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 ’94 Honorable Mentions here, the ’95 Honorable Mentions here, the ’96/’97 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, read #11 – #15 here, and read #6- #10 here
5. Bret Hart vs. Owen Hart in a Steel Cage Match for the WWF Championship, Summerslam 1994
Doc: In preparing to write my last wrestling-related book, one of the exercises involved was ranking the best matches at each of the biggest wrestling pay-per-views during the WrestleMania Era in WWE and NWA/WCW. This Bret vs. Owen rematch won top honors for Summerslam lore. It also stands the test of time as arguably the greatest Steel Cage Match in WWE history, and inarguably remains the best example of the gimmick in terms of its adherence to the basic concept of winning a Cage Match when the set of rules has been limited simply to escaping.
‘Plan’s book does an excellent job of contextualizing the brilliance on display from the brothers Hart within the confines of the steel blue bars, so I’ll defer to him to give you an abbreviated version of that chapter when he takes over momentarily, suffice to say that I have always been enamored by this performance. From the manner in which it escalates in scale compared to their all-time classic WrestleMania X opener to the fact that it takes 17-minutes for one of them to throw the other into the cage (concentrating instead on the aforementioned winner’s escape mentality) to its half-hour run-time of excellently executed, psychologically perfect action, I think it is one of the ten or so utmost masterpieces of modern pro wrestling history.
That said, I can certainly see why it tends to be a “love it or hate it” match when gauged among the opinions of fans en mass. If your expectations were Magnum vs. Tully, well then Hart vs. Hart just was not that. Meltzer awarded it five-stars and Keller just three, which regardless of how you feel about either of them or the concept of star ratings is a microcosm of how the critical world tends to view the match; it has its ardent supporters as well as a near equal number of detractors (or at least people who believe it was merely good but not great). If you follow my co-author’s long-held suggestion of judging a match for what it was instead of what you wanted it to be, though, I just cannot fathom how anyone could logically and reasonably fail to see the brilliance of Hart vs. Hart II.
‘Plan: Its brilliance lies in its simplicity. People might find it to be a Cage Match they want to reject, because it isn’t very interesting in sticking strictly to the popularly established tropes of its genre. Yes, this is a grudge match, as all great Cage Matches tend to and, perhaps, should be, but it is a grudge where victory doesn’t lie in providing physical punishment. It lies, instead, in providing humiliation, in seeking vindication – and both take the form of capturing that timeless symbol of indisputable excellence, the WWF Championship.
Eschewing pin falls and submissions, this is a Cage Match that can only be won by escaping the steel construct that surrounds the ring. Not for even a passing second does either Hart brother lose sight of that, transforming this emotional high point of their story opposite one another into a heart-pounding and relentlessly urgent chase sequence, committed to perhaps more fully than you will see in any other comparable Cage Match. Bret and Owen don’t climb slowly for the top or crawl inexorably towards the door. There is not a jot of trepidation to be found. Instead, they both operate in the grand gesture – their ascents are rapid, their efforts at the door only ever far-reaching lunges. The urgency, the drama found in the manner both men pursue that desperate escape arguably drives home the deeply felt purpose of both brothers in their ongoing saga than any blood bath ever could.
Its accomplishments should not be seen as being limited solely to the sphere of contribution to character and narrative either. The same aforementioned trait that so powerfully propels both of those concepts also underlies the remarkable achievement of this match as a simple piece of genre wrestling. Focussing exclusively on the escape – not just as the sole means of victory but as the sole purpose of either man throughout the entire thirty-minute duration – makes this Cage Match stand out among a dense pack of contenders for that elusive ‘GOAT’ attribution. Its linear, narrow focus works ingeniously well, making what is usually a marathon watch instead as a sprint, and proving all the more immersive for it. Frankly, it never leaves me without my heart racing.
I always say it, that less is more, and less carnage here, to my mind, only creates greater drama to fashion a unique Cage Match, a unique WWF Championship Match and, perhaps most impressively, a unique high point in one of the promotion’s most historically prominent storylines of all-time. Its high placement on this list is thoroughly deserved.
4. Shawn Michaels vs. Mankind for the WWF Championship, In Your House 10: Mind Games
‘Plan: Spoiler alert – only one other Shawn Michaels match has placed higher than this infamous title bout and that speaks volumes for the quality and pertinent underlying achievements of Mick Foley’s first foray into the true main event scene of a company he helped build a bright future for. As much as we quite rightly discuss the great things Foley did for stars like The Rock, Triple H, Randy Orton and Edge, less frequently do we discuss the great things he did for stars of the preceding generation. Count The Undertaker among those, and count also Shawn Michaels because of this list.
In a testament to the quality and generosity of Foley as a performer, 1996 – his first year in the halls of the World Wrestling Federation – was as close to being a career banner year for him as any other. Helping to certify the relevance of The Undertaker’s character for the changing years ahead, he also helped certify the then-reigning WWF Champion Shawn Michaels, who had seemed to be itching to shed his strictly pretty boy persona since his return from hiatus the preceding summer, as tough a performer as he was athletic. And not satisfied with waiting to do one after the other, most impressively of all Foley did the latter while in the process of doing the former!
The result is an instant classic, and a strong piece of evidence to support what I have always said about the quality of the New Generation Era’s match library: when the Era offered up a classic, it was not just a classic of its age but a classic of all-time, every time. Not only was this epic contest quite possibly the single most violent championship contest aired in the company’s modern history up to that point, it was fiercely creative in the process, providing Michaels with the best title defence in a run overflowing with incredible title defences.
Doc: There is a reason why Mick Foley himself champions this match as the favorite of his career, pre-retirement runs. Shawn Michaels gave Foley as much of a platform to achieve great success in this match as Foley gave Michaels. Nobody could make a monster look better than HBK, his selling ability making him an opponent’s dream foe. Typically, that compliment has been paid to Michaels as it relates to his work with big men, who historically have loved the manner in which he bumped for them, but it easily extends to smaller powerhouses (like previously discussed with Bulldog) and brawlers with Foley’s frame. In HBK, Foley was facing the most polished opponent he had ever faced before, an opponent with whom he could combine for a classic wrestling match with his own signature style adapting to the Heartbreak Kid’s tried and true in-ring formula. Many would probably say that HBK could not have had that match with anyone but Foley, but the opposite I would readily remind is also true.
Aesthetically, it is one of the most fun matches to rewatch in the history of professional wrestling, screwy non-finish be damned. Michaels turns in perhaps the most inspired character acting of his first title reign, bringing back to the forefront the aggression that defined him at his tweener best. Mankind was absolutely incredible, the moment when he stabs his knee with a pen something I love as much for the hundredth time as I did the first. The action is a wonderful blend of the traditional and the hardcore, the standard wrestling elements as strong as the more violent turns. No matter what kind of professional wrestling style you prefer most, you should be able to easily invest in Mankind vs. HBK.
3. Owen Hart vs. Bret Hart, WrestleMania X
Doc: God, I love this match. Years ago, PWTorch published in one of their articles a small profile I wrote about it, in which I called it “the blueprint that every aspiring wrestler should follow.” A couple of years ago, I inducted it into the LOP Hall of Fame. More recently, I wrote about it extensively in my new book, marveling at how the story that they told can be re-interpreted to favor Owen as the protagonist because his arc was so relatable (even if his character execution was obviously so incredibly antagonistic from a more traditional perspective); so, after upwards of one hundred viewings since 1994, I still keep finding layers that keep it nuanced.
It is such a simple performance. There are no breath-taking high spots that we generally associate with classic matches today, but memorable sequences can be found in abundance, one of my personal favorites being a reversal into a German suplex with a bridge pinning attempt. Mainly, it works because Bret and Owen have amazing chemistry, are deeply committed to the characters that they are playing, and tell a story that readily connects with the viewer. Thus, it is beautifully simple.
One thing I want to touch on before turning it over to ‘Plan is the commentary, which we have rarely brought prominently into the open during this series. Vince McMahon and Jerry Lawler here (and the addition of JR with one or both of them later) rarely get the kind of credit for the audio soundtrack that they add to proceedings in the New Generation, like JR and The King and the combinations of Gorilla Monsoon and both Jesse Venture and Bobby Heenan do for their contributions to the two wrestling booms, but when you watch matches like Bret vs. Owen and you compare them to modern classics, one of the most obvious differences is the commentary. “If this was judged on points, then Owen is way ahead.” I wait for that line of dialogue like I wait for Bret’s knee injury, not because I have seen the iconic WrestleMania X opener so many times, but because it is touchstone moment in the presentation. Most of the commentating lines I remember from the past 15 years, by comparison, are for negative reasons.
This is a masterpiece by a thousand definitions.
‘Plan: Allow me to be up front and honest with you from the get-go: I have never developed the same connection with this match that many other wrestling fans, dare I say most wrestling fans have. I say that too as a man who counted Bret Hart as his all-time favourite until Seth Rollins supplanted him for that top spot in my affection. Why that is, I am not certain, because in spite of my inability to feel as fondly towards it as I do so many other Hart matches I cannot, nor would not deny the obvious of the bout’s supreme accomplishments.
The Hart vs. Hart feud is nothing short of pro wrestling iconography, and for good reason. It lacks the overbearing heavy-handed execution of contemporary storylines aiming to strike raw emotional chords – see Ciampa vs. Gargano as an example – and instead, throughout, opted for relatable and ugly intonation that comes naturally with the tale of brother turning on brother out of little more than fetid paranoid envy. It is an immortal pro wrestling tragedy, one built on the back of two simple components: transformative character performances from Owen Hart and all-time great matches between the ropes. This WrestleMania X curtain jerker has both operating in perfect synch, a genesis point for the bar-setting quality that would follow over the next twelve months.
The best matches, I believe, can be watched 1000 times and, on each occasion, offer up new treasures for discovery. This entry on our list is one such match. Filled with small touches that drive home the overall arc of their tale, it is a deeply bespoke piece of work, excelling because of its mastery over the traditional ‘basics’ of ring work and because of its ferocious creative drive to originate in equal degree. Everything from Owen’s disproportionate triumphant yell at, in his own eyes, besting his brother in the bout’s opening moments right through to the gut-punch surprise conclusion that effectively set-up the second chapter of their rivalry, I can only at this stage retierate the words of my co-author, regardless of my personal connection (or lack thereof) to it: it’s a masterpiece by a thousand definitions, this author’s included.
2. Bret Hart vs. Shawn Michaels in a 60 Minute Iron Man Match for the WWF Championship, WrestleMania XII
‘Plan: “It’s so boring.”
So goes the most often recited criticism of this magnum opus of the performance art today. I understand where that opinion comes from. I could not more vehemently disagree with it.
One of the greatest pieces of artistry ever committed to canvas in any medium, what the Hitman and the Heartbreak Kid accomplished on that early-Spring evening twenty-two years ago is nothing short of mind-blowing, succeeding on a multitude of levels. Effortlessly masterful, deeply psychological, expertly crafted, unapologetically brave and athletically breathtaking, it is the kind of match I fast find myself running out of adjectives to describe.
It is wrestled in a style that, today, is unfashionable; is boring, as many will cry. It is a style of professional wrestling only a handful of contemporary talents choose to pursue, but it is also the style of professional wrestling I, as a fan, was reared on and I, as a fan, consider to be superlative. This is a match that demands your attention and does so without apologising for it. It is a piece of work prepared to make those demands of its audience because it has confidence in what it is delivering – the in-ring zeitgeist of its Era, and of the art form too.
This was the first televised 60 Minute Iron Man Match in the company, a concept defined by the victor being the man to attain the most falls inside of the time frame. Apparently unsatisfied with ‘only’ being asked to establish the basis of that concept to the WWF TV audience alone, Hart and Michaels immediately worked to subvert any and all expectations by wrestling to a stalemate at the end of the allotted time frame. Those dedicated to the rigid rules sets of old fashion pro wrestling philosophy might find that a catastrophic creative affront, an insult to the audience expecting something with more breathless content. Those with a more malleable receptive approach, however, should come to admire the layered subversion of just such a decision: Hart and Michaels wrestled to a stalemate because of their being so evenly matched, the title decided by one fall as it always otherwise would be.
Remember that it is the wrestlers conscious of the ticking clock, not the wrestling itself.
Operating in peaks and troughs that slow the action to a grind and pick it back up for rapid spurts of impressive athletic exchanges and creative spots – I will never forget the shotgun Superkick to the seated time keeper – and capped off with what was then a shocking plot twist underscored with the emotional vitality of Shawn Michaels’ overriding character arc, the match brims with the confidence only two masters of the craft could justify carrying. It might demand patience of you, but if you respond equal to the task then you are delivered something truly timeless.
I adore it.
Doc: ‘Plan and I have never quite seen eye to eye on this match, but despite his assertion that it was the #1 match of the New Gen, my ranking of it at #5 certainly did not drag it down that much. We have always agreed that it is great, but never agreed on just how great.
I think the key thing that defines the ranking of the Ironman Match here is “New Generation.” If you take this discussion beyond the New Gen, then I do not agree with my co-author. In fact, this is the rare New Gen classic that frankly does not necessarily retain its incredibly well-earned status beyond the era in which it took place. I often compare it to the 1989 effort between Ricky Steamboat and Ric Flair, which was not an Ironman Match but which did last for almost an hour; I could sit down right now and watch Steamboat-Flair, love every second of it, and not lose my focus toward it, but I cannot readily do that with the Michaels-Hart epic. For the Ironman, I have to be in the right frame of mind to fully appreciate it. That said, when you do get into the proper mindset, with the context burning a hole in your brain (the history between Michaels and Hart, the battle that they were waging for era supremacy, etc.), there is really nothing quite like it. If you take ‘Plan’s performance art view toward pro wrestling and apply it to the Ironman, then few matches in history seem so immersive.
That is to say to all of you who love it and to all of you who find it boring, “I get it, 100%.”
Perhaps it would serve the Ironman better to compare it to a movie instead of another wrestling match. In Hollywood lore, maybe a proper comparison would be to a film like The Godfather, which is a movie that commands your attention in a very different way than a lot of the blockbuster types. Most modern wrestling classics, especially the more recent ones, would quite easily fit the description of “blockbuster” sports entertainment, the false finish heavy style the equivalent of special effects in film. HBK vs. Bret, when you compare it to blockbusters, struggles to visually distinguish itself because, like in The Godfather, storytelling is its focus, its spurts of dramatic athletic achievement like powerful lines of affecting dialogue. So, without getting very detailed in your analysis, attempting to compare the original Ironman to a blockbuster match is to compare an apple to an orange.
With any discussion such as this one, I think we owe it to the subject matter and to the term “greatness” to be thorough and to assess the totality of the performance. My book, The Greatest Matches and Rivalries of the WrestleMania Era, demanded that I do just that. I put a lot of time and energy into properly contextualizing the Ironman’s place in history. So, I will begin my conclusion with the penultimate paragraph from the HBK vs. Bret chapter of said book in response to any criticisms that may be levied upon their WrestleMania XII main-event:
“So much about it remains remarkable. The HBK entrance is arguably the most iconic in WrestleMania and, by extension, WWE history; providing the audio soundtrack to its action was vastly underrated commentary from McMahon and Jerry Lawler; Hart’s reaction to Howard Finkel’s announcement, “This match…has been ordered to continue…under Sudden Death rules,” is an awesome character moment from the 1990s; and, of course, HBK’s emotional response to winning the WWF Championship for the first time while McMahon utters one of the Top 10 soundbites of the WrestleMania Era, “The boyhood dream has come true…for Shawn Michaels,” is surely the most enduring aspect of the presentation.”
As to the bell-to-bell action, I offer you another carefully crafted quote from the book: “Could the pace and flow of the Ironman Match have any better reflected their grind to the top or their game of one-upmanship for supremacy atop the apex?”
Is it a timeless classic? Sometimes it feels that way and sometimes it doesn’t, but in New Generation lore there is no disputing its place in the pantheon.
1. Bret Hart vs. Stone Cold Steve Austin in a #1 Contenders Match for the WWF Championship, Survivor Series 1996
Doc: Well, ‘Plan, this has been quite a journey, and I think we have landed on a final match that may take a few by surprise. Folks, this incredible performance from Austin and Hart, the less famous but still quite famous other undisputed classic in their library of work together, ranked 2nd and 3rd respectively on our individual lists, so while neither of us thought it the outright best of the New Gen, the consensus between us was that we were happy with the result.
For years, I personally argued that this was the better of their two iconic classics, primarily on account of a stylistic preference, but also due to a deep appreciation for Bret Hart being Bret Hart. As the saga between The Hitman and Rattlesnake peaked, Bret stopped being Bret and morphed into the version that ultimately got screwed (and screwed himself); he became a different character than the one I grew up admiring so much. The Austin match at Survivor Series ’96 was Bret’s final all-timer as the traditional hero that he loved to play so much and that I loved to watch him play so much. Simply, there’s Bret Hart as we knew him and then everything post-Survivor Series ’96, which falls into a category of “other.” The memory of Bret adapting to one of the most stylistically unique opponents that he ever faced and valiantly achieving victory via the same cunning pinning combination that felled Roddy Piper at WrestleMania VIII is a vivid one for yours truly. As much respect as I have for The Hitman’s heel run in 1997 stimulated by the Austin feud that climaxed in perhaps wrestling history’s most rewatchable match at WrestleMania 13, I would rather remember Bret for nights like Survivor Series at MSG.
As for Austin, he never had a better pure wrestling match than he did against Bret in November 1996. It was in that match that he took everything that made people a fan of Stunning Steve Austin in WCW and the pre-cursor to Stone Cold in ECW and put it together into one incredible in-ring package. No one has ever brought quite the same combination of technical skill and brawling as did Stone Cold, and there was nobody better suited to allow him to showcase that unique combo than Bret. They challenged each other throughout the duration of the performance in ways that they were never challenged before. The resulting magic was the best match in the history of the Survivor Series.
I think it is fitting finale for the Top 50 New Gen countdown for all of the above reasons, but also because it well represents many of the themes brought forth throughout this column series. It is timeless, one of those New Gen classics that translates its greatness to any all-time WrestleMania Era discussion; it is full of character; and it, particularly when you include the pre-match hype video and the pre-match interviews backstage with Todd Pettingil as part of your viewing presentation, represents the WWF’s creative bravery, with Austin so clearly tapping into something that the fanbase was increasingly clamoring for and the WWF willingly going with the flow.
Truthfully, ‘Plan, while I know it would be obvious to state that the New Generation would not have been the same without Bret Hart, I think it would also be fair to state that Steve Austin would not have been the same without the New Generation. The New Gen provided an ideal platform for The Hitman to become the WWF’s top star, but the WWF’s idealistic hero template continuing through that era opened the door for someone like Austin to tear down the ideology, flip it the bird, and generate something fresh. The Survivor Series match is a microcosm of all of that. I miss those days…
‘Plan: “Well clichés are clichés and an ass whoopin’ is an ass whoopin’!”
“I meant it when I said that [Madison Square Garden] isn’t a church, that it’s holy ground? Well, it is!”
The passion-injected promos before each man makes their appearance in the midst of a raucous MSG crowd; Stone Cold Steve Austin’s cold-eyed intensity, those icy blues piercing straight into the camera as he saunters toward the squared circle; the blazing frustration beginning to seep from every pore of a Hitman now carrying himself like the elder statesman he had become; this is a match drenched in iconography, but that iconography is silent.
It’s silent because this match’s legacy has become that “it’s the other one, not WrestleMania 13.”
There was a reason Doc and I chose not to include WrestleMania 13 among the events eligible for listing in this series. It would have been a write-off from day one if we had. That neither of us ranked this Survivor Series classic first on our respective lists, but that it ended up gaining the number one spot all the same, speaks volumes for the feud, for the character arcs, for the chemistry and, oddly, by extension, even for the excluded WrestleMania 13 sequel.
Austin vs. Hart was special. Could we call the match that officially ushered in the infamous Attitude Era anything less, quite honestly? And everything that made it special is on show in this genesis point for their story together.
The ebb and flow as the advantage swings with the momentum, the manipulated pace that spikes and then dims, the clinically precise chain wrestling and the high octane brawling, not only is this a match that demonstrates the expert skill sets of both competitors individually and as a tandem but also demonstrates an expansive creative vision to boot. It’s exhaustive, this powerhouse of an opus, but cerebral. Many might even call its deeply cerebral design unfashionable by today’s whizz-bang standards. The benefit, however, is layer upon layer upon layer of dense subtext.
“Bret Hart needs to realise this isn’t 1991,” JR exclaims at one stage, adding that it isn’t 1994 either, both minutes before the audience begins chanting for the villainous Rattlesnake. It’s a pertinent point. You can feel the themes that would come to dominate the remainder of the Hart / Austin rivalry, that would eventually facilitate the Hitman’s turn to evil, like a creeping fear sliding maliciously up to the surface. Hart wrestles like the hero he wrestled as when he beat Mr Perfect, when he beat Yokozuna, but with an Austin deliberately pushing every one of the Canadian legend’s buttons it isn’t long – in fact before even the first act is over – before Hart demonstrates his growing frustrations and anxieties.
“Come on!” he screams at Austin early during their chain wrestling exchanges, and as the match goes on – as, shockingly, Austin’s dominant performance continues to grow – Hart’s comebacks and retaliations grow increasingly vicious and increasingly unsportsmanlike, at one stage prompting a head on collision with the Rattlesnake so powerful it breaks the guard railing by ringside! Doc wrote about the purity of Hart’s heroism, and it remains in the ascendancy here, but so too is there already signs of the Hitman we would end up with at ‘Mania 13. Austin was already under his skin, and worse yet out-wrestling the Excellence of Execution.
I could continue writing at length about this incredibly piece of work. It’s as special as the feud is as a whole. Time and space are both limited, however, so I will save the full analysis for a later date. For now, let it be enough to sum up the greatest match of the New Generation Era in as simple fashion as I think I can.
Storytelling: it is this.
Storytelling was what the New Generation Era focussed on, and what it did, for my money, better than any other Era in WWE’s modern history. Through the course of this series and this list, I hope you have at least in part come to a similar conclusion yourself. Character arcs were linear but occupied space in a fictional shared universe environment. Feuds progressed in creative, overlapping fashion. Silly gimmicks were rarely seen, and those seen most stand as one of the greatest cadres of pro wrestling talent assembled at any one time in the industry’s entire history.
It shows. Time and again the New Gen Era, as again I hope this list has come to prove, knocked it out the park in the ring. I have said it before, I will say it again: when the New Gen delivered a classic, it was not just a classic of its age but a classic of all-time. Thank the likes of Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, Razor Ramon and so many more for that, but thank also the creative team who, in a period of great strain, used what little they had to come up with stories that made you care.
I only hope some of you, dear readers, have come to understand now that the New Gen is not at all about what WWE’s revised, corporately sponsored history defines it as being about. Instead it was about everything we miss in the product today – creativity, controlled experimentation, new ideas and conceits, new stars and, above all, a focus on the fiction from fans.
Doc, it has been an absolute pleasure to take this trip through my favourite Era in WWE history. I can’t wait to take this one step further with my next book, 101 WWE New Generation Matches To See Before You Die!
QUESTION OF THE DAY: It was our sincere hope that we would be able, through this series, to help alter some of what we were felt to be unfair, WWE machine-induced perceptions about the New Generation. Were we successful?