As WWE treads further and further into the unknown and breaks the boundaries of what seems impossible, it's easy to get excited about a gimmick match—but that wasn't always the case.
In WWE at least, gimmick matches were few and far between until toward the end of the 1980s and into the 1990s. Often, they were seen as comedic interludes between the proper, old-fashioned stuff. And it was one such type of match, the ladder match, which began to redefine perceptions of how gimmick matches were so much more than just a match disguised to mask the ability of the wrestlers involved.
This weekend, WWE stages its 50th ladder match when The Club defend the Raw Tag Team Championships against Enzo and Cass plus Sheamus and Cesaro at WrestleMania 33. And on such a monumental milestone, it feels right to remember the exact moment the ladder match shed the tag of a gimmick bout and became a must-have part of WWE's calendar forever more.
WWE's heyday of the 1980s featured little in the way of gimmick bouts, more just plain, solid wrestling from the first bell to last with an increasing importance on exactly what was happening at ringside or even backstage. After all, this was the 1980s, so you were more accustomed to seeing celebrities at every turning rather than ladders and tables.
But in 1992, nine years after competing in a ladder match for another promotion, Bret Hart pitched the gimmick to Vince McMahon and WWE. They agreed to do it although new fans to WWE would barely recognize the concept as they know it today if they watch that match back.
The concept was rolled out during an episode of WWF Prime Time where Hart fought for the Intercontinental Championship against Shawn Michaels. It was decent enough—more than that, in fact: It was an enjoyable match. Mat aficionados would be wise to check it out.
But suddenly, that was it for another two years. There was not a sight of a ladder match in WWE despite a solid first hit for the concept. However, in 1994, two future Hall of Famers would change the perception of this and gimmick matches as a whole forever.
Razor Ramon vs. Shawn Michaels was already a feud that had a good excitement level about it heading into WrestleMania X. They were two incredible wrestlers—Ramon probably in his peak, Michaels just starting to near his—and with such a prestigious strap on the line, it was rightly put in as the co-main event of the show with a stipulation to boot: a ladder match.
"We are making history here tonight in Madison Square Garden, folks," McMahon proclaimed from the commentary box. Not even he, the visionary he was and still is, could have foreseen how true that prediction would be. "Here are the rules...there are no rules!" followed later as Michaels strutted down to the ring with Diesel by his side before Ramon followed, ducking under the ladder as Jerry Lawler gasped in horror. Ramon danced with bad luck before the bell had even rung.
It took a good four or five minutes for Michaels to be the one who introduced the ladder before Ramon blindsided him. When Razor slid the ladder into the ring and Michaels dropkicked it into Ramon's midsection, the audible gasp from the crowd told you all you needed to know about the impact the ladder could have. Thankfully, it would get more and more intense and more and more creative.
This was the night where the match, despite its audition two years earlier, solidified itself on the WWE landscape. In Hart vs. Michaels, the ladder was simply there for someone to climb. Not here. Michaels would leap himself off it, use it as a weapon and do almost anything you could think of with it. Ramon followed suit. There have been calls since that match that it was all about HBK, but Ramon played his part.
Dave Meltzer approved. Eighteen minutes in length, it got a five-star rating from him and instantly changed how wrestling fans perceived the use of a ladder in the squared circle. It was the first time Meltzer had dished out a five-star rating for a WWF match (per ProFightDB). Suddenly, the landscape had changed.
There was, of course, the famous moment where Michaels hurled himself from the ladder and splashed onto Ramon. Legend has it that WWE didn't have a spare ladder in the back as this one continually bent and morphed into a different shape with each spot the two men used it for. Luckily, as the match became more regular in WWE, more and more ladders were stockpiled.
Eager to build on the success of Ramon's victory that night at Madison Square Garden, the third ladder match in WWE's history followed later that year with the same two guys competing for the Intercontinental Championship. This time, Michaels emerged victorious, and while it was difficult to emulate the heroics of WrestleMania earlier in the year, the long-term future of the match as a regular entity in WWE was further solidified.
Slowly, more and more matches of the kind began to appear. WWE would wait three years for the next one, but by the end of the 1990s, there had been nine, including that epic between Edge and Christian and The Hardy Boyz at No Mercy 1999.
But without Michaels and Ramon using the ladder to perfection, telling the perfect story of how to use weapons without being overreliant on them and transforming the perception of the gimmick match, there would have been no Hardys vs. Edge and Christian.
There would have been no Tables, Ladders and Chairs match—Tables and Chairs doesn't quite have the same ring, does it? There would have been no Money in the Bank, no dramatic cash-ins, and there may have been no gimmick matches whatsoever.
On WrestleMania weekend, WWE always deems it appropriate to look at those who changed the image of the business with the annual Hall of Fame ceremony. As WWE brings up ladder match number 50 this Sunday at WrestleMania 33, it's only right to remember just how much Shawn Michaels and Razor Ramon did on that fateful night at MSG.