WrestleMania is just days away, but this year is going to be different. Absent will be the screaming fans and big production. But it’s still Wrestlemania, and that still means something. Through the years, the “sports” biggest event has left lasting memories on millions of fans worldwide, and I’m no different. So with that in mind, here are five of my favorite memories from Wrestlemania’s gone by.
#5: WWF vs NFL Battle Royal, WrestleMania 2, 1986
As a kid who was a huge wrestling fan, battle royals always held a special intrigue with me. Maybe it was having so many guys in the ring, or the possibility that any of them could win, I’m not sure. But what I do know, is that to an 8-year-old, when you put some of the biggest and best wrestling stars and some of the biggest and best football players from the NFL in the same ring, anything can happen!
I was so pumped to see this affair heading into the event, that it was really the only match that I talked about at school. While all of my wrestling friends wanted to see Hulk Hogan get his revenge against King Kong Bundy in a cage, I wanted to see if Superbowl Champion William “The Refrigerator” Perry could be the last man standing in the big battle royal.
With an impressive lineup of WWF talent including Andre the Giant, Big John Studd, Bruno Sammartino, The Hart Foundation, The Killer Bees, Pedro Morales, the Iron Sheik, King Tonga and NFL stars like Jimbo Covert, Bill Fralic, Russ Francis, Harvey Martin, and William Perry, the ring was filled with star power. And if that wasn’t enough, NFL legends Dick Butkis and Ed “Too Tall” Jones patrolled the ringside area as referees for the match.
The most interesting part of the match was when Big John Studd and William Perry got to square off. Perry held his own until Studd tricked him into running into his big elbow. He then simply beeled Perry over the top rope to eliminate him. But once on the floor, Perry wanted to shake Studd’s hand and congratulate him. When Studd reached down to shake his hand, Perry gave a big tug and pulled John Studd over the top rope to eliminate him too!
Andre the Giant went on to win the match, last eliminating both members of the Hart Foundation. Andre was always referred to as the king of Battle Royals, so it was fitting that he took home the top honor in this mammoth match.
#4: Hulk Hogan vs. The Ultimate Warrior, WrestleMania 6, 1990
It was a battle for the ages. Good guy vs good guy. Champion vs. Champion. The best the ’80s had to offer vs. a superstar for the ’90s. Hulkamaniacs vs. Little Warriors. As a fan, in this battle, you had to choose a side. Were you with WWF World Champion Hulk Hogan? Or were you with Intercontinental Champion Ultimate Warrior?
The WWF had first teased this matchup back at the Royal Rumble in January. Both Hogan and Warrior were in the ring and had cleared out the rest of the competition at that point in time, and had about a minute before another Superstar would be joining the fray. What happened next was a fan’s dream.
Hogan and Warrior went at it for a bit in a battle that left both men lying prone….and without a decisive winner. We now had our main event for Wrestlemania 6. WWF World Heavyweight Champion Hulk Hogan vs. WWF Intercontinental Champion Ultimate Warrior. The match was so big, it had to be held in one of the only arenas big enough to hold it…The SkyDome in Toronto Canada.
The fans were split for this match, but I knew who I wanted to win. I wasn’t really a fan of the Ultimate Warrior, but I despised Hogan and wanted to see him finally lose the belt. The Warrior didn’t disappoint me as he defeated Hulk in a match that was a pretty good display of power. Both men pulled out all the stops and unleashed the biggest moves they had against each other.
It was a tense back and forth affair, and the Ultimate Warrior was able to hand Hulk Hogan one of his only clean losses in his entire WWF career. Hogan was man enough, even in defeat, to present the Ultimate Warrior with the WWF World Title and raise his hand before leaving Warrior alone in the ring to celebrate. It was Warrior’s finest night as a professional wrestler.
#3: Bret Hart vs. Steve Austin, WrestleMania 13, 1997
I was never a huge fan of either Austin or Hart, before or after this match. But in the moment watching it live, these two great performers totally sucked me into their brutal I Quit match. It was a fantastic back and forth match that would go on to help shape what the WWF Attitude Era would be all about.
Both men fought with energy and hatred. They pulled out their best moves from their repertoires, and in the process brought out the best in each other. Going into the match, Hart was the fan favorite, and Austin was the villain. As the match wore on, those roles started to reverse. The more punishment Hart dealt out, the more the fans started to boo. The more punishment Austin took without giving up, the more the fans turned to his size.
That dynamic climaxed when Hart locked a bloody Austin in his patented “Sharp Shooter” submission hold going for the victory. But Austin refused to give up. He seemed to be on the verge of passing out, but slowly, his grit and determination started to show as he planted his hands in the canvas mat and pushed up with all he had in an attempt to break the hold. As he pushed up and exerted all of his energy, the camera caught the look on his face. He was screaming in pain as more blood started streaming down his face from the strain and began to puddle on the mat.
When his last bit of energy was used up, he collapsed back down to the mat and passed out from the pain and loss of blood. Special referee Ken Shamrock stopped the match and awarded it to Bret Hart. But the fact was that Austin never said I Quit. He fought to the end and passed out when he just couldn’t take any more. That made him an iconic hero in the eyes of the fans and launched him on the road to becoming one of the biggest stars of all time.
#2: Randy Savage vs. Ricky Steamboat, WrestleMania 3, 1987
As a kid, Ricky Steamboat was my favorite wrestler that the WWF had to offer. His move set was more martial arts-based, and coupled along with his high flying ability made him exciting to watch to my 8-year-old self. Randy Savage, on the other hand, was equally talented, yet came across as a huge butt hole with his attitude.
The seeds for the match were sewn on an episode of WWF Superstars when the two faced off. The match was pretty good, giving a taste of their eventual legendary encounter at WrestleMania. As the match ended, Savage went into a rage and attacked Steamboat viciously. He didn’t just stop with the traditional wrestling beat down of his foe…he took it to a whole other level.
He dropped Steamboat throat first on the ropes and railing, and then with Steamboat laying prone in the ring, he launched from the top rope holding the ring bell and drove it into Steamboat’s throat. The result was a crushed larynx and several months out of action for Steamboat. When Steamboat finally returned, the match was made and the stage was set for what many consider to be the best wrestling match in the history of WrestleMania.
The match at WrestleMania 3 was fast-paced and exciting throughout, as neither man held anything back and seemed intent on stealing the spotlight from the Hulk Hogan vs Andre the Giant. As the match was in progress, commentator Jesse Ventura exclaimed that this was the best match he had ever seen. There were an amazing 17 two-counts in the match. 17 different times when you thought it was possibly over while watching.
The actual end came however when Savage got the ring bell and was once again going to attempt to cripple Steamboat. Steamboat’s friend George the Animal Steele prevented that however when he pushed Savage from the top rope to the mat. That gave Steamboat a chance to get his second wind. A shaken Savage lifted Steamboat up to attempt a body slam, but Steamboat hooked his leg on the way down and rolled him up into a cradle for the deciding three count to win the Intercontinental Title in what I STILL think is the best wrestling match to take place on a WrestleMania card.
#1: Ric Flair vs. Shawn Michaels, Wrestlemania 24, 2008
I started watching wrestling in 1985. My first favorites were the Rock & Roll Express, but it didn’t take long for me to become enamored with “Nature Boy” Ric Flair. Throughout its existence, I was a fan of the NWA and WCW. I watched the WWF, but I always preferred the more athletic-based wrestling of the NWA, and Ric Flair was its kingpin.
For years upon years, I cheered for Flair, so in what was speculated to be his final match at WrestleMania 24, I was more than a little choked up. While it was great to see him in the ring with another all-time great performer like Shawn Michaels, it was also a sad day knowing that it would be Flair’s final high-profile match.
Even in his advanced age, Flair was still able to dig down deep one more time and hold up his end of what was a very good match on the biggest stage of them all. I’m not ashamed to admit that I had the beginnings of tears in my eyes throughout the whole thing. It’s hard not to when you’ve followed someones every move for 30+ years, and knowing this is his last hurrah.
After he lost the bout, I let the tears finally flow…as did the “Nature Boy” himself as he slowly exited the ring and took in the cheers and appreciation of the huge crowd in Orlando one last time.
For me, it was the end of an era. An era of fully enjoying watching wrestling. I watched Raw the following night and the awesome send off the WWE gave the greatest wrestler of all-time. That was the last time I watched a full episode of a wrestling show.
I had seen my favorite at his peak, and at his lowest, and then I got to see him on one last high over those two days. As Flair closed the book on his active wrestling career, I closed the book on my fandom. No one would ever capture my imagination like the “Nature Boy” did again.