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Mav: Welcome, ladies and gentlemen to a new collaboration here on Lords of Pain. Last winter, The Doc suggested to me that we should work together on a collaborative series, and I knew right away what we should do. Anyone who has read my work on this website for the past four and a half years (and even longer if you were with me down in the Columns Forum), or listened to The Right Side Of The Pond knows that my number one passion in pro wrestling is not the “epic” main events but the midcard barn burners and forgotten classics of yore, those matches which either stole a show or enhanced a card through their intelligence and storytelling acumen. After much conferring, we finally came up with a list of the matches we felt represented the top 100 bouts of this type in WWF/E history. But we have rules and parameters! Let me pass you over the good Doctor to take you through them…
Doc: When I think about the term “mid-card,” I tend to think of a rather catch-all term applying to men’s singles matches that took place beyond the confines of the main-event scene, with respect to women’s and tag team matches which are specifically distinguished by their respective divisional labels. This thought process does indeed go against the grain of the literal definition of the term – a match that took place in the middle of the card – but there should naturally be a line drawn to help set apart from the mid-card situations in which the top championship of a brand is at stake earlier on in a show rather than the last match or when the clear and obvious lead feud on television does not get the main-event on a pay-per-view. The mid-card scene certainly has its obvious division-based distinctions too, specifically the mid-card singles championships (the United States and Intercontinental), and Mav and I also decided to perhaps controversially include the World Heavyweight Championship from 2012 until its retirement (to be explained in greater detail later), but the goal of the parameters set forth in the upcoming Top 100 was to encompass a broad spectrum of potential candidates (end date May 2018).
If you have any questions about rules and parameters, let us know, otherwise, let’s get to it!
100. Jake “The Snake” Roberts vs. “Ravishing” Rick Rude on the October 25, 1988 Edition of Saturday Night’s Main Event
Mav: The best midcard wrestling, to me, is grounded in excellent storytelling and characterisation, and there’s no doubt whatsoever that Jake Roberts and Rick Rude were absolute masters of that particular craft. Their longstanding feud over Rude’s harassment of Jake’s wife Cheryl came to a conclusion on Saturday Night’s Main Event back when prominent rivalries were as likely to play out on TV as on pay-per-view. The seething intensity of Roberts here means that the match feels purposeful from the moment the bell rings, while Rude’s cowardly reaction to the man he has been taunting is classic heel work. We also have the psychology of the suddenness of Jake’s finisher, the DDT, at play early on, with The Ravishing One desperate to escape it. When Rude is in control, he goes through the full heel repertoire, and has the crowd eating out of his hand as they jeer his actions. It’s wonderful, timeless stuff that all pro wrestlers should be made to study. Given the relatively brief run time, they pack an awful lot of twists and turns in, before the DQ finish brings an end to proceedings.
Doc: Indeed, this gem from thirty years ago was not about “work rate,” but about personality and, in that sense, it was a prime representation of what the original WrestleMania Era “boom period” was all about. Rude had Cheryl’s face airbrushed onto the crotch of his tights, a simple but wildly effective heel tactic that antagonized Jake as well as anyone ever did. The Snake was his generation’s everyman, capable of making you believe his every word and action. Palpably, you could feel Jake’s desire to hit the DDT and every “Ravishing” gyration, of which there were many, amplified the intensity and increased the anticipation for that moment when The Snake would strike and drive Rude’s head into the mat. We have veered so far into the territory of professional wrestling being so centered on the bell-to-bell performance that lost in the shuffle have become matches like this one, vibrantly full of bombastic character and simpler in-ring storytelling that drew its rabid crowd reaction from a swivel of the hips or the mere tease of a finishing move. Some have argued that wrestling psychology is dead, and anyone who agrees would surely point to this match as evidence of what it once was.
99. Christian vs. Rob Van Dam in a Ladder Match for the Intercontinental Championship on the September 29, 2003 Edition of Monday Night Raw
Doc: Certainly do not mistake my comments about missing the simpler days for having a big problem with the evolution of the wrestling match, for I have truly grown to appreciate most every style that we have seen across the WrestleMania Era. I am of the opinion that every match shares specific traits and that some have just been more heavily emphasized as the years have gone by while others have subsequently been put on a relative back-burner. The Ladder Match has become such a regular part of the product since 1999 that there is a massive library of its offerings to study how best to enjoy its various sub-genres, and I think that Ladder Matches are generally a blast, RVD and Christian’s one of my personal “most underrated” picks. Christian was a pretty important part of that era’s Intercontinental Title lineage, having been tasked with bringing the title back from a brief hiatus otherwise known as a creative blunder. He was the Raw brand’s mid-card anchor from 2003 to 2005 and that particular run of his will be widely acknowledged these next couple of months. RVD, meanwhile, was one of the brightest stars to emerge from the ashes of ECW and his hardcore stylings often thrived when a ladder was involved. Do yourself a favor and make time to revisit this.
Mav: Christian was undoubtedly the unsung hero of the early 2000s. I thought it was an absolute crime that WWE let him walk in 2005 when he was on the hottest run of his singles career. RVD, meanwhile, was the most exciting performer in the sport for a period of time, and he always matched up well with more cerebral guys like The CLB. The experience of both men with ladders over their WWE careers plays extremely well into the storytelling of this match, as each competitor seems to anticipate what the other is thinking whenever a ladder is picked up. It’s not an innovative ladder match as such, but it is one that uses the tropes in a pleasing and non-jarring manner that modern performers would do well to observe. Christian sells Van Dam’s signature spots exactly how a good heel should, and the crowd are highly invested throughout. The final minutes are particularly enjoyable, as two exhausted superstars will themselves off the canvas to continue the battle, with some excellent false finishes setting up the climax nicely. Marvellous stuff.
98. X Pac vs. D’Lo Brown for the European Championship at Judgment Day 1998
Mav: If Christian was the midcard anchor of early brand extension era Raw, X Pac fulfilled that same role in the landscape of the early to mid Attitude Era. His fast paced matches, full of strikes and movement, always delivered, no matter how short the run time, and make no mistake, as a part of DX, Sean Waltman was over like gangbusters. The feud between D-Generation X and The Nation of Domination was an object lesson in stable warfare, with multi-man tag matches leading to singles contests between the cast of characters. While the leaders of the respective groups ended up squaring off in an undisputed classic of a ladder match, X Pac found himself opposite the youthful D’Lo Brown, an athletic role player who found his niche in the Nation. The antics with the chest protector are highly amusing, Chyna and Mark Henry play their parts to perfection at ringside, and the action just never stops for the entire duration of the bout. Midcard wrestling, to me, has always been about a hot match with a good story, and this 1998 classic certainly ticks both boxes.
Doc: It was also delightfully old school in a way that will resonate with fans who sometimes get bored with the modern trend toward so-termed “50-50 matches.” D’Lo, who was quite over in his own right on account of the chest protector gimmick, his association with the Nation, and of course his incredibly cocksure attitude, controlled the vast majority of the action, setting up X-Pac to deliver his expert strikes and movement with considerable pace and within the context of the enjoyable story being told (which was aided nicely by JR’s commentary). Amid a steady barrage of “D’Lo Sucks” chants, Brown kept finding ways to stifle the DX member and nearly put him away, denying the crowd the satisfaction of his comeuppance until, finally, X-Pac was able to take advantage of an arrogant D’Lo moment and catch him by surprise with an excellent Lo Down counter into the X-Factor. This match is a good example of why I frequently champion “rewatchability” as one of the hallmarks of an exemplary wrestling match; 50-50 bouts might be more aesthetically pleasing in the moment, but can they maintain that same sense of steady emotional build to a satisfying climax as brought to the table by Pac vs. D’Lo?
97. Jake “The Snake” Roberts vs. Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat in a Snake Pit Match on the October 4, 1986 Edition of Saturday Night’s Main Event
Doc: Speaking of delightfully old school, that expression would very well apply to the decidedly old school feud between Steamboat and Roberts, which was essentially the storyline that put The Snake on the map. In what was ostensibly their pay-off match for a saga that spanned much of 1986, Damien was joined in his opposite corner by a Komodo Dragon to add some extra flair to the drama, but the key detail of the feud without which the description would seem lacking was the fact that Roberts had legitimately planted Steamboat’s head into the concrete floor with a DDT on an episode of SNME earlier that year, shoot-KO-ing the Steamer. So, not only was this particular match one of the best mid-card efforts of the Hulkamania Era, but it also culminated one of the hottest mid-card feuds arguably of the entire WrestleMania Era. The Snake was one of modern pro wrestling lore’s earliest and most prominent examples of being so good at being bad the crowd stopped wanting to jeer him and instead opted to cheer him, and you can see why when you note just how captivating his character was on nights like this one.
Mav: Just looking at the talent involved sells this one, and having never seen it before Doc suggested it, what stands out is that wonderful contrast of characters that so many of the best midcard contests have. The Dragon famously never played a villain through his career, whilst Jake was equally adept at playing both sides of the fence, but arguably excelled most as a villain, despite his legendary stint through the late 80s as the number 4 babyface behind Hogan, Savage and Warrior. In this bout, Roberts plays his cunning heel persona to perfection, meaning that all Ricky need do is hit his usual athletic high spots for the bout to achieve what it does. The action is crisp and flows wonderfully, as so much old school pro wrestling seems to, with an enviable economy of movement compared to the crash-bang-wallop of the modern day. The post match shenanigans are the icing on the cake. Certainly a must-watch in this writer’s opinion.
96. Randy Orton vs. CM Punk at WrestleMania XXVII
Mav: As a die hard CM Punk fan, I found the result a bitter pill to swallow at the time, and that always poisoned me against the bout, despite its objective merits, but recent rewatches, and the healing power of time have helped me to love it as I should have done at the time. In the only Wrestlemania outing for “New Nexus Punk”, Orton had systematically taken out the Second City Saviour’s henchmen in the weeks before Wrestlemania, but the messianic Punk still had the mannerisms of a man supremely confident in what was to come. As Orton resisted everything in the Chicagoan’s arsenal, the heel grew more and more frustrated, until a dive from the top rope was met by the inevitable RKO out of nowhere, back when that actually meant something. A remarkably crisp finish for a minor Mania classic. Should Punk have been jobbing in the midcard that year? Absolutely not. But did he make the best of being placed in the feted “upper midcard worker match” spot? Definitely.
Doc: At that time in 2011, I remember being obsessed with the concept of “stealing the show,” especially at WrestleMania, but I also recall becoming quickly appreciative of this match for challenging that concept, for telling a great story across its runtime while never bothering to veer hard into the expectations that many of us have for matches with “show-stealing” potential. Could they have unleashed the entirety of their respective movesets in a catch-as-catch-can classic? Undoubtedly. However, their modus operandi was more nuanced and, for fans of a more storytelling-nuanced performance, Orton and Punk provided one of WrestleMania lore’s top examples of a mid-card show-enhancer. I think it is destined to replay well no matter the trends of any given era, and I think it already rewatches well against peers from the three decades of the WrestleMania Era that preceded it, perhaps not quite on the level of the Piper-Hart, Christian-Jericho, or even Orton-Rollins bouts from Show of Shows’ history, but certainly in the tier just below them.
Pre-order the e-book version of The Greatest Matches and Rivalries of the WrestleMania Era here