I am thankful to be a wrestling fan. It has brought me more joy and entertainment than almost every other medium. It has also helped me through some of the most difficult parts and periods of my life. As we approach my absolute favorite holiday of the year—Thanksgiving—I thought it was a good time to look back and appreciate some of the seminal matches that helped me become the fan I am today.

Now, these are not my five greatest matches. They are not even my five favorite matches, though a couple would make the list. These are the five matches that I can think back on and see had a profound impact on me becoming the fan, and in a lot of ways, the person I am today. These matches helped shape my taste from being a boy who solely followed the WWF, to a 30+-year-old who enjoys matches from promotions all over the world. These matches hooked me on this silly pastime, introduced me to new styles and promotions, and just plain make me feel happy. Like your great aunt’s green bean casserole you can’t wait to eat this Thursday, my taste won’t be for everybody. Though I would be curious to see what matches shaped the kind of fan you are and why.

Hulk Hogan vs The Ultimate Warrior
WrestleMania VI 1990

My first memory as a child I am sitting at my kitchen table playing with the old school, rubber 8-10 inch tall wrestling figures. One was Hulk Hogan. The other was Ultimate Warrior. I have no idea how I got them and the wrestling ring I’d have them square off in, but I never went anywhere without it.

My grandma would babysit me in those days, and one of our favorite things to do together was rent movies. I would always pick the Royal Rumbles or Survivor Series matches of the 80s and early 90s because they had my action figures, as well as so many other crazy characters. As time went by, my figure collection grew, and I even started to see WWF the Magazine at the grocery store and have my mom or grandma buy me every new edition.

My infant fandom was slowly growing, but my allegiance to those first two, Hulk and Warrior, stayed true. Hogan was always my favorite, and as I’ve grown, I see why. The Fed’s marketing of the man was strong, and my young impressionable mind was sold. Warrior was always a close second though. So when I came across a magazine with my two heroes on a mountain surrounded by lighting, my mind was instantly blown.

I thought this was the greatest thing ever. To be honest, outside the video rentals, I don’t remember watching wrestling much if at all on television at that young age, but I HAD to watch this match. I had no concept of pay per view at that time, so I waited as patiently as a 5-6-year-old child could wait until the video came out to rent. I had seen other WrestleManias available to rent, but they never seemed like they had as many wrestlers on them as the Rumble or Survivor Series, so I never gave them a try. This show changed everything for me. To this day it remains my favorite of all the WrestleManias because of the pure joy I remember having watching it for the first time. Capping it off were my two favorites battling for my heart. At the end of the match, Warrior stood tall. I was a tad upset, but Hogan delivering the title to Warrior and their hug left me smiling. I must have watched this show dozens of times over the next few months and began to explore some of the other WWF related videos and shows.

I was hooked for good on pro wrestling, and I have yet to look back.

Blood Generation vs Do Fixxer
ROH Supercard of Honor 2006

For the majority of my life as a wrestling fan, at least until after I graduated from college, I only followed the mainstream wrestling companies. WWF/E was always must-see for me. WCW kept my interest in the mid-late 90s when Hogan made the jump until Austin got big. I even started to follow TNA once it started on Spike TV. It was when I started watching TNA and was amazed by the athleticism of those in the X-Division, that I started hearing about ROH, NJPW, NOAH and the like. Still, whether it was out of time, force of habit, or lack of internet navigational skills, I never sought after any of it.

That changed one summer morning. I’ve written about stumbling upon the Internet Wrestling Database and Meltzer’s star ratings in the past and how it helped me expand my fandom, but it really all started that morning. I believe I was searching for the Samoa Joe/Kenta Kobashi match that was recommended to me, when for some reason I came upon this match first. I had never heard of anyone in this match, but it seemed to have incredible praise attached to it, so I gave it a click.

I remember thinking that I thought some of the TNA guys were small, and that these guys all looked significantly smaller. Not that wrestlers’ size was ever an issue to me, but being conditioned how I had been to that point, I only took them seriously to a point. The crowd was going nuts and chanting and pounding the ring. It was a completely different atmosphere than what I was used to. It looked incredibly fun. Then the match started, and I quickly found out why the crowd was exuding excitement the way they were.

The speed of these men was unlike anything I had ever seen to this point. They made Rey Mysterio look like he was running in quicksand. Then they started in with the double and triple-team combinations. They were executing these insanely athletic and complex moves with such speed and precision I could hardly keep up. Moves that seemed like they would beat anyone in ANY of the promotions I was used to watching, would get two or even one counts. Every time I thought there was a lull coming, they would kick it up another gear. I would catch some fans in the front row with their hands on their heads and jaws hanging in disbelief. I was right there with them. This was unlike anything I had ever seen before. Sitting on my couch my eyes were wide, jaw open, and I gasped several times thinking that I was about to watch someone die from some of these spots.

When the match ended, I felt like I had just seen the greatest match in the history of wrestling. It shattered all the preconceptions of rules, match structure, and wrestler capabilities I had to that point. It showed me how much more wrestling could be, and I immediately wanted to seek out more of it. From there I would go on to that classic Joe/Kenta match, more Dragon Gate and lucha libre matches. I have never stopped looking.

Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Minoru Suzuki
King of Pro Wrestling 2012

That same summer of 2013, I slowly began to dive deeper into Japanese wrestling. This of course started with the ROH six-man tag match, but was really sent into motion by Kenta Kobashi. I thoroughly enjoyed his match with Samoa Joe, and wanted to see more of the man. I found myself looking up and loving his classics against Hansen, Misawa, Akiyama, and several of the well-known tag matches listed on profightdb.net.

Until this period of personal wrestling research, the thought of watching matches in a foreign language did not really appeal to me, which is part of why it took me so long to do the deep dive. Through my Kobashi binge, I was mesmerized by the action and performers in the ring The commentary became secondary to me, to the point I barely noticed it. When I did notice the commentary, it was due to the obvious excitement in their voices from the action in the match. It was almost like hearing mic’d up members of the crowd, and it added to my enjoyment.

Throughout this research, I kept reading about New Japan Pro Wrestling, and some of the seemingly great things happening in that company more recently. I saw the name Hiroshi Tanahashi pop up most frequently. I noticed his more recently highly-rated match against a wrestler named Minoru Suzuki, and one night as I laid in my bed, I decided to pull it up on YouTube.

Not knowing much about either of these two wrestlers, and not knowing Japanese, the hype videos did not do much to help matters. There were highlights of each wrestler, which gave me a little glimpse of what to expect. Tanahashi seemed to be a very big deal in New Japan. He was obviously their champion, and seemed to be Japan’s equivalent to John Cena at the time in terms of popularity. That made me a little more apprehensive, since I was a full-on Cena hater at that point. Suzuki on the other hand, he seemed like an insane killer. This older, seemingly not as fit dude with crazy hair was slapping people, kicking their faces off, and making wild faces while sticking his tongue out. His crazy eyes made it seem like he took pleasure in making others miserable.

This match was the closest thing I had ever seen to an actual amateur wrestling match in a professional wrestling ring. Suzuki seemed to be actively trying to rip Tanahashi’s limbs from his body and enjoying every minute of it. Tanahashi was squirming and writhing in pain and agony. The crowd wanted him to escape, and so did I. That man had me wrapped around his finger already. The wrestling in this match was beautiful and completely different from what I was expecting. Both these wrestlers displayed a kind of technical precision and pace that was completely different from the aforementioned ROH six-man tag, but every bit as engaging and enthralling. Tanahashi was the man I desperately wished Cena would be. When he hit the high fly flow and pinned the evil Suzuki, I knew I had found a new favorite wrestler. I had to follow this man and this company as best as I could moving forward.

Over time, I got myself more familiar with the product, and have been a devoted follower and fan of it ever since. I even got the opportunity to watch the living legend in Dearborn, MI at a War of the Worlds show in 2017. To think it started with one summer evening in my bed with a glass of water and YouTube.

Katsuyori Shibata vs. Tomohiro Ishii
G1 Climax 23 Day 4 2013

Fast-forward about 3-4 months. I had just taken my new job as a graduate assistant for the men’s basketball program at Siena Heights University in Adrian, MI. I spent the rest of that summer and fall moving from my previous position at Goshen College in Goshen, IN, and trying to familiarize myself with a new location, new program, and new challenges academically. Watching wrestling took a backseat to new recruiting lists, basketball philosophies, and homework for the first time in a few years. I would get my fix of the typical WWE programming because it was easy. As for the continuous expansion of my pro wrestling vernacular, it would come to a halt.

That was until one weekend in early October. It was my first weekend off since starting there and everyone I would have tried to be social with was either busy or went home. I had an entire house that I normally shared with three other graduate assistants, so I thought it would be good to poke around the internet and see what good stuff I had missed. I pulled up the wrestling database and was happy to see an abundance of highly regarded matches that had taken place. There was a theme amongst many of these matches. They seemed to all come from something called the “G1 Climax.” After giggling to myself for a second because of the name, I found that the G1 Climax is a tournament that New Japan had held every summer since the early 90s. Over the last few years, the winner would determine who would challenge for the championship at Wrestle Kingdom, NJPW’s biggest show of the year in January.

I have always been a HUGE fan of the Royal Rumble, but a tournament to determine a number one contender appealed more to my athletic, competitive side. I was excited to watch these highly rated matches with several new names I had yet to discover, as well as my newfound man-crush Tanahashi. It was here that I saw Hirooki Goto (when he was cool), Shinsuke Nakamura, Kazuchika Okada, and many more. These matches were extremely competitive, hard-hitting, and felt like sprints with the top stars throwing everything they had at each other to be the top contender.

Then I came across what turned out to be the top match of the tournament from day four. I had yet to watch a match from either Shibata or Ishii at that point. The video I was about to watch did not have entrances and was barely 12 minutes. I had watched a fair amount of matches from that tournament to that point, so I was curious how this would supposedly top them all in many eyes. It did not take long to figure that out.

As a wrestling fan, like many reading this, you have probably gotten the, “You know it’s fake right?” To anyone who wants to know how “fake” it is from that day forward, I would show them this gorgeous symphony of violence. Ishii, would looks like a pitbull who mated with a fire hydrant to create a fighting machine, and Shibata, who’s black trunks and remorseless eyes made me know he was looking to destroy anyone in front of him, stormed out of the bell throwing the stiffest and wildest kicks and punches I had ever seen in a wrestling match. You might see this fight on the street after a long night at the bar after 2am. There were no wrestling moves, no holds and exchanges, just two men throwing bombs until the other could not stand.

The entire match is a lesson in staying out of pro wrestling, but when Shibata hits Ishii with that running dropkick to the corner with the camera inches from Ishii’s skull, you feel it. By the time Ishii finally puts Shibata out of his misery with a brainbuster, you realize Ishii did not really win, he simply survived. What I just witnessed was more intense and hard-hitting than half of any UFC or MMA card, and it was glorious. I was already hooked on New Japan, but here I feel madly in love. This was a promotion that had a little bit of everything. From Tanahashi/Suzuki wrestling flawlessly, to Kota Ibushi combining the technique with high flying, to two men trying to end each other like this, I had found my WWE alternative, and two more personal favorite wrestlers.

The Rock vs. Hulk Hogan
WrestleMania X8 2002

All of the matches I have discussed to this point I have listed in the order I watched them. I wanted to end with this match for two reasons. One, it is the only match on this list I watched live in real time as it happened. Two, this match has more importance to me than any match I have watched in my life.

Right around this time, like many at that age, I was at a crossroads. I was a freshman in high school and I had several different interests that were taking up my time. I was getting deeper into my interests in sports, music, movies, girls, and several other things that roll around in an early teen’s head. Pro wrestling had been the one constant throughout all of the changes going on in me, but even that was beginning to waver. I would watch most Mondays, but what used to be appointment viewing was getting increasingly spotty. My connection to it was not near as strong as it had been in years prior. I would go a few weeks without watching, and I really wouldn’t miss it.

However, it was Wrestlemania, and my childhood hero was making his return. If Hulk Hogan was not on this show, I doubt I would have watched it and who knows where I would be today. As I stated previously, this was the man that roped me into this wild world. I followed him through his final years in the WWF, through his jump to WCW, and up through most of his incredible heel run with WCW. I even watched Thunder in Paradise as the lead into Nitro if that tells you anything! Like many, unfortunately, the nWo malaise would set in over time. This wasn’t the hero I knew and loved anymore. Coupled with Austin’s meteoric rise, I was driven back to the WWF. I did not watch any of the final year to year and a half of Hogan’s WCW run. As far as I was concerned, I was done with him and was happy with the memories he gave me.

Once I heard he and the nWo were coming to the WWF, my interest spiked, but only slightly. I had a curiosity as to how he and the nWo would fit into modern WWF. The nWo and their shenanigans are what drove me away from the product, but seeing them on WWF television was still very surreal. I remember the build to the match being very nWo’y with the fork truck/ambulance bit, spray paint and the like, so I was already wavering.

Three moments in this match changed all of that: the entrance, the poses, and the hulk up. The sight of Hogan coming down the ramp in his feather boa to Voodoo Child was surreal, but not as surreal as that Toronto crowd. They treated him like an absolute God during his entrance, and as he hit the ring and ripped his shirt, the crowd popped as if they were about to watch their hero take on Andre. My heart was pumping and my adrenaline was already flowing. Then after the Rock’s entrance to a chorus of boos, they had the famous stare down surrounded by thousands of flashbulbs. They circled the ring and locked up. After a few moments of struggle, Hogan threw the Rock like he would an 80’s jobber. He then hit him with his trademark flexes and the crowd went wild. They then hit the ropes leading to Hogan hitting The Rock with a shoulder tackle, sending The Rock rolling as if he was a 150 lb. shrimp. Again, Hogan went into his trademark poses and started TO CUP THE EAR TO THE CROWD. This was not Hollywood Hogan anymore. This was the Real American. At that moment, the crowd went absolutely nuts, and I was transformed. I wasn’t a high school freshman anymore sitting on my couch. I was that 5-6-year-old boy watching in my grandma’s bed with the kind of joy almost indescribable as an adult.

They went on to have a decent back and forth match, with the crowd completely behind Hogan the whole way. Once the referee was taken out and the Rock got the upper hand with the weight belt, I figured it was about over. He gave Hogan that weight belt receipt and hit him with a Rock Bottom. Hogan would kick out and HULK UP LIKE HE WAS IN THE MIDDLE OF THE SILVERDOME. The crowd was lifted to a state of euphoria the like we may never see again, and my smile was only eclipsed by the number of goosebumps that now covered my entire body. WHATCHA GONNA DO?! Punch, punch, punch, ropes, big boot. “HE BEAT ANDRE THE GIANT WITH THAT MOVE!”

We know The Rock would kick out and ultimately win the match. That’s not the point here though. This match not only reaffirmed my love for this silly stuff, it took me to a place of happiness that I can’t properly describe. A place that I would need time and time again throughout my life. This match has gotten me through countless low points, deaths, breakups, and curveballs life can throw at you. No matter where I am or how old I am or what state I am in, I can throw this on and it will bring me the joy of an awestruck 5-6-year-old boy.

I hope you have enjoyed this as much as I did writing it. I hope you continue to be thankful for whatever your pro wrestling tastes are, and the matches/moments that shaped them. I hope these matches can transport you to a specific time and place like these did me. I hope those times and places bring a smile to your face. Happy Holidays.