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My favorite WrestleMania match: Kurt Angle vs. Eddie Guerrero

A discussion of your favorite anything isn't going to be entirely logical, so if you came here looking for a sales pitch on the best match in the history of WWE's showcase event, you'll probably be disappointed.

This is 100% subjective, and a product of where I was in my life in 2003 - 2004. It has a lot to do with what I'd experienced to that point, as a human being and as a wrestling fan, and it even has a little to do with what has happened since.

Without turning this into a confessional - we will talk about the glorious athletic spectacle of WWE, I promise - I was not in a good place in March of '04. It's not unusual for me to watch pro wrestling alone, so I can pretty much guarantee you that I watched the 20th WrestleMania live by myself - but I was a little more isolated than was typical, even for an introvert like me.

Looking for a distraction, I turned to one of the things I've turned to throughout my life - wrestling, and specifically the shows put on by one Vincent Kennedy McMahon. I'd watched the first WrestleMania on close-circuit television in Pittsburgh, where I was raised. I watched XX on pay-per-view (PPV) in Texas.

One of the men in my favorite 'Mania match hails from the place I still consider my hometown. The other from the state where I went to college and lived almost as long. That their match took place in Madison Square Garden, the building where so many of my pro wrestling mentor, my great grandmother Immaculata Angelucci's favorite bouts occurred, factored in as well.

Kurt Angle challenging Eddie Guerrero for the WWE Championship at WrestleMania XX in New York was tailor made for a depressed 31 year old mark named Sean.

To paint the picture, I'd actually drifted away from pro graps in the early 90s like so many people. Unlike many others, I was late coming back, and really only caught the tail-end of the industry's biggest boom period. Even without a deep knowledge of WCW or ECW, I was a fan of Eddie's from pretty much the first time I saw him come on-screen. I was drawn to him in a way I never connected with his road buddy, Chris Benoit - a man who also had a prominent place on this card.

You can believe me or not, but my love of this match, the third to last on the card, before Kane and Undertaker and the World Heavyweight Championship main event between Benoit, Triple H and Shawn Michaels, is not retroactive based on what would transpire in the Canadian's life. It also wasn't dependent on the show-closing scene of Chris & Eddie celebrating achieving their dream together. I don't watch that match or the ending of WM 20 any more, but I still return to Angle vs. Guerrero often.

Some of that is because Benoit was never my guy. I'd correlate how I felt about him to how I feel about Dolph Ziggler today. I liked him, I knew he was a hell of a worker, but he incited no passion in me. Not the way his Smackdown Six cohorts did - especially not like Eddie and Kurt.

That he was drifting over to Raw at this point, a show I found nigh unwatchable since it had become built around thirty minute Triple H gloat sessions each week, didn't help either.

There were things to dislike about the show that happened on March 14, 2004. There have been horrible things that have happened since to stain its memory.

There were even things to hate about the match I call my favorite 'Mania contest of all time. Almost everything about Eddie's stereotypical gimmick, for instance. The unbelievable irony, even at the time, of Angle's kayfabe motivation for going after Guerrero being that Eddie was a drug addict, and "someone like that" shouldn't represent WWE to the fans. But in the end, I think even those things were made to work for the feud.

First things first, this was an early warning that Paul Heyman could sell ice cubes to Eskimoes. His involvement as the evil general manager of the blue brand who taunted Eddie for his "criminal past" set-up a great angle on Smackdown where Guerrero's hubris lead him to agree to be handcuffed for a match against Heyman. It was, of course, a trick for Angle to make a surprise return from injury and disturbingly destroy the champ. But it succeeded in getting even a smark from the Steel City like me to want to see Kurt get his ass kicked.

Your Olympic Gold Medalist hadn't been back for too long from one of his many (broken freaking) neck surgeries at this point, and had only recently turned rudo again after helping establish young Brock Lesnar as the man over the course of 2003. Angle had even been Eddie's ally in his family feud with Chavo, but rejoined the dark side when Guerrero became the #1 contender to Lesnar's title rather than him. Heyman, and the handcuff show, helped ensure that the "You suck"s chanted during Medal weren't terms of endearment.

Attacking Guerrero's shoot history as an addict also foretold a very 'Reality' Era trick, as it preyed on fans' fear that Latino Heat was only a placeholder champ. Eddie had just beaten Brock at No Way Out, and the buzz was that it might only be a career achievement award before it would go back to Lesnar, Angle or even the recently repackaged JBL (where it would eventually land, with help from Kurt as Heyman's replacement in the Smackdown GM chair).

This program also helped Kurt once and for all shift from the goofy, delusional heel role he owned from his debut in the pro ranks into a legitimately villainous one. He still didn't think he was evil - like the best movie and comic book bad guys, he was targeting Guerrero for our own good - but you wanted to see him get beat because he was an a-hole, not because it would be fun to laugh at him during and after.

Mirroring Angle's character evolution was Eddie's. He'd been lying, cheating and stealing for a while, but as a técnico holding one of wrestling's top prizes he now cut corners when his enemies left him with no choice, and when it was necessary to do so so that he could continuing atoning to the audience for his past sins.

All of that played out in a masterful twenty minutes of sports entertainment. Following a Women's title match whose additional stipulation was still being played out with Victoria shaving Molly Holly's head on the stage as Kurt made his entrance, the combatants started off slowly, letting the crowd reconnect as two of the best showed off crisp mat-based technique and strung together flawless sequences of chain wrestling.

Each man had brief moments of being in control during the open, building crowd investment with opportunites to cheer or jeer for their short, explosive bursts of unanswered offense. Knowing that a building full of hardcore fans had seen it all before (despite my praise for the work done to establish Kurt as the bad guy, he was getting smarks who still liked the young Doctor of Thuganomics - who'd won his first title by defeating Big Show in the curtain jerker of XX - to deliver dueling "Let's Go Angle"/"Angle Sucks" chants), they each countered the others' popular hat trick of suplexes to move to the second act.

Psychology and selling took center stage, as the Olympian targeted the champ's mid-section, and Eddie sold it with everything he had, even not connecting fully on splashes or being able to hook the leg on covers as he acted his way through the pain. Even in a Garden that was rocking by this point, you can hear Guerrero scream "Oh God" while being stretched and laboring to breath while still emphatically telling the referee that he would not submit.

Angle having resorted to closed fist strikes and keeping holds past referee Nick Patrick's instructions to break, Latino Heat also goes there, gouging Kurt's eyes and boxing his ears when necessary to create separation. This beatdown at the halfway point is structured to look very much like the handcuffed beatdown from an earlier Thursday night, and allowed Eddie to "Hulk up" in a way that would get even the most jaded fan to pop. The crowd let out an audible gasp for a false finish following a beautiful counter of a German Suplex into a DDT by the champ, which he followed with a Frog Splash that he couldn't quite get all of due to his ribs.

The challenger smelled blood in the water and very nearly got the champ to tap on a third attempted Ankle Lock. But when Kurt was determinedly charging back to the ring after being pushed out with a boot to the butt that breaks that hold, Guerrero loosened the straps on his boot. Michael Cole and Tazz deserve credit here for calling attention to the move but still providing a logical explanation that distracts from the finish, saying that Eddie was doing it due to swelling caused by the submission maneuver.

Of course, this leads to an ending that seems obvious on multiple viewings, but still pleased me and the MSG faithful when it happened live. Slipping out of his boot and leaving the enraged Angle holding only a shoe, the champ small packaged his rival and even wrapped both feet around the bottom rope for good measure to keep his belt.

The war between two of the best ended with both of them looking strong, but Eddie looked a little more crafty. It was an inventive, logical and entertaining way to wrap up a great bout, and a slyly joyous moment on a card that was about to get a long entrance, even for Taker, as he returned to his Dead Man gimmick.

In case you were wondering, things got better for me, but not right away. I spiralled downward for a few more years after 2004, at a time when where we lost Eddie, Benoit did the unthinkable before checking out himself, and Kurt would find himself out of WWE for some of the same demons Guerrero had conquered - and that were contributing to my troubles as well.

I wish that the happier, healthier me that emerged in the late aughts was still able to see his hero shimmy and cry "Viva La Raza". I'm left hoping that my fellow Pittsburgher is being honest about the changes he's made in his life so that even if I never see him in a WWE ring again, his kids can see him grow to my great grandmother's age, and maybe he can teach another generation with Western Pennsylvania roots to love pro wrestling.

But even with that future uncertain, and no more Guerreros in Vince's employ, I can always pull up WrestleMania XX on the internet-enabled device of my choosing, watch two of my all-time favorites duel when they were at their peak, and relive a time when pro wrestling made me smile through darkness.

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