What are the indelible images that make WrestleMania unforgettable?
For a show almost famous for making people famous, there are surprisingly few moments that have stood the test of time among the 28 shows as truly unforgettable. These are the moments we think back on as another WrestleMania approaches. These are the moments we marvel at, with mouths agape as they are happening. These are the moments we talk about in the days after, that litter the still shots on Raw the next night, that are plastered on the back of the home video release. These are the best moments in among the countess featured on "The Showcase of the Immortals."
This is not a top 10 list of the greatest WrestleMania matches, nor are we counting down the best feuds in WrestleMania history. Indeed some of these 10 best will feature one or both of those, but that's not the intention.
This is a seven-part countdown to the most memorable "moments" in WrestleMania history. It's a phrase that is thrown around a bit too casually by Michael Cole and Jerry Lawler at commentary, but when a real "WrestleMania moment" happens, you know it. Some of these occurred mid-match, some of these were part of post-match celebrations, and others happened while a particular wrestler was simply walking down the aisle.
Over the years it seems that many of the "B" shows have surpassed WrestleMania as the guaranteed shows for great wrestling. But there's something intangible that the big show offers that no stacked Money in the Bank or Hell in a Cell card can.
These are the moments where, to quote Jim Ross, you have an "out of body experience" and think "Wow; this is WrestleMania."
We begin with numbers 10-7:
10. Edge spears Jeff Hardy in mid-air at WrestleMania 17
"How do you learn to fall off a 20-foot ladder? You jump."
WHY NOT HIGHER ON THE LIST?
This trio of tag teams had a trio of ladder matches, starting with WrestleMania 16, then at SummerSlam 2000 and climaxing at WrestleMania 17. If its action you want, those six men delivered. If you want memorable spots (moments), there's a lot more than just this one from which to choose. But if you're looking for a match that follows a slow building story with drama, plot twists and memorable heroes and villains, well, this isn't that.
Now granted, this was never supposed to be that. This was always an excuse to showcase the WWF's three best tag teams and nothing more. As such, the best "moment" of the three is here because it is incredible on the 1000th viewing, but it's not higher because in the end it's still just a glorified bump/spot.
THE STORY BEHIND THE MOMENT
Take your three best tag teams and throw them in the lion's den together. There was a time when the roster was overflowing with tag team talent. They had good workers, fun personalities, heavyweights, middleweights, cruiserweights; it was an embarrassment of riches (it's the same today, just without the "riches"). The cream of the crop were the Hardy Boyz (the high flyers), the Dudley Boyz (the brawlers) and Edge & Christian (a little bit of everything).
The Hardy Boyz (for you newer fans, no the "z" is not a typo, back in 1999-2001 the "z' was like Twitter references and touting) and Edge & Christian first began feuding in late 1999 for the managerial services of one Terri Runnels. This climaxed in a ladder match at No Mercy 1999 (and if that's the first time you've seen Terri Runnels and climax used in a sentence together you clearly weren't a teenager in 1999).
Soon after, the Dudley Boyz left ECW for the WWF and began dominating the competition, putting opponents and even the elderly Mae Young through tables. This all built to a "Triangle Ladder Match" at WrestleMania 16, a match that for all intents and purposes was TLC 0. Edge & Christian (at the time the blandest of the three) walked out of that WrestleMania the tag champs, and revamped their characters as the 5-second posing, awesome reeking, kings of cool.
The trio of teams re-matched at SummerSlam, topping everything they did months earlier in the first official TLC match. After this, the teams separated from each other for a time, some branching into minor and short-lived singles runs. But by the time the build for WrestleMania 17 began, there was only one tag match worthy of the 65,000 fans in the Astrodome: TLC II.
It's surreal to watch the WrestleMania 10 ladder match and then follow up it up with the WrestleMania 17 variety. Very early on Edge leaps from the second rope turnbuckle to nail Matt Hardy with a clothesline off the near-top of the ladder. Jim Ross calls it like it was an Irish whip on Sunday Night Heat. Almost 10 years earlier that would have been a spot to end the match.
Later, Bubba Ray powerbombs Jeff Hardy through a table that just happened to be preoccupied by Edge's limp body. No one in the crowd flinched. Oh they cheered, but it was a tried-and-true spot. So far TLC II was as routine as a triple threat ladder match could be.
Then comes the spot. Earlier, a giant 20-foot ladder had been erected in the center of the ring, hilariously grazing the bottom of the dangling tag belts. Jeff Hardy-who had earlier Swantan'd himself off a super ladder onto a couple of tables full of Rhyno and Spike Dudley-made his climb up for tag team gold.
Meanwhile, Edge had begun climbing a nearby ladder. Bubba Ray moved the ladder out from under Jeff, leaving him swinging like a mad fool 20ft up, until --
‘OH MAH GAWD, A SPEAR BY EDGE RIGHT DOWN ONTO THE CANVAS, AND JEFF HARDY MAY BE BROKEN SMACK DAB IN HALF!"
I just re-watched the match; I've seen it a dozen times, but that's the moment that gives me chills. That's the moment that tops TLC-I and the Triangle Match the year prior. That's the moment of the match that might have stole the show at the greatest WrestleMania of all time.
Again, it's not a moment that capped off a lengthy blood feud between two superstar main-eventers, but it is the moment that "made" the match, and helped darn-near steal the show two WrestleMania's in a row (how many can say that). Edge, Christian and Jeff Hardy all went on to be world champs, Matt was a WWECW champ, Bubba is currently the TNA champ; but likely when you think of any of these six, this is the match you think of. With the exception of Edge, these men will all eventually be Hall of Famers as tag teams, and this will be the match they highlight, and that moment will be the one we always remember.
9. Chris Benoit and Eddie Guerrero celebrate title victories at WrestleMania 20
"Tears fall with confetti."
WHY NOT HIGHER ON THE LIST?
The tragedy of two very different kinds has made it hard to really invest emotionally in this moment. Certainly you could at the time, but history has not been kind to it. Also, the subsequent title reigns of both champions mutes it a bit as neither ended up being "made" after such a WrestleMania moment. Benoit was second fiddle on Raw, and Eddie allegedly asked to lose the belt, broken under the pressure of being champion.
THE STORY BEHIND THE MOMENT
The history behind this moment goes back decades, with the long globe-spanning careers of these two men. But a more practical starting point is January 2000, and the not sold out WCW PPV, Souled Out. Benoit -- and Guerrero too, for that matter -- was ready to walk and WCW decided to put the world title on him as a lure to keep him. It didn't work; he won the title and then split, along with Eddie and two other disgruntled held-back wrestlers, Dean Malenko and Perry Saturn. They debuted in the WWF like a protoShield, getting into altercations with WWF stars in the mid-card and main event scene.
For Benoit, WrestleMania 20 marked a moment of professional redemption. He left WCW because he believed he would never get a shot at the top. After four years in the WWF the same glass ceiling that frustrated him with Ted Turner seemed to be keeping him back in Vince McMahon's playground. While Benoit got an early title shot, he never really sniffed the main event picture after he settled in, mostly stuck in the upper-mid-card. Finally, as WrestleMania 20 approached he was given the ball, starting with a bell-to-bell Royal Rumble performance, and climaxing with a win against the two most notorious power-players in the business.
For Guerrero, WrestleMania 20 was more about personal redemption. Upon debuting with the Radicalz, he had stayed a fixture of the lower-mid card before actually being released by the company in late 2001 after a drunk driving incident. Eddie cleaned himself up and was given a second chance, positioning himself to make the most of it. Unlike Chris, Eddie's big moment actually came a month earlier at the No Way Out PPV, where he (with a little help from Goldberg) won the WWE Title off the seemingly unstoppable Brock Lesnar. He wrestled Kurt Angle in a very underrated semi-main event, but it wasn't until the show was about to wrap, that his moment was really cemented.
Benoit had just forced Triple H to tap in the middle of the ring -- a WrestleMania first -- and had jumped up to the turnbuckle, holding the Big Gold Belt he had once half-heartedly hoisted at Souled Out four years prior. Now there were tears in his eyes, and a real sense of victory that the WCW title (and company) never brought. As he hopped down, there was Eddie, the WWE title around his shoulders, a small smile on his face as tears started to well. Jim Ross sold it beautifully as two long-time hard workers finally had their moment, in the greatest wrestling palace, at the greatest wrestling show, and the confetti started to rain.
Unfortunately, the impact of the moment is tarnished by both men's very different deaths. Still, at the time it was a symbol that no matter the politics, sometimes the glass ceiling is broken (even if temporarily), and you can have your WrestleMania moment you've always dreamed of.
8. Undertaker returns as "The Deadman" at WrestleMania 20
"The Phenom rises again."
WHY NOT HIGHER ON THE LIST?
I mean, how many times have we seen it? It's become a running gag that his entrance could take up a whole hour of a five-hour WrestleMania. Still, it's special here because it was the first sighting of "The Deadman" since 1999, and the Druids are always awesome.
THE STORY BEHIND THE MOMENT
Undertaker had been the consummate utility man. He won the title at WrestleMania 13 after Shawn Michael's "injury" forced a last minute change of plans, had some of the most fun off-title feuds of the early Attitude Era, and was doing generally good work for the company until an injury took him out of action just before the Six Pack Challenge in late 1999.
Just before he was to return (still as "The Deadman"), another injury sidelined him, causing him to miss WrestleMania 16. At this point, the Attitude Era he left had evolved to one that was a little less cartoony (the early Stone Cold Attitude Era still had traces of the New Generation's cartoonishness, only in a more jaded presentation), and a little more gritty. At Judgment Day 2000, 'Taker returned (after a great string of very spooky vignettes) sporting a radically altered gimmick. He had a new look, new music, new clothes, new finisher, etc.
There was some good to the so-called "BikerTaker" Era in that it allowed him to fully embrace the more traditional big man style of wrestling he had been adapting to between 1997 and 1999. No longer was he a no-selling undead monster. The downside to the gimmick change was he was now just another lower mid-card superstar. The mystique of the Undertaker character was sacrificed. He had a few good feuds in this era (Triple H in 2000, Ric Flair and Brock Lesnar in 2002), but mostly he was just another face in the crowded main event scene.
The real nadir of the BikerTaker Era came in 2003, when he faced Big Show and A-Train (currently Sweet-T) in a tag team-turned-handicap match in the opening hour of WrestleMania 19, and took on A-Train in a sub-10 minute contest in the second match at SummerSlam.
With Brock soon to depart, the B-show needed a reliable face to build around, and a sure main-eventer. To draw eyes to the show, and butts to the house show seats. With that, Undertaker was buried alive at Survivor Series, taking time off (to grow his hair out and, I dunno, sell death?) until the gong finally sounded at WrestleMania.
There was a genuine curiosity leading up to WrestleMania 20 as to just what the Undertaker would look like. We've become so used to the hat & coat and the super shredder look alike that it's hard to remember in March 2004, the last time we had seen "Deadman" Undertaker he was a Satan worshipping, giant goatee-having, Stephanie McMahon-crucifying Lord of Darkness.
When the gong finally went off and the music started to quietly fill Madison Square Garden, the crowd was at a fever pitch. Then came Paul Bearer, then the mist, until the music swelled and out he came. He hadn't quite settled into what would be his standard post-WrestleMania 20 look (slacks and a dress belt, instead of tights), but it was close enough for the crowd.
Undertaker went from an upper-midcard with a dwindling spot to the man carrying the SmackDown brand. He became a featured attraction and showcase for the blue brand, consistently main-eventing, and holding multiple world titles. His work rate was better than it had ever been, and he began a string of classic WrestleMania matches.
Prior to his WrestleMania 20 return, his WrestleMania matches had consistently dropped down the card, from semi-main eventing WrestleMania 17, to mid-carding WrestleMania 18, to under-carding WrestleMania 19. After "The Deadman" returned, the streak took on a new level of significance and his WrestleMania matches have become the gold standard special attraction event.
7. Bret Hart wins the title proper at WrestleMania 10
"A proper coronation."
WHY NOT HIGHER ON THE LIST?
Actually, of all the moments we're going to be considering, this is still the most unique: The new champ was hoisted on the shoulders of the WWF's babyfaces and paraded around the ring in a very unsubtle "this is your moment" kind of way. Other coronations (Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania 12, Stone Cold Steve Austin at WrestleMania 14, Chris Benoit at WrestleMania 20, Batista at WrestleMania 21) were all more practical, with either Jim Ross screaming over the mic about the big moment, or with confetti falling from the rafters.
While many of them were magical (Austin's post WrestleMania 14 celebration almost made the cut), none of those had everyone from Randy Savage to Gorilla Monsoon coming down just to shake the new champ's hand. There's no doubt it was a WrestleMania "moment" but it feels more like the launching of the summer ‘94 angle (Bret vs. Owen) than it does its own encapsulated moment. It's special, but it lacks that little extra oomph.
THE STORY BEHIND THE MOMENT
It all begins with the buildup to WrestleMania 8. Ric Flair had come over from WCW and immediately the assumption was Hulk Hogan vs. Flair would main event at the big dance. They toured the country on the house show circuit promoting the match, but the story goes Vince was not satisfied with the money coming in, or the reaction the match-up was getting from the crowds.
Vince would later say that the feud was just a few years too late. Rumor has it that Hogan didn't want to do the job to Flair on his way out of the company (he had been planning a hiatus to pursue a movie career ... don't laugh). While that certainly is in keeping with his character, I'm finding it hard to envision a scenario where Flair the heel would go over Hogan anyway, unless Vince was prepared to end WrestleMania 8 the way he did, with a non-finish and Ultimate Warrior making his comeback.
Regardless, Flair -- now champion -- was paired with Savage (returning from retirement), and the two traded the belt back and forth in 1992. Eventually, as Flair was preparing to make his always-inevitable jump back to WCW, Vince needed a new babyface champ, and Bret Hart was the man selected. Why he didn't just keep the belt on Randy and have him drop it to Hart at WrestleMania 9 in a real torch-passing moment is still a mystery.
So Bret wins the title, only if you weren't there you didn't see it, as Flair refused to job on TV on his way out (looking weak before his return to the top of WCW). The title changed hands at a videotaped house show, starting Hart's title run off on the wrong foot. Hart ended up facing the giant heel Yokozuna at WrestleMania 9. The finish to that one is infamous, with Hart losing the belt, and Yoko handing it to Hogan minutes later.
Hogan drops the belt back to Yokozuna at the first King of the Ring PPV and he begins the longest heel run for a WWF champion since Billy Graham. The crowd was behind Hart (even while in purgatory wrestling Doink the Clown and Jerry Lawler), but McMahon insisted on testing the market for a Lex Luger run. Both men won the Royal Rumble and faced the champ at WrestleMania 10. Lugar lost and Bret won.
Unfortunately, the moment came after the most pathetic title win in WrestleMania history. Yokozuna fell off the top rope, spread eagle like a cross between a fish out of water and Cedric Diggory after Voldemort was through with him. Hart simply crawled over and got the pin. Could they have done some kind of a trip, or a shove? Sure. But however they got there, they got there. Hart finally had his title win, and this time it felt official.
As he celebrated in the ring, Vince screamed that this was the dawning of a new era, and suddenly there was Lex Luger in the ring. The two shook hands, and Bret's hand was raised.
Then Roddy Piper, then Razor Ramon, then freaking Burt Reynolds (now you've made it) then everyone, including Macho Man and Gorilla Monsoon, came down to shake his hand, eventually hoisting him on their shoulders in a display that I just can't fathom ever happening for Hulk Hogan or Steve Austin or Shawn Michaels. For all it's special-ness, it's also what works against it slightly, as Owen comes down, shouting "What about me!" and setting up a great summer feud, making the whole ceremony feel a little manipulated. But since this is pro wrestling, isn't everything?
Bret never really was given a title run befitting such a WrestleMania moment. He dropped the belt later that year to a transitional Bob Backlund. He'd win it back from Diesel only to (and I do mean "only to") drop it Michaels at WrestleMania 12. His last run was another transitional back to Michaels, infamous in that he didn't want to drop the title to him on his way out of the company (a little bit of both Hogan and Flair way back in the lead up to WrestleMania 8).
Bret's coronation is a great little moment after a great little WrestleMania, but it was a hollow moment, as Bret was only truly crowned with being the sure and steady hand while Vince looked everywhere else to find his next Hogan.
So there are your bottom four. Tomorrow we will be focusing on number six in the countdown: A WrestleMania moment from Mr. WrestleMania himself.
See you then.