There’s a feeling you get as a wrestling fan, when you see people mention how great a storyline, feud, or match was, be it from a bygone era or from a few years ago – maybe even last night. Yet you, yourself, have not seen it. It’s tucked away, behind the curtain and out of sight. Yet, you want to peel it back for a look to see what the hype was all about.
That’s the beauty of all fiction, really. But with wrestling, something so silly, with botches or creative missteps, it’s not often there are these fantastical stories played out so precisely and perfectly, yet throughout wrestling history there are such things. Where in this morality play, we drop our guards and fall victim to the pretense, wool fully over our eyes as this performance becomes more than a joke, more than art – it becomes something so real that they have us like the magicians they are.
What separates us from the world these characters live in, is but a mere square, one that they can step through, and merge their world with ours with V-triggers pulled and pipe-bombs exploding. You watch, with that wanderlust, and you are grateful you get to live in this moment, a moment nobody can take from you. A memory defined.
But what about the matches beyond that scope? What about that little thing behind the curtain? It may not be common to those who grew up watching wrestling and having this fandom tattooed within their soul, but for those who haven’t spent their life watching it, for those who have just dipped their toes before diving into the water, these matches they don’t know become this beautiful myth.
For this feature today, I would like to show you the experiences I’ve had since I’ve fully entered the confines of professional wrestling as a fan. To the three legendary matches I’ve seen to the three fabled ones I’ve yet to watch.
Without further ado:
The Matches That I’ve Seen
“Stone Cold” Steve Austin vs. Bret Hart (WrestleMania 13)
First off, before I became a fan again, I was under the impression that Austin and Hart were in two separate eras, never to have crossed paths. That they were two different people, in two different times. I was mistaken, for it was their feud that transitioned what was, to what was to be.To set the scene, in 1996 Bret Hart had taken a break from the World Wrestling Federation, and in his stead a Ringmaster shed his skin and became a Rattlesnake. An assassin befitting the attention of the Hitman. This was a man unlike most opponents that the Excellence of Execution had met in the ring before. This was a man who walked into his home while he was away, made love with his wife, and took this place for himself. This wasn’t a place for Bret anymore, it was Steve’s.
In summary, Bret would initially garner wins over this bald, angry redneck, until Austin would repeatedly screw over Hart. This came to a head at WrestleMania 13, in a match Austin didn’t have much experience in: a submission match. Despite this, he had not a single ounce of quit in him, no matter how tight a hold Hart would have on him. Not even assaults in and out of the ring as Hart became brutal and twisted, could stop Austin. This was not the Bret Hart we knew anymore. Soon, Austin wouldn’t be the same either. As the canvas was painted red with Austin’s blood, Bret did not let go. Austin didn’t tap, but he lost too much blood and passed out in the ring. There was no going back for either man; in what was a brilliant double-turn, it helped solidify Steve Austin’s legacy forevermore.
To me, this match didn’t have the men I grew up watching and admiring. This felt like an actual fight. When I watch it and revisit it now, it feels not like a classic WWF match, but something I would see in a New Japan Professional Wrestling match. I know that won’t make sense to some, but when I watch either this match or a NJPW match, I feel this link between the two.
Vader vs Sting (WCW Starrcade 1992, SuperBrawl III)
Growing up, I knew only of the Crow phase of Sting in WCW, and that carried to adulthood, when I visited the history of wrestlers that I didn’t know of. And I knew of Vader as the guy who was becoming less cool and intimidating in WWF, not knowing the kind of beast he was beforehand. Seeing these two in this manner was an experience that revealed a context that changed the way I saw both men.
Vader was an absolute demon, plucked from the depths of hell by Harley Race and let off the leash in WCW. This is the man who caused a riot in Japan after defeating local hero Antonio Inoki and a man who’s eyeball popped out of its socket mid-match and put it back in. The mere fact that he walked right into Starrcade ’92 in the King of Cable tournament final with a durag over his mask and nobody dared to stop him is proof enough. How would Sting fare against this?
As it would turn out, Sting fared pretty well against the crimson and dark behemoth. Without a durag, the smaller man seemed meek without the headwear, but alas, from the get-go the Stinger had a lot of fight in him. Despite Harley Race being in the way, Sting found the strength to survive many a Vader-Bomb until the very end when he was able to catch Vader as he jumped from the top turnbuckle and flipped him over like he was a distressed minimum-wage worker at McDonald’s during rush hour having to deal with mean customers. This burger-flip was followed up by Sting covering his fallen foe like a top hamburger bun. Dinner was served that night. No refunds.
Speaking of burgers, there was a White Castle of Feat Strap match in the main event of the next WCW pay-per-view, SuperBrawl III. But there were no burgers in this match. Just ketchup, a strap, and Harley Race, who was being a dastardly dandy, I tell you what! This match was every bit as brutal as most strap matches go. Yet, Sting persisted. Each slap of the leather made its painful impact. Despite there being a canvas, the painting of blood and welts on the bodies of the competitors served as a testament of how much this victory meant to both men. The strap itself was used creatively for the time as the future Icon used any means necessary to outlast Vader Time. Each touch of the ring posts gripping, every roar of the crowd amplified the magnitude.
Sting himself was carrying Vader like he was Atlas holding the world above him, looking just as superhuman as the leviathan that opposed him. Sting, as tenacious as he was, fought with every fiber of his body, however, Vader dragged his initially lifeless corpse across three ring posts, only to be denied at the fourth. It felt just inches away from his fingertips as the surfer with face paint clung for dear life on the bottom rope. Relenting for just this moment, Vader came to pry his prey from the clutches of safety, when all at once one defiant kick sent him back. Much to Sting’s chagrin, Vader landed on that damned vital fourth post and the match was lost to him.
These two matches happened just shortly after my own birth, yet they stand the test of time. Vader lived up to his non-WWF reputation and Sting established himself in my eyes as more than the gothic, foreboding scorpion man I grew to know and love. This was a story of brutality and the power of a hero to survive the odds. A classic, a piece of art, and simple yet not pretty.
John Cena vs CM Punk (Money in the Bank 2011)
This was on a pay-per-view that was not one of the “Big Four”, yet it was momentous all the same. At this time, I had stopped watching wrestling, spare from the occasional WrestleMania or Royal Rumble. So I missed out on this period until I discovered Punk’s “Pipebomb” promo and how it changed wrestling, scripted or not.
The Chicago crowd that night were electric, just as it was the night Punk came back to a wrestling ring for the first time since he left WWE in 2014 (or as he put it, 2005 in Ring of Honor). Most of the matches that night had chants for CM Punk. With a roar for the hometown hero in lieu of cheers, and with thundering boos from the corporately generated Superman, magic was made that night – though it pales in comparison to the night of August 20, 2021 when he emerged from the entrance tunnels of All Elite Wrestling in the United Center arena in his aforementioned hometown, to cheers and tears and a moment in history frozen in time for us to revisit time and time again, just as he did with Cena on this night.
Cena, still playing the “hero”, yet being the heel of the match, a force to overcome stood across the ring from the angry CM Punk, with the desire to leave that night with the belt as his contract expires. CM Punk told us everything we wanted to know about the company, so of course the world was on his side, save for the children who adored the purveyor of Hustle, Loyalty, and Respect. Cena could not keep CM Punk down, and CM Punk had troubles fully connecting his Go-To-Sleep finisher. Both men had a lot on the line that night. Punk had a statement to make, Cena had his job on the line. And Vincent Kennedy McMahon had the risk of his belt running away, a la Alundra Blayze during the Monday Night Wars.
As much as Vince loves bringing back the past, he tried to recreate the Montreal Screwjob, yet Cena refused to win that way, so when lackey John Laurinaitis ran to the bell, Cena laid him out and resumed his match. He was going to win or lose, fair and square. But, with multiple Attitude Adjustments, Punk would rise again and connect the Go-To-Sleep, finally, at last securing the victory to the deafening applause of the Chicago crowd, despite the interference from the Money in the Bank winner (who shall go unnamed in this feature) that night attempting to cash in – only to be laid out by Punk. The show ended with Punk blowing a kiss to Vince McMahon, as he left the arena with the belt and the Summer of Punk had begun. Finally, we won, the fans had won against this corporate empire as our hero, the voice of the voiceless stood against everything that was thrown at him.
This was not the CM Punk I remembered, the one who competed in WWE’s version of ECW. A man in a WWE product in front of hardcore ECW fans that embraced him. Yet, despite not knowing anything about him, I was on his side. This was what we all wanted to see, someone that wasn’t a chosen one. A decade later, I felt it, and I felt the magnitude of his importance on the industry when he made his ‘First Dance’ to AEW. I was not a part of this era, yet I connected to it all the same. And I am kicking my own ass for having so stubbornly have torn myself away because wrestling wasn’t for me at the time. I missed out.
Speaking of missing out:
The Matches That I Haven’t Seen
Kenny Omega vs Kazuchika Okada (2017-2018)
Around this time in my life, I had a glimpse into the world outside of WWE, where I was introduced to New Japan Pro Wrestling on AXSTV here in the United States. The Cleaner Kenny Omega stood with his sunglasses and his dark, yet blonde hair faced off against Tomohiro Ishii. I was introduced to this by my brother, who told me that this guy was going to be one of the best wrestlers in the world. That if he wanted to, he could main event WrestleMania. Thankfully that never came to happen – but in this moment, I was fascinated. The NJPW aesthetic that reminded me of the days of Monday Nitro and Monday Night Raw where my brother had watched in his youth. Yet I hadn’t watched since.
I still didn’t know much outside of WWE, save for TNA/Impact. I was convinced that if someone never appeared in WWE, they were not good. If they had left or were fired from WWE, they were not good. You would be correct in assuming I was an idiot.
This period of conflict between The Cleaner and Kazuchika Okada flew under my radar while I watched the Applebee’s waiter in Baron Corbin beat up Finn Balor every week and spent my time being mad at that because Balor deserved better. Maybe I like subjecting myself to pain, what’s it to you? Mind your business. Anyway, the world was praising each subsequent match to high heaven – including my brother. The likes of Steve Austin and Mick Foley were buzzing about it. Yet I didn’t know of what happened in the cerulean blue these nights. Yet I hope to. It’s what inspired this feature. Someday soon, I’ll see what everyone is talking about.
Kevin Steen vs El Generico (Ladder War, Ring of Honor: Final Battle 2012)
To think that these men earn the acclaim of many in WWE these days started from something so feral and intense when I hear of their ROH time in passing, I am curious, anxious even, to see these men ready to destroy each other.
AJ Styles vs Shinsuke Nakamura (Wrestle Kingdom 10)
Upon watching WrestleMania 34, I thought “hey, this match was great!” Then I looked at my brother and our friend, who were less enthused as I was. Saw on the internet that everyone else were also echoing the same energy. Not to mention, the crowd was quiet. WWE had led me to believe that this was a dream match on the grandest stage of them all! They wouldn’t lie to me or misdirect me, would they? …Would they?
They did. I was hearing of the Phenomenal One squaring off against the King of Strong Style in Japan – that their strong style history couldn’t be replicated in a big WWE ring. What’s worse is that Shinsuke struck AJ in the Phenomenal Ones and started off a heel turn that I’ve hated.
Contrast this to the highlight video I looked up of their previous bouts in Japan, and it is night and day. If anything, a good match by WWE was just advertisement for someone else’s product where I could see a better match someday.
Friends, I hope you’ve enjoyed this look into the mind of someone who hadn’t witnessed some of the biggest moments in wrestling, because with the wide history and world of wrestling, I know there is more. I will one day experience more of 90s AJPW, of the indie moments that made stars, and stories like that of the Golden Lovers. I will have experienced all of that without the quick summaries or highlight videos.
I will have not peeked behind the curtain – I will have yanked the whole damn thing off. And the beautiful thing is, so will so many others as they come into this thing that we love, especially with history being made weekly, monthly, yearly.
These moments cannot be replicated, and the moments to come won’t be either, so as a collective, we should absorb it and enjoy as the newbies drink it in with us.
We only get this once, so let’s make sure it is something worth revisiting, shall we?