What could have been?
A phrase we’re all too often left with as wrestling fans. The novelist Mark Twain was once quoted as stating, “the future is a very slippery commodity.” I don’t believe he was talking about wrestling, but there’s very few fields where such a saying would be more apt. With injuries, politics, unpredictable career trajectories, the unscientific search for “over,” and, quite frankly, a whole bunch of incompetency in positions of power for large swathes of wrestling history, there really is no such thing as a sure thing.
While the majority of The Wrestling 101 is made up of matches that were incredibly impactful on wrestling, this section is made up of matches that SHOULD have been but for a variety of reasons weren’t. Five matches that, if there was any justice, should have been turning points in the sport, but instead are left merely as signposts unfollowed. Nonetheless, these five matches are essential to any wrestling fan’s viewing due to a combination of their excellence and as a reminder to never take anything for granted in our insane hobby. – Robin Reid
CM Punk vs. John Cena
WWE Money in the Bank 2011
CM Punk versus John Cena from WWE Money in the Bank 2011 is why the site you’re reading this on exists.
For those who don’t know the story, I attended Money in the Bank live and was so wound up that I decided to make this lifelong hobby into something more on my way home from the show.
That night, I created what would become VoicesofWrestling.com.
While we are still thriving 11 years later, this section is aptly named “What Could Have Been?” for a reason.
The story, the match, and the moment created that night in July, the one that made me go from a fan to an analyst, the one that captured the hearts and minds of so many lapsed pro wrestling fans and dragged us right back into this dumb hobby. The first major North American match to receive five stars from Dave Meltzer since October 1997.
It all culminated in—what else—a Sledgehammer Ladder Match between Kevin Nash and Triple H.
You may believe this match and the story leading to it was a turning point in WWE and American wrestling, and you’re right.
AEW does not exist without CM Punk’s infamous pipebomb promo building up to this match.
WWE itself changed forever when for the first time in a prominent major main event story, the curtain was fully pulled back, and the biggest heel in the company was the company itself. Not “Mr. McMahon” or “The Corporation” but the publicly-traded company we were watching and buying tickets from, they were the bad guys.
Countless times in future years—to the detriment usually—the central protagonist in a WWE story was “the company.” This match created that template.
I’ll never forget the feeling of being in the building that night; the buzz was palpable from entering the hallowed (and shitty) halls of Rosemont’s Allstate Arena. The rest of the show was one of WWE’s best pay-per-views. But we all knew why we were there. Sure, we had been respectful and into the rest of the wrestling on the show, but once that graphic showed us that Punk vs. Cena was next, it was ON. A match graphic pop like you’ll never hear. And we never stopped making noise.
For those who watched the show on PPV or have gone back to watch it on Peacock or WWE Network, it’s impossible to forget Jerry Lawler chuckling “Aww, man!” when he heard the negative fan reaction to Cena that night.
It wasn’t so much about Cena himself but that he had been the poster child for a company and a business that had moved further and further from what a particular segment of fans—be it ones that started watching in 1987, 1994, or 1998—came to expect and want from their American wrestling.
By 2011, WWE was a decade into monopoly control of major American pro wrestling. After buying WCW and swallowing up ECW in April 2001, fans had no choice. It was WWE or bust, baby. Most fans chose bust and left, never to return. Some of us begrudgingly tuned in every week, hoping and praying that something, ANYTHING, would get it back to the good days.
Rarely, if ever, did that come to fruition.
Some of us found new wrestling in the form of the American independent scene and Ring of Honor. Others discovered the vast world of international wrestling, mainly in Mexico and Japan.
But in July 2011, we were all one again for the first time in a decade. A united front.
Punk’s pipebomb united lapsed fans, and his references to Ring of Honor and New Japan Pro Wrestling were an olive branch to those lapsed fans, telling them, I see you, I hear you, join me on this journey.
And so we did.
And the reward was one of the greatest wrestling matches you’ll ever see. The match is a perfectly-constructed roller coaster of wrestling emotions, a match that old fans and new fans alike appreciate and love. From teasing a LOLCENAWINS to Vince McMahon attempting to recreate the Montreal Screwjob, the match melted down decades of pro wrestling discontent into a 30-minute spectacle that we’ll never forget.
We have chosen to forget how it all ended, how this match that lit a fuse for so many pro wrestling fans ended with Triple H vs. Kevin Nash in a goddamn Sledgehammer Ladder Match.
Punk walked through the crowd that night, WWE Title in hand, presumably to leave WWE. The immediate follow-up saw Punk share photos of the title in his fridge, Punk crash a Comic-Con panel, and speculation abounds on how WWE could utilize the vast pro wrestling universe for their gain. Punk could show up in Ring of Honor with the title! Punk could go to New Japan for a tour. There were so many options and ways this story could go. By 2011, the typical siloed pro wrestling world had opened up due to streaming video and social media. The world was WWE’s oyster.
So, of course, WWE just had Punk show up a few weeks later, had Alberto Del Rio win the title at SummerSlam the next month and put the heat of the entire angle on Kevin Nash.
“Stick the winner for me, brother.”
They got us again, didn’t they?
- Austin Aries vs. CM Punk – Punk kicks off the original Summer of Punk by winning the ROH title. Watch the post-match.
- CM Punk vs. John Cena from RAW – The two men added to this match’s legend by having many great rematches, but the RAW incarnation was the best.
- Triple H vs. Daniel Bryan – Another indie darling reaching the pinnacle of WWE against a classic company guy.
KENTA vs. Naomichi Marufuji
NOAH Autumn Navigation 2006
October 31, 2006, aged 22 and in college. I probably should have been at one of the Halloween parties that I knew were going on around campus. As would be a theme of “Alan4L: The College Years”, socializing on this night had to settle for a distant second place on the priority list to my big college discovery – Japanese professional wrestling. That Halloween night was all about something I’d been salivating for 48 hours, refreshing torrent sites and message boards, waiting for what would have been a shockingly early drop – NOAH’s Budokan Hall show from the 29th. In my formative years as a puro fan, the real marquee events on my mind were NOAH Budokans. New Japan was only beginning to show signs of a pulse after the brand murder that Inoki had perpetrated on them in the preceding years, Dragon Gate was still a world I was just beginning to explore, and All Japan (whilst good in hindsight) just didn’t have much buzz.
NOAH’s green mat was where I looked to see the best wrestling in Japan, and it was from Budokan Hall that I got to see classics such as Kobashi versus Takayama, KENTA versus SUWA, Kobashi & Go versus Kensuke & Nakajima, and KENTA & Marufuji vs. Morishima & Rikio. I watched every Budokan show from 2006 as soon as it surfaced on Megaupload, Rapidshare, Pro Wrestling Torrents, yuisaka or purojitsu (shoutout to anyone who remembers those last two!). I was invested in what my favorite guys would be doing on the shows – knowing that, with NOAH’s oddball booking, a world-class wrestler could be in a big title match or a meaningless hodge podge tag second on the card. Up to this point, I don’t think there was a card that had me as excited as 29/10/06. But it wasn’t because of anything on the undercard – an assortment of the aforementioned hodge-podge which held little pre-show appeal. My anticipation was all because of the main event.
Mitsuharu Misawa was quite sensibly stepping aside, Kenta Kobashi was on a long-term hiatus for his cancer treatment, Akira Taue had his final nostalgia title run a year prior, and Jun Akiyama had just lost that same top belt. So now, after a failed experiment with Takeshi Rikio, NOAH were going to look in another direction for their GHC Heavyweight Title. New champion Naomichi Marufuji, and his former GHC Junior Tag Team Championship partner KENTA, were going to take the stage in the main event slot with the heavyweight title on the line. The two wrestlers who were picked to be the faces of a junior division designed to set apart early 2000s NOAH from 90s All Japan were going to step away from the limitations set on them and move NOAH’s main event scene forward in a new, fresh direction.
Or so we thought.
Whether it was the unhelpful undercard, or the more traditional side of NOAH’s fan base just not accepting juniors in that position, the show did not draw like the average Budokan. Now, to be fair, NOAH’s attendances were already going in a negative direction and it’s not like things got better in the future – but the internal feeling was that this was a flop and panic set in. Marufuji dropped the title to Misawa six weeks later. The boss would put everything on his back for the next 448 days, and NOAH’s peak was over. Never mind Marufuji & KENTA’s viability as headliners, never mind the promotion’s future… for Misawa’s health and well-being alone, the decisions made after October 29th, 2006 were certainly rash.
All that aside, the fans who did attend Budokan on that day (and there were a hell of a lot of them by 2022 standards) were treated to something special. The two young stars met every lofty expectation that their fans like me had, as they blended the physicality and escalation of the heavyweight classics made famous by their teachers with the modern athleticism & innovation that they were at the forefront of. No other moment of their 35-minute classic symbolized this quite like a move that I will remember for the rest of my life.
The visuals before, during and immediately after are etched in my mind. Firstly, KENTA finding himself on the wrong side of the guardrail and Marufuji taking barely a moment to plan his next action without a hint of trepidation on his face. Then the springboard, the rotation and the Asai Moonsault crushing it’s target. The only problem being that whilst Marufuji’s body cleared the guardrail, his head did not. He landed throat first on the steel and his head whipped back in a manner so violent I still don’t know how he survived. Finally the aftermath as attendees rush to both men, Marufuji looking shook and KENTA emerging from under the wreckage with blood beginning to cover his face for one of the only times in his career. There was no slow-down after that either as they continued to destroy in each until one of the most memorable matches in Budokan Hall history finally came to an end. Unfortunately, it wasn’t just the end of the match, but the end of the all-too-short-lived Marufuji & KENTA main event era.
No, things didn’t start as they would have wanted at the box office, but a 2007 NOAH focused fully on Maru, KENTA, Morishima, Sugiura, Go and Rikio has always been one of my big “what if’s” in wrestling. Who is to say that with patience and care, it wouldn’t have been a big success? Much to the misfortune of the young stars at that time, patience, care and focus were not exactly staples of NOAH booking. For one night, however, we got a glimpse of the lengths the talent would go to make this a success, and I, for one, didn’t regret my decision to sit in with a bowl of sweets watching them instead of going into Harcourt Street with a stupid costume and an outside chance of some young romantic awkwardness.
- KENTAFuji vs. Hashi & Kanemaru – Before they were rivals, they were one of the greatest tag teams the world has ever seen.
- KENTA & Tamon Honda vs. Minoru Suzuki & Naomichi Marufuji – An incredible tag encounter from a year before.
- Dragon Kid vs. Masato Yoshino – Two of the other best juniors in the world during this time period tear it up.
Hulk Hogan vs. Goldberg
On July 6th 1998, WCW made the curious decision to run its biggest possible match on NITRO. Heel champion Hulk Hogan, one of the biggest names ever in the sport, defending his title against Goldberg, second only to Steve Austin in terms of American wrestling popularity at the time. Goldberg had maintained an undefeated streak since debut, and this match was as big as it got.
Nobody expected a workrate classic with these two guys, but sometimes just one moment is all that’s needed to make a match feel meaningful and memorable. This match has that one moment. When Goldberg hooks Hollywood Hogan in a front facelock and hoists him into the air moments after hitting him with a spear, all that had happened before in the match didn’t matter. If you could bottle that feeling that everyone in that arena felt at that moment, you would be a multi-millionaire. That is a feeling I still get watching this match when Goldberg hoists Hogan into the air before hitting the match-ending title-winning Jackhammer.
However, what this match could and should have been from a business and booking perspective cannot be ignored. The biggest match WCW had to offer was given away for free on TV on just four days’ notice because it was the height of the Monday Night Wars and Eric Bischoff felt winning that week’s ratings battle was more important than making millions of dollars on PPV. This a matchup that should have main evented and drawn millions of dollars multiple times on PPV. This should have been the beginning of a long, memorable title run of Goldberg mowing through all of the nWo and proving WCWs dominance once and for all.
WCW didn’t go out of business because it made good business decisions though. Goldberg reign would prove to be secondary to whatever Hollywood Hogan was doing until Starrcade ‘98 when Kevin Nash, WCW booker at the time, booked himself as the man to end Goldberg’s undefeated streak.
While Goldberg and Hogan is a match full of missed opportunities and squandered millions of dollars, for just a moment none of that matters. As the ref counts three and the crowd explodes an unforgettable moment is created, and isn’t that what being a wrestling fan is all about.
- Goldberg vs. Raven – One of the most exciting matches of Goldberg’s streak that led to the above match.
- Goldberg vs. Brock Lesnar – Goldberg’s return decades later involved an incredible sprint against Brock.
- Mankind vs. The Rock – On the other side of divide there was a similar level of elation for this TV World Championship change.
Katsuyori Shibata vs. Kazuchika Okada
NJPW Sakura Genesis 2017
There are few stories more emotive than a man being stopped from practicing their craft. The most famous wrestling promo of all time references a man being replaced by a computer, and that tale hits home harder than almost anything. Whether it’s redundancy, health issues or the greed of others, the idea of passion being lost to the ether is inherently sad.
In professional wrestling, nobody epitomizes that more than Katsuyori Shibata.
Once declared as a member of the New Three Musketeers (alongside Nakamura and Tanahashi), Shibata’s passion was almost too big for even that lofty moniker. Defined by independence, he turned away from his familial links to New Japan and forged his own destiny. Whether that destiny was successful, and his MMA record suggests it wasn’t, is immaterial. A man went his own way, leaving the wrestling fan to wonder what might have been.
The fact that the question was almost answered but not quite adds to the romanticism of Shibata’s career. Upon his return to New Japan, questions were constantly asked of why he wasn’t winning G1s and gold. He seemed so ethereal, which is especially impressive when surrounded by his god-like peers. Of course, being in a wrestling culture that values loyalty, he was rewarded with middling G1 placements and under-prioritized tag-team titles.
It was his run with the NEVER Openweight belt where the true Shibata could shine, proving the man makes the belt. In a traditionally outward-facing medium, with larger-than-life characters playing to crowds, the inward-looking, stoic Shibata was an ocean waiting to be explored. A blank pain was permanently etched on his face, suggesting a confusion only ever broken by simple, punctuated violence between the bells.
Finally, the push came, and a New Japan Cup victory built to an IWGP Heavyweight Championship match at Sakura Genesis.
The first time I saw this match, I gave it ****¾ and went about my day. But it stayed with me. It was rooted in some part of my brain that I couldn’t quite speak to. I thought about it all day, and watched it again that evening. I watched it again the morning after, and several times more in the month that followed. The more I watched, the more I noticed and the more this match grew inside me.
Of course, the knowledge that this match ended Shibata’s career (or so we thought) will forever color the analysis of the match, but a rewatch reveals a level of professional wrestling rarely seen. We were yet to meet the statesmanlike Okada, and were deep into the cocky Rainmaker rich-kid who was better than you and wanted to prove it.
The juxtaposition of the bright colors and falling money against the black tights and boots of The Wrestler told a story in an entrance alone. The way Okada sneers at Shibata as he enters the ring before spinning on his heels to turn his back is a perfect moment, only improved by that wonderful inner turmoil that Shibata hints at so effortlessly.
For a wrestler defined by brutal strikes, the opening of this match is perfect in its subversion. It focuses on a grabbed wrist, an effortless takedown and a perfect grapple. Before long, it’s made clear that Shibata is playing with his opponent. He’s cockily showing off moves that wouldn’t be out of place in Wigan’s Snakepit. All of this was against an IWGP champion about to surpass Fujinami and begin on the road to meet Inoki.
Of course, opinions from the first watch will be dominated by the sounds. Whether it’s the smash of a forearm, the clunk of a boot or the horrendous dull thud of THAT headbutt, there’s a purity to much of the work that only this level of simple violence can bring. It’s all perfectly aided by New Japan’s stellar camera work, which allowed bursts of sweat to be illuminated, giving an oxymoronic beauty to the heinous brutality.
This match is understandably and inherently Shibata’s, but don’t ignore Okada. The way he sells is perfect because his selling goes beyond expressing pain from a figure four. He emotes fear and panic in a way that adds weight and dimension to Shibata. I might want to know what Shibata thought during his entrance, but I’m scared of the answer and I don’t envy Okada’s closer inquiry.
I could point out a million spots in this match I love, from the crowd noise during the no-sold Rainmaker to the look of shock on Shibata’s face when Okada got a lucky shot. From the disrespectful slap to the back of the champion’s head, to the glazed fear on Okada’s face as a sleeper transitioned into a suplex.
This match was the culmination of Shibata’s long-awaited serious push, and by giving all he had to this match he ended his in-ring career. He collapsed afterwards, suffering from subdural hematoma. He has returned to some action since, but the core of his career ended that night. The opening bars of his song being played as he walks to the ring remind us how fragile we really are.
I often wonder how Shibata feels about this match. I remember being at a RevPro show in Manchester a year or so afterwards and Shibata was there to announce the LA Dojo would be training Gabriel Kidd. His hair had grown out, he looked relaxed and he had a smile on his face. I wondered if he felt the same way my dad did when his welding was of no use in the modern world and was made redundant. I wondered if he looks at professional wrestling as a mixture of gift and curse, and whether he thinks having the perfect match at Sakura Genesis was worth the price he paid. It’s not our place to speculate on the answer to that question, because that answer is Shibata’s alone.
All we can do is appreciate a match in which a man sacrificed everything for professional wrestling.
- Katsuyori Shibata vs. Hirooki Goto – One of Shibata’s best matches against his long time friend of New Japan’s greatest stage.
- Nikita Koloff vs. Magnum TA – Magnum TA was another star who had his career cut short just as it was peaking due to injury.
- Daniel Bryan vs. John Cena – Ace of the company going up against an upcoming star who would not long after lose several years to injury.
Kurt Angle vs. Samoa Joe
TNA Lockdown 2008
For those who didn’t live through it, I think it’s hard to comprehend just how deeply intertwined the discussion of MMA and Pro Wrestling became for the first decade and a half of this millennium. You couldn’t have any discussion without somebody bringing up what wrestling could learn from the UFC. The Wrestling Observer Awards became a blur of the two disciplines. Seemingly endless airtime was given to discussion of how with MMA’s surge of popularity, that wrestling needed to adapt to a far more believable style; chinlocks wouldn’t cut it anymore now that the public had seen the real deal. It has, thankfully, died down as a topic in recent years (although only to be replaced with equally exhausting topics), but trust me when I tell you it was everywhere.
It wasn’t the exclusive domain of just fan talk though, quite the opposite. Spooky zombie the Undertaker started wearing MMA gloves, winning matches with the Gogoplata submission and being referred to as ‘the best pure striker in WWE history’. Ring of Honor built itself around Davey Richards and his fight team style stable Team Ambition, basing months worth of storylines around former UFC Champion Dan “The Beast” Severn and hosting several ‘American Strong Style’ and ‘Hybrid Fighting Rules’ matches intended to ape the feel of a real fight. Oh and there was this Brock Lesnar guy too and all that entailed. You can probably point to the Young Bucks’ rise to superstardom and everything that followed as the point where US wrestling diverted from its MMA-guided course, but for a while there its influence couldn’t be understated.
Another phrase you couldn’t escape if you were paying attention to the North American wrestling landscape at the time was “TNA needs to find an identity.” As a company, they were repeatedly plagued by aspiring only to be WWE-lite, and while pundits disagreed on what exactly their identity should be everybody agreed they lacked one of their own.
At Lockdown 2008, these two talking points came to a head and the result was magical. Kurt Angle and Samoa Joe competed in the main event cage match for the world title, as was traditional for Lockdown PPVs, but this match was different. From the ring gear, to the announcing, to the video package, to the backstage walk and most importantly to the in-ring work, this match blended an MMA fight with a pro wrestling match perfectly.
On top of everything, Joe and Angle were the two perfect guys to execute such a vision. Kurt Angle brought an incredible air of legitimacy to him by combining in-ring excellence, international success both within and outside of the company and an Olympic gold medal from freestyle wrestling. Samoa Joe was the most exciting wrestler in the world. A big guy who could move like no-other, carried himself like a killer, and with a submission and strike-heavy style that perfectly fit the genre they were going for: he was a young star of the next generation, which TNA could claim as their own.
Joe had already been incredibly successful within the promotion, but was yet to win the World title, with Angle already having thwarted him on multiple occasions. The two men had been feuding since Angle’s debut in the company a year and a half earlier, with perhaps the definitive shot of TNA’s company history being the headbutt the two men shared, and they had already produced a slew of great matches and intense action. This was the peak though, and it delivered in every way possible. For one night in 2008 TNA had an identity, and it was glorious.
The event wasn’t just a critical success (as if I haven’t got it across to this point, I want to make it clear: the match kicked ass); it was a big financial success too. To this day in TNA/Impact’s over 20-year history, it is their most paid for PPV show when you combine live ticket and PPV buys. It should have been a formula that TNA used going forward to great effect. They had created a unique environment that harnessed MMA’s hotness in the zeitgeist better than any other company has ever managed to in order to put over their young star with a legitimate aura to the absolute maximum.
Instead, Joe would eventually lose the title to an aging star with a bunch of ref bumps and Kevin Nash hitting him with a baseball bat. Huh, seems like there’s a bit of a pattern in this section. Joe would then join Angle’s group, and eventually, go down a path where he’d be kidnapped by ninjas and never have it explained.
Oh, what could have been?
- Low Ki vs. Samoa Joe – Samoa Joe exploded onto the scene with an incredible strike based war.
- Rey Mysterio vs. Kurt Angle – In Angle’s later days in the WWE he trialled out leaning hard into his wrestling background as ‘the Wrestling Machine’
- Shinsuke Nakamura vs. Kazushi Sakuraba – A uniquely brilliant match where the finish can come at any second.
The Wrestling 101
- An Introduction to the Project & Match #1
- Unique Spectacles: Matches #2-6
- Multi-Man Magic: Matches #7-11
- What Could Have Been?: Matches #12-16
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.