Wrestling has come a long way from a niche sport in dark and dirty venues, all the way into the bright lights of the biggest professional sports arenas. Television played a huge role in the evolution of wrestling. As television became more common, the networks needed entertainment to fill the time. Wrestling was easily filmed and made for a great programming. Cable television changed everything again as they could now reach further than their regions and entertain the entire country. Many have blamed Vince McMahon for killing off the territories, but in reality, cable television had just as much to do with it.
The next big step was partnering with MTV. Lou Albano’s feud with megastar Cyndi Lauper set the stage for MTV to broadcast a highly touted Women’s Championship match that featured Lauper as a manager. This match drew an astronomical 9.0 viewership rating and further launched wrestling into the mainstream. This marriage of Rock & Wrestling even influenced the Entrance Music wrestlers would use and eventually culminated in the first WrestleMania.
From there Vince further invaded the living room with his brilliant Saturday morning wrestling programming. He won the young children over with colorful, larger than life, superstars. As that generation and television in general matured, he evolved his product as well. He even went so far as to appear before an episode of Raw, detailing to the viewers that the WWE product was changing with the times to display much more ‘Attitude’.
So many of the matches on this list are from 1984-onwards and many feature Hulk Hogan. Wrestling had been around for many many decades prior but this is the period when it started to reach outside of it’s niche audience and truly become a worldwide phenomenon. Cable television, closed-circuit and PPV meant that the entire world could experience a match together.
So let’s take a walk through wrestling history and relive some of the most important matches in wrestling history.
16 Bruno Sammartino vs. Ivan Koloff - MSG, 1971
Sammartino had one of the most dominant reigns in pro wrestling history. He was infamous for refusing to lose throughout his career. He would tell promoters that he would only lose if he felt his opponent could legitimately beat him. By 1971, he had amassed a god-like championship reign for nearly 3,000 days! But that was about to change.
No one thought the evil Russian Ivan Koloff (from Montreal) would be the one to take him down, but that’s exactly what happened. The crowd was devastated and pictures of fans weeping made the New York Daily News.
It’s hard to imagine just how shocked the fans were. This is when wrestling was largely considered to be real and Sammartino’s legitimate shoot style enhanced that. To see the hero finally beaten on his home turf was an atom bomb and one of the first national incidents.
15 Royal Rumble 2015 - #CancelWWENetwork
The social media age is a double-edged sword for the WWE. After the Batista debacle at the Rumble ‘14 fans were enraged when it happened AGAIN.
The hashtag #CancelWWENetwork quickly became the number one trend on Twitter and was even reported by mainstream media source Times.com.
To the WWE’s credit, after both Rumble debacles they ultimately listened to their audience and veered the story closer to the fans' wishes.
14 Bret Hart vs Steve Austin - WrestleMania 13
The silver lining of Michaels ‘losing his smile’ and not dropping the belt back to Hart was this gem of a match. Considered one of the greatest WrestleMania matches of all time, it was a clinic in wrestling psychology. The crowd was swept up in story of a frustrated good guy and tough as nails bad guy trading roles. Over the course of one Sharpshooter, Hart and Austin created a powerful moment that defined one of the most popular superstars in wrestling history.
Forget about TV script writers. The best stories are told in the ring.
13 CM Punk vs. John Cena - MITB 2011
Many fans grew out of wrestling after the Attitude Era. Attendance dropped and the formula felt stale. Triple H and Cena had dominated for so long that older fans grew tired of the same old same old. Then along came Punk.
He recognized that fans were smarter than ever and embraced it. He said what everyone was thinking but too afraid to say. He put the reality back into wrestling and created excitement like no other.
His feud with Cena climaxed as Punk brilliantly declared that he would leave the company when his contract expired; and he would do it as the World Champion. Whether through brilliant planning or lucky coincidence, the big match was held in Punk’s hometown Chicago. The Windy City was already known as a hot crowd that loved the cool heels. Punk was their savior, and Cena was the enemy.
The ‘YEAH’ and ‘BOO’ that swiftly followed every Punk and Cena punch rocked the arena as the opposing rivals put on an electrifying match.
Wresting was officially cool again.
12 Bret Hart vs. The British Bulldog - SummerSlam '92
The event was monumental for the WWE's growth outside of North America. While wrestling was a global phenomenon, having the company's second biggest event on European soil was huge. Bret Hart convinced Vince McMahon that if he made the headlining match him against Davey Boy Smith that they would sell out Wembley Stadium. They did and Bret and Davey put on a classic. Bret dropped the title to his brother in law and the UK crowd ate it up. The WWE hit a home run with this event and forever established their stronghold in the UK, something that another company failed to do.
The next step would be a WrestleMania in Wembley, which would be the only way for WWE to top this.
10 John Cena vs. The Rock - WrestleMania 28
Cena and Rock’s first clash at WrestleMania 28 was exactly the kind of iconic matchup the event was built for. The match was announced a year in advance giving plenty of time for a massive buildup. Their battle of wits spilled over into mainstream social media and was even made into an NBC production titled The Rock vs. John Cena: Once in a Lifetime.
What made the feud great was how personal it felt. The two were not friends and the rivalry between them had a fantastic tension. Cena attacked The Rock’s WWE legacy, claiming he had deserted them for a cushy life as a Hollywood star. All while Cena continued to work every night in the ring. Of course The Rock had previously wrestled every night in the most profitable period of WWE history and Cena himself had acted in a few crappy movies. But it’s not smart to introduce too much logic into a wrestling angle.
The event was held in The Rock’s beloved Miami and drew nearly 80,000 for the climactic match.
9 Hogan vs. Flair - Bash at the Beach 1994
After the steroid scandal, the WWE was left reeling and Hogan left for Hollywood. The WCW during this time had decided to get serious and spend big money competing for wrestling domination. Their biggest acquisition was the Hulkster, who had been filming Thunder in Paradise near WCW’s studios.
To bring in the biggest star in televised wrestling history was a huge deal. And his first opponent was the dream match fans had wanted at WrestleMania VIII: Ric Flair, the face of Southern Wrestling.
This match symbolized how serious WCW was at becoming no.1 in wrestling. It was like bringing Michael Jordan out of retirement to join the Knicks and eliminate the Bulls from the playoffs.
Hogan and the former WWE Legends tour pushed WCW into the mainstream for good.
8 Undertaker vs Mankind - Hell in the Cell
Often used as an example to display just how real wrestling is. Foley was already legendary for the years he spent brutally sacrificing his body for entertainment. He had already lost an ear in a match against Vader and CONTINUED WRESTLING. But this is when Foley’s pain Olympics hit the big stage.
When he took that first bump off the 16-foot high cage to the table, everyone thought he was seriously hurt (and he was). The Undertaker looked the most worried of all as he could do nothing but nervously watch and wonder if he just ended a man’s career or worse. Foley remained down so long that fans thought something was legitimately wrong and the match was over. With McMahon out from backstage and the cage being lifted (with Undertaker still on it) it felt way too real.
When Foley stormed back to climb the cage it felt like maybe it was just a work and he was fine after all. They scrambled up to the top and Undertaker ever so gingerly head butted Foley before delivering the the next surprise of the night; a chokeslam busting through the cage ceiling all the way down to the ring with a steel chair following right behind him.
As Foley smiled with his own tooth stuck in his nose, they completed a match that could never and should never be topped.
7 The Outsiders Reveal The Third Man - Bash at the Beach '96
It's hard to remember the actual match, but very easy to remember what happened after. Kevin Nash and Scott Hall rolled into Bash of the Beach to face Sting, Lex Luger and Randy Savage, promising a third man would be joining them. Nobody expected what happened next.
It was a big deal to see Hogan join WCW, and a bigger deal to see The Outsiders invade, but it was truly crystallized when Hogan dropped the leg drop heard ‘round the world. (He may of only had five moves, but he sure did a lot with them).
It was a heel turn many thought could never happen. Hogan himself said he had never been as nervous as when he walked down that aisle as a good guy for possibly the last time. The trash thrown into the ring said it all as WCW fans in attendance were visibly disgusted by the outcome. But Hogan saw the nWo money train leaving the station and was damn sure he was getting a seat.
Superman had turned on the good people of earth and threw his cape into the trash.
6 Austin, Michaels, Tyson - WrestleMania 14
The Attitude Era had already arrived, but this was the launching point for Austin’s historic career. Michaels was the current champion and the time had come for him to pass the torch. But with a severely injured back due to a hellacious match with The Undertaker, many were worried he would back out. Michaels had previously weaseled out of losing to Bret by ‘losing his smile’. And with the backstage politics of his Kliq and the Montreal ScrewJob, it was a tense time.
To Michaels' credit, he battled through the injury and put Austin over in what has become a defining moment of WWE history.
But what about The Undertaker threatening to beat Michaels up if he didn’t do the job? Here’s the story according to HBK himself.
"Mark (Undertaker) went to everybody and told them, 'If this doesn't go down the way it should, I'm going to have a big problem and Shawn is going to have a big problem. I'll go over there and beat the heck out of him.' But he never had to say anything to me. My whole intention at WrestleMania XIV was to drop the belt to Steve, but I was going to make everybody sweat it out and make them think I wasn't. Obviously, I got that accomplished. That's extremely unprofessional, but that's exactly who I was and what I was doing."
To add Mike Tyson into the mix put this event over the top and gathered huge mainstream attention. Well worth the $4 million Tyson earned.
5 Bret Hart vs. Shawn Michaels - Montreal Screwjob
Vince’s biggest botch. The screwjob was handled so poorly that everyone clearly knew what happened. The ‘winner’ scampered away angrily with the belt, and Hart was left in the ring to write ‘WCW’ in the air and spit on his soon-to-be-former boss. Hart would later knock Vince out backstage, becoming the real-life inspiration for the successful evil boss feud McMahon would have with Austin.
This is another moment that truly changed wrestling. McMahon stopped pretending he was just a lowly commentator, and embraced an (slightly) exaggerated persona of himself. The evil boss was outed and like he always does, he cleverly used the controversy to create money and success.
4 Wendi Richter w/ Cyndi Lauper vs. Moolah w/ Lou Albano - MTV
After Lou Albano had appeared in Lauper’s smash hit video ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun’ he had struck a feud with her on WWF programming, claiming responsibility for her musical success. Lauper appeared on Piper’s pit to confront him and it led to a match between Wendi Richter and The Fabulous Moolah, with Lauper and Albano in opposing managerial positions.
The interesting part is that MTV broadcast this main event on their channel and it received the insane viewership number of 9.0. Of course this number is inflated due to the time period, but it was still considered a huge success for the partnership of MTV and WWF. Having so many mainstream eyeballs on their product was great for business and was reported on (incorrectly) by the news.
This would evolve into Vince’s fantastic WrestleMania event and set the tone for decades to come.
3 Hogan vs. The Iron Sheik - MSG 1984
The night Hulkamania was born. Longtime champion Bob Backlund had refused to pass the torch to rising star Hogan, so The Sheik was made transitional champion instead. This set up the classic moment scheduled for only a month later.
The MSG crowd went ballistic for Hogan as he came out to Survivor’s 'Eye of the Tiger' (before licensing fees got in the way). His shirt read 'American Made' and the fans were ready to see America triumph over the evil foreigner.
It’s a bit strange to see Hogan using heel tactics in the opening segment. He attacked The Sheik before he even had his robe off, choked and even spat on him. The crowd ate it up however as it seemed to be a case of pent up frustration against the foreign heel finally able to explode.
The match is short, at only 5:40 as Sheik gets a short heat segment in the middle before clamping on his feared Camel Clutch. Hogan soon Hulks up and the rest is history.
Gorilla Monsoon said it best.
“History is made in Madison Square Garden. Hulkamania is here.”
2 Hulk Hogan & Mr T vs. Roddy Piper & Paul Orndorff - WrestleMania
The legend goes that Vince put all his eggs into one basket with his first WrestleMania. If it failed, the WWE would be done. Perhaps that’s not quite true, but there’s no denying the vision it took to host such an event, as well as the financial risk involved.
Banking on previous success with celebrities like Cyndi Lauper, Vince wisely flooded his supercard with as many celebrities as possible. Mr. T would team up with Hogan and even Muhammad Ali would be the special outside referee.
The event seems clunky compared to the slick presentation of today, but the energy in the building was electric. The crowd went nuts and the love for pro wrestling spread even further.
1 Hogan vs. Andre - WrestleMania III
There had already been WrestleManias and Hogan already had the title, but this is the moment where it all came together. At this point Andre had never been defeated or even bodyslammed for 15 years running. Whether that’s true is not the issue as Andre in his prime was able to literally do anything he wanted to his opponents in the ring. The Giant had been known to physically punish opponents in the ring for such transgressions as showboating to a ringside girlfriend. For Hogan to bodyslam Andre meant the torch had been officially passed into the era of colorful, Rock ‘n Wrestling.
Hogan has claimed he wasn’t aware he was booked to win the match and that it was completely left up to Vince and ultimately Andre. If that’s true it’s pretty mind blowing to think that Hogan didn’t know he was going to win until the ref counted to three.
This match and most of the event perfected the WrestleMania format. What had started as an exciting if unrefined marriage of MTV culture and wrestling had finally evolved into an epic event the mainstream paid attention to.
The bodyslam heard ‘round the world put this match, and the WWE on the map.