Ranking the 10 Greatest Matches of WWE's Ruthless Aggression Era

Erik Beaston@@ErikBeastonFeatured ColumnistDecember 18, 2021

Ranking the 10 Greatest Matches of WWE's Ruthless Aggression Era

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    Credit: WWE.com

    To limit any ranking of the best Ruthless Aggression Era matches to just 10 is a fool's errand.

    The period between June of 2002 and the dawn of the PG Era in July of 2008 was responsible for a number of professional wrestling classics, thanks to the wealth of all-time greats that populated the WWE roster at the time.

    Kurt Angle, Chris Benoit, Shawn Michaels, Triple H and Edge were all instrumental in bringing workrate to the shows while Batista, John Cena and Randy Orton elevated their stars through barbarity and violence.

    The dichotomy in the styles and the fans' willingness to accept both is part of what made that era so beloved.

    In honor of the Ruthless Aggression Era, and the latest season of the WWE Network docuseries of the same name, these are the 10 greatest matches of the period.

10. I Quit Match: John Cena vs. John Bradshaw Layfield (Judgment Day 2005)

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    Credit: WWE.com

    John Cena's WWE Championship reign may have officially begun at WrestleMania 21 in April 2005, but it wasn't until a month later, at the Judgment Day pay-per-view, that the face of Ruthless Aggression would be firmly entrenched at the top of the company.

    A bloody and brutal "I Quit" match against John Bradshaw Layfield left Cena sporting the proverbial crimson mask, introducing him to the main event in the most punishing method. Cena, showing the resilience that would come to define him over the course of his career, fought through it before ripping an exhaust pipe off of an 18-wheeler and threatening to bash his opponent with it. 

    A terrified JBL tucked tail and quit, awarding the win to Cena, who rocked him with the weapon anyway for good measure.

    The match was a wild, violent brawl that gave WWE all the faith it needed in Cena to guide the Ruthless Aggression Era for the next decade-plus.

9. No Holds Barred Match: Cactus Jack vs. Randy Orton (Backlash 2004)

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    Credit: WWE.com

    Randy Orton spent nine months making life a living hell for Mick Foley, punting him down a flight of steps, spitting in his face and disparaging the Hardcore Legend any possible way he could. No longer willing to stand back and allow his legacy to be tarnished by a young, brash, arrogant star looking to make a name off of him, Foley returned to his hardcore roots, reintroducing Cactus Jack to the masses.

    At Backlash in April 2004, he unleashed an ass-kicking on Randy Orton befitting of a year's worth of frustration and anger. He battered the third-generation star with barbed wire, sent him back-first into thumbtacks and bloodied his face as he sought to avenge his mistreatment and win the one title that eluded him in his career: the Intercontinental Championship.

    Orton discovered a toughness no one knew he had at the time, though, and shook off the agonizing assault dealt to him by his Hall of Fame opponent and defeated him to retain his title.

    It was a coming-of-age match for Orton and one absolutely instrumental in his rise to the top of the industry. Without that match, the long build to it and Foley's generosity, who knows if The Viper we know today would have achieved all that he has.

8. Iron Man Match: Brock Lesnar vs. Kurt Angle (SmackDown, September 18, 2003)

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    The rivalry between Kurt Angle and Brock Lesnar dominated the SmackDown brand in 2003, culminating in the first-ever televised Iron Man match in WWE history.

    Angle entered the match the defending champion fresh off defeating The Beast at SummerSlam. Lesnar was desperate, the championship that had come to define him over the last year taunting him from around the waist of his rival.

    For 60 minutes, two accomplished amateur wrestlers had the WWE Universe on the edge of its collective seat, wondering which competitor would score enough falls to take home the top prize in the company.

    The answer was Lesnar, who outlasted Angle to win the match, five falls to four.

    The physicality, athleticism and grit on display helped elevate this to the top tier of Iron Man matches in company history and placed it among the best of an entire era.

7. Hell in a Cell: Batista vs. Triple H (Vengeance 2005)

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    Credit: WWE.com

    Batista and Triple H had battled on pay-per-view two consecutive times before they set foot inside Hell in a Cell for the deciding match in their trilogy. Batista won both as the company sought to push him as one of the new faces of its bright future, but neither was the kickass match fans expected.

    With one last shot at putting an exclamation point on a feud that started six months earlier, The Animal and The Game took to the squared circle in one of WWE's most storied gimmick bouts, eager to deliver an epic.

    They did.

    A brutal, violent match saw the combatants utilize barb-wire-wrapped steel chairs and a sledgehammer to bloody each other. Their bodies wracked with pain, they staged one last onslaught before Batista hoisted his mentor overhead and drove him onto the steel steps with a Batista Bomb for the emphatic victory.

    A match that encapsulated the barbarism that is expected inside the cell, it was proof of Triple H's excellence in high-profile bouts and Batista's ability to shine when the pressure was on.

6. Hardcore Match: Mick Foley vs. Edge (WrestleMania 22)

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    Edge established himself as one of the elite performers in WWE during the Ruthless Aggression era, rising from midcard hell to the top of the company, where he won numerous WWE and world heavyweight titles. As silly as it might sound now, the 2012 Hall of Famer did not always have the support of those in power, though. They seemingly didn't know if he could actually excel as a tippy-top star.

    Any doubts that existed about his ability to run alongside the established main event talent were erased in April 2006 at WrestleMania 22 when he battled the legendary Mick Foley in a Hardcore match.

    A flawless match that not only elevated Edge but provided Foley his long-sought WrestleMania moment, it captivated the Chicago crowd by starting steadily enough and escalating with every spot. Steel chairs gave way to barbed wire, which gave way to thumbtacks and, ultimately, a table engulfed in flames.

    It was through that Edge drove Foley with a spear through the ropes and to the floor, leaving fans jaw agape as Edge just narrowly defeated his former friend-turned-hated rival.

    The match was historically significant to both men, giving Foley that one last missing element of his career and creating a new top villain for WWE to build its shows around. 

5. Kurt Angle vs. Shawn Michaels (WrestleMania 21)

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    Take two of the best wrestlers in the world, let them create magic for 27 minutes, and the result will be an all-time classic.

    WWE did just that at WrestleMania 21 with Shawn Michaels and Kurt Angle.

    The Heartbreak Kid and Olympic gold medalist exhibited the in-ring mastery that earned them the respect and admiration of fans, fellow wrestlers and critics alike. They kept the Los Angeles crowd on the edges of their seats with a match rooted heavily in reversals, counters and dramatic near-falls before Angle trapped Michaels in his vaunted ankle lock.

    Trying desperately to break free of his opponents' vise-like grip, Michaels eventually tapped after two minutes in the agonizing hold.

    There was nothing overly complex about the story, the match or the characters involved. They were great wrestlers, each hellbent on proving they were better than the other. The fans ate it up, proving that wrestling could be a compelling watch without all of the bells and whistles that defined the previous era. 

4. Rey Mysterio and Edge vs. Kurt Angle and Chris Benoit (No Mercy 2002)

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    Credit: WWE.com

    The brand extension of 2002 brought with it the need for championships on both Raw and SmackDown. In October of 2002, at the No Mercy pay-per-view, new blue brand tag champions were crowned when Kurt Angle and Chris Benoit battled Edge and Rey Mysterio in the conclusion of a multi-week tournament.

    Four of the best wrestlers on the planet at the time and, really ever, they wowed the audience with a dramatic match that saw many near-falls and submission attempts before Angle trapped Edge in the ankle lock and forced him to tap.

    The chemistry of the competitors had been developed in the weeks and months prior to the match as SmackDown head writer Paul Heyman built the entire brand around them and Los Guerreros, providing fans some of the best wrestling television ever.

    Angle and Benoit wrote their names in the history books as the first team to win that particular set of titles and the match was universally praised, winning many Match of the Year awards for the artistry on display within.

3. Chris Benoit vs. Kurt Angle (Royal Rumble 2003)

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    Credit: WWE.com

    Chris Benoit and Kurt Angle had developed quite the competitive rivalry dating back to their series of matches in 2001, but fresh off a tag team run just months earlier, they battled in one of the main events of the 2003 Royal Rumble for Angle's WWE Championship.

    An intensely physical match saw both men outwrestle the other, each looking to establish themselves the superior in-ring competitor. Counters and reversals prevailed down the stretch before Angle trapped his opponent in the ankle lock for the submission win.

    With WWE still trying to find itself after the Attitude years, two premier professional wrestlers proved there was room for mat wrestling the likes of which the company had never previously been built around. And, more importantly, the fans were willing to embrace the sport-like style in a way they never had been before.

2. Unsanctioned Match: Shawn Michaels vs. Triple H (SummerSlam 2002)

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    Credit: WWE.com

    Shawn Michaels never should have had a successful comeback.

    Out of action for four years after a debilitating back injury prematurely retired him in 1998, there was no way he would be able to rekindle the quality of work that had defined him when he adopted the nickname "The Showstopper."

    Michaels was never one to accept "no" for an answer, though, and at SummerSlam in August of 2002, he shocked the wrestling world with a performance that indicated he might be a tad bit superhuman. The Heartbreak Kid turned back the clock, appearing to have lost not a single step as he battled his former friend-turned-hated foe Triple H in an Unsanctioned Match.

    Physically demanding as it was, Michaels fought through his first bumps in four years and any hesitation he had to outlast The Game and pin him with a jackknife rollup.

    The match had an indelible effect on the Ruthless Aggression Era as it reintroduced Michaels to the WWE Universe. He would be a major star as he took on the second chapter of his career. Classic matches against Triple H, Ric Flair, Chris Jericho and Chris Benoit would ensue while young stars like Randy Orton and Edge benefitted exponentially from working with him.

    And all of it can be traced back to the instant classic against Triple H.

    Without it, Michaels may never have returned and we would have been robbed of the extraordinary body of work he provided in the years that proceeded.

1. Chris Benoit vs. Shawn Michaels vs. Triple H (WrestleMania XX)

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    Credit: WWE.com

    After years of scratching and clawing his way to the top of professional wrestling, Chris Benoit captured the World Heavyweight Championship in a five-star main event against Shawn Michaels and Triple H at WrestleMania XX.

    The Rabid Wolverine overcame a concentrated effort by his opponents to take him out of the match with a suplex through the announce table, dumping the Heartbreak Kid over the top rope and applying his devastating Crippler Crossface to The Game.

    Despite every attempt by Triple H to escape, he had no choice but to tap out in the middle of the ring, awarding the match and title to Benoit.

    It was the culmination of a long, arduous journey for one of wrestling's then-most respected stars. The double murder of his wife, Nancy, and seven-year-old son, Daniel, have rightfully seen it and the rest of Benoit's career erased from WWE's official history books, but one is hard-pressed to find a better, more emotional professional wrestling match from WWE's Ruthless Aggression Era.