" Steamboat who wrestled in clinics in the NWA Mid Atlantic promotion and an emerging major superstar in the "Macho Man" Randy Savage clashing in a hard fought battle over the Intercontinental Title. Before their Wrestlemania 3 match, both had battles on the houseshow circuit that were legendary. The chemistry between the two was amazing and they only had 15 minutes at the stuffed Wrestlemania 3 to impress. They made the most out of those minutes by a highly action packed match with many near falls. It remains many wrestlers' favorite match to this day.
Steamboat helped push Randy Savage to become a stronger in-ring performer. After succeeding on the big Wrestlemania 3 stage, WWE officials were later convinced to push Randy Savage as the next big thing. By Wrestlemania 4, Savage became WWE Champion. Savage would go on to have many remarkable matches on the big stage including against Hogan at Wrestlemania 5, Warrior at Wrestlemania 7, and Ric Flair at Wrestlemania 8 with solid performances elsewhere. Steamboat, himself, wouldn't last long as Intercontinental Champion or as a WWE employee. He would then resurface in WCW during early 1989 and have an incredible run against Ric Flair there. I'm willing to bet that Steamboat's popularity in WCW, despite wrestling there before, increased by this Wrestlemania 3 match-up.
By the influence alone of putting more emphasis on workrate instead of theatrics in the WWE, Steamboat vs. Savage deserves this spot on the list. Wrestlemania would soon become known for having at least 1 "match of the year" candidate after this match occurred and the main eventers began to take their matches seriously to not get upstaged by a midcard match again.
#6 - The "Curtain Call" - Shawn Michaels vs. "Diesel" Kevin Nash - 5/19/1996 at Madison Square Garden Many of you are thinking... A houseshow match? Really? Well, it's actually the celebration after the match... During the mid-1990's, particularly in response to the emerging WCW who was pushing older WWE stars at the top of their card (Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage in particular), the WWE was hyping a "new generation" of superstars. Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, Razor Ramon, and Diesel were hyped as new faces for fans to enjoy. However, when Eric Bischoff became WCW's boss during 1993, he opened Ted Turner or Time Warner's checkbook. After buying Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage from the WWF, he sought to grab more of their superstars. Coincidentally during 1996, Scott Hall (Razor Ramon) and Kevin Nash (Diesel) had their WWE contracts come up and through Hall's old friendship with Diamond Dallas Page, WCW presented both Hall and Nash with huge guaranteed offers. WWE couldn't match those offers and the rest was history... Hall/Nash were to join WCW soon.
Kevin Nash was completing his WWE tenure with a feud with Shawn Michaels. They fought to a tremendous Pay Per View match at In Your House: Good Friends, Better Enemies (worth checking out, WWE Network fans!) and would have a rematch at a Houseshow in the heart of the WWE, New York City at Madison Square Garden. It was to be a cage match... Michaels and Nash had their match and Nash, of course, was defeated... After the match, however, the salute among old friends would actually force major changes in the WWE.
In real life, Kevin Nash, Shawn Michaels, Scott Hall, Triple H, and Sean Waltman (X-Pac) were great friends backstage. They were known as "the clique" and they acted somewhat as a mini-union by watching each other's back and reporting on the payoffs that each wrestler earned. They were a political force backstage and because they were a group of key wrestlers, they could exert influence over Vince McMahon. Probably thinking that they could get away with anything, especially with Hall and Nash leaving for WCW, after the Michaels vs. Nash cage match ended at this 5/19/96 houseshow ended, Scott Hall and Triple H came to the ring and all 4 clique members raised their arms together to salute the fans and hugged in the ring. We're still in 1996 WWE here and Vince McMahon was still protective about the business. He was embarrassed that heels and faces broke character and exposed the business at the WWE's biggest stage in Madison Square Garden. The incident is famously called the "Curtain Call".
Hall and Nash were going to WCW, so therefore, no punishment. Vince couldn't punish Shawn Michaels, the current WWE Champion... So the punishment hit Triple H. HHH was all set to win the King of the Ring 1996 tournament and embark on a heel main event push for the rest of 1996. However, this event caused Triple H to be depushed and learn to, as Vince reportedly put it according to Triple H, learn to eat "shit sandwiches" for the next year and like it. The booking for King of the Ring 1996 was changed to Steve Austin winning the event instead. The rest is history... After Austin won the King of the Ring 1996 event, he did the famous "Austin 3:16" speech and caught immediate fire. Triple H would spend about the next 3 years in the midcard instead.
It could have been a blessing in the sky for Triple H... Quite possibly, 1996 was not his time for prime time. While Triple H was a solid midcarder during 1996, it's hard to say if the blueblood character would have got over in the main event scene of the time. A few more years of extra seasoning never hurts. Triple H's in-ring quality improved by the year so that by early 2000, he was a polished wrestler to easily handle the WWE main event. Furthermore, Triple H actually used the punishment from the "Curtain Call" in a famous Jim Ross interview to help drive heat for his newly revised 1999 character. It helped show that he was a wrestler angry from the way that the WWE treated him and how he was still hungry to get to the top. The way that the Curtain Call helped define Austin and Triple H's career makes this little houseshow match very important to WWE history.
#5 - The Rock vs. "Stone Cold" Steve Austin - Wrestlemania 15 (1999) Most proclaim the Wrestlemania 17 as the more important match. However, 1999 was a major growth year for the WWE and it was all dependent on the Rock succeeding as a Main Event star. For much of 1998, the Rock was a midcarder and fought over the Intercontinental Title. Then, at Survivor Series 1998, the WWE made him the "Corporate Champion". Before he could get to Austin, he needed someone to feud with. That man was Mick Foley and the Rock would have many great battles with Foley to start 1999. Foley pushed the Rock to his limits and prepared him for the huge Wrestlemania 15 encounter with Steve Austin.
While World Championship Wrestling (WCW) was dying, it was still around and 2 years away from its eventual death. It still had a chance to rebound. With the Rock vs. Austin feud for Wrestlemania 15, the WWE proved that it had something that WCW didn't have: two brand new superstars who were legitimate draws. WCW, at this point, had many guys past their peak yet still trying to pass off as top guys. WWE had success with Steve Austin as the top draw but now they had the perfect heel complement draw with the Rock.
Wrestlemania 15 did 800,000 buys, which for 1999, was the all-time record until Wrestlemania 16 rolled around. To do that match with a WCW competitor still doing monthly shows was remarkable for its time. If you look at the rest of the 1999 RAW numbers, the ratings are amazing to look at. Rock vs. Foley and then Rock vs. Austin grew the WWE business dramatically. Wrestlemania 15 drew a wider separation between the WWE and WCW and proved that the Rock could hang with Steve Austin. This was important because later during 1999, Austin required neck surgery and the Rock would become the #1 babyface in his place. WWE didn't miss a beat, business wise.
While many may think Wrestlemania 17's match is bigger, consider that Wrestlemania 17's hype wouldn't as large without Wrestlemania 15's match being so successful.
#4 - Hulk Hogan/Mr. T vs. "Mr. Wonderful" Paul Ordorff/"Rowdy" Roddy Piper - Wrestlemania 1 (1985) Once the WWE had its big superstar in Hulk Hogan, thanks to American Wrestling Association (AWA) letting him go to WWE through late 1983, the WWE needed a big event to showcase its ever expanding product. During the same period of time that the WWE was expanding nationally, a new Cable TV channel was growing quickly. Music Television or Mtv was taking the music world by storm. Before, it was radio that made musicians into star and the quality of music had to make the star. Now, however, music videos could get any performer or band popular regardless of quality.
Vince McMahon was looking for any opportunity grow the WWE brand nationally and to cross sell his product on Mtv and with popular musicians was a no-brainer. WWE fans would get to know the likes of Cindi Lauper quickly while Mtv viewers would get to know Hulk Hogan, Roddy Piper, and Captain Lou Albano. Add a growing movie star in Mr. T to tag up with Hulk Hogan against the top heels in the WWE at the time, Roddy Piper and Paul Ordorff, and you have the right mix to grab mainstream attention. With Hogan and Mr. T pairing up, you actually had 2 big personalities from the Rocky 3 tagging up. That's right, Thunderlips and Clubber Lang were a freakin' tag team!
Wrestlemania 1 was a huge risk for Vince McMahon and he reportedly banked a lot of finances on the success of this show. While the WWE had other big events at the time, this was the one that was hyped nationally and was banking on huge viewership on closed-circuit television (before Pay Per View) to begin to show other avenues of revenues besides the live show gate. The show was a huge success and this match delivered huge on the hype as "Cowboy" Bob Orton (Randy Orton's dad) accidentally hit Ordorff with his cast to help Hogan and Mr. T win the match. This match was so big that it created momentum into the next year. Mr. T and Roddy Piper actually fought in a boxing match at Wrestlemania 2.
30 years later, Wrestlemania still exists... Without this match succeeding, the show could have bombed and limited the WWE's expansive growth to dominate the wrestling market.
#3 - Bruno Sammartino vs. "Nature Boy" Buddy Rogers - 5/17/1963 at Madison Square Garden This was the match where Bruno Sammartino became the second World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF, later becoming WWF and now WWE) Champion. Buddy Rogers was the first champion thanks to mysterious tournament held offshore but his health gave out on him early into the reign. The stories are conflicting on how this match came to be, whether Rogers was yanked out of a hospital bed or not, but either way, the match lasted 48 seconds and Sammartino was champion.
But the reason why this match is so important is that the WWWF could have picked the wrong guy to be champion. WWWF promoters, before their split from the National Wrestling Alliance, did not like the champion selection by the other NWA board members and sought to have their own draw. Bruno Sammartino was perfect for the Northeastern wrestling fans to worship and to follow. He was an Italian American and had the blue collar appeal to many in the New York and Pennsylvania areas. Bruno would go on to hold the title for over 7 years when he was defeated by Ivan Koloff on January 18th, 1971. Sammartino would regain the WWWF Title during December of 1973 and held onto the title for another extensive title reign through April 1977.
Without Bruno on top, it's hard to say where the WWE would be today. The guy took the ball during the 1960's and 1970's and ran with it. Wrestling fans knew that they had a credible World Champion with Bruno on top and it drew nicely in the Northeast. Bruno's work allowed the WWE to own the New York area and set the stage for future expansion.
#2 - Bret "the Hitman" Hart vs. Shawn Michaels - Survivor Series 1997 Maybe not the match itself, but the outcome was extremely important to the WWE. As you may have heard the story repeatedly by now, during late 1996, the WWE signed Bret "the Hitman" Hart to a 20 year deal in order to retain him from a WCW jump. The trick of the deal, however, was a 1 year out-clause in the contract. The WWE could opt out of the deal if they wished to part ways. Bret Hart returned to the WWE with is new contract at Survivor Series 1996, so thus the WWE had to make a choice by Survivor Series 1997. And they did... The WWE opted out. Through 1997, the WWE was getting beat badly in the ratings and in need of cash to reinvest into the company or make its payroll with other wrestlers. Bret cost $2 million per year with his new deal...
Problem through Survivor Series 1997 was that Bret was the WWE Champion AND had a clause for himself in his contract that if the WWE opted out early, he gets full creative control over his character for the last 30 days. That included Survivor Series 1997 by the time WWE opted out. Given personal problems with Shawn Michaels AND for the fact that Bret Hart put Shawn Michaels over for the WWE Title at Wrestlemania 12, Bret did not want to lose to Michaels. In fact, his creative control push was that the Survivor Series 1997 match would end in a DX run-in and Bret would hand the WWE Title over on RAW the following night. Vince McMahon agreed to this to Bret's face but Vince had other plans... No way was he going to let WCW have its WWE Champion.
Vince McMahon conspired to doublecross Bret. By threatening referee Earl Hebner to enforce a screwjob finish and Shawn Michaels going along with it, the Survivor Series 1997 match ended with Bret Hart being placed in the Sharpshooter by Michaels and Hebner calling for the bell as if Bret submit. The original finish was supposed to be Bret reversing Shawn's Sharpshooter into his own and then the DX run-in... Didn't happen. Bret immediately knew that he was screwed and he spit in Vince's face. Later, Bret would actually slug Vince McMahon and pretty much ruin any lawsuit that he could have had against WWE for breach of contract. It would take a few weeks for Bret to officially join WCW, but in the meantime, the WWE got the word in edge wise. Vince McMahon did taped interviews where "Bret screwed Bret" and Shawn Michaels mocked Hart hard with a midget segment. By the time Bret debuted with WCW, he was damaged goods and was now among a crowded field of former WWE main eventers.
Getting rid of Bret Hard freed up the WWE to push Steve Austin harder and to reinvest $2 million into their company (or buy Mike Tyson for Wrestlemania 14, take your pick). Most of all, however, the incident officially put the spotlight on Vince McMahon as the WWE's owner and it created the "heel boss" character that Steve Austin enjoyed feuding with for the next 2 years. Austin vs. McMahon drew huge and helped the WWE eventually defeat WCW during 1998. While WWE was improving through the fall of 1997 with its numbers, Survivor Series 1997 was the officially change in the momentum for the Monday Night Wars. Sadly, it was a major negative for Bret Hart's career and life and I don't think he's ever recovered fully from the events of that night.
#1 - Hulk Hogan vs. Andre the Giant - Wrestlemania 3 (1987) Stating the obvious here... Hogan vs. Andre at Wrestlemania 3 is #1 because it significantly grew the WWE's business and put simultaneous nails in the coffins of many WWE competitors and territories. The WWE, with this match, link wrestling fans, sports fans, and the Mtv generation who were watching since Wrestlemania 1's Rock N Roll Wrestling together. This match put the WWE's big draw attraction of the 1970's (although Bruno was still popular) against the big draw of the 1980's. Furthermore, there was a nice "sense of urgency" placed on Andre because he was never the WWE Champion. Andre was upset at the attention Hogan was getting and turned to the darkside to go after Hogan. Bobby "the Brain" Heenan got to manage...
Wrestlemania 3 sold out the massive Pontiac Silverdome with the WWE often reporting 93,000 tickets sold (most estimate about 80,000, but who cares... still high!) to see this big match. We were in the earlier days of Pay Per View and Wrestlemania 3 did 400,000 buys. Nowadays, Wrestlemania pulls in 1,000,000 buys... But 1987, Cable TV wasn't available in all markets, let alone with Pay Per View capabilities. Back then, closed-circuit television was the rave for big event in which a single location had access to a television feed of a Pay Per View and individuals would essentially buy tickets to watch the show. That is estimated to be in the millions for this event.
After that, the sky was the limit for the WWE and many of the traditional territories were completely unable to catch up. By the early 1990's, the pro wrestling world had two choices: WWE or the "billionaire" Ted Turner subsidized WCW. WWE was trending towards dominance after Wrestlemania 1 but Wrestlemania 3 put the nails in the coffins of many promoters. It was the event the separated the WWE, bigtime, from the rest of the competition.
Hogan and Andre would continue to do great business after Wrestlemania 3. Their feud would actually span through 2 newly created Pay Per Views: Survivor Series 1987 and SummerSlam 1988. Additionally, they would draw huge with a rematch on Saturday Night's Main Event (where Andre finally got his first WWE Title) and help hype another Wrestlemania to be huge for 1988. The WWE was just printing money at this point...
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