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.
30. The Undertaker vs. Mankind, King of the Ring 1996
‘Plan: Some time ago, Doc and I were involved in a podcast special on Lords of Pain Radio that looked back on the career of the iconic Phenom and his best matches, and when we were discussing that list of matches we came to a rather wilful disagreement: when did Undertaker start having good matches?
Many will maintain anything prior to the development of his library throughout the ‘Streak’ years of his latter-day full time career isn’t worth the effort. I vehemently disagree. Early work might not be as heavy on work rate but speaks of its own unique qualities in being bought by audiences facing a product that was universally getting faster at the same time the Dead Man was wrestling slower. Imbued with character and stage presence, his matches had a heft of substance if not all that much sizzle.
When Mankind first came along in 1996, however, that sizzle spat into violent life and this first pay-per-view encounter between the two proves as much. Modern fans will be absolutely shocked at how ahead of its time it is. In the context of its year, it was frightfully violent. In the context of 2018, it watches as unsettlingly contemporary. Not only does it have the same character weight as Undertaker’s earliest work, it piles on top of that a competitive match and a compelling in-ring brutality true to the unhinged and disturbing nature of the first iteration of the Mankind character.
There are step spots, spots to the outside and steel chair spots woven in among some eye-widening visuals – watch for the Undertaker’s opening salvo of rapid fire rights for example – coupled with some wink-wink foreshadowing in a finish that would see Paul Bearer’s interference ‘go wrong.’
It really is a remarkable piece of work that should solidly kill off any notion that Undertaker’s best work began only after a certain point in the 21st Century.
Doc: For my part in the aforementioned podcast discussion on the timeline of Taker’s best quality work, I am of the opinion that The Deadman wrestled a lot of good matches and just a few great ones in the first fifteen years of his career, a thought that while controversial to some really just speaks to my admiration for the shape he got himself into after he had already crossed the threshold of his fortieth birthday. Make no mistake about my opinion of the quality of this match against Mankind, however, the credit for which I mostly give to Mick Foley.
While I certainly do not wish to downplay what The Phenom brought to the table at King of the Ring ’96, Foley was the impetus for Taker opening up his previously rather lacking playbook and being more than just a shadow looming over the product, as he was for much of the first half decade of his career. Mankind made a statement in his first pay-per-view performance, drawing Taker into his brand of violent working developed in the early 1990s. Foley’s style combined quite well with the production quality and general formatting of the WWF and it made for many a marvelous display. I liken Foley’s move from WCW to ECW to eventually the WWF to an actor who finally gets to work with a top notch director; say what you will about the “WWE style,” but its greatest strength is its fluidity – the difference between having a bunch of materials and a picture of a house and having a step-by-step gameplan for how to build the house. In hindsight, I would take this Mankind vs. Taker match over everything Cactus Jack did in WCW and ECW.
In a perverse way, Foley’s penchant for violence found its ideal creators of blueprints in Vince McMahon and the WWF agents of the era; and, in that sense and others, the WWF was the best thing that ever happened to Foley. Mankind, meanwhile, was arguably the best thing that ever happened to Undertaker.
29. Shawn Michaels vs. The British Bulldog for the Intercontinental Championship, Saturday Night’s Main Event November 14th, 1992
Doc: If you have been a WWE fan for a long time, then you are no doubt aware by now of how often it tends to hyperbolize what it deems historic and that the narrative it has crafted of HBK being the greatest performer of the WrestleMania Era has been borderline shoved down our throats; when such a thing happens, it tends to aggravate people who do not like being told repeatedly to get on-board the historical hype train right into a new narrative about the historic item suddenly being “overrated.” Ladies and gentlemen, Shawn Michaels is not overrated; he is quite properly rated.
HBK did it all in his career, from blood-soaked wars to nifty-sequenced tag team classics to catch-as-catch-can masterpieces to modern epics to matches like this one against Davey Boy Smith, a mid-card gem for the IC Title with a lightning quick pace that would fit in very well with the best TV matches we see regularly today. Back in 1992, Michaels was still in his formative stages as a young singles star, channeling his Ric Flair fandom into a persona cut from the same cloth as the late-1970s Nature Boy but with an added in-ring athleticism that made the 60-Minute Man look only above average. He was such a good athlete that, had tope suicidas and springboards galore been the norm of the period, there would have been no doubt that HBK could pull them off better than anyone his size has since. Plus, he bumped better than anyone, a little more sensationally than his idol but with a little less added histrionics than Mr. Perfect. Needless to say that he was always destined to be highly memorable in some way, even if he had never made it as far as the main-event.
Many WWE Home Video productions have championed the career of HBK, but I would like for there to someday be a multi-volume compilation, with volume one solely dedicated to his mid-card exploits that someone with a piece of masking tape and a marker might label “watch this for pure, unadulterated fun.” HBK’s first Intercontinental Championship victory would surely make the cut.
‘Plan: My vehement disagreement with most of what Doc has just said put aside and saved for another day, I can say with little doubt that Shawn Michaels is deservedly a strong presence on this list already and will only serve to be more so as it continues to countdown. That this sleeper hit from 1992 made the cut among Heartbreak’s heavyweight collection of ring work has me smiling, because I think it’s a real shiner.
Some might argue that setting the starting point for the New Generation Era as early as the autumn of 1992 feels a little incongruous, but all it should take to convince otherwise is one look at the work the foremost name’s of that generation were doing in 1992’s closing months to win you over. Already having made a claim to a company top spot in Summerslam’s main event that year, this is a match that has British Bulldog firing on all cylinders as a convincing, likeable, fighting champion almost impossible to defeat – a hard reminder of Bulldog’s natural charisma as a performer. As already mentioned in previous entries, here you see his strength of Diesel, speed of Shawn and technical prowess of Bret on full display, and early on the challenger looks utterly outmatched by the champion’s overwhelming offensive onslaughts.
Forced to instead rely only on his resourcefulness and cunning, Michaels puts in a Wile E Coyote-like effort, chewing the scenery in a villainous performance characteristic of its verbose time. The story that results may be comparatively short to some of the epics on this list, but is no less compelling, as Michaels takes advantage of a back injured as a result of Bulldog’s own bullish approach to gain a shocking victory ready to head into Survivor Series against the Hitman that year in another of their many classics.
28. Diesel vs. The Undertaker, WrestleMania XII
‘Plan: I have recently been watching through the build to WrestleMania XII as part of my research for my next book, and in doing so have come to a new historical theory: it was the first ‘Road to WrestleMania’ to resemble what we now know that term to be today. Diesel and Undertaker’s feud was at the forefront of that finally fully-formed method.
Beginning in December of 1995 when both men made silent indications at In Your House: Season’s Beatings that they had their eyes set on the gold, Undertaker’s feud with Diesel opened the gates to the humanisation of the Dead Man character, allowing him to do more on a microphone and in the ring than fans had ever seen before. The story that emerged, as Diesel pushed Undertaker beyond his normal limits, was a bitter one, laced with antics that closely resembled the Attitude Era still, at the time, gestating underneath the surface. If I were to disagree with Doc about Mankind being the best thing to ever happen to Undertaker (and it would be difficult to do so, I hasten to add), it would be to simply claim Diesel was instead. Their feud was considerably less extensive, but an important proving ground to demonstrate that there was more to the Phenom than the compelling attraction fans were already familiar with.
This was a forward-thinking, ground-breaking rivalry on a multitude of levels, then. It began the humanisation of Undertaker, evidenced early signs of the Attitude Era and resembled what we would now define as a quintessential contemporary WrestleMania feud. On top of that, Diesel busied himself as a dude with a bad attitude throughout, predicting what the likes of Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock would later take to the extreme, and the match Big Daddy Cool had with the Phenom on the Grandest Stage itself really looks, watches and feels like the first true ‘Streak Match’ in the latter’s vaunted WrestleMania history. It’s real under-appreciated classic.
Doc: I think it is worth mentioning that ‘Plan had this ranked 22nd on his original list, amplifying how highly he thinks of it. For the record, I think highly of it too; in fact, I think of it as one of the best big man battles of the 1990s. Taker had been the Andre the Giant of the post-Hulkamania Era in the WWF and Diesel was one of the chosen few asked to be Vince McMahon’s next Hogan-type star via a year long title reign that ended mere weeks before Big Daddy Cool and The Deadman first prominently interacted with one another. It has always been challenging for the Chairman to keep talents of that stature away from each other for long, but it just kind of worked out that way in late 1995/early 1996 for Taker and Diesel; and we got a real gem out of it.
Commonly, it is suggested that Diesel’s best performances were against Bret Hart and HBK, but I strongly suggest you not forget about this one against Taker. His personality made the match more than just a battle of brutes, his cocky heel-ish attitude jumping off the screen, particularly in the latter stages of the run-time when it became clear that he felt the win was in the proverbial bag. The Phenom was months away from the more overt transformation his character would experience throughout the Mankind feud, but he played his role well here, taking a convincing beating that certainly made anyone conditioned to assume he would overcome the odds think twice about it when Diesel was towering over his prone body.
Bottom line: if you struggle to name five better big man matches from that decade, I think you owe this one a rewatch; you should probably give it a rewatch regardless.
27. Bret Hart vs. Razor Ramon for the WWF Championship, Royal Rumble 1993
Doc: Speaking of under-appreciated classics, Bret vs. Razor from the ’93 Rumble certainly fits the bill, a statement that I actually think is somewhat surprising to a degree. The Royal Rumble has become well known for matches of this caliber, Hart is widely considered one of the greatest performers ever, and Razor is regarded as one of the top talents never to win the World Title. How has this match not developed a more pristine reputation in hindsight? Why does it strike me as more of a “hipster” classic instead of at least a borderline outright classic? I find it easier to comprehend a match involving Diesel, not exactly known for his 4-star resume, at an event like In Your House finding itself in the under-valued lot. Simply odd to me…
That said, I hung the qualifier “to a degree” on my opening comment because it took this one years to win me over fully. Hart and Ramon wrestled a smart, creative match, but it lacked the near fall-heavy content that fans often crave; there is no huge kick out after a Razor’s Edge, for instance, deriving its drama, as it did, from less overtly theatrical tricks. My appreciation for matches like this has matured over the past decade, so I suggest going into it if you have not seen it before or in a very long time with tempered expectations, allowing the performance a blank canvas in order to best appreciate its storytelling strengths.
Personally, this has become my favorite match of Bret Hart’s initial title run and one of my favorite Rumble undercard bouts, a reputation it has earned through repeated viewings in more recent years, in the case of the latter compliment amidst a slew of Royal Rumble historical evaluations for various column-related projects.
‘Plan: A lot of what Doc has written about this tremendous title bout rings true for the entire New Generation Era and its in-ring style. There’s a reason I bleed such passion for this maligned period, and it is largely because of the mature, far more realistic storytelling found in the ring than a lot of what we see today. These are matches that didn’t need to lay the histrionics on as thick as their 2018 counterparts do, which speaks to the immense collection of talent the generation’s roster boasted; as well as, to some degree, the more willing mindset of the fan base at the time.
It is because such charming traits are often lost on fans of a more modern (or is that post-modern?) taste that I find it far from surprising Ramon’s 1993 World title challenge goes under-appreciated, in spite of being indicative of so many of the Era’s defining characteristics – foremost among them, the New Gen’s outstanding run of Rumble cards in its first half. It’s a cerebral match, cleverly put together and built on the kind of subtleties that often made the Hitman’s work in particular so compelling to me, and so re-watchable.
It is the one trait least talked about – in both critiques of the match and in the match’s story itself – that I love the most, though. It was during the build to this ferociously competitive encounter that the Bad Guy attacked Bret Hart’s then babyface younger brother Owen to get inside the mind of the champion. It’s a small touch, but one that can be easily fed, in any fan’s own canon, into the Era-defining Hart vs. Hart rivalry, providing the humiliated Owen his first embittered reason to resent the brother whose war claimed him as collateral damage.
The match itself is more than deserving of your time and attention, reminiscent, in fact, of the kind of matches my all-time favourite Seth Rollins has been putting on recently as Intercontinental Champion (if not quite as good!). Does it have an extra gear it struggles to meet? Quite possibly, but its inadvertent contribution as prologue to Owen Hart’s character arc is more than enough to make up for that.
26. Bret Hart vs. Hakushi, Monday Night Raw July 24th, 1995
‘Plan: Favoured on this list over their slightly more renowned In Your House tussle – the first ever match on an In Your House pay-per-view, in fact – the rematch between the Hitman and the tattooed peril of Far East Asia is arguably the superior effort. That shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, either. Not only did the two now enter the ring knowing a little more of one another and their chemistry together – which shows through the impeccable timing and velvet-smooth action – but the feud itself burned hotter and more aggressively than before.
Brought in to do the dirty work of perennial Hart rival Jerry ‘The King’ Lawler, Hakushi found himself defeated at the hands of the Hitman at In Your House, only to gain revenge by costing Hart his later match with Lawler himself. The resultant embarrassment, made worse by Hart’s dedicating his Lawler match to his mother on Mother’s Day, lit a rebellious fire in the Hitman that ramped up the aggression he had adopted since losing the World Championship to Bob Backlund at the end of 1994 all the more, Hart even beginning to act not entirely unlike the anti-heroes in the future’s near distance on Monday Night Raw (MNR).
This, then, is a story of revenge, and it is intoned as such. Whether it’s Hakushi’s gruesome display of a severed mannequin head resembling the visage of the Excellence of Execution, the clinical dissection of the Hitman’s spine, Lawler’s smugly sadistic commentary track, the snarling aesthetic or competitive pace, this is a match that broils with intensity and quite possibly deserved a bigger stage on pay-per-view, all things considered. Its only real downside is its brevity – an aspect I usually applaud matches for, but one that, in this instance, makes their entrancing work with one another feel disappointingly curtailed.
Doc: If I’m not mistaken, Bret himself prefers this match to the one on pay-per-view on account of it being a little more wide-open thanks to the lack of another match later in the night for Hart to wrestle and the absence of the consequent fear from Vince McMahon that an injury to his durable work-horse might have tarnished the marquee next chapter in the Hitman-King rivalry at the very first In Your House.
There is not a wrong choice between the pair of Hakushi-Hart matches, though. In my new book, I wrote a quick tribute to their feud in the Honorable Mention section that concluded with this little blurb: “Hakushi, a heavily-tattooed Japanese wrestler known for his combination of striking and risk-taking, introduced a move-set unique to most WWF fans, offering Bret an opportunity to show what he could do against a more dominant high-flier.” I think that pretty adequately captures the ingenuity on display when they stepped in the ring together; so, if you are at all a fan of the work that Bret was prone to perform against a plethora of stylistically diverse talents, then you will love watching or rewatching his matches against Hakushi.
QUESTION OF THE DAY: True or False – Compared to other eras, the WWF New Generation played host to the best crop of big men in modern WWE history.