Most matches in The Wrestling 101 are selected because the match itself is essential viewing. This selection is a little different. Excellence bell-to-bell isn’t the only route to being designated essential viewing. Sometimes all that’s needed is a single moment that sticks in the mind of every viewer. A moment so compelling that its echoes become ubiquitous throughout the rest of wrestling history following it.
The following five matches of the Wrestling 101 contain an iconic high spot, a shocking turn, an emotional post-match, an unending controversy, and an unforgettable performance. If you’re a wrestling fan worth your salt, you owe it to yourself to understand when they’re regularly referenced. – Robin Reid
Stan Hansen & Terry Gordy vs. The Funks
AJPW Super Power Series
There are few things that feel more pro wrestling than Terry Funk standing in the ring – beaten, bloodied, but unbowed – shouting ‘FOREVER’ over and over again for a rabid crowd in the Kuramae Kokugikan Sumo Arena. This had been, what the fans believed to be, the culmination of a career that had seen Funk travel the globe, be the NWA World Champion when it truly meant something, and wrestle in some of the greatest matches of all time. Wrestling alongside his brother Dory in a losing effort against Stan Hansen and Terry Gordy, Funk had gone out on his shield, able to walk out with his head held high in a genuinely touching moment from what can be a cynical sport.
Ironically, one of the only things that could feel more pro wrestling than that is a Funk “retirement”; a wider symbol of the inability of many a worker to step away from the ring completely, often subject to the law of diminishing returns. However, if you believe his autobiography, this one was never intended to be a retirement. Well, not really.
Funk first announced his plans to retire in 1981, giving All Japan Pro Wrestling ample time to prepare for his stepping away from the ring. In Terry’s eyes, this allowed them also to focus their storylines to reach this inevitable climax, giving the fans something to really invest in and follow. At a time when the rivalry between AJPW and New Japan was going strong, Funk believed this road to his retirement not only helped keep All Japan competitive, but went as far as to suggest that it kept the promotion solvent. By the time Funk was walking out of the door at the end of August 1983, the company had had more than enough time to organize its next steps.
However, his autobiographical caveat, one that sought to disavow him of completely turning on his own words, was that he only technically promised never to wrestle in Japan again. That he broke this within days of his in-ring return to the US seemed neither here nor there to Funk; the ultimate point seemed to be that he would always return to the ring in the future, and the ‘retirement’ was a temporary measure. Even so, he did step away from the ring for over a year, the longest break in his career until his purported final retirement.
Still, broken promises and caveats aside, this was a special moment and a great match. Funk saw this as an opportunity to help put another Terry in the spotlight as one of the next big gaijin workers for All Japan. Terry Gordy, on the most significant run of his career in Texas as a member of the Freebirds, was able to parlay a working relationship between Baba and Fritz to tour AJPW, a promotion that would be the host of a number of his greatest moments of a tragically truncated career. Being one of the working cogs in Terry Funk’s retirement match gave Gordy the associated rub of wrestling alongside three bonafide legends, even in a losing effort.
It is easy to spend time talking about the aftermath and completely neglect the match itself, but that would be missing the point somewhat. This was Funk going out on his shield as far as people were concerned, one more chance for him to showcase the resilience and tenacity that had become his calling card. Gordy would have been a fearsome final opponent on his own, let alone when coupled with ongoing Funk nemesis in Stan Hansen. This was going to be no procession, no testimonial, no easy night’s work.
The tone was set immediately as Hansen began swinging for the fences – this was going to be the big guys throwing bombs and the Funks trying their best to hang in and force an opening. Terry got time both on the apron as a hot tag as well as being overwhelmed in the middle of the ring, the latter seeing the fans pouring on the sympathy for their hero. In a great piece of heeling, Gordy would even attempt a spinning toe hold on Funk, the icing on the cake of an assault that had targeted the knee.
Of the wrestlers in the match, Gordy was the obvious fall guy if All Japan wanted to send the fans home happy. A missed splash off of the top rope left him vulnerable, Funk capitalizing with a top rope sunset flip for the victory. Some might argue that the Funkster should have laid down in what was being advertised as his final match, but one look and listen to the fans who were in attendance that night made this a pointless argument – this was the definition of a “wrestling moment.”
It might have been more poetic in the long run if this indeed was Terry Funk’s final match, but it doesn’t diminish the enjoyment of watching this match through modern eyes. Come for the excellent tag wrestling; stay for the impassioned and genuinely moving Funk promo to finish—wrestling perfection.
- Brody & Hansen vs. The Funks – Funk “shockingly” wrestling again the next year.
- Hayabusa & Tanaka vs. Mr. Pogo & Terry Funk – Funk not retired in the 90s.
- Edge, Lita & Foley vs. Funk, Dreamer & Beulah – Funk still very much not retired in the 00s.
nWo (Hogan, Hall & Nash) vs. Randy Savage, Sting & Lex Luger
WCW Bash at the Beach
In the modern era, where turns amongst even the most defined characters in Western wrestling are so expected and common, it can be hard to grasp just how big a deal it was when Hulk Hogan turned heel. From the moment he turned to the light side of the force in January 1984 until the Summer of 1996 in the Bash at the Beach main event, Hogan had been the premier good guy in US wrestling. His iconic look, doing the same handful of moves and mannerisms, with the same alignment, was an ever-present at the top of cards for well over a decade across multiple companies. The expectation that that would be all he ever was until he eventually hung up the boots was very reasonable. For better and for worse, he was the ultimate “overcome the odds” good guy, until he walked out, betrayed WCW, joined the nWo, and suddenly, he wasn’t.
Leading into Bash at the Beach, Hall, and Nash had recently made the jump from the WWF to WCW. Instead of being integrated into the roster, Hall and Nash were presented as an invading force from the other company, thusly leading to their tag team name, “The Outsiders.” They would interrupt the show in an impromptu fashion, entering from the crowd, and roughing up announcers. “You want a war?” The idea of an invading wrestling faction may feel trite nowadays, but the reason for that was the sheer success of this initial incursion by Hall and Nash. These initial salvos were not only revolutionary to a US television wrestling audience, but they also had an undeniable sense of cool. Something Hogan’s Red and Yellow routine decidedly wasn’t by 1996.
Heading into Bash at the Beach, the Outsiders had challenged WCW’s best to a trios match. WCW’s representatives were Savage, Luger, and Sting, whereas going into the match Hall and Nash’s partner remained a mystery. Everything that followed, the injury, the replacement fakeout, the betrayal, the promo, the visceral reaction leading to trash throwing, and the announcement of the new World order: to say it was memorable would be an understatement. The new World order would go on to become one of the most impactful factions in wrestling history, and define a large part of the remaining time of WCW’s existence.
Is the match itself anything special? Not really; it’s undoubtedly not Wrestling 101 worthy in and of itself. The turn, however, and perhaps more importantly, the reaction to it, is the definition of essential viewing.
- Steenerico vs. The Young Bucks – A fun match followed by an emotional post-match and incredibly important heel turn.
- James Storm vs. Bobby Roode – An impactful turn that set the table for the next few years of a major US company.
- WCW vs. nWo – The nWo weren’t exactly known for their in-ring quality, but the ’96 Wargames was pretty good.
Terry Funk vs. Jerry Lawler
Continental Empty Arena
Crowd connection is essential to wrestling. The wrestlers feed off of it. Crowd reactions dictate matches. There are ebbs and flows, and the crowd leads the way. The best wrestlers understand how to use these reactions to their advantage.
But what about when the crowd is gone? How can a wrestler connect with their audience watching at home? It’s driving with a blindfold and hoping you’ll get where you want to. In an empty arena in Memphis, Tennessee, Terry Funk was able to get to that location, delivering one of the greatest wrestling performances of all time by merely talking his way through a match with Jerry Lawler.
Funk is pro wrestling personified. If you passed him on the street, you’d immediately know he’s a wrestler. He has that aura. There is a realism to him few others have. There is no separation between Funk the character and Funk the man. They are one in the same. He can be the underdog when he needs to be, he can be the arrogant invader, he can be the biggest prick you’ve ever seen, or the kindest soul you know. He can do it all.
On this night, he’s the prick. Memphis Wrestling’s lead commentator Lance Russell was told to show up at the Midsouth Coliseum at Funk’s behest. Funk challenged Lawler to meet one-on-one with no fans or refs, or other wrestlers to get in the way. Funk arrived first and immediately started jawing with Russell. He’s ready to wrestle, but Lawler isn’t there. Over and over, he reiterates that he had the guts to show up, but Lawler didn’t. The groundwork is laid. He got in the ring, his voice bouncing off the empty seats. He asked if Lawler was in the stands or under the ring. He counted out Lawler. He was completely unhinged and unreasonable, the thorn in Russell’s side. He even challenged Russell to a fight when Lawler wasn’t there.
Finally, the hero of Memphis appeared in the corner, dressed in crown and all white. Funk immediately accused Lawler of having a knife or a gun, not fathoming that he’d have the guts to confront him alone. Funk continually berated the stoic Lawler. He never stopped. Funk spat at Lawler, and the brawl finally began. Funk retreated first, but he never stopped talking. They left the ring, brawling into the empty arena seats. Wrestlers were thrown into chairs and chairs were thrown into wrestlers. After getting a taste of those chairs, Funk’s tone changed. His voice went up an octave and he retreated. But that retreat didn’t last long. He returned to the ring, attacked Lawler with a sign, and used Lawler’s own piledriver on the floor. He was now a feral dog, viciously attacking Lawler’s eye and grabbing a wooden spike. He was completely unhinged, demanding Russell ask Lawler to quit. He threatened to thrust that spike right into Lawler’s eye. Lawler retaliated, kicked Funk right in his elbow, and that same spike launched in Funk’s eye socket instead. Funk squealed and cried in the ring, the victim of his own medicine, screaming about his eye. Pure agony. Lawler left. Russell left. Funk was in the empty ring, in an empty arena, screaming that Lawler is yellow. The victim of his own devices, left blinded, pathetic and alone.
Funk shows the panic of the match. The chaos. He was the atmosphere. Without Funk leading the match with his voice and his mannerisms, this match is only a mere backstage-style brawl. Instead, he capitalized on silence and emptiness. He filled all of the space. As the villain, he told the entire story. The best wrestlers understand their role. Here, Funk knew his. He needed to make sure that Jerry Lawler left that empty building as the conquering hero, the man who didn’t back down to the vicious, cowardly, bloodthirsty lunatic. He knew that he didn’t have to pretend to be that lunatic – that lunatic is Terry Funk.
- Terry Gordy vs. Killer Khan – More violent territory wrestling.
- Minoru Suzuki vs. Sanshiro Takagi – An empty arena match with an altogether different tone.
- Jocephus vs. Tim Storm – A shockingly good modern iteration.
Hardy Boyz vs. Dudley Boyz vs. Edge & Christian
WWF WrestleMania X-Seven
If I had to pick one adjective to describe TLC II, it would be futuristic. To watch it in 2001 was to be transported on a rocket ship to a new landscape of what wrestling could be. Years later, it’s arguable that the match, the climax of a series of ground-breaking ladder matches, set the tone for the next two decades in terms of gimmick matches. For me the No Mercy ‘99 ladder match between the Hardys and Edge and Christian will always be a sentimental favorite. Still, by the time we get to WrestleMania X-Seven a year and a half later, you can see that there’s a real polish and roundedness to how they wrestle. It’s not just the technical ability to string together moves, but the flourishes and call-and-response interactions with the crowd that have become perfectly fine-tuned to involve every single body in the stadium.
Take, for instance, the pantomime of “D-Von… get the tables!” you’d think that the Dudleys had been doing this since day one, but while the tables had always been present, the catchphrase was crafted through the carnage of Royal Rumbles, WrestleMania 2000, TLC 1, and finally here, where it became immortalized by 60,000 fans shouting it out in unison. It’s the match where we see the Hardys reach a height for babyface tag teams that no one has yet come close to, one that captured elements of both the alt-rock zeitgeist (though they were clearly more Incubus than Limp Bizkit) and female demographics. Edge and Christian too, firmly established themselves as characters that walked the line between vicious and goofy. Their antics made you laugh, but they could get nasty.
I rewatched the match in preparation for this writing, and part of me expected that I would find something that, while ground-breaking for its time, had since been surpassed or was no longer the spectacle that it once was. I’m happy to say I was proven wrong. Sure, in terms of spots, there’s not much here that you won’t have seen hundreds of times by now. Well, apart from that spear, anyway. But there’s still something incredibly vibrant about this match that stands the test of time. An alchemical reaction that has never and can never quite be replicated because the one ingredient that’s impossible to find was the time that it happened. It’s the energy bouncing off the wrestlers into the crowd and then back again. The shaky stumbles transform into firm footing as we see a whole new genre of wrestling being created in front of our eyes. It’s the match everyone has tried to replicate and never quite could.
I also want to take this opportunity to acknowledge that while the record books will say this is a match of six performers, it’s actually a nine-person match. The addition of Lita, Spike Dudley, and Rhino, each character perfectly aligned in personality with their respective teams, gave a storyline depth to the match that previous encounters had missed. The sequence with all three of them in the ring is incredibly well choreographed, and they each took some gnarly bumps too. It’s about time each got their due for being integral parts of this match.
History has treated this match well. It may not have main evented WrestleMania X-Seven, but it’s the match that everyone remembers and was a key part of the turn of the century shift towards ensemble rosters where the ‘draw’ was not quite as top-heavy as it had been in previous generations. Matt Hardy has recounted how following the No Mercy match, the foursome involved got bonuses as it became clear that many were buying the replay based on the hype. Rock and Austin were undoubtedly the big draws of the show, but it would be foolish to discount the effect that TLC II likely had on buy rates and repeat viewing. Indeed, as I showed in my Hall of Fame article for the Hardys, as well as being higher rated in terms of quality, 30% more people have voted on it than the main event. People remember Austin and Rock for the promos and the wild angles, and they were much bigger stars, but in terms of a bell-to-bell match, TLC II is the defining spectacle of the turn-of-the-century boom period in North American pro wrestling and the most influential match of the 21st century.
- Edge & Chistian vs. The Hardy Boyz – The aforementioned by Ewan No Mercy ladder match.
- Wolves vs. Team 3D vs. Hardys – As recently as 2014 a similar constellation was still going at it in TLC-like matches, as they were still some of the best at doing them.
- The Rock vs. Triple H – An example of what ladder matches looked like before these guys innovated the genre. People really liked this!
Shawn Michaels vs. Bret Hart
WWF Survivor Series
If you are a new wrestling fan and unaware of what exactly the Montreal Screw Job is: I envy you.
For the last 26 years, what happened on November 9, 1997, in the Molson Centre in Montreal, Canada, has been discussed and analyzed more than any other subject in professional wrestling. A quick Google search will surely bring up thousands of articles, opinions, and conspiracy theories on what happened on that fateful night at the Survivor Series PPV. As a wrestling fan for over 30 years, I’m quite frankly sick of hearing about it.
But even though it might be arguably the most over-analyzed subject in wrestling history, allow me to fill you in on exactly what it is so you can be clued in any time a wrestling company tries to recreate, pay homage or parody the incident like they have many times in the past 26 years since.
Before this match at Survivor Series, Bret Hart, and Shawn Michaels were anything but good pals. You might go as far as to say that both men hated each other. Shawn was a cocky, self-entitled shithead, and Bret was a smug, self-righteous leader of the WWF locker room, a recipe for friendship if there ever was one. Throughout 1997, both men exchanged insults, snide comments and even came to blows.
First, Bret Hart dropped the WWF title to Shawn Michaels in the main event of WrestleMania 12. Nothing crazy there.
But the following year, it was reported that Bret and Shawn would have a rematch where Bret would defeat Michaels. It didn’t happen. Shawn had a knee injury and didn’t wrestle at Mania that year. Bret Hart not only felt betrayed by Michaels after Shawn’s forfeiture of the WWF Championship in February 1997, ruining plans for a Hart-Michaels rematch at WrestleMania 13, but Bret also believed that Michaels had faked a knee injury and talked about major surgery to get out of the match.
It all went downhill from there.
Next came the Sunny Days comment. Michaels insinuated on live TV that Bret was having some extra-marital hanky-panky with Tammy Lynn Sytch, also known as Sunny of the Body Donnas, something Bret denied. Bret felt like Shawn was trying to ruin his marriage and decided to let Shawn know how he felt with his fists—a safe working environment for sure.
On another front, Vince McMahon had lost many wrestlers to rivals WCW, and was not only losing the ratings war but also in some financial difficulty. On top of that, he had previously signed Bret to a huge long-term deal, and in the 3rd quarter of 97, he felt he couldn’t afford to honor Bret’s contract.
Bret seemingly didn’t want to leave, but Vince convinced him, and he eventually agreed to join WCW. The problem was he was now WWE Champion and due to face Shawn Michaels at Survivor Series. Bret wasn’t keen on dropping the belt to Shawn due to Michaels saying he wouldn’t do the same for Bret if roles were reversed. Real mature, Shawn, real mature. Shawn would also be stirring the pot, as he wanted to, and told Vince that Bret would turn up on WCW with the World Championship if he didn’t drop it to him.
Eventually, we came to Survivor Series, and Bret didn’t want to lose to Shawn. Thus the Screw Job plot was hatched.
After a card of forgettable bouts, we got to the main event. The match itself had a big fight feel, the tension was massive, and we were in Bret’s country. You had Shawn Michaels enter and stir the pot with his heel antics before Bret would enter and make them explode. You have two people who genuinely hate each other working a match in the pressure cooker of the Molson Centre, and it feels like a fight. You also had Vince McMahon and other WWF officials on hand to observe this battle.
Then it happened.
Bret would be placed in a Sharpshooter by Shawn (or by himself, as Shawn was botching it). Shawn would turn Bret over, and referee Earl Hebner and Vince would call for the bell just as Shawn locked it in.
Instantly something was up. Bret rose to his feet in seconds. Both he and Shawn looked pissed off and directed their confusion at Vince. Shawn would grab the title and head backstage like the rat that he was, and Bret would spit one hell of a saliva ball in Vince’s face.
At the time, I was 13 and confused as hell as to what was actually going on. I wasn’t in the know about the backstage politics, and the whole match seemed special yet very off. Thankfully, a videotape called Wrestling With Shadows came to my aid.
As it turns out, a documentary team were following Bret for the majority of 1997, filming more than they ever could bargain for behind the scenes. The picked up tons of backstage footage from Bret’s point of view and clarified what had happened. It’s available on YouTube and is a fascinating insight into what happened way back in 97.
While Vince McMahon would go on WWF television in the aftermath of Survivor Series and declare that “Bret screwed Bret,” it was fairly clear that Vince, Shawn, and some others all screwed Bret out of the title in Montreal.
It changed wrestling as it was forever. While “WWF Attitude” was already being rolled out by the marketing team in Stamford, this moment kind of gave birth to what we know call the Attitude Era and the first real on screen glimpse of the Mr. McMahon character that would soon dominate WWF programming.
Since then, WWE and other wrestling companies have rehashed the finish to this match too many times to count. WWE waited only a year to parody this finish when crowning the Rock as WWF champion the following year at the same event. The event is historic and hugely fascinating, but after over two decades, I am over it. You need to watch the match and the documentary to understand the myriad of references that followed, but you can then run from this subject forever.
- Bret Hart vs. Shawn Michaels – My favorite Bret vs. Shawn match occurred in the same event’s main event five years earlier.
- Wrestling With Shadows – The documentary Joey referenced.
- Bret Hart vs. Chris Benoit – The best match of Bret’s somewhat disappointing WCW career.
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
- Clashes of the 80s: Matches #17-21
- Paving the Road of Kings: Matches #22-26
- The Giant Legacies of Junior Heavyweights: Matches #27-31
- Immortal Matches of WrestleMania: Matches #32-36
- Iconic Moments: Matches #37-41
- Aaron Taube’s Tremendous 101 Companion Piece
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.