Wrestlemania is the Super Bowl of wrestling, and not just because they’re both the most important event in their respective sport. (Or, in wrestling’s case, sport-like activity.) They’re both too long, filled with unnecessary musical guests, and very often anti-climactic. Also like a Super Bowl, though, when a Wrestlemania match is genuinely great, fans will remember it forever. And every year brings the promise of a new classic, the kind of moment that reminds fans why they care about this weird style of entertainment in the first place. Most recently, fans felt that power at the end of last year’s Wrestlemania, when the beloved underdog Daniel Bryan beat three top stars and won the World title in one night.
Wrestlemania XXXI is happening this Sunday, two days before the 30th anniversary of the original event. 30 years is a long time by any measure—it’s so long that two of the three people writing this list weren’t even alive for the first few Wrestlemanias. Not every Wrestlemania match has been good (far from it), but the best Wrestlemania matches are among the best in the history of professional wrestling. Let’s look at the cream of the crop, listed in chronological order. And if you’re wondering why we picked 11 instead of 10, well, just be glad we didn’t go with 50, because we’re obsessed enough with wrestling to have pulled that off.
The WWF might have conquered the industry in the second half of the 1980s, but it wasn’t really known for good wrestling at the time. Fans watched the WWF for the larger-than-life cartoon characters and outlandish storylines, and then tuned into the NWA shows on TBS for good matches and a grittier, harder-edged presentation. At the time of Wrestlemania III the WWF did have a nucleus of top-notch workers who could pull off great matches with one another, including Tito Santana, Greg Valentine, Rick Martel, the British Bulldogs and the Hart Foundation. At the top of that list were Randy “Macho Man” Savage and Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat, two of the best wrestlers in the world. So when the WWF went all-out to put on the biggest wrestling show of all-time in 1987, it only made sense to have their two best workers square off and hope for a classic. Savage and Steamboat paid off in spades: they put on what remains one of the greatest matches in company history 28 years later. Growing out of one of the hottest and most passionate storylines of the era, and meticulously choreographed with rapid-fire reversals and near-falls, Savage and Steamboat put on a clinic that inspired an entire generation of wrestlers. There wasn’t a wasted second in this match, with every move contributing to the story of Steamboat getting vengeance for Savage’s vicious attack with a ring bell the previous year. At the end Steamboat stood victorious, earning both revenge and the Intercontinental title.—Garrett Martin
Sometimes, not even the finish of a match is all that important when compared to the emotion or the fall-out. Savage vs. Ultimate Warrior is not the greatest display of technical wrestling (few matches with Warrior are), and the ending is pretty frustrating when Warrior manages to kick out of five consecutive top rope elbow drops from the then-”Macho King,” but what made this match special were the stipulations and aftermath, particularly the fact that it was presented as a “retirement match,” with the loser retiring from active WWF competition. Savage entered as the villain, flanked by his evil manager, “Queen” Sensational Sherri—but out in the audience, the announcers noted that his former manager, the beautiful and insanely popular Miss Elizabeth was in attendance and looking increasingly concerned for her former companion. After Savage’s defeat, Sherri turns against him in frustration, prompting Elizabeth to run to the ring in protection of her former man. This led to the tearful reconciliation of wrestling’s most famous couple—Savage and Elizabeth together again, as the Macho Man walks off into his (first) retirement. This was a big deal. Human beings wept tears when this happened. This might be the biggest all-time pop from a crowd triggered by two people hugging in the ring.—Jim Vorel
The tenth Wrestlemania was a two-match show, and it’s impossible to pick which match was better. The Shawn Michaels vs. Razor Ramon ladder match for the Intercontinental Championship is clearly the more influential and beloved of the two—it was mind-blowing stuff in 1994, and solidified both the ladder match as a crucial stipulation in WWF and added to Shawn Michaels’ burgeoning rep as the best worker in the company. Owen Hart and Bret Hart’s show-opening match wasn’t as flashy, but it’s a flawless piece of technical wrestling that grew out of a classic story of brotherly jealousy. Both are must-sees for any fan of the sport.—GM
This might be the most important match in the company’s history. Bret Hart had been the WWF’s defining babyface for five years, an on-screen good guy who took his status as a positive role model to kids very seriously in real life. Steve Austin was a brutal heel who had antagonized Hart for almost a year. It was 1997, though, and as the young fans of the 1980s reached high school and college they started to prefer the tough-talking, rough-and-tumble bad guys over the squeaky clean good guys. Austin was being cheered by fans more and more every week, but was still portrayed as a heel. He was clearly the company’s future, though, so Hart, Austin and the WWF laid out a match that aimed to do what seemed impossible: simultaneously turn Hart into a bad guy and Austin into a good guy. They accomplished this by positioning Hart as a relentless predator who brutalized Austin’s legs, targeting his injured hamstring and notoriously bad knees, while the masterful commentary from Jim Ross subtly made the audience sympathize with Austin. It ended with the unforgettable image of Steve Austin, his face coated in his own blood, struggling to escape from Hart’s signature submission hold, the Sharpshooter. Instead of giving up Austin passed out from the pain, letting Hart win. Hart refused to let go of the hold, though, punishing a blood-soaked, unconscious Austin out of sheer hatred. When a revived Austin stumbled back to the locker room on his own, refusing all medical help, he looked like the toughest guy in the world. Hart was now the villain, and Austin the hero, ready to lead a harder edged WWF into the Attitude Era.—GM
One bit of dialogue forever resonates from the amazing promo package that aired before this match began: “I need to beat you, Rock. I need it more than anything you could ever imagine.” Those words from Stone Cold Steve Austin would prove to be quite foretelling. Rather than starting with a staredown as most ‘Mania matches of this magnitude would, this one was explosive from the get-go, as Rock and Austin traded blows and battled their way into the crowd not even two minutes after the bell rang. The no-disqualification stipulation contributed to the chaos with the aforementioned ring bell being used as a weapon in addition to the commentary monitors and, of course, steel chairs. There was even an homage to the finish of Austin’s career-launching match against Bret Hart at Wrestlemania 13 when The Rock locked the crimson-masked “Texas Rattlesnake” in a Sharpshooter, only for Austin to return the favor minutes later. After numerous near-falls and traded finishers, Stone Cold’s longtime nefarious nemesis Mr. McMahon would emerge, shockingly pulling The Rock off of a pin attempt. Austin’s unthinkable allegiance with McMahon slowly became more concretely evident throughout the final minutes of the match, building up to the moment where the evil boss handed the heel-turning Austin the chair that he would brutally batter The Rock with to win the title.—Trevor Courneen
Sometimes a match is great not because things went perfectly according to plan but because they went totally opposite to the plan. When Hulk Hogan returned to the WWF in 2002 it was as the hated Hogan of WCW’s NWO, and still in full NWO regalia. The Rock, meanwhile, was the most popular superstar of his day, and since the injury of Stone Cold Steve Austin had become the face of the company and the face of a generation. It was obvious that Rocky would be playing the face, and Hogan the heel—the only problem is, that’s not how the crowd reacted. In a perfect moment where everything simply came together in a natural way, a crowd starved for the nostalgia of the Hulkamania years welcomed Hogan back as a conquering hero they hadn’t seen in about 9 years. It makes for one of the most electric match atmospheres that you will ever see—when Hogan finally “Hulks up” and drops a leg on The Rock, the building loses its goddamned mind. In the end, the right man (The Rock) picks up the win, but Hogan got what may very well be the greatest match in the history of The Immortal One’s career. It’s the definition of a “Wrestlemania moment.”—JV
When Brock Lesnar challenged Kurt Angle for the WWE Undisputed Championship in Wrestlemania XIX’s main event, it was a rare case of two guys with major amateur wrestling accolades battling it out on the big stage. Lesnar, a former NCAA Heavyweight Wrestling Champion, and Angle, who won Olympic gold for wrestling in 1996 (with a broken freakin’ neck, nonetheless), didn’t shy away from their past as they started the match with a series of mat-based grappling not normally seen in a WWE ring. The two crescendoed to a higher plane as they took turns sending each other sailing across the ring with a variety of suplexes. In the end, Lesnar would produce a surreal sight when he sent his 295-pound frame flying off the top rope in an unbelievably athletic shooting star press which, unfortunately, missed its mark. Angle compensated for the concussion-causing crash-and-burn nicely with an improvised pin on Lesnar, giving “The Next Big Thing” a moment to regain himself. Despite being beyond dazed and confused from the botch, Lesnar somehow still had the wherewithal to scoop Angle up for an F-5 and get the 1-2-3. With a glazed-over expression, the new champ extended his hand to Angle and the crowd popped loudly as the two embraced (definitely not something you’ll see from Lesnar after his match with Roman Reigns this Sunday).—TC
To both recognize an amazing match and the start of one of the WWE’s most useful conventions, one needs to include the first-ever “Money in the Bank” ladder match in 2005. The idea first pitched by Chris Jericho, wherein a briefcase with a contact for a title match was hung high above the ring, is one of the best single match concepts for providing an entertaining match and a macguffin in the form of the briefcase that can bring unpredictability to the show for months to come. The first match was particularly great because the audience hadn’t yet come to know what to expect from a MITB contest—all they knew was that it featured some of the company’s best overall performing talent who weren’t in the main event scene: Edge, Chris Jericho, Christian, Kane, Chris Benoit and Shelton Benjamin, who provided the match’s iconic moment when he ran up a diagonal ladder to clothesline Jericho back to the canvas and receive a standing ovation. The format eventually proved such a great attraction that it was made into its own PPV, one that has more-or-less usurped the role of Survivor Series as #4 in the WWE’s “Big Four.”—JV
The greatest matches have the audience emotionally invested in both performers and real stakes on the line, and that’s what Michaels vs. Flair was all about at Wrestlemania XXIV. The culmination of a storyline where the senior citizen Flair was doomed to be fired as soon as he lost his next match, it was the ultimate expression of the old lion choosing to go out on his back, because he chose to face “Mr. Wrestlemania” himself, Shawn Michaels, his own protege, at Wrestlemania. The match is fraught with emotion, from Michaels’ reticence to end the career of an all-time great to Flair’s scrappy determination to win by any means necessary, including more than a little trademark cheating from the “dirtiest player in the game.” The match is a tribute to Flair’s entire legendary career and one of the all-time great “retirement matches”—it’s the Old Yeller of wrestling matches. Flair is eventually put down after three Sweet Chin Musics from Michaels, and everyone wipes away a tear and applauds the legend. Flair’s greatest career moments mostly come from his pre-WWF, NWA years, but Wrestlemania XXIV gave him one last chance in the WWE to show why he’s perhaps the greatest of all time. [C’mon, no “perhaps” about it.—Ed.]—JV
Prior to the 25th anniversary of Wrestlemania, The Undertaker’s undefeated streak at the annual event had never appeared to be in such jeopardy. Shawn Michaels would look to put an end to the streak, which was 16-0 at the time, when he and the Undertaker clashed in an instant classic. The two competitors went back-and-forth for the entirety of the thirty-minute match, brilliantly building suspense as they were unable to finish each other off with signature maneuvers that would normally get the job done. This was especially accentuated when Michaels kicked-out of ‘Taker’s Tombstone piledriver, a feat that left a priceless look of dumbfoundment on The Deadman’s face. What may have been the most memorable moment, though, was when the Undertaker—who was already in his 40s at the time—dove full speed over the top rope only for Michaels to evade by pulling the cameraman into harm’s way at the last second. The cameraman (who was actually a wrestler-in-disguise for the stunt) wasn’t quite in place, though, which caused Undertaker to hit the floor head-first in a cringe-worthy crunch that looked like he may have been legitimately injured. When even that scheme didn’t work, Michaels’ desperation to win grew, climaxing in some high-flying of his own when he went for a moonsault from the top rope. The Undertaker would catch Michaels in mid-air and deliver another Tombstone piledriver, however, leading to the win that would put his streak at 17-0.—TC