We are near the conclusion! 10 more matches left on the countdown of The 100 Greatest Matches in WrestleMania History. Today, we'll go No. 10 to No. 2, with the top spot coming tomorrow morning, though it will be no mystery once you're to the end of today's portion.
If you've missed anything thus far, here are links to the rest of the countdown:
NOW WE TALK ABOUT THE MATCHES
10. The Undertaker vs Shawn Michaels (WrestleMania XXVI)
The Career vs Streak WrestleMania rematch between Undertaker and Shawn couldn't quite live up to the original, and yet I consider it the 10th greatest match in the show's entire history. That tells you what the original was like, I would say, as this was an awesome spectacle. In what remains Michaels' final match, he had one of the best of his legendary career, one that has every right to be called the greatest in American wrestling history, arguably the greatest period. Nobody in his generation was truly on Shawn's level, overall, as he split into two careers and somehow was even better in the second one than the first, when he was already excellent.
Over time, Michaels and Undertaker became tremendous rivals, despite the fact that they didn't really cross paths until 1997, even though Undertaker had been in WWE since 1990, and Michaels since 1988. Shawn is one of those guys who in ‘97 started bringing Taker out of his shell, which Mick Foley had kickstarted in ‘96 by allowing Taker to work a more fast-paced, physical style that relied less on gimmicky theatrics and more on being an asskicker. Their classic original Hell in a Cell match in 1997 really should have been their best match together, but they topped it in both 2009 and 2010. The fact that Michaels has stayed out of the ring since this match, seemingly retiring for real, only adds to the mystique and quality of this one. Two years after Michaels retired Flair, Shawn himself was sent packing by the Undertaker, who shook HBK's hand after the match to show respect for a man it's said he at one time had little respect for out in the real world, backstage where the hot scoops come from and the people are held down.
9. The Rock vs Steve Austin (WrestleMania XIX)
I said yesterday that when WWE called the Undertaker-HHH match at WrestleMania XXVIII the "End of an Era," it was not. This match was the end of the Attitude Era for real, and considering we keep seeing Undertaker and Triple H wrestle other folks (both are on this year's WrestleMania card, both were on last year's), it's absurd for that match to ever be called the "End of an Era," or at least absurd for anyone who doesn't work for WWE to possibly take it seriously.
Let's be really honest here. With all due respect to Undertaker and Triple H, the "era" they were supposedly ending was a time when they were supporting characters. Stone Cold and The Rock were WWF Attitude, they were that wrestling boom, they were the guys who truly stood apart from the pack. Undertaker and HHH were very important, but they were second-tier, along with guys like Mick Foley and Kurt Angle. When Rock and Austin met in 2003, it was truly a "one last time" event. Austin retired after this match, rather quietly, and Rock put Goldberg over (sort of) on his way out of the company save for one match in 2004, which led to a seven-plus year in-ring absence before he came back for that Survivor Series tag match, then the 2012 and 2013 WrestleMania matches with John Cena.
In 1999, when Rock and Austin at WrestleMania XV, it was a clash of the top two guys who were meeting at the height of the company's popularity, probably the height of Austin's, and Rock wasn't far off. It was clear then that he was about to be right on par with Austin as the top guys in the industry. In 2001, when they met at WrestleMania X-Seven, they were on even ground, both of them huge stars, but Austin maybe on the way out, and Rock having hit his zenith. In 2003, at WrestleMania XIX, they were guys whose times had come and gone, either by choice (Rock), or by necessity (Austin). The realities of Austin's constant injuries had caught up to him, and he was going out with one more ride -- as the "OMR" on his vest that night indicated.
Jerry Lawler tries to call this match in the normal way, doing his heel support of Rock's antics, but is shot down by Jim Ross, who is clearly feeling a bit emotional at what he knows is the actual end of an era. I don't know that there will ever be another rivalry quite like Rock and Austin, because there was never really one quite like it before. For as big as Hogan-Andre was, Rock-Austin was two guys meeting in their primes, at the peaks of their careers. Andre was on the way out. And for as great as rivalries like Flair-Steamboat or Hart-Michaels were, the magnitude of those was just nowhere close to Rock and Austin.
The Attitude Era ended at WrestleMania XIX. Its decline had set in in 2001-02 with the deaths of WCW and ECW, the failure of the invasion storyline, the mega-dud that was the nWo's run in the WWF, and a bunch of scattered stuff which still produced some good TV and some great pay-per-views, but that star was burning out rapidly. For one more night, that era went supernova when Rock and Austin collided for the last time in Seattle. But it was gone then, and it never came back. Life and WWE went on.
8. The Ultimate Warrior vs Randy Savage (WrestleMania VII)
There's really no reason this match should have been as great as it was, and even less reason for it to be so great on a re-watch now. Times have changed, my tastes in wrestling have changed, and I know for a gotdanged fact that the Ultimate Warrior was a terrible wrestler, though inarguably a short-term phenomenon and an important star, basically the original Goldberg but more incoherent and weird and, in that way, more awesome. Savage was known as a guy who went to great lengths to lay out his matches in detail because of his weird paranoia or whatever, which is one of the reasons some folks consider his match with Ricky Steamboat overrated, and why, as Ric Flair tells it, Steamboat shrugs when people talk about it being an all-time great match. Traditionally, the best matches are worked on the fly, with some basic ideas and then going with the crowd. That's the old idea, anyway.
But I'm not a professional wrestling artist, I'm just some fat dude that watches the stuff on my TV. Savage may not have been brilliant the way Steamboat or Michaels or Bret Hart could be, but he knew what he was doing, and this match may have been his all-time best performance, which is to take nothing away from the Warrior, who for one night stepped his game up to a level it had never been, and a level it would never again approach. As good as Warrior was against Hogan at WrestleMania VI, he was five times better here, another match that had retirement implications. Savage lost and was forced out of active competition, but he also returned to the fans' good graces by reuniting with Miss Elizabeth, who chased an enraged and attacking Queen Sherri out of the ring. Savage entered this bout as the Macho King, and left as the old Macho Man again, with a bunch of folks straight up bawlin' out in the crowd as Randy and Liz embraced. Even going back to Savage's prior babyface run, this was as likable and cuddly and as openly romantic as he'd ever been.
Both guys went into overdrive for this match, Warrior even walking instead of running to the ring, which both sold the intensity of the match and, you know, gave him the energy he might have usually burned on the way in. Even Warrior's selling is abnormally muted and realistic, and his offense a little tighter than usual. He still has his big, clubbing, sidearm punches going, but Savage takes them like he's being hit with a brick, which is sort of the idea behind his lumbering style. While it may not be fluid or pretty, the point is that it's heavy artillery. He's a tank. And if you make the tank look like a tank, it's easy to buy in.
The match is phenomenally overbooked, with Savage dropping five straight flying elbows only to have Warrior kick out, then Macho returning the favor on Warrior's press slam and splash combo. Sherri was a key part of the match, too, interfering frequently on Savage's behalf, failing a couple of times, including smashing Macho with her shoe off the top rope. In the end, Warrior got the win, but not before he had to ASK THE GODS ABOVE if he should even be in there anymore, and if it was his destiny to lose. Apparently, as Gorilla Monsoon described it, Warrior GOT THE GODS' ANSWER sent into his hands, and was all set to just leave, because Warrior has no free will. No F-you, Jobu, I do it myself from the Warrior. He was just going to bail because he got some cosmic message. But then Savage hit him, so Gorilla said the Warrior got a new message. This is all uproariously funny. Even if you're able to look at something like this in the superhero/comic book context, it's freaking insane. But then, so were Warrior and Savage.
7. The Rock vs Steve Austin (WrestleMania X-Seven)
Like one must do with baseball statistics, I think it's important to weigh and adjust for eras when compiling a list like this. I believe one can make a fine argument that this is better than Steamboat-Savage, for instance, but when you consider the landscape of 1987 in the WWF, Steamboat-Savage was on its own level. There just weren't matches like that happening in the WWF at that time. There were matches as good as that down south in the NWA, where Ric Flair was having better matches with Barry WIndham than Savage-Steamboat pretty frequently, but for the WWF, it stood out as an unequaled classic at the time. And when we're talking simply Mania matches, Steamboat-Savage set the mark that future WrestleMania epics tried to live up to. That was the first legendary WrestleMania match as far as real quality is concerned.
Rock-Austin at X-Seven was far better than their first match at XV, and when watching now, the Austin heel turn at the end is not as big a downer as it was then, and it's far more obvious. Believe it or not, nobody really saw it coming at the time. That's the story of the match. A desperate Austin fighting meaner and harder than ever, taking every shortcut he can.
Stone Cold is crazed throughout the match, looking to incapacitate his rival. It's less a wrestling match for him than it as a potential ending. If he can't get it done here, maybe he just can't get it done, period. In the larger scope of Austin's career, this was a truly pivotal match. He'd go on to do some excellent stuff through the rest of 2001, then in 2002 he wound up leaving for an extended period before coming back in 2003 to finish up his in-ring career against the same man.
This is probably their best match together, "marred" only by the unsatisfactory ending. But really listen to the crowd respond. In Houston, Austin is the favorite, but Rock has plenty of fans, too, and by the end, everyone is just sucked into the match one way or the other, knowing they've seen something pretty amazing. The actual ending did deflate the stadium, but it was meant to do so. That it wound up not really working out is a greater issue, but has nothing to do with this match. As it turned out, nobody really wanted to boo Austin, and he was too good to hate, anyway, winding up a comedy heel with some dark psychological stuff under the surface. When WCW turned Hulk Hogan in 1996, it was a huge shock, and Hogan had been reluctant because of his hero status, but in pure wrestling terms, it had been a couple of years coming. Hogan was never truly embraced by WCW fans, who for years had been told by the company that they had the real wrestling, not the Hogan cartoon crap for kids. Austin wasn't in any danger of getting boos he wasn't supposed to get, which Hogan had been getting since he came to Atlanta two years before the turn and the formation of the nWo.
6. Razor Ramon vs Shawn Michaels (WrestleMania X)
For ladder matches, Razor-Shawn has been surpassed in brutality, carnage, and chaos, but it may not have been surpassed as a pro wrestling match. Unlike the lunatic car crash ladder matches that started in late ‘99 with the first Hardy Boyz vs Edge and Christian ladder encounter at No Mercy, this is a pretty normal match where there is also a ladder and two belts hanging over the ring. Rather than a series of sequences -- though there are some great ones in this match -- this is pretty much a straight-up fight between two rivals with a good feud going.
It was also an innovative spectacle in 1994, more so than the aforementioned ‘99 match or even the ladder stuff that came later. Things can only be fresh and new once. Even instant classic albums are never the same on your hundredth listen as they were that first time.
Shawn Michaels was already an elite worker for the WWF and in the States, but this was his first huge, mind-blowing performance. Those who go along with the Ric Flair about the match being Shawn vs the ladder are crazy, though. Razor more than held up his end of the bargain, taking some big bumps, taking some risks, and delivering a lot of his trademark, hard-sounding roundhouse rights. It was certainly the Shawn Michaels Show at MSG, but Scott Hall deserves his credit, too. One man can't make any ladder match without help.
5. John Cena vs Shawn Michaels (WrestleMania 23)
Cena went from a ho-hum WWE title win at WrestleMania 21 to a great main event win over Triple H at WrestleMania 22, but then he got to step onto the stage with Mr. WrestleMania himself. It was a stroke of luck in some ways, though not for HHH, who was injured and pulled from a scheduled WrestleMania rematch with Cena. That moved Shawn into the title match. At the time, Cena and Michaels were also co-holders of the WWE tag team title, a tried and true storyline brought back and thrown into the mix in a high-level situation, the stakes greater than normal for that old tale.
Michaels was making what really turned out to be his final serious push for the WWE champions, and just when it seemed like he couldn't possibly do anything greater than he'd done in the past, he put in yet another legendary performance at Ford Field in Detroit, leading Cena to his best match ever at that point, and arguably still his best match ever. To Cena's credit, he went to another level himself, and with this match and the HHH match at 22, he was establishing his own WrestleMania legacy, which continues on. He'll never be Shawn Michaels, but when you look at Cena's body of work in the big matches, he ranks up there with just about anybody. This was an instant classic yet again from Michaels, and a match that further made Cena the obvious top guy in the company.
4. Shawn Michaels vs Kurt Angle (WrestleMania 21)
Hey, look, Shawn Michaels again! Michaels and Angle were going to have a great match at WrestleMania 21, because they were both magnificent performers, and both had that insane drive to do something special when the big matches came around. Angle has always (and still does) seemed like he cares about having the great matches, which is what made Michaels special, too. Beyond their athleticism, their daring, and their dedication to their craft, there is an obvious will to be the best that they share. And they met at a pretty great time for both careers.
Angle did have a habit of getting lost in the shuffle around WrestleMania time, and then they would throw him into matches. At X-Seven, it was Benoit, which was a hell of a wrestling match on a great card, but as good as it was, it didn't totally stand out. At X8, it was Kane, which was good for what it was, but basically a last-minute addition. At 21, you had Shawn Michaels and Kurt Angle free from any big, long-term stories. So they got matched up. It was a dream pairing.
Though the two are basically the same age, Angle hadn't even started wrestling at all until Michaels was retired the first time, so this was a meeting of eras again, similar to Micahels-Jericho at XIX. Shawn's status as Mr. WrestleMania could have in theory been challenged by the new, all-out, all-the-time superstar in Angle. They would up putting on a marvelous match that really set some new standards. Shawn gave everything he could before eventually being forced to tap out to Angle's prolonged ankle lock. Matches like this are why Shawn Michaels is the best ever. And matches like this are why Kurt Angle, had his career gone differently, might have become Mr. WrestleMania II.
3. Randy Savage vs Ricky Steamboat (WrestleMania III)
If you were trying to match the heat of Savage-Steamboat today, I think you'd have to have Macho Man, like, hit Steamboat's daughter with a car or something. This was gritty, emotional, and stole the show at WrestleMania III. While Hogan-Andre was the draw and had crazy heat and lived up to its billing as a spectacle, Savage-Steamboat is the match that endures to this day, and we've been saying that for about 15 years now, ever since people started really thinking about WrestleMania in terms of its historical significance, and the great matches in the event's history.
This is the best WWF match of the 1980s for my money, though there are some arguments, particularly from the pre-WrestleMania years. This also stood as the greatest WrestleMania match for a very long time, and there's a decent case that it's still the best one ever. This was so far above the general level of what the company did at that time that I cannot overstate it. If you go back and watch this show, nothing else is in this match's universe, let alone league. For the first 12 WrestleManias, no match topped this one, and there were some great matches along the way, too.
Savage may in some ways be unappreciated. I've got him as a participant in three of the top 15 WrestleMania matches ever. Otherwise, I have Michaels in five; Austin in three; Undertaker in two; Bret Hart in two; Rock in two; Cena in two. That's quite a group. The fact that Savage's major Mania matches came at III, VII, and VIII may mean that he's not often thought about with the great Mania performers of all-time, because his huge matches came well before they were acknowledging that sort of thing, well before they had DVDs where Triple H was talking about being Terra Ryzing. Randy is an all-time great Mania performer, and I'd say the MVP of the first ten WrestleMania shows when you add them all up and count his title tournament run at IV and the main event with Hogan at V.
This is Steamboat's only appearance on the list, but that's just kind of how it is. There are a lot of greats that aren't "properly" represented by WrestleMania. Steamboat is an obvious one, as is Curt Hennig, since he never got to have a great Mania match. Same goes for Ted DiBiase. Rey Mysterio and Eddie Guerrero both had a lot of good or very good matches, but nothing truly great, in my opinion. Mick Foley took several tries to get a great match at Mania. In today's world, Daniel Bryan has yet to do something special at Mania, though that's going to change this year, as he might leave WrestleMania XXX with two matches that would belong on this list.
2. Bret Hart vs Steve Austin (WrestleMania 13)
This cuts the suspense of what tomorrow's Number 1 is going to be, but I want to say that I struggled with this choice. I knew that the No. 1 slot was going to either this match or the other. I had no real doubt about that. I gave everything the serious, full watch again, but I knew when I started the two matches it would come down to for me.
This could have been No. 1. On a different day, maybe it is. And I'll explain tomorrow morning why I chose to go the other way, but let's focus on this one right now.
For WrestleMania 13, which was my first-ever live WrestleMania experience, the first time I ever got to order the show on pay-per-view, I had just turned 15. I was rasslin mad at the time, and I was a big Steve Austin fan, as well as a big Bret Hart fan. I was sort of starting to get a mild handle on the greater nuances of the matches, and the more interesting stuff that happened outside of the ring and off of the TV shows, but just barely. So I was right at the threshold of going from, you know, kid that watches wrestling shows on TV to a fully obsessed nerdlinger. This match was kind of a tipping point.
My first-ever live pay-per-view came a few months before, when I ordered Starrcade ‘96. As much as WrestleMania 13 was not the enormous WrestleMania feeling that you get from the better shows, I still think this is probably the best match I've ever seen live, or at least the one that affected me the most as a fan. I think it was the first double-turn outcome I'd ever seen, or at least experienced and understood. Starrcade ‘96 was pretty cool at age 14, but WrestleMania 13 was better. I'd call WrestleMania XIV my first WrestleMania Experience, where it seemed so much bigger and more important than everything else. But Austin-Bret was my first Fan WrestleMania Moment. Before this, I saw the WrestleManias on tape. Weren't nobody giving me $30 to order the rasslin show. It's on all the time. That's all I watch!
Anyway, this is a remarkable match, one of the best ever, and better still when you see it as a continuation of their first tremendous encounter at Survivor Series ‘96. In that one, the two mostly had a scientific-type wrestling match, with Austin showing he could hang with Bret technically, which was once Hart's domain. Bret had come off of a long layoff after WrestleMania XII, so was it ring rust? Was time catching up to the Hitman? Was Austin just the new thing?
This one, though, was the culmination of Bret's rather rocky return to the WWF. When he took time away after XII, he had been dethroned by Shawn Michaels as the top guy in the WWF, and the way he handled that loss left a bit to be desired in a babyface manner. When he came back, the crowd was just starting to sort of get behind Austin, and the big showdown was at Madison Square Garden, the same night that Michaels was vociferously booed against Sycho Sid. Austin was favored by a notable portion of the audience against Hart that night, and it all just built from there.
Stone Cold would lose that match, but just barely, and he'd go on to have another run-in with Bret at the Royal Rumble, winning controversially when the match was truly won by Bret, who then was "screwed" again after winning the vacant title at Final Four, another match that involved Austin. The night after Final Four, Sid won the belt from Bret, and then began to break down, eventually losing his temper on Vince McMahon and saying "bullshit" on a live RAW.
So you had Bret unraveling as the tone of the times was changing, with Austin as a sort of de facto leader of a new generation, a tagline that had been given to Hart himself not too many years prior. WrestleMania 13 was a show promoted and stylized on these changing fortunes and attitudes in the WWF. Hart, once the hero, was mentally coming unglued. Michaels was on the sidelines again, having "lost his smile." Austin, a take-no-prisoners, trash-talking loner in black boots and trunks, was relentless in his quest for greatness, taking any and all setbacks in stride and pressing on. Sid and Undertaker were battling for the WWF title in a meeting of dark-souled monsters. If you watch the pre-show promo, that's all covered. And it's also pretty clear that whether they went last or not, everyone knew the main event in Chicago was Bret vs Austin.
Austin had shown he could wrestle with Bret at Survivor Series, and here, Hart showed he could fight with Austin, ultimately out-brawling him and forcing him to pass out in the Sharpshooter, blood streaming down Austin's screaming face in that iconic image you've seen hundreds of times. It was a turning point match not just for the characters, with Hart going pretty much full-on heel for the first time since he was still a tag wrestler in the 1980s, but Austin officially in the role of anti-hero babyface, a new thing for the WWF, and really a new thing for American wrestling. There was a clunky Sid-Undertaker match still to come, but that was more just passing the belt to Taker than anything. "Attitude" had been in the works for months. It was dominating the WWF Magazine, it was seeping onto the TV, and it was then truly born with this match. From here on out, nothing in the WWF was ever the same. It's as dramatic and important a match as any in WWE history.
TOMORROW: Number One.