Tuesday, March 26, 2019

The History of WrestleMania: XIX-21

Time for three of my faves.  One amazing, one uneven but pretty great, one very solid......

Safeco Field - 3/30/03

This has to be the most stacked card I've ever seen.  I can't recall any other PPV where the last five matches are good enough and/or big enough to be a main event.  'Mania 19 is really quite something.

The main event was Kurt Angle vs. Brock Lesnar for the WWE Title, and this marked the first WWE PPV since December 1997 wher the main event did not include Steve Austin, The Rock, Triple H, or the Undertaker.  For someone like me who was burned out on the Attitude Era Big Four, this was a real breath of fresh air.  Angle and Lesnar put on a wrestling clinic that featured suplexes and reversals galore, and culminated in one of the most frightening botched spots in wrestling history. 
Brock Lesnar went for a Shooting Star Press, a move he had performed dozens of times in OVW and planned to debut in a WWE ring.  Unfortunately he positioned Angle two-thirds of the way across the ring and there was no way he could've gotten both the distance needed and the rotation.  Lesnar landed on his head and ended up pushing Angle out of the way.  It's a miracle he squeaked by with only a concussion.  But they finished the match and it was a classic.

How this didn't result in Lesnar's untimely demeez is beyond me.

If Angle-Lesnar was the #1 match of 'Mania 19, Shawn Michaels vs. Chris Jericho was #1A.  In a classic student vs. teacher-type bout, Shawn proved himself just as good as before he walked away from the ring in 1998, and Jericho proved himself just as good as Michaels (no small feat by any stretch).  This was a dazzling mix of aerial wrestling, mat technique, and plain ol' drama.  Personally I think Jericho should've won, but his kick to Shawn's junk after the match was a great exclamation point on a fantastic bout.

Say it with me: Right. In. The Dick.

'Mania 19 had a pair of huge marquee matches late in the card, the first of which was Hulk Hogan and Vince McMahon's violent, bloody brawl that should've been a stinker but ended up pretty damn good, if about five minutes too long.  The match features probably my favorite evil Vince moment, as the camera zoomed in on him peeking menacingly over the ring apron while clutching a lead pipe.
The second match of this one-two combination was the final Rock-Austin encounter; their third WrestleMania match and their fifth PPV match overall.  It ended up being Austin's swan song and allowed him to pass a torch of sorts to The Rock (who also left the company shortly thereafter, but finally got a PPV win over his old rival).  It was arguably better than their 'Mania 15 match but not as good as the 'Mania 17 one.

The often forgotten match of this "quintuple main event" was Triple H vs. Booker T for the World Title - a match many dismissed as a two-star affair, but one I thought was pretty great.  The buildup to it was terrible (a racial angle without the company having the balls to call it a racial angle), and the wrong man won (the way the hype played out the face absolutely should've prevailed), but taken by itself the match was really strong.

The remaining four matches ranged from pretty bad (Undertaker vs. Big Show & Albert) to pretty good (Team Angle vs. Benoit/Rhyno vs. Los Guerreros), and outside of some poor time management (cutting the World Tag match from the show in favor of the Miller Lite Girls and Limp Bizkit), the show is good to great almost all the way through.

In the pantheon of WrestleManias I've been torn between 17 and 19, but I think I have to place this one at the top of the heap.  There's just never been a show this stacked, and while 'Mania 17 basically couldn't NOT be good (it was the WWF at its apex, firing on all cylinders and exploding with star power), 'Mania 19 suffered from really poor buildup in several cases (Triple H-Booker, Vince-Hogan, Angle-Lesnar, due to uncertainty over Angle's physical condition) and yet the resulting PPV was spectacular. 

Best Match: Kurt Angle vs. Brock Lesnar (just by a hair)
Worst Match: Undertaker vs. Big Show/Albert (only bad match on the show)
What I'd Change: Cut the Miller Lite Girls and Limpety Bizkit, put World Tag Champs RVD & Kane vs. The Dudleys back on the PPV, and cut five minutes from Vince-Hogan and tack it onto the Cruiserweight Title match.
Most Disappointing Match: Matt Hardy vs. Rey Mysterio.  It wasn't bad, but it was far too short to amount to anything.  This match deserved to be a ten-minute hot opener.
Most Pleasant Surprise: Hulk Hogan vs. Vince McMahon - My expectations for this were zero, so the fact that I was entertained by it is significant.
Overall Rating: 10/10 - The good stuff is so good and plentiful I can't justify anything lower.  This is WWE's greatest PPV of all time.

Madison Square Garden - 3/14/04

Speaking of stacked shows, 'Mania 20 boasts probably the most impressive roster of any single WrestleMania card.  The WWE utilized the four-and-a-half hours they were given to cram as many stars on the show as possible.  Once again they returned to the place WrestleMania began - Madison Square Garden, and in front of a no-BS rabid crowd they put on an epic, if uneven showing.

The show started out with an okay US title match that helped establish John Cena as a rising star with a win over The Big Show, continued with the first of two throwaway 4-way Tag Title matches (unfortunately since either or both of them could've been a lot of fun), and then arrived at a pair of 'Mania-worthy bouts.

Chris Jericho and Christian had a mini-classic that ended with a nice Trish Stratus heel turn.  It was good to see both of them get enough time to steal the early part of the show, since neither of them had been used well at all for months.

Next up was a handicap match that was no mat classic but was tremendously entertaining - The Rock & Sock Connection vs. Evolution.  The Rock returned to the WWE for one match only, and with Mick Foley helped elevate Randy Orton and Batista in this wild 5-man brawl.

In the fifth slot was a Playboy Evening Gown match.  Say it with me - WHAT??  First, was a match like this responsible for even a single PPV buy?  Second, Sable and Torrie Wilson had both been in Playboy Magazine, naked.  So why would I want to see a match that's nothing more than an excuse for them to get not quite naked?

The entire Cruiserweight division was shoehorned into one match, which was given way too little time to amount to anything.  There were some decent spots, but this really should've just been a Cruiserweight singles match or maybe a Fatal 4-Way if it was only going ten minutes.

Next was quite possibly the most disappointing match in wrestling history: Goldberg vs. Brock Lesnar.  You talk about dream matches, this battle of monsters was very high on the list.  Given fifteen minutes or so, these two could've beaten the absolute crap out of each other and left the crowd exhausted.  Unfortunately it was the last WWE match for both of them (until 2012 anyway), and neither guy seemed to care even slightly about going out with a bang.  Plus the MSG crowd knew they were both leaving and ripped them apart.  The crowd were the real stars here, since their reaction was way more interesting than anything happening in the ring.

Seriously, I'm pretty sure this was the first half of the match.

The one real Women's match was Victoria vs. Molly Holly, but like several other matches on this show it was too short.  It is only remembered now for Molly having her head shaved at the end (which upset me greatly).

And then came one of the two matches that saved this show.  Eddie Guerrero vs. Kurt Angle for the WWE Title.  This was an instant classic with fantastic performances by both men, and had one of the cleverest endings I can remember (Eddie loosened his boot so that when Angle put him in the anklelock it would slip off his foot.  Then when Angle charged at him, Eddie nailed a small package for the win.  A perfect way for the Eddie Guerrero character to steal a victory.)

In the semi-main slot WWE for some reason put an Undertaker vs. Kane rematch, but made it a glorified squash.  Taker returned after a four-month hiatus and once again assumed the Dead Man persona (even though he still dressed like BikerTaker, but with a new hat).  This match wasn't even a tenth as good as its 'Mania 14 counterpart.

Finally we come to the main event - the first (and thus far only) Triple Threat main event in WrestleMania history.  Triple H vs. Shawn Michaels vs. Chris Benoit might be the greatest match I've ever seen.  It's an example of a perfectly worked match, where all three guys executed their roles flawlessly.  There was brutal, hard-hitting action, high spots, drama, submission wrestling, and two sick-looking bladejobs.  And most importantly the crowd favorite Benoit finally climbed the WWE mountain to capture the World Title.

It never happened.....HEY.....I said IT NEVER HAPPENED.

The closing moments of WrestleMania XX, with Benoit and Guerrero celebrating as the company's co-Champions was, at the time, my all-time favorite wrestling moment.  Too look back on it now is both bittersweet and rather chilling.  Both of these champions would be dead three years later - one died a tragic hero, the other died a severely disturbed monster.  But in 2004 this was the most significant celebratory moment of my time as a wrestling fan.

'Mania 20 is much like 'Mania 10 in that the overall show was very uneven, but the good stuff ranks among the best WrestleMania matches and moments of all time.

Best Match: Triple H vs. Shawn Michaels vs. Chris Benoit
Worst Match: The Playboy Evening Gown Match - what does that even mean??
What I'd Change: Cut the PB match, give that time to the Cruiserweights, make Taker vs. Kane an actual back-and-forth match, and find a way to motivate Goldberg and Lesnar to actually, ya know, DO something.
Most Disappointing Match: Obviously Goldie vs. Brock.  Just such a letdown.
Most Pleasant Surprise: Triple H vs. Shawn Michaels vs. Chris Benoit - I really didn't know how this would turn out, having a Triple Threat as the main event.  When they added Michaels to the mix I was pretty upset initially.  But obviously this ended up spectacular.
Overall Rating: 9/10

Staples Center - 4/3/05

'Mania 21 is a show that has grown on me considerably over the years.  At the time it aired I wasn't that excited about it because most of my favorite wrestlers (Benoit, Jericho, Edge, Eddie) were being pushed to the background to make room for the OVW alumni like Randy Orton, Batista and John Cena.  I understood why the company was pushing these guys but I wasn't terribly excited about any of them.  I also knew they could never top the main event of 'Mania 20, so this show seemed anticlimactic.  Curiously 'Mania 21 is notable for not having any tag team matches whatsoever, which is a sad commentary on the state of the tag division at that point.  But in retrospect WrestleMania 21 was a pretty damn solid show, even if it petered out in the final third.

As with 'Mania 8 most of the good matches were placed early on the card.  Rey Mysterio vs. Eddie Guerrero opened the show and while it failed to live up to their late 90s WCW work (and Rey struggled with mask malfunctions basically the whole match), it was still a strong way to open the show and get the crowd energized.

Next up was the first-ever Money in the Bank ladder match, which began a five-year regular WrestleMania feature, and would later spawn its own PPV event.  Chris Jericho, Chris Benoit, Edge, Kane, Christian and Shelton Benjamin put on a wild, chaotic spotfest that elevated Edge to semi-main event status and would lead to him becoming one of the company's top stars.

Edge finally climbs into the Title picture.

The Undertaker's streak continued as he faced Randy Orton in the third slot.  This match was a return to form for Taker (who had few, if any memorable bouts in 2004) and a real boon to Orton's career after a recent failed main event run.  These two worked extremely well together and would have a series of strong matches throughout 2005.

Bafflingly WWE chose to have Diva Search winner Christy Hemme challenge Trish Stratus for the Women's Title, and the results were predictably awful.  Why Lita couldn't have been the challenger with Christy in her corner is beyond me.

Far and away the Match of the Night (and WWE's best match of 2005) was the interbrand challenge between Shawn Michaels and Kurt Angle.  These two put on a breathtaking 25-minute masterpiece that ranks high on the all-time 'Mania list.  In dramatic fashion Angle forced a rare Shawn Michaels tapout with the anklelock. 

No match could possibly be expected to follow HBK-Angle, and so WWE didn't put one there.  Instead they slapped in a ten-minute time-waster featuring Big Show vs. Akebono in a sumo contest.  I'm not sure what WWE demographic had any interest in seeing two 500-pound men in loincloths, but whoever they were, they must've been very happy.

The final two matches were for the big championships and both featured rising babyface stars who would carry the company into the next era.  JBL vs. John Cena has to be considered one of the least ceremonious first WWE Championship wins in history, as the match was only given 12 minutes and JBL dominated most of it before Cena's abrupt comeback.

The two new faces of WWE.

Faring much beter was the main event of Triple H vs. Batista.  This went about five minutes too long but spotlighted Batista's monster babyface character nicely and gave him a WrestleMania moment worthy of his first big Title win.  The Cena-Batista Era had begun.

'Mania 21 was almost the opposite of 'Mania 20, in that the seemingly most important matches rather failed to carry the show but the undercard more than made up for them.  Four of the first five matches are either solid or classic, while the final third of the show peaked at about 2.5 stars.

Best Match: Kurt Angle vs. Shawn Michaels
Worst Match: Big Show vs. Akebono
What I'd Change: I would've swapped out the pointless sumo match for a Tag Team Title bout, and had Trish face Lita instead of Christy.  Other than that there isn't much to complain about as the booking made sense.
Most Disappointing Match: JBL vs. John Cena - there really wasn't much going on here and considering how important Cena would become he deserved a better "first 'Mania moment."
Most Pleasant Surprise: Undertaker vs. Randy Orton - Taker had just come off a couple years of pretty lackluster performances so it was nice to see him step it up again.
Overall Rating: 8.5/10

Part 6                                                                                                                                                Part 8

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