Everyone knows wrestling is a work, but there are very real aspects to it. Pro wrestling is scripted with everything choreographed on who will win matches and become champions. The real aspect is everyone wanting to do their best. There’s genuine competition between the performers, who are trying to have the best match of the night. Not everyone can be in the World Championship picture or win their matches but the pride that comes with having the best performance of the night is in their hands. However, WWE has hopes of specific matches being the most memorable of the night. That doesn’t always work out to plan.
There have been many cases of surprising matches or motivated participants going out there and having the best match on the card. WWE typically wants the main event or their pushed stars to end the night being heavily discussed after a big show. Everyone else on the roster wants to ruin those plans by improving their stock and getting over with the fans enough to get into the top tier positions of the company. This list will take a glimpse into the most memorable occasions of matches stealing the show... despite WWE not wanting them to be the ones to do so.
15 Edge and Christian vs. The Hardys vs. The Dudleys (WrestleMania 2000)
2000 was very kind to the WWE with their roster becoming one of the best in wrestling history. The Rock evolved into the biggest star in the business. Triple H took the next step in becoming a legitimate main eventer on par with anyone in the WWE. Mick Foley was retiring but received an honor to appear in the main event of WrestleMania 2000 in his final match. Add Big Show to the match and the fatal four-way at WrestleMania should have been the most memorable match of the night.
An unexpected match instead found a way to make history by changing the future of wrestling. The Dudleys, Hardys and Edge & Christian brought their heated rivalry to the big stage with an iconic ladder match. This set the tone for the future TLC matches with fans being left in awe at the aerial displays shown by the performers who were leaving it all in the ring. All six men were just talented midcarders and nothing more entering the night, before the stealing the show in ways no one in the WWE anticipated.
14 Daniel Bryan vs. Sheamus (Extreme Rules 2012)
Extreme Rules 2012 was meant to be about the return of Brock Lesnar. Following years away in the UFC, Lesnar returned to the WWE to face John Cena in a match worthy of main eventing WrestleMania. The two would go on to have a spectacular match and one of the better matches all year, but it paled in comparison to another match on the same show. Daniel Bryan and Sheamus stole the show in an epic match for the World Heavyweight Championship.
Bryan and Sheamus felt jilted for having their big WrestleMania XXVIII match cut down to 18 seconds with Sheamus winning following a big boot. They reacted by having their big title match at Extreme Rules. The intensity and action gave us arguably the best match of the year. Bryan had the fan support despite being a heel. This was around the time fans started to organically support him and a match like this helped him get to a level the WWE never wanted him to reach.
13 Kurt Angle vs. Shawn Michaels (WrestleMania 21)
WrestleMania 21 revolved around two big stories. John Cena defeating JBL to win the WWE Championship and Batista defeating Triple H to become the World Champion. Both men were elevated into being the faces of the company. Unfortunately, neither of their matches stood out and are often forgotten when discussing WrestleMania 21. WWE knew booking a match between Shawn Michaels and Kurt Angle could steal the show, but not to the extent that it did.
Angle and Michaels are both regarded as all-time great in-ring performers that very few could even dream of matching. The match not only stole the show, but provided one of the greatest outings in WrestleMania history. Both men performed at their highest level. They stole the show in a way that made everyone forget Cena and Batista were meant to be the stars of the show. WWE’s hopes were jilted with fans talking about Michaels and Angle the next day. Luckily, it all worked out for everyone in the end.
12 Scotty 2 Hotty vs. Dean Malenko (Backlash 2000)
An unlikely match that WWE definitely didn’t want stealing the show occurred when Dean Malenko successfully defended the Light Heavyweight Championship over Scotty 2 Hotty at Backlash 2000. WWE didn’t take the smaller wrestlers seriously and often stuck them in positions with little chances at thriving. On this night, Malenko and Scotty changed that narrative by having an outstanding match to make the title mater for one show.
Malenko never had a chance to showcase just how incredible he was in the ring during the majority of his WWE tenure. In fact, this was probably the only memorable match he performed in after making the jump from WCW. The Rock and Triple H had a tremendous main event later in the show, so it wasn’t that bad, but the WWE had to be a little disappointed. The two lower card cruiserweights outperformed the two biggest stars in the company on a PPV.
11 Shawn Michaels vs. Chris Jericho (WrestleMania XIX)
WWE sold four main events for the incredible WrestleMania XIX card. Steve Austin and The Rock were having their third high profile WrestleMania match in five years. Hulk Hogan and Vince McMahon told the story of a grudge match twenty years in the making. Brock Lesnar and Kurt Angle brought athleticism of two hungry young stars battling for the top spot. Triple H defended his dominant title reign against the rising Booker T.
All of those top billed matches fell short of stealing the show. Shawn Michaels appeared on his first WrestleMania event in five years and had a tremendous performance against Chris Jericho. Both men were at the top of their game and told the best story of the night. Fans still talk about the emotion shown to this day. WWE didn’t expect or want it to outdo the matches they tried to build the show around. Michaels and Jericho take pride in their art and had reason to be very proud at WrestleMania XIX.
10 Edge vs. Mick Foley (WrestleMania 22)
WrestleMania 22 was another instance of the WWE watching a match steal the show that they did not want doing so. Edge had a one month WWE Championship reign but lost it to John Cena before moving lower down the card again. Mick Foley returned in hopes of having a credible WrestleMania story for two reasons. The career of Foley was legendary, but he lacked a tremendous WrestleMania moment. The other reason featured Foley wanting to help Edge become a bigger star.
Both were successful, with their hardcore street fight stealing the show. WWE positioned Triple H vs. John Cena and Shawn Michaels vs. Vince McMahon as the two biggest main events in Chicago. Those matches were fine but could not compare to the work put out by Edge and Foley. WWE always overlooked Foley and this was not the first time he stole the show without them expecting it. All of the main stars on this night had to settle for second place to Foley and Edge.
9 Triple H vs. The Rock (SummerSlam 1998)
The thought of the WWE not wanting a match between Triple H and The Rock to steal the show seems laughable. Both men saw opportunity for the majority of their careers, but they were in the midcard at SummerSlam 1998. Steve Austin faced The Undertaker in the main event in a highly anticipated match for the WWE Championship. They had a good match to close the show, but Triple H and Rock stole the show earlier in the evening.
Rock and Triple H endured a grueling Ladder Match for the Intercontinental Championship. Both rising stars led their respective Nation of Domination and DX factions at the time. This match helped them get to the next level and made it impossible for the main event to follow them. Triple H pulled out the big face victory and the story was told with perfection that caused fans to celebrate in Madison Square Garden like it was for the World Title.
8 Chris Jericho vs. Rey Mysterio (The Bash 2009)
The main event The Bash saw Randy Orton and Triple H having a big singles match to end their long feud. Orton attacked Stephanie McMahon and Vince McMahon to set up a WrestleMania XXV title match and the program extended into the summer. Their match was meant to be a huge deal with the stipulation of Three Stages of Hell featuring a traditional match, Falls Count Anywhere Match and Stretcher Match. Almost no one thinks about Orton and Triple H when recalling this show.
Chris Jericho and Rey Mysterio stole the show with a classic Title vs. Mask match for the Intercontinental Championship. They were slotted lower in the card with the second match of the night, but had the best performance. Storytelling and athleticism met a perfect medium with this outstanding bout outperforming the main event. Jericho was in the midst of his great heel run in 2009 and Mysterio has always been an elite performer when healthy. They had something to prove and did so by stealing the show over the chosen ones.
7 Edge and Rey Mysterio vs. Kurt Angle and Chris Benoit (No Mercy 2002)
The original brand split instantly gave us new stars with new opportunities opening up. No match better proved that more than the WWE Tag Team Championship contest between Kurt Angle and Chris Benoit vs. Rey Mysterio and Edge. SmackDown needed new tag titles and this was the finals for the honor of being the first champions. A new title desperately needs great matches associated with it to make it relevant and these four men managed to do it that night.
The match still goes down among the greatest WWE tag team bouts. All four talents were at their peak and showed their strengths off in a match that had the fans losing their minds over every false finish. The main event was Brock Lesnar defending the WWE Championship in a Hell in a Cell Match against The Undertaker. They had a great match but the WWE wanted it to be exclamation mark on Lesnar’s rise at the end of the night. Instead, everyone remembered the epic tag match as the star making performance of the night.
6 Bret Hart vs. Mr. Perfect (Summerslam 1991)
WWE was still the land of the giants in 1991. Hulk Hogan and The Ultimate Warrior were the two biggest stars in the company and they were given the main event match at SummerSlam against Sgt. Slaughter, General Adnan and Col Mustafa. The match was as lackluster as it sounds. Hogan and Warrior aren’t known for their in-ring work and this night saw them have another stinker against the unremarkable heels.
One match made the night theirs with a show-stealing performance by the two performers. Bret Hart and Mr. Perfect created magic at SummerSlam 1991 with an incredible match that stole the show. Not only did they have one of the better matches of the era but they helped make the Intercontinental Championship mean something. Hart and Perfect are still remembered for being among the greatest in-ring workers of all time and this match proved that. WWE weren’t ready for the better, smaller workers to steal the show from the muscleheads but the movement started at SummerSlam 1991.
5 The Undertaker vs. Shawn Michaels (WrestleMania XXV)
The Undertaker and Shawn Michaels had arguably the greatest match in WWE history at WrestleMania XXV, but it wasn’t supposed to be. Many believed the two legends deserved the main event spot at the massive show, but they were snubbed in favor of Triple H and Randy Orton. Triple H and Orton were in midst of a personal feud following Orton attacking various relatives of Triple H leading up to their WWE Championship match.
Undertaker and Michaels managed to not only steal the show, but deliver a performance fans still talk about today. Both icons were firing on all cylinders on this night and it led to them having a flawless match. The magic of Michaels having the best WrestleMania match most years and Undertaker having the undefeated WrestleMania steak came together for pro wrestling art. WWE’s dreams of Orton and Triple H having the match of the night went up in smoke. No one has positive memories of the title match aside from it adding extra motivation for Michaels and Undertaker to steal the show.
4 Eddie Guerrero vs. Rey Mysterio (SummerSlam 2005)
SummerSlam 2005 was built around one major match. Hulk Hogan made his return to the ring and agreed to a dream match with Shawn Michaels. The two WWE icons never had a singles match until that show and there was strong interest in it. Politics showed its ugly face in pro wrestling once again with Hogan refusing to lose the match and turning down a formerly agreed on rematch that would see him return the favor to Michaels.
This all led to Michaels overselling Hogan's moves to make him look like a fool. The match ended up failing to deliver to the potential of what they could have done together. Instead, a Ladder Match between Eddie Guerrero and Rey Mysterio stole the show. They had a ridiculous storyline with the parental rights of Rey’s son Dominic on the line. Despite the silliness surrounding the match, they set out to show off their superb skills. Guerrero and Mysterio ruined the plans of Michaels/Hogan being the top match on the card by stealing the show.
3 The Rock vs. Hulk Hogan (WrestleMania X8)
WWE was in a transition period in early 2002. This was right before the brand split and the roster started to fill out as a super team of elite talent from top to bottom. Many of the top names from WCW began to come over after their original WCW contracts expired. Hulk Hogan was the biggest star to make his WWE return along with his New World Order partners, Scott Hall and Kevin Nash. WWE wrestlers still held a grudge from the Monday Night Wars and Hogan was treated as an outcast heading into WrestleMania X8.
Hogan squared off with The Rock in a dream match on the big show, but it was clearly secondary to the main event of Triple H vs. Chris Jericho. WWE wanted the show to be remembered for Triple H elevating himself into a top face role, but fate wouldn’t allow it. Fans still adored Hogan and treated him like a God. The atmosphere made Hogan and Rock one of the most surreal matches in WWE history and it stole the show away from what the company hoped for.
2 Daniel Bryan vs. Dolph Ziggler (Bragging Rights 2010)
Daniel Bryan and Dolph Ziggler are two performers that WWE never wanted to truly get behind. Bryan’s smaller size and naturally mellow personality are things that worked against him in the political landscape until fans rallied behind him. Ziggler has a bit more vocal personality that tends to rub people the wrong way within WWE. Bryan and Ziggler squared off in the opening match at the Raw vs. SmackDown Bragging Rights show, pitting the two midcard champions against each other.
The two had the best match of the year and showed just how great they each could be when allowed to perform with fewer restrictions. Bragging Rights was heavily focused on the big seven against seven team match between the Raw and SmackDown rosters, as well as John Cena feuding with The Nexus. No one remembered anything else from the show aside from Bryan and Ziggler taking wrestling forward with a match we all wanted to see more of. Both would see more opportunities after stealing the show here.
1 Ricky Steamboat vs. Randy Savage (WrestleMania III)
The biggest instance of WWE seeing a match steal the show against their wishes was WrestleMania III. It was the biggest night in wrestling history at the time, pitting Hulk Hogan against Andre the Giant in front of over 90,000 fans in the Pontiac Silverdome. The huge crowd all came to see the heroic Hogan slay the unbeatable giant, but left talking about the greatness of Randy Savage and Ricky Steamboat.
Savage and Steamboat had a historic match for the Intercontinental Championship. They outworked the main event with exciting wrestling rather than the plodding slow style associated with WWE in the 80s. Many current stars credit the Steamboat vs. Savage match for influencing them to become wrestlers. The night was supposed to be about Hogan having his big moment and to an extent it was. However, the long game saw Steamboat’s win over Savage win the night. Two talented performers gave their all and changed the business by stealing the show at WrestleMania III.