Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Steve's Top Five WrestleManias

Ok, top five Manias, in chronological order, based on the whole show, and an indication of my personal favourites rather than claiming they were the "best":

Wrestlemania IV:

Tournaments are great. This theme makes IV stand out amongst all the early Manias that were generally lacking in legitimate match quality. Whilst booking it differently would have made the show that much better (ie. not eliminating Ricky Steamboat in the first round, thus forcing Savage to go through a rematch against his greatest opponent en route to the final) the whole show told a compelling story from start to finish, culminating in Randy Savage being elevated to the top as a legitimate babyface champ. The fact that the whole thing also perfectly set the seed for the story that would headline Wrestlemania V makes it even more impressive, as it would be nearly a quarter of a century before WWE would present a single storyline that would incorporate consecutive Mania main events again.
It's often forgotten that this show also had some memorable moments outside of the tournament, with Bret Hart getting some early singles exposure in a battle royal that he got double-crossed out of by Bad News Brown, and Demolition taking the tag titles from Strike Force, setting the scene for their breakup and the emergence of Rick Martel's "Model" character.
If nothing else, this show deserves credit for having the bravery to take both Hogan and Andre out of the running early on. Going into the show, nobody would have predicted that the final wasn't going to involve either of these two (presumably Hogan), and using their grudge feud to clear the way for elevating both Savage and Ted DiBiase was inspired booking.

Wrestlemania VIII:

This one isn't often mentioned as one of the best Manias ever, a fact that's understandable considering we're talking about a show that included a throwaway 8-man tag, a tag title match ending in a countout, Owen Hart pinning Skinner in under ten seconds, a 4 minute Tatanka squash and a main event ending in a DQ. However, as a child I watched this one on VHS more than any other show, and seeing it more recently I still think there is plenty to enjoy.
This was the first Wrestlemania in 5 years to be held in a huge venue, and the visual of 62,000 screaming fans packed into the Hoosier Dome gave a big event atmosphere that had probably been missing. Strangely, this show didn't seem to suffer the same issues as modern dome shows with regards to crowd noise being lost in the cavernous building, as the crowd was audibly red-hot throughout the show. Whatever they did to mic up that building, they did it right (incidentally making TNA's inability to do the same with technology 20 years more advanced, and a building a tenth of the size, even more embarrassing). The aural delights are compounded by the always wonderful commentary team of Gorilla Monsoon and Bobby Heenan. These two had an incredible ability to be entertaining comic characters in themselves, whilst still managing to add focus, hyperbole and context to the matches, and may be the finest commentary team of all time.
I've always loved the opener, as Shawn Michaels had his first Mania singles match against Tito Santana. The match wasn't exceptional, but Tito knew how to work as a babyface and Shawn's bump-machine heel character was so good that it would begin to change the WWE's entire style over the next few years. 
Whilst The Undertaker's Streak started the previous year in a squash against Jimmy Snuka, this year's grudge match against Jake Roberts can be seen as the earliest sign of Taker's invincibility at the biggest show of the year. Jake's DDT was the most over and feared finisher in the business at the time, and seeing the Deadman kick out of TWO of them put Taker over as a babyface like nothing else could.
The Bret Hart vs Roddy Piper match was simply one of the greatest Mania matches of all time. A story so simple it feels complete watching just the pre-match interview and the match itself, yet one that is utterly compelling. Any wrestler who wants to learn the psychology of a babyface match, a brawler vs technician clash-of-styles match, or simply wants to learn how to use body language and facial expressions to sell a story to a crowd of any size has no excuse to not watch this match.
Whilst it's hard to argue that this shouldn't have been the show that gave us a Hogan vs Flair dream-match (really, the fact that WCW had the opportunity to put that on PPV for the first time is unforgivable), the reality is that the match itself would almost certainly have failed to be as good as what we got. Flair vs Savage is quite simply one of the finest examples of an emotional sports-entertainment grudge match you'll ever see. Ric Flair is the perfect heel champion here, bumping, bleeding, cheating, strutting and wrestling like no-one else can, whilst Randy brings more intensity and fury than anyone wearing bright yellow tassled lycra has any right to bring. The Miss Elizabeth angle (and great selling) allowed Randy to generate incredible sympathy, which goes some way to explaining the absolute MONSTER pop his eventual victory received. Absolutely brilliant stuff.
The other half of the "Double Main Event" is remembered as a bit of a disaster. This is probably not surprising considering the convoluted booking, the botched DQ finish, the involvement of Papa bloody Shango and the fact that neither the Hulkster or Sid are exactly Lou Theszmoveset looked like it could kill you), Hogan's selling was top-notch, the crowd were clearly into the match and the Ultimate Warrior run-in got another enormous pop to end the show. Best Wrestlemania main event ever? Of course not, it was barely in the top three matches of the night, but I think there's a lot more here to enjoy than it gets credit for and twenty years later is one of the more memorable main events in Mania's history.

Wrestlemania X-7

I considered Wrestlemania XII for the list because I'm such a mark for the Iron-Man Match and I didn't want to be too biased toward recent shows. However, I cannot in good conscience praise a PPV with only 2 noteworthy matches (the Piper vs Goldust "Back Lot Brawl" was a lot of silly fun). Incidentally, this is the same reason why Wrestlemania X gets ignored.
Talking about Wrestlemania X-7 seems unnecessary, so often is it cited as the greatest show in the history of the WWE. Quite frankly the praise is completely justified, as this show probably represents the very peak of the company's business with the roster, creative team and production team all firing on every cylinder to provide a blueprint for what a Sports-Entertainment spectacle should be. If you wanted to show any doubters that professional wrestling was a big deal, you would have sat them down to marvel as 68,000 fans going out of their minds for 3 hours, with a production setup that made U2 gigs look understated and cheap. Every match on the card was there for a reason, and everyone on the roster was over. Never before, and never since, was the term "Superstar" such an appropriate term for anyone who was a WWE wrestler. Watching this thrill-ride of a show, perhaps the only weakness is the finish of the main event as (with hindsight) turning Steve Austin heel in Houston and aligning him with Vince McMahon was an act of astonishing stupidity. Many people cite this decision, alongside the ascendance of Stephanie McMahon to the head of creative, as major reasons why the company never quite reached this level again. Regardless of whether that is the case (and it's extremely debatable), on the night the finish did nothing to detract from a quite remarkable show. If anything it left the audience with every reason to believe the following year would be unmissably fascinating, with the McMahon's purchase of WCW surely about to begin the most eagerly awaited angle in history, and Stone Cold Steve Austin making the biggest heel turn since Hulk Hogan. History shows 2001 didn't work out that way, but that's not Wrestlemania X-7's fault, and this list would be farcical without it.

Wrestlemania XIX:

If Wrestlemania X-7 was the peak of the attitude era, Wrestlemania XIX was perhaps the event that showed that there would be life after the Monday Night Wars.
If this show didn't quite hit the heights of X-7, it's probably due to the first four matches being somewhat rushed considering their potential. Matt Hardy and Rey Mysterio had a nice little opener for the cruiserweight title, but at under 6 minutes these two were never able to truly showcase their abilities. Trish Stratus, Victoria and Jazz all had in-ring abilities to put the vast majority of today's Divas to shame, but a 7 minute Triple Threat match leaves very little opportunity to create a true "Wrestlemania Moment". The bout between Team Angle (Shelton Benjamin and Charlie Haas), Los Guerreros and Chris Benoit & Rhyno highlights a tag division that 2012 would truly benefit from (especially notable considering RAW had a completely separate tag division at the time), and giving them more than 8 minutes would surely have allowed these great workers to make some magic. As it stands, these were all decent matches so any "what might have been" criticism is probably a little harsh. This was probably the first Wrestlemania that would have benefited from WWE's later switch to a 4 hour show (without having to resort to the sort of complete dreck they throw in to pad the show now).
As for why this show was great, the second half of the show provided a card that would stand up against any other. Shawn Michaels' Wrestlemania return was an instant classic. Hulk Hogan and Vince McMahon had the kind of precisely booked, surprise filled and entertaining brawls that only WWE have ever been able to pull off with supposed "non-wrestlers". The Rock and Steve Austin finally ended their rivalry with something of a Greatest Hits match that was as good a tribute and sendoff to the Attitude Era as anyone could hope for. Finally, Kurt Angle and Brock Lesnar overcame Angle's major neck injury, and Lesnar knocking himself out before the finish, to give Wrestlemania its most athletically legitimate main event ever. To see an Olympic Gold Medalist and a former NCAA Champion (not to mention future UFC World Champ) go 20 minutes in front of 54,000 rabid fans showed just how far the in-ring product had moved on since the era of Hogan and Andre.
Whilst the Undertaker/Jones vs Big Show/A-Train and the HHH vs Booker T matches were ultimately disappointments, you would be hard pressed to put on a 3 hour broadcast with a better product than this show had. If that isn't reason enough to put it in my top five, the sudden and inexplicable proliferation of rolling prawn holds in the matches surely seals the deal.


Somehow knowing you've only got one more pick makes a final decision that much harder. There are a lot of "modern" Wrestlemanias that I've loved for various reasons. Wrestlemania XX was my first in person, at the greatest arena in the world (MSG), and featuring the most genuine feelgood ending in the history of the business, with longtime friends and underdogs Eddie Guerrero and Chris Benoit standing on top of the business as world champions, sharing the moment with each other, their families and 18,000 fans shedding more tears than such a testosterone-fuelled pursuit should produce. Events that followed have obviously soured this moment somewhat, but at the time it was like the wrestling gods were smiling on the hardcore fan like never before. Sadly a bland undercard hurt the show.
Wrestlemania 21 had Shawn Michaels vs Kurt Angle and the birth of Money In The Bank, but the main events were completely forgettable.
Wrestlemania 23 was a strong card from top to bottom with an excellent main event in HBK vs John Cena, but there's nothing about the show that stands out as a true "Wrestlemania Moment".
Wrestlemanias 25 and 26 gave us the HBK vs Undertaker series, possibly the greatest pair of matches in the history of the event, but this excellence is spread too thinly to feature here. 
With a lot of strong cards and spectacular events in the "20s", one stands out as clearly the finest modern Mania:

Wrestlemania 24:


This show has everything that makes Wrestlemania the event that anchors the entire wrestling calendar. Huge crowd, spectacular venue, incredible production and a card fit to burst with great action, hot feuds and fascinating attractions. With so much to focus on, from the fun Finlay/JBL brawl to open, probably the best of the Money In The Bank matches, a strong triple threat match between HHH, Cena and Orton, a perfectly booked and entertaining celebrity attraction in Big Show vs Floyd Mayweather to a phenomenal main event as Undertaker's streak is too much for Edge, there is one match that stands alone.
The "Career Threatening Match" between "Nature Boy" Ric Flair and Shawn Michaels is, quite simply, the finest example of professional wrestling as narrative art you are ever likely to see. Both men have had matches that were technically better, as you'd expect when their combined age was over 100, but if you want to show somebody why professional wrestling can tell a story in a way that no other medium can then you show them this match. The video package that precedes it shows non-fans just how big a deal "Naitch" has been for the last 30 years, whilst presenting HBK as the guy who went from idolising Flair to being the best in the world himself. The "Old Yeller" reference in the feud was the most inspired piece of writing I have ever seen in wrestling, somehow managing to turn two men in lycra pretending to fight into a heartbreaking story of mortality, pride, respect and, ultimately, love. If this sounds somewhat grandiose, take another look at the moment when this fusion of scripted story and 30 years worth of real life; memories shared with millions of fans around the world, boils down to the moment when Michaels speaks for us all as he clearly mouths "I'm sorry, and I love you" to his hero before delivering the final blow. No other art form blends reality and fiction in quite the same way, and it has never before been done with such perfect circumstance and execution.
Seeing Ric Flair take his final bow, and the genuine outpouring of emotion from everybody present, it was a moment that couldn't have taken place anywhere but Wrestlemania. If WWE had cancelled every other match on the show but this one, Wrestlemania 24 would still be one of the greatest of all time.

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