For some performers, the bright lights and huge exposure of WrestleMania brings out their best work; others get a bit camera shy and tend to falter on the grandest stage of them all.
Fortunately for both those types of folks and perfectionists looking to stretch that extra snowflake out of already great matches, there’s always next month.
In Your House: Revenge of the Taker in 1997 marked the first time two competitors would have a rematch from their WrestleMania encounter when “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and Bret “Hitman” Hart revisited their classic from a month earlier, sans “I Quit” stipulation. In the 17 years since, numerous Mania milestones have been revisited at In Your House, Backlash, Extreme Rules and Judgment Day events.
This month, the Five Count looks at the best gems to emerge from trying to work through that WrestleMania hangover.
5. World Champion THE UNDERTAKER vs. BATISTA in a Last Man Standing match (Backlash 2007)
“The Dead Man” and “The Animal” tore the house down at WrestleMania 23 with a tremendous power match they intended to upstage the main event with, then upped the ante a month later by taking on a Last Man Standing gimmick. It’s arguable whether or not they topped their Mania match here and where this ranks in their overall body of work, but it still stands out as a great punch out brawl as two beasts attempt to put each other down hard.
4. CHRIS BENOIT vs. KURT ANGLE in an Ultimate Submission match (Backlash 2001)
These guys never had a bad match against one another, and their second big one-on-one meeting in 2001 would be no exception. They had an intense mid-length sprint at WrestleMania X-Seven, but this one opened up their repertoires and gave them the freedom to really show what they could do. The Ultimate Submission stipulation worked perfectly as each guy not only got to bust out holds they wouldn’t normally use, but you also had great counters and the storyline of quick tap outs to conserve strength and energy; fun stuff.
3. World Champion SHEAMUS vs. DANIEL BRYAN in a 2/3 Falls match (Extreme Rules 2012)
After the tremendous let-down of these two only having 18 seconds at WrestleMania XXVIII, just about any follow-up would have been an improvement, but getting to see them go at it two out of three falls exceeded all expectations. Bryan, with a chip on his shoulder after being squashed but also as he began to become a huge star, obviously had something to prove, and Sheamus kept up. I generally don’t care for monster babyfaces against undersized heels, but these two made it work, with the crafty and more technically skilled Bryan working around the brawling champion and Sheamus being forced to adapt; great long form storytelling from a pair anxious to right what they saw as a major oversight.
2. WWF Champion STEVE AUSTIN vs. THE ROCK in a No Holds Barred match (Backlash 1999)
I always felt like the WrestleMania XV main event felt a little off from two guys who had such great chemistry together and potential to do much better, which fortunately they got the opportunity to prove a month later. At Mania, the card had been pretty lousy by the time it got to the end, so maybe that affected my viewing experience, but I also felt like the seemingly endless ref bumps and repeated involvement from Vince McMahon and other brought it down a peg or two. The Backlash rematch still had shenanigans, but both guys seemed more in their grooves, both brawling and working inside the ring. I greatly prefer the moment of Vince decking Shane to all the confusion with Mankind, Shawn Michaels, etc. at Mania.
Also, Austin didn’t forget his ring jacket and have to wear a t-shirt.
One of those cases where the sequel outdoes the original with a tighter, more focused agenda; since said sequel involves two of the biggest stars and greatest performers in wrestling history, this rematch tops my list.
1. WWE Champion JOHN CENA vs. JOHN BRADSHAW LAYFIELD in an I Quit match (Judgment Day 2005)
When John Cena finally had his big, victorious moment at WrestleMania 21, bringing an end to the nearly year-long WWE title reign of the nefarious JBL in a so-so match, it felt hollow on every level. Cena seemed too big a star to get such a signature win in a middling performance while JBL had been one of the best heels in some time, thus earning a much grander demise to his historic championship run.
Thankfully, both men must have taken note and corrected course beautifully when next they locked horns.
With “I Quit” rules in effect, JBL immediately resorted to underhanded tactics while Cena highlighted the straight ahead brawling that had gotten him over to begin with. Unlike Bret Hart or Kurt Angle, Cena would not wear down his opponent with holds and submissions, he would literally beat JBL until he gave up.
The entire contest had the intensity the WrestleMania match had lacked, with JBL trying everything he could to hold on to his last gasp of glory and Cena busting through every barrier erected before him doing so became cliché. By the time the villain finally yielded, blood dripping from his face like a true crimson mask, a star had been born and a legend begun.
5. MATT HARDY vs. JEFF HARDY in an I Quit match (Backlash 2009)
It’s often been said online that these brothers, best known for being one of the best tag teams of the last 20 years, had little chemistry as opponents. For the most part, that’s true.
But on this night in April 2009, the Hardy Boyz exploded and had a match that was not only better than its WrestleMania counterpart, but one of the best of either of their singles careers. It was brutal from bell to bell, with Matt settling into his role as a jealous heel and Jeff excelling as perhaps the most popular man in the company at the time. The match told an excellent story, with Matt struggling to keep up with Jeff’s increasingly crazy risks, and finally Matt quit after being strapped to a table while his brother threatened a Swanton Bomb. This was solid work from both guys, and it marked perhaps the last great match for Matt in WWE.
4. World Champion THE UNDERTAKER vs. BATISTA in a Last Man Standing match (Backlash 2007)
The Undertaker and Batista surprised the wrestling world with their outstanding match-of-the-night performance at WrestleMania 23, but they arguably topped themselves a few weeks later with this highly physical Last Man Standing match. The pace was quicker than most Last Man Standing bouts, and both men showed aggressive, believable offense. This type of gimmick match is one of my least favorite due to the difficulty of crafting believable near falls, but ‘Taker and Batista overcame those limitations to create some tremendous drama. For some reason, these two behemoths had some of the best in-ring chemistry in WWE history, and it made for a memorable night in Atlanta.
3. WWE Champion CM PUNK vs. CHRIS JERICHO in a Chicago Street Fight (Extreme Rules 2012)
I actually had the privilege of watching these two paint a near-masterpiece in Miami at WrestleMania 28, and I had high hopes for this follow-up. True to their reputations, the “Best in the World” and the “Best in the World at What He Does” put on another classic, but did so with brutality instead of technical exchanges. This was an ECW-style match paired with WWE’s famous drama and the emotional weight accompanying a blood feud. Both guys were on their game, and Punk has arguably never been better in the ring than during this run. In the end, Jericho put Punk over, but both men left the arena with their reputations as top-shelf workers intact.
2. World Champion SHEAMUS vs. DANIEL BRYAN in a 2/3 Falls match (Extreme Rules 2012)
This iteration of Extreme Rules was one of the greatest pay-per-view events in WWE history, and this modern classic was a major reason why. Bryan and Sheamus were short-changed at WrestleMania 28 with their 18-second debacle, so both guys were extra motivated to steal the show at the Allstate Arena. For more than 20 minutes, they did just that. Sheamus’ punishing offensive assault complemented Bryan’s off-the-charts selling, and the Irishman stayed step-for-step with Bryan’s chain wrestling and crazy submissions. Both guys laid their strikes in stiffly and held nothing back in terms of pacing. It stands as Sheamus’ greatest match and, in some ways, the first step in Daniel Bryan’s march to the top of the industry. I won’t soon forget this bout, and hopefully we’ll get to see these two do battle for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship sooner than later.
1. World Champion CHRIS BENOIT vs. TRIPLE H vs. SHAWN MICHAELS in a Triple Threat match (Backlash 2004)
Talk about the weight of expectations! These three had to follow one of the greatest WrestleMania matches of all time, and they had to do it in front of a rabid hometown crowd for the newly crowned champion, Chris Benoit. While it may not have been as flawlessly executed as the WrestleMania XX encounter, the match delivered in a big way. All three men displayed their strengths during the match: Benoit’s relentless intensity and fluid technique, Triple H’s expert heel mannerisms and selling, and Shawn Michaels’ unparalleled mastery of in-ring drama. The crowd was all over the former D-Generation X partners as soon as the match began, lending the match an even hotter crowd than the Madison Square Garden event a month prior. Michaels even subtly embraced his temporary heel role during the match, and it made Benoit look like even more of a conquering hero when he made the hated Michaels submit to, of all moves, a Sharpshooter. While the match likely won’t be celebrated in WWE lore for obvious reasons, it stands the test of time as one of the best triple threat matches of all time.