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, read #21 – #25 here, and read #16 – #20 here
15. Shawn Michaels vs. Diesel for the WWF Championship, In Your House: Good Friends, Better Enemies
Doc: A key piece of the evolving discussion about Shawn Michaels as a babyface champion in 1996 is that, in spite of some of the flaws in his push as a whitebread hero, that year went a long way toward defining the legacy of the first part of his career. The reason? Well, just look at our complete list of the Top 50 New Gen matches once it has been completed; every WWF Championship bout that HBK participated in that year is on it. When you average 4-stars per title bout, it is a lot easier to forgive any issues with your television persona; in other words, when the bell rang, HBK was so good that it hardly mattered, certainly to those like myself who lived the era. Athletically, Michaels was a cut above every other wrestler in the game so, aesthetically, his matches just jumped off the screen. He embodied the attitude expressed during his pre-Mania XI promo – “I will give you a show that you have never seen before…why? Because I can.”
Combine HBK’s desire to have unforgettable matches with Diesel’s arguable career best performance – and, certainly, what I would claim to be his most complete performance as a storyteller (Nash was fantastic in the role he played from November ’95 until he left the company following this match in April ’96) – and it was not surprising that this No Disqualification bout holds up well on replay as one of the most enjoyable of the era.
‘Plan: As I have been revisiting Shawn Michaels’ 1996 title run for this and other projects in recent months, I have gained a clearer idea of my own feelings about its execution, and about the man Mr McMahon placed his faith in that year. I don’t reflect on Michaels’ first stint as World Champion with fondness or doe-eyed nostalgia. On the contrary, I think that, creatively, it was questionable in execution at best, downright terrible at worst. Some of that lies with the manner in which Michaels was produced by the company, some of it lies with Michaels himself. Look back on his performances throughout 1996, put aside the unprofessionalism, and he watches as a performer striving to break free from the two-dimensional character the company had saddled him with. His promos, his ring work, the manner in which he carried himself all screamed of somebody chasing a more intense and aggressive persona.
It is perhaps this that meant, while the creative behind the concept of his title run might be questioned, his results in the ring might not. From his crowning in the Iron Man Match to his fall at Survivor Series documented in the preceding entry on this list, Michaels’ ring work that year was phenomenal and successfully captured equal parts increased intensity and aggression alike. It started in earnest here, at Good Friends, Better Enemies.
The pay-per-view title rang true as Michaels and Diesel washed away any bad memories some might have of their arguably underwhelming outing at WrestleMania XI with the most violent match the company had ever hosted to that point. Gone was the smugness of their collaborations as a team, replaced instead with a burning and explicit desire to blow the minds of the fan base with something truly astounding. Both men were in rare form that night, and it shows when you watch the match back. The visuals were not child friendly, and the tone likewise. The pace feels relentless, the aesthetic will stick long in the memory and the creativity is a tour de force. It bleeds its passion proudly. It is another under-appreciated all-time classic from its Era and arguably a career best for Diesel, who could not have asked for a greater swansong as he left for pastures new.
14. Bret Hart vs. Mr. Perfect in a King of the Ring Semi-Final, King of the Ring 1993
‘Plan: There is good reason why this King of the Ring Semi-Final made it onto the list of my book, 101 WWE Matches To See Before You Die. It is a performance art masterpiece.
As a fan who watches WWE as performance art before he does anything else, the New Generation Era is a real treasure trove of delights. Character development, long-running storytelling, shared universe roster deployment and satisfying arcs concluded logically and emotionally were all hallmarks of the period, and were all in play on Bret Hart’s incredible summer night all those years ago.
His final with Bam Bam Bigelow was already documented earlier on in this list, and what was said there stands: this too is a match better watched in the context of the entire evening. Unlike the final, however, it still watches as an all-time classic in isolation as well. Crafted around the premise of nothing more complicated than the desire to succeed, Perfect and Hart weave a tale warning about the dangers of being overly-competitive, commenting in its subtext on the effects the world’s rat race can have when you become too embroiled in it. This is done through a transformative character performance on the part of Perfect, who walks the line between hero and villain so precariously he falls into the wrong side of the moral divide on more than one occasion. Add in a typically plucky, typically likeable working performance from a beleaguered Hitman having the night of his career and you end up with a match that, to my mind, quite honestly, is better than the Intercontinental Championship Summerslam classic every sooner praises.
Doc: If you do choose to watch this match in isolation from the rest of the tournament, then at least be sure to catch the backstage promo featuring the two just before they renew their in-ring rivalry. Similarly to how a short talking segment so very well set the stage for Hart’s tilt with Roddy Piper at WrestleMania VIII, Bret and Perfect’s quick but effective verbal exchange at King of the Ring ’93 establishes the context of their history together and allows for a heavy investment in the fiction. In the interview, Perfect recalls the Summerslam ’91 match – a Hennig loss – and tells The Hitman point-blank, “I owe you one, and I’m coming to collect.”
Today, we would probably get a video package to remind of us of their history, but I personally find on occasions such as this one with Bret and Perfect that the 2-minute interview backstage is more psychologically engaging.
The characterful babyface match that follows is an aesthetic upgrade on their original encounter at Summerslam, thanks mostly to the simple fact that Perfect is healthy. What happens when you get a healthy Curt Hennig against Bret Hart at his absolute apex? Nearly twenty minutes of phenomenal professional wrestling.
Of course, the manner in which The Hitman sells his earlier round injury and the development of further injury is best appreciated when you watch the Semi-Final within the context of the entire King of the Ring tournament presentation.
13. Bret Hart vs. Diesel in a No Disqualification Match for the WWF Championship, Survivor Series 1995
Doc: My co-author and I felt almost the exact same way about the two most famous Bret vs. Diesel matches; the difference between us is that he favors the Royal Rumble ’95 match as the best of the lot, whereas I champion this Survivor Series bout instead.
For yours truly, this was the smartest match of their four PPV series dating back to mid-1994’s King of the Ring, at which Diesel showed plenty of potential in his first feature-length encounter. When they met again at the Rumble, Big Daddy Cool was only reasonably comfortably wearing the hat of the top babyface, at the very least still finding his footing as a top flight protagonist. At Survivor Series, Diesel was in his tweener comfort zone, with a more organic attitude shining through the piece in ideal contrast to Hart’s more straight-laced approach. Psychologically, the No DQ match was marvelous and, though character-wise (body language and facial expressions particularly) I think the recently discussed match with HBK was Diesel’s best ever performance, Kevin Nash never came across as more in-ring savvy than he did in his penultimate showdown with Bret; watch it again and it will stand out to you with crystal clear resolution.
The entire Diesel-Bret rivalry deserves a lot more historical praise than it tends to receive and, for my tastes, everything at Survivor Series ’95 from their pre-match video package contextualizing the lack of a definitive victor in any of their prior title bouts to the attitudes on display before the bell rings to the high IQ wrestling from bell-to-bell to the famous Spanish announce table spot to the post-match shenanigans just scream “this is what wrestling is all about” to me.
‘Plan: As our good Doctor pointed out, I do admittedly prefer the 1995 Royal Rumble encounter between two of the icons of the New Generation Era, a match that perhaps ironically watches more overtly as a No Disqualifications style. It is only in considering that point for this series that I have finally been able to come to terms with why it is this Survivor Series 1995 encounter – which was No Disqualifications – has never quite clicked with me to the same degree, being a match I have always admired more than I have loved.
In my book, 101 WWE Matches To See Before You Die, I write at length about sports entertainment gimmicks as performance art genre, where match types are broken down according to common traits found among the most popular iterations so that we can define those match types as genres and better understand why fans react to them the way they do – which are conventional examples, which are subversive, or innovative, or simply unorthodox?
Bret Hart vs. Diesel, undoubtedly the true poster feud of its Era in spite of popular memory favouring Bret Hart vs. Shawn Michaels for that moniker, reached its zenith with a No Disqualifications Match that defied convention. It is slower paced, opting for a gruelling story over an exhilarating one, though a story that is no less enthralling for it. It features minimal false finish – perhaps it features the least false finish of any major main event from the 1990s onward, though I would need to verify that assumption – and uses its stipulation in a manner more creative and much less obvious than the norm. It is a trait that peaks with the first ever Spanish announce table bump (let’s add historic to its litany of accomplishments then), and one that might just be the most naturalistic of them all.
Its disinterest in sticking to genre convention is, I think, why I have never quite clicked with it before. Genre-defiers often befuddle at least one subgroup of wrestling fans. Now, though, I cannot wait to revisit this tale of two men, equally matched, who had grown disinterested in the posturing of their earlier bouts, and instead now focused intensely on proving themselves the better, their rivalry spilling over from begrudging respect of January to bitter hostility. It is a mighty effort, borderline iconic, and well deserving of its high placement here.
12. Bret Hart vs. 1-2-3 Kid for the WWF Championship, Monday Night Raw July 11th, 1994
‘Plan: When Jinder Mahal won the WWE Championship in 2017 in what proved to be WWE’s mistake of the decade, many rushed to this instant classic as a comparison. Frankly, to do so was misguided. What’s important to understand about this vaunted television title bout is that it was not an overnight ‘booking stunt.’ This didn’t just come out of nowhere, at least any more than most television classics of the age did. Instead, it marked the peak of what was ostensibly the Kid’s long-form introduction into an immensely talented roster.
Since his upset win over Razor Ramon the year before, the Kid had been embroiled in a number of high octane and exciting TV matches, most notably during a short lived tag team run alongside Marty Jannetty against the Quebecers during the latter’s brief Revival-like run with the tag straps at the end of 1993 and early 1994. In short, by the time this title challenge rolled around, fans were familiar with the Kid and invested in him as the resident underdog.
Character arcs of that style were the watermark of the New Generation Era, and often provided for classic matches in obscure corners when they were least expected. This was perhaps one of those. Never has there been quite as masterful an elevation of a talent than here, as the Hitman proved the perfect opponent for the culmination of the Kid’s original character arc in the company. Kid was allowed to be victorious in defeat here, making his mark in spite of being constrained to his already established position.
And isn’t that what you want in a World Champion? Think about it. The Kid gets a major upset victory over the company’s highest ranked mid carder. The Kid wrestles a bunch of great TV matches, especially during a brief Tag Team Championship feud. Eventually the Kid finds himself opposite the World Champion and, in a moment of fateful timing, because that World Champion happens to be the greatest in-ring storyteller to have ever drawn breath, the Kid looks like a genuine top flight contender as his primary arc wraps up.
In a way, this match is a microcosm of what the New Generation Era was all about, and I adore it.
Doc: It was matches like this one that helped define for me, as an evolving fan of professional wrestling transitioning out of that child-like state of fascination with sports entertainment, what a World Champion should be. Of course, Ric Flair had been having matches of this type in the NWA/WCW for years prior, but I was too busy discovering that love-to-hate relationship with The Nature Boy as a youngster to appreciate how he functioned as the leading man. With Bret Hart, it was different. Since I was older when The Hitman was the off-and-on top guy for the WWF, I could better understand what a great match was and, more importantly, how a great match could effectively enhance the reputation of the World titleholder while simultaneously elevating wrestlers like Sean Waltman to a higher place on the hierarchy than seemed plausible prior to it.
One quick thing I would like to add to ‘Plan’s notes above is my feelings on the announcing. Though I have never discussed this with him before, I want make clear to my co-author here how much I always enjoyed Randy Savage’s commentary during the early part of the New Generation. That distinct voice lent a great deal of assistance to the 123 Kid’s ability to maximize his opportunities on Monday Night Raw in 1993/1994. He puts Kid over so strongly throughout the run-time here, adding an indelible audio soundtrack to the body language and expression on display by Bret Hart, whose put over job of Waltman was perhaps best exemplified by his increasingly obvious frustration with not being able to put the pesky challenger away as the performance advances toward its climax.
11. Shawn Michaels vs. The British Bulldog for the WWF Championship, King of the Ring ’96
Doc: I am going to boldly proclaim that this is one of my three favorite matches to rewatch from this entire era, which I do not want to be mistaken as a claim that it is one of the three best. The fluidity of this particular performance is what stands out about to me all these years later. It was stylistically old school but wrestled at a newer school pace, their chemistry (for the most part) in moving from sequence to sequence across a hefty run-time perhaps its greatest strength. In fact, if there was a catalogue that best fit my personal preference for feature-length matches, this would definitely be in it.
Sentimentally, HBK’s title run in 1996 is probably #1 on my all-time list, and though at least two of his title matches rightfully get more hindsight hype because they were simply better in certain, important ways, I would watch this match against Bulldog ahead of them both. If you think back to the amazing run that AJ Styles had in 2016/17, it was his bout with Dean Ambrose at Backlash in September that I would likely turn to first ahead of all his other highly regarded work from that period because, in Ambrose, The Phenomenal One found an opponent that could match him from bell-to-bell without ever allowing things to get too gimmicky; HBK being AJ’s spiritual precursor, to put my own spin on a Samuel ‘Plan concept, this Michaels vs. Bulldog bout is the equivalent from his ’96 body of work. So, in that sense, it was always destined to be underrated, but it deserves to be properly rated as right up there among the top in New Gen lore.
‘Plan: Research for my second book has seen me watching the main body of the 1996 rivalry between Shawn Michaels and the British Bulldog in recent days and words cannot do enough justice to the quality of the storyline. While the unbridled intensity that marked their feud’s earlier half heading into In Your House (IYH) had petered out a little by the time June’s pay-per-view rolled around, any drop in such intensity was more than made up for in their sequel with increased quality in the ring, as difficult as that is to believe.
Outside of the fabled WrestleMania XII Iron Man Match, it was this Big Five main event title bout that provided the New Generation Era with its true ‘Epic’ – they wrestle an expansive, exhaustive piece of work that forces both men to utilise every trick up their respective sleeves (and with an Owen Hart guest commentating and a Jim Cornette and Diana Smith at ringside, Bulldog had some pretty big sleeves). Every trademark move is deployed, and both men even call upon counters and attacks you do not frequently see them use. This was an ultimate athletic stalemate, a match wrestled on a scale and in a style that would legitimately see it right at home if it went on last at WrestleMania next April.
Their first encounter at IYH had laid a robust competitive foundation, but at King of the Ring that was taken not to the next level but the level after even that, escalating the physical contest while introducing new mitigating circumstances on the outside of the ring. Michaels found himself under siege. Every member of Bulldog’s familiar entourage, who had collectively fashioned a comprehensive character assassination of the champion during the preceding weeks, found a reason to be at ringside that night, while Cornette used his managerial savvy to insert a dubiously motivated Mr Perfect as the Special Guest Referee.
Best of all, if this Epic set-up and execution wasn’t enough, there’s even an inspired touch of continuity thrown in for good measure, as the New Generation Era was so often eager to do – before the bell rings, a vigilant President Gorilla Monsoon reduces Perfect’s role to Special Guest Enforcer, because of Perfect’s previous in questionable refereeing at WrestleMania X two years earlier.
Put plainly, this one is classic unfiltered New Gen, folks. The commitment to and execution of the fiction is stunningly good.
QUESTION OF THE DAY: What is the most underappreciated New Generation match in your opinion?