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.
25. Razor Ramon vs. Jeff Jarrett for the Intercontinental Championship, Royal Rumble 1995
Doc: The period that encapsulates The New Generation as we have defined it included five Royal Rumble pay-per-views; three of Razor Ramon’s matches from those five Rumble PPVs have made this list. ‘Plan and I ranked this one exactly one spot apart on our initial lists, and we are unified in our stance that this is one of the top performances of this era that nobody talks about.
I was a bit saddened to read a lot of the negative comments about Double J’s Hall of Fame induction earlier this year. Not only was he one of the first wrestlers that I ever claimed as a favorite as a kid growing up watching him wrestle in his father’s USWA promotion (against a young Steve Austin, mind you), but he was an unquestionable success story in the 1990s, his reputation in WWE lore built on matches like this one against Razor. He was a middle-class Ric Flair, a sound technician who could bump like a champ and set his pace to meet any wrestler of any grappling persuasion in their sweet spots, combining with them to produce some of the best matches on the next (just below the very best) tier of their respective resumes. Hopefully, his detractors can at least appreciate Jarrett’s contributions to the New Gen, his run of IC Title bouts in 1995 especially.
As far as mid-card matches from the entire 1990s go, there are few I would choose ahead of this one if I had twenty minutes to kill. Razor and Double J had great chemistry and they told a story at the Rumble that I thought amplified The Bad Guy’s babyface bonafides as much as any other match that Ramon ever wrestled for the WWF. It mixed a tendency to play on the assumption that Jarrett could not hang with Razor with bursts of assumption-challenging Double J tactics before ultimately delivering a quite surprising finish that made fans want to see Ramon as champion as bad then as ever before.
‘Plan: The New Generation Era was nothing if not curiously precognitive of ideas, characters and concepts that would later spring into more rounded life in other Eras, and among that pantheon of blueprint-like predictions is the New Gen version of Double J. From the very beginning, when he was introduced to the company in 1994, Jeff Jarrett was a character who wore his intentions on his sleeve – he was there to use the World Wrestling Federation as a stepping stone to fame and fortune in the country music business. Many might write that off as a silly notion. It should sound familiar, though, being as it was the foundation on which the immortal Hollywood Rock persona of 2003 was so effectively built. Here Double J was, doing the same thing almost ten years ahead of time.
That’s quite something when you sit down and think about it, and an example of the charm the New Gen Era carries. Equally charming is the Era’s run of Rumbles, about which Doc and I have already gushed repeatedly through the course of these columns. That praise is well-deserved, though, and among the collection 1995 stands as a personal favourite. It might not have the best Rumble Match when it is watched in isolation, or a card that might entice you on paper, but watched end to end you get a thematically cohesive show grounded, with one notable Undertaker-shaped exception, in the basic tenant of sporting competition.
The unlikely Tag Team Championship Match tells a hard fought underdog story, the Royal Rumble Match watches as a high octane sprint towards the level of ferocious competition at the time occupied exclusively by Bret Hart and Diesel and those same two men fight in a riotous, explosively violent and expansive World title bout that speaks to the elite level of competitive capability required to be at the top of the WWF mountain.
That picture is completed with this curtain-jerking Intercontinental Championship Match, which, with Jarrett’s characteristic manipulations adding a little in the way of extra creativity and intrigue, watches as a suitable second tier of competition to the same night’s WWF Championship Match. In isolation it’s good fun, but I highly recommend visiting it in context with the rest of the pay-per-view to get a true sense of how tonally precise it really is.
24. Shawn Michaels vs. Owen Hart, In Your House 6: Rage in the Cage
‘Plan: We move from a precognitive character to the introduction of an entire strain of abstract genre match in the form of this oft ignored composition in company lore. Perhaps the highest profile singles match wrestled between the venerated likes of Shawn Michaels and Owen Hart, it’s important to understand this was a match in which Michaels’ pending shot at the WWF Champion at WrestleMania was on the line, after Hart’s manager Jim Cornette had successfully goaded a Michaels still recovering from career-threatening concussion issues into putting his title shot up for grabs.
Think about how many similar matches we’ve witnessed in the months of February and / or March since 1996 and you should get a sense of just how historic a match this then is. It might not have been earth shattering, and indeed I would find it a fair criticism if you were to tell me it lacks the verve and urgent jeopardy its storyline would seem to demand, but make no mistake: this opened the gateway to what has become a Road to WrestleMania staple ever since, and you’d be hard pressed to find many examples of the same idea as expertly pieced together as this one.
It is perhaps marred somewhat by the woefully mistaken intonation of the Shawn Michaels babyface push of the time. Think about the Roman Reigns experiment, dial it up to 11 and inject a hefty dose of irritating smug and you’re about halfway to the presentation of Michaels’ babyface run; it’s little wonder, frankly, fans rejected it. That aside, though, it is as athletic and precisely executed as you can imagine, and for 1996 was liable to stand out from an already strong pack as a relatively unique match that marries the characteristic high flying of Michaels (as well as a little from Hart) with a more tangible sense of risk than is otherwise normal. In fact, the way the match plays self-consciously on the idea of a concussion might have you thinking about the minimalist masterpiece of Dolph Ziggler vs. Alberto Del Rio from Payback 2013.
Doc: What got Michaels over as a babyface back then is the same thing that got over a lot of smaller, faster wrestlers throughout the WrestleMania Era – simply put, that he was out-performing just about everyone. I mentioned in an earlier entry his athleticism, which was second to none and allowed him to take what Ric Flair had done so successfully in his prime in an even more athletic direction, and what I have always found so interesting about this match with Owen Hart is that The Rocket was about as close to an athletic equal that HBK worked with in the New Generation. There have been a few simultaneous kip-up sequences in high profile situations (Rock-Brock comes to mind), but this match featured the first ever instance of it that I personally saw. Have you ever tried a kip-up? It’s not exactly easy, so I have always regarded it as the mark of an elite athlete; and this match, while everything ‘Plan said it was, also was a battle of world class athletes.
It was not an outward display of other-worldly athleticism, mind you, but there were certainly occasions when, as a viewer, you were left with little doubt who the best-rounded stars in the game were at the time. A four-star effort to be sure, it culminated one heck of an engaging feud that sucked a young Doc back into professional wrestling to see Michaels make his way through the Hart brothers en route to fulfilling the “boyhood dream.”
23. Shawn Michaels vs. Bret Hart for the WWF Championship, Survivor Series 1992
Doc: If you agree to label the New Generation as a period in WWE lore that began in August 1992, then you can see how quickly the two icons perhaps associated with the era most stake their claims to being the cornerstones of the post-Hulkamania shift. Bret Hart, of course, won the WWF Championship in September from Ric Flair, so Survivor Series was the first opportunity that he had to draw as the top star in the industry. Shawn Michaels, in a match covered recently, subsequently won the Intercontinental Championship from Davey Boy Smith right before the Autumn Classic, setting up this champion vs. champion match.
Personally, I do not regard it as a classic so much as I view it as a necessary viewing experience for a fan familiarizing his/herself with WWE circa the period in which Hogan, Savage, and Warrior’s roles were being diminished. The match itself was very good, but I felt it was pretty obvious that Hart and Michaels were in their formative stages as headlining acts. It watches like a very competent outing from two guys who had never been before in quite the same role as each was playing that night; frankly, it was probably a little much to ask two rookie main-eventers to create something in the ring out of virtually nothing but a quieter tag team rivalry two years prior in the extremely short build-up on television.
‘Plan, as I recall from a different project, loves this match, whereas I like it and absolutely think you should watch it due to my general stance in life that you will better appreciate where something goes once you have seen where it came from; it would be a worthwhile exercise to take an afternoon to watch this, and then go and watch their 5-star classics from 1997.
‘Plan: Doc recalls correctly. I do love this match, as I love all Bret Hart vs. Shawn Michaels matches, and I disagree with his opinion of it not being classic. As a matter of fact, I consider it primarily an alternative version of another classic that is kinder to the tastes of more modern fans. By that I mean that this first pay-per-view main event of its Era (how fitting is that, that it would be Hart vs. Michaels in that spot?) is a leaner, more up-tempo if a little less expert version of their monolithic and considerably more famous 60 Minute Iron Man Match from WrestleMania XII.
It follows a very similar structure of shifting advantage, is unafraid to slow the pace down to a hard grind, is prepared to challenge you to pay attention in order to get full satisfaction from their story, but at half the run time and with a ratio of wear down holds to high octane action that will undoubtedly be considerably kinder to those whose patience doesn’t stretch to enjoying their ’96 opus, this is the quintessential Bret Hart vs. Shawn Michaels experience bound in a nutshell.
Its own history as the opening main event of its Era, rather than the pinnacle main event of the Era that WrestleMania XII’s title bout was, ratchets up another compelling reason to check it out, as does the milder fact that, while not a dual championship match, it is nevertheless a great example of the Intercontinental Champion being presented as the clear number two guy in the company after only the then-WWF Champion, courtesy of Michaels holding the former and Hart the latter heading into a fiercely competitive tussle.
22. Bret Hart vs. Diesel for the WWF Championship, King of the Ring 1994
‘Plan: I absolutely love that this match comes directly alongside the preceding entry, because it brings to the forefront of our discussion one key misunderstanding people have about the New Generation Era, and, by extension, about Diesel’s vitally important role in the history of the world’s foremost professional wrestling promotion.
Bret Hart vs. Shawn Michaels was not the poster-rivalry of its age, the New Generation’s answer to Hulk Hogan vs. Randy Savage or Steve Austin vs. The Rock. No, that is an honour of a historical comparison that should instead be saved for Bret Hart vs. Diesel, who wrestled each other in a prominent position only four times across the history of the period and, each time, for the World title.
This, the opening stanza of their on-again off-again rivalry that spanned the course of the Era, is not the best entry in the library of their competition but that does not mean it is anything less than outstanding. Hart and Diesel had impossible chemistry with one another in the ring, clearly relished every chance they had to expand their history with one another and if the tone of their confrontations escalated each and every time in bitterness, anger and brutality then seeing this action movie of a match should make it clear to you just how intense their work together would go on to become. They set their pace high here, Diesel – a star still rising at the time – setting out his stall for the big wigs at the top of the company and keeping up with the famed workhorse champion in a sprint of a match. Throw in plenty of shared universe with Shawn Michaels at ringside and the continuation of the Hart vs. Hart feud wrought by using Jim ‘The Anvil’ Neidhart to greater purpose than his initial nostalgia pop and you get a company firing on all creative cylinders.
And as I’ve said countless times, when WWE are on top form, no promotion in the world does it better. This may not have the finish you’ll want, but it hardly matters when the journey is so much fun.
Doc: I wrote in my first book’s chapter on Kevin Nash that his WCW run featured nowhere near the quality of what he produced in the WWF because he did not have the motivation born of trying keep pace with his best friends and Bret Hart. Michaels pushed him and, while it could be argued that his best match was against HBK in 1996, I would prefer to watch one of his matches with The Hitman instead. As I’ve written in my second book in the Diesel-Hart chapter, they produced the best big man vs. technical wrestler matches that I’ve ever seen.
This first bout in their lengthy series was perhaps the most fun of the lot. Subsequent rematches demanded something more than the fluid brand of “let’s watch Bret work his bell-to-bell magic” on display here, so while Diesel was much less polished in June 1994, the standard match flow and high spot creation at King of the Ring was very aesthetically appealing in a way that the other matches just weren’t. It was Big Daddy Cool’s in-ring coming-out party, and it was also a wonderful instance of Bret’s mastery of the 20’x20′ canvas; much like in the match with Razor at Rumble ’93, Bret vs. Diesel has several nifty sequences that an aficionado of performance-nuance cannot help but see and tip his/her cap in appreciation.
A more mature Diesel combined with Bret in 1995 for better matches, but that this match would make me think long and hard about watching it ahead of the others for the pure enjoyment factor speaks volumes about how good it was in its own right.
21. Shawn Michaels and Diesel vs. Razor Ramon and 123 Kid for the WWF Tag Team Championships, Action Zone October 30th, 1994
Doc: The Kliq obviously being a highly influential force in the 1990s whose influence can still be seen every week in the modern era across a variety of worldwide promotions (see the “Too Sweet” gesture), that they all came of age in the New Generation is certainly a relevant talking point.
This hidden gem was a Kliq member showcase, tucked away as it has been in the annals of the short-lived Action Zone program. HBK and Diesel, Two Dudes with Attitudes, were in the midst of their initial run together as cohorts, while Razor and Kid had found a mutual respect for one another following the first part of their rivalry. By that point, they had all formed their backstage bond and were on a vision quest to take over the business. I cannot recall another instance beyond the infamous Curtain Call when so many of the Kliq were featured together in the same ring; these four riding buddies seemed to relish the opportunity to go out there with the sole purpose of tearing the friekin’ house down.
I was very proud a few years ago when collaborating with ‘Plan and the rest of the Right Side of the Pond podcast team for a Top 10 Tag Team Matches in WWE lore special to introduce this match to my co-author on this project. This is easily one of the Top 5 most entertaining standard tag team matches ever if you tend to agree with me that tag team wrestling in WWE history has been at its best when trying to light the world on fire with stand-out in-ring action.
‘Plan: When Doc brought this match to my attention, a part of me was relatively cautious. There were times, especially at the back end of 1995, when the influence of the Kliq over the company’s creative product wasn’t always for the best – it could be suffocating and, perhaps unsurprisingly, self-aggrandising. There were other times, however, when it proved to be vital in maintaining at least the in-ring quality that helped make the New Generation Era a standout in need of greater credit.
I was elated to discover this tag match was a case of the latter.
While I am not entirely on the same wavelength as Doc when it comes to my own opinion was to what constitutes great tag wrestling – I see no reason why the emphasis shouldn’t remain primarily on telling a compelling story, like any singles match – there is something to be said about the tag team format lending itself well to rip-roaring action and high octane pace. You get both in large quantities in this instance.
On another level, this is a match that represents something of greater scope than the simple existence of the renowned backstage group known as the Kliq, though. That’s worthy of historical note alone, but there is the fictional aspect to this as well. Quite apart from the backstage relationship shared by the four men involved, the fictional relationships of each team were major cornerstones in the New Gen’s collection of robust character arcs. The story of Shawn Michaels and Diesel is well known, but the story of Razor Ramon and the 1-2-3 Kid less so. It stretches far beyond the famous upset defeat of the Bad Guy in 1993 – that simply provided a foundation on top of which was built a years-long relationship as complex as that shared between their Kliq opponents in this match. And, quite like with Michaels and Diesel, so too did it run from the first year of the Era to, almost, its last, culminating in a match at In Your House shortly before WrestleMania XII. What a shame they never got that big stage to wrap their story up.
So to see two of the quintessential relationships of the New Generation roster in fictional terms, as well as factual, pair off against one another in competition here is a real treat, and makes for essential viewing.
QUESTION OF THE DAY: Would it be fair to state that the WWF New Generation, despite some of its popularly-held so-termed “flaws,” was actually the era that produced the most timeless in-ring classics in WWE lore?