Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Ohhh, It's WrestleMania!
Our Favorite 'Mania Matches of the '90s!

In my very humble opinion, this is the most wonderful time of the year for sports fans.

Winter marches to the end and spring gets to be sprung.


The best tournament in all of sports intoxicates sports fans and gamblers everywhere and Baseball inches closer to its opening day.

But one big event may overshadow all of that. It’s the granddaddy of them all, the showcase of the immortals; It’s WrestleMania!

As the road to WrestleMania 29 is taking shape, Frankie and I thought it would be fitting to share our top 10 WrestleMania matches of the 90s.

These 10 matches are action-packed and drama-filled pieces of work that make us remember why we are fans of professional wrestling to begin with.

By the way, I am pretty sure that I figured out roman numerals as a kid because of WrestleMania and possibly the Super Bowl.



Hulk Hogan vs. The Ultimate Warrior
Champion vs. Champion at WrestleMania VI

I've talked about this match before recently; this was the Ultimate Warrior's one moment in time, his chance to set himself apart from Hulk Hogan at the top of the WWF's heap. Judged by this match alone, he succeeded wonderfully. I know neither of them had reputations for great workrate, but the psychology and flow of this match are amazing. It's everything I want from a Wrestlemania match. There's a big match feel, from the ring entrances to the way the two men take their time eyeing each other before a single punch is thrown, to the escalating action, as each wrestler trades blows in a "can you top this?" fashion.


It's also important to note how commentary can aid or detract from a match. Gorilla Monsoon and Jesse "The Body" Ventura (possibly the best commentary team of all time) put over each man without getting too saccharine. Their reactions help regulate the emotional pace of the match, which is important when things get even more heated. That this is a huge match between two faces is a bit of a hiccup, but Ventura is able to navigate it beautifully even as a heel commentator. And as for how that works in the ring, there's a ref bump (where the referee is knocked down and out long enough to miss a pinfall) that manages to work perfectly without turning either man.

As designed by Pat Patterson, the match is meant to put Warrior over while keeping Hogan strong. It's a mythic battle between two larger than life superhuman characters. But the edge goes to the Warrior, who had momentum and the illusion of destiny on his side (and maybe a bit of the real thing for that matter). As he told Arsenio Hall during the promotion for this match, "Hulk Hogan is the greatest WWF Champion that has ever been. But I have not yet been!" It was his time, and he earned it here.


Ultimate Warrior vs. “Macho King” Randy Savage
Retirement Match at WrestleMania VII

The Ultimate Warrior won the WWF title from Hulk Hogan during the first Wrestlemania of the decade. His run, as Frankie has pointed out, was okay but did not do the type of business big enough to replace Hulkamania. So, as 1991 began, Warrior was set to defend his title against Iraqi sympathizer and former American hero Sgt. Slaughter at the Royal Rumble. Savage wanted a crack at the belt but Slaughter got in the title picture instead. So, Savage, as the heel “Macho King” interfered in the match, hit Warrior over the head with a scepter. Safe to say, the Ultimate Warrior wasn’t happy with that. Since Hulk Hogan was slated to defend America’s honor by facing Slaughter for the championship to main event WrestleMania, Warrior and Savage were free to settle their score at the biggest event of the year. But it wasn’t just pride on the line, but each man’s career. Warrior challenged Savage to a retirement match, which the “Macho King” accepted.


This match stole the show at WrestleMania. Proving once again that he could make almost anyone look good in the ring, Savage gave it his all and Warrior hung in there with him. In a twist, Miss Elizabeth, Savage’s former manager was seen in the audience, showing concern for Randy. His five elbow drops were not enough to put away Warrior, who hit three jumping shoulder blocks of his own to defeat Randy Savage, ending his career. Incredible match, but what was most memorable took place after the contest. Sensational Sherri was so upset that her meal ticket had lost that she added insult to injury by attacking Savage in the ring. Seeing enough, Elizabeth ran in and attacked Sherri, saving Savage. Then we had the WrestleMania moment of Savage realizing what had happened and him reuniting with his former manager and wife. Sure a great wrestling career seemed like it was over, but having Savage and Miss Elizabeth back together again kind of broke down that wall in wrestling where it seemed like real life was peeking through.


"Rowdy" Roddy Piper vs. Bret "The Hitman" Hart
Intercontinental Championship at WrestleMania VIII

Blood.

That's my most defining memory of this match. Bret Hart, blood flowing from just above his eye, standing victorious and exchanging a hug with his defeated opponent. He looked like he had survived a vicious fight. Against "Rowdy" Roddy Piper, that's what you were always assured.

In hindsight, this match was really just a formality. "The Hitman" won the Intercontinental Championship in what I still think is the greatest match of all time, at SummerSlam 1991. But Hart's contract came up for renewal in around the end of the year, as he feuded with the Mountie. With the state of his contract and status in the WWF uncertain, Bret dropped the title to the Mountie at an untelevised house show. (The kayfabe reason for his loss? A 110-degree fever.)

But Bret and Piper have actual family history, with Piper being a distant cousin to Hart, and the "Rowdy One" was able to mine that history for added effect, giving weight to a feud that was built mainly to give Hart his belt back. Piper was a transitional champion, but he was also every bit the promo man Hart wasn't. He was also a pure fighter, a former Golden Gloves champion and a black belt judoka. What mattered most was that both men were expert in-ring storytellers.

 
The blood came from a moment about midway when Piper hit Bret with a sucker punch to the eye. 

A couple more blows, and it was freely flowing. At the time, blood was pretty much a rarity on WWF television, so whenever anyone was busted open, it created a moment of instant impact.   It sent a message to the kids watching at home; that message was that these two men may both be good guys, but they'll rip each other's heads off for that title. There was also the sense that Piper could turn at any time, and for much of the match, he was working a heel style, leveling Hart with more aggressive shots and using underhanded moves such as biting.     

There was even a ref bump, leading to a pivotal point where "Hot Rod" had the ring bell in hand, ready to clock the challenger. Would he do it? Would he follow the devil on his shoulder and betray his friend to keep the strap? He didn't, though the fact we all doubted him for a moment speaks to his mastery in playing such an unpredictable character. Bret ultimately won, bouncing off the corner to reverse a trademark Piper sleeperhold into a pin.     

And Piper took the loss in grace, embracing his old friend and handing him the belt he so rightly deserved.    


Randy Savage vs. Ric Flair    
WWF Championship at WrestleMania VIII

Frankie and I didn’t want to rank these matches but I’ll be perfectly honest with you, this match was my favorite WrestleMania match of the 90s. Three things really stick out.
  1. This was Ric Flair’s WrestleMania debut (His only match at the big event until 2002.)
  2. This was Randy Savage’s second WWF title win, his first since winning the championship tournament four years earlier at WrestleMania IV.
  3. Probably the most suitable replacement for the Hogan-Flair dream match wrestling fans were waiting for.
Flair won the vacant WWF title during the greatest Royal Rumble match ever in January 1992. Hulk Hogan was going to be the contender for the title but Sid Justice was angry at him (rightfully so, Hogan cost Justice the Royal Rumble.) So, a “Double Main Event” was booked for WrestleMania VIII at the Hoosier Dome in Indianapolis. Hogan was going to meet Justice, and Savage and Flair were going to go at it for the title.


The buildup to Flair-Savage was pretty simple.

Flair basically claimed he had been with Miss Elizabeth (you know, “been with”) before the Macho Man was in the picture. Flair, along with his executive consultant Mr. Perfect, claimed he had naked pictures of Elizabeth and was set to reveal them to the worldwide WrestleMania audience. You could sense that Flair’s antics were driving the already psychotic Macho Man over the top.

It was a red-hot feud that led to a ridiculously hot match at WrestleMania. These two men, two of the greatest in-ring performers of all-time, put on a clinic. While “The Dirtiest Player in the Game” did his damndest to try to steal a win from the Macho Man, Randy was doing everything in his power to defend the honor of his beloved wife and manager Elizabeth. You felt like he cared more about that than getting the title. Flair did one of his trademark blade jobs and was drenched in the red stuff, adding to the craziness of the match. And, despite Flair and Perfect throwing out all the stops, it was the Macho Man, with a handful of tights, who walked away victorious.

Hell broke loose after the match when Flair laid a kiss on Elizabeth and was attacked by her and Savage, adding to the incredibly personal nature of this feud. Another WrestleMania moment was created when Savage and Elizabeth celebrated his second WWF title in the middle of the ring.  


Bret Hart vs. Owen Hart
Opening match at WrestleMania X

Bret and Owen had been on a collision course since the 1993 Survivor Series when Owen and Bret had a confrontation following their win over Shawn Michaels and his (well, actually Jerry Lawler’s) Knights.

(Long story).

Owen had been trying to get out of Bret’s shadow and challenged him to a match, but Bret refused to fight his own flesh and blood. They reunited at the 1994 Royal Rumble in a Tag Team title match against The Quebecers. Bret “injured” his knee in that match and The Quebecers took care of business, beating the Hart brothers. Owen wasn’t so happy and he kicked Bret’s leg, sending him to the mat.

Bret co-won the Royal Rumble match with Lex Luger that same night, thus giving them both a shot at Yokozuna’s WWF title at WrestleMania. Luger would get Yokozuna first for the belt, the winner having to defend against Bret to end WrestleMania. But to make it fair that all participants would each have to wrestle two matches that night, Bret had to face Owen to open up the show.


The 20-minute gem they would put together would define the term, hot-opener.

The chemistry was incredible, both men painting a proverbial Picasso in the ring. The ending was a shocker to my 8-year-old self, Owen blocked Bret’s victory roll attempt and cleanly pinned him, one-two-three.

Owen had finally gotten the best of his older, more accomplished brother. What makes this match even more memorable is how this WrestleMania transpired and ended. Luger lost to Yoko so Bret would get a rematch with Yokozuna from their encounter the previous WrestleMania. Bret ended up pinning the monster after Yoko slipped up during a Bonzai Drop attempt. Luger and all the “good guys” in the back came out to celebrate Bret’s huge victory and second WWF title win.

With the celebration going on in the middle of the ring, out comes Owen, starring in disgust. His older brother overshadowed him yet again. Just hours after Owen pinned Bret cleanly, it was Bret who was celebrating, hoisted on shoulders as a conquering hero.

Owen won their match but it was Bret who was still winning the war.


Shawn Michaels vs. Razor Ramon 
Ladder Match for the Intercontinental Championship at WrestleMania X 

It wasn't the first ladder match in wrestling history, but the ladder match for the Intercontinental Championship at WrestleMania X was the first televised match of that sort. 

The story: Shawn Michaels was stripped of the IC belt; the storyline reason was that he hadn't fulfilled a set title defense quota. (Behind the scenes, Michaels reportedly tested positive for steroids.) Razor Ramon won the vacant title after a battle royal and subsequent match against "The Model" Rick Martel. 

Michaels returned with a copy of the belt, claiming he never lost it, and the two were set to fight for it at Madison Square Garden. Ladder matches are hardly shocking nowadays after Extreme Championship Wrestling, the WWF Attitude era, and thousand of independent wrestling clips on the internet have made that gimmick commonplace. But in 1994, they were still a novelty, and only the most athletic guys on the roste could have carried this sort of match off. 


Shawn Michaels gets a lot of attention for his work--he's "Mr. Wrestlemania," of course. 

But I gotta talk about Scott Hall for a moment. When people talk about Hall these days, it's because of his problems with drug addiction, problems he continues to battle. (Right now, Diamond Dallas Page is attempting to do what about a dozen stints in rehab couldn't.) But it's worth remembering that at his peak, Scott Hall was one of the most gifted men ever to hit the squared circle. He had the rough-hewn looks and the tall, chiseled body to be a star, but he had the athletic ability and the workrate to truly get over. 

What do I remember most about this ladder match? Two men using the ladder as backdrop, as a diving board, and as a weapon. Ramon won the match, but the outcome is secondary to the impact it had. Two men at the top of their collective game raised the bar for violence, and as it turned out, we had a taste for it. 


Ahmed Johnson and The Legion of Doom vs. The Nation of Domination 
A Chicago Street Fight at WrestleMania 13

Unlike the other matches on this list, this one is not a critical darling.

In layman’s terms it’s two teams of three, beating the living snot out of each other. The feud started when Faarooq (Ron Simmmons) debuted in the WWF in the summer of 1996 by attacking Ahmed Johnson. Johnson would eventually get sidelined with a kidney problem at the hands of Faarooq. While Johnson was gone, Faarooq put together a stable known as The Nation of Domination.

The three main players would be Faarooq, Crush and Savio Vega. Those three would battle Johnson and the returning Legion of Doom, Hawk and Animal at WrestleMania. Since the 13th edition was taking place in the Windy City, this match would be declared a “Chicago Street Fight” meaning anything goes.

I was excited for this one mostly because I was a huge LOD fan and was pumped to see them return to the WrestleMania stage. Again, this one was no gem but to quote Good Old JR, it was a, “slobberknocker.” Each side dished out their fair share of punishment with all sorts of weapons, the action taking place inside and outside the ring.

The fun 11-minute brawl ended when Animal leveled Crush with a 2x4. A blood feud between Johnson and Faarooq getting its due with this solid chaotic street fight involving my favorite tag team of all-time.

I'm pretty sure this is the first time anyone has said Ahmed Johnson and favorite match in the same space. 


Bret "The Hitman" Hart vs. "Stone Cold" Steve Austin 
Submission Match at WrestleMania 13 

This was a very simple story. Bret Hart's star was on the wane, while Steve Austin's was on the rise. 

As Bret struggled to keep some control over his character, Austin saw his heel character, a beer-swilling, bird-flipping, unapologetic redneck, become more and more popular, ever since his instant classic "Austin 3:16" promo after winning the King of the Ring. This marked a shift unfamiliar to the WWF and its audiences at the time: the audience was not only rejecting the face, but also favoring the heel. 

Hence the double turn. 

I talked about double turns before here, where both men switch alliances in the course of one moment. It's very, very tricky to get right, which is why it's so rare. But this bout, a submission match between two very bitter in-ring rivals, pulled it off so brilliantly that it's become one of the most famous matches of all time for that reason. 


It's also one of the best matches of all time because it's absolutely amazing from bell to bell. 

It's uncharacteristically violent for a Bret Hart match, with both men really working heel at alternating times. It works, because Bret's character at the time was fraying at the edges, dissatisfied with the way the business was going (a lot like his real frame of mind). I don't even mind all the time spent brawling on the outside, because both men were able to keep it to the point and get back to the ring without meandering. And that figure four leglock using the ringpost? Just genius. 

But it all comes back to the double turn. Austin was crowned the new ascendant babyface, and he didn't have to change his character at all. He was the same beer-swilling, bird-flipping, unapologetic redneck. That's just what the fans wanted now. 


Steve Austin vs. Shawn Michaels 
WWF Championship at WrestleMania XIV. 
  1. Three things make this one stand out for me. 
  2. This was the official beginning of the “Stone Cold” Steve Austin era. 
  3. This was Shawn Michaels’ final match until 2002. 
  4. Mike freakin’ Tyson 
Steve Austin’s rise to the top started with his 1996 King of the Ring speech and climaxed nearly two years later at WrestleMania XIV. You just knew he was going to be the top dog and it was a matter of time before he got the company’s biggest prize, the WWF Championship.

But Vince and the gang needed the perfect circumstances to basically crown Austin the next Hogan. So the stars ended up aligning. Vince signed Mike Tyson in the beginning of 1998 to participate in WrestleMania that year as a guest enforcer for the WWF title match.

Tyson, with his trademark craziness and incredibly checkered past, was the mega star the WWF needed to get people talking about them again. So when Austin and Iron Mike traded shoves and hell broke loose on Monday Night Raw, the huge mainstream media buzz was sparked.


Meanwhile, Shawn Michaels had the title since the Montreal Screwjob and there was no better opponent to make Austin “the guy” than The Heartbreak Kid. The main event for WrestleMania is supposed to feel “big” and Austin-Michaels with Tyson as guest enforcer was the perfect way to officially move Austin into the stratosphere. But Austin’s entrance signified Michaels’ exit. His back was in terrible shape so this match, the main event of WrestleMania XIV, was looking like the swan song for “The Showstopper.”

But to add intrigue, Tyson joined forces with Michaels and Triple H, Degeneration-X, so once again, it looked like the odds were completely stacked against The Texas Rattlesnake.

To end the 20-minute battle, Austin hit the Stone Cold Stunner on Michaels and Tyson made the three count. Tyson then raised Austin’s hand and when confronted by Michaels, Tyson threw a right hand, knocking the now former champion out, showing that he was part of the Austin 3:16 bandwagon and not the D-X train. The WWF got the mainstream visuals they wanted.

Tyson raising Austin’s hand as the new champion and Tyson knocking out Shawn Michaels. It was this match that signaled the beginning of the Austin era and the end of WCW.


"Stone Cold" Steve Austin vs. The Rock 
WWF Championship at WrestleMania XV 

As much as internet fans love to extol the virtues of the Attitude Era and the WWF's edgier programming, most people kind of forget that the booking was often scattershot and sloppy.  (And yet, it was miles ahead of what was going on at WCW, where egos grew too huge and sank the ship; WWF has really only had room for one huge ego guiding it, and that's Vince McMahon.)  

Characters would change allegiances often, titles would change hands frequently, and clean finishes were kind of a lost concept. I wasn't actually watching the WWF during this time--I came back to wrestling months later--but what the WWF had over its competitors, aside from a singular vision, was an abundance of personalities able to keep things entertaining and profitable (as opposed to the Hogan era).  

Stone Cold Steve Austin was the company's principal moneymaker, but before long, the Rock was roughly his equal. Like Austin, the Rock was another man who found audience acceptance as a heel, though his path was a little different.  The Rock was a third-generation wrestling star, and when he joined the company, he was pushed to the moon as a bland uber-face.  The fans rejected him, and when the company decided to make him a bad guy, Rock took to the turn with vigor, verbally assaulting the fans with a quick wit and a seemingly inexhaustible array of catchprases.  

Ultimately, the Rock became a face again, this time without having to change who he was at heart.  The only difference was that he was the People's Champion.  By this time, though, he'd sold out the fans and become McMahon's Corporate Champ. 

The two men have met three times at WrestleMania -- WWE.com named their rivalry the greatest in 'Mania history, as a matter of fact--but their first match was at the tail end of the '90s, so it's the only one to qualify here, even if it wasn't quite the best of the three (the general consensus is that their second match two years later was the better one).  

Even still, there were seldom two men with greater in-ring chemistry than Stone Cold and the Rock. 


A lot of what makes this match memorable isn't really my taste now--there's a no disqualification stipulation announced before the show, the first ten minutes are largely spent outside the ring brawling, and the last ten involve three ref bumps, a McMahon run-in, and finally a save from Mankind, who comes down to the ring as an appointed referee.  It's overbooked as hell (though wickedly fun.

Part of that is the energetic Philadelphia crowd, hotter than anyone had ever seen up to that point.  The few slow moments of the match are infused with electricity from the audience.  The match itself is paced very well and flows easily.  And again, the Rock and Steve Austin had "it."  Even without the interference and the stipulations, you could just put them in a ring and watch them tear it up.  

They were made for WrestleMania.

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