WrestleMania is obviously the biggest day of WWE’s (and formerly the WWF’s) calendar year. It started out simply as a showcase for big matches and glitzy celebs, morphed into the “end of the season” for major feuds that would be shuffled and reset the next night, and has now settled into being a sort of hybrid of both. It’s the show the company builds to, that every performer brings their A-game to and that attracts an impressive amount of celebrity participation and media hype.
For the most part, each WrestleMania has had its own distinct identity. It’s hard to pick out every SummerSlam and certainly next to impossible to remember what happened one year to the next at Unforgiven or Extreme Rules, but if you name the Roman numeral (or blasphemous plain old number in at least two cases, not to mention the madness of X-7 and so on—it should ALWAYS be Roman numerals), a true wrestling fan worth their salt can spit back to you which WrestleMania it was.
III was Hulk/Andre. IV was when they did the World title tournament. IX everybody wore togas. Hart/Michaels Iron Man at XII. They called XVI 2000 to drive me nuts. Brock Lesnar nearly killed himself at XIX. Flair retired at XXIV. HBK followed him at XXVI.
To be fair, XXII doesn’t really stand out, but you get the gist.
Thing is, try as they might to stack the show from start to finish with hits—not so much during the V-VIII era, but more or less before or after—and as much as the folks performing go above and beyond to make their moments count, each WrestleMania generally gets remembered for one or two matches tops (X-7 is the exception that proves the rule).
III is the aforementioned Hulk/Andre plus Savage/Steamboat. V is the Megapowers. VI is the Ultimate Challenge. X is the Ladder match. XII is the Iron Man. 13 (bleh) is Austin/Hart. X-8 is Hogan/Rock. XXV and XXVI are the HBK/Undertaker matches.
And so on.
But each year there is at least one (usually more) classics that slip under the radar simply because they’re the third, fourth or fifth best matches on a card where everybody wants to have a classic. Those are the showdowns I want to remember today. In doing so, I’m leaving plenty out myself, but each of these holds a special place in my own heart.
Roddy Piper vs. Adrian Adonis (WrestleMania III)
The third WrestleMania gets a lot of consideration for being among the best ever based on the enormity of the event itself, the epic feel of the main event and the fact that Randy Savage and Ricky Steamboat had flat out one of the best matches of all-time; however, despite its pedigree, not much else from this show gets remembered. A lot of it is perfunctory—fine not great—but there’s also some cool miscellany, like Alice Cooper accompanying Jake Roberts to the ring, King Kong Bundy squashing a midget, and this match. It was no technical classic, but as far as cosmically satisfying wrestling finishes, this is right up there with reformed bad guy Piper putting the irritating Adonis to sleep and then Brutus Beefcake shaving his head to officially become “The Barber.” Despite having been the most hated man in the business a year earlier, Piper is tremendous as a babyface here, having the time of his life before heading off to Hollywood for a couple years, and Adonis is equally perfect and totally unselfish as the heel getting humbled; two guys who knew how to light the crowd afire and played their roles to a T made for a great WrestleMania moment.
The Rockers vs. Haku & The Barbarian (WrestleMania VII)
WrestleMania VII was a bit of an off-year, as the Hogan-Sgt. Slaughter main event felt like a bit of a comedown from the Ultimate Challenge a year before, but Randy Savage and The Ultimate Warrior had one of my favorite matches ever, plus you had this little gem opening the show. After getting squashed by the Twin Towers and 1989 and then screwed by The Orient Express a year later, The Rockers finally got a chance to shine, showing off what they could do in an energetic little guys hitting and running against giants exhibition. It was a glimpse of the future, as Shawn Michaels displayed a mere hint of the skills that would later make him Mr. WrestleMania, while Marty Jannetty kept pace and Bobby Heenan’s team was nicely generous in making the David vs. Goliath battle believable.
Bret Hart vs. Owen Hart (WrestleMania X)
Shawn Michaels is far and away my favorite wrestler of all-time (sorry, Christopher Daniels, I’ll await your sad text tomorrow) and I have plenty of love for his Ladder match with Razor Ramon on this show, but at the end of the day, ask me to pick and I’ll take the Hart brothers wrestling clinic every time. It kind of bucks the title and intent of this post to include this here, I suppose, since most people would agree it’s a classic, but on a WrestleMania that had said Ladder match, it generally doesn’t get its due as the match of the night I felt it was. The fluidity of Bret and Owen trading holds and counters as only two guys who grew up and learned their craft in the same place under the same tutor if not side-by-side is a cooler deal for me than any gimmick ever could be. On its own, this would still be an amazing match, especially to a fan like me who digs the “purist” aspect, but it also had one of the best ever angles and storyline builds behind, the optimal pro wrestling brother vs. brother feud (and that’s saying something), to boost it into the stratosphere. No disrespect meant to the Ladder match or those two gents, because I could watch that one all day as well, but this is likely in my all-time top five.
Ahmed Johnson & The Legion of Doom vs. The Nation of Domination (WrestleMania 13)
From one end of the spectrum to the other, there was no science to this one whatsoever, but it was an outstanding brawl during a down period for the WWF. WrestleMania 13 (ick) gets labeled as a one match show for the superb Austin-Hart Submission match with the double turn, but I dug this one as well. Johnson was pretty limited by injuries, the LOD were far past their prime and nobody in the Nation was doing career-best work at this point, but they all went out there and just beat the crap out of each other in the very definition of a garbage match, albeit one that actually worked. Ahmed in his own LOD spikes was a nice touch, as was Hawk actually bringing a kitchen sink to the ring to use as a weapon. If they had ended the Johnson-NOD feud here, Ahmed may have still had a shot to get back over as it was a great blow off.
Kurt Angle vs. Kane (WrestleMania X-8)
This show got sold on Hogan-Rock, with Triple H against Chris Jericho and to a lesser extent Undertaker vs. Ric Flair as well as Steve Austin vs. Scott Hall being somewhat in the mix. Kurt Angle, despite being perhaps the best performer in the company at the time, got left out in the cold with no dance partner, so they threw him in there with Kane to more or less kill time. Diminished expectations aside, it ended up being a nice little hidden highlight, as these two had good chemistry—they had a TV match around the same time that may have been even better than this one—and Kane brought his work boots to keep up with Angle. The story of the match wasn’t so much whether or not Angle could win, but if he could make Kane tap to the ankle lock, and both guys played it perfectly, timing their ebb and flow for maximum suspense; Kane’s best WrestleMania match for sure.
Chris Jericho vs. Christian (WrestleMania XX)
Another fondly remembered match by most, but as it wasn’t for a title, didn’t have a streak on the line and didn’t feature a celebrity or Legend, it does still get lost in the shuffle of the last decade’s WrestleMania highlights. The buildup to this wasn’t just well-done, it demonstrated long-term restraint practically unheard of in 2004 WWE, as the issues between the two former best friends had begun over four months prior, with the great storyline that saw them betting on who could bag Trish Stratus or Lita, then Jericho and Trish developing real feelings for one another, pissing Christian off in the process. These two knew each other well by this stage in their careers, so the match itself was predictably great, but it was Trish’s involvement and phenomenal heel turn that put the icing on the cake.
Batista vs. Umaga (WrestleMania XXIV)
Similar to Kurt Angle in 2002, six years later Batista found himself as the odd man out, with his chief rivals Edge and The Undertaker preoccupied with one another and John Cena, Randy Orton, Triple H and Shawn Michaels all having their WrestleMania dance cards booked. “The Animal” got stuck in an under-promoted Raw vs. SmackDown match with the similarly un-tethered Umaga, and the two preceded to go out and have a sweet power-based match that was hard-hitting, intense, and just the right length. Batista generally seems to rise to the occasion at WrestleMania, as he and Undertaker put on a classic at XXIII in part out of resentment over not getting the main event slot, so the combination of a big time atmosphere and good old fashioned spite made a good motivator for him.
Rey Mysterio vs. Cody Rhodes (WrestleMania XXVII)
This is a pre-emptive strike of sorts, given that this match is only a year old, but WrestleMania XXVII is already looked back at as an underperforming show, which means the more in the rearview it gets, the more Undertaker-Triple H will take on an Austin-Hart at WrestleMania 13 (yick) quality and a decent undercard will get forgotten. Again, a long-ish term feud—Rey put Cody out with a facial injury three months prior that led to his transformation past the Dashing gimmick into his deranged character—and this felt like a big deal despite not being the most anticipated showdown of the night by any means. Rey was a very giving veteran, making Rhodes look good, and Cody seized his opportunity, going over a legend at the biggest show of the year and cementing his place at the top. Also, Rey dressed as Captain America.