The Rock vs. CM Punk, Royal Rumble 2013
The WWE Network launched last month, and promises to deliver not only an incredible archive of wrestling history and original programing, but also access to current shows and pay-per-views for the low monthly price of $9.99. The prospect of losing myself down the WWE rabbit hole for hours on end is too tempting to pass up. There’s a daunting amount of footage to go through, but that’s a good problem to have. Everyone will start somewhere different, but here is where I would start.
The Ultimate Warrior vs. Honky Tonk Man, Summerslam ’88
Those of us who grew up during the early ’90s ascendency of the Ultimate Warrior often forget that he represented the worst of that era: A steroid user’s physique and almost nothing in the way of wrestling skills. He was all energy and cryptic prophecy. Many would point to his defeat of Hulk Hogan in WrestleMania V as the high point of his career, but I would argue that his whirlwind dismantling of then Intercontinental Champion Honky Tonk Man in about 30 seconds was the perfect use of his toolkit.
“Macho Man” Randy Savage vs. Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat, WrestleMania III
The third edition of WrestleMania is justly remembered as one of the seminal events of the WWF’s heyday, where Hulk Hogan defeated André and completed the Giant’s journey to the open arms of Bobby Heenan and the heel dark side. Far and away the best match, though, was the Intercontinental title bout between the Macho Man and Ricky Steamboat. Lasting nearly 15 minutes and featuring the comic antics of George “The Animal” Steele and his Kong-like crush on Miss Elizabeth, many “experts” consider it the greatest match ever wrestled, although it should be noted that ringside announcer Jesse “The Body” Ventura considered the whole thing nothing more than a “miscarriage of justice.”
Hulk Hogan goes bad, Bash at the Beach ’96
A resurgent WCW poached a lot of WWE talent in the mid-’90s. But the WCW itself faced oblivion when the Outsiders Kevin Nash and Scott Hall “invaded” and threatened to take over the entirety of World Championship Wrestling. Standing in their way at the 1996 Bash at the Beach was the formidable group of Randy Savage, Sting and Lex Luger. Hall and Nash promised a third member of their alliance, but as of the match’s start it was only the two of them, with the announcers speaking ominously of the unknown third member throughout the fight. Things looked bleak for WCW, but soon Hulk Hogan came out, ostensibly to save the day just like he always had. But then the unthinkable happened: Hogan leg drops Savage and reveals himself as the mysterious third wheel of the Outsiders, soon to be renamed the NWO.
The “Montreal Screwjob,” Survivor Series ’97
Bret “The Hitman” Hart, like most wrestlers, always thought a lot of himself, regularly describing himself as “the best there is, the best there was, and the best there ever will be.” In 1997, the Hitman was world champion but was planning on leaving for WCW after the Survivor Series. Hart was under the impression that he would be departing as champion, but Vince McMahon, Shawn Michaels and referee Earl Hebner conspired to take the title away from him before he left. Normally referees are only good for getting knocked out or getting distracted and missing illegal moves. Toward the end of the match, Hebner blatantly signals for the bell and awards Michaels the title. Vince McMahon is ringside, and Hart clearly spits on him after it all goes down. A classic.
The Austin 3:16 speech, King of the Ring ’96
Back in 1996, Steve Austin was just an unremarkable up-and-comer. But when he got his big push into the limelight, he really took advantage of it. After dispatching “Wildman” Mark Mero in his first match at King of the Ring, Austin was pitted against an aging Jake “The Snake” Roberts. It didn’t end up being much of a match, as Roberts had injured his ribs during his first match, and Stone Cold, as is his wont, worked them over at first opportunity. At this point, Austin was still developing the persona that would make him a legend, and his signature move, the Stone Cold Stunner, didn’t yet incorporate the solar plexus kick that would make it so recognizable in the future. After beating Roberts, Stone Cold ascended the dais, took the mic, and gave a speech for the ages: “The first thing I want to be done is to get that piece of crap outta my ring. Don’t just get him out of the ring, get him out of the WWF. Because I’ve proved, son, without a shadow of a doubt, you ain’t got what it takes anymore. You sit there and you thump your Bible and you say your prayers, and it didn’t get you anywhere. Talk about your psalms, talk about John 3:16. Austin 3:16 just whipped your ass!” Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. couldn’t have said it better.
WWE Legends of Wrestling
The WWE Network features some original programming, my favorite of which is Legends of Wrestling, hosted by a still-spry “Mean” Gene Okerlund, who leads a roundtable discussion of wrestling history. Mick Foley’s story about how Stone Cold was almost called Ice Dagger is an incredible tale of what might have been.
The Rock vs. CM Punk, Royal Rumble 2013
The Rock has a million iconic moments, and possibly a million and one looks, nicknames and catchphrases. After returning to the WWE as a host at WrestleMania XXVII, Rock went on to face then champion CM Punk at the Royal Rumble. It was a match pitting old versus new, not unlike the Rock’s own match years earlier against Hollywood Hulk Hogan, with the roles reversed. The student had become the master, but Punk was not impressed. The Rock was in control but was bushwacked by a faction known as The Shield. Punk seized the opportunity and pinned a prone Rock. Then through some Vince McMahon shenanigans, Rock got another shot. And the rest is the People’s history.
The Undertaker vs. Mankind, Hell in a Cell ’97
Everyone accepts that pro wrestling is “fake,” that the matches have predetermined outcomes and that the punches are for show. But the fact is that these guys take an incredible amount of physical abuse on a nightly basis, and none more so than Mick Foley’s leather clad alter-ego Mankind in a 1997 cage match against the Undertaker. The tone is set early on, when Undertaker hurls Mankind off the top of the cage and into the announcer’s table some 30 feet below. Mankind somehow rallies, climbs back to the top of the cage, and is promptly thrown threw the cage and down to the mat. Mankind should probably be dead at this point, but somehow continues. He’s eventually stopped when Undertaker choke slams him into a pile of thumbtacks. To this day I’ve never seen a more impressive loss in any sport (or, I guess, “sports entertainment”).