10. John Cena vs Triple H – WrestleMania XXII (2006)
This match was big, but that was in large part to the anti-Cena uprising that the fans had started late in 2005. This was when the “You can’t wrestle!” chants filled the arenas more often than not, and being that this Mania was held in Chicago, the volume was only turned up on the animosity. Cena had proven on several occasions then and has proved on many since that he is a tremendous competitor. He would take another step towards proving the naysayers wrong in this bout against The Game for the gold. The build didn’t have to be all that special. It mostly consisted of Helmsley playing off the sentiments of the fans. Once the bell rang, Triple H went from full heel to adopted face. He didn’t ignore that fact either, as he seemed to get stronger every time the crowd popped for him. The contrast in styles provided a classic, old school clinic with Helmsley coming off like Flair in his prime and Cena stirring up memories of Lex Luger in his NWA prime.
A defiant and hot Chicago crowd really stole the show this night and made a match that some might have just called average into something more. It caused both men to up their games and deliver a bout worthy of headlining the biggest event of them all. This match really set Cena on his way to reaching that next plateau of greatness and added another entry to his hall of fame resume when he forced Helmsley to tap out. You can talk about “burying” all you like, Triple H puts guys over and helps the business to evolve. He also puts on classic matches in the process.
9. Ultimate Warrior vs Hulk Hogan – WrestleMania VI (1990)
Toronto is one of the hottest wrestling cities in history, and its Skydome hosted this main event billed as “The Ultimate Challenge”. Ultimate Warrior rose to dominance in relatively quick fashion. He was like Hulk Hogan, on acid at 100 mph. It wasn’t hard to get pumped up as he sprinted down the aisle, leaped onto the apron and shook the ropes as of he was going to bring the arena down. If you asked someone why they loves him, they may have simply said, “Just look at him.” It only made sense to have him come up against Hulkamania, which while still running wild, was not sprinting forward with the ferocity of the Warrior. Was he a flavor of the week, or was he poised to assume the throne? This match would determine that, both in story line and in the reality of the business. The build included some intense, but often confusing promos that were a staple of the Warrior. All Hogan could really do was say, “Bring it brother.” The two entered the ring and had another one of those moments that echoed Mania III.
The match really served to prove that despite all detractors, Hogan and Warrior could put on a good wrestling match. The action was surprisingly diverse and fast paced. Warrior consistently seemed to edge out Hogan though, his blows carrying just a little more impact and his kick outs coming with more determination. It was clear the company believed he could be the man to carry things into the future. When Warrior didn’t allow the leg drop to keep him down, fans knew something big was about to go down. A press slam and a splash led to Hogan’s downfall. Warrior shared an embrace with the former champ and stood tall holding both the Intercontinental and WWE Championships. It was unforgettable, and for about a year, it seemed as if the transition would take place, but after the bad blood between Vince McMahon and the Warrior exploded before the main event of SummerSlam 1991, any hope of him becoming the heir to Hulk’s throne fell apart. Still, this match helped cement Warrior’s legacy and his spot in the 2014 Hall of Fame. Without it, the story just wouldn’t be the same.
8. John Cena vs Triple H vs Randy Orton – WrestleMania XXIV (2008)
A triple threat match for the WWE title is a rarity at Mania, in fact, this is the only one until we reach New Orleans on April 6th. Fortunately, all the elements of this bout worked and it made for a very entertaining and athletic contest. Cena had shocked the world when he appeared as the number 30 entrant in the 2008 Royal Rumble. His torn pectoral muscle was expected to keep him out for nearly a year. It was a genuine and welcome surprise and completely changed the landscape of the WrestleMania title race. Cena won the Rumble, but actually opted to cash in early at No Way Out against Randy Orton who was in the midst of one of his best heel title runs. Sadly for Cena, Orton would slap the referee in the face, intentionally getting himself disqualified. It seemed like Cena’s dream had evaporated in an instant, and now Triple H appeared poised to be the man to stand against Orton in Orlando. But John Cena would not be denied and found himself inserted into the conflict making it a Triple Treat.
The match actually suffered from some slight technical difficulties in the onset. The lighting had gone out during the previous diva tag match and so things were contested under the hot backup lights closer to the ring. In a way it gave the match a grittier feel, like the smaller venues of the old days. The action was a combination of spot sequences and sound technical exchanges. No one believed that Orton was leaving as the champion. Helmsley appeared to have sealed the deal with a Pedigree to Cena, but it was the crafty and ruthless Viper who struck with a punt to Triple H’s skull, stealing the fall and escaping with his title. Orton is in the Triple Threat match at Mania XXX as well. Will lightning strike twice?
7. CM Punk vs Chris Jericho – WrestleMania XXVIII (2012)
As far a great technical wrestling matches in Mania history goes, this top three. Originally, the plans were for Jericho to win the 2012 Royal Rumble. However, internet leaks led the WWE to change that plan at the last minute, thrusting Sheamus into that slot. That’s an entirely different can of worms. Jericho began to pursue Punk, after he had spent many weeks in unusual silent promos the blurred the line between heel and face. Eventually, it appeared as if all the original intentions of the story were abandoned and the core of this rivalry became about who was the best wrestler in the world. There were attempts to throw in some personal animosity with Jericho talking down Punk’s family and their substance abuse issues, but all that served to do was make a better pure wrestling contest. GM John Lauranitis informed Punk just before he walked through the curtain in Miami that if he got himself disqualified, he would lose the title. Whereas the stipulation hurt Triple H and Randy Orton in 2009, it allowed Punk and Jericho to tear the house down.
Granted, they were following the “End of an Era” Hell in a Cell between Undertaker and Helmsley, so the crowd was exhausted. Thankfully, a filler tag bout gave a little breathing room. Jericho and Punk went hold for hold and you would be hard pressed to find such a seamless and even match up in the last ten years. Had this not been in the middle of the chaos of Mania, it would have gotten an even better reaction. Still, there were beautiful counters from Anaconda Vices to Walls of Jericho, as well as a devastating top rope Code Breaker. It was proof of why Punk and Jericho are first ballot Hall of Famers and although Punk may not be the absolute best wrestler in the world, he showed the world that he was worthy of being in the main event of Mania. Although, given his now severed ties with WWE, that may not happen.
6. John Cena vs Shawn Michaels – WrestleMania XXIII (2007)
Had Triple H not torn his quad a second time, this rivalry may have never happened. You hate to see anyone injured or to walk out, but sometimes it forces the company to change things up and gives the fans what is ultimately a better and fresher match. That was the case at Mania XXIII. Shawn Michaels had won a Triple Threat bout against Randy Orton and Edge on Raw to earn the right to face Cena for the title. The Heartbreak Kid wanted to prove to himself and the world that he could run with the gold one more time, that he could stand toe to toe with the biggest star in the company on the biggest stage and still be the Showstopper. Cena tried to remain calm and collected, respectful of Michaels’ legacy as this match built. Michaels would not hear any of it. In a way, he received Cena’s respect as a sign that he didn’t buy Michaels as a legitimate threat to his championship.
However, as Cena blasted into Detroit in a flashy car, it became apparent that he was trying to convince himself he was in fact the man to beat. Michaels came off as confident and comfortable as ever. He took the fight to Cena, never giving him room to breathe. These two took a situation that was born out of necessity, with Helmsley on the shelf, and turned it into one of the best rivalries of the decade. Physically drained, both men fired off finishers like wounded soldiers trying to get off one last kill shot. At 28:20, Cena did the unthinkable. He made Mr. WrestleMania tap out. Not too many competitors hold such a distinction. It was yet another gold star on Cena’s Hall of Fame resume and one of the best Mania main events of all time.
5. Randy Savage vs Ric Flair – WrestleMania VIII (1992)
As WWE entered the 90s, two workhorses from the 80s went out on the grand stage of WrestleMania to prove that they could both still wrestle circles around the new generation. It stands to reason that two men who had both had such tremendous chemistry with Ricky Steamboat, would likewise have great chemistry with each other. At Mania VIII, that’s exactly what happened. Macho Man Randy Savage and Nature Boy Ric Flair put on a spectacle that has only gotten better with time. Many believed the Macho Man had stepped out of active competition following his loss to The Ultimate Warrior at WrestleMania VII, but when the Dirtiest Player in the Game insisted on taunting Savage with allegations that he and Miss Elizabeth had been more than just good friends, Macho Madness had to rise from the ashes and take the fight to Flair. Fight they did. Mr. Perfect stood by Flairs side for this bout, but he was just an unnecessary distraction. All we needed were the colors of brutality and wrestling acumen that Flair and Savage painted with on this night. And yes, some of it was crimson.
It wasn’t just blood for the sake of blood, or a move just for the sake of a pop. These two scholars of the business knew exactly what they were doing with each and every maneuver. By the time they had reached the end of this symphony, it was not only believable that Savage would win with a counter into a small package, but it actually was the ending that made the most sense. When two competitors run the gauntlet and push themselves so hard, a last gasp like Savage’s counter is the only logical resolution. He didn’t have the energy to drop the big elbow, hook the leg and get the epic three count. By it coming from nowhere, it only served to make this classic all the more meaningful. It kicks off the top five and deservedly so.
4. Brock Lesnar vs Kurt Angle – WrestleMania XIX (2003)
This match had the momentum and anticipation that could have pushed it into being a contender for the number one spot on this list. Unfortunately, the execution fell just shy of that honor. When Brock Lesnar, a former NCAA wrestling champion, debuted in 2002 and embarked on a campaign of destruction and “Ruthless Aggression”, it seemed inevitable that he would eventually cross paths with the Olympic Gold medalist and former NCAA champ in his own right, the wrestling machine, Kurt Angle. Fans would have to wait until near the end of Brock’s rookie year for this to come to fruition. Lesnar’s mentor, Paul Heyman had turned on the beast incarnate at Survivor Series in 2002 and aligned himself with Big Show and Kurt Angle. Out of this partnership, we also were given the wonderful gift of Charlie Haas and Shelton Benjamin, aka Team Angle. Trickery, sneak attacks and overly boastful behavior were Angles tools of the trade leading up to the match. Lesnar refused to stop, barreling through each and every obstacle Angle, Heyman and Show could throw his way. He won the 2003 Royal Rumble and it was clear that the audience would be treated to an early Christmas, as Angle vs Lesnar was slated to headline Mania XIX.
As we neared the end of the night at Safeco Field, the deck had been stacked pretty heavily against this match. Rock vs Austin III, Hogan vs McMahon, Michaels vs Jericho and Triple H vs Booker T had all preceded this clash and set the bar so high for not just Angle and Lesnar, but for any WrestleMania to come. Michael Cole had done so much screaming, that he had nearly lost his voice by the time Lesnar cam through the curtain. The match started out as a hold for hold amateur wrestling contest, with both men trying to show the other their chops. It evolved into a technical clinic, with suplexes and throws abound. It was tiring just to watch the back and forth barrage by two men whose conditioning was second to none. It was the overabundance of F-5s and the last spot in the match that prevented it from being perfect. It was scary watching Lesnar’s botched Shooting Star Press. If he wasn’t dead, his neck was broken. Incredibly he put both those theories to rest when he rose up and hit the third F-5 of the match for the win. The embrace between to genuine battled tested athletes was a Mania moment to remember. If the endgame had been as smooth as everything that preceded it, this bout could have claimed the title as the best ever.
3. Bret Hart vs Shawn Michaels – WrestleMania XII (1996)
If we dive too deeply into Bret and Shawn’s story, we’ll end up in a novella. So let’s focus on the idea and execution of the Iron Man match itself. There have only been seven in WWE history, and this had the honor of being the first. Although if you want to be picky, the old days saw an Iron Man match every night, six nights a week. That is really what the concept was an homage to. It was clear that the new generation of talent could go, but could they go the distance of their elders. HBK and The Hitman had quite the mountain to climb, a legacy of greats to do justice to. From the opening bell, it was a lesson in the game. There was a unique and time tested blend of styles, from solid rest holds, to death defying dives. Both competitors performed in the vein of the Harley Races and Ric Flairs, with echoes of Steamboat and Savage. The ingredients were mixing very well and holding the audience’s interest, which was key in determining whether or not this match type could survive going forward. Fortunately, there were still enough purists and loyal fans who appreciated what they were seeing.
The last ten minutes turned into a mad dash, both men struggling to gain a fall or submission. It had been a fifty minute stalemate, and if you listen to Bret Hart talk about it, it had gone exactly as he and Michaels had planned. The clock reached zero with Shawn in the Sharpshooter, but not tapping out. We were then treated to overtime. It is a point of contention between many die hard fans as to whether or not this portion of the bout was planned, but both Shawn and Bret put those rumors to rest in their 2011 home video interview, Greatest Rivalries: Shawn Michaels vs Bret Hart. The sudden death period was planned, as was the Sweet Chin Music that made Michaels’ boyhood dream come true. Every Iron Man match since has delivered, but only happened because of the success achieved at Mania XII.
2. Eddie Guerrero vs Kurt Angle – WrestleMania XX (2004)
Some may argue with this match being the runner up. However, I challenge anyone to go back an watch it again. Just because Bret and Shawn wrestled over an hour, does not mean they automatically are the best title match in Mania’s history. Length does not dictate how great a match is, at least in terms of going long. Too short of match never really gives the opportunity for things to get off the ground. Arguing a standard for match length is another article entirely. The fact remains that two of the absolute best of all time found their way together at the 20th anniversary of the show of shows in Madison Square Garden. It was a surreal moment at No Way Out 2004 when Eddie Guerrero defeated Brock Lesnar for the WWE title. No one ever thought that Latino Heat would ever ascend to the top of the heap, although he most certainly deserved it. The story played right into that idea, as Angle would go from a friend and referee for Guerrero family drama, to a vengeful, bitter and self righteous man determined to end the fairy tale.
The match saw Guerrero’s technical savvy on parade. Eddie had such upper body strength on such a small lower frame, that every thing he did in the ring was like a miniature explosion. He moved with such intent and grace, that you felt everything he was doing. That meshed so well with Angle’s in your face, unrelenting factory of offense. Together, these two gladiators churned out an instant classic and no other match in their rivalry ever reached the quality of this one. Lightning was captured in a bottle, and there was no better place for it to happen. In the end, Guerrero lived up to his character’s reputation, loosening his boot and causing Angle to jerk it completely off and get caught in a small package for the three count. The ending never felt tainted though. Much like Savage and Flair in 1992, it was a logical and satisfying end to an otherwise grueling and flawless contest. It deserves this spot on the list and only one other bout surpasses it as Mania’s best for the gold.
1. The Rock vs Stone Cold Steve Austin – WrestleMania X-Seven (2001)
It is only fitting that the two men who arguably had the greatest rivalry in WWE history could put on the greatest WWE Championship match in WrestleMania history. The build, like anything Rock and Austin did, felt completely organic. Austin had returned from a career threatening neck injury in September of 2000. After exercising vengeance on those responsible for running him down with a car at the 1999 Survivor Series, he was ready to reclaim his championship glory. In what may have been the greatest Royal Rumble match of all time, Austin last eliminated Kane to secure his spot in the main event in the Astrodome. The Rock would attain the coveted spot across the ring from the Rattlesnake by defeating Kurt Angle for the title at that year’s No Way Out. So the stage was set for Rock vs Austin II at WrestleMania XVII. The Rock had gone from the overly cocky and over the top corporate champ in 1999, to a more seasoned, righteously confident and dominant force in 2001. It was Austin that had seeds of doubt planted in his psyche and expressed his dire need to regain the title to help his legacy survive.
Fast forward to the final act of what many have said to be the greatest WrestleMania ever and the Houston crowd was even more energetic and engaged than they were when the night started. Austin was without question the hometown favorite and could do no wrong in the eyes of his fellow Texans. This match exemplified what professional wrestling is all about. Great action, elaborate storytelling and edge of your seat moments combine under the right roof at the right time to make history. Both men wound up battered an bloodied after going blow for blow, trading finishers and locking in submissions that came off as being the most excruciating either had ever been in. They sold so well and as always made everything feel so natural. It is so rare that two professional wrestlers have the kind of chemistry that Rock and Austin shared, and it reached its apex at Mania XVII. While the swerve of Austin’s heel turn tainted the ending in hindsight, it served as an effective and memorable close to the match. It caused me at 15, to rise from my seat and tear off my Austin t-shirt in disapproval of his actions. It doesn’t get much better than that.
There you have it. Thirty years of WrestleMania will be celebrated on April 6th in the Big Easy and we can only hope that we get even more moments and matches that will remained etched in our hearts and minds for years to come. We can also hope that with the possibility of Daniel Bryan’s ascension, that the WWE World Heavyweight title match will find itself high on this list when next year rolls around. Have a great Mania weekend fans, and watch responsibly.
> Where does the Daniel Bryan/Randy Orton/Batista Triple Threat match from WrestleMania XXX rank? Click here to find out