Today I'll be discussing one of the oldest, time-honored wrestling match types, the 2-out-of-3 Falls match! Back in the olden days 2/3 Falls was a common format for Championship matches, as a way to truly determine the better competitor and rule out fluke victories. In the old NWA system, all World Title matches were required to be contested under these rules, and quite often the match would go to a time limit draw in the third fall, which protected both guys for future bouts. I've always enjoyed this type of match as it lends itself to longer, more epic matches with a heavy emphasis on good old mat wrestling. During the Attitude Era the WWF added a wrinkle to the 2/3 Falls match by giving each fall a different set of rules (i.e. traditional rules for the first fall, No DQ for the second, etc.), calling it Three Stages of Hell. Regardless though, there's something epic about a 2/3 Falls match when done well.
Let's take a look at what I consider the ten best examples of 2/3 Falls....
HM - Angle/Benoit vs. Edge/Mysterio - Smackdown - 11.7.02
In the fall of 2002 the RAW and Smackdown shows each had exclusive rosters, and Paul Heyman's Smackdown was crushing RAW on a weekly basis, both creatively and in the ratings. Much of SD's success can be attributed to these four competitors, who made up two-thirds of the revered Smackdown Six (Los Guerreros were the other two). The World Tag Championship had been made a RAW-exclusive Title during the roster split, and Smackdown GM Stephanie McMahon decided to create a separate set of belts for her show. Hence a tournament was assembled which boiled down to Kurt Angle & Chris Benoit vs. Edge & Rey Mysterio at No Mercy, in a 22-minute classic. The rematch took place only a few weeks later on Smackdown, and it was a 2/3 Falls match. While not quite as good as the PPV bout, this featured incredible action and palpable suspense, as Edge & Mysterio played the underdogs to perfection on their way to a Title victory.
HM: Demolition vs. Hart Foundation - SummerSlam - 8.27.90
In early 1990 the WWF's tag team division essentially consisted of three top babyface tandems - Demolition, The Hart Foundation, and The Rockers. Sure there were a few heel teams such as The Bolsheviks and The Orient Express, but they were all booked as jobbers to the stars, and the Harts and Rockers were presented as the only credible threats to the Champions Demolition. Just after WrestleMania VI it looked like the Harts were slowly turning heel, adopting some underhanded tactics and referring to Shawn Michaels and Marty Jannetty as "tumbling teenyboppers." It seemed like Bret and Jim would be positioned as villain challengers to the popular facepainted duo of Ax & Smash. But two factors caused a change of plans. The first was that the Harts were still extremely popular and the fans didn't really want to boo them. The second was that the aging Bill Eadie (Ax) was no longer able to wrestle a full schedule and needed to take more of a managerial role in Demolition, necessitating the introduction of a younger third member, Crush. With Demolition now working as a three-man team it made more sense to turn them heel and invoke the "Freebird Rule," where any two members of a Championship team could defend the Titles (I love this gimmick, by the way). So at SummerSlam, the Hart Foundation were positioned as babyface underdogs facing a dastardly powerhouse team who frequently pulled the old "switcheroo" during their matches, subbing in a fresh man for an injured one. The result was a very strong 2/3 Falls match that saw Hart and Neidhart overcome the odds (with an assist from WWF newcomers Hawk & Animal) to regain the Tag belts. After a brief, disappointingly one-sided feud with the Legion of Doom, Demolition were sadly phased out less than a year later, while the Harts enjoyed a strong run with the belts.
10. Chris Benoit vs. Chris Jericho - SummerSlam - 8.27.00
The year 2000 was an amazing one for the WWF. With the influx of almost all of WCW's best workers, the WWF roster was now loaded with tremendous in-ring talent creating fresh matchups and feuds galore, possibly the best of which involved the two Chrises. Jericho and Benoit had worked together for years, both in Japan and in Atlanta, and in the spring/summer of 2000 they resumed their feud, facing each other three times on PPV and several more times on RAW and Smackdown. The rivalry reached a fever pitch at SummerSlam, in a 2/3 Falls match. While not quite given enough time to fully steal the show, Jericho and Benoit nevertheless delivered a forgotten near-classic that ended the feud for the time being.
9. Eddie Guerrero vs. Dean Malenko - ECW TV - 8.26.95
The upstart Philadelphia promotion ECW turned the wrestling business on its head in the mid-90s by featuring wild, hardcore brawls and new levels of violence, coupled with some of the best technical wrestling North American audiences had ever seen at that point. By importing stars from Japan and Mexico, Paul Heyman was able to introduce numerous in-ring styles to a whole new audience. The one feud that really embodied this movement was Eddie Guerrero vs. Dean Malenko. These two masters faced each other countless times on ECW television but possibly their most famous bout was this epic 2/3 Falls match, which went a full half-hour before ending in a draw. Guerrero and Malenko would soon both be signed by WCW, allowing them to hone their skills in front of prime time TV viewers, and this was just one example of ECW's lasting influence over the industry.
8. Kurt Angle vs. Chris Benoit - Judgment Day - 5.21.01
In 2001 the two best technical wrestlers in the WWF began a rivalry that would last nearly two years on and off. After a 14-minute gem at WrestleMania 17 and a 30-minute Submissions match the following month, Angle and Benoit faced off at Judgment Day in a Three Stages of Hell match, where the first fall would be a standard match, the second would be submission-only, and the third would be a Ladder Match for Angle's Olympic Gold Medal. Benoit would quickly win the first fall but Angle came back to take the second and third in what was a tremendous match. The two would resume their feud in late 2002 and add several other classics to their respective resumes.
7. Bryan Danielson vs. Austin Aries - ROH Testing the Limit 8.7.04
Everyone's favorite WWE underdog Daniel Bryan first made a name for himself in Ring of Honor, carving out a unique niche as an unparalleled workhorse who routinely delivered dazzling technical masterpieces against a wide variety of opponents. One of his earliest noteworthy contributions was an epic 2/3 Falls match against Austin Aries under a super old-school 90-minute time limit. This ultimate endurance test went a staggering 75 minutes before Aries took the third fall, and by the end both wrestlers looked ready to collapse. This may be the longest-ever match in the modern era, as not even the Royal Rumble has ever reached that time mark. I urge Daniel Bryan fans to check out his pre-WWE body of work, as it shows a whole other side of his in-ring skillset.
6. Sheamus vs. Daniel Bryan - Extreme Rules - 4.29.12
Here's the match we should've gotten at WrestleMania 28. After Vince McMahon's 18-second booking snafu inadvertently made Daniel Bryan a star while dooming Sheamus's main event push, these two were given a chance for vindication at Extreme Rules in a 2/3 Falls Match. Bryan relentlessly targeted Sheamus's left arm early on, eventually getting himself intentionally disqualified in the first fall before evening the match with a Yes Lock in the second. The climactic third fall was an exciting back-and-forth affair until Sheamus once again caught Bryan with the Brogue Kick to retain the World Title. Easily a show-stealing early MOTY candidate, and the first example of Bryan being effectively used as a top-tier star.
5. Ricky Steamboat vs. Ric Flair - Clash of the Champions - 4.2.89
The middle chapter of the universally acclaimed Flair-Steamboat trilogy took place on free television at Clash of the Champions VI, which aired head-to-head with WrestleMania V. This 2/3 Falls match went almost the full sixty minutes and featured a more gritty, personal side to this rivalry, as the two technical masters adopted a more aggressive mindset. Flair took the first fall with an inside cradle, Steamboat made Flair submit in the second with a double chickenwing, and at about the 56-minute mark Steamboat attempted the chickenwing again but this time his knee buckled, sending both men to the mat long enough for Flair's shoulders to be counted down. Steamboat was declared the winner and still Champion, but a review of the tape showed Flair's leg in the ropes, necessitating another rematch at WrestleWar '89. While I consider the 2/3 Falls match the least of the trilogy, it's still a pretty amazing bout that further displayed the abilities of both future Hall of Famers.
4. FTR vs. The Briscoes - Death Before Dishonor - 7.23.22
The heavily anticipated rematch from Supercard of Honor pitted the hottest tag team in the business against Ring of Honor's flagship duo in a 43-minute instant classic. The two teams beat the snot out of each other - Dax Harwood's shoulder became the Briscoes' focus for much of the bout, Cash Wheeler and Mark Briscoe each bled during the second fall, and by the end everyone was exhausted but swinging for the fences to put the match away. The Briscoes took the first fall with a Doomsday Device, FTR answered in the second with a Big Rig, and Dax Harwood hit a second-rope piledriver on Jay to win the bout and retain the titles. One of the all-time great tag team battles and one of the best 2/3 Falls matches in history.
3. Steve Austin vs. Triple H - No Way Out - 2.25.01
As the Attitude Era drew to a close, Steve Austin and Triple H were mired in a vicious blood feud stemming from an incident where Triple H paid Rikishi to run Austin over with his car at Survivor Series 1999. The injury was booked as a way to write Austin off TV for a year while he had spinal fusion surgery, and shortly following his return it was revealed that Triple H was behind it all. The two had a wild brawl at Survivor Series 2000 which ended in a no-contest, and after several run-ins both on RAW and at the 2001 Royal Rumble, Triple H challenged Austin to a Three Stages of Hell match. The first fall would be a traditional bout, the second a Street Fight, and the third a Steel Cage match. Austin defied expectations by winning the pure wrestling contest, while Triple H unexpectedly won the No-DQ fall. By the time the cage was lowered for fall three, both men were covered in blood and nearing exhaustion. The closing moments saw Austin swing a chair at the same time Hunter swung his signature sledgehammer. Both shots connected, and both men fell to the mat unconscious. But Hunter happened to land on top of Austin and the referee counted the Rattlesnake down, awarding this epic match to The Cerebral Assassin. This match was easily the best these two ever delivered and still holds up as a prime example of the WWF at the top of its game, circa the millennium. I consider it the best 2/3 Falls match of all time.
2. Adam Cole vs. Johnny Gargano - NXT New York - 4.5.19
The main event of in my opinion the major show of 2019 was a veritable mat classic. Adam Cole and Johnny Gargano started out fairly slow, and what struck me about this match overall was how unremarkable the first two falls seemed to be (not that they weren't well-worked), until I'd finished watching the match. The first fall lasted 14 minutes before Cole got on the board with a Shining Wizard. Six minutes later Gargano tied it up with his Garga-No Escape. The match truly began in earnest with the third fall, which launched it into the stratosphere. For 18 minutes these two threw everything at each other, building to an explosive pitch by the end. Cole's Undisputed Era pals tried to interfere but Gargano singlehandedly fought them off, only to walk into two superkicks and a Last Shot. Cole pinned him and literally everyone was sure this was the finish, but Gargano kicked out, and the place went apeshit. Gargano ducked another Last Shot and locked in Garga-No Escape, rolling Cole into the center of the ring for the tap out at 38 minutes. This was an incredible match that started with the crowd almost totally behind Cole, but ended with a jubilant reaction with Gargano's win. My only gripe is just how much Gargano kicked out of - this was classic SuperCena stuff and I felt like they maybe went just a little too far with it. Aside from that though, Gargano-Cole was one of the best matches in NXT history, an easy MOTY candidate, and a perfect way for such an amazing show to climax. Post-match, Gargano's wife Candace LaRae and an injured Tomasso Ciampa came out to congratulate them, ending the show on an emotional high note. What a match.
1. Kazuchika Okada vs. Kenny Omega - NJPW Dominion - 6.9.18
The greatest match of one of the greatest feuds to settle the greatest championship reign. It's been said by many, but the Okada-Omega 2/3 Falls match in 2018 is the most incredible match I've ever seen in my 30+ years as a wrestling fan. This bout's 60+ minutes flew by in a way I've never felt an hour fly by in a wrestling match. Okada and Omega wove in callbacks to their previous trilogy while inventing new spots and moments, incorporating insane attention to detail and storytelling in a way I've never seen it done. Like their original encounter at WrestleKingdom 11 this was a bout of three acts, but on another level. The first fall was action and drama-packed, the second fall was much slower like the middle act of a classic drama, and the third showed two exhausted warriors struggling to stay upright while also swinging for the fences and building to a fever pitch. When I watched their first 2017 bout I said "That's gotta be the greatest match of all time." They wrestled twice more that year, coming close but for me not quite eclipsing that match. But in 2018 they somehow managed to top all three previous bouts, aligning all the stars to create the greatest in-ring story ever told. Okada vs. Omega will likely always be the pinnacle of 2/3 Falls matches. I certainly can't imagine anyone ever topping it.
That'll wrap it up for today. The 2/3 Falls match is one of the best gimmick matches in terms of spotlighting pure wrestling. I'll always have a weak spot for it. Thanks for reading, and don't forget to join us on Facebook, Twitter, MeWe and YouTube!