“Fan Favorites and Hidden Gems” sounds like the title of a compilation album, and in a way, that’s what this is. After writing about a gem of a match between Eddie Guerrero and Rey Mysterio, many people told me that it was one of their favorites. It got me to thinking about how many other gems must be out there, other people’s favorites that I haven’t seen. I consider myself a dedicated fan, but there have been pockets of my life where there wasn’t much room for wrestling. What sweet work it’s been, trying to get caught up, and I took to twitter for help. I asked people to send me recommendations, with the stipulation that the match NOT be from a major pay-per-view.

And you know what’s cool? The people that responded seemed to just know, right away, what *that* match was. The special one to them. Many even remembered what show the match aired on, and when. I received links to the matches, and musings about whether the match has held up over time. As I copied and pasted each link into my browser, I got more and more excited about what I was about to watch. I discovered that I have a Pavlovian response to Kurt Angle’s music now: I’ve heard it so much in the last few weeks that those opening horns trigger a giddy feeling. Good wrestling is about to happen!

So consider this your go-to guide for the times when you need a wrestling fix or a reason to procrastinate. The right match can cure what ails you, and the next gem could be lurking on a regular weekly program.

 

Kurt Angle vs. Shawn Michaels – 30-minute Ironman Match, Raw Oct. 3, 2005

“Ah, take a deep seat ladies and gentlemen. You’re about to see a classic!” says Jim Ross, as the crowd dutifully chants “You suck” along with Kurt Angle’s entrance music.

Wow, Kurt’s announced as being 232 pounds, but he looks pretty big to me – I know their stats aren’t always accurate, but is Angle really short and nothing but muscle? He got so lean later in TNA, almost disturbingly so. But I think part of that is aging, too. I hadn’t seen him for a couple of years, and all of a sudden he looked like a deflated cyborg.

Plus, in all my years of being a Shawn Michaels fan, his ring attire never struck me as strange until watching this match today. He dressed like “The Heartbreak Kid” for his entire career, and for some reason his fancy chaps strike me as out of place when he’s wrestling Kurt Angle in an Ironman match. You know, those chaps must not have been ideal for the kind of wrestling he did.

This is billed as a rubber match between Kurt and Shawn, I’m guessing the third after WrestleMania 21 and the Vengeance PPV. What a rare treat, in that the announce team calls and analyzes the match. They argue over whether to be aggressive or to pace yourself. They describe how each man executes a certain move and what it does to the other’s body.

HBK is in a stupendous mood here, you can see it in the smile that briefly plays across his face from time to time. This is a hometown crowd for him, and I will admit that the smiles fade once it’s big bump time. Both guys take some real thuds, but dang they have infinite reserves of energy and ideas.

It gets me to thinking about how few wrestlers in the modern era could pull off an entertaining Ironman match. Kurt Angle has wrestled the most in WWE at 3 matches, and AJ Styles has wrestled 4 or 5 in TNA (according to Wikipedia). Michaels and Benoit have each been in two. Perhaps it’s not so much whether the wrestlers can put on an Ironman, but whether the promoter is willing to have one on the card. It’s a different kind of risky business, best left only in the capable hands of someone like Kurt Angle.

I love that they mention how both men here are in great condition, and so a 30-minute match shouldn’t be too problematic, EXCEPT because of their abilities, they are constantly pushing each other to the limit.  The last five minutes are such good fun, but the whole thing’s a classic.

Thank you, Michael Morris @mimo8989 for this match.

 

Billy Kidman vs. Juventud Guerrera  - WCW Nitro, May 25, 1998

Just to get you immersed in the culture of the time: the headliners at WCW were Hogan, Piper, Savage, Sting, and Luger. It gives me a sad, antiquated feeling, rather than pleasant nostalgia. The old adage “too many cooks can spoil the broth” comes to mind, because WCW was trying to cram so many WWF alumni onto the top of the marquee. Probably making big promises to everyone, money flying everywhere. WOOO!

Billy Kidman was a pretty accomplished cruiserweight over the course of his career, making a relatively successful transition from WCW to WWE (including a position as a producer to this day). Juventud stuck more with the smaller feds both before and after this stint in WCW. You never know what’s going to click with Vince, but in general the cruiserweights fell from grace about 8 years ago (by that point, you could only find them on the Velocity program).

I’m not a fan of wrestlers leaving their long hair hanging in their faces during matches, because you can’t see their expressions and it looks so messy (I was happy when Daniel Bryan was trying to tie his back a bit, it OPENED his face right up and made a world of difference). I will say though, that the cruiserweights rely so much on the ACTION of the match that their facial expressions matter less. There aren’t many rest holds to fight through or injuries to sell. Their bodies are the most expressive parts, and this match is a great insight for me into what Juvie and Kidman could do. Because they’re so similar in size, neither looks small, which is a good thing. With all due respect to Rey Mysterio, when they put him in the ring with just about anyone in current-day WWE, it looks so unbelievable that he could beat anyone. Evenly-matched cruiserweights are a beautiful thing.

Thank you Jason @wrestlespective for this match.

 

Bret Hart vs. Chris Benoit - WCW Nitro, October 4, 1999

This was part of the Owen Hart Tribute Show put on by WCW. I didn’t realize until part-way through that this show was being held in the Kemper Arena, Kansas City – the site of Owen’s fatal accident during a WWE pay-per-view a few months prior. I knew it would be an emotional tribute, but having it in the same arena must have been even more difficult.

The wrestlers are introduced by Harley Race, who says that this is a greater honor than all the other accolades from his career. He gives a personal touch to each introduction, and maintains such a sweet solemnity for the occasion.

On the mic we have Tony Shiavone and Mike Tenay: “We’re not going to call this as announcers, but as wrestling fans.”

They share a quote that Bret gave before the match that is very moving. The announcers refer to both men learning their skills in the Hart Dungeon. Both men show a lot of focus, intensity, and respect for each other. The commentary team provides insight into Benoit’s history with the Hart family. They also do a nice job of balancing the idea of a tribute with the spirit of competition between these men. Heenan is on hand to lend some characteristic color and keep things just light enough.  

After about 10 minutes of old-school grappling, they amp it up with more modern, high-risk tricks. To me, Benoit looks superior in terms of skill, but he is younger and was always a bit more technical/detailed in my opinion. He is so quick but remains so precise with his moves, and possessed a fearlessness when taking to the air.

On an unrelated but interesting note, Bret will only wrestle for two more months before his retirement-inducing concussion. And make no mistake, Hart more than holds his own here. He does Owen proud. The finish doesn’t really matter, but it was perfect because of how Bret and Chris poured their souls into it.  

Thank you to James @JamesEBriggs for this match. My including it does not condone the crimes committed by Chris Benoit.

 

Triple H vs. Shawn Michaels - Raw, December 29, 2003 for the World Heavyweight Championship

The beginning of the match is all Michaels, much to the delight of his home town crowd. He opts for a lot of mat wrestling, to illustrate his advantage over Triple H. Triple H’s advantage is his power. There is a great variety of action, between the holds and counters, leaps and strikes. Lots of big bumps. Add to that the respective personalities of these guys, and the highly-motivated home town crowd.

Triple H has Ric Flair on his side, which I find interesting in hindsight. Now I find myself thinking, “If you’re so good, Hunter, why do you have Flair down there?” It’s brilliant heel heat, and makes HBK look all the better (especially when Flair helps Hunter cheat). Shawn Michaels stands alone, a solitary home town hero.

They make several references to Michaels’ history with a serious back injury, every time he lands on his back. And he has a nasty collision with the ring steps, shoulder first, which Triple H uses to his advantage and Michaels sells with varying consistency. I appreciate their tenacity in making covers for a pinfall whenever an opportunity arises. Then Triple H injures his knee, and it’s HBK’s turn to capitalize. I love the poetic way in which he does so, and the fans are INTO IT.

Twenty minutes in, these guys are exhausted and still pulling out fun swerves. The announce team is solid, calling the action and injecting just enough emotion to let Michaels and Triple H tell their story. As the match wears on, HBK becomes even more determined to win by virtue of his heart and athleticism, Triple H by virtue of mischief.  There’s blood, ref bumps, and surprises at every turn.  As Good Ol’ JR puts it, “The last Raw of the year, and by God we’re ending it with a bang!”

Thanks Grahame @whatcultureWWE for this match!

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That’s quite enough stimulus for now! How about a sequel, in which you can see that matches recommended to me by Kimsan Song, Saif Quadri, Matt, and our own Hugh Firth? I chose this week’s batch in the order that they came in, but I couldn’t curb my comments and so we will re-convene another time for Fan Favorites and Hidden Gems! Please share your thoughts (and your own match recommendations!) in the comments below, on twitter @kickyhick or by email heatherhickey@live.ca.

I apologize for dropping Monday Headlines as of this week. I have elected to make weekends for family-time only, as the rest of my week is quite saturated with wrestling (there are worse problems to have). I can’t wait to read William Math’s take on the headlines next week!