Remember When: Rising stars raised the bar

The term “instant classic” is thrown around so casually that it has almost been stripped of its meaning. Yet, every once in a while, a match comes along that is so thrilling and heart-stopping that it deserves such lofty and instantaneous praise. The 2011 SmackDown Money in the Bank Ladder Match is one such bout. ( WATCH THE FULL MATCH)

It was the contest that put Sin Cara on a stretcher and Daniel Bryan in the main event picture. Now, a year removed from that spectacle, WWE.com caught up with four of the competitors involved – Bryan, Justin Gabriel, Cody Rhodes and Heath Slater – to get their recollections on what took that match, and its eight participants, to the next level.

Among the most obvious reasons the match is so fondly remembered was its diverse lineup. Not only did SmackDown's eight participants represent a nice blend of styles and weight classes – in addition to the aforementioned high-flyers and mat tacticians, powerhouses Kane and Sheamus were involved, as was bare-knuckle brawler Wade Barrett – they also spoke to the true international flavor of the WWE locker room. From the Cape Town Werewolf Gabriel and Irishman Sheamus to luchadore Sin Cara and Brit Barrett, many corners of the globe had hometown favorites for whom to root.

Then, there are the subtler qualities that made WWE's 2011 SmackDown Money in the Bank Ladder Match special. For example, an astounding six of the eight competitors had never wrestled in a Money in the Bank Ladder Match prior to last year. (Only Rhodes and Kane had prior experience.) The infusion of new energy, combined with the prevailing sense that Money in the Bank was a proving ground for young talent, helped raise the stakes.

“We had a lot of young and hungry guys, and that contributed so much,” Rhodes told WWE.com. “It’s no secret that SmackDown is occasionally referred to as the secondary show. That was the night where, win or lose, we had the better Money in the Bank Match, and we proved that SmackDown is second to nobody.”

Whether the competitors sought out to change the perception that youth equals undeserving, or if it was brand pride that inspired them, the result was the same: The pace was breathtaking, the falls frightening and the stake – an opportunity to be in the World Heavyweight Title hunt – was enticing.  

We proved that SmackDown is second to nobody.Members of the WWE Universe who witnessed the carnage, whether in person in Chicago or live on pay-per-view, remember the alarming manner in which the Superstars threw caution to the wind all too well. Midway into the match, Sheamus powerbombed a helpless Sin Cara off the ring and onto a ladder that was bridged between the apron and the announce desk. The rung-bending impact left WWE officials no choice but to deem the masked Superstar unable to continue the match.

In another exhilarating display, Gabriel perched perilously atop a ladder that was propped on the top turnbuckle. With an extraordinarily slim margin of error (ladders were strewn both in the ring and around it), frequent flyer Gabriel leapt into his trademark 450 Splash and found his target: Kane.

“It’s one of the scariest things I’ve ever done in my life,” Gabriel admitted. “That ladder was moving on the top rope, and it gave me an extra bounce. I got higher than ever before, and I’m not sure even the cameras did it justice. It was insane.”

Beyond its stunt-show appeal, the 2011 SmackDown Money in the Bank Ladder Match carries profound significance for its winner, Bryan. Prior to the event, WWE’s "Yes!"-man had not competed in a singles match on pay-per-view since November 2010 – a predicament that Bryan described as “unjustifiable.” His briefcase grab was a watershed moment that seemingly paved the way for a breakout year.

“I won the Money in the Bank contract and I cashed it in and all of a sudden, bam! I’ve been in title matches on every pay-per-view since,” Bryan boasted, referring, in part, to his World Heavyweight Title win at last December’s WWE Tables, Ladders & Chairs pay-per-view. “I’m coming up on the next Money in the Bank – a full year from when I won the Money in the Bank contract – and now I’m competing for the WWE Championship. Do you think it changed my career? Certainly!”

For all his success, Bryan credits only one man: himself. Rather than perhaps speaking glowingly of lessons gleaned from his trainer, Ladder Match pioneer and WWE Hall of Famer Shawn Michaels, the “submission specialist” said his maiden voyage into the Money in the Bank Ladder Match was not daunting for a ring general with his degree of experience.

Bryan’s first separated shoulder came, appropriately enough, in a little-seen Ladder Match 12 years ago in San Antonio, Texas.

“I’ve been in dangerous matches, and I’m not afraid of them,” he said. “I won the Money in the Bank last year because I was the toughest guy in that match. Not the strongest, not the fastest, but the toughest!”

Though Bryan insisted that he formed his strategy free of influence from HBK (or anybody else, for that matter), other participants in the SmackDown contest noted that they watched previous Ladder Matches and Money in the Bank contests to get a sense of what to expect. For first-time Banker Slater, no amount of film study could ready him for the flailing ladders and splattering bodies.

“Honestly, there ain’t no preparing,” Slater said. “There’s 6-foot and 12-foot ladders everywhere, and you have guys of different shapes and sizes coming at you from every end. Your peripheral vision can’t even keep up with them, you know?”

On the other end of the spectrum was Rhodes, who had one other Money in the Bank Ladder Match under his belt before last July. The brash former Intercontinental Champion explained the need to familiarize oneself with the ladders before stepping into battle.

“It’s important that you get out there early in the afternoon and get a feel for those ladders,” he advised. “Not only are they heavy, and hard to maneuver and hard to pick up, but you’re going to get hit by them. It’s one of those things where you know you’re going to get hit hard square in the face, and your elbows are going to get jammed into that ladder."

Rhodes, resigned to the fact that more Money in the Bank Ladder matches may be in his future, added: “It’s a very dangerous match-up.”

The term “instant classic” is thrown around so casually that it has almost been stripped of its meaning. Yet, every once in a while, a match comes along that is so thrilling and heart-stopping that it deserves such lofty and instantaneous praise. The 2011 SmackDown Money in the Bank Ladder Match is one such bout. ( WATCH THE FULL MATCH)

It was the contest that put Sin Cara on a stretcher and Daniel Bryan in the main event picture. Now, a year removed from that spectacle, WWE.com caught up with four of the competitors involved – Bryan, Justin Gabriel, Cody Rhodes and Heath Slater – to get their recollections on what took that match, and its eight participants, to the next level.

Among the most obvious reasons the match is so fondly remembered was its diverse lineup. Not only did SmackDown's eight participants represent a nice blend of styles and weight classes – in addition to the aforementioned high-flyers and mat tacticians, powerhouses Kane and Sheamus were involved, as was bare-knuckle brawler Wade Barrett – they also spoke to the true international flavor of the WWE locker room. From the Cape Town Werewolf Gabriel and Irishman Sheamus to luchadore Sin Cara and Brit Barrett, many corners of the globe had hometown favorites for whom to root.

We proved that SmackDown is second to nobody.

Then, there are the subtler qualities that made WWE's 2011 SmackDown Money in the Bank Ladder Match special. For example, an astounding six of the eight competitors had never wrestled in a Money in the Bank Ladder Match prior to last year. (Only Rhodes and Kane had prior experience.) The infusion of new energy, combined with the prevailing sense that Money in the Bank was a proving ground for young talent, helped raise the stakes.

“We had a lot of young and hungry guys, and that contributed so much,” Rhodes told WWE.com. “It’s no secret that SmackDown is occasionally referred to as the secondary show. That was the night where, win or lose, we had the better Money in the Bank Match, and we proved that SmackDown is second to nobody.”

Whether the competitors sought out to change the perception that youth equals undeserving, or if it was brand pride that inspired them, the result was the same: The pace was breathtaking, the falls frightening and the stake – an opportunity to be in the World Heavyweight Title hunt – was enticing.

Members of the WWE Universe who witnessed the carnage, whether in person in Chicago or live on pay-per-view, remember the alarming manner in which the Superstars threw caution to the wind all too well. Midway into the match, Sheamus powerbombed a helpless Sin Cara off the ring and onto a ladder that was bridged between the apron and the announce desk. The rung-bending impact left WWE officials no choice but to deem the masked Superstar unable to continue the match.

In another exhilarating display, Gabriel perched perilously atop a ladder that was propped on the top turnbuckle. With an extraordinarily slim margin of error (ladders were strewn both in the ring and around it), frequent flyer Gabriel leapt into his trademark 450 Splash and found his target: Kane.

“It’s one of the scariest things I’ve ever done in my life,” Gabriel admitted. “That ladder was moving on the top rope, and it gave me an extra bounce. I got higher than ever before, and I’m not sure even the cameras did it justice. It was insane.”

Testing Beyond its stunt-show appeal, the 2011 SmackDown Money in the Bank Ladder Match carries profound significance for its winner, Bryan. Prior to the event, WWE’s "Yes!"-man had not competed in a singles match on pay-per-view since November 2010 – a predicament that Bryan described as “unjustifiable.” His briefcase grab was a watershed moment that seemingly paved the way for a breakout year. ( ALL-TIME MONEY IN THE BANK PHOTOS)

“I won the Money in the Bank contract and I cashed it in and all of a sudden, bam! I’ve been in title matches on every pay-per-view since,” Bryan boasted, referring, in part, to his World Heavyweight Title win at last December’s WWE Tables, Ladders & Chairs pay-per-view. “I’m coming up on the next Money in the Bank – a full year from when I won the Money in the Bank contract – and now I’m competing for the WWE Championship. Do you think it changed my career? Certainly!”

For all his success, Bryan credits only one man: himself. Rather than perhaps speaking glowingly of lessons gleaned from his trainer, Ladder Match pioneer and WWE Hall of Famer Shawn Michaels, the “submission specialist” said his maiden voyage into the Money in the Bank Ladder Match was not daunting for a ring general with his degree of experience.

Bryan’s first separated shoulder came, appropriately enough, in a little-seen Ladder Match 12 years ago in San Antonio, Texas.

“I’ve been in dangerous matches, and I’m not afraid of them,” he said. “I won the Money in the Bank last year because I was the toughest guy in that match. Not the strongest, not the fastest, but the toughest!”

Though Bryan insisted that he formed his strategy free of influence from HBK (or anybody else, for that matter), other participants in the SmackDown contest noted that they watched previous Ladder Matches and Money in the Bank contests to get a sense of what to expect. For first-time Banker Slater, no amount of film study could ready him for the flailing ladders and splattering bodies.

“Honestly, there ain’t no preparing,” Slater said. “There’s 6-foot and 12-foot ladders everywhere, and you have guys of different shapes and sizes coming at you from every end. Your peripheral vision can’t even keep up with them, you know?”

On the other end of the spectrum was Rhodes, who had one other Money in the Bank Ladder Match under his belt before last July. The brash former Intercontinental Champion explained the need to familiarize oneself with the ladders before stepping into battle.

“It’s important that you get out there early in the afternoon and get a feel for those ladders,” he advised. “Not only are they heavy, and hard to maneuver and hard to pick up, but you’re going to get hit by them. It’s one of those things where you know you’re going to get hit hard square in the face, and your elbows are going to get jammed into that ladder."

Rhodes, resigned to the fact that more Money in the Bank Ladder matches may be in his future, added: “It’s a very dangerous match-up.”

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