Any “all-time greatest” list is bound to stir debate from people who vehemently disagree with the author’s opinion. And so I offer this not as an objective compilation of the
WrestleMania’s best matches, but as a very subjective list of the WrestleMania bouts I’ve enjoyed the most.
It’s worth noting that there have been WrestleMania matches that, when I watched them live, I believed them to be amazing. But, for various reasons, some have not stood the test of time all that well. A good example is The Rock vs. Steve Austin at WrestleMania X-Seven. At the time, I absolutely loved the match, which featured some terrific drama and athleticism. But the finish, which involved Austin turning heel and aligning with Vince McMahon, does not hold up as well, especially considering what a flop the angle turned out to be.
Conversely, some matches that seemed less spectacular at the time only grow better with age, like a fine wine. The third installment of The Rock-Austin trilogy of WrestleMania matches was just fine at the time. But, considering that it turned out to be both men’s final singles match at WrestleMania, it has grown to gain legendary status.
For my money, the greatest WrestleMania matches are those that not only featured great athleticism and storytelling, but left a lasting mark on the sport.
And so, here are my five favorite WrestleMania matches of all time:
1. The Undertaker vs. Shawn Michaels – The 25th Anniversary of WrestleMania, 2009
The sequel to this match at last year’s WrestleMania XXVI may have had higher stakes, with Michaels being forced to retire. But I believe Michaels’ and Takers’ first WrestleMania battle is still the standard for how great a wrestling match could be. Almost everything about this match was perfect. The two icons had not wrestled each other in more than a decade. The storyline, which contrasted Michaels’ “light” spirituality against the Undertaker’s “dark” mystique, was spot on. The stage, with 72,000 roaring fans in both men’s home state of Texas, was ideal. And, of course, the two veterans executed the match to perfection. Simply the greatest wrestling match I’ve ever seen.
2. Steve Austin vs. The Rock – WrestleMania XIX, 2003
Austin and Rock’s two earlier WrestleMania matches in 1999 and 2001 may have been a little crisper, especially considering that both men were in better ring shape at the time. But none carried the emotional weight of their last, epic showdown. Little did we know at the time that it would be Austin’s last ever real match, and among the last for The Rock, as well. As such, it was a fitting final chapter in one of wrestling’s greatest rivalries. We learned later that, when Rock whispered into Austin’s ear after pinning him, he was thanking him for all he did to help make Rock a star. It’s those kind of rare, real moments that can elevate a match from being terrific to timeless.
3. The Ultimate Warrior vs. Hulk Hogan – WrestleMania VI, 1990
By 1990, “Hulkamania” seemed so unstoppable that it was nearly unthinkable that any other fan favorite could unseat Hulk Hogan as WWE's top star. Then came a jacked-up, long-haired, face-painted maniac named the Ultimate Warrior. Though far from polished in the ring, the Warrior’s frenzied, colorful style was a breath of fresh air, and it was exciting to see his popularity give Hogan’s a run for its money. Still, no knowledgeable wrestling fan had much hope for this match to be anything less than a mess. With some help from Pat Patterson--the Rembrandt of match layouts-- Warrior and Hogan were able to pull off a shockingly good match that had some great drama, storytelling and even athleticism.
4. Steve Austin vs. Bret “Hitman” Hart, WrestleMania 13, 1997
The greatest WrestleMania match that wasn't supposed to happen. Hart and Austin were only thrown together when WWE’s original plan for a Hart-Michaels WrestleMania rematch fell apart because of a Michaels injury. Little did anyone know that the submission match between Hart and Austin would not only be one of the most riveting matches in WWE history, but also one of the most historically significant. It was Austin’s gutsy toughness, and Hart’s weasely antics, during this bloody brawl that set the wheels in motion for Austin to become the biggest star in WWE history, and also for Hart’s memorable heel run that climaxed with the infamous Survivor Series screw job later that year. Few matches have ever singularly meant as much to the sport as this one.
5. Shawn Michaels vs. Ric Flair, WrestleMania XXIV, 2008
I mentioned earlier the kind of moment within a match that can make it timeless. Perhaps the greatest example of that came in this bout, when, before super kicking and pinning his idol, Michaels mouthed those five memorable words: “I’m sorry. I love you.” Great wrestling matches are usually a lot of things—thrilling, dramatic, suspenseful. But touching? Like few others, this match pulled on the collective heart strings of the wrestling universe. Leading up to that perfect finish, “The Nature Boy” delivered one final, classic performance in the ring. Even the botched spots made the match better, because they reminded us how real what we were watching was. Flair has the right to make a living however he sees fit, but it’s still a real shame that he didn’t let this be the final wrestling match in such a legendary career. It deserved to be.
I welcome your Top 5 Mania matches in the comments field below!