Wrestlemania XXV is tonight. I won’t be watching — I haven’t ordered a wrestling pay-per-view since Wrestlemania XX five years ago. But once a wrasslin’ fan, always a wrasslin’ fan, I guess. When I was a kid, and even for a few years when I was supposedly an adult, March was a big month for me. First came the Academy Awards, then came Wrestlemania. Then they moved the Oscars to February, and first Eddie Guerrero and then Chris Benoit died, and I started to lose interest in what WWE was doing. I still keep up with what’s happening, read show results and catch it on TV when I happen to see it, but these days nearly all the wrestling I watch is the old stuff, from my childhood and before, when the guys I loved had not yet retired, died from drug-related heart damage, or wiped out their families in gruesome murder/suicides.
So in that spirit of fond nostalgia — and keeping in mind that I try not to be a nerdy little wrestling snob, and to me even a shitty Wrestlemania is something special to be enjoyed — here, in chronological order, are my five favorite Wrestlemanias ever.
Wrestlemania III — March 29, 1987
So I don’t have the most unique taste as a wrestling fan. Twenty-two years later, this is still the biggest, most important, most influential wrestling show ever held. Look at what we’ve got here: a massive stadium setting (the Pontiac Silverdome), an undercard crammed with virtually every star employed by the WWF at the time, and a super-hot main event pitting the promotion’s biggest babyface (Hulk Hogan) against its biggest heel (the formerly beloved, freshly evil Andre the Giant). That’s the recipe for a supercard right there. Wrestlemania III is legendary for three reasons: the crowd, the main event, and the best match ever. The live crowd there to see the show in the Silverdome is touted by WWE to have been over 93,000, which would make it the largest indoor attendance in the history of sports in North America. This assumes that 1) You believe the WWE’s figure, and 2) You consider a pro wrestling show to be a sporting event. Personally, I don’t go for either one of those. The crowd there to see ‘Mania III was immense, but more realistic estimates put it at under 80,000. Nothing to be ashamed of, but no indoor attendance record.
But who really cares about any of that? The Hogan vs. Andre main event isn’t such a great match judged on technical terms, but it’s also the most iconic match in wrestling history. And, lest we forget, the undercard also featured quite possibly the best match ever in Ricky Steamboat challenging Randy Savage for the Intercontinental Championship. Put it all together and you’ve got one hell of a show that only the most extreme workrate Nazi losers could complain about. It’s fucking Wrestlemania III, for Christ’s sake.
Wrestlemania VIII – April 5, 1992
Ah, Wrestlemania VIII. The world is yours, should you want it. Put a gun to my head and force me to choose my favorite Wrestlemania, and I just might choose this one. Like ‘Mania III, the setting here was truly epic — a 20’x20’ ring in the center of a sea of over 60,000 people at the Hoosier Dome in Indianapolis, Indiana. I watched this one live on pay-per-view at Pap and Granny’s house, since we didn’t have cable at home at the time. This was pretty much the peak of my childhood wrestling fandom. The main event was originally announced as Hulk Hogan challenging Ric Flair for the WWF Title, but it was changed a few weeks later to a double main event, a first for Wrestlemania. The first main event, held about halfway through the card, was Randy Savage winning his second WWF Title from Flair in one of my favorite matches ever. Savage was the babyface here, but Flair had spent the last few weeks claiming to have had an affair with Savage’s wife, so it was “personal,” you see. Both guys cheated outrageously, Flair wound up bleeding like a pig, turning his platinum blonde hair bright red and staining the canvas, and Savage won by rolling the champ up and blatantly pulling the tights to keep Flair down for the count. Just a brilliant match, with Savage celebrating his victory hopping around on one foot, to sell the leg injury Flair had supposedly inflicted on him. Afterwards Flair and Savage each give exhausted, psychotic interviews that are almost as entertaining as their match was.
The second main event was Hogan vs. Sid Justice in what was billed as Hogan’s retirement match. Hogan won by disqualification when weirdo voodoo practitioner Papa Shango ran in to help out Justice. The long-absent Ultimate Warrior made his surprise return to save the Hulkster, and the two of them posed in the ring to close the show. For a twelve-year-old wrestling geek, this was pretty fucking close to nirvana. Hogan’s retirement lasted about eight months, and he was back in plenty of time to win his fifth WWF Title at Wrestlemania IX in an impromptu match with Yokozuna. Coincidentally, that one’s almost universally considered the worst Wrestlemania ever. Also making ‘Mania VIII worth seeing was the Intercontinental Title match between Bret Hart and Roddy Piper. Both were babyfaces at the time, which was always interesting to me, and it wound up being the best match of Piper’s career.
Wrestlemania X – March 20, 1994
This, the first post-Hogan ‘Mania, wound up being one of the best shows the WWF/E ever produced. Wrestlemania X, held at Madison Square Garden, featured not one but two best-match-ever candidates — the opener between Bret Hart and his brother Owen, and the Intercontinental Championship ladder match between Razor Ramon and Shawn Michaels. The Bret vs. Owen match is a favorite of mine, one I often point to as an example of why I like something as stupid and awful as pro wrestling. There are no cartoonish characters, no exaggerated weapons shots, no potentially fatal head injuries, and no overbooked outside interference. This one is just Bret vs. Owen, two outstanding pro wrestlers doing what they do best. It’s also an example of good booking practice. Owen wins this opener with Bret, while Bret goes on to win the WWF Title in the main event, nicely setting up an Owen vs. Bret feud for the title that carried the company through the summer and culminated in another great match between the two, this one a steel cage match, at SummerSlam.
Then there’s the ladder match. Fans used to the brutal, suicidal ladder matches common today might find it boring, but there’s a reason why fans of my age remember this as the best ladder match, and one of the best matches, period. More recent ladder matches are booked to be compelling train wrecks, with convoluted stunts being set-up and executed one after the other until someone finally just climbs the damn ladder and grabs whatever they’re supposed to grab. At Wrestlemania X, Shawn Michaels and Razor Ramon actually put on a match that told a story and contained a measure of psychology. And most importantly, their feud established a logical (as far as pro wrestling goes) reason for this to be a ladder match as opposed to a hundred other possible gimmicks: Shawn had been forced to vacate the Intercontinental Title a few months before this, and Razor Ramon had won a tournament for the belt. Shawn refused to recognize Ramon as the champ, and started coming to the ring with his own belt, claiming to have never lost the title. The ladder match was booked to settle the matter, with both title belts hung over the ring, and the first man to climb the ladder and grab them being declared the undisputed Intercontinental Champion. Most ladder matches held since haven’t had that solid of a build-up. “Because people like ladder matches!” is all the justification needed nowadays. Crazy modern spot-fests like the TLC and Money in the Bank matches are entertaining, but I’ll take this Shawn vs. Razor match over them any day. It’s beautifully worked by both men, with lots of innovated spots, and a great finish — Shawn gets his leg caught in the ropes and can’t get out in time to stop Razor from climbing the ladder and claiming the belts. Well done, all around.
Wrestlemania X-Seven — April 1, 2001
Why not “Wrestlemania XVII”? Because that’s what people expected, man. Goofy name aside, from top to bottom this is probably the best Wrestlemania ever in terms of in-ring quality. The main event was Steve Austin vs. The Rock, their second time facing each other in the main event of Wrestlemania. This time both men were huge babyfaces, and the match was hyped up to Hogan vs. Andre proportions. The difference was that, unlike Hogan and Andre, Austin and Rocky could deliver in the ring. The match itself is great, one of the best ‘Mania main events ever. They go for nearly half an hour, both guys reach incredibly deep into their move set, with Rock busting out a Sharpshooter, and Austin even using a Cobra clutch at one point, and the crowd just eats it up. The finish sees Austin beating the shit out of Rock with a steel chair (this was no-disqualification, y’see) to pin him and win his fifth WWF Title, turning heel and allying himself with Vince McMahon in the process. Austin’s heel turn seemed like a horrible idea at the time, and the live crowd at the Astrodome wasn’t buying it that night, cheering their hometown hero to the rafters as he celebrated his victory, but it led into a great run for Austin, as he remade himself into an unbalanced, paranoid heel champion who thought his watch spoke to him and constantly suspected his allies of plotting to betray him. It didn’t last long, and is maligned because it took place during the botched WCW Invasion angle, but it was some of Austin’s best work.
This Wrestlemania also had an incredibly strong undercard, with good matches from Chris Jericho and William Regal, Eddie Guerrero and Test, and a three-way ladder match between the Dudley Boyz, Edge and Christian, and the Hardy Boyz — one of those entertaining train wrecks I mentioned earlier. But the highlight of the undercard for me was the match between Kurt Angle and Chris Benoit. Their feud leading up to the match was simple: neither guy had anything else to do at Wrestlemania, and they wanted to see who was better. Angle was just coming off his first run as WWF Champion, which had culminated in a pair of great matches with The Rock at No Way Out and the following night on Raw, and Benoit was finally hitting his stride in the WWF after just over a year with the company. For fifteen minutes these guys put on a mat-wrestling exhibition of the kind that hadn’t been seen at Wrestlemania since Bret Hart vs. Owen Hart seven years earlier. It’s my favorite match of the show. The build-up had focused on who would force who to tap-out to their favorite submission hold — Angle with his ankle lock, or Benoit with his Crippler Crossface — but the finish wound up being a pinfall, Angle rolling up Benoit and pulling the tights to keep him down for the three. They wrestled each other many times in the years that followed, most notably at the 2003 Royal Rumble when Benoit challenged Angle for his WWE Title. That match was even better than this one, and ended with Benoit tapping out to the ankle lock after an incredible series of escapes and reversals.
So yeah, Wrestlemania X-Seven. In addition to the matches I’ve already mentioned, there was Shane McMahon vs. Vince McMahon in a son vs. father street fight, and Triple H vs. The Undertaker, both of which had a big-deal aura surrounding them, and both of which wound up being pretty good matches, to boot. Forgetting childhood nostalgia, this was the best wrestling show I’ve ever seen.
Wrestlemania XX – March 14, 2004
Another of my favorite wrestling shows, and surely the most bittersweet to watch today. This was the second Wrestlemania held since WWE’s brand extension, which split the company into two separate rosters, one exclusive to Raw, the other to Smackdown. As a result of the split, we got two World Title matches — one for Smackdown’s WWE Title, one for Raw’s World Heavyweight Title. The first, the Smackdown title match, saw Kurt Angle challenge Eddie Guerrero. Eddie, long touted by hardcore wrestling fans as one of the greatest workers in the world, had finally won his first World Title a month before, beating Brock Lesnar in the main event of No Way Out. Conventional wisdom had Eddie dropping the title to Angle here, but he retained, escaping the ankle lock by removing his boot, and rolling up Angle for the pin. A terrific match with a pleasantly surprising finish.
There were other noteworthy matches here, including The Undertaker returning from a long lay-off to defeat Kane, and Goldberg beating Brock Lesnar in what should have been a dream match, but turned into one of the more surreal segments in Wrestlemania history, with both guys being booed mercilessly by the live crowd, and special referee Steve Austin taking Goldberg and Brock out with a pair of Stone Cold Stunners after the fall. It was the final WWE match for both guys, as Goldberg retired and Brock left wrestling first for an NFL tryout, and then for mixed martial arts. The undercard also had what is likely to be The Rock’s last match ever, as he teamed with Mick Foley to face Ric Flair, Batista and Randy Orton in a handicap match. Rock and Foley lost, Foley taking the pinfall from Orton. Afterwards, Mick returned to his semi-retirement, and Rock left to pursue his acting career full-time and has rarely been seen on WWE programming since. Good for him.
A good show overall. Honestly, though, the big reason to remember this one is the main event and what followed. Chris Benoit won a triple threat match with Triple H and Shawn Michaels to win the World Heavyweight Title. The match itself is a classic, one of the best all three guys ever had. What came next was unforgettable and, in retrospect, wrenching. Benoit is announced as the new champion and handed his belt. He turns around and joining him there in the ring is his friend and now fellow World Champion, Eddie Guerrero. They embrace, they cry, they celebrate under a shower of confetti. My two favorite wrestlers, two guys who had been pegged as career midcarders, closing Wrestlemania as World Champions. It was unreal. It still seems weird. I still have moments where I wonder if it actually happened. This was March 2004. Within less than two years, Eddie Guerrero was dead of heart failure; in just over three years, Chris Benoit was dead, committing suicide after murdering his wife and young son. The image of Eddie and Chris celebrating at the close of ‘Mania XX hasn’t tarnished for me because of the tragedies that soon followed. If anything, the memory of these men at their peak is even more precious, knowing the fate that waits for them. Eddie Guerrero and Chris Benoit, twin World Champions. It’s a memory I treasure. It’s a happy memory. It’s also a haunting one. But it seems like that sort of thing is just the ante to be a wrestling fan these days.
Oh, for simpler times.