Hardcore fans can probably name every main event in WrestleMania’s thirty one-year history, but I’ll bet naming all of the opening matches is a little harder. Maybe you can; I was only able to think of twelve of them. The main event matches, and even the mid-show other title matches get all the hype, but don’t sleep on those opening contests. On some of the best WrestleMania shows they set the tone for the memorable night ahead. On some of the poorer shows, they foretold the problems that were in store. And sometimes a great match opened a bad show, though rarely did a bad match open a good WrestleMania. It’s funny how things work out.
As we prepare for one of the biggest WrestleMania events of all time, let’s look back at the opening matches that kicked off their respective shows. We’re picking only a top five, so if you have one in mind that didn’t make the cut, comment below and let us know your list. This one is mine:
FROM WRESTLEMANIA 25 : THE MONEY IN THE BANK LADDER MATCH
From WrestleMania 21 to WrestleMania 26, the Money in the Bank ladder match was a staple of the big show. Some were better than others but all of them delivered big spots and memorable moments to the delight of the crowds. The first was arguably the best of them, but the one that opened the show’s silver anniversary is a close second.
This match produced the first two-time winner in CM Punk and the circumstances behind each win could not be more different. When he won at WrestleMania 24, Punk was a midcard babyface. His win was a surprise, just as was his successful cash-in on the heel Edge. His initial World Title run was a disappointment though, as Vince never got behind the Straight Edge Superstar as a legit main-event talent. He ended up being forced to vacate the title after a few wasted months carrying it. After that he returned to the midcard until he won it again, in an even more surprising finish, in this ladder match. This time he would cash-in on beloved babyface Jeff Hardy, and kick off a main event (on Smackdown) run that would capture the attention of the WWE’s top brass and force them to notice him (although they only noticed him just enough to annoy him, which led to the infamous pipebomb promo).
Like all MITB matches, there are insane spots both off of and onto the ladder and it’s clear that the Houston crowd, though shocked, was certainly stoked to see CM Punk walk away the victor. The next year MITB would get its own PPV and it would be years before the WWE found a way to replicate the hot opening that the match provided to so many WrestleMania shows.
FROM WRESTLEMANIA 31 : THE INTERCONTINENTAL CHAMPIONSHIP LADDER MATCH
This match is essentially Daniel Bryan’s swan song. He had a killer match with Dolph Ziggler the next night on Raw but soon after was concussed in a match against Sheamus, an injury which sidelined him permanently and led to his recent retirement. Fans never got to enjoy the return of Daniel Bryan in a longterm way, but at WrestleMania 31 we at least got to see him one last time on the big stage.
The match was, as mentioned previously, the quasi-replacement to the MITB ladder matches that highlighted so many WrestleManias of this generation. Bad News Barrett was the champion, but he was a paper tiger if ever there was one. He spent much of the time leading up to Mania31 getting clowned by every potential challenger to his title. When it was decided that he would defend in a ladder match, fans understood they would be getting an action-packed match, with many rightly-guessing that it would kickoff the show, the way so many MITB matches had done. The inclusion of Daniel Bryan came late in the run up, and though many fans were upset, because they wanted to see Bryan compete for the World Heavyweight Championship, they quickly got on board when it became apparent that Vince didn’t see long term potential in Bryan as a main-eventer.
The match lived up to the legacy of the past MITB matches, with some spots almost going too far to wow the audience. In the end, Bryan secured the title, and led the 70,000 Levi’s Stadium fans in the Yes chant, for what would be one of the last times. It was clear from commentary that Vince had a plan in making this an opening match; he wanted the Yes chanted to kick off this WrestleMania the way they had ended the previous one. Nevermind the backstage politics of it, this ended up being one of the best opening matches in the show’s history.
FROM WRESTLEMANIA 21 : REY MYSTERIO vs EDDIE GUERRERO
These two luchador legends met multiple times, in multiple promotions. Some matches were in front of big crowds that couldn’t care less about either of them, some were in front of bingo halls filled with dozens of adoring onlookers. They had matches in Mexico and America, in WCW and AAA, and here they met in the opening of WrestleMania 21. At the time they were tag champions together. The rivalry that would consume the better part of 2005 had not yet developed and at this point these were just two of the most talented wrestlers on the roster looking to compete on the biggest stage just to see who was the better man.
The two men would rematch at the next Smackdown PPV, Judgement Day, and then again at the next Smackdown show, Great American Bash, then again at SummerSlam. In each match, as here, Rey Mysterio walked away the winner. It seems a strong effort was made in 2005 to get Rey Mysterio over as a top level singles star, even if that came at the expense of Eddie, who just a year prior was defending the WWE Championship in the co-main event of WrestleMania XX. You can argue that Eddie deserved better at WrestleMania 21 but that whole PPV was built around establishing the next generation of main event talent (especially Cena, Batista and Orton), so putting over Rey (one year away from his own World title win) makes sense in that context. Their match was probably not the best they had against each other in their careers, but as a WrestleMania opener it was one of the best the show has ever had.
FROM WRESTLEMANIA X : OWEN HART vs BRET HART
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For years, Owen and Bret Hart were beloved by WWF fans. But also for years, WWF fans loved Bret just a little bit more. He was always a little more polished, a little more skilled, and a little more “main event” than his younger brother. As the WWF entered 1994 two things were clear. First it was evident that the company was devoid of a lot of the superstar talent that it had enjoyed for the first decade of WrestleMania’s history. Second, with a lot of the “big” talent either gone from the company or essentially retired from WWF competition, a new era had arisen.
This new generation emphasized in-ring skill over hulking, muscular bodies. This wasn’t by choice, either. Vince spent the entire New Generation years looking for a big man who could be his next Hogan. He tried Sid, he tried Lugar, he tried Diesel, but he kept coming back to Bret Hart because Bret was hands-down the most popular superstar on his roster. As WrestleMania X approached it was clear that Bret would receive his coronation in the main event, but would need a heel challenger to feud with after that. The decision was made to turn his brother Owen heel and to kick off their feud on the same night that Bret would officially move into the main event.
The match was a technical marvel. No doubt it was the culmination of years of play-fighting, backyard-brawling, and Hart Dungeon sparring. After decades together as brothers, the two Harts could practically read each others minds. After twenty minutes, Owen trapped Bret in sit down-pin and stole the victory. The fact that Owen won the match, and won it fairly cleanly, was a shock to most, but it positioned the younger brother as a worthy challenger to Bret’s championship. The match was instantly hailed as a classic and would be regarded as WrestleMania’s finest opening bout for decades to come.
FROM WRESTLEMANIA XXX : TRIPLE H vs DANIEL BRYAN
For years, the Owen/Bret match was considered one of the greatest WrestleMania matches of all time. The fact that it came first just gave it an extra accolade. Owen vs Bret is still one of the greatest WrestleMania matches of all time, but it’s no longer the greatest opening match. That honor goes to, and may for decades be held by, Triple H vs Daniel Bryan. At twenty-five minutes, it’s not only the longest opening contest on the list, and it’s also the longest opening match in show history. It tells a rich story both in the ring and behind the scenes.
To start with there is Triple H. Here’s a man who, to his critics, married his way to the top. He was an upper-midcard heel that had a lot of upward trajectory in his career, so we can’t discount that. But after he and Stephanie became an item, it seemed his place at the top of the card was solidified and never in danger to Vince’s notorious fickleness. So some criticism is warranted, especially when you look at his body of work from, say 2002-2010, which was filled with him dominating the card (despite the rise of Cena), usually burying some hot young talent, and maintaining his spot, despite sagging ratings and PPV buyrates. But after 2010 he stepped away from full-time performing, became a backstage executive and only made in-ring appearances on special occasions. A few years ago he cut his hair, started NXT and entered a career renaissance. Cutting his hear seems like an odd thing to mention, but it coincides with fans—who used to hate him (on camera and off)—falling in love with him. Cutting his hair had a like a reverse-Samson effect. It gave him power with the I.W.C.
And then there’s Daniel Bryan, the I.W.C.’s golden boy. His career is well-documented, as is his rise to the main-event of the biggest WrestleMania of all time. The months leading up to WrestleMania XXX were tense and angst-ridden for hardcore WWE fans, but after Bryan hijacked Raw and coaxed Triple H into accepting a play-in match for the World Heavyweight Championship, it became clear that WrestleMania XXX would be Bryan’s show. His first obstacle, and the one that carried the storyline, was Triple H. At Mania they could not have looked more different. Bryan was short, skinny and long-haired. Triple H was tall, in arguably the best shape of his career, and sported that magical short hair. Fans in the lead up to the show wondered if the old fogey Triple H could keep up with Bryan or if the fast-moving vegan would have to slow down his work to accommodate his larger opponent. On the contrary, both superstars moved at breakneck speed, almost the entire match, and Daniel Bryan got the kind of match out of Triple H that he had not had in over a decade. In fact I’ll go one better and say it was arguably Triple H’s best match ever. And in the end he took the pin. He didn’t just take the pin, either. He took it clean, with Bryan kicking out of Triple H’s pedigree, and Triple H going down to a single busaiku knee from Bryan. That’s the way to put a guy over.
WrestleMania XXX started with a match highlighting just how amazing pro wrestling can be. Whereas most opening matches in the show’s history, especially early on, were five-minute throwaway contests, this was a showcase for the sport. Storylines that produce matches like this are rare, but WWE would do well to emulate this match, and have an opening contest with big implications, great personalities, enough time to matter and quality in-ring skill.
WrestleMania is often dubbed “the showcase of the immortals.” The “immortals” in question are usually thought of as those lucky few that have main-evented the big show (only thirty-four different men have main-evented in the show’s history), but let’s not forget about the undercard. It is the backbone to the card and often is the difference between a memorable WrestleMania and a stinker of a show. These five opening matches that we’ve listed, and the twenty-one men who competed in them, deserve to their place too. They kicked off the show of shows with matches that wowed their audiences, showed off their talents, and solidified themselves among wrestling’s immortals.
So that’s my list. What about yours? Leave a comment below and tell us how you’d rank WrestleMania’s opening matches.