Doctor’s Orders: Reflecting on the Decade – The Top WWE Matches of 2011

CM Punk

It has been a fascinating decade to be a wrestling fan, with several unprecedented occurrences creating some unexpected surprises over the past ten years.  On The Doc Says podcast, I will be looking at each year’s dominant themes and defining superstars and how they impacted WWE’s future.  Each of those podcasts will be paired with a Top 10 match list column that uses my Greatest Matches and Rivalries of the WrestleMania Era formula to rank them; said formula involves equally weighting on a 5-star scale the purer elements of the in-ring performance (selling, psychology, and execution), historical context, financial impact (event prestige, attendance), storytelling (including plot twists and false finish effectiveness), the quality of the climax, pre-match build, and crowd investment, along with bonus points for various intangibles (innovation, excellent commentary, special entrances, etc.) to logically define the term “greatness.”

(Tie) #10 – Christian vs. Randy Orton for the World Heavyweight Championship on the May 6th Edition of Smackdown

Pure: 4.5 / Historic: 3 / Financial: 1.5 / Storytelling: 4 / Climax: 5 / Build: 3 / Crowd: 4 / Intangibles: +2

Total Score: 27.0

In terms of memorable matches on television from this decade, Christian dropping the World Title to Orton has few peers.  All five of their premier performances could have ended up in the Top 10 and only three made the cut, but there was no way that this one was getting left out.  Christian, as a storyteller, owned the summer of 2011, beginning with this moment in which he felt compelled to prove himself days removed from the Ladder Match that brought him that elusive first run with the big gold belt; it was an ill-fated decision that kick-started a candidate for among the fifty greatest rivalries of the WrestleMania Era.  Orton’s precision and cold-blooded determination to regain top positioning popped off the airwaves like few times before opposite an opponent both so talented and so desperate to affirm his newly won status.  They had elite, all-time chemistry that carried this match through to the shocking (but not shocking) conclusion.

(Tie) #10 – Edge vs. Dolph Ziggler for the World Heavyweight Championship at Royal Rumble

Pure: 4.5 / Historic: 3 / Financial: 3.5 / Storytelling: 4 / Climax: 3.5 / Build: 3.5 / Crowd: 4 / Intangibles: +1

Total Score: 27.0

Quietly, I had been hoping as the decade progressed that the final four months of Edge’s career would come to be thought of by the masses in the glowing way that I have come to think of them, but alas matches like this one with Ziggler are merely remembered as very good additions to their respective event histories.  This has become a bit of a sleeper hit in Rumble lore.  Vickie Guerrero tied the veteran on the brink of retirement to the young gun seeking to take a leap forward in his career at The Rated R Superstar’s expense, and the dynamic between champion and challenger accordingly wound up being really interesting, though to someone less familiar with the Vickie relationships it could have detracted from the performance.  I rather enjoy it for being different, because it is not a barn-burner thanks mostly to the “No Spear” stipulation and forces both guys to think and tell a more nuanced story.

(Tie) #10 – Randy Orton vs. Christian for the World Heavyweight Championship at Over the Limit

Pure: 4.5 / Historic: 3 / Financial: 2 / Storytelling: 4 / Climax: 4 / Build: 3.5 / Crowd: 4 / Intangibles: +2

Total Score: 27.0

Picking a favorite among the fantastic series that, if not for Punk-Cena, would have been regarded as the achievement of the year in WWE, is quite challenging; frankly, each match between Orton and Christian from May to August 2011 was outstanding in its own way, with even the matches that did not rate as favorably among critics at large still being highly memorable on account of the storytelling touches that came to define that summer for Captain Charisma, but the two gold standards in the eyes of the majority were the first PPV match here and then the pay-off at Summerslam.  As a babyface match, which inherently lends a more athletic exhibition feel and reduces what some might call “the restrictions of more cerebral storytelling”…well, best of luck finding anything much better than Christian-Orton at Over the Limit 2011.  Maybe watch it on mute, as Booker T as practically a distraction, and then marvel at the fluidity and pacing.

(Tie) #10 – Mark Henry vs. The Big Show for the World Heavyweight Championship at Vengeance

Pure: 3.5 / Historic: 3.5 / Financial: 2.5 / Storytelling: 4 / Climax: 4 / Build: 4 / Crowd: 3.5 / Intangibles: +2

Total Score: 27.0

The low key most underrated feud of 2011 produced point blank one of the most pleasant surprises in the history of WWE, in terms of in-ring quality.  This was the best match in Mark Henry’s career during his career-best run; this was also in the midst of a multi-year stretch when Big Show would deliver one of the better matches of the year during the month of October (for whatever reason).  The pace was the key to its success, as rather than lumber around the ring as one may have expected two mammoth pro wrestlers to do, they quickened the tempo in spurts and unleashed a flurry of legitimate false finishers that rather impressively ratcheted up fan enthusiasm as the contest progressed.  Seeing the ring implode after their climactic superplex spot (probably itself just as eye-popping as the post-impact destruction of the 20’x20’ canvas) was an incredible sight, but what truly deserves celebration when recalling this performance is what happened before it.

#6 – The Miz vs. John Cena vs. John Morrison in a Cage Match for the WWE Championship at Extreme Rules

Pure: 4.5 / Historic: 3 / Financial: 2.75 / Storytelling: 4 / Climax: 3.5 / Build: 3.5 / Crowd: 4 / Intangibles: +3

Total Score: 28.25

The Cage Match genre took a pretty substantial hit in the quality department throughout this decade.  In the absence of blood, the key to maximizing the usage of the stipulation is to innovate sequences specific to the environment, and to be frank this might be the only Cage Match from WWE this decade to do that in a notable way.  Morrison was wrestling in his only pay-per-view main-event singles match and he probably would have been the premiere in-ring innovator of the decade in WWE had he not become frustrated with a lack of follow-up to opportunities like this one, which he certainly made the most of; Morrison was the driving creative force of this match.  Credit to The Miz, as well, who put in one of his career Top 10 performances here too, underratedly anchoring the match with his dialed-in heel shtick.  Cena, at that point, could be counted on to provide a lot energy and typically excelled in a situation like this, where he could use his strength and hit some big power moves.  Visually, this was WWE’s best standard Cage Match of the decade.

(Tie) #5 – Edge vs. Rey Mysterio vs. Big Show vs. Kane vs. Drew McIntyre vs. Wade Barrett in an Elimination Chamber Match for the World Heavyweight Championship

Pure: 4.5 / Historic: 3 / Financial: 2.75 / Storytelling: 5 / Climax: 5 / Build: 3 / Crowd: 3.5 / Intangibles: +3

Total Score: 29.75

In my book, I had a specific formula for ranking the stipulation matches against each other, the best of the best going head-to-head.  Edge used this one in 2011 to quietly become arguably the Elimination Chamber’s most memorable performer historically.  The SD Chamber that year rates as the best ever, and was thus included among the Top 100 of the WrestleMania Era given the rather rock solid overall stature of the gimmick; Edge was the central figure from the word “go,” carrying the match to an amazing climax alongside Rey Mysterio.  Recall that Edge was also a central figure in the other two best versions, both in 2009, and was strong in a supporting role during perhaps the most underrated in gimmick lore at the start of 2005.  Everyone was motivated in 2011, though, not just Edge and Mysterio.  The other wrestlers involved made it their business to make this outing something special, and they accomplished their mission.

(Tie) #5 – Alberto Del Rio vs. Christian in a Ladder Match for the World Heavyweight Championship at Extreme Rules

Pure: 4.5 / Historic: 4 / Financial: 2.75 / Storytelling: 4 / Climax: 4 / Build: 3.5 / Crowd: 4 / Intangibles: +3

Total Score: 29.75

It is rather fitting that this match would wind up tied with the Edge-led Chamber bout, given how close they were in the rankings throughout my book research process.  Del Rio vs. Christian was a tremendous Ladder Match of the story-driven variety, on a similar level aesthetically as the Sheamus vs. JoMo performance that came in at a surprising second place on the 2010 best-of list but on a much higher level among the better outings in Ladder Match history in terms of the storytelling and psychology involved.  ADR was a very smart wrestler and was becoming increasingly unlikable back then, and Christian was so naturally sympathetic in the role that he played, scratching and clawing toward that elusive World Title recently vacated by his best friend; the dichotomy between them coalesced across the run-time and was the catalyst for this becoming one of the truly endearing performances of the entire decade.

#3 – Randy Orton vs. Christian in a No Holds Barred Match for the World Heavyweight Championship at Summerslam

Pure: 5 / Historic: 3.5 / Financial: 3.5 / Storytelling: 5 / Climax: 4 / Build: 4.5 / Crowd: 3.5 / Intangibles: +2

Total Score: 31.0

If this ranking was based solely on rewatchability, then Orton vs. Christian at Summerslam might actually top the list.  The Over the Limit match is arguably more aesthetically pleasing, but Christian’s desperation in May was, by August, manifesting itself as one of the most underrated characters in main-event lore; he could not accept that Orton was better than him and it drove him to a gloriously antagonistic place.  Summerslam’s stage offered the pay-off match in the Orton-Christian rivalry a grander sense of occasion and a platform for them to take their feud to the next highest level historically, and they made the most of it.  It maintained the elite fluidity and pace of the babyface matches while also incorporating the added elements of personality from the post-heel turn work.  By the way, it too often gets lost in the shuffle how good Orton was that year; 2009 and 2011 were his career years.

#2 – Undertaker vs. Triple H in a No Holds Barred Match at WrestleMania XXVII

Pure: 4.5 / Historic: 5 / Financial: 5 / Storytelling: 5 / Climax: 4.5 / Build: 4 / Crowd: 4 / Intangibles: +2

Total Score: 34.0

This remains one of the most unique viewing experiences of my thirty year WWE fandom.  Shifting from first to sixth gear (think the final third or quarter of the HBK-Taker bout at Mania 25 for context of how I’m defining sixth gear) within the initial five minutes and then sustaining that sixth gear for nearly another half hour was and is rather unprecedented.  Some viewed its odd aesthetic as the primary reason to detract from the achievement, while others like myself find it to be an epic achievement precisely because of that aesthetic.  Taker vs. Triple H, in back to back WrestleMania matches, ditched the conventional style, and whenever that is done, it is often met with derision, but do not say that there is no art to their method because that is completely untrue.  Sixth gear in a wrestling match features a lot of down time with no action, but what it allowed Taker and Trips was the chance to tap further into their characters so that they could emote on a deeper psychological level.  The achievement, therefore, is not tied to the finishers and chair shots, but to the mastery of utilizing body language and actual verbal dialogue to fill space typically filled with more action, informing what truly is one of the most dramatic performances ever in a WWE ring.

#1 – John Cena vs. CM Punk for the WWE Championship at Money in the Bank

Pure: 4.25 / Historic: 5 / Financial: 3 / Storytelling: 5 / Climax: 5 / Build: 5 / Crowd: 5 / Intangibles: +2

Total Score: 34.25

A strong challenge from a historically unique match was not enough to knock Punk vs. Cena off the perch.  Five out of the seven core categories rate at a “5,” which will be seen again of course as more of these lists are presented, but it will nonetheless prove an incredibly rare feat; such is what makes Cena vs. Punk such a giant in industry lore, that it brought so much of the complete “greatness in pro wrestling” package together.  In terms of audience participation, it is one of the two most engaging ever alongside Rock-Hogan in the SkyDome, and perhaps with the run-time and the palpable stakes, that incredible energy from the crowd made them more prone to a few sloppy moments that drove down their pure rating; can you imagine trying to communicate with your opponent amidst all of that noise?  As mentioned on the podcast recapping the major themes of 2011, Punk-Cena is not the most rewatchable viewing experience, but it remains one of the quintessential original viewing experiences of the entire WrestleMania Era, should you have been fortunate enough to watch it live on the night.

Question of the Day: What was your favorite WWE match of 2011?

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