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The 50 greatest WWE World Heavyweight Championship Matches ever!
WWE Hall of Famer Jim Ross once called the WWE World Heavyweight Title “the ultimate dream of everyone who aspires to be a wrestler.” Indeed, whether it was The Dirtiest Player in the Game or The Demon from Death Valley, the Superstars who have captured sports-entertainment’s ultimate prize have realized a goal that millions fantasized about, but only 44 men have accomplished.
It’s been more than 50 years since the WWE World Heavyweight Championship was first established on April 25, 1963. Since then, the world has seen 10 different United States Presidents, the innovation of the personal computer and the rise and fall of Crystal Pepsi. Through it all, the title has remained the pinnacle of sports-entertainment competition.
Here, WWE.com presents the 50 most outstanding bouts in the championship's storied history. These are the contests that made myths out of men. These are the matches that triggered WWE Hall of Fame careers and highlight reels. These are the 50 greatest WWE World Heavyweight Title bouts ever.
Bret Hart vs. Shawn Michaels: Survivor Series 1997 (Nov. 9, 1997)
At Survivor Series 1997, speculation ran rampant that WWE Champion Bret Hart was preparing to head to Atlanta and join WCW. The sold-out Molson Centre in Montreal was electric as Hart battled Shawn Michaels in what was potentially the final chapter of their bitter rivalry. The course of the battle played out no differently than the struggles between the legendary Superstars in the past. The WWE Universe was on the edge of their seats, wondering, “If Hart wins, does he join WCW as WWE Champion?”
Of course, Mr. McMahon ensured that the WWE Championship did not make it to Atlanta. In an attempt to gain a psychological advantage against the “Hit Man,” HBK locked Hart in his trademark Sharpshooter. As The Excellence of Execution attempted to reverse the hold, Mr. McMahon ordered the referee to call for the bell. Although Hart never submitted, Michaels was awarded the WWE Title in a moment that will forever be known as The Montreal Screwjob. — KEVIN POWERS
"Stone Cold" Steve Austin vs. Dude Love: Over the Edge (May 31, 1998)
More than 15 years removed from Dude Love’s pair of freewheeling brawls against WWE Champion “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and Mick Foley still seems perplexed on how it all happened.
For the uninitiated, Dude Love was the tie-dyed persona Foley dreamt up back in his teenage years when getting girls and winning the WWE Title was all he could think about. Fast-forward a decade and Mrs. Foley’s Baby Boy had made it to WWE, only it was in a leather mask as the disturbed Mankind. But when spurned as a freak by The Texas Rattlesnake, a damaged Foley reverted back to the trippy hippy he’d portrayed as a teen.
Mr. McMahon manipulated the vulnerable Dude to go after Austin’s WWE Title, resulting in this delirious slobber knocker at Over the Edge. Harder to follow than a French film, the scuffle saw the two brawlers upend each other across a set of junk cars while Mr. McMahon officiated and The Undertaker attempted to keep some degree of order. It was ugly, but damned if it wasn’t entertaining. — RYAN MURPHY
John Cena vs. Batista: Over the Limit (May 23, 2010)
Heading into their “I Quit” Match at WWE Over the Limit 2010, it seemed as though John Cena and Batista had reached their limit for punishment. Apparently, that wasn’t the case.
Batista tried to give Cena the opportunity to quit at the beginning of the bout, but the proud WWE Champion refused. The battle began and they battered each other around Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena. The Cenation Commander-in-Chief forced The Animal to pass out in the STF. But that was before he could say the words “I quit,” so the match continued.
The battle moved to the stage, where Batista tried to run over Cena with a car. The Champ evaded, eventually getting Batista on top of the car and in position for an Attitude Adjustment. That was the tipping point for The Animal. He quit, but Cena still launched him from the car and sent him crashing through the stage. — BOBBY MELOK
Eddie Guerrero vs. JBL: Great American Bash (June 27, 2004)
JBL’s first opportunity at Eddie Guerrero’s WWE Title proved a physical affair, but their Texas Bull Rope rematch at The Great American Bash redefined ring brutality.
Guerrero busted JBL with a chair early, turning him into a crimson mess. After surviving a Frog Splash, the wealthy cowboy hurled Guerrero onto the announce table twice, breaking it the second time with a powerbomb. Latino Heat regained the advantage by hitting JBL with a cowbell, but as he started to tag the corners, JBL trailed behind, hitting each turnbuckle, too.
With the big businessman standing in front of the deciding corner, Guerrero attempted to jump over the 6-foot-6 Superstar, but accidentally bumped him into the turnbuckle to give JBL the accidental win. — JEFF LABOON
Bruno Sammartino vs. Ivan Koloff (Jan. 18, 1971)
On May 17, 1963, WWE Hall of Famer Bruno Sammartino defeated Buddy Rogers to win the WWE Championship in 48 seconds. The Italian hero embarked on an epic title reign that lasted nearly eight years — the longest in WWE history.
After 2,803 days as champion, Sammartino was challenged by Ivan Koloff on Jan.18, 1971, in Madison Square Garden. The Russian villain represented the despised Soviet Union while the Italian-born Sammartino embodied the American Dream. Both Superstars were two of the most powerful competitors of their day and engaged in an epic struggle that captivated the New York City crowd.
As the contest raged on, Koloff managed to connect with a devastating knee drop from the top rope, successfully pinning the champion and ending the historic reign. There were literally no words to describe what had just taken place as the raucous Manhattan crowd was silenced by the outcome of the match. — KEVIN POWERS
John Cena vs. Randy Orton: WWE TLC (Dec. 15, 2013)
John Cena and Randy Orton are no strangers to making history, and on Dec. 15, 2013, WWE’s two most decorated Superstars delivered an unforgettable performance with, literally, the eyes of the sports-entertainment world upon them.
As past champions looked on from around the globe, and (hopeful) future champions paid particularly close attention to the main event matchup, The Champ and The Viper lived up to the enormous hype surrounding their title contest.
WWE’s Apex Predator had to use the ring itself to ultimately bring down the Cenation leader, a true testament to the never-give-up attitude of The Champ. Still, despite Cena’s legendary resolve, it was Orton who held high all the championship gold and unified the two titles to cap off one of the most historic nights in WWE history and become the first WWE World Heavyweight Champion. — ALEX GIANNINI
Shawn Michaels vs. The Undertaker: Royal Rumble 1998 (Jan. 18, 1998)
A pivotal chapter in the storied rivalry between Shawn Michaels and The Undertaker took place at Royal Rumble 1998. More than a decade before their epic WrestleMania clashes, HBK and The Deadman kept the WWE Universe on the edge of their seats with a Casket Match that changed WWE history.
In the heat of the riveting struggle for HBK’s WWE Title, Michaels suffered an injury that would eventually force him into retirement for four years. As The Showstopper was tossed over the top rope, he landed awkwardly on the edge of the casket and broke his back. He continued to fight, showing the spirit of a champion, but could not seal The Deadman in the casket.
Ultimately, Kane interfered in the contest and chokeslammed his brother into the coffin. After D-Generation X closed the casket to secure HBK’s victory, The Big Red Monster locked The Phenom inside and set the coffin ablaze. — KEVIN POWERS
CM Punk vs. Chris Jericho: Extreme Rules (April 29, 2012)
The rivalry between WWE Champion CM Punk and Chris Jericho became very personal after Y2J repeatedly insulted The Straight Edge Superstar’s family. Even though Punk defeated him at WrestleMania XXVIII, Jericho continued with his tirades. To end things once and for all, Punk decided to dish out a little justice, Chicago style, in the rematch.
The heated rivals faced off again at Extreme Rules in a Chicago Street Fight. The WWE Champion’s family got a measure of retribution early on, as Punk’s sister delivered a hard slap to Jericho’s face. Jericho would not be denied, however, as he mocked Punk’s straight-edge beliefs by pouring beer on the WWE Champion.
Y2J thought he could win the title if he exposed the steel turnbuckle. Unfortunately, Punk was able to send Jericho face first into the cold steel before hitting him with a devastating Go to Sleep to win the bout and end their bitter rivalry. — BOBBY MELOK
Mankind vs. The Rock: Royal Rumble 1999 (Jan. 24, 1999)
No WWE Title Match was as vicious, infamous or downright unsettling as the “I Quit” Match from 1999’s Royal Rumble event. The wild brawl has been immortalized in documentaries, books and on this very website. Foley himself has told WWEClassics.com that it’s difficult for him to rewatch the encounter’s sheer brutality and has admitted that the contest simply went too far.
Why the horror? That would stem from the extended sequence in which The Brahma Bull cracked a handcuffed Mankind with a steel chair time and time again. The beating was bad enough, but the sight of Foley’s wife and kids crying in the front row was enough to turn anyone’s stomach. Finally, with the champion unconscious, The Rock placed the microphone near Foley’s mouth while a prerecorded message of those two important words played over the arena’s PA system.
Mankind might have lost the title that night, but his fearless performance added to his already tremendous mountain of respect. — ZACH LINDER
Randy Orton vs. Batista vs. Daniel Bryan: WrestleMania 30 (April 6, 2014)
WrestleMania 30 was Daniel Bryan’s night to shine.
Already having survived a grueling 25-minute-plus contest against Triple H in which The Game severely injured the “Yes!” Movement leader’s left shoulder, Bryan was all but doomed as he entered the triple threat main event against WWE World Heavyweight Champion Randy Orton and Batista.
As JBL said, “There’s no way lightning strikes twice!”
Lightning, in fact, did strike twice. Although the amount of punishment Bryan endured earlier in the night was topped by a combination Batista-RKO-Bomb through a ringside table, 75,167 fans were chanting “YES!!!” by the end of the match as The Beard made Batista tap out to The “Yes!” Lock, signaling the dawn of a new era in WWE. — TOM LIODICE
Kurt Angle vs. Brock Lesnar: SmackDown (Sept. 16, 2003)
Brock Lesnar and WWE Champion Kurt Angle became friends after their WrestleMania XIX clash, setting the stage for a battle of honor in a WWE Iron Match on SmackDown.
Less than nine minutes into the bout, though, Lesnar showed his real feelings toward Angle — he was just blocking his WWE Title dreams. The ferocious Superstar drilled Angle with a chair several times, warranting a disqualification loss, but successfully doing the damage. With Angle weakened, Lesnar jumped to a 4-2 lead with 29 minutes left thanks to multiple F-5s, a count-out and a punishing headshot with the WWE Title. Angle refused to quit, though, bringing the deficit to 5-4.
The Olympic Hero locked in the ankle lock with 18 seconds left, but Lesnar endured until the buzzer sounded, clinching his third WWE Championship and revealing his greedy, true self. — JEFF LABOON
"Stone Cold" Steve Austin vs. Chris Jericho: Vengeance (Dec. 9, 2001)
After WWE defeated the WCW/ECW Alliance, new WWE co-owner Ric Flair proposed that “one great company” should have “one great champion,” setting the stage for a Four-Man Tournament at Vengeance 2001.
In the first round, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin retained the WWE Championship against Kurt Angle and Chris Jericho defeated The Rock to win the WCW Title. Jericho had no time to celebrate, though, as The Bionic Redneck stormed the ring for the tournament final.
Y2J showcased his athleticism, reversing a backdrop by rolling “Stone Cold” into the Walls of Jericho. Austin, meanwhile, exhibited his brawling style, suplexing The Ayatollah of Rock ‘n’ Rolla on exposed concrete. With the referee unconscious, Austin cinched in his own Walls, but scorned Alliance member Booker T snuck into the ring and clocked him with the title.
The interference allowed Y2J to become the first Undisputed Champion, finally giving sports-entertainment one great, brash champion. — JEFF LABOON
Randy Orton vs. John Cena: Bragging Rights (Oct. 25, 2009)
For two years, John Cena and Randy Orton battled through Tables, “I Quit” and Hell in a Cell Matches in a grueling rivalry that crossed into the Superstars’ personal lives. No match and no stage could settle this enmity — except an Anything Goes Iron Man Match. The 60-minute slugfest at Bragging Rights 2009 could never be mistaken for a mat classic. Considering The Viper tried to burn Cena by setting off pyro while he lay on the stage, this bout was nothing more than a fight.
The longtime rivals proved their familiarity with one another’s movesets. Reigning WWE Champion Orton reversed both an Attitude Adjustment and Five Knuckle Shuffle into an RKO and the Cenation leader launched Orton for AAs from the top rope and through the announce table. Even at five falls with only a minute remaining, Orton gunned for a punt, but Cena stepped aside and locked in the STF for the sixth and deciding victory in a true war of attrition. — JEFF LABOON
The Rock vs. Brock Lesnar: SummerSlam 2002 (Aug. 25, 2002)
No Superstar left his mark on WWE as quickly as Brock Lesnar. Mere months after making his WWE debut, the rookie and King of the Ring winner unexpectedly challenged The Rock for the WWE Title at SummerSlam.
Lesnar survived The Great One’s best, including the Sharpshooter and a Rock Bottom, before hitting a Rock Bottom of his own. Rock kicked out and set up for the People’s Elbow, but as he ran the ropes, Lesnar bounced to his feet and clotheslined him. Lesnar then launched Rock with the F-5, taking the WWE Title and establishing himself as the new face of WWE. — JEFF LABOON
CM Punk vs. Daniel Bryan: Over the Limit (May 20, 2012)
Go back five years and you’d have a hard time convincing most sports-entertainment fans that this WWE Title Match would one day happen. Hell, maybe even three years. CM Punk and Daniel Bryan — those atypical darlings of the indy set who turned high school gyms into art houses with their dedicated ring work — competing for WWE’s biggest prize? It was madness.
Yet there they were — two guys who didn’t fit the archetypal definition of a WWE Champion battling for the title in front of a pumped Raleigh, N.C., crowd. As expected, the mat purists traded punishing submissions and blistering strikes with equal aggression. The match reached its crescendo when Bryan captured the WWE Champion in his dreaded “Yes!” Lock. Writhing in pain, The Straight Edge Champion ingeniously countered the hold into a pin and defeated Bryan while still trapped in his hold. — RYAN MURPHY
Superstar Billy Graham vs. Dusty Rhodes (Oct. 24, 1977)
Nearly six months into his first reign as WWE Champion, “Superstar” Billy Graham was primed to face a fired up Dusty Rhodes. This was a return title bout at Madison Square Garden — the two rivals battled to a no decision at the previous MSG event.
Meeting in an anything goes Texas Death Match, Graham did his best to keep his distance from The American Dream in a desperate effort to maintain his title. But when Superstar went to work, Rhodes suffered a lacerated right eye. The Dream eventually reversed things and busted Graham open with a few direct shots from a bull rope. Finally, the two bleached blonds collided in the center of the ring and collapsed on the mat. Working on instinct alone, the WWE Champion took his left arm, draped it over the fallen Rhodes and escaped the Garden with his precious title. — HOWARD FINKEL
John Cena vs. JBL: Judgment Day (May 22, 2005)
John Cena was quick to customize the WWE Championship to his liking, introducing the infamous “spinner” title after winning it at WrestleMania 21. JBL was obsessed with bringing the title back to being something he thought respectable.
The tycoon won the right to face Cena at Judgment Day, but took it one step further when he said he’d make the champion give up in an “I Quit” Match. It ended up not being as easy as JBL thought.
After backdropping the challenger through the announce table, Cena brought the fight to the entrance area. JBL regained control of the fight, eventually trying to choke the Cenation leader out with heavy cables. The Champ was able to fight out and send JBL crashing through another table. Cena was about to attack the tycoon with an exhaust pipe he ripped from a semi-truck, but his beaten foe quit before Cena had the chance. — BOBBY MELOK
The Rock vs. Kurt Angle vs. Triple H: SummerSlam 2000 (Aug. 27, 2000)
This Triple Threat Match proved chaotic before the bell even rang, as Triple H sent Kurt Angle through the Spanish announce table with a Pedigree. WWE Champion The Rock rushed down the ramp and brawled with The Game as the medical staff carted the Olympian backstage, prompting Triple H’s wife and Angle’s bestie, Stephanie McMahon, to ringside.
Stephanie proved more harm than good, though, inadvertently nailing her husband with the title. After The Great One superplexed Triple H, knocking both competitors out, Stephanie hurried Angle back to capitalize. But when the gold medalist decked Triple H with a sledgehammer, Rock bounced him from the ring and hit the People’s Elbow on The Game to retain his title. Finally, the WWE Universe had a moment to catch their collective breath. — JEFF LABOON
Brock Lesnar vs. Eddie Guerrero: No Way Out (Feb. 15, 2004)
Eddie Guerrero found himself in a unique position heading into his WWE Championship match against Brock Lesnar. The monstrous champion had taken to mocking Latino Heat’s Mexican heritage. So Guerrero found himself fighting not only for the title, but also for his people.
When the match began, however, Guerrero could not compete with Lesnar’s freakish strength. The champion dominated Latino Heat throughout the match, tossing him about the ring with ease. Lesnar looked to have a successful defense wrapped up, but when he picked Guerrero up for the F-5, the challenger’s body collided with the official, knocking him out.
Lesnar tried to deck Guerrero with the WWE Title, but his plans were thwarted by Goldberg. Latino Heat took advantage of the situation, DDT’ing the champion onto the title before hitting him with the Frog Splash for an emotional championship victory. — BOBBY MELOK
Rey Mysterio vs. John Cena: Raw (July 25, 2011)
The night of Rey Mysterio’s WWE debut, he launched himself from the top of a steel cage to come to the aid of two blue-chippers. The first was Edge. Mysterio finally battled the second in 2011 when he defended the WWE Title — which he won earlier that night — against John Cena.
The contrast of styles between two of WWE’s most enduring fan favorites lent itself to a Raw classic. Mysterio’s acrobatic springboard moonsaults and Cena’s spin-out powerbomb offered something for everyone. The Ultimate Underdog even attempted an STF on Cena.
When Mysterio went for a deciding 619, the Cenation leader quickly turned around and caught him in the Attitude Adjustment for the victory. The Ultimate Underdog’s championship reign lasted only minutes, but leave it to Mysterio to make his one WWE Title defense a classic. — JEFF LABOON
Hulk Hogan vs. Paul Orndorff: Saturday Night's Main Event (Jan. 3, 1987)
One of the most intense rivalries in the championship reign of Hulk Hogan came to a head inside the confines of a steel cage. “Mr. Wonderful” Paul Orndorff was determined to “bring home the bacon” to his manager, Bobby “The Brain” Heenan on this evening. The powerhouse jumped the gun and waylaid Hogan with his title, kicking off a physical battle. Finally, both men were able to escape the cage, but their feet seemed to hit the floor at the same time. One official declared Hogan the winner, while another gave it to Orndorff.
After mass confusion on the outside, it was ruled that the match continue. From there, the momentum swung back and forth until Hogan took matters into his own hands. “The Brain” had managed to get into the cage, but that was not a good idea. Hogan gave Orndorff an atomic drop and then launched Heenan into the steel. From there, The Hulkster scaled the cage and made it to the outside to retain his title. — HOWARD FINKEL
The Rock vs. Triple H: Judgment Day (May 21, 2000)
After years competing for the Intercontinental Title, The Rock and Triple H aimed for greater success and set their sights on the WWE Championship. A major chapter in their storied rivalry would be written at Judgment Day 2000 in a 60-Minute Iron Man Match featuring Shawn Michaels as the special guest referee.
Although an ally of The Game, HBK remained mostly neutral and allowed the WWE Championship to remain the focal point of the match. With the contest tied at five falls with less than five minutes left, Michaels was accidentally knocked out, allowing D-Generation X and the McMahons to interfere on Triple H’s behalf. But The Rock received an unexpected assist from The Undertaker, who returned from injury to a humongous ovation. Unfortunately for The Great One, The Phenom also attacked Triple H after Michaels recovered, leading HBK to disqualify The Rock and award the victory to The Game. — KEVIN POWERS
"Stone Cold" Steve Austin vs. Kurt Angle: Unforgiven (Sept. 23, 2001)
Born and raised in Pittsburgh, Kurt Angle made his homecoming at Unforgiven 2001 in the hopes of unseating reigning WWE Champion “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, the leader of the invading WCW/ECW Alliance, and returning the title to WWE.
The Superstars used their entire arsenals in the heated melee, from Angle locking Austin into a series of German suplexes to Austin piledriving the Olympian to the canvas. When The Texas Rattlesnake flipped Angle off to set up a deciding Stunner, though, the Olympic gold medalist grabbed his foot and forced him to submit with the ankle lock.
As Angle’s family and the WWE roster celebrated with the new champion, it was clear Angle and the WWE Title were both back home. — JEFF LABOON
CM Punk vs. John Cena: SummerSlam 2011 (Aug. 14, 2011)
With newly crowned WWE Champion CM Punk leaving the company after Money in the Bank 2011 — and the title chilling in his refrigerator — John Cena seized the opportunity to claim an interim WWE Championship. But when Punk returned with his title in hand, the stage was set for an epic Unification Match at SummerSlam with COO Triple H as the guest referee.
The match picked up right where their July classic left off, only now with the addition of the COO, who at one point dragged both Superstars back into the ring to prevent an inconclusive double count-out. From the Cenation leader hitting a dropkick to The Straight Edge Superstar applying the Koji Clutch, the two unleashed moves long absent from their respective arsenals.
Punk gained the advantage with an elbow drop and a Go to Sleep, but Cena snuck his foot onto the ropes during the pinfall. The Game missed the rope break, though, making “The Best in the World” the sole champion. — JEFF LABOON
Randy Savage vs. The Million Dollar Man: WrestleMania IV (March 27, 1988)
In the wake of “The Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase’s failed attempt to purchase the WWE Title from Andre the Giant, President Jack Tunney vacated the title and scheduled a tournament at WrestleMania IV to crown a new champion.
With Andre in DiBiase’s corner in the tournament final, the odds seemed stacked against Randy Savage who was competing in his fourth match of the night — until Hulk Hogan rushed to his side. DiBiase locked in the Million Dollar Dream as Andre distracted the referee, prompting Hogan to drill DiBiase with a chair.
Savage then launched himself nearly the length of the ring to hit an elbow drop, securing his first WWE Championship and proving DiBiase’s money couldn’t overcome Savage’s years of struggle and the combined might of The Mega Powers. — JEFF LABOON
"Stone Cold" Steve Austin vs. The Rock: Backlash (April 25, 1999)
The first Backlash event took place in April 1999 and featured a hotly anticipated rematch between “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and The Rock for the WWE Championship. One month earlier, Austin defeated The Brahma Bull to claim the WWE Title. Stoking the fires of the rivalry, Shane McMahon stole Austin’s personalized “Smoking Skull” title before declaring the match at Backlash to be No Holds Barred and making himself the special guest referee.
The odds seemed stacked against The Texas Rattlesnake, but the battle immediately turned into an all-out brawl. Fighting throughout the Providence Civic Center, Austin seemed poised for victory after executing a “Stone Cold” Stunner through the Spanish announce table. But Shane McMahon did not count the pinfall and fled the scene, resulting in Mr. McMahon coming to ringside with a new referee. Ultimately, a Stunner followed by a whack from the “Smoking Skull” title allowed The Texas Rattlesnake to retain the WWE Championship. — KEVIN POWERS
Triple H vs. Chris Jericho: Raw (April 17, 2000)
Chris Jericho’s best moments always look a lot better when edited for television. Yeah, his 1999 Raw debut was epic, but The Rock kind of clowned him, didn’t he? And his 2001 Undisputed WWE Title win was historic, but it took Booker T, Mr. McMahon and an act of God for him to beat Austin. Same goes for Jericho’s phantom 2000 WWE Title win — a moment that could have been downright career-defining had it not unraveled moments later.
Still making the awkward transition from WCW defector to WWE main eventer, Y2J challenged a hated Triple H for the WWE Title in State College, Pa. To the shock of the crowd, Y2J beat The Game with a well-timed Lionsault — the only problem was a second ref counted the pin. Jericho’s inspiring win was ultimately erased from the record books, but the reaction the young Superstar received made it clear that the WWE Universe was ready to embrace him as champion. — RYAN MURPHY
Kurt Angle vs. Brock Lesnar: WrestleMania 19 (March 30, 2003)
The only man who could stop Brock Lesnar’s dominant first WWE Title reign proved to be his closest confidant, Paul Heyman. Yet, Lesnar overcame his eely associate’s attempts at sabotage to earn a title match at WrestleMania XIX.
With reigning WWE Champion Kurt Angle an Olympic gold medalist and Lesnar an NCAA Heavyweight Champion, the WrestleMania XIX bout was an amateur wrestling masterpiece. Lesnar gained the advantage after kicking out of the Angle Slam, hitting two F-5s before attempting a now-infamous Shooting Star Press.
Lesnar may not have gottenallof the move. In fact, he landed on his head and nearly ended his career. But the manmade monster managed to add a third F-5 for good measure to reclaim the prize Heyman tried to steal from him. — JEFF LABOON
Bruno Sammartino vs. Killer Kowalski (April 29, 1974)
Two of the industry’s most prolific Superstars collided in Madison Square Garden in what could only be described as a good old-fashioned fight. It was a contrast of styles — the wicked, animalistic tendencies of Killer Kowalski pitted against the deliberate, straightforward means that WWE Champion Bruno Sammartino employed. Both men concentrated on working respective body parts early. Kowalski was relentless on Sammartino’s left leg, while the champion zeroed in on Kowalski’s left arm.
As the match continued, frustration grew on the part of Killer as he could not stop the mighty Italian. This led Kowalski to bite Bruno’s face, lacerating the champion. Sammartino could take no more of his opponent’s underhanded maneuvers, and exploded into a fit of rage and pummeled Kowalski. The referee lost control of the match, resulting in a draw. It took Chief Jay Strongbow, Pedro Morales, Dean Ho and Sammartino’s manager, Arnold Skaaland, to pull the rivals apart. — HOWARD FINKEL.
John Cena vs. Rob Van Dam: One Night Stand (June 11, 2006)
For the 2,500 strong packed inside Manhattan’s Hammerstein Ballroom, Rob Van Dam’s match against John Cena was about more than the WWE Championship. It was a referendum on the corporate regime of WWE, a plea for something new, a cry of Extreme. As one spectator’s infamous sign read, if RVD hadn’t emerged victorious, the hardcore faithful surely would have rioted.
Rob Van Dam was the first competitor to announce the time and place of his Money in the Bank contract cash-in — the ECW-themed One Night Stand 2006 event. That night, with the referee incapacitated, Cena’s rival Edge stormed the ring in a trenchcoat and motorcycle helmet and speared the defending champion through a table. RVD capitalized, as he always did, with a Five-Star Frog Splash. With no official ready to make the count, Paul Heyman slid onto the canvas and slapped the mat three times, sending New York City into a euphoric frenzy. — ZACH LINDER
The Undertaker vs. The Rock vs. Kurt Angle: Vengeance (July 21, 2002)
Three of the biggest Superstars in WWE history collided in a Triple Threat Match for the Undisputed WWE Championship when The Undertaker defended his title against Kurt Angle and The Rock at Vengeance 2002.
Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena was electric as the trio of respected competitors battled in and out of the squared circle. Each Superstar brought a unique style to the match — an element that provided insane unpredictability as endless near-falls continued to pile up. The exciting struggle raged for nearly 30 minutes before The Olympic Hero executed an Angle Slam on The Deadman just as The People’s Champion jumped to his feet and hit Angle with a Rock Bottom. Unable to prevent the pinfall in time, The Undertaker watched as The Great One pinned Angle to claim the WWE Undisputed Title. — KEVIN POWERS
Brock Lesnar vs. The Undertaker: No Mercy (Oct. 20, 2002)
Seven months into Brock Lesnar’s WWE career, the WWE Universe knew his power, but they discovered his depravity against The Undertaker inside Hell in a Cell.
The rivals started the bout by hurling one another into the chain-link cage, turning each other into a red mess. Lesnar survived a chokeslam and a Last Ride, and when Undertaker went for the Tombstone Piledriver, the freak athlete flipped over Undertaker’s head and powered The Phenom onto his shoulders. Manhandling the 299-pound Undertaker in a way the WWE Universe had never seen, Lesnar then tossed the icon into position for the deciding F-5.
With The Deadman out, Lesnar climbed to the roof of the Cell, standing above WWE like the conqueror he was quickly proving to be. — JEFF LABOON
Edge vs. John Cena: Unforgiven (Sept. 17, 2006)
John Cena promised if he couldn’t defeat Edge in The Rated-R Superstar’s hometown of Toronto at Unforgiven 2006, he would leave Raw for SmackDown for good.
From Cena using a ladder as leverage in the STF to Edge running up a ladder balanced on the turnbuckle to lunge at Cena on the outside, no ounce of creativity was sparred in the first one-on-one Tables, Ladders & Chairs Match. The Cenation leader proved the most vicious, though, setting Edge up for the Attitude Adjustment on top of the ladder. Despite referees pleading below, Cena launched his rival off the ladder and through stacked tables before grabbing the WWE Title and proving clutch in the must-win bout. — JEFF LABOON
Iron Sheik vs. Hulk Hogan (Jan. 23, 1984)
It was the match that started it all. On a cold winter night in New York City, one big leg drop changed the course of sports-entertainment forever.
As 1983 came to a close, Mr. McMahon had begun to take WWE in a new direction and wooed AWA main eventer Hulk Hogan back to WWE one week after The Iron Sheik became WWE Champion. The mighty Iranian — a former Olympian and onetime bodyguard of the Shah’s wife — had ended the nearly six-year reign of Bob Backlund with the lethal Camel Clutch.
On Jan. 23, 1984, The Hulkster crossed himself and deliberately marched into Madison Square Garden to the pulse of Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger.” Fighting back from Sheik’s debilitating Camel Clutch, Hulk sent the champion down to the canvas and dropped his powerful leg across the Iranian’s throat. As the referee counted three, announcer Gorilla Monsoon said it best: “Hulkamania is here!” — ZACH LINDER
John Cena vs. Shawn Michaels: WrestleMania 23 (April 1, 2007)
Shawn Michaels warned WWE Champion John Cena he would take him to the “top of the mountain” in what was HBK’s first WrestleMania WWE Title bout since WrestleMania XIV.
Undeterred by the veteran’s words, Cena overpowered his tag partner until HBK reversed an Attitude Adjustment into a DDT to gain control. After each Superstar reversed the others’ signature moves — Cena blocking a crossbody and Sweet Chin Music and Michaels evading the AA and STF — the two were so exhausted they leaned on one another to stand for the referee’s 10-count.
With a burst of energy, Cena grabbed Michaels into the AA, but HBK slithered from position. Cena quickly snagged his leg, though, forcing The Showstopper into the fateful STF for the most grueling victory of his young career. — JEFF LABOON
The Undertaker vs. Jeff Hardy: Raw (July 1, 2002)
With The Undertaker hell-bent on earning respect, he looked down on rising fan favorite Jeff Hardy as an irreverent punk.
The reigning WWE Champion offered Hardy an opportunity to climb the WWE hierarchy in a Ladder Match on Raw that proved to be a landmark contest for The Charismatic Enigma. When Undertaker hoisted Hardy up for a Last Ride Powerbomb, the challenger grabbed a chair and blasted him with it. But by the time Hardy neared the title, Undertaker nailed him with two chairshots to the back before chokeslamming him from the top of the ladder.
Hardy refused to stay down after the loss, driving the respect-obsessed Deadman back to the ring. As Undertaker looked in the young competitor’s eyes, he knew he couldn’t break the kid’s spirit and raised Hardy’s hand instead of clobbering him. Hardy didn’t win the title that night, but he did earn Undertaker’s respect. — JEFF LABOON
Shawn Michaels vs. Mankind: In Your House (Sept. 22, 1996)
No one really thought Mankind was going to wrestle the WWE Title away from Shawn Michaels at In Your House 10: Mind Games. At least, that was the case until the bell rang and the two Superstars started banging around the ringside area in a fight that would have horrified the bulk of those in attendance had it not taken place in Philadelphia — the home of Extreme Championship Wrestling, the Broad Street Bullies and that guy who gave the “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” an airplane spin.
Still, broken tables be damned. This match was about so much more than wooden shrapnel. WWE fans walked out of Philly’s CoreStates Center realizing that: a.) Shawn Michaels was tougher than they had given him credit for, and b.) Mankind was a legitimate title contender. Two Superstars redefined by a single match. And they say this isn’t ballet. — RYAN MURPHY
Ric Flair vs. Randy Savage: WrestleMania VIII (April 5, 1993)
Ric Flair did everything he could to throw “Macho Man” Randy Savage off his game before their WrestleMania VIII battle for the WWE Championship. That included doctoring photos to make it appear as though Flair was enjoying an illicit relationship with Savage’s wife, Miss Elizabeth.
The plan backfired on “The Nature Boy,” as an enraged Savage unleashed his fury on Flair. The Dirtiest Player in the Game fought back with nefarious tactics, distracting the referee and allowing his adviser, Mr. Perfect, to attack Savage with a steel chair.
The brutal attack drew Miss Elizabeth to ringside, which was ultimately Flair’s undoing. “The Nature Boy” couldn’t resist a chance to hit on The First Lady of WWE, leaving himself open to a roll-up by Savage. After the bell rang, “Macho Man” Randy Savage was on top of the world once again, with Miss Elizabeth by his side and the WWE Championship around his waist. — BOBBY MELOK
The Rock vs. Mankind: Raw (Jan. 4, 1999)
From November 1998 to February 1999, The Rock and Mick Foley competed in seven big-time matchups with the WWE Championship at stake. But none produced the visceral emotion and feel-good memories of The Hardcore Legend’s first WWE title victory.
During the No Disqualification Match on Raw, The Rock’s Corporation cohorts lurked at ringside, as did Foley’s allies in D-Generation X. When Ken Shamrock broke up a pinfall attempt with a steel chair, Billy Gunn was quick to even the odds. As a chaotic brawl between the factions boiled over, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin marched to the ring, nailed The Brahma Bull with the same chair and draped Foley’s arm across The Rock’s chest.
“Mick Foley did it,” Michael Cole famously declared as the underdog hoisted his title in the air. “Mankind has achieved his dream and the dream of everyone else who’s been told, ‘You can’t do it.’ ” — ZACH LINDER
Randy Savage vs. Hulk Hogan: WrestleMania V (April 2, 1989)
The Mega Powers had, at one time, the strongest bond in WWE history. But that all came crashing down when “Macho Man” Randy Savage’s jealousy of Hulk Hogan’s friendship with Miss Elizabeth overtook him. Savage, then the WWE Champion, attacked The Hulkster in a rage, setting the stage for their WrestleMania V showdown.
The heated battle quickly spilled to the arena floor, where the “Macho Man” rammed Hogan into the cold steel ring post. Savage then viciously attacked the challenger’s throat, hoping that he could incapacitate his former friend.
Unfortunately for Savage, Hogan’s unparalleled resiliency kicked in after absorbing “Macho Man’s” trademark top rope elbow drop. The Hulkster showed off his impressive might, fighting off Savage’s manic offense before hitting his Atomic Leg Drop to regain the WWE Championship. — BOBBY MELOK
1992 Royal Rumble Match (Jan. 19, 1992)
If you don’t understand the greatness of Ric Flair, you’re doing something wrong. But if you still need convincing, watch the 1992 Royal Rumble Match. A visual testament to the style, the resolve and the bottomless gas tank of “The Nature Boy,” the wildly entertaining ruckus saw Flair enter at No. 3 and hang on for dear life for the next 59 minutes and 26 seconds in beautiful pursuit of the WWE Title.
Launching Big Boss Man, Texas Tornado and Sid Justice over the top rope to become the first man to win the WWE Championship in a Royal Rumble Match, Naitch was most definitely the star in Albany, N.Y.’s now rechristened Knickerbocker Arena. Still, partial credit goes to Bobby “The Brain” Heenan who was so good on commentary during this bout that his raw audio should be enshrined in the WWE Hall of Fame. — RYAN MURPHY
Triple H vs. Cactus Jack: Royal Rumble 2000 (Jan. 23, 2000)
Maybe Triple H didn’t know what he was doing. Or maybe he simply didn’t care. After marrying Stephanie McMahon and gaining control of WWE, the ruthless Game embarrassed the beloved Mankind by firing him. Thanks to the efforts of the WWE roster, Triple H was forced to rehire Mrs. Foley’s Baby Boy, but the Greenwich, Conn., resident had awoken a sleeping sadist. Mankind was gone and in his place stood the dangerous Cactus Jack.
On Mick Foley’s home turf of Madison Square Garden, the two brawlers threw everything they had at one another, including wooden boards and thumbtacks. The encounter brought hardcore wrestling into the main event, and the hardened New York City crowd loved every minute of it. Although Foley was pinned following a Pedigree onto the aforementioned tacks, he received a standing ovation in what turned out to be one of the final matches of his full-time career. — ZACH LINDER
Bret Hart vs. 1-2-3 Kid: Raw (July 11, 1994)
As a five-time WWE Champion, Bret “Hit Man” Hart approached all of his matches the way a fine artist would a canvas. And the “Hit Man’s” July 11, 1994, Raw title defense against The 1-2-3 Kid was one of his true masterpieces.
Colliding in the inauspicious confines of the Fernwood Resort in Bushkill, Pa., The Excellence of Execution and the hungry young Kid matched each other hold for hold in a thrilling display of mat prowess. Never one to underestimate an opponent, the “Hit Man” helped establish the future X-Pac as a serious contender while confirming his place as sports-entertainment’s finest performer. Ultimately countering a missile dropkick into The Sharpshooter, Hart beat The 1-2-3 Kid, but both Superstars exited the ring as victors thanks to an encounter Jim Ross called “one of the greatest matches I’ve ever seen.” — RYAN MURPHY
John Cena vs. Daniel Bryan: SummerSlam 2013 (Aug, 18, 2013)
Who made whom in this match? Was it the contest where all the John Cena snarking was irrevocably silenced and the jeering taunts of “You can’t wrestle!” dissipated forever as The Champ went move-for-move with the best technician in the game? Or was it the match where everyone who wrote off Daniel Bryan as a sawed-off “Lord of the Rings” refugee who was hopelessly out of his league was left to eat their words at the same time the mighty Cena ate Bryan’s battering-ram knee to the face?
It’s still tough to tell. The contest played out like a blur then and it still does now; this match was shockingly stripped-down for a SummerSlam main event. It was a bout between two wrestlers at their peak that would have been just as welcome in Bryan’s hallowed high school gymnasiums as the last match of a WWE pay-per-view.
No need to get into the shenanigans after Bryan fulfilled his promise to defeat John Cena. Frankly, it doesn’t dampen the achievement of the night. We could call this a David vs. Goliath match, but that really wouldn’t be true, because that would apply someone had an inherent disadvantage. The revelation of SummerSlam was that John Cena and Daniel Bryan were always — and have always — been on the same level of excellence. It was about time we saw how much. — ANTHONY BENIGNO
Bret Hart vs. Owen Hart: SummerSlam 1994 (Aug. 29, 1994)
As Bret Hart rose to the top of WWE in 1994, younger brother Owen did his best to play spoiler along the way, injuring the “Hit Man” at the Royal Rumble and defeating him at WrestleMania X.
With the entire Hart family at ringside at SummerSlam, Owen aimed to finish his brother’s reign atop WWE for good inside a steel cage. “The Black Hart” found himself mere steps away from victory as he climbed to the outside of the cage, but Bret superplexed him back into the ring, risking his own well-being to stop Owen.
With the brothers bashing each other into the blue steel on the outside, Bret trapped Owen’s leg in one of the cage’s rungs. The champion then bounced to the floor, silencing his baby bro and retaining the title. — JEFF LABOON
Hulk Hogan vs. Ultimate Warrior: WrestleMania VI (April 1, 1990)
You wouldn’t buy it now, but 20 years ago WWE fans actually believed Hulk Hogan was finished. After watching Ultimate Warrior bum-rush their hero in the Toronto SkyDome to end Hulk’s glorious year-long reign as WWE Champion, people thought The Hulkster had been replaced as WWE’s alpha male by a maniac in neon tights.
Of course, more than a decade later, those same folks would be watching Hogan battle The Rock at WrestleMania X8 in an encounter that set the standard for unfathomable crowd reactions. Truth is, Hulk didn't really pass the torch to Warrior. He just let him hold it for a while. But that shouldn’t take anything away from that epic April 1990 night when the nomad from Parts Unknown pinned Hogan and — for a moment — became the standard bearer for WWE. — RYAN MURPHY
John Cena vs. CM Punk: Money in the Bank (July 17, 2011)
Following CM Punk’s “pipe bomb” on the June 27, 2011, edition of Raw, The Voice of the Voiceless faced John Cena for the WWE Championship on the night Punk’s WWE contract expired. The Straight Edge Superstar made his intentions clear — he would defeat Cena for the WWE Title and exit WWE with the championship.
The Second City Saint lived up to his promise and beat Cena in a stellar match in front of a wild hometown Chicago crowd. Mr. McMahon immediately ordered Alberto Del Rio to cash in his Money in the Bank contract, but a well-timed kick by Punk to The Mexican Aristocrat put the kibosh on The Chairman’s plan.
With Mr. McMahon looking on helplessly, the new WWE Champion scaled the barricade, blew a kiss goodbye and disappeared into the Windy City night. With the title now in the hands of a non-contracted competitor, public fascination with the championship reached unprecedented heights. — KEVIN POWERS
Hulk Hogan vs. Andre the Giant: WrestleMania III (March 29, 1987)
Required viewing for any card-carrying member of the WWE Universe, this WrestleMania III meeting of what announcer Gorilla Monsoon liked to call the irresistible force and the immovable object is the quintessential 1980s WWE Title Match.
Held before 93,173 WWE fans — basically a suburb coming together to watch big dudes bash each other — the epic encounter had that elusive “big fight” feel. Would Andre the Giant’s mythic proportions allow him to crush Hulkamania? Or would Hulk Hogan find the reserve in his 24-inch pythons and his legions of Hulkamaniacs to lift “The Eighth Wonder of the World” off the canvas and send him crashing back down to the mat?
Spoiler alert: The Hulkster did it. If you didn’t know that, stop everything you’re doing and watch. Right now. Seriously, before your friends find out. — RYAN MURPHY
The Rock vs. "Stone Cold" Steve Austin: WrestleMania X-Seven (April 1, 2001)
Before the second battle on The Grandest Stage of Them All between WWE Champion The Rock and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin began, it was announced that the match would be No Disqualification. This resulted in an all-out brawl between the two rivals that spilled to the outside and into the crowd. Their clash two years earlier was well-regarded among the WWE Universe, but as the collision inside Houston’s Astrodome raged on, WrestleMania XV became a distant memory.
The intensity of the match reached a fever pitch when The Rock executed a Stunner and The Texas Rattlesnake later reciprocated with a Rock Bottom, but the exchange of finishing maneuvers did not secure victory for either competitor. Finally, it was a shocking assist from Austin’s nemesis Mr. McMahon — who handed his former rival a steel chair to use against The People’s Champion — that allowed “Stone Cold” to finally secure the win. — KEVIN POWERS
Bret Hart vs. Shawn Michaels: WrestleMania XII (March 31, 1996)
At WrestleMania XII, WWE Champion Bret “Hit Man” Hart and Shawn Michaels squared off in an unprecedented 60-Minute Iron Man Match. With both legendary Superstars in the prime of their careers, there was no telling who would emerge victorious. But the WWE Universe could not have imagined that the competitors would go the entire bout without either scoring a pinfall or submission.
When the time limit expired without a winner, an overtime period was ordered to definitively determine the champion. Continuing the back-and-forth struggle into the extra time allotted for the match, Michaels managed to hit Sweet Chin Music to score the victory and realize his boyhood dream of becoming WWE Champion. Certainly one of the greatest WrestleMania matches ever, the grueling contest proved why Hart and HBK were the best of their generation and captured the importance of the WWE Title. — KEVIN POWERS