Doctor’s Orders: The Top 100 Mid-Card Matches in WWE History (#81- #85)

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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!

85. The British Bulldog vs. Shawn Michaels for the Intercontinental Championship on the November 14, 1992 Edition of Saturday Night’s Main Event

Doc: When you talk about in-ring chemistry in the 1990s, I would from experience guess that HBK vs. Bulldog would not immediately be one of the pairings to be discussed, but I am not sure that it shouldn’t be. As they would go onto show in 1996, HBK and Bulldog had tremendous chemistry. Tucked away on the final episode of SNME until 2006 – and during a time when the NBC primetime show had lost considerable steam along with its home promotion – there were HBK and Davey Boy tearing the house down for the Intercontinental Championship. Though an unfortunate ending to Bulldog’s excellent 1992 that had peaked three months earlier with his IC Title win over Bret in England and the last match that Smith would wrestle for the WWF until 1994, it was for Michaels the launching pad off of which he began the first part of his Hall of Fame singles career. Much of 1992 had seen HBK warming up, getting his feet wet as a heel act, but this match with Bulldog which saw Michaels capture IC gold was the first of many classics.

Mav: As Doc astutely points out, anyone who doesn’t realise that Bulldog and Shawn is one of the premier in ring duos of all time when it comes to pure chemistry is exposing either their youth or their ignorance. Their matches in the main event slot in 1996 and 1997 are absolutely superb, but this TV gem from late 1992 puts the whole thing in a more concise 12 minute package, and it should honestly just be required viewing for anyone who calls themselves a wrestling fan. Showcasing Davey’s outlandish strength and ability to move for a big man, and Shawn’s athleticism and cunning, the bout tells a very nice little story involving The Bulldog’s injured back, and I remember at the time being shocked by the outcome, as it was such a surprise to see Michaels move to the premier midcard belt so quickly in his singles run. In my personal list of favourite things ever in wrestling, I’d have to put 92 HBK in my top 5. God I loved that character.

84. Dean Ambrose vs Bray Wyatt at Survivor Series 2014

Mav: A somewhat sad reminder of what Bray Wyatt once meant, and how far he has fallen since, this match is a gem which seems to have already been forgotten by the wrestling public at large; I urge you to rediscover it as soon as possible, because it has a wonderfully old school sensibility that I find utterly enthralling. Ambrose’s ring work in this period reminds me of a ‘95 Bret Hart crossed with a ‘96 Stone Cold, while Wyatt is running more of a Mankind playbook. As I recall, the creative behind the feud could have been better thought out, honestly, but that was more than made up for by the story they told within the match itself, with Dean giving into his demons, just as Wyatt had prophesied he would. In terms of psychology, this one is a corker, and the fact that it’s also hard hitting, well choreographed and brilliantly structured puts the cherry on top of the cake.

Doc: It reminded me of a lot of the old school matches previously discussed. That I would agree with you about it being largely forgotten already I think speaks to something we should all keep in mind as wrestling fans; sometimes, we get caught up in a recency bias that makes us want to see a certain style of in-ring performance across an entire card, which makes us less prone to appreciate an older school philosophy employed by what can quite fairly be called a pair of talents with an old school methodology. Wyatt, in 2014, was as well defined as a character as he would ever be, and Ambrose was in the infancy of his long and underratedly successful babyface run that just ended two months ago. In this match, those characters spring to life and inform the action, so while it is by no means a catch-as-catch-can classic, that it is meant to be anything but can get lost on the audience if said audience does not engage with what the performers are going for – and that is a choice that many of us willingly choose not to make in this day and age. I second Mav’s notion – give this is another chance.

83. Eddie Guerrero vs. Chris Benoit at Armageddon 2002

Doc: Dude, it’s Guerrero vs. Benoit.

I was tempted to leave it at that, but I love writing about their matches. In this case, you get a great sense of why they would each be headlining WrestleMania XX 15 months later. It was not the crispest effort in their extensive library from the mid-1990s to early 2000s, but the intensity that practically defined the term “ruthless aggression” brought to the table by Benoit and the nearly unmatched charisma brought to the table by Guerrero shone brightly here, and the action picked up from the midpoint on, cresting with an excellent climax that left no doubt as to how two of the best mid-card talents ever parlayed their success into main-event glory. This match also served as a microcosm of the Smackdown Six Era, which brought forth an in-ring quality that yours truly has placed on a pedestal among the best periods in WWE lore.

Mav: It is an absolute ironclad fact that these two had a liquid chemistry rarely approached by any other duo, and as my co-host mentioned, that is partnered here by a lurid intensity and breakneck pace that makes it an absolutely compelling watch. From the duelling chops to the technical mat wrestling, everything is just so damned crisp, with a cinema verité quality which would become a trademark of this early brand extension period. It goes without saying that the selling is top notch, and in an underrated aspect of bouts of this era, the commentary team of Cole and Tazz call the action brilliantly, helping to underscore the story of Latino Heat’s growing arrogance as he ground Benoit down allowing a comeback from the always ornery Rabid Wolverine, even in the face of interference from Chavo!

82. Triple H vs X Pac at Backlash 1999

Mav: A peak Attitude Era banger that came out of Triple H’s epic night long heel turn at Wrestlemania XV, the two DX alumni went at each other in a gruelling feature length epic, with all the interference, twists and turns typical of the time period. I loved Waltman’s righteous fury at Hunter’s betrayal, and his bursts of trademark high octane offense punctuate longer stanzas of Triple H dominance. You can almost feel Helmsley perfecting his Cerebral Assassin “work a body part” act over the course of the bout, with the surgically repaired neck of X Pac being the target of his venomously focused assault. Just a fantastic example of what could happen when the Attitude Era ring style was firing on all cylinders with the right talent at the right time.

Doc: You know, as much as it does a good job of echoing a lot of the themes of the Attitude Era, it also feels to me a little out of place in the Attitude Era. The manner in which Triple H approached the performance struck me as far more New Gen-esque or post-Attitude, with his rather methodical heel style one of the most noteworthy items picked apart from the entire run-time. I happen to prefer the New Gen and post-Attitude wrestling dynamics, personally, so having spent the past five years working my way through the best of every era, I found myself engaged pleasantly in a fresh way when revisiting HHH vs. X-Pac. Sean Waltman was experiencing his career peak in the spring of 1999, so essentially what we got from him opposite Hunter was an inspired effort and arguably as good an answer this side of the famed Hart vs. 123 Kid match in 1994 as to what a prolonged stint at the main-event level might have looked like from him.

81. D’Lo Brown vs. Val Venis for the European Championship at Summerslam 1998

Doc: Respectfully to Hunter, his modus operandi between the ropes was practically always better suited for the main-event WWE style rather than the mid-card, which in my mind typically had a significantly different pace than its counterparts from the marquee until recent years frankly tore up the traditions from the old rule book established across the first three decades of the WrestleMania Era. When I think of mid-card wrestling, I think of matches like Venis vs. D’Lo, which may have at times threatened to become more an exhibition in movesets, but consistently steered back toward Brown’s arrogance and the amusing question (especially given a certain 4-time reigning ‘Mania main-eventer) of how legal was his use of a chest protector. Val was quite the athlete and D’Lo, particularly before injuring Droz in 1999, was a truly self-assured competitor who reminded me of an elite wide receiver in football before a major injury altered his career trajectory. For the most part, they meshed very well, and the result was an underrated Summerslam franchise gem.

Mav: Summerslam 98 is one of the very best summer classics to my mind, and certainly right up there with the most “rewatchable” and it’s largely down to bouts like this one, which add to the card without insisting overly much on themselves, the essence really of what midcard matches should aim to do. I’ve always felt that the recent obsession of talents with “stealing the show” – particularly on recent NXT Takeover events – is actually counter-productive in the long run, as the great pay-per-views steadily build to a crescendo. D’Lo’s run with the European strap was absolute money, and he played his part within the match to absolute perfection, with his absurd shoulder rolling, head bobbing mannerisms showing the cockiness Doc mentioned. Val was a very underrated talent in his own right, and the match becomes something of a “race to the top rope”, since both men used top rope splashes as their finish.

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QUESTION OF THE DAY: Subtract the unfortunate circumstances of D’Lo injuring Droz and, playing a historical revisionist, how much better a career in WWE might Brown have had?

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