Wrestlemania season is upon us once again, with Wrestlemania XXXI happening live on the WWE Network this Sunday, March 29. Earlier today we looked at the worst Wrestlemanias in history, and now it’s time to celebrate the best. So lace up your boots, get your arm tassels poised to perfectly accentuate your biceps and climb those cold, unforgiving steel steps into the squared circle of nostalgia.
5. Wrestlemania X
Earlier this week I described Wrestlemania X as a two-match show. That’s basically true: there are only two matches worth going out of your way to see on this show. Both are five-star classics, with Owen Hart shockingly beating his older brother Bret in the opening match, and Shawn Michaels and Razor Ramon introducing the ladder match to the masses in a brutal battle for the Intercontinental title. These two matches are great enough that we’d recommend Wrestlemania X even if the rest of the show was as bad as Wrestlemania 2. And, well, okay, it kind of is—unless an intergender tag match involving a clown and a midget is your idea of a good time, there’s not much to enjoy about the wrestling outside of those two matches. There are two notes of historic interest, though, that would make this show significant even without those two pivotal matches.
First off, this was the last Wrestlemania for Randy Savage, the true MVP of Wrestlemania during its first decade. Nobody had had more great Wrestlemania matches than Savage up to that point, and no wrestler had seen more crucial career moments happen in a Wrestlemania ring. His last match is neither—it’s a throwaway falls count anywhere match early in the night against the villain Crush—but any true Macho Man fan should want to see his very last Wrestlemania match. And, indeed, his very last match on a WWF pay-per-view.
Secondly, Bret Hart, pulling double duty, won his second WWF Championship in the main event. It wasn’t a great match but it symbolized that the company was finally willing to push Hart as its top star. Although he had won the title once before, he wasn’t quite the focus of the promotion, and that reign was cut short when Hulk Hogan returned at the abysmal Wrestlemania IX in 1993. By the end of ‘93 Hart was clearly the company’s most popular wrestler, and in a way the main event of Wrestlemania X was both an apology to Hart for Hogan’s win at IX and also an attempt at getting the company back on track now that Hogan was out of the picture for good. McMahon never felt quite comfortable with Hart as his champion, though, and moved the belt to the more traditional WWF-style champ Diesel by the end of 1994, but Wrestlemania X was probably the highlight of Hart’s WWF career before his feud with Steve Austin and awesome heel run in 1997. It’s a great moment for one of the WWF’s greatest wrestlers.—Garrett Martin
4. Wrestlemania XX
Here’s this for perspective: Wrestlemania XX opened with what was, at the time, an exciting and fresh match in John Cena vs. Big Show for the United States Championship. Today, this match is so done-to-death that you can even hear Michael Cole’s mark-out commentary slowly fading each time Cena delivers another Attitude Adjustment to Show. But when it happened at the 20th ‘Mania 11 years ago, the Madison Square Garden crowd came unglued, officially ushering in the Cena Era.
This Wrestlemania marked the end of some notable eras, too. The Rock would wrestle his last match before taking what turned out to be a seven-year Hollywood hiatus, teaming with Mick Foley against Evolution’s Batista, Randy Orton and Ric Flair in the fourth match of the night (seriously, this card was that stacked). The Undertaker mercifully ended his American Badass era at the event when he returned to Phenom form, ditching the motorcycle in favor of Paul Bearer and the urn. Of course, it was also the end of Goldberg and Brock Lesnar (for a while) in the WWE, which the two made abundantly clear as they proceeded to give no shits in their infamously terrible match. There was no harm done though, thanks to the amusingly hostile crowd and special referee Stone Cold Steve Austin, who presented both men with Stone Cold Stunners as parting gifts after the match.
As unlikely as it seems, what really made this Wrestlemania excellent was the wrestling. Pageantry often seems like the utmost important aspect of the event these days, but the name of the game was still the main focus in 2004. The undercard saw a fantastic bout between Chris Jericho and Christian, two tag team turmoil matches for the then-separated titles, and a high-octane 10-man Cruiserweight contest that managed not to get too convoluted. The world title main events were the undeniable centerpieces of the show, though, with Eddie Guerrero successfully defending the WWE Championship against Kurt Angle in a wrestling clinic that only those two could put on. The triple threat match for the World Heavyweight Championship would then steal the show, easily outdoing the three-and-a-half hours of wrestling that preceded while setting the bar exceptionally high for triple threat main events at Wrestlemania (a trend that would later follow).—Trevor Courneen
3. Wrestlemania XXX
It’s too bad the “once in a lifetime” tagline was already used two years prior for The Rock vs. John Cena match at Wrestlemania XXVIII, because it ended being far more fitting for this event (plus, Cena vs. Rock ended up being twice in a lifetime, anyway). The 30th anniversary of Wrestlemania was exceptionally spirited, much like its host city of New Orleans. From top to bottom, the show exuded an intangible quality that just felt special—because it was. WWE likes to constantly claim that its fans ultimately influence their booking decisions, but evidence of that is pretty rare, especially these days. However, there was just no stopping what became known as the “YES! Movement” last year. Shatterproof fan support for Daniel Bryan was inescapable no matter how hard the WWE tried to move forward with their planned main event of Batista vs. Randy Orton for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship. The people insisted on Bryan challenging for the title and eventually, they got it. Triple H set his supposed ego aside to give Bryan the win in the technical display that opened the show, thus allowing the adored underdog to enter the main event and square off against Randy Orton and Batista in a triple threat for the title. After overcoming countless obstacles including interference from The Authority and nearly being stretchered out of the stadium, Bryan would finally get the win everyone wanted via submission by Batista. Often-criticized commentator Michale Cole even deserves credit for adding magic to this moment as he biasedly shouted “TAP OUT, BATISTA! TAP OUT, BATISTA!” as Bryan wrenched The Animal’s face with the YES! Lock.
Truly, though, it doesn’t get more “once in a lifetime” than witnessing the death of The Undertaker’s Wrestlemania streak. Even though Brock Lesnar had just laid out ‘Taker with a third F-5, absolutely everyone was expecting a near-fall kickout. But when the referee’s hand hit the mat for the three count, jaws around the world hit the floor. It may not even be hyperbolic to suggest that this was the most shockingly surreal moment in WWE history, perfectly accentuated by the stunned silence of over 70,000 fans in attendance making history of their own as cameras caught their dumbfounded expressions. Lesnar played up what he had done perfectly, too, with a nefarious grin plastered on his face as Paul Heyman praised him like a proud father. The “21-1” graphic that ominously loomed over The Undertaker’s fallen body in the ring confirmed the reality that everyone would now have to expect. Life, as wrestling fans knew it, had changed forever. Kudos to WWE for proving that despite after all these years of formulaic storytelling, they can still pull off something wildly unexpected.—TC
2. Wrestlemania III
Vince McMahon learned the lessons of Wrestlemania 2 fast—the very next year he nailed the delicate balance between wrestling and spectacle, producing an event that remains one of the best in company history.
Held at a sold-out Silverdome in Pontiac, Michigan, Wrestlemania III saw a company firing on all cylinders, with good performances up and down the card and some of the best storylines in WWF history all paying off on the same night. Not only did it feature one of the best matches in Wrestlemania history, with Ricky Steamboat beating Randy Savage for the Intercontinental title, but that match was the beautiful conclusion to a storyline that was unusually brutal for the WWF of that era. Steamboat coming back from a crushed larynx to beat his assailant cleanly for the company’s second-most prestigious title would have been a glorious moment even if the match wasn’t so amazing.
Long-simmering tensions between the Dream Team of Greg Valentine and Brutus Beefcake finally boiled over, leading to a face turn that made Beefcake one of the most popular performers in the company. Roddy Piper, formerly the most hated man in wrestling and now a beloved hero in what was supposed to be his final match ever, got his revenge against his bitter rival Adrian Adonis; after the match, Beefcake helped Piper cut Adonis’ hair, leading to a new nickname for the former member of the Dream Team.
Like all early Wrestlemanias, Wrestlemania III also had star power, although it never overshadowed any of the wrestling or bogged the show down. Mart Hart was inconspicuous as timekeeper, and Aretha Franklin opened the show with a glorious “America the Beautiful.” Hometown rock legend Alice Cooper accompanied Jake “the Snake” Roberts in his match against the Honky Tonk Man in a celebrity cameo that perfectly fit both the character of the wrestler he was supporting and the storyline he was involved in.
Of course the main event was what made the show a sell-out. Hulk Hogan vs. Andre the Giant was horrible from a workrate perspective, and I never need to watch the whole match again, but it remains one of the most memorable matches of all time, and the most perfect example of the type of larger-than-life main event that defines a truly classic Wrestlemania. Despite what was said on TV during the build-up to this match, Andre had both lost matches and been body slammed before, but that didn’t make it any less meaningful when Hogan scooped Andre up and then pinned him after his patented leg drop.
Between the massive crowd in the sold-out Pontiac Dome and the white-hot clash between two legends in the main event, Wrestlemania III really is the prototypical Wrestlemania.—GM
1. Wrestlemania X-Seven
Don’t be quick to judge Wrestlemania X-Seven for its odd numerical stylizing and the fact that it featured not one, but TWO Limp Bizkit songs in the same night—this event is widely agreed upon as the greatest “grandaddy of ‘em all” [Wait, we’re not talking about Starrcade here—Ed.] the WWE has ever put on. Emanating from the Reliant Astrodome in Houston, TX, the event opened with a short-but-sweet Intercontinental title match that saw champion Chris Jericho successfully defend against William Regal. This night would also mark the Wrestlemania debut of the late Eddie Guerrero, who defeated Test for the now defunct European Championship. Oh, and for the sake of nostalgia and comedic value, we got a thoroughly entertaining “Gimmick Battle Royal” that featured past-their-prime-but-still-awesome wrestlers of yesterday including Sgt. Slaughter, Hillbilly Jim and everyone’s favorite Twitter account, The Iron Sheik.
These were different times, for sure, with hardcore action taking place in practically every other bout on the card. There was a Hardcore Championship triple threat between Kane, Big Show and Raven, which was mostly a whacky calamity highlighted by Raven crashing a golf cart that Big Show hopped on the back of. We also got to see a good old-fashioned father vs. son street fight in the form of Mr. McMahon and Shane McMahon brutalizing each other with kendo sticks and trash cans amid the storyline drama of Vince’s brazen affair with Trish Stratus and Shane’s usurping of WCW’s purchase. Though nothing could compare to the incredible Tables, Ladders and Chairs match that saw The Dudley Boyz put the Tag Team titles on the line (or in the air, rather) against The Hardy Boyz and Edge and Christian. This “human demolition derby,” as Jim Ross astutely called it, was a death-defying spectacle that saw all six men have countless collisions with steel ladders and chairs and crash-and-burns through tables from crazy heights. An iconic moment in WWE history also occurred in this match as Jeff Hardy dangled wildly from the championship belts above the ring until Edge soared from a nearby ladder to spear him right out of the sky.
Speaking of iconic, the main event saw two of wrestling’s biggest stars of all-time face off when Stone Cold Steve Austin challenged The Rock for the WWF Championship (it was still WWF at the time) in a No Disqualification match. Though the two titans clashed in a 28-minute classic that included numerous near falls and stellar sequences, this match will forever be remembered for the Texas Rattlesnake “making a deal with the devil” to take the title from The Rock. Hindsight would show that Austin’s shocking allegiance with McMahon was chillingly foreshadowed when he told his opponent “I need to beat you, Rock. I need it more than anything you could ever imagine” at the end of the pre-match hype video. Still, the mind-blowing sight of Stone Cold shaking hands with his despised rival will never be forgotten—nor will this nearly-impeccable event as a whole.—TC