Order the e-book version of Doc’s Greatest Matches and Rivalries of the WrestleMania Era here
Mav: Welcome back, ladies and gentlemen to a new collaboration here on Lords of Pain. Last winter, The Doc suggested to me that we should work together on a collaborative series, and I knew right away what we should do. Anyone who has read my work on this website for the past four and a half years (and even longer if you were with me down in the Columns Forum), or listened to The Right Side Of The Pond knows that my number one passion in pro wrestling is not the “epic” main events but the midcard barn burners and forgotten classics of yore, those matches which either stole a show or enhanced a card through their intelligence and storytelling acumen. After much conferring, we finally came up with a list of the matches we felt represented the top 100 bouts of this type in WWF/E history. But we have rules and parameters! Let me pass you over the good Doctor to take you through them…
Doc: When I think about the term “mid-card,” I tend to think of a rather catch-all term applying to men’s singles matches that took place beyond the confines of the main-event scene, with respect to women’s and tag team matches which are specifically distinguished by their respective divisional labels. This thought process does indeed go against the grain of the literal definition of the term – a match that took place in the middle of the card – but there should naturally be a line drawn to help set apart from the mid-card situations in which the top championship of a brand is at stake earlier on in a show rather than the last match or when the clear and obvious lead feud on television does not get the main-event on a pay-per-view. The mid-card scene certainly has its obvious division-based distinctions too, specifically the mid-card singles championships (the United States and Intercontinental), and Mav and I also decided to perhaps controversially include the World Heavyweight Championship from 2012 until its retirement (to be explained in greater detail later), but the goal of the parameters set forth in the upcoming Top 100 was to encompass a broad spectrum of potential candidates (end date May 2018).
If you have any questions about rules and parameters, let us know, otherwise, let’s get back to it!
80. Rick Martel vs. Tito Santana on the October 30, 1989 Edition of Saturday Night’s Main Event
Mav: In the aftermath of their excellent split angle at Wrestlemania V, the former Strike Force partners actually had their resultant feud delayed to begin with by some contract hold ups with Martel, but by October 1989, it was in full swing, with Santana defeating his Canadian ex-running mate at the annual King of the Ring house show, before they faced off on Saturday Night’s Main Event. Yet to establish his Model gimmick (that would come in early 1990), Martel was accompanied here by Slick, and came out to Slick’s music (always a joy to hear!), but his body language already showed signs of the narcissism he would adopt as The Model. With both men backed up by their respective Survivor Series team mates, the action is hectic and fluid right from the bell, with a high octane brawl kicking things off, after which things never really slow down at all, all the way to the DQ finish. Fantastic stuff.
Doc: This was the signature match in what I might very well be my favorite mid-card feud of that era. When I was researching the Santana and Martel chapters for my first book (both cracked the third tier of the Top 90 wrestlers of the WrestleMania Era), I became enamored with the artistry on display throughout their feud, but it was this match at SNME that stood out most. I wrote the following in Martel’s chapter: “With his arms locked in position for a dreaded backslide, Martel’s face told the entire story of the match in a 30-second struggle. He showed buoyancy, fear, anguish, excitement, and overwhelm before being pulled to the mat for the long two count.” That has become my favorite Rick Martel moment. Is there a more underrated superstar from the Rock ‘n’ Wrestling days? I’m not sure that there is. Martel was a perfect antagonist to the fiery, straight-laced babyface that was Tito. Do not let the DQ finish bother you; make time for this!
79. Rey Mysterio vs. John Morrison for the Intercontinental Championship on the September 4, 2009 Edition of Smackdown
Doc: I want to pose a question to begin our discussion of this match – is it possible that Mysterio was so good that eventually he was taken for granted? Matches like this one make me think that the answer might well be “yes,” because this is an outstanding performance. Is it Rey at his athletic peak? No, but it is Mysterio at his WWE-style best, picking and choosing the ideal time for his amazing spots, which even in the back end of his prime (or the beginning stages of his decline, depending on your perspective) were at times jaw-droppingly awesome. Morrison stepped up to the plate here with what I would argue was his best WWE match, an Intercontinental Title winning effort that well utilized his RVD-esque innovation and physical tools without ever devolving into a mere exhibition in visual artistry. Given the stakes, thanks to Rey’s rare-for-the-decade elevation of the IC Title in ‘09, and the hot streak that Smackdown was on (SD Six-Lite, as far as I’m concerned), this has become one of my favorite TV matches of the 2000s.
Mav: Fluid, exciting, paced extremely well, I see this match as the precursor to all the wonderful matches we’ve seen in the Cruiserweight Classic and 205 Live in the past couple of years. Using the obvious storytelling touchstones – Morrison’s superior size, Mysterio’s greater experience and heart – they work up to a thrilling climax with multiple and believable near falls. While I’d disagree with Doc that this was Morrison’s WWE best (I think he actually got even better for some more grit in 2010), it’s certainly a great way to elevate himself to a historically revered midcard title, which he’d go on to defend against Ziggler in a match we covered earlier in the countdown, and then a slightly green Drew McIntyre. Considering Mysterio was dropping the strap due to failing a drugs test, he could have mailed in this performance. The fact he didn’t and instead crafted a top 100 midcard match of all time is a testament to the kind of hall of fame career he’s put together.
78. Rob Van Dam vs. Randy Orton for the Intercontinental Championship at Armageddon 2003
Mav: I really don’t feel that Randy Orton gets enough credit for how damned good he was so early in his career. Maybe it was the accusations of nepotism that stuck to him, maybe it was the fact that his growth took place in a much maligned era of Monday Night Raw history, but the guy was putting in work night after night in 2003 and 2004 and he rarely ever gets any praise for it. As far as the “cocky young heel” playbook goes, Orton had it memorised and mastered by the time he won the championship from a game RVD at this December super show, with the added bonus of Foley refereeing and confronting the young Legend Killer before the match, sowing the seeds for Wrestlemania XX and then their legendary bout at Backlash 2004. Orton largely controls the flow of the match, grounding Mr Monday Night, until a late and explosive flurry sees him put the young Evolution member on the back foot. Late interference by Flair is the decisive advantage for Orton, who hits a picture perfect RKO to win his first gold in WWE. The beginning of an underrated in ring resume, for sure.
Doc: Interesting that Mav brings up Orton’s undervalued early run because it was due to this match that I became a staunch defender of The Legend Killer on the LOP Forums, where I drew the ire of many an LOP personality for my stance. I was never overly fond of Orton’s in-ring work prior to the RVD match, but a lot of the green moments that some harped on earlier in 2003 were cleaned up on the night he won the IC Title, and in my opinion he never looked back. Defending Orton so much actually made me deeply invested in his later success, and he remains one of my all-time favorites when he isn’t phoning it in; that fandom began against RVD, who himself deserves a lot of credit for putting Orton over so well at Armageddon. Van Dam’s spots were made all the more effective opposite an overbearing, cocksure heel like Orton.
77. Rey Mysterio vs. CM Punk in a Hair Match at Extreme Rules 2010
Doc: Unfairly, the Straight Edge Society run from CM Punk never got its main-event peak, but the crescendo it hit opposite Rey Mysterio in the spring of 2010 certainly was noteworthy nevertheless. You know, it’s interesting for me; in the moment, I remember having expectations that these two could hit home-runs like Mysterio and Jericho had been able to the previous year and being disappointed when I felt Punk and Rey hit comparative doubles (using star ratings, 3.5 star matches when 4.5 stars was the target I’d perhaps unfairly set for them), but their more psychologically nuanced performances have aged well and I subsequently find myself feeling like a Mysterio-Punk marathon is in order. How great was SES Punk? That character was gold. On another note, I always felt like CM Punk went out of his way to make sure that storytelling took precedence over in-ring pomp and circumstance.
Mav: I too loved SES Punk. Every time he took on a new character, he went out of his way to make it as real as possible. Like Jericho, Punk has that rare ability to chameleon himself into new versions while still retaining the core of who he is, and taking the manipulative, preaching Straight Edge persona he had used to turn on Jeff Hardy and twisting the volume knob high enough that he came off as a cult leader was a genius bit of character development. An essential part of that development from “holier than thou” to “batshit crazy” was the small touches, one of which was the growing out of the hair – on his head, on his body, on his face. It represented his “purity” which is why it was so appropriate that he put it on the line against Mysterio, who had well known substance issues in the past, so was a perfect target. The fact Punk avoided getting his head shaved here by means of the intervention of his society was perfect heel work.
76. Kurt Angle vs. Kane at Wrestlemania XVIII
Mav: God I love Wrestlemania XVIII! It’s the forgotten middle brother between the two greatest Manias of all time, but boy oh boy, in my view it gives them both a run for their money. One of the reasons for that is the sheer number of midcard gems on that card, one of the most prominent of which is this unlikely clash between the Olympic gold medallist and the Big Red Monster. I think it’s matches like this which really show just how valuable Kane was to the company. He went toe to toe with one of the best technical wrestlers ever to lace up a pair of boots and hung with him as if he were a Benoit or a Guerrero. Not many wrestlers of Glen Jacobs’ size could have accomplished that at the time. It might look like a throwaway “keep them busy” match, but in my opinion the two men delivered a minor classic that night in Toronto.
Doc: It’s the type of match that always flies under the radar until you’re sitting there watching Kurt Angle run down the Canadian figuring skating team for whining and complaining to get their gold medals in the Olympics, which regardless of the fairly uninspiring television leading up to WrestleMania that year was the kind of promo that instantly reminds of Angle’s brilliance back in the day and sets the stage for the match with Kane that never fails to thoroughly entertain (and engage). The Big Red Machine is one of those talents who stuck around so long that it became easy not to appreciate how special a talent he was at his peak. Angle is lauded as one of the top two or three athletes in WWE lore, but Kane was an incredible athlete in his own right, and their match at Mania 18 showcased Kane’s ability to keep up with Our Olympic Hero. Dull your expectations for this match at your own risk, but prepare to be pleasantly surprised.
QUESTION OF THE DAY: What is your favorite mid-card persona – specifically the character work – of this decade to date?
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