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Opening strong and why it matters

The art of a company picking the first match on a super show and why it matters tremendously to how a full card is perceived.

After the pyro...what sets a company up for success?
After the pyro...what sets a company up for success?
Wikimedia Commons

WCW viewers in mid-to-late 1996 and the two years that would follow will tell you that the time frame was made or broken by the nWo and what was going on with the angles surrounding it, and they wouldn't be entirely wrong. As a whole, it's without much debate than the New World Order story line was indeed the barometer for WCW success and the closest that Ted Turner ever came to putting Vince McMahon out of business.

But let's not look at the entirety, let's take a look at the individual shows themselves, in particular the Pay Per View (PPV) supershow events that Eric Bischoff and his crew put on each month, because those cards may tell something entirely different and might also reveal a lesson every wrestling promotion, regardless of size, should be in line to follow.

The matches that stand the test of time, not because of a finish or an angle but because of the honest to god bell to bell action...were often the curtain jerkers, the first match of the night, of which the aforementioned descriptive phrase is in many regards an insult. So scratch that phrase, the matches that endure today were the cruiserweight division matches and the mid-range Championship competition that largely opened WCW cards for years.

Just a few examples: Dean Malenko vs. Rey Mysterio (Halloween Havoc 1996), Eddy Guerrero vs. Dean Malenko (Starrcade 1997), Chris Jericho vs. Raven (Halloween Havoc 1998), Chris Benoit vs. Fit Finlay (Slamboree 1998)

The cruiserweight revolution of 1996 and beyond belied an even bigger change in thought process of the Atlanta office. In the 1980s and into the early 1990s, the NWA and WCW did not generally operate in a "first match should pop the crowd" kind of philosophy. The first Halloween Havoc opened with a solid match between Mike Rotunda and Tom Zenk but the match certainly wasn't anything to get people out of their chairs. If you go back and look at the NWA cards of that era, in most cases, the "curtain jerker" match was actually a curtain jerker match. NWA cards often built to a crescendo and were booked in the way most boxing or MMA shows often are, with the importance dictating how late in the card a match would be, but usually with something special in the middle of the show.

In the WWF, McMahon would fairly often put something relatively strong on to open his PPV events and usually, if that first match was a good one, the show as a whole would feel like a success, even if it wasn't. SummerSlam 1989 featured the Harts and the Brainbusters as a fantastic opening tag match. SummerSlam 1995 opened with Sean Waltman and Hakushi. There are plenty of other instances of the concept.

But in truth, as the business has changed, the cruiserweight example from WCW makes it exceedingly clear that a good opening match ensures a crowd that is woken up and less likely to completely flat line amidst a weak mid-card.

So as Wrestlemania stands a mere four days away, what match should open the biggest single card in the industry in 2014? Wrestlemania IV opened with a battle royal, won by Bad News Brown over Bret Hart, and the main reason a royal can work early is because there is so much humanity out there in the ring it's hard to completely tune it out...simply too much to watch. The Intercontinental and United States Championships are not on the line on the card, something I wrote about a few weeks ago, and the Tag Team Championship four team bout is a preliminary match prior to the start of the PPV.

WWE could most definitely open with arguably its hottest act not named Daniel Bryan, the Shield, in a six man with a charismatic Brian James who could do his thing. The Shield opened last year and the entrance brought people to their feet. The singles matches on the show are all much too strong to open with, though it's at least a possibility they could let Cena and Bray kick things off...though the six man makes more sense.

Whatever the company selects, the match needs to be good. Here are the openers from the past ten Wrestlemania cards. If that opener was good, see if your impression of the entire card was also good. It's not because one match makes a card. It's because foresight in what a promotion chooses to open with generally means there's been intelligent thinking as to the pacing and spacing of the entire show itself, with the requisite matches to bring a crowd down after a hot match and smart booking in the lead-up. Take a look:

XXIX: Shield vs. Orton/Ryback/Show

XXVIII: Daniel Bryan vs. Sheamus (:18 second match, World Championship)

XXVII: Edge vs. Alberto Del Rio (World Championship)

XXVI: Miz/Big Show vs. John Morrison/R-Truth (Unified Tag Team Championship)

XXV: MITB: CM Punk, Kane, Mark Henry, MVP, Shelton Benjamin, Kofi, Christian, Finlay

XXIV: Fit Finlay vs. JBL (Belfast Brawl)

XXIII: MITB: Kennedy, Jeff Hardy, Matt Hardy, Randy Orton, Edge, Booker T, Finlay, CM Punk

XXII: Big Show/Kane vs. Carlito/Chris Masters (Tag Team Championship)

XXI: Rey Mysterio vs. Eddy Guerrero

XX: John Cena vs. Big Show (United States Championship)

If you look closely at these lineups, Wrestlemania might actually be the exception to the rule, because the show is ordinarily so stacked that it can't help but at least be passable, though a few of these were received negatively and the weaker first matches were an immediate red flag.

One of the best instances of a major show that positioned a perfect opener was SummerSlam 2002, which featured a nine minute bout between Rey Mysterio and Kurt Angle. The match was nearly flawless. It remains Rey's best pure performance (meaning no gimmickry, just a straight up match) in his entire WWE career. Angle was atop his game (and the game) in 2002 and his cocky heel character was never better than this seemingly insignificant match that in truth is a work of art.

Go back and watch the show if you have the Network or the original DVD or if you recorded it on a VCR, attempt to watch the tape somehow. The crowd loved every second and it set up that entire night to be one of the best in the long history of that event.

So what should open Wrestlemania? The Shield of 2014 is much bigger than the Shield of 2013, though the opposition in both of their Mania matches isn't exactly going to present a chance for a show-stealer. The battle royal makes a lot of sense because you can get a lot of people out there without entrances and just get to the punching and kicking. John Cena and Bray Wyatt? Maybe, but that seems more like a second or third match because the ending is likely going to result in a dark afterbirth that will need some recovery time...something like a Hall of Fame segment for instance.

The key to an opener is a red-hot angle and-or a match with guys who can flat out go in that ring. Angle and Mysterio was so good because it was lightning fast from move to move but still had transitions between everything. It had definitive cut-offs from Angle, particularly a pair of simple clotheslines that were laid in tight. Rey sold his butt off and did a good job at selling to the hard cam and everything had a flow and a speed that were intoxicating to the fans.

A good opener can also SAVE a show...the Rumble wasn't popular because of the ending, but Daniel Bryan vs. Bray Wyatt certainly got the crowd in gear, even if they were about to be supremely ticked off about 90 minutes later.

So if you believe in the theory that also usually follows in essays and formal writing, what is the right opener for Wrestlemania XXX? People remember what's first and what's last the most, except on very rare occasions. If those two slots are strong, the overall impact seems to work to a higher degree. One other caveat...the opener also needs to be something that can still be topped. It must be good, but also hold the potential to be followed and surpassed by the higher company agenda items.

So tell us Cagesiders, what booking decision gives New Orleans what it needs to go crazy right out of the gates? It's me.

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