Last week I posted my list of the greatest 80s matches, and I'm now following it up with the best of the 90s. The 90s were a tumultuous time in the wrestling industry, where the product changed drastically and became a completely different animal by the end of the decade. In the WWF the focus shifted from larger-than-life characters to more serious technical wrestlers, and then to a gritty, more violent, and more explicit product. WCW's focus went from the established traditions of the sport to a counter-culture movement. In my opinion, the WWF's in-ring product outclassed WCW for most of the decade, and so this list is very WWF-heavy. But feel free to comment below with anything you feel I've overlooked. Here we go....
10. Vader vs. Sting - Starrcade - 12.28.92
Probably WCW's best feud of the 90s was Sting vs. Vader, and probably their best match took place at Starrcade, in the finals of the King of Cable Tournament (Don't ask what the eff that means). This was all kinds of awesome - stiff, snug and believable all the way through. Vader's size and dominant style would realistically make most of his matches into rather unwieldy squashes, but Sting was so freakishly strong he could manhandle Vader for much of the match. This resulted in some amazing spots, like the second-rope superplex, Sting's over-the-top plancha on both Vader and Harley Race, and the finish where Vader dove off the top rope and Sting caught him midair and slammed him to the mat. Just a great main event, and I could watch these two beat the shit out of each other all day long. Vader may have been Sting's greatest opponent.
9. Undertaker vs. Mankind - 6.28.98
Probably the most infamous match of all time, aside from the Montreal Screwjob. In 1998 Taker, and especially Mankind, wrote a new chapter in pro wrestling brutality. After two death-defying falls from the top of the Cell (one planned, one frighteningly accidental), Mick Foley delivered a superhuman effort in going another 12 or so minutes and completing the best match these two ever had together (Keep in mind also that Taker was working on a broken foot). Concussed and delirious, Foley famously approached Taker backstage when it was over and asked "Did I use thumbtacks?" to which Taker replied, "Look at your arm Mick." It's an uncomfortable match to view now, but at the time it probably exemplified the WWF Attitude more than any other single bout.
8. Roddy Piper vs. Bret Hart - WrestleMania - 4.5.92
The match that stole the show at WrestleMania VIII (pretty amazingly considering Flair vs. Savage was on the card) was the I-C Title match between Roddy Piper and Bret Hart. These two put on a 13-minute classic that had more action, crisper wrestling, and even a better blade job than the WWF Title match. Bret Hart recounted the story in his autobiography - the WWF had a no-blading policy at that point, and Bret's bladejob was so subtle and realistic, Vince thought he was legitimately cut and took no action against him. Flair's bladejob on the other hand was very obvious and earned him a fine. I'd say this was easily Piper's best match.
7. Bret Hart vs. British Bulldog - SummerSlam - 8.29.92
In late 1992 the WWF made the transition from being The Land of the Giants, to featuring smaller, more athletic wrestlers, and at SummerSlam Bret Hart and Davey Boy Smith unexpectedly got to close the show for the Intercontinental Title, creating an in-ring masterpiece in the process. Legend has it that Davey was very hungover for this match and had to rely heavily on Bret to guide him through, but you'd never know by watching it. Bret and Davey gelled perfectly and delivered a 25-minute technical classic. The match was built around the backdrop of intra-family tension between Bret, his sister Diana, and Diana's husband Davey. Despite being a face vs. face match, Bret played the heel here, allowing Davey to be the conquering hero in his home country. Bret may have lost but this match cemented his status as a worthy main eventer, and almost directly led to him winning his first WWF Championship. This is just an awesome bout.
6. Bret Hart vs. British Bulldog - In Your House - 12.17.95
At the fifth In Your House event Bret and Davey actually topped (IMO) their all-time classic SummerSlam match with a gritty showdown that mixed graceful mat wrestling with blood-soaked drama. Bret bladed about halfway through and gushed all over the ringside area, which provided an additional sense of danger. The story going in was that Bret had never beaten Davey before one-on-one, and the recently heel-turned Bulldog was hell-bent on capturing Bret's WWF Title. After 21 minutes of spectacular action Bret rolled Davey up in a Magistral cradle (which I'd never seen before) for a surprise win. One of my favorite Bret Hart matches ever.
5. Bret Hart vs. Steve Austin - WrestleMania - 3.23.97
Along with the Taker-Mankind Cell match, this no holds barred submission match was the bout that most defined the WWF's resurgence and newfound "Attitude." Continuing their feud from late 1996, Steve Austin faced an angry, edgier Bret Hart with UFC import Ken Shamrock as the guest referee. The ensuing battle was nothing short of legendary. From an action standpoint there have certainly been better matches, but I can't think of a better example of pure storytelling in a wrestling match. Bret went into this match the babyface and left a reviled, vicious heel. Austin went into the match a nasty bully and emerged as a gallant, tough-as-nails hero. The visual of Austin being trapped in Bret's Sharpshooter as torrents of blood streamed down his face became one of pro wrestling's iconic images. Masterful work by both guys.
4. Razor Ramon vs. Shawn Michaels - WrestleMania - 3.20.94
The Ladder Match - Shawn Michaels vs. Razor Ramon for the undisputed Intercontinental Title. An entire subgenre of professional wrestling was born during these 19 minutes. Shawn and Razor began with an excellently worked traditional match, and at about the halfway point took stunt wrestling to a whole new place. The spots here may seem tame to us now, but at the time this match was the goddamnedest thing I had ever seen. Between Shawn's top-of-the-ladder splash, Razor suplexing Shawn off the top, Shawn jumping on the ladder and riding it down across Razor's body, HBK and Razor (and apparently Bret Hart as well) created the prototype for the Ladder Match, and basically every such match since owes it a debt. In terms of defining the Spotfest, this might be the most important single match of the 1990s.
3. Shawn Michaels vs. Undertaker - Badd Blood - 10.5.97
It was the match that redefined the Steel Cage as we know it, introduced the world to Kane, and embodied one of the best feuds of all time. The first-ever Hell in a Cell match was an absolutely epic war. The early minutes focused primarily on good traditional wrestling, while the second half became a cage-heavy bloodbath. Shawn and Taker slugging it out on the roof of the cage was unlike anything ever before seen in the industry. Kane's interference costing Taker the match normally would knock the match quality down a peg, but the match was so good and Kane's introduction was so well-handled that it didn't matter. Shawn vs. Taker is still the greatest HIAC match in history, and I don't think it will ever be stripped of that title.
2. Shawn Michaels vs. Mankind - Mind Games - 9.22.96
One of my favorite wrestling matches of all time. In a classic mismatch of styles, the handsome, clean-cut babyface Champion defended against the malformed, deranged villain, and the results were spectacular. Shawn Michaels and Mankind apparently planned out very little of this match, making up most of it as they went. There were no stipulations or gimmicks, but this plays out almost like a hardcore match, so violent and aggressive is its overall tone. Much of Shawn's offense consisted of using Mankind's size and momentum against him, and employing hit-and-run tactics to minimize his size disadvantage. The spot this match is most remembered for though is Mankind's second rope suplex through the announcers table, one of the most brutal-looking bumps I had ever seen in 1996. The only downside of this match is that it ended in a disqualification, but otherwise this is a near-perfect contest and it's not surprising both Shawn and Mankind consider it one of their absolute best.
1. Bret Hart vs. Owen Hart - WrestleMania - 3.20.94
My favorite match of the 1990s pitted the company's top babyface star against his little brother. The two had become enemies at the Royal Rumble, and after two months of incessant goading, Bret reluctantly agreed to wrestle Owen. Bret had co-won the Rumble match, and along with Lex Luger would get a WWF Title shot at WrestleMania. But once Luger was announced as Yokozuna's first challenger, it was decided Bret would face Owen in the opening bout. This stunning display of technical prowess tore the house down and made it nearly impossible for the rest of the card to follow it. Bret and Owen had worked out a very different match over the weekend but Bret realized Owen's offense would be too flashy and the Madison Square Garden crowd would end up cheering him. So the plan was changed on the fly, and Owen wrestled a much nastier, heel-worthy style. The result was twenty minutes of picture-perfect wrestling with a clear babyface vs. heel dynamic, where Owen seemed just a step behind Bret most of the way but managed to pull off the upset win. Thus Owen was positioned as Bret's #1 contender after Bret regained the Championship later that night. This is one of those matches that perfectly embodies everything I love about pro wrestling.
That there is my list of the greatest matches of the 90s. Comment below with any of your faves!
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