Just Business presents Half Luck, Half Skul: March Madness – The Greatest WrestleMania Match (Elite 8)


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Half Luck, Half Skul: March Madness – The Greatest WrestleMania Match (Elite 8)

Following on from last week’s instalment of this ongoing LOP Columns Forum series, being run by one of the Forums’ best writers Skulduggery, this week Just Business is once again proud to present Half Luck, Half Skul: March Madness – The Greatest WrestleMania Match.

After a few controversial eliminations took place in the last round, we’re now down to the Elite 8 – and I imagine there’s a little more controversy still to come!

Enjoy!

***

We are back with more March Madness! Quite the set of results from the Sweet 16, notably with Taker/HBK from the Silver WrestleMania going down in an upset to Daniel Bryan’s victory over HHH. With Bryan’s recent return to competition, will his curtain jerker continue to power through?

The Cinderella story in Christian/Jericho has also reached the Elite 8. Can it sneak past another elite match, or has midnight arrived?

Time to find out! Once again, I am privileged to be joined by mizfan, Oliver, Steve, SirSam, Mazza, and ‘Plan in our continued attempt to collectively determine the greatest match in WrestleMania history.

elite_eight_image_2

Bracket A

(2) Stone Cold Steve Austin vs. The Rock (’01) vs. (5) Daniel Bryan vs. Triple H (’14)

mizfan: HBK/Taker ’09 going out is surely the jaw dropper of the tournament, I counted it a very strong contender for the finals. That said, Bryan/HHH is a genuine classic and I’m glad it’s being recognized as such, even if it’s probably making Skul rip his hair out. Can it pull off another upset? Frankly I hope so, I think it tells a better, more complete story bell to bell and doesn’t have the drawback of that damn turn at the end. Bryan/HHH is a masterpiece and it’s damn near flawless, and the more I think about it the more I like the idea of it going all the way to the finals.

Steve: I’m voting for Bryan vs H here, but I’m doing so under protest. That is not a better match than Undertaker vs Shawn Michaels from 25. It’s just not. I rewatched both a couple days ago and yeah, it’s not. I don’t know what this hipster thing is that makes people want to vote against the grain just to do so, but man, it’s kinda lame. Yes, Bryan vs HHH was a feel good moment. As pointed out previously, though, it means little to nothing without the follow-up later in the evening. As a match unto itself, it’s good but doesn’t tell an entire story and isn’t anything amazing on its own.

I’m genuinely disappointed in that result. But that’s how the dice lay and DB vs HHH is a better match than the overrated WM17 title bout, so I’ll roll with it here.

Skulduggery: Both matches are very fitting for their era. Rock and Austin floor the gas pedal from the word Go, lacking a bit in pure technical grappling but absolutely storming the place with electric brawling and character work that sparks of both charisma and vitriol. Bryan and Triple H is a more meta piece, with the crowd hanging on every encounter with the tensest of anticipation – Bryan’s possible advancement to the main event acting as a very real cause for cheer or boos.

The key moment in fiction, as far as Austin/Rock is concerned, is obviously the heel turn of the Rattlesnake. While I also viewed this as a shocking turn of events, my enjoyment of the lead up to the moment has been enhanced largely by the review of this match by others in this tournament, notably SirSam. I didn’t realize it at first, but it really does harken back beautifully to the pre-match promo (maybe the best in WWE history?). Austin warns The Rock that he, and in extension, all of us, has no idea how deeply the importance of being champion runs in Stone Cold’s veins, and to what extent he’ll plunge to satiate that need.

While the matches are very close in terms of quality in my eyes, it is then an extra point that’s needed to determine where my vote is going, and the level of harrowing foreshadowing and gradual reveal that Austin/Rock possesses is the trick that does it. I’ll vote for them narrowly over the XXX curtain jerker.

SirSam: I went into bat hard for Bryan v Triple H last round but it doesn’t stop me turning on it as quickly as Austin did the fans at Mania only without any of the expertly placed foreshadowing and character work of the Mania 17 main event. Triple H and Bryan have the more technically sound match but as great as they are in that style of match, Stone Cold and The Rock are equally adept at putting on a balls to the wall brawl.

‘Plan: I imagine a lot of my cohorts in this trek through ‘Mania lore are going to find this a particularly difficult decision to make, but I honestly find it quite easy. It’s a question of emotional accessibility.

I have already described in past rounds how, in spite of my admiration for the scientific accomplishments of any Daniel Bryan match, I often struggle to really emote when I watch them. To a degree, the ‘Mania XXX curtain jerker is an exception to prove the rule – in the context of its wider story, there’s no denying, especially at the time, it was an incredibly emotive, even vicarious experience. As time has passed, though, and as the conversations about Daniel Bryan have lurched further towards an extreme, I find it to be a composition harder to not only swallow (though this is no fault of the match itself) but also to emote with. That might be a sign that I’m thinking a little too much, that I’m going against the grain of a piece of work designed to make you let go of your critical faculty and just feel the emotional torrent. Except this is an analytical series and I have to be analytical in my approach, and it is a distinct marker, as far as I’m concerned, that helps define the best from the rest when, in spite of approaching a match analytically, you still get swept up in its emotional tide. That’s going to be Bryan vs. Triple H for most; it isn’t for me.

But Austin and The Rock dancing their explosive tango for the second time in the Astrodome very much is. There is an irony to that. I’m critical of their second outing. What many consider their best, I consider their least accomplished. Nuance is cast aside in favour of a violent scream and, normally, that would put me off. It remains a testament, then, to their talents and their success that, even in spite of my best analytical self, unlike Bryan and Helmsely in 2014, Austin and Rock never fail to sweep me up in the raging emotion of their most famous clash. It remains as affecting today as it was in 2001. I vote for Stone Cold Steve Austin vs. The Rock.

Oliver: Cor, what a blinder to start this one off. Austin v The Rock is, not unlike the competition Bryan and Hunter came up against last time, an absolute monster of a match that to some extent has developed its own mythology just based on the competitors and the impact of the match itself. That said, and as I’ve referenced before, there’s a terrific little story running through it when you focus in on the deconstruction of Austin’s character and it all leading up to his ultimate betrayal. In an almost laughable change from before, now that I focus in on it it’s all I can see about the match now, and I telegraph the ending from about halfway through – of course, we all know how it ends anyway, but it’s startling that looking at that match so closely can reveal the way they were heading with it from such an early point. I really love how that match has revealed itself to me over the course of these rounds, because coming in I had a very preconceived notion of it being a fairly standard Rock vs Austin match but on a big stage and with an electric crowd propelling it above the standard level those two guys could reach. But now I realise that, in fact, it’s a masterful deconstruction of character and, arguably, one that given the timing also marks the deconstruction of the Attitude Era. I mean, how perfectly set is it that not seven days after the Monday Night Wars ended, WWE set about destroying the character that secured their victory and ending the era itself in WWE? And doing it in a public forum on the biggest stage possible? That’s bloody masterful..

Can Triple H vs Daniel Bryan compete? It’s a tough one to watch. Others have pointed out in previous rounds how without the main event Triple Threat to complete the story what you essentially get is fore runner. Part one of a two part film, like Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows Part One without the denouement of Voldemort’s crusade to rid the world of Mudbloods. I have to be honest, it’s not an argument I necessarily buy into – the cliffhanger of the match exists almost in isolation to the storyline of the match itself, and I know it sets up the night long story but the match itself also tells a beautiful story, with Trips focusing in on that arm and not letting the target go at all. It’s a masterful mat wrestling classic, and I think it’s probably going to be held up as one of the great WrestleMania matches for years to come – there’s a timelessness to it, the clear division between good and bad, the drama of every near fall, and the methodical but fast pace that it’s all worked at. Throw in the crowd reaction and you get something which is absolutely furious from start to finish. And that’s not to it’s detriment at all.

For me, these are two of (by my count) five near perfect wrestling matches that we’ve got to talk about in this round. It’s just a shame they were drawn together. Both tell great stories, both are flawlessly executed, and both have the crowd propelling them on. In the end, I find it comes down to this – HHH vs Daniel Bryan makes me feel more than Austin vs Rock. I can watch Austin vs Rock in a completely detached manner, caring not for who wins or loses, just enjoying the ride. Which is fine, because it’s a hell of a ride. But during HHH vs Bryan, even four years removed, I’m still desperate for Bryan to overcome, to emerge victorious. I still hate Triple H the way I did at the time. I still leap out of my seat and cheer for that pedigree near fall. And I still throw my arms up in the air, like a stadium full of fans, for the match ending knee to the face. And that is why I have to vote for HHH vs Bryan.

Mazza: I would have thought that at this stage of the tournament, I’d have a nightmare with all my choices. Fact is however, this was the only one I had to think twice about. The amazing news about Bryan’s return hasn’t made it any easier. I tried to get Limp Bizkit and Imagine Dragons to help me split them, but no dice. You are talking about the two greatest video packages in the history of a company that makes amazing video packages on pretty much a monthly basis. I can’t split them and it really becomes a mood thing. So I am going to watch them both (no chore at all) and then pick my poison. Back in an hour…

Guys, I think I’ve realised that these are my two favourite Mania matches of all time. 17 is just a pure adrenaline rush from the moment the bell rings until it’s finally over. A lot gets said about the reaction to the heel turn. I don’t think it’s a wrong reaction, just not the one you’d necessarily be going for. The crowd aren’t anti-Rock at the end. They are pro-everything. Every kick out. Every chairshot. Every move. The crowd are just eating it all up and that is elite professional wrestling. The XXX is much slower. Peaks and valleys in the action but more story meat on the bones and tugs are your emotions throughout. It’s still such a hard choice for me but I am going with Rock-Austin II.

(2) Stone Cold Steve Austin vs. The Rock (’01) wins 4-3

Bracket B

(1) TLC II (’01) vs. (3) Ricky Steamboat vs. Macho Man Randy Savage (’87)

Oliver: I feel like I’ve talked about TLC II to death. So I’m not going to do it here, especially as it’s not having my vote as the winner,

So let’s instead talk about the beauty and majesty of Steamboat vs Savage.

The story goes that they both learnt this match by wrote, almost, with every phase numbered, and then that Steamboat would throw numbers at Savage so they could run through the match from that point on. That attention to detail means that they were able to bend and manipulate the match to their exact picture of it, working inn all the little throwbacks their story deserved while also honing in on the prize at the end of the match – the Intercontinental Championship. It might sound funny, but in all the talk I think that’s a point that often gets lost in this match for some reason – the prize here is more than just glory, it’s gold.

Steamboat, of course, comes in after recovering from a throat injury Savage caused with the ring bell. It plays a part, but it’s minor – the iconic image of Steamboat holding Savage aloft by the throat, the ring bell shenanigans that lead to the end of the match (interesting, isn’t it, how we sometimes bemoan outside interference leading to the finish of matches and yet here, in one of the greatest matches of all time, there’s George Steele causing Savage to lose) – but the bulk of the match, and the bulk of the magic, is in the near falls. Steamboat himself says there are 21 of them. I personally lost count. But that’s 21 near falls in 15 minutes. Sunset flips, roll-ups, rope broken pin falls…it’s all masterful. It’s wrestling in it’s purest, most intense form and I love it for that. I don’t think that enough is really said about this match, for all the praise it has one of the greatest matches it feels surprisingly underrated in it’s position. Funny that, isn’t it? Anyway, Steamboat and Savage, a clear winner here for me.

Mazza: Well, TLC II has made it to the final of its bracket, however I sincerely hope the ride ends here. I don’t think it’s better than the triangle ladder match from a year before. More action, sure, but smarter? More important? No, not for my money. You want smart and important, look no further that the IC match from WMIII. The last rep of the 80s in this thing. Fact is that 80s wrestling hardly ever holds up to today’s standards. When it comes to Manias, this match is the clear exception. Savage and Steamboat told a fantastic long term and in-match story and they did it with near perfect execution. It’s timeless and in my mind it wipes the floor with a very fun spotfest.

‘Plan: I’m not going to waste my words or my time here. It is ridiculous TLC II has gotten this far. Ricky Steamboat vs. Macho Man Randy Savage wins, and should win in a landslide. God help me if it doesn’t.

Skulduggery: TLC had some predictions that it, of all of the (1)-seeds, would have the most trouble going deep. It came close to vanishing a few times, and while there’s an argument to be had that a couple of the other (1)-seeds faced stiffer competition, the fact that it is vibrantly alive in the Elite Eight while two (1)-seeds are pushing daisies has to be indicative of something. At the same time, Steamboat and Savage has come a long way from barely escaping a (14)-seed in the first round, managing a 4-3 victory.

I don’t know that, given my thoughts recorded earlier on both of these matches, that I could even muster a plausible pretense of suspense, so I won’t. TLC is getting the nod in what I consider the easiest vote of the Elite Eight. It’s igniting; it’s innovative; it’s impeccable. All six official and three unofficial entrants show not an eyelash of trepidation in their effort to send the bar into the stratosphere. A few years earlier, the teams had put their name on the map – in TLC II, they spiked right through the map.

Steamboat and Savage is good. I appreciate its importance. But it’s not even close to being as visually stunning and electric as the war put forward by the Hardys, the Dudleys, Edge, and Christian.

Steve: Not sure what more could be said about TLC II that hasn’t already been said. It’s a car crash, but it’s a damn fun one. Savage vs Steamboat is a great match and deserves the accolades it has received when taken in the framework of its era, but I don’t even think it’s Savage’s best Mania match. Both matches were innovative in their own ways, but I’ve got to go with the adrenaline rush and “holy shit” factor of TLC II for the win.

mizfan: Quite pleased that Steamboat/Savage has made it this deep, and having vanquished the first ever ‘Mania ladder match, it now comes up against it’s logical extension in TLC II. This is another very tough choice in a round of tough choices. Part of me wants to vote for Steamboat/Savage out of principle, as those two just did so much incredible work with relatively few bells and whistles. But at the end of the day I can’t deny how much pure fun I have watching TLC II, one of the greatest wars of it’s kind. I love the big spots, I love the colorful personalities, I love each team calling in reinforcements who add their own unique moments to the unfolding story. TLC II takes my vote here by a hair, though I love both of these matches dearly.

SirSam: Two genre defining matches and I will go with Steamboat v Savage. While they both created legacies that live on to this day, it is the completely perfect in-ring performances of Savage and Steamboat that go over the breathtaking, daring but ultimately imperfect TLC match.

(3) Ricky Steamboat vs. Macho Man Randy Savage (’87) wins 4-3

Bracket C

(2) Owen Hart vs. Bret Hart (’94) vs. (13) Christian vs. Chris Jericho (’04)

Skulduggery: Even though I didn’t vote for either of these matches in the Sweet Sixteen, I still consider them both to be really strong matches. Plus, an all-Canadian C-bracket final? Forgive my nationalistic ego, but I can’t but help to be a little tickled by that!

These matches actually have a fair amount of similarity. Both features competitors who have been driven from their once-tight bond to a scorned and corrosive opposition. Both sets of opponents drive the idea that the passion of hatred, stemming from friendship or even fraternal love, has the capacity of being stronger than a relationship of loathing that never saw a positive side to it. All the while, each match manages to sew in some spectacular moves that don’t seem unfitting or inorganic, but lift each match to a greater watch than something of pure anger and basic maneuvers.

Bret and Owen display a greater portrayal of fluidity, crispness, and chemistry. Hard not to, seeing that they grew up living together, much less grew up wrestling each other. This is a double-hinged door, though. While their chemistry makes for a smooth watch, the relative butting-heads style of crash match put on by Jericho and Christian makes one believe that the abhorrence for another is 21st-century, more gritty, more real. They spike each other’s heads into the mat just a little bit harder. They put just a little more force behind each kick. I’ve spoken about it before, but the moment in the match when things are boiling, they crack heads together, sending each other down. It’s such a simple yet telling moment: the two former best friends are blind in their poisonous hatred for another that it earns neither man triumph, just disaster for all involved.

Even though the sandpaper aspect of Jericho and Christian is a plus on their side, it’s tough to look past how slick it makes of a watch for Owen/Bret. The match watches like silk, but not so much that it sacrifices the emotion it was going for. It’s more clinical than Y2J/Christian, sure, but still manages to clamp onto the feelings each brother had for one another. Some of the key moments that elevate this match are Bret’s “kickouts” when Owen has him locked into the Figure Four; he does not victoriously throw the arm to the sky like a Rock or an Angle might; he barely lifts his shoulders off the mat, cringing all the while, dictating an escape but a narrow and painful one. The reversal of one Sharpshooter into another is stunning, and the liquidity of the early chain wrestling is commendable. I’m not nuts about the incorporation of the knee – it’s logical, but it’s often, in many matches, been a bit of a fallback of mine. They don’t lean on it too much, though.

Tough decision. I’m going with Owen and Bret by a hair. Hell of a run by the Vitamin C boys, and I won’t be sad if that one progresses, but their time is just barely up in my books.

Mazza: The insane way the vote went in the last round is a blessing in disguise for me. Having to decide between Owen/Bret and Angle/HBK would have given me sleepless nights. I love Christian vs Jericho a lot, but I think the Cinderella story is getting a little out of hand now. It was no doubt underseeded at 13 but it is clearly the weakest bout in the elite 8 by some distance. It’s a huge stretch for it to make anybody’s 10 greatest Mania matches, including Jericho’s, and we all know he is the world’s biggest Jerichoholic. The match between the Harts is a good * better for my money.

Steve: I mentioned last time how much I love Owen vs Bret and how it still elicits the same feelings in me today as it did almost a quarter of a century ago. That’s what makes this decision so hard, as Jericho vs Christian was the culmination of one of my all-time favorite storylines.

This really is probably the hardest decision I’ve had to make so far. In the end, I just straight up like the Vitamin C Powers Exploding match better, especially when you throw in the surprise Trish turn at the end. But this one definitely hurts. I’d have voted for either of these matches over almost any of the remaining bouts had the brackets worked out that way.

mizfan: Christian/Jericho going this deep is a truly beautiful thing, I love the fact that it’s been recognized as well for the all time great midcard match that it is. But I think again I have to go with the established classic this time, Hart vs. Hart is one of the finest bouts of any kind in ‘Mania history and deserves to keep going in this thing. Christian/Jericho had a hell of a run though, and they deserved every bit of it.

Oliver: Ah, a delightful all Canadian affair!

One of the real pleasures of this tournament has been Christian vs Chris Jericho revealing itself to be a wonderful midcard bout on the grandest stage of all. In many ways, it’s a millennial version of Savage vs Steamboat, if that’s not too grand an accolade to hang around it’s neck. I mean, it’s overshadowed greatly by the triple threat main event, of course, but in terms of just structure and things there are airs of the more famous bout from Bracket B there, even up to the distraction of Trish allowing for a Christian roll-up to win the day. The story they tell is a simple one of goodie vs baddie, core of all wrestling, the lines firmly drawn, and the wrestling as pure and clean as it comes. If I have a knock against it, it’s that it doesn’t do much which makes me feel like it’s ‘special’ – unsurprising, given card placement, but nonetheless something of note. I’ve really, really enjoyed watching that match reveal itself to me during this tournament, and it one hundred percent deserves both the Cinderella run it’s had here and its moniker as one of the great underrated WrestleMania bouts.

Unfortunately, I think here is certainly where it’s run comes to an end. For all that midcard perfection, I don’t think anything can compete with the WMX opener – or, at least, didn’t. It’s terrifically worked, as I suppose you might expect given that two brothers who had grown together were on opposite sides of the ring, and Owen frantically trying to prove himself after the events of Survivor Series preceding it plays into that whole set up splendidly. The forcing of Bret to take this match or else forfeit his Championship match towards the end of the night was great, too, because Bret didn’t want to fight Owen. That latter point plays into the exchanges, with Bret not really wanting to hurt his brother – he often either avoids holds, or at least escapes them rather than reverses, in the opening stages. It takes a while, therefore, for this to become a real match up, as Bret slowly warms up to the fight itself and finally puts some aggression into his actions. They end up going through a ton of near falls, and when Bret hurts his knee Owen really goes after it for a bit. It’s here, actually, that I have the only black mark against the match. Owen works that knee for a fair while in the third quarter of the match, but come the end Bret isn’t really bothered by it. He even powers out of the sharpshooter when it’s locked in by his brother. I didn’t like that bit of the match, and it’s a tiny thing to take into account but we are at the point where these tiny things are kind of live or die, you know? It’s not too egregious, don’t get me wrong, but I would have liked for it to play more into the rest of the match, especially as the rest of it is so good.

So what do I go with here? Do I take the flawless but slightly less special Christian vs Jericho, or do I take the more special Bret vs Owen but knowing that it has a flaw that hurt it for me this time. In this case, I’m going for that special feeling – I can forgive little moments of no selling in exchange for a rewarding whole. Bret vs Owen it is, then, but this was much closer than the seeding, and possibly the final vote, will indicate.

SirSam: Of the remaining eight they are the two matches I was least familiar with heading into this tournament but I have found a lot to like in both of these. That said there is one thing that makes absolutely no sense in the Christian v Jericho match, Trish Stratus. Why on God’s green Earth would she end up with Christian? This is a man who has physically abused her, insulted her and proved to be an utter trash bag. It is a great match but that bit is garbage booking at its worst and emblematic of where the WWE was with its treatment of female characters at the time. We are down to the best of the best and at some point that has to come back and haunt the Cinderella story of the comp so far. (2) Owen Hart vs. Bret Hart (’94)

‘Plan: This is the toughie of the round for me, because of the fact that, in spite of WrestleMania X’s curtain jerker being so beloved by so many, I haven’t always felt much of an attachment to it. I have to admire its dark themes and its gritty, exacerbated take on family life, and from a technical standpoint it watches like a piece of work even the very best in the industry’s history would struggle to criticise I imagine, but that x factor, that connection that you sometimes need as a fan, for whatever reason, has not often been there for me. Maybe it’s because, in his singular pantheon of work, Bret wrestled so many other classics that I do get that buzz about. Regardless, this defines Bracket C’s final as a case of two very well put together matches that I like a lot, but don’t necessarily love as one of my favourites.

What hinders me further is the similarity in their subtext. Both deal with a different form of warped love that eventually works its way towards a climax that comments on how, as U2 once put it, love is blindness – whether it be the warped vision of the Hart brothers or their respective love for the spotlight, or the warped infatuation of Trish with the despicable Christian and Jericho’s inability to see her betrayal coming.

So, with both holding a similar spot in my affection as a fan and both dealing with the same societal theme, I need something to break the tie. That tie break is Bret Hart – the man who, for most of my life, I considered my favourite wrestler of all-time (until Seth Rollins came along!). His mastery of the art form sits above the still remarkable collective talents of his WrestleMania XX opposition here, and while neither spark an instant connection with me at least one half of one of these two matches does. All this combined leads me to the opinion that, while both are tremendous efforts, ultimately the WrestleMania X encounter between Bret and Owen is the superior. I vote for Owen Hart vs. Bret Hart.

(2) Owen Hart vs. Bret Hart (’94) wins 6-1

Bracket D

(1) Bret Hart vs. Stone Cold Steve Austin (’97) vs. (2) Chris Benoit vs. Shawn Michaels vs. Triple H (’04)

Steve: It’s odd to me that in the midst of dismissing some of the more “modern” candidates for Greatest Mania Match Ever, the grandfathered in ones have remained. Bret vs Austin, Steamboat vs Savage, Owen vs Bret. I’m not sure what that means, if anything. Were I guessing, it would be that those matches all occurred before the folks participating in this had begun applying critical thought to their wrestling experience. The earlier matches were experienced in childhood or, at the very least, in the days before real time reaction was such a crucial part of the writing we do around here. Matches like Hogan/Rock and Michaels/Undertaker suffered, I feel, because they’ve been picked apart a lot more thoroughly so soon after their occurrence than any of those other bouts ever experienced. I wonder, had the internet been around in full force when Austin vs Hart happened, if it would suffer a similar fate instead of being held up in the glowing light of nostalgia and predetermined untouchableness?

It’s a great match, regardless, and I find it a much better experience than the XX Triple Threat. I guess I just lament that this thing isn’t going to come down to an ultimate vote that would truly pit equal matches against one another. It’s almost as if the end is already set, since I don’t foresee any of the remaining matches being able to hold a candle to the overwhelming preexisting sense of “best match ever” that Austin/Hart walked into this competition with from the jump. It’s like the rest of the voting was a formality.

All I can say is that it may not go through completely unscathed, at least if my own personal votes come to pass.

mizfan: This, right here, is the toughest choice of the whole tournament. These two matches both have a claim as possibly being my favorite match of all time. The pathos, the story, the incredible visuals are nearly equal produced by both. Ultimately I have to go with my sentimental favorite, the main event of the first ‘Mania I ever watched, the XX triple threat. I suspect I might lose this round, and I’m ok with that, but I have to show love to that incredible match and all the greatness that it contained. Whatever wins this bracket, I hope it wins the whole tournament.

Skulduggery: Oy, another tough call. Both matches write such phenomenal stories, with emotion and character pumping through at every turn. The submission match edges its combatant in that aspect, but the triple threat has so much action and tense, edge-of-your-seat drama, that it lands punches on Hart/Austin in another area. And I think I’m going to go with that one, for that reason. Benoit, Trips, and Shawn to advance!

‘Plan: This is another deceptively easy pick for me, but not because I have any kind of disdain for either match. On the contrary, they probably both rank among my ten favourite ‘Mania matches ever, if I were to sit and think about that list. Alas, as those who have followed this series may very well be aware of by now, one of the two ranks not only among my ten favourite matches of all-time, it ranks at the very top.

I remain compelled to vote for Bret Hart vs. Stone Cold Steve Austin at WrestleMania 13.

The Triple Threat of WrestleMania XX deserves a farewell from me, though, especially as I fully anticipate this is the end of the road for it. I have written already about its defining status, but it cannot be stressed enough. Until that encounter in Madison Square Garden, Triple Threats were often always the same, playing out like those involved were having to fight against the ergonomic demands of a three man match rather than choosing to embrace the challenge of creating an effective and ever-present sense of choreography. It is no coincidence that tropes first truly deployed at MSG in 2004 then became commonplace in Triple Threat Matches up and down the roster over the course of the next eleven years, and to a slightly lesser extent still to this day.

Perhaps what often goes unnoticed, however, is that WrestleMania XX’s main event is not just a defining match for its sub-genre. When you think about how matches of its type have gone from a relative rarity in the sub-genre’s earliest years to a far more prevalent match type today, you come to realise how much of WWE’s in-ring product over the last decade and a half owes to the success of Triple H, Shawn Michaels and Chris Benoit. The formula they laid out that night has helped shape so many pay-per-view main events, minor televised classics and more than a fair share of WrestleMania World title bouts since 2004. That’s impressive, and while it is a match erased from history because of the vile events that defined the end of Benoit’s life, nothing changes its status as perhaps the most quietly influential WWE match of the 21st Century.

It’s just, right now, it’s going against the greatest match ever wrestled, so, ya know….

Mazza: Full disclosure. I really really really want to vote against the submission match. I just can’t bring myself to do it. And looking at how this thing has shaped up, there’s a good chance that I won’t at any point. And if I won’t, that is a huge spoiler for how this thing turns out. I’ve also wanted to vote against the triple threat throughout this thing and I finally get to here. So there is a silver lining to all this. Hart and Austin move on.

SirSam: I will have to go with Hart v Austin. The Triple Threat match is non-stop action, there is constantly something happening and there is no doubt that every one of the guys is hitting one of their high points of their career in terms of their in-ring performance. However Hart v Austin tells a better story, has more engrossing action, takes and pulls off some huge creative risks and finishes in one of the most legendary moments in pro wrestling history.

Oliver: Ack, I thought of just doing a one liner here, but then it became complicated on a watch back and I’m tempted to dive in again to each one.

My head and heart here both say it’s Austin vs Hart in a (relative) walk. Benoit/Michaels/HHH is good, and rightly gets held up as one of the key matches from Millennial Manias, but I’m not sure it can be considered to have been quite as good as, or had anywhere near the impact of, Austin vs Hart. I think it’s all too easy to lose the quality of the triple threat match when you take it hand in hand with the darkness that came after it, as well. This was Benoit proving he belonged at the top level, and in doing so he beat two guys – and possibly the only two guys at that time – that could conceivably be considered as gatekeepers to that level. There’s some great moments in the match itself, too, and the near falls actually feel like near falls rather than the obligatory ‘guys does a finish, other guy breaks it up’ triple threat stuff that has become all to commonplace. The bit where Michaels almost taps but HHH grabs his hand to stop him still gets me. The ending is a little bit overdone, with Hunter spending about two minutes in the crossface, but otherwise there’s so much to like.

Just a shame that Austin vs Hart is better than it in every department, really.

(1) Bret Hart vs. Stone Cold Steve Austin (’97) wins 5-2

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There we have it! The top two Attitude Era stars put a close to their #3 in his late-career match with Daniel Bryan, TLC finally endures a loss (one too close for comfort, if you ask ‘Plan, I’m sure!), the Hart brothers squashed the ultimate underdog, and Hart and Austin received more blemishes than they have all tournament, but still comfortably move to the Final Four.

We have all four matches coming from the first half of WrestleMania history, interestingly enough. Bret Hart and Steve Austin both have multiple matches alive, while Triple H and Christian both went 0-2. Curiously, we also only have one WrestleMania main event remaining, that being the X-Seven one, of course.

A single column in the series remains, as we will tackle both the Final Four and the tournament-deciding final match-up in the next bout of Madness. One step closer to seeing which is the greatest Mania match ever!

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