Editor’s Note: This list contains excerpts from previously published Paste Wrestling stories.
As WrestleMania approaches, there’s always discussions about your favorite Mania, all of the iconic WrestleMania moments, and, of course, which matches stand the test of time. While WrestleMania always promises to be something exciting, there are certain matches that elevate a show from good to great. Some Manias even depend on them: Without the Shawn Michaels-Bret Hart Ironman match, WrestleMania 12 wouldn’t be much to write home about at all.
Below, Paste Wrestling contributors picked the 10 best matches in WrestleMania history.
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 No. 4 in the WWE’s “Big Four.”
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 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.
The year 2001 was a big one for WrestleMania. In addition to the now-infamous Austin turn, we saw the Dudleys, the Hardys and Edge and Christian return for “TLC II,” the second edition of the now iconic Tables, Ladders and Chairs match. This is also arguably the best version of the match, with the addition of Spike Dudley, Rhyno and Lita into the fray, adding a new wrench into the mix each time it looked like the match would come to an end. The match also gave us one of the most famous spots in WWE history: With Jeff Hardy swinging high from the belts, after a ladder has been pulled away, Edge leapt from a second ladder,delivering a spear that, if just a fraction an inch off, could have seriously hurt everyone involved upon the landing. But these men all trusted each other with their lives and, perhaps more importantly, their livelihoods, as they fought to steal the show in perhaps the greatest WrestleMania of all time. Mission accomplished.
It’s hard to watch today, but at the time the end of WrestleMania XX felt like vindication for the diehard wrestling fans who were frustrated by great wrestlers like Chris Benoit and Eddie Guerrero being kept out of the main event picture in favor of older, less-talented stars. (If you told a WCW fan in 1999 that the two best guys trapped in that company’s midcard would be WWF World champions at the end of WrestleMania five years later…) Benoit wrestled an all-time classic against Triple H and Michaels, going over two of the company’s most-heralded talents for the World Heavyweight Championship. Time has irrevocably sullied that show-closing moment when the two champions and friends held their titles up in the middle of the ring, but if you’re able to put the horrors of real life out of mind and just focus on the in-ring work, Benoit’s match remains tremendous.
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.
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.
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.
Owen Hart and Bret Hart’s show-opening match wasn’t as flashy as the Shawn-Razor ladder match later on in the night, but it’s still a flawless piece of technical wrestling that grew out of a classic story of brotherly jealousy. The feud between Owen and Bret is one of the best-told stories in WWE history, and really succeeded in making Owen a star in the company. The match itself is a masterpiece, which makes sense when you realize the two men had probably been wrestling each other for more than 20 years inside and out of Stu Hart’s basement. But it was the shock of Owen’s win that truly brought this match to the next level, perhaps topped only by his reaction at the end of the show, while he watched his brother hoisted high in the air after winning the WWF World Heavyweight Championship from Yokozuna.
As mentioned, there were two incredibly strong matches on the WrestleMania X card. But 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. Years later, one anecdote from Scott Hall only adds to the match’s legendary status: The ladder they were using, which they slammed and twisted against one another, was the only ladder on hand. Nowadays, it’s customary to see five or six ladders throughout a match. But here, had something gone wrong, the match could have been a disaster. There was no room for error, and really, there were no errors. Razor and Shawn were both at the top of their game, and delivered an instant classic.
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.