The WWE Hall of Fame is one of the cornerstones of WrestleMania weekend, and although it’s largely based off the whims of one man—Vince McMahon—it’s also an opportunity to honor some of the greats who paved the way for the WWE’s brand of “sports entertainment.”
This year’s class is one of the strongest in years, and the inductees have taken part in some true mat classics. Here are three of the best matches for each wrestler being inducted into the Hall this year.
vs. Chris Benoit (Royal Rumble 2003)
Angle-Benoit was a feud for the ages. The two wrestled each other constantly, trading wins in one of the only successful cases of 50-50 booking ever. They just seemed so evenly matched: Benoit, the tough-as-nails submission specialist; Angle, the Olympian-turned-pro wrestler. Their match at the 2003 Rumble was a masterclass in timing and intensity, and helped transform Benoit into a main event-level competitor.
vs. Brock Lesnar (WrestleMania XIX)
A match between two wrestlers with serious amateur bona fides, this WrestleMania main event is ironically remembered mostly for a botched shooting star press. But Lesnar vs. Angle for the WWE Undisputed Championship worked in plenty of mat wrestling and suplexes, each topping the other in a series of sequences more impressive than the last. It’s easy to forget now because his matches are so short, but Lesnar could at one time go, and these two went an impressive 21 minutes before that scary high-risk moment. Somehow, Lesnar recovered, hit an F-5, and the two men embraced in the middle of the ring—an unforgettable moment after an unforgettable match.
vs. Shawn Michaels (WrestleMania 21)
To some, Shawn Michaels’ greatest matches at WrestleMania are against the Undertaker, a pair of classics that ended in HBK’s retirement. But at WrestleMania 21, we saw Michaels just three years returned from injury, and a Kurt Angle still in his prime—two of the best at their best—and it was truly magic. For about a half-hour the two traded blows and near falls, putting on a genuine showstealer in what was remarkably their first-ever encounter. According to interviews, the two men barely walked through the match. Michaels has gone on record saying he felt he needed extra prep to hang with the Olympic gold medalist, but once they were in the ring, it was all chemistry.—Paul DeBenedetto
Diamond Dallas Page
vs. Goldberg (Halloween Havoc 1998)
As much as DDP had improved in seven years as a full-time pro wrestler, he did not yet have a signature performance until 10 months into 1998. That performance was his WCW title shot against Goldberg at Halloween Havoc ‘98, which remains a landmark moment in his career. Page had to carefully lead Goldberg, who was incredibly green in spite of being the most popular wrestler in a wrestling-centric promotion, and laid out a match that hit all of the peaks and valleys that a great main event should. The top matches were rarely the highlights of WCW cards in the Nitro era, but DDP’s main events were the exception, this match standing out above the rest for the degree of difficulty.
vs. Sting (Monday Nitro April 26, 1999)
There were a lot of great WCW cities that have stopped getting much in the way of major wrestling events after the promotion folded, and Fargo, North Dakota is one of them. This was just kind of thrown on TV, but the result was the best match of DDP’s career, Sting’s best match in his “Crow” persona, and quite possibly the last truly great match on Monday Nitro. The Fargo fans were hanging on every move, including the tombstone piledriver reversal spot that reliably popped every single WCW TV taping crowd. And the finish, where they countered each other’s finishers en route to a surprise title change, was one of the last truly joyful WCW moments, even if the title got switched back later in the same show.
vs. Ric Flair vs. Sting vs. Hollywood Hogan (Spring Stampede ‘99)
The most underrated match on the last great WCW pay-per-view event was the main event, where DDP won his first world title. All four worked hard, with Hogan being surprisingly game (he usually worked harder against DDP, so maybe it’s not that surprising), and it built towards the shocking conclusion. While there may be some DDP matches that are technically better, this is, in many ways, the peak of his career, and it shows off his unique skills, as well. —David Bixenspan
The Rock ‘n’ Roll Express
vs. Ivan Koloff & Krusher Krushchev (July 9, 1985 TV taping in Shelby, NC)
When the Rock ‘n’ Roll Express showed up in Jim Crockett Promotions in the Carolinas, they got an immediate title shot at the three man “Russian” NWA World Tag Team Championship team, with Nikita Koloff sitting the match out. Even though they were starting cold in a new territory, the crowd instantly fell in love with Ricky and Robert, and that love only grew throughout this match, which took up an entire television show. By the time they outsmart the Russians to win the titles, the crowd is going nuts, and there’s a new hottest babyface act in the Mid-Atlantic.
vs. The Midnight Express [Bobby Eaton & Stan Lane] (Wrestle War ‘90 in Greensboro, NC)
Jim Cornette and others have consistently called this the best televised match between the Rock ‘n’ Rolls and any version of the Midnight Express. There’s definitely an argument for that. On a pay-per-view event that did very well by the standards of WCW’s early years, the two teams crammed all of their signature high spots into one epic match in front of a crowd at one of their best buildings. It doesn’t have the completely molten crowd of their glory days in the ‘80s, but it’s an absolutely fantastic match that showed the seemingly “long in the tooth” Rock ‘n’ Rolls had a ton of gas left in the tank.
vs. The Midnight Express (Bobby Eaton & Dennis Condrey] (1986 on World Pro Wrestling)
Or is this the best televised Midnights vs. Rock ‘n’ Rolls match ever? This one, which features Cornette in a cage above the ring, has a bit of an asterisk next to it: The match aired only on World Pro Wrestling, which was broadcast by TV Tokyo in Japan, airing a wide variety of matches from North America, including numerous exclusives. More than any other televised match, this captures the essence of the feud: The hot crowds, Ricky Morton’s selling, Jim Cornette’s franticness outside the ring. Crowd heat transfers better to television in Jim Crockett Promotions than in any other territory, to the point that it sounds like a Beatles concert full of screaming girls if you close your eyes.—David Bixenspan
vs. Katie Lea (Dec. 23, 2006 Ohio Valley Wrestling taping)
It was always obvious that Phoenix was leagues better than most of the competition in WWE, but in OVW, she had an opportunity to wrestle some really strong matches. This ladder match against Katie Lea was dubbed the “first ever Diva’s ladder match” by the company, and there are some really great spots. Phoenix is thrown into the ladder, dives onto the ladder from the turnbuckle, and, in one memorable spot, takes a diving neckbreaker off the top of the ladder. Because of her strength and size, “the Glamazon” takes some intense bumps. Ten years before the “Women’s Revolution” in WWE, it’s remarkable to see a match of this quality on a WWE-branded program.
vs. Melina (One Night Stand 2008)
By 2008, it’s very clear that there are two tiers of women wrestlers in WWE: Beth Phoenix, and everyone else. That’s not a knock, per se: the “Divas” at this time sometimes get unfair criticism for bad booking and short matches, even though they really did seem to work to improve week in and week out. But Phoenix was just on another level, and you could see it here. It’s just less than 10 minutes, but the two women do what they can to put on a surprisingly interesting match, culminating with an intense, painful-looking submission hold.
Royal Rumble 2010
This match is best known for the return of Phoenix’s now-husband, Edge, but it also showcases one of Phoenix’s unique strong suits: Intergender wrestling. Here, she becomes just the second woman competitor in Royal Rumble history, and manages to eliminate the Great Khali (albeit via a cheesy kiss spot.) Phoenix didn’t get to showcase her skills against men nearly enough, but was always game, like during her surprisingly fun and funny run with Santino.—Paul DeBenedetto
”Ravishing” Rick Rude
vs. Ultimate Warrior (SummerSlam 1989)
The series of matches Rude had with the Ultimate Warrior made the Warrior look like a million bucks, and really helped elevate him to top babyface status. A few months earlier, at WrestleMania V, the conniving Rude one-upped Warrior for the Intercontinental Championship. This was the rematch, and of the three pay-per-view matches between the men, this was the best. The best part of this feud was that Rude legitimately looked like a competitor to the star Warrior, making the matches more exciting. Rude looks like he’s going to take this one home until interference from Roddy Piper throws a monkey wrench into the situation—an addition that, frankly, the match didn’t need. The two men would face again one year later, for the World Heavyweight Championship in a steel cage, another memorable encounter that really only worked because Rude was positioned as a legitimate challenger, and because as he showed in 1989, he could get a good match out of a limited Warrior.
War Games (WCW WrestleWar 1992)
OK, this one is a bit of a cheat. The greatest of Dusty Rhodes’ creations, War Games, was a roofed steel cage match over two rings, and this one—Sting’s Squadron of Ricky Steamboat, Barry Windham, Dustin Rhodes and Nikita Koloff vs. Paul E. Dangerously’s Dangerous Alliance, featuring Rude, Steve Austin, Arn Anderson, Bobby Eaton and Larry Zbyszko—trumps them all. Of course it does: It’s a veritable Mount Rushmore of talent. There’s so much action, it’s hard to pick one standout moment, but just wait for Rude’s entrance and listen to the crowd reaction.
vs. Ricky Steamboat (WCW Beach Blast 1992)
Just one month later, Rude and Steamboat met in a 30-minute Ironman match. It’s a pretty perfect dichotomy: Steamboat is one of the greatest pure babyface ever, and Rude is tremendous as the cocky heel. It’s also a good model for all future Ironman matches: Although Bret Hart vs. Shawn Michaels was probably the better match, it could have learned a thing or two from the back and forth between Rude and Steamboat (and maybe could have stood to be the same length.) Like any good Ironman match, the last few minutes are the strongest, and that’s where Rude shines, frantically trying doing whatever he can to come out the victor.—Paul DeBenedetto