You hold WWE high for the moments it provides you. From ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin dousing Mr. McMahon and the Rock with beer, to CM Punk sitting down and directing a pipebomb promo at everything the promotion stood for, wrestling moments appeal.
They are the ones you talk about with your friend the next day, or replay clips of for the rest of your life. In that vein, you do the same thing about the other aspect of wrestling – matches.
There are some matches that are cemented in wrestling folklore, and which ensured things would never be the same again. They weren’t always technical clinics or perfect sequences, but they changed wrestling as fans knew it and shattered perceptions and beliefs.
Here are five matches from Vince McMahon’s promotion that altered the landscape of professional wrestling.
1) Hulk Hogan vs Andre the Giant (WrestleMania III)
We will start off with a match that is a nightmare for wrestling purists. In fact, from a technical standpoint, it was outrageously bad. It was so ponderous wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer infamously gave it a negative four star rating.
But what Meltzer and many others fail to see is that this match kick-started the rise of WWE. It birthed a wrestling age that fans ate up. Hulk Hogan facing the mighty Andre was THE definitive Hero vs Villain match every promotion, WWE included, has milked beyond belief over the years.
The heroic Hogan endured Andre’s punishment, and then, in a spot that permanently occupied a place in wrestling highlight reels, body slammed his opponent. The crowd popped like crazy, and it remains one of the greatest fan pops ever.
The WrestleMania also broke all attendance records until that moment. It showed that sometimes, all you need to do is put two alpha males in a ring, and let them go at it. This was the original shock and awe moment, and it opened the doors for audiences to tune in to wrestling.
2) Bret Hart Vs Stone Cold Steve Austin (WrestleMania XIII)
The all-conquering hero trope mentioned earlier was fun, but quite ironically, it began to tire out. Fans wanted cool wrestlers, the kind of guys who didn’t give a f**k and stayed as badass as ever.
The previous sentence describes only one man in professional wrestling, and that is Stone Cold Steve Austin. Austin spearheaded a time for the company where rules were broken, ratings were smashed, and beer and middle fingers were the norm. That time, called the Attitude Era, actually began when Austin stunned Shawn Michaels to win the world title at WrestleMania. However, the Texas Rattlesnake became a superstar before that, in a match against Bret Hart.
At the time, Bret was the hero who was slowly becoming stale. Austin, on the other hand, was a massive heel. They faced each other in an I Quit match at ‘Mania XIII, and it remains the greatest I Quit match ever. It remains one of the greatest matches ever. More importantly, it remains the greatest time a double turn was executed. When the match ended, the crowd despised Hart and adored Austin.
The defining visual of this match was Stone Cold refusing to tap out to the Hitman’s Sharpshooter. He passed out to the hold; his face covered in a pool of blood. His crimson visage, perfectly accompanied by Hart’s frustrated and angry expression, meant the roles were reversed. This was a bonafide classic, with the storytelling, in-ring action and shock value all turned up to eleven.
Few matches have been career-defining, but fewer matches have been so for the loser. The genius technician in Hart was the perfect dance partner for Austin, and this match well and truly began the Austin Era.
3) Bret Hart Vs Shawn Michaels (Survivor Series 1997)
Yes, Hart makes it in here again, but this time, it’s not because of his excellence. This time, it’s because he was part of something that etched its name into the history books for all the wrong reasons, through no fault of his.
The Montreal Screwjob is something every wrestling fan knows about. It was the most infamous incident in WWE history, and it altered the wrestling landscape like nothing before it. Then world champion Hart was supposed to depart WWE for rival promotion WCW. He told owner Vince he would happily drop the title anywhere, except in his country, Canada. But Vince, already mad about the proceedings, decided to screw the wantaway superstar at the very place he requested he retain.
The entire sequence of events is familiar to everyone. Michaels locks in the sharpshooter, Hart struggles for a while, and then the referee calls for the bell despite Hart never submitting.
Fans immediately understood what had happened, and as Hart sat in the ring dumbfounded, he knew exactly what had happened too. The title was now with Vince once again, and somehow he had pulled off the most notorious thing in wrestling ever.
He even went one step further and used it to increase viewership, saying the iconic line “Bret screwed Bret” as the crowd rained him with boos. This was the birth of the Mr. McMahon character, and his feuds with Stone Cold Steve Austin and good guys of the business later on were all must-see television. It all started from this controversial moment.
4) Sheamus Vs Daniel Bryan (WrestleMania XXVIII)
The initial reaction to this match was, quite bluntly, “What the f**k?”
How could it not be, when a WORLD TITLE match between champion Daniel Bryan and Sheamus lasted all of eighteen seconds? The pre-action kiss between Bryan and AJ Lee was longer than the wrestling. Sheamus brogue kicked Bryan to pin him and win the title in said eighteen seconds. It was preposterous, and your writer was among those who heavily condemned the match.
But all these years later, everybody agrees that this match, for all its flaws, started something special. Bryan was the darling of the fans, and someone they wanted to see succeed. By having him squashed at ‘Mania, WWE were essentially rejecting the fans. But as we all know, they were forced to yield two years later.
With the loss, Bryan became the ultimate underdog. Even if WWE pitted the most beloved wrestler against him, he would get booed and Bryan would get cheered. No one had ever generated an organic response quite like this. WWE tried many times to get fans to jump off the Bryan bandwagon by repeatedly burying the Beard, but all it did was increase support for him.
After classics with CM Punk, the Shield, and a golden comedy act with Kane, the Yes! Movement began. The rest of it was history, and two years from that loss to Sheamus, Bryan defeated all three members of Evolution across two matches in one night to become the WWE World Heavyweight Champion.
The loss to Sheamus set the stage for fans showcasing the power of their voice and demands. It was a momentous occasion, and ushered in a two-year journey that was worth it at the end.
5) Sasha Banks Vs Bayley (NXT Takeover: Respect)
It’s not exaggeration when you say WWE’s women superstars were little more than eye candy a decade ago. Their matches were classified as bathroom breaks, and they never lasted beyond five minutes.
But then, female talent began rising. NXT signed many of them, including wrestling’s Four Horsewomen. Two of them, Sasha Banks and Bayley, then put on a match that dropped jaws and forever changed perceptions of women’s wrestling.
At NXT TakeOver: Respect, the two women were given the time, the match stipulation (30-minute Iron Woman match), the stage, and the highest position on the main card. In Bayley, they had the most lovable face and favourite champion. In Banks, they had the biggest heel in the division; someone out for blood, the blood being the NXT Women’s Championship she dropped to Bayley weeks ago.
Fans all around the world eagerly awaited every move. The crowd was white-hot, the action was fast and furious, the commentators were going mad, and the women were pulling everything out of their arsenals to win. In the dying seconds of the match, Bayley submitted Banks for her third fall to win 3-2. There were instant shouts for Match of the Year awards, and everyone was fully on board.
As the crowd cheered and the NXT roster applauded, WWE COO Triple H and William Regal presented the competitors with flowers. This match ushered in a changed dynamic for women’s wrestling. A year later, women would steal the show at WrestleMania 32, and three years later, they would outright headline it.
In the end, the winner was women’s wrestling. This match helped shatter stereotypical narratives about women’s wrestling, and proved it can be just as exciting as men’s wrestling, if not more.