They call WrestleMania the "showcase of the immortals." And for more than 25 years, it's lived up to that name, hosting professional wrestling's very best. A who's who of superstars have entered the ring, from wrestling stalwarts Andre the Giant and John Cena to celebrities like Pete Rose, Liberace and Floyd Mayweather Jr.
These men and women have walked right past hundreds of lookalikes, ridden in motorized carts, zoomed in on a zip line from high above the fray, dressed as barbarian kings and even styled and profiled right into the arena inside a shiny pink Cadillac. But, as delightful as the pomp and circumstance can be, it's in the ring and not on the ramp where business really picks up.
All the celebrities in the world, all the musical acts, all the hoopla would be worthless without the ultimate pro wrestling product—a great match. In honor of WrestleMania 29, I've selected the 29 best bouts in the history of wrestling's grandest spectacle.
This list has it all. High flying. Spectacular stunts. Hard-hitting action. And, of course, the biggest stars in the matches fans most wanted to see.
Disagree with my rankings? My choices? Just don't care for my face? Let's talk about it in the comments.
Result: Edge beat Foley after spearing him through a flaming table.
Spot of the Night: Did you not read the above? A man was speared through a flaming table, people!
Analysis: For all his WWE success, and it was considerable, the great Mick Foley never had a truly exceptional WrestleMania moment. His best matches, like the "I Quit" bout with the Rock and a back-and-forth classic with Shawn Michaels, went down at less prestigious shows. So too his most famous stunt, the original Hell in Cell and the plunge right off the top of the cage.
Some things are just not to be—but Foley was not to be denied. Six years after he retired as a full-time wrestler, he got a second chance to create that one moment that could be written into WrestleMania history. And, this time, he made it happen.
Result: Hulk Hogan body slams Andre and pins him in the center of the ring.
Spot of the Night: Sure, others had slammed the Giant before. But the WWE sold a different story, and when Hogan got the job done, the giant crowd exploded in joy.
Analysis: This isn't a classic technical wrestling match. By this point, Andre was barely ambulatory, let alone capable of having a great match. They built the match around one spot, the seemingly impossible body slam, and with that as the center, they were able to create a moment no one would ever forget.
Result: Cena makes Triple H tap out to the STF to retain the WWE title.
Spot of the Night: There is plenty of great action in the match. And normally that trumps all. In this case, however, the best part of the match was HHH's incredible decision to come out to the ring dressed as a Conan-like barbarian king. Tremendous.
Analysis: With HHH matches, there is always an interesting subtext. Ever since it was revealed that Hunter was tied romantically to Stephanie McMahon, the perception has existed among some hardcore fans that he's constantly looking for a way to put himself over at the expense of other wrestlers.
So, when HHH kicked out of Cena's FU and escaped the STF, fans across America were gearing up to be furious. "Here we go again," you could practically hear certain wrestling fans everywhere exclaim. Others were thrilled that Cena, a favorite of children and young women, would be bested by a real man. It was the beginning of the Cena dichotomy that still splits crowds to this day.
And, then, in the face of all expectations, Cena avoided the Pedigree and slapped on the STF for the win. Some were thrilled, others crushed. That's the power of John Cena.
Result: Big boot. Leg drop. One. Two. Three. Hogan by pinfall.
Spot of the Night: Vince McMahon, the millionaire owner of the WWE, blood pouring from his head, climbed a ladder propped between the two announce tables. He proceeds to mock Hogan, putting his hands to his ears as if exhorting the crowd to cheer. Then he drops a leg, off the ladder, putting Hogan through a table.
Analysis: This one got ugly at the contract signing when McMahon sneaked up on Hogan and clocked him with a steel chair. It was payback for leaving the WWE for WCW all those years ago and for testifying against Vince in his early '90s steroid trial.
These two let each other have it in this match. Both on the wrong side of 50, these two giants of the wrestling industry, men who together built sports entertainment, let out years of pent-up hostility. Add Roddy Piper to the mix, and the result was something special indeed.
Result: Austin claims his place as WWE's top star by pinning HBK with the Stone Cold Stunner.
Spot of the Night: The amazing sequence of false finishes at the end, one that culminated in Austin catching Michaels in mid-Sweet Chin Music, spinning him around and hitting the Stunner for the win. Then, like icing on a cake, special guest ref Mike Tyson laid Michaels out with a single punch.
Analysis: This was a bravura performance from Michaels. His injured back was bad enough that he would retire after the bout. But rather than take the easy way out, Michaels gutted it through this match to help launch Austin the right way.
A lot has been written about Shawn refusing to do the job for Bret Hart and others. When the company needed him, however, he was there to do the right thing.
Result: John Cena makes Michaels submit to the STF.
Spot of the Night: Michaels piledrives Cena on the steel ring steps.
Analysis: WWE knew it had something special with John Cena, the first legitimate business-changing superstar since The Rock. He was the total package and they pulled out all the stops to let the public know that he was going to be the guy.
Two years in a row, Cena met political animals from the ruling Kliq, wrestlers who didn't like to lose. And two years running, he made them tap clean in the middle of the ring. That's called sending a message. Cena was the anointed one.
Result: The Undertaker goes to 10-0 at WrestleMania, pinning Flair with a Tombstone Piledriver.
Spot of the Night: Flair's longtime friend Arn Anderson sprinting out to the ring to nail Undertaker with a spinebuster.
Analysis: By this point in his career Flair, once a technical master, was reduced to bleeding and brawling. His offense consisted of a chop, a right hand and the Figure Four leglock. That, actually, was perfect for a match with the Undertaker at WrestleMania.
This was hard-hitting action and it allowed Flair to show that, at 53, he still had some gas left in the tank. For Undertaker, it was one more impressive name to add to his growing WrestleMania winning streak.
Result: Bret Hart beats Roddy Piper to become the new Intercontinental champion.
Spot of the Night: The finishing sequence was great. Piper locks Hart in the sleeper but the valiant Bret managed to kick off the ring post and land on top of Piper, who refused to let go of the hold. With Bret slipping into the blackness, the referee counts to three. Despite being on offensive, Piper loses a hard-fought match.
Analysis: Piper had plenty to prove on this night, both in the storyline and in real life. Could he go with a hungry young animal like Bret Hart? Without shenanigans and heeling it up?
The answer, when it was said and done, was a definitive yes.
The match was also home to a classic Bobby Heenan/Gorilla Monsoon exchange:
Heenan: A real champion wouldn't spit...he'd eye gouge him. I would. I remember when I was champion, Monsoon.
Monsoon: Champion of what?
Heenan: My neighborhood.
The two announcers were on fire during this match and so were the wrestlers. Piper was an important part of the early WrestleManias—but this was his best match.
Result: Lesnar pins Angle with the F5 to win the WWE title.
Spot of the Night: Brock Lesnar, all 300 pounds of him, climbs to the top rope to deliver a Shooting Star Press. The acrobatic move was supposed to be the finish. Instead, Lesnar slipped and fell on his head, knocking himself silly. It's amazing he's still alive.
Analysis: Kurt Angle could barely function in this match and everyone knew it. Less than two weeks after the bout, he underwent neck surgery. Doctors warned him before the match that he was risking everything by just stepping into the ring.
That made watching this bout an interesting experience. Robbed of context, it's a perfectly fine match. But knowing the stakes, this was edge-of-your-seat voyeurism of the worst and most powerful kind.
Result: Austin, unable to finish the job with the Stone Cold Stunner, used a steel chair to beat the Rock.
Spot of the Night: Wait...what? Is that Vince McMahon? Is that Vince McMahon helping Stone Cold? NOOOOOOO!
Analysis: Austin and Rock, one on one. You didn't really need much more than that to sell WrestleMania. Of course that didn't stop the WWE from coming up with a convoluted angle that involved Austin's then-wife Deborah being forced against her will to manage the Rock.
Maybe Baby Doll was on the brain? Who knows? What matters is the match and it was a doozy, brutal and violent. In the end, Austin, frustrated and, oh by the way, suddenly a heel associated with McMahon, hit Rock with 16 straight chair shots to win the match and the title.
Directors, keep this match in mind. If Dwayne has trouble remembering his lines, it likely all started right here in Houston.
Result: The Warrior pins Savage with a foot on the chest, adding insult to injury.
Spot of the Night: How do you pick just one? Randy Savage lands five consecutive flying elbow drops from the top rope. Warrior, five times the man Hogan is apparently, still manages to kick out!
Analysis: Both men put their careers on the line in this incredible match. Sensational Sherri was at her very best here, climbing the ropes in an incredibly revealing dress in an ill-fated attempt to hit Warrior with the most dangerous weapon of all—her shoe. It backfired, of course, but as a moment it was perfect.
This was the height of Vince's attempts to build Warrior as the heir apparent to Hogan. There's really no excuse for having him kick out of Savage's five-elbow-drop onslaught, but when Vince goes in, he goes all in.
At the end of the match, Savage, forced into retirement, reunites with Miss Elizabeth, seen throughout the match with her trademark look of confusion and concern. A great (temporary) end to a special career.
Result: Michaels reversed a superplex and rolled up Jericho for the win.
Spot of the Night: Jericho dances a jig and delivers his own version of Sweet Chin Music.
Analysis: Jericho is often described as the poor man's Shawn Michaels. That only makes sense—when he got into the business, Y2J wanted to be Michaels. It was a good angle for what turned into a special match. Master vs. student. A man trying to eclipse his idol.
Michaels, famously, is Mr. WrestleMania. He delivered on the big stage each and every time. So, if the best conceivable WrestleMania match is HBK vs. HBK, this was about as close as you can get to living that dream.
Fast paced and pitch perfect, this bout stole the show on a night that certainly wasn't lacking in great action.
Result: Owen Hart shocks the world by pinning his older brother.
Spot of the Night: Sometimes it's the little things. Here I was most impressed by Owen Hart taking an incredible sternum-first bump into the ring post off a simple Irish whip.
Analysis: Owen Hart did not like to lose. So, when injuries to his older brother Bret cost him not one, but two high-profile matches, he snapped. The result was this bout, a technical classic that managed to outshine Bret's title win over Yokozuna later that night.
Before there was Eddie Guerrero and Dean Malenko, this was the match that served as the template for "classic wrestling." It should be part of the curriculum at every wrestling school in the country.
Result: Kurt Angle makes Michaels tap out to his Ankle Lock.
Spot of the Night: It's not enough for Kurt Angle to deliver his finisher. He wants to deliver it off the top rope. And Shawn Michaels is always happy to accept the abuse in service to a great match.
Analysis: Kurt Angle wanted to do everything Shawn Michaels had done before him, only faster and better. That was the storyline going into this one, with Kurt winning a ladder match on SmackDown, beating Michael's former partner Marty Jannetty and even hiring "Sensational" Sherri to be his manager.
It was all funny stuff—but there was an edge to it as well, because Angle meant what he said from the bottom of his heart. He had his eye on Michaels' spot as the company's all-time great worker and was coming for it hard and fast.
Result: Savage pins Flair with the rollup to win the WWE championship.
Spot of the Night: Flair pushed Savage into the ropes, looked Miss Elizabeth in the eyes and said "This is for you, baby," before delivering one of his cringe-inducing chops.
Analysis: This might have been a fight for the title, it may have been personal as all heck, but it wasn't the main event. That was reserved for Hulk Hogan and Sid Justice. These two enduring legends had to be content with the mid-card.
The feud going into this bout was fierce. Not only did Flair claim to have had Miss Elizabeth first, he threatened to release nude pictures. Savage was out not just for the belt, but for revenge in this heated match.
Result: Michaels lands Sweet Chin Music in overtime to win the WWE title for the first time.
Spot of the Night: Shawn's spectacular zip-line entrance. That was classic HBK, putting on a show before the match even started.
Analysis: One hour wasn't enough to settle what would become the most heated question in wrestling—who was better, Shawn Michaels or Bret Hart? When time expired on their iron man match, it was a question left unanswered. Neither man had scored a submission or pinfall in the allotted time.
Hart was closest, at the end. He had Michaels trapped in his Sharpshooter, but the challenger refused to concede. Too much pride was on the line, the blood, sweat and broken bones of a career on the road culminating in this opportunity to greatness.
Luckily for Michaels, with Hart halfway up the aisle, Gorilla Monsoon was there to demand a winner. The match would go into sudden death, where Michaels quickly defeated a deflated Hart for his first taste of WWE championship gold.
Result: Hogan proves he's the man, pinning Savage with a leg drop to win WWE gold.
Spot of the Night: Hulk Hogan does the unthinkable—he kicks out of Macho Man's patented flying elbow drop.
Analysis: This was the masterpiece of Vince McMahon's early tenure as a national promoter. First, he built Savage and Hogan as a tag team, the appropriately named the Mega Powers. Next, cracks began to form in the relationship between the two men, product of their complicated relationship with the lovely Ms. Elizabeth.
Finally, Savage snapped. The result? A feud that sent the box office soaring and fans to the phone to order WrestleMania V.
Result: The Rock pins Austin after three Rock Bottoms to win the match.
Spot of the Night: The Rock put on Austin's vest and mocked all of his trademark mannerisms. He had a little too much fun, however, as Austin recovered and hit Rock with a dose of his own medicine—the Rock Bottom.
Analysis: It was a bittersweet night in Seattle. WWE fans were getting a chance to see two of their favorites go one-on-one for a final time. It was, for the third time at WrestleMania, the Rock vs. Stone Cold Steve Austin.
But a pall hung over the proceedings. Fans who followed the business closely knew that we would possibly be seeing Austin in a hard-hitting match for the last time. He had re-injured his neck and retirement was imminent.
Austin, to his credit, let it all hang out. The final match between the two was also the best—and the unofficial end of the Attitude Era.
Result: Christian unhooks the title belts and he and Edge become tag team champions.
Spot of the Night: I'm tempted to say "the whole match." The most memorable moment to me, however, was Jeff Hardy's Swanton Bomb off of an enormous ladder, putting Rhyno and Spike Dudley through two tables and onto the floor.
Analysis: This is the ultimate train wreck. I'm always torn watching matches like this. Yes, the high spots are amazing and constant. But the physical toll is incalculable.
"Everyone is a victim in tables, ladders and chairs. Everyone," Paul Heyman said on commentary. Too true.
In addition to Hardy's amazing dive, there is another spot that is must see TV—Jeff Hardy, hanging desperately from the title belts, getting speared to the floor by Edge, who executed his finisher from a ladder.
Result: Rock pins Hogan after two Rock Bottoms and the People's Elbow.
Spot of the Night: Hogan hitting a Rock Bottom of his own, much to the delight of the crowd.
Analysis: Let's be honest—almost everything Hulk Hogan did in the twilight of his career was dreck. He was a physical wreck and simply couldn't put on a great match any more. But, for one night, he was like the Hogan of old.
Now, that doesn't really say a lot. Hogan was never the most gifted guy in the ring. He was, however, capable of working a smart match. And that's what this was. A clever match that made the most of Hogan's limited physical tools.
The real star, despite the two legends in the ring, was the crowd. They were on fire, cheering Hogan like it was 1985 and treating Rock like he was as loathed as King Kong Bundy. It was dynamic and, most of all, it was fun.
Result: The third time was the charm as the Undertaker's jumping Tombstone piledriver ended HBK's career.
Spot of the Night: Taker's final Tombstone made even my neck hurt.
Analysis: Shawn Michaels couldn't accept he had lost to the Undertaker at WrestleMania 25.
"I wrestled the perfect match," he said. "I made one mistake—and it cost me everything."
What followed bordered on obsession. Michaels wanted one more shot at ending the streak, Taker refused. After much back and forth, Undertaker finally agreed, but at a cost. He would fight Michaels one more time. But if HBK lost, he would be forced to retire.
With the stakes as high as they get, the two attempted to top the match that had wowed the world the year before—and came close. For the second year in a row, the two won the prestigious Wrestling Observer Newsletter's Match of the Year award.
Result: Michaels pinned Flair after Sweet Chin Music to end the legend's WWE career.
Spot of the Night: HBK tells Flair he loves him, right before hitting him with the fight-finishing kick to the jaw.
Analysis: At 59 years of age, it was time for Ric Flair to go. Everyone knew it. Even Flair knew it in his heart. Mr. McMahon, in the storyline, was adamant. He told Flair that the next match he lost would be his last—he would be forced to retire.
Imagine Shawn Michaels' surprise, then, when his friend Flair challenged him at WrestleMania. Flair's logic was sound. If you're going to get beat, get beat by the best.
This was as emotional a match as I've ever seen on WWE television. I'm glad that Flair hasn't come back to the ring, at least the WWE ring. It would be a disservice to this classic piece of theater if he did.
Result: Undertaker pinned HHH with a Tombstone piledriver to win the match.
Spot of the Night: HHH wails on Undertaker's back with a steel chair. Special guest referee Shawn Michaels begs Taker to give up. He refuses. He then pleads with HHH to lay off. “You end it," the Game responded. "Or I will!”
Analysis: It's become cliche to compare wrestling matches with heavyweight fights. But with this bout, inside the forbidding Hell in a Cell cage, the comparison just feels right.
Two legends, neither man had anything to prove, to themselves or the world. Yet there they were, going toe-to-toe in a match that made me cringe at times with its sheer physicality.
Result: Razor Ramon climbs the ladder to secure the Intercontinental title.
Spot of the Night: Shawn Michaels uses a baseball-slide dropkick to propel the ladder into Ramon as he stands outside the ring.
Analysis: Watching this match with today's eyes, it can seem almost quaint at times. The bar for danger has risen to absurd heights, making this match look almost like child's play.
At the time, however, this was groundbreaking violence. Thought Michaels and Bret Hart had worked a previous ladder match on WWE home video, it was nothing like this. This staggered fans with high spots that were different and more innovative than anything they had ever seen.
Result: Steamboat reverses a body slam into a small package to win the Intercontinental title.
Spot of the Night: After a typical Ricky Steamboat armdrag sequence, the Dragon picks Savage up by the throat. It was the one time they acknowledged that this title match was also a grudge match.
Analysis: This match is not nearly as good as its legend would lead you to believe. No match could be.
At the time, it was such an aberration for the WWE. It was a big man's promotion and the bouts tended to move at a glacial pace.
This was different. This was fast. This was hard-hitting. This was the kind of wrestling that fans in much of the country were used to.
My main quibble about this match is the way it was worked. Savage had nearly ended Steamboat's career by nailing him in the throat with the ring bell. But you'd have never guesses by watching this mostly scientific match.
Jesse Ventura tried to help sell the grudge on commentary, discussing how aggressive Steamboat was being. Unfortunately, it was while Steamboat was working a garden-variety armbar.
Result: It was a changing of the guard as Warrior avoided the leg drop and hit a splash of his own for the win.
Spot of the Night: Hogan returning to the ring to shake Warrior's hand and congratulate him on the victory. It drew attention back to the Hulk on what should have been Warrior's moment. That's a savvy old-school carny move.
Analysis: It was 1990. A new decade, and in the mind of WWE boss Vince McMahon, time for a new standard bearer for his wrestling promotion. Hulk Hogan was wearing down and Vince had a replacement being groomed in the wings—the Ultimate Warrior.
The two had a tremendous babyface match. Warrior barely, and I mean barely, succeeded in gorilla-pressing Hogan only to fall short of the required three-count. Hogan had, miraculously, kicked out of Warrior's finisher.
And then, fans thought they knew what was coming. Hogan "Hulked Up," and started no selling everything Warrior did. The Big Boot was as inevitable as death and taxes—but then, a hitch.
Warrior moved out of the way of the leg drop of doom. A splash later and there was a new sheriff in town. Shockingly, especially for young fans who had never known anything but the immortal Hulkster, Hogan was beaten fair and square for the first time in an eternity.
Result: Chris Benoit won the world title, reversing the Pedigree into a Crippler Crossface to make HHH submit.
Spot of the Night: After the match, Benoit's long time friend Eddie Guerrero came to the ring to celebrate. As confetti fell and both men got something in their eyes, fans at home got a little misty too. Benoit was our proxy, a representative of workrate and hard-nosed wrestling. His victory was our victory.
Analysis: Benoit is now WWE's Voldemort. He may not be named, seen or discussed.
Now, obviously what he did, both to himself and his family, was horrific. But I don't think the WWE is right to erase the past. This was a match that meant so much to wrestling fans back in 2004. Like it or not, it's a part of the history of WrestleMania.
It all started, as controversy often does, with Kevin Nash. The big man derisively referred to Benoit and his cohort as the "vanilla midgets." For wrestling fans online, it was like a line had been drawn in the sand. Benoit was our guy and we fully intended to push him all the way to the top.
As a piece of art, it absolutely stands the test of time, but if you don't already own the match on DVD, you may never get the chance to see it. It's even been scrubbed from their website—not just the video footage but even the result or the fact that it existed.
But it was real and it meant everything to the fans who saw it.
Result: Undertaker caught Michaels in mid-moonsault and hit a Tombstone Piledriver for the victory.
Spot of the Night: The Undertaker attempts a rash suicide dive out of the ring, only to have Michaels pull the cameraman into his path.
Analysis: The Undertaker was 44 years old. Shawn Michaels was approaching the same milestone. Both men had been up and down the road for decades. Both had seen better days.
There was no way this match should have been a classic. And yet, here it is.
The entrances, per usual for Michaels, were incredible. Dressed all in white, HBK floated to the ground on a platform.
Accompanied by hymns and a glowing white light, the former bad boy seemed almost like a man of God—before his music hit and he shimmied to the ring. Undertaker emerged from underneath the ramp in darkness and flames.
Symbolism—and not the subtle variety.
Amazingly, the two would come back the very next year and have a match nearly as good. But that's a story for another slide.
Result: Bret Hart makes Austin pass out from the pain.
Spot of the Night: Austin, face pouring blood, refuses to submit to Bret Hart, Valiantly, he fights on until he finally passes out from the pain.
Analysis: An exceptional blend of action and storytelling. Austin was just coming into his own as a star and this match catapulted him to the top of the sport.
The bout was scripted to perfection. Austin, the heel going in, refuses to quit. Hart, the babyface, continues his assault after the match is awarded him. Austin emerges, more beloved than Hart had ever been. Hart comes out of the fray as a loathed villain.
That's not a mere wrestling match. That's drama at its best.