TheBigBoot’s Top Ten WrestleMania Opening Matches Of All Time

1. Bret Hart vs Owen Hart, WrestleMania X

cow-wrestlemania-10-bret-owen-hart

The Hype

Vince McMahon: “There will be TWO Championship matches right here at WrestleMania this afternoon. Yokozuna squares off against Lex Luger and then ‘The Hitman’ Bret Hart will meet the winner in the last match here at WrestleMania. But Bret is also squaring off against his brother Owen, right here at WrestleMania.

Right here at WrestleMania, indeed.

This one had been building for months. Some would say a lifetime. A year earlier Owen Hart was probably the most underrated guy in a major promotion, churning out some of the best TV matches of the year with Bam Bam Bigelow, Lex Luger, Jerry Lawler and Shawn Michaels without so much as a hint of a push. Every wrestling fan I knew at the time wanted him to have a stronger role but it wasn’t to be until Survivor Series ’93 when tension began developing between the Brothers Hart.

At that PPV Owen was the only Hart brother eliminated in their special ‘Family Feud’ Survivor Series Match (Bret, Owen, Bruce and Keith Hart against Shawn Michaels and the Red, Black and Blue Knights), after he collided with Bret on the apron and was rolled up by Michaels.

The Harts went on to win but post-match Owen stormed back out and got in a shoving match with Team Captain Bret. Two weeks later in a sit-down interview on SuperStars, Owen challenged Bret to a match to prove he was as good as his older brother. The next week on the same show, Bret replied in no uncertain terms “I am the best there is, was and ever will be and I’ll take on anybody but under no circumstances would I ever, absolutely, positively, not ever step in the ring with my own brother under ANY circumstances.”

Apparently, and realistically, they made peace off screen over the holidays and on the Christmas episode of Superstars they stood together as Bret revealed he was putting his singles career on hold to go after the WWF Tag Team Titles.

They would receive their shot at the Royal Rumble where their failure to defeat defending champions The Quebecers, after the referee deemed Bret Hart’s knee injury serious enough to stopped that match, provided the impetus for Owen’s full-blown heel turn where he attacked Bret and “kicked his leg from under his leg”. 😉

Later that night, the Royal Rumble match itself ended in controversy when the final two Lex Luger (coming off the back of the most expensive push in wrestling history) and an injured Bret eliminated each other resulting in a draw. Since the winner of the Rumble was supposed to receive a title shot at Yokozuna WrestleMania it resulted in a unique situation where there were two viable Number One Contenders.

Rather than have them square off in a match, WWF President Jack Tunney’s solution was to award both men title shots at the big pay-per-view. A special ‘WrestleMania Coin Toss’ was to determine who would get the first crack at Yoko was held on Monday Night Raw. Luger won, meaning the winner of the Luger/Yokozuna match would have to defend against Bret Hart later that night.

To make things fair, the other challenger would have to have a match earlier that night (if Luger had lost the coin toss he would have faced Crush).

The Match

Owen Hart, March to WrestleMania X: “You’ve held me down all my life.”

This was the first time McMahon kicked off ‘The Showcase of the Immortals’ with one of the feature matches. It wouldn’t be the last.

Like the Savage/Warrior at WrestleMania VII this is one match that takes full advantage of the entrances and surroundings. My favourite moment of the entire match might be when Bill Dunn announces “First from Calgary… Alberta, Canada” and half the audience jump up to cheer expecting Bret only for Owen’s theme tune to hit.

Just hearing the name of the place was so associated with Bret. It’s no wonder Lance Storm later used it as his catchphrase.

The sea of Canadian flags in the background at the start show makes me think a lot of fans had come across the border to see this. This was the first WrestleMania opener where you got the impression people had paid their hard earned money to go and see just this match.

Owen literally walking out of the shadows is a memorable scene and one that foreshadowed the eventual result. ‘The Rocket’ comes out to a mixture of cheers and boos. As much as he was portrayed as the heel in the build-up it seemed some fans sympathised with him.

Meanwhile, Bret gets a booming ovation as he strolls to the ring in a long leather trench coat. He gives away sunglasses. This was by far his best at any ‘Mania to this point, and any thereafter in my opinion. No wonder he liked working at MSG so much because ‘The Hitman’ was mega over in NYC!

And MSG always loved Bret right back. I think he reminded some of them of Bob Backlund, the classic scientific wrestler who held the WWF Title from 1978 to 1984 and entered the WWE Hall of Fame appropriately held at the Garden this weekend. I mean that more in terms of straight laced athlete who would out-think his opponents rather than overpower them with raw muscle, than in terms of personality although ‘The Hitman’ did have more of an aggressive brawling style fit for the 1990s Generation which he kept as part of his act from his heel days in The Hart Foundation. (Fun Fact: On 23rd November of that year at Survivor Series, Bob Backlund would be the (unlikely) man to end Bret Hart’s WWF Title run that began this night).

Bret, Piper and Savage were by far the most over acts on this show (celebrities included) to the extent it made everyone else seem a bit second rate despite WWF actually having a pretty solid roster for the time (Luger, Michaels, Razor Ramon, etc.).

Having said that, the kid he gives the glasses to looks less than happy. Jerry Lawler on commentary is great here: “He’s an Owen Hart fan – he stuck his tongue out!” Back from his personal problems, Lawler entered one of his best ever showings on commentary leaving his rivals in the dust and securing the spot he still holds to this day. For instance when Vince mentions Bret looking out for Owen when they were growing up Lawler asks “Where did you hear that? And don’t be spreading that ridiculous rumour!

The Garden breaks out into a booming “Let’s go Bret!” during instructions. The start of a match can be very important sometimes. First lock-up – curiously Owen wins… and then celebrates like he just won the World Cup or at least the FA Vase.

Vince McMahon: “Was that some sort of a victory? Come on!”

A second lock-up and Owen takes Bret over with a smooth fireman’s carry, then when Bret locks on a head-scissors ‘The Rocket’ nips-up and celebrates again! Even when he was positioned at the top end of the card working programs with Michaels, Diesel or big brother Bret, Owen always had a comedic aspect to his character.

There is lot of mat-wrestling which was unusual for a WWF match up to that point (or since!) as they trade fireman’s carries, hammerlocks, and wrist-locks. Whilst I disagree with the view that says Owen was better than Bret you could argue he has the advantage here not just because he was the best amateur wrestler of the Hart Family, but he’s more creative with all the nip-ups, cartwheels, counters and reversals as anyone who’s seen World of Sport or in New Japan will attest. In fact a lot of this match seemed designed to put Owen over by playing to his strengths, rather than ‘protecting’ the star in Bret, which is smart booking in this case.

When Bret eventually gets the better of Owen, using a nifty leverage move to escape a wrist-lock and send his younger brother bumping outside, Lawler screamed “That’s a low move, right there! That is a cheap low move, right there!”

Owen is the one to draw first blood with a slap to the face. I’m not sure that is a smart move. I like the way they wrestle as though they are exactly even with Vince giving the advantage to Bret and Lawler to Owen… Until it turns rough at which point Bret gets control and Owen (who wanted this match soooo badly remember?) turns chicken and tries to leave only to be dragged back.

Jerry Lawler: “If you want to judge this and score it on points, Owen’s way ahead now.”

In fact Owen wrestles the bulk of the match ‘straight’, unusual for a heel in the WWF at that time, to the extent he’s more like a tweener here. When Owen gets the advantage it’s legally with his spinning heel kick and I remember the next day at school someone telling me how much they loved it when Owen “kicked Bret out of the ring” which is exactly what he does next.

Vince McMahon: “And kicked literally outside!”

He follows up by working on his big bro’s back – ramming into the ring post, using a Bret Hart-style backbreaker and applying the camel clutch. Nothing unusual there, but what makes this great even though Owen is in control and punishing his older brother it’s Bret who picks up the near-falls (showing he knows what he’s doing at all times) rolling through on Owen’s flying cross-body block, landing on him when Owen attempts a bodyslam (a neat flashback to the opening match between Shawn Michaels on Tito Santana at WM VII) and countering a suplex into an inside cradle!

Nine minutes in, Owen flips out of Bret’s attempted backbreaker and hits a nice Tombstone piledriver. At the time, I was amazed at the way he did it so quickly and Bret sold it so well– it just looked like the most devastating move ever. Like the ‘Ultimate Finishing Move’. At the time I was watching with a friend and I remember shouting to him that it “was the move of the night!”

For the rest of the show, he kept asking “is that move better?” as Michaels and Razor hit one crazy stunt after another with a ladder and I kept replying “No.” In the end he shouted “It’s JUST A PILEDRIVER!” Little did we know what would happen to Steve Austin three years later

It’s sold as if it could lead to the finish but of course ‘The Rocket’ misses his follow-up move the diving headbutt, allowing Bret to make his comeback with his ‘finishing sequence’. For anyone who thinks ‘The Hitman’ does the exact same thing every match, I will throw this point out there: this is the first WrestleMania up to this point where he’s actually able to go through all of it. Here we see the inverted atomic drop, clothesline, Russian legsweep, side backbreaker, forearm of the second rope. Even then he doesn’t hit the bulldog which is often listed as part of the ‘Famous Five’.

But Owen also has a big move up his sleeve – the enziguri. It looks so good that it reminds me of the angle with HBK a couple of years later. It was always a good set up for Owen’s Sharpshooter, which it acts as here, as it normally looked like it pretty much KO’d the recipient before he put it on.

In fact both men know the counter and block each others Sharpshooters before they can be applied. Why more people don’t counter it the way Bret does: with a punch to the head?

Given the time that has elapsed, the fact that both have done most of their trademark moves and that Bret has to wrestle again later you think that the finish is just around the corner. In fact it’s not.

When, Bret injures his knee hitting a plancha dive it sets up the next stage of the match as Owen again takes control, this time working on the leg. In a neat tie-in with earlier, he again uses a combination of the ring-post and submission holds. When was the last time before this we saw an Indian deathlock in the WWF?

In the end Bret reverses a figure-four and makes another comeback with a revenge enziguri. Wow, this is a great match.

This sets up Bret’s second babyface comeback only this time he brings out the BIG moves as ‘Hitman’ follows up with a beautiful punch, a headbutt, and an Irish whip across the ring with Owen taking Bret’s trademark chest-first bump into the buckles (how cool was that?). It was almost as if Owen was playing the role of 1987 era Bret here and it was such a signature spot at that point that this was a nice little touch. Bret finished the sequence with a big leg drop but stopped to sell his own leg before going for the pin.

No one could put move combinations together like Bret Hart. Here he scored more nearfalls with a bulldog, piledriver, Suicideplex (superplex with both men on the top rope) remembering to sell his leg in-betweenfor some increasingly convincing near-falls.

Owen has one more trick up his sleeve and counters a sleeperhold with a desperation low-blow, then applies his own nastier looking version of the sharpshooter. Bret counters into one of his own for a big pop (I don’t think I’d ever seen a Sharpshooter reversal spot before then), but Owen grabs ropes…

Both men get to their feet and following another back-and-forth exchange, Owen shocks the world by scoring a clean pin over big brother Bret when he counters a victory roll.

The seconds after the fall are a true classic ‘WrestleMania Moment’. the fans can’t believe it, and even Owen looks shocked as he asks Earl Hebner if it was really a three count! The disappointed look on Bret’s face says it all. He looks convincingly pissed-off.

Owen’s post-match promo is a bit confused: “I proved I’m a better man than you! And I’m going to beat you! >pause<_… Here at WrestleMania I beat you!”

TheBigBoot’s Post-Match Analysis

Owen Hart (post-match interview): “Now I am the best there is, the best there was and I am going to be the best there ever will be.”

What a way to kick the show off! For the fourth year in a row the opening match at WrestleMania was one of the better bouts on the show. In this case it was one of the better matches of all time. This rates right up there with Midnight Express/Southern boys at Great American Bash ’90 and Brian Pillman/Jushin Liger at WCW’s SuperBrawl II as one of my favourite PPV openers of all time, except in this case it really might be the greatest start to a PPV ever.

This was 20:21 of the best wrestling WWF/E has ever produced. Some would even argue it was the best. From a technical point of view this is by far the best WrestleMania match since Savage/Steamboat way back at WrestleMania III. I’ve read that the battle of the ‘Brothers Hart’ was originally supposed to be modeled on that match with tons of near falls but when the audience didn’t react as well as they’d hoped they ad-libbed the match they had. Whatever the case, I’m glad they went the route they did because it really worked.

Between AJPW producing contenders for the greatest tag team (Mitsuharu Misawa & Kenta Kobashi vs Toshiaki Kawada & Akira Taue; 21st May) and singles match (Mitsuharu Misawa vs Toshiaki Kawada; 3rd July) of all time and AJW’s ten hour Big Egg Wrestling Universe; NJPW’s clasic Super J Cup – 1st Stage; ECW’s Night The Line Was Crossed (the show that really put them on the map); SMW’s Night of the Legends; AAA’s When World’s Collide (promoted in conjunction with WCW in the United States) and WCW’s Spring Stampede and Slamboree producing some of the most memorable supershows of all time 1994 was the absolute pinnacle for actual in-ring wrestling.

The Brothers Hart kicking off the tenth WrestleMania in such memorable fashion were a big part of the reason why.

WWF had had classic matches on pay-per-view before this (some of which I prefer) but at the time starting this show with a match of this caliber seemed like a turning point. Along with Shawn Michaels breakout performance as ‘The Next Big Thing’ in his Classic Ladder match with Razor Ramon later that night, it set the bar and established a new style and standard of work for the company that fans would expect WrestleMania matches to live up to.

The classic matches since WrestleMania like Savage/Warrior (WM VII), Bret/Piper (WM VIII), Savage/Flair (WM VIII), and even Hogan/Warrior (WM VI) were based more  around the emotion, the spectacle, being all-out fights or a combination of all three.

Here there is plenty of emotion and some brutality, but most of the emphasis is placed on the actual wrestling (as in trying to out-wrestle each other) especially early on. There was plenty of mat-wrestling uncharacteristic of WWF in the post-Backlund era.

Owen worked more like a tweener than an outright heel early on, getting progressively heelish as the match wore on but in the end it was a legal wrestling move that scored him a clean win. Owen never became a full-time Main Eventer (as if that is all that matters) but it certainly wasn’t due to this match. As the match went on he looked more and more like Bret’s equal and one forgot all about the years he had spent jobbing.

No blood. No gimmicks. No titles on the line. This was all about the in-ring action. Very few straight wrestling matches in WWF/E can stand up to this from a pure wrestling perspective.

There was also some really good psychology throughout things weren’t magically ‘forgotten’ in order to set up the next spot so it felt like the match was moving forwards at all times, rather than stopping and starting.

The finish worked because Bret won King of the Ring ’93, beating Bam Bam Bigelow with the victory roll thus it was unexpected that it would be reversed and in fact looks like just another false finish, only for it to be countered. What’s significant here is the fact that Owen won the match clean. Also the fact that Bret kicks out the very second afterwards shows just how evenly matched they were.

Later that night, Bret would go on to defeat Yokozuna for the WWF Title becoming the only man in history to open and close the biggest show of the year.

Before that he was part of the best WrestleMania Opening Match there is, was and (likely) ever will be.

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