Ranking the 10 Greatest Title Matches in WWE Survivor Series History

Erik Beaston@@ErikBeastonFeatured ColumnistNovember 19, 2020

Ranking the 10 Greatest Title Matches in WWE Survivor Series History

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    Credit: WWE.com

    WWE Survivor Series is a pay-per-view synonymous with elimination tag matches, a tradition started with the event's inception in 1987. Over its 30-plus years, though, the show has also been highlighted by unforgettable and highly controversial championship encounters that have left fans in awe.

    From CM Punk's 2011 victory over Alberto Del Rio to the Hell in a Cell clash between Undertaker and Batista and, yes, the Montreal Screwjob, the annual fall classic has produced stellar in-ring work while altering the course of WWE history for both the foreseeable and long-term future.

    In preparation for the 34th instalment of Survivor Series on Sunday, relive the championship encounters that helped to define the rich history of the Thanksgiving week spectacular.

Honorable Mention: Triple Threat Match for the World Heavyweight Title (2009)

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    Credit: WWE.com

    The first of two Triple Threat matches at the 2009 Survivor Series saw The Undertaker defend his World Heavyweight Championship against Chris Jericho and Big Show, the result of the giant's betrayal of Team Raw at Bragging Rights and Jericho's win over Kane.

    To that point, there was no personal rivalry or overproduced storyline. It was merely a three-way dance between a trio of SmackDown's top stars.

    Late in the match, Big Show broke up a Tombstone attempt by The Deadman with a KO Punch, but Jericho failed to show the same consideration and break up his pinfall attempt. The then-tag team champions failed to work together, allowing their own desires to prove their downfall, as Big Show blasted Y2J with the KO Punch, only to soon find himself in the Hell's Gate submission.

    A tapout later, and Undertaker had weathered the storm presented by the most dominant tag team in the company.

    While it was eclipsed by a match later in the night, The Deadman's successful title defense is one of the more underrated gems in the history of Survivor Series title matches, thanks in large part to Jericho and Big Show abandoning all plans to team up on the world champion in the name of their individual title aspirations.

10. WWE Championship Match: Sycho Sid vs. Shawn Michaels (1996)

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    The fans inside Madison Square Garden voiced their support for Sycho Sid as he entered the 1996 event as the top contender to Shawn Michaels' WWE Championship. A battle between friends, there was a great deal of intrigue surrounding the match.

    Would Vince McMahon pull the trigger on the suddenly red-hot big man, or would he stick by his heartthrob world champion despite historically low television ratings at the time?

    The answer, as it turned out, was Option 1.

    Sid defeated Michaels in controversial circumstances, using a television camera to blast both HBK and his legendary trainer, Jose Lothario.

    The match, further evidence of Michaels' ability to get the best out of whomever he shared the ring with, benefited from a passionate New York audience who wanted nothing more than to convince McMahon that they had had enough of the HBK experience.

    Sid's big win capped off one of the best cards in Survivor Series history and ranks among the best matches of his Hall of Fame-worthy career.

9. WWE Championship Match: CM Punk vs. Alberto Del Rio (2011)

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    After the abomination of a booking decision that was Alberto Del Rio cashing in Money in the Bank and winning the WWE Championship at SummerSlam, CM Punk sought to regain the title he never should have lost.

    In a physically intense, highly dramatic contest that had fans in Madison Square Garden solidly behind The Straight Edge Superstar, Punk survived repeated attempts by the champion to target his left arm with his cross armbar finisher and applied his Anaconda Vise finisher for the submission win.

    The fans' overwhelming desire to see Punk win, coupled with some superb in-ring chemistry from two of the better workers in the company, helped make the 2011 encounter one of the best title matches in the long and illustrious history of wrestling's fall classic.

8. WWE Championship Match: Bret Hart vs. Shawn Michaels (1997)

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    The ending to the WWE Championship match at the 1997 Survivor Series is the most controversial moment in modern wrestling history. That much we know.

    What we sometimes forget is the intense brawl between Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels that defined the early portion of the match, depicting two sworn enemies with legitimate hatred for one another waging war over the top prize in the sport.

    Or the fact that the in-ring portion of the match was relatively short-lived.

    Still, despite the infamous closing moments and the long-lasting effect it would have on the industry at large, the contest was defined by a physical intensity that other championship encounters of that time lacked.

    Michaels would score the dubious win, but Hart would emerge a beloved hero in the wake of Vince McMahon's most memorable screwjob, all while painting the Chairman of the Board as the vilest and most corrupt heel on WWE television.

    For a match remembered by so many for its closing seconds, it is the forgotten portion that earned its place on this list.

7. Elimination Chamber for the World Heavyweight Championship (2002)

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    Entering the 2002 Survivor Series, Triple H was a world champion with a target on his back.

    The Game had been gifted the World Heavyweight Championship by Raw General Manager Eric Bischoff and successfully defended it through numerous nefarious means against the likes of Rob Van Dam and Kane, all while drawing the attention of Chris Jericho and Booker T.

    Throw in a rivalry with former friend Shawn Michaels that transcended the title, and you had a volatile concoction of Superstars for the first-ever Elimination Chamber match in WWE history.

    The introduction of a new gimmick match, combined with that collection of future Hall of Famers, made for a must-see main event live from the mecca of sports entertainment, Madison Square Garden.

    Most memorable is Triple H's gutsy performance. Entering the match as one of the first two participants, he endured a crushed larynx early on after catching Rob Van Dam's knee to the throat on a botched Five Star Frog Splash attempt.

    He lasted throughout the war, joining Michaels in the final two before succumbing to Sweet Chin Music and dropping his title to his bitter rival.

    The brutal, violent match, intensified by the unforgiving nature of the steel structure itself, made for one of the most unforgettable and historic matches of the new millennium.

    Even with that said, there are several matches that eclipse it from an overall quality perspective.

6. WWE Championship Match: Bret Hart vs. Shawn Michaels (1992)

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    If you had told fans at the 1991 Survivor Series that, just one year later, the event would be headlined by a WWE Championship match pitting Bret "Hitman" Hart vs. Shawn Michaels, you would have been laughed out of the arena.

    After all, this was WWE you were talking about. It was the land of the giants and larger-than-life characters like Hulk Hogan and The Ultimate Warrior. Not smaller, tag team specialists like Hart and Michaels.

    But that is exactly the scenario that played out in 1992, some five years before their much more famous match in Montreal.

    On November 25, 1992, Hart and Michaels delivered a stellar professional wrestling match that emphasized the in-ring product over the loud, incoherent, yelling promos and showmanship of its predecessors. The Hitman and Heartbreak Kid let their work between the ropes speak for itself en route to the best main event in the history of the Survivor Series to that point.

    Hart would tap out Michaels to the Sharpshooter after an uncharacteristically long main event (26:40) and continue his unlikely reign as the top dog in WWE, while Michaels would march on as the reigning intercontinental champion.

    It was a coming-out party for both Superstars, each determined to prove he belonged at the top of the card. They did just that, and the rest, as they say, is history.

5. WWE Championship Match: John Cena vs. Ryback vs. CM Punk (2012)

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    CM Punk was a champion in peril by the time the 2012 Survivor Series kicked off.

    WWE champion for one year, The Straight Edge Superstar had made enemies of both John Cena and the surging Ryback and looked to be in danger of losing his title. That thought played out throughout the match too, as he bumped around the squared circle for both challengers, selling the idea that he would be leaving the show without his title reign intact.

    The it happened.

    As the end drew nearer for Punk, three unnamed Superstars from WWE developmental attacked from out of nowhere and drove Ryback through an announce table with a Triple Powerbomb. A battered Punk crawled across the ring, pinned a Cena—who had just fallen prey to Ryback's Shellshock finisher—and retained his title under controversial circumstances.

    In the years since the show, the match has become as synonymous with The Shield's debut as anything, but fans forget that the content preceding the arrivals of Dean Ambrose, Seth Rollins and Roman Reigns told a quality story and continued Ryback's meteoric rise to championship contention.

    Punk and Cena were their typically great selves, providing the foundation for the showdown and bringing the green Ryback along for the ride. A hot crowd, a memorable finish and one of the most historic debuts in WWE history make this one a must for anyone reliving the best of Survivor Series.

4. NXT Championship Match: Adam Cole vs. Pete Dunne (2019)

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    The inclusion of NXT in the 2019 Survivor Series meant the brand's top prize would be defended on a WWE pay-per-view. That brand's contribution to the show saw Adam Cole look to extend his historic title reign against "The Bruiserweight" Pete Dunne.

    With both men nursing injuries from the previous evening's barbaric War Games, there were plenty of opportunities to exploit ailing limbs. Couple that with a steady build to Cole finally executing the Panama Sunrise, on the ring apron nonetheless, and you have a match that sucked in fans of the main-roster product and gave them a taste of what the incredible talent on NXT delivered on a weekly basis.

    The climactic finish saw a defiant Dunne survive a superkick and snap Cole's fingers in his last bit of joint manipulation before the champion countered his Bitter End finish into another Panama Sunrise. Cole finished Dunne with The Last Shot to retain his title.

    A physical, grueling battle, it stole the show on a star-studded night and further added credence to just how spectacular Cole's title reign proved to be.

3. World Heavyweight Championship Match: The Undertaker vs. Batista (2007)

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    The Undertaker and Batista spent 2007 battling for supremacy on SmackDown, with both babyfaces trying to knock the other off the proverbial mountain and claim the World Heavyweight Championship. The Deadman had defeated The Animal at WrestleMania, while consecutive rematches ended in disputed.

    Batista got back his win at the Cyber Sunday pay-per-view, defeating The Deadman clean in the center of the ring.

    They would look to settle their differences inside Hell in a Cell at Survivor Series.

    A brutal, barbaric, heavy-hitting main event saw the big men batter and punish each other inside the confines of the unforgiving steel structure. Neither was able to drive the will from the other to pick up the win, though.

    Then it happened.

    Edge, disguised as a cameraman, attacked Undertaker with a television camera. From there, he delivered a sickening, steel step-assisted con-chair-to and dragged Batista on top of The Phenom, allowing him to pick up the win.

    The shocking conclusion, the physical war that preceded it and its long-reaching effects all involved helped make the main event of the 2007 show a Survivor Series forgotten gem, not only in terms of the event itself but also in the long and storied history of the Hell in a Cell match.

2. WWE Championship Match: John Cena vs. Shawn Michaels Vs.Triple H (2009)

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    The Sweet Chin Music heard 'round the world kicked off the main event of the 2009 Survivor Series pay-per-view, as Shawn Michaels announced to the world that no friendship between him and Triple H would halt him from competing for the top prize in pro wrestling in a Triple Threat Match that also involved WWE champion John Cena.

    Standing in stunned silence, his mouth agape, Cena realized that he was preparing for the fight of his life.

    And it proved to be just that.

    Cena had defeated Triple H and Michaels in consecutive WrestleMania main events (22 and 23), but beating them in the same match at the same time is a different beast entirely. Luckily for him, for the second time that night, personal accolades got in the way of united fronts and allowed him to narrowly escape with his title.

    Late on, Triple H set up Cena for a Pedigree, only for Michaels to blast his best friend and tag team partner with his second Sweet Chin Music of the night. Cena seized the momentary opening and delivered the Attitude Adjustment to Michaels, driving HBK into The Game.

    Cena covered Triple H and scored the win, despite a late attempt by Michaels to break it up.

    Cutting a better pace and featuring more drama than the World Heavyweight Championship match earlier in the night (this list's Honorable Mention), the main event featured three of the best in the world captivating audiences despite a foregone conclusion of an outcome.

    That they were able to keep the fans on the edges of their seats despite everyone knowing Cena would pick up the win is a testament to the quality of their performances.

1. WWE Championship Match: Randy Orton vs. Shawn Michaels (2007)

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    The WWE Championship match between Shawn Michaels and Randy Orton emphasized psychology and story.

    Had the reigning champion, Orton, gotten himself disqualified, he would lose his title. Michaels, on the other hand, was barred from utilizing Sweet Chin Music, the most potent weapon in his in-ring arsenal.

    Taking away his finisher forced Michaels to employ other moves and strikes, something he did by digging into his bag of tricks from three decades of action. He broke out the Crippler Crossface, learned during his match with Chris Benoit, and the ankle lock, which he picked up from Kurt Angle.

    The resilient Orton fought to the ropes, forcing the break on both and leaving Michaels to conjure something else from his past. Unfortunately for him, the urge to tune up the band proved too much.

    Late in the contest, Michaels motioned for Sweet Chin Music but caught himself before he could execute it. The split-second hesitation allowed Orton to deliver the RKO and successfully retain his title.

    The match was utterly brilliant, featuring masterful storytelling from two of the best in that field. It remains one of the hidden gems in WWE and a legitimately excellent contest that showcased the greatness that was yet to come from Orton.

    It was also Michaels' best title match at the annual November extravaganza since his much-discussed 1997 showdown with Bret Hart.