WrestleMania is rad.
Whether you like professional wrestling or not, there’s still a national mystique around WrestleMania. It’s wrestling’s Superbowl, it’s Academy Awards. The biggest night of the wrestling calendar. And while the general wrestling viewing audience is comparatively small nowadays, there is still a curiosity about ‘Mania every year. Because so many of us grew up with it, either from the 80’s Rock N’ Wrestling days or the 90’s Attitude Era.
Wrestling–and WWE in particular–has become a part of our historical cultural zeitgeist in a way few other things have ever accomplished, as hard as that might be to imagine in 2020. It may ebb and flow in terms of the nationwide consciousness, but it’s always there to some degree. And people know things about it in their heart of hearts, whether they want to admit it or not. Who did Hulk Hogan bodyslam at WrestleMania 3? What did Austin 3:16 stand for? What about the letters nWo? Everyone knows.
Without WrestleMania itself as an event… would this be true? Or would wrestling have always been relegated to being a peripheral form of entertainment in the United States, not unlike bull riding or tennis (Look, I’m not knocking tennis; it’s fun to watch and play. I just mean… ask some rando on the street to name 5 tennis players and see how that works for you)? Depending on who you ask, Vince’s gamble on the show of shows, featuring some of the biggest celebrities of its day, gave professional wrestling the shove it needed into the cultural limelight.
Some of wrestling’s best and most important matches have taken place annually at WrestleMania. Sure there are more pay-per-view events than a fan knows what to do with, but WWE always tries to have some huge moments at The Grandaddy Of Them All. This month, with WrestleMania coming up for its 36th iteration, we’re giving you our picks for the best of the best.
#10. Kofi Kingston vs Daniel Bryan, WrestleMania 35
I love me some recency bias! And while this may not weigh up as well as a pure MATCH as some other contests on this list, it outstrips a lot of others in terms of storytelling. Pay attention, because that is something that is going to come up a LOT on my list.
There’s just so much here to love. The first [entirely] black man to win the WWE World Title (not the big gold belt Heavyweight Title). The turn of Daniel Bryan–of all people–suddenly being the guy telling someone else they weren’t good enough for the spot. The eleven year journey of Kofi Kingston, and The New Day’s team-focused desire to get him to the top. The fact that Kofi was only ever even in this spot because of a fluke injury to Mustafa Ali at the beginning of the year. So much came together to give us Kofimania last year.
And yeah, the match itself was very good… but not great. Bryan and Kofi brought the intensity, and there was always the drama that WWE hates its fans enough in the 2010’s that Kofi could have lost. Sure, the affair could have been longer and had bigger spots. But this one was all about the destination.
#9. Bret Hart vs “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, WrestleMania 8
This feels like such a strange choice, and I am bumping off my initial pick for #9–Benoit/HBK/HHH from WrestleMania 20–to include it. The former pick may be the better match from a technical standpoint, but I really love the storytelling that Bret and Piper gave us. From the pre-match promo that put Piper’s bluster and humor against The Hitman’s cold exterior, to the conclusion that saw Bret get an incredibly rare clean pinfall win over Roddy, everything here was fantastic.
Piper even had a chance to cheat, to embrace the old Rowdy Roddy and blast Hart with a ring bell to win, but he fought off the urge and kept everything clean behind the referee’s back. It was a defining moment that paid off how far he’d traveled since the first ‘Mania. He paid for his altruism when Hart flipped the Sleeperhold over into a pin and won the Intercontinental Title in one of wrestling’s truest “passing of the torch” matches. They showed respect afterwards and Bret was suddenly a singles star.
#8. Edge vs Mick Foley, WrestleMania 22
Mick Foley had been a part-timer at best for years when he entered into a brutal feud with Edge leading up to WrestleMania 22. Anyone who knows anything about the former Cactus Jack’s career wouldn’t be surprised to know that he was beaten up by this point. But Mick still went out there on The Grandest Stage Of Them All to help put the finishing touches on Edge’s shift to becoming a solid main event talent.
By this match, Edge had already been a World Champion, having defeated John Cena for the belt in the winter and eventually dropping it back over the course of their feud. Everyone knew he had chops, but this absolutely tenacious match put The Rated-R Superstar over the top. Flaming tables, barbed-wire baseball bats and more all came into play, and at the end, Edge stood tall and was ready for many more big matches to come. He was a proven commodity for years to come.
#7. Daniel Bryan vs Batista vs Randy Orton, WrestleMania 30
Again, I LOVE STORIES, and the climax to WrestleMania 30 was one of the best in all of wrestling history.
Was it intentional? Was it an accident? It’s hard to say. Bryan’s popularity had sky-rocketed in the year-plus leading to WrestleMania 30, and when John Cena hand-selected him as a Summerslam opponent, the fans were ecstatic. Vince McMahon became a central figure again to retort that short, plain, hairy Daniel Bryan was not a main event talent, and after Bryan won the title from Cena, The Authority stole it from him via Randy Orton’s Money In The Bank.
In the ensuing months, Bryan was continually thwarted in his attempts to re-secure the gold while The Authority perpetually told him he didn’t deserve it. It always seemed like this had to building to a pay-off at ‘Mania, but most “behind-the-scenes” reports are that WWE had to call a late winter audible when the fans refused to accept any other result.
In the end, Bryan got his moment. Technically, he got two: he defeated HHH in the opener, and then overcame Randy and Batista in the main event. The match was great and has some glorious false finishes before Bryan finally tapped out Batista. Bryan’s win stopped the 30th WrestleMania from ONLY being “the one where the Streak ended”. YESleMania, indeed.
Great video build to this one, too:
#6. Roman Reigns vs Brock Lesnar [vs Seth Rollins], WrestleMania 31
Daniel Bryan MAY have been a relatively late audible to save WrestleMania 30, but Seth Rollins was almost DEFINITELY an extremely late audible to save 31. He was possibly a day-of decision depending on who you believe.
With the fated matchup of Roman Reigns vs Brock Lesnar inspiring absolutely no joy in the hearts of fans, WWE was staring down the barrel of a WrestleMania ending with fans booing the stadium into the ground. No matter who won, the fans would be sour.
WWE saved the night by having Rollins, still in possession of the Money In The Bank contract, interrupt the match, cash-in, and turn the affair into a Triple Threat after Roman and Brock had already beaten each other half to death. Seth pinned Roman to become a conquering hero (as a heel), and WWE showed it still cared about the fans. Just… ignore ‘Manias 32 and 33 where they exchanged all that good will.
#5. Shawn Michaels vs The Undertaker, WrestleMania 26
I didn’t appreciate this match as much as I should have when it came out. To me, I just saw a rematch that wasn’t as good as its predecessor (uh, spoilers for later in the list, I guess).
Two things have improved it with time and rewatches:
First, rewatching it allowed me to take more away from the ending where Shawn basically replayed his own retiring of Ric Flair at ‘Mania 24. Two years after putting down his hero, he slowly came to acknowledge his inability to conquer ‘Taker and, accepting that, he asked for his defeat.
Secondly, this ended up merely being Part 2 to a four part WrestleMania story, which is ridiculously ambitious. From 25 to 28, WWE committed to four huge matches to build a story around two of their brightest stars ever. And 75% of that story makes my Top 5…
Oh, another epic video build to this one:
#4. TLC II, WrestleMania 17
Multi-Car Pile-Up: The Wrestling Match.
WrestleMania 17 was a treat. There are no fewer than three TREMENDOUS matches on the show, and everything was else was, at worst, serviceable. SOMETHING from that show–objectively a top five best WrestleMania of all time by any metric–had to make this list. Why not the show put on by three tag teams who were in the midst of constantly killing themselves to one-up their last encounter.
The Hardy Boyz, Edge & Christian, and the Dudleys put on their second ever Tables, Ladders, and Chairs match for the tag team titles at WM17, and this time, they even invited their friends, as Lita, Spike Dudley, and Rhyno all got involved before the belts were claimed (by Edge and Christian).
This was just spot after spot after spot of nine people out to steal the biggest show of the year. Everyone came out looking like a star. It’s basically non-stop fun from the first bell to the last.
#3. Bret Hart vs Steve Austin, WrestleMania 13
The Double-Turn! And maybe one of the most important matches in WWE’s history.
Here we have another match that wasn’t “supposed” to happen. Bret was supposed to fight Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania 13. But when Shawn took time off and abdicated the WWE Title, the card was reshuffled, resulting in Bret taking on his months-long rival Austin instead. An increasingly preachy and whining Bret went head-to-head with the increasingly cool and popular Stone Cold, and something had to give. In a match where you could only win by making your opponent submit, Bret was declared the winner when Austin passed out in the Sharpshooter… but never actually gave in.
Incensed at… life in general, I suppose, Bret continued attacking Austin after the match. Suddenly, their dynamics had shifted; Bret was the villain, and Austin the valiant hero. This gave us the Attitude Era. It gave us the Montreal Screw Job. It gave us the Mr. McMahon character. The first seeds for WWE to make a huge comeback in pop culture were all sewn in this one.
#2. Triple-H vs The Undertaker, WrestleMania 28
PART FOUR IN A FOUR-PART SERIES!
I obviously love this whole Shawn/Taker/HHH thing they ran with, though admittedly: HHH/Undertaker at WrestleMania 27 was a dung heap. It’s important to the story of it all, but it’s frankly not a very good match.
A year after Trips beat the undead hell out The Undertaker in an extremely one-sided matchup and STILL lost, the “End of an Era” match was decided. Undertaker vs HHH again… inside a Hell in a Cell… and with Shawn Michaels as special guest referee.
Shawn, as he does, adds EVERYTHING to this match. Undertaker and Trips have a much better match this time around, but it’s all about Shawn’s emotional selling of the drama. Eventually HHH is vanquished, putting Taker’s streak to 20-0 at ‘Mania, and the four year epic ends with all three men standing together.
#1. Shawn Michaels vs The Undertaker, WrestleMania 25
What’s better than the ending of a saga? The beginning!
For a long time, in a world before I knew who Kazuchika Okada and Kenny Omega were or was watching more New Japan Pro Wrestling, this was the finest wrestling match I’d ever seen, even outside the context of the overarching story it would kick off.
It was the man who was undefeated at WrestleMania vs the man who put on the best shows at WrestleMania. Two of the greatest of all time. And all they did was go out and put on a 40-minute match that showcased desperation, skill, and determination and barely ever slowed down.
The atmosphere helped me a lot here, too, because I watched this WrestleMania at a PACKED Buffalo Wild Wings, and the entire restaurant was unglued for this. I’ve never been someplace, even during other sports events here in Pittsburgh, where everyone was so transfixed. It was made even better by the crowd being basically 50-50 on for whom they were cheering.
Am I treating the whole Michaels/Undertaker/HHH affair with too much love? Maybe. But I am something of an HBK fan, so I’ll deal with it.
As usual, those choices came from an initial cutdown list which looked, oh, something like this:
Here’s the thing about wrestling, or really, ANY sporting event. The impact and energy fades dramatically if you watch it knowing the result, and watching it live is always best. The first year I got really into wrestling was 1992, so any ‘Mania prior to the ninth incarnation was one I watched retroactively (and yes, I know that WrestleMania IX being the first during my tenure as a fan is saddening).
Due to that, I have something of a bias against the first several years because, while I could still enjoy them, I already knew who won almost every match before I saw them. I distinctly recall going to Dee’s Video Store in my hometown and renting all the old WWF VHS tapes with my dad. There’s a nostalgia to that, but no real-time feeling of “What will happen?”
To me, the best matches are by-and-large the ones I saw as they happened and was actively invested in. It is easier to recall the active excitement of those affairs than it is to remember appreciating, say, Savage/Steamboat but knowing how it concluded. Is Savage/Steamboat an objectively better quality MATCH than Brock/Roman/Rollins? Absolutely. Did anything in Savage/Steamboat make me mark out as much as Rollins’ music hitting in the latter match when I watched it as it was happening? Not even close.
Either way, that’s my list and I stand by it. What are YOUR top ‘Mania matches? What was the first WrestleMania that you saw as it aired? Let us know in the comments!
Until next time… take care!