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.
35. Bret Hart vs. Bam Bam Bigelow, WWF World Tour, Barcelona, Spain, April 24th, 1993
Doc: Though, as mentioned previously, I love the King of the Ring ’93 Final between these two, it is not the type of match that you can sit down to watch and fully appreciate without the context established by the entire tournament. Conversely, this hidden gem found on Bret’s 2005 DVD set was, aesthetically, everything you could ever want from a wrestling match that you sat down to watch knowing that context was largely an unnecessary component of your viewing experience. It is a fabulous performance that takes full advantage of Bigelow’s once-in-a-generation abilities as a big man, making clear why there are some pundits who consider him every bit the talented super-heavyweight that Vader showed himself to be (particularly in WCW). The pace is not hindered in any way by the inherent need to continue a night-long story, so a fan today could cue it up and have a blast for the next fifteen minutes watching a simple tale of David vs. Goliath.
Make no mistake, I love watching The Hitman get the chance to open his playbook and tell a more deeply-affecting story, but my preference is to see him figure out the most compelling way to put his opponent’s strengths to use. Bam Bam had many strengths, so watching him combine with Bret in what was essentially an exhibition that allowed Bigelow’s upper levels of in-ring achievement to be reached was a joy. The absence of a major setting and stakes holds the overall performance back from climbing the list, but it would have been criminal to leave it on the proverbial cutting room floor.
‘Plan: Liquidity is definitely the name of this game played by Hart and Bigelow. The way they work with one another watches as, frankly, impossibly fluid, with every exhilarating exchange of theirs, being realistic in spite of its choreography, seemingly coming as easy to the two of them as breathing. To call it effortless seems almost misrepresentative considering that this is a curiously evenly-matched story told between two vastly different competitors, but as far as their performance in executing that story goes, effortless is about the best word I can think to ascribe.
It’s a more fiercely competitive effort from the Hitman in this instance, far removed from the comprehensive pasting he takes in the King of the Ring final of that very same year – indeed, it may very well have been matches like this one that prompted the then-WWF to pair Bigelow with Hart in that final. For as good as Bigelow was, he looked even better when wrestling Hart. Even Bigelow himself as admitted as such, and it perhaps the joyous zeal of their opportunity to work with one another that makes this hidden gem a really exciting match to revisit.
While Doc mentions its lack of stakes, don’t be put off by them. At his best the Hitman made any match – stakes or not – feel like life or death and this is a showing of the Hitman at his best. What’s more, regarding its role on this list, please don’t consider it just a random match picked from a DVD set; it’s representative, really, of a far more pertinent issue that dogs the New Generation Era and its unfair representation in history: its tendency to pull out a hell of a wrestling match when you least expected it.
34. The Royal Rumble Match, Royal Rumble 1994
‘Plan: This one is a real personal favourite of mine. Rumble lore is something of a specialist subject for me, so to combine it with my favourite Era in WWE’s history is liable to see an affectionate response from me but there’s a reason, quite beyond its placement in history, that I chose this particular iteration of the Rumble Match as one of the entries in my book 101 WWE Matches To See Before You Die. As I write in my book (available to buy on Amazon), this really watches as a ‘How To’ of Royal Rumble matches, using the majority of the Rumble’s most common, most effective tropes.
If you want an underdog hero, you have it in the injured Bret Hart. If you want an action hero, you have it in the fiery Lex Luger. There are instances of partner vs. partner, unholy alliances, red hot entrances, superheavyweight showdowns, betrayals and an absolutely phenomenal version of the Final Four you’re likely to see. It has, to my mind, still the most effective big man ‘push run’ in a Rumble match when the still new Diesel goes on a tear in the first quarter. Iron man performances are put in effortlessly by a myriad of stars, from Shawn Michaels to Bam Bam Bigelow, and there’s even a little marked man intrigue in the form of Mr Fuji’s hired hitters – Tenryu and Great Kabuki – targeting former Yokozuna rival Lex Luger.
One element of the event most people don’t realise either is that Luger’s entire entry in the Rumble was based upon a campaign that saw fans encouraged to ring in and ‘pressure’ President Jack Tunney to give Luger a second chance following on from his loss at Summerslam the summer before, in a match that stipulated a loss for Luger would forever deny him a title opportunity. This, along with the much derided ‘Lex Express’ campaign, are fascinating blueprints for what today would be an effective deployment of social media as a storytelling tool.
This subplot, coupled with the unique and innovative conclusion that never gets spoken about because of its place within the shadow of 1995’s more famous conclusion, cap off the ’94 Rumble’s exhaustive demonstration of Royal Rumble tropes with more than just a little innovation too.
Doc: In case there is someone out there who is of the mindset that two writers who hold the Royal Rumble Match in high regard felt like they needed to put a Rumble in the mix for their New Gen series, allow me to put that issue to rest. Had Rumble ’94 merely been the best January Classic reverse Battle Royal of the era, it would not have made the cut, but it is instead an underrated gem that exemplifies the under-appreciated nature of its unheralded time period.
Featuring all of the superlatives mentioned by ‘Plan above, I would like to add that the ’94 Rumble was the third most readily rewatchable version of its decade behind the blueprint for the genre in 1990 and the famous 1992 edition that many claim is one of the greatest matches ever. In modern times, we heavily celebrate innovation like the Hart-Luger double-winner (which was produced and executed wonderfully, by the way) and we search for the origin points when wrestlers “arrive” like Diesel did in the first half of Rumble ’94, making their presence at the upper echelon level obvious enough for us to begin prognosticating about it. The star-power, meanwhile, is not considerably grander than its peers from the New Gen Rumbles, but it is noticeable enough (especially if you consider the totalities of the resumes historically) to make the entirety of the performance a lot easier to sit through.
Overall, I think it absolutely deserves your attention, either for the first time or again.
33. Bret Hart and Owen Hart vs. The Quebecers for the WWF Tag Team Championships, Royal Rumble 1994
Doc: Though I will leave it to ‘Plan to extol the virtues of this match and its place in the pantheon of tag team matches of WWE lore, I would like to focus on the significance of it within the over-arching story between the brothers Hart.
I find it fascinating to reflect back on the Bret vs. Owen rivalry for many reasons, but one of them is because I think that, had this feud happened today, we might have seen Owen become the protagonist no matter how good Bret was at making sure that, during the New Gen, his little brother remained very much the heel. As you mature in your life, your fandom matures, and you start to be able to relate to the characters you watched in real time twenty-five years ago in a different way now than you did then. Owen was an under-utilized lower mid-card talent until getting the chance to compete with his brothers at Survivor Series ’93 and, as he was making the most of his opportunity, there came Bret on the apron to collide with him – albeit inadvertently – and dash his rare moment in the spotlight. When Owen was given another shot at Rumble ’94, he framed it in the weeks leading up to the January Classic as the biggest night of his life…and Bret went for the Sharpshooter during the climax of the match instead of tagging Owen.
So, you see, Owen kicking “Bret’s leg right out of his leg” was just as important if not more so to this match making the best of New Gen list because it was such a key part of one of the greatest stories ever told on the 20’x20’ canvas. It just so happens that, in hindsight, it has become easy to see Bret as selfish and Owen’s actions being a direct reaction to years of frustration that culminated in two very high profile missed opportunities thanks to his brother’s actions. Either side is relatable, and to me that is what makes for the best stories in professional wrestling.
‘Plan: Doc and I both have different priorities when it comes to our tag wrestling – where Doc has previously told me his priority is to find tag wrestling jam-packed full of exhilarating action, I prefer as strong a story as I strive to find in any singles match. In the case of this excellent and intensely bespoke tag effort, you get just that: story, and lots of it.
Essentially a perversion of the quintessential tag team match – a face in peril routine without the usual hot tag – not only is it a creatively brave piece of work but it piles on the subtext heavily. That Owen Hart had a point in his version of events has become the counter-cultural interpretation of this infamous classic, but it’s important to recognise that the morality is murky on both sides. Yes, the Hitman perhaps should have tagged his younger brother in, but many miss the fact that it is only because of Owen’s pursuit of double-teaming that sets Bret at his fatal disadvantage in the first place. Be it irritation or anxiety over comparative inexperience, there is a logic behind Bret’s decision, as there was behind Owen’s.
This combination of three-dimensional, fully realised fiction and daring imagination makes for one of the greatest tag matches not just of the New Generation Era, but to my mind of any Era in WWE’s modern history. I admire matches that strive to break ground, and this composition – that had its role in a larger story at the forefront of its mind, but never at the expense of crafting an exciting present – is a prime example of a match that does just that. Its spot on this list is well deserved, both from its historical perspective but equally because of its individual achievement too.
32. Bret Hart vs. Jean-Pierre Lafitte, In Your House 3: Triple Header
‘Plan: Jean-Pierre Lafitte is an excellent example of the central issue surrounding the New Generation Era, and the myths surrounding it. Many will think of Lafitte – if they think of him at all – as a pirate. His character was rooted in the notion that his famous piratical ancestors entitled him to pillage whatever he wanted from the other characters on the roster, which in turn catalysed his pinching the Hitman’s jacket. Corny, right?
The premise might be a hard sell on paper, but it proved anything but for two very talented performers who took the most wafer-thin writing and turned it into compelling television – a core talent of the New Gen roster that facilitates its hidden qualities so markedly. Watch the Hitman’s interview immediately prior to their encounter, where he contextualises his jacket as being more than just a garment due to his mother’s gifting it to him in years past, and you’ll get a sense of the personal animosity sitting at the heart of their encounter.
If that doesn’t convince you, the match itself should rightly do so, and in short order. It’s wrestled with urgency as the pace ramps up steadily from the opening bell right through to its conclusion, seasoned with the ferocious physicality that watermarked the essential change in the company’s product that year. It is because of the match’s over-achievements, in fact, that it becomes ‘required reading’ for anyone in need of reminding that a match can define the stakes as much as the stakes can the match.
So don’t let its paper premise or curious cast fool you into giving this one a miss. It’s as perfect an undercard grudge match as you could hope to find.
Doc: So much of New Gen lore has been dumbed down to poor financial figures and silly gimmicks, but there is always another side of the coin. One of the things that I love about that era is how readily a top star like Bret, who main-evented WrestleMania three times from 1993 to 1996, would drop back and wrestle on pay-per-view a talent seemingly nowhere near his level. Lafitte, one half of the Quebecers before donning the pirate’s eye-patch, was a solid wrestler with a pretty low ceiling, but that did not stop him in the New Gen from getting an opportunity and using it to produce his claim to singles wrestling fame; he wrestled like his life depended on his performance, with nothing held back and presumably the vast majority of his arsenal expended (and he was an agile heavyweight pulling off cruiserweight moves here, mind you).
I always admired Bret’s willingness to adapt his style to fit his opponent’s strengths, as evidenced by matches like this one against Lafitte, but I also admire the New Gen’s tendency to let matches like this happen in the first place. The Hitman was two months away from regaining the WWF Championship that he would carry into the Ironman Match at WrestleMania XII, yet there he was, being deployed by Vince and Co. to have a 17-minute show-stealer with a pirate character; some may frown upon that, but a 4-star caliber match is a 4-star caliber match, regardless of a participant’s gimmick perhaps being tough to take seriously.
31. Shawn Michaels vs. Diesel for the WWF Championship, WrestleMania XI
Doc: We have quietly moved into a phase of the countdown featuring matches that ‘Plan and I agreed on from the outset as quintessential New Gen must-sees. In total, there were thirty-three common matches on our individual lists to begin the process that culminated in this column series. If our respective rankings for Diesel vs. HBK at Mania are any indication, then perhaps the semi-main that backed up Bam Bam vs. LT in 1995 could be well described as a performance that absolutely meant something to the era in which it took place, but by no means was a defining example of what made the era underratedly great.
Personally, I find it challenging to contextualize Diesel vs. HBK. It is a very good, but not great match; it feels upon rewatch equal parts historic and experimental, in the sense that neither Michaels nor Diesel are fully realized as headlining personas at that point; there is a sense of occasion with the added pomp and circumstance of celebrity involvement, but that celebrity involvement then and now still comes across to me as a company trying to force something spectacular on a match that could have used the old school treatment; and its most (in)famous element is the Diesel kick out of Sweet Chin Music at the paltry count of one, which emphasized Vince McMahon sticking to an ideal that no longer had a definitive place in the business and that simultaneously harmed both combatants.
All of the above having been stated, there is an unmistakable charm to any Diesel vs. HBK match and, while their Mania XI title bout does not excel in the way that their April 1996 match would when the character dynamics were reversed, it does indeed manage to excel in certain ways. Maybe, then, the best way to contextualize it is as a match to be viewed as part of the progression of the iconic Dudes with Attitudes that each left an indelible mark on the 1990s professional wrestling scene.
‘Plan: There is a fatalism about it too, an almost fable-like quality that warns to be careful what you wish for because you just might get it. Certainly that’s a notion that should carry weight with today’s fan base.
Infamously, Shawn Michaels would ‘go into business for himself’ during this particular match, at least as fan folklore would have it, in a bid to demonstrate to the powers that be he had what it took to be ‘the Guy.’ We now know, thanks to podcast content, that Vince McMahon was adamant at the time Michaels would never be his champion. It was through this ‘Mania XI event that Michaels got what he wished for – winning over the opinion of McMahon – but also what, again as legend would have it, he least wanted: a mandated babyface turn to get there. The resultant run of his right through until 1997 felt forced and insincere from day one. Be careful what you wish for, indeed.
It is worth emphasising my colleague’s point though: this may not be an Era-defining slice of excellence but it is by no means at the bottom of the pack of those World title WrestleMania wars. The pace behind its opening fracas, the incredible aesthetic marked by the marriage of Michaels’ speed and Diesel’s size and the obvious relish both friends have to maximise their opportunity make it a very enjoyable watch. It has its creative errors – not least of all the aforementioned false finish off the Sweet Chin Music highlighted by Doc – but as a piece of storytelling it is worthy of its placement in this list.
Beyond its creative merits though is that fatalism we have both touched upon. This is a match that informed so much of what would follow over the next two to three years that it’s hard not to see it as a historical flashpoint and, if for no other reason, that makes it, if not a fun watch to the hardest of critics, a necessary one nonetheless. It’s a quiet moment in history, but a weighty one.
QUESTION OF THE DAY: In the New Gen as we have defined it – post-Summerslam ’92 to pre-WrestleMania 13 – who do you (or did you) favor: Shawn Michaels or Bret Hart?
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