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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!
95. Hakushi vs. The 1-2-3 Kid at Summerslam 1995
Doc: I think it would be fair to call Punk vs. Orton an “underrated” match from the WrestleMania library, and I would echo a similar underrated-theme for Hakushi vs. 123 Kid from the Summerslam library. History rightfully champions the 9-minute-and-change thriller between Angle and Mysterio seven years later as the ultimate performance with a single digit runtime, but you cannot get very deep into the conversation regarding the best sub-10-minute bouts without discussing the merits of the Summerslam ‘95 opener. With pace its greatest strength, even a fan largely unfamiliar with the combatants would appreciate the lightning quick action; a historian might greatly appreciate the ingenuity in that approach for the time period, especially considering the pace when combined with aerial tactics still rather novel for that era in WWE. Basically, it is a match between one of the best mid-card wrestlers of the 1990s decade and an ahead-of-his-time larger high-flyer. What’s not to love about that?
Mav: This is already Sean Waltman’s second appearance on this countdown, and there’s a lot more of him to come yet! The New Generation is packed full of hidden gems like this one, and this high octane thrill ride of a match is one that unfortunately often gets forgotten about (mainly because Summerslam 95 is a show everyone refuses to rewatch because of Mabel being in the main event, yikes). Haikushi may not have stuck around in WWF for long, but his impact in terms of match quality was enormous. Some of the acrobatics and martial arts strikes in this one were of a kind only rarely seen before in a Federation ring to this point, and never to this level of choreographed precision. The finish is a prominent example of the chemistry these two displayed together, with the Japanese grappler catching the Kid in a huracanrana attempt in mid air and ruthlessly slamming him down to the mat for the three, with Lawler selling the tendency of the young man to go for one too many high risk manouevres. This is the kind of bout I’d like to see played on big screens at the WWE Performance Center to the new NXT signings; I think it would do them all the world of good to study something like this.
94. Edge vs Shawn Michaels at Royal Rumble 2005
Mav: A curious historical document here, as we see Edge, just hitting his groove as an upper midcard heel, a couple of months before the Money In The Bank victory that would be the catalyst to him being catapulted into the main event for good, giving Shawn Michaels something to do until WWE could start the feud with Kurt Angle that would light up Hollywood that year. I can’t think of too many other times I saw these two wrestle one on one, and certainly not in this prominent a spot, and rewatching it, there’s a lot to like. The hot start to the match, with Michaels not even bothering to take off his entrance garb, gets the crowd going, whilst Edge’s canny knack of getting on top of things even when overmatched lends interest to the middle portion of the bout, particularly the section where he works over HBK’s surgically repaired back. In fact, the heel controls the vast majority of this one, even “tuning up the band” before his spear. The closing minutes see the momentum ebb and flow, until the climactic bit of cheating sees The Rated-R Superstar come out with the cheap win. A very good start to what would be a life changing 2005 for Edge.
Doc: These are two of my three all-time favorite wrestlers, so this match has always maintained a sentimental flair for me, but at the same time I always enjoy the heck out of it whenever I revisit it. Why the qualifier? Well, you see names like theirs and a nearly twenty minute runtime, with all the requisite show-stealing that comes to mind and ample opportunity to light the world on fire, and expectations understandably skyrocket, but frankly this was not quite the classic that you might expect. Instead, this was just a really good opening match of a really good pay-per-view to climax a very solid multi-month mid-card storyline and, looking back, that still makes for a highly enjoyable half an hour when everything is accounted for. One spot in particular – a Sweet Chin Music counter into the Electric Chair – resonates as a quintessential example of Edge’s knack for coming up with ultra-creative counters to signature offensive maneuvers. Man, I would’ve loved to have seen them tear down the house at a WrestleMania.
93. Rob Van Dam vs. Shelton Benjamin in a Winner-Take-All Match for both the Intercontinental Championship and the Money in the Bank contract at Backlash 2006
Doc: Shelton Benjamin is a name you can expect to see numerous times on this countdown, as he was in my opinion one of the top mid-card workers of the naughties. When I watch this match, I am reminded of the upper limits of his potential. His athleticism, at his peak, was virtually without peers in the WrestleMania Era, and it was the catalyst for several eye-popping performances full of feats that left viewers in awe. From 2004 to 2006 especially, he was routinely unleashed in environments like these with opponents like RVD, whose own athleticism was legendary at its peak. Though Van Dam was past his physical prime in ‘06, his year-long layoff from injury did give him a new lease for much of that year and it could be argued that this battle of athletic innovators against Benjamin was his finest effort post-comeback. Matches like this one probably seem rather ordinary to fans accustomed to the incredibly physical gifts on display regularly, but back then this performance stood out to me as something totally unique.
Mav: 2006 is one of my least favourite years in WWE history, but bouts like this do at least offer some kind of a saving grace. I always enjoy these kind of winner takes all stipulations, and it undoubtedly added drama and tension to what otherwise might have been a pretty standard midcard title match. The newly heel Benjamin showcased some welcome arrogance and some swagger to go alongside his athletic gifts, but as Doc mentioned, this one is really all about putting two upper midcard guys who could do crazy spots together and letting them have at it. Let us not forget, too, that RVD was mere months away from his career high watermark at One Night Stand, so the match had a lot riding on it in kayfabe terms. An extremely well worked finish is the highlight of the action, with great choreography and attention to detail: Benjamin misses a spin kick, frustratedly goes for a briefcase shot, misses that, and gets a case assisted Van Daminator for his trouble, followed up with the winning Five Star Frog Splash. A simple yet effective sequence that showed the importance of a good agent.
92. Mr Perfect vs. Tito Santana for the Intercontinental Championship on the July 28, 1990 Edition of Saturday Night’s Main Event
Mav: As with the Jake Roberts vs Ricky Steamboat match we covered earlier in this countdown, just looking at the names of the wrestlers involved sells it! Mr Perfect was, along with Bret Hart, the leading in-ring technician of his day, whilst the veteran Santana had been a staple of the Rock N Wrestling midcard throughout the 1980s, a high flier who could also go hold for hold with cerebral heels like Perfect. His high energy style was the “perfect” complement to Hennig’s crisp grappling, and the match starts like an absolute train. The action may seem simple by today’s standards, but that’s what I so admire about it; the economy of movement and understanding of how to manipulate the crowd is top class. In the early stretch of action, Perfect’s bumping is at its legendary best; watch out for a hilarious sell of a big chop from Tito! The champion manages to halt the momentum of his babyface adversary, but the pendulum swings back to Santana during a ref bump, where the figure four is slapped and Perfect gives up…but to no avail as the referee is down. Upon the arrival of the new official, the challenger continues his dominance, only for the classic small package reversal to ruin his evening and see Bobby Heenan’s client retaining his title. An object lesson in how to wrestle a TV match.
Doc: “Pure joy” is the best way that I can describe revisiting these delightfully old school Hulkamania Era matches. Tito Santana was a fixture in the mid-card during the original boom, combining with the likes of Greg Valentine and Randy Savage for outstanding Intercontinental Championship bouts, the best of which are so difficult to come by (even on the Network) that they got cut from the Top 100 consideration. What I love about revisiting Tito matches is how easily he can pick up the intensity of an entire arena with a few simple yet explosive bursts of basic offense. His presentation made him easy to get behind as a viewer then, and I think it holds up well enough today that even a novice viewer could find his/herself rooting him on by the time his comeback begins. Aiding that process of eventual catharsis-seeking is the commentary by Jesse Ventura, whose constant verbal egging (calling Tito “Chico” the most famous example) provided an indelible audio poke to the proverbial stick with which villains like Perfect beat him. Of course, this particular match was vintage Curt Hennig, the kind of performance that earned him the place on the pedestal that Mav rightfully puts him on.
91. John Morrison vs. Dolph Ziggler for the Intercontinental Championship at Hell in a Cell 2009
Doc: What I found fitting about this match being placed just ahead of the previous bout is how well Morrison and Ziggler seemed to pay tribute to the pacing from an era nearly twenty years removed from their 2009 encounter. They mixed the methodical progression of the action with a newer age affinity for high spots as well, so it watches like something that fans of any era could readily enjoy. Ziggler, from 2009 to 2012, reminded me so very much of Mr. Perfect, obviously because his look appeared clearly inspired by him (their curly when sweat-soaked blonde manes poofing out in all directions), but primarily due to Ziggler’s bumping style. He made his opponents look like superheroes just like Hennig once did better than anyone. Morrison, pre-Mundo, was pretty well-known for his game being more about finesse than realism, his balletic aerialism aesthetically gorgeous but lacking a certain toughness; having Ziggler act like he had been shot with a bazooka when Morrison struck him made JoMo’s offense doubly compelling to witness. Do not be shocked if Ziggler’s numerous matches on this countdown make a case for his inclusion in the pantheon of mid-card superstars.
Mav: No fancy reasons as to why this one made the list; two hungry up and comers tearing the house down over the widely acknowledged historical “workers belt”. Ziggler had come off terrific matches against Mysterio without picking up the gold, and when a failed drugs test benched the Mexican, Morrison was hand picked to win the gold so the Master of the 619 could go and serve his suspension. That left previous challenger Dolph in line for a crack at the new champ following his victory in a triple threat number one contenders bout with Finlay and Mike Knox, and boy, once thrown together, these two flamboyant stars did not disappoint. We had a nice feeling out process at the start with plenty of crisp amateur grappling, which then broke down into high octane rope running and a duel of athletic prowess; very much a game of one upmanship from that point of view. Despite their similar move sets, Ziggler decided to try and keep the Friday Night Delight grounded, using his technical prowess to grind Morrison into the mat. Ziggler also displayed considerable awareness in avoiding Starship Pain and taking advantage of the opportunity with elbows. JoMo’s comebacks were well timed and get the audience invested, and included some eye catching moves, particularly a standing shooting star press that is insanely athletic. There were roll ups and take downs, counters and reversals…it’s just a great midcard match. The finish was particularly well constructed too, with a frenetic series of missed finishers and two counts, before a countered Zig Zag allowed the champion to hit the shining wizard and the Starship Pain for the hard fought victory. Really fun stuff, and a reminder of how much JoMo brought to the midcard during his tenure. I would welcome him back into WWE with open arms if he ever decided to return.