If you watch professional wrestling long enough, you start to spot certain tendencies. While this mostly extends to being able to spot certain moves before they happen, it also means you’re able to smell a heel turn coming from a mile away or know when a bad comedy segment is about to air so that you can change the channel. It’s a lot like watching any popular television show in that you simply get to know the characters and writers in a way that allows you start anticipating things that perhaps weren’t necessarily meant to be anticipated.
One of the more useful ways this skill presents itself is in the ability that many pro wrestling fans have to spot a bad match coming from a mile away. Although you want to believe that any match could end up being great, the truth is that there are certain elements of a match that fans can often recognize as warning signs that something truly awful is about to happen. Most of the time this is a simple matter of two not-so-great wrestlers being paired up with each other, but sometimes it extends to being able to recognize when a match has been put on the card as simple filler.
On special occasions, a match can come along that greatly exceeds the expectations of everyone watching it that sometimes you can’t even process what it was that you just saw. They may be the exception to the rule that bad matches are easily spotted, but the feeling of witnessing one is often an incomparable wrestling experience that is capable of producing more joy than any other. These matches may have looked like they were going to suck, but they instead turned out to be something truly great.
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15 Triple H vs. Sting – WrestleMania 31
Given that most people were hoping that Sting’s first WrestleMania match would be his dream showdown with The Undertaker, any other opponent was bound to be a disappointment. Even still, giving the match to Triple H and hyping it as an equal dream encounter did nobody any favors. What made this match ultimately work as well as it did was the decision to turn it into a gloriously over the top spectacle that was more of an elaborate ceremony than it was a match. It might not be a technical masterpiece, but this match proved to be one of the most entertaining of the year.
14 Roman Reigns vs. The Big Show – Extreme Rules 2015
Considering that the feud between these two had been painfully boring and neither man had a reputation for being able to carry a match, it’s fair to say that most people were just hoping this one would end before it could get really painful. Yet somehow, these two managed to work a shockingly clever match built around the story of The Big Show denying Reigns the use of weapons. It wasn’t a big thing, but this small addition to the usual “punch, punch, punch” match design these two typically work with ended up making all the difference.
13 El Torito vs. Hornswoggle – Extreme Rules 2014
Granted, a TLC match between these two lifelong comedy acts could exceed expectations simply by not causing the building they have it in to collapse under the weight of its awfulness, but absolutely nobody expected this match to be nearly as entertaining as it was. Dubbed WeeLC , this contest between the four-foot competitors was designed as a parody of the modern spot fest ladder match. If viewed from that perspective, it’s easy to appreciate this contest as an over-the-top series of references that both Hornswoggle and El Torito worked to perfection. Of course, the hilarious miniature commentary team certainly didn’t hurt.
12 The Usos vs. The Wyatt Family – Battleground 2014
While few thought that a match between these teams would be a complete disaster, there still wasn’t much hope for anything particularly memorable given the history of mediocre battles they had. But what we got here wasn’t a battle, it was an absolute war. Under the 2 out of 3 Falls stipulation, these teams worked a classic tag match that somehow just kept getting more intense as it went along.
While much of the credit has to go to Luke Harper who finally got a chance to show why he is so great, everyone involved in this one turned it into perhaps the WWE’s best tag match in years.
11 Hulk Hogan vs. Vince McMahon – WrestleMania XIX
While Hulk Hogan has proven to be able to provide classic matches without displaying any real wrestling ability, much of that shocking success came in the ‘80s. By the time that 2003’s WrestleMania XIX rolled around, The Hulkster wasn’t good for much more than flexing. Yet somehow – against Vince McMahon of all people – Hogan managed to pull out one last true classic. By completely abandoning all common sense and simply tearing into each other, these two put on a street fight that was filled with as much emotion as it was blood. Despite being on an historically stacked card, this one may have actually stolen the show.
10 Diamond Dallas Page vs. Goldberg – Halloween Havoc 1998
All due respect to the legendary Bill Goldberg, but the man didn’t become a household name once upon a time by having great matches. While WCW could have simply let Goldberg squash Page as he had done a million times before, they wisely chose to let DDP lead Goldberg to what is undoubtedly the best match of his career. While the match itself was a well worked – albeit very short – story of DDP looking for that one good shot on Goldberg, what really makes this one great is the way they presented the match like a true prizefight worthy of the WCW World Championship.
9 Bill Alfonso vs. Beulah McGillicutty – ECW As Good As It Gets 1997
Maybe this sounds cynical, but matches between full-time referees and former models usually have about a 110% chance of being the worst thing to ever take place in a wrestling ring. So imagine everybody’s surprise when referee Bill Alfonso took on valet Beulah McGillicutty and put on one of the most hardcore matches in the history of the incredible hardcore ECW promotion. These two made up for their lack of ring experience by simply laying into each other with everything they had.
Paul Heyman once said this may be his favorite ECW match of all time. Given the way it so perfectly sums up the spirit of ECW, it’s not hard to see why.
8 Rick Rude vs. The Ultimate Warrior – WrestleMania V
The Ultimate Warrior was a high-energy, big money attraction in his prime, but the man quite simply seemed incapable of working a decent wrestling match. His in-ring shtick was even more limited than Hogan’s, and he had a nasty reputation for being sloppy with this fellow performers. Much like the DDP/Goldberg match, what saved this one was Rick Rude’s ability to carry Ultimate Warrior past his in-ring flaws. Rude practically put Warrior on his back for this one and, in the process, made him look like a true star. Even better, Rude got to win this match and added a necessary bit of drama to their feud in the process.
7 John Cena vs. Umaga – Royal Rumble 2007
Royal Rumble championship matches are usually card fillers and that’s exactly what Cena/Umaga looked like in 2007. Cena was on a clear path to WrestleMania and Umaga seemed to be just another participant in the “Can Cena beat someone of this size” storyline WWE is fond of. What nobody really knew at the time was that Umaga was an incredibly capable big man wrestler and that Cena thrives when nobody thinks he can pull out a good match. Combined, these two managed to prove everyone wrong in one of the best Last Man Standing matches that WWE has ever had.
6 The Rock vs. Triple H – Judgement Day 2000
Although The Rock and Triple H were on fire in 2000, there were very few people clamoring to see the two work an hour-long Iron Man match. These two worked best when they were able to put on 20 minute spectacles and many fans doubted they could go this long and produce the same results. As it turned out, these guys had no intention of working a traditional Iron Man match. Instead, they gave us a very entertaining “sports entertainment” kind of wrestling match that was filled with big spots, run-ins and occasionally a little traditional wrestling when the situation called for it.
5 Sheamus vs. Big Show – Hell in a Cell 2012
Although not every big man vs. big man match in wrestling history has been a complete abomination, enough of them have been close enough to that point to be worthy of a groan when they are announced. Apparently Big Show and Sheamus were also fully aware of this reputation, as they did everything they could in this match to show just what two big men are capable of when both are willing to beat each other without remorse. This is an incredibly hard hitting match that allowed both men to showcase frightening levels of strength and dominance that wouldn’t be possible with smaller opponents.
4 Vince McMahon vs. Shane McMahon – WrestleMania X-Seven
We’ve learned by now to never doubt Vince McMahon’s ability to put on a great match when it seems like such a thing would be impossible, that wasn’t yet the case when he took on his son Shane in 2001. The thought of these two putting on a WrestleMania match was awkward enough, but the fact that this was the conclusion to their painfully bad soap opera-style feud made it all the worse. Oddly enough, it was that story that saved this match. Like a great finale redeeming a bad TV season, this match was filled with so many gloriously dramatic moments that you couldn’t help but fall in love with the sheer chaos of it all.
3 Stephanie McMahon vs. Trish Stratus – No Way Out 2001
The McMahon family feud of ’01 strikes again! Although nobody was clamoring for a match between Vince McMahon’s on-screen mistress and Vince McMahon’s actual daughter, that’s exactly what we got here anyway. You could practically hear the boos before the match even began, but they quickly died down when everyone realized that these two ladies were aiming for something memorable. Like many of the matches on this list, what made this one so great was a shocking amount of intensity from both performers. Stephanie and Trish absolutely tore into each other this night and, in the process, told an in-ring story much greater than the one that led to this showdown.
2 The Undertaker vs. Batista – WrestleMania 23
Although the thought of The Undertaker and Batista having a great match now doesn’t seem that crazy, it was downright impossible to believe by the time that WrestleMania 23 rolled around. Batista was building a reputation for being an underachiever at this time, and The Undertaker hadn’t yet found that groove that led to his late career resurgence. They both must have sold their souls for this one, however, as they went out and put on the kind of match that proved impossible for anyone to follow. Few wrestling matches in history have ever felt as brutal and epic as this one did.
1 Roman Reigns vs. Brock Lesnar – WrestleMania 31
On paper, this match looked to be the worst WrestleMania main events in some time. Not only was the match itself one that nobody really asked for, but the build-up to it had been nothing short of dreadful. Lost in this pre-match apathy, though, was the fact that Brock Lesnar and Roman Reigns were both actually having great matches around this time. Perhaps we shouldn’t have been that surprised, then, to see them go out and put on a powerhouse showcase here. Of course, we definitely should have been surprised by the appearance of Seth Rollins whose cash-in conclusion sealed this match’s reputation as a WrestleMania great.
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