Seems like more is written these days about the ills and blunders of professional wrestling than the positivity in the make-up. I know, I’ve written my share. In an attempt to at least put a happier spin on what we all lament as troubled times in World Wrestling Entertainment, here’s my tour of the best fifty matches the company’s produced since Y2K.
50. REY MYSTERIO VS. JOHN MORRISON, WWE INTERCONTINENTAL CHAMPIONSHIP (09/01/09, Smackdown)
The match outcome was of knowledge to anyone who knew Mysterio had been popped for a wellness violation, and would be parting with the gold. While most figured this would be a time for Mysterio to put over the man he was feuding with, a wet-behind-the-ears Dolph Ziggler, it’d be a fellow babyface that would triumph for the gold.
At a Smackdown taping in Cleveland, Morrison would take the title in a seesaw battle of nearfalls and high spots, culminating with a Flying Chuck to counter an attempt at ‘dropping the dime.’ Starship Pain finished, and Morrison would kick off a three and a half month reign with the gold. Mysterio would return a month later and get eaten alive by Batista.
49. RANDY ORTON VS. MICK FOLEY, WWE INTERCONTINENTAL CHAMPIONSHIP, HARDCORE RULES (04/18/04, Backlash)
It was the best storyline of 2004, period. After Orton verbally punked Foley late in 2003, a rejuventated ‘Hardcore Legend’ returned with a vengeance at the Royal Rumble to cost Orton in the 30-man gauntlet. After Orton pinned Foley in a handicap match at WrestleMania, Foley challenged Orton for this match, and cut some menacing promos, promising blood.
There was plenty of it spilled, as Foley and Orton took turns ravaging each other with barbed wire, chairs, and the like. The climax hit when Orton had an RKO blocked, and was dropped bare-flesh onto a pile of thumbtacks. After winning everyone’s respect for such a ballsy move, Orton finished Foley with two RKOs, essentially becoming a main eventer by proxy.
48. CHRISTIAN VS. RANDY ORTON, WORLD HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPIONSHIP, NO HOLDS BARRED MATCH (08/14/11, SummerSlam)
The feud between the two wasn’t very well received, as a number of fans felt Christian’s first reign as World Champion was shortchanged to give Orton, he of many second chances, another run as champ. Christian was hastily turned heel for the angle, but over the summer, the pair had a number of great matches, culminating with this brawl.
While the watered-down hardcore matches of today are overdone and generally underwhelming, this was among the best, fueled by a decent story and a very hot crowd (mostly pro-Christian in Los Angeles). Orton regained the title after catching a Christian springboard into an RKO on the ringsteps, in likely Orton’s best match to date.
47. THE UNDERTAKER VS. BATISTA, WORLD HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPIONSHIP, LAST MAN STANDING MATCH (04/29/07, Backlash)
After the two monsters dazzled fans and surprised critics with their well-worked battle at WrestleMania 23 one month earlier, the requisite rematch was made for Rematchamania, properly known as Backlash (now Extreme Rules). A Last Man Standing stipulation seemed to play to both men’s brutish brawling tendencies, only touched upon at ‘Mania.
The result was a match even better than their WrestleMania encounter, improving on their tried-and-true formula of ‘hit a devastating power move, other guy recovers, then reverses the formula.’ The bloody war ended with Batista spearing Undertaker off the entrance way into the pyrotechnics pit, and neither man could answer the count.
46. KURT ANGLE VS. BROCK LESNAR, WWE CHAMPIONSHIP, IRON MAN MATCH (09/16/03, Smackdown)
It was only the third televised Iron Man Match WWE history, and the first to air on either broadcast or cable television. Angle had won the title from Lesnar at Vengeance, and Vince McMahon, for reasons never explained, turned Lesnar into a hate-filled monster again. Angle survived a Summerslam rematch with Lesnar, but Brock was given another opportunity.
45. KURT ANGLE VS. THE ROCK, WWE CHAMPIONSHIP (02/25/01, No Way Out)
Angle started a trend that would sadly become more of the norm as time’s passed in WWE: the World Title reign where the champion mostly looks like an idiot. Thankfully, Rock is a giving opponent, and the storyline actually saw Angle develop a vile instinct in the face of Rock’s insipid “Tick TOCK” promos. Angle’s doctored interview with Rock was a fun rebuttal.
The match itself featured a pointless waddle-in from Big Show, who would be demoted back to the midcard almost immediately. Beyond that, it was a highly intense back-and-forth fight, with Angle dropping a shrill F-bomb with Rock trapped in the Ankle Lock. Rock landed two conclusive Rock Bottoms to fell the champion, en route to a big WrestleMania showdown.
44. BATISTA VS. TRIPLE H, WORLD HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPIONSHIP, HELL IN A CELL (06/26/05, Vengeance)
I’d rather this didn’t turn into one of a million “Triple H is a cancer” pieces, but I’m gonna point out the obvious: if Trips put over other guys the way he put over Batista in 2005, there’d be more no-doubt-about-it main eventers. After losing a bloody battle at WrestleMania to Batista, and the subsequent Backlash rematch, he’d lose once more, a shocker from him.
As it was, the Hell in a Cell match was Batista’s first ultraviolent contest, which employed the use of a steel chair wrapped in barbed wire, perhaps inspired from ECW One Night Stand two weeks prior. Batista mauled Hunter once more, throating him with his own sledgehammer, and putting him away for the summer with one last Batista Bomb.
43. THE ROCK VS. HOLLYWOOD HOGAN (03/17/02, Wrestlemania X8)
This is one that snuck up on me. Like many other insistant know-it-alls, I rolled my eyes at a suddenly-desperate WWE bringing in the New World Order, after it had blown the Invasion angle. The nWo would also wash out with barely an imprint, but not before a few hallmark moments, and none bigger than the battle of the icons in Toronto.
The WrestleMania crowd embraced Hogan like a returning hero of war, ready to slay the stay-at-home star of modern times. As Hogan slipped into his Hulkamania bag of tricks, the apex being the “Hulk-Up” that nearly imploded SkyDome, we all knew we were witnessing something special. Not even a botched move or two knocks it below a ‘****1/2 classic.’
42. CM PUNK VS. JOHN CENA, WWE UNIFIED CHAMPIONSHIP (08/14/11, SummerSlam)
The storyline was rushed. Punk came back with the absconded WWE Championship after just eight days in self-exile. Triple H was injected into the angle for no reason. As was Kevin Nash. Same with Alberto Del Rio, whom the company seemed desperate to get over. As much as a hot angle was squashed, it did produce this classic from a great overall SummerSlam.
While nowhere near as intense and dramatic as their Money in the Bank encounter (Hunter’s involvement had everyone waiting on the screwjob), it was a more-than-acceptable sequel, with Punk winning mostly cleanly, though Cena had his foot on the ropes. The fact that is was merely table-setting for HHH and Nash’s ladder match does diminish it a bit.
41. TRIPLE H VS. THE ROCK, WWE CHAMPIONSHIP (04/30/00, Backlash)
To this day, there are many who feel WrestleMania 2000 should have ended with the standard and predictable ‘hero stands tall’ ending, but alas, Triple H retained the gold via screwjob. The inclusion of Stone Cold Steve Austin (who hadn’t been seen in five months) as enforcer for this bout did wonders in making good toward those scorned fans.
Backlash as a whole improved upon a wildly overbooked and disappointing WrestleMania, and the main event affirmed the show’s greatness. As Rock was falling prey to Hunter and the entire McMahon faction, Austin’s music hit, blowing the roof off the arena. The two heroes cleaned house, and Rock ended Hunter’s reign from hell with the People’s Elbow.
40. EDDIE GUERRERO VS. ROB VAN DAM, WWE INTERCONTINENTAL CHAMPIONSHIP, LADDER MATCH (Monday Night Raw, 05/27/02)
At this point, Guerrero was barely two months into his WWE comeback, having sworn off the vices and demons that nearly cost him his family and career. The fact that he was still performing at such a high level speaks volumes of his world-class talent. The fact that WWE made him a champion so quickly is a faith they rarely show.
One of the rewards for said faith was this stunt-filled ladder match that even a run-in by a moronic bald fan couldn’t ruin. Van Dam won the gold, and Stone Cold hit the the ring to continue his feud with Guerrero. Ric Flair, Arn Anderson, and a returning Chris Benoit involved themselves against Austin, whose full-time run ended ominously two weeks later.
39. STONE COLD STEVE AUSTIN VS. KURT ANGLE, WWE CHAMPIONSHIP (SummerSlam, 08/19/01)
Talk about casting against type. Wrestling’s all-time greatest anti-hero was now an insecure basket case grasping at power, while the Pat Boone of Olympic wrestling had shed his oblivious dork side for a run as a guile-fueled superhero. Fans had a hard time buying either 180-twist, like most things in the Invasion era, but it did provide this intense battle.
WWE painted itself into a corner with this title match, as neither man could really afford to lose, even with interference. That’s why it was tantamount to keep tepid babyface Angle warm by having him kick out of two Stunners, and valiantly fight back while heavily bleeding. Austin takes out the referee(s) to draw a DQ, and Angle snaps on Nick Patrick as the coda.
38. SHAWN MICHAELS VS. KURT ANGLE (Vengeance, 06/26/05)
A curious period in WWE history in which the company moved forward with two brand new main eventers in John Cena and Batista. Both were going over established stars at this event to crystalize their initial title runs, while the two icons that tore the house down at WrestleMania 21 would face off once more, stacking Vengeance with quite the card.
While not quite to the standard of WrestleMania, as is often the case, it’s easily arguable as WWE’s second or third best match of 2005. The story boiled down to the common Kurt Angle device of keying in on the leg for the ankle lock finish. Michaels managed to avoid that fate a second time, and gave an airborne Angle some Chin Music to even the series.
37. CM PUNK VS. JOHN CENA, WWE CHAMPIONSHIP (Night of Champions, 09/16/12)
The company had decided CM Punk’s acid-tongued firebrand act was done for, and repositioned the long-reigning champion as a sniveling heel. From having Bret Hart denounce Punk, to Punk taking on loathsome Paul Heyman as his manager, to Punk backing down from 67-year-old Vince McMahon, nothing was spared in the coerced, unwanted heel turn.
The Punk-Cena match at Night of Champions was an oasis in the vast desert that was the ultimately fruitless turn, as these two are incapable of having a bad match together. Punk foreshadowed his match with Rock by Rock Bottoming Cena for two, and the finish came on a hackneyed German suplex leading to a double pin. Still, another epic from the two.
36. KURT ANGLE VS. THE UNDERTAKER, WORLD HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPIONSHIP (No Way Out, 02/19/06)
The second best WWE match of 2006 was Edge and Mick Foley’s WrestleMania psuedo-death match, and that didn’t quite make the running for this list (though it was a tremendous spectacle). 2006 was more a year of story than quality matches, with this being the only match of that year on the list. That doesn’t diminish the awesomeness therein.
After ‘Taker laid down the gauntlet at the Royal Rumble, what followed was a match that took two parts. For the first 15 minutes, it felt like a classic Attitude Era mainer, with ringside brawling galore. The latter half turned into a submission battle, with the Ankle Lock vs. Hell’s Gate. Angle then scored a rare clean pin over Undertaker by cradling through the Gate.
35. CHRIS BENOIT VS. TRIPLE H VS. SHAWN MICHAELS, WORLD HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPIONSHIP (Backlash, 04/18/04)
A month after the apex of his wrestling career, Benoit was being humanized by the company (perish that thought today) in an attempt to get him over as a gritty, lunch-bucket family man. Vignettes aired with wife Nancy and their children, who were all in attendance in Edmonton, Benoit’s ex-home, for the highly-anticipated WrestleMania rematch.
The underlying theme, one referenced endlessly by Jerry Lawler, was questioning whether or not Benoit’s WrestleMania win was a ‘fluke’. After an Earl Hebner run in while Benoit was in Michaels’ Sharpshooter (drawing the expected terrified boos), Benoit rebounded to beat Michaels with the same hold, and Lawler conceded that Benoit was “for real.”
34. THE ROCK VS. TRIPLE H, WWE CHAMPIONSHIP, IRON MAN MATCH (Judgment Day, 05/21/00)
Three weeks after Rock regained the title at Backlash, the two mortal enemies would lock horns again, curiously in a sixty-minute Iron Man match. Neither was regarded as a technical marvel on the level of Shawn Michaels or Bret Hart, so it remained to be seen how two men who primarily work the vague “Main Event Style” would captivate for an hour.
In truth, it ended up being the best marathon match in WWE history. Michaels presided as referee (in bicycle shorts) while Rock and Hunter alternated between chaos and clever booking (Helmsley sacrificing a chair-shot DQ to score two falls on an unconscious Rock). Undertaker returned with it tied 5-5 and attacked Hunter, giving him the DQ win and the title.
33. KURT ANGLE VS. BROCK LESNAR, WWE CHAMPIONSHIP (WrestleMania XIX, 03/30/03)
Lesnar won that year’s Royal Rumble, and had his sights set on Angle, who pulled out of a promised title defense to Lesnar, after Brock helped him win the gold from Big Show. However, the match had a real-life black cloud hanging over it, as Angle was facing upwards of a year out of action, following forthcoming necessary spinal surgery.
Amazingly, Angle gutted out a Herculean performance, and nobody would have known he was severely injured if not for the dirt sheets. It was Lesnar, ironically, who nearly wound up paralyzed following a botched Shooting Star Press attempt, which would have been a beautiful ending had he landed it. A quick improv with an F5 salvaged the opus.
32. THE SHIELD VS. RYBACK/KANE/DANIEL BRYAN, TLC MATCH (TLC, 12/16/12)
The positioning on the calendar meant a flood of votes in the 2012 RSPW Awards for this unexpected gem, winning it Match of the Year. Although I can think of a couple of better matches from 2012, this is still a worthy pick. Amazing, given that it was a consolation for CM Punk being unable to wrestle due to injury (he was to have faced Ryback).
The Shield all made their WWE television in-ring debuts, and shined instantly. Seth Rollins took a memorable bump off a ladder near the entrance way, while Dean Ambrose displayed the manic energy that has come to define him. You know a match is great when nobody complains that Bryan had to do the job; it was a damn near perfect six man insanity.
31. TRIPLE H VS. CACTUS JACK, WWE CHAMPIONSHIP, HELL IN A CELL (No Way Out, 02/27/00)
A month after failing to beat Triple H in one of the most brutal WWE matches to date, Mick Foley received a rematch inside the very Hell in a Cell he’d had a huge hand in popularizing. In the rematch, Foley’s career would be at stake. All the internet reports pointed at Foley wanting to retire and be with his family, and it was a hard reality for fans to accept.
The match itself was the unholy offspring of the Undertaker/Mankind Cell match, and Helmsley and Foley’s Royal Rumble street fight, complete with cage-fall and barbed wire 2X4 callbacks, though the board was actually ignited this time. Foley’s through-the-cage bump was the stuff of legend, just as much as the deflation of the crowd after the Pedigree.
30. BROCK LESNAR VS. EDDIE GUERRERO, WWE CHAMPIONSHIP (No Way Out, 02/15/04)
It was a hard concept to reconcile, even for longtime Guerrero fans. When WWE had Guerrero go over in a mini-Rumble on Smackdown to earn this shot, it seemed crazy that he’d go over superhuman iceman Lesnar for the gold, even if he proved to be a big audience draw the previous summer. Would the company actually pull that trigger?
What unfolded was Lesnar’s last great match before his infamous exit from WWE a month later. Goldberg was stationed in the front row to continue the feud with his fellow cyborg, and it hardly undermined Eddie when he attacked Lesnar during the match. When Guerrero did win, it capped off the greatest WWE underdog story that you can still find on video releases.
29. BROCK LESNAR VS. THE UNDERTAKER, WWE CHAMPIONSHIP, HELL IN A CELL (No Mercy, 10/20/02)
WWE was in a considerable funk. With no Rock and no Austin to carry the show with their personalities, Undertaker and Triple H were thrust into the main roles, surrounded by some of the most disturbingly bad soap opera writing to date. In this case, Lesnar and Paul Heyman accused Undertaker of having an affair, cheating on pregnant wife Sara.
As is the case with a lot of these matches, when left to the actual physical work, the storyline was left in the dust. Undertaker hit a gusher of a bladejob, gorily bleeding like a faucet into a downed Lesnar’s mouth at one point. Lesnar received another big rub from reversing a Tombstone and hurling Undertaker into an F5 to end the half-hour of carnage.
28. SHAWN MICHAELS VS. CHRIS JERICHO (WrestleMania XIX, 03/30/03)
The build-up was somewhat lost among McMahon and Hogan’s absurd spat, The Rock ruling Raw with his over-the-top from-Hollywood musings, and Triple H dancing around the racial fire with Booker T. It remains a simple story told perfectly; Jericho, once hailed as the ‘next Michaels’ was forcing the comparison by taking the fight to the man considered his superior.
A lot of nice touches came in their first ever one on one encounter, with Jericho mimicking the kip-up and the Sweet Chin Music, taking some elements from a Mortal Kombat mirror match. Michaels survived an extended frame in the Walls of Jericho to win with a backroll cradle. Of course, the war can’t end here, so Jericho punted Michaels’ plums for continuation.
27. EDGE VS. CHRISTIAN VS. KANE VS. CHRIS JERICHO VS. CHRIS BENOIT VS. SHELTON BENJAMIN, MONEY IN THE BANK (WrestleMania XXI, 04/03/05)
Jericho apparently dreamed up this match, and pitched it to McMahon and Brian Gewirtz. It took six of Raw’s most recognizable stars, and actually gave them something to do at WrestleMania, as they were all sorta wandering through limbo (a recurring theme in later years). It was TLC minus the tables, and it spawned one of few popular traditions today.
Benjamin, already the Intercontinental Champion, stole the show by running hands-free up a leaning ladder to joust Jericho off his own ladder. Edge was booed out of the Staples Center from start to finish, as his affair with Lita was now public knowledge. WWE cashed in on his newfound heat by having him attack Benoit’s injured arm, and climb unimpeded to win.
26. EDDIE GUERRERO VS. KURT ANGLE, WWE CHAMPIONSHIP (WrestleMania XX, 03/14/04)
Angle underwent a hasty heel turn (just one of many) in the wake of Guerrero capturing the gold from Lesnar. There were vague notions about Angle not wanting a ‘drunken degenerate’ as a champion (painfully ironic in subsequent years for Angle), and the match build was jolted from a chilling segment, where an emotionless Angle beat a hand-tied Guerrero bloody.
The match is what you’d expect from these two being given 20 minutes on the big stage. Angle worked to wreck Guerrero’s ankle, but in tune with Eddie’s “Lie, Cheat, and Steal” brand of outfoxing foes, the champion loosened his boot to enable a quick escape from the Ankle Lock. That clever spot was quickly followed by a small package finish, and Eddie retaining.
25. THE ROYAL RUMBLE MATCH (Royal Rumble, 01/25/04)
Another match relegated to WWE’s dustbin for obvious reasons, Chris Benoit was ordered to enter the fracas from the number one position by spiteful GM Paul Heyman. Goldberg earned the number 30 spot, and an impressive collection of stars, from Kurt Angle to Chris Jericho to the still-rising John Cena and Randy Orton, assembled one of the greatest Rumbles ever.
Orton’s tenure ended when Mick Foley hit the ring (in Test’s stead, after knocking him out) to personally eliminate the upstart himself. Goldberg was taken out by Lesnar, setting up their WrestleMania debacle. Big Show eliminated Angle, Jericho, Cena, and Rob Van Dam, but couldn’t toss the exhausted Benoit, who wedged Show over the ropes to earn the huge win.
24. THE ROCK VS. CHRIS JERICHO, WCW CHAMPIONSHIP (No Mercy, 10/21/01)
Despite both being babyfaces taking up arms against the dismal WCW/ECW Alliance, a series of miscues between the two led to a spat in which each unloaded a tray of insults. Once Jericho silenced Rock with his very own open-palmed gesture of disrespect, the heat began simmering for a title match at No Mercy, more anticipated than anything the Alliance was doing.
Underscoring the match was the fact that, for Jericho’s waves of personal bluster, he had never ‘won the big one.’ The crowd in St. Louis rallied behind him, booing Rock (not quite at Toronto levels, mind you). Jericho won with his short-lived new finisher, The Breakdown, onto a chair, kicking off a disappointing heel run that would last for about two years.
23. CHRIS BENOIT VS. CHRIS JERICHO, WWE INTERCONTINENTAL CHAMPIONSHIP, LADDER MATCH (Royal Rumble, 01/21/01)
Another forgotten classic in the period of excess that was WWE 2001, you could easily book a ladder match with these two and be assured the requisite stunts and unpulled punches. As Benoit shifted away from the Radicalz for good, he and Jericho all but ended their singles feud at the Rumble, putting on, as expected, a performance for the ages.
Customary to the “Calgary Kids”, it was a wonderfully structured match laden with a number of new wrinkles, one of which is really horrifying in hindsight (Jericho nailing a suicide-diving Benoit in the face with a chair). Jericho hooked the Walls on the top of the ladder in a stunning visual en route to the title. Worth watching again if Benoit doesn’t repulse you.
22. JOHN CENA VS. BROCK LESNAR, EXTREME RULES MATCH (Extreme Rules, 04/29/12)
24 hours after losing to The Rock in a box-office smash at WrestleMania 28, Cena was confronted by the not-so-surprise return (but no less welcome) of Brock Lesnar. The nuclear crowd reaction to Lesnar’s comeback, followed by the sitdown interview vignettes, made this ‘not just any old WWE match’, even if the ending undermined that notion.
The match broke the form of virtually every WWE main event of the past eight years, at the very least. Blood was spilled after a clean four years without it, and Lesnar mauled Cena half to death for 90% of the contest. The chaotic nature was very welcome, while Cena’s eked-out win wasn’t. A rematch could’ve drawn more money, but hey, gotta keep “Da Champ” strong.
21. JOHN CENA VS. SHAWN MICHAELS, WWE CHAMPIONSHIP (WrestleMania XXIII, 04/01/07)
Two years into John Cena’s World title push, and the company (as is evidenced even today) had no plans to waver from him as the man. Shawn Michaels lie in wait as company trump card, able to put over whoever, whenever, with a match for the ages. After Michaels turned on Cena (his Tag Team Championship partner, for those who forgot), Mr. WrestleMania struck again.
The best spot of the match was its most gruesome, as an increasingly vindictive Michaels piledrove Cena on the ringsteps, opening a cut on the back of his head. The half-hour performance either proved Cena could go with Michaels when needed, or Michaels can simply carry any clod to the match of their lives, depending on where your bias lies.
20. CM PUNK VS. DANIEL BRYAN, WWE CHAMPIONSHIP (Over the Limit, 05/20/12)
Both men were in a weird place at this point, despite being technically defined as ‘main eventers.’ Cena was jostling in the main events without the belt, while Punk had to vie with the lukewarmly-received Sheamus for time as company champion. Bryan was reeling from the 18 second loss to WrestleMania, but won a Beat the Clock challenge to get this shot.
With nearly 25 minutes with which to work, Bryan and Punk delivered the sort of hard-hitting parade of complex reversals and stiff shots that you’d expect, in an attempt to get somebody’s attention within the company. Punk barely won after reversing the LeBell Lock into a pinning combo, and the feud would sadly never be as good again going forward.
19. KURT ANGLE VS. CHRIS BENOIT, WWE CHAMPIONSHIP (Royal Rumble, 01/19/03)
Angle needed a stopgap opponent before his collision course with Lesnar converged at WrestleMania. Playing off of his ill-fated teaming with Benoit in months previous, Angle became the target of a Benoit/Lesnar union, promising workratephiles a trove of greatness. Benoit went over Big Show in a top contender’s match to get the shot at the Rumble.
As Scott Keith once noted, it’s amazing that this match took place all the way back in January, and still cleaned up handily in a lot of year-end polls for match of the year. This may or may not have been the first time Angle did a complete 270-degree flip out of a release German suplex. Even in defeat, Benoit received a heartfelt standing ovation from the Boston crowd.
18. CM PUNK VS. BROCK LESNAR, NO DISQUALIFICATION (SummerSlam, 08/18/13)
After Punk and Paul Heyman dissolved their year-long relationship, one high on chuckles but low on return-on-interest otherwise, the stage was set for Heyman’s two most successful clients to face off at Summerslam. It was hard to expect anything great, given the dullness of Lesnar’s year-long *though it felt interminable) blood feud with a diminished Triple H.
No matter how high even optimistic fans would set the bar, this war surpassed any and all expectations. Lesnar in particular seemed as motivated as he was in his fight with Cena, playing the role of Goliath with wicked gusto as he broke Punk with weapons, throws, and trash talk. Punk did great in holding his own credibly. I dare say Lesnar’s best match ever.
17. STONE COLD STEVE AUSTIN/TRIPLE H VS. CHRIS JERICHO/CHRIS BENOIT, WWE TAG TEAM CHAMPIONSHIP (Monday Night Raw, 05/21/01)
Benoit and Jericho were late additions to a Tag Team Turmoil match held the previous night at Judgment Day, and were victorious. The champions were the super team of the Two Man Power Trip, who until 24 hours earlier, controlled all of the major championships. Up until recent years, this held up as being the greatest match in the history of Raw.
Its most notable occurrence, of course, was Helmsley shredding his quadriceps while saving Austin from the Walls of Jericho. Say what you will about the man, but it’s much to his credit that he finished the match with barely anyone a privy to his blinding pain. Jericho and Benoit became juiced-in main eventers to varying degrees with the upset victory.
16. JOHN CENA VS. CM PUNK, NUMBER ONE CONTENDER’S MATCH (Monday Night Raw, 02/25/13)
From the time Rock announced his intention to challenge the WWE Champion at the Royal Rumble back at Raw 1000, it was clear what the main event of WrestleMania 29 would be. With Cena and Rock each standing tall at the end of the Rumble, the obvious was confirmed. Still, the pre-paved Road to WrestleMania made a pit stop to this exciting diversion.
Punk challenged Cena, who had never really beaten him, to this match, and what could simply have been a throwaway match to put Cena over ended up one of his greatest performances. The near-falls and killer pace were above Cena’s norm, as well as the fact that he used waaaay more than five moves (including a hands free rana!). An unexpected magnum opus.
15. JOHN CENA VS. DANIEL BRYAN, WWE CHAMPIONSHIP (SummerSlam, 08/18/13)
This one stings, both due to the aftermath (from that night, and the ensuing several months worth of stringalong PPVs), and because the match was made with the cookie cutter used from SummerSlam 2011. The only differences were referee Triple H playing himself AND Kevin Nash, Randy Orton playing Alberto Del Rio, and Bryan filling in as patsy for CM Punk.
Such as it it was, it’s Bryan’s best WWE match to date, and Cena’s only had a couple better. Cena’s tended to have explosive, hate-filled brawls with fellow babyfaces, so it was weird seeing him play ‘can you top this’ with someone established as an ally. The elation felt when Bryan scored a no-doubt-about-it, clean-as-a-sheet win seems like a distant memory.
14. THE UNDERTAKER VS. SHAWN MICHAELS, STREAK VS. CAREER (WrestleMania XXVI, 03/28/10)
The second best WWE match of 2010, the Royal Rumble match, missed the cut by a few spots. As it was, 2010 was not a great year creatively for the company, what with the Nexus being squandered, a million and one needless guest hosts, and Jack Swagger reigning as a champion. Still, better to get this prize than no prize at all, and it was the ultimate of sendoffs.
Tasked with trying to top prior magic, this match marked the first time in 15 years that WrestleMania ended with something other than a title match. It was a hair below their epic encounter, but the finish, with Michaels insisting on being done in, was twice as thrilling. I love Michaels, and hope he never returns, because he went out on as great a note as we’ll ever see.
13. JOHN CENA VS. SHAWN MICHAELS, NON TITLE MATCH (Monday Night Raw, 04/23/07)
It was a crowd in London that witnessed the greatest match in the 20+ year annals of Monday Night Raw. You wouldn’t link together words like “one hour match”, “John Cena”, and “all time classic”, especially in 2007 when vitriol toward the champion wasn’t yet warmed over. Invoke Shawn Michaels into the equation, and suddenly the math all makes sense.
It didn’t have the bloodshed of their WrestleMania mainer, but it told an exciting story over the course of 55 minutes, beginning with Michaels working the shoulder relentlessly, before going into an extended sequence of attempted finishes and near-falls. Michaels’ clean win paid off the anti-Cena contingent by giving them a great match, and their own feel-good ending.
12. CHRIS BENOIT/KURT ANGLE VS. REY MYSTERIO/EDGE, WWE TAG TEAM CHAMPIONSHIP (No Mercy, 10/20/02)
The continued greatness on Smackdown among the so-named “Smackdown Six” (these four, plus Eddie and Chavo Guerrero) made the “B” show must-see for fans sick of the lifeless melodrama on Raw. When a tournament was instituted to determine the brand’s first tag titleholders, optimism flourished when two-thirds of the troupe made the finals.
Benoit and Angle played reluctant partners to the considerably more cohesive Edge and Rey, but the creative teamwork and masterful working of the timeless face-in-peril formula (which both faces performed) was the apex for this era of Smackdown. Benoit and Angle’s reign was short-lived, as this match was nearly topped by a rematch on Smackdown two weeks later.
11. THE DUDLEY BOYZ VS. THE HARDY BOYZ VS. EDGE/CHRISTIAN, WWE WORLD TAG TEAM CHAMPIONSHIP, TLC MATCH (WrestleMania X7, 04/01/01)
After a pair of tag title changes on March 19, which saw the debuts of ECW refugees Rhyno and Spike Dudley as they interfered, the three teams were assigned once more to face off in the match they’d created and nearly died for. Rhyno, Spike, and Lita would all see involvement in the match, interfering for their allies in a match that hardly saw interference before.
In some ways, the WrestleMania encounter felt rushed, but there was no less mayhem within. Bubba Ray Dudley and Matt Hardy fell off a painter’s ladder through a quartet of tables in the aisle in one scary scene, while Edge speared Jeff Hardy off the skyhook in another. If nothing else, the match solidified all six men’s legacies through this brutal series of spectacles.
10. TRIPLE H VS. CACTUS JACK, WWE CHAMPIONSHIP, STREET FIGHT (Royal Rumble, 01/23/00)
The beauty of Mick Foley’s personalities stems from their distinctness. When a battered and bruised Mankind informed Triple H that he wasn’t prepared to face him at the Rumble in such a violent match, “The Game” smiled gleefully. Mankind chose his own replacement, unmasking to ‘become’ Cactus Jack, and that smile vanished. Cactus, of course, is a more carnivorous animal.
WWE finally employed the use of barbed wire on this night, as Cactus pinata’d the champion with a gimmicked barbed wire plank. Still, Helmsley hit the gushiest of gushers to that point in his career, and the level of violence therein was still fairly fresh. Foley taking a Pedigree onto a river of thumbtacks (yep, face first) remains hard to watch without cringing.
9. EDGE/CHRISTIAN VS. THE DUDLEY BOYZ VS. THE HARDY BOYZ, WWE WORLD TAG TEAM CHAMPIONSHIP, TLC MATCH (SummerSlam, 08/27/00)
The greatest of the TLC matches had the benefit of a slightly hotter crowd than the Astrodome at WrestleMania. The ‘Mania crowd was scorching all night, but the fans here in Raleigh had a horse in the race: the home-state Hardy Boyz, who hadn’t reigned as champions in over a year. It seemed as though the stars were aligned for Edge and Christian to drop the gold.
This particular array of skyrocketed spots gets the nods over its WrestleMania brother because of pacing. Nothing felt as rushed, and the wild stunts had a little more room to breathe. The highlight was Jeff Hardy’s Swanton off a tall ringside ladder through Bubba Ray Dudley and a table. The Carolina fans had to wait a month for the Hardyz to capture the gold, however.
8. SHAWN MICHAELS VS. KURT ANGLE (WrestleMania XXI, 04/03/05)
I miss Kurt Angle, the boisterous comic presence. TNA’s attempts to induce Angle’s funny bone have been miserable failures, but let’s face it: what would even come close to topping Angle, with Sensational Sherri in tow, singing a modified version of Shawn Michaels’ theme music in sleazy chaps? Angle claimed he could recreate Michaels’ career, and ace him in the end.
Ah, but there was nothing funny about the match, two perfectionists at the top of their game. In some ways, the match is overshadowed by Batista and John Cena’s subsequent title wins, but it’s still considered the match of the year for 2005, by people who didn’t see TNA Unbreakable. Angle’s clean submission win was far more surprising than the quality on display.
7. CHRIS JERICHO VS. SHAWN MICHAELS, WORLD HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPIONSHIP, LADDER MATCH (No Mercy, 10/05/08)
Now this is what I’m talking about. The story between Jericho and Michaels presented zero ironies or cutesy self-amusement, but rather hate. Lots and lots of hate. Jericho attempted to maim Michaels’ eye, and an honest mistake where Jericho accidentally slugged Michaels’ wife Rebecca, made their series a must-see marathon of vile and cruel intentions.
Their unsanctioned slugfest at Unforgiven was great enough, but this was the company’s greatest one-on-one ladder match in over a decade. Less attention was paid to stunts of redecoration, and more focus went toward finding ways to simply hurt the opponent. The creativity was in the blind rage, not the convoluted trickery. Just how it should have been.
6. THE ROCK VS. STONE COLD STEVE AUSTIN, WWE CHAMPIONSHIP (WrestleMania X7, 04/01/01)
It’s said that the Attitude Era concluded at WrestleMania X7, regarded as the greatest PPV in wrestling’s history. Hard to disagree with the notion; the wild three-year party ends with the most vivid of fireworks. Ending it with its two strongest pillars fighting for the richest prize in the industry was most fitting, even if the shock ending feels ill-fitting in hindsight.
Austin swore during a tense sit-down interview that he ‘needed’ to win this match. After the two icons bloodied and battered each other for over 20 minutes, Vince McMahon made his presence felt, revealing Austin had sold his soul to his mortal enemy. The heel turn led to more great Austin matches, yet it marked the end of not just an era, but its boldest character.
5. STONE COLD STEVE AUSTIN VS. TRIPLE H, THREE STAGES OF HELL (No Way Out, 02/25/01)
One month prior to the denouement of Stone Cold as the world most knew him, Austin was set to conclude his war with the man who masterminded a vehicular attempt on his life in 1999. Austin paid him back a year later by dropping Helmsley, inside a car, from an elevated crane, which should have been a fatal landing. The Attitude Era was a barbaric time.
This match was the birth of Three Stages of Hell, a two out of three falls match with normal rules applying for fall one, no DQ in the second, and the third inside a cage. The intensity level matched two men who attempted murder on each other, and Helmsley narrowly won after 40 minutes of brutality. This was back when Helmsley winning wasn’t tiresome.
4. THE UNDERTAKER VS. SHAWN MICHAELS (WrestleMania XXV, 04/05/09)
What good is the Undertaker’s WrestleMania streak if the man known as “Mr. WrestleMania” hasn’t had a crack at it? The Undertaker’s run of WrestleMania victories sat at 16-0 heading into the battle with fellow aged icon Michaels, and the historic challenge did more than simply provide fans with an unforgettable viewing experience; it also saved a bad WrestleMania.
It was almost Undertaker that needed saving, when a dive to the floor at a planted cameraman (Jimmy Snuka’s son) didn’t break the fall properly, and The Dead Man javelined the floor. Outside of that, the believable near-fall sequence at the end may have been the last time anyone believed someone was ending the streak. Michaels can make believers of us all.
3. TRIPLE H VS. CHRIS BENOIT VS. SHAWN MICHAELS, WORLD HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPIONSHIP (WrestleMania XX, 03/14/04)
With regards to the events of real life, I write this list with an objective tack. You’ve seen it up to this point with enough Benoit recognition to make some uncomfortable. In truth, it was a phenomenal match, worth appreciation from an unclouded eye. I understand the dissent, for to some, Benoit’s finest hour, and it’s aftermath, may be his hardest work to watch today.
The story involved Benoit being put into the background of Hunter and Shawn’s long-standing grudge, dismissed as an afterthought. The New York crowd stayed behind him, and rumbled with overjoy when “The Crippler” made Triple H tap out. His celebration with fellow champion Eddie Guerrero was tearjerking in 2004, but almost impossible to watch three years later.
With the Hulk Hogan Nostalgia Tour drawing a favorable reaction in 2002, it remained to be seen if one involving a long-dormant Heartbreak Kid could do the same. Goaded into action by friend-turned-nemesis Triple H, Michaels hadn’t wrestled in over four years, and it was thought that the Showstopper of old was packed away forever. We all thought wrong.
With a combination of his realistic selling and bold athleticism, Michaels proved to be as peerless in 2002 as he was when he first ended his career. The success of the match eventually led to a full-time Michaels return, and helped make up the body of this listing. Standing alone, it was an inspirational performance in an era of car-wreck matches and plastic story-telling.
1. JOHN CENA VS. CM PUNK, WWE CHAMPIONSHIP (Money in the Bank, 07/17/11)
The increasingly-safe WWE received a straight-edge dose of harsh reality, courtesy of Punk’s acidic “Pipe Bomb” promo. The injection of danger made Money in the Bank a must-see event, and has done more to make Punk a concrete star than anything any other wrestler has done since Cena put down opponents with coarse rap lyrics eight years earlier.
In madhouse Chicago, Punk and Cena engaged in each man’s greatest match. Cena kept pace with the more skilled Punk; the result was a nail-biter, especially when Vince McMahon arrived to try and prevent Punk’s win. Punk won virtually cleanly, and the new champion taunted his touchless boss in the aftermath, capping off an audience match if there ever was one.
Justin Henry has been an occasional contributor to Camel Clutch Blog since 2009. His other work can be found at WrestleCrap.com and ColdHardFootballFacts.com. He can be found on Twitter, so give him a follow.
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