I mistakenly pressed “publish” during my first draft of this. Foolishly, I was sitting there wondering how people were viewing it when it was a draft. Then, I finally figured out that I published it. Yep, that was my dumb moment of the week. So if you were one of the people who read it, and then wondered where it went, now you know.
I am drawing a blank once I passed the Top 10 part of the list again. Just soooo many worthy matches deserve to be on the Top 20 list. Thus, I am just going to leave it at 10. However, the good news is I have honorable mentions, and I am going to try to, possibly, make a list of the greatest in American wrestling history if I have the opportunity.
Honorable Mention: Great American Bash 1996, Chris Benoit vs. Kevin Sullivan –
Benoit and Sullivan had a never-ending feud that dragggggeedddddd. It overstayed its welcome and resulted in a lot of terrible matches, but they were feeling it on this night. This innovative, well-structured and stiff brawl escalated all over the arena, even in the goddamn men’s bathroom. It was also a star-making performance from Benoit. You know that guy everyone thought would become a top-tier star in WCW. However, the Hogans, Nashs, Halls, and Savages (yes, literally, savages) did not want to give up their place, so WCW never pushed him to the main event despite him (and tons of others) being liked by the fans. Well, at least WWE was smart enough to push him to the moon. On second thought….
Honorable Mention: Great American Bash 1990: Southern Boys vs. Midnight Express –
Everyone talks about the Midnight Express and Rock and Roll Express matches. People need to start talking about this more. Why? The amount of energy and intensity is off the chains. They were bouncing like those giants bouncy rubber balls someone played with as a kid off the ropes. The Southern Boys were nearly coming out of their boots after getting a hot tag. The countered and reversed trademark and clichéd spots were ridiculous, and I never knew what was going to be reversed or what was not going to be since everything was based the match off the crowd’s response. They played them like a yo-yo. Jim Cornette also said it was one of his favorite Midnight Express matches ever. Enough said.
Honorable Mention: SuperBrawl II, Jushin Liger vs. Brian Pillman –
The spots do not age as well as Arn Anderson did, but both men’s ability to read the crowd surely does age well. Reading the crowd is so difficult to pull off so it never gets boring. They also did a compelling job of speeding and slowing the pace down at the right times. The difference between this and most high-flying match is this tells a lucid story, and it makes this come across as an athletic competition rather than a contrived-looking stunt show.
10. WCW Nitro 1999: Bret Hart vs. Chris Benoit –
This was the first time Hart wrestled since his brother’s horrifying death, and it was just one of those matches where someone had to watch it live to appreciate it fully. I will not lie; this competition was one of the few things in wrestling that made me almost shed a tear. Real men do cry. This was also scientifically sound as it was a chess match with hard strikes, chain wrestling and, of course, unparalleled emotion.
9. Great American Bash 1987, Opening Match: WarGames –
This is the greatest gimmick match ever, hands down. It is all thanks to Dusty Rhodes, the brains behind this amazing concept. It was a match that had two rings near each other and a cage with a top surrounded them. It starts off with two opposing wrestlers facing each other for five minutes. Another wrestler enters after the five minutes are up. Oh, and a coin flip is what decides which team gets the man advantage. (Spoiler alert: the heels always win, except in TNA of course because well they can never do anything right). Once everyone enters the ring it then becomes an “I Quit” match. Its purpose was to blow-off a long feud between two teams that hated each other.
This is an all-out warfare with tons of insanity, but what was so remarkable was it never feels disjointed. It used a formula that just worked: The heels would get the heat on the outnumbered babyfaces and then another babyface would enter the match to save their teammate. The crowd just ATE this up with forks, spoons, knives, and even their mouths. I mean they popped HARD every time the babyfaces would beat the holy hell out of the heels.
It was well-structured, innovative, historic, and barbaric.
8. Crockett Cup 1987: Barry Windham vs. Ric Flair –
This was an unheralded feud. Everyone talks about Ric Flair vs. Ricky Steamboat, Sting, Terry Funk, and so on, but not many people talk about this. I do not understand why. Maybe because Windham wasn’t the most charismatic guy? Nevertheless, this feud resulted in great matches, although this has to be my favorite one. Both the pacing and timing were on key. Flair, as usual, tried to cheat his way to victory, but Windham was just countering everything, including the kitchen sink. That was until Windham rolled up Flair, but the Nature Boy reversed it with a roll up of his own and then proceeded to grab onto the tights. I never understood why that was illegal, but at least it gives heels more rules to break, right? It was a very entertaining match.
7. Starrcade 1985: “I Quit” Cage Match, Tully Blanchard vs. Magnum TA –
“SAY IT! SAY IT! SAY IT!” Magnum: “NOOOOOOOOOO, AAARRGHGHHGH!!!”.
If this is not an underrated gem, I do not know what is. These two had HATED each other, so they settled their feud in the first ever “I Quit” cage match. I am not exaggerating when I say this was not for the weakened heart. There have been matches that try to be grueling, but not many of them are as dramatic or horrifying as this was, and this did not even have much blood. Deception is the reason this worked so much as it was the illusion that they were trying to kill each other. I just loved how they screamed in agony; it added so much gut-wrenching drama.
This also could be a great example of how less can be more for the young wrestlers out there, too. They did not do a bunch of fancy spots to get the fans into it. They instead got people emotionally attached by selling the drama via facial expressions, body language, mannerisms, and selling. Pay attention Davey Richards.
The finish is one of the great shock moments in wrestling, and it made me somewhat squeamish. TA broke off a piece of wood from a chair that Baby Doll threw in, and viciously stuck it in Blanchard’s eye, causing him to squeal in pain. Grosssssssssssss. That spot is truly an excruciatingly awesome moment.
6. Halloween Havoc 1997: Eddie Guerrero vs. Rey Mysterio Jr –
Rey Mysterio Jr had to put his mask on the line to get a shot at the Cruiserweight Championship. This was an amazing display of splendid athleticism with state-of-the-art moves and inventive spots. More importantly, the spots were integral to the story being told. Telling a story is what a lot of high-flying wrestlers struggle with, but these two never struggled in that department. They were masters at it.
Guerrero had more experiences, power and technical expertise, and he was not afraid to lie, cheat, or steal. Those combustible elements played a big reason in why he had the advantage for most of the match. However, Mysterio had something that overcame all that: miles and miles of heart. He played that type of face-in-so-much-peril plucky underdog so well that made nobody want to cheer against him.
By the way, Mysterio was not fighting just for the Cruiserweight title; he was fighting for his legacy. Nobody wanted to see poor Rey lose his mask. Oh, and I have to give credit where credit is due: Tenay did a great job of elucidating how significant the mask was to a luchador. This was just a dramatic roller coaster ride with a heartfelt ending.
5. Wrestle War 1992: WarGames –
Paul Heyman’s Dangerous Alliance was becoming dangerous (pun intended), so a few protagonists decided to form an alliance to put a stop to their Triple H power trip. Ha, I made fun of HHH without him even being mentioned. Andy PG would be proud. Both teams settled their problems like men: inside the most demotic and unforgiving structure ever constructed. Taking into account the story, this was more superior to the original. It was also a textbook example of how to end a feud that has the villains getting their well-deserved comeuppance for tormenting the protagonist for so long.
The heat segments were ruthless; the babyface comebacks were energetic; the psychology was realistic; the momentum swings were tense, and the ultra-hostility just puts the icing on the cake. Even Shakespeare would have been impressed with the culmination of this struggle between good and evil.
4. Chi-Town Rumble 1989: Ric Flair vs. Ricky Steamboat –
Flair was the king of the mountain. Sorry, Jeff Jarrett, you were never the king of everything. I would consider you may be the king of the hill, but you do not sell propane. Nevertheless, Flair was the man and overcame everyone who faced him. That was until a mystery opponent pinned him. Who was it? It was Ricky Steamboat. This set up the first chapter of their epic set. The bout was a chess match, with feeling out processes, lots of heat segments, and hope-comebacks, and around-the-clock action. At the start, both wrestlers worked over a body limb Flair worked Steamboat’s the leg over to set up his figure-four, and Steamboat worked over Flair’s arm.
Seriously, though, I thought Steamboat was going to make his entire comeback at least three times. That was how good the teases of a comeback were. In fact, the entire match pretty much had me guessing, and the finishing sequence is so mentally exhausting that it drained the life out of me. Most wrestlers dream of having a match this good, and this was only their third best one. Scary, huh?
3. Clash of Champions IX: I Quit Match, Terry Funk vs. Ric Flair –
People were starting to cheer for Flair because they realized he was one slick dude, so the committee turned him face. They made him into a sympathetic one by having Terry Funk unmercifully pulverized him right after his hard-fought battle against Ricky Steamboat. Funk puts a cherry on top on the beat down by pile driving him on a table. (In case you are not aware, this was a time where angles and moves had a lot of meaning and a purpose. A piledriver was a very dangerous move that usually was used to write someone off TV. They even ended people’s careers, so you can imagine how scared the fans were for Flair’s wellbeing.)
Easily, this is a top-five feud of mine. The unalloyed hatred among the two was sharper than a knife, and their detailed promos did a great job of vividly describing what they were going to do to each other. In the match, Funk’s coldhearted actions, as he tried to rupture Flair’s wounded neck, made this quarrel somewhat disturbing. They injected EVEN MORE hostility in this by yelling and screaming at each other and trying to persuade the other one to quit.
“Flair, don’t you remember your neck? Don’t you, don’t you wanna quit… before I, before I… hit you?!”
Funk used neck breakers, forearm clubs, piledrivers, and other moves injury Flair’s impaired neck even more. However, Flair retaliated by attacking Funk’s knee, prompting Funk to limp away like a scalded dog. Then, Funk ended up saying those famous five words as the pain from being in the figure-four leg lock had been just too much to endure.
This was just a fabulous display of selling, hatred, intensity, storytelling, psychology, and prodigious booking.
2. Clash of Champions VI, Two out of Three Falls: Ric Flair vs. Ricky Steamboat –
This is just another stroke of genius from these two. They both reached their apex around this same time and created matches that are talked about today. This was just about 60 minutes of nonstop action, with no down spots or noticeable blemishes. Everything done had a purpose in the context of the story being told.
Flair cheated to gain control, dictating the pace by methodically working over Steamboat. However, Steamboat would not back down. He kept putting up a fight, but Slick Ric kept countering his offense.
There were so many layers to this masterpiece, with each one building to a high spot of the match. After they got the response from the crowd they wanted, they started rebuilding a new subplot. The effort, characterizations, execution, psychology, pacing, and timing are all top-notch, and this served its main goal by creating eagerness for their last match.
1. Wrestle War 1989: Ric Flair vs. Ricky Steamboat –
I was not sure which match I liked more: this one or the two-out-of three-falls match. All three matches were similar to a book as each chapter led to the upcoming one. I decided to go with this one just because it was the culmination of this exemplary series.
What makes this match so exceptional? Everything. Just absolutely everything.
You have Ric Flair, the deceitful loudmouth that was born with a golden spoon in his mouth, going against the Ricky Steamboat, the family oriented, diligent everyday man. In the match, both men stayed true to their characters, and used them to articulate an in-ring story.
Honestly, its simplicity is why it is evergreen and why it would get a rise out of a sold-out crowd even today. It is just a textbook demonstration of how to wrestle a compelling match. Above all, nothing is forced. There are not any convoluted spots, swerves, bells or even whistles. Everything felt natural.
It holds up to this day because they did moves that would never lose their essence; after all, they are malleable and fit into the context of any story. The most important reason even to this day people do not get bored of it is because of the way the moves are executed.
For example, look at how Flair took an arm-drag, flying way up in the air, traveling post-to-post, and then coming. Look at how Steamboat sprang off the ropes. Look at how they sell everything and make every move look impactful. Look at how they bump. It is all extremely well done.
These two knew exactly when, where, and why to do something. They knew the best time to get the heat on the babyface. They knew where to inject a hope-spot or full comeback. And they knew why to speed or slow the match down. Simply put, they MASTERED the fundamentals of wrestling psychology.
This truly had everything in it, and it is no wonder why people call it the greatest match ever.