They can’t all suck.

No matter how bad a card might be, there has to be one match that stands out. Just as you’re guaranteed, with every WrestleMania, that one match will be the worst of the bunch, one match will be the best of the night.

But that’s not saying much is it?

Obviously every show has a peak and valley, that’s not very informative. You can take what is considered by many the “perfect” show, WrestleMania X-Seven, and even it had Chyna vs Ivory. If that match hadn’t happened, the honor of “worst in show” would have gone to the Gimmick Battle Royal. Something has to be the worst, and just the same: Something has to be the best.

But every now and then there is a match that rises above the others. It doesn’t just claim the title of “the best on the card;” it is emphatically deemed “the show-stealer.”

These are the rare, non-main-event matches, that happen every now and then, that so clearly out-shine everything else that they become synonymous with that particular show. WrestleMania has had a few of them, and since that particular stage is the “showcase of the immortals” it is only fitting that those epic showstealers would become some of the most famous matches in Pro Wrestling’s history.

RANDY SAVAGE AND RICKY STEAMBOAT STEAL THE SHOW AT WRESTLEMANIA III

THE PERFECT MATCH (PART ONE)

This match has almost become a victim of its own praise. Lists that feature the best matches at WrestleMania are sure to feature this at LEAST in the top three. Best title matches? Top five in most lists. Best IC title matches? Certainly top two. Rarely does anyone remember the story, which is arguably just as great as the match itself. That sounds blasphemous to some, since this match is often held up as the “perfect” match. It may be; certainly the amount of practice and spot-memorization (via Savage’s flash cards and pop-quizzes to Steamboat in the weeks leading up to the match) played a part.

Still, a modern fan, who has simply heard the praises of this match be sung for years and years might finally sit down to watch it and be a bit underwhelmed. It’s not a modern era match. In this match, a high flying spot is a cross body. A big devastating power move was a double ax-handle. This was 1987 and that can’t be forgotten when examining the match. But despite the flawless execution of the contest, it’s the storyline that gave this one the chance to be a showstealer (which is ironic, since the storyline–more so than the actual match–is the more timeless aspect of the feud).

Savage and Steamboat had met the previous November, with “The Dragon” losing via countout. Macho Man engaged in a post-match assault that saw him slam Steamboat throat-first onto the guard rail and then drop an elbow on his injured body. Steamboat went to the hospital and did not return until January. By the time the two met at WrestleMania III fans were eager to see Steamboat not only get retribution against Savage but also end the Macho Man’s reign of terror with the Intercontinental Championship.

Yes the match was brilliant, and certainly stole the show, but the thing to remember is that “wrestling for wrestling’s sake” only goes so far, and it only achieves so much excitement from the fans. The incredible drama that built up to the match put it over the top and ensure the fans would be invested in the finish. That’s HOW it was able to steal the show at WrestleMania III.

Takeaway here: Storytelling before a match is just as important as storytelling in a match!

MACHO MAN AND ULTIMATE WARRIOR STEAL THE SHOW AT WRESTLEMANIA VII

machoman-elizabeth-wrestlemania

MACHO MAN LOSSES HIS CAREER; WINS HIS GIRL

Who is the most complete superstar in history? Who is the guy who combined mic skills, ring talent, staying power and a true superstar presence all in one package. A lot of guys had some of it, but only a few could claim to have all of it. Austin lacked the staying power, for reasons outside of his control. Hart lacked the mic skills, although he was a bit underrated, especially as a heel. Hogan lacked the ring chops, although he was known to do a lot more than he showed to North American audiences. There are probably two guys who best combined everything you want in a pro wrestler. Ric Flair is one of them; Randy Savage is the other. It’s not a shock, therefore, that the two of them had the match of the night at WrestleMania 8. But that’s not what this is about. This is about another Randy Savage match, one that went against a guy who lacked mic skills (though he certainly had a unique style to his promos), lacked ring talent and lacked staying power.

As great as it was to see The Ultimate Warrior make peace with the world of wrestling before his untimely death, it can’t be forgotten that, in his prime, he was one of the most overrated superstars ever. He had appeal, certainly, but it was a limited appeal. It was a side-show appeal. When he took the reigns and tried to carry the card as the main attraction, he flopped big time. But when the right story presented itself, and the right opponent came along, Ultimate Warrior could put on a show.

At WrestleMania VII, Warrior and Savage not only put on a show, they stole the show and helped to create a moment that remains one of WrestleMania’s most magical.

The match itself was better than it had any right to be. Savage was still great, but not as great as he was half a decade earlier. He had lost maybe half a step. Warrior of course was motivated to put on a show after his main event run was cut short. Together they told a different story than the one they would tell at the 1992 SummerSlam. This one was all about Savage simply being unable to outwork Warrior. The end of the match is particularly memorable, as Savage unloads with a barrage of elbow drops only to find they had little effect. Late in the match, Savage goes for a double-ax handle to Warrior, who was resting against the ringside barricade. Warrior moves at the last second and Savage lands throat-first on the guard rail (how apropos). The signals the finish as Warrior shoulder blocks Savage into unconsciousness and finally puts an arrogant boot on his chest to secure the victory.

The match itself would have been the best on the card if that had been that, but it was the post-match happenings that elevated this to one of WrestleMania’s true show-stealing moments. Savage’s manager, the evil Sherri, began attacking the weak and weary Macho King, angry over his defeat. While Sherri unloads, the crowd immediately starts booing: finally happy for a chance to get behind the beloved Randy Savage (who had been working as a heel since early 1989). Finally having seen enough, from the crowd comes the lovely Mrs. Elizabeth, Savage’s long-time manager who had been kicked to the curb after WrestleMania V. The usually delicate first “lady of wrestling” jumps the rail, storms the ring, and chucks the never-as-pretty Sherri out onto the floor. The ovation is the loudest of the night.

Savage gets to his feet and they make eye contact. Estranged for years, manager and client. Elizabeth starts crying and Heenan and Gorilla bring it home: this is love as good as a silly fake sport can give it. The music swells (literally, they start playing Pomp and Circumstance at just the right moment) and they embrace mid ring. Heenan says that everyone is crying and sure enough, it’s true. There’s a perfect shot of the most colossal nerd the early 90’s will ever produce just weeping. If you’re out there good sir, it’s okay. Let it out.

Savage props her up on his shoulders, his finger pointed high in the air as the two estranged lovers celebrate.

Elizabeth holds the ropes open for her man like she did for so many years. And if Savage had hopped through them like he always did the moment would still have been great; it would have been a great symbolic moment to show Savage and Elizabeth back together as manager and talent. But instead, Savage shakes his head and he holds the ropes open for her this time. It was a payoff to almost seven years of storytelling, but it worked because the people loved the characters and were invested in the story.

Takeaway here: The fans have a memory; don’t be afraid to exploit it!

SHAWN MICHAELS AND RAZOR RAMON STEAL THE SHOW AT WRESTLEMANIA X

MR. WRESTLEMANIA EARNS HIS NAME

Let’s not kid ourselves. As great as the modern Money in the Bank PPV is every year, the big ladder match(s) that highlights the affair little more than glorified spot-fests. Yes, the athleticism is unmatched, and the risk the wrestlers put themselves through can’t be denied. But that doesn’t change the fact that the matches basically follow a template of “brawl, set up spot, spot, rest/sell the spot, brawl, set up spot, etc.” It’s a far cry from the match that innovated the concept. The match between Shawn Michaels and Razor Ramon wasn’t “a ladder match,” it was “a great wrestling match featuring a ladder.”

To start with the use of the ladder was a logical conclusion to the feud. Michaels had been the IC champ but was forced to vacate the company. When he returned from hiatus, Razor was the new champ. Since HBK had never been pinned he claimed a share of the title. He even walked around with his own version of the belt. The solution was to put both belts above the ring and have both men climb to achieve undisputed gold.

The early going of the match is great tension building. Even before the bell rings, you have a great WrestleMania moment, with Shawn thinking about walking under the ladder (taboo), but instead smirking at the camera and wagging his finger at the idea. The early minutes of the match were simply a standard fast-paced wrestling contest. If it weren’t for the occasional shots of a red ladder standing in the isle, you wouldn’t even know this was a “gimmick” match. It’s not until Diesel gets involved (clotheslining Razor outside the ring), and is subsequently thrown out does the real “ladder” match begin. And once the ladder enters the ring, the match takes on a whole new dynamic. The ladder is thrown, slammed, and driven into both men, while the audience’s excitement rises with each shot. The ladder was essentially used like it was a third man in a triple threat matches. That sort of commitment to in-ring storytelling and match psychology is almost entirely missing in today’s ladder contests.

You can watch the match today and come away underwhelmed, but only if you were expecting death-defying stunts. Looking at it like it should be a TLC match is not fair to the impact the match had in its present age. This was something unlike anything the audience had ever seen before, and they responded with a well-deserved standing ovation when all was said and done.

This match is to wrestling what 3D was to gaming in the mid-90’s; it opened up a new dimension and created a whole new canvas for wrestling’s artists to paint a new kind of masterpiece. It inspired men like Jeff Hardy and Edge the same way Macho Man and Steamboat at WrestleMania III inspired Shawn Michaels and Scott Hall.

Takeaway here: Good psychology trumps a spot-fest; just because you have a gimmick match doesn’t mean you can’t tell a story in the ring

BRET HART AND STEVE AUSTIN STEAL THE SHOW AT WRESTLEMANIA 13

wwe-wrestlemania-13-bret-hart-steve-austin

NO ONE CHANGES BUT EVERYTHING CHANGES

Speaking of in-ring storytelling…here’s a match that you can watch on mute and totally understand what is happening. I don’t need to know the history of these two men, either on a legitimate level (how they came to be pro wrestlers, early struggles, etc.) or in kayfabe (why they are fighting). You may never have seen a pro wrestling match in your life and you will be able to follow exactly the story these two men are telling. It was that masterful a performance. This match is, in my opinion, the greatest match of all time. You have one of the best in-ring storytellers at his peak and one of the best in-ring storytellers in his prime given 20-minutes on the grandest stage. Yeah, there’s gonna be magic.

When the bell rings the two men don’t even start “wrestling” until five minutes into the bout. They go all over the ring, and even into the crowd, just brawling like mortal enemies. At one point, Bret ties Austin’s ankle up in a chair and stomps on it. The crowd cheers for their hero. Austin gets his turn with the chair, slamming it twice across Hart’s back. The crowd is decidedly mixed. Austin flips the bird, and the crowd groans and boos.

Vince apologizes profusely for the blood Austin has pouring out of his forehead. The crowd gasps at the sight of it. Bret slams Austin’s head with the ringbell (the crowd cheers). Hart moves over to the fallen Austin, crosses his legs and locks in the sharpshooter.

What happens next would change pro wrestling forever: The sharpshooter has been locked in for an agonizing period, the camera catches Austin lifting his head up, blood pouring down from his forehead to his open mouth between his front teeth. Suddenly the crowd, which started out cheering the move starts screaming “Austin! Austin!” willing the bad guy to stay in it and not quit. Austin lifts his body, the crowd starts cheering, and he appears to break the hold, only for Bret to keep it locked in. Austin screams again, as blood rushes, and then he passes out.

Post-match, “The Hitman” goes back to the unconscious Austin’s leg, kicking it to near-unanimous boos. Guest referee Ken Shamrock physically removes Hart from his victim to cheers from the crowd. Bret walks away now completely the villain. Austin comes to and — typical Stone Cold– stuns the first man he sees. He limps to the back to a chorus of fans chanting his name. Everything the two men did in the match and after was perfectly in keeping with their characters. Bret and Austin both went “too far” in their attacks, so you can’t say Bret “turned heel” on Austin. Austin was just same brash, angry jerk he always was, even flipped the crowd off on his way out after the match, so you can’t say Austin “turned babyface.”

This is the greatest double turn ever because it was the crowd who turned them. Neither guy had to do one big over the top thing to signal for the crowd to change their allegiance. They just told a great story and the crowd evolved from cheering one guy to cheering the other in the span of half an hour.  Austin and Bret didn’t change; they just changed everyone else. Tthey stole the show, saved one of the worst WrestleManias, and launched the greatest wrestling boom of all time.

Takeaway here: The rest of your show may suck, but when the stars align, one match can change everything.

THE HARDYZ, DUDLEYS AND EDGE & CHRISTIAN STEAL THE SHOW AT WRESTLEMANIA X-SEVEN

A TRIO’S TRILOGY TRIUMPHS

So earlier I said this:

Good psychology trumps a spot-fest; just because you have a gimmick match doesn’t mean you can’t tell a story in the ring.

And while that is true as a general rule, sometimes you witness a spectacle that is so remarkable you don’t even care that it’s a spot-fest. No one listens to The Beatles’ Revolver album and wonders “yeah but what’s the story they’re telling with “Tomorrow Never Knows.” You just sit back and enjoy it. For a year, Edge and Christian, Matt and Jeff Hardy, Bubba Ray and Devon Dudley feuded for the Tag Team Championship. The highlight of that feud was a trilogy of matches, starting at WrestleMania 2000, then continuing at SummerSlam, and concluding at WrestleMania X-Seven.  Those three matches elevated the division and wowed audiences with matches that managed to top each one that came before it.

Look at the picture. Your eyes naturally are drawn to Edge spearing Jeff Hardy 20 feet to the ground. It’s a moment that has been replayed so many times it’s hard to appreciate how flipping insane it is and how mind-boggling it was to witness live at the time. But forget them for a second. Look around the ring and you see a pair of “regular” sized ladders just leaning against the corners of the ring, with a third one on the mat. Those are the size of the ONE that HBK and Razor basically played around with just seven years earlier. Now those ladders were all over the place and being trumped by the monster super-ladder from which Edge leapt.

Again, the story preceding this match was not a lengthy blood feud between two superstar main-eventers. The story told in the match was flimsy at best. It is the personification of the “set-up, spot, rest” formula that was earlier discussion. But those six men put on SUCH a spectacle that they  stole the show at arguably the greatest WrestleMania of all time. Edge, Christian and Jeff Hardy all went on to be WWE world champs, Matt was a (WWE) ECW champ, Bubba left to become a great TNA champ; but likely when you think of any of these six, this is the match you think of. With the exception of Edge, these men will all eventually be Hall of Famers as tag teams, and this will be the match they highlight.

Takeaway here: A spot-fest can be magical too, if you have the right guys with the right amount of moxey, willing to go balls-to-the-wall.

THE ROCK AND HOLLYWOOD HOGAN STEAL THE SHOW AT WRESTLEMANIA X8

wrestlemania-18-hulk-hogan-the-rock

NOSTALGIAMANIA

If you didn’t love this match, or if you like to cut it down because “workrate” or whatever, you can’t be my friend. The cliched comment is “put the match on mute and it sucked.” Yeah maybe to someone who’s never seen pro wrestling before. But if you knew who Rock and Hogan were, and I mean if you really “knew” and understood as a fan the contributions these guys made to the business, you can put it on mute and still appreciate that it was HULK HOGAN vs THE ROCK IN TORONTO AT WRESTLEMANIA.

You want the story leading up to it? Watch this

That lead to a beatdown by the nWo later that night, and the match between the two icons would be made on Raw soon after.

When it’s Icon vs Icon, you don’t need a big story. You just need to tell me when and where and I’m there. Still, they tried to make it a straight babyface vs heel story: Hogan worked as a heel, naturally as he was part of the nWo. At one point he tried to murder Rock with a tractor trailer semi. Yet the crowds cheers only grew louder and louder. This is WWF Attitude, brother. If you’re not trying to run over your opponent with a car, you’re not trying.

Hogan would later say in interviews that he was upset that he wasn’t getting more heat as a heel. Can we just pause to appreciate that Hulk freaking Hogan was upset that he was getting cheered over the most popular babyface in all of pro wrestling.

Again, screw you if you didn’t love all of this.

Once the match started (in front of THE hottest crowd I’ve ever witnessed at a “stadium” show), Hogan and Rock traded power moves, and the crowd was totally soaking Hogan up. It was like 1987 when Hogan was on offense, and 1997 when Rock went to work. They spilled to the outside for some time-killing brawling until making it back in the ring to trade signature moves. Throughout the match, Hogan tried all he knew to get over as a heel. But since Hogan is a product of the 80’s boom, working as a heel for him meant abdominal stretches and back rakes. The crowd therefore saw everything he was doing as one big fat nostalgia act from the most perfect man to do a nostalgia act. They loved every second.

Then came the final portion of the match, and the near falls leading to the finish. Hogan had just hit Rock with his own Rock Bottom, and the crowd roared like he had slammed Andre. Rock kicked out, hit his own Rock Bottom on Hogan, and then it happened: Hogan kicked out and started shaking the head back and forth.

Hate him all you want, try to dismiss him all you want, but you can’t deny that there were 60,000+ jaded, Attitude Era wrestling fans, frustrated with the bungled invasion and overall malaise of the company, literally jumping up and down at the sight of this old man (who they know is a politicking, backstabbing, self-serving locker room cancer) doing his shtick that he’d been doing for literally 20 years.

It wasn’t that they’d forgotten; it was that they didn’t care. They had been hooked; made kids again. The way they counted down Hogan’s “finger point, block, three punch, Irish whip, big boot, leg drop” combo wasn’t just out of excitement that they were seeing it, it was excitement that they were seeing it again, live and in person, for what, as far they knew, might have been the last time ever.

It’s such a goosebump-inducing moment that every time I watch it, when Hogan hits the leg drop and the crowd counts along 1-2-, I think “he should totally go over right here. That would be the perfect ending.” Separated from the match I know that Hogan totally should not have won, and it’s good that he didn’t. But in the moment, every single time I see it, I’m counting to three along with all the Toronto fans, throwing my hands up angry that Rock kicked out at two, came back and won the match. The crowd may have hated the finish, but the sure loved every second of the whole spectacle. The fans didn’t just elevate the match to legendary status, they helped steal the show.

Takeaway here: Wrestling greatness can happen every week, but in front of the right crowd, greatness turns magical.

SHAWN MICHAELS AND THE UNDERTAKER STEAL THE SHOW AT WRESTLEMANIA 25

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THE PERFECT MATCH (PART TWO)

Chris Jericho remarked, during the buildup to the first Rock vs Cena match that “it would be a great match…because it’s destined to be.” His point was less spiritual and more historical. A great crowd, worked by great manipulators can elevate a match to legendary status. Rock and Cena in 2012 were only average workers, but they were great storytellers and they took what ended up being an average match and, with the crowds help, lifted it up to a match worthy of a WrestleMania main event. Rock and Hogan certainly did an even better job, thanks to an even hotter crowd. But what would happen if you took two GREAT workers, GREAT crowd-manipulators, and gave them 30 minutes to work a crowd that was hungry for something legendary?

This match happens.

The story was simple to the point of non-existence: HBK has done all that can be achieved in a pro wrestling career. He’s held all the titles, main-evented the big shows, had TWO different Hall of Fame careers (had he stayed retired he’d have gone in probably at WrestleMania 25, right behind Austin; and the career he had after coming back was worthy of the Hall on its own). The only thing he hadn’t done, was a thing no one had done, so no one held it against him…except him. He wanted to beat the streak so he challenged his old rival one-on-one, to a match at the 25th edition of WrestleMania, because who better to steal the show than Mr. WrestleMania himself and the only man whose matches have become a part of the show’s tradition? That’s it, that’s the entirety of the story.

Every anachronistic criticism anyone would have about Savage vs Steamboat is removed here. They worked fast, hit big spots, scored a delicious number of false-finishes and near-falls, and when it was all over Undertaker won, and HBK started his year-long retirement angle. What is there to write about this that hasn’t already been said? This was a masterpiece. Like with the others on the list, you can show this to someone who has never watched and at the very least they will understand why pro wrestling is such a brilliant form of entertainment to so many. When fans say “alot of wrestling is crap, but when it’s good…it’s GREAT” this is what we mean. The combination of veteran instinct, big fight aura, and remarkable pace make it the perfect match.  Steamboat and Savage delivered a steady-paced flawless match to cap off a brilliant feud. HBK and The Phenom just went out and delivered a fast-paced, flawless match.

Takeaway here: A showstealer is a match that, looking back, was destined to make men immortal.

____________________

Looking ahead to WrestleMania 31, everyone is talking about the ladder match for the Intercontinental Championship as the potential showstealer. It certainly may be the best on the card, but it has a lot to live up to if it wants to be considered one of WrestleMania’s very best showstealing matches. I think everyone looked at the matches in this list, before they happened, as matches that would be the best on the card, but no one could anticipate how legendary they would be.

Maybe, just maybe, something legendary will happen on Sunday.

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