‘Plan & The Doc present…The WWF New Generation’s Top 50 Matches

In the early 1990s, scandal hit the World Wrestling Federation (WWF). Accusations of impropriety and federal offences swarmed about Vincent Kennedy McMahon’s leviathan promotion. The American government targeted McMahon’s promotion, and McMahon himself, seeking to subpoena him into the submission of an admission of guilt or to otherwise level him with criminal charges. In the chaos, McMahon’s top stars, who had been the pillars of his success throughout the 1980s, abandoned ship and jumped across to his competition, World Championship Wrestling (WCW). Some, smelling blood, even testified against him.

With the company on its knees McMahon adopted a new direction, placing a focus on new stars of smaller stature but greater in-ring capability, all the while being forced to accept financial difficulties that mandated a notable reduction in the size and scale that had previously been synonymous with the promotion and that had once sold out the Pontiac Silverdome.

The New Generation Era was thus born, and everyone knows what happened next.

Bad went to worse. With all the political and media pressure and financial hardship came dire creative times to only exacerbate McMahon’s woes. Cartoon characters were in the ascendancy among a severely depleted talent pool and cheesy, childish storylines dominated the product, leaving the company in the worst financial state it has ever known.

So goes the myth of the New Generation Era.

For years, I have adopted a self-imposed crusade to challenge this misrepresentative narrative of a period I define as running between the autumn of 1992 and spring of 1997. It is time the New Generation Era was given its long overdue revision, fan and company assumptions about it disassembled and, in their place, a new, more accurately considered history applied instead. It is time to change everything you thought you knew about the New Generation.

The financial difficulties the WWF was in at the time are indisputable fact, but assertions made about the quality of the product are far from it. This was not the toxic creative period you have been led to believe it was. Stories that, on paper, sound ridiculous were, in practice, indicative of the very traits enjoyed today in searing hot products like that of NXT. The very aspects we as fans cry out to see more of in WWE’s currently struggling creative output were front and centre of their creative output throughout the mid-1990s. It was a period unafraid to experiment with concepts, from the grand picture to the minute detail, with a number of precursors to phenomena that wouldn’t be properly realised by the company until years, sometimes decades later. Far from the dominant memory, on a week-to-week basis cartoon characters had been relegated to the past and, instead, the focus was placed on simple storylines executed effectively, fashioning long-term character arcs built on an understanding of continuity and crafted from an astonishing rate of consistently outstanding in-ring efforts courtesy of one of the most talented cadres of talent the company has ever hosted.

The New Generation is not the ugly step-sibling of WWE’s modern historical Eras, but rather a black sheep that deserves better.

Alongside our good friend ‘The Doc’ Chad Matthews, my aforementioned crusade to quash preconceptions about the New Generation Era begins (and mark my words, this is only a beginning) here, with its Top 50 Matches. Some of these you will know and love. Some of them, you may have forgotten just how much you love. And some of them you might not even know exist. But all of them are absolute gems that demonstrate the true history of the New Gen.

As to the details of how we arrived at this particular fifty matches, ‘Plan and I each submitted our own respective lists to one another. There were thirty-three common entries, the average rankings for which formed the top two-thirds of the forthcoming collaboration. The other seventeen bouts, the first five of which you are about to read, were hashed out over several conversations and revised across several months.

Ladies and gentlemen, through these matches, we have something to prove, and each of the ensuing Top 50 illustrates an important point in the case we are making that the New Generation deserves a thorough reappraisal from everyone in the wrestling industry, fans, wrestlers, and promoters alike.

50. Shawn Michaels vs. Razor Ramon in a Ladder Match for the Intercontinental Championship, Summerslam 1995

‘Plan: While the majority of people believe the New Generation Era to have been a time period heavily reliant on bizarre gimmicks, it was actually built on a foundation of possibly the most talented cadre of stars the industry has ever seen, and at the forefront of that cadre were the likes of Razor Ramon and Shawn Michaels who, with this sequel to their WrestleMania X iconography, created one of the period’s most accessible bouts.

After an absence on the back of a babyface-turning performance at WrestleMania XI that year, Michaels began an arc of redemption that saw him consciously seeking to erase his past losses and mistakes. Part of that arc saw him originally billed to defend his newly won Intercontinental Championship against the man who injured him, Sid. In a demonstration of the then-WWF’s frequent employment of shared universe storytelling, though, new Interim WWF President Gorilla Monsoon switched the Summerslam card up radically on short notice, in an effort to be “the most fan friendly President” in company history; it was something of a precursor to what would happen with Shane McMahon twenty-one years later.

Today, the resultant lack of television build would be frowned upon, but thanks to the frequency of shared universe storytelling at the time, and in spite of its sudden booking, it is a match that carries a great deal of character weight, playing into Michaels’ 1995 arc of redemption all the same with a victory that does indeed help him put his famous ‘Mania X loss behind him. It’s less reliant on stunts as its WrestleMania X predecessor and instead dials up the psychology with a focus on Michaels’ leg; while this arguably makes it less exciting than its precursor – and creates an uncharacteristic opening for Michaels to ‘forget’ the injured knee when it suits – it sucks the crowd in as effectively as you might imagine and feeds into creating an image of Michaels as the fighting underdog hero. In that regard, it’s actually one of his most restrained and digestible performances.

Doc: When I was researching for The Greatest Matches and Rivalries of the WrestleMania Era, I studied this match intensely. My original memory from the mid-1990s of it being a fitting sequel to the ‘Mania X classic had been verified through repeated viewings last decade, but when tasked with scrutinizing it against its historical peers from 1995 and the Ladder Match genre, I felt it mightily struggled in both and execution and psychology. One more viewing with the critical microscope set to a higher power confirmed that modern thought, so I quite frankly no longer regard it that fondly. As we move forward, bear in mind that this match being so low also had a lot to do with the issues I personally found with it.

Nevertheless, I thought it was a great way to start this countdown. It certainly is an engaging performance that can be very well appreciated for just being a lot of fun and, though it may lack the spirit and the verve of the original Ladder Match between these two, its placement here speaks to a big picture point about the New Generation; that era gets dumped on far too often by WWE and its audience, when the fact of the matter is that the era produced a quality of in-ring performance that stands out significantly against almost all other eras in WWE lore – so, if we ranked what has generally been regarded as a borderline if not outright all-time classic here at the bottom of the list, what must that say about the next 49 matches to be discussed?

49. The British Bulldog vs. Shawn Michaels for the WWF Championship, In Your House: Beware of Dog

Doc: I can honestly say that WWE’s narrative about the disastrous IYH: Beware of Dog show that had to be done twice due to severe weather got the best of me when it came to this match. Because of what I had heard from the various parties involved in the company at the time, I had not watched this match between Michaels and Bulldog since my original viewing on Coliseum Home Video back in 1996. When ‘Plan recommended it for this list, it gave me an excuse to finally revisit it; and I’m glad that I did.

Ask many fans to name the Bulldog’s peak year as a performer and I’d bet that their knee-jerk reaction would be to say “1992” on account of the Wembley win, but as will be demonstrated over the next few weeks through this collaborative effort, Davey Boy Smith’s zenith was late 1995 to early 1997 (15 months instead of 12, indeed, but you’ll soon find out why). During that period, Bulldog thrived as a regular WWF Championship challenger, Tag Team Champion, and ultimately European Champion, consistently putting on display vastly underrated in-ring talent with a wide variety of notable names from the era.

Talk about athletes with superb chemistry from the New Generation and the list does not grow very long before we have to discuss Bulldog vs. Michaels, who in this particular performance had a nicely character-driven first chapter in their two pay-per-view run competing for the WWF Title.

‘Plan: One of the recurring themes of this series is going to be this idea of discovery and rediscovery, and that it’s already happening shows how prescient you can expect it to become. As Doc has already intimated, it applies not only to this match but also to the British Bulldog himself; and, perhaps fatefully, #49 is the perfect match that demonstrates why the latter is the case.

As powerful as Diesel, as athletic as Shawn Michaels and as technically sound as Bret Hart, the Bulldog was the New Generation’s ultimate ‘big bad,’ capable of viably threatening the title reign of any one member of the period’s holy trinity of stars. Michaels finds that out swiftly and repeatedly in this early title defence of his inaugural reign. This physical danger is coupled with a simple but effective storyline that attacks Michaels on a psychological front too, laying down accusations of impropriety on a champion (ironically) being promoted as a staunch defender of morality. Add an Owen Hart allowed at ringside because of a last-minute acquisition of a managerial license and you end up with the first of many New Generation precursors we’ll be discussing in this series: an early blueprint for the production design of The Rock vs. Triple H at Backlash 2000, but one that more than holds up its in-ring end of the bargain alongside the storyline twists.

Duelling pre-match interviews help generate a big fight feel, pre-match shenanigans instantly create the added drama of a truly beleaguered champion under siege from a stable of underhanded and resourceful villains and the match itself is a demonstration of breath-taking psychologically driven action unafraid to switch its pace rapidly from a slow grind to an explosive sprint and back again. If wear-down holds make you impatient then you might struggle through portions of this composition that rewards patience, but stick with it and you’ll find Bulldog to be a compelling antagonist, capable of outmatching a game champion on every front – at times, using his strength to toy with the Heartbreak Kid seemingly effortlessly.

This results in one of Michaels’ best underdog outings, a real grind that sees him call on all his guts and sinew, all his bodily and psychological endurance, only to scratch out a dubious conclusion to the Bulldog’s challenge.

48. Shawn Michaels vs. Hunter Hearst Helmsley, Monday Night Raw May 13th, 1996

‘Plan: 1996 saw a change in the general style of Monday Night Raw, as the squash matches that made up a good 75% of the show’s earlier years were gradually displaced with longer matches wrestled between the more prominent characters, in a manner more familiar to contemporary viewers today. This resulted in strong television matches when you least expected it. If I told you, for example, that Stone Cold Steve Austin and Bart Gunn of the Smoking Gunns wrestled a belter just a few weeks before #48 on our list, you might think me mad, but it’s true, they did!

The quality of what we have tipped as the forty-eighth best match in the New Generation’s history, however, should come as no surprise to anyone. Just shy of a decade later these same two men would go on to wrestle one of that Era’s most enduring feuds, but in 1996 their characters remained relative strangers to one another. What is clear through their chemistry together, however, is that the performers were far from that.

While the transparently obvious desire of the champion’s to go out of his way to make his friend look good in a manner he seemed rarely, if ever to do with other opponents might cause a bit of an eye-roll early on, disdain among even the most cynical shouldn’t last long. This evolves into an outstanding match, free of the stuffy self-importance their later work sometimes suffered from and even freer to express itself creatively between the ropes with a pair of frighteningly good performances.

It also happens to be a fascinating historical article. Happening before the infamous Madison Square Garden Curtain Call incident that saw Hunter Hearst Helmsley bear the brunt of the punishment, so the stories go, the Greenwich Snob here is afforded the opportunity to look like a genuine star as he takes the reigning World Heavyweight Champion to his absolute limits.

Doc: He really does look like he’s being groomed for the next step in his career, with taking the newly crowned WWF Champion who would go onto reign all the way until Survivor Series to his limit. I think most of us would tend to think of Triple H’s breakout performance coming a year later with Mick Foley in the summer of 1997, but this bout certainly could be said to have been a prelude to that and one of the primary reasons why he was valued so much to be heavily repushed once he had paid The Kliq’s debt. Young Hunter looked absolutely fantastic in this match, which was the type that in a year like 2018 would have been heralded by yours truly an instant contender for TV Match of the Year. There is one particularly impressive sequence toward the beginning of the climax that has to be seen to be fully appreciated (you will know it when you see it, trust me), and it reminded me so much of the flow that so well defined their classic Summerslam bout six years later (one of my all-time favorites).

Allow this match to serve as an early project reminder that, while I have studied the greatest matches of the New Generation from every which angle, it is Samuel ‘Plan who is the resident New Generation expert here. Now, I lived the New Gen in many ways, but I have never revisited the week-to-week TV product, truth be told, so I felt like this project stimulated my first mature viewing of this match, at ‘Plan’s recommendation. We did not discuss the reasoning behind his desire to see it make the cut beyond it just being a really good TV match between two of the all-time greats, but after one viewing I knew that it absolutely had to make the cut.

47. Razor Ramon vs. The 1-2-3 Kid, Monday Night Raw October 2nd, 1995

Doc: Seven months before the previous match, I was on fan hiatus, so I was just recently exposed to this entry by my co-author, and I certainly can greatly appreciate after having watched it why ‘Plan wanted it to make the Top 50. Hand to heart, I have never seen another match like this in thirty years of wrestling fandom. ‘Plan deserves the honors for describing its uniqueness, but let’s just say that this is the kind of innovation and risk-taking from a product that I best appreciate.

I’m just going to leave you with this quick thought: Kid and Razor obviously had some memorable performances that have gotten a lot of hindsight spotlight from WWE over the years. As such, I think that you would find other matches between them more exciting – at least more befitting of what people want from wrestling matches today. However, when you consider that what defined Razor vs. Kid was never an Owens vs. Zayn type mid-card epic – instead the appealing story of a smaller, faster wrestler who managed to one-up a cornerstone of the New Generation, ultimately earn his respect, and eventually betray him – that this match was more story-driven should not surprise or disappoint.

‘Plan: Entire chapters of the Ramon / Kid story have been lost to time despite the integral part it played throughout the New Generation Era and this particular example really stands as the beginning of the end of their friendship, thus making it necessary viewing.

The match plays out not unlike a minor Michaels / Diesel encounter (which Ramon and Kid’s long and complex history together mirrors in more than one respect), relying heavily on the size difference between the two and emphasising the speed vs. strength dynamic through relentless exacerbated visuals. Ramon’s offence launches Kid through the air like a rocket repeatedly, and Kid’s speed runs circles around the Bad Guy in return. Wonderfully, in spite of the tale of the tape, it leads to a competitive sense of stalemate that keeps the majority of the action engaging. Like with most of Ramon’s matches, it goes at a lightning pace, being sure to pack in as much content and intrigue it can in spite of its relatively limited run time.

The strength of the match itself is not the cause of my championing its making this list, though; rather, it was its unique concept that inverts what is today a well-trodden idea: the match is re-started multiple times at the behest of the loser, in spite of the losses being perfectly legitimate. Why? Well, because the Kid wants to prove a point and escape Ramon’s sometimes patronising shadow. This turn of events serves only to aggravate the tension between the two friends – Kid gets increasingly rebellious, Ramon increasingly angry, and their interaction begins to get more than a little hostile. By the time the story wraps up in a manner precognitive of, if a little more innocently minded than the type of Seth Rollins / Dean Ambrose interaction we saw in the summer of 2017, it has planted seeds for the near future, developed character in a perfectly logical way and done it all with fierce originality. It’s the New Gen’s bread and butter!

Finally, if you love a defiantly rebellious Daniel Bryan performance striving to prove a point, then you should find much to like about the 1-2-3 Kid’s spirited and unapologetic performance here.

46. Owen Hart and British Bulldog vs. Doug Furnas and Phillip LaFon for the WWF Tag Team Championships, Monday Night Raw February 3rd, 1997

‘Plan: When Doc made clear his desire to ensure at least one Owen Hart / British Bulldog tag match made our Top 50, I more than understood. Although their title reign never offered up a true pay-per-view classic, they were as excellent and talented a team in reality as they promise to be on paper. Make no mistake that, though true classics might be thin on the ground, what some might refer to as minor ‘four star’ affairs are plentiful – and this encounter with a team that quickly presented themselves as the most genuine threat to face the champions yet is just such a match. Its quality might not be as obvious as equivalent matches today, but don’t be fooled by its relative, quiet restraint: this a demonstration of flawless mastery.

Those New Generation habits are out in force again here. The match tells its own story, but is sure to allow that story to be at least in part informed by the bigger picture that is the character arc of the Hart / Bulldog team, in turn contributing to the continued development of the King of Hart’s individual character all at the same time. Elements of dissension between the champions emerge as the story develops, and not for the first time during the champs’ run, eventually facilitating the same jealousy and greed for the spotlight in Owen that once fuelled his turn on his own brother; here he is, three years later, seemingly one crowd pop away from doing the same to his brother-in-law.

As tag matches go, it sticks to the tried and tested formula, reflecting the more measured pace and purposed structure of latter day tag matches in WWE than the livelier, energetic creativity of that famous ’80s heyday, but that does little to stem enjoyment. So masterful is the execution at every turn that the bout’s seamlessness is sure to impress.

Doc: Much like the New Gen itself, Furnas and LaFon were a team that might not have seemed superlative on paper, but who made an impression once you took the time to really watch them. Some might recall from the series I co-wrote last summer that they were the final entry into the Top 100 Tag Teams of the WrestleMania Era, mainly because of the impression that they left when wrestling Bulldog and Owen, first in their debut at Survivor Series ’96 (in an Elimination tag) and then in a pair of matches, including this one, from early 1997. That this particular match doubled as perhaps the superlative Bulldog and Owen effort of the New Gen – being mindful that a few, perhaps better examples of their duo’s excellence were offered in the early days of Attitude – only amplified my desire to see it make the cut.

You could make an argument that Bulldog and Owen were the best tag team of the New Generation and what makes that argument strange is that they indeed were light on the caliber of in-ring performances that many of us have come to associate with such era-defining labels. To have had to actually think hard about which Bulldog and Owen tag team match to include here amidst a sea of good but not great options, I think, honestly exemplifies one of the gripes about the New Gen that I still believe to be a fair criticism – that it played host to the gradual deemphasis of tag team wrestling’s potential to add a great deal of quality to the product. Simultaneously, Bulldog and Owen vs. Furnas and LaFon served as proof for what value tag team wrestling will always have when given the spotlight.

If you are a fan of tag team wrestling, you will enjoy the heck of the fifteen minutes you spend watching (or rewatching) this match.

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QUESTION OF THE DAY: Compared to other WWE Eras such as Rock ‘n’ Wrestling, Attitude, Ruthless Aggression, Reality, and present day, how do you feel about the New Generation?

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