You hear the concept of the "Big Fight Feel" mentioned all the time by wrestling announcers and promoters. Although nobody has ever really offered a definition of what, exactly, that means, it is generally agreed that the big fight relates to a match that is able to capture the feel of an actual competitive environment. Wrestling fans are, generally, willing to suspend their disbelief over the scripted nature of their favorite sport, but big fight matches don’t ask them to suspend that disbelief; it rips it from them, tosses it away, and watches as those same fans gawk at the encounter they are witnessing without a doubt in their mind that this is a proper fight.
If there is one common aspect to all big fight matches, it’s that they are not easy to pull off. Many wrestling organizations have tried to create the big fight feel, but so many things have to come together to make it happen that most intentional efforts a generating the big fight feel usually end in failure. When the big fight does come together, however, there is nothing else quite like it as proven by these 15 greatest big fight feel matches in wrestling history.
15 The Rock vs. Brock Lesnar - SummerSlam 2002
While The Rock was still undeniably popular by the time that SummerSlam 2002 rolled around, he had also started to attract a bit of heat from longtime WWE fans that felt he had begun to abandon them in order to pursue his movie career. It was a time when wrestling fans began to turn their eyes to the next generation of superstars in order to find new heroes, and it was a time that saw WWE push Brock Lesnar like they had never pushed a young wrestler before.
Even though Lesnar had dominated nearly everyone that stepped up to him, however, many fans still weren’t able to believe they would actually let him beat The Rock for the championship. This genuine uncertainty led to an absolutely epic encounter between the past and the future. It truly felt like the future of WWE would be dictated by the results of this match and that implication made this bout feel like a championship match should.
14 Daniel Bryan vs. Triple H - WrestleMania XXX
It’s doubtful that WWE will ever be able to recreate the magic of Daniel Bryan’s rise to the top no matter how many times they will inevitably try to do so. The story of the underdog overcoming odds against the authority of WWE usually draws groans from fans, but the reason that it worked for Daniel Bryan is because it was genuine. Despite the fact that he was clearly absurdly popular and impossibly talented, fans spent years coping with the fact that Daniel Bryan was not going to become a top guy because they had been conditioned to believe that’s just how it works in WWE.
It’s what made this match so special. It was more than just Daniel Bryan vs. Triple H; it was a battle of wills. The sheer emotion involved in this encounter lent it an air of legitimacy that few professional wrestling matches ever get to enjoy.
13 Bret Hart vs. The British Bulldog - SummerSlam 1992
Right from the start, there were many in WWE that were hesitant to host a major PPV in a non-USA location. Aside from the logistical nightmares involved (the time differences made it almost impossible to find a reasonable start time for either location), there was also the issue of the main event. Bret Hart insisted that he and The British Bulldog could put on a main-event caliber match for the Intercontinental Championship. Some disagreed. Actually, WWE even promoted the main event as being The Ultimate Warrior and Macho Man Randy Savage in America, just to be safe.
As it turned out, they had no need to worry. This match earns its big fight reputation in part due to the history between these two men, but it has more to do with the atmosphere and the crowd. Almost 90,000 people were cheering for the British Bulldog like he was about to single-handedly win England the World Cup, and their enthusiasm lent this already great match a kind of feeling that doesn’t come along often.
12 Diamond Dallas Page vs. Goldberg - Halloween Havoc 1998
Bill Goldberg's popularity wasn’t exactly fading by the end of 1998, but he was far from the peak of his support. Having defeated Hogan earlier in the year (more on that later) Goldberg had seemingly fulfilled his ultimate WCW purpose and now fans were just waiting to see who could end the streak. Before that happened, however, they would get one great match out of Goldberg’s championship run when he took on DDP at Halloween Havoc. This was the first time that fans thought the streak might be in danger considering that DDP was just as popular as Goldberg and both men knew how to expertly play off of those emotions.
From the Michael Buffer intro to Goldberg’s incredible UFC-style entrance and Page’s teasing of the Diamond Cutter which was believed to be that one big shot that could take the champ down, these two put on a match that perfectly recreated the sensation of an undefeated boxing champion colliding with the world’s hottest contender.
11 Shawn Michaels vs. The Undertaker - WrestleMania XXVI
You can try and try to manufacture a big fight feeling, but ultimately, it is the moment that bell rings (or perhaps slightly before) that will determine whether or not a match has achieved that elusive status. Still, that doesn’t mean a company can’t increase their odds by putting the two ideal competitors in the right situation and just hope that everything works out for the best. That’s exactly what WWE did here with this rematch between Michaels and The Undertaker. Although the match itself is, arguably, not as great as their WrestleMania XXV encounter, the atmosphere for this contest was far more electric. While that’s due in part to the expectations created by the last bout these two had, it has more to do with the multi-month story that went into this match which ended up placing Shawn Michaels’ career on the line.
Either The Undertaker’s streak or Michaels’ career was going to in after this one, and those raised stakes helped this match feel like a real battle between the best.
10 Hulk Hogan vs. Goldberg - July 6, 1998, Monday Night Nitro
Say what you will about Hulk Hogan’s career, but the man had a knack for creating that big fight feel. Hulk Hogan’s persona transcended wrestling and made everything that he did feel that much more significant. However, in this instance, the big fight feeling has more to do with Hulk Hogan’s opponent; Bill Goldberg. To say that the fans in attendance on this night were begging for Hogan to lose would be a bit of an understatement. They were sick of Hulk Hogan being the world champion and were crying for his blood.
Although some felt that WCW might actually let Hulk Hogan end Goldberg’s win streak, the ravenous feeling of excitement that surrounded this encounter had more to do with a desire to watch Goldberg steamroll Hogan as quickly as possible. This match is unique from its peers in that sense, but there’s no denying that this encounter felt like the big deal it was.
9 Ric Flair vs. Ricky Steamboat – WrestleWar ‘89
The nature of NWA wrestling in the ‘80s (it was a time when nearly every fan bought into the product 100%) meant that there were quite a few big fight matches of the era. That doesn’t mean that it was easy to create such a match, but the less jaded nature of the industry made them a bit more common. In a way, this classic encounter between Flair and Steamboat represents the best big fights of its era. You had two men renowned for their in-ring abilities attempting to finish a trilogy of matches set-up to determine who was the very best.
It was going to be a special kind of match no matter what, but the bookers did add a couple of nice touches to this one such as the panel of judges (for a professional wrestling match, mind you) who were there to determine a winner in the event of a draw. This is one of the best of a bygone era.
8 Stone Cold Steve Austin vs. The Rock - WrestleMania X-Seven
It’s doubtful that there will ever be a match between two active wrestlers in the same company quite like this one again. Although not The Rock and Stone Cold’s first match, by the time they met in this classic showdown both had managed to obtain the status of icons. They were two of the biggest stars of wrestling’s hottest era and they were about to fight for the WWE Championship at the biggest show of the year in front of nearly 70,000 people. It was absolute insanity. Even better, you had Austin competing in front of his home state crowd who viewed him as a golden god throughout the entire match.
While the infamous ending to this encounter does hamper the reputation of the match somewhat, it does little to diminish that feeling of watching two men that transcend professional wrestling at the peak of their popularity going one-on-one.
7 Taz vs. Sabu – Barely Legal ‘97
Paul Heyman once said that he designed the character of Taz in order to generate that big fight match atmosphere. Much of Taz’s persona and move set (especially his “Tap Out” finishers) were lifted straight from the world of MMA in order to create a special kind of feeling for his matches that you wouldn’t necessarily get from the rest of the card. Everything else on the show was just professional wrestling, but Taz’s matches were a fight. It was a bit of a hit and miss approach, but the one time it hit big was Taz’s showdown with Sabu at Barely Legal ’97.
This one had it all. Not only was it building off of Taz’s big match style, but it also had the very real rivalry between these two men to work with as well as a crowd that was absolutely amped for ECW’s first PPV. You could buy into this being the grudge match of the century it was billed as.
6 The Hart Foundation vs. Stone Cold Steve Austin, Ken Shamrock, Goldust and the Legion of Doom – In Your House: Canadian Stampede
One of the things that these big fight matches try to recreate is the feeling of a major professional sports game such as the Super Bowl. For the NFL, such a thing is effortless. You’ve got two teams competing for a great prize in front of a passionate crowd and that tends to create an incredible feeling of competition. For wrestling, such an effect is much more difficult to manufacture given that whole “scripted” thing. The closest that wrestling has ever come to recreating the feel of a team vs. team Super Bowl game is the main event of Canadian Stampede.
This wasn’t a battle between two teams of wrestlers; it was a battle between Canada and America over who is the best professional wrestling country. Months of storytelling had gone into this match and it played out in front of a deafening Canadian crowd with all of the intensity typically reserved for the biggest professional sports games.
5 Samoa Joe vs. Kenta Kobashi – Ring of Honor: Joe vs. Kobashi
You may be familiar with Samoa Joe, but you don’t know Joe unless you watch his initial championship run in Ring of Honor. Samoa Joe wasn’t just at the top of his athletic game during that time; he had created an aura of invincibility that forced people who never cared about indie wrestling before to start paying attention. One of those people was the legendary Kenta Kobashi who, at 38 years old, had never wrestled in America and seemingly never would. The announcement that he would be debuting in America to wrestle Samoa Joe was, for wrestling fans, like announcing that God would be making a publicity tour across Earth.
Those in attendance never seemed to get over the sensation of watching Kobashi actually wrestle in America, and they certainly couldn’t get past seeing him wrestle a man that was legendary in his own right. It’s a miracle that that hard-hitting war these two had didn’t literally blow the roof off the tiny arena.
4 Rob Van Dam vs. John Cena – ECW One Night Stand 2006
How much do ECW fans love their brand? That was the question on the minds of many people that watched ECW One Night Stand 2006, which saw John Cena go up against Rob Van Dam for the WWE Championship. A big part of the reason behind it was a sign in the crowd that night that said simply “If Cena Wins, We Riot.” In any other crowd, this sign would just be worth a laugh. Here, though, nobody was entirely sure if that sign holder was joking. That’s because the crowd in attendance this night hated John Cena even more than they loved RVD.
This match was more than a championship showdown, it was vindication for a legion of ECW fans who felt that RVD must beat Cena in order to justify their fandom. That’s something that doesn’t come along often, and the result is a match that even non-wrestling fans could find themselves drawn into for the sheer spectacle of the thing.
3 Hulk Hogan vs. The Ultimate Warrior – WrestleMania VI
Hulk Hogan and The Ultimate Warrior were not professional wrestlers in 1990. Oh sure, that’s what they probably described themselves as on their tax forms, but at this point in their careers, they were closer to mythological figures. The two spent the better part of the last couple of years competing to see who could draw the biggest crowd reaction, and they had managed to split the vast majority of WWE’s fans into two camps.
WWE may have been hesitant to hold this match in the first place and pit two babyfaces against each other, but their fears were soon drowned out by the reaction of a crowd that had didn’t seem quite sure which of these titans to root for and decided to simply come unglued for the both of them after every single thing they did. This is the kind of match that Vince still dreams of when he pits his top guys against each other.
2 The Rock vs. Hulk Hogan – WrestleMania X8
They build for The Rock vs. Hulk Hogan wasn’t great. It basically involved Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock colliding against the nWo in a story that probably should have happened almost a year earlier when WCW collapsed. The two exchanged a few moves and insults and WWE booked them in a WrestleMania match just hoping that their combined star power would produce something special. Luckily for them, that’s exactly what happened. For whatever reason, the crowd in attendance of WrestleMania X8 decided that Hulk Hogan was going to be their hero for the evening.
While something of an unexpected turn of events, the live crowd’s passion for Hulk Hogan helped everyone to recognize the gravity of this incredible showdown and helped this match achieve a feeling of witnessing something that was truly once in a lifetime. It’s the kind of match that makes you feel like a child again, and it’s impossible to not get invested in it.
1 CM Punk vs. John Cena - Money in the Bank 2011
During this match, Jerry Lawler notes that the only thing he can compare the atmosphere of the arena to is if the Chicago Bears were in the Super Bowl and the Super Bowl was in Chicago. It’s an apt comparison. The live crowd wasn’t just loud; they were ready to get up off their seats and rush the ring if it meant they could keep John Cena from winning this match. This marks one of the few times in the post-Hulkamania era that a crowd was livid for the exact storyline that WWE was trying to get them to buy into.
What makes this match achieve that big fight feel isn’t just the crowd, though, it’s the battle of ideologies. CM Punk represented the very soul of a vocal group of wrestling fans that went far too long without having someone to go crazy for. That group had allowed themselves to subscribe to the illusion that a CM Punk victory would make everything all right in the world. For one night, the consequences of this match meant the world even if everyone knew it was scripted beforehand. That is a big fight feeling in professional wrestling.