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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!
90. Sheamus vs. Cesaro in Match 7 of a Best of Seven Series at Clash of Champions 2016
Mav: Isn’t it odd that the early days of the second brand split now seem like heady, more innocent days? I was actually incredibly cheesed off with wrestling in September and October 2016, though I realise in retrospect a lot of that was due to the stressful promotion at work I had just accepted! Looking back now, there was a lot of good midcard wrestling going on over on both brands, and giving midcarders with little to do like Sheamus and Cesaro a best of seven series based on them “proving” themselves to Mick Foley was actually a great bit of booking. I was privileged enough to actually watch match number four in the series live in The O2 Arena in London; actually it’s a pity they never televised that as it was absolutely the match of the night. The final match was an absolute slobberknocker, almost reminiscent of those Benoit vs Angle or Benoit vs Jericho matches from yesteryear where they just beat the hell out of each other and never stopped. The no contest finish was a nice touch which kept them both strong, and ultimately gave birth to The Bar, undoubtedly the premier main roster tag team of the past two calendar years.
Doc: Odd indeed. That stretch of the brand split was the last period in modern WWE lore that I really enjoyed before the Superstar Shake-Up in 2017 harpooned the whole darn thing. Sheamus and Cesaro always had good chemistry, I thought. That chemistry has shown through in their tag team combination and it was on full display in the final match of their Best-of series leading into their run as The Bar. One of the things that I love about mid-card wrestling, particularly, is watching a pair of characters learn about each other and vary their sequencing as a series of matches progresses, even without the Best-of gimmick, but what I love about the Best-of gimmick is that it basically tells us, as viewers, “pay attention to the details so as not to miss the nuance from bout to bout,” knowing as we do in advance the number of matches to come. Because of the quality of this match seven pay-off, I would call Sheamus vs. Cesaro the premiere version of the stipulation all decade and perhaps this century. It was noteworthy for a variety of reasons beyond its bell-to-bell quality, including its controversial finish and Cesaro’s insane (and rather unnecessary) head-first bump to the floor following a tope suicida.
89. Christian vs. Chris Jericho in a Ladder Match for the vacant Intercontinental Championship at Unforgiven 2004
Doc: What a wonderful feud this was, ladies and gentlemen. This came at a time in the Ladder Match genre’s history when I was feeling beyond over them – I basically had just reached a point where I felt like the potential had been realized and there was not much left for anyone to do with it – but, even then, the allure of seeing an unquestioned Ladder Match legend in Christian go up against an underrated Ladder Match legend in Jericho in a renewal of their spring 2004 rivalry was appealing. Much later in the countdown, we will revisit the CLB-Y2J storyline’s most enjoyable performance, but Maverick’s championing of this particular effort prompted a revisit on my end with a fresh perspective. Absent the constraints of my mid-2000s gimmick-specific overload, I was left with what I would affectionately call HBK-Y2J at No Mercy ‘08-Lite, a Ladder Match in which creativity was used to complement storytelling rather than the other way around.
Mav: Creative is certainly the word; there haven’t been many more creative performers in history than this Canadian twosome. As I mentioned earlier in the countdown, Captain Charisma’s singles run from mid-2001 to mid-2005 is one of the most underrated in history. He really was quietly brilliant, night after night, week after week, month after month. In Jericho, he found first an incredibly entertaining ally, and then latterly, a foe with whom he had superb chemistry. As with all great ladder matches, the ladders are used sparingly, and don’t truly enter the action until half way through. It’s an excellent midcard match that happens to contain ladders, rather than the other way around. When the ladders are introduced, they are used in a variety of interesting ways, for example Jericho’s freefall from the top of the ladder to pilot it into Christian’s ribs, and shortly thereafter, Y2J having his legs trapped within its confines following a missed charge into the corner. It would be remiss of me not to mention the near falls which add so much drama to the denouement, with each man getting agonisingly close to the belt but being knocked down, with Jericho finally managing to outlast the CLB and grab the strap. Well worth a revisit if you’ve not seen it in a while.
88. Dean Malenko vs. Scotty Too Hotty for the Light Heavyweight Championship at Backlash 2000
Mav: I’ve had the good fortune to cover this absolute beauty of a match several times before in my tenure at LOP, most notably in my ATTITUDE! collaboration with Mazza a few years back, and even after so many viewings, it has lost none of its charm. Setting the tone for one of the all time great non-Big Four pay-per-views, Malenko squared off against a plucky journeyman underdog and made us all believe that he would lose the match. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the mark of an exceptional heel champion. Watching as a slimmed down Bret vs 123 Kid, or an extended version of Rollins vs Neville, the two men involved show tremendous chemistry and incredibly astute match pacing to really set the crowd alight. When you watch something like this, you wonder why it took Vince and Co another 16 years before they took cruiserweights seriously. The year 2000 is one of the greatest in ring years ever, and midcard attractions like this really underscore that point.
Doc: On my countdown of the best cruiserweight matches of the WrestleMania Era earlier this year, Dean vs. Scotty landed in the Top 30. In terms of Malenko in WWE, this was as good as it got, a throw back to the days in WCW when he would regularly perform at this level; for S2H, it was the best match of his career, and showed a gear from him that he rarely got to put on display. Up until the CWC in 2016, this was arguably the pinnacle achievement in the history of the genre in WWE, psychologically masterful as it was thanks to the incomparable Ice Man while also thriving on account of Scotty’s underratedly popular character and underappreciated in-ring abilities.
87. Mr. Perfect vs. The Big Bossman on the November 23, 1990 Edition of The Main Event
Doc: It would probably be fair to call this an obscure hit from the Hulkamania Era in WWE. Unlike their later battles over the Intercontinental Championship, this was just a standard grudge match in between Perfect’s title reigns. It was also sandwiched in between a gem of a TV World Title bout between Ultimate Warrior and Million Dollar Man and a match in the series between Tito Santana and Rick Martel, so there are plenty of reasons why this one might have flown under your radar over the last three decades. However, spend a few minutes with it and I think you will see why it made our list. Vintage Mr. Perfect, this entire performance evidenced the value in Curt Hennig’s style, but do not sleep on what Bossman brought to the table; though he was never regarded as much of a wrestler, on a few occasions throughout his career, he popped up as one half of a match like this one and opened some eyes to what he could do. Like a lot of the old school entries thus far, this Perfect-Bossman scrap has excellent pace, so enjoy it while it lasts because you blink and it’s over.
Mav: This one is really all about Perfect’s bumping. In the early going he goes out of his way to sell the offense of the vengeful Bossman (Heenan and Perfect had been mocking Bossman’s mother in the weeks prior to the bout), and at the end, as the match is going against him following a shot to the head from the exposed turnbuckle, Hennig once again sells the crap out of the big babyface comeback. Man, stuff like that really brings a smile to the face. As Doc mentioned, the pacing is fantastic, and the white hot crowd again reminds you that once upon a time, career midcarders like Bossman got reactions which would embarrass top babyfaces today. I kind of wish WWE suits would watch more of their own back catalogue.
86. Mr. Perfect vs. Shawn Michaels at Stars and Stripes Forever
Mav: Now here is a fascinating piece of history! Shawn Michaels, while still a part of The Rockers in 1991, wrestling for the traditional worker’s belt months before his signature midcard singles push. Might we, in fact, see this match as a dry run for his elevation? You’ve got two of the very best sellers in history working with each other here, and the story of the match is very much about Perfect’s experience and ring savvy countering Michaels’ speed and athleticism. Hennig uses all the dirty tricks in the book, forcing Marty Jannetty to come out from the back in a rather impressive denim jacket, followed later by The Big Boss Man! Exactly the kind of match I would cite when I say (somewhat controversially) that I MUCH prefer first career Shawn to second career Shawn (that’s a hill I will die on any day of the week).
Doc: Anyone who has stated that HBK and Perfect were too similar to work a pristine match together based on their somewhat disappointing match at Summerslam ‘93 should go out of their way to see this one, because it provides evidence to the contrary. What might be fairer to state is that HBK as the babyface and Perfect as the heel were the character dynamics that had to be in place to make it work, as Perfect was one of the all-time great mid-card antagonists and Michaels – due to the uncanny athleticism and speed that Mav mentioned – was more than capable of playing the good guy. As the years have passed and I have rewatched this match numerous times, I have come to think of it as HBK’s audition for a future singles babyface run and that, merely to develop his character, he had to turn on Marty and go on that excellent run as a baddie; it just so happened that he was awesome at playing both character persuasions.