Wrestlers talk about them, announcers laud them, video packages are full of them: Every year, WWE makes a big deal of its “WrestleMania Moments,” those special things that make the annual event so iconic. They’re played seemingly throughout time, never really tethered to the period in which they occurred, more a universal feeling than anything else. Those moments are the backbone of WWE, and why fans keep coming back.
Over 32 events, there have been countless WrestleMania “moments”—Foley and Edge going through a firey table, Shane McMahon jumping off the roof of the cell, blood pouring out of Steve Austin’s forehead. Here, now, are 10 of the most memorable moments in WrestleMania history.
It’s hard to explain what it was like as a child to watch Hulk Hogan and the Ultimate Warrior square off. The match was born out of a confrontation at the Royal Rumble: After a face-to-face between the two men, Warrior later saved Hogan from being eliminated, only to be clotheslined out by Hogan himself. The two men agreed to the biggest match anyone at the time could possibly imagine, a champion vs. champion bout between the two biggest stars in the world. Here were two top babyfaces—Hogan the World Heavyweight Champion, Warrior the Intercontinental Champion—about to wrestle one another, something that hardly ever happened, and certainly never in the WWF. It was jarring, and felt important. A test of Hulkamania itself! And then came the most surprising part: Hulk Hogan actually lost.
The two men wrestled for upwards of 20 minutes, an impressive feat for two guys not generally known for their in-ring prowess. As the match drew to a close, fans got ready for the familiar finish, as Hogan went for the leg drop. But Warrior moved, and followed up with his signature big splash, defeating Hogan clean in the middle of the ring since… when? It seemed like this had never happened before. In hindsight, we know Warrior wasn’t the guy to replace Hogan. In truth, that person wouldn’t really come along until 1997, when “Stone Cold” Steve Austin started to really gain momentum. But for one moment, as two icons embraced, it seemed as if Hogan had truly passed the torch to a new star.—Paul DeBenedetto
It was all over for the “Macho King.” Randy Savage had just lost a match against the Ultimate Warrior, with his career on the line. Savage, after a ludicrous five flying elbow drops, fell victim to the unstoppable Warrior at WrestleMania 9, and was seemingly out the door. As Warrior finished his celebration and walked to the back, into the ring marched “Queen” Sherri, berating Savage and kicking him while he was down.
Just then, from the crowd, came Miss Elizabeth, who had been shown throughout the match via sporadic crowd shots, and who was now bailing out her former love interest. What followed was a truly emotional storytelling moment, with the two former lovers embracing, the camera cutting to shots of fans actually sobbing in the crowd. They weren’t alone: Elizabeth herself couldn’t hold back the tears, as Savage opened the ring ropes for her and the two walked off, presumably never to be seen again.
Sadly, this happy ending was not the reality: Besides the fact that Savage would be back wrestling in months, he was rumored to have been obsessive to the point of emotional abuse in the dressing room when it came to Elizabeth, and the two divorced a little more than a year later. Like so many other things in pro wrestling, it was all just a story.—Paul DeBenedetto
True WrestleMania moments are about fantasy becoming real. Who could argue that two of the most popular pro wrestlers from any generation colliding wouldn’t symbolize everything Mania is supposed to represent? One year after the high-profile buyout of WCW, and following a botched “invasion” angle, the Rock vs “Hollywood” Hulk Hogan at WrestleMania X8 had the world at large hooked. This was a marquee moment for the business, a collision between legends past and present that couldn’t have been made more poignant if Hogan had literally handed the Rock a torch. It took you back to era many of us grew up mesmerized by, with larger than life heroes and villains battling for supremacy.
The Toronto crowd was decidedly behind Hogan, though he was supposed to be working as a heel. Even as Hogan applied rest holds and abdominal stretches, the crowd wouldn’t turn on him, leading the two men to amazingly change this high-profile match on the fly. The reason is simple: It wasn’t really about the angle or the heat. It was never designed to be a technical showcase. This was about nostalgia, and it ran wild, capturing that feeling and further showcasing what WrestleMania could and should be about: The fans.—Paul Mastroianni
Shawn Michaels vs. Bret Hart at WrestleMania 12 is probably the most unfairly praised and unfairly maligned match in WrestleMania history. Yes, there are a lot of rest holds. It’s not as filled with high spots as a lot of Michaels’ greatest matches. But it’s also a really well-told story, leading up to its logical conclusion: “The boyhood dream has come true.”
The run-up to the show contrasted Michaels’ and Hart’s divergent backgrounds, a series of workout vignettes showcasing Hart’s rise from his father’s wrestling “dungeon” to the top of the World Wrestling Federation, and Michael’s relationship with mentor Jose Lothario. Shawn was coming off a rough year, both personally and in-story, and was about to get a real main event push against Hart, who was, at the time, the face of the WWF’s “New Generation.”
Michaels’ entrance is still iconic, and the match itself holds up pretty well. Especially the last third, in which both men shift into high gear and the stakes start to mount. Finally, after an overtime period, Michaels is handed the belt, and for a brief moment in time, he’s not the “Heartbreak Kid,” self-destructive backstage politicker. As he holds the belt to his face, Shawn Michaels is a young Michael Shawn Hickenbottom, who really did always dream of this.—Paul DeBenedetto
In what was undeniably one of the events that helped turn the tide in the “Monday Night Wars,” Mike Tyson—a longtime WWF fan only too happy to move to a wrestling ring while his boxing license was rescinded—lended his star power to help boost an already exciting main event and help galvanize WWF in 1998. The promise of “Iron Mike” at WrestleMania 14 as an enforcer in the World Heavyweight Championship match between “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and Shawn Michaels was an enticing prospect: Mania is usually good about bringing attention to itself, but this particular year the world was watching with bated breath. Many speculated as to how much of a physical presence Tyson would bring. Whether it be the press conferences before the event or Austin’s “attack” on Tyson during Raw (leading to the now-classic Jim Ross call: “Tyson and Austin! Tyson and Austin! All hell has broken loose!”) the lead-up to the event itself was filled with worked shoot moments that left many fans asking, “was that real?” It was an attribute which came to define “the Attitude Era,” and this match helped usher in the prominent reign of “Stone Cold” as it’s brand leader.
There are precious few moments in wrestling history you can point to and say, that turned the page not just for WWE but wrestling in general. This is one such instance, the changing of the guard as Austin prevailed over Michaels, signaling a new wave of wrestlers leading the charge into a newer and edgier period. Months earlier, the WWF had already begun its “attitude” rebranding, but this match was its true launch pad, a game changer that ended one era and ushered in another.—Paul Mastroianni
Much like today, Roman Reigns seemed during the leadup to WrestleMania 31 destined to slay every monster that stood in his way, and we, as fans, expected to see him crowned champion against the newly-resigned “beast incarnate” himself Brock Lesnar. It was a bloody and brutal affair with a dizzying number of Superman Punches and false finishes, but even after the fourth F5, the Roman victory seemed almost inevitable. That is, until the thunderous bass drum of Seth Rollins’ music kicked in.
In an unprecedented turn of events, the Money in the Bank winner had finally decided to cash in at WrestleMania, handing the ref his briefcase and telling him to make it a triple threat match. After a brief exchange, Rollins covered Reigns and won the WWE World Heavyweight Championship. Whether he was a knight in shining armor or a thief in the night, Rollins created a moment that was both shocking and exhilarating, and injected a new sense of excitement into the main event. All bets were off. That sense of unpredictability and surprise that is sometimes lacking in WWE’s booking was invaluable, and will be hard to top, but reaffirmed the WWE’s old adage of “anything can happen.” —Paul Mastroianni
Arguably, it was something that never needed to end. There were few things more sacred in pro wrestling than Undertaker’s undefeated streak at Wrestlemania. Twenty-one years, 21 victories. A ‘Taker win had become a spectacle and time-honored tradition. As “the Streak” became more high-profile, each year would bring the same excitement and wonder: Is this the year it breaks? We were never quite surprised that it didn’t. But when Undertaker squared off against Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania 30, everything we thought we knew changed. The two men went through all the motions that should have signified another ‘Taker triumph, another notch on the streak. This time, though, it wasn’t enough: Brock reversed the infamous tombstone piledriver and delivered his third F5 of the evening. Three seconds later, to paraphrase Michael Cole, the Streak… was over.
Hindsight being what it is, there are plenty of good arguments as to why the Streak shouldn’t have ended that night. But in that moment, it was the most shocking conclusion to a WrestleMania match in history. Scanning the audience’s reaction, you’ll see wide eyes, mouths agape, stunned disbelief on the face of those in attendance, surely a mirror of what fans around the world watching at home were experiencing as well. This was no ordinary loss: This was a once in a lifetime.—Paul Mastroianni
The level of remorse poured into the delivery of this single superkick is almost unquantifiable. Pro wrestling, at its best, can tell deeply personal stories of wildly complex emotions. Shawn Michaels vs. “The Nature Boy” Ric Flair at Wrestlemania 24 is one such instance, a perfectly formulated bit of storytelling with a payoff that delivers in spades. The stipulation was career-ending for Flair, who had bestest various opponents in career-threatening matches before, including Triple H and Vince McMahon himself, leading up to this bout. Flair’s motivation was simple: He was fighting for the right to continue to fight.
At the time, Michaels often cited Flair as his childhood hero, and proclaimed him to be the greatest wrestler of all time. They had become friends, too, which made this encounter all the more painful. All good things must come to end, though, and Flair’s career was no exception. Before delivering the final superkick that would end Flair’s 35-year run (give or take a spell in TNA,) Michaels uttered those now-immortalized words as both men broke down in tears in the middle of the ring. It was truly a celebration and a memorial all at once, and one of the finest single moments that wrestling has ever produced.—Paul Mastroianni
Although a certain type of wrestling fan will point to another famous match on this card as the true standout, it’s the irresistible force meeting the immovable object that made WrestleMania 3 a huge box office success, as top draw Hulk Hogan faced iconic monster heel Andre the Giant in the main event, creating one of the most memorable moments in pro wrestling history.
Andre was, at one time, surprisingly nimble for his size. There are videos right now on New Japan World of Andre throwing dropkicks and moving a bit more quickly around the ring. This was not that: The match included a lot of standing around, throwing punches and shoulder blocks. There’s an extended bear hug sequence. Toward the end of the match, the two men end up on the floor, and Hogan takes a weak back body drop on the concrete.
But who cares about any of this? The entire match was in service of the “Hogan slamming Andre” story, and it tells that story remarkably well. Early on, Hogan tries the body slam, only to have Andre fall on top of him, almost pinning him in the process. But I believe it was Anton Chekhov who said: “Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If in the first chapter there is a man who is almost body slammed, in the second or third chapter he absolutely must be slammed.” Later in the match, after a clothesline that finally took Andre off his feet, a newly Hulked-up Hogan slammed Andre, hit the leg drop, and the rest is history. “Chekhov’s Body Slam” proven true, yet again.
As is fitting for a match of this magnitude, there’s lots of mythology surrounding it: Was Vince McMahon afraid Andre would no-show the event? Did Hogan really hurt himself trying to lift the big man? And was this really the first time Andre had been lifted and slammed? Well, no—it was actually surprisingly common before this. But looking back, hearing and seeing the crowd erupt, it’s hard to deny its impact as the prototype for “WrestleMania moments.”—Paul DeBenedetto
It seems like something we all imagined: Did Daniel Bryan really open and headline WrestleMania? Did this happen on everyone’s television, or just mine? The storyline of Daniel Bryan—former indie darling turned overlooked “superstar”—defeating the machine and becoming the biggest star in the company was too perfect for a corporate entity like WWE to have concocted. And in some ways, they didn’t: Bryan himself has said on plenty of occasions that his match lined up for WrestleMania 30 was yet another bout against Sheamus, and that, without fans hijacking the show, there would be no WreslteMania moment to talk about, outside of an embarrassing 18-second loss to Sheamus just two years earlier (itself seemingly an “f-you” to fans who supported the underdog Bryan.)
But the moment did come: After defeating Triple H in the opening match of WrestleMania 30, Daniel Bryan returned in the main event—with an “injured” arm—against WWE World Heavyweight Champion Randy Orton and Batista, who by no fault of his own returned to a chorus of boos at the Royal Rumble, a match that, amazingly, didn’t even feature Bryan as an entrant. This is around when WWE started to get the picture: Fans wanted Daniel Bryan. He was the guy. Still, it was impossible to watch this match without thinking, in the back of your mind, “there’s no way they give him the belt, right?” There was interference from Triple H, a stretcher, any number of cues that could have meant the rug being pulled out from underneath us, a valiant end to the Daniel Bryan tale.
But it didn’t end that way, and in a brilliantly told story, the “B+ Player” beat the odds to become the champion he wasn’t meant to be. It was the type of satisfying ending we’d learned not to expect from WWE: There, in front of 65,000 screaming fans, stood Daniel Bryan, a true people’s champion. If pro wrestling had a series finale, this would be it.—Paul DeBenedetto
Paul DeBenedetto is Paste’s assistant wrestling editor.