By Liam Byrne
Across the years, wrestling is one of the only sports, or even entertainments, that never stops. Sports have their off seasons; TV shows have series breaks; film series have gaps in shooting and editing. Wrestling, on the other hand, goes 365 days a year, and has done for many years.
Throughout this project, I aim to focus on one match per day for a whole year. The years will change – expect a range of modern and old wrestling – but each match will have happened on a specific day in history. I’ll aim to cover a multitude of promotions and styles, with US, Puro, Lucha and Independent wrestling all rearing its head at certain points. My focus will often be on title changes, but if I seek something of note I want to cover, that will take precedence.
A word of warning. I don’t seek to profess an encyclopedic knowledge of all promotions across all years. Due to this, I may miss some of the subtleties and nuances of certain wrestlers and feuds. When I talk Lucha, I’m sure there are many more people who can do a more complete job, but I want to try and celebrate the diversity of what has happened in the ring over the years. I also am not suggesting that the thing I cover on each day is the only thing of note, or even the most important thing – they are just the match or angle I wanted to analyse and write about for you.
With that said, Wrestling 365 is underway.
Maximo Sexy vs Kamaitachi – CMLL
Hair vs Hair
As part of the training of Young Lions in New Japan, an excursion often takes place to allow them to go and develop their skillset away from the watching eyes of the Puro public. Sometimes, these excursions are woeful; both Kazuchika Okada and Hiroshi Tanahashi went to wrestle for TNA and were badly utilised to say the least, especially considering the impact they would have on the Japanese wrestling scene upon their return. However, some not only offered a lot of value to the wrestler themselves, but brought us some of the best fighting action of recent decades. Though not a Young Lion excursion as such, Jushin Liger was rightly lauded for his time in WCW, yet it is hard to argue that Kamaitachi’s might have been the best excursion ever.
The wrestler Hiromu Takahashi landed in CMLL in 2014 under a mask as Kamaitachi. After a first year showing his chops on the lower card and in six man tag team matches, 2015 was all about the feud with Dragon Lee. The two men met multiple times, and dazzled onlookers with an array and fluidity of moves that were unlike what many had seen before. They were two wrestlers who had chemistry that couldn’t be coached or taught, and every time they stepped into the ring with each other was a joy to watch.
With the ultimate goal to bring Takahashi back to New Japan, CMLL were able to get two wager matches out of Kamaitachi’s run – a mask match, and if lost, a hair match later down the line. The mask would go in a contest at ‘Homenaje a Dos Leyendas’ against Dragon Lee, another epic battle between two young talents. Before the return to Japan to showcase his newly developed skills, however, there was still one question to be asked – who would take the hair?
Enter Maximo Sexy. Whilst Maximo looks the type of wrestler that might more likely confuse a non-lucha aficionado (chubby, effete and with dayglow hair in the middle of his head only), he comes from a lucha family with great history – the Alvarados. Though he is able to get by on his exotico shtick, he is also able to match any competitor move for move when needed.
As is often the case, the first two falls of the match are relatively quick, building towards the decisive tercera caida. Kamaitachi took the first fall: a leglock after an attack targeting the already injured knee of Maximo drawing derision from the crowd; Maximo took the second: the leglock this time avoided, leading to a rope assisted armdrag into a half boston crab for the submission.
The match begins to pick up speed in the third fall, as if every step away from the initial knee onslaught sees Maximo channelling his energy and gaining some momentum. That is not to say Kamaitachi falls by the wayside at this point; the opening minutes of this section sees a seated senton dive to the outside, a double kneedrop off of the top and a repeat of the leglock that saw him gain the initial fall. This time, Maximo (with the help of a raucous crowd) managed to reach the ropes and keep himself in the fight.
There is even enough time for some shenanigans, with both men attempting to fool the referee into believing they had been fouled with a low blow. Baby Richard isn’t to be fooled by either, especially as Kamaitachi tries to use his lies to get a roll-up for two, whilst Maximo uses the distraction caused by his fabrication to plant a kiss on his opponent. The finish perhaps comes a bit out of nowhere – a pop-up sitout powerbomb gives Maximo the decisive three count – but as a contest, it built well by using a mixture of psychology, storytelling and comedy.
Kamaitachi was not yet done in Mexico. Before his full return to NJPW, he would trade the CMLL World Super Lightweight Title with (who else?) Dragon Lee. If ever we needed a sense of how much excitement and fanaticism his run in Mexico had created, one only need to see the scenes as his long, flowing hair is shaved off. Tears are shed in the crowd by a selection of different fans; when that reaction can be created in a match that had a pretty foregone conclusion, what more can you ask for?
The Great Muta © vs Arn Anderson – WCW
WCW Television Title Match
For many, the WCW Television Title is one of the best championships to have ever existed. When a match was contested for the title, you often knew that you were getting some of the most technically able competitors in the ring for ten to fifteen minutes. The title, with some exceptions, was often only held by wrestlers who the company knew could go out on television week in, week out, and provide something worth watching.
The Great Muta, especially at the turn of the decade, was just that. Winning the title off of Sting, no slouch in himself, Muta was enigmatic and engaging in equal measure. Though you could question his overreliance at times on stalling and shtick, but there truly was nothing like him on American wrestling television at the time. The combination of paint, mist and a moveset that was utilised with viciousness combined to create a legitimate contender in WCW 1989.
At the start of the 90s, the bloom was somewhat off of the rose. With a 0-3 record at the recent Starrcade PPV in the Iron Man Challenge (losing to Sting, Lex Luger and Ric Flair), Muta’s unbeatable aura seemed diminished. At a time when he was perhaps at his most vulnerable, Muta’s TV Title seemed to be there for the taking. However, it would take someone who was able to see through the gimmickry and prove himself to be a better wrestler.
On the first Power Hour of the new year, it would be Arn Anderson who got that title shot. A TV champion last in 1986, and so often involved in tag team wrestling, this match afforded Anderson a chance to hold some singles gold once again. Muta seemed to mean business before the bell; a throat slitting gesture was followed by spitting the green mist up into the air. When the bell did ring, a quick schoolboy in the opening moments showed Anderson’s technical nous and dangerousness, but Buzz Sawyer and The Dragonmaster’s arrival at ringside seemed to signal a change in momentum for Muta.
Against a veteran, an unorthodox offense was always necessary to catch them off guard, and this was seen when Muta used an inverse spinkick to drop Anderson on the mat. Muta’s control of Anderson saw the use of the guardrail at ringside, as well as staples of Muta’s offense such as a top rope chop and a handspring elbow. There was even an early airing of the Cattle Mutilation (or ‘Japanese Submission Move’ as Jim Cornette calls it on commentary). With all of this unique offense, it almost felt poetic that the good old fashioned reverse atomic drop finally allowed Anderson to halt Muta’s charge to regaining his title.
Arn Anderson’s patented spinebuster forced the Dragonmaster and Buzz Sawyer to finally get involved; Dragonmaster distracting the referee, Sawyer hitting Anderson off of the top rope. Just as it seemed the title was still Muta’s, Anderson kicked out at two to a huge pop from the crowd. This was only increased as the veteran blocked Muta’s moonsault with two knees, leaving the champion doubled over and vulnerable for the DDT. Three second later, we had ourselves a new WCW TV Champion.
What helped make this title change was how much the crowd was behind a face Arn Anderson. With this being somewhat of a novelty across Anderson’s time as a wrestler, the fans were able to show their genuine appreciation for his craft within the ring, before going back to booing him when the Four Horseman turned on Sting. He held the TV Title this time for almost a year, only to lose to the Z Man – somewhat of a blot relative to other wrestlers who had held the title.
As for Muta, he would return to NJPW a little more than a month after this loss. This run ended up being the catalyst for multiple Muta runs in WCW.
Joe Doering © vs Go Shiozaki – AJPW
Triple Crown Heavyweight Title Match
A little under ten years prior to this contest, Go Shiozaki had amazed many wrestling fans with his role in a tag match involving Kenta Kobashi, and their opponents, Kensuke Sasaki and Katsuhiko Nakajima. Alongside their more established peers, Shiozaki and Nakajima more than held their own, seeming to offer a glimpse of the Puro future; a landscape dominated by both men.
Whilst this felt like it might be the case at the time, it could be argued that Shiozaki hadn’t quite reached as high up the wrestling tree as had been expected. Sure, he won the GHC Heavyweight Title in NOAH, but with NOAH an entity on the slide, a run atop a resurgent AJPW or even a tilt at the upper card in NJPW never followed. Though the politics of Japanese wrestling sometimes makes this type of movement difficult, if not completely impossible, as more wrestlers moved across promotions, Shiozaki finally had the chance to earn a chance at one of the biggest titles in Puro; the Triple Crown.
In his way? Joe Doering. The sixth non-Japanese wrestler to hold the Triple Crown, he had already defeated Go Shiozaki two months earlier. Though both men had a similar length of in-ring career to date, Doering had fought his way to the top the hard way, with Doering a gaijin in All Japan since 2007 (with a brief stop in the WWE in 2010). Not only that, but Doering clearly had the power and size advantaged, an idea often established throughout the match.
This match felt like it was a computer game boss fight… and was all the better for it. Shiozaki, the plucky protagonist, chipped away at Doering, though often ended up getting splatted by shoulder blocks, clotheslines and chops with relative ease. Doering even no-sold three DDT attempts, getting wider eyed after every impact. However, like in practically every boss fight, they have a weakness, and for Doering it was the Shiozaki lariat.
The match turned on a reversal of an attempted Irish whip into a short arm clothesline by Shiozaki, stealing a move from the Doering playbook. Two more lariats quickly followed; one left Doering draped on the middle rope, the other sent him over the top rope and to the floor. With his shield breached, Doering felt the full force of everything Shiozaki could fire at him, even landing the Go Flasher (a suplex into a sitout powerbomb) for a two count. Eventually, it would take a Doering spinebuster to stop the onslaught, but a lot of damage had been done and Shiozaki was sensing the kill.
Doering managed to twice land a crossbody attack, the setup for his finisher, but both attempts for the Revolution Bomb failed; one turned into a DDT, one seeing an exhausted Doering collapse. Three spinning chops to the side of Doering’s neck left him out on his feet. Cocking his arm like a shotgun, Shiozaki blasted Doering with one more lariat for the three count. Finally, Shiozaki had won the Triple Crown, joining a list of some of the best men to ever step into a wrestling ring.
Unfortunately for Shiozaki, the title reign only saw him defend the title twice before losing to Akebono. His time in AJPW wasn’t to last. Having decided to return to his home promotion, he left for NOAH, a return that coincided with the NOAH run of Minoru Suzuki, and the start of a NOAH vs Suzuki-Gun feud. Having spent time testing the waters elsewhere, Shiozaki’s return has allowed him to continue to build his reputation as a NOAH legend, and a defender of his home promotion.
Keiji Mutoh © vs Nobuhiko Takada – NJPW
IWGP Heavyweight Title Match
It cannot be questioned that there are better matches that have graced the January 4th Tokyo Dome shows that have become an annual tradition in NJPW. This match is divisive, with a lot of the flack aimed at Keiji Mutoh. Where some see a heated contest that is the culmination of a storyline that had been bubbling over in 1995, others see a boring contest that is overlong for what it accomplishes and includes a lot of work that offers nothing in the overall scheme of the match.
What cannot be denied is that for just under twenty minutes, Keiji Mutoh and Nobuhiko Takada have the Tokyo Dome in the palm of their hands.
Takada and his UWFi invaders had been the scourge of NJPW throughout 1995, and this was his big opportunity to take the IWGP Heavyweight Title away from one of the stalwarts of NJPW at this time. Nothing could strike a bigger blow than a former New Japan Dojo trainee winning the belt for another promotion. Takada and Akira Maeda had invaded once before, in 1986, but during that invasion Takada spent more time aiming at the Junior Heavyweight and tag team division. Not this time.
With Mutoh (and the crowd) well aware of both Takada’s strikes and submissions, a lot of the early feeling out process seems to take this into account; Mutoh doesn’t seem to want to engage, and when he does, his head is often turned away to avoid the dangerous blows of Takada. The crowd are molten hot throughout. Even just a tease of a dragon screw by Mutoh off of a caught kick has them worked up into a frenzy.
The heat between these two factions is clear by the lack of a clean break early on by Mutoh, who chooses to slap Takada around the face instead. The first half of the contest mainly takes place on the mat, as both men jockey for position, with the crowd responding to any tease of Takada’s kneebar or cross arm scissors, as well as Mutoh’s figure four leglock. After a takedown, he locks in a kimura, almost transitioning into a cross armed scissors but Mutoh avoids.
Nothing is likely to break up a grappling contest quicker than multiple headbutts, but that is what Mutoh then blasts Takada with to a huge reaction from the crowd. Up until now, the contest has been firmly Takada’s style, so when Mutoh is finally able to drop a snap elbow, the crowd almost cannot contain itself. A rather awkward moonsault should be enough for Mutoh to pick up the win, but he tries to slap on a kimura of his own, wanting to break Takada’s arm, not just defeat him.
Heading back into Takada’s world allows him to regain his composure, and even slap on a kneebar which Mutoh escapes. The crowd go insane for the dragon screw that follows. Mutoh’s one big submission option is the figure four leglock, and each man trade the leglock and kneebar in the middle of the ring, shifting legs to battle for control. Mutoh, having missed his opportunity for the pinfall, manages to fight out of a crossarm scissors once, but after eating several stiff kicks to the chest, cannot fight out of a second attempt. With a verbal submission, we end up with a new IWGP Heavyweight Champion, much to the shock of the fans in attendance.
One of the arguments that is made is that Mutoh didn’t bring his A game because he knew he was losing. This also saw him protect his finisher, the moonsault, by not letting Takada kick out of it and heading the arm spot. That is certainly one way of looking at it. However, some choose to see Mutoh’s demeanour as part of the story, especially after the loss and the walk of shame takes him past many New Japan legends, including Shinya Hashimoto.
It would be Hashimoto who would wrestle the title back into the NJPW fold later in the year. More importantly, it would be this feud that sparked a nugget of an idea in the head of Eric Bischoff – by the end of the year, the NWO was born.
KENTA © vs Takeshi Morishima – NOAH
GHC Heavyweight Title Match
No-one has a crystal ball and can tell the future. Whenever a wrestling company makes a choice to change any title, let alone their World championship, they obviously hope that their new champion works out. Whether that means in terms of storyline, drawing or in ring action, it is unlikely that a promotion has ever stuck a world title with no legitimate reasoning supporting that.
With Takeshi Morishima, NOAH knew what they were getting when they chose to have him end KENTA’s almost year long reign as GHC Heavyweight Champion. KENTA had had an incredibly dominant year, defeating wrestlers who called NOAH home, as well as Toru Yano and Yuji Nagata, outsiders from NJPW. In doing so, he had become the first GHC Champion to ever defend the title eight times in one calendar year. With many men already defeated and brushed aside by the champion, who better to step up than the guy who had dropped the belt to him in the first place? A man who had held the title for almost a year himself back in 2012?
When KENTA and Takeshi Morishima stood opposite each other on the 5th of January 2014, having collectively spent the past two years on top of the pile, to what extent could anyone predict that by January 2015, neither man would find themselves a member of the NOAH roster?
To the match itself. Though Morishima had slimmed down a lot since his run on top in 2008, he still held a reasonable size advantage over the champion. However, nine title defenses in a row can only build up your confidence, and the early going saw Morishima overwhelmed by a fired up, and somewhat cocky, champion. Several times Morishima had to bail to the ringside, overwhelmed by numerous strikes and not able to utilise his bulk to work over KENTA.
NOAH’s big match style over the years has often revolved around big, and some could argue dangerous, spots. The match doesn’t overdo these, though a DDT on the wooden floor is the move that gives Morishima his initial control. This finally allows Morishima to begin to use his size to control his opponent, landing a butt splash at ringside and getting a two count off of a big splash. His size is only one feature of his offense though, as he showed with a top rope dropkick that sent KENTA flying across the ring.
The match could be accused of being somewhat pedestrian up until now, but as KENTA fires up, the pace also quickens. A top rope double foot stomp gets a two count after a boot and a dropkick in the corner has the bigger man downed. KENTA even utilises the Go 2 Sleep twice; one time grazing the arm, the other time catching the chest. Though not completed accurately, this use of his main finishing move twice built an air of desperation – did KENTA have the big guns to dispose of Morishima? This feeling only continued to develop as the Game Over submission isn’t enough to force Morishima to tap.
A desperation backdrop driver earlier in the match had only managed to get Morishima a two count. The second backdrop driver of the contest, following a lariat that swatted KENTA out of midair and a second one for good measure, was enough for Morishima to regain his world title. Not content with just becoming a new champion, Morishima used the post match interview to turn heel, forming a new stable by turning on his team mates in Brave to become the leader of Choukibou-gun alongside Mayback Tanaguchi and Kenoh.
A match that felt underwhelming feels somewhat prescient of the following year’s developments for Morishima. Losing the title to Yuji Nagata a month later without making a title defense is one thing; being forced into retirement in April due to health concerns at a relatively young age was completely unexpected. With KENTA leaving NOAH for WWE at around the same time, the two men who had led the company for the previous two years as champion were no longer.
Ric Flair © vs Carlos Colon – WWC
NWA World Heavyweight Title Match
During the 70s and the 80s, the touring NWA Champion was an integral part of the territorial system that had been established to divide up the regions within the United States. The chosen wrestler, whilst also spending time with his home promotion, would travel around the NWA affiliated territories, defending the belt and drawing in larger crowds as fans wanted to see them in action, or to see them get beaten by one of the local heroes. The NWA Champion was often a wrestler who could handle themselves in legitimate physical action, if not someone with a genuine wrestling background – due to the importance of the NWA Title as a commodity, it wouldn’t do to leave you belt on someone who couldn’t handle a potential double cross.
Though relative distance through time is a factor, Ric Flair feels as if he is prototypical ‘touring champion’. Flair would go everywhere and anywhere, with a desire to make everyone who stepped into the ring with him look like a million dollars. When champion, his schedule was ridiculous as he would wrestle nearly every night, often to time limit draws. Within these matches, Flair knew exactly how to give his opponent enough to make any victory seem earned and valuable to the champion.
Considering the rich lineage of the NWA World Heavyweight Title and the often stoic booking of the title (many reigns up to and including the 80s were over a year long), the Alliance wouldn’t be above the odd hotshot title victory to add legitimacy to a wrestler, or to create a sense of ‘anything could happen’ surrounding the areas the champion toured in. One of these times was in 1983, with Ric Flair taking on Carlos Colon in WWC.
As well as being the prototypical touring champion, Ric Flair was also the king of the phantom title change. At least three times, Flair lost his NWA World Heavyweight Title in a title switch that never saw recognition by the NWA officially. In 1982, a rabid Dominican Republic crowd forced Flair’s hand (if stories are to be believed), leading to Jack Veneno becoming the new NWA Heavyweight Champion. A ‘refusal’ to defend the title out of his home country did for Veneno’s title reign, and the belt was handed back to Ric Flair without any official record within the title lineage.
Even with the benefit of hindsight, Carlos Colon’s victory over Ric Flair in Puerto Rico feels different. Colon was a legend that transcended Puerto Rico, and felt a legitimate enough contender to the richest prize in the sport at the time. Also, very few people walked into Puerto Rico and defeated Carlos Colon; it just wasn’t the way things were done.
To have Flair lose to Colon, subsequently losing the title, before regaining the title a couple of weeks later seemed beneficial for all – Colon was able to dine out on being the former NWA champion if he saw fit, Flair got the rub of another title victory further down the line (even if it was somewhat unofficial), WWC, and by proxy the NWA, made a tonne of money.
The reign lasted seventeen days only – Flair won back the title on the 23rd of January in a show in Miami, Florida. This was not the last time Flair dropped the belt unofficially either. The following month, Victor Jovica from Trinidad defeated Flair, only for the result to be changed three days later due to the use of the ropes to gain leverage in the winning pinfall. Finally, Harley Race and Flair traded the title back and forth in shows encompassing New Zealand and Singapore, decisions seemingly made to give the newer markets something special without devaluing the title all that much.
The Sandman © vs Rhino – ECW
ECW World Heavyweight Title Match
By the start of 2001, the writing was clearly on the wall for ECW. Lower attendances, bouncing cheques, talent leaving; it was a case of when, rather than if, ECW ceased to be. Amidst this turmoil and confusion, they put on what ended up being their final PPV – Guilty as Charged. Within this show, which felt like it offered a tired facsimile of what ECW used to be at times, there was at least a moment that seemed to be as much about rewarding the efforts of one relative newcomer, even as Rome burned around them.
The main ECW Heavyweight Title match saw a Tables, Ladders, Chairs and Canes contest between Steve Corino, the champion, and his two opponents, Justin Credible and The Sandman. Following a brief title reign by Jerry Lynn – another that felt as much a reward for long service as much as anything else – Corino had won the title at November to Remember in a Double Jeopardy match including Lynn, Credible and the Sandman. The recycling of title contenders only seemed to emphasise the lack of any real legitimate wrestlers to lead the promotion out of the looming black hole.
Even in its dying day, ECW pulled a typical ECW-esque stunt by giving with one hand, and taking away with the other. The previous year, Justin Credible’s lacklustre title reign had begun after challenging the new champion, Tommy Dreamer, minutes after he had defeated Taz for his first every ECW Heavyweight Title victory. This time, it was the Sandman who was allowed the brief celebrations that followed a hard fought, and weapon fuelled, victory over Corino and Credible.
As he celebrated on the top turnbuckle with the title in his hands, he was unable to see the arrival of Rhino. During a time when ECW was circling the plughole, Rhino was one of the few bright sparks. Winning the Television Title with intense work both in and out of the ring, Rhino had used the opportunities afforded to him by other wrestlers leaving to make himself a star.
Typically for ECW, even this moment almost went wrong. As The Sandman landed in the ring and turned around, Rhino stumbled and almost fell, leading to one of the worst Gores he’d probably ever completed. Swearing at the live audience kept the heat focused on the moment, and Rhino challenged The Sandman to a title match right there, right then. Rhino’s reasoning was that as he was TV Champion for a promotion that didn’t have television anymore, he should have the main title.
It would take threatening the Sandman’s family to finally get the new champion to agree to the match. Realistically, it was more slaughter than a match. Making up for the poor Gore from earlier, Rhino picked the Sandman up and drove him through a propped up table in the corner. This only got him a two count, as did a piledriver through a table at ringside. Finally, a second piledriver, this time onto the shards of a table in the ring, gave Rhino the World title.
Jerry Lynn versus Rob Van Dam understandably went on last, being the final PPV match that ECW ever offered until the brand was resurrected by the WWE. Rhino’s run as champion saw him defend the title twice, with a victory over the Sandman followed by a win over Spike Dudley. Just under three months later, ECW was officially declared bankrupt. Not only did this not allow Rhino to have a run with the belt of any consequence, it also left him out of pocket as one of a number of ECW wrestlers who were owed pay.
John Cena © vs Edge – WWE
WWE Championship Title Match
Having won the King of the Ring tournament in 2001, it was a long and winding path to major singles success for Edge. Though he would win the Intercontinental Title five times across a period of seven years, he seemed to always come up short when it came to winning one of the World titles. Turning heel near the end of 2004, before being joined by his real-life girlfriend (at the time), Lita, the following year, Edge had a renewed desire and aggression to achieve a singular goal: winning the WWE Championship. Dubbing himself ‘The Rated-R Superstar’ at this time, Edge showed the attitude that later saw the moniker ‘The Ultimate Opportunist’ when he cashed in his Money in the Bank briefcase as New Year’s Revolution 2006.
In his own first WWE Championship title reign, John Cena was already getting the divisive crowd reactions that became somewhat of a trademark. Even in an Elimination Chamber featuring Kurt Angle (heel), Carlito (heel) and Chris Masters (heel), the fans desire to cheer Angle, or get behind Shawn Michaels or Kane in the Chamber match, meant that Cena was roundly booed as he headed out to defend his title belt. The reaction softened somewhat as the match progressed, but it was clear that things felt stale at the top. Between John Bradshaw Layfield and John Cena, there had been no other champions for over a year and a half, and both men had had fairly contentious reigns as well.
As a means to thrust Edge into the main event and to shake up the action at the top of the card, having Edge cash in his shot at the title on a tired and bloody John Cena was an excellent slice of booking. Cena had begun the match first with Shawn Michaels, and had even finished the contest fighting off a two on one attack by Chris Masters and Carlito. If ever there was a time when he was vulnerable to losing his title, a title that seemed to be stuck around his waist, it was now.
Rather than just running in at the end of the contest, and perhaps to add a slice of gravitas, Vince McMahon headed out to announce Edge’s desire to challenge Cena for his title right now. By the time Edge, clearly pumped by the opportunity ahead of him, had made it to ringside, Cena had used the ropes to hold himself listlessly off of the mat. There was only going to be one outcome to this ‘contest’.
Just to give the crowd that one last moment of doubt, Cena kicked out of the first spear Edge used. Boos rippled around the arena, as a sense that ‘Super Cena’ might arise once more and win against the ultimate odds became tangible. The fans needn’t have worried. One further spear was all it took for Cena to see the lights for three seconds and for Edge to become the new WWE Champion.
Though Edge only held the title until the Royal Rumble, losing the belt back to John Cena in a booking move that became all too familiar in the years to come, this victory pushed him into the main event limelight and solidified him in the eyes of the fans as a legitimate star. Up until his retirement in 2011, Edge was never far from the title picture.
As an addendum, the following evening saw the now infamous ‘Live Sex Celebration’ in the middle of the ring with Lita. Depending on whether you see it as people’s perception of Edge as champion, or their desire to see boobs on television, the segment posted Raw’s highest rating in over a year. Make of that what you will.
Dick Hutton © vs Pat O’Connor – NWA
NWA World Heavyweight Title Match
At a time period were the biggest wrestling companies were content to look back at their history in plain sight, paying homage to those that had built this great sport, Starrcade 1990 played host to the Pat O’Connor International Memorial Cup Tournament. In one night, eight teams representing eight different countries battled it out in honour of one of the early pioneers, a man who held the NWA World Heavyweight Title for close to three years. After formulaic quarter and semi-finals (which saw names such as Chris Adams, Normal Smiley, Rey Mysterio Sr. and Konnan get WCW PPV time), the one really marquee match graced the grand final: The Steiner Brothers versus the Japanese team of Mr Saito and The Great Muta. Unsurprisingly, it would be the Michigan natives who picked up the victory, and the Pat O’Connor Memorial Cup.
Pat O’Connor was an NWA World Heavyweight Championship dream. With a legitimate military and amateur wrestling background, he was the epitome of a man who could handle himself in the ring when necessary. Having made his debut in 1950, O’Connor had numerous title success, both in singles and in tag team competition. Competitors who wrestled alongside him included such luminaries as Verne Gagne, Lou Thesz and Edouard Carpentier; all wrestlers that O’Connor was often shown to be more than the measure of.
Having received several shots at the NWA World Heavyweight Title over the years, many against a stubbornly resistant Thesz, O’Connor finally managed to win the biggest prize in the sport to date, defeating Dick Hutton, the man who had eventually toppled Thesz. The match took place and St Louis, and was contested under one fall rules rather than the usual two out of three. O’Connor’s patented move was the spinning leglock, and he utilised it liberally to wear down the champion, finally defeating him fifteen minutes into the contest. O’Connor had become the first, and to date only, New Zealand born NWA champion.
During his reign as champion, the American Wrestling Association (having left the NWA) chose to recognise him as their first ever AWA World Heavyweight Champion. This came with a caveat; Verne Gagne declared that the title would be stripped from him if O’Connor didn’t defend the title within ninety days. Indeed, O’Connor was champ in name only. The title was never defended, and unsurprisingly sat around the waist of Gagne when the ninety days had passed. This behaviour started a trend, as WWWF also seceded from the NWA shortly after and proclaimed their singles title a World championship.
O’Connor’s reign came at a time when television began to play a major role within the world of wrestling. With names such as Lou Thesz dominating the title lineage over many years, and with lights and cameras appealing more to flamboyant characters such as Buddy Rogers, it feels that Pat O’Connor gets lost somewhat in the shuffle when the big names of the NWA are considered, especially when it comes to the more casual wrestling fan. There just isn’t as much footage around of men who made their career in the 50s and 60s, and as wrestling becomes ever more forward looking, dwelling upon names such as O’Connor seems like a distant memory.
When Buddy Rogers defeated Pat O’Connor for the title in 1961, 38,622 fans turned up at Comiskey Park – an attendance record that lasted all the way until the Big Event in Toronto over thirty years later. Records such as this, as well as having the sixth ever recognised reign as NWA World Heavyweight Champion, speak volumes about O’Connor’s importance in the history of wrestling. The tag tournament truly was just the tip of the iceberg.
Shane Douglas © vs Taz – ECW
ECW Heavyweight Championship Match
In wrestling, it is often the chase that is more engaging than the catch itself. Find yourself a red hot babyface to go after a nefarious heel with the gold, and you often have yourself a recipe for success. However, there is also an argument about striking whilst the iron is hot; wait too long, and the fans just get sick of waiting. Striking the correct balance is not an exact science.
Taz’s almost yearlong chase for the ECW Heavyweight Championship arguably fell into the latter camp, though not through any real fault of his own. At the tail end of 1997, Shane Douglas had suffered a broken arm in a match involving Bam Bam Bigelow at the November to Remember PPV. This, alongside several illnesses, forced Douglas off television for long stretches of 1998, though Paul Heyman made the strange decision to keep the World title on him. Thus, the ECW faithful were left with a champion who wasn’t always able to defend his title.
To attempt to redress the balance, Taz introduced the FTW Title which, whilst unsanctioned, was defended by Taz as he bided his time for a shot against Douglas. When Douglas returned, the big clash continued to be delayed; it felt as if ECW wanted Douglas to be as close to one hundred percent as possible when eventually dropping the title to Taz, one of the only homegrown stars left. Therefore, an injured Douglas only defended the title once on PPV that year – a pedestrian encounter against Al Snow.
Finally, enough was enough. A still-visibly injured Shane Douglas (a case still on his arm, and not in a Bob Orton Jr. way) put the title on the line at Guilty as Charged. Considering the length of Douglas’ title reign, with limited amounts of title action in the process, the result felt like it was a foregone conclusion. Here was the chance to Taz to become a star, defeating the man who he had won his first ECW singles title from in 1997, the ECW Television title.
Joey Styles spends the opening minute espousing the quality of each man’s amateur background, and we do get some grappling and joint work to open the match. It was always going to be a matter of when, rather than if, the match degenerated into a fight, and Douglas cracking Taz with two punches in the corner certainly cut short any attempt to keep this technical. For his troubles, he got dumped hard with a head-and-arm Tazplex shortly afterwards.
With the storyline animosity between the two wrestlers, and the physical debilitation of the champion, there was always going to be shortcuts to try and turn this match into an epic. The usual big match ECW staples get wheeled out, as both men brawl their way through the crowd, Douglas gets busted open and waffles Taz with a chair all within the first ten minutes.
Having spent a large portion of the match walking and punching each other through the crowd, a lot of the action happens in the final five minutes in-ring. In an ideal world, Taz would have made Douglas tap out and prove that he was the better man all along. However, it wouldn’t be ECW without the dog and pony show that follows almost all of their marquee matches.
Two tables have already been destroyed, one apiece, when fireworks go off and Sabu hits the ring to get his revenge on both wrestlers for seemingly conspiring to injure him. This builds to the only real nearfall in the match, as a splash off of the top rope through a table almost allows Douglas to steal the victory. Tammy Lynn Sytch, Chris Candido and Francine will all then get involved, leading to Candido punching Douglas in the face. A clearly distraught Franchise ends up watching Candido leave, vulnerable to a resurgent Taz who slaps on the Tazmission. After a brief struggle, Douglas is out. Notably, he doesn’t tap; three drops of the arm is enough to give Taz the ECW World Heavyweight Title.
Even though the long term booking made limited sense, even though the match wasn’t the best, and even though the clusterfuck finish, it truly did feel like something important had when the arm dropped for the third time. With Douglas finally dethroned, Taz had ascended to what many felt was his rightful position in the promotion, and was left to shoulder the burden of leading the company into the New Year. His title reign would only end when the WWE came calling nine months later.
Sting © vs Ric Flair – WCW
NWA/WCW World Heavyweight Title Match
Some men are seemingly born to work together. For reasons of chemistry, every time they step into the ring with each other, something, if not magical, at least watchable is created. With the relative importance of house shows in terms of generating cash, it isn’t surprising to see companies return to the same matches if they work – if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it.
In a little over three years in the same promotion, Ric Flair and Sting would contest ninety-three singles matches against each other before meeting on the 11th of January. Beginning in 1988, when Sting was brought into the company off of the back of the UWF takeover, the feud revolved initially around Sting chasing Flair for his NWA World Heavyweight Title. To further highlight the value the company placed in the duo, and primarily the future they saw for Sting, the two main evented the first every Clash of The Champions. This was a coming out party for Sting as a legitimate title contender, taking Ric Flair to a time limit draw and more than holding his own end of the legwork.
Over the tail end of 1990, the shoe was on the other foot as Sting, following a title victory at the Great American Bash, fended off Ric Flair (fighting as The Black Scorpion) at the year-ending Starrcade. However, the man billed as from Venice Beach’s days as NWA World Heavyweight Champion were numbered.
In one of the final times that the major title in WCW changed hands off of television or PPV, Sting would lose the title to Ric Flair in a house show in New Jersey. With cameras in attendance, footage of the final four minutes was aired on WCW syndicated television. Within this window of time, we saw what we expect from a confrontation between Flair and Sting: Sting delivering the pace and power with a jumping clothesline and a press slam; Flair bouncing around the ring and providing the usual trademark spots, getting chucked off the top rope and bleeding like a stuck pig.
With the face Horseman run of the previous year long behind us, it was never going to be a clean finish to a Flair title win. Sting, having been overzealous enough to miss a Stinger splash in the corner moments earlier, managed to wipe out both Flair and the referee on a dive off of the top rope. Both the dive and a small package that followed gave the fans the visual pinfall, but the referee was still down. The stage seemed set for some good old fashioned Flair cheating, but the finish was more novel than this; after a collision off of an Irish whip which dropped Sting on the mat, Flair collapsed on top of him and the ref counted the pinfall – unaware that Sting had his foot on the rope.
Even though the footage was there to invalidate the title win, the usual trigger happy championship committee were content to let the title change stand. With this victory, Ric Flair had equalled the most number of NWA Title reigns at seven with Harley Race. In just under a decade, Flair had managed to hold onto the NWA World Heavyweight Title – across his title reigns – for close to 3,000 days. More was soon to follow.
In the same month, WCW officially ended its affiliation with the NWA, declaring Ric Flair their new WCW World Heavyweight Champion. As a means to start off the new title lineage with as much credibility as possible, turning the title over to Flair did seem to make a lot of sense. Also, Flair as heel champion with Sting as perpetual nemesis alongside other babyface wrestlers of the time period such as Lex Luger had the potential to keep eyes on the burgeoning WCW brand as it transitioned away from the NWA name.
Instead, Ric Flair left for the WWF in less than six month’s time, infamously turning up on Federation television with the Big Gold Belt in tow. As for Sting, February 1992 saw his first taste of the WCW World Heavyweight Title, defeating his on-again, off-again friend, Lex Luger.
Matt and Nick Jackson © vs Kevin Steen and El Generico – PWG
PWG World Tag Team Titles Match
You cannot begrudge a ‘local boy’ done good. In a global phenomenon such as wrestling, belonging in terms of proximity to a promotion or venue is rare, yet when you build your name, your persona and your wrestling identity in a place which has a specific three letters on the marquee, the fans begin to feel like you are one of their own. Even though they want to see you achieve to the best of your ability, though that inevitably means outgrowing them, there is still going to be that small shard of bitterness and regret that the next time you will see them, that feeling of intimacy will be gone, or even worse, it will be when they are on the way down, spat out by the corporate machine.
When El Generico showed up for the annual PWG DDT4 tournament at the start of 2013, his departure for the WWE was imminent. What better event to see out his time in PWG than at the Dynamite Duumvirate Tag Team Title Tournament, an event he had won alongside Paul London. This time, he teamed with a man that had been up and down the road with him many times, both as friend and as an enemy, Kevin Steen. The Canadian duo saw themselves past The Briscoe Brothers and Future Shock (Adam Cole and Kyle O’Reilly) respectively to make their way into the final. With the punch-them-in-the-mouth arrogance of their opposition, The Young Bucks, and the fans’ legitimate love for Generico, this promised to be a truly great sendoff. Young Bucks using their title belts as a weapon pre-bell, eliciting a ‘Fuck the Young Bucks’ chant, just set the tone from the very beginning.
PWG shows have a specific, and very diehard, audience, both in the building and who follow along via DVDs and the internet. With an apron bump by Nick Jackson within the first three minutes, there aren’t many punches that are pulled in terms of big time moves and impressive spots; a generally divisive style, but one that is often exciting to see in motion. Your mileage on this match can probably be measured by the extent you enjoy watching a handspring into a back rake – something that works for me.
In a booking move that is simple, but very effective, Generico plays the face in peril role, a position that seems him subjected to many of the Buck’s more derisory manoeuvres, including multiple nonchalant pins. A tag following an exploder suplex into the corner finally allows the crowd favourites to finally take the fight to their opponents, with Generico landing a somersault senton to the outside. We even get a double Sharpshooter spot, apropos for a Canadian team, even if Roderick Strong on commentary does point out – rightly – that Generico’s version is awful.
Thirteen minutes in sees the first Young Buck’s superkick, and the tally rises sharply in the next minute as both Bucks go to town on first Steen and then Generico. With Steen out on the floor courtesy of a somersault dive, Generico is left alone and vulnerable. More Bang For Your Buck (rolling samoan/450 splash/moonsault combo) soon follows, as a member of the crowd gets close to the ring and implores Generico to ‘kick out!’.
A millisecond before the hand drops for three, he manages just that. Could the impossible actually be on? It wouldn’t be the first time someone won a title on their last night in a company, and you feel a sense of the crowd suddenly beginning to believe. A Steinalizer on Matt is followed by a Helluva Kick and Brainbuster drops Nick hard into the turnbuckle.
It’s just a shame the Young Bucks superkicked the referee after Generico kicked out of the MBFYB.
We get the visual three count, and even a neat little exchange between Rick Knox (the substitute referee) and Matt, as the count is interrupted, Matt is superkicked by the referee and we get an oh-so-close nearfall. It was never going to be. A package piledriver from Steen that was supposed to roll Matt into the waiting arms of Generico saw the masked luchador rolled into a small package for the flash three count.
Just for a moment, PWG drew the fans in to believing that perhaps, just perhaps, El Generico might win the title with Kevin Steen on his final night in the promotion. People wanted to believe in it; that is the beauty of wrestling. Maybe if he won the title, we could believe that he’d be there at the next show, booting people in the face and dropping them head first on turnbuckles. Instead, we got the locker room emptying and true respect from the loyal PWG fans before Generico would rise again in the WWE as Sami Zayn. Rarely has a ‘you deserve it’ chant had such genuine and legitimate feeling behind it.
El Hijo del Santo vs Brazo de Oro
Mask vs Hair Match
Like any type of wager, there are some things that are dead certs that you could put your house on and rest safe in the knowledge that you will wake up tomorrow with a roof over your head. Tiger Woods in his golfing heyday, Phil Taylor during his darting peak, Manchester United under Sir Alex Ferguson; chances are, when the pressure was on, they’d rise to the occasion.
Add El Hijo del Santo to the list. In a career that included sixty four separate occasions (as far as has been recorded) in which his mask was on the line, he never lost. A mixture of the great and good of Lucha LIbre sought the legendary silver mask, only to lose their own in the process, or leave the arena a shorn and embarrassed loser.
As El Hijo del Santo prepared for his forty first wager contest against Brazo de Oro, he had been defending his mask for almost a decade. Oro was no slouch himself, defending his own mask for many years before a feud between Los Brazos and Los Villanos saw all of Los Brazos lose their mask in a single contest (El Brazo and Brazo de Plata alongside their real life brother).
Thus, it was his hair that he put up against the mask of Santo.
Showing little respect for the mask, Brazo would use it in the first fall to drag Santo about the ring, before battering him with forearms, chokes and kneedrops. A comeback flurry would also be cut off by an unceremonious yank of the potential spoils of victory. A powerbomb after several struggles between the two men to use the ringpost as a weapon finally gave Brazo the opening fall, the finish almost casual in its nature. Santo would be fighting from behind the rest of the way.
The silver is quickly stained red as Brazo uses the opening to the second fall as a signal to bite his esteemed opponent. Each swing of a fist from Santo feels legitimate in its urgency, but nothing seems able to stop the bulldozing Brazo. A change of pace seems Santo’s only chance, and a suicide dive out of the ring after a dropkick finally gives him some respite shows his ability to make every opening count. The ringpost finally gets used, splitting Brazo open, blood gushing like a tap. The camel clutch that follows a diving headbutt almost feels merciful.
Brazo looks every bit the wounded warrior in the third fall, a pitiful piece of tape that is supposed to stop the bleeding ripped off with ease by Santo. However, a second camel clutch doesn’t do enough to finish the contest; it suddenly seems like it could go either way. Brazo nails a suicide dive, only to be topped moments later by a Santo dive off of the top turnbuckle to the outside. Santo gets a nearfall off of a roll-up, yet then gets dropped with another powerbomb for a close count. Duel rolling sentons off of the second rope saw Brazo miss, yet Santo landed his.
After such a vicious and violent brawl, it almost felt anticlimactic for Oro to lose to a cradle, but just as he sought a way to finally take out Santo, his slam was turned into a small package to lose him the match, and more importantly, his hair. Though the cradle perhaps felt incongruous to the rest of the match, the storyline was sold – Santo only just squeaked past Brazo. Forty one times is seemingly the charm, and the legend of El Hijo del Santo would continue to roll on.
Never bet against him.
Seth Rollins vs Hunico – FCW
Jack Brisco Classic final
Every road to the top starts with a single step.
Whether you believe it to be of value to wrestlers who have come from the independent scene or not, it was rare for a new talent in the WWE to not step foot in one of their developmental territories to learn ‘WWE style’. Promotions such as Heartland Wrestling Association and Ohio Valley Wrestling have allowed the company to season their new stars, away from the bright lights of the bigger stages that come with getting called up to the main roster.
Before NXT became the next big thing in wrestling, Florida Championship Wrestling was the latest venue in which new WWE recruits would ply their trade, hoping to showcase their abilities and develop their skills en route to bigger and better things. It was where, in 2010, the character of Seth Rollins made his debut. A play on the name of the musician Henry Rollins, he had spent several years wrestling the independents, most notably ROH, as Tyler Black. Even an ROH World Title run didn’t guarantee you squat up in Stamford, and this was a chance for Rollins to reinvent his persona in the process.
His first opportunity at gold under a WWE contract came in the final of the Jack Brisco 15 Tournament. A novel, if convoluted, idea, the tournament consisted of a selection of Iron Man matches each with a time limit of fifteen minutes. After what appeared to be a Round Robin tournament (brackets and exactly results are curiously hard to find), the two men with the most pinfalls across all matches met in one last fifteen contest to decide who won the medal that was up for grabs. On account of earning five pinfalls over the course of his matches, Rollins eased into the final.
His opponent? Hunico, with his own collection of four falls. Another wrestler who had spent a good lick of time in the business up to this point, Hunico was also out there to try and show what he had to offer to the men that matter; building from the ground up within a promotion that had the potential to make him a worldwide star.
Truth be told, the opening was laborious. Even with the time limit only fifteen minutes, the men traded holds as if to imply that the match was going twice as long. It wouldn’t be until half way through the contest that things finally started to pick up the pace. A rope assisted basement dropkick, followed by a plancha after a fakeout had led Rollins hurtling to the ringside floor had Hunico on top in the contest and highlighting his impressive aerial offense.
Rollins is no slouch either, and after a poorly timed advert break, would land a backflip out of a missed dropkick attempt, before catching a nearfall off of a springboard clothesline. Three minutes were remaining, and neither man had managed to take a fall yet. In a match earlier in the competition, the two had drawn 1-1; this was clearly setting up to be another tight contest.
In the final stretch, the nearfalls kick the match into a gear that it seemed to forget it had at the start. Rollins caught Hunico off of a top rope dive and drove him into the mat for a powerslam – two count; a roll-up out of a powerbomb setup and a La Majistral cradle – both two counts; a Rollins jacknife pin with five second remaining – one last two count. Inevitably, the contest ended as a draw and five additional sudden death minutes were put on the clock for one man to edge in front of the other.
Both men now pulled out all the stops. A repeated attempt of the roll-up out of a powerbomb position gets blocked this time by Rollins liberally dumping Hunico into the turnbuckle and adding insult to injury with a basement superkick. This should be it, but Hunico somehow manages to kick out. A top rope armdrag and his trademark Falling Star swanton bomb isn’t enough for Hunico either. It seems like it is going to take a mistake, a fluke or a touch of ingenuity to gain that one desired pinfall.
In a touch of all three, Hunico would return to La Majistral cradle after Rollins missed a standing shooting star press. This time, Rollins managed to maintain his leverage, pinning the Mexican’s shoulder to the mat for the three count. Having effectively contest thirty minutes of action across the tournament with both men neck and neck, Rollins had just pipped Hunico to the post.
Whilst the Jack Brisco 15 trophy would be defunct within a year, Rollins ended up leaving FCW the only ever Grand Slam Champion, picking up the tag title and main singles gold along the way. These ended up being merely stepping stones for his rise up the card in the WWE proper. As for FCW, rebranding that followed in 2012 would see it become the NXT that we know and love today, a place that is still allowing stars to be born and veterans to ply their trade.
Royal Rumble 1989
Amidst all the big and ballsy things Vince McMahon did to build WWF/E into the global monolith it would become, there are smaller touches that get lost in the ether somewhat. Decisions that whilst at the time might have seemed small and insignificant, but set in motion a chain of events that continued to help the McMahon family dominate the wrestling world.
Having Ax and Smash as the first two entrants in the Royal Rumble 1989 is one of those things.
This may seem hyperbolic, or overstating the importance of this moment, but this was the decision that truly showed the WWF wrestling fan that this match was every man for himself. Not only did we have two members of one of the most dominant teams in recent memory entering the ring to face off against one another, neither man gave an inch as they used their trademark battering ram-like offense with no second guessing.
Whilst this was actually the second Royal Rumble contest, the first one had seemed like a prototype, an experiment to see if the concept worked before developing the idea and fleshing it out. Thus, we had only twenty men, a large selection of midcard talent and jobbers to the starts, and Jim Duggan victory. Clearly, the WWF were on to something – they just needed to add the sizzle to the steak.
In many ways, Royal Rumble 1989 shows not only how far the idea had come within only a year in terms of execution, but also how ubiquitous some of the roles that were played in the match would become. As well as Ax and Smash showing the fans that anything could happen within the confines of a Royal Rumble, we saw several over archetypal performances that would be repeated over many years to come.
Mr Perfect lasted just under thirty minutes, further cementing the idea of the ‘marathon man’ type that was needed to hold the Rumble together (a role played by Bret Hart in the debut contest). As this was during the era of Hulkamania, Hulk Hogan ended up being the wrestler who cleaned house and removed a lot of the lesser guys who had started to clog up the ring and allow the Rumble to almost reset itself.
It doesn’t end there. Jake Roberts, with the help of his snake, eliminated Andre the Giant after being eliminated himself; the first in a long line of wrestlers who didn’t take too kindly to finding themselves dumped from the ring and sought almost instantaneous revenge. We even got the first ‘comedy elimination’ as The Warlord was knocked out of the ring by Hulk Hogan in two seconds, a clip that would grace many a Silver Vision VHS montage.
Most importantly, an initial trend of the winner entering in the final ten contestants started, as Big John Studd would win the match entering at number 27. A miscommunication between Ted Dibiase and Akeem saw Studd eliminate the African Dream before depositing Dibiase to the floor moments later. This skewing of victories towards the latter end of the contest in the initial Rumble matches reaped dividends in 1992, only serving to emphasise the impressive nature of Ric Flair’s victory.
The only real question mark was why Studd was chosen to be the winner. Though it seemed that this was being used primarily in an attempt to rehabilitate his character after a two year retirement had ended at the tail end of 1988. However, Studd would be gone five months later due to perceived poor payoffs. Clearly, the Rumble did little to help Studd in the long run, but built a formula that could be manipulated and altered to create some of the most engaging in-ring action of the next thirty years.