There are few wrestlers who demonstrated the technical wrestling prowess that Dean Malenko did throughout the 1990s. A second-generation star, Malenko worked across the globe early in his career but could not gain the notoriety and recognition necessary to truly make a name for himself in the industry.
That all changed with his arrival in the Philadelphia-based, Paul Heyman-owned Extreme Championship Wrestling.
Recognizing his immense talent and wrestling ability, Heyman labeled him The Shooter and allowed him to showcase his talents in matches against the likes of Eddie Guerrero and 2 Cold Scorpio.
His work in the ECW Arena caught the attention of Eric Bischoff, who signed Malenko to be one of the cornerstones of a cruiserweight division that would help separate the surging World Championship Wrestling from the competition.
Along the way, Malenko became one of the most respected stars in the industry, even earning the No. 1 spot in Pro Wrestling Illustrated's PWI 500 list.
Backstage politics held the Man of 1,000 Holds down, though, and by the time 2000 rolled around, he jumped at the opportunity to leave WCW and embark on a career renaissance in World Wrestling Entertainment.
As a member of the Radicalz, Malenko teamed with Chris Benoit, Perry Saturn and Eddie Guerrero to create chaos and suffering for any babyfaces unlucky enough to stand between the renegade group of newcomers and their goals.
Unfortunately, Malenko's lack of size hurt him in the land of giants, and he never really evolved past the light heavyweight championship while competing in singles matches. Add to that a degenerating neck, and the master of grappling was forced to call it a career earlier than he and his fans would have hoped.
Today, he works backstage in WWE, helping some of the brightest young stars in the industry succeed and thrive as they move up the proverbial ladder.
In celebration of Malenko's critically acclaimed career, and in honor of his many accomplishments, enjoy this stroll down memory lane with a look at the Iceman's greatest matches and moments.
The Guerrero Series
While Malenko had developed an underground reputation for himself as a competitor and worker, it was not until the revolutionary series of matches he had with Eddie Guerrero in ECW that he really gained the recognition and respect he deserved.
Together, he and Guerrero single-handedly changed the perception of ECW from that of a renegade hardcore promotion to one that could be counted on to deliver outstanding pro wrestling as well as the blood, guts and mature themes fans had become accustomed to.
The two second-generation stars, no strangers to each other due to their work all over the world, wowed the Philadelphia audiences with technical masterpieces every time they shared the ring.
Malenko and Guerrero would trade the ECW Television Championship in a series of all-time classics that culminated with a 2-out-of-3 Falls match.
Unfortunately for Paul Heyman, who had clearly recognized the greatness of his hidden gems, the matches they wrestled earned them national acclaim and piqued the interest of World Championship Wrestling's Eric Bischoff, who was looking to bolster his roster with the most talented stars in the world.
That three-falls bout would be their final match in ECW, as they signed with the resurgent WCW and became household names almost instantly.
It never would have happened without the work they put in against each other and the crowds reacting to those matches the way they did. Heyman gave them the platform to perform, something they both were extremely appreciative of in the years that followed.
Malenko's first televised WCW match took place on October 2, 1995. He lost to familiar foe Guerrero that night but would rebound nicely in the months to come.
On May 2, 1996, Malenko became the standard bearer for the cruiserweight division when he defeated Shinjiro Otani to capture the WCW Cruiserweight Championship.
He would spend months trading it back and forth with fellow newcomer Rey Mysterio and, in the process, became responsible for a style of wrestling that American wrestling fans had never seen before. It was lightning fast, incredibly flashy and featured some of the coolest reversals and counter-wrestling they had ever witnessed.
Malenko, a mat-based worker whose specialty was submission wrestling, proved to be exactly what stars such as Mysterio, Juventud Guerrera, Billy Kidman, Psychosis and the numerous other Mexican luchadors who entered the company during that period needed to transition into and learn the American style.
He would compile three cruiserweight title reigns by the time January 1997 rolled around, establishing himself as one of wrestling's elite in-ring performers in the process.
The Jericho Feud
There's no feud that stands out in Malenko's five years with WCW more than the one involving him and Chris Jericho. To this day, the program is recognized as one of the best that promotion ever produced.
Jericho made a habit out of poking fun at Malenko's father, the great Boris Malenko, and his entire family. He trivialized Malenko's accomplishments and was generally a grade-A villain in doing so.
At Uncensored in March 1998, Jericho forced a submission out of Malenko. Dejected, defeated and frustrated, the Iceman told legendary interviewer "Mean" Gene Okerlund that he was going home. He refused to expand on that and did not reveal when he would be back.
Jericho could not help but poke the bear with a stick, however, continuing his crusade to disparage the Malenko name.
At Slamboree, Jericho oversaw a Battle Royal featuring some of the top cruiserweight talent in the world. The winner would get a shot at his prestigious title, a title he had retained through various loopholes over the months.
When Ciclope won the match, many thought it odd. After all, he was a C-level competitor at best, someone more associated with WCW Saturday Night than pay-per-view title shots. When the masked man trapped Jericho in the Texas Cloverleaf submission hold and forced a tapout, fans exploded—for they knew that just under the orange and black exterior was Dean Malenko, who had finally gotten his revenge.
It made for a goosebumps-inducing moment, one that fans responded to with a tremendous pop.
Of course, being WCW, it followed up with the worst booking possible, but on that night, in front of that crowd, it delivered one of the best angles in company history and what should have been the blowoff to one of its finest feuds.
The fall of 1998 saw Malenko approach Arn Anderson about reforming the Four Horsemen. The legendary faction had been discontinued in the wake of the legal issues between Ric Flair and Eric Bischoff, and the Man of 1,000 Holds believed it was time to reunite the group by the time September rolled around.
Anderson took it under consideration. On September 14, the group reformed. Steve McMichael, Chris Benoit, Anderson and Malenko, along with former Horseman manager and current WCW authority figure J.J. Dillon, welcomed Flair back into the fold in one of the most emotional moments in this history of Nitro.
From there, the group set out to return to some of its past glory, but unfortunately, backstage politics got in the way.
Still, Malenko teamed with Benoit to wrestle some stellar matches, even winning the WCW Tag Team Championships.
Unfortunately, the Horsemen disbanded again, leaving Malenko and Benoit to join up with Perry Saturn and Shane Douglas in the Revolution faction.
Eventually, WCW's lackluster creative team at the time split them up, too.
Malenko wandered around aimlessly for months before jumping to WWE in January 2000.
WWE and the Lightheavyweight Championship
Malenko arrived on the scene just in time to enjoy the greatest single year in World Wrestling Entertainment history.
Sitting ringside at a show in Pittsburgh with Benoit, Saturn and Guerrero, all four men jumped the guardrail when confronted by "Road Dogg" Jesse James and attacked the competitors doing battle at the time. It was a tremendous way to debut and one that shook the wrestling world to its core.
They would eventually betray friend Mick Foley to side with Triple H as villains.
Malenko was one-quarter of the Radicalz faction, feuding with the likes of Scotty 2 Hotty, Grandmaster Sexay and Rikishi, tearing the house down in multiman tag team matches across the country.
In one of Raw's hidden gems, Malenko, Benoit and Saturn teamed with D-Generation X's Triple H and X-Pac to battle the three dancing fools, The Rock and Cactus Jack in 10-Man tag team action.
Soon, Malenko was awarded the WWE Light Heavyweight Championship by way of his victory over Essa Rios. The division in WWE was nowhere near the quality of the one Malenko had risen to stardom in during his WCW days, but he still managed to have some very good, very competitive matches.
One in particular came in April at the Backlash pay-per-view when he battled Scotty 2 Hotty. One of the most unexpectedly great matches in company history, Malenko ended Hotty's night with a sickening top-rope DDT to retain his title.
He reigned as champion all the way through the end of the year but really had nothing to do as he watched Benoit and Guerrero become bigger stars. The Radicalz reformed late in the year, but it would take an infatuation with fiery redhead Lita to earn him his most memorable storyline in the company.
In November 2000, Malenko suddenly became obsessed with Lita, as most men were at the time. The smoking-hot Diva had taken the sport by storm and suddenly found herself thrust into her first real storyline involving a guy not named Hardy.
Malenko courted her and won the right to date the former women's titleholder. This led to some interesting, entertaining and uncomfortable segments. One saw Malenko ready to bed Lita but, when she turned out the lights and he turned them back on, he was attacked by the Hardy Boyz.
The Armageddon pay-per-view pitted The Hardys and Lita against Malenko, Guerrero and Saturn. As one could have expected, the action came down to Lita vs. Malenko, and the man won out, forcing Lita to tap with the Texas Cloverleaf.
They would meet numerous times, all the way into 2001.
Unfortunately, it would be the last thing of note Malenko did. After getting lost in the shuffle, he turned his attention to a neck injury that had been hampering him.
Shortly thereafter, he retired, bringing to an end an exemplary career.