Pro wrestling has been a staple of American entertainment since at least the early 1900’s. Origonally an off-shoot of carnival acts, pro wrestling, or staged ‘fixed’ wrestling matches, have long been part of the American entertainment spotlight. Early grapplers of dubious legitimacy included George Hackenshmidt and Lou Thesz who led to a more modern style of wrestler like Bruno Sammartino, The Masked Superstar and Harley Race. Gorgeous George began the era of flamboyant entrances and pushed the envelope of storytelling during the fifties and as the dawn of Hulkamania during the early 80’s, wrestling changed again. For the purposes of this article the modern era is limited to the beginning of the 1980’s, for the sake of simplicity and because before then, television coverage of pro wrestling was spotty at best, especially for big matches. So here are ten of the most influential and best pro wrestling matches of the last thirty years.
10. Eddy Guerrero VS Rey Misterio Jr. (Halloween Havoc 1997)
One of the most influential matches of the 90’s often gets lost in the insanity of hardcore wrestling. As the Monday Night Wars raged on between WWF and WCW, WCW’s Monday Night Nitro gained many fans by dedicating their first hour of programming almost exclusively to cruiserweight wrestling. With stars like Chris Jericho, Dean Malenko and Blitzkrieg, it was no wonder that the division gained fame with fans of high speed, high risk wrestling. Yet, of all these matches, one sticks out as the pinnacle of the style. Eddy Guerrero had spent time in Mexico, the US and Japan (as Black Tiger) and utilized his hybrid style to almost single-handedly create the WCW cruiserweight style. Rey Misterio Jr. was the best in the world (and maybe history) in high flying and both men were at their peak as cruiserweight wrestlers. What followed that October night was a classic of epic proportions where Eddy did everything he could to unmask and humiliate Rey, who still came out on top.
9. The Rock VS Hulk Hogan (Wrestlemania X8)
The Rock was one of the two biggest stars in the world (along with ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin) in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. His fame would only get brighter as he moved on to Hollywood and became the biggest crossover star in the history of wrestling outside of only one person; his opponent at Wrestlemania X8, Hulk Hogan. Hogan was seeing a resurgence after coming back to the WWF and was still the figurehead leader of the nWo… not that the fans reacted like it. Hogan’s fan base was loud and evident in the build up and it created an amazing atmosphere for the match where the rabid audience was on their toes the entire exchange. The two went at it in what is widely considered Hogan’s last great match, and Rock came up the victor, thus in many ways passing the proverbial torch from the Hulkamaniac to The Great One.
8. Ric Flair VS Harley Race (Starrcade 1983: A Flair for the Gold)
Ric Flair had already held the NWA World Title once by 1983, but had lost it in short order to Dusty Rhodes. As the babyface turn completed, Flair turned his sights on what was at the time the most dominating and decorated NWA World Champion in history. Harley Race, generally known as one of the toughest men to ever step foot in the ring, had defeated luminaries such as Dusty Rhodes, Gerald and Jerry Brisco, Andre the Giant, Terry and Dory Funk Jr. and many others in his time as 7-time World Champ. Flair was about to embark on a historic run that would see him surpass Race as the most decorated World Champion ever throughout the 80’s and 90’s and become one of the two biggest names in the sport along with Hulk Hogan as the 80’s wore on. Flair and Race, with special guest referee former champion Gene Kinisky, tore the house down in a steel cage match that would end the 70’s era for good, and begin the 80’s proper with the man who would become synonymous with gold during that decade.
7. Razor Ramon VS Shawn Michaels: Ladder Match (Wrestlemania X)
The story of the fortunes of Shawn Michaels and Scott “Razor Ramon” Hall after this match are very different. Shawn “HBK” Michaels would solidify his place as one of the greatest of all time, while Hall would slowly devolve into a torrid battle with drugs and alcohol addiction that would ruin his career and life. Yet here, at Wrestlemania X from the hallowed grounds of Madison Square Garden, both men were at the top of their game, and revolutionized wrestling with a type of match that had never been seen by most fans. The ladder match for the Intercontinental Title was a brutal, yet bloodless, battle that showed just how talented and fearless the two competitors were. Razor winning this match would go on to be a high water mark for his singles career, and the highlight of HBK splashing Razor from the top of the ladder is still used to this day in promo footage for the company. The effect of this match is still rippling through the industry and was the precursor for the TLC matches that made legends of the Hardy Boyz, Edge and Christian and the Dudley Boys as well as the Money in the Bank match which has launched many a world champion.
6. The Undertaker VS Mankind: Hell in a Cell (King of the Ring 1998)
The Undertaker is one of the most iconic wrestlers in the history of the business. His name is synonymous with the WWF/WWE and his track record is impeccable. Mankind, otherwise known as Cactus Jack, Dude Love and his real name of Mick Foley is one of the godfathers of Hardcore Wrestling (along with his good friend and former NWA World Champion Terry Funk), and is no slouch in the legend department himself. Yet both men’s iconic status is solidified with one epic match that for many is the most entertaining match of all time. The Hell in a Cell had been used sparingly before, most notably by Undertaker himself and Shawn Michaels. Yet in this version, Foley took dive after dive off of the Cell and through it to create one of the most brutal spectacles ever seen. By the time thumbtacks got involved, the match was already well beyond anything anyone had ever seen, but Foley and ‘Taker were not done yet. As both men left the ring, they received standing ovations, and Foley cemented himself as a fan favorite in recognition of the sacrifice he made that night.