Ranking WrestleMania main events worst to best, #5: Benoit vs. Michaels vs. Triple H

Ranking each of the 29 WrestleMania main events from worst to best. Up next is the one we're not allowed to enjoy anymore.

AWKWARD FACE

(THE ONE WITH HE WHO MUST NOT BE NAMED)

In mid-2007 Chris Benoit snapped, killed his family and then committed suicide. It is first and foremost a tragedy separate from any impact the event had on pro wrestling. Speculation, speculation, speculation. That's all we have. From the facts available you can piece together enough of the jigsaw puzzle to maybe have an idea of what happened, but we'll never know for sure.

What we do know is that the autopsy showed Benoit had the brain of something like an octogenarian Alzheimer's sufferer. Repeated chairshots, headbutts, and working matches across the globe with few of the safety considerations now in place took its toll. You know the horror stories of a Vietnam vet going nuts in the middle of the night when he hears a car backfire? You've heard how someone suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder can have a flashback and just snap? I wonder if something like that happened. We'll never know.

I'll say this before moving on: I totally understand WWE's scrubbing of him from history. At the same time, I don't think he should be looked at like Charles Manson or the Boston bomber. By all accounts (from people who knew him, like Chris Jericho), Benoit loved his family, especially his son. When you tell me of rumors that he put his son in the Crippler Crossface before killing him, I have a hard time believing that man was in a right state of mind. "Perspective" is all I'm saying.

Now that the elephant in the room has been pointed out and discussed, I'm going to proceed with the article from a purely historical perspective. I don't think it necessary to pause after every mention of Benoit and remind us all that he was a murderer. We know. I just want to write about his career journey forgetting for a moment how his life's journey ended. Is that okay? If not, I understand. Skip to the bottom for the tomorrow's teaser and leave a comment about your favorite Eddie Guerrero memory. Let's just get through the countdown.

Having said that...

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The year was 2000. As the Souled Out (not sold out) WCW pay-per-view (PPV) event drew to a close, Chris Benoit hoisted the Big Gold Belt high over his head, celebrating his first world championship after years of wrestling in multiple continents, territories, and promotions. After always being told he was too small and too bland to make it as a top level champion in a top level promotion, Benoit was just that. After toiling away for 6 of the last 8 years in WCW, pushed aside and held back by political players and less talented big men, finally he was the heavyweight champion of the world.

He quit the next day.

Sensing that his championship win was a mirage, he and three fellow disgruntled workhorse performers split for the WWF. His doubts about whether WCW really valued him as a performer were confirmed when they let him out of his contract without so much as a no-compete clause. He was appearing on Monday Night Raw by the end of the month.

By the end of WrestleMania 2000, Benoit was Intercontinental champion (the belt still meant...something...back then) and enjoyed a one-off feud with The Rock, leading to a main event championship match in July 2000. Throughout the year he was a featured player in the upper mid-card and though he was not a title contender, his career seemed to have more upward trajectory than it did in TurnerTown.

It looked to be an even better year for him in 2001, as he routinely stole the show on PPV events. He and Chris Jericho had a tremendous ladder match at Royal Rumble, and he and Angle often tore the house down that spring. Unfortunately, Benoit injured his neck and missed the entire InVasion angle, not returning until mid-2002.

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On SmackDown, he thrived. Though not in the main event picture, he was a major player on Paul Heyman's show and regularly had the match of the night, either as a solo performer as part of a tag team (usually with Angle or Rhyno).

In 2003, he faced off with Angle at Royal Rumble for the WWE championship. It is one of the greatest matches my eyes have ever beheld and is recommended viewing. For their efforts both men received a standing ovation and there were moments in the match where it looked like Benoit had won it. For a guy who rarely competed on the top match, he looked more than credible as a champion.

It would be a year before he would get the opportunity.

At Royal Rumble 2004, Benoit entered at number one, went the distance, and won the match. Instead of challenging Brock Lesnar (the WWE champion), he challenged Triple H, the holder of the Big Gold Belt he once hoisted halfheartedly in his final night as a WCW employee. Before, he had walked away, knowing he would never get a fair shake with all the power players and politickers hogging the spotlight. Now he was signing the contract to wrestle the top dog of the company in the main event of Wrestle-

Aaaaand Shawn Michaels kicked his face off.

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Michaels had returned to active duty a year and a half earlier, beating Triple H at SummerSlam and then again at Survivor Series to win the world heavyweight championship. Their feud would continue off and on throughout 2003 and into 2004 when the two met in a Last Man Standing match at Royal Rumble. The match, like their feud, was indecisive as neither man answered the 10-count, ending the contest in a draw. Feeling as though the feud was unsettled, Michaels inserted himself into the WrestleMania 20 main event by superkicking Benoit and signing his own name on the contract. Yes, that happened. It was basically "first one to sign the contract wins number one contender status."

You laugh, but in 1999 they would have totally done a "Contract Signing Ink Pen on a Pole" match.

Jack Tunney was long gone or he would have called shenanigans in his deadpan voice. Instead, both men were awarded the right to face Triple H at WrestleMania.

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Triple H and Michaels were on screen rivals, but everyone knows backstage they were thick as thieves. At their best they were great ambassadors for the sport, great workers in the ring, and "A+" players (to use the recent buzzword). At their worst they could be backstabbing, power hungry, spot-stealing, and spot-hogging politicians with a knack for getting in Vince McMahon's ear and discrediting anyone they deemed a threat to their standing.

Just when it looked like Benoit was going to get the main event spotlight, he finds himself the third wheel in the ongoing (and seemingly never-ending) saga of the ex-D-Generation X'ers.

The drama in the lead up to the main event was great because it worked on both a kayfabe and a meta level. On TV, both "HBK" and Triple H had been dominate as main event stars; Benoit had been an upper-mid carder on the B-show. He was a natural underdog.

In addition, the smart fans knew all about the glass ceiling Benoit had thus far been unable to break and how Triple H and Michaels had a lot to do with keeping that glass ceiling unbreakable for guys just like Benoit over the years.

Isn't it ironic that the two obstacles to Benoit's long-desired win were two of the four Kliq members, when it was the other two (and Hogan) who played a big role in holding him down in WCW?

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You can say that the finish was not in doubt, but you'd be forgetting the debacle that was Booker T. vs. Triple H at WrestleMania 19 one year prior. Going into the show a lot of fans (myself included) wondered if we might not see another Triple H victory over a guy deserving of the rub. Also not out of the question would be a Michaels win to finish the Triple H feud and give Mr. WrestleMania a proper "welcome back" to full-time work.

Instead, the right guy won.

Before he did, however, fans were treated to perhaps the greatest Triple Threat match in history. It didn't do anything revolutionary to the match type; in fact, it followed the most basic of templates, alternating between one-on-one encounters while the third guy sold on the outside, interspersed with occasional double teams. But it was the way they put it all together that makes it so great. There's no downtime, no stalling rest holds. Everyone gets a chance to shine, and toward the end of the match the fighting is fast and brutal. Though the crowd was treated to the longest WrestleMania to date (the match started around the time modern Manias are going off the air), they were engaged throughout the bout, cheering every big spot and peppering the match with "let's go Benoit" chants.

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The finish to this match is breathtaking: As soon as Benoit is suplexed through the announce table things kick into high gear and don't let up till it's over. Michaels and Triple H fight one-on-one until Triple H hits a pedigree and goes for the cover. 1-2-Benoit jumps in out of nowhere to break it up. Triple H and Benoit go at it until Benoit gets the champ in the Sharpshooter. It looks like it's over until Michaels comes out of nowhere to superkick Benoit. Back and forth, back and forth, until finally Benoit gets the crossface locked in. Triple H struggles to reach the rope but only grazes it with a finger nail before Benoit rolls him to the middle of the ring.

Tap-tap-tap.

The tears start flowing as soon as his music starts playing. It is 100% genuine, where his celebration four years prior was hollow. His best friend, Eddie Guerrero, joins him soon after and the two long time underdogs embrace as confetti falls. Benoit did it. He tapped out a top dog in the middle of the ring to win the biggest match of his life to hoist the Big Gold Belt as his own.

And then, the next month at Backlash, he did it again, tapping out Michaels in the middle of the ring.

It's such a shame that the genuinely heartfelt moment was ruined by the tragedy that followed. It's also a shame that the tragedy dragged down Guerrero's biggest WrestleMania moment as well.

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Sound off, Cagesiders. It's been almost seven years since this match was allowed to be talked about by WWE personnel. It's now glossed over, scrubbed out, and swept under the rug. I understand it, but it's a shame that one of the greatest main events in WrestleMania history will never get the recognition it deserves. Let us know your thoughts on it in the comments below.

As always, this is a sensitive topic, so please treat it appropriately.

Tomorrow's main event is the climax to one of pro wrestling's greatest stories and most passionate feuds. See you then!

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Previously:

- Ranking Mania main events #6: Hulk Hogan vs. Ultimate Warrior
- Ranking Mania main events #7: Brock Lesnar vs. Kurt Angle
- Ranking Mania main events #8: Triple H vs. John Cena
- Ranking Mania main events #9: Steve Austin vs. The Rock
- Ranking Mania main events #10: Shawn Michaels vs. Bret Hart
- Ranking Mania main events #11: John Cena vs. The Rock
- Ranking Mania main events #12: Shawn Michaels vs. John Cena
- Ranking Mania main events #13: Undertaker vs. Edge
- Ranking Mania main events #14: Steve Austin vs. Shawn Michaels
- Ranking Mania main events #15: Batista vs. Triple H
- Ranking Mania main events #16: Mick Foley vs. The Rock vs. Triple H vs. Big Show
- Ranking Mania main events #17: Bret Hart vs. Yokozuna II
- Ranking Mania main events #18: John Cena vs. The Rock II
- Ranking Mania main events #19: Randy Savage vs. Ted DiBiase
- Ranking Mania main events #20: Hogan & Mr. T vs. Piper & Orndorff
- Ranking Mania main events #21: Triple H vs. Chris Jericho
- Ranking Mania main events #22: Hulk Hogan vs. King Kong Bundy
- Ranking Mania main events #23: Triple H vs. Randy Orton
- Ranking Mania main events #24: Hulk Hogan vs. Sid Justice
- Ranking Mania main events #25: John Cena vs. The Miz
- Ranking Mania main events #26: Undertaker vs. Sycho Sid
- Ranking Mania main events #27: Hulk Hogan vs. Sgt. Slaughter
- Ranking Mania main events #28: Bret Hart vs. Yokozuna
- Ranking Mania main events #29: Lawrence Taylor vs. Bam Bam Bigelow

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