Every now and again in the wrestling world you get a truly great talent that comes along, whether they have superb in rings skills, are gold on the mic, work a great gimmick, or are the rare total package with all of it. But for the few that shine there are going to be just as many that never breakthrough, never getting a real chance to show us what they have for whatever reason. Now, a good amount of that can often be due to backstage politicking and fragile egos in danger of being hurt or overshadowed, which is a shame because that kind of thing buries too many guys who have a lot of potential to do some awesome things. But when it comes right down to it, pro-wrestlers are made by the crowd in the ring, and those that fail to stand out are sometimes only missing that one single match that allows the world to see what they are really capable of. There are plenty of matches out there that made guys’ careers when you think back, so I thought it might be fun to take a look at a few classics that should be on every wrestling fan’s radar. Not all of these are absolutely stellar bouts in terms of pure in ring work, but they more than accomplish what they set out to do, but not always in the best ways possible. So, with that said, let’s lace up the old boots and get going. It’s bell time.
Hulk Hogan vs Andre the Giant: Wrestlemania III
Like it or not Hulk Hogan was the biggest professional wrestling star of the 1980s, and Andre had been a main attraction for nearly two decades but his career was winding down due to his declining health. With who he was and what he’d done in the business, Andre didn’t need this match, but Hogan absolutely did to establish him as the face of the then WWF and the wrestling world as a whole. With a three-year run as champion I can’t honestly remember Hogan having a single memorable challenger up to this point, other than his feud with Roddy Piper but that lacked a sufficiently satisfying blow off to really wrap everything up. This match is by no means at all anything close to an in-ring classic, but it was the most watched wrestling match in North America up to that point, and might still be even now. Whether you want to accept it or not, it was the beginning of a new era in modern pro-wrestling, and cemented Hulk Hogan as a true superstar, and gave him an ego to go with it.
Ricky Steamboat vs Randy Savage: Wrestlemania III
Yes, it’s the second match from Wrestlemania III on this list, and without a doubt the best match on that card, but was sadly overshadowed by the Hogan vs Andre affair. This match is arguably still the greatest match in Wrestlemania history, and one of the best you’ll get in both these guys’ long careers. Steamboat had already been a well-established star in the NWA by the time this rolled around and would later go on to having his defining moments with Ric Flair while working a legendary program back in that promotion. This turned out to be the match that really put Randy Savage on the map and catapulted him to the main event, setting up his world title reign a year later at Wrestlemania IV that would last until Wrestlemania V. This encounter seriously has everything you want in a great wrestling match, with a ton of technical skill on display, highflying moves, and more near falls than you can shake a stick at. It let Steamboat be the ultimate babyface he was and let Savage shine with dastardly heel work, especially by pushing around and hiding behind his lovely manager, Miss Elizabeth. It totally eclipsed Hogan and Andre in terms of pure quality and watchability, which should tell you a lot about what both of these guys could do in the ring, especially Savage.
Sting vs Ric Flair: Clash of the Champions I
Sting had just made his face turn a few months before this match took place, and Magnum T.A. had been in a career ending car crash a couple years prior to rob the NWA of their next babyface heir apparent. The National Wrestling Alliance desperately needed a new star go up against Flair rather than just another Dusty Rhodes rehash, so they looked to Sting and tested the waters with this match to see if he could get over with the fans. Sting was still very green in terms of skill set and ring work here, but man did the people ever get behind and latch onto him. He got over in a huge way against the magnificent performer that was Flair, and Ric did his damnedest to carry him through and make it all look good. Ric was the ring general here that called the shots and put everything together, but despite his relative inexperience, the Stinger still hit every note and more than carried his weight, showing flashes of brilliance that hinted at what he’d be capable of in the near future. It shows just how good Flair was and how he could have a match with anyone, but more importantly it firmly established Sting as a pillar of the NWA and the later WCW. It’s a forty-five minute classic that should be required viewing by any wrestling fan, even if Sting is young and still learning the ropes, because Flair brings the best out of him.
Mankind (Mick Foley) vs The Undertaker: King of the Ring 98
If truth be told, the Undertaker had never really had a true breakout moment until this point, and Foley had been one of the best workers at putting over a devastating beating but had been overlooked for a long time. They put these two guys in a brutal program together that culminated in the most iconic Hell in a Cell match even to this day, but it was Foley that absolutely stole the show with what happened. The two took the fight to the top of the cell right out of the gates, and Mick’s first fall off the cage was planned and went as about as good as it could have. Once he recovered and the two went back up, his second fall THROUGH the cage came as an absolute surprise to everyone, along with a hit from the steel chair that followed him down and knocked out a few of his teeth upon landing, which incidentally made their way up and out of his nose later in the match. It’s an absolute hardcore gem that they’ve been trying to recapture the magic of for years now, and made people finally standup and take notice of what Foley put himself through during his long career. To really appreciate it you have to see it for yourself, but I’ll warn you up front, it’s not for the faint of heart.
Shawn Michaels vs Bret Hart: Survivor Series 97
If you didn’t know this was going to be here, you probably should have, because the Montreal Screwjob is without a doubt the most infamous match in modern wrestling history. See, Bret Hart had just signed a deal with WCW, and his contract had just expired with the WWF a few days before this event. The problem was that he was still the World Wrestling Federation champion going in, and Vince McMahon was terrified he would show up on WCW television with the belt and throw it in the trash. McMahon had told Bret the match between him and Shawn would end in a disqualification finish, allowing Hart to not have to drop the belt to Shawn, which he was loathe to do, and forfeit the title at a later date. Unbeknownst to Bret, however, McMahon had his own plan worked out with Shawn and referee Earl Hebner, calling for a submission while Hart was locked in his own finishing hold without Bret having ever visibly given up, and in the middle of countering the hold for that matter, to give the title to Michaels. The aftermath was a total shit show and had lasting effects for years to come, and sparked grudges and harsh feelings that still continue to fester. It was, for better or worse, the defining moment in both men’s careers. While it did thrust them into the spotlight of the wrestling world it didn’t necessarily make them, though, as both had more than their fair share of stellar matches in the past, including a one-hour iron man match against each other that was on point. But what this match sure as hell did do is establish Vince McMahon and give birth to the Mr. McMahon character, showing him has a ruthless, over the top, douche that was willing to do anything to stay number one and come out ahead. Without the Montreal Screwjob we never get the McMahon vs Stone Cold rivalry that propelled the WWF to new heights, and we also probably don’t get the Rock or anything else that came afterwards as the company more than likely gets put out of business by WCW. This is the pinnacle of a match that made a man and changed the direction of wrestling forever, even if it was done in the most vile of ways possible, because it honestly showed us just who Vince was down deep.
There you have it, gang, a handful of matches that undoubtably made careers and in one case more than likely saved a promotion from extinction. I Kept the timeframe in the 80s and 90s because I just think the impact was a lot more forceful before social media and the internet kind of took away a lot of wrestling’s mystique but there are certainly some great matches out there that occurred in the 2000s that are more worthy of this list. One that definitely jumps out is Mitsuharu Misawa vs Kent Kobashi on January 3rd 2003. It’s an almost one-hour war of two men just beating the hell out of each other, and firmly established Pro-Wrestling Noah as powerhouse promotion until Misawa’s untimely death in 2009. If there are any that you think I should have included here please let me know, and if you’ve never seen any of these then do yourself a favor and check them out, you won’t be sorry. Later, guys.