The 15 Most Anticipated Matches in WWE History
Despite promoting two weekly major television shows and a monthly pay-per-view event, one of the most common criticisms leveled at the current WWE product is the lack of "must-see" rivalries and matches. Most high-profile feuds have either been seen before or are only built for a few short weeks, capping the excitement levels for the decisive encounters.
The recent Hell in a Cell pay-per-view is a prime example of this, as half the matches on the card remained unannounced a week beforehand, with only the build for the WWE Championship match receiving any significant airtime.
This article will look at matches that were the culmination of months, and sometimes even years, of either personal of professional animosity. Whether it be a heated grudge match, an eagerly anticipated rematch or the creation of a new main event star, these contests generated anticipation and excitement to levels rarely seen on company television.
Here are the 15 most anticipated matches in WWE history.
Note: Criteria for the rankings is based on both industry and mainstream awareness, the overarching storyline surrounding the match including in-ring, promo and video segments and the profile of the match when it took place.
15. Team WWF vs Team WCW/ECW (Invasion 2001)
The entire wrestling world was buzzing in early 2001 when Vince McMahon purchased his greatest rivals and inherited almost an entire roster of talent. Fans were salivating at the prospect of their WWF favorites squaring off against their WCW counterparts.
The constant run-ins from WCW stars during matches on WWF television created huge interest in the feud, even before ECW joined the fray to form the Alliance. After a series of gripping pull-apart brawls between the warring factions, the two would square off in an official match at the InVasion pay-per-view.
Anticipation was at fever pitch on July 22, as Steve Austin, Kurt Angle, Chris Jericho, The Undertaker and Kane collided with Booker T, DDP, Rhyno and The Dudley Boyz. In fact, the event remains the highest-grossing non-WrestleMania pay-per-view in company history.
The Alliance ultimately won the first battle after Stone Cold shockingly turned heel on the WWF.
Looking back with hindsight, we all know how the angle was completely mishandled from that point and now ranks as one of the biggest disappointments in wrestling history. However, when the event took place, the possibilities were endless, and that earns the match a spot on the list.
14. Bobby Lashley vs Umaga (WrestleMania 23)
Here we find ourselves in a strange situation, where the participants in the match had absolutely nothing to do with the anticipation levels surrounding it. Built entirely around the "Battle of the Billionaires" between Vince McMahon and Donald Trump, the match also featured a "Hair vs Hair" stipulation as well as Stone Cold Steve Austin as special guest referee.
Gaining a huge amount of mainstream media attention thanks to the high-profile involvement of Donald Trump, the match is directly responsible for the massive 1.2 million pay-per-view buys, a company record that stood for five years.
Both wrestling fans and casual viewers were hooked by the unique rivalry between McMahon and Trump, which had created huge buzz by the time the match rolled around on April 1, 2007. Unfortunately, the wrestlers were a mere afterthought.
Lashley picked up the victory following a largely stagnant contest, but the defining image of the match remains Vince McMahon having his head shaved bald in the middle of the ring.
Despite the fact that the two stars who actually competed were probably the least important element of the match, the anticipation levels surrounding the build-up earn it a spot on the list nonetheless.
13. Bret Hart vs Vince McMahon (WrestleMania XXVI)
Although the match itself was terrible, the personal history between Bret Hart and Vince McMahon made this contest as highly-anticipated as it was.
When Bret Hart returned on the January 4, 2010 episode of Raw, it was his first appearance on WWE television in over 12 years since the infamous Montreal Screwjob. Seeking to bury the hatchet, The Hitman was instead betrayed once again following a low blow from McMahon. Following weeks of back-and-forth attacks between the two, a grudge match that had been in the making since 1997 finally took place on March 28.
As cathartic as I'm sure it was for The Excellence of Execution to gain his revenge on the man who screwed him in Montreal, to say the match was a letdown would be an understatement. Hart crushed The Boss in a near-squash before making him tap out to the Sharpshooter.
Despite the poor quality of the match, audiences were delighted to see The Hitman back on WWE television, and even happier to watch him beat the crap out of Vince McMahon as the angle built over three months.
12. The Rock vs Brock Lesnar (Summerslam 2002)
Only five months after his television debut, Brock Lesnar found himself up against The Rock in what was a hotly-anticipated clash over the WWE Undisputed Championship.
Destroying everything in his path, The Next Big Thing earned his shot at the title by winning the King of the Ring tournament in June. Meanwhile, The Rock had cemented his place as one of the most popular stars of all-time and was in the midst of his record seventh WWE title reign.
A series of vignettes displaying the difference in background and training regimen between the two heightened the tension for the upcoming collision, and by the time it hit Summerslam, fans were desperate to see the two stars settle their differences in the ring.
Lesnar won the match and became the youngest WWE Champion in history, as well as cementing his status as the company's newest superstar. A passing of the torch, The Rock would soon reduce his schedule before ultimately leaving the company soon after.
Putting the WWE's present up against its future, this match earns a spot on the list as audiences were desperate to find out if The Great One would be the first to stop The Next Big Thing.
11. The Undertaker vs Kane (WrestleMania XIV)
After making his debut in October 1997 during the inaugural Hell in a Cell match, Kane was set on a collision course with his "brother," The Undertaker. Despite vowing never to fight his sibling, The Deadman reneged on his promise and the two squared off at Wrestlemania on March 29, 1998.
The rivalry between the two only became more exciting in the months leading up to the Grandest Stage of Them All. Following Undertaker's Casket match against Shawn Michaels at the Royal Rumble, The Big Red Monster locked his brother inside the coffin and set it ablaze.
Almost two months later, Big Evil reappeared on Raw when he burst out of a coffin that had been placed at the top of the ramp and accepted Kane's challenge. The match between the two was an adequate encounter between two big-man grapplers before The Undertaker finally put Kane away after three Tombstone pile-drivers.
Kane's spectacular debut and subsequent path of destruction through the roster had created a huge buzz around an eventual clash with The Undertaker. Expectations were only heightened as The Deadman refused to face his brother, and anticipation had hit huge heights by the time they finally faced each other.
10. The Ultimate Warrior vs Hulk Hogan (WrestleMania VI)
Since his WWF debut in 1987, The Ultimate Warrior had been slowly established as the company's number two babyface. In a match billed as "The Ultimate Challenge," Warrior put his 216-day Intercontinental title reign on the line against top star Hulk Hogan, who was in his 364th day as WWF Champion.
The match was decent by the standards of the time, and Warrior scored a rare clean victory over the Hulkster to become the first man in company history to hold both top singles titles simultaneously.
Played out before a crowd of 67,678 in the Toronto Skydome, this was the eagerly-awaited conclusion of a simmering feud that had really gained traction at the 1990 Royal Rumble. With the company running short on genuine main event stars, Warrior's huge push was well-received by fans who were enthralled by seeing the WWF's two biggest names go head-to-head.
One of the biggest matches of the early 1990's, the highly-anticipated contest was the culmination of Warrior's main event push, and he gained the personal seal of approval from Hulk Hogan himself, who had the power to veto his own storylines at the time.
9. Kurt Angle vs Shawn Michaels (WrestleMania 21)
For many years, this had been one of the most talked-about dream matches in wrestling history. And at WrestleMania 21, Kurt Angle and Shawn Michaels let their actions do the talking in one of the greatest contests ever seen in a WWE ring.
Anticipation had reach fever pitch by the time the match took place thanks to an expertly-booked feud between the two that began at the 2005 Royal Rumble, and went on to raise the stakes to increasingly personal levels.
The Olympic Hero vowed to match HBK's accomplishments in four weeks and went on to win a squash ladder match, defeat Marty Jannetty in singles competition and enlist Sensational Sherri as his manager, even reworking Michaels' entrance music to the tune of "Sexy Kurt." Add in to this an intense beat down by Angle on a bloodied Heartbreak Kid, and the feud was perfectly poised.
The classic contest between the two more than lived up to expectations, with Angle gaining the submission victory via ankle lock. One of the rare occasions where a match lives up to the hype, and then some, the excitement generated by the collision of two all-time greats earns the encounter a spot on this list.
8. The Rock vs John Cena (WrestleMania XVIII)
Billed as a "Once in a Lifetime" event, the slow-burning rivalry between John Cena and The Rock culminated in Wrestlemania 28 smashing company pay-per-view records, largely due to the clash between two of the WWE's biggest ever stars.
The seed of the match was planted at the previous year's WrestleMania, when The Great One cost Cena the WWE Title in the latter's match against The Miz. Challenging the People's Champion on the following edition of Raw, the two engaged in a series of confrontations over the following year that generated a huge amount of excitement for the eventual match.
Despite The Rock's hectic schedule, he devoted enough time to the rivalry over the year that it remained relevant, and he proved once again why he is the greatest talker the business has ever seen. The two opponents belittled each other in pre-taped videos and promo segments whilst even managing to function as a tag team at Survivor Series 2011.
Deserving of a spot in the list as the most heavily-promoted match on the biggest pay-per-view in WWE history, the match showcased both the drawing power of John Cena and The Rock as individuals and the huge levels of anticipation created by a "Once in a Lifetime" match between the two.
7. Triple H vs Shawn Michaels (Summerslam 2002)
One of the most intense personal rivalries ever seen in the WWE, this marked the return to in-ring action of Shawn Michaels after a four-year hiatus, something many thought they would never see.
The feud began as Triple H teased a D-Generation X reunion with The Heartbreak Kid before instead nailing him with a Pedigree. It was also revealed that The Game had assaulted his longtime best friend in the parking lot, throwing his head through a car window. And on August 19, 2002 it was announced that Michaels would be coming out of retirement for an unsanctioned street fight against Triple H.
This instantly became a huge source of excitement to wrestling fans everywhere, as the legendary Showstopper was getting back into the squared circle. Fans tuned in during the build-up to see if Michaels had lost any of his renowned talent, and anticipation rose after several pull-apart brawls with the Cerebral Assassin proved he still had it.
The match itself was a brilliant all-out brawl, hiding Michaels' ring rust while still showing us his wonderful skill as an in-ring talent. The Heartbreak Kid got a lucky, if well-deserved, win with a quick roll-up.
The return to action of all-time great Shawn Michaels after four years in retirement, along with the personal animosity between the two participants, made this match one of the most highly-anticipated in WWE history.
6. Hulk Hogan vs Randy Savage (WrestleMania V)
When Randy Savage and Hulk Hogan faced each other for the former's WWF Championship on April 2, 1989, it was the final chapter in a story that began all the way back in October 1987.
After forming massively popular tag team The Mega Powers, Hogan and Savage were the two biggest babyface stars in the company throughout 1988, facing all the major heels of the era.
The first seeds of discontent were sown in January 1989, when the Macho Man became increasingly jealous of the attention his manager, Miss Elizabeth, lavished on the Hulkster. Things became more tense after Hogan accidentally eliminated his tag team partner from the Royal Rumble Match.
Savage turned heel on Hogan the following month when the latter had carried Miss Elizabeth backstage during a tag match after the Macho Man had accidentally knocked her unconscious. Savage then proceeded to attack Hogan in the medical area, leading The Hulkster to challenge for the WWF Championship at WrestleMania.
In their headline match at the Trump Plaza, Hogan ultimately ended Savage's 371-day reign as champion following his signature legdrop. The anticipation levels for this match were huge at the time, as the two most popular stars in the company went from popular tag team to heated rivals, and the audience was rewarded, as Hulkamania prevailed yet again.
5. Bret Hart vs Shawn Michaels (WrestleMania XII)
The well-documented backstage animosity between Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels dominated the run up to the company's inaugural Iron Man match, and fans were desperate to see if the Heartbreak Kid could finally win his first WWF Championship on the Grandest Stage of Them All.
Earning his shot by winning the 1996 Royal Rumble, the two greatest in-ring talents in the company were set on a WrestleMania collision course. And when on-screen president Roddy Piper announced the match would go on for a full hour, anticipation for the match grew exponentially.
Fans were eager to see the culmination of Michaels' personal journey to the summit of the WWF. Following an unsuccessful title match against Diesel at Wrestlemania XI, a beatdown by a group of U.S Marines and a storyline concussion suffered against Owen Hart, the main event match of WrestleMania XII was seen as Michaels' time to finally capture the big one.
The Showstopper was presented as an equal to the champion in the lead-up to the event, which kept the fans guessing who would emerge triumphant at the Showcase of the Immortals.
In the end, Michaels won the match via Sweet Chin Music in sudden death, as the match had remained tied at 0-0 after the 60-minute time limit had expired. Fulfilling his destiny, the excitement had been expertly built before the "Heartbreak Kid" finally overcame the "Excellence of Execution" to lift his first WWF Championship.
4. The Rock vs Steve Austin (WrestleMania 17)
The two biggest stars and greatest rivals of the Attitude Era squared off in three high-profile WrestleMania matches, with this one being pick of the bunch.
After having two previous matches for the WWF Championship at WrestleMania 15 and Backlash in early 1999, this particular chapter in the ongoing saga began after Stone Cold emerged victorious in the 2001 Royal Rumble. The following month, The Great One captured a record sixth WWF Championship from Kurt Angle to set the arch-rivals on a collision course that would end on the Grandest Stage of Them All.
The inclusion of Austin's wife Debra and her role as the reluctant manager of The People's Champion only made the rivalry more interesting as things began gradually building towards the WWE's flagship event. The microphone duels between these two were always excellent, and their constant attempts at one-upmanship had the audience guessing the outcome of the WrestleMania clash.
In the end, the Texas Rattlesnake won the match and the title, turning heel and siding with longtime nemesis Vince McMahon in the process. Headlining the first WWF pay-per-view to record a million buys, this contest was the main attraction on the greatest WrestleMania of all-time, just as the Attitude Era reached its peak.
3. The Undertaker vs Shawn Michaels (WrestleMania XXVI)
Following one of the greatest matches of all-time at WrestleMania XXV, Shawn Michaels and The Undertaker squared off again the following year, this time with Michaels' revered career on the line.
Initially refusing the challenge, The Undertaker was forced to accept after the Heartbreak Kid cost him the World Heavyweight Championship at Elimination Chamber. Goading Michaels into putting his career on the line, the match was also made a no-disqualification contest.
The anticipation levels for this match were through the roof, as many wondered if Michaels would be the first man to end The Streak, or if it would in fact be the final match of a legendary career. The promo work between two of the WWE's all-time greats only heightened the tension, and the match was perfectly poised by the time WrestleMania rolled around on March 28, 2010.
In the end, the two put on another gripping contest, with The Showstopper putting in a valiant effort before succumbing to a third and final Tombstone pile-driver.
This match is fully deserving of its position in the rankings, as it saw two names synonymous with the WWE go head-to-head, with the stakes raised incredibly high. Audiences were hooked in the lead-up to the match as the two legends hurtled towards a WrestleMania collision, putting the company's greatest undefeated streak on the line against one of its most accomplished careers.
2. Hulk Hogan vs Andre the Giant (WrestleMania III)
Billed as literally the biggest main event in WWF history, Hulk Hogan put his three-year reign as WWF Champion on the line against Andre the Giant's "15-year" undefeated streak in what was the most highly-anticipated match in WWF history at the time.
The feud began in January 1987 when Andre turned heel for the first time in his WWF career. Tensions arose when Hogan was presented with a trophy to commemorate his long run as champion, a trophy larger than the one Andre was given for remaining undefeated.
Shortly after, the Eighth Wonder of the World named hated heel manager Bobby "The Brain" Heenan as his associate and challenged the Hulkster for his world championship in the main event of the upcoming Pontiac Silverdome spectacular.
The hype surrounding the match was incredible, as fans were unsure if Hogan would even be able to lift Andre off the ground, never mind retain his title. Audiences were constantly reminded of Andre's sheer size and his impressive undefeated streak to plant the seed of doubt that perhaps not even Hulkamania could overcome the giant.
In the end, before a crowd of 93,197, Hogan delivered the "bodyslam heard around the world" to Andre and left WrestleMania still WWF Champion.
Quite possibly the most famous match in WWF history as well as one of the most iconic, the clash between unstoppable force and immovable object deserves a place at the top end of the list, as anticipation had been built to fever pitch by the time the match rolled around.
1. The Rock vs Hollywood Hogan (WrestleMania 18)
A fantasy match most of us never thought we would ever see, the "Icon vs Icon" clash between Hulk Hogan and The Rock is, in my mind, the most highly-anticipated match in WWE history.
The atmosphere was electric on the February 18, 2002 Raw as the People's Champion interrupted Hogan's promo, challenging him to a match at the Showcase of the Immortals. Fans were in raptures as the two shook hands and engaged in an intense staredown before The Great One dropped his adversary with a Rock Bottom.
The microphone duels between arguably the two biggest stars in history had the audience hooked on every word, and the rivalry between wrestling's past and wrestling's future generated a unique big-match aura. Squaring off in the run-up to the event in tag and multi-man matches, the audience were kept guessing as to who would come out on top in the dream match at the Toronto Skydome.
The atmosphere was absolutely electric by the time the two men faced each other on March 17, with the Great One picking up a career-defining victory over the Hulkster.
The excitement surrounding the Icon vs Icon match was palpable, with audiences dying to see if The Rock could emerge victorious against the biggest name in wrestling history. The build-up and subsequent atmosphere of the match made it the most anticipated match in company history.
So there it is, the 15 most anticipated matches in WWE history.
Unsurprisingly, the list is dominated by some of the biggest names of all-time, including Hulk Hogan, Shawn Michaels and The Rock. This just goes to show how good these guys were when it came to creating an emotional attachment with the audience, especially when it came to high-profile matches.
Remember, this list is just my personal opinion, so I look forward to hearing from you guys in the comments.
Do you agree with the rankings?
What matches would you have included?
Sound off in the comments below!