This weekend, World Wrestling Entertainment will be presenting Wrestlemania XXVII and if I tell a non-wrestling fan I’m planning to watch it, the most common response I’m likely to receive is: “They’ve done 27 of those things?!”. However, Wrestlemania is most definitely the Super Bowl of professional wrestling and I always get way more excited for it than for any over-hyped football game. I must confess that even though I’ve been a wrestling fan for 24 years now and have become very knowledgeable about the inner workings of the business, I still manage to forget that the whole thing is “fake” and suspend my disbelief every year around this time. I often look forward to Wrestlemania like a little kid looks forward to Christmas morning. This year, the card for Wrestlemania XXVII doesn’t look nearly as strong as it has in past years, but I can’t help but be excited for it.
Anyway, for this particular list, I’m going to list my top ten favourite matches in the history of Wrestlemania. It was an awfully tough task narrowing my selections down to just ten, and a lot of classic matches missed making the cut. I should also add the obligatory disclaimer which emphasizes the word “favourite” and notes that this list is strictly my opinion and personal taste. I know that some wrestling fans do frequent The Back Row, but my primary goal here is to try and explain the appeal of these matches to non-fans and how I can lose myself in an athletic contest which I know is pre-determined. I’ve even posted the matches here in their entirety if you don’t want to take my word for it.
So, in the words of the late, great Gorilla Monsoon: “They are literally hanging from the rafters. You can cut the electricity in here with a knife. So let’s get down to ringside”.
10. Chris Benoit vs. Triple H vs. Shawn Michaels – Wrestlemania XX:
Now, if you any of you non-wrestling fans reading this aren’t familiar with Chris Benoit, let’s just say he did a terrible, terrible thing before committing suicide and now has the most tainted legacy of any wrestler in history. Despite the many great accomplishments in his career, World Wrestling Entertainment will no longer use footage of him or mention his name on television. It was tough deciding if this match should earn a place on my list. In fact, if I praised this match on a regular wrestling website, I’d undoubtedly be flamed by trolls calling me a monster for glorifying a child murderer. However, I don’t want the tainted legacy of Chris Benoit to undermine the pure awesomeness of this match, which holds up just as well today as it did in 2004. The only problem is that it’s just not much fun to watch any more. The whole match is now tinged in sadness, not just because of what happened with Benoit, but because it ends with a tearful emotional celebration between Benoit and Eddie Guerrero, who would pass away due to heart failure a year-and-a-half later. This was initially considered one of the great wrestling moments of all time, but now it’s almost too painful to watch.
That being said, my final compromise is to place this match at #10 on my list, even though under normal circumstances, it would have a good chance at landing the #1 spot. It’s that damn fantastic! Benoit had been working nearly 20 years for the opportunity to win a world championship, and while some people thought they might save the moment until the next month’s pay-per-view in his hometown of Edmonton, it was clear from the massive support of the Madison Square Garden crowd that they wanted Benoit to win there. There was some controversy about Shawn Michaels being added into the match to make it a three-way, but his presence only elevated the contest to another level and ensured that the action would be non-stop from start to finish. The main storyline of the match had arch-rivals Michaels and Triple H trying to incapacitate Benoit, so they could focus all their energy on beating each other to a bloody pulp. This only meant that Benoit wound up looking so much stronger when he came back to garner the victory. The finish where Benoit made Triple H tap out to the Crippler Crossface probably made me (and many other fans) mark out harder than any moment I can remember in wrestling!
9. Hulk Hogan vs. The Ultimate Warrior – Wrestlemania VI:
Wrestling purists may scoff at the inclusion of this match on this list, but I scoff at their scoffing. This may not be one of the most technically proficient matches of all time, but it’s undoubtedly one of the two or three BIGGEST wrestling matches in the history of the industry. This was a “babyface vs. babyface” “title vs. title” match between the two biggest stars in the wrestling business at that time, who were both so larger-than-life that no one had any idea who was going to win. I freely admit that personal bias is playing a big role here because I had the privilege of seeing this match live and in person at the age of eleven amongst 67,678 fans at the Skydome in Toronto. This match was such an iconic moment from my childhood and has been watched by yours truly so many times that I could probably act out the entire thing from start to finish, move-for-move. The noise from the Skydome crowd was just insane and was a real eye-opening experience for my parents when they took me to the event. They always assumed that wrestling was just some silly fad that only children took seriously, so you can imagine their shock when they witnessed tons of grown adults totally losing their shit and cheering their asses off! I should also mention that both men did an outstanding job of building up the epic scale of the match by delivering some of the most insane, drug-induced promos you’ve ever heard.
Anyway, considering that Hogan and the Warrior were not the two biggest mat technicians in the world, this whole match had to be meticulously scripted and choreographed. The two men practiced the match numerous times beforehand and a lot of careful planning had to be done if the whole thing had any chance of living up to the hype. Thankfully, it did! For twenty minutes, these guys had 67,000 people in the palm of their hands, as the crowd would go batshit insane for such simple moves as a test of strength and a bearhug. The ending was a piece of booking brilliance which initially followed the traditional formula of Hogan “Hulking up” and becoming impervious to pain after kicking out of the Warrior’s gorilla press slam and big splash. He followed through with his usual routine of putting his opponent away for the kill, but when the time came for him to do his patented leg drop… *GASP* he missed! Warrior then recovered and delivered a splash to score a clean pinfall victory over Hogan to win the WWF Title, which was one of the most shocking things I had ever seen in my life at that point. The two men hugged after the match as Hogan handed the belt over to the Warrior and officially passed him the torch as he quietly went off into retirement. *trying hard to suppress laughter* Anyway, WWF knew they had captured lightning in a bottle, which is they never let these two have a rematch, though WCW would make that mistake eight years later and the match wound up being the pro wrestling equivalent of an enema. Click here if you want to learn the grisly details.
8. Shawn Michaels vs. Kurt Angle – Wrestlemania 21:
This is not the first inclusion on this list featuring “The Heartbreak Kid” Shawn Michaels and it most definitely will not be the last. In fact, I could have probably assembled this entire list out of nothing but HBK matches. Shawn Michaels has been given the nickname “Mr. Wrestlemania” for a very good reason as he has competed at 17 of those events and wound up completely stealing the show more often than not. Arguably, he is the greatest in-ring performer in the history of the wrestling business, and made one of the most miraculous comebacks in all of sports when he took four years off because of a crippling back injury before returning to deliver eight more years of phenomenal matches. I think the main reason that many fans are less excited about the build-up to Wrestlemania this year is because Shawn Michaels has now officially retired. For the past decade, WWE has relied heavily on the conceit that HBK could deliver an all-time classic at Wrestlemania, so it hardly mattered what the build-up to the rest of the card was like. People would buy the event just to see Shawn Michaels steal the show again.
Wrestlemania 21 was built largely around the concept of a heavily hyped dream match, pitting one of the greatest workers from one generation against one of the greatest workers from another. Kurt Angle had won a gold medal in amateur wrestling at the 1996 Olympics before making a freakishly smooth transition to the world of professional wrestling. He turned out to be such a phenomenal performer that he was often called the Shawn Michaels of his generation. The appeal of this dream match was that the worker from the older generation was just as great as he always, so the match was destined to be a classic and could easily live up to and surpass the hype. This was a perfect example of Shawn Michaels living up to his “showstopper” nickname. Some of the latter-day Wrestlemanias have been known for providing a great HBK match in the mid-card that the main events have a hard time following, and Wrestlemania 21 was no exception. This contest had amazing action and psychology, and maintained a fever pitch of intensity and strong crowd heat from start to finish. It all lead to one hell of a finishing sequence as after the two men traded several dramatic near-falls, Angle put Michaels into the anklelock and held him there for several minutes as HBK tried everything he could to break free. After holding on as long as humanly possible, HBK succumbed to the pain and tapped out. The fact that Michaels, who was notorious for his refusal to do jobs and lose matches in the 1990s, tapped out cleanly in the middle of the ring at Wrestlemania only elevated this contest to another level of awesomeness.
7. The Ultimate Warrior vs. Randy “Macho Man” Savage – Wrestlemania VII:
Yes, it’s hard to believe that The Ultimate Warrior made it onto my list twice, which would probably account for about 50 % of the good matches he’s had in his entire career. However, this match is one of the greatest, most well-constructed pieces of storytelling in wrestling history and even someone as batshit insane as the Warrior couldn’t screw it up. The concept of a “career-ending” match eventually became a joke in wrestling as it became obvious that anyone who lost one of these matches would never stay retired and always come back relatively quickly. However, in 1991, this was a quite a big deal and it was nearly impossible to imagine the wrestling world without the Ultimate Warrior or Randy “Macho Man” Savage. From the very outset, you can tell this whole match has been thought through very well, when the Warrior slowly walks to the ring for his entrance. The traditional Ultimate Warrior entrance involves him running to the ring like a madman and blowing himself up, but for this match, he would have to conserve his energy. It was THAT damn important! Anyway, the match would produce tremendous high drama, particularly after Macho Man attempted to pin Warrior after hitting him with no fewer than five of his patented flying elbow drops off the top rope. However, the REAL shocker would come after Warrior launched his comeback and hit Savage with his patented gorilla press and big splash. When Savage manages to kick out of that, I was shocked as all hell. In today’s wrestling world, it’s become common for two opponents to constantly kick out of each other’s finishers all the time, but at the time, I had never seen anything like this, so I had NO idea how this match was going to end!
Anyway, after a bizarre episode where Warrior prayed up to the heavens for the strength to keep going, he would eventually score the pinfall victory to end Macho Man’s career. However, it’s the post-match shenanigans which elevate this match to legendary status. Angry about his defeat, Savage’s evil valet, Sensational Sherri, would attack him, only for Macho Man’s former valet and girlfriend, Miss Elizabeth, to come running out of the crowd to rescue him. Macho Man and Elizabeth had been estranged for over two years, but here they would have a tearful reunion and drive home the message that even though Savage had lost his career, he had gained something a lot more important. And while it had always been tradition for Elizabeth to hold open the ropes for her man, on this particular occasion, he would hold open the ropes for her. It’s very rare for wrestling to deliver such a poignant love story on such a grand scale and while the whole scenario may sound very corny, all you have to do is look at the reaction shots of the fans in attendance who are crying their eyes out! Corny or not, the whole thing WORKED!
6. Shawn Michaels vs. Razor Ramon – Wrestlemania X:
This is an all-time classic Wrestlemania match where it’s almost considered uncool to admit you still like it these days. It’s true that younger fans who were not around when this match originally took place may go back and watch it and wonder what the big deal is. The ladder match has become the most oversaturated concept in the wrestling world over the past decade. They used to be a big deal when they happened, but now you see ladder matches take place several times a year. They have become a showcase for so many crazy and dangerous spots that the bar has been set as high as it can go and it’s virtually impossible for the performers to top themselves without legitimately putting their lives in danger. Modern fans who’ve become accustomed to high-risk ladder matches may watch the Wrestlemania X version and find it incredibly tame, so the ultimate question is: does it hold up? My answer is still a big “yes”!
Wrestlemania X is one of the most beloved Wrestlemanias of all time because it may be the only wrestling show to deliver two bonafide five-star classics. After Bret and Owen Hart put on a wrestling clinic in a phenomenal opener, it would have seemed impossible for any other match on the show to top it. However, Shawn Michaels and Razor Ramon somehow managed to completely steal the show away from them and, alas, they’ve also stolen away a spot on my list that otherwise would have gone to the Hart Brothers match (sorry, Bret and Owen!). This match was a trend-setter and while it’s true that it doesn’t contain the wild daredevil spots that would become commonplace in future ladder matches, it’s still the very best of its kind when it comes to storytelling and psychology. The problem with the modern ladder match is that the performers are so focused on performing their crazy spots that they seem to forget the purpose of the match: climbing the ladder and actually grabbing the championship belt that’s hanging over the ring. The best thing that can be said about this version is that if two guys were wrestling a REAL match that involved climbing up a ladder to grab a title, it would probably look something like this. Michaels and Ramon do perform a lot of dangerous crazy stunts, but they actually have logic to them and fit perfectly within the context of the match. Putting aside how it looks seventeen years later, I should mention that this match completely blew me the fuck away in 1994 and I thought it was one of the most amazing things I’d ever seen, so for that reason alone, it still deserves a spot on this list.
5. The Rock vs. Hollywood Hulk Hogan – Wrestlemania X-8:
First off, let me state that I have been inside Toronto’s Skydome for a lot of major events. I had the honour of attending Game#6 of the 1993 World Series when Joe Carter hit his immortal bottom-of-the-ninth home run to win the Toronto Blue Jays the championship. You’d think that nothing could create a louder noise level in the Skydome than a moment like that, but Hollywood Hulk Hogan actually gave Joe Carter a run for his money in Wrestlemania X-8 when he “Hulked up” during his match against the Rock. I got to be there live and in person at Wrestlemania X-8 to watch this match and I’ve never experienced anything quite like it. I didn’t see any drugs in the crowd, but looking at their excited reactions, you’d think that 68,237 fans had simultaneously done cocaine. Placing this match so high on my list is sure to draw controversy as it’s definitely not a technical masterpiece. By this point, Hulk Hogan was way past his prime and his body was so broken down that he was very limited with what he could do in the ring. The good news is that when you have a match-up this epic, you don’t even NEED to do a whole lot! When the fans are going ballistic over two guys just staring at each other in the middle of the ring and the sound of the bell ringing makes them pop like crazy, you know you have them.
68,237 people have a collective orgasm.
I rank this match so high because the passage of time has only made this match grow in stature. The nature of the wrestling business right now nearly makes it impossible to deliver any huge “Icon vs. Icon” dream matches, so we may never see anything like this again. From an atmosphere and crowd heat standpoint, this dream match is in a class all by itself. Despite him being the heel in this feud, Toronto had not witnessed a Hulk Hogan match for nearly a decade, so most of the fans in attendance were clearly on his side (in spite of the announcers using the term “mixed reaction”), and just blew the roof off the place for EVERYTHING he did. To their credit, the Rock knew that the best approach was to play to the crowd as a heel and Hogan knew to do the same thing as a face. This decision ensured that the fans would just eat the whole thing up and that Hogan’s age and lack of mobility would hardly affect anyone’s enjoyment. Like I said, I have NEVER seen a crowd go more batshit insane than when Hogan did his classic “Hulking up” spot late in the match, and even though I was definitely in the Rock’s cheering section for this one, I couldn’t help but get caught up in everything. This one will probably go down as the all-time greatest example of a crowd single-handedly elevating a match to classic status.
4. Shawn Michaels vs. The Undertaker – Wrestlemania XXV:
I’ve already covered this one in my “20th Anniversary Tribute to The Undertaker” column, but many of the same points bear repeating. In recent years, the main draw for Wrestlemania has not been title matches or feuds, but “The Streak”. The Undertaker holds the distinction of never having lost at Wrestlemania and currently has a career record of 18-0. Even though it may be a pre-determined “sport”, this is the pro wrestling equivalent of Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak or the Miami Dolphins’ perfect undefeated season in 1972. Undertaker was not exactly booked with the greatest opponents during the first portion of his Wrestelmania career, so he has the dubious distinction of being involved in some of the worst Wrestlemania matches of all time.
Case in point…
But for whatever reason, Undertaker developed the freakish ability to become a better in-ring performer as he got older, so in recent years, he has been paired up with much better opponents and participated in some of the greatest Wrestlemania matches of all time. Undertaker and Shawn Michaels would put on an amazing rematch of this contest at Wrestlemania XVI, but nothing could really top the awe-inspiring spectacle of the original. This demonstrates that when it comes to building up a match, sometimes simpler is better. Here were the WWE’s two longest-tenured active wrestlers and they had not wrestled a singles match against each other in 11 years, so it only seemed natural that Michaels would challenge the Undertaker for a chance to break Taker’s legendary undefeated streak at Wrestlemania. And that’s all the backstory this match really needed. Added to the fact that these are two guys who have somehow managed to get better in the ring with age and you have the makings of an all-time classic that was the greatest match seen in a WWE ring in many years. These two had created a memorable ten minutes of magic when they were the last two participants left in the ring in the 2007 Royal Rumble match, but nothing could prepared anyone for this. Both men were going to be taking time off following Wrestlemania, so they did not feel the need to hold anything back.
“The Streak” automatically adds extra drama to any match he wrestles at the event, and that was demonstrated by a memorable sequence where Taker nearly killed himself by landing on his head while doing a tope over the ropes to the outside and they actually teased the possibility of Michaels ending the streak via a countout victory! However, it’s the spectacular ending sequences that really ascended this match into greatness, with both men constantly countering and kicking out of each other’s finishers. Anyone who claims that they were expecting HBK to kick out of Taker’s first tombstone piledriver attempt is a bloody liar and the look of shock on Taker’s face after it happens is one of wrestling’s all-time greatest visuals. They turned the drama and excitement up to eleven and caused the crowd to break out into a delirious frenzy before Undertaker finally prevailed to extend his streak to 17-0. The whole experience was perfectly summarized by the announcers when Undertaker’s pre-match quote, “Sometimes you have to go through Hell to get to Heaven”, was referenced, and Jim Ross added: “I think we’ve just seen Heaven”.
3. Stone Cold Steve Austin vs. The Rock – Wrestlemania X-7:
If there’s one Wrestlemania event I would choose as my all-time favourite, it’s most definitely Wrestlemania X-7. In fact, it’s also my selection for most favourite wrestling show of all time, period! Virtually everything at this show delivered the goods and when you’re the main event of what many consider to be the greatest pay-per-view of all time, there’s no way you can be anything but spectacular. This match was a true epic that had been heavily hyped for months and it was also preceded with the greatest video package of all time, a true masterpiece of editing that highlighted the history of their feud to the tune of Limp Bizkit’s “My Way”. Regardless of whether or not you like Limp Bizkit, it is absolutely mandatory that you watch this video package before you watch the match as I can’t ever remember being more hyped up for a wrestling event after seeing this.
In spite of all the massive hype, however, the match somehow still managed to surpass it. Despite this being a “babyface vs. babyface” match, Stone Cold’s home state Texan crowd were clearly on his side and remained hot from start to finish, giving the match a truly special atmosphere. It was an incredibly intense, bloody and violent encounter that also told some nice little stories, playing off some famous spots from Austin’s classic matches with Bret Hart. It built to a very controversial finish as Vince McMahon interfered and helped Austin win the WWF Title. Stone Cold would turn heel and align himself with his former arch-rival, but even though that turned out to be a huge mistake for the company in the long run, it was played out just beautifully here. The ending sequence is one of the greatest I’ve ever seen in any match as Austin tries everything he can to beat the Rock, but just cannot keep him down for a three-count. Finally, Stone Cold just beats the holy hell out of Rock with a steel chair in order to gain the pinfall victory. While the Texas crowd may have still cheered Austin in spite of his heel turn, Jim Ross’ amazing commentary succeeded beautifully at putting it over (“For the love of God, someone tell me this is NOT HAPPENING!!”). All I can say is that I originally watched this match this on pay-per-view with a large group of people, and they were all going just as ballistic as good ol’ J.R.!
When I try to tell people that pro wrestling is an art form, the most common reaction is scoffing and laughter. I do have to acknowledge that when it’s done badly (as it often is), there are few things more stupid than pro wrestling, but when it’s done well, it can be one of the best forms of storytelling there is. All you have to do is watch this match between Stone Cold Steve Austin and Bret “The Hitman” Hart to see how 22 minutes could change the entire landscape of the wrestling business forever. This match contained all the great twists and turns that you’d expect to find in a work of great fiction as a good guy would turn bad and bad guy would turn good, and these two managed to pull it off in front of a live audience in a very short amount of time and make history. When it was over, the biggest wrestling superstar of the modern era was born. At the time, the WWF was in great financial peril and were on the brink of going out of business for good, but only one year later, they would be drawing profits the likes of which they had never seen before. This match played a major role in allowing that to happen and almost provided what may be the most iconic image in the history of wrestling.
The contest was a submission match where each man could only win by making their opponent give up. Former UFC star Ken Shamrock was in the midst of making the transition to pro wrestling, so he was the special guest referee here. The story was that Bret Hart, who’d been the WWF’s most reliable babyface for over eight years, was starting to become a whiny paranoid bitch, feeling that the company was trying to screw him over all the time. To his disgust, the fans were starting to boo him and cheer for Stone Cold Steve Austin, a badass tough guy who didn’t want to play by anyone’s rules and had no moral values. It was apparent that the squeaky-clean good guy character Bret Hart played was becoming passé, so a double turn was in order, which this match pulled off brilliantly. After an incredibly bloody and intense 20 minutes of brawling, Hart finally put Austin in his sharpshooter to try and make him submit. Few images in wrestling have ever been more memorable that the sight of Stone Cold screaming in intense pain while his face is a complete crimson mask of blood. However, he would absolutely refuse to give up and would only lose after passing out from the pain, prompting to Ken Shamrock to stop the match. Afterwards, Bret would continue to attack Austin while he was still down, and if the fans had mixed feelings about him at the start of the match, they were now 100 % booing him by this point. When Austin regained consciousness and refused to allow anyone to help him to the back, he had garnered so much respect from the fans that they were now 100 % in his corner! One year later, Stone Cold Steve Austin would be arguably the most popular superstar the wrestling business had ever seen even though his character wasn’t exactly a “nice guy”. However, the wrestling world had changed and this was the type of guy that the fans now wanted to cheer. And it was all made possible because of one 22-minute masterpiece of a wrestling match.
1. Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat vs. Randy “Macho Man” Savage – Wrestlemania III:
It took much deliberation for me to decide which match was going to take the #1 spot on this list, but in the end, I decided it couldn’t be any other choice. Quite simply, if it hadn’t been for this match, I might not have even SEEN any of the other matches I’ve mentioned here. I officially started watching wrestling in February of 1987 when they were building up to Wrestlemania III, arguably the biggest event in the history of the wrestling business. The storylines and angles for this event were so strong that I immediately became hooked to this weird and wacky form of entertainment. The main event for Wrestlemania III was Hulk Hogan vs. Andre the Giant, and it would turn out to be a smashing success, drawing 93,000 fans to the Silverdome in Pontiac, Michigan. However, everyone will tell you that even though Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant sold the show, Ricky Steamboat and Randy Savage completely stole it. Even though I was a big Hulkamaniac, my favourite wrestler at the time was Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat because he was such an amazing in-ring performer and just seemed like a genuinely good guy (which he really was, considering that he pulled off the difficult task of playing a babyface for his entire career). The storyline here was that Macho Man had crushed Steamboat’s throat with a ring bell and nearly ended his career, so Wrestlemania III was Steamboat’s opportunity to get revenge and win Savage’s Intercontinental championship. How could I not be hooked?
I should say that since pay-per-view was still an unknown concept to me at the time, I did not see Wrestlemania III until it came out on video several months later. The Steamboat-Savage match already been built up as the greatest match of all time, but when I finally sat down to watch it, it still managed to live up to the hype. At 14 minutes long, it is the shortest match on this list, but they make up for it by cramming as much as humanly possible into that amount of time. Steamboat and Savage had much different working styles as Steamboat usually liked to improvise in the ring while Savage wanted to plan out and choreograph all his spots ahead of time. The two men had already wrestled several matches at house shows, trying out different things and fine-tuning certain spots and sequences, so that by the time Wrestlemania arrived, the best possible match had been perfectly mapped out. The athleticism and timing on display here is nothing short of phenomenal, but even though the whole thing has been carefully choreographed, it never looks overly staged or contrived. Several wrestlers will tell you that this is the match that inspired them to get into the business and that they have watched it so many times that could probably reenact the whole thing, move-for-move. The amount of near-falls and false finishes they pull off are amazing, and credit should also be given to referee Dave Hebner, who does one of the best officiating jobs I’ve ever seen. He is somehow able to keep up with both men and count several near-falls with perfect timing, and by the end of the match, you can tell he is huffing and puffing. In the end, Steamboat would finally get his revenge on Savage by pinning him to win the title, generating one of the loudest crowd pops I’ve ever head. Hell, when I watched it on video, even though I knew what was coming, I cheered just as loud as if I was watching it live. In the end, the wrestling business is ultimately about good triumphing over evil and giving the fans what they want, and it’s hard to name many matches that have accomplished that goal any better than this one.