The Magnificent Seven 3.16.14: The Top Seven WrestleMania Performers of All Time
Posted by Mike Chin on 03.16.2014
From Hulk Hogan and Shawn Michaels to the Undertaker and more, 411’s Mike Chin breaks down his top 7 WrestleMania performers of all time!
With Wrestlemania just three weeks away, it's time we pay homage to the show's all-time best performers. This countdown takes into consideration match quality, longevity, historical importance, and a healthy dose of personal preference.
#7. Ricky Steamboat
I had John Cena penciled into this spot based on longevity and main event implications, but in the end I had to go with my gut and recognize The Dragon. Steamboat had perfectly good ‘Mania matches paired with the likes of Matt Borne, Hercules, and Greg Valentine. But it's his two other Wrestlemania appearances that really earn him this spot. First, there's his truly iconic bout opposite Randy Savage at Wrestlemania 3. As a fan, I have no reservations listing it among the ten best Wrestlemania bouts of all time. Beyond that, though, I don't know of any match I've heard more current generation wrestlers cite as their inspiration for wanting to enter the business than that classic.
While Wrestlemania 3 will always boast Steamboat's greatest WWF/E moment, for the purposes of this countdown I looked upon his showing at Wrestlemania 25 as comparably important. Twenty years past his prime, and without wrestling for over a decade, Steamboat made his triumphant return to the squared circle as part of a legends contingent to challenge Chris Jericho. With all due respect to the other legends, Jimmy Snuka looked his age and Roddy Piper seemed all but hobbled in 2009. Steamboat, against all the odds moved with the grace of a man half his age, soaring off the top rope and delivering deep armdrags as if it were the mid-80s. Nearly untouchable in his prime, and downright inspiring when he made his brief comeback, Ricky Steamboat deserves all the celebration he can get as a Wrestlemania star.
#6. Hulk Hogan
For the first nine years of Wrestlemania, there was no star who could compare with Hulk Hogan--beating back giants, defending his country, warring with friends turned rivals, and, more often than not, closing the show with the WWF Championship around his waist. Hogan shored up his legacy years in early 2000s, staging one of the greatest spectacles in Wrestlemania history when he battled The Rock in Toronto, and engaging in a fun, off-kilter dream match against Vince McMahon the following year in Seattle.
The bottom line is that, at least for children of the eighties like myself, Hulk Hogan is and will always be an intrinsic part of the Wrestlemania legend. As such, there was no more welcome face to see come to Eugene's rescue at Wrestlemania 21 than the Hulkster, and though I'm wary of him eating up too much time this year, there's still a part of me that's excited to see Hulk Hogan host the thirtieth ‘Mania next month.
#5. Bret Hart
Bret Hart performed at twelve out of the first thirteen ‘Manias, and quietly built a pretty auspicious record for himself in the mid-card before graduating to the main event. Twice, he was the last man eliminated in large-scale battle royals (Wrestlemanias 2 and 4), and as a tag team competitor he never had a bad match (even the squash against The Bolsheviks was well-executed and satisfying for The Foundation cutting short Volkoff's butchering of the Russian national anthem). Hart really came into his own when he was a singles wrestler, though. He played plucky underdog and battered hero in back-to-back years warring with Yokozuna over the WWF Championship. He engaged in some of the most emotionally rich, captivating stories (not to mention fantastic matches) with Roddy Piper at Wrestlemania 8 and Owen Hart at Wrestlemania 10. He sent crazy Bob Backlund packing from the main event scene at Wrestlemania 11. While his hour-plus Iron Man Match with Shawn Michaels may be a bit of a chore to watch for its sheer length, it nonetheless stands out as an artfully constructed and executed match between two all-time greats. And then there's Hart-Austin from Wrestlemania 13—arguably the greatest match in Wrestlemania history, and surely one of the most important for Hart's heel turn that would give him his last big push as a red-hot WWE main eventer and the start of Austin's monumental face run on top of the company.
I'm tempted to say that Hart's comeback match at Wrestlemania 26 hurts his legacy at the event—indeed, I'd argue that it's long enough to qualify as a bottom ten worst ‘Mania match of all time. That said, it can also be read as an epilogue—tying up the last loose ends from the Montreal Screw Job and giving the Hart family one last moment in the sun at the biggest show of the year. Through that lens, it's a fitting victory lap after a distinguished ‘Mania career.
From Wrestlemanias 16-22, Edge quietly built an undefeated streak at Wrestlemania that ran parallel to The Undertaker's. Moreover, The Rated R Superstar arguably achieved greater per capita match quality between his Triangle Ladder Match, TLC II, a perfectly serviceable outing opposite Booker T, Money in the Bank I, and his epic hardcore bout with Mick Foley. And though his win-loss record at ‘Mania tanked from that point forward (1-4) the quality of his ring work stayed pretty constant. He was an important anchor for Money in the Bank III, offered The Undertaker one of his best streak matches at Wrestlemania 24, put on good showings in perfectly serviceable world title matches at ‘Manias 25 and 26, then got to end his career a hero, retaining the World Heavyweight Championship against Alberto Del Rio in what turned out to be his retirement match.
It's unfortunate that injury cut short Edge's career, or he probably would have delivered even more memorable ‘Mania matches. Just the same, whether he was a tag team dare devil or a distinguished main eventer, the man was always good for a memorable performance at The Showcase of the Immortals.
#3. Randy Savage
For the first decade of Wrestlemania, Randy Savage was the show's in-ring savior. Whether he was choreographing the best all-around matches of the careers of Hulk Hogan, The Ultimate Warrior, and Crush or wrestling four times in the same night to win his first WWF Championship, or putting on classics with Ricky Steamboat and Ric Flair, Savage proved Wrestlemania's most consistently outstanding performer during its formative years. Even when he was left with inauspicious filler matches like his IC title defense against George Steele at Wrestlemania 2 or the mixed tag match at Wrestlemania 7, The Macho Man was always good for a colorful showing, delivering performances rooted in his trademark intensity, precision, and attention to detail.
A telling stat: from Wrestlemania 2 to Wrestlemania 10 there was only one ‘Mania Savage didn't step into the ring for—the widely panned Wrestlemania 9. I'm not saving that Savage-Michaels, Savage-Ramon, Savage-Doink, or Savage-Luger necessarily would have saved that show, but I also struggle to imagine that seeing The Macho Man in the ring wouldn't have elevated the proceedings in at least some small way.
#2. Shawn Michaels
I don't imagine that many folks will disagree that the guys ranked numbers one and two deserve their spots, though there is a fair argument about which of the two of them has earned top billing. For his part, Shawn Michaels has delivered some truly important Wrestlemania matches. If you want to talk match quality, look at his pair of outings with The Undertaker, his wars with Chris Jericho and Kurt Angle, or the Wrestlemania 20 triple threat match. If you want to talk about sheer influence consider his iconic ladder match with Razor Ramon at Wrestlemania 10. If you want an emotional story, you need look no further than Ric Flair's retirement match. If you want to talk carry jobs, you've got the best match of Diesel's WWF Championship run in 1995 and a wildly entertaining brawl with Vince McMahon in 2006. Michaels gritted his teeth and passed the torch to Stone Cold at Wrestlemania 14 and he went the distance with Bret Hart in the Iron Man Match at Wrestlemania 12. And yes, he still had enough in the tank for a main event world title match at Wrestlemania 23. Add on top of all of this solid tag outings alongside Marty Jannetty against Haku and The Barbarian, The Twin Towers, and The Orient Express and you're looking at Wrestlemania record that's almost without peer.
#1. The Undertaker
Some of the best developments in wrestling history can't be planned for—just taken advantage of once you realize that they're there. I give you The Undertaker's streak.
The Dead Man's first few Wrestlemania appearances didn't light the world on fire—inauspicious bouts with Jimmy Snuka, Giant Gonzalez, and King Kong Bundy, plus a disappointingly vanilla outing with Jake Roberts. Things picked up at Wrestlemania 12 with a fine big man war working with Diesel, which paved the way for The Undertaker's first Wrestlemania main event and title win against Sid a year later. He progressed from there to a wildly underrated battle with Kane at Wrestlemania 14, the spectacle of hanging The Big Boss Man at Wrestlemania 16, his first brawl with Triple H at Wrestlemania 17, a forgotten gem of a fight with Ric Flair at Wrestlemania 18, and (with all due respect to Big Show and Albert) a hell of an effort carrying the workload for three other men to a decent match at Wrestlemania 19. ‘Taker revisited his sibling rivalry with Kane to less sterling results at Wrestlemania 20, which may have seemed like the beginning of the end for The Phenom's Wrestlemania legacy.
He was just getting started.
Wrestlemania 21 truly marked the start of men pursuing The Streak for sport, starting with young Randy Orton. Better yet, over the decade to follow, excepting a middling casket match with Mark Henry, The Undertaker turned in one of the most impressive strings of matches ever at Wrestlemania, turning back Edge, Shawn Michaels, Triple H, and CM Punk—each of these matches a legitimate contender for match of the night, if not the year (OK, the latter claim is a stretch for ‘Mania 27, but that was still a good match).
It's pretty much a toss up whether Shawn Michaels or The Undertaker has the better overall performance record at Wrestlemania, but with all due respect to Mr. Wrestlemania, The Streak has evolved into a truly quintessential piece of ‘Mania lore—not just a statistical anomaly, but an epic storytelling device that has facilitated some of the greatest dramatic moments in the history of wrestling year after year. That's a legacy I can only assume will continue when the Dead Man squares off with Brock Lesnar this year, and my best guess is that it will continue on from there as well.
Which top ‘Mania performers did I miss? Who do you think is the best Wrestlemania wrestler of all time? Let us all know in the comments. See you in seven.
Read stories and miscellaneous criticism from Mike Chin at his website and his thoughts on a cappella music at The A Cappella Blog. Follow him on Twitter @miketchin.