The Five Count: WrestleMania Openers

You only get one chance to make a good first impression, and on the biggest wrestling show of the year, that expression counts for a lot.

The opening contest of any wrestling event can make or break the show, hence why a lot of people consider it to be the most important match on the card outside the main event. If the first thing put out in front of the people is a hotly competitive symphony of action, everybody else can ride the momentum; if it stinks up the joint, the rest of the time will be spent playing from behind, trying to win back the crowd’s attention and affection.

Lots of things can add to or detract from a great opening match, from the pageantry, to the booking choices, to, of course, what goes on in between the ropes from bell to bell. At WrestleMania, with more people watching live and at home than at any other point in the wrestling year, the opener plays a more important role than ever.

Here’s the Five Count for greatest WrestleMania opening matches of all-time.

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Ben Morse

5. THE ROCKERS vs. HAKU & THE BARBARIAN (WrestleMania VII)

A nothing match in the grand scheme of things, but the Rockers had their working boots on, and the two Heenan Family members in the opposite corner were game to keep up in this underrated little forgotten gem. WrestleMania VII falls somewhere in the middle of most all-time rankings, but it got off to a hot start and showed what a talented roster the WWF had to offer in 1991.

4. United States Champion THE BIG SHOW vs. JOHN CENA (WrestleMania XX)

A truly historic moment, as John Cena has his first WrestleMania match, first WrestleMania moment and wins his first major championship in WWE. The match itself is ok, but it’s the circumstances surrounding that made it an excellent opener. Show was willing to make Cena look like a beast, but still held his own in the mean time; Cena having to resort to a foreign object fit his character at the time, and the visual of him delivering the FU set off the flash bulbs.

Few guys were hotter than John Cena in 2004, so putting him out there and giving him a feel good victory to start the show kicked off WrestleMania XX just right.

3. Battle Royal won by BAD NEWS BROWN (WrestleMania IV)

26 years later, people still remember this match, particularly the closing moments. It was a battle royal, so certainly it was no work rate marvel, but it’s a fun gimmick, particularly when you have the right assortment of characters, which 1988 WWF had no shortage of.

And of course, even if the battle royal itself had been no good, everybody would remember Bad News Brown double crossing Bret Hart to win, then “The Hitman” coming back to destroy the trophy and turn babyface, starting one of the great heroic runs of the next decade.

Putting guys like Bad News, the Harts, Junkyard Dog, Hillbilly Jim, George “The Animal” Steele, etc. not only gave out a lot of WrestleMania pay days, it overwhelmed the fans with enough action to jazz them up; it wouldn’t last this particular night, but oh well…

2. Money in the Bank featuring MR. KENNEDY, BOOKER T, EDGE, RANDY ORTON, JEFF HARDY, MATT HARDY, FINLAY & CM PUNK (WrestleMania 23)

This would be the first time WrestleMania opened up with its for-a-time signature multi-man Ladder match, and it was a great year to do so with a varied and stacked line-up of competitors.

You had legit main event stars in Booker T, Edge and Randy Orton; you had promising up-and-comers in CM Punk and Mr. Kennedy; you had Ladder match specialists in the Hardys; and you had the wild card in Finlay. The only guy who’s really a glaring absence is Shelton Benjamin as he was king of the Money in the Bank spots around this time, but after about 30 seconds, I didn’t notice he was gone.

The match played off stuff like the longtime rivalry between the Hardys and Edge involving Ladders, the inexperience of guys like Booker and Orton when it came to this type of match, Punk’s willingness to do just about anything to make a name for himself, and Finlay just wanting to hurt people. A ton of stories wove through a neatly packaged series of spots.

Ultimately Kennedy, one of the least likely suspects, picked up the win, and got a bonus WrestleMania moment by hitting a rolling fireman’s carry off the ladder on Hornswoggle. He would prove one of the least prosperous MitB winners, but he got his day in the sun.

It seemed like a no-brainer to open with this match as Money in the Bank is pretty much never bad and gets the crowd pumped like few other matches.

1. BRET HART vs. OWEN HART (WrestleMania X)

Not just my favorite WrestleMania opener, not just one of the best WrestleMania matches to me, but this one ranks high on my all-time list, period. I could watch it over and over, picking up new nuances and getting excited at stuff I’ve seen dozens of times; a brilliant ballet of pure technical skill displayed by two guys who had rehearsing for this show literally since childhood.

The beauty of the Hart brothers feud and why it worked where so many other family rivalries have failed is that both characters were so hung up on proving they were the best at pure wrestling that them going out and matching each other hold for hold made sense in the context of their competition. When, say, Matt and Jeff Hardy or Rick and Scott Steiner split, you expect the level of hatred to spill over into wild, bloody brawls those guys weren’t capable of producing; with Bret and Owen, you bought that one catching the other with a sneaky small package would be way more satisfying to the victor than hitting his brother with a chair.

With Bret already having a WWF title match booked later on this particular night, you felt the desperation from Owen to make the most of his opportunity before it slipped away. Bret is incredibly giving to his brother and certainly plays ring general as the more experienced, but this is Owen’s coming out party; when he reverses that victory roll to get the three count out of nowhere, I feel a mix of shock, elation and dismay every time, as it’s just such a great emotional roller coaster.

This was the first—though not the last—time the WWF trotted out essentially a main event as a WrestleMania opener. I don’t hold WrestleMania X in quite as high regard as many other people do, but there’s no question where it gets its pedigree, as the show can easily coast through decent to low level matches on the way to its other classic off the heat this one provided right out the gate.

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Justin Rozzero

5. World Heavyweight Champion DANIEL BRYAN vs. SHEAMUS (WrestleMania XXVIII)

Sure, this was short and everyone hated it at the time. But, it cannot be argued that this loss was the launching point for what would become the Daniel Bryan Yes Movement that lives on today. Two years to the show, Bryan returns to the World Title mix, this time on the verge of being a superstar. As unbelievable as it may have seemed at the time, the outcome was the best one possible and ended becoming a pretty great WrestleMania moment thanks to the crowd and quick finish. If Bryan had lost in nine or ten minutes and moved on, it wouldn’t have been nearly as memorable. It also brought a fitting end to Bryan’s turn as a heel champion that won the belt from his buddy after vowing not to cash in his MITB in a sneaky way. From a character point of view, he deserved to eat a big boot and a quick loss.

4. CHRIS JERICHO vs. WILLIAM REGAL (WrestleMania X-7)

I really dig this match. It was the perfect choice to kick off the monster show that was WrestleMania X-7 as it felt like a match that should be deeper in the show but because the card was so loaded, we get treated to it earlier in the night. Regal had just burst into the scene in late 2000 but already had a lot of name cred and seamlessly moved into this feud heading into Mania. They easily blended styles and lit each other up with stiff chops and hard strikes. The blows were so heavy that both chests were beet red by the time Jericho picked up the win. The huge Houston crowd bought in immediately and X-7 was off to a rocking start.

3. Money in the Bank featuring MR. KENNEDY, BOOKER T, EDGE, RANDY ORTON, JEFF HARDY, MATT HARDY, FINLAY & CM PUNK (WrestleMania 23)

I can’t say this is my favorite MITB match of all time but even the lesser of the MITB matches are still really damn good. This one had some very memorable moments, including Hornswoggle taking Mr. Kennedy’s Green Bay Plunge off the ladder. It was also here that Edge’s WrestleMania winning streak was snapped thanks to a Jeff Hardy swanton bomb through a ladder that knocked him from the bout. It was poor planning as he would meet Undertaker a year later. The crowd was fantastic for this one, as the show was inside the expansive Ford Field, and the image of Kennedy holding up the briefcase with that backdrop definitely made it seem like he was a real star on the rise.

2. THE ROCKERS vs. HAKU & THE BARBARIAN  (WrestleMania VII)

Man, I love this match. The Rockers were on a real hot streak in 1991, coming off a phenomenal match with the Orient Express at the Royal Rumble. Haku & Barbarian had been Heenan Family running buddies for a while but had just started teaming up a bit more. These four worked the big man/little man style to perfection but did it at a quick pace. My favorite spot of the match may have been Barbarian crunching both Rockers with a swank clothesline. The end was frantic and paid off the pacing of the match with the Rockers grabbing a marquee win. If you haven’t seen this one or have forgotten just how fun it was, go check it out…I will wait!

1. BRET HART vs. OWEN HART (WrestleMania X)

Easily the greatest WrestleMania opener ever. It was a fantastic, classic match that came in the midst of a rocking feud that helped both men. It was the marquee win Owen Hart needed and it set up Bret’s World Title win perfectly. Not much more to say. This was a masterpiece.

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Brad Woodling

5. Intercontinental Champion SHAWN MICHAELS vs. TATANKA (WrestleMania IX)

On a forgettable Mania, this opener really stands out as the clear best match on the card. They gave these guys 18 minutes too and even the slightly subdued Vegas crowd gets into it. The ending is the classic (and not in a good way) count-out win after Tatanka has a visual pinfall on Shawn. Too many things to protect in this one I guess but regardless, a well-worked opener.

4. THE ROCKERS vs. HAKU & THE BARBARIAN (WrestleMania VII)

A great spotlight on the tag team ranks from the late 80s/early 90s, the Rockers worked the big-man/little-man format as well as anyone. We all think of “Mr. WrestleMania” for his singles work starting the next year (at VIII) but don’t sleep on the tremendous tag team work these guys did for years. The matches hold up and are incredible when looking back.

3. World Heavyweight Champion DANIEL BRYAN vs. SHEAMUS (WrestleMania XXVIII)

The reaction that Bryan received prior and during the show are the story here, versus him losing in 18 seconds. The short match was the storyline vehicle that gave us a classic the next month and a summer of Bryan feuding with CM Punk for the WWE title. The YES movement was born at WrestleMania XXVIII and two years later Bryan sits on the cusp of a huge WrestleMania moment.

2. United States Champion THE BIG SHOW vs. JOHN CENA (WrestleMania XX)

The rapping does NOT hold up but the story of John Cena’s ascenion certainly does. A hot MSG crowd is firmly behind the future company icon and while his slam of the Big Show would be repeated numerous times in the future, the first time was a powerful, flash-bulb popping, moment worthy of WrestleMania.

1. BRET HART vs. OWEN HART (WrestleMania X)

A technical classic that has been rightfully lauded over the years as one of, if not, the best opener to a pay-per-view ever. One of my favorite little things about this match is how Bret and Owen made sure there were no pops from the crowd for any of Owen’s moves. No highspots = a great heel. Just a perfectly executed angle when you weave in the story coming into the match, the story told during the match and what happened after Bret’s win later in the night.

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Aaron George

You could argue that there are better openers than on my list, but I wanted to focus on some lost classics; matches that not only entertained and warmed the audience up but transcended the very sport and gave us moments of mythological greatness. What am I talking about? What AM I talking about?

5. KING HAKU vs. HERCULES (WrestleMania V)

The first few months of any monarch’s reign are always the most difficult to get through. The challenges these nobles face would make our problems seem like a figurative hill of beans. And whether it is gaining their subjects’ trust, putting an heir in their wives (or mistresses) or pinning a man’s shoulders to the mat, they live and die by how they tackle these obstacles. This is the exact predicament that King Haku found himself in the spring of 1989. When the previous king was murdered by Hulk Hogan on network television, Haku picked up the literal crown and wore it with pride, honor and majesty. In his way though was a man who also had something to prove. Hercules was sold as a slave by Bobby Heenan, so he slapped on his powder blue tights and stormed to the ring chain in hand, smile on face. We were about to see if he would prove himself a Spartacus or the guy from “12 Years a Slave.” (Full disclosure I have not seen that movie so I have no idea if that comparison makes sense). There had never been a King versus demi-god match in the history of our great sport, and unless Achilles tires of Jerry Lawler’s insipid commentary we may never see another. The arena thundered with each of Herc’s right hands and gasped with each sick backbreaker Haku delivered. In the end the slave triumphed over the sovereign and the people rejoiced and ran through the streets proclaiming “He got his shoulder up! He got it up!” In truth any time I get to hear the trumpets of Hercules’ theme twice on one night I feel warm inside. A great thing you may not have noticed: the expressions of pain on the faces on the men who had to carry Haku down a God damned flight of stairs. 5 Stars.

4. Hardcore Champion BILLY GUNN vs. AL SNOW vs. HARDCORE HOLLY (WrestleMania XV)

In a strange decision the defense of the WWF’s most prestigious title was chosen to open their 1999 extravaganza. The sheer toughness on display during this match made me ask serious questions about my own life. What are my limits? Can I truly consider myself a man if I can’t take 40 to 50 Al Snow broom handle shots without passing out? What is WrestleMania XV and what is going on? And when a match can turn you into a Philosophizer (thanks White Goodman) you know you have something special. These three men beat the living hell out of each other, and like the gladiators of old they would not stop until the fans rose to their feet chanting “Let’s Go Flyers!” This is also the match where I first heard that Head was a spiritual guide to Al Snow, a fact that would perplex and intrigue me for many minutes to come. A hush fell over the crowd as they were wowed and amazed at how these men put it all on the line for us. Hardcore Holly wins a grueling match that would forever change my image of what hardcore is. ‘Cause when you think of hardcore you think of a former cowboy in pink tights with lips all over them gracefully fucking the air while spitting water out of his mouth. Water is hardcore! I’m sure Triple H politely (perhaps in Latin) asked him to stop. 4.5 Stars

3. Battle Royal won by BAD NEWS BROWN (WrestleMania IV)

The only opening match in WrestleMania history to have an astounding six—6! VI!—WWE Hall of Famers in it is one that cannot be overlooked. In fact based on that mere fact it should be lauded as the most star studded match of all time. But alas we truly live in a world of miscarriages of justice rather than justice herself. (Himself? Is that the blind chick?) If I listed every performer involved you would not be able to contain yourselves from speeding home and hurling Mania IV in for a second look. So many high points, from Jimmy Powers holding on to the ropes to Sam Houston delighting the Atlantic City faithful with his jaunty two-step the hits kept on coming. Needless to say the action starts right away with this one. To the untrained eye this may look like a “clusterfuck” but an astute observer will note that feuds new and old came to a head in the opening minutes from Trump Plaza. Historic in so many ways this match contains the “Iron Man” run of Danny Davis and the “Diesel” push of Bad News Brown, it also is the first rematch in WrestleMania history pitting once again (once in a lifetime?). The Junkyard Dog against King Harley Race in the most prestigious match of Race’s great career. Watching live I can only imagine the excitement thinking “Who can win this piece of entertainment?” And when Bob Uecker favorite Hillbilly Jim is eliminated by the late (nope) great (nope) Boris Zhukov I bit my fingers down to the bone with fear and anticipation. In the end, after tossing Paul Roma over the ropes as though he were a Glorified jobber, Bad News screwed Bret Hart and won the 35-foot trophy. This would also mark the debut of the Bret Hart “Everybody screws me” character that he would bring to the WWF and to his life in 1997. The only guy I cannot abide is George Steele whose very presence makes me want to punch my screen and vomit out of rage. Also, from behind Ken Patera looks like my aunt. 5 Stars.

2. JOHN BRADSHAW LAYFIELD vs. FINLAY in a Belfast Brawl (WrestleMania XXIV)

Of all the matches they could have chosen to open WrestleMania XXIV they certainly hit a home run with this one. Money in the Bank would have completely ruined the show as it did in every single other year. At least they learned their lesson and struck it from the Granddaddy of them All! Nothing can be more personal to a man than seeing his own son beaten in front of him. It was a shock to all of us that Hornswoggle was Finlay’s son and the heinous (by gawd) actions that Layfield had committed needed to be answered for. We were ready for an intense, personal brawl, and when I heard Annie Lennox ahhhing all over the pre-match video package I knew that this wouldn’t disappoint. From the moment that I saw Finlay walking to the ring with tears in his eyes, the pride of the Irish running though his veins, I could tell he was ready. From the moment I saw JBL standing in the ring, head held high, new breast implants flopping in the wind, I knew it was on. This stiff match was chugging along quite nicely until JBL became my favorite person on Earth when he tossed a garbage can at Hornswoggle. The little guy was blasted back by the sheer force of the can his arms flailing, his greased up face contorted in pain. In that moment I was reminded of how beautiful professional wrestling could be. There have been many times I’ve been touched over the years, Hogan slamming Andre in a great heroic feat, the passion of Randy Savage and Elizabeth as they reunited after all those years; but the sight of that wretched leprechaun being smashed by a trashcan will always stay atop my mountain of emotion. There’s also something magical about a bully beating your son, beating you, beating your son some more, knocking you unconscious and then being played from the ring by triumphant music with lyrics by cows. The showcase of the immortals. 5 Stars.

1. BRET HART vs. OWEN HART (WrestleMania X)

Like there’s any other choice. This is pretty much the perfect match and possibly the greatest opener of any PPV of all time. There are so many reasons why it’s great. I think the reason I like it so much is because we don’t get to see this kind of match at all anymore. Yes obviously the wrestling is great, but this match has so much more going for it. The story it told of the scrappy younger brother trying to defeat his much more experienced brother was flawless. Let’s face it, these days it’s almost impossible for a heel to get a clean win. Never mind over a top guy. For heaven’s sake Brock freaking Lesnar has to cheat to beat everybody and he’s a legitimate UFC champion. This match succeeded in putting over both guys strong. Bret didn’t suffer at all in the loss; it was clear that he made a mistake and just got caught in a hold. That’s what wrestling is! How many times have we seen someone get caught in something and know that they’re just going to get to the ropes or get out of it. Rarely do faces in the current WWE pay for their mistakes. Owen rolls him up, pins him strong, no way out, end of story. This match also stands out by contrast to today’s standards for its total lack of formula. Today you know a match isn’t going to end until both guys’ spots are done, so near falls have less meaning. By making this match end with a fluky roll up they told their audience that any match could end at any time. I’m not sure how well they followed up on that but in that moment it was there. This match also led to one of, in my opinion, the great forgotten WrestleMania moments. At the end of the show when Bret is standing tall, on the shoulders of his peers, a disdainful Owen stares him down from the aisle. He knows he can beat the champion now, and your storylines are set for the next six months. I love the symmetry to WrestleMania X as a whole but it all starts from this masterpiece. Also I always preferred Owen so I was really happy to see him beat Bret. For whatever reason Bret never clicked with me, I was the only Canadian at the 1997 Survivor Series happy he had lost the title. So this win was extra sweet. 5 actual stars.

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Tim Del Signore

5. Hardcore Champion BILLY GUNN vs. AL SNOW vs. HARDCORE HOLLY (WrestleMania XV)

The 1st ever title defense of the Hardcore Championship at WrestleMania saw a 3-way dance. Hardcore Holly ended up the victor in this and regained the title he had first won at St. Valentine’s Day Massacre when he defeated Al Snow. This was a bit of redemption for Hardcore Holly as he was screwed out the title on Monday Night Raw when Billy Gunn defeated him. I personally loved the unpredictability of the 24/7 rule and that came with the honor of being Hardcore Champion. Although, it was on display more prominently at WrestleMania X-8 (Christian slamming that door in Molly Holly’s face was classic), this match was a solid kick-off to WrestleMania XV. A match such as this could no longer take place in the current WWE product but I will always hold a special place in my heart for the Hardcore Championship.

4. Intercontinental Champion WILLIAM REGAL vs. ROB VAN DAM (WrestleMania X-8)

This match is fitting seeing as the most recent Vintage Vault podcasts are covering the early part of 2002 in WWF. I feel as though William Regal is an underappreciated talent and maybe that’s because his in-ring style is so different than the “WWF”-style which is currently being drilled into the heads of all the young talent down in NXT. The way RVD works is out of the box as well. Regal and Edge had just come off a stellar feud and Regal was incorporating the Power of the Punch into his arsenal more. RVD and Goldust put on a helluva match at No Way Out 2002 as well. This was a great match, one that I’ve come to appreciate more but Taker vs. Flair will forever be my favorite match on the entire card. Ultimately, RVD was able to avoid the brass knucks of Regal on two occasions, hit the Five-Star Frog Splash and become the NEW Intercontinental Champion.

3. Money in the Bank featuring CM PUNK, KANE, MARK HENRY, MVP, SHELTON BENJAMIN, KOFI KINGSTON, CHRISTIAN & FINLAY (WrestleMania XXV)

I miss the Money in the Bank Ladder match at WrestleMania. I had heard rumors a few months ago that the match could possibly make a return at WrestleMania XXX but we all know now that is not the case. I also miss CM Punk in WWE. I heard rumors he could possibly make his return at WrestleMania XXX. Hmm…I’m guessing like MitB, it ain’t happening. Anyhow, the guy won back-to-back MitB matches at Mania. This particular match had a healthy dose of great spots. Not to be outshined, Shelton Benjamin performed an incredible senton off the top of the ladder on to his fellow combatants. The victory came for Punk as he used a succession of kicks to knock the “Big Red Machine” off the ladder and unhook the briefcase.

2. BRET HART vs. OWEN HART (WrestleMania X)

I chose this match prior to recently watching the WWE Network’s WrestleMania Countdown featuring Bret Hart’s two match performance at WrestleMania X. My brother and I constantly debate the “what could have been” of Owen Hart’s career. Personally, I think he would have eventually won a major heavyweight championship in WWE. In any case, he is at his ultimate smart-ass heel gimmick best in this match with brother Bret. Just a couple months prior this, I had attended my 1st WWF live event—the 1994 Royal Rumble. I can recall when Bret and Owen lost to the Quebecers and Owen let his frustrations out on Bret (I also remember being pissed that Bret and Lex Luger were both co-winners of the Rumble match). I digress. It’s no surprise the two Hart brothers go out in the opening match and put on a classic. A testament to their abilities and training. I always enjoyed when Owen would break out the Tombstone piledriver in his matches (my apologies to Steve Austin) but I wonder, back in 1994 if the Undertaker had an issue with it? In any case, the match is phenomenal and Owen is able to reverse Bret’s attempted victory roll to steal one over “The Hitman.”

1. World Champion EDGE vs. ALBERTO DEL RIO (WrestleMania XXVII)

This match might surprise readers as being number one but it holds special significance. My brother and I were in the Georgia Dome, sitting front row ringside for his event. In fact, Edge’s mom was sitting next to me during the match. I will go on record here: I am an Edgehead. The TLC matches, tag champs with Hogan, 1st MitB winner, “Rated R Superstar,” “Ultimate Opportunist,” Hall of Famer. Of course, at the time, my brother and I had no idea this match would be Edge’s last in WWE. It became common knowledge through his DVD that his goal was to get through Mania and eventually have another test done to find out the severity of the injury. Unfortunately, the injury was so bad that he was forced to retire. Ultimately, it was a solid match and eventually ADR’s car got destroyed by him and Christian.

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With all the many WrestleMania opener options we give you the far and away, clear #1 selection… 

1. BRET HART vs. OWEN HART (WrestleMania X)

A five-star classic on just about anybody’s list and all-time technical classic, the Harts had chemistry that perhaps only exist between brothers. This back and forth battle featured a fast pace, a surprise finish and incredibly hot open to one of the WWF’s signature shows.

Author: Place to Be Nation Staff

Place to Be Nation Staff pieces feature any number of our contributors who are multifaceted when it comes to Pop Culture expertise.