Concluding this ongoing LOP Columns Forum series, being run by one of the Forums’ best writers Skulduggery, this week Just Business is once again proud to present Half Luck, Half Skul: March Madness – The Greatest WrestleMania Match.
We’ve whittled the contest down to the final four matches and in this final chapter we’re going to not only find out who wins out in the Final Four, we’re also going to go on and crown our winner, the Greatest WrestleMania Match ever!
Merry WrestleMania day, everybody. With mere hours between now and the 34th edition of wrestling’s Super Bowl, we have 33 years of history, grandeur, spectacle, and matches that range from uncanny to spectacular over which to pore. Over the last month and a half, I have been lucky enough to have been joined by six columnists with a laundry list of LOP achievements and a range of opinion that matches the range of geography we collectively possess. We have been imitating the NCAA’s bracket style elimination tournament to cull from 64 of the best matches in WrestleMania history down to one.
Today, we begin with the Final 4. We conquer two semi-finals to get our final match-up, and then we’ll make our picks to crown the greatest WrestleMania match ever.
The Final 4 consists of one match from the 1980s, two from the 1990s, and only a single match from the 21st Century. We have a match often referred to as the template for modern day professional wrestling in Ricky Steamboat vs. Macho Man Randy Savage. We have quite possibly the greatest opening match in Mania history in Owen Hart vs. Bret Hart. We have a match that many consider the greatest execution of a truly unique story unfolded in Bret Hart vs. Stone Cold Steve Austin. And we have the defining match from what many think to be the greatest WrestleMania ever in Stone Cold Steve Austin vs. The Rock.
The roll call is as present and as excellent as ever – mizfan, Oliver, Steve, SirSam, Mazza,‘Plan, and myself. Let’s get to it!
Bracket A vs. Bracket B
‘Plan: I have found, throughout this tournament, that the toughest decisions have often been those that seek to compare chalk to cheese. These are two radically different matches, which makes selecting the superior more about personal taste than anything else – do you prefer a brawl or a clinic? Both are perfect demonstrations of each respectively.
Having said all this, this particular decision becomes quite remarkably easy for me: I’ll take the clinic; especially one as sweepingly influential as WrestleMania III’s undisputed show-stealer. To this day, it remains a match to which most of all others owes at least a little something to, at least speaking as an empiricist. Some call it over-choreographed, but its balletic action is by no means a negative as far as I’m concerned. It flows with such liquidity, and looks so impeccably natural, that to my mind any choreography is offset by the realism of its reductive aesthetic. Despite being only 15 minutes long, it’s a fast paced and exhausting athletic contest with the usual melodramatic spice only pro wrestling can bring lifting it into the realm of immortal theatre. I praise it highly, but I praise it justly. I have seen few, if any matches quite as perfectly shimmering.
I have a certain appreciation for Austin / Rock at WrestleMania X-Seven too, of course. It’s still as immersive and raw an experience today as it was in 2001. It’s absolutely riotous, WWE on its own fury road. But when any decision boils down to a perfect pro wrestling fight and a perfect pro wrestling match, I’m liable to always go for the match. It’s just how I’m wired. So I vote for Savage vs. Steamboat.
Skulduggery: If this was a tournament done in 1999, I’d understand Steamboat and Savage making the Final Four. Now, though? There have been years and years of WrestleMania matches that have taken the building blocks of Steamboat/Savage and constructed upwards and outwards into even more spectacular exhibitions of athleticism and storytelling. I’m honestly a little surprised that the ’87 widely-regard classic has survived time and time again.
No shock, then, that my vote is going to Stone Cold and The Rock. The stars aligned on this night. The intro package was perfect, the commentary was incredible, the crowd was electric, and the two biggest stars of the Attitude Era fluidly sewed their chemistry together in a captivating manner. You can’t help but be engrossed by the culture created by this match upon a rewatch. The story revolves around Stone Cold Steve Austin. For years, he had rebelled against anything authoritative; anything office. But as his thirst to be the champion threatened to slip irrevocably out of his fingers in the form of his quintessential foe, The Rock, Austin’s breaking point was met. Against an amazing background of an apoplectic Jim Ross, Stone Cold sold his soul to the devil and shocked the world. It was a criminal conclusion to a vibrant war, and it’s my vote to send to the finals.
Oliver: Crikey, this is difficult. I’m not sure how my fellow columnists will vote here, I feel like there will probably be a swing to the historical significance of Savage vs Steamboat, which obviously is hugely influential. But for me to make a decision here I’m almost going on a knee jerk reaction to watching them both back to back. They are so, so close for me.
I’ve said before that Austin vs Rock has really revealed itself over the course of multiple watches here to a level which I never thought it would coming in. It’s a really fabulous bout – I think the style has it’s detractors, especially as wrestling as evolved in recent years to be more – much more – than the basic Attitude Era style, but there’s no denying that if you rip that all away from this what you get is a masterfully told story, one that plays into not just Austin’s character development but the timing of the match itself. They pulled Austin down to his lower level, but in doing so marked exactly where they were in history. Public destruction of the unarguable star who won them the Monday Night Wars, with their formal death coming just a week earlier. I mean, has there ever been something so ambitious attempted in WWE, before or after?
Arguably, the only match that has been is Steamboat vs Savage, for completely different reasons of course. It’s undeniably a masterpiece, two people who possibly found their perfect foil across the ring from them. Whilst I suspect it’s now commonplace that the approach of preplanning most of a match is sorted out before two people hit the ring, at the time that was completely revolutionary and changed the landscape of wrestling itself. I don’t think a lot of what has come since, in terms of great matches and great wrestlers, would have happened without this. It showed that smaller guys could steal the show, virtually introducing the term to the wrestling lexicon, inspired a generation of independent wrestlers who have subsequently become WWE main eventers, who have in turn inspired a second wave of guys. I don’t think Rock/Austin will ever be talked about in terms as glowing as Savage vs Steamboat.
I am genuinely struggling to make a decision here, though. In my mind, coming into this, I had a final set up that was one of these matches and one of the two in the other match up. So it’s kind of cool that both have gotten this far and there’s still potential for that to happen. But the truth is I think I’m going to have to go against my planned choices just this once. Just once. Against a match which I already knew was great and loved, I find the flush of new love, and new respect, has stolen my heart. I watched them back to back just to confirm it, and I’ve got to side with the rollercoaster of Rock vs Austin in this one. Completely unexpectedly, I might add.
mizfan: Well, TLC II finally fell, as did the far more deserving Bryan/HHH match. That match is a triumph far greater than the XXX main event in my eyes, as it perfectly encapsulates the core of why people bought into the Bryan vs. The Machine narrative in the first place. You’ve got Triple H as the embodiment of the glass ceiling, pushing himself to show up this indy darling at his own game, and the result is magic.
But ah well, nothing to be done about that. We’ve still got two great ‘Mania matches to choose from. I’ve got to say though, to me the choice here is really, really obvious. I’ve ben pretty clear about how I don’t consider Austin/Rock II on the same level that most seem to, it’s still a great match but it’s marred by a heel turn that nobody bought into on the night that sent the company into a slow decline, obviously along with many other factors as well, but it was poorly considered and did nobody any favors at the time or after, even if there were a few quality moments that eventually followed. Even if you put foresight aside, the positives are still offset by a finish that simply doesn’t click, at least in my mind.
Savage/Steamboat, on the other hand, tells a superior story with no souring moment, and does so with fewer bells and whistles, though by no means none. It incorporated so many story elements perfectly, from Miss Liz to George Steele, from the crushed larynx angle with Steamboat to Savage’s overwhelming, desparate confidence, all the stars aligned to create a truly fantastic match that absolutely gets my vote here, without question. Amazing stuff.
Steve: This thing has certainly played out kinda weird. I don’t know if I just have different tastes than some of the other guys, here, or if I’d just never really sat down and gone over this in any organized way in my head. This is certainly not the Final Four I’d have imagined, though.
Okay, that’s not entirely true. Half of these remaining matches I’d likely have figured to be in contention, even if they weren’t my personal picks. I’m still kinda confused by how Rock/Austin II wound up going so deep, for instance. Yeah, it’s good and yeah, it’s definitely the top match of their trilogy… but out of 320 total matches in WrestleMania history, it’s in the top four? Not so much.
I feel the same about Savage vs Steamboat, but I recognize its significance and its historical legacy. I mean, when something has been in the conversation as one of, if not THE, greatest matches in WrestleMania history for over 30 years, eventually folks just start to go along with the narrative. It’s like the old saying, “50 million Elvis fan’s can’t be wrong.” Well, sure they can, if you don’t like Elvis. I can’t imagine why one wouldn’t like Elvis, but that’s another conversation for another day.
So yeah, I can see why Savage vs Steamboat would make it to this point on the sheer strength of its historical narrative alone. It’s also a fantastic match, which certainly doesn’t hurt. I’m a fan of bucking long held narratives whenever possible (hence my love for LOP Radio’s WCW: The Legacy Series) but in this case, I simply can’t. Not because I necessarily agree that the WM III classic is one of the two (or even four) best matches in the event’s history, but because it’s flat out better than Austin vs Rock.
Mazza: Both semis are relatively easy choices for me. While all 4 matches are fantastic without a doubt, I have a preference for the two that are less likely to win. The reason is the ones I will be voting againt I believe are more important in the history of WrestleMania and the industry. Savage and Steamboat set a standard that really is what the smart fans grew to love. As the business evolved, that was the match that people who grew up loving the business wanted to replicate. That is why we see far more exciting and technically proficient superstars now than a long line of muscleheads and fat blokes and things are far better for it. I love the match with all my heart. However the pure intensity of WWE’s crowning moment of the most exciting period in wrestling history gets my vote. These are my ultimate Mania matches as a kid and as a young adult. Both were in love with the industry. The adult wins out though. I feel the stakes were just that much higher and so was the stage.
SirSam: When I signed up to this series I knew that there would be choices like this one but that doesn’t make it any easier now we come to the pointy end of the competition. First off we have the best match in the greatest rivalry in modern professional wrestling, a breakneck brawl that never relents in pace and pits two of the most popular wrestlers of all time against each other at the peak of wrestling’s popularity. These two just keep going and going in an electric atmosphere, The Rock’s determination and heart against Austin’s outright aggression and one-eyed obsession. That against what is the landmark Intercontinental Title match that popularised the style of wrestling that we know and love today. A match that so perfectly distilled the sporting and athletic aspects of wrestling that wrestlers today still talk about how it is the reason they do what they do.
A Sophie’s Choice if ever there was one as these two represent two very different styles of wrestling and are really only similar in the excellence of what they ultimately achieve? Despite a part of me that wants to side with the raw imperfection of the Austin v Rock match I will have to vote for the wrestling perfection that is Ricky Steamboat v Macho Man Randy Savage.
Bracket C vs. Bracket D
mizfan: Sad to see my beloved XX triple threat go, but when you’re up against the sole surviving #1 seed and likely winner of the whole tournament, what else can be said? It’s hard to go wrong with either of these matches, and to be frank I would pick either one to go over what Brackets A & B have to offer at this point. Both are storytelling masterpieces with incredible action, so then which is in the end preferable? We are splitting hairs to be sure, but in my mind you can’t beat the visceral brilliance of Austin/Bret, a nearly perfect performance that send waves cascading outward that still roll on to this day. Either one of these matches would be a fine winner, but the best winner is Bret/Austin.
SirSam: And it gets no easier on the other side of the bracket. The biggest takeaway from this round has got to be how these two matches show off the professional wrestling excellence of Bret Hart. On one side you have one of the most perfect matches ever wrestled, a methodically paced and exceptionally polished technical masterpiece. Wrapped up in it is a legend making performance by Owen Hart, so full of character and emotion that sometimes gets overlooked amongst the pure mechanics of this match. On the other side is an emotionally charged down and dirty fight that brawls its way through some of the most daring and intricate character work ever done in a WWE ring. We now just accept that Austin and Hart managed to pull off this double turn but there are a lot of things that could have gone wrong, if the crowd hadn’t bought into the sympathy for Austin, if they had instead sided with Bret’s, justified disdain of his opponent the whole thing could have fallen flat. However they did pull it all off and wrapped this story in a hell for leather fight that continually pushes the audience to the edge of their seats.
Again there is nothing separating the two and they both represent something completely different when it comes to what wrestling has to offer. I would not hesitate in showing either one to someone who hasn’t seen wrestling before and I would not hesitate in sitting down and watching either given half an hours free time. I have to make a decision though and I will go with the later of the two as I will never be able to go past just how amazing the double turn is in vision and execution. As an aside if I was to put a bet on the winner of the next round before it formulates it would be on whoever emerges from this epic struggle.
Steve: I’ll go ahead and say right here at the beginning of this that I want to vote for Owen vs Bret. I really want to. I just don’t know if I can.
Bret vs Austin is legendary for a reason. It’s not my personal favorite Mania match, nor do I think it the best. I still hold that Undertaker vs Shawn Michaels from WM 25 is the best wrestling match I’ve ever personally witnessed in real time. Others disagreed for various reasons. Is what it is.
Unlike Steamboat/Savage, though, I absolutely would have Hart/Austin in my own personal Final Four. Perhaps even in my Final Two. I’d have to really think hard about that one, but my gut tells me that yeah, that’s true. Were this my own personal bracket, I’m about 80% sure we’d be heading into a final debating whether Austin vs Hart or Taker vs HBK was the greatest Mania match ever.
But man, do I love Owen vs Bret. For the obvious reasons, that being how damn good it is. For the sentimental reasons, which I’ve outlined over the course of this series. For the storyline reasons, as it lead directly to one of the most entertaining heel runs in wrestling history. For the “fuck Bret Hart” reasons, which I’ve never quite been able to shake ever since he wouldn’t make that goddamn tag to his kid brother 24 years ago. Bret vs Owen tells such a timeless, easily understood story that resonates to this day and has the good fortune of having two of the greatest to ever lace up a pair of boots as the ones in the ring telling it. It’s not flashy, it’s not hyped, it’s not ballyhooed and heralded as the bestest shit that ever was. Its greatest strength is its simplicity. You don’t have to know the story. You just get it.
The problem is that Austin vs Bret possesses almost all those same traits, short the “not flashy, hyped, ballyhooed and heralded as the bestest shit that ever was” part. It tells a great, easily understood story. It furthered a storyline and rivalry that ranks right up near the top of my personal all-time favorites. It included two fucking brilliant ring generals, especially showcasing the outright excellence that was pre-neck injury Steve Austin. If you were making a checklist of what an all-time greatest match needs to be to earn that title, Austin/Hart would check off pretty much every single box.
So, too, would Owen vs Bret, at least in my estimation. Where the battle of the brothers comes up somewhat short, though, is historical legacy. Perhaps it’s because Owen never quite managed to get out of Bret’s shadow. Perhaps it’s because of Bret’s victory later in the evening overshadowing Owen’s win from a narrative standpoint (which, by the way, is maybe my favorite part of the story, with Owen coming out and just standing there, miserable and seethingly jealous, after Bret toppled Yoko later in the evening). It’s probably because one of the guys involved went on to become one of the most popular stars in wrestling history.
I want to vote for Owen vs Bret, though. So I am. Bret vs Austin is a better match in some regards… but it shouldn’t just walk into the final unscathed. Hart vs Hart is every bit as good and carries every bit the legacy… just not in as bombastic a way. While I appreciate bombastic from time to time, especially at WrestleMania, I tend to lean more towards quiet excellence in my personal preferences.
Owen vs Bret for the win.
Skulduggery: As soon as TLC II was eliminated, Owen/Bret became my go-to #1 for the rest of the tournament. Weird transition, right? The two matches couldn’t be more diametrically opposed in style. I love both, though. The Hart boys wrestle with a fluidity that makes your cliche “well-oiled machine” look like it’s missing a gear and half a dozen bolts. What really put this match at a crystalline level, though, is that its smoothness and its choreography didn’t take away from its sense of realism and disdain between the two combatants. It’s a rare trick. Often, that level of emotional pull is sacrificed when a match reaches a level of clinic, but I watch Bret vs. Owen multiple times, and I just never see that it has any loss of character, certainly not to a level where it has any detrimental effect.
Bret and Austin is also a spectacular show of character and executed a story that’s virtually untouched in how risky it was to pull off and how well it worked. This semi really does come down to taste. And Owen and Bret, through their Sharpshooter reversals, through their liquid chain wrestling, through their expressions of exhaustion, through each dagger of familial destruction, have tipped the scales in their direction.
Mazza: I probably wouldn’t love the match that closed out the Attitude Era as much as I do without the match that kicked it off. I didn’t watch the Mania 13 submission match and have my love for the product restored but without it that probably would never have happened. As a kid the Savages, Warriors and Hogans hooked me in. As the fizzled out and my teenage years kicked in, I drifted away. I watched still but didn’t follow things anywhere near as closely as I did previously. It was Attitude that brought me back as an older teen who loved the edgier product and it is clear that the submission match is the most important in that shift. It’s a fantastic match, a monumental match but I just can’t say I have an attatchment to it like many others do. I guess that just comes from never being able to all myself a Hitman fan nor a Stone Cold fan despite appreciating a lot of their work. During my down time, the Owen-Bret feud was a shining light for me. I felt for Owen. I bought his frustrations. He was the good guy to me. All Bret had to do was tag him but he was too damn selfish. To beat his brother clean in an instant classic just spoke to me so much more. It’s why it gets my vote here. While the match didn’t mean a great deal outside of the sibling rivalry, it holds its place as my favourite Bret match and in the very top bracket of my all time faves at Mania.
Oliver: This one is a little bit easier for me than the first head to head, I’ve got to say. The two matchups here, the two semi-finals, both kind of look like a similar pairing on the surface – Steamboat vs Savage and Owen vs Bret are both excellent wrestling classics, not looking to overdo anything in their run time but being complete wrestling matches, perfectly executed and very, very neat. On the other side of them both, Austin vs Rock and Bret vs Austin are more visceral, more story driven, and more stylistic. But that doesn’t mean either is bad, far from it – in fact I think I think it’s just a generational thing, and it shows in terms of timing of these two.
Ultimately, I know where my vote is going on this side of the semis without really needing a rewatch. I indulged myself for the hell of it, and really enjoyed both, but there’s no way I’m voting against Austin vs Hart here. It’s perfection.
‘Plan: On the surface, my first reaction upon seeing this showdown between Hitman masterpieces was that it was another case of comparing chalk to cheese; it looked like another instance of comparing a brawl to a clinic.
In actuality, these two matches might look incredibly different but beneath their surfaces they are equally as perturbing.
The darkness of the undertones in the clash of brothers Hart really can’t be overstated. Powerfully compelling, the power of the tone set is found in the small details – chief among them the cadence of Owen’s performance, that watches uncomfortably gleeful considering the circumstances. It begins as petty, becomes cruel and eventually teeters over the spiteful edge of petty cruelty. Bret’s defeat, while an elating moment for some of Owen’s defenders here in this group of writers I am sure, feels morbidly embarrassing for those of us who count ourselves passionate Hitman fans and, worst of all, leaves you with an undeniable sense of unfinished business coupled with anxious dread over what comes next. Perhaps, then, retrospect is a small mercy in this case as we know now, of course, that their feud never got grimier in sensation than this broiling and ill-intended example of blood-fratricide.
The vitriol of its opponent in this bracket needs no description however. The image of an Austin defiantly screaming through his own blood is iconic for a reason. It’s considerably less subtle than the Hart / Hart match in honesty, but the amazing thing about it – perhaps the thing that makes it such a strong favourite to win this tournament – is that it is no less accomplished. There is science behind the madness of its action, precision in its demonstration of chaos. It’s a perfect example, too, of what shared universe can lead to – though not locked in a constant feud for a cycle of five pay-per-views straight as they might be today, the Submission Match between Hart and Austin made sense and felt so volcanic because of the sheer number of times their paths had crossed. Theirs wasn’t a feud, or some linear storyline that went on too long; it was a fully realised relationship between characters occupying the same space. The result was something special.
In the end, I am going to vote inevitably for Hart vs. Austin. It’s my favourite match and, at this point, I’ll give you all a spoiler: if it makes the final, as it should, I’m voting for it there too. Out of the remaining four matches, it stands atop the bunch for me. In comparison, and despite my dispassionate appreciation of its artistic merits, I’ve never had that strong an emotional connection with WrestleMania X’s opener. So, in the end, in spite of a revised comparison being urged on by this tournament, this one was still a no-brainer for me.
‘Plan: You know, when I think about it, I don’t think I could have gotten a final in this tournament that I agree with more than this one. If this is the search for the greatest WrestleMania match as defined by consensus, then what better candidates could there be?
Throughout the tournament there has been a certain amount of anxiety regarding the consistent elimination of Shawn Michaels matches, including some of his very best in-ring efforts ever in the eyes of many. Accusations of bias have not been hesitant. Truthfully, however, there is more to greatness than sheer quality, and we know this. Whether we discuss such illusive concepts as influence, achievement or history, there’s a host of intangibles that might make up as grandiose a thing as “the greatest ever.” Moreso even than those that have been eliminated to get us here, these two final matches have all of these concepts and more underpinning them.
The Intercontinental Championship Match from WrestleMania III is practically mythic, and there is something near-ethereal as you watch it back now. As Ricky Steamboat’s imperious theme thrums powerfully throughout the Silverdome and the camera hovers over his right shoulder, the monolithic audience hidden from site by all but the lense-flaring glint of the spotlights hundreds of feet above, it’s hard to still not get goosebumps. Even now I often feel my heart pounding as champion faces down challenger before they lock up and dance their way to writing the bible on a modern WWE match like this gloriously malleable thing we call pro wrestling is some precise, almost scientific artistry. It shimmers with its flawless execution and breathless, realistic drama that builds to an uplifting crescendo as the Dragon captures those three important seconds and realises his promise to walk away with the championship belt and see new horizons. As a match, it is magnificence. As an experience, it is emotionally lucid.
It is a wide-eyed and optimistic sunrise of an experience only the WWF of the late 1980s could deliver.
And opposing it is a cynical sneer, a blood-stained snarl of an experience only the WWF of the late 1990s could deliver.
There is nothing pretty about the famous Submission Match of WrestleMania 13, that is so warped in its outlook it sees fit even to drag its own stipulation into the dirtiest grime of human vice it can, being less of a Submission Match and more a match of submission. It’s not about technical expertise, it’s not about championships and it’s certainly not about new horizons. It’s about unfettered hatred, it’s about a blood feud in need of settling and it’s about beating the life out of another human being like he was a piece of meat. As WrestleMania III’s iconic imagery begins with the glory of Pomp and Circumstance, WrestleMania 13’s begins with the disturbing promise of shattering glass. There are no sweeping camera angles here, no vast sea of 90, 000 people watching on giddily. There is only the stone cold malice of a Rattlesnake and the killer’s focus of a Hitman amidst a rabid mob of a crowd. It won’t give you goosebumps, but it will give you an adrenaline rush as it seeks to infect you with the same vitriol it espouses; and as dangerously vicarious an experience as it is, that infectious attitude is difficult to resist. And it is with a pool of Austin’s blood and a guttural refusal to submit that the two men beat the New Generation into yesteryear and breathe life into the epoch-altering Attitude Era.
One of these matches has its head in the clouds, the other is face down in the dirt. They both have far reaching influence. They both stand as historic achievements. They are both outstanding examples of professional wrestling. They define their Eras as much as they helped shift their focus. They are, by our collective majority, the two greatest matches in WrestleMania history. You’d struggle to split them with the breadth of a hair.
And I don’t think I can.
I have no idea which of these matches is ‘greater,’ in all honesty. I only know which one I prefer to revisit when the opportunity arises. Whether it is the darkly tinted warning and relevant social comment of Bret Hart’s fall from grace that sees him become a worse version of himself for fear of the irresistible way the world was changing around him, or whether it is the perverse inspiration found in Steve Austin’s refusal to submit to a man who was seeking to humiliate and denigrate him, and the reminder that even in the apparently most basest of men there can still be virtue to be found, there is something – many things, actually – about Bret Hart vs. Stone Cold Steve Austin at WrestleMania 13 that speak to me. It is my favourite match and it is, in this final, in spite of stiff competition, the match that gets my vote.
Mazza: This will not be a shocker to anyone who has been paying attention to my comments in this thing. I lost both semis and will probably lose the final too but I am not upset about how this has gone down whichever way it goes. The final four are all elite Mania matches. A legit argument could be made to call any of them the Mania GOAT. Emotional attachment has played a huge role in my votes for this thing though and as such it is once again an easy choice for me. It goes to the second most worn out VHS section of my youth after that scene from Basic Instinct. Savage and Steamboat is the match I’ve watched the most in wrestling history. I love every moment. It is still special. It is still epic. It holds up to standards more than 30 years into the future. That’s just amazing. I have a bond with that match I will never have with Hart versus Austin and that makes things pretty simple at the bitter end.
SirSam: It was always going to come down to this one wasn’t it. They have had very different runs through the tournament, Steamboat v Savage nearly got toppled in the first round by Rollins v Triple H in a 4-3 decision and has had some other tight ones t whereas Austin v Hart has sailed through, barely dropping a vote until right at the end. However despite the Mania 3 classic being given an absurd 3rd seeding, from the start I’ve felt it was always going to come down to these two.
Both of these matches get so many of the small things right, from Steamboat going for a blatant choke early as a sign even this complete good guy is willing to go to any length to win, to Hart’s casual kicking away of the glass Austin broke through as he enters. This kind of attention to detail is testament to not just how good the wrestlers are but how well they were peaking performance wise on those nights. In both bouts the commentary completely lives up to the fire the wrestlers lit, from Ventura’s faux indignation at Steamboat’s supposed cheating to J.R. genuine admiration for Stone Cold and disgust at Bret Hart’s actions, they both add so much to the presentation and story of the bouts.
How to split them though? While they are both near perfect examples of wildly different wrestling genres I think the character and story work of Austin v Hart is what sets it apart. It is predictable that the double turn gets a mention at this point but it stands out simply because it has so rarely even been attempted and yet these guys no only go for it but completely nail the double backflip of wrestling story telling.
Steve: Wow. This final is shocking. Shocking, I tell you.
I’m not even entirely sure what to say, you know? I have to say that I’m pleasantly surprised that Bret vs Owen did so well against the match pretty much predestined to win this from the jump. The fact that Austin vs Rock stood so strong against Steamboat/Savage proves once more that the heavy nostalgia of the Attitude Era and the mystique of WrestleMania 17 still lives strong.
In the end, though, we’re left with two of the three matches that are most commonly tossed around as the best ever. The fact that Taker vs HBK isn’t here for me to vote for still bugs me, but hey, this isn’t the Steve Names The Best WrestleMania Matches Spectacular.
I’d like to buck the system and not vote for the obvious one, but fuck it. The simple fact of the matter is that I prefer Austin/Hart to Savage/Steamboat. Both are great matches, both had legacies that have lasted and held up over time, both are inferior to Undertaker vs Shawn Michaels.
Austin/Hart for the win. Shocking. Absolutely shocking.
Skulduggery: No question here. While I can probably think of at least 3 or 4 matches I’d vote ahead of Austin/Hart had they made the finals, it’s truly an incredible piece of art that exhibits character work from both men, and an overarching message sent by the company that announced its unwillingness to fear risk. It’s a chillingly good read of their audience, and a subtle utilization of that audience into its medium. In terms of story told, it’s incredibly tough to beat through the annals of WWE matches – not just the WrestleMania ones, either.
Meanwhile, I don’t think I’ve voted for Steamboat and Savage throughout this tournament. It’s not out of dislike, more out of the fact that so many other great matches have stemmed from its roots. I admire this match’s importance. I admire its place in history. But to me, what makes it so successful is that it has spawned match after match that build upon it and are, frankly, better (at least in my estimation). And there’s nothing wrong with that! To me, it’s kind of like a parent wanting their children to be more successful than they were. And Steamboat/Savage achieved that.
So, thanks for building the foundation, but in terms of match quality, Bret Hart and Stone Cold Steve Austin absolutely rub their 10-year predecessor in the dirt.
Oliver: This is the final I expected, to be honest, and as I referenced in the semi final bracket it’s also the final I expected. Sure, I thought there was potential for upset in the last round with Rock vs Austin possibly edging out Steamboat vs Savage, but Hart vs Austin’s position in the final two has pretty much never been in doubt for me.
I love Austin vs Hart. It’s possibly the best WWE match that’s ever been put together by the company, and certainly the best longform feud the company as ever done. I accept no substitutes or rivals on that. From the moment Austin won King of the Ring in ’96, through Survivor Series of that same year, and then on to Mania 13 here, the rise of Austin to a top position in the company was masterfully managed and couldn’t have been achieved without entitled dickhead Bret Hart as his opposite number. In my opinion, it really stands as the first match that hit all the tropes that future Attitude Era matches would lean on, either too heavily or not with enough delicacy in many cases. But they handled it perfectly here, and it felt so fresh at the time that it had to have an impact. The final disintegration of Bret Hart as an honourable man and into a man who’s bitter with the rise of the Attitude Era and younger, fresher faces, pays off in the end. I just wish they’d had a chance to go for Act 3 down the line, because they might have bettered this and built it into something monumental the third time round. It is perfect, though.
But so is Savage vs Steamboat, in a hugely different way. It’s masterfully executed by two of the very best not just at the time but in the history of wrestling, and there’s no real wasted time or space in the match. I love that they go at each other technically, despite the personal backstory, and they don’t really break from that template as the match goes on until Savage nearly goes back to the ring bell at the end. It’s so well mapped out, so well played, and so well executed that it pretty much originated the concept of a match stealing the show at WrestleMania. And as I’ve said before, it was revolutionary for it’s time in a way, and set in place the next…well, what are we at now, 30 years of wrestling since? Remarkable, when you think about it.
In the end, I think this comes down to the historical influence of both. Savage vs Steamboat might have the further reach in terms of wrestling itself, but without Hart vs Austin would we even be watching WrestleMania this weekend? Would we instead be talking about the build to November’s Starrcade? Could WWE have won the war without that one match? I don’t know. This is too close to call for me, but watching them both back I have to go for my kneejerk reaction. And that reaction is that Austin vs Hart was, and remains, a visceral, furious classic, executed perfectly and with the most remarkable, memorable ending. I can’t vote against it, no matter how much I can enjoy the work in it’s rival here. Austin vs Hart takes my vote.
mizfan: This is absolutely the final I was hoping for coming into the semi-finals, though I completely understand why it was a hair’s breadth on both counts. There’s a reason these matches are sitting on top of the heap though, they’ve absolutely stood the test of time in all the best ways. Both define the best of their eras, and both influenced everything that came after it. How do you choose between two versions of perfection? Savage/Steamboat tells an amazing story that’s built on everything that came before it, with the bells and whistles of Miss Elizabeth and George Steele to accentuate but not dominate the presentation, which ultimately is two of the very best testing the will of the other, Savage’s will to dominate against Steamboat’s will to defy. But no less iconic is the dynamic of Bret and Austin as the entire landscape of wrestling pivoted around their feud. The blood soaked face of Austin set the tone for the highest peak the company ever achieved. Ultimately there is no wrong answer here, but the likely winner is Bret/Austin, and in the end that’s the way I’m going to go. Few matches in history have jumped out at me like that one, though I probably saw it first at least a decade after the fact it still made an enormous impression on me. It’s a true match for the ages, and in my view deserves every iota of praise it gets.
And there we have it! With a record number of close votes, and indeed a pair of 4-3 nailbiters in the semi-finals, the ultimate match-up was anything but. Bret Hart and Stone Cold Steve Austin’s Submission Match from WrestleMania 13 has been named, by this panel, the greatest WrestleMania match ever. 63 other contenders fought doggedly, but none could ultimately usurp the bloodied character masterpiece that had whispers of victory right from the opening round.
Cinderella stories like Christian/Jericho, controversial eliminations like Undertaker/Michaels, divisive bouts like Angle/Michaels, narrow defeats like Rollins/Triple H, and blowouts like Lesnar/Undertaker – these are the meat and potatoes of March Madness. The winner is ultimately the most memorable, but without the bracketed journey there, would we have this much fun?
I would personally like to say a HUGE thank you to the six gentlemen who joined me in voting and made this a truly successful tournament. They all put forth a ton of time, effort, and skill for which I’m very grateful.
March Madness, in the books!