Magic, Memories, and Mania VALENTINO'S MAGIC, MEMORIES & MANIA: Ten Biggest WWF/E Matches of Modern Era - where does Rock-Cena rank?
Jul 9, 2012 - 1:22:29 PM
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By Shawn Valentino, PWTorch WrestleMania specialist
During the build-up to WrestleMania 28 this year, The Rock and John Cena referred to their clash of two eras as the “biggest match of all time.” It was a major showdown to be sure, but did it live up to its billing? I have been watching wrestling for over two decades. I became a fan when, just miles from my house, Hulk Hogan slammed Andre the Giant in the Pontiac Silverdome. I was years away from even being a teenager at the time, so I was not able to attend, but over this past decade I have been fortunate to be in the arena for some of the most dramatic classics in wrestling history.
Today, we are going to take a walk down memory lane and discover what really was the grandest spectacle of them all. Now, let us remember that biggest does not necessarily equate to best. For example, Ricky Steamboat and Randy Savage and Shawn Michaels and Kurt Angle were amazing matches in the ring and had great build-ups, but I do not believe that the hype and the scope leading into them were on the level of something that transcended the wrestling industry.
So, my criteria for this list are the following:
(a) The hype leading into the match has to be off the charts. Some great matches surprise us in their quality. This is about those contests with a long dramatic build, epic promos, and two larger-than-life characters. I am presenting those battles that fans considered dream matches and were salivating to see the two performers face off.
(b) We will also look at how the match met expectations. This means that the wrestlers were able to live up to the hype by doing what they were set out to do. For example, Hogan versus Warrior was not a traditional five-star classic, but it did live up to its billing and I do not think anybody went home disappointed.
(c) Then there are the intangibles that you cannot quantify, such as the atmosphere in the arena, the media coverage, the aftermath, and the impact the match had on the viewer and the wrestling industry, overall.
Based on those criteria, here are the top ten biggest WWE/F matches of the WrestleMania era. (I know that there were big matches in other companies and prior to the mid-eighties, but I wanted to limit the list to the scope of what I have seen.)
HONORABLE MENTION: Hulk Hogan and Mr. T versus Rowdy Roddy Piper and “Mr. Wonderful” Paul Orndorff: WrestleMania I
As the legend goes, Vince McMahon bet the future of his company on the success of the first installment of WrestleMania. In order to maximize his chances of success on this gamble, he needed a main event that would attract national mainstream attention. He realized that if he brought in some A-list celebrities and mixed them in with his top stars it would create a buzz that would ensure the event’s success.
Although the actual match quality of the inaugural WrestleMania main event was nothing special, the intangibles were off the charts. Muhammad Ali, arguably the most famous athlete alive at the time, was at ringside, as was Liberace and infamous baseball manager Billy Martin. Most importantly of all, though, was the involvement of Mr. T, who was a pop culture phenomenon in the mid-eighties, so seeing a top television star wrestle was an enormous attraction. Of course, the match also featured the two biggest stars in the WWF, heated rivals Hulk Hogan and Roddy Piper. On the strength of this event, WWF marketing, and his own charisma, Hogan was about to become a phenom himself.
Hogan and Mr. T won the contest, but this is the perfect example of a mat being much more than winning and losing or the moves that take place being in the ring. No rating can quantify the importance of this finale to the original Showcase of the Immortals. The hype, atmosphere, and excitement surrounding the spectacle ensured that Wrestlemania was here to stay and for that reason, it is one of the essential matches in the history of the event.
(10) The Rock vs. John Cena: WrestleMania 28
This one had one full year of build-up, which should actually be called build-down because the two tore into each other so much that each star ended up looking worse in the process, and I hated the storytelling leading into this. However, I was in the stadium and excited to finally be able to see The Rock get back into the ring, especially in front of a massive hometown audience. Despite my frustrations, I thought Rock looked tremendous for someone who had not been in a singles match in nearly a decade. He was athletic and agile, but most importantly, he still had that ring presence and knew how to build a match that captures the crowd based around his skill-set. Cena was good as well, and this match was probably on the higher end of expectations, which for me were pretty low.
Despite its billing as the biggest match of all-time, it was not even the most dramatic battle of its own show, but WWE was smart enough to send the fans home happy, with Rock winning in front of his hometown fans. Yoi can only imagine what the atmosphere in that grand setting would have been like if the build-up excited fans instead of turning them off. The numbers do not lie, though, and the successful buyrate for the event shows that nothing draws viewers like two larger-than-life combatants fighting a battle that nobody can imagine them losing.
(9) Undertaker vs. Triple H with Shawn Michaels as special referee - Hell in a Cell: WrestleMania 28
Unlike Rock and Cena, this “End of an Era” clash of the titans had the brilliant promos and hype that made fans anticipate something for the ages. The previous year, the Dead Man and the Cerebral Assassin surprised everyone by stealing the show with a dramatic masterpiece. With Michaels added to the mix, the story told leading into this timeless classic was the absolute template for how to captivate an audience in preparation for a big match.
The storytelling in the ring lived up to the anticipation and surpassed it. There were so many spectacular moments in this epic encounter that I will not even attempt to sum it up. It was the very epitome of what wrestling should be, and it rose to the level of Oscar winning theatrics and character arcs. This match actually was the final act in a play that started four years preceding it, when Michaels retired the Nature Boy in an overwhelmingly emotional moment that should have been the perfect ending to Flair’s career. Nearly every piece of the plot since then was pitch perfect, and it is because the focus was not on backstage politics or breaking the fourth wall. It was well-rounded characters with clear motivations in compelling drama paced perfectly leading into battles with real consequences based around the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.
The match played off Flair-Michaels, the Taker-HBK series, and the previous year’s contest. The ending was brilliant, where Triple H crawled up Undertaker’s body, defeated yet defiant, recalling memories of the Mania classics from the last few years. The subtle touch of Michaels turning around, unable to watch to not only watch his friend beaten, but also haunted by memories of himself facing the same fate two years prior, was wrestling drama at its finest. It was parallel structure storytelling and artistic achievement at its highest level.
(8) “The Heartbreak Kid” Shawn Michaels versus “The Nature Boy” Ric Flair, Retirement Match: WrestleMania 24
Ric Flair is recognized as the greatest wrestler of his generation. Shawn Michaels shares the same acclaim as being the top worker of his time. Due to age difference and being part of different companies, they had never really fought in a classic match with each other and most assumed that it would never happen. When Flair was in the middle of his retirement storyline and he announced that he wanted to fight Michaels at WrestleMania, the path was set for something truly memorable. In the months leading to Mania, HBK was reluctant to fight Nature Boy and be responsible for ending his hero’s career. Flair proclaimed that if he could not still fight against the best, he did not want to wrestle anymore.
The match was to take place in Orlando, home of Disney, and it was only fitting because the night would be full of magic. Although he was approaching 60-years-old, Flair miraculously had one final sensational performance. Michaels lived up to his Mr. WrestleMania moniker by helping to carry The Nature Boy to another classic to end his career. The story of the match was beautifully illustrated with Flair giving everything he had in his body to win the match and save his career and Michaels trying to be The Showstopper, but also hesitant to do the inevitable and defeat his idol. The ending was an emotional tour de force with Flair coming to terms with the end of his career, and Michaels telling his friend he loved him before giving him Sweet Chin Music and pinning him. Many people in the stadium, and I’m sure many at home, were in tears.
There have been better-wrestled matches, but this is a match that transcends the traditional match rating system. The real emotions involved, as well as the real consequences of the legendary Flair retiring (temporarily), made this a master work of art between arguably the two greatest in-ring artists of all time.
(7) Bret “the Hitman” Hart vs. “Stone Cold” Steve Austin - Submission match: WrestleMania 13
Perhaps more than any clash in wrestling history, this was a match that laid the foundation for wrestling’s future. When Bret Hart returned from a long absence, he chose Austin as the man he wanted to feud with when he came back. All fans should be thankful for his choice because Hart and Austin had an epic rivalry with some of the greatest matches in wrestling history. They were perfect foils in personality and in-ring style. Hart was the traditional hero who played by the rules and was the technical Excellence of Execution, but the fans were beginning to turn on him. Austin was the new-age anti-hero who broke all the rules, but was beginning to attain a strong fan following. Their rivalry reflected the change in the pop culture climate and the desire for flawed idols with edgy personas.
WrestleMania 13 was, by all accounts, a disappointment, but it was saved from complete disaster with this astounding battle. It had an incredible build-up leading in and surpassed all expectations. Both men were at their best, and they shared tremendous chemistry in the ring, and credit needs to go to UFC legend Ken Shamrock as well for adding to the tension and playing his part as special referee to perfection. It was a mixture of bloody brawling and technical brilliance, and it concluded with one of the most iconic images in wrestling history. The bleeding Austin caught in The Sharpshooter, but refusing to submit became the symbolic portrait of the Attitude Era. Hart came in the heel and Austin the face but during the course of the match, they reversed roles and fans got behind the courageous rebel who refused to quit.
This match was important on various levels. In the ring, it was a perfectly worked battle between two of the WWF’s greatest superstars ever. It fueled Austin’s ascent to mega-star status and it also led to the best incarnation of Hart’s character as the jaded wrestler who was a heel in the USA, but a face everywhere else. The contest was also the birth of the Attitude Era, and a more cutting edge product that would soon bring the WWF its most successful period ever. Looking back, fans can be thankful that HBK “lost his smile” and backed out of his re-match with Hart because viewing this match still brings smiles to faces of wrestling fans everywhere.
(6) The Ultimate Warrior vs. Hulk Hogan - World Championship match: WrestleMania 6
To give everyone an idea of just how big of a force Hulkamania was in the WWF, by the time of WrestleMania 6, Hogan had yet to lose a match clean by pinfall on television since the first Mania. Although he remained extremely popular, his act was beginning to get stale with many fans. (And, he wrestled on TV only a few times a year! Contrast that to being victim to John Cena promos nearly every week today!) Around the same time, The Ultimate Warrior was at the peak of his fame and had gained an enormous following of his own. The WWF decided to go in a different direction at WrestleMania by presenting a match between the two top heroes in the company. The Warrior issued The Ultimate Challenge to The Hulkster and history would be made.
The newly created Skydome setting was sensational for this colossal clash between two larger than life characters. Neither man was a great wrestler, but both were master showmen at the time, and the booking of the match maximized their strengths. The atmosphere in the arena was absolutely amazing as the rabid crowd was split in their alliances. In the end, Warrior did the unthinkable and pinned Hogan clean in the center of the ring. We have become accustomed to such frequent World Title changes now that we have a hard time even remembering who has the belt. At that time, championships changed so infrequently that it felt like a major deal. Hogan’s devastated reaction after losing the belt made it feel like having holding the title was a true honor. When Hulk handed the belt to the new World Champion, it was supposed to be a passing of the torch to the “next superhero." Although Hogan would hold the championship again, this was the beginning of the end for the Hulkamania era. The Warrior unsurprisingly did not have the stability to be the face of the company, but for this one night, he and Hogan gave the fans a magical moment that will never be forgotten.
(5) Hulk Hogan vs. “Macho Man” Randy Savage - World Championship match: WrestleMania 5
The Rock and Wrestling generation of the '80s was a time of larger than life, comic book-type superheroes. No two wrestlers exemplified this cartoonish spectacle more than the Hulkster and The Macho Man. When they united to form the Mega Powers, it was the wrestling equivalent of Superman and Batman joining forces. The saga of Hogan, Savage, and Miss Elizabeth may be WWF/E’s best written storyline ever. It was a different time, where top stars did not appear weekly on television and there were only four pay-per-views a year so they were able to take their time and let the characters and plot develop. Savage was the intense World Champion, overprotective of his beautiful manager Elizabeth. Hogan was the egotistical former champ who craved the spotlight. Savage’s jealousy and paranoia slowly simmered over the course of a year until he finally snapped against his partner on The Main Event special.
When the Mega Powers exploded at WrestleMania 5, it was the biggest match in wrestling since Hogan versus Andre two years prior. Thanks to the WWF marketing machine as well as their own captivating charisma, Hulk and Macho Man were household names. The added dynamic of Savage’s volatile relationship to the shy, perpetually concerned beauty at his side made this an intriguing triangle. The actual match was one of the best of Hogan’s career, which is testament to Savage’s amazing wrestling talent. He really was that good. It played off the relationship between the three characters to near perfection, and it was enhanced by the excellent commentary of Monsoon, and especially Jesse Ventura. When you watch these old WrestleMania matches, you realize the importance of a strong heel commentator to give the bad guy’s perspective. As one of the few preteen Hogan-haters at the time, I was irritated by the formulaic ending, but it gave most fans the satisfying conclusion to the best WWF feud of the decade.
(4) "Stone Cold" Steve Austin vs. The Rock - World Championship match: WrestleMania 17
When the decade of the 2000s began, Steve Austin and Rock were supposed to be the biggest stars of the next ten years. Due to injury and opportunity, it was not to be as both of them were done as full-time wrestlers by 2003. The Great One obviously found greener pastures in Hollywood, while Stone Cold was forced to retire due to a bad neck. Thankfully, they delivered another series of incredible battles, the most famous of which was this sensational struggle. At the time, Austin had been gone for nearly a year with an injury, and during that time, The Rock had taken his place as the top star of the company. He became obsessed with getting his belt back and echoed the classic line, “I need to beat you Rock. I need it more than you can ever imagine.”
This was the main event of what is widely regarded as the greatest pay-per-view of all time, although in my opinion WrestleMania 19 and their match that took place their surpassed it. The Astrodome crowd was frantically behind their hometown hero’s quest to regain the championship. It was obvious something was in the works when the bout was changed to a “no rules match” at the last minute. The contest was 30 epic minutes of incredible action that saw each man break out their entire arsenal of moves. Even their finishers could not keep them down, and the Rattlesnake became frustrated at not being able to pin his heated rival. When Vince McMahon came out to ringside and joined forces with Austin, it showed the extreme lengths he would go to win the belt again.
While the sight of seeing Austin and McMahon shake hands was surreal, I feel that it was a contrived ending that was not-very-well-executed. Stone Cold never really caught on as a heel, and business began to go down after this event. Nonetheless, it was an amazing battle between the two biggest stars of wrestling’s most successful era and it earns its legendary status. This may be the match that most defined the Attitude Era and it also signaled the end of that booming time period.
(3) The Undertaker vs. “The Heartbreak Kid” Shawn Michaels: WrestleMania 25
If there was ever a match that was destined to be an instant classic, it was this one. Shawn Michaels and The Undertaker were two of the greatest performers of the '90s. Incredibly, each of them advanced their style and became smarter workers over the years to the point they were superior wrestlers a decade later. A set of unique circumstances that will likely never happen again led to this monumental encounter. The Dead Man and The Heartbreak Kid were the two longest-tenured WWE Superstars of the Mania years. Amazingly, they had never faced off on The Grandest Stage of Them All. Even more incredible is the fact that they did not wrestle in a one-on-one match for over 11 years. The last time they did wrestle, they had a series of great matches, including one of the most legendary battles in the history of the business in the inaugural Hell in a Cell match. They teased fans with a dramatic conclusion to the Royal Rumble in 2007, but the WWE smartly waited for a truly huge event that would be worthy of such an epic encounter.
By WrestleMania 25, Undertaker’s Streak had become intertwined with the event itself, and Michaels had firmly established himself as the greatest performer in its history. It would be The Streak versus Mr. WrestleMania at The Showcase of the Immortals and the two icons delivered a visual and emotional extravaganza that electrified the gigantic Texas crowd. There were too many highlights in this match to mention and you have to witness this match to appreciate its genius. From the awe-inspiring entrances that showcased the heaven versus hell theme in the feud to the symbolic finale where Michaels came from above only to get tombstoned into the ground and pinned, it was a theatrical masterpiece. The match was a roller coaster ride that took the entire audience on a journey of ups and downs before its dramatic conclusion.
In many ways, this match had over 20 years of build-up. It had taken two decades for Michaels to establish himself as the greatest wrestler in WWE history and the same amount of time for Undertaker to become one of the best gimmick performers of all-time. Each of them defied logic by becoming better with age, and wrestling fans were lucky to see them compete against each other on a huge stage. I was fortunate to be in the stadium that night and was overcome by emotion by the end of the contest.. Undertaker versus Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania 25 was not only a celebration of Wrestlemania history, but the best of the sport of wrestling itself.
(2) The Rock vs. “Hollywood” Hulk Hogan: WrestleMania 18
Flair versus Michaels was a match that transcended any form of ratings, and this was another one. WrestleMania 18 was the first Mania that I attended, and when I purchased the tickets, I had no idea what the WWF had in store for the event. When Hogan and The NWO arrived on the scene and The Rock challenged him to a match at WrestleMania, I was thankful that I had seats to the match for the ages. Neither Rock nor Hogan was a central force in the wrestling world during most of the decade, but they came together this unforgettable night
There is a reason this contest generated such a huge reaction from all who saw it. The Rock and Wrestling era with Hogan at the forefront brought in a whole generation of kids who became enamored with the spectacle. When those kids grew up, the WWF marketed The Attitude Era to young adults, and many of them became fans all over again. The Hulkster and The Rock were the two top mainstream icons of their respective eras and when the Icon versus Icon match was announced, it was the dream match of all dream matches. It was Hulkamania returning to Wrestlemania after nearly a decade-long absence. It was two generations colliding and millions of fans saw it as our childhood versus our adulthood.
Words cannot convey the atmosphere and the emotion of being in the Skydome that unforgettable night. This match not only stole the show, but it was the show, as the sheer spectacle and excitement in the air during this battle made everything else seem irrelevant in comparison. There was a wave of nostalgia that overcame everybody in the arena and seeing Hogan back in a WWF ring sent many fans on a time capsule back to their youth. I have never seen a wrestler cheered more wildly than Hogan that night, and Rock wisely played into it with heel mannerisms even though he was the face coming into the contest. When Hogan hulked up, it seemed as if the roof of the building would explode.
Rock ended up with the victory, but this was more than a match about winning and losing, but an experience that everybody in the Skydome that night felt lucky to be a part of. When Hogan stood in the middle of the ring and posed after the match, there was not a person who did not have chills down their spines. This was the WWF delivering the ultimate feel-good moment and the fans ate it up. It is what WWF's wrestling is all about, putting on an entertaining spectacle that gave the fans an escape into a different world, and in that regard, it put on a better show than any match I have ever seen.
(1) Hulk Hogan vs. Andre the Giant - World Championship match: WrestleMania 3
I said at the beginning that sometimes being the biggest match does not necessarily mean the best. This mammoth battle of titans in front of a record-breaking crowd is arguably the most important match in the history of wrestling. Even 25 years later, every fan has seen the iconic highlight of Hogan slamming Andre, probably the most memorable moment in the annals of sports entertainment. This is one of those encounters where the workrate was meaningless.
This was all about the hype, the audience, and the atmosphere of two larger than life figures going head to head. When the irresistible force met the immovable object, time stood still. It is impossible to explain to younger fans how huge this was. It was bigger than the business, as everybody was talking about it, and it put pro wrestling in the center of the mainstream consciousness. As a match, this may not be the greatest ever, but as a vital moment in the industry’s history, it was off the charts and that is why it is the biggest WWF/E match of all-time.
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