Friday, April 12, 2024

Top Ten Things: WrestleMania Main Events, Part 4 (#10-1)

Alright, now it's time for the really good shit.  The all-time great shit.  Such good shit.  

Click here for Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3

10. Brock Lesnar vs. Roman Reigns (vs. Seth Rollins) - WrestleMania 31

Maybe the most unexpectedly great WrestleMania main event took place at the 2015 edition, as the reviled babyface Roman Reigns challenged the unstoppable Mayor of Suplex City (a phrase he coined during this match), Brock Lesnar.  Brock had decimated John Cena for the WWE Championship at the previous SummerSlam, allowing almost no offense during their 16-minute squash, and then all but disappeared with the title for most of the next six months.  At the 2015 Royal Rumble Brock, Cena and Seth Rollins had a spectacular Triple Threat match, where Brock turned back both challengers in dominant fashion.  Enter Reigns, the company's handpicked "it" guy, with whom the fans wanted nothing to do.  Reigns won the Rumble match that night to earn his WrestleMania spot, but was booed unmercifully, and this main event had all the markings of a dud; an absentee heel champion vs. an unliked babyface challenger.  But the match ended up being an exercise in brutality as these two monsters beat the piss out of each other.  Brock took a legit headbutt to the ring post which opened a huge gash on his forehead, while Reigns got suplexed into oblivion and kept getting up.  But the most memorable thing about the match was the unique finish, as Seth Rollins cashed in his Money in the Bank briefcase mid-match, curb stomping Brock, attempting a second stomp that was countered into an F5 attempt that was thwarted by a Reigns spear, and then curb stomping Reigns to win the match and the WWE Title.  The Santa Clara crowd exploded at the surprise finish and Rollins stood tall, swinging the strap over his head as Michael Cole dubbed the title change "The Heist of the Century."  Thus began Seth Rollins' excellent run as the company's top heel.

9. Bret Hart vs. Shawn Michaels - WrestleMania XII

The longest match in WrestleMania history, and thus far the only Iron Man match at this event, pitted the company's top two babyfaces against each other in an unprecedented athletic display.  Bret Hart was the veteran technician, while Shawn Michaels was the charismatic upstart.  Planned as the first part of a trilogy of bouts designed as a torch passing, this match played out as an old-school grappling contest for much of the first half.  Shawn stymied the champion with an expected ground game, while Bret grew increasingly frustrated and employed some heelish tactics.  The second half picked up, with much more high-risk offense, but neither man could gain a pinfall.  In the closing moments Shawn went for a dropkick but Bret countered into a Sharpshooter.  Shawn withstood the pain for nearly a full minute as the clock ran down to zero, leaving the match a time limit draw.  But WWF President Gorilla Monsoon ordered the match restarted under sudden death rules, much to Bret's chagrin.  The angry champion attacked Shawn's weakened legs, but Shawn answered with a pair of superkicks to win the title and start off his main event run.  Given its slow pace and frequent lack of crowd heat, this bout hasn't aged as well as one would think, but it does stand as a singular achievement in WWE lore - a mostly pure scientific marathon between two of the company's all-time best.

8. Edge vs. The Undertaker - WrestleMania XXIV

The first WrestleMania main event for Edge and the second for Taker turned out to be an excellent mismatch of styles.  Taker had earned a title shot by winning an Elimination Chamber match, and Edge and his entourage began taunting the Phenom that his Streak would soon be over.  The match itself may have done more for Edge than for Taker, as Edge was able to counter numerous finisher attempts and even kick out of the Tombstone Piledriver.  Edge hit a spear for a two-count, and repeated the move but was countered into the Hell's Gate submission, ending the match and Edge's title reign with a tapout.  For the second time The Undertaker stood tall as the new champion to close out WrestleMania.  Famously Edge was slated to defeat Taker in this match and end the WrestleMania streak, but out of respect for the Deadman, Edge refused such an honor.  Instead he was allowed to fully hold his own against the company's most dominant force, and their months-long rivalry helped cement Edge as a made man.

7. The Usos vs. Sami Zayn & Kevin Owens - WrestleMania 39, Night 1

Night 1 of WrestleMania 39 was top-to-bottom one of the best 'Mania shows the company has ever put on, and it culminated in this all-time great Tag Team Title match between the Usos (600+ days into their reign) and longtime best friends Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens.  This went 24 glorious minutes and both teams pulled out all the stops with finishers and nearfalls galore.  After a good half dozen false finishes, Sami finally got his former friend Jey Uso to himself (as Owens incapacitated Jimmy with a Stunner) and hit him with not one, not two, but three Helluva Kicks to put an exclamation point on one of the best WrestleMania main events of all time and send the crowd home elated.  Side note: I don't ever want to hear WWE fans claim the Young Bucks overuse the superkick; Jimmy and Jey did the move a combined 20 times during this match by my count.

6. John Cena vs. Shawn Michaels - WrestleMania 23

One of the more significant bouts in John Cena's then-young career was against the big-match maestro himself, Shawn Michaels.  Coming off a stripe-earning showing against Triple H one year earlier, the plan was for a rematch to headline WrestleMania 23 (a main event I was in no hurry to see again).  But a quad tear threw a wrench into that plan and instead Shawn Michaels stepped in to take his best friend's place, and the result was a 28-minute classic that further established Cena as a bona fide workhorse.  Shawn's experience and mean streak led to him playing the de facto heel, while Cena's might and grit formed a perfect marriage with his "never give up" babyface persona.  After withstanding a piledriver on the ring steps and kicking out of Sweet Chin Music, Cena managed to lock Michaels in the STF, wrenching a submission out of the Showstopper.  Their 53-minute rematch a month later may have grabbed more headlines as a classic wrestling match, but for me their first encounter here was the superior bout.  His feud with Shawn was easily his best up to this point, and for me this stands as one of John Cena's greatest matches.

5. Randy Orton vs. Batista vs. Daniel Bryan - WrestleMania XXX

WrestleMania XXX had one of the most compelling central storylines in the show's history, as unlikely top babyface Daniel Bryan overcame staggering odds and a crooked Authority to not only earn a main event spot but unseat WWE posterboy Randy Orton as the top champion.  The buildup went all the way back to the previous summer, when Bryan had become the company's most popular star by a country mile.  But Triple H and Stephanie McMahon tried to put the kibosh on his skyrocketing stock, claiming he wasn't a good representative for WWE's brand (a philosophy based of course on Vince's real-life preference for large, muscular wrestlers).  After defying the odds and dethroning John Cena for the title, Money in the Bank winner Randy Orton took advantage of Triple H's nefarious attack on Bryan to cash in and steal away the strap.  Bryan chased Orton for a few months but failed to win back the title, and the company intended to dump him back into the midcard.  But the crowd wouldn't have it, hijacking episodes of RAW until WWE gave them what they wanted.  The stage was set when Bryan and a legion of "Occupy RAW" fans took over the show, demanding that Bryan get a WrestleMania match with Triple H, where the winner would be added to the scheduled Randy Orton vs. Batista main event.  Bryan eked out a pinfall win over Hunter in a classic WrestleMania XXX opener, but Triple H attacked him with a chair to leave him injured going into the title match.  The Triple Threat was another uphill battle for the ultimate underdog, as Orton and Batista spent much of the bout double-teaming him while Hunter and Stephanie interfered.  After being put through a table it looked like Bryan's hopes were dashed, but he made a miraculous comeback in the closing minutes, breaking up a Batista pin attempt, hitting him with the flying knee, and tapping him out with a Yes Lock to win the title as 75,000 fans erupted in jubilation.  What followed was one of the most satisfying 'Mania moments of all time as Bryan led the New Orleans crowd with YES chants to close the show.  An untimely injury derailed Bryan's title run, but this match was the perfect climax to one of the best organic wrestling sagas in history.

4. The Rock vs. Steve Austin II - WrestleMania X-Seven

An altogether different type of climax took place at WrestleMania 17, as Steve Austin and The Rock, the company's two biggest stars since Hulk Hogan, faced each other for the second time at the Show of Shows.  The Rock had recently regained the WWF Title from Kurt Angle, while Austin won a record-breaking third Royal Rumble to earn his main event slot.  The match was a quantum leap over their previous bouts, combining their signature wild brawling styles with a renewed emphasis on fundamental grappling.  The match included callbacks to Austin's two epic Bret Hart duels and by the end both men were bleeding heavily.  Frustrated and out of ideas, Austin allowed Vince McMahon to lend assistance, taking a chair from the Chairman and beating The Rock down until he couldn't kick out of any more pin attempts.  Austin won the title and then the unthinkable happened - he and Vince shook hands to close WrestleMania, having formed an unholy alliance.  The Steve Austin heel turn proved unfortunately to be a very bad business decision, but at the time it felt like the absolute right move for the stale Rattlesnake character, and the months that followed showed a Stone Cold champion with a new lease on life.  He was clearly having a ball with this new persona and his matches seemed to show a restored enthusiasm.  Regardless of the aftermath though, Rock-Austin II was at the time the best WrestleMania main event ever, 28 epic minutes of the two faces of the company waging all-out war.  Coinciding with the end of WCW, WrestleMania X-Seven would be remembered as the culmination of the Attitude Era, and a new PPV yardstick.

3. Kurt Angle vs. Brock Lesnar - WrestleMania XIX

Probably the most purely technical main event in WrestleMania history was this battle of amateur wrestling champs, as Olympic gold medalist Kurt Angle defended the WWE Title against two-time NCAA champion Brock Lesnar.  Brock had taken the company by storm a year earlier as The Next Big Thing, plowing through everyone in his path on the way to a WWE Championship win over The Rock.  It was a conquering the likes of which no one had seen since Kurt Angle's prodigious rookie year, and after a convoluted pair of swerves by Brock's manager Paul Heyman (first costing Brock the belt against The Big Show, and then selling out Show for Angle), the title wound up on Angle's waist.  Brock punched his ticket to WrestleMania by winning the 2003 Royal Rumble, while Angle put his upcoming neck surgery on hold to grant him a match with the master of scientific wrestling.  The bout was a fantastic showcase for both men, sprinkled with grappling battles, traded suplexes, and numerous finisher kickouts.  But the most lasting visual took place near the end, when Brock went for a shooting star press, a move he'd done regularly in OVW.  A moment's hesitation caused him to under-rotate however, and he crashed to the mat face-first, amazingly only suffering a mild concussion as a result.  The 25-year-old wunderkind maintained his composure long enough to hit his third F5 of the match to defeat Angle and regain the belt, capping off what in my opinion is still the greatest WWE PPV of all time.

2. The Undertaker vs. Shawn Michaels - WrestleMania XXVI

In 2008 Shawn Michaels sent his idol Ric Flair into retirement, via an emotional superkick that left the legend half-unconscious and tearful.  Two years later it was Shawn's career on the line, a bargain he made with The Undertaker in exchange for a second chance at ending The Streak.  WrestleMania 25 saw HBK and Taker steal the show (not to mention the year) with an epic 30-minute war in which Shawn came inches away from handing The Deadman his first 'Mania loss.  Months later he demanded a rematch, but now-World Champion Taker wasn't interested.  Shawn vowed to win the Royal Rumble, forcing the rematch, but had his hopes dashed in the latter moments of the match.  Left with no more options, Shawn cost Taker the championship inside an Elimination Chamber, drawing Taker's wrath and convincing him to reconsider.  But Taker only agreed to the bout on the condition that Shawn would retire if he lost.  The Career vs. Streak match was deemed such a monumental face-off it was put in the main event slot, ahead of the John Cena vs. Batista WWE Title match and the Chris Jericho-Edge World Title showdown.  And despite having to live up to its all-time classic predecessor, Shawn-Taker II did not disappoint.  At a streamlined 24 minutes the match had nary an ounce of fat, without sacrificing the epic storytelling.  There were numerous finisher kickouts as expected, before an exhausted Michaels taunted Taker with his own thumb-across-throat gesture.  Enraged, Taker lifted him up for a jumping Tombstone and pinned him, ending one of the greatest wrestling careers of all-time, as well as the greatest WrestleMania rematch of them all.  I'm in the minority, but I consider this superior even to the 'Mania 25 bout.

1. Triple H vs. Shawn Michaels vs. Chris Benoit - WrestleMania XX

But for me the greatest WrestleMania main event took place in 2004, as two former best friends and a now-nameless Royal Rumble winner blew the roof off the world's most famous arena, in the first-ever Triple Threat match to headline the Showcase of the Immortals.  While the buildup to this match was fairly nonsensical - Chris Benoit won the Royal Rumble but ate a Shawn Michaels superkick before he could sign the 'Mania contract, and Shawn signed in his place - this stands as one of the most perfectly worked matches I've ever seen.  Shawn and Hunter were in the midst of a blood feud, conveyed visually during this bout as they bled buckets, while Benoit played the spoiler underdog with overwhelming fan support.  The white-hot Madison Square Garden crowd went fully along for the ride as these three consummate pros wove together a masterpiece full of unexpected twists, breathtaking nearfalls, and one of the most dramatic submission finishes in history.  After dodging a superkick, Benoit dumped Michaels out of the ring but walked into a Pedigree from Hunter, which he then countered into the crossface.  Hunter, blood pouring down his face, defiantly fought the move, tried to roll out of it, but Benoit held on, the two men now center-ring.  Hunter flailed his free arm, frantically trying to break the hold, but eventually succumbed to the pain and tapped out, and the MSG crowd went ballistic.  A tearful Benoit basked in the moment as his best friend Eddie Guerrero appeared, and the two unlikely World Champions embraced amid a sea of rejoicing fans.  What was once a joyous finale has unfortunately been marred by tragedy and horror in the intervening years, but at the time this was my favorite wrestling moment.  While that's no longer the case, I still consider Triple H-Shawn Michaels-Chris Benoit the greatest WrestleMania main event of all time.

Thanks for sticking with me on this multi-part countdown.  Comment below with your thoughts and rankings!

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