There are so many things that go into making a wrestling match great. The workrate, the psychology, the story, etc. Every serious wrestling fan has opinions about what those things are and which matches are the greatest. Some are purists who think the wrestling stands on its own. Some care more about the stories being told than anything else. For me, it's a delicate balance between several factors:
One of the things that makes kayfabe professional wrestling unique is its ability to tell stories in a way that no other art form really can. It is one of the most heavily physical forms of storytelling, with so much having to be communicated with mere movements and facial expressions. It is also one of the most improvisation-based forms of storytelling, with so much of what the wrestlers say and do in the ring being unscripted. It has all the rich, compelling narratives of all the major competitive sports and--at its best--orchestrates these narratives in the most compelling and dramatic ways in order to engage its audience.
For me, the story leading up to the match and the story being told within the match are equally important and have to be logically consistent. Really, everything has to be logically consistent. I think it was Ted DiBiase whose advice to the younger talent was something along the lines of: every single thing you do in the ring (and outside it, for that matter), you have to be thinking about WHY you're doing it. Characters and their motivations have to be clearly defined and every single action of those characters has to be logically consistent with both their character and their motivations.
While I firmly believe that a wrestling match can't be truly great without a good story, the opposite is equally true. After all, at the end of the day, it is all about the wrestling. But what goes into "good wrestling" and what does it look and feel like? Certainly most wrestling fans are familiar with the usual indicators of "good" wrestling: workrate, move set, technical ability, athleticism, selling. But there is so much more that goes into making a wrestling match great and I feel like a lot of it is much more subtle stuff that the average wrestling fan doesn't necessarily notice, at least not consciously.
Perhaps the most important of these is realism--that is, how much does this look like a real athletic contest (or a flat out fight, depending on what you're going for) within the rules and logic of the match and how hard do the wrestlers appear to be trying to win (or just beat the shit out of each other)? Selling is a big part of this but there's more to it than that. It's also related to workrate in a way--how much do the wrestlers stay on each other, do they look like they're going 100% on every move or can you tell they're holding back, how diligently are they trying to win the match and how well are they using the logic and rules of the match to their advantage, how stiff are they working? Kayfabe wrestling, at its very best, should legitimately look as much like a real fight happening in real time as possible.
There are also other elements that are often underrated if not overlooked. Timing is a major one--the ability (and the chemistry between wrestlers) to put your body and your movements in exactly the right place at exactly the right time (and for the right reasons). Visual imagery is another one--how the moves and the spots look, the fluidity of motion, the creation of images and "moments" and telling of stories using only movements and facial expressions (and sometimes words that the audience can't hear--although with modern television production technology, those words are able to come across more and more). Psychology is a bit more well known, though more complex than perhaps many realize--particularly the importance of wrestling in character even when doing so doesn't look like "good wrestling."
This is a category that can be easy to overlook but that I think I place more emphasis on than most. So much of modern kayfabe wrestling is about "moments" and, like the major sports, legacy is incredibly important. One of the things that can really tip the scales to certain matches in favor of others is when those matches contain important moments in the canon in which they exist. A first championship of a legendary wrestler, a match that launches someone's career, even the culmination of a truly all-time great story are moments that live forever. And then sometimes (well, once, as far as I know) a match transcends professional wrestling and becomes something more.
Some people might object to this criteria and that's totally valid. Great matches have certainly happened in front of terrible crowds before. Just look at Chris Benoit v. Dean Malenko at WCW Hog Wild 1996--which took place at a motorcycle convention, for some reason, and featured a crowd that had absolutely zero interest in watching wrestling happen unless Hulk Hogan was involved. Still, I have to admit that a big part of what makes a match great is the crowd's reaction to it. For one thing, connecting with a wrestling crowd in order to elicit a specific response is an art and one that is a whole hell of a lot more difficult than it might seem. When they do it right, there is an energy it creates that is like nothing I've ever seen before. When they don't, things can get real ugly, real fast. But there's nothing better than a great match where the crowd is completely jacked and popping huge for big moves and chanting "this is awesome" and biting down hard on nearfalls. There's nothing like it in the world.
So, then, what do I think are the ten greatest wrestling matches I've ever seen?
THE HONORABLE MENTIONS:
Shawn Michaels vs. Undertaker (Hell in a Cell Match) -- WWF In Your House: Badd Blood (1997)
I love the iconic Mankind match as much as anyone (it could arguably be worth an honorable mention on importance and storytelling alone), but the first Hell in a Cell match is EASILY the best. The storytelling behind the match itself wasn't the greatest but there was a side story that had been hinted at for months and was secretly the main point of this match. The match itself is exquisite. Both men use the cage expertly, playing to their strengths. HBK's psychology here is as good as ever, freaking out when they close the cage, trying to use his quickness but ultimately getting put through the meat grinder until he finds an opening and starts desperately beating on the Undertaker to keep him subdued.
The match turns when HBK is backdropped onto a cameraman causing him to assault the cameraman. They open the cage to get him some medical attention and suddenly HBK and Undertaker have both escaped the cage and are on top of it. HBK tries to escape by climbing back down but Undertaker beats him until he lets go and falls through a table. But he's not done there. He chokeslams HBK from the top rope. He CRACKS his head with a chair (revenge for HBK doing the same to him on Raw). He signals for the Tombstone but then the lights go out and the now-iconic ominous organ intro plays and a red-and-black-clad behemoth appears with Paul Bearer in tow. The debuting Kane RIPS THE DOOR OFF THE CELL and Tombstones Undertaker to Hades. And it's clearly a powerful Tombstone because the last, like, five minutes of the match is HBK crawling over to make the cover and the referee counting the slowest three count possible. Even after HBK leaves, Undertaker is still out like a light. And this was only the beginning of one of the great WWF/E feuds of all time.
Rey Mysterio vs. Eddie Guerrero (Cruiserweight Title vs. Mask) -- WCW Halloween Havoc 1997
This is hands down the quintessential American cruiserweight match. It's Rey Mysterio, Jr. and Eddie Guerrero at the peak of their powers. There isn't a ton of story going on here besides the title v. mask stipulation which hurts it for me but it is an impeccably wrestled match. The crispness and perfect execution of every move and the chemistry and timing between Rey and Eddie are off the charts. Look at that cartwheel reversed into an Eddie Guerrero suplex. That test of strength pin attempt into the springboard backflip DDT. The sequences trading reversals on the apron and outside the ring. The springboard rana that Eddie turns into a brutal backbreaker and the one he catches for a THUNDEROUS powerbomb. Simply the consumate cruiserweight masterpiece.
Undertaker vs. Shawn Michaels -- WWE WrestleMania XXV (2009)
This match was set up to be one of the greatest of all time before anyone ever even had the idea for it. Mr. WrestleMania takes on the streak. It was inevitable. Shawn has accomplished everything in his career except for breaking the streak. "You may be 16-0 at WrestleMania," Shawn says, "but I AM Mr. WrestleMania." The story almost writes itself. Shawn Michaels the incredible sinner turned born again Christian against the man from the depths of Hell. It's light v. dark, Heaven v. Hell. "Sometimes it's Hell," Undertaker says, "trying to get to Heaven." Even the entrances reflect this story with HBK descending from the heavens bathed in light, dressed all in white, and kneeling in prayer on the ramp while Undertaker rises from the depths of hell bathed in darkness and fire, dressed all in black, and uses dark magic to bring up the lights in the arena when he gets to the ring. Michaels is completely unintimidated, though. His cold, intense eyes are fixed on the Undertaker the entire time.
A lot of people consider this the greatest WWE match of all time, if not the greatest wrestling match period. I get why but, for me, what keeps it from being higher on the list is that, honestly, some of the wrestling here is kinda sloppy. The biggest spot in the match is basically a really cool-looking botch and a couple other moves look awful. The story is great but there's really not much work put into it because there didn't really have to be. The wrestling and story are still amazing, this is just nitpicking because this is, after all, my top ten matches of all time. There is a lot here that is very realistic and that really flows from one thing to the next. A ton of great counters upon counters, including the phenomenal ending sequence and countless chokeslams into superkicks and vice versa. If nothing else, this is the quintessential WrestleMania match--heavy on spectacle and epic story and WrestleMania Moments.
10. Shinsuke Nakamura vs. Sami Zayn -- NXT TakeOver: Dallas (2016)
As far as pure wrestling matches go, I can't think of a stiffer, more realistic-looking wrestling match than this one. These two absolutely UNLOAD on each other and it's incredible. Not only that but their timing and chemistry is off the charts, which is especially amazing when you consider the fact that the two did not so much as touch each other before the match. A lot of people feel this match suffers from a lack of story while benefiting greatly from a molten hot crowd. Maybe I'm biased because I was in that crowd but, for me, the crowd response is a significant aspect of the greatness of this match. Yes, NXT fans were hyped for Shinsuke Nakamura's debut but if this match wasn't as good as it was, the crowd wouldn't have been either. Just look at the whole sequence where they're just trading strikes back and forth with the crowd just screaming "YEAH!" every time instead of the more customary "YEAH"/"BOO" and then it turns into the crowd "YES"ing and Zayn and Nakamura doing everything they can to keep up, to the point that their arms are basically noodles by the end of it. THAT is how you work a crowd and the crowd is incredibly appreciative. We weren't chanting "FIGHT FOREVER" because we wanted to be on TV, we were chanting it because we were SO HAPPY and we NEVER wanted this to end.
And yes, the story is a little thin but I think people forget that not only was this Shinsuke's debut but it was Sami Zayn's NXT swan song so it really is kind of a passing of the torch in a way because Sami Zayn was the heart and soul of NXT and who better to take up the mantle than Shinsuke? Not only that but the story they tell in the ring is beautiful in spite of (or, perhaps, because of) its simplicity: two of the best damn wrestlers on the planet giving every ounce of everything they have to prove who is THE best. And they do NOT disappoint. Every strike is brutal, every move is crisp, every reversal is fluid. Eventually it becomes less a battle for supremacy and more a fight for survival. Shinsuke's nose gets busted and he tastes his blood and turns into a shark. At one point he's just stomping Sami's skull while he's on the ground and Sami realizes he might literally die if he doesn't match Shinsuke's violence and fast--to the point where he finds himself stomping Shinsuke's head in right back, which is a level of viciousness we never see from Sami. Of course, there's no way he can match Shinsuke's violence so ultimately he gets stuck with a knee to the back of the neck and a Kinshasa. After the match, Sami looks like he got put through a meat grinder because, well, he kinda did. The two warriors share the kind of embrace that only two guys who just nearly killed each other can share and raise each other's hands and Sami gets a standing ovation and a suitable sendoff.
9. Cactus Jack vs. Triple H (Street Fight for WWF Title) -- WWF Royal Rumble 2000
At the turn of the century, Triple H was quickly ascending to the top of WWF thanks in no small measure to a budding relationship with the boss's daughter. They even played it up into a storyline where Triple H and Steph made a Machiavellian power grab, taking control of the company in order to put themselves over. While Triple H had clearly developed into a legitimate top guy, there were still questions about his toughness. His character began as a privileged Connecticut blueblood and that was a reputation that stuck with him through the D-X years as well as the Cerebral Assassin years. So what better way to change that reputation than to put him with the most violent man in the WWF?
The story is great. Triple H, in a sadistic power trip, puts The Rock and Mankind in a "Pink Slip on a Pole" match which results in Mankind being fired. This, however, doesn't stop Mankind from showing up to foil Triple H's plans on several occasions. Not only that, but the entire locker room rebels against the McMahon-Helmsley regime and demands they reinstate Mankind, who demands a match at the Royal Rumble for the WWF title. Enraged, Triple H brutally assaults Mankind in hopes he won't make it to the Royal Rumble. Mankind confronts Triple H and informs him that after the brutal beating, he's in no shape to take on Triple H...BUT he has found a suitable replacement. "Maybe you've heard of him," Foley says, removing his mask to reveal that Triple H will be facing Cactus Jack. Triple H, to his credit, does an amazing job of selling how shook he is by this announcement.
The match is an incredibly well-orchestrated bloodbath. Jack is in HHH's head before the bell even rings with his patented rambling smack-talking and once the match starts he just lays into him. Eventually he reveals Barbie (the 2x4 wrapped in barbed wire) and rips Triple H's face to shreds. HHH also suffers a NASTY puncture wound on his calf that looks like a freaking gunshot wound. HHH is able to turn the match on the outside when Foley runs at him and he hip tosses Foley legs first into the ring steps, followed by an Irish whip knees first into the steps. Two Mick Foley staples and two of the most painful looking moves in wrestling. The whip into the steps in particular is one of the most evocative visuals in wrestling, the way the stairs just explode in his wake and the thunderous sound they make--it's hard not to think about the fact that Mick Foley has no cartilage in his knees anymore thanks in no small part to these moves.
From there, this is absolute chaos punctuated by two brutal table spots--including the GNARLY Foley stump piledriver onto the table that DOESN'T BREAK. It's already glorious but then it gets REALLY good when Triple H takes out the handcuffs. Not only is this scummy and sadistic but it's an excellent callback to the previous year's Royal Rumble where The Rock did the same thing to Mankind. And WWF doesn't just bring up its own history, it exhibits a thorough knowledge of it by showing that Mick, who has been in this position before, knows exactly how to fight with both hands behind his back. Not only that, but, in a triumph of symmetry, The Rock is the one to come out, brain Triple H with a chair, and get the handcuffs removed. It's not enough, though, because when Foley introduces the thumbtacks, Steph comes to ringside to distract Foley long enough to give HHH an opportunity to introduce Foley to the thumbtacks. Even THIS won't put Foley down, so HHH PEDIGREES HIM FACE FIRST ONTO THE TACKS for the pin. Quite simply, this is the best hardcore match in WWF/E history. It has it all and more.
8. Chris Benoit vs. Triple H vs. Shawn Michaels -- WWE WrestleMania XX (2004)
Quite simply the greatest North American triple threat match ever. This match is a masterpiece of tandem wrestling. The chemistry between these three guys is off the charts--not surprising considering you have two of the best in-ring performers of all time in the ring with a guy who is at least in the top 100. The story isn't spectacular or anything but there's a lot of really good stuff going on here. HHH and HBK are coming off of a brutal Last Man Standing match at the Royal Rumble that ended the way roughly 90% of Last Man Standing matches end: with both men unable to answer the ten count. Then you have Benoit, the underdog fan favorite fresh off winning one of the best Royal Rumble matches ever by pulling the Big Show over the top rope by his damned head. Benoit originally had a one-on-one match-up with HHH but HBK superkicked him at the contract signing and signed his name instead so Bischoff made an executive decision to make it a triple threat match. From there the animosity boils over between all three men. To their credit, the bad blood between Benoit and HBK almost reaches the same level as HHH and HBK.
The match is a whirlwind. All the characters are so well defined and all three performers are so great at making this look like both a real fight and a delicate dance simultaneously. Sequences like HHH ramming Benoit's back into the apron into a HBK baseball slide followed by an HBK moonsault and HBK reversing HHH's whip into Benoit in the tree of woe and Benoit getting his foot up to kick HHH in the face are just breathtaking. Moreover, Benoit makes everyone work harder and treats this more like a real fight than almost anyone I've ever seen in the ring--and yet he's the only one who isn't covered in blood by the time it's over.
You know when the announcer is like "THIS IS A WAR" and it's kinda disingenuous and you're like "OK, buddy, relax." Yeah. THIS is a WAR.
Benoit locks in the Crippler Crossface on HBK and he's about to tap out but HHH holds his hand before he can and they team up on Benoit and double suplex him through a freaking announce table. HHH is about to win with a Pedigree but Benoit comes out of nowhere to break up the pin. Benoit has a Sharpshooter locked in on HHH and just as HHH's fingers graze the ropes, Benoit pulls him to the center of the ring and then moments later, HBK NAILS him with a Sweet Chin Music but Benoit kicks out at 2! HBK goes for another Sweet Chin Music but Benoit ducks under and throws him out of the ring. HHH catches him in a Pedigree but Benoit reverses it into a Crossface. HHH tries to roll into a pin but Benoit hangs on and now HHH has nowhere to go so he taps out. After the match, Eddie Guerrero, who had just successfully defended his title against Kurt Angle via shoe removal, comes to the ring and the two best friends celebrate together in one of the most retrospectively tragic moments in wrestling history.
7. Magnum T.A. vs. Tully Blanchard (Steel Cage "I Quit" Match for the United States Championship) -- NWA Starrcade 1985
This match is a masterclass of emotion and realism in wrestling. All the incredible pathos and malicious violence of a truly bitter rivalry and it's breathtaking. The story, as I understand it, from what I've read, was that Magnum TA was a quintessential babyface and everything Tully Blanchard wanted to be but Tully had dragged Magnum to a much darker place than he'd ever been in and the pure hatred these two portrayed in this match and the effort put into making this look as much like a real fight as possible is unmatched. These guys were out to kill each other and every time they stick the mic in each other's face, they're SCREAMING "SAY IT!" and then beating each other with it. You have to consider this pretty much the standard for American hardcore wrestling. Dark, vicious, violent, emotionally driven, almost excruciating to watch at times but in the best way possible. It ends when Tully's valet throws a wooden chair in the ring and it breaks and Magnum stabs Tully in the fucking face with a shard of broken wood until he gives up. He's in such agony that he can't even SAY "I Quit" and instead just screams "YEEESSS! YEEESSS! YEEESSS!" Absolute, sheer brutality.
This is one of those matches that I feel like I rank a LOT higher than most people and there are a few reasons for that. First of all, the story here is so good. Jeff Hardy as the deeply human, relatable fan favorite with the troubled past filled with struggles with drug abuse and addiction. C.M. Punk as the stereotypical sanctimonious straight edge dude who considers himself morally superior to the weak-willed masses yet can't understand why they don't love him for being better than them. "What you need is a straight edge champion," he tells them. "You need CM Punk." But finally he begins to understand why the people gravitate toward Jeff: because "it's easier to be weak like Jeff, because you sure can't be strong like me." Therefore, in order to make the fans see the light, Punk believes he must end Jeff Hardy. That's excellent.
The other reason I rate this match so highly is that it is the single most well-executed ladder match I have ever seen. Yes, even better (honestly, in my not-so-humble opinion, significantly better) than the HBK/Razor Ramon matches and every combination of the Hardy Boyz, Dudley Boyz, and Edge and Christian. The workrate and the strict adherence to the logic inherent in the rules of the match is unparalleled. This is far from just a random spotfest. Both guys are working their asses off with the specific aim of incapacitating each other and they take EVERY possible opening they have to try to climb the ladder and get the belt which doesn't happen nearly enough in most ladder matches. Both men are absolutely tenacious in staying on each other resulting in these amazing sequences of three, four, five, or more moves one after another. There are two especially amazing sequences:
1. Hardy whips Punk into the steps, Punk jumps on top of them, jumps off into a chair shot; Hardy hits a Poetry In Motion on Punk into the barricade; throws a chair at his head; sets Punk up on the table, goes for splash but Punk moves at the VEEERY last second; Punk goes for the belt, Hardy grabs his leg, pulls him down, climbs over him, has his hand on the title, Punk gets Hardy into GTS position but Hardy reverses it into a sunset flip powerbomb; Hardy goes for the belt but Punk tips the ladder and Hardy gets fucking MANGLED in the ropes; Punk grabs him from the apron and FUCKING SUPERPLEXES HIM ONTO THE GODDAMN LADDER JESUS CHRIST...
2. Hardy Twist of Fate, goes for Swanton but Punk gets his knees up, Punk goes for the jumping knee into the bulldog but Jeff lifts him up and tosses him to the outside through the fucking table HE set up like 5-10 minutes ago! Hardy goes for the belt but Punk hits him with a springboard axe handle, throws him to the outside, drapes the chair around Hardy, sends him into the post but Hardy blocks it, uses his momentum to send HIM into the stairs, DESTROYS Punk with a chair, throws it at him, preps the Spanish announce table, hits Punk with the monitor, puts him on the announce table, BRAINS him with a chair, gets a FUCKING GIGANTIC LADDER and Swantons Punk to goddamn CHINA!!! Punk goes for the belt and Hardy stumbles back to the ring, selling like fucking Marcellus Wallace after Butch hit him with his car, and they have maybe the greatest top of the ladder showdown ever with both VERY nearly grasping the belt and pulling it down but finally Punk knocks Hardy off and grabs the belt.
If that wasn't enough, as Punk stands over Hardy's limp body and mugs with the belt, the lights begin to flicker and then go out. The lights come back on and seemingly nothing has happened but then HOLY SHIT THE UNDERTAKER HAS REPLACED JEFF HARDY and he chokeslams Punk to hell, starting a whole new wonderful feud. That's how it's done.
5. Stone Cold vs. The Rock (No Holds Barred Match for WWF Title) -- WWF WrestleMania X-Seven (2001)
This is the quintessential brawl and the pinnacle of one of the defining rivalries of modern WWE history. It also features one of the most brilliant bits of storytelling you'll ever see. The Rock and Stone Cold are two guys who seemed to be on a perpetual collison course for most of their careers. They battled over the Intercontinental title in 1997. The Rock was at the center of Stone Cold's feud with Vince McMahon and the Corporation in 1998 and 1999, ultimately dropping the title to Austin at WrestleMania XV. They were the #1 and #2 guys throughout the Attitude Era and this was their climax. Both at the peak of their powers (albeit not necessarily their physical primes) and both desperate to establish supremacy. That's really the essence of the story. Both men DESPERATELY need to win this match and that desperation and the resulting animosity between them is palpable. And every last drop of that desperation and animosity is poured into this match.
This is a straight up bar fight with all the intensity of the build up to the match boiling over into vicious punches, kicks, chokes, slamming faces into objects, hitting each other with anything not nailed down, etc. Austin is one of the best ever at making a fight look absolutely real and this is one of the most realistic looking fights I've ever seen. Austin lacerates Rock with a ring bell to the face but Rock gets his revenge, busting Austin open on the exposed turnbuckle and braining him with the same ring bell. When Austin can't put the Rock away with a catapult into the ring post and a TV to the face, he picks him up, flips him off, and goes for the Stunner but Rock catches his leg and puts him in Rock's terrible Sharpshooter. Austin gets to the ropes so Rock goes for another Sharpshooter, flipping Austin off halfway into it, giving Austin an opening to rake his eyes and reverse it into a (much better) Sharpshooter of his own but Rock powers out! Austin goes after the leg and puts on another Sharpshooter but Rock gets to the ropes. Austin flips off the ref but ultimately breaks the hold and locks in the Million Dollar Dream! Color commentator Paul Heyman aptly notes that he's pulling out all the stops, that he'll do anything in his power to get the WWE title. The Rock reverses the hold into a pin attempt and then hits a Stone Cold Stunner on Stone Cold but Austin kicks out at 2.9!
Here's where it gets interesting. Out comes Vince McMahon for reasons no one really understands. Before the match, it was announced that it had been made a no disqualification match, to which play-by-play announcer Jim Ross replied: "Who made that ruling?" Now, The Rock catches Austin in a spinebuster and hits the People's Elbow. Cover. VINCE BREAKS UP THE PIN! And just like that, in one of the most shocking moments in WWE history, perhaps the two most mortal enemies in WWE history joined forces--the ultimate conclusion of the "these guys will do LITERALLY ANYTHING to win this match" story AND the second year in a row that The Rock has been betrayed by Vince McMahon in the main event of WrestleMania. The Rock is LIVID. He chases Vince around the ring and runs into a Rock Bottom from Austin, kicking out at 2.99! The referee gets knocked out and Austin directs Vince to hand him a chair and then brains The Rock with it as Vince revives the ref who counts to 2.999! Austin is IRATE. His points his finger in the face of The Rock and is about to hit him with a chair when Rock catches him in a Rock Bottom, only to have Vince distract the referee. The Rock launches Vince in the ring and beats on him but gets caught in a Stone Cold Stunner off the distraction and...KICKS OUT AT 2.9999!! Austin BLASTS Rock in the face with the chair and...THE ROCK KICKS OUT AT 2.99999!!! The Rock WILL NOT DIE. Austin becomes incensed, brutally beats Rock half to death with the chair, and finally pins him. After the match, Austin and Vince celebrate in the ring with a beer and give The Rock one more good stiff shot with the title belt just to throw a little salt in the wound.
Is there any more classic feud than brother v. brother? And when you add in the fact that those two brothers are two of the greatest technical wrestlers of all time, you're really in for a show. The angle was built up over four months, with Owen wanting to step out of the shadow of Bret and face him one-on-one after Bret, in his eyes, caused him to be the only one eliminated in the Hart Foundation's win at Survivor Series. Bret refuses to fight Owen and calms him down--like he probably has all their lives when Owen complained like this--convincing him to team up and win the tag titles. Unfortunately, Bret injures his knee and is unable to tag Owen in late in the match, costing them the match. Owen, who can't understand why Bret didn't tag him, has had enough of living in his brother's shadow and attacks him, setting up this showdown. It's not a story the WWE put a TON of work into but it didn't have to be. It's such a natural story to tell and Bret and Owen tell it beautifully without needing much airtime to do it.
Owen's character work throughout the match is brilliant--sniveling, entitled, whiny, cocky, annoying, cowardly, and underhanded. He celebrates "winning" the initial lock-up. He slaps Bret after Bret sends him through the ropes. Gives him "a yank of the hair and a foot in the face." At one point, he even tries to leave. As a technical wrestling match, I don't know if it gets any better than this. Two of the absolute greatest of all time chaining moves and holds together like few others in wrestling history are capable of, throwing everything they have at one another to prove which of them truly is "the best there is, the best there was, and the best there ever will be." The workrate is absolutely dizzying. Both men methodically and tenaciously target body parts with unparalleled creativity and an extensive arsenal of moves. Bret does everything he can to put Owen away but Owen won't go down. Bret tries to go for a pin out of the electric chair position and BAM, Owen blocks it and pins him, shocking everyone. An absolute master class of technical wrestling with an amazing story and a shocking ending. And still only the second best WrestleMania match of all time...
3. Steve Austin vs. Bret Hart (Submission Match) -- WWF WrestleMania XIII (1997)
As long as we're on the topic of masterpieces...this match. The story was simple but brilliant: Bret has been screwed over and over, pushing him over the edge. He feels like times have changed and doesn't know where he fits in. Stone Cold is at the center of all of this, giving the finger to everything Bret stands for and violently attacking him every time he sees him because he can't stand all the whining and complaining Bret's been doing. The build was excellent because the hatred between these two was so palpable. Every time either man was on screen, no matter what else they were doing, the other man would come barreling into him within like ten seconds which is a thing that doesn't happen NEARLY enough on WWE TV these days. Not only that but past/tradition v. future/change angle is always a great story, especially when it actually does result in change--revolutionary change, at that. The beginning of the era of the highest grossing WWE superstar of all time. And what's even more impressive is that initially, Bret was meant to be the good guy in all this. He had nothing but legitimate complaints and Austin had definitively dicked him over on several occasions. But the irresistible power of Austin's personality and rebelliousness as well as the change that he represented was so resonant that WWF was forced to change their plans midstream and orchestrate this brilliant double turn.
Much like Austin/Rock at WrestleMania XVII, this whole match looks incredibly realistic. In keeping with the build to the match, the two immediately brawl to the outside and into the crowd. When they finally get back in the ring, Bret tries to turn this into a wrestling match, going after Austin's injured neck and then targeting his injured knee but eventually Bret's animosity takes over. He grabs the ring bell and a chair, wraps the chair around Austin's injured leg, and is about jump off the top rope and stomp him like Austin did to Brian Pillman a few weeks prior but he takes a little too long. Austin recovers, grabs the chair and brains Bret with it and the crowd ERUPTS. Austin targets Bret's back--a persistent "injury" that was exploited in so many of Hart's matches--with a lot of moves he didn't use very often--a Russian leg sweep, a modified abdominal stretch, a Boston Crab. He even goes for a Sharpshooter but Bret rakes his eyes.
When Austin tries to whip Bret into the timekeeper, Bret reverses and Austin "hits" his head on the railing, busting his head WIDE fucking open and causing blood to pour from his head. Bret "smells blood" and goes immediately after the laceration, hitting it with rapid fire punches and smashing Austin's head into the steps and the post. Bret attacks Austin's leg with the chair and goes for a Sharpshooter but Austin rakes his eyes. Bret goes back to the cut but Austin kicks him in the dick. Austin gets in a flurry of offense and then chokes Bret with a fucking electrical cable but Bret brains him with the ring bell. This fight is SO intense and SO personal and you can feel it radiating from everything they do.
And then--in one of the most timeless images and one of the most memorable, most replayed WrestleMania moments of all time--Bret puts Austin in the Sharpshooter, Austin screaming and fighting and clawing until he plants his hands, one at a time, and pushes with every ounce of energy he has left, powering out of the Sharpshooter as the crowd ROARS and the announce team hollers "IMPOSSIBLE!" and "NOBODY'S EVER DONE THAT!" But Bret--being, y'know, Bret Hart--never fully relinquishes the hold, gets back up and leans back into it until Austin passes out and guest referee Ken Shamrock (still in UFC at this point) has to stop the match.
After the match, Bret continues to attack Austin and is about to put him in another Sharpshooter before Shamrock takes him down from behind and the crowd goes wild. Shamrock is primed and ready to fight but Bret slinks out of the ring to a chorus of boos. Austin, meanwhile, is having trouble leaving the ring so some referees come to the ring to help him and they get a stunner for their trouble. Austin hobbles back up the ramp to the sound of the fans chanting his name and the greatest double turn of all time is complete.
2. Sami Zayn vs. Adrian Neville (NXT Title Match) -- NXT TakeOver: R|Evolution (2014)
The journey of Sami Zayn spans roughly 18 months. He made his mark by beating Cesaro in his first appearance on NXT TV and then having the greatest match in NXT history (until this one) with Cesaro in a 2-out-of-3 falls match a few months later. After that, for months and months he was the heart and soul of NXT, everyone's favorite wrestler but just kept falling short and couldn't win the big one. He was always the "nice guy" in NXT, lacking the killer instinct to do "what is necessary" to be champion like pretty much everyone else in WWE always does. Finally, it's come to a head. Sami has failed for the last time. It's now or never. Sami says if he can't beat Neville then he is done in NXT. When he refuses to shake hands and slaps Neville across the face, it's clear that this time is different. Not only that, but he and Neville used to be best friends but now they can't even train in the same gym together. All of this is SO good and SO classic and SO simple it's amazing that WWE can't tell stories this simple, clear, and concise all the damn time.
They start out with a beautiful parallel exchange with chaining submissions. It's clear these two know each other so well and are so much alike. Neville tries to slow the pace down and keep Zayn grounded which is a little surprising but it does take the crowd out of the match somewhat and Sami is definitely a guy that feeds on the crowd. When the pace starts to quicken, Sami gets the upper hand with a KILLER tilt-a-whirl backbreaker and a PERFECT seated springboard moonsault, landing on his feet. One of the (many) impressive things about this match is how clean and crisp and impeccably executed every single move is, even the INCREDIBLY complex ones and the counters upon counters upon counters. Just look at that cartwheel into the electric chair position into the Blue Thunder Bomb. That shit is incredible.
The intensity ramps up when Neville hits Zayn with some big forearms and Zayn gets right up in his face and says BRING IT ON; they trade blows and Zayn clotheslines Neville inside out. When Neville gets an opening and goes for the Red Arrow, Zayn gets his knees up and transitions straight into the Koji Clutch but Neville gets to the ropes. Zayn goes for the Exploder, Neville reverses it into a roll-up, Zayn kicks out and sends Neville into the ref. As Sami pauses to checks on the ref, the crowd is screaming "NOOOOOOOOOOO!" but it's too late. Zayn walks into a crushing superkick and a BRUTAL poisoned hurricanrana but kicks out at 2.9!
At this point, both men are SPENT. Zayn hits two German suplexes and the third is an inverted exploder. When Neville rolls out of the way of the Helluva Kick, Zayn hits him with the through-the-ropes DDT (I don't want to overuse the caps button too much but it always bears mentioning: holy shit that DDT is insane). Zayn finally hits the Helluva Kick but Neville pulls the ref into his path and Zayn once again gets distracted by checking on the ref. Neville takes the opportunity to grab the belt and attempts to hit Sami with it but Sami kicks him before he gets a chance.
This is the moment of truth.
Sami looks down at the belt, contemplating using it himself. He picks it up and is poised to hit Neville with it. The crowd is chanting "NO! NO! NO! NO! NO!" This is the eternal struggle. Temptation. The struggle of staying true to yourself. If I may quote e.e. cummings in a blog post about professional wrestling: "to be nobody-but-yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else is to fight the hardest battle any human being can ever fight..." and Sami is fighting that battle before our very eyes. Does he compromise his values and his identity for glory or does he risk literally everything and stay true to himself? Finally Sami shakes his head and says "NAH FUCK THAT!" (this is edited out of the recording on WWE Network but I watched this show live and he definitely said those exact words) and throws the belt down. Neville tries to roll him up off the distraction but he kicks out at 2.99 and catches Neville with an Exploder suplex. He runs to the corner, and in one of the most dramatic and powerful moments of wrestling storytelling I've ever seen, swipes his hand down over his face, cleansing himself of all the doubt of the past 18 months that he can do this and do it his way. He NAILS Neville with the Helluva Kick for the 1-2-3.
It is the defining moment in NXT history. The heart and soul of NXT, the fan favorite, the lovable loser who just kept falling a hair short time and time again and who EVERYONE wanted to see win it all finally did it. It was the 2004 Boston Red Sox. The 2016 Chicago Cubs. The entire locker room empties out to hoist him up onto their shoulders and celebrate, including Proud Grandpa Pat Patterson and Sami's best friend Kevin Owens, whose debut opened the show. If your heart didn't grow three sizes watching this, I honestly don't know why the hell you watch wrestling in the first place. He hugs it out with Neville and the locker room leaves to let him celebrate on his own but Owens comes back out to share just one more moment with his best friend. The show is ending. The event tag pops up. They're walking to the back arm-in-arm. And then...BAM! Owens throws Zayn to the ground and powerbombs him onto the apron. THAT is how you do it. In the words of UpRoxx's Brandon Stroud, as soon as you're done with Flair/Steamboat, you move right into Flair/Funk. Beautiful. This is fucking ART.
1. Aztec Warfare III -- Lucha Underground (2016)
I've written a lot about how amazing and important this match is and I don't know how much more I can really say about it. It is, quite simply, a masterpiece. It is a perfect battle royale, a virtuosic symphony of dynamic, beautiful lucha libre. It tells countless amazing stories, including two of the best wrestling stories ever told that span TWO AND A HALF SEASONS of this show. But what sets it apart most of all is that it is a radical, subversive political statement, speaking to the broader social context in which it exists. I've never seen a wrestling match do that before in my life and I don't know that there IS such a match. The statement may not have been intentional but all great art has unintended impact. Moreover, I have a hard time believing it was unintentional when Robert Rodriguez was running ads on El Rey throughout the election that were very thinly-veiled anti-Trump ads. And honestly, even if it WAS unintentional, the match might slide down a few spots on the list but it STILL told two of the best wrestling stories I've ever seen and gave us the first ever female world heavyweight champion of a major American wrestling promotion--not to mention the match itself is brilliant. Maybe I'm a prisoner of the moment. Maybe I'm massively overrating this match. But by the criteria I subscribe to, it is the greatest, most important wrestling match I've ever seen.