There are a lot of factors that have shaped WWE history: Major signings, shrewd business deals, great promos, and non-wrestling segments. When push comes to shove, though, WWE is a professional wrestling promotion, and matches are the bottom line. Big matches can draw big money, and unexpectedly successful matches have the opportunity to change the direction of the company. On the contrary, all-time bad matches can cause WWE to change course to correct a miscalculation or to try to scrub a bad memory from fans’ minds.
Indeed, both great and terrible matches can have a profound influence on WWE’s direction and the choices made in the future about whom to push or how to book in the big picture. This article considers ten of the most influential matches in WWE history, including five all-time great exhibitions and five abominations.
10 Best Of The Best: Hulk Hogan Vs. Andre The Giant, WrestleMania III
Watch Hulk Hogan vs. Andre the Giant from WrestleMania III today, with the sound off, and it’s very difficult to call it a great match. Hogan was always more of a charismatic attraction than an in-ring wizard, and, at that late stage of his career, the same could be said for Andre.
However, in 1987, Hogan and Andre were larger than life characters, and the sound was deafening. These two drew the largest live attendance figure a wrestling show ever had up to that point, culminating in the positively iconic moment of Hogan body slamming the Giant. The match embodied much of what WWE had done in turning wrestling from a pseudo-sport into premium entertainment and drew eyes to the Ricky Steamboat vs. Randy Savage match earlier in the night that demonstrated the best of what the company could get done in the ring, too.
9 Worst Of The Worst: Booker T Vs. Buff Bagwell, Raw
It’s rare that a single match is so bad that it influences the course of wrestling history. In the summer of 2001, after WWE had acquired WCW, it put on the first and only WCW branded match on Monday Night Raw, closing out the episode with reigning WCW Champion Booker T against Buff Bagwell.
While many theorize these guys were sent out to fail, booked for a city that wasn’t historically high on WCW, and booked opposite opponents who weren’t likely to set the world on fire together. Nonetheless, the reception of the match was so poor that it was reportedly the final nail in the coffin of ending WWE’s interest in relaunching WCW as its own separate brand, and pushing the company instead to rush into the InVasion angle (which also quite poorly received in its own right).
8 Best Of The Best: Bret Hart Vs. Steve Austin, WrestleMania 13
Going into WrestleMania 13, WWF was getting its act together. Despite WCW charging ahead in the Monday Night War off the momentum of the successful New World Order, WWF was collecting itself creatively and getting ready to make a serious push with its new Attitude Era.
Bret Hart vs. Steve Austin had been done before, and booking the two in an "I Quit" match didn’t necessarily make the most sense since Austin did not have much of a repertoire of holds at the time. Despite these perceived limitations, The Hitman and Stone Cold delivered an all-time classic that many still regard as the best match in WrestleMania history. The heated match culminated in a double turn. Hart would emerge the hottest heel in the company. And Austin? He was just getting going as arguably the hottest face act in WWE history and arguably the most important player in the company winning its war with WCW.
7 Worst Of The Worst: Diesel Vs. King Mabel, SummerSlam 1995
Diesel had a rough go of it as WWE Champion. He was a big man whom WWE seemed invested in booking as a dominant hero. However, his relative inexperience in the ring, limited in-ring skills, and the changing times all conspired to produce a middling success, at best.
Big Daddy Cool's feud with King Mabel represented a low point. While Mabel was big enough to pose a believable threat to the champ, he wasn't much better developed in the ring, and the two demonstrated next to no chemistry. The result was the main event may well have driven the final nail in the coffin of Diesel as the face of WWE. There's a pretty direct link that can be drawn between Diesel's lackluster run and WWE transitioning to featuring Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels at the top of the card.
6 Best Of The Best: The Undertaker Vs. Mankind, King Of The Ring 1998
Hell in a Cell started out strong with a top-notch match between The Undertaker and Shawn Michaels. It wasn't clear going in that The Dead Man would have an even better outing against Mankind, particularly given that both wrestlers were coming into the match hurt.
Things took a turn, however, given Mick Foley's willingness to take absurd physical punishment. Rather than starting inside the Cell, the match began atop it, highlighted by The Phenom throwing his opponent off the roof and through a table. Minutes later, The Undertaker would choke slam Mankind through the roof to the mat below.
In his book, Foley claims that the second fall wasn't planned. Regardless, the spectacle of arguably the two biggest bumps in WWE history was enough to make this match instantly iconic and shore up Hell in a Cell's legacy as one of the most violent platforms WWE has to offer.
5 Worst Of The Worst: The Extreme Elimination Chamber Match, December To Dismember 2006
By 2006, the Elimination Chamber was established as a solid gimmick match for WWE with a fun entry and elimination format, along with plenty of violence on account of the eponymous steel structure. Things took a turn in late 2006, though.
With WWE reigning in the permitted violence, the ECW brand was struggling. Rob Van Dam fell through as the face of the brand, and The Big Show failed to excite as champ. This match would represent a low point as Show dropped the title, not to a crowd favorite like RVD or CM Punk, but corporate chosen one Bobby Lashley.
The match itself was bad, with the crowd fully turning on it after RVD and Punk were eliminated. The response to Lashley winning felt like a death knell for ECW being treated like a brand on a comparable footing to Raw or SmackDown.
4 Best Of The Best: Razor Ramon Vs. Shawn Michaels, WrestleMania X
It's not every match that can claim to have spawned a whole sub-genre, but there's a very real argument to be made that's exactly what Razor Ramon and Shawn Michaels did with their bout at WrestleMania X. The two were charged with putting on the first live Ladder Match, and doing so at Madison Square Garden during the most watched show of the year.
While this match hasn't necessarily aged well, it was certainly revolutionary for its time and of high enough quality to make Ladder Matches an institution in WWE. Moreover, this bout added a worthy, modernized chapter to the story of the Intercontinental Championship offering a showcase for WWE's top workers.
3 Worst Of The Worst: Scott Steiner Vs. Triple H, Royal Rumble 2003
In 2003, the wrestling business had cooled in the aftermath of the Monday Night War and the limited success of WWE’s Invasion angle. The audience was falling off and WWE seemed intent on tapping into past WCW fans by featuring their top stars who had yet to show up in WWE.
Enter Scott Steiner.
The idea of bringing in Big Poppa Pump wasn’t a bad one. He was great on the mic, had a distinguished look, and was known for being a functional in-ring talent. However, booking him as a face and putting him straight into a program with Triple H were questionable moves. Their World Heavyweight Championship match at the Royal Rumble 2003 PPV was a long and slow slog that culminated in various botches. This match not only foretold the end of Steiner’s time as a featured talent but was influential in pushing WWE toward building new stars.
2 Best Of The Best: CM Punk Vs. John Cena, Money In The Bank 2011
CM Punk’s WWE run was a reasonable success before the summer of 2011. After all, he had enjoyed two world title reigns and steady presence as an upper card guy. However, his career went to the next level with his now famous Pipe Bomb promo, which led to an electric atmosphere for his excellent match with John Cena at Money in the Bank 2011.
Yes, the success of this angle inspired Punk and WWE to come to terms with one another for him to stick around an extra two and a half years. More so, there’s a real argument that Punk’s explosive success paved the way for WWE to take Daniel Bryan seriously as a main event guy, despite being another relatively small talent who had come up through the indies. These successful experiments led to WWE continuing down the path, signings the likes of Sami Zayn, Kevin Owens, Samoa Joe, and AJ Styles, who’d all had comparable career trajectories.
1 Worst Of The Worst: Goldberg Vs. Brock Lesnar, WrestleMania XX
On paper, the idea of the top face from Raw, Goldberg, and the top heel from SmackDown, Brock Lesnar, clashing in a hot battle at WrestleMania XX seemed to have potential. The reality left a lot to be desired. Both men were on their way out of the company and the crowd in Madison Square Garden booed them mercilessly throughout the bout. The result was an awkward affair - less the smash mouth dream match fans were expecting, more of an uncomfortable oddity.
The poor execution of this match set up these two men for a do-over thirteen years later, with much better results. Additionally, the way Lesnar finished up with WWE shifted the company’s approach to booking top talent, reluctant to give anyone the same monster push he’d garnered in his original run with the company.