22. Triple H vs. Chris Jericho (Wrestlemania X8)
In 2000, Triple H was the best in-ring performer in professional wrestling. The Game cemented himself as a main-event talent with out-and-out classics against Cactus Jack and The Rock, but also delivered unforgettable performances against less obvious opponents like TAKA Michinoku. His final match before a lengthy inactive period was a legitimate 5-star showing that featured Chris Jericho on the other end.
Jericho was arguably the top in-ring wrestler of that year. While a solid case could be made for either Steve Austin or Kurt Angle, Jericho’s 5-star matches against Chris Beonit (Royal Rumble), The Rock (No Mercy) and that fateful tag bout pitting Y2J and Benoit against Austin and HHH give the Alpha a strong case for Best In The World of ’01.
Unfortunately, Triple H returned from his quad tear in 2002 with clear ring rust he did not shake off until that summer. Jericho, despite finally winning a world title — and becoming the first undisputed champion — was presented as a total chump throughout his title reign. Jericho functioned as window dressing for a silly Triple H-Stephanie McMahon feud, which gave an otherwise perfectly fine match a feel that was decidedly not main-event caliber.
21. Hulk Hogan vs. Sgt. Slaughter (Wrestlemania VII)
The wrestling boom of the 1980s died commensurate with events of the early 1990s; specifically, the recession and the Gulf War. The latter played a more direct role in wrestling losing some of its luster. Before the steroid and sex scandals really damaged WWF’s brand, Vince McMahon’s decision to hitch his creative wagon to the conflict in Kuwait delivered a self-inflicted wound.
The angle pitting that All-American who fights for the rights of every man against Iraqi sympathizer Sgt. Slaughter was tasteless and smacked of desperation. Slaughter’s abrupt main-event push pushed Earthquake to the background — a shame, considering the shockingly agile behemoth Earthquake would no doubt have delivered a more entertaining bout against Hogan.
Be that as it may, Hulk and Slaughter used enough smoke-and-mirrors to put on a decent match. It’s not the stuff of legend, and considerably less entertaining than the absurd Desert Storm Match the two had later that year in Madison Square Garden.
20. Hulk Hogan vs. King Kong Bundy – Steel Cage Match (Wrestlemania 2)
Hulkamania was beginning to build steam by 1986, and Hogan’s giant-slayer gimmick hadn’t yet worn out its welcome by the time the second Wrestlemania arrived. On the contrary, Hogan was gaining momentum for a pivotal bout in the trajectory of professional wrestling history.
In order to get to Wrestlemania III and a historic match opposite Andre The Giant, Hulk had to run through WWF’s other giants. King Kong Bundy was presented as a legitimate threat, and putting the two inside a steel cage heightened the drama. It’s a short match; not exactly a classic, but fun for the era and a bright spot on an otherwise dismal Mania card.
19. Bret Hart vs. Yokozuna (Wrestlemania X)
Their matchup the previous year ended quickly, with Bret Hart alleging Yokozuna got exhausted early on, and served as little more than fodder for Hulk Hogan’s ego. At Wrestlemania X, Bret Hart and Yokozuna made good on a do-over.
Both wrestlers performed in bouts earlier in the evening, with Bret losing a 5-star classic to brother Owen, and Yokozuna effectively ending the failed Lex Luger push. That set up a showdown to solidify Bret Hart as the face of the company, and put a punctuation mark on Yokozuna’s run as top heel.
Yokozuna was limited in the ring, but he and the Hitman crafted a solid match that served its purpose. Wrestlemania X ranks among the Showcase of the Immortals’ best offerings for other reasons, but the conclusion is satisfying.
18. The Rock vs. John Cena (Wrestlemania XXVIII)
The Rock left WWE in 2004 on what seem like tenuous terms, if DA SHEETZ are to be believed. Whether The Rock’s 7-year absence from WWE can be attributed to legitimate acrimony, or Dwayne Johnson focusing on establishing himself in Hollywood, one of the biggest stars ever left a void that was never quite filled — but not for lack of trying.
John Cena‘s ascent to the top of the card began in 2005 at Wrestlemania XXI, which also happened to be the first Mania card without one Rocky Maivia since 1996. The charisma that has Cena forging on his own film career today exuded in 2003 and 2004, as his rapper gimmick ingratiated him to fans — fans who, by 2005, started rejecting the uber-talented prototype. Audience’s divided opinions on Cena only deepened in the subsequent seven years, and it was abundantly clear he hadn’t achieved The Rock’s circa 2000 level of universal acceptance when facing The People’s Champ in the latter’s return to Mania.
I may be in a minority on this, but I love this match. The Rock has apparent ring rust, which is to be expected since he hadn’t been a full-time wrestler in almost a decade. However, by working as close to heel as he’d been since 2003, John Cena demonstrated just how damn good he is by carrying Johnson to a fun, memorable match in front of The Rock’s hometown crowd.
17. Steve Austin vs. Shawn Michaels (Wrestlemania XIV)
Wrestling matches intended to pass the proverbial torch occur with some frequency, but as we’ll cover later in this column, do not always go according to plan. Shawn Michaels’ WWF Championship loss to Stone Cold Steve Austin at Wrestlemania XIV went off without a hitch. That in and of itself is somewhat remarkable, given HBK’s reputation in the late 1990s for putting his own ego ahead of the plans.
But even more concerning in retrospect is that Michaels provided the launching pad for Steve Austin on a badly injured back. HBK’s injury, at one time thought to be career-ending, hindered the overall quality of this match. This main event just a few months prior to Michaels’ awful bump off a casket in a match vs. The Undertaker, and before Austin’s neck injury sustained at Summerslam ’97 against Owen Hart, would have drawn five stars. At it stands, it’s a solid showing that served its intended purpose.
16. John Cena vs. Triple H (Wrestlemania XXII)
Speaking of passing the torch, Triple H has spent the better part of 14 years doing so. Now, I contend if you’re passing the torch for more than decade, nothing’s really been passed, but we’re getting into semantics. After Chris Jericho was reduced to dog-walker and Booker T. was dismissed as not worthy of the World Title in a series of disgusting promos, Triple H embarked on a Mania losing streak.
His dominance of the main-event scene on RAW from 2002 through 2004 made him the ideal heel to give the next generation of stars the rub. HHH’s Mania XXII match with John Cena lacked the compelling backstory that fueled the Batista bout a year earlier, but this was the first bout that really showed Cena’s ability to hang in the ring as a top-of-the-card act.
15. Steve Austin vs. The Rock (Wrestlemania XV)
Austin-Rock was the feud that defined a generation. There’s never been a more lucrative, and arguably no more important rivalry to the business than this, with matches spanning six years and three Manias. Their first Wrestlemania encounter was the weakest of the bunch, but still pretty damn good by other standards.
The neck injury Austin sustained against Owen Hart in 1997 slowed him down in the ring, and he stepped away from the business for almost a year not long after Mania XV. Like Shawn Michaels a year earlier, that limited the quality of this match somewhat, but there’s still enough chaos and excitement to produce a fun watch.
14. Randy Savage vs. Ted DiBiase (Wrestlemania IV)
When I started watching pro wrestling in the early 1990s, my three favorite acts were Bret Hart, Sting and Randy Savage. Savage was in his second WWF Championship reign when I began watching, and by then donning long tights with cowboy hats. It’s sort of the Elvis-in-jumpsuits stage of Savage’s career.
So, if I enjoyed him on the downslide of his career, imagine how blown away I was seeing Peak Savage. I didn’t start watching pay-per-views live until the Attitude Era, having to instead rent old VHS tapes from the local video store. Wrestlemania IV was the first Mania I ever rented, and to demonstrate what a mark I was in the 1990s, it was my favorite show for several years.
My views on IV have changed over the years; as much as I love tournaments, the show’s a bear to get through. However, the culmination of the tournament to crown a new champion still rules. Savage and Ted DiBiase had better matches later in 1988. For a short, wild brawl, though, this packs in as much of the ’80s wrestling boom into 10 minutes as possible.
13. Batista vs. Triple H (Wrestlemania XXI)
Triple H’s penchant for putting over opponents at Wrestlemania has been a decidedly mixed bag. Face-offs with Daniel Bryan, Chris Benoit, and the Undertaker (3X!) produced Mania gold. Matches opposite Ultimate Warrior, Roman Reigns and Seth Rollins stunk to high heaven. Wrestlemania XXI falls in the former category.
Batista’s build to the main event remains my favorite angle WWE has ever done post-Attitude Era. The Animal’s rise in the wake of a failed Randy Orton face turn was perfect, culminating in a Top 5 all-time RAW moment.
Triple H and Batista also went on to have a Top 5 all-time Hell In A Cell match later that summer. The Wrestlemania showdown isn’t quite as good, but still helped make a top-level star of Batista.
12. John Cena vs. Shawn Michaels (Wrestlemania XXIII)
Like Triple H and Batista, later installments in the same feud produced better bouts. The April 23, 2007 RAW meeting might be the best match in the history of TV’S LONGEST-RUNNING EPISODIC SHOW.
Cena-Michaels isn’t even the best world title match from Wrestlemania XXIII — that honor goes to Batista vs. Undertaker. But here I am leading off with negatives to describe a match that ranks No. 12 on my Mania list, so you can consider the preceding moot. Cena-Michaels pits two of the best in-ring performers ever head-to-head at the peak of both man’s career.