Wrestling's 10 Best Hidden Gems of the Decade
Another decade, another crop of matches that don't get their share.
For every Hogan/Andre bout that drew X billions of dollars (depending on who's telling the story), there's always a better Steamboat/Savage match lurking in the undercard.
With that in mind, it's time to go through the top "hidden gems" from the past decade, with hopes of exposing fans to matches they'd never seen, and giving me the excuse to watch all these bad boys again.
While many of the matches on this list aren't superior to the matches that took home "Match of the Year" honors, they are nonetheless as exciting as their more famous counterparts.
Before we begin, a word on the criteria.
I picked out a single match for every year of the decade (2000-2009), so as to give every year its fair share. Of course, that doesn't mean that one year couldn't have had two or three matches on this list (I'm looking at you, 2004).
On with the list.
2000: The Rock vs. Triple H (Iron Man Match)
Make no mistake: 2000 was Triple H's year. While his more famous battles with Mick Foley stand out in most people's minds as the cream of the crop that year, his often forgotten classic with The Rock at Judgment Day was about as much fun as a wrestling fan could have in Y2K.
Going into the match, fans were wondering whether two guys with limited ring skill and no experience wrestling past the 40 minute mark could bring the goods the way HBK and Bret Hart has done so four years prior.
They did, delivering a match chocked with enough old school wrestling psychology to make Gordon Solie blush.
After 58 minutes, with the pinfalls tied at 5 apiece, the "sports entertainment" beast reared its ugly head in the form of run-ins galore.
Triple H scored the fluke victory over The Rock, 6-5, after a returning Undertaker earned HHH the DQ decision at the bell.
Minor blemishes aside, this is the match that both solidified HHH as a main event player, and gave The Rock the instant credibility he'd been lacking from the dwindling "wrestling purist" base.
Nine years later, this match is still lacking the love from a DVD release.
Apologies to: Rock/HHH/Angle (Summerslam); TLC (Summerslam); Malenko/Scotty 2 Hotty (Backlash)
2001: Chris Jericho vs. Chris Benoit (Ladder Match)
With the death of any major competition in North America, 2001 was a lean year for wrestling fans.
Leave it to the Canadian Chris Connection, then, to step up their game and give the WWF a lesson in wrestling superiority.
"Too small" to make it in WCW, the two locked up at the Royal Rumble, competing in a grueling, 19 minute match for the Intercontinental Title.
The match saw the best in both young grapplers, including a headfirst dive to the floor stopped cold with a chairshot to the head, and a Lion Tamer (I'm NOT calling it the Walls) on top of a ladder.
Considering what all that damage eventually did to both wrestlers, it's hard to go back and appreciate this match for all it had to offer.
But during the vacuous months of 2001, no two wrestlers did it better than Jericho and Benoit, and nowhere did they do it better than at the Royal Rumble.
Apologies to: HHH/Austin (No Way Out); HHH/Austin v. Benoit/Jericho (Raw is War); TLC II (Wrestlemania)
2002: Samoa Joe vs. Low Ki
2002 saw the rise of several independent promotions trying to cash in on the slew of unemployed wrestlers left in the wake of WCW and ECW's closure.
But where Major League Wrestling, Main Event Championship Wrestling, and the World Wrestling All-Stars failed, an upstart promotion out of Philadelphia named Ring of Honor flourished.
Stripped of any pretensions of entertainment, ROH gave the wrestling crowd all it could handle of pure, Japanese-inspired athletic action. At Glory by Honor, the ROH fans were introduced to the beast known as Samoa Joe.
Remember how I said ROH was stripped of any pretenses? So was this match. Fought under "fight without honor" rules (or lack thereof), this match saw two guys pummel the crap out of each other for 16 minutes until one of them drops.
No bells. No whistles. Just a whole lot of stiff kicks, punches, and welts.
Joe would go on to dominate the latter part of the decade in both ROH and TNA, but it was Low Ki who walked away victorious in this affair.
Apologies to: Anything the "Smackdown Six" produced; Rock/Jericho (Royal Rumble); Ikuto Hidaka v. Amazing Red (same ROH show)
2003: Billy Kidman and Rey Mysterio vs. The World's Greatest Tag Team
In 2003, Vince McMahon attempted to create some competition amongst his brands by assigning them all their own PPVs. On SmackDown!'s inaugural show, they not only brought the goods, they brought down the roof as well.
Highlighting the event was a seemingly innocuous tag-team match between The World's Greatest Tag Team and Rey Mysterio and his mystery partner...Billy Kidman.
For those of you too young to remember, Kidman was a hot commodity in WCW before dying a slow death in WWE for not having the charisma or size or ability to work "WWF Style."
Seeing his opportunity, Kidman and Mysterio put on a spot fest with the World's Greatest Tag Team for 16 minutes as the four wrestlers did everything they could to one-up each other.
Kidman and Mysterio lost that match, but for one night it seemed as though the WWE had finally tapped into Kidman's worth.
He then spent the rest of 2003 on the sidelines as his girlfriend's father was pitted in a love affair angle with Dawn Marie.
When you're playing fourth fiddle to Dawn Marie and Torrie and Al Wilson, it sucks to be Billy Kidman.
Apologies to: Every other match on that card; HBK/HHH (Raw is War); Michael Shane/Frankie Kazarian/Chris Sabin (Ultimate X)
2004: America's Most Wanted vs. Triple X (Six Sides of Steel)
Someone backstage at Turning Point '04 must've stuck Triple X and AMW in a room with a copy of Blanchard/Magnum TA for hours before the show, because the two teams put on a bloodbath worthy of comparison to the Starrcade classic.
Forced into a "Win or Disband Forever" stipulation, America's Most Wanted had chased Triple X for the better part of the year before finally meeting them head-on in the first ever Six Sides of Steel.
To say that the ring was covered in blood after this match would be an understatement. Let's just say these two teams kept the Red Cross in business for years to come.
Capped off by Elix Skipper's now legendary hurricanrana off the top of the cage, AMW and Triple X worked an old-school, Southern style cage match that featured handcuffs, tag team maneuvers (remember those?), and buckets and buckets of hemoglobin.
The result? AMW took home the gold, and Triple X disbanded forever—or until 2007, which is pretty much forever in wrestling terms.
Apologies to: Benoit/HBK/HHH (Backlash), Guerrero/Angle (Wrestlemania), the 2004 Royal Rumble
2005: Samoa Joe vs. Kenta Kobashi
Remember this guy? After debuting in ROH in 2002, Joe went on to dominate the non-WWE wrestling scene for the next three years, culminating in an 18-month reign as ROH champion, and another 18-month unbeaten streak in TNA.
Just a month removed from competing in what was arguably the match of the decade with AJ Styles and Christopher Daniels, Joe came back to ROH to take on Pro Wrestling NOAH legend Kenta Kobashi in what was hyped as a "Once in a Lifetime" event.
Given the hype the match had, it didn't disappoint.
Like Joe v. Low Ki three years prior, Joe and Kobashi proceeded to spend the next 22 minutes in a manly, "beat-the-crap-out-of-each-other-till-one-guy-drops" struggle that saw Kobashi overcome Joe's onslaught to become King of Testosterone Hill.
When a match ends with a lariat and STILL takes home a 5-star rating from Dave Meltzer, you know you've just done something special.
When you can bring home two 5-star rated matches in a month's time, you're in a league of your own.
Apologies to: Angle/HBK (Wrestlemania); The Joe/Daniels/Styles wars; Cena/JBL "I Quit Match" (Judgment Day)
2006: AJ Styles & Christopher Daniels vs. LAX
Few times this decade has a wrestler or tag team resonated so strongly with the fan base as the Latin American Xchange did in 2006.
Taking a page out of the nWo's marketing handbook, this team exploded onto TNA with its guerrilla style videos and militant attitude.
Equally loved and reviled, the team exploited a very real divide in TNA's fanbase, and benefited from the growing divide between Latinos and the rest of America.
Soon enough, TNA resembled a war zone, with everyone from announcers to managers picking sides.
Enter AJ Styles and Christopher Daniels. Fresh off their company-making wars with Samoa Joe, these two found success as a tag team, and captured the gold against a freshly-turned America's Most Wanted earlier in the year.
The battle between these two teams at Bound for Glory was nothing less than a sociology experiment gone horribly awry. The two teams literally thrashed each other into oblivion, as Hernandez's brute strength clashed beautifully with the aerial assaults of Daniels and Styles.
A Gringo Killer from Homicide on AJ Styles spelled the beginning of a new era for Latinos in TNA.
In the end, LAX come out on top—and was sure to remind everyone in the crowd of who they represented.
Apologies to: Elimination Chamber (New Year's Revolution); Styles/Daniels v. AMW; KENTA/Bryan Danielson (Glory by Honor V)
2007: Batista vs. The Undertaker
Every lug has his day: when The Undertaker met Batista for the World Heavyweight Title at Wrestlemania XXIII, no one was expecting much from the two in terms of work rate or technical prowess.
Then again, no one ever knew The Undertaker to take the more-traveled road.
The two put on a clinic, trading holds and wrestling maneuvers with big blows and hard-hitting spots. Working the crowd into a feverish pitch, Batista and the Undertaker—two guys known for short matches with lots of rest spots—went a solid 15 minutes, culminating in a Tombstone for 'Taker's title win and 15th victory at Wrestlemania.
Others may have done it better than these two in 2007, but never did these two do it better this decade.
Apologies to: Cena/HBK (Raw is War); Money in the Bank Match (Wrestlemania), The Angle/Joe wars (TNA)
2008: Chris Jericho vs. Shawn Michaels
Chris Jericho's return was just about to be labeled a bust when he met Shawn Michaels in mid-2008.
Coming off retiring Ric Flair at Wrestlemania 24, HBK was dead set on bringing the goods to a babyface Chris Jericho.
The two met in a non-title matchup at Judgment Day that year that did more for wrestling psychology in WWE than any match had in years.
Teasing a heel turn the entire match, Jericho kept pace with the Icon, as the "respect" factor soon gave way to increasingly stiffer moves and gorgeous wrestling sequences.
In the end, Michaels emerged victorious, and the feud of the year was off and running. Both he and Jericho walked out of the match with a tentative handshake, but it was clear that the old Chris Jericho had been stirred.
Apologies to: Every other Jericho/HBK match that year; El Generico/Kevin Steen v. Naruki Doi & Masato Yoshino (ROH Dragon Gate Challenge II)
2009: Edge vs. John Cena (Last Man Standing Match)
John Cena just can't catch a break.
Hated by the Internet Wrestling Community for his seemingly never-ending push, The Doctor of Thuganomics has found no quarter with wrestling purists either.
Add to the fact that he's marketed to an audience of 12 year olds, and the WWE poster child comes off like the Jonas Brothers at Pitchfork's "Year End" office party.
But don't knock the guy for delivering the goods, because deliver he does, as he did this year against Edge at Backlash.
Not blessed with the deepest of wrestling playbooks, Cena has always relied on brute strength and excellent timing to carry his matches.
Throw in the element of the cowardly Edge—who will stop at nothing to sit atop the WWE yet again—and you have a brutal encounter that left even the snidest of wrestling smarks in awe.
If you haven't seen this bout, check it out, if only to see how much Cena is willing to sacrifice for his craft. The man may not wrestle like Flair, but he does have a passion like Foley, and that goes a long way—especially when the match finish involves going through a spotlight.
Apologies to: Hardy/CM Punk TLC (Summerslam); Christian/Swagger (ECW on Sci-Fi); Desmond Wolfe/Angle (Turning Point)