‘Plan & The Doc present…The WWF New Generation’s Top 50 Matches, Part 9

Order the e-book version of Doc’s Greatest Matches and Rivalries of the WrestleMania Era here

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, read #16 – #20 here, and read #11 – #15 here

10. Diesel vs. Bret Hart for the WWF Championship, Royal Rumble 1995

‘Plan: We break into the Top Ten Greatest New Generation Era Matches with an entry I am absolutely delighted to see place as highly as it deserves. The second encounter in the Era-defining Hart / Diesel rivalry is my favourite of their work together, and one of my favourite matches of all-time in general. For good reason, I hasten to add.

As intensely paced as their inaugural confrontation at King of the Ring 1994 and as cerebral and witty as their more famous Survivor Series confrontation documented only a couple of entries earlier in this list, to my mind the Royal Rumble 1995 title bout between Big Daddy Cool and the Hitman represents the absolute pinnacle of their work together. It exhibits their chemistry as performers, the contrast in their styles and the constantly intensifying relationship between their characters better than any other demonstration of theirs together.

I wrote of how Michaels and Bulldog wrestled an expansive match at King of the Ring 1996 with entry #11, and this encounter between Hart and Diesel might be described in exactly the same fashion. The ill-willed atmosphere is so affectingly palpable you almost find yourself wearing a sneer as you watch it, propelled as it is by competitive frustrations and frustrated anger. It’s a story of escalation, that fittingly sees the Hitman – at the time undergoing a subtle character change that would propel him throughout the rest of 1995 as he amplified his aggressiveness in noticeable fashion against any and every opponent he faced on any and every stage – tow the line between hero and villain in much the same way Mr Perfect once did in the summer of 1993 on the night of the Hitman’s most heroic effort.

First time viewers will be surprised at how unremittingly violent a match this is, from the stiff aesthetic to the introduction of weaponry right through to the mob-like mugging run-ins that see the referee throw the match out. Indeed, this is one of few instances I recall where the match is ended because the referee is specifically “unable to maintain control.” What a delightful (and important!) choice of words, perfectly representative of the compelling story both men tell in this near half-hour long chronicle.

Doc: I think we have pretty well made the case through this column that the series of matches between Diesel and Bret Hart in 1994 and 1995 deserves to be recognized among the greatest feuds in WWE lore, with each match historic for one reason or another. KOTR ’94 was an excellent example of The Hitman’s in-ring adaptability and Survivor Series ’95 was Diesel in his highly underrated personic comfort zone; Rumble ’95 was special because it displayed Kevin Nash’s short learning curve as a headlining wrestler and because it was one of the best ever exemplifications of Bret’s psychological mastery of sports entertainment.

Hart writes in his autobiography about the precarious situation that he and Diesel were put in for this still-rare-for-the-time babyface match. Big Daddy Cool was trying to get over as an arguably over-aggressively-pushed hero champion (others would simply argue that WWE struck while the iron was hot) and Bret was the beloved man of the people, so putting them together even twenty some odd years ago was a potential recipe for audience revolt. The Hitman, knowing that all he would have had to do to go into business solely for himself was play up the underdog undertone inherent to their size difference and Diesel would have been toast, instead acted the aggressor and bordered on 1997-esque heel mannerisms. They walked a fine line, but Bret ensured that they never crossed it; watch for that nuance and this is a fascinating, mentally-stimulating experience.

Diesel, meanwhile, was celebrating the one year anniversary of his coming out party in the 1994 Royal Rumble Match. In a mere 12 months, he had gone from intriguing prospect to having a great World Title bout in his first feature outing to being Intercontinental Champion to occasionally combining with his Kliq buddies for awesome performances to becoming the WWF Champion by the end of 1994. This was his first chance to prove that the opportunity he had been given post-Survivor Series ’94 was not for nothing, and he absolutely delivered.

9. Owen Hart vs. The British Bulldog in the Finals of the tournament to crown the inaugural WWF European Champion, Monday Night Raw March 3rd, 1997

Doc: Throughout this series, we have been hyping the awesome in-ring ability of Davey Boy Smith, praising him for his athleticism and underrated savvy to go along with his obvious power. Truthfully, this countdown will leave out only his Wembley classic (we have defined New Gen as beginning the day after) on his list of great matches and, spoiler alert!, we still have one more to go after this one, but the last match of the European Title tournament contested between Bulldog and Owen Hart might be the best of the lot.

Previously discussed in the original entry was that Owen and Bulldog formed the tag team of the era, but bear in mind that their pairing hit its stride in 1996 after each had tried and failed to derail the Heartbreak Kid’s momentum as a main-eventer, which I bring up to make clearer the drive that both characters had to reach the pinnacle in the industry. Though brothers-in-law, they always felt like a duo that was on the edge of choppy seas, if you will; when they reached the finals of the tournament to crown the first-ever European Champion in March of 1997, it took a tension that had been bubbling beneath the surface and brought it to the forefront. Mind you, there was no malice on display, but rather a desire to be the best. These were two characters that, before engaging Michaels along his ’96 path, had measured themselves against The Best There Is, The Best There Was, and The Best There Ever Will Be. Having a chance to shape the identity of a new championship was a natural motivator not just for each man behind the scenes, but for each character on screen.

The match was one of the great all-time games of one-upmanship accordingly, with each trying to out-do the other in every facet of the sport, no matter one’s perceived strengths and the other’s perceived weaknesses. It doubles as one of the most underrated matches of the WrestleMania Era, at large, on account of it being tucked away in the annals of Monday Night Raw history. We have done many an exercise in revisionist history during this project, so I will throw it over to ‘Plan by asking: imagine if this had taken place three weeks later at WrestleMania 13…

‘Plan: For a while, a pair of contemporary eyes might look back at the early months of 1997 and very much have expected a match at WrestleMania 13 to be the destination for Owen and Bulldog that year. This pearl was, in part, a culmination of months and months of antipathy that had been brewing between the brothers-in-law and wouldn’t be fully resolved until a freshly villainous Hitman reunited his family after 1997’s Showcase of Immortals.

What’s fascinating about that context is that it lends this inaugural (and still best) European Championship Match a sense of symmetry with WrestleMania X’s famous curtain jerker – this match was a part of a wider, more indirect version of the same jealous Owen that had once turned on his older brother for the latter’s share of the spotlight, and was now turning on his brother-in-law in much the same way.

While many might consider that this title bout isn’t in the same league as the aforementioned ‘Mania X classic, I would advise pause for thought and a revisit to this entry, a match I would sooner sit down to watch than Owen’s older brother’s own far more famous title encounter with Bulldog from 1992. A bold statement perhaps, but a true one; there is something nasty simmering beneath the surface of the competitiveness shown between these two when watched in context, an absence of malice perhaps, but no absence of animosity. That makes for a compelling watch that marks this, as defined by our list, the greatest TV match of its Era.

8. Jeff Jarrett vs. Shawn Michaels for the Intercontinental Championship, In Your House 2: The Lumberjacks

‘Plan: I have frequently said that when the New Generation Era offered up a classic, it was, without exception, never just a classic of its Era but a classic of all-time. This Intercontinental Championship Match – the best, in my personal and undiluted opinion, of an Era in which outstanding Intercontinental Championship Matches were in abundance – is a prime example.

If you’re a fan of the concept of a workhorse championship, of competitive wrestling matches, of fascinating character development or simple of Shawn Michaels than this becomes an absolute must-see. A sweeping, unpredictable and riveting encounter between two top workers, standing alone on its foundation built from believable and psychologically impeccable ring action is likely to impress any discerning pro wrestling fan.

Add in a little context, though, and it only serves to be elevated further. This was a Shawn Michaels wrestling with a point to prove, in his first pay-per-view appearance since losing his World title opportunity at WrestleMania XI and beginning his transformation into the premier hero of the Federation. He had shed the cartoonish innocence of his early-90s villainy, adopting a grungier look clearly inspired by the success of Big Daddy Cool’s presentation, and with it came an even more intense ring game of athletic supremacy driven by a disposition equal parts bitter frustration and impassioned drive.

It’s a masterpiece.

Doc: I think it is worth mentioning that ‘Plan ranked this as the third best match of the New Gen and that it was my ranking of it as the 13th best that brought it down. When you collaborate with someone on a rankings project, you are going to end up with matches or wrestlers in positions that you have to accept on the principle of teamwork, with some of them being more challenging to accept than others. This was not one of the challenging ones for me, and the reason is simple: though I might prefer other matches when considering the totality of what they achieved, there are definitely not any more than a few matches in the WrestleMania Era that are more fun to sit down and watch on the fly than Double J vs. HBK.

In The Greatest Matches and Rivalries of the WrestleMania Era, I described this match as the closest that we ever got to seeing Michaels vs. Ric Flair in his prime. What I meant by it was that Jarrett, to whom I drew comparisons to Naitch earlier in this series, did a lot of things well that Flair did exceptionally well and, at his peak in the 1990s, Double J was a really good athlete with the cardio to keep up with Michaels and a good enough heel (cut from the Nature Boy mold) to provide an ideal foil to HBK. This match works so well because their respective skill-sets were so complimentary of one another, similarly to the dynamic between HBK and Y2J a decade later. Michaels thrived in a lot of situations, but from an aesthetic standpoint, he was at his best when paired with exactly the kind of wrestler that was Jeff Jarrett, who could partner with him for slick sequences paced expertly throughout the run-time of a match. Labeling this a “masterpiece” is therefore not at all unfair in my opinion.

One thing that I would like to add is that this show exemplified the ceiling of what Double J could be for a promotion. He came in as the defending Intercontinental Champion and it was on this same night that he performed a concert, lip-syncing with Road Dogg for the classic tune “With My Baby Tonight.” In Your House 2 was Jarrett’s night, even though he lost the title to Michaels. He was never someone who should have been contending for the #1 spot in a promotion, but he was absolutely someone who could be a promotion’s #5 guy and matches like this one on night’s like the one that hosted it prove that the narrative about Jarrett should be a positive one.

7. Shawn Michaels vs. Razor Ramon in a Ladder Match for the Intercontinental Championship, WrestleMania X

Doc: The rankings discrepancy referenced in the previous entry? This one provided nearly the exact opposite dynamic, with me championing the Ladder Match popularizer as the second best of the New Gen and ‘Plan ranking it thirteenth. For my tastes, no matter if the assessment focuses on historic intangibles, in-ring execution, innovation, psychology, entertainment, rewatchability – really anything by which you can judge a pro wrestling match – the HBK-Razor Ladder Match is comfortably one of the ten or fifteen greatest matches ever, and a lock for the Top 5 in the New Gen. It remains arguably the best Ladder Match in the extensive library of the genre; it remains one of the absolute must-watch matches every WrestleMania Season on account of its well-maintained position as one of the finest efforts in Show of Shows lore; it is one of the defining performances of HBK’s career, considered by many the greatest in-ring resume ever; hell, it even has a tendency to overshadow the best opening contest in super-card/pay-per-view/pro wrestling special event history. My goodness, what does it not have going for it? I am looking forward to my co-author’s explanation as to why it did not at least make his Top 5…

Couple of other notes from me on it:

-In another era, either HBK or Razor could have been the one to bring the Ladder Match genre to the main-event level, as did Edge in 2006.

-For all the talk of this being such a defining performance from Michaels, it was without question a defining performance from Scott Hall too; equal credit is deserved and there is truly no reason to skew more credit toward HBK. I agree with anyone who says that HBK was irreplaceable in this environment at ‘Mania X, but I feel the same about Razor.

-For emphasis, how incredible was it that Bret vs. Owen was, because of this match, not the most talked about performance after WrestleMania X? Hart-Hart might be better, but HBK-Razor stole the show.

‘Plan: It’s worth noting that ranking a match as the thirteenth best of an entire five year span overflowing with incredible ring work is no bad thing. There’s little denying the influence the WrestleMania X Ladder Match had and continues to have to this day. There’s little denying its legacy or its accomplishment in the ring. But to me, there’s also no denying that, as good as it is, there are twelve other matches during this Era that were better.

Actually, let me rephrase that – there are twelve other in-ring stories during this Era that were more compelling.

Beyond that, however, upon revisiting the match for the purposes of this series and in the process of researching my next book, what struck me was how much closer it was to the ‘spottier’ style of Ladder Match than I, and I dare say many others recall. This is not to say it operates to quite the same extreme – clearly it does not, if even for no other reason than this simply being a match at the beginning of a genre’s life cycle. It did, however, upon my last viewing at least, operate closely enough to it (even if one feels it is by quite some distance) to warrant me knocking it down a peg or two in my own individual rankings.

I’m basically going the long way round to saying this: I tend to dislike Ladder Matches, and upon a re-watch this most famous of them didn’t well enough avoid the reasons why I don’t like them for me to rank it any higher than I did.

This does not strip away its accomplishments, its popularity that counts for a great deal or its enduring status in the eyes of the company, wrestlers and fans. That it still sits here, comfortably with a Top Ten position, demonstrates as much. While I maintain a healthy cynicism about whether or not it is as good as history has come to remember it, or whether it benefits from a certain mythos – and, further, maintain such cynicism is necessary when it comes to tempered historical analysis – I still appreciate it as an in-ring composition, and as the slice of wrestling iconography it has gone on to become.

6. Bret Hart vs. British Bulldog for the WWF Championship, In Your House 5: Season’s Beatings

‘Plan: The manner in which I have described this match has always been the same. If the Wembley Stadium main event between the same two men is Star Wars, then this sequel three years later is The Empire Strikes Back. It’s darker. It’s grimier. It has a much harder edge. Character development is considerably superior. While in one sense it operates on a smaller scale, on another, creatively, it accomplishes a great deal more. Beyond anything else, controversial as it may be, it is, quite simply, better.

Unlike in the case of Empire though, it is nowhere near talked about as much as the more famous Wembley match, largely because of the WWE-sponsored negationism of the New Generation Era this list is attempting to combat. That’s a shame. For those who enjoy brutal pro wrestling, pro wrestling that doesn’t flinch away from plunging its hands into the filthier trenches of the human condition, that this unflinching ‘Rated R’ equivalent to the breezy, epic, purely athletic contest of 1992 should be right up your street.

It has everything you’d expect from a Hart / Bulldog match – there’s the scientific precision, the shows of immense strength, the fortitude of a fighting champion – but it also has deeper subtext. From Bulldog wearing the tights he wore the night he won the Intercontinental Championship off of the Hitman to the champ’s need to revert to previously unseen tactics, digging deeper than ever into his resources to simply survive this blood-stained drag out, this match perhaps shows the challenger at his most imposing and the champion at his most enduring.

I am elated to see this violent piece of work – and violent is the only adequate means of describing it – attain a well earned Top Ten position on this list.

Doc: Plus, never let it be said that blood does not add much if anything to a pro wrestling presentation. Bret getting busted open takes this story in an entirely different direction than Summerslam ’92 and, in my opinion, it offers The Hitman perhaps the finest example in his storied career of him playing the face-in-peril, giving as the blood did a decided advantage to Bulldog in the absence of much pre-match heat beyond their obvious Intercontinental Title-based history.

For the viewer who knew that, Bret having just won back the WWF Championship from Diesel the month prior, he was unlikely to lose the title so quickly, the blade job from Hart calls the seemingly obvious result into question. Truthfully, only the best matches in pro wrestling lore have been able to make fans who “get it” question what they basically know to be true about the outcome. Angle vs. Benoit at Royal Rumble ’03 is the most famous example that I can recall; add Bulldog vs. Bret II to the list of the very best that deserve that particular distinction, with a big assist going to the gruesome nature of the contest.

For the viewer revisiting the match for the first time in a long time, this particular blade job has the aura of a more artistic endeavor on Bret’s part than the “it’s a big match, let’s get some color” approach that dominated the 1980s NWA and early-to-mid-2000s WWE. There was not a wrestler in the WrestleMania Era more in tune with the high end value (and low end detriment of) blading than Bret Hart.

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QUESTION OF THE DAY: What, in your opinion, is the best match of the New Generation?

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