One of the many wonderful facets of wrestling is how many different ways there are to make a match great, and, more importantly: special. While I’m sure every wrestling fan reading this can envisage the building blocks of your typical ‘great match,’ often what truly sets a match apart as essential to wrestling history is breaking those expectations and solidifying itself as unforgettable to all who bear witness.
Thus, for our first full grouping of matches for The Wrestling 101 we chose to lead with five matches that don’t even approach the typical great match formula and are all the better for it. These five matches push and in some cases go beyond the usual boundaries of what pro wrestling is, and as such, have cemented themselves in wrestling parlance.
So without further ado, we present to you five unique spectacles that every wrestling fan should make a point to watch. – Robin Reid
Hell in a Cell: Undertaker vs. Mankind
WWF King of the Ring 1998
When I was a kid, wrestling was always intriguing to me. I owned action figures, had plenty of WWF and WCW trading cards, and would see the shirts everywhere. Still, my parents hated it, and I didn’t know how to find it on TV. The Attitude Era came, Austin 3:16 and NWO shirts were everywhere, and pay-per-view VHS tapes were available to rent at the local Blockbuster. One fateful weekend, I was finally able to rent a WWF tape. I picked a tape completely at random and ended up with King of the Ring 1998.
I watched the show, not knowing what was to come. Two major matches were advertised: the main event of Steve Austin vs. Kane in a first-blood match and Mankind vs. The Undertaker in a Hell In The Cell. It seemed cool, and I was excited; I had no clue what was coming.
By 1998, Mick Foley had established himself as a journeyman in professional wrestling. He began on the Northeast indies and settled into his Cactus Jack character: an unhinged wildman not afraid to turn his matches extreme and hardcore. He had a stint in WCW, became a focal point of the fledgling ECW, and won the IWA King of the Deathmatch in Japan. He signed with WWF, was put under a mask, and became the deranged Mankind. He lived in the Boiler Room, came out to dark music, and wore all brown. He was the perfect foil to the Undertaker, the most iconic “sinister” figure in company history. As time went on, Foley showed more of his personality. He debuted a second character, the fun-loving hippie Dude Love, and brought back Cactus Jack and would wrestle as each of the three at different times. The crowd began to get behind him as the weird but lovable everyman. Eventually, as Mankind, Foley was put into a Hell In A Cell match against Undertaker, only the third time this match had ever happened.
I sat in my bedroom and watched as Foley climbed to the top of the cage to start the match. Undertaker followed. The danger was ramped up immediately. I didn’t know that, in mere minutes, my life would be changed forever. After some brawling, the Undertaker did something truly unthinkable: he threw Foley off the cage.
This is one of the most iconic moments in WWF/E history. Almost everyone has seen it. It has been replayed over and over and over. The shock, the crash, the entire spectacle is something that has been attempted numerous times, but it will never be the same as this.
The match seemed destined to end right there. Sitting on my bed watching on a 12-inch screen, I thought it was over. The bump is the iconic part of the match. It’s what has been replayed over and over. But the bump is merely a stunt show if Foley never got up. But finally, he did. Mankind rose off of a stretcher and returned to the ring. Not just to the ring: he climbed back up to the top. And, promptly, he was chokeslammed right through the cell, crashing hard onto the ring with even more impact than the first. In any other match, any other instance, THIS would be the moment replayed forever. In this match, it is just one part of the fabric.
By this point, I was hooked forever. This was just chaos. This man was putting his body through absolute hell. Foley lay motionless on the ground. Terry Funk came in the ring to buy time and distract the Undertaker and was promptly chokeslammed out of his shoes. At this point, Mankind wasn’t in the match anymore. The mask was gone. This was Mick Foley, smiling as blood poured from his mouth and his tooth was possibly gone. Wrestling characters didn’t exist anymore. This was real.
Foley clawed and fought his way through another full eleven minutes of this war, throwing in some ruinous chair shots and thumbtacks for good measure. Finally, he had nothing left. Foley was thrown multiple times into thumbtacks, a level of violence my 12-year-old mind couldn’t comprehend or see coming. The Undertaker won with a Tombstone.
This was the first match I saw that truly grabbed me, making me a fan for life. I can’t imagine that I was the only one. Mick Foley was cemented as a WWF legend this night and shockingly won the championship a few months later. There is a real chance that this is the most-shown match in WWF/E history. In the most extreme way possible, it embodies everything that pro wrestling is: heart, chaos, brutality, and spectacle in a way that just cannot be achieved in any other medium.
- Undertaker vs. Shawn Michaels – The debut of the Hell in a Cell that set the bar so high.
- Cactus Jack vs. Paul Orndorff – Mick Foley having one of the best ever walk and brawls against a surprising opponent.
- Cactus Jack vs. Triple H – Foley returning to the Cell to make Triple H a top guy.
Stan Hansen vs. Andre the Giant
NJPW Bloody Fight Series
Andre the Giant is one of the most recognizable wrestlers of all time. To generations of people, he is the one they think of. Billed at 7’4” and 520 pounds, he is truly larger than life. But he’s not just the WWF WrestleMania era star that got bodyslammed by Hulk Hogan.
He was especially a major star in Japan, where he met Stan Hansen, a wrestler from the United States who had gone to Japan and become a star in his own right. These two were already familiar with each other. As soon as the massive Andre entered the ring, Hansen attacked, but Andre wasn’t having any of it. The crowd was molten before the bell even rang. Hansen was usually the one hulking over and dominating his opponent, but here was the much smaller man. Andre’s versatility is immediately on display. He ran around the ring. He bumped like a maniac. But he also slowed the pace, allowing every single Hansen grimace and groan to resonate.
The Japanese crowd was electric, completely entranced by these two foreign monsters decimating each other. They absolutely exploded when Hansen (years before Hulk Hogan) powerslamed Andre. They clobber each other with hard, juicy punches. They were counted out brawling ringside, a common trope in 1980’s pro wrestling, but both wanted to keep going and the match was restarted quickly.
Andre was hung in the ropes. The intensity ramped up. David versus Goliath… if David was a 6’4” cowboy from Texas. The pace was fast and furious, Hansen and Andre both bounced off the ropes maniacally, attempting any move they could until Hansen lariated the Giant to the outside. Andre then put on a possibly loaded elbow pad, destroyed the ref when confronted about it, and was DQ’d. The brawl continued through every young lion in the arena, as they all attempted to break up the brawl to no real avail.
The “G1 style” 15-minute New Japan sprint is often referenced when describing modern matches. This match exemplifies that style 30 years before it came into prominence. Add one of the most iconic wrestlers in history, with a natural look and style that will never be replicated, working as hard as he’s ever worked, and you have a special match. Many remember Andre in his WWF form; old, slow, and breaking down. Just a few years earlier, he was at his peak form; athletic, full of life, and unlike anyone else ever seen in the wrestling industry.
- Andre, Kopa & Buyten vs. Teranishi, Kimura & Sugiyama – An even younger Andre being so much fun in Japan.
- Big Van Vader vs. Stan Hansen – Another titanic gaijin clash. All Japan versus New Japan. Not for the faint of heart.
- Big Show vs. Mark Henry – WWE’s version of a clash of the titans.
Time Bomb Death Match: Atsushi Onita vs. Terry Funk
Sirens blare. Wind swirls. Gasps and shrieks emanate from the audience. Chaos doesn’t just ensue; this is chaos personified. One man lies in the middle of the mat, motionless. Dread and fear overtake an entire stadium. The hero of the day, the winner of the match, stands conflicted. He faces the dilemma of a lifetime. He realizes he only has one choice. He runs back into the ring and covers his downed opponent. The clock strikes zero, zero-hour hits, and explosions blast all around the ring. Smoke, dust, and debris billow and gust around the stadium. And two men, brothers in battle, in both victory and defeat, lay together, forever entwined in wrestling history.
Deathmatch wrestling has a very specific stigma and definition in modern-day wrestling. Images of men shattering light tubes, throwing darts at each other, and bleeding like stuck pigs are the norm. That is not the Atsushi Onita style of deathmatch.
Onita is the godfather of deathmatch wrestling. His FMW promotion is renowned for pioneering the genre. While it is easy to compare FMW to its United States counterpart ECW, FMW pushed the limit even further than ECW did. Barbed wire and explosions abounded, and Onita firmly planted himself right in the center, the Hulk Hogan of the promotion. The charismatic leader in all ways.
The perfect foil was Terry Funk. Funk is possibly the most famous gaijin wrestler in Japanese wrestling history. After retiring a decade before, Funk made multiple comebacks in his career and finally returned to Japan. He gave Onita a credible opponent who was just as insane as Onita himself.
Onita and FMW knew how to capitalize on spectacle. This is a no-rope barbed wire exploding ring match. The referee was covered head to toe in a suit resembling a knight wearing chainmail. Onita also knew how to capitalize on drama and knew that less is more. Every time a man neared the barbed wire, tension grew. Onita took the first two throws into the barbed wire, explosions singeing his body both times. Funk tore up Onita’s arms with barbed wire but could never cave away at Onita’s grit or determination.
Funk and Onita are two of the best at showing a match’s stakes through the way they emote with their bodies and facial emotion. This is a war with high stakes. The ring will explode. Funk sold every blast like he was on death’s door. He desperately pulled Onita into the barbed wire with him. Every single second was heaped with drama.
Then, the timer appeared. The siren started. In five minutes, the ring will explode. Both frantically try to end the match. The covers came quick, but none are enough. Both were bloody heaps. Funk applied his patented spinning toe hold but was thrown into the barbed wire for his troubles. With two minutes left, Onita hit a DDT and the three count, but Funk didn’t stop. He choked Onita with barbed wire and took out the ref. Onita powerbombed Funk multiple times. Funk lay lifeless. One minute before the explosion, a second siren started. It is impossible not to feel panic. Onita left the ring, but, seeing Funk still lying there, he ran back to cover him. The ring exploded. The video version of this cuts all sound immediately and goes right into cinematic music. It is an unbelievable scene as Funk and Onita struggle to their feet, two men that have just been to war together.
This match is one of the true peaks of the deathmatch genre. There have been many matches that have more blood and more violence. There have been very few that have been this emotional.
- Undertaker vs. Triple H – A match in a different time period and setting but similarly teeming in melodrama.
- Masato Tanaka vs. Tomoaki Honma – A guy who always loses in the biggest opportunity of his life against an FMW alumni.
- Tommaso Ciampa vs. Johnny Gargano – The first of their big matches where the melodrama really landed.
Golden Lovers vs. Danshoku Dino & Yoshihiko
DDT Max Bump 2009
The Japanese promotion Dramatic Dream Team Pro-Wrestling, commonly referred to simply as DDT, is a tricky promotion to pin down in a summary. To refer to it simply as a comedy promotion would be reductive to how many incredible wrestlers and matches have passed through and occurred in its ring, but your traditional puroresu company it is not. The best way I have heard it described is a bizarre Japanese parody of the already farcical world of American wrestling.
While most of the main events are played straight and feature some of the best athletic contests, you’ll find anywhere in the world of wrestling, for the majority of the Western audience their first exposure to DDT will come in the form of the absurd. Thus in selecting a representative for the promotion for The Wrestling 101, we chose a very famous match that combined the two schools of DDT into one of their unique spectacles.
The Golden Lovers are the tag team of Kenny Omega and Kota Ibushi, two of the biggest stars in all of wrestling this millennium. At this point in their career, they were both still on their rise, but were already established as top performers and stars within the promotion. Across the ring from them stood Danshoku Dino, one on Japan’s most successful comedy wrestlers, and Yoshihiko, a blow-up sex doll.
Yes, you read that right.
To describe exactly what occurred in this match would be a fool’s errand. The four (?) performers put on an athletic, dramatic and memorable match, where one of the four people wrestling just so happened to be an inflatable sex toy. There’s technical wrestling, there are head-drops, there are dives to the outside, there are Canadian Destroyers, there’s kissing, and there’s even a moment where one of the competitors dies of grievous head trauma. Don’t worry, though, there’s a resurrection.
It almost goes without saying that DDT is not for every wrestling fan. For some, it’s the pinnacle of the art form, while for others, it’s a bastardization that holds no value. Everybody should try the unique taste of DDT at least once, though, and this tag is the perfect sample.
- Campsite Pro-Wrestling – Wrestling on a campsite, complete with fireworks.
- Kota Ibushi vs. Kenny Omega – The two big DDT stars playing it straight in the main event of Budokan
- Minoru Suzuki vs. Sanshiro Takagi – A Tokyo Dome match! Except the Dome is empty.
Fire Road: Kasai & Matsunaga vs. Gage & Zandig
BJW Summer Jumbo Series 2000
Spectacle is an important part of wrestling. The idea that you will see things in a wrestling ring that you cannot see anywhere else is one of the key draws to any wrestling show. This can be delivered in a myriad of ways: larger-than-life wrestlers, the culmination of long-term stories, and a variety of other theatrics are some ways spectacle is achieved. Another way: fire.
This match, dubbed in wrestling lexicon as Fire Road, is unlike any other match you’ve ever seen. To start, the wrestlers take apart the ring themselves, leaving wooden boards exposed for maximum carnage. Then, Mitsuhiro Matsunaga drives a car to the ring. Is his intention to run over John Zandig and crew? Of course, it is! The car drags Zandig. Men are powerbombed off the roof onto their heads. There is an attempt to smash into a man stuck to the ring post. Actual murder is a real possibility.
Of course, the match is called Fire Road for a reason. Fire blazes on the ring ropes. Smoke billows and swirls around the outdoor area. You can’t even call this an arena; it appears to be in the middle of an apartment complex. This feels like absolute danger. Chaos reigns. Jun Kasai arrives in a box truck, which of course, means that someone will be launched off the top.
This is not clean wrestling. It is not technical. In fact, it may not really be wrestling at all. And that is why it is so great. You’ll never see a match like this again. It was a tornado caught in a bottle, the Wild West of unexplored deathmatch wrestling territory. Limits were pushed and extended to such an extreme that even the biggest and best deathmatch wrestlers and companies don’t try to approach them anymore. In the smorgasbord of pro wrestling, there is a spot in the corner for blood, fire, and (Mr.) Danger.
- Anarchy in the Arena – AEW’s most memorable wild team brawl.
- Sabu & The Sheik vs. Onita & Goto – Fire! Sometimes it goes considerably more wrong than in Fire Road.
- Tupelo Concession Stand Brawl – A famous brawl that can lay claim as a birth of extreme wrestling.
The Wrestling 101
- An Introduction to the Project & Match #1
- Unique Spectacles: Matches #2-6
The Wrestling 101 is a Voices of Wrestling group project headed up by Kevin Hare and Robin Reid. You can discuss the series with them on twitter @stan__hansen (Kevin) and @TheRDouble (Robin) or join the conversation over in the Voices of Wrestling Discord.