Thursday, April 4, 2013

My Favorite WrestleMania Matches: X8-XXIV

The Undertaker vs. Ric Flair
My friend Jay moved off campus during my sophomore year of college, so I would drive over to his place every Monday to watch Raw, which mostly consisted of the Invasion angle involved former WCW and ECW wrestlers banding together as the Alliance to take over the WWF. However, WrestleMania fell over spring break, and while I headed home, the dudes I watched wrestling with in high school were scattered to the winds on trips and having different weeks off, so I seem to recall watching this one solo in my basement, a far cry from two or three years earlier.

It’s an uneven show, with some great matches and memorable moments, but a general sense of letdown, I think. I believe most people agree the Invasion angle should have been extended and paced to end here—it began in July of 2001, so that would have been roughly eight months—but they ran through it faster than the bulk of fans were hoping and blew it off at Survivor Series instead, leaving the company somewhat directionless and coasting on stuff like Ric Flair battling Vince McMahon for control, a-year-too-late nWo invasion, and Chris Jericho unifying the WWF and World titles. We all knew coming out of WrestleMania they were splitting the roster into two brands—Raw and Smackdown—so it all felt a bit anticlimactic.

That said, while the main event of Jericho defending his Undisputed title against Triple H fell a little flat and Steve Austin taking on Scott Hall felt like an afterthought, this was the show where Hulk Hogan made his WWF return after nearly a decade away and faced off against The Rock in a match that hearkened back to the larger-than-life WrestleMania moment of the early days (the crowd response and how both men played it may never be duplicated). There were also several good matches that tend to slip under the radar like Kurt Angle vs. Kane, Rob Van Dam vs. William Regal for the IC title, Diamond Dallas Page defending the European title against Christian, and the Women’s title three-way with Jazz, Trish Stratus and Lita.

Once again, though, my pick goes to the Undertaker, who took on Flair in a bloody brawl that showed both guys still more than had it. The build was great, as Flair was trying to be an executive but Undertaker goaded him into a match by attacking his friends and family; classic, but for a reason. Thought beyond past his prime in WCW a year earlier, Flair dusted off his work boots here as he had against McMahon two months earlier at the Royal Rumble and looked better than he had since 1994, masking what he had lost with age by utilizing his second-to-none abilities as a storyteller. Taker, despite being a monster, sold Flair’s offense perfectly, making the “Nature Boy” look like a legitimate threat, but still keeping himself strong enough to serve as the big bully. It was a great dynamic and two legends clashing for the first and only time on a huge stage.

Shawn Michaels vs. Chris Jericho
In 2003, WrestleMania fell not during spring break, so me and my best bud Jordan took the five minute drive over to Jay’s place to enjoy the show (another of our friends, Erin, decided to tag along last second, but she mostly did homework and occasionally asked us who somebody was). The combination of Jay, who I watched weekly with, and Jordan, who was not quite as into WWE but super enthusiastic about it nonetheless (and who had gone to the Royal Rumble with me live two months before)—plus a girl who knew nothing about what we were watching but freaked out when somebody did a high flying move or got busted open—made for one of my all-time favorite groupings to watch WrestleMania with.

Fittingly, this was a tremendous show, one I would have up until recently called the most underrated of all-time, but as the sage gents on the Place2BePodcast have pointed out more than once, at this point so many people have recognized that fact that it’s more universally appreciated.

Matt Hardy in his great heel Cruiserweight champion role kicked things off against Rey Mysterio, who had dope ring gear based on my beloved Daredevil movie. Trish Stratus and Jazz put on their second straight awesome Women’s title triple threat, this time with Victoria stepping in for Lita. Triple H beat Booker T to retain the World title in a match that drove us crazy hoping Booker would win. Hulk Hogan and Vince McMahon pulled out all the gimmicks for a street fight—including Roddy friggin’ Piper, returning after seven years away. Steve Austin had his final match, capping off a classic WrestleMania trilogy with the Rock where he finally ended up on the losing end. And in the main event, Kurt Angle, neck being held together by crazy glue, coughed up the WWE title to Brock Lesnar, who nearly killed himself on a botched shooting star press during a 20-minute wrestling clinic we were freaking out for all the way through.

For me though, the highlight of the night was my all-time favorite wrestler, Shawn Michaels, who seemingly ended his career five years prior at the show I saw live in Boston, making his return to the big stage to go up against a guy who had in part supplanted him in my eyes, Chris Jericho. It was the longest match on the card, with HBK clearly determined to show he was truly back, and Y2J equally motivated to prove he could hand with his idol. Every near fall had me jumping out of my seat (on the floor) as I truly didn’t know who was going to win, but rooting hard for Michaels, my Jericho fandom out the window. Not only did all of Shawn’s classic moves look crisp as ever, Jericho’s approximations of them (his own superkick, his own kip-up) were great touches. In the end, after throwing out everything he had, HBK pulled it off and I cheered…then cheered again when a frustrated Jericho kicked him low after faking a good sportsmanship hug. I’ve watched this one time and time again and it still holds up big time.

Triple H vs. Shawn Michaels vs. Chris Benoit for the World title
I was supposed to go on a cruise with my friends Jordan, Liz and Maggie during the spring break of our senior year, but I got sick and had to stay home. Silver lining: got to watch WrestleMania XX live with my dad—well, he came and went, but still, first wrestling PPV I watched with my dad in nearly 15 years, so, pretty cool.

WrestleMania XX is the successor to WrestleMania X in so many ways. Once again, it emanates from Madison Square Garden so it goes without saying that the crowd is fantastic. Also, like X was highlighted by a couple of classics, this show had an excellent Eddie Guerrero WWE title defense against Kurt Angle plus an underrated Chris Jericho vs. Christian contest…and then a lot of filler. XX does have the advantage of its less than great matches being better for other reasons: Undertaker vs. Kane had Taker’s return to the Deadman character, Brock Lesnar vs. Bill Goldberg getting booed nearly out of the building because both guys were leaving WWE. The Evolution team of Ric Flair, Randy Orton and Batista had a fun handicap match against The Rock and Mick Foley, plus Victoria and Molly Holly put on a solid Women’s title encounter, then there were a lot of “get everybody on the card” deals like the Cruiserweight Open and two separate Tag Team title four-ways. Ultimately, against like WrestleMania X, I feel like this show suffers from having to live up to being an anniversary.

I’ll be honest; I struggled with my favorite match here. I was tempted to go with Jericho-Christian as a sentimental pick or Guerrero-Angle as a great match, but truth be told, I was rabid for the main event: a triple threat with Triple H defending the World title against Shawn Michaels and Chris Benoit. I hesitated because I’m not a person who can separate Benoit the performer from what he did and I could never watch this match again, but there’s no denying how good it was. I’m the biggest Michaels fan you’ll find, and I was actively rooting against him, wanting Benoit to pick up the win here, and I’ve heard many HBK and HHH devotees alike echo similar sentiments, it’s just that well-built as a story. That image that closed the show of Guerrero and Benoit—two guys who could not match the classic “WrestleMania image” less, but who fans loved—embracing and holding the top two titles in wrestling was incredible, and it’s sad that WWE can never trot it out again.

Money in the Bank
At this point in 2005, I had graduated college and was living in the tiny burg of Highland Falls, New York, five minutes away from West Point and nothing else. I had a tiny apartment where everything broke constantly and ordered WrestleMania to watch solo on my futon with my feet up on my makeshift coffee table and pasta boiling on my tiny stove; it was the portrait of a man chasing the dream.

Even though it was a decent show, I had trouble paying attention, as there was nobody else to share the experience with and too many distractions on my computer and elsewhere to divert my focus. I do distinctly remember the “WrestleMania Goes Hollywood” theme of the show, which yielded a cool set and a lot of neat vignettes with wrestlers spoofing different movies (Eddie Guerrero and Booker T in Pulp Fiction, Kurt Angle and Christy Hemme in When Harry Met Sally, and the Basic Instinct and Tax Driver mash-ups being the best; the John Cena/JBL A Few Good Men one was pretty weak).

Rey Mysterio and Eddie Guerrero kicked off the show with a decent match that crumbled a bit under the weight of their WCW encounters from years earlier. The Undertaker beat Randy Orton in the first actual “beat the streak” deal. Kurt Angle and Shawn Michaels had an unsurprising classic. The double main event with John Cena and Batista beating JBL and Triple H for the WWE and World titles were underwhelming as it felt like both were going for Ultimate Warrior at WrestleMania VI moments and neither could quite live up.

WrestleMania 21—besides pissing me off with lack of Roman numerals—marked the advent of the Money in the Bank Ladder match, a six-way chase for a briefcase containing a contract the winner could cash in for a title shot for up to a year. In his second book, Chris Jericho details how he and a member of the WWE creative whose name I’m failing to recall came up with the idea of a multi-man ladder match in hopes it would become a WrestleMania fixture (which it did until it got its own pay-per-view in 2010). The inaugural installment was the perfect mix of ladder match veterans—Edge, Christian, Chris Jericho and Chris Benoit—a show-stealing rookie—Shelton Benjamin—and a big dude to catch the little guys—Kane. Edge became the first-ever Mr. Money in the Bank and history was made.

I have never seen WrestleMania 22; it’s the only one. If I recall correctly, I was headed back from visiting Megan at Connecticut College to my friend Jamie’s house in New Jersey, got caught in traffic, and missed the show. In the seven intervening years, I’ve never watched it.

Anybody got a copy?

Batista vs. The Undertaker for the World title
2007 was my first full year living with Megan, and thus the end of my “I’m bored so I’ll order a wrestling pay-per-view tonight” days. Now shows really had to sell me, and this one did not, though I was in the minority as I believe it still stands as the most watched WrestleMania of all-time. I personally watched it for the first time just a couple weeks ago on WWE Classics OnDemand.

Most of the aforementioned interest came from the “Battle of the Billionaires” where Vince McMahon and Donald Trump put their hair on the line, pitting proxies Umaga and Bobby Lashley against one another with Steve Austin as the special referee; it’s not a bad match, but more memorable for Vince’s entertaining histrionics. There’s also a decent Money in the Bank match, a nice moment with the ECW Originals getting a WrestleMania win, and John Cena defending the WWE title against Shawn Michaels in a match where I was rooting for HBK to get the championship six years after knowing it didn’t happen.

That Cena-Michaels match got to go on last, and reportedly Undertaker and World champion Batista were not pleased they got bumped to the middle of the card. Accordingly, the two heavyweights went out and beat the star out of one another, determined to steal the show. It’s the polished up version of Undertaker-Diesel from a decade earlier, with a Taker who has gotten way more versatile and an opponent equipped to hang with him. They work an athletic power style with plenty of believable false finishes and an earned ending. These guys clicked nicely and would go on to have many more excellent encounters.

Ric Flair vs. Shawn Michaels
This was the first time I indulged in WWE OnDemand’s putting the previous year’s WrestleMania up in the week leading to the upcoming one, watching this in 2009, 12 months after it went down. It would be the first one I watched in the comfort of my Saddle Brook, New Jersey apartment, and over the course of several days with the ability to pause, rewind, etc.

I had been greatly anticipating this show as it kicked off what would be an awesome middle of 2008 that saw CM Punk’s rise to prominence—he wins Money in the Bank here—Edge reaching new levels as a heel—he loses the World title to Undertaker on this show—and even the ECW brand started to become a cool mix of veterans with up-and-comers—Kane takes the ECW title off Chavo Guerrero in eight seconds. There’s also an overlooked little power gem with Batista beating Umaga, Randy Orton upsetting Triple H and John Cena to hold on to the WWE title, and boxer Floyd Mayweather in a little sideshow with The Big Show.

But all the best stuff from 2008 kicks off from one incredible, emotional, brilliant tale of a match as Ric Flair put his career on the line against Shawn Michaels. For 25 minutes, HBK faced his childhood hero, giving it his all so the Nature Boy had the opportunity to go out on his terms with one last classic. Flair may have been a step or two off pace, but the emotion he poured in more than made up for any physical lag. Everybody who’s seen it will never forget the final moments: Flair staggers to his feet, daring his opponent to finish it, Shawn mouths “I’m sorry, I love you,” then a superkick seals the deal. The next night, Ric Flair got a hero’s sendoff on Raw. Over the coming months, Michaels would enter into a great feud with Flair protégé Batista. From there, it branched into a quintessential war between Michaels and Chris Jericho. A banner year and it all began here.