Pro wrestling is a beautiful thing. Like pizza, even the worst wrestling match isn’t all that bad. From the storytelling to the physical poetry, wrestling combines and commingles athletics with theater. Pro wrestling is meant to make us laugh, cheer, and boo. Pro wrestling gives us something to complain about; pro wrestling is a distraction. Pro wrestling is many things, and a great pro wrestling match is as good, if not better than any Hollywood blockbuster.
Not many people will admit all this though. In THE CURRENT YEAR, it’s pretty standard for the self-appointed cultural taste-makers to snicker at anything that smacks of the rural, the working class, or populist. These are the roots of pro wrestling, but pro wrestling today is a massive industry that draws in viewers from across every imaginable demographic (well, except the overly smug). Pro wrestling is big in Japan, Mexico, North America, the United Kingdom, and beyond. As such, great pro wrestling can be found anywhere and be enjoyed by anyone. The following list is intended for those pro wrestling fans who truly enjoy the sport and its unique art. Some matches may be familiar to you, some may not. They are all uniformly great, however, and you should watch them now.
15. The Steiner Brothers vs. The Nasty Boys, Halloween Havoc (1990)
The NWA United States Tag Team titles were originally seen as the secondary tag titles behind the NWA World Tag Team Championship. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, this was no longer the case. Not only did teams like The Fabulous Freebirds and The Midnight Express hold the U.S. tag titles, but up-and-coming teams like The Steiner Brothers used the belts as a springboard into the larger main event scene in WCW.
Cut to 1990. The Steiners, as the U.S. Tag Team Champions, are locked in a brutal feud with The Nasty Boys. In many ways it couldn’t have been written any better. The college-educated brothers with amateur wrestling credentials versus streetwise brawlers was the perfect set-up. When the two teams clashed at Halloween Havoc, the match they produced was brutal, stiff, and thoroughly exciting. Better yet, following the match, the feud continued following a Jerry Sags sneak attack while in disguise. This is wrestling the way it used to be.
14. Shawn Michaels vs. The Undertaker, Badd Blood: In Your House (1997)
Although not as memorable as the second Hell in a Cell match (yes, THAT Hell in a Cell match), Shawn Michaels and The Undertaker put on a clinic during the inaugural Hell in a Cell contest. Owing to a misplaced chair shot from Michaels during that year’s SummerSlam, The Undertaker wanted revenge. He also wanted the WWE World Championship back. Therefore, Michaels and ‘Taker put themselves into the totally enclosed cage in order to fight for the right of being the next #1 Contender for Bret Hart’s belt.
The match is a bloody affair with one particularly nasty chair shot. Furthermore, Michaels, who was then in full D-Generation X mode, plays his bratty and cocksure heel role well. At one point a clearly agitated Michaels kicks and shoves a cameraman. This is also the first time that two competitors wrestled it out on top of a cage. There’s high spots and brawling, plus there’s the debut of Kane at the end. All things considered, there’s a reason why Dave Meltzer gave this match a rare five-star rating.
13. Cactus Jack vs. Triple H, Royal Rumble (2000)
There’s nothing like a good Street Fight. The modern WWE doesn’t do them, or when they do, they do them poorly. A good Street Fight is the furthest thing from PG, with foreign objects and blood being requirements. As such, the Attitude Era WWE had no compunction about putting on street fights, and there may be no better Attitude Era Street Fight than Cactus Jack vs. Triple H at the 2000 Royal Rumble.
The build-up to the match was simple but effective. Mankind (Mick Foley) kept requesting a crack at Triple H’s world title, but The Game kept right on denying him. However, in a moment of great arrogance, Triple H agreed to a Street Fight against Mankind for the WWE World Championship. The Cerebral Assassin thought that he could easily whip Mankind. However, he failed to account for the fact that Foley could easily become Cactus Jack, the hardcore hero of ECW, WCW, and Japan.
As would be expected, Jack and Triple H put on a bloody, somewhat chaotic Street Fight that included barbed wire, tables, thumbtacks, and, at one point, The Rock. Besides a “crimson mask,” Triple H also earned a nasty gash on his calf during the match. For his part, Cactus Jack got plugged by a million little tacks.
12. Eddie Guerrero vs. Rey Mysterio, Halloween Havoc (1997)
This is the moment when a million “spot monkeys” were born. Despite their best efforts, the bigwigs of WCW and the lackeys of Ted Turner could not completely suppress the popularity of their own Cruiserweight Division. Built around excellent technicians and aerial artists like Dean Malenko, Eddie Guerrero, Rey Mysterio, and others, WCW’s Cruiserweight Division was reason enough to tune in every Monday night. In the eyes of the fans, the WCW Cruiserweight Championship was more important than both the Television title and the U.S. title.
At Halloween Havoc 1997, Guerrero and Mysterio showed just how important the title was by putting on a fast-paced, spot-heavy match that had the crowd in Las Vegas by the proverbial gonads. The match, which had a title versus mask stipulation, propelled Mysterio into absolute super stardom. At the time, the moves that both Guerrero and Mysterio pulled out seemed revolutionary. Listen to Bobby “The Brain” Heenan call the match and realize that all of WCW’s fan-base felt the same way at that same moment. A truly transformative moment in pro wrestling history.
11. Tully Blanchard vs. Magnum T.A., Starrcade (1985)
For my money, this is the greatest “I Quit” match of all time. The feud between Tully Blanchard and Magnum T.A. was raw and real. Besides the storyline feud between Blanchard, his fellow Four Hoursemen, T.A., and “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes, plenty of behind-the-scenes drama found its way inside the cage that night in the Greensboro Coliseum. Most notably, Magnum T.A. would go on to marry Blanchard’s ex-wife.
The match itself is indicative of the gusty earnestness of old Mid-Atlantic wrestling. Most of the moves were not scripted, and while many modern viewers may find the moves bland and little predictable, even they cannot deny the big fight feel of the match. From all the blood to the many unintelligible groans uttered on the microphone, this “I Quit” match is a glorious, white knuckle affair. Also, in terms of final moments, this match has one of the most gruesome conclusions in wrestling history.
10. “Macho Man” Randy Savage vs. Ricky “The Dragon Steamboat,” WrestleMania III (1987)
Although most fans paid to see Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant clash for the WWE World Championship, the match between Randy Savage and Ricky Steamboat stole the show. Going into the contest, Savage, the WWE Intercontinental Champion, had to not only deal with the challenger Steamboat, but also with George “The Animal” Steele. For his part, the mute oaf Steele desired the charms of Miss Elizabeth, Savage’s valet and real-life wife. This triangular feud produced a technical masterwork.
Again, to eyes more accustomed to flips and hard bumps, Savage versus Steamboat may look stunningly antediluvian. However, in the midst of arm drags, double axe handle blows, and basic slams, Savage and Steamboat tell an engaging story with just their bodies. The arch perfectionist Savage and the brilliant worker Steamboat created magic here, and it says something that most WrestleMania matches since 1987 have been compared to their standard of excellence.
9. Arn Anderson and Tully Blanchard vs. Lex Luger and Barry Windham, Clash of Champions I (1988)
Clash of Champions was intended to be a retort to Vince McMahon’s WWE (then known as the WWF). After a series of heated negotiations, McMahon decided to air 1987’s Survivor Series on the same night as Starrcade, the NWA’s premiere pay-per-view. A year later, the Crockett family decided to get some revenge and aired a super-card on free television before WrestleMania. All told, the first Clash of Champions is better than that year’s WrestleMania.
While it did not get as much attention as the championship match between Ric Flair and Sting, the match for the NWA World Tag Team Championship was the better contest. Because of their physiques, their combined move sets, and their membership in The Four Horsemen, Arn Anderson and Tully Blanchard were the perfect heel champions. On the flip side, the tall, muscular, and blonde team of Lex Luger and Barry Windham were showcased as the all-American, quasi-Ubermensch wrestlers of the future. In the ring, Anderson and Blanchard carried the contest, but even despite Luger’s awkwardness, he and Windham left the match looking like a formidable force. Most important of all, the crowd was deeply into the match the entire time.
8. Alex Shelley vs. Sonjay Dutt vs. Austin Aries vs. Roderick Strong, Bound For Glory (2005)
Believe it or not, TNA had better wrestlers and better matches than the WWE during the mid-2000s. If boneheaded booking and a weird fixation on over-the-hill ex-WCW and WWE talent hadn’t intervened, then TNA could have legitimately competed with McMahon’s stagnating company long before the disastrous arrival of Hulk Hogan and Eric Bischoff.
Much of TNA’s in-ring quality centered around its X Division. A permutation of WCW’s earlier Cruiserweight Division, the X Division was designed to showcase the work of smaller, faster, and more mobile wrestlers. As such, the X Division drew much of its roster from indie promotions like Ring of Honor and Combat Zone Wrestling. During the pre-show for the 2005 pay-per-view Bound For Glory, TNA put on a Four-Way contest featuring big names from both ROH and CZW. All told, the match is a hard-hitting and highly acrobatic contest that allowed each competitor to show off their individual specialties. Sonjay Dutt flies around the ring, Alex Shelley throws on complex submissions, Austin Aries runs from post to post, while Roderick Strong chops and breaks backs. The crowd loved every minute of this match, and you will too.
7. Ric Flair vs. Kerry Von Erich (1982)
Before the age of Hulkamania, Dallas, Texas’ World Class Championship Wrestling was the hottest wrestling promotion on the planet. Built around the good looks and athleticism of Fritz Von Erich’s sons, WCCW frequently promoted matches and rivalries that included big names from other promotions and territories. Ric Flair, then only in his first reign as the NWA World Heavyweight Champion, was brought in to feud with Kerry Von Erich, the most camera-ready of the Von Erich brood.
On Christmas night, 1982, Flair and Von Erich entered a steel cage in Dallas’s Reunion Arena in order to duke it out for the most prestigious title in pro wrestling. In addition to referee David Manning, Michael P.S. Hayes, the flamboyant leader of The Fabulous Freebirds, was tasked with being the special referee. Terry Gordy, another Freebird, had the job of being the cage’s gatekeeper.
When the match started, both Hayes and Gordy were babyfaces. However, as Hayes got rougher and more authoritarian while in the performance of his duties, both Flair and Von Erich pushed back. When it all came to a head, Flair pushed Von Erich into Hayes, which sent P.S. into the arms of Gordy. An enraged Gordy then slammed the cage door in Von Erich’s face, thus kick starting one of the greatest feuds in wrestling history.
6. Rob Van Dam vs. Jerry Lynn, Hardcore Heaven (1999)
The feud between ECW World Television Champion Rob Van Dam and Jerry Lynn was one of the best feuds of the late 1990s. Both men benefited: while Van Dam cemented his position as the most popular star in all of ECW, the scrappy Lynn earned so much respect that he eventually won the ECW World Heavyweight Championship (a feat that RVD would not accomplish until 2006). Although they would wrestle each other three times in total, this match is their greatest achievement.
The pace in this one is breathtaking. Van Dam and Lynn go hold-for-hold and move-for-move for almost half an hour. Because it was ECW, the pair got extreme with tables and steel chairs, and yet the match doesn’t need that element at all. With the fans firmly in the palms of their hands, Van Dam and Lynn churned out a classic that can appeal to any fan of the sport.
5. Kenta Kobashi vs. Mitsuharu Misawa, New Year Giant Series (1998)
Not that long ago, All Japan Pro Wrestling was the best wrestling organization in the Land of the Rising Sun. Before the beginning of its precipitous decline in the mid 2000s, AJPW was full of the best workers in the world, both native and gaijin. During the late 1990s, the company’s premiere feud was between Kenta Kobashi and Mitsuharu Misawa. Each time the pair traded the Triple Crown title, they would put on great matches that somehow managed to consistently top the previous match. In 1998, in a match that Dave Meltzer gave five stars, the champion Kobashi and the challenger Misawa wrestled for almost an hour. Both ended the matched as sweaty masses of bruised flesh.
All told, this match is quintessential puroresu. Each chop is stiff, while each suplex looks unbelievably dangerous. Amidst the background of an engaged crowd, Kobashi and Misawa went from one false finish to another without ever letting up. By the end of the match, the viewer feels as exhausted as the participants.
4. Bret Hart vs. Owen Hart, SummerSlam (1994)
The Hart family feud of was one of the few great things about the WWE in 1994. Squeezed for time between boring matches and stupid, cartoonish gimmicks, Bret and Owen Hart turned a simple storyline into a multi-year feud that helped both men to reach the main event scene. After their falling out at the 1993 Survivor Series, Owen became one of the company’s chief heels, while Bret became the biggest babyface. So, when Owen beat Bret during the opening match of WrestleMania X, many were legitimately shocked. However, Bret ended that night as the new WWE World Champion. This led to a confrontation between the brothers for the title at that year’s SummerSlam event.
Like all the best feuds, Bret and Owen decided to wrestle inside of a cage. Unlike earlier and many later Cage matches, this one is a bloodless affair. That being said, the technical complexity and storytelling of this match is astounding. Even better is the fact that when the match ends, the feud continues thanks to the inclusion of Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart and Davey Boy Smith.
3. Sting’s Squadron vs. The Dangerous Alliance, WrestleWar (1992)
Years before the WWE created Hell in a Cell, Dusty Rhodes came up with the concept of WarGames. There are rumors that the WWE is currently thinking of bringing this gimmick match back. If true, they’ll have to consider the fact that no matter the match they book, it will invariably be compared to the 1992 contest between Sting’s Squadron and Paul E. Dangerously’s Dangerous Alliance.
Long before the nWo invasion angle, Paul E. Dangerously (better known as Paul Heyman) threatened to dismantle WCW from inside with a group of chosen wrestlers. Two of these wrestlers, Rick Rude and Larry Zbyszko, had first made a name for themselves in the WWE, while another (Arn Anderson) was not long removed from a title run in McMahon’s company. The Dangerous Alliance, which also included Bobby Eaton, Medusa, and “Stunning” Steve Austin, came close to taking over WCW for good.
In order to stop their hostile takeover, Sting, Barry Windham, Dustin Rhodes, Ricky Steamboat, and Nikita Koloff formed Sting’s Squadron and challenged The Dangerous Alliance to a WarGames match. In an exciting and very bloody affair, Sting and his men prevailed. This match is widely considered the greatest WarGames contest of all time.
2. Takeshi Morishima vs. Bryan Danielson, Manhattan Mayhem II (2007)
Bryan Danielson, better known as Daniel Bryan, ruled Ring of Honor between 2005 and 2009. After defeating James Gibson (Jamie Noble) for the ROH World Heavyweight Championship, Danielson would hold the belt for an incredible 462 days. Even after losing the belt to Homicide, Danielson was still positioned at the top of the ROH food chain.
At Manhattan Mayhem II in New York City’s Manhattan Center, Danielson squared off against the new ROH Champion Takeshi Morishima. At three hundred pounds and over six feet tall, Morishima played the Goliath to Danielson’s David. This match is a brutal contest that highlights just how strong Danielson’s “strong style” was. Indeed, Danielson suffered a detached retina as a result of this match. This is why he called The Miz’ style “cowardly.” Watching the hulking Morishima go toe-to-toe with Danielson makes any current WWE match, even those matches which feature cages, kendo sticks, or tables, look tame in comparison.
1. Ric Flair vs. Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat, WrestleWar: Music City Showdown (1989)
This is the match that ended the greatest trilogy in the history of wrestling. Throughout the first half of 1989, Ric Flair and Ricky Steamboat traded the NWA World Heavyweight Championship back and forth until Flair finally won the gold for good at WrestleWar. In all three matches, Flair and Steamboat showed the world that they had an in-ring chemistry that was incomparable. Because both men were cardio freaks, all three matches are marathons full of chain wrestling and excellent storytelling.
In their final showdown, the eternal babyface Steamboat dropped the strap to the beloved heel Flair after a grueling contest full of false finishes and great ring psychology. Because the audience loved the match so much, Flair turned babyface and called Steamboat the greatest NWA Champion of all time. Better yet, the new babyface Flair was put immediately into a program with a heel Terry Funk. After watching the match ringside as one of the three NWA judges, Funk let Flair know that he wanted a shot at the title. Famously, Funk tried to piledrive Flair through a table, but the table didn’t give. As a result, the best match between Flair and Steamboat led to another great match in 1989–the “I Quit” match between Flair and Funk at Clash of Champions IX: New York Knockout.
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