Less than two weeks away from WrestleMania, fans are starting to discuss the ever-important match order. As simple as it may seem, making sure each match is correctly slotted on the show can make all the difference. Put a match that gets the crowd going wild in the middle of the show, and risk burning out the audience by the time the last match comes on (See WrestleMania X-8.) Put a world title match on second-to-last, and risk giving the perception that championships aren’t important.
Nearly as important as what goes on last is what goes on first. An opening match sets the stage for an entire show. At its best, it contains enough thrills to get the crowd on its feet, but also holds back some so as not to steal the spotlight away from the night’s biggest matches.
Here’s my list of WrestleMania’s Top 10 Greatest Opening Matches:
10. The Rockers vs. The Barbarian & Haku, WrestleMania VII: This wasn’t a great match by any stretch of the imagination. But on a WrestleMania that was otherwise fairly lacking in athleticism, Marty Janetty & Shawn Michaels did their best to pop to Los Angeles crowd with some flashy moves and some youthful energy. And Barbie and Haku, managed by Bobby “The Brain” Heenan, did a fine job as the savage, big men team.
9. Rick Martel & Tom Zenk beat Don Muraco & Bob Orton, WrestleMania III: Sticking with the formula of getting a live crowd going with a high dose of athleticism at the start of a show, WWE sent out four of its best workers to kick off what is still considered the biggest show in its history. Orton—Randy’s old man—and Muraco were both a few years passed their prime here, but the short-lived “Can-Am Connection” of Zenk and Martel were fast, crisp and made the ladies swoon. A fun match to start off a legendary show.
8. Shawn Michaels vs. Tito Santana, WrestleMania VIII: Just a couple months removed from his memorable heel turn and split with Janetty, Michaels was on his way to becoming “Mr. WrestleMania,” with this, his first singles match on the big show. It wasn’t a show-stealer, but it had the hard work you’d expect from these two. Ironically, Santana had his own WrestleMania legacy going at the time, having wrestled on each of the first nine WrestleManias. Twelve years later, Michaels would induct Santana into the WWE Hall of Fame.
7. Intercontinental Champion Chris Jericho vs. William Regal, WrestleMania X-Seven: The 2001 edition of WrestleMania is widely considered one of the best top-to-bottom shows in history. And at the bottom was this match, featuring two of WWE’s best workers of the last 15 years. On an event that included Steve Austin vs. The Rock, Shane McMahon vs. Vince McMahon, and the first Undertaker vs. Triple-H match, this wasn’t meant to steal the show, and it didn’t. But the two professionals packed a lot of action and skill into eight minutes, and put the massive Houston crowd in a good mood.
6. Cruiserweight Champion Matt Hardy vs. Rey Mysterio WrestleMania XIX: Years before he became a social media laughing stock, Matt Hardy was actually one of the most entertaining performers in WWE. Not only was his wrestling style exciting, but his “Matt Version 1” heel character was a hoot. Here he worked with Mysterio in Rey’s first WrestleMania match, and, arguably, the most important cruiserweight title match in WWE history. The feud was over, the work was solid, the crowd was hot, and Mysterio debuted his first superhero-themed Mania ring gear. (The Flash, if you must know.)
5. US Title: John Cena beat The Big Show to win the title WrestleMania XX: It may seem hard to believe, but there was a time when John Cena was quite popular. A full year before winning his first world title at WrestleMania 21, Cena popped the Madison Square Garden crowd huge with his first U.S. title win here. Cena also performed one of his earliest feats of strength in this match, picking up The Big Show for his finisher. And The Big Show was never bigger.
4. Rey Mysterio beat Eddie Guerrero: In truth, this match was something of a disappointment—being hindered by time constrains and a wardrobe malfunction that led to Mysterio being preoccupied with his mask throughout the bout. But even a bad Mysterio-Guerrero match is still pretty good, and this was no exception. Mysterio won it before his home state crowd in California. It would be Guerrero’s last WrestleMania match before his death later in 2005.
3. Money in the Bank Ladder Match, CM Punk vs. Christian, Kofi Kingston, Kane, Mark Henry, Finlay, Shelton Benjamin, and MVP, The 25th Anniversary of WrestleMania: As a formula, putting the Money in the Bank match on first at WrestleMania seemed to be a good idea. It kicked off the show with some high-adrenaline action, and a major storyline development. The MITB matches were almost always good stunt shows, but this one came with the added pay off of Punk winning the bout for the second consecutive year. On any other show, this might have easily won match of the night. But this show included the first Shawn Michaels vs. Undertaker WrestleMania match, and upstaging that was, quite literally, impossible.
2. World Heavyweight Champion Alberto Del Rio vs. Edge, WrestleMania XXVII: Featuring a world title match in the opening slot certainly strayed from the formula of past WrestleManias—or just about any wrestling show. But on a show that included the Rock guest hosting, a John Cena vs. Miz WWE title match, and the Undertaker vs. Triple-H, WWE felt comfortable putting its Smackdown main event on first. And the two men actually delivered the ideal curtain jerker—not too short and not too long, filled with action, and containing a happy ending, in this case Edge retaining the title. Little did we know how significant the match would turn out to be. Just a few days later, Edge announced his retirement, making the last televised match of his career.
1. Owen Hart vs. Bret Hart, WrestleMania X: Wrestling historians constantly debate where exactly Bret Hart belongs in the list of the greatest wrestlers in history. But this much, I believe, can’t be argued: The man knew how to tell a story in the ring. And few stories during his career were more compelling than that involving his rivalry with his younger brother Owen. To set the stage, Owen—a WWE mid-card staple for years—had grown resentful of his famous brother. He goaded him into a fight, but Bret refused. Then Bret and Lex Luger were named co-winners of the 1994 Royal Rumble, meaning both had earned a world title shot at WrestleMania. Because whoever came out victorious in the night’s first title match would have to wrestle twice on the show, WWE added the stipulation that Bret, too, would have to wrestle twice. And so he reluctantly faced his brother in the night’s opening bout. The two men put on a clinic of technical wrestling with the kind of suspenseful near-falls and innovative moves that are somewhat commonplace in big WWE matches today, but were unheard of 18 years ago. In a shocker, Owen pulled off the upset with a victory roll. But the story was not complete. Later in the show, Bret beat Yokozuna for the world title. And while Bret celebrated in the ring, scornful Owen watched on from ringside—bitter that, once again, his big brother had stolen the spotlight from him. It was a tremendous tale told in a single night, and it began with a hell of a first chapter.