Wrestlemania is the longest running annual wrestling show in professional wrestling history. It’s the event that’s showcased the greatest matches, created the biggest stars and delivered the most memorable moments. With over 250 matches to choose from, most wrestling fans could rattle off a list of favourite matches that could easily run 50 matches deep. With so many classic encounters to choose from, it is almost impossible to narrow the choices down to just ten.
What criteria do you work from? The greatest technical matches? The most brutal brawl? The most memorable crowd reactions? An individual moment that everyone remembers? The greatest triumph of your favourite wrestler?
With my list of ten, I’ve tried to incorporate a little bit of everything. As a kid growing up, Shawn Michaels wasn’t my favourite wrestler by some margin (I was more of a Bret guy) but I noticed he kept popping up in my favourite Mania matches. I’ve tried to pick some matches from the formative years as well as a handful of modern Mania stuff. If you ask me again tomorrow, I’d probably have a wildly different list. Still, there are a select handful – the cream of the crop – that I wouldn’t budge on. The top three in this list have been the same matches for a while now and it would take some doing to unseat them as my favourite.
If we’re lucky, Wrestlemania XXX will deliver some new classics for fans to mull over and add to their list of all time favourites.
10. CM Punk vs The Undertaker (Wrestlemania 29)
Last year, CM Punk and The Undertaker delivered a hugely entertaining match that stole the show. The feud centered around the passing of The Undertaker’s long time manager Paul Bearer and CM Punk heeling it up to the nines by constantly disrespecting Taker and weaseling his way out of his grasp. Punk slaps the taste out of The Undertaker’s mouth in the opening minute of the match and that sets the tone for the fantastic game of cat and mouse that follows. Punk breaks a number of sacred Undertaker taboos including tossing the poor guy off the ropes when he goes for Old School and mocking his finisher by delivering his own tombstone piledriver. The fans were split fifty fifty on this one until Punk slapped on the anaconda vice and Taker sits up, gives him the death stare and counters with a chokeslam.
9. Chris Jericho vs Shawn Michaels (Wrestlemania XIX)
Shawn Michaels and Chris Jericho have a natural in-ring chemistry together and in 2008, they had a fantastic blood feud that ran over several months and included a brutal ladder match and some fantastic brawls. But their first feud started back in December 2002 and lead to this match at Wrestlemania XIX. The story of Chris Jericho trying to emulate the wrestler that inspired him to pursue a career in wrestling lead to this classic encounter at Safeco Field. Catch As Catch Can wrestling was very much out of style in 2003 and when this match began with a series of headlocks, wristlocks and counterholds, Jerry Lawler derisively snorts at what he sees in the ring. JR basically tells him to shut the hell up and thankfully they both quickly become absorbed in this terrific encounter.
This is that rare type of match where a wrestler stealing an opponents moves (Jericho kips up, hits sweet chin music) makes perfect sense in the context of the feud and both wrestlers hit all their moves crisply and with real finesse. In recent years, the showcase matches for The Undertaker and HBK had a tendency to end up as a finisher-fests where people take turns kicking out of 2 or 3 finishers. This match steers clear of that nonsense and ends when one wrestler performs a lighting quick pinning counter on the other. I wish more main event matches were wrestled this way.
8. Tables, Ladders and Chairs 2: The Dudleys vs The Hardy Boys vs Edge and Christian (Wrestlemania X-7)
Even when you factor in the entertaining Money In The Bank ladder matches, TLC 2 from Wrestlemania X-7 remains the mother of all spot-fests. These three teams worked a series of gimmick matches starting from No Mercy in 1999 all the way up to TLC 3 on Smackdown in 2002 that will likely not be surpassed for many, many years. Not least because the company has wisely opted to move away from the arms race to deliver increasingly dangerous, career threatening bumps. It’s amazing to think that 13 years later, only Edge has retired from active competition.
This match wasn’t the end of the feud between these three teams but it was certainly the high point. Not only are all three tag teams on their game and deliver death-defying move after move in breathless fashion, the match also includes run-ins from Lita, Spike Dudley and Rhyno who all deliver their own bone crunching spots. Lita in particular, cops a brutal spear outside the ring where she spikes her head into the back of a ladder. Ouch. This is also the match that gave us this classic JR piece of commentary: “Lita is jerking Edge off!…………………………………….the ladder”
This match is an absolute war and there isn’t really much storytelling in the sense that one team has momentum over the other. It is just twenty minutes of pure chaos. Not every match should be like this but if you’re going to put on a spectacle of stunts and pure carnage, it doesn’t get better than this.
7. The Ultimate Warrior vs Macho Man Randy Savage – Career Ending Match (Wrestlemania VII)
If you’re going to do a career ending match and go out with a bang, you may as well do it by hitting your finishing move seven times in a row and having your opponent kick out. I don’t know that there is a wrestling match with greater melodrama than The Ultimate Warrior vs Macho Man Randy Savage. Both men beat the hell out of each other for fifteen minutes and then for a grand finale, Warrior starts talking to God when Savage kicks out of his finisher and then Savage lays down not one but seven elbow drops. Warrior kicks out of those, pins Savage and then the real drama starts.
An irate Sensational Sherri starts laying the boots into Savage which prompts Savage’s former manager and lover Miss Elizabeth to save the day and after a two year seperation, Savage and Elizabeth tearfully reunite in front of a weepy crowd of wrestling fans.
Four months later, Savage would come out of retirement when his wedding to Elizabeth was ruined by Jake Roberts hiding a snake in the gift pile which would start a bitter blood feud between the two.
It doesn’t get more pro wrestling than that.
6. Shawn Michaels vs Ric Flair – Retirement Match (Wrestlemania 24)
This retirement match between Shawn Michaels and a 59 year old Ric Flair is the perfect showcase for how wrestling can be as much about how you do the moves as opposed to what moves you do. Neither Shawn Michaels nor Ric Flair are at their physical peak in this match and yet the storyline leading up to Flair’s retirement and his wonderful showcase of dastardly heel maneuvers in this match bring the crowd to life and has them eating out of the Nature Boy’s palm.
The dramatic finish, where Shawn reluctantly pulls the trigger on Flair doing his best Old Yeller impersonation, is a touching finish to a storied career for Flair in the WWE and WCW. After this match, Flair rode off into the sunset and didn’t continue to wrestle anywhere else. Nope. No sir. He just retired with dignity and walked away from the sport. That’s exactly how I remember it.
5. Shawn Michaels vs The Undertaker (Wrestlemania 25)
This dream match from Wrestlemania 25 cruelly stole the show from a brutally lacklustre main event between Triple H and Randy Orton. These two performers gave us a sneak preview of what they were capable of at the Royal Rumble earlier in the year but few would have expected the quality of the encounter they would eventually put on. This match is so influential in the modern era that its basically set the template for how to do blockbuster Wrestlemania matches.
The most talked about moment from the match of course is The Undertaker’s sickening plancha to the outside of the ring where Sim Snuka, dressed as a camera man, completely misses his queue and doesn’t catch Taker. So instead of being caught, Taker dives into the air and from ten feet high he lands square on his head on the concrete floor in a crazy bump that looks like it should have paralyzed him and ended his career. Instead he gets up and wrestles for another fifteen minutes. Absolutely insane.
This is the quintessential Wrestlemania match. It’s got two huge stars, a massive appreciative crowd and delivers the perfect in-ring spectacle that only a talented few are capable of delivering.
4. The Rock vs Stone Cold Steve Austin (Wrestlemania X-7)
The two biggest stars of the Attitude Era squared off at the Houston Astrodome at Wrestlemania X-7 in a match that would signal the end of an era. The match itself was terrific. It showcased the very best of both performers, delivering not just their signature spots but even callbacks to moves from years gone by. Desperate to beat The Rock, Steve Austin even locks in a Million Dollar Dream which was his signature hold from his days as The Ringmaster.
The actual heel turn at the end of the match might have gone unnoticed by the rabidly partisan Texas crowd but who cares. The match more than delivered on expectation and it basically signaled the closure to the last era where wrestling achieved pop culture recognition. Many new charismatic performers have wrestled in WWE since The Rock and Stone Cold but none of them achieved the same level of popularity.
3. Ricky Steamboat vs Macho Man Randy Savage (Wrestlemania III)
Savage and Steamboat’s classic Intercontinental title match at Wrestlemania III is widely recognized as a great Wrestlemania contest but its only when you watch it in the context of the other Wrestlemania I-III matches that came before it do you realise how important this match was. Hulk Hogan versus Andre The Giant was the marquee match at Wrestlemania III and it is absolutely awful. There are about a grand total of six moves and the match runs for about five minutes. So is just about every other match on the card. If this match never happened and wrestlers kept fighting like King Kong Bundy and Hillbilly Jim, I wouldn’t watch any of it.
This match on the other hand features over twenty pinfall attempts, a great mixture of grappling, strikes and aerial maneuvers and it more or less lays the groundwork for all the technically accomplished performers in years to come. It is so far ahead of its time its not even funny. Before there was Bret Hart, Kurt Angle or Daniel Bryan, there was Savage and Steamboat, tearing it up at Wrestlemania III.
2. Bret Hart vs Stone Cold Steve Austin – I Quit Match (Wrestlemania 13)
The match that gave us arguably the most iconic image in wrestling – a blood soaked Steve Austin attempting to power out of the sharpshooter.
Bret Hart and Steve Austin had a memorable feud in 1996 when Bret returned to the WWF and it lead to this classic match at Wrestlemania 13. Bret was starting to lose his fans for being perceived as whiner and meanwhile Steve Austin was building his momentum as an anti-establishment face. This match was an absolute war as both men threw everything at one another and when the dust settled, the double turn was complete and the Stone Cold character was established for Austin. He would go on to become the biggest star in the history of wrestling, drawing greater crowds and ratings than even Hulk Hogan or The Rock.
It would be my favourite Wrestlemania match of all time were it not for…
1. Bret Hart vs Owen Hart (Wrestlemania X)
Bret Hart versus Owen Hart. There is no title on the line, no gimmick for the match and no outside interference. It is a match between two brothers, giving it their all, to see who the better wrestler is. As you would expect of two wrestlers raised in Stu Hart’s Dungeon, both deliver holds and counter holds with impeccable crispness and perfect timing.
The match starts on the mat and then gradually escalates with a series of classic wrestling moves (suplexes, piledrivers, backdrops) that are all delivered to perfection. No one delivers a better running bulldog than Bret. No one hits an enziguri as sharply as Owen. Do you know what the greatest tombstone delivered at Wrestlemania is? It’s not one of The Undertaker’s. It’s Owen Hart’s jumping tombstone on Bret that is hit so snuggly that there isn’t any visible gap between Bret’s head and the mat. Flawless.
Many other matches have come and gone since this one. They’ve had more pyrotechnics, more finishing moves, bigger audiences and greater build ups. But I don’t know if there will come a day where I will enjoy a match as much as this classic between Bret and Owen. To my mind, the closest thing to a perfect wrestling match.