It's WrestleMania season, which means it's a good time to reminisce about the history of World Wrestling Entertainment's most famous event as it heads into its 29th year.
This column is only about WWE (or WWF prior to May 2002) Championship matches that have taken place at WrestleMania. In the future I'll have a list of World Heavyweight Title matches too, which will only be a top five because there haven't been as many of them.
What's the criteria for this list? Greatness. That means the match has to be good, memorable and in some cases everlasting too. It's not necessarily a list of the matches that have the best workrate or in-ring performance. Obviously the better ones will fare well, but WWE title matches at WrestleMania need to be more than that too.
Before we get to the top ten, here are some honorable mentions.
Steve Austin vs. The Rock @ WrestleMania 15 - It wasn't a bad match by any means and certainly a big match during a very successful period for the company, but not good enough to make a spot on this list.
CM Punk vs. Chris Jericho @ WrestleMania 28 - This one was tough to leave off the list because technically it was very good and in some ways a better match than others on the list. My biggest gripe is that the pace may have been too slow early. I know it's nitpicking. It's a tough list!
John Cena vs. Batista @ WrestleMania 26 - I really liked the heel turn of Batista. It gave him a lot more personality. This was a good match between two guys that were major players in WWE for the five years before it took place, so it made sense.
I could list other honorable mentions, but that could take a while.
Let's get to the top ten WWE Title matches in WrestleMania history.
10. Hulk Hogan vs. Randy Savage @ WrestleMania 5
This was a huge match that was billed as a contest where the "Megapowers Explode." They were best friends for over a year before this, but then Savage (the WWE Champion) became jealous of Hogan's friendship with Miss Elizabeth and that led to this matchup. Savage was a rare example of the WWE Champion turning heel during his title reign, which is something that CM Punk also did in 2012.
It's one of Hogan's better WrestleMania matches because Savage is one of the best in-ring performers ever, so he was able to bring out the best in the Hulkster.
Was the match result ever in doubt? No. It was obvious Hogan was going to win. I knew that and I was about eight years old at the time of the match with Savage as my favorite wrestler. It didn't matter that it was predictable, though. The story was good, the match had a lot of drama and the outcome made the fans happen.
When it comes to WrestleMania WWE Title matches that's what you expect to see.
9. Eddie Guerrero vs. Kurt Angle @ WrestleMania 20
I liked this match more when I watched it a few times then I did when I saw it live. I think the reason why it didn't have as much of an impact on me live was because my anticipation on that show was about the main event of that show rather than this match. These are two of my favorite performers in WWE history, though, so when I was able to watch it again my appreciation for it grew immensely.
I've really come to appreciate this match for the way it was built up with Angle doing everything he could to ground Guerrero by destroying him with all kinds of suplexes and trying to apply his ankle lock. I loved how it was booked with Angle looking relentless in his attack while Guerrero showed great babyface heart in fighting back.
The finish was fun and creative. Angle was relentless in going for the Ankle Lock, Eddie sensed that so he ended up using that to his advantage by outsmarting Angle at the end leading to the boot trick and cradle for the win. This wasn't a match full of highspots or anything like that, but it was full of good straight up wrestling from two of the best.
8. Steve Austin vs. Shawn Michaels @ WrestleMania 14
From a personal standpoint, these are my two favorite wrestlers ever. Unfortunately Michaels wasn't in great condition physically due to a serious back injury. How good could this match have been if Michaels' back wasn't as injured as it was? I'm not sure.
The factor that made this match memorable (and also very profitable) was the inclusion of Mike Tyson as the special enforcer at ringside. He was aligned with Shawn Michaels heading into the match, but it turns out he was on the side of babyface Steve Austin all along.
I thought the match was well booked with Michaels fighting the back injury, gutting it out and ultimately falling to Austin, who won his first WWE Title that night in Boston. I'll never forget the match because I thought it was the last time Michaels was going to wrestle. It was until he came back four years later. But at the time we didn't know, so it will always hold a special place in my heart for that reason.
7. Hulk Hogan vs. Andre The Giant @ WrestleMania 3
In terms of a match is it great? Not really. When I wrote about WrestleMania III I only gave it one star out of five on the five star scale. That doesn't reflect a great WrestleMania match. However, if you were to put together a list of the most famous matches in the history of wrestling anywhere around the world this would certainly be in the top five.
This match is the perfect example of what WrestleMania is all about in terms being a spectacle. Andre was a good guy that the fans loved as well as a friend of Hulk Hogan. Then he joined up with the evil manager Bobby Heenan and went after Hogan. Hogan was the WWE Champion. Andre had never been beat. What was going to happen? That question is what sold the match to fans it made it special.
As I'm sure you've seen dozens of times by now, Hogan eventually picked Andre up for the most famous body slam in the history of wrestling and a leg drop won him the match. The fans in the Silverdome exploded to deliver one of the loudest ovations ever.
6. The Ultimate Warrior vs. Hulk Hogan @ WrestleMania 6
Hulk Hogan was the WWE Champion. The Ultimate Warrior was the Intercontinental Champion. They were both babyfaces too. Not only was the champion vs. champion match a new concept for a WrestleMania main event, but a babyface match was new too.
Neither of these guys is going to be considered a great in-ring performer, but they really delivered an above average match here. They booked it in a way where it came off like an even matchup. Each guy had their moments of strength. Each guy was also pinned without the ref being up. Hogan went for his big move, he missed it and Warrior capitalized to win the match. I liked how it ended. It felt like a heavyweight boxing match featuring two men at the top of their game going toe to toe.
I really liked what happened after the match too. Hogan dropped to his knees and pointed up at the sky. Hogan grabbed the World Heavyweight Title. He gave it to Warrior. Then they embraced in the ring. Legendary announcer Gorilla Monsoon shared this famous line: "The Hulkster has just taken one giant step towards immortality." Hulk left. Warrior celebrated.
A year later Hogan was back as the WWE Champion, but for that moment it was Warrior's night and Hogan did the right thing by putting him over clean in the middle of the ring.
5. John Cena vs. Shawn Michaels @ WrestleMania 23
This was another example of a babyface vs. babyface match for the WWE Title. Cena was the top guy in WWE, who headlined his first WrestleMania a year earlier versus Triple H. On the road to WrestleMania, Triple H tore his quad muscle even though he was rumored to have a WWE Title rematch with Cena. Michaels was inserted in the spot instead.
I didn't expect Michaels to win. I think everybody expected Cena to retain the title because he was the current star and the future star while Michaels the veteran that was there to give him a great match. Even though I knew he probably wasn't going to win, the HBK fan in me would have loved to see him win the WWE Title one more time in the WrestleMania event.
It was a different kind of long match for Cena because it was more about technical wrestling. When the pace picked up they really delivered a main event worthy performance with a lot of back and forth drama ensuing. I liked the way they built to the finishers with Michaels hitting the superkick only for Cena to kick out because Michaels was too slow on the cover. This came after Shawn kicked out of the FU (original name of the Attitude Adjustment), so it made it even.
The last seven minutes of the match were especially great. Michaels was a master of hot finishes while Cena learned to really build up for the finish. It's interesting to note that Cena beat both DX guys in back to back years with the STFU (now known as the STF), which really established that move as a deadly finisher.
Their match on the April 23, 2007 edition of Raw was better than this match, but obviously that doesn't qualify for this list.
4. Randy Savage vs. Ric Flair @ WrestleMania 8
This is one of those WrestleMania matches that I always have fun talking about because it was Flair's WrestleMania debut and Savage (my favorite wrestler at the time) was back to being a babyface after a few years as a heel.
The buildup was awesome with Flair claiming to have had an affair with Savage's wife Elizabeth and even had the photos to prove it. I was 11 years old when I was watching this, but the story worked for me because a man talking bad about another man's woman deserved to get his ass kicked.
The emotion displayed in the match was tremendous. You could really break it down into three acts with Flair dominating early, Savage brutally assaulting him leading to Flair bleeding and then finally the conclusion when Elizabeth made her way to ringside to help her husband. I'm sure that if we traveled back to 1992 most of us would have expected Savage to win with his patented top rope Flying Elbow drop. It didn't happen like that. Savage won with a cradle and he held onto Flair's tights to do it too. The fans loved it.
After the match, Flair forced a kiss on Elizabeth. She slapped him. Then Savage attacked Flair again and the feud continued into the summer.
Flair was fantastic in terms of drawing heat, focusing on the knee of Savage and doing everything he could to rile up the crowd. Savage was the perfect babyface here, showing tremendous courage and doing what he had to in order to win.
3. Brock Lesnar vs. Kurt Angle @ WrestleMania 19
I thought WWE did a great job of keeping them apart in 2002. It was a dream match for a lot of us because Angle was an Olympic gold medalist at the amateur level while Lesnar was a very accomplished amateur wrestler too. Lesnar won the Royal Rumble and Angle was the champion, so the match was inevitable.
I was so nervous watching this match because in the weeks leading up to it the reports were that Angle needed major neck surgery similar to Steve Austin a few years before when he missed nearly an entire year. Angle was a favorite mine, so every time he took a dangerous bump I was worried he would hurt himself. As for Lesnar, this was his first WrestleMania and I wasn't sure how well he'd do on the big stage. Thankfully everything worked out well for everybody involved.
The crowd wasn't into it at the very beginning because it was the last match in a four hour show, but they got louder as the match went on. Not many guys can do the moves these two did. As much as I love Angle, which is well documented, I really came away impressed by Lesnar. When Angle gave him a German Suplex and Lesnar sold it by landing on his stomach I was shaking my head in amazement at how good of an athlete Lesnar was. The last ten minutes of the match were when they really cranked it up into another gear. I thought they got the perfect amount of time too by going 22 minutes.
The finish of the match was memorable because Lesnar went for a Shooting Star Press, but he didn't connect on it due to Angle being too far away. Lesnar hit the Shooting Star Press before, but this one wasn't planned as well. Angle wasn't even in the middle of the ring. Lesnar should have moved him over or gone up to the other turnbuckle to do it. He should have thought about it before he went up there. It was off by about four inches or so. If Lesnar hit that SSP perfectly for the finish it would have been incredible. Thankfully they were able to improvise the finish with Lesnar coming back with the F5 for the win.
Angle went on to have that neck surgery, but he didn't miss a full year. It ended up being a few months. If you're a huge Angle/Lesnar fan like me, you should also seek out their triple threat with Big Show at Vengeance 2003, the Summerslam 2003 match and the 60 Minute Ironman on SmackDown that I believe was their best match together.
2. Shawn Michaels vs. Bret Hart @ WrestleMania 12
This was one of my favorite matches ever featuring two guys that made me the fan that I am today. It was another babyface vs. babyface match on a list that has had quite a few of them. Bret Hart was the WWE Champion who had been there before and was working his ass off to carry the company. Shawn Michaels was in the WWE Title match the year before against Diesel, but he lost that match and turned babyface shortly after.
Michaels went into this match as the heavy favorite after winning his second Royal Rumble in a row. It wasn't just any match, though. It was an Ironman Match. That meant it would be a 60-minute battle where the man that earned the most falls in that time would be declared the WWE Champion.
The first twenty minutes were done at such a slow pace that it hurt the match a little bit. The last forty minutes of the match were absolutely fantastic, though, so to me it's not a big deal as far as how slow the first part was. It was about pacing the match.
They wrestled to a draw after sixty minutes. Hart had Michaels in the Sharpshooter when the time ran out. They went to overtime where Michaels ended up hitting his Sweet Chin Music superkick twice for the win after nearly 62 minutes of action. It's the longest match in WrestleMania history and it may never be topped.
As for their work in the ring, both guys worked at an extremely high level. Michaels showed off everything by using his speed, taking some big bumps, hitting some big offensive maneuvers and even using technical wrestling to help the flow of the match although I do think he went to the armbar a little too much. Hart was fantastic too by working more of an aggressive heelish style although not going all out in terms of being a heel.
What I would have liked were some more falls because the 1-0 finish wasn't as good as something like 3-2 or even 2-1. They should have each got a countout win if they weren't willing to take pinfalls. Ego got in the way here, I think.
After the match was over, Vince McMahon delivered one of his most famous lines during his announcing career: "The boyhood dream has come true for Shawn Michaels!"
The night ended with my favorite wrestler ever, Shawn Michaels, winning the WWE Title for the first time. That's a moment I won't ever forget.
1. Steve Austin vs. The Rock @ WrestleMania 17
It's "Stone Cold" Steve Austin and The Rock at the peak of the Attitude Era main eventing the pay-per-view event that I feel is the best ever. It doesn't get much better than this.
The Rock was the babyface WWE Champion, having won it a month earlier from Kurt Angle. Austin was injured for most of the year 2000 due to neck surgery. He came back as the biggest hero in the company late in 2000. To start the year, Austin won the 2001 Rumble match and earned his WWE Title shot against Rock.
This was a rematch from their WrestleMania 15 matchup that Austin won. However, this time both guys were better performers going into it. I think Austin was too banged up in 1999 and it showed in his work. This time he was healthier. Rock was much better this time around too. The experience of working big matches for the two years leading up to this showed in his much improved in-ring performances.
I think what's most impressive about the match to me was it never slowed down. Neither guy stopped. It was full of action with memorable moments happening all the time. There wasn't a point in the match where you could say it lagged. It was fast paced from the minute the bell rang until the match was over.
The match went nearly 30 minutes with Austin winning the match after he turned heel thanks to the help of steel chairs and his arch nemesis Vince McMahon. He tried to win the match with his signature moves like the Stone Cold Stunner, but that wouldn't work. That's why the heel turn worked during the match because he did what he had to do in order to get the victory.
I thought each guy was phenomenal, which is no surprise when you're talking about superstars that are the caliber of Austin and Rock. I don't know if Rock was ever better than his performance here. His chemistry with Austin was always amazing. They had several good matches before this, no doubt. It's just that this one went up another level. His bumping was phenomenal and the heart he showed in kicking out after all the big moves made him a tougher guy in the eyes of the fans. He took a beating, yet he kept on coming.
The work Austin did here was the real story. He was, simply put, a machine. There was nothing flawed in his performance. The crowd was cheering him, but he wrestled as aggressively and as viciously as the best heels of any generation. The facial expressions he used when he couldn't pin Rock were great. I loved how he sold the Rock's late kick out by yelling "s**t" repeatedly because he was frustrated that he couldn't put him away. You could look in his eyes to see the emotion.
That's what professional wrestling is at its best. It's one thing to have a great brawl, but to have that plus each performer doing exactly what you'd hope for during the match shows just how great both of them were on this night.
This is one of those matches that will never get old with me no matter how many times I watch it. I've probably watched it a dozen times or so, yet it still feels fresh. When it comes to defining moments of the best era in WWE history, this match was it. I don't think they could have asked for anything better as an example of what the Attitude Era was.
Looking back, was it a great move to have Austin turn heel considering how much the crowd loved him? They did pop when he won, but there were boos when he shook Vince's hand too. He's said over the years that maybe they should have adlibbed and not done it, but that was the plan that they stuck with.
Because of the WCW angle that dominated the company soon after this, the turn didn't turn out as well as it could have. It doesn't hurt this match, though. The story was that Austin heeled it up (I like that term) by doing what he had to do to win. That meant aligning himself with his enemy Vince McMahon and using a ridiculous amount of chairshots. The match was a classic.
If I had to list my favorite matches ever, this would unquestionably be in the top five.
It's the best WWE Title match at WrestleMania ever.
Thoughts? Comments? Fire away.
John Canton - email@example.com