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.
Read the ’92/’93 Honorable Mentions here, the full New Gen Series Introduction and #46 – #50 here, read #41 – #45 here, read #36 – #40 here, read #31 – #35 here, read #26 – #30 here, and read #21 – #25 here
20. Bret Hart vs. Owen Hart, Action Zone September 29 1994
‘Plan: Action Zone is a television show that lies forgotten in the annals of WWE’s modern history, but for some time was home to a number of excellent television matches during the New Generation Era. This entry on our list was the main event of the show’s inaugural episode, ostensibly serving as the final ‘blow-off’ match of the Hart vs. Hart fratricidal issue that had dominated the product for the better part of the year. The two would go on to wrestle another great match on the go-home Monday Night Raw prior to WrestleMania XI some months later, under No Disqualifications rules no less, but there was no championship on the line in that instance. Not so here.
Essentially a sequel to their epic Summerslam Steel Cage Match some weeks prior, this Action Zone main event provides everything you would come to have expected from the brothers Hart. The storytelling is as precise as it had ever been and the emotion that had provided such a compelling foundation for their story is in full force – the Hitman has long since left behind any hesitation he might have had to wrestle his brother, that pause replaced instead with a zeal to prove himself the better competitor.
He had good reason to. Owen had chased Bret’s accomplishments the entire year, beating the Hitman at WrestleMania X, winning King of the Ring and even turning Bret’s once-partner Jim Neidhart against him.
Simply put, the two wrestle a clinic, taking it to a thrilling climax and striking a definitive line through their feud-proper. As with the case of Ramon and the Kid mentioned in the immediately preceding entry on this list, I do find it a shame that a match like this was not afforded a larger stage, perhaps at the Survivor Series or, better yet, at WrestleMania XI.
Doc: If there is one thing that I have learned while suffering through this miserable current era of immense talent but inept creative deployment of said talent, it is to appreciate a product that attempts to maximize what it can get out of its roster, as was the case from the WWF during the New Gen. The feud between the Hart brothers has become timeless and this match certainly earns that status, but it spoke to me on a different level when I considered what it meant to debut another television show in the WWE lexicon by featuring a World Championship bout as the main-event to sell viewers on the new concept.
Today, there is a 99% chance that something like the 64,000th reunion of DX or the latest return of the Undertaker would be the primary selling point for a similar debut. In 1994, Bret and Owen were two of the five biggest stars in the company and had just wrapped up the second chapter of their incredible rivalry; Vince McMahon and Co. entrusted the debut of a new TV show, shortly after Hulk Hogan had debuted in WCW I might add, to two of his finest contemporary talents. Context matters, and the fact that this was more than just a television match with a predictable result makes it five times more intriguing to replay, rewind, and relive.
19. Bret Hart vs. Steve Austin vs. Vader vs. Undertaker in a Four Corner’s Elimination Match for the vacant WWF Championship, In Your House: Final Four
Doc: Essentially the first match in the Fatal Four-Way genre’s WWF lineage and also the last of its kind (given the unique additional stipulation of being able to win by Royal Rumble elimination rules in addition to the standard means of victory), the Four Corners Match is a New Gen special that brings together a lot of the themes that have been discussed throughout this countdown to date, including but not limited to experimentation with stipulations and flippant regard to the traditions established during Hulkamania’s peak.
Remember the reason why this match happened in the first place: the Royal Rumble’s primary results were basically tossed aside for various reasons, eventually meaning that the 1997 WrestleMania main-event would not feature the Rumble winner or the champion crowned at the Rumble. It was total chaos, but the WWF handled it intelligently, creating a new gimmick to headline the February PPV. When creatively challenged, the WWF stepped up to the plate.
While I have never personally felt that this was a tremendous performance, and will thus give ‘Plan the chance to paint the picture for why the bell-to-bell time is of the utmost “must see” quality, I absolutely think it is one of those New Gen matches that you have to put on your list to revisit. In addition to what my co-author will reverentially reveal momentarily, I will quickly add about the match that it is a rare opportunity to see peak Bret, in-ring peak Austin, later prime Vader, and break-out year Taker all in the same ring at the same time.
‘Plan: One of my favourite matches of all-time, ask me what the greatest four way match in the company’s history is and the Final Four will always be the first I throw back at you. Some might be tempted to look at this on paper, or even watch for the first time, and think the rules strange – this was an elimination match where elimination could occur by pin, submission or being thrown over the top rope with both feet touching the floor.
Context is king, though, and it’s important to understand that it was not the latter most stipulation that was ‘extra’ here, but rather the pin fall and submission rule. Why? This was ostensibly a re-run of the final four men in the 1997 Royal Rumble Match – a bout won illegally by one quarter of this four way’s competitors Stone Cold Steve Austin. Initially intended to determine the number one contender for Shawn Michaels’ recently re-won WWF Championship, when Michaels left the company temporarily via disputed claims of a knee injury, the Final Four suddenly found itself with the title up for grabs too.
You can tell. It’s a hell of a wild ride, this, an immersive sensory experience from the get-go. I’m not sure Jim Ross and Jerry Lawler have ever seen their chemistry and talent be quite as out in full force as it is here, every line of commentary from either one of them just inspired. Bret Hart’s pre-match interview, happening while Undertaker’s music still rings out in the muted background, is urgent, determined and in possession of a heightened sense of tension. The production is ‘next level.’ The action, more so. A quagmire of bloodied carnage, the four combatants tear themselves apart – in Vader’s case, quite literally – as they vie for WWF Championship. Laced with countless small storytelling touches that come to light the more you re-watch it, and staged before a crowd so electric their responses shake the cameras in their stands on multiple occasions, this is a match long forgotten by WWE but one that will rightly remain long in the memory once experienced.
18. Savio Vega vs. Stone Cold Steve Austin in a Caribbean Strap Match, In Your House: Beware of Dog
‘Plan: Nasty – about the only word fitting enough to describe this, to my mind one of the greatest mid card matches in the company’s entire history. Were it not for the decades of WWE’s negationist narrative when it comes to the New Generation Era, that might very well be the legacy with which this encounter might have been remembered. For me, this is right up there with the genre-defining efforts of the likes of Rollins and Ambrose’s Summerslam 2014 Lumberjack Match.
Strap Matches are strange, there can be no doubt of that. The unique manner in which victory is attained by one competitor touching all four corners doesn’t always lend itself well to the most engaging story and can threaten to come off as the one thing you never want your pro wrestling to look like: staged. Some might even consider two competitors physically bound together to be a limitation.
Not so with #18 on our list. Austin and Vega utilise the strap masterfully, imbuing their match with a psychological bent that could only ever be seen in a Strap Match. It embraces its stipulation with open arms and maximises it to its greatest potential. There’s no blood here, but that doesn’t make this any less of a violent encounter; or, as I said, nasty. This is twenty solid minutes of bad blood expressed through the art form of smacking leather on flesh. It is a twisting, snapping, choking, hanging affair that should be recognised as a pinnacle in genre work and as the beginning of Austin showing the world he was special. There’s nothing remotely ordinary about this extraordinary accomplishment from what remains Vega’s high point in the company.
Thrown in the conclusion of the Million Dollar Man Ted DiBiase’s ten year character arc courtesy of an ignominious and embarrassing exile from the company – the character’s ultimate comeuppance after a decade of impropriety – and you end up with something special.
Doc: I think that you could also make a strong argument that it was this particular performance a month prior to June 1996 that moved Austin to the top of the list of replacement King of the Ring options once Hunter Hearst Helmsley was thrown under the bus for the Curtain Call controversy. Comfortably, it was the best match in the Stone Cold library prior to the Bret Hart feud, and I would even go so far as to say that it earns top Texas Rattlesnake match honors ahead of everything beyond the Hitman rivalry between Austin’s WWF debut and his match with Dude Love at Over the Edge ’98.
As will be discussed when we reach deeper into the countdown, pre-neck-injury Austin was unique to any peer in the WrestleMania Era in regards to his ability to mix brawling and technical wrestling, to work over a body part in one beat and to stomp a mud hole in someone and walk it dry in the next. Because of the environment afforded him by the Strap Match stipulation, that novel combination of skills was put on full display at Beware of Dog, which makes Austin vs. Vega a thrilling watch for any fan revisiting the New Gen.
Remember that Austin started coming into his own – started finding himself in the Stone Cold character – during the Savio Vega feud. History too often likes to be told in linear fashion, with Austin 3:16 being the impetus for Attitude, etc., etc. In actuality, the Austin 3:16 speech lit a long fuse attached to a piece of dynamite that would not explode until the fall of 1996. The purpose of the Vega feud, then, was to supply the lighter. Watch WrestleMania XII’s Austin-Vega bout and then notice in this match two months later the added layer of comfort with which Stone Cold deployed his act.
Credit where due to Savio, of course, but more than anything the Strap Match exemplifies the evolution of Stunning Steve into Stone Cold. I gained a new-found appreciation for this match during this project.
17. Shawn Michaels vs. Marty Jannetty for the Intercontinental Championship, Monday Night Raw July 19, 1993
Doc: There was a formidable trio of HBK vs. Jannetty matches in 1993 that combined with its Barber Shop memory and later its long-term impact discussed in an earlier entry to form one of the best overall rivalries of the New Generation. Respectfully, neither the Rumble ’93 bout nor the Pro Wrestling Illustrated Match of the Year from May were anywhere near as good as this match. I have often wondered, in fact, if the PWI folks just forgot that there were two Intercontinental Title matches involving this pairing in 1993 and that they mistakenly chose the other one come year-end awards time.
This being the rubber match, it was wrestled with the same pace that made the May iteration so enjoyable and with the same sense of storyline focus as the Rumble outing, so it was quite simply the best of both previous bouts; and it was spectacular. If you felt that the Rumble match was too story-driven (to the point of being aesthetically limiting) or if you felt that the May ’93 Raw match was too short, then you will love this one.
It actually and surprisingly flies under the radar in WWE lore. Borrowing from the revisionist theme used when discussing HBK vs. Marty at the Rumble, if you plop this excellent match on the Summerslam ’93 card, it would unquestionably be regarded as an all-time classic.
‘Plan: That Michaels vs. Jannetty should have been an Era-defining feud but instead found itself limited to a trio of matches, two of which could be considered ‘forgotten gems,’ demonstrates how big of a missed opportunity it was for the WWF to not have featured the two televised encounters on a supershow. Imagine that same trilogy, but with the Match of the Year from May having been brought forward to WrestleMania and this final rubber match, as Doc imagines, staged at Summerslam. One wonders how Marty Jannetty’s legacy might be different today.
As it stands, the televised staging shouldn’t be allowed to detract from the quality Doc has already alluded to. Michaels once again defends as champion and together the two move away from the sprinting territory of their more famous May clash and enter a whole new realm of epic. Michaels and Jannetty start wrestling…and wrestle…and wrestle…and wrestle. This is a long match, especially by the standards of its time – it spans two advert breaks and weaves in a Bret Hart / 1-2-3 Kid like false finish immediately prior to the first, in what proves to be a master stroke in building tension and intrigue for the remainder of the match. The eventual conclusion some might feel comes suddenly, perhaps even anti-climatically considering the sheer quality that precedes, but any such feelings are likely generated by contemporary biases. It does feel particularly bittersweet because of that aforementioned false finish though.
Alongside the earlier entry on this list that saw Jannetty wrestle a blinder of a Two Out of Three Falls Match against Doink, let this match be further proof that the man’s in-ring legacy tops the list of individual reappraisals wrapped into our collective revision of memory of the New Generation Era. In 1993 at least, Jannetty was just as good as the more famous Rocker.
16. Shawn Michaels vs. Psycho Sid for the WWF Championship, Survivor Series 1996
‘Plan: The New Generation Era proved itself creatively precognitive of the future product with curious frequency throughout its duration but the furnace of an atmosphere in this title bout stage at the world famous Madison Square Garden probably tops the list. More than a whole decade before crowds turned their backs on WWE’s anointed one John Cena, and more than a half a decade before Toronto’s SkyDome did likewise to The Rock, defending WWF Champion Shawn Michaels found himself one of, if not the first top babyface in the company to endure the ignominy of a vocal and heated rejection of a live crowd.
Psycho Sid, inarguably the villain of the piece, is greeted with a chorus of enthused proclamations from fans that he’s ‘the man,’ while Shawn Michaels, whenever he gains an advantage over the larger champion, is met with a rising tide of boos. His reaction is difficult to judge, but it visually gives him moment to pause. You could be forgiven for thinking he looks set to openly embrace them, as a matter of fact.
To be fair to the defending champion of the night, his production as a babyface from practically the very beginning had been poorly misjudged by the company creatives, to such a degree it makes Roman Reigns’ own multiple pushes look inspired. That continues here, as an excellently competitive match only bolstered by the searingly hot live crowd is somewhat marred by an over-produced ending involving the always-oddly misplaced Jose Lothario, a camera and an apparent complete disregard for the title Michaels had spent a year-long redemptive arc pursuing in order to fulfill his ‘boyhood dream’ because his manager got injured.
It watches as woefully misguided, and prevents this match from rating higher, which it very much could have done had the affair been kept strictly competitive – because the majority of it really is transcendently good.
Doc: ‘Plan and I were very much on the same page about this match’s place in New Gen history, with our respective rankings of it in the Top 20 within two spots of one another. I will not lie to you, ladies and gentlemen: I absolutely love this match. That is not to say that I think it is a tremendous, all-time great match by any stretch, but it is to say that I think of it about as fondly as I do any of the other matches from this criminally underrated era in WWE lore.
There are many dynamics to consider when contextualizing my opinion of this performance. First and foremost, I think it a testament to just how good Shawn Michaels was. Sid’s match from the following month with Bret Hart and his match with Chris Benoit right before the Rabid Wolverine left WCW were both exemplary in the Sycho Justice’s career; that neither holds a candle to this one is partly what allowed HBK to develop his reputation as the perfect opponent for big men. This caliber of work was what had been expected of the Vader-HBK match at the previous Big 4 pay-per-view that year.
Close behind The Showstopper’s exploits, though, should be just how much of a gamer that Sid proved to be on this night. I have stated it before, both in my first book and in column form, but I was very impressed by Sid’s command of the moment. Other than the WrestleMania main-events in 1992 and 1997, this was comfortably the biggest match of his career and it could be argued to have been the biggest match of his career since he knew he was going to take the title from Michaels; add in the Madison Square Garden allure and you cannot deny that the pressure on Sid to deliver was great and that he subsequently responded better under said pressure than he did the entire rest of career. The fluidity and pace of the action are, reflecting back on it, what make Sid’s step-up performance so shockingly unexpected and impressive, for it was not like he wasn’t asked to do anything.
Finally, as ‘Plan referenced, there was the crowd dynamic. I actually recall that Sid came into this match as a bit of a tweener, making this more or less a babyface match. So, his embrace of an audience that responded favorably to him was surprising to me less because he came in the clear heel and more so because, in hindsight, WWE asked fans to choose between one of the worst regarded headliners ever and one of the most beloved superstars ever, and the fans of the time conclusively chose Sid. Utterly fascinating, folks…
QUESTION OF THE DAY: Which wrestler most closely associated with the New Generation would have been most likely to thrive, as his character was from late 1992 to early 1997, in any other era?