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.
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.
40. Owen Hart vs. 123 Kid, Monday Night Raw August 15th, 1994
‘Plan: When people think about Owen Hart and the 123 Kid, they more than likely immediately think about their relatively infamous King of the Ring encounter from earlier on in the same year as this televised run-in a few days out from Summerslam. Understandably so too, considering what the two men manage in just a short three minute run time. If you’ve ever wondered what they could do with one another when given considerably longer match time, however, look to this little known effort.
While it suffers from that now familiar New Gen trope of a disqualification finish that renders the end of their yarn somewhat anti-climactic, that fact shouldn’t be allowed to detract from the otherwise enthralling quality. Together, the Kid and the King of Harts craft an underdog story with an evolving narrative that, with another five minutes and a cleaner conclusion, might have come to rival the vaunted reputation of the Kid’s match with the Hitman – a match that, at this stage, was only a month old and that helps inform the subtext of Owen’s vicious pursuit of victory: he wants to prove, once again, he can do anything his brother can do, but better.
Vicious is an apt word to describe Owen’s performance as well. He’s a picture of poison as he assaults his smaller opponent relentlessly, and it is during that pursuit that we get a glimpse at Owen’s full range as an in-ring artist. From technical exchanges in the first instance, to brawling ground and pound, through to high flying both between and beyond the ropes all the way into submission wrestling at the match’s increasingly dramatic conclusion, Owen compliments his impressive offensive arsenal with a powerhouse performance selling the plucky Kid’s late-game opportunistic attacks on a suddenly injured knee.
For his part, the Kid backs up his showing against the older Hart brother a month before with another tremendous performance as the unlikely hero of the hour, withstanding an impressively lengthy barrage from his larger opponent and kicking out of more big moves than you genuinely might expect him too.
Put this match on a pay-per-view, give them a definitive conclusion that feels a little less like a rug pull and what you have, frankly, is an all-time great. As it is, while falling short of that status, it remains one of the finest television matches I’ve seen as a fan.
Doc: I don’t know about you, ladies and gentlemen, but when I see Owen Hart vs. 123 Kid on any list, I get pretty pumped about the forthcoming viewing experience. I got excited about it nearly twenty-five years ago when I watched King of the Ring ’94 for the first time on Coliseum Home Video – site of the aforementioned Owen-Kid tournament match that might be one of the finest sub-5-minute matches ever; and I got excited about it when prompted to check out this gem of a Monday Night Raw match.
To the fan who is getting his or her reason to give the New Generation a chance (or a second chance) via this column series, I would liken Owen vs. Kid then to seeing a match between Chris Jericho and Shelton Benjamin last decade or Kevin Owens vs. Neville more recently. It was a match between a very well-regarded worker and a unique talent with whom you could just feel in your bones he would have a great match; and that is what Kid vs. Owen was. The era dictated the finish, which was a relic from the 1980s that still had not been phased out yet; judge it against its peers from the first fifteen years of the WrestleMania Era and it is far more difficult to hold the disqualification-tarnished climax in the same light that would earn it that label today. Nevertheless, you will have so much fun watching it for its duration that the finish (and a bit of iffy execution) will hardly matter, especially now that you have been informed of it ahead of time.
39. Bret Hart vs. Bam Bam Bigelow, Tournament Finals, King of the Ring 1993
Doc: Bam Bam Bigelow was a very important star, in spurts, during the New Generation. His obvious peak with the WrestleMania XI main-event certainly elevates his position when discussing the greatest super-heavyweight wrestlers of all-time, but it was his matches with Bret that truly make his New Gen run remarkable and memorable. Bigelow had the ability to exit the confines of the traditional monster mode that Vince McMahon generally demanded of his big men, but he only rarely was afforded top end opportunities to showcase it; he, thus, feels like one of those talents, in hindsight, who had far more to offer in the ring than he ultimately produced in the WWF.
There is a better Bam Bam vs. Hitman match to be discussed later on in the countdown; this one makes the cut in part because Bigelow deserves a significant spotlight and in part because it exemplifies why the 1993 King of the Ring tournament should not be limited in your rewatches to the Semi-Final classic between Bret and Mr. Perfect. The entirety of that one night story from The Hitman is absolutely must-see.
By the time Bret had managed to cleverly pin both Razor Ramon and Perfect in his first two matches on the show, he was sporting a banged up knee and a significantly injured hand. As he stepped into the Finals against a well-rested Bigelow, who had been gifted a bye in the Semis, he was essentially outgunned across the board opposite the other-worldly Beast From The East. You might find it challenging to view it today and find Bret, coming off a lengthy WWF Championship reign and the WrestleMania IX main-event, to be an easy sell as a legitimate Cinderella, but if you will commit the time to the entire presentation, Hart unquestionably has no logical way to win by main-event bell time. If they did a win-probability score for wrestling, then The Hitman would have entered the match with maybe a 10% chance to earn the victory.
All on its own, Bigelow vs. Hart told a tremendous story. It was not a 50-50 match, mind you; it was total domination followed by a somewhat ironic (due to the ref who made the call) reversal of the original decision climaxed with a wonderfully emotive comeback. Just do yourself a favor, though, and watch the entire ’93 KOTR tournament.
‘Plan: The good Doc is spot on when he says the 1993 King of the Ring tournament should not be limited to the Semi Final between the Hitman and Mr Perfect in the popular consciousness of wrestling fans, and that the entire tournament is more than worth the time it would take you to re-watch it. Only in context will the truly exhausting final between Hart and Bigelow make sense for a lot of modern fans. While it undoubtedly tells a tremendous story in its own right, I believe modern tastes might see fans balk at the lopsided nature of the tale upon a first viewing.
That is, unless they have watched the preceding matches beforehand – and I would recommend doing it in one sitting for full effect. In context, Hart’s fatigue is palpable, leaving you feeling as spent as he seems to be on screen while one of the most athletic superheavyweights of all-time puts a beat down on the Hitman so comprehensive that it feels genuinely hopeless for the hero of the piece. For a more contemporary comparison, there are vibes here of Samoa Joe vs. Finn Bálor. Though the comebacks are far fewer than you might normally see in a Hart match, they become so much more exhilarating because of their scarcity and unlikelihood. It’s such an enthralling piece of work when considered and viewed as the final act of a three act play that it almost feels vicarious.
It’s also mandatory viewing for any New Generation Era retrospective, standing as the crowning achievement (no pun intended) of one of Hart’s finest evenings as a performer and a gateway into his feud with Jerry ‘The King’ Lawler that would last, in on again / off again fashion, for the duration of the entire Era.
38. Ric Flair vs. Mr Perfect in a Loser Leaves Town Match, Monday Night Raw January 25th, 1993
‘Plan: Arguably one of the most famous matches of the New Generation Era, this retro encounter between two former associates is a clear indicator of the change the company was about to commit wholeheartedly to, waving goodbye to the Nature Boy on the back end of what feels like, in comparison to the Era’s match style at its height, a terribly old fashioned piece of work.
That is not intended as a criticism. Ric Flair has never been a wrestler I have felt much of a connection with, but his skill set and ability to make crowds care in the oldest school way speaks for itself. This is no different. Beautifully, the two generally forego the more comic aspects of Flair’s ring game and opt for a more intense pathway through their story, and as the varied action builds and builds and builds to a frenzied climax it’s difficult, even as a fan without much love for Flair’s match style, not to get sucked in.
Happening on only the third ever episode of Monday Night Raw, it’s also worth noting that this was really the first true Raw classic of the Era, and the first of many. That ‘classic’ status is hard earned too, with both competitors putting in a shift throughout their fast paced, broiling and stressful composition to create something worthy of a WrestleMania stage, I dare say.
Indeed, I do sometimes wonder what WrestleMania IX would have looked like with this match semi-headlining underneath a Bret Hart / Randy Savage WWF Championship encounter….
Doc: One of the things that I love about The New Generation, as an era, is the number of major players who offered one of the defining, or at least one of the most underrated matches of their careers during its years, Perfect and Flair exemplifying the latter category in their “Loser Leaves Town” affair. I agree with ‘Plan; think of its reputation should it have taken place at WrestleMania IX. Naitch had such a flare for the big stages, which played hosts to his most legendary work of course. A Raw match that proved his swansong in WWE for a decade does not register when compared to what he achieved in the NWA/WCW or in the first quarter of 1992 for Vince and Co. Nevertheless, it was spiritedly wrestled and it had major stakes that would have fit quite nicely among his most acclaimed work had it taken place at a bigger event. I view it as the third most rewatchable performance of Flair’s WWF tenure from late ’91 to very early ’93; and I think that matters in the big picture.
Mr. Perfect used matches like this one sporadically in 1993 to solidify his legacy, which would honestly not appear intact had the back injury that forced him into retirement in 1991 not eased up long enough for a twilight run. ‘Plan hit the nail on the head; this was a very old school match, and Perfect fit well into the Flair routine during the brief time period that we got to see him work as a babyface. In classic “versus Nature Boy” form, he even bladed to make Flair’s dirty tactics that much more likely to allow for a cheap heel victory. Mark that down as the first time in Monday Night Raw history that a wrestler got some purposeful color; mark it down also as a hidden gem of The New Generation.
37. Bret Hart vs. Bob Backlund for the WWF Championship in a Submissions Match, Survivor Series 1994
Doc: This selection is one of the most unique that you will see on the countdown, and it is its uniqueness that makes it worthy of inclusion. What you have in the second most famous Submissions Match of the 1990s is a tale that I’m sure ‘Plan will appreciate for one of its strengths being the shared universe storytelling that he often extols the virtues of on The Right Side of the Pond and in his book; chief among the reasons for praising it, after all, is the performance of someone not even in the match itself, Owen Hart, who spends the final several minutes of the run-time as the star of the show, his character-acting on display exemplifying one of the most underrated aspects of his overall pro wrestling game. You know how in music, a song title will list the artist and then in parentheses, it will add “featuring” so and so? It would be appropriate to apply that tactic to this match; it should read “Bret Hart vs. Bob Backlund (featuring Owen Hart).”
“Dripping with story” is an appropriate way to describe the entirety. Owen’s antics stemming from his history with Bret are perhaps the most enduring aspect, but the angle between the principle combatants was quite engaging in 1994 as well, with Backlund intent on imposing his more traditional values on the New Gen (ironic given that Bret would try to do the same on Attitude). Backlund wanted back the WWF Title, which he had lost to Iron Sheik ten years earlier when a towel was controversially thrown into the ring on his behalf, signifying submission. That is where the roles played by Owen and The British Bulldog came from; they were given towels to throw into the ring to essentially determine when their guy had had enough. The psychology of this performance, from Bob, Bret, Owen, Davey Boy, the announcers, and both Stu and Helen Hart…to me, that is what makes it an essential part of New Gen lore.
As for the match between The Hitman and Backlund, it is one that I greatly appreciate for its commitment to the gimmick, focusing so heavily as it does on the entire point of the stipulation in its literal interpretation, which is to make your opponent give up in a submission hold (well, basically). Due to that commitment, the action is not particularly fluid, but so long as you prepare yourself for it, it’s really just part of the presentation’s charm. Backlund brought such an old school vibe to proceedings, watching as far more erratic than his silky smooth-moving counterpart, so he is a big part of the aesthetic difference in the viewing experience. Appreciate it for what it is instead of what you might like it to instead be and you will have a good time with it.
‘Plan: Ironically, considering the fact he’s not technically a participant in the contest, any Owen Hart fan should seek this one out as necessary viewing. Not only is it, as Doc wisely points out, a career best performance from the self-proclaimed King of Harts thanks to the manner in which he manipulates the entire championship scene to better suit his own spiteful ends, it’s a vitally important night for his character arc too. Make no mistake about it, Owen Hart was not supporting Bob Backlund’s vanity quest to regain a championship he claimed to have never lost. Instead the younger Hart sibling is present for the sole and single purpose of making his older brother’s life a misery. He succeeds.
The beauty of the entire story is its simple but profoundly effective duplicity. Owen’s apparent change of heart towards his brother is presented in such a straight-forward manner that never is there any doubt about the sincerity of his intentions. It’s important to understand that the manner in which Backlund’s Crossface Chicken-Wing submission finisher had been built up as the most dangerous move in the company over a period of months ahead of time plays heavily into fashioning that perception. Seeing the Hitman locked in the devastating hold for minutes on end might feel like an incongruity today, watching the match in isolation, but the reputation it had been gifted at the time combines with Owen’s own sub-plot to create a narrative that feels immersive, gut-wrenching and, quite possibly, the most emotive turn of events in the entire Bret vs. Owen feud.
The real tragedy behind all of this is that Owen Hart, through his own spiteful jealousy, turns his paranoia into a reality, eroding his own emotional ties with his parents because of his never-ending quest to destroy Bret’s life. In doing so, the very fantasy that birthed the entire rivalry – of Bret being the favoured son – more than likely becomes true because of Owen’s deplorable actions in this instance.
There’s also an important historical irony to take note of here. Bob Backlund’s quest to regain the title was compounded by what he believed to be the eroding morality of the generation that came after him; that is to say, the “WWF’s New Generation.” Bret, then, is that generation’s custodian. Five years later, though, and it is the Hitman finding himself in Backlund’s position, facing a Stone Cold Steve Austin opposite him. I guess the famous The Dark Knight quote really does ring true: you either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.
36. Shawn Michaels vs. Marty Jannetty for the Intercontinental Championship, Royal Rumble 1993
‘Plan: Earlier in this list I asked you to consider what WrestleMania IX might have looked like had Ric Flair and Mr Perfect wrestled their Loser Leaves Town Match on the big stage, underneath a headlining championship encounter between Bret Hart and Randy Savage. Well, here sits another match inside the vicinity of that year’s Showcase of Immortals that, had it have taken place in Caeser’s Palace, might have again helped guarantee that this alternate ‘Mania IX would have been an historic one.
The split itself had happened a year earlier, televised in January of 1992. Immediately following the infamous segment, Jannetty departed the company for some time until reappearing after Michaels had already won the Intercontinental Championship late that year. A fracas ensued that saw Michaels sacrifice his then-manager Sherri Martel, who ended up hospitalised when accidentally getting hit by Shawn’s mirror. Finally, the two former Rockers locked up for the white gold at the Rumble in a match one year in the making. If this sounds somewhat familiar, it might be because the success currently being enjoyed by Johnny Gargano and Tomasso Ciampa owes much to the design of the tag split of all splits!
It is because we never saw the most influential tag team split of all time culminate in a match at ‘Mania that means this Royal Rumble encounter is their highest profile match ever. It might not have the same reputation as their later Match of the Year tussle on Monday Night Raw, but if anything I’d argue there’s greater depth of story here. With the added intrigue of Sherri Martel’s allegiance, the sense of event surrounding this first high profile and official match between an iconic team of the now outgoing Era of WWE’s modern history and with the so-called ‘workhorse championship’ being up for grabs, there’s plenty in this one for any fan of either competitor to sink their teeth into. Its competitive, emotive and a sign of the shifting in-ring style that would go on to dominate the New Gen Era entirely.
Doc: The feud between Marty Jannetty and Shawn Michaels is one of the most noteworthy in WWE lore, especially when you consider the historical implications of the trend that emerged throughout the 2000s of a team almost always being destined to split up, with one assuming the role of the singles star that would optimize his potential (the Shawn) and the other wandering aimlessly about the mid-card (the Marty). Whether or not that assessment is fair is a topic for another day, but the fact that the narrative does indeed exist prominently as part of the fabric of WWE as we know it today adds an intangible quality to Michaels vs. Jannetty that boosts its profile, complimenting top notch matches throughout the first seven months of 1993.
‘Plan is conjuring up irritable feelings with all his talk of a revisionist history’s WrestleMania IX; in addition to Perfect vs. Flair and Savage vs. Hart, HBK vs. Marty could have been added to the equation to create a formidable trio of matches. Hindsight is 20/20, and Rumble lore has benefited from matches like this one forming an army of mid-card gems throughout the 31 years of the January Classic’s existence.
QUESTION OF THE DAY: If the eight top superstars of the New Generation were Bret, HBK, Taker, Diesel, Razor, Owen, Bulldog, and Yokozuna, how do you think that they can compare to the top eight (or so) superstars of more celebrated eras?