The Wrestling Backfire: WWE’s Top 20 Matches, Part 3 (9-1)

Well, this is it: the last part (you can read Part 1 here & Part 2 here). I am sure this part is going to some piss people off because I left out several matches that many people believe are classics. The WrestleMania 20 triple threat match is one that comes many people’s mind as a top-tier match. For me, however, something about it just does not shout “epic.” It came off as a by-the-book WWE-style triple threat, in which one wrestler is out of the ring for an extensive period of time. It is akin to watching a bunch of singles matches. Another match that comes to mind is Kurt Angle vs. Shawn Michaels. I really liked this, but it didn’t make the list because of Angle’s no-selling and the amount of many finishers they kicked out of. It became overkill. Lastly, the Angle vs. Chris Benoit missed the cut as well. It is an outstanding match, but I just do not think it is an all-time classic.

At any rate, here we go…

9. Royal Rumble 1992: Royal Rumble —

Pat Patterson was a mastermind at booking two things: finishes and Rumbles, and this match was a definitive illustration of that. Flair was booked to steal the show, and he did just that and then some. Every Tom, Dick and Harry tried to eliminate him, but he was able to overcome the odds. And, unlike Rumble matches nowadays, this had boatloads of star power, and it very much uncertain who was going to win. There were particular mini-stories that went on during the Rumble, which made things more captivating. It also helped the Rumble avoid some of the tiresome “let’s just do stuff until the bigger stars enter” routine that often plagues the match. This had prodigious elimination teases, too, particularly with the bigger stars. There were many occurrences when I believed someone was going to eliminate Flair, but he ended up finding a way to stay in the ring. The greatest booked and performed Rumble ever.

8. Royal Rumble 2000, Street Fight for the WWF Title: Cactus Jack vs. Triple H —

This was one of the best WWE feuds ever. Foley was frustrated of being constantly beat up by Triple H, so he brought back the most evil, sadistic and remorseless persona he had back: Cactus Jack. This was one of the greatest structured hardcore brawls ever. They did not do high spots to receive a cheap pop from the crowd. Every spot they did fit squarely in the context of the story they were trying to tell. Everything that they did had purpose. This was also a star-making performance from Triple H, as the fans started to take him more seriously after this. And even though he played a douchebag character, Triple H’s toughness shone, and the fans respected him for it. Mick Foley ended up making Triple H a star, and Hunter ended up making Foley more sympathetic. Talk about elevating each other to a higher level.

7. WrestleMania X-Seven, WWF Championship: Stone Cold Steve Austin vs. The Rock —

When I evaluate a wrestling match, I take everything into consideration, including the way the booking team built up to the match. With that in mind, the Rock and Austin’s angle was one of the most dynamic stories ever told in professional wrestling. Granted, Austin’s heel turn did not work out in the long run, but what happened in the aftermath doesn’t change a thing about how outstanding the rising action leading up to their encounter was. After being hit by a car, Stone Cold was just not the same ass-kicker that he had been before the accident. This was clearly communicated when failed to put Triple H away once and for all in a loss at No Way Out.

Austin’s heel turn came as a total shock to many, but in retrospect, the WWF writing staff brilliantly left a trail of breadcrumbs for anybody who had paid close attention. In a sound byte that was replayed over and over in promos leading up to the match, Austin told the champ “I need to beat you, Rock. I need it more than anything.” What seemed like traditional fare for a pre-match build took on new meaning after the match. Austin knew he lacked the killer instinct he once had, but he desperately wanted to become champion, so he sold his soul to the devil himself… Mr. McMahon. The match itself was amazingly energetic, and it had 60,000 fans in attendance all screaming at the top of their lungs as the two biggest megastars of the 90s slugged it out and pulled out all the stops to be crowned champion. This match had as much of a “big fight” atmosphere as you’ll find anywhere. After adding up all the intangibles, this match deserves to be ranked as one of the all-time greats.

6. No Way Out 2001, Three Stages of Hell: Triple H vs. Stone Cold Steve Austin —

This phenomenal, old school fight mirrored the intensity of Tully Blanchard and Magnum T.A.’s “I Quit” cage match from Starrcade ’86. Simply put, it was just two guys that hated one another trying to kill each other, and that was all it had to be. This match had everything a brawl needs: It was brutally violent, cleverly booked and diligently worked, with both wrestlers playing their respective roles to a tee. The finish played marked a pivotal moment that contributed to Austin’s heel turn, too, as noted above. Additionally, the stipulations were creative, unique, and made the bout feel more like all-out warfare than a sanctioned match.

5. WrestleMania X, Ladder Match for the IC Title: Shawn Michaels vs. Razor Ramon —

I did not think I could love this match any more than I already did. That was before Kevin Nash talked about how many things upper management told them they could not do. Michaels envisioned, layered and structured the entire thing, and singlehandedly made the ladder match what it is today. This still holds up today, even though the bumps aren’t seen to be that exceptional nowadays, because HBK scripted a mesmerizing story while wrestling a ladder and, oh yeah, Razor Ramon too. The thing I also liked about this was its believability. In contrast to many ladder matches, this one actually gave off the impression that it could be real. This was beautifully paced, timed and executed, and, most importantly, innovative. To this day, it remains the greatest ladder match ever, and it is all because of Shawn Michaels.

4. WrestleMania III, Intercontinental Championship: “Macho Man” Randy Savage vs. Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat —

This is the greatest 15-minute match ever and way ahead of its time. It was a light heavyweight bout that had nonstop action and executed the most flawless looking spots I have ever seen. The pace was constantly accelerating, while the psychology was off the charts. Other than its originality, the thing that makes this superior than any of its imitators was its flow and realism. Savage and Steamboat did not reach for any convoluted spots (which, in most cases, just seem contrived and hurt a match’s flow). The finish was flawed, no doubt about it. The involvement of George “The Animal” Steele was unnecessary. I am not a fan of him saving Steamboat, even if Savage was trying to end his career. I believe a babyface should overcome arduous situations by themselves. The finish also was just way too complicated to impeccably pull off, and they should have done a finish that would have been much easier to do, too.Nonetheless, Steamboat received a deafening reaction when he won, so, ultimately, it really did not matter and is just me nitpicking. Regardless, a mediocre finish does not mar an otherwise outstanding, immaculately choreographed match.

3. Badd Blood 1997, Hell in the Cell: Shawn Michaels vs. Undertaker —

This was the only time the Hell in the Cell match had a purpose behind it other than “I hate you, you hate me. Let’s fight in a Cell”. Before this, a cage match was a way to settle a difference without people interfering, but someone realized that it was making the wrestlers look very nonathletic since they could not climb a cage (something I was able to do at the age of 10). Therefore, being the smart booker that he is, Jim Cornette came up with this genius idea. He will tell you that it was not an original idea. It was just a hybrid between War Games and the Memphis Cage Match, but the design and purpose were brilliant nevertheless. The towering structure served twin purposes, both as a barrier preventing any outside interference and simultaneously a death trap devised to keep Shawn Michaels from escaping the comeuppance he deserved at the handers of The Undertaker. The latter point really sold this match, as Undertaker brutally beat the hell out of Shawn Michaels. HBK’s shuddering bumps and exquisite selling made the pain seem very genuine, and just when it appeared HBK was finally going to get the upper hand and deliver one of his signature moves or his finisher, Undertaker shrugged it off, leaving viewers wondering if it was even possible for HBK to emerge victorious.

And that made the finish even more powerful. I do not know why people seem to hate it so much. In one fell swoop, they finally debuted Kane, they made him look like a total badass by tearing the locked Cell door clean off its hinges, and they allowed the cowardly heel Michaels to win yet another tainted contest, all without damaging The Undertaker’s credibility. Honestly, it’s Booking 101. And what better way to end the HBK and Undertaker feud than with the heel coming out on top. This was a very original and intense match that included the long-awaited début of Kane. Everything about it was just about perfect.

2. WrestleMania 10: Bret Hart vs. Owen Hart —

Bret Hart wrestled twice this night, as he faced Owen Hart in the opener and then Yokozuna for the WWF Championship in the main event. This was a technical masterpiece and arguably the best ever. The timing of the spots, the smooth transitions, the unparalleled chemistry, and both wrestlers being able to progressively build the match all the way to its crescendo solidifies this as the blueprint on how to correctly carry out a wrestling magnum opus.

On top of that, the match told a great story. Owen Hart was fed up being overshadowed by his older brother, so in order to exercise his demons, he decided to prove once and for all that he was better than big brother Bret. The contest illustrated that Bret was definitely the superior wrestler, as he was always one step ahead of his young brother. But Owen was able to pull off a key reversal that allowed him to pull off a major upset. Owen treated his fluky win as though it had been a dominant performance, which helped him develop into an even more exaggerated, overemotional heel. After Bret Hart finally conquered his long-lasting quest to become WWF Champion, Owen came out with a look on his face that said, “Did you forget something? You didn’t beat me.” What was supposed to be a beautiful moment for Bret ended up as a bittersweet moment, because Bret knew that even though he finally won the title, his loss to Owen earlier in the night cast a shadow over what should have been the biggest night of his career. Like I said, there is a case for this match as the greatest of all time thanks to phenomenal booking with superb work rate to match.

1. I Quit Match, WrestleMania 13: Bret Hart vs. Stone Cold Steve Austin —

This was not a wrestling match. This was a battle. These two were both incredibly gifted wrestlers that just seemed to click with each other. As a result, they put on some compelling bouts. On an otherwise uninspiring WrestleMania card, both of these ring magicians defined the suspension of disbelief. This match had nuclear heat, as it gave off the notion that both men truly wanted to massacre each other. They turned a completely bored crowd into one that was on the edge of its seat. And really, that’s just a figure of speech because nobody was sitting down. Everyone in the arena was standing. It had everything you could want in brawl: psychology, storytelling, emotion, selling, realistic facial expressions, an incredible atmosphere and prodigious booking. Above all, both men pulled off exactly what Vince McMahon wanted them to do: Bret Hart turn into a narcissist that only was concerned about winning, which made the fans feel as if he completely turned on him.

And while Stone Cold wasn’t your conventional babyface, this brawl revealed his inner face-like qualities. He had heart and perseverance, and he showed that he was never going to quit. The finish exemplified just that, as refused to tap out to the Sharpshooter to the point where he passed out from the pain. Contrary to modern wrestling, signature moves had a great deal of significance back then. Hart would never lock in his finishing submission maneuver just to inject drama into a match. When Hart put an opponent in the Sharpshooter, winning was usually a foregone conclusion. Long story short, it was a surreal moment when Austin lasted as long as he did in the Sharpshooter. This match was historic, important and just flat-out tremendous.

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