Friday, March 31, 2017

Wrestlemania Memories

As discussed in one of my first ever articles, back in 2012, I got into pro wrestling because of my friend Brandon, around 1996. Growing up, I had not been allowed to watch it, and like many things I wasn't allowed to take part in, I told myself that it was probably stupid, that I wasn't missing out. But the truth is, if I HAD been allowed to watch as a kid, I very likely would have been a fan. But I don't think I REALLY would have been a fan, until around late 1991, when a certain black-clad wrestler came along who was quite different from everyone else of the era. That, of course, being The Undertaker. Yes, he was a monster bad guy when he first showed up, and so that would have been going against him, but I'm not sure even kid me could have booed this supernatural "Dead Man", this reaper of wayward souls who talked and acted and fought like no one else.

I would have totally dug this guy, and popped big when he turned "good".

Of course, what got me hooked in 1996, WAS the Undertaker, more in the height of his supernatural theatrics and superpowerful character, and he very quickly became my favorite wrestler of all time. In fact, I became a big fan of wrestling in general, and even just as far as the world of the WWF/E went, I garnered many favorite wrestlers over time. But while I had seen Monday Night Raw here and there with Brandon, what really sold me on The Undertaker, and wrestling, I think, was when I watched my first Wrestlemania with him, which was Wrestlemania 12. Now, I don't remember whether he and his dad ordered the PPV live, or if they waited and rented the show on VHS when it released later, but I suppose it hardly matters. What matters is that there were two specific matches that stood out to me, that sold me on who would become my first two favorite wrestlers, and who would honestly wind up remaining my top two favorites of all time: Undertaker and Bret Hart.

As it turns out, I'll be getting into those matches in this very article, but first, I want to share a couple of, as the article is titled "Wrestlemania Memories", that stand out to me. Not necessarily entire matches, but rather, moments or images that stick with you over time. I think the one that sticks the most, is probably the coolest wrestler entrance I've ever seen, and that was The Undertaker's during Wrestlemania 14 in 1998. Granted, Taker has had MANY of the coolest entrances in wrestling history. But to me, this one still takes the cake, as he came out to his awesome music, a line of robed "Druids" holding fiery torches on either side, "The Lord of Darkness" marching slowly to the ring in a bad-ass medieval warrior-looking battle robe. Just really, really powerful stuff, unlike anything I think anyone had really done in pro wrestling at the time. It was just a moment that made you go "THIS dude is for real!"

THIS dude, is for real.

Another moment that stands out, is from years later, at Wrestlemania 18 in 2002. I wouldn't call it one of the greatest MATCHES of all time, because it really wasn't. But one of the most unique MOMENTS of all time, was when "Icon Faced Icon", the star of the Golden Era fought the star of the Attitude Era, when "Hollywood" Hulk Hogan faced The Rock. Now, it bears saying that I am not a huge Hogan fan, though I certainly don't hate him (as a wrestler, it's not worth going into Hogan the person). And I was also never a HUGE fan of The Rock. He could certainly be entertaining at times, and he put on good matches, but much like Stone Cold Steve Austin (*GASP*, I know), his antics wore thin on me pretty easily. BUT, having said that, this was an iconic moment. For one thing, it was the first time that I had actually gotten to see Hogan in a WWF ring, live. I had previously seen him as the "Hollywood" character in WCW on TV in the late 90s, but I didn't watch much, and it wasn't much to be impressed by.

The other element of the equation, was that the massive Toronto crowd, even though he was a dastardly NWO (New World Order, old WCW heel group) bad guy, who had tried to hit the Rock's ambulance with a truck (long story), that crowd absolutely REFUSED to boo the man. They were happy to see him back in a WWF ring, at Wrestlemania, that even though Rocky was the good guy, they wouldn't stop cheering. And thus, being wrestlers of an era before every single move was scripted, where they knew how to play to the crowd, Rock and Hogan did what they should have done: they flipped the script and played into what the audience wanted. Hogan started doing his old "Real American" schtick, and Rock for his part started acting mighty heel-like, very unimpressed with the crowd's reverence of his underhanded foe. In the end, Rock still got the win that WWF had obviously planned him to get from the start, that "passing of the Torch" moment, but Hogan really won the night. Especially after his NWO pals ran down and turned on him for getting cheered and showing good sportsmanship, and Rock had to save him. It was a "face turn" all in one match!

Far from the best match of the night, but it stole the show.

 Another major moment that has stood out to me, as a moment when someone really "made it", and was acknowledged as such, as in the main event of Wrestlemania 10, in 1994. Bret "The Hitman" Hart, who had actually BEEN the WWF World Heavyweight Champion the year prior (beating Ric Flair for the belt no less), and had main-evented Wrestlemania 9 against the monster sumo Yokozuna. He lost that match, and the belt, because of cheating tactics, and then was overshadowed when Hulk Hogan came out to challenge Yoko for the belt right after, winning it in short order, no less. So while he had been champ, and main-evented "the Big One", he was still not THE man, being shown up by what at that point was a part-timer (reminiscent of how the WWE does business today, actually). BUT, one year later, Bret had a chance at redemption. Both he and the "Patriotic" Lex Luger had won the Royal Rumble, so they both got a shot at the championship, Lex midway through the card, and Bret facing whoever won that match in the main event.

Lex sadly (for him) failed to best the giant, but that meant that Bret got his proper chance at revenge, and went on to face the man in a rare Wrestlemania Rematch, in the main event no less. It's bears saying that while Yokozuna was, even at this time, over 500 pounds, before he got even heavier and let himself go in 1995 and beyond, Yoko for such a huge man, could really wrestle. He was impressive in the ring, and athletic, for such a heavy guy, a one of a kind wrestler really, and when he had an excellent opponent like Hart, he could put on quite a match. I wouldn't say it stands out as a "barn burner", but he and Bret had a very solid match, which ended with Bret winning his belt back, and the other big "Baby Faces" (good guys) of the locker-room came pouring out to congratulate him, with Lex and Razor Ramon (two guys who wanted his belt) even hoisting him up on their shoulders. It was just an iconic moment, officially recognizing that Bret Hart was now THE guy, not Hogan or anyone else, going forward. And it's worth pointing out, that it WAS Bret Hart who basically carried the company on his back as THE guy, from about 1993-1997, a rough period for the WWF post-steroid-scandal. And that's great, because Hart is legitimately one of the greatest actual in-ring wrestlers of all time. For my money, that makes him the best top guy to carry the WWF/E, in history.

The Excellence of Execution.

One last major "moment" I'll share before moving on to actual matches, is another Taker related one, but to me it was significant. As described in that old Undertaker article, around late 1999, Taker took a long hiatus to recover from injuries, and when they finally teased his return, it seemed as if he would perhaps still be some version of the "Dead Man" character, little reason to believe otherwise, because they played vignettes of creepy little girls singing a creepy nursery rhyme about a "great evil coming back from the dead", etc. But when he finally DID return, it was atop a motorcycle, dressed like a biker (which he is in real life), to Kid Rock music of all things. He was now "The American Bad Ass", and while he still bore the Undertaker name, had long hair, and still used some of his old signature moves, he was certainly a different, more mortal, more "normal" character. I still remained his fan, but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't disappointed in the change. Then, to make matters worse, in early 2002, he "turned heel" once more, and cut his hair clean off, having short hair for the first time ever as the Undertaker. Now he was just a mean biker with a crew cut, and that sucked. As a fan, it felt like your puppy had just gotten run over, at least a bit.

Now I STILL remained his fan, through all that shit. But then in late 2003, he got "buried alive" by his "brother" Kane, and was once again gone off of TV for several months. Leading up to Wrestlemania 20 in 2004, the big anniversary show, they started running all of these cool, creepy "The Ring" style videos, with static, and the lights going out, etc., always when Kane was out wrestling. And then, a casket appeared in the ring during one of these times, and Kane opened it, an a golden urn was inside! That was significant, but I still dared not to hope, as they had teased and let me down twice in the past with this kind of stuff. But then, come WM20, he had a match schedules with Kane, and no one quite knew what he was going to look like, or what was going to happen. And then lo and behold, his old manager (who had once turned on him, the bastard), Paul Bearer appeared, and you knew what was up. Then the almighty "GONG!" rang out, the thunder and lightning effects rolled over the entire arena, and then some "Druids" came out with torches, and I was getting seriously excited. Then it happened, Taker himself appeared, and while he still didn't have LONG hair, and he was still more or less dressed the way he had been as the "American Bad Ass", he was also definitely the "Dead Man" again, and it was glorious. Again, hardly a match of the night candidate between him and Kane, but that wasn't the point of it. The point was that he was BACK as some version of his REAL, much cooler character, and as a fan, I could hardly have been happier with that.

Not nearly AS cool, but still amazing at the time.

So anyway, without more fanfare and adieu, let's get down to the meat and potatoes of this article, which is matches. Now, this is not going to be some attempt at an arbitrary "Greatest Matches of All Time as Decided by General Consensus" type of deal. This is going to be MY personal list, of matches I remember liking or being impressed by. I actually went back over the cards of EVERY Wrestlemania that has happened, to freshen my memory, so I was able to look back and go "Oh yeah, THAT match!", etc. It is ALSO worth pointing out, in the interest of fairness to modern WWE fans, that I myself stopped really being a fan, and stopped really watching for good, around 2012 or so. I would still catch a snip here or there, but the last truly exciting thing that happened, to me, was CM Punk's antics and title reign in 2011. Over the years, I have just fallen out of love with the show. Not WRESTLING, just the WWE. There are still some very good wrestlers on their roster, but most of the characters I loved are gone (or should be), and the show in general just got very "blah" for my taste. When I realized that watching Raw was not only kinda boring, but also kind of depressing for me, that's when I realized I should just stop. And that was several years ago.

BUT, personal digressions aside, I, for better and for worse, watched EVERY WM show except WM32, which happened last year. And yes, that includes me having sat through the abomination of Brock Lesnar being the one to BEAT the Undertaker's undefeated streak at WM, which not only never should have happened, but it also drove the final nail in my WWE coffin, honestly. That hurt to see, and totally stole whatever enjoyment I might have gotten from Bryan Danielson ("Daniel Bryan") winning the World Title in the main event afterwards. BUT, having seen every WM save one, which I'm not sure every wrestling fan can say, I now present to you the matches that stand out to ME, as some of the greatest Wrestlemania Matches of all time:

Still Epic

Match: Undertaker vs. Kane
Event: Wrestlemania 14
Year: 1998

I'll start with one of my top favorites, as this is going in no strict numbered order, and that's the very FIRST Taker vs. Kane match in 1998. For months, Paul Bearer (that bastard) had been tormenting our anti-hero Undertaker, with allegations of "him knowing what you did", and "He's still alive", "He's coming back" type shit. Taker was even the World Champ in the summer of 1997, which was huge to me (and was the first time he'd BEEN champ since 1991, for a week). He had won the title in his FIRST main event of Wrestlemania, against Sycho Sid, and as a fan I was on cloud nine cause MY dude was the top guy. But then fuckin' Paul Bearer kept his shit up, and eventually, that asshole Shawn Michaels cost Taker his title in a match against the honorable heel Bret Hart. So getting revenge against Michaels, Taker fought him in the first ever Hell in a Cell match, and wouldn't ya know it, right when he's gonna win, this big red Monster shows up, called Kane. And he's Undertaker's young brother, who was burned in a fire Taker allegedly started when they were boys.

Convoluted storyline, but gripping to a 15/16 year old. So long story short, Kane kept attacking people, and interfering in Taker's matches, demanding that he fight him. But Undertaker, still a good guy, refused to fight his own brother. That is, until he had a Casket Match against that asshole Shawn Michaels, to get HIS championship back, and Kane came out to interfere once more, putting him in the casket, and then SETTING IT ON FIRE! That was the final straw. Taker used his dark magic (yes, dark magic) to escape, and shit was ON after that. If Kane wanted a fight, he was gonna get one. And man, what a fight it was. Now, Kane is a decent "Big Man" wrestler, but he absolutely doesn't hold a candle to the sheer athleticism or wrestling ability of Undertaker. That being said, these two put on a hell of a match, probably THE best match between two "giant (well over 6'5") wrestlers I've ever seen. At one point, Taker even grabbed Kane, and gave him what was basically a spinning SIDE KICK to the face. Not perfect Bruce Lee form, of course, but it showed just how awesome Taker was in his prime. It took him an unprecedented THREE Tombstone Piledrivers (it usually only ever took one to put anyone away), but Taker finally beat Kane, though the war was far from over.

Hey Yo!
Match: Razor Ramon vs. Shawn Michaels
Event: Wrestlemania 10
Year: 1994

Now this was, naturally, one of many I didn't see until long after it had happened, as I made it a point to eventually go back and watch all the older WM events I'd missed (I actually own the first 21 of them on DVD now), and as far as early Wrestlemanias went, WMX, the FIRST big anniversary show, live from Madison Square Garden, was pretty damn good. Several really good matches on the card, even though, sadly the ONE thing the show was missing, was an UNDERTAKER match, who was out with his first major injury at the time. But of all the matches on the card, the one that really stole the show, was what was billed as "The First Ever Ladder Match" in the WWF.

They actually have tried to build it up as the first ever Ladder Match EVER, but that isn't even true of the WWF. I do believe Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels had a ladder match at some point over the Intercontinental title, thought it was a much shittier ladder, and the match not nearly as played up. Hell, for that matter, Bret Hart even had a ladder match back in his father's "Stampede Wrestling" promotion in Canada, before he came to the WWF in the mid-80s. BUT, this match COULD lay claim to being the BEST ladder match to occur until about the year 2000, for certain. The setup was that Razor Ramon was the legit IC champ, while HBK also claimed to still be the IC champ after some nonsense, so to solve matters, they were gonna hang BOTH belts above the ring, and you were gonna have to crawl up a LADDER without the other guy kicking your ass first, to GET 'em. I'm happy to say that Razor won the match, which is probably his biggest moment as a WWF star. It also happened to be a hell of a match, and not just because of the ladder.

The Arrival of Macho Madness.

Match: "Macho Man" Randy Savage vs. "The Million Dollar Man" Ted Dibiase
Event: Wrestlemania 4
Year: 1988

Now, Randy Savage had come on the scene in the WWF back in the mid-80s, but he spent his first while in the company as a dastardly heel, and a mid-carder under the shadow of the likes of Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant, Roddy Piper, etc. But his match against a certain Dragon the year before, really turned heads, and stole the show, he subsequently went through a "face turn" and became a new hero for the people. This turn to a major opportunity for him, to be the company's next "Top Guy", next to Hogan, who had been champion for literally several years at that point.

The backstory for Wrestlemania 4, was that (thanks to some cheating of course), Hulk Hogan had FINALLY lost the belt to his WMIII opponent, Andre the Giant (yes Andre became champ), but as soon as the Giant won the belt, he turned around and "sold" it to the big new heel in the company, "The Million Dollar Man", the guy who thought money could buy anything. Well, the WWF disagreed, and so the title was vacated. A new champion was to be decided in the first ever One Night Tournament, meaning that MOST of the WM4 card was going to be the tournament itself, and the main event would see a new champion crowned. So, what makes this unique, even though most of the other matches were whatever, is that this marked the first and ONLY time for almost the first TEN Wrestlemania events, when the main event did NOT feature Hulk Hogan in some way. Instead, it came down to Ted Dibiase, and everyone's new hero, Randy Savage. And while there was some attempts at chicanery by Dibiase, it was otherwise a good match between two great wrestlers, and it ended with "Macho" being recognized as the new face of the company. Sadly, it would not last forever, as while he DID hold the tile for an entire year, he also became the victim of a very dumb storyline involving his girl, Miss Elizabeth, and wound up fighting his former "friend" Hogan for the belt at Wrestlemania V, and he would persist as a bad guy for some time after. A major mistake on WWF's part, I think, but I digress.

Leg Drop From Hell.

Match: Undertaker vs. Randy Orton
Event: Wrestlemania 21
Year: 2005

Jumping around a bit, this is a more recent Taker match that really stands out, because it was full of a lot of good moments, move-reversals, chain-wrestling, etc. The (at the time) young punk wrestler Randy Orton, who was legit only 24 or 25 at the time, was right in the midst of his "Legend Killer" run, where he was trying to make a name for himself at the expense of every veteran wrestler he could find. And at the top of that list? Who else, but the Undertaker. Now, I would never call myself an Orton FAN, even though I will recognize that he is a very good wrestler (certainly better than Cena or Batista, his mid-2000s contemporaries). But this WAS a good storyline, and a good set-up.

Taker was, at this point, 12-0, undefeated, and it really would have been a massive boon to the rising star Orton to beat him. In fact, I was legit afraid that he WAS going to be the one to end the streak, because it seemed like the perfect booking in many ways. I was, however, thankfully wrong, as Taker showed that punk a thing or three, and in the end, the Dead Man put him away just like everyone else. In hindsight, I would have absolutely HATED Orton beating Taker, being the one to end the streak...but it would have made a lot more sense, and been INFINITELY preferable to a guy who had  NO business beating him like Lesnar so many years later. Regardless, it was a great match, wrestling-wise, as they pulled out some stuff I hadn't seen before, or perhaps sense.

Triple Threat.

Match: Chris Jericho vs. Chris Benoit vs. Kurt Angle
Event: Wrestlemania 16
Year: 2000

Now, THIS particular Wrestlemania stands out, because it was the first WM event that I actually got to order and watch LIVE, as it was happening (for sure). I was hanging out with a group of friends, and we ordered this as a big shin-dig. This event actually let me down in two very key ways, the first of which, naturally, being that Taker had been gone for several months, and I was legitimately hopeful that he would at least make a cameo APPEARANCE during the show. He did not. I was majorly bummed about that. The second having to do with the main event, which was a rare Four Way match, seeing Big Show vs. Mankind vs. The Rock vs. HHH. The only reason I was really invested in the main event, is because I was a Mankind fan, and he had always dreamed of being in the main event of a Wrestlemania, and I as a fan really bought into that emotionally, and wanted to him to GET there. He almost didn't, at least we were meant to think so, as he lost a "title vs. career" type match against HHH before this. I was actually depressed, thinking he was retired for good and that his body was breaking down and he just couldn't go anymore, and he'd never reach his dream. Well, as storylines would have it, he DID get a chance anyway, and WAS in the Main Event of a Wrestlemania! Except that really, it was match #106 between The Rock and HHH, and Show and Mankind happened to be there. Meaning that they both got eliminated in fairly quick fashion, and most of the match was between those two guys. So my hopes of Mick having one last big moment, winning the belt at "The Biggest Show of Them All", were also dashed.

The rest of the card was alright, though unusually (certainly be today's standards), there were a TON of tag team matches, or other multi-man matches. There was actually barely any one-on-one matches on the card at all. And this match I've chose was no exception. I could have chosen the Angle vs. Benoit match from the following year at WM17, but I chose this for two reasons. One, it's just about as good, wrestling-wise. And two, it was unique because coming into the match, Kurt Angle, the Olympic Gold Medalist, was BOTH the Intercontinental and European Champion. Chris Jericho had come to the WWF as "The Y2J Problem" in late 1999, and Benoit and his other WCW compatriots (Eddie Guerrero, Dean Malenko and Perry Saturn) had come into the WWF in early 2000 as the "Radicalz". Regardless of how Benoit's life tragically ended, he is without a doubt one of THE best wrestlers in the history of the business, and I would be remiss to NOT include one of his WM matches, as they were almost all good, largely because of him. Kurt Angle is ALSO one of the best wrestlers of all time, and Jericho, for his part, certainly earlier in his career, also could lay some claim to being in that upper echelon. At the end of a great match, ALMOST the best match on the card, poor Angle had lost BOTH belts, one to each guy, and at the time I was totally happy with that, as Angle played his "annoying heel" character to the hilt.

THE iconic 80s tag team feud.

Match: The British Bulldogs & Tito Santana vs. The Hart Foundation & Danny Davis
Event: Wrestlemania 3
Year: 1987

Honestly, this match SHOULD have just been a straight up tag-team match between THE two best tag teams in the WWF in the 1980s: The Hart Foundation of Bret Hart and Jim "The Anvil" Neidhart, and The British Bulldogs Davey Boy Smith and Dynamite Kid. They feuded a fair bit in the WWF, all coming in from Canadian Stampede Wrestling, Hart's family promotion. Both teams were red hot, and all four wrestlers were very good. The Hart Foundation had a mixture of Hart's technical prowess and Neidhart's raw power, while the Bulldogs had Dyamite Kid's smashmouth flying style, and Davey Boy's combination of strength and athleticism. A classic 2-on-2 bout between these guys at Wrestlemania III, would have been a great match.

But the WWF decided to make it a six-man match, or as it's called in Lucha Libre, a "Trios" match. On the side of the angels, the Bulldogs chose the Mexican superstar Tito Santana, himself a long-time WWF star. And as for those dastardly Harts? Well, they chose "former referee" Danny Davis, who was actually a trained wrestler, who acted as a "heel ref" for a bit, helping the bad guys win before taking up wrestling himself. No offense to Danny, but I think there was any number of better, more notable wrestlers WWF could have chosen to pair with the phenomenal Hart Foundation instead. But regardless, mainly on the strength of JUST how good both tag teams were in their prime, this match still wound up pretty remarkable, and while it wasn't THE show-stealer of the night, it was a very close second.

The Rise of Punk.

Match: Money in the Bank Ladder Match
Event: Wrestlemania 24
Year: 2008

I, of course, HAD to pick at least one Money in the Bank Ladder match for this list. Since 2005, at Wrestlemania 21 where it was first introduced, the MitB matches were a highlight, in latter years THE highlight, of the show. And in those latter years, before they took it off of Wrestlemania (where it had been an exclusive specialty), and instead made it it's own pointless PPV, even though the cards themselves generally got worse and worse, you could always count on the MitB match to be ONE thing truly worth watching. Plus it was always exciting to see who won. I could have easily chosen the first MitB match from 2005, which featured Edge, Christian, Chris Jericho, Kane, Chris Benoit, and Shelton Benjamin. Edge wound up winning the match, and it was an exciting novelty of it's time. The next year's match wasn't AS, but another favorite of mine, Rob Van Dam, won the briefcase then. Oh right, I forgot to mention that the winner of these matches, gets a "contract" that guarantees them a shot at the World Championship (either one, at the time), at any time of their choosing for a year.

I chose this particular match, both because of it's participants, but also its outcome. The participants were CM Punk, Shelton Benjamin, MVP, Carlito, John Morrison, Mr. Kennedy, and Chris Jericho. A pretty solid lineup if I do say so myself. It's always better to pick more athletic/acrobatic type wrestlers, who can really take advantage of this type of match, and perform ridiculous moves off of and using ladders that they probably shouldn't be doing. The match itself was a highlight reel of ridiculousness, including Jericho strapping someone (I forget who) into his "Walls of Jericho" move (kinda), upside down on top of a ladder. The match ended with CM Punk grabbing the briefcase, which surprisingly heralded a guy who WWE didn't seem to WANT to push to the top, as having finally "arrived". He would go on to use it to briefly become World Champ, though non-surprisingly they didn't treat it like a very big deal, and he would actually go on to win a second STRAIGHT MitB match in 2009, this time using it to much bigger effect, turning heel and using it to cash in on fan-favorite Jeff Hardy instead, which eventually kicked off his "Straight Edge Society" run, and even later helped lead to his 2011 resurgence.

You Can't Kill, What Doesn't Die.

Match: Undertaker vs. Diesel
Event: Wrestlemania 12
Year: 1996

So, rewinding a bit to the beginning of this article, THE match that really sold me on the Undertaker, was this match. Diesel, aka Kevin Nash, was soon to be on his way out from the company (unbeknownst to fans), along with fan-favorite Razor Ramon. But at this time, he was a big bad again, and he had been trying to stomp out the Undertaker for gettin' in his business. Kevin Nash, in his prime as Diesel, before all of his knee injuries, was for his size, a pretty decent wrestler. He didn't have a ton of moves, but he was fairly smooth in the ring, and did what he DID do, pretty well. He vs. Taker wasn't on par with Taker vs. Kane at WM14, wrestling-wise, but it was an exciting match which told a good story, and to ME, it totally sold me on the Undertaker mythos and character.

Part of the match's set-up and story, was kind of a subtext question as to whether or not Taker was losing his "powers", and whether or not he had it in him to beat this monster Diesel, who was on a roll (again, he had been a baby-face champion for over a year in 94/95). And throughout the match, Diesel did put a pretty good whuppin' on Taker, something most fans were not used to seeing. Keep in mind that this was the same guy whom it took Yokozuna AND a bunch of wrestlers he paid off, to gang up on Taker and put him in a Casket. This was a guy that most people couldn't beat without somehow cheating. And Diesel was doing so, all by himself. At least that's how it seemed. He even gave Taker his signature move, the Jackknife Powerbomb, but over and over again, he would go to pin and beat Taker, and Taker would sit up and grab his throat defiantly. And every single time Taker got back up, 14 year old me popped bigger and bigger. I started to believe that maybe this guy was magic AFTER all. Yes, I knew wrestling was "fake", but I had this glorious ability in in my teens, BEFORE worthless backstage "news" and knowledge of behind the scenes stuff, to suspend disbelief JUST enough, to think that when someone hit Taker with a chair, and he just shrugged it off and kicked there ass, that goddamit, maybe it WAS because he was a supernatural reaper of some sort!

Taker ultimately won, of course, but it was the fact that he took a massive beating but would NOT stay down, that is what sold me on him, and ultimately sold me on wrestling.

Macho vs. Dragon

Match: "Macho Man" Randy Savage vs. Ricky "The Dragon" Steamboat
Event: Wrestlemania 3
Year: 1987

This is the match that many wrestling fans point to and say "THIS is the best Wrestlemania match of all time", and it certainly deserves credit as such. It is not MY personal pick, but it is absolutely up there. Macho Man and Ricky Steamboat were both definitely very "cut" dudes, very muscular, well built, etc. But they were also actual athletes, and for their era, "small" wrestlers, compared to all of the giants and body-builders like Hogan. Savage was also notorious for liking to be meticulous in his matches, calling the shots and planning out a grand design for how it should all go. This was an era when the WWE didn't decide how a match would go, they just told you who was supposed to win (oops, behind the curtain talk), and the wrestlers themselves went out and decided how that battle was going to go.  How to GET to the per-determined finish was (usually) totally up to them. Which is what made it an ART. Often times, perhaps even in this match, wrestlers would change up how what they were doing inside the ring, based on how the crowd was reacting. They would play TO the audience, and OFF of the audience. True performance art.

And this was no exception. Savage and Steamboat put on an absolute classic, battling over the Intercontinental title, and Steamboat beat Savage for the belt, but the match was a major boost for both men. For Savage, as previously illustrated, it helped him eventually get over and become a top good guy, and for Steamboat, it was his major time in the limelight in WWF. Sadly, it was also short-lived. Steamboat is a guy who at one point in his career was NWA (WWF's top competitor) World Champion, he was no slouch. He fought and beat the likes of "Nature Boy" Ric Flair. But in WWF, this would be the height of his run, and it was in large part perhaps his fault. He chose to take time off of wrestling not too long into his IC Champ run, and he never really regained his thunder. I kind of doubt that Vince would have ever pushed him to be World Champion, but he certainly should have been a bigger star, for longer, in the WWF than he was.

Two of the all-time greats.

Match: Bret "The Hitman" Hart vs. "Rowdy" Roddy Piper
Event: Wrestlemania 8
Year: 1992

In another major Intercontinental Title match, by the early 90s, Bret Hart had broken away from the Tag Team ranks to become one of the rising young singles stars. He even beat the likes of "Mr. Perfect" Curt Hennig, himself an amazing and painfully underutilized star. On the other side of the match, was Roddy Piper, one of the biggest stars in wrestling history, and arguably THE best "talker" in wrestling history. This is a man who was THE biggest bad guy in the business back in 1985/86, and in all blunt honesty, one of Vince McMahon's dumbest moves, was NOT striking while the iron was hot, and giving Roddy a World Championship run. He not only deserved it, given his workrate and how reviled a heel he was, but Vince was also ignoring some conventional pro wrestling wisdom. That being, that it is often much more exciting for fans, to have a real son-of-a-bitch bad guy win the championship, and then having the shining hero chase after him for the belt. In a reality where Vince really WAS the genius people paint him as, what he would have done after the first Wrestlemania, whose main event was a tag-team match, but honestly, it was a showdown between Hogan and Piper with some friends involved, was he would have shortly afterwards, had Piper WIN the belt from Hogan. If he had to cheat to do it, and cheat to KEEP it, whatever. But a hated Piper as champion leading into Wrestlemania 2, with Hogan FINALLY getting his belt back at the end, would have been a much bigger deal, and a much better sell than "The Champion Who Never Loses" Hogan facing....King Kong Bundy in a steel cage. No offense to Bundy, but Piper was a MUCH bigger star.

So, the point in all that was, Piper never really "got his dues", you could well argue. And while it certainly wasn't equivalent exchange, Piper DID finally get an all-too-brief moment in the sun at IC Champ at least, heading into Wrestlemania 8. Hart had been IC Champ prior, but in some silly turn-around, got beaten "while sick" or some BS, by a bad guy called "The Mountie". Piper in turn beat the Mountie, which would set up a battle between Canadians, as Hart wanted his title back. Piper has all too often been remembered for his gift of gab, and for often employing less-than-honorable tactics to win, even as a good guy (which he was at this time). But one thing Piper SHOULD also be remembered for, was that he was, underneath all that, also a damn good wrestler. It's just that Vince rarely gave him an opportunity to show it, either cheating to win, or brawling with huge body builders. But against arguable THE greatest technical wrestler of the modern era in Hart, Piper had his chance to show his stuff, and he did. They put on one hell of a match, and while it ended with Hart getting his title back, Piper also gained more "legitimacy" as a wrestler in many fans eyes. In fact, this match was also notable, because in his own words, this was the first time in years that Piper had legitimately been pinned for a three count to lose. He put Hart over big, which helped lead him to becoming "The Man" in the coming years.

Make him tap!

Match: Kurt Angle vs. Shawn Michaels
Event: Wrestlemania 21
Year: 2005

It should be noted that I am NOT a Shawn Michaels fan. He was a great in-ring performer, even a good wrestler for his part, and deserves credit where credit is due. But not only did I not like his character (c'mon Vince, how did you con people into cheering for what was basically a male stripper?), but I also didn't like all I heard about HBK as a person. Especially in the 90s, the truth is HBK was a real piece of shit. He was self-absorbed, a primadonna, hard to work with, cut off wrestlers' pushes if he didn't want to put them over (Just ask Vader or Sid). Granted, he "grew up" during his time away from wrestling after a major back injury. He "found Jesus" and became a better person, or so the story goes. And you know what, maybe he did. But I still have never really liked him. That said, he IS a great performer, and has been part of some genuinely great matches, this being one of them.

In the prior two years, he had come back after years away, and had a great WM19 match against Chris Jericho. He would then wind up magically main-eventing along with HHH and Chris Benoit at WM20 (which, thankfully, Benoit won, as he deserved). So come WM21, Kurt Angle wanted a shot at the guy WWE kept calling "Mr. Wrestlemania", as if he was the best performer "On the Biggest Stage of Them All", ever. Kurt was (storyline) sick of hearing it, and wanted to set the record straight. I'm not a HUGE Angle fan either, I never HATED the guy, but he was also not one of "My Guys". That said, I've almost always enjoyed watching him wrestle, as he is one hell of a technical wrestler, and even though he stole the Ankle Lock finisher from Ken Shamrock (one of "My Guys"), and went on to most do it wrong for years afterward (standing instead of kneeling into it), he is one of the greatest of all time. Well, this wound up being one hell of a match, and as you can see in the picture above, he actually DID slap that Ankle-Lock on right, and HBK eventually had to tap. A fact I will fully admit to enjoying.

The End of Taker's Greatness...

Match: Undertaker vs. Shawn Michaels
Event: Wrestlemania 26
Year: 2010

 Taker and HBK first faced off in a Wrestlemania match, a quite good one in fact, the previous year at WM25 (which by the way was a pretty awful WM). Well, in a trend WWE would repeat for the next few years, they had Wrestlemania rematches going on, and this was one of 'em. The first time around, Michaels got on my nerves in the build-up, because he tried dressing like Taker a bit, and passing himself off as "The Light" to Taker's "Darkness". Which is ironic, because in reality, certainly in the past, Michaels was one of the worst guys in the business, meanwhile Taker was one of the most honorable, least selfish, and most respected (all as seen by his fellow wrestlers).

Semantics and personal feelings aside, Taker and HBK could put on a show. And since HBK failed to break Taker's streak the previous year, this time he upped the stakes: if he lost this time, he would retire. I must admit, the thought of HBK finally retiring sounded nice to me, even IF he put on good matches, plus I absolutely didn't want my boy Taker to lose, certainly not to him. That said, I was once again legit afraid that Taker WOULD lose, because I didn't honestly think HBK was going to retire just yet. But, after another great match that perhaps topped their last, I was wrong. Taker won, and HBK did legitimately hang 'em up. He has not, to my knowledge, wrestled a match since. To his credit, he treated it like a legitimate retirement, and has honored Taker being the man to end his career.

Brother vs. Brother

Match: Owen Hart vs. Bret Hart
Event: Wrestlemania 10
Year: 1994

One of the greatest stories of triumph and tragedy in all of pro wrestling, was Owen Hart. Bret's little brother, in fact the youngest of 12 (yes 12) Hart children, Owen was a guy who was always overlooked, but his ability MADE people notice him. Now, granted, ALL of the Hart brothers were wrestlers. But none of them reached the level of success, certainly not in the WWF, that Bret did. Owen is the only one who came anywhere close. Owen was, legitimately, in many ways just about as good an all-around technical wrestler as Bret was, and in addition to that, Owen was also a bit smaller and more athletic, so he could pull off high-flying moves that Bret either couldn't, or just didn't bother trying.

Bret had a very established, more mat-based style, where he would break an opponent down, and then typically got for a submission hold. He was known as a consummate submission wrestler. Owen, on the other hand, was more of  a "Jack of All Trades" style of guy, performing a lot of high flying early in his WWF career as "The Blue Blazer" and then as part of the tag-team "High Energy" with Koko B. Ware. By this point, in 1994, Owen had turned heel, tired of always being in his brother's shadow. Bret had, at this point, been a Tag-Team Champion, Intercontinental Champion, and World Champion, on TOP of winning not one, but two of the earliest King of the Ring tournaments. Owen, by comparison, had as yet not had any such success. So he decided to blame his brother (in storyline), and felt if he could beat Bret, he would prove that HE was the real star of the family. So, on the same night that Bret would go on to recapture the gold from Yokozuna in the main event, he wrestled Owen in what is honestly one of the best Wrestlemania matches of all time. This match would have been the "Show Stealer", if not for the flashiness of the IC Title Ladder Match. Bret got the spotlight at the end of the night, but Owen got his spotlight too, beating his brother, which would lead to him feuding with his brother over the World Title for a bit, before going on to Tag-Team and eventually IC Title success of his own, long-deserved.

Pausing for a Five Second Pose

Match: Triple Threat Ladder Match
Event: Wrestlemania 16
Year: 2000

 I could have easily picked the following years "Tables, Ladders and Chairs" match at WM17, which also threw in the extra wrinkle of involvement from Spike Dudley, Lita and Rhino, a really crazy match that upped the ante in many ways. But to me, this first "Triangle Ladder Match" or whatever they tried calling it back then, stands out way more. For one thing, no one had really seen anything like it beforehand. E&C and The Hardy Boys HAD already had a truly outstanding Tag-Team ladder match in their feud in 1999, but this took everything to a whole other level. This was the Hardy Boys, the Dudley Boys, and Edge and Christian, and it was nuts. 

The other reason it stands out more to me, aside from the fact that this was the first Wrestlemania I got to see live, was the fact that it was the first time my boys Edge and Christian, one of my favorite tag teams of all time, won the Tag Team Championship, as pictured above. They would go on to wrestle in many more ladder matches of various varieties, both together and separately, and the bumps they took in these matches certainly shortened their careers, which is a fact, both as a person and a fan, that I don't like. I felt similarly to the shit Mick Foley put his body through to "entertain" folks. At the time, his Hell in a Cell match with Undertaker was mind-blowing...but it was also kind of sickening, and he never should have done things like that, actually hurting himself, just to get some cheers. Moral standing clarified, this match was amazing for it's time, and Edge and Christian really cemented themselves as THE top tag team at the time. Besides, they totally reeked of awesomeness.

Two Favorites Face Off.

Match: Undertaker vs. Edge
Event: Wrestlemania 24
Year: 2008

This match was a surprise in several ways. For one, I was surprised they would give the go-ahead to Taker to fight Edge for the belt, instead of some less meaningful match. But I certainly didn't expect them to allow this match to be the main event (last match of the night). In an era when it was nothing but Cena and Orton and HHH, this was both surprising and refreshing. It also helped that it was pretty much my top two favorite WWE wrestlers at the time. Granted, I did NOT love all the dumb storyline shit that they had Edge doing as part of his "Rated R Superstar" heel gimmick (the Lita BS, teaming up with Orton, the Vickie Guerrero BS, etc.), in fact I hated most of it. But I still loved and supported him as one of "My Guys", similar to how I had endured Taker being a biker for years.

But this was really it. I felt like, in a way, no matter who won, I won as a fan. On the one hand, I didn't want Taker to lose his streak. But on the other hand, Edge was the younger star, and a top heel, and and of my favorite guys, so it would have made sense and bothered me far less, to give him that feather in his cap, of being the guy to end the streak. Thankfully, in the end, The Streak stayed alive (in fact perhaps it should have ended shortly afterwards, with Taker retiring undefeated at WM), and Taker not only got to main event (at that point) only his SECOND Wrestlemania, but he also won his at the time 5th World Title (he would ultimately have 7 total). It wasn't the best match I've ever seen, nor even the best Taker match I've ever seen. But it was damn good, and exciting for me as a fan, as it's very rare to have BOTH guys in a big match like that be "Your Guys".

Perhaps the most heated rivalry in WWF history.

Match: Bret Hart vs. Shawn Michaels in a 1-hour "Iron Man" Match
Event: Wrestlemania 12
Year: 1996

Now, this isn't my personal top favorite match of all time. I'd have to really think about it to tell you which of those listed before this IS. However, it IS one of my favorites of all time, because Bret Hart truly shined, in HIS style of match. It also happens to be MY personal pick (over Savage vs. Steamboat) for "Best Match in Wrestlemania History, Period". Why? Because, as Kurt Angle so eloquently put it, "While I was winning an Olympic Gold Medal back in 1996 with a broken fricken' neck, all I kept hearing people talking about, was how a couple of guys in the WWF put on an hour-long wrestling clinic, and it made me sick!". Or something like that. It's true though, these guys put on one hell of a show. Not only was this the FIRST "Iron Man" match ever, but to this day, it's also the ONLY one to be at a Wrestlemania event, let alone to be the MAIN event of a Wrestlemania. I guess they figure people will only sit through one such hour-plus match at a WM event. Perhaps they're right, who knows?

The concept of the Iron Man Match, was that whoever scored the most pinfalls or submissions within the hour time limit, would be the declared the winner. Going into the match, Bret Hart was the World Champ, and while he had challenged for it, including against Diesel at WM11, HBK had yet to ever reach that mountaintop. In fact they played it up as "Achieving His Boyhood Dream", etc etc. There are two things wrong with this match, the first being how it was promoted. WWF basically built it up as the HBK show, with Hart as the challenger waiting to get beaten. And the second thing wrong with it, is how HBK acted after the match, telling the ref, and I quote, to "Get him out of my fuckin' ring". That was 90s HBK for you, getting put over by the top star, yet ungrateful to the end.

But the match ITSELF is an absolute classic. As Kurt Angle said, it IS a pro wrestling clinic, with plenty of chain and technical wrestling wizardry, but also high spots and excitement. The thing that really stands out, is that in a match where the point was the score as MANY pinfalls or submissions as possible in an hour, at the end of the hour, NEITHER man had scored a single one. And they didn't even do it as they would now, with a parade of false finishes and near falls. They actually managed to tell a story, with THIS kind of time limit, on a PPV, without relying on that too much. So at the end of the match, Bret Hart is proclaimed the victory (which honestly would have been just fine, and the match itself and the draw still made HBK look very strong), and he began to walk to the back. But then they decided that no, it's not gonna end like that, and the match will continue, in "overtime". So Hart came back to the ring, and wouldn't you know it, HBK nailed him, 1, 2, 3, and the "Boyhood Dream" is real. I will make no pretensions to liking the OUTCOME of this match. I also make no effort to hide the fact that I earnestly HATE 90s Shawn Michaels. But, that speaks volumes to the fact that I still choose this as my "Best WM Match Ever" pick, because the MATCH itself, the wrestling and storytelling on display, were masterful in a way that I feel at least equals, if not surpasses Savage vs. Steamboat. HBK absolutely didn't deserve, based on his shitty attitude of the era, to win that match. But, regardless, the two men, who genuinely disliked each other by this point in REAL life, put on a masterpiece, that stands the test of time.


So there you have it. I was going to make this article shorter than it is, but there are some matches I just felt like I couldn't leave out, I guess. Wrestlemania used to feel, to me and my friends, like a "Wrestling Fans' Holiday", what with the Hall of Fame inductions on Saturday (which I always looked forward every year to seeing who was going in next), and then the event itself on Sunday. But I'll be honest, Wrestlemania stopped feeling that way around WM 22 or so. WM24 had bright spots in the MitB and Main Event matches. And there certainly have been some GOOD matches in the years since. But, in my humble opinion as a long-time wrestling fan, and someone who barely missed Raw or Smackdown for YEARS if I could help it, Wrestlemania as an event, used to feel special. It used to feel like THE big event of the year, that you looked forward to every year. But over the last several years, it has, to me, come to feel more and more like an overly long episode of Monday Night Raw. And it shouldn't feel like that. But to me at least, the "magic" is gone.

I still love pro wrestling, and still get my fix in promotions like Chikara or Lucha Underground, or the random Youtube match. But to ME at least, WWE's heyday is long behind them. But, bitter old man thoughts aside, there ARE many great Wrestlemania matches and moments that they have given us over the years, along with many stinkers. I am grateful for the good memories, and I cherish those times when my friends and I would get hyped for another Wrestlemania. In fact, one of my major wrestling-fan regrets, is that for years, we said "One of these days, we're going to go to a Wrestlemania live". And we never did, at least, not when it would have still mattered. We almost went to Wrestlemania 23 in Detroit, in fact, but it fell through. That wasn't a great card, to be honest, but I still could have seen Taker beat Batista and win a World Championship live. That would have been something.

For all of you fellow Wrestling fans out there, I salute you, regardless of what promotions you like. It's a great exhibition sport, and a great storytelling art (when done right). And it's worth celebrating.
Cheers, and happy Wrestlemania Weekend.