The 20 biggest matches in WrestleMania history
- WWE on ESPN Editor
WrestleMania week has arrived, and though it’s a far different week than any other in WWE history, the company’s biggest show of the year will go on Saturday and Sunday night.
It remains to be seen if any of this year’s matches will join the pantheon of the biggest WrestleMania matches of all time, but as we approach WWE’s most significant weekend of the year, let’s take a look back and enjoy the 35-year history of the biggest wrestling event in the world.
1. WrestleMania 3: WWF championship: Hulk Hogan (c) vs. Andre The Giant
Few main events have reached the level of Hulk Hogan vs. Andre the Giant with regard to the scope of its impact. The two larger-than-life characters sold out the Pontiac Silverdome in Pontiac, Michigan, with an announced attendance of 93,173, a figure that has been disputed, but this was undoubtedly huge in scale. What is not disputed is just how massive this event was for wrestling and beyond. The feud, which started when Andre turned on his longtime friend Hogan, captured the cultural zeitgeist. Millions watched on pay-per-view at a time in 1987 when pay-pay-view events were not popular. The match culminated in Hogan picking up the 7-foot, 500-pound “Eighth Wonder of the World” and slamming him down as the crowd roared. It was a truly iconic moment in American entertainment.
2. WrestleMania 14: WWF championship: Shawn Michaels (c) vs. Steve Austin (guest enforcer: Mike Tyson)
During the heart of the “Monday Night Wars” between the then-WWF and WCW, as professional wrestling reached its peak within popular culture, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin became one of the most iconic characters in the history of the industry. But it wasn’t until 1998 and WrestleMania 14 that Austin rose to become the official standard-bearer of the WWF after winning the 1998 Royal Rumble match. Austin stood opposite Shawn Michaels and D-Generation X, with Iron Mike Tyson, seemingly on DX’s side and at odds with Austin, set to be outside the ring as an “enforcer.” It was a moment that officially minted Austin as a top star, and Tyson’s involvement raised the bar from there. This incredible match is made all the more impressive when you consider that Michaels was out of action for months and on the brink of forced retirement due to a back injury he suffered that January. After Michaels walked out of Boston that April, he was out of action for more than four years.
3. WrestleMania 6: WWF championship: Hulk Hogan (c) vs. Intercontinental champion The Ultimate Warrior
Long before the popularity of title vs. title superfights in the UFC, Hogan and the Ultimate Warrior clashed in 1990 at the SkyDome in Toronto in front of more than 60,000. Until that point, Hogan was WWF’s biggest star by a wide margin. He was the man the promotion built itself around from the mid-1980s on, but the wild, rope-shaking, face-paint-wearing Warrior had become a huge fan favorite, especially with kids. After the two encountered each other at the Royal Rumble that year, Hogan put forth “The Ultimate Challenge,” proposing a match between two of the biggest fan favorites in wrestling history. The outcome was a passing-of-the-torch moment, with Warrior picking up the win and the heavyweight title.
4. WrestleMania 24: Ric Flair vs. Shawn Michaels (if Flair loses, he must retire)
Ric Flair was in the midst of the 37th year of his professional wrestling career, with a record 16 world title reigns recognized by WWE. He went on WWE TV in November 2007 and emphatically stated that he would never retire, only for Vince McMahon to retort that the next match Flair lost would force him into retirement. Over the course of the next few months, Flair fended off Randy Orton, Umaga, Triple H, MBP, Mr. Kennedy and then McMahon himself. Flair was announced as an inductee into the WWE Hall of Fame Class of 2008 in late February, and then he turned around and challenged Michaels for a match at WrestleMania 24 the following week. Michaels was hesitant to put his hero and an icon’s career at risk, but he ultimately accepted. It was an incredible performance for the then-59-year-old Flair, and it concluded with one of the most memorable moments in WWE history: “I’m sorry. I love you.”
5. WrestleMania 31: WWE championship: Brock Lesnar (c) vs. Roman Reigns vs. Seth Rollins
It was one of the best swerves in WrestleMania history. The main event was a WWE title match between champion Brock Lesnar and challenger Roman Reigns, yet neither one of them left Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California, with the belt. With both men down late in the match, Seth Rollins ran down to the ring and cashed in his Money in the Bank briefcase, which allowed him a title match at any moment he chose. At the time, Rollins was coming off a strong storyline with The Authority, led by Triple H, and he had a huge groundswell of support from the fans, who went nuts when he pinned Reigns after his Curb Stomp finisher to win the title.
6. WrestleMania 35: Raw and SmackDown women’s championships: Ronda Rousey (c) vs. Charlotte Flair (c) vs. Becky Lynch
The first women’s match to be the main event for a WrestleMania card was a convergence of several key factors. Ronda Rousey brought her big-name value from the world of MMA and fully committed herself to the transition to WWE. Charlotte Flair, positioned as the centerpiece of the “Women’s Evolution,” carried the experience and the pedigree. Then there was Becky Lynch, the choice of the fans, who the masses felt had been a long-overlooked standout of a burgeoning women’s division. The purposeful decisions and every accidental moment along the way seemed to build up to this match, from Lynch’s attack on Flair at SummerSlam 2018 to her bloody-faced attack on Rousey and the cancelation of their Survivor Series match (with Flair jumping in) to Lynch’s 2019 women’s Royal Rumble win and, finally, Flair’s insertion into this match by Vince McMahon. By the time that long April night in New York was over — and Lynch held both women’s titles above her head — history had been made.
7. WrestleMania 30: The Undertaker vs. Brock Lesnar
The looks on the faces of fans ringside in the immediate aftermath of this match told the whole story, as did the reaction by Lesnar’s advocate, Paul Heyman. The Undertaker had won 21 straight at WrestleMania, one of the greatest streaks of any kind in pro wrestling history. “The Streak” was highly protected in storyline, and every Undertaker match at WrestleMania over the course of two decades was special because of it. Lesnar, two years removed from his run in the UFC, ended it after three F5 finishing moves in front of a stunned crowd at the SuperDome in New Orleans. Choosing the man who would finally beat The Undertaker at WrestleMania was obviously a difficult decision for WWE, but Lesnar — one of the biggest stars in two combat sports over the past two decades — was the wise choice.
8. WrestleMania 18: “Hollywood” Hulk Hogan vs. The Rock
What began as a battle with “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and The Rock on one side and the newly returned to action nWo on the other became something else entirely once The Rock and Hulk Hogan agreed to face off one-on-one at WrestleMania. Despite The Rock’s ostensibly playing the hero and his status as one of the biggest stars in WWE history, in this clash between icons of wrestling, fans favored a seemingly villainous Hogan instead, chanting “Hogan” from the moment the nWo’s music cut out. One of the most iconic moments of this match happened before The Rock and Hogan ever touched, as they circled each other for several minutes and soaked in the moment. By the end of the match, it was pretty clear that this clash of eras likely should have been the main event of the show, and fans even received a fun epilogue as the nWo attacked Hogan and excommunicated him from the group, The Rock intervened, and it all prompted Hogan to do his classic posedown.
9. WrestleMania 28: Hell in a Cell: The Undertaker vs. Triple H (special guest referee: Shawn Michaels)
At WrestleMania 27 one year earlier, The Undertaker and Triple H had a brutal, no-holds-barred match that left the victorious Undertaker injured. He didn’t appear on WWE television for another 10 months, until he came back to challenge Triple H at WrestleMania 28. Triple H eventually accepted but proposed a Hell in a Cell match, the brutal, enclosed cage battle that The Undertaker made famous. If he were going to break The Undertaker’s famous streak, he would do it in the most hellacious way possible. The bout was billed the “End of an Era,” a clash between two of the most exceptional, consistent talents in WWE history for a second straight year, and Shawn Michaels as the guest referee added yet another wrinkle. The match was violent and brutal. The Undertaker won again to increase The Streak to 20-0, and all three men walked up the ramp together once the match was over.
10. WrestleMania 17: No disqualification match for the WWF championship: “Stone Cold” Steve Austin vs. The Rock
The Rock and Steve Austin faced off three times at WrestleMania: 1999 (15), 2001 (17) and 2003 (19). The first two matches were for the WWE championship, but the one that stands out is the middle chapter. The first WrestleMania after the end of the Monday Night Wars pitted the two wrestlers who likely had the most to do with the WWE’s success during the Attitude Era in a no-disqualification match for the WWE championship. The match itself was an intense brawl, and though some might quarrel with the ending of the match, when Austin allied himself with his longtime nemesis, Mr. McMahon, the significance of this night cannot be understated. For an extra dose of nostalgia, search out one of the best prematch promos ever created, with the very 2001-appropriate soundtrack of Limp Bizkit’s “My Way.”
11. WrestleMania 5: WWF championship: “Macho Man” Randy Savage (c) vs. Hulk Hogan
The friendship, partnership and eventual ugly split between Hogan and Randy “Macho Man” Savage provided one of the simplest yet most excellently executed storylines in WWE history. Savage, who won the WWF title one year earlier at WrestleMania 4, became jealous of Hogan’s friendship with Savage’s wife, Miss Elizabeth. The tag team of Hogan and Savage, dubbed the “Mega Powers,” went sour, and the rivalry bubbled over into a match at WrestleMania 5 at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Elizabeth was in a neutral corner for the clash between two of the biggest pro wrestling stars of all time. Elizabeth stopped Hogan from ramming Savage into the ring post outside, which allowed Savage to get the upper hand. Savage landed his famous top-rope elbow drop, but Hogan kicked out, Hulked up, got the pin and won the WWF belt for the second time.
12. WrestleMania 30: WWE championship: Randy Orton (c) vs. Batista vs. Daniel Bryan
From the moment Daniel Bryan broke into the WWE as The Miz’s “rookie” on NXT, he fought an uphill battle to prove what he was capable of. Through every character transformation along the way, Bryan picked up more and more momentum and crowd support until fans so vociferously thought he was being underutilized that it became too big to ignore. He was the perfect underdog to be positioned opposite the monolith of “The Authority” and the McMahon family, and each slight along the way built up his WrestleMania 30 moment to an unbelievable degree (laid out well in yet another great promo package produced by WWE for Bryan). After vanquishing Triple H in the opening match just to earn a title opportunity, Bryan took on Randy Orton and Batista in the main event. The image of Bryan hoisting two belts into the air as the capacity crowd at the Superdome chanted “Yes!” in unison to close the show — dubbed “The Miracle on Bourbon Street” by Michael Cole — stands among the most iconic moments in WWE history.
13. WrestleMania 1: Hulk Hogan & Mr. T vs. “Rowdy” Roddy Piper & Paul Orndorff
The original WrestleMania, in 1985 at Madison Square Garden, is what started the pro wrestling boom of the 1980s and led to WWE’s success the next several decades. The event was a pop-culture phenomenon. The main event pitted Hogan and action star Mr. T against heels Paul Orndorff and “Rowdy” Roddy Piper. Muhammad Ali was the special guest referee on the outside. New York Yankees manager Billy Martin was the guest ring announcer and Liberace the guest timekeeper. Hogan and Mr. T hosted Saturday Night Live the night before WrestleMania. Hogan pinned Orndorff, which kicked off a streak of Hogan headlining eight straight WrestleManias.
14. WrestleManias 25 and 26: The Undertaker vs. Shawn Michaels
The back-to-back WrestleMania matches between Shawn Michaels and The Undertaker are inseparable as a singular story. The first time around, Michaels, long dubbed “Mr. WrestleMania,” endeavored to end The Undertaker’s undefeated streak at WrestleMania. They had what was widely considered the match of the year the first time, an incredible feat for the 43-year-old Michaels and 44-year-old Undertaker. The justification for the rematch was simple — Michaels needed another chance to prove he could beat The Undertaker at WrestleMania and was willing to go so far as to put his career on the line to do it — and the second time around, the match was fittingly positioned to close the show. It was perfect symmetry, considering that Michaels ended Flair’s career at WrestleMania 24. These matches fed seamlessly into back-to-back WrestleMania matches between The Undertaker and Triple H in the two years that followed.
15. WrestleMania 12: Iron Man match for the WWF championship: Bret Hart (c) vs. Shawn Michaels
The boyhood dream came true in 1996. After more than 61 minutes, Michaels won the WWF title for the first time in an Iron Man Match against Hart at Arrowhead Pond in Anaheim, California. From an in-ring perspective, this was one of the best WrestleMania main events ever, a technical masterpiece between two of the best “workers” of the era. It was also significant because it started Michaels’ run atop the company, which led to Hart’s jump to WCW following the very messy “Montreal Screwjob” in 1997. With this Iron Man match as a jumping-off point, Michaels became known over the years for his spectacular WrestleMania matches, eventually earning the nickname “Mr. WrestleMania.”
16. WrestleMania 3: Intercontinental championship: “Macho Man” Randy Savage (c) vs. Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat
At WrestleMania 3, only two matches eclipsed the 10-minute mark: the aforementioned legendary clash between Hogan and Andre the Giant and the Intercontinental championship match between Randy Savage and Ricky Steamboat. Since it happened more than three decades ago, Savage-Steamboat has become widely considered one of the greatest technical masterpieces in professional wrestling history. It was an opposite approach to in-ring performance than the main event took, but it was a match ahead of its time that wildly outperformed expectations and stands the test of time.
17. WrestleMania 10: Ladder match for the Intercontinental championship: Razor Ramon (c) vs. Shawn Michaels
Often imitated and rarely duplicated, this was one of the first prominent ladder matches in WWE history. Michaels and Ramon absolutely hit it out of the park. For the time, it was revolutionary and extremely dangerous. The aim was to climb a 15-foot ladder and grab two WWF Intercontinental titles hanging from the ceiling at Madison Square Garden in New York. Why two? Michaels refused to accept that he was previously stripped of the belt and carried around his own version. Ramon went on to win the linear title and then walked out of the ladder match as the undisputed IC champion.
18. WrestleMania 17: The Dudley Boyz (c) vs. The Hardy Boyz vs. Edge & Christian
In an era in which chair shots and weapons of many types became standard fare, The Dudley Boyz, The Hardy Boyz and Edge & Christian took the high-speed-car-crash approach to professional wrestling and turned the dial to 11. The first official TLC match among these three teams happened at SummerSlam 2000, but the reprise at WrestleMania 17 is the stuff of legends. You need look at only one of the most ridiculous and replayed moments of the past 20 years of WWE TV — Jeff Hardy hanging on to the tag-team title belts suspended over the ring, and Edge jumping off the top of a ladder to spear him — to get a little insight into how wild this match got. Although it wasn’t the first ladder match in WrestleMania history, it embedded the desire for that type of match, which was later realized with the creation of the Money of the Bank ladder match.
19. WrestleMania 13: Submission match: Bret Hart vs. Stone Cold Steve Austin (special guest referee: Ken Shamrock)
There is no exact point in time that can be pointed to as the launching pad for the Attitude Era of the WWE, but there’s an argument to be made that it was at WrestleMania 13, with Austin, blood covering his face, grimacing as he was held in Hart’s Sharpshooter submission. The image of Austin’s expression is iconic in pro wrestling. Hart won the submission match, which was an in-ring marvel, when Austin passed out from blood loss while in the hold. But Austin, of course, went on to become one of the biggest stars in the history of the business. This was one of the early moments that propelled him — and WWE as a whole — to another level.
20. WrestleManias 28 and 29: The Rock vs. John Cena
Just like you can’t separate the matches between The Undertaker and Shawn Michaels, the three-year odyssey at WrestleMania between The Rock and John Cena has to be viewed as a whole. It started in 2011 at WrestleMania 27, when The Rock served as the special guest host for the show, restarted the main event between Cena and The Miz, and then cost Cena the WWE championship. The following year, The Rock defeated Cena in the main event of WrestleMania 28, and the following night, they promised a rematch with the WWE championship on the line for the following year. The simple fact that The Rock returned to perform in a WWE ring while he was on an ascent toward becoming the biggest movie star in Hollywood — added to what Cena became, beyond the boundaries of WWE, in the decade that followed — is staggering.
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