Every World Wrestling Entertainment performer looks for that one big match in their career that can propel them to that next level. Often times that match happens at the biggest event of them all – WrestleMania. Other times it might happen at another pay-per-view event. Sometimes it’s obvious because the build up tot hat moment is huge, but other times it happens out of nowhere.
For almost all of the big name wrestlers in WWE history, you can point to one match or moment that really elevated him to that next level. That’s how you become a star in the first place. It’s not like a wrestler is going to be seen as a winner if they lose 80% of the time, get a rare win and then go back to losing. These star making matches are the ones that take place at a crucial time in a wrestler’s career and it usually launches that person to the next level.
What’s interesting about these star making matches is that there are a few instances where both singles wrestlers were elevated because of one match. There’s even an instance where two tag teams were seen as much bigger stars because of their performance in a special match. Most of the time there’s only one beneficiary, though.
Here’s a look at 15 of the best star making matches in WWE history.
15 The 1-2-3 Kid vs. Razor Ramon - Raw 1993
“Let’s just call him The Kid.” That’s what announcer Vince McMahon named this unknown opponent of Razor Ramon on the May 17, 1993 edition of Raw. Ramon was cocky because we had seen these kinds of matches so many times before with the known wrestler beating the guy that we came to know as a jobber. This time was different as The Kid put up a fight, hit a moonsault press off the top ropes and covered Ramon for the victory.
It was the most shocking victory in WWE history at that time and may be the most shocking win ever. Kid was just 21 years old at the time while Ramon was positioned as an upper midcarder. They made Kid into a star that night as he became a regular on the roster known as the 1-2-3 Kid and later in his career he was X-Pac. Perfect example of good booking making a star.
14 Mickie James vs. Trish Stratus - WrestleMania 22
There aren’t that many women’s matches that could fall into a category like this because WWE’s history with women’s wrestling has been very hot and cold. This feud is an example of doing things right because Mickie debuted as an obsessed fan of Stratus about six months before their WrestleMania match. As time went on, it turned out that she was too crazy and also dangerous as she earned a Women’s Title shot.
When they had the match in Chicago for WrestleMania, the crowd was firmly behind James even though she was supposed to be this psychotic heel. At one point she let out this huge yell outside the ring that earned a huge ovation from the fans. Soon after, James got the win and the title while proving to the world that she was a huge star that was to be reckoned with for years to come.
13 Kevin Owens vs. John Cena - Elimination Chamber 2015
When Kevin Owens showed up on WWE’s main roster on the May 18, 2015 edition of Raw he did so as the NXT Champion. He got in John Cena’s face, he sent a message to him and that set up a match between them at the Elimination Chamber special a couple of weeks later. At that event, they had a fantastic match featuring all kinds of incredible nearfalls and then Owens won. Really? Yes really. He won clean too. It was incredible.
By giving Owens that win, WWE gave him a lot of credibility from that point on. The people that knew Owens from NXT already believed in him as a great wrestler. He also managed to open the eyes of the worldwide WWE audience. It would have been nice if Cena didn’t win the two matches that followed, but Owens still benefited greatly from that victory.
12 Diesel - 1994 Royal Rumble
Using the Royal Rumble to make somebody a bigger star is something that WWE has done many times. The best example of that is what they did with Diesel in 1994. At the time he was just a tall midcard wrestler that was the buddy of Shawn Michaels. Then he went into the 1994 Rumble at #7, went on to eliminate seven guys very quickly and started to get some cheers from the crowd. The big man won the crowd over.
Later in 1994 in a surprising move, WWE put the World Title on Diesel as he beat Bob Backlund for it in less than ten seconds. It showed how much WWE believed in him considering he didn’t even have a match at WrestleMania 10 that year. They just knew they had something special after his Rumble 94 performance.
11 Owen Hart vs. Bret Hart - WrestleMania X
Owen’s feud with Bret was so unique because it was about a younger brother in Owen being jealous of his older, more successful brother. Owen wanted to prove that he was better than Bret and he was able to get a WrestleMania X. They had a regular match where both guys came close to winning multiple times, yet it was Owen that sat on top of Bret as they came out of the corner and it was enough to win clean. The result was a shocker, but also a great booking decision.
This win propelled Owen into superstardom in WWE because he won the King of the Ring tournament a few months later. At SummerSlam, he had a WWE Title cage match with Bret that was outstanding. Bret ended up narrowly winning as Owen proved he was at his brother’s level. It’s all because of how he was booked at WrestleMania X.
10 The Ultimate Warrior vs. Hulk Hogan - WrestleMania VI
This was a special match that pitted the World Champion Hulk Hogan against a rising star in the Ultimate Warrior, who was the Intercontinental Champion. Hogan was clearly aging by this point and he couldn’t be on top forever, so WWE found the next guy with Warrior. To a lot of people’s surprise, Hogan put him over clean. It was one of the most famous match results ever because Hogan rarely lost any matches. Warrior beating Hogan was obviously the biggest moment in his career. Nothing else came close to that.
The only reason this isn’t one of the better star making matches is because Warrior’s time at the top was brief compared to some of the other wrestlers in that spot. He only main evented this WrestleMania and was gone from the company within a couple of years.
9 Bret Hart vs. Mr. Perfect - SummerSlam 1991
For the first six years of Bret Hart’s WWE career he was a tag team wrestler with his brother in law Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart. It was pretty obvious that Bret was the more talented wrestler of the two, but he wasn’t able to break free on his own until 1991.
When Bret challenged Mr. Perfect for the Intercontinental Title it took place in Madison Square Garden, which was the right place for that big moment. The crowd was into the match so much because they were ready to see Bret ascend to that next level. Then he slapped on that Sharpshooter, won the IC Title with his parents in the crowd and it was one of the loudest ovations of his career.
At that point it was pretty obvious that Bret was ready to be a World Champion. It happened one year later.
8 The Shield vs. Daniel Bryan, Kane & Ryback at TLC 2012
When WWE debuted The Shield trio of Roman Reigns, Seth Rollins & Dean Ambrose at Survivor Series 2012, they did so in a big way as they interfered in a WWE Title match. A month later, they were put into a TLC match against three babyface midcarders that the crowd loved in what was their first televised main roster match. The Shield won the match and did so in clean and dominant fashion. It was an amazing match too – certainly one of the best of 2012.
To WWE’s credit, they booked The Shield very well after that. They won most of their matches for the next 18 months or so before they broke up. Now Reigns is WWE Champion, Rollins is a former WWE Champion and Ambrose will likely be a WWE Champion. That first match they had definitely helped to solidify them as stars.
7 Edge & Christian vs. The Hardy Boyz - No Mercy 1999
This is a unique one because it was one match between four guys who hadn’t done a whole lot in WWE up to that point, but after it was over they earned a standing ovation from the crowd. It was the first ever tag team ladder match for a prize that wasn’t a title. Instead, it was a bag of money put up by Terri Runnels for her “managerial services” as well.
They went on to have the best match in WWE that year as they did tag team moves using the ladder like we had never seen before. Since all four guys were known as being talented high flyers – at least at that point in their careers – the audience was left to gasp in astonishment at what they could do in the ring. A lot of fans didn’t know much about them before this match. After it was over, people couldn’t get enough. It’s no surprise that three of them went on to become World Champions in WWE – sorry Matt Hardy.
6 Randy Orton vs. Mick Foley - Backlash 2004
The goal of the Orton/Foley Hardcore Match for the Intercontinental Title at Backlash 2004 was to legitimize Orton as a guy that was willing to do anything to win a match. Up to that point, he really was known as a cheap heel that would do things like attack older guys (he was known as “The Legend Killer”) to upset the fans and it would work. Was he great in the ring? We still had to see more.
Foley was retired as a full timer, but Orton was able to lure him back into action. They brawled all over the building, Orton felt what it was like to have a back full of thumb tacks and they really had one of those classic brawls. It proved that Orton was ready to be a top guy because four months later he became the youngest World Champion in WWE history at SummerSlam 2004. It’s fair to say that Orton passed the test with flying colors that night.
5 Triple H vs. The Rock - SummerSlam 1998
Two of the biggest rising stars during the early part of WWE’s Attitude Era were Triple H and The Rock. By the summer of 1998, they were both leading factions with Hunter running Degeneration X while Rock had the Nation of Domination. Their battles led to a memorable ladder match at SummerSlam 1998. It was a thrilling match that Hunter was able to win thanks to his bodyguard Chyna. The crowd loved it.
Even though he lost the ladder match, it was The Rock that became a WWE Champion first since he won the gold at Survivor Series three months later. Rock also went on to headline WrestleMania before Triple H did. Hunter’s first WWE Title came about a year after this month as he solidified his spot as a top guy as well.
4 Shawn Michaels vs. Razor Ramon - WrestleMania X
The first ever televised ladder match between Michaels and Ramon is still talked about to this day as one of the best matches in WWE history. It was unlike anything we had ever seen before as they used the ladder as a weapon, did moves off the ladder (Michaels’ splash was iconic) and then Ramon ultimately used the ladder to win the match.
Prior to the match, Michaels did have a bright future. When it was over, it was pretty obvious that he should be in the main event picture. Ramon was a better performer after being in this match too although he wasn’t able to break through as a main eventer. It was really about elevating Michaels, who had a WWE Title match at the next WrestleMania and then won the WWE Title for the first time at WrestleMania 12 two years later.
3 Ricky Steamboat vs. Randy Savage - WrestleMania III
This is another instance where both guys became bigger stars because of one match. Savage was the heel Intercontinental Champion that was brash and cocky while Steamboat was fighting back from a crushed larynx to see if he could dethrone the champ. Savage cheated as much as he could, but when Steamboat won with that inside cradle the Silverdome crowd went wild.
Savage ended up turning becoming a top face because of how much people loved him in part due to that match. He ended up as the WWE Champion one year later. Two years later, Steamboat also was a World Champion although in his case it was the NWA because he had left WWE by that point.
It’s one of the greatest matches ever and also the most important in the career of two of the best wrestlers ever. That’s how you make stars.
2 Hulk Hogan vs. The Iron Sheik - MSG 1984
Hulkamania is arguably the most important phenomenon that occurred in the history of pro wrestling. It started way back on January 23, 1984 when Hogan beat The Iron Sheik for the WWE Title in New York City’s Madison Square Garden. One year later, WWE held their first WrestleMania with Hogan leading the charge as the WWE Champion.
Hogan’s match with Sheik wasn’t great, nor was it on the big stage that we are used to seeing today, but it set the stage for what WWE would become over the next decade. It was Hogan’s first WWE Title win and it cemented him as the face of the company. He ended up main eventing the first eight of the first nine WrestleManias.
1 Steve Austin vs. Bret Hart - WrestleMania 13
Things really started getting interesting in WWE when Steve Austin gained momentum in 1996 after the King of the Ring “Austin 3:16” speech and later went on to feud with Bret Hart. It led to their Submission Match at WrestleMania 13, which is one of the best matches in WWE history. After Austin put up an amazing flight, Hart was able to bloody him, hit him with a ring bell and make him pass out while Hart had him in the Sharpshooter.
Austin’s performance was so good that all of the boos he received prior to that ended up turning into cheers as the crowd chanted “Austin, Austin” as he left the ring. There’s no better example of a guy becoming a bigger star after a match and also proof that winning isn’t that important in wrestling. It’s always about the story.
Austin went on to main event three of the next four WrestleManias while also setting box office records during WWE’s most profitable period ever.