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11 Superstars on the matches that changed their lives
As WWE fans, we watch as rookie Superstars grow into our favorite main-event competitors. All the while, they’re learning strategy, changing their styles, and evolving into better performers. But what is going through the mind of these unbelievable athletes as they navigate the rocky waters of the squared circle?
We asked 11 of WWE’s top Superstars to reflect on their careers and tell us when it all clicked for them in the ring. Not necessarily a title win, or even the first time they stepped onto a canvas, but rather, what are the matches that changed their lives?
John Cena vs. Kurt Angle: SmackDown, June 27, 2002
“The match that changed my life was my first match. As the outreach of NXT grows and grows, WWE developmental is changing. A lot of times, NXT Superstars are already recognized by the time they get to WWE. In the days of yore, developmental was just that. You were like a Minor League Baseball player. People might have known of you, but they knew very little about you. Once you made it on TV and had an official debut it was like, ‘ OK, I’m on TV now. The legwork of getting to television is over. The story is now truly beginning.’
“It wasn’t the match itself, or the body of the match, it was the fact that it happened. It’s not that I was more or less accepted backstage. I didn’t have a sense of entitlement, achievement or acceptance. I knew I had a start. And if you look back, it was an improper start, but a start nonetheless. It just didn’t work. The situation I was put in wasn’t the right time. I would soon evolve into something extremely different and go from there. But the most important thing about it was it was a beginning. You can’t have a good story without a beginning.” — JOHN CENA
Daniel Bryan vs. Nigel McGuinness — ROH Title Unification Match: Unified, Aug. 12, 2006
“My No. 1 match that changed wrestling for what it shouldn’t be is a match against Nigel [McGuinness] that I had in England, and I consider it one of my best matches. I grabbed his arms and pulled him into the post. Once. Twice. Three times. I gave it one more. I pull him in and WHACK. He bled so much. It was his home country and people were going nuts for him. It was such an emotionally charged match, it was just awesome.
“But, the negatives of that, he had this big welt on his face. The next day, his eyes were all bloodshot. The blood had just drained down. The price that Nigel paid for that match was not worth the reaction that we got. It sold a ton of DVDs and did a lot for an independent company, but if you were to ask Nigel now if that was a good idea, I guarantee you he would say, ‘no.’
“After that, safety became of the utmost importance.” — DANIEL BRYAN
Cody Rhodes vs. John Morrison: SmackDown, April 30, 2010
“Long after The Legacy, I wrestled John Morrison in my SmackDown debut after I’d been drafted. I was incredibly depressed, personally and professionally, and I’d been given an opportunity to be on a brand-new brand. I remember thinking, ‘I’m gonna go out there and drive my body like it’s somebody else’s car. I’m gonna just go for it.’
“I knew I was going to try some things that I’d never tried before, and I was OK with it. I was OK with testing what natural ability I had — the natural ability people have thought I’d had for a long time. I was OK riding blind. It was the first time I did the Disaster Kick. It was the first time I confidently did an Alabama Slam. And I would become 'Dashing' Cody Rhodes a few weeks later.” — CODY RHODES
Ed. note: This interview was conducted prior to the debut of Stardust.
Bad News Barrett vs. Justin Gabriel vs. David Otunga: WWE NXT, June 1, 2010
“On the final episode of NXT Season 1, there were three of us left. It was myself, Justin Gabriel and David Otunga. We had a Triple Threat Match as the finale. We were put to the test and had a lot more time than we were used to on that show. We were thrown out there as three unknown guys, and we put in quite a solid performance. Most of the NXT show was actually pre-recorded, but the finale was live. There was a bit of added pressure on us being that we were on live TV.
“David Otunga got eliminated quite early, and after that, it was just me and Justin Gabriel, and we put on some really good stuff. I thought it was a very exciting match, and ultimately I won. That was very important in the path of me winning NXT, and subsequently becoming the leader of Nexus.” — BAD NEWS BARRETT
Big E vs. Jack Swagger: SmackDown, May 10, 2013
“The match that changed my life was a match on a SmackDown leading up to my first World Heavyweight Title defense on a pay-per-view. During a match between Big E and Swagger, Alberto Del Rio introduced a ladder and slid it into the middle of the ring. We both looked at each other and went for the ladder. I, being the much better athlete, was much quicker and got there faster. Unfortunately, Jack Swagger kicked me in the head as I was trying to pick up the ladder. I don’t remember anything after that.
“From that point forward, I was diagnosed with a concussion and did not defend my title. At the next pay-per-view where I was able to compete, I lost my one and only defense to Alberto Del Rio at WWE Payback in Chicago.” — DOLPH ZIGGLER
Seth Rollins vs. Nigel McGuinness — ROH World Championship Match: Take No Prisoners 2008
“The match that changed my life was me versus Nigel McGuinness, my first shot at the Ring of Honor World Title. It was in Philadelphia, Pa., at the National Guard Armory. Nigel was a world-traveled, top-of-the-line, first-class professional wrestler. I was 21 years old and really had no idea what I was doing. I had just broken into Ring of Honor. I hadn’t quite been established yet. At that point, I had been there for maybe six months, and Nigel took this guy who had just gotten started, but had a bit of a following, and made him a star in one match.
“It was a huge educational process for me, just learning the beauty and the art form of what we do. It doesn’t necessarily have to be hero versus villain, but it was about a young, hungry up-and-comer against a veteran who’s the standard of a company. Feeling the momentum of that match, from the beginning until the very end, was something I’ll never forget.
“When I came out of it, I had such a greater understanding of what professional wrestling could really do to an audience. To be a part of that is something that is fairly indescribable. You can’t compare it to just seeing it.” — SETH ROLLINS
Rob Van Dam vs. Dan Kroffat — AJPW World Junior Heavyweight Championship Match: Super Power Series 1995 — Tag 15; Rob Van Dam vs. Bam Bam Bigelow — ECW World Television Championship: April 4, 1998
“I wrestled Danny Kroffat for All Japan Pro Wrestling at the Budokan in Tokyo in 1995. This was the match where I elevated my understanding to a whole new level of what we were doing out there and how the crowd reacts to everything when it’s all done in the right order. Danny Kroffat was the master.
“As far as my connection with the crowd, it was the match where I beat Bam Bam Bigelow for the TV Title. [Bam Bam and I] would really take it to each other, and that’s what ECW was about. After that, I was again on a whole new level, because the fans treated me like I was a huge star and screamed ‘R-V-D’ with a different kind of passion than they ever did before.
“Paul [Heyman] told me after that, the fans were going to treat me differently. And he was right.” — ROB VAN DAM
Dustin Rhodes & Ricky Steamboat vs. The Enforcers — WCW Tag Team Championship: Clash of the Champions XVII, Nov. 19, 1991; Goldust vs. Savio Vega — Intercontinental Championship Match: Madison Square Garden Live Event, Jan. 26, 1996
“In the early days as Dustin Rhodes in WCW, a match where I felt like I was really doing well was me & Ricky Steamboat vs. Larry Zbyszko & Arn Anderson for the WCW Tag Team Titles. It was in Savannah, Ga., at Clash of the Champions. Everything just clicked. I felt good about everything I did in the ring, and I guess it showed. The people were hot. They were loud and as crazy as could be. One of the loudest crowds I’ve ever seen. I have not heard a Savannah crowd like that since. Maybe it was just that moment for me.
“Those guys were my teachers. There were five guys that were my teachers: Barry Windham, Bobby Eaton, Arn Anderson, Larry Zbyszko and Ricky Steamboat. Those five guys taught me everything I know in the business and I’m indebted to them.
“As Goldust, I wrestled Savio Vega in Madison Square Garden where I put an exclamation point on the Goldust persona. That was really born when I decided to do some of the more risqué stuff to Savio Vega. I didn’t want to at the time, because I was struggling. I wasn’t used to the Goldust suit yet. I finally agreed, because we were in the Garden, sold out. It was crazy. I scurried out of the ring and Savio chased me. People hated that, they went nuts. It was way before it’s time.” — GOLDUST
Jack Swagger vs. Tyson Kidd — Lumberjack Match: FCW, Nov. 13, 2007; Jack Swagger vs. Christian — ECW Championship Match: Backlash 2009
“When I broke into the business, I had no professional background. It was all amateur wrestling and football. I had been to a couple of shows, but the first time I actually got to touch a wrestling ring was on my tryout. I could do the technique, but I couldn’t see how to put a match together. I struggled at that. The trainer, Bill DeMott, was like, ‘Eventually, one day, the light bulb is going to come on and everything is gonna click.’
“I had a match with Tyson Kidd at FCW. It was the first time I main-evented a show down there. Tyson is amazing, but in that match, I felt everything. I felt the emotion and the intensity, and after that, everything was like a snowball effect. I had a lot of momentum. It was a cool feeling. I remember sitting backstage and feeling, ‘This is what it’s supposed to be.’ And this was a small show at a community center.
“A big match in my career, I’ll always look back at this, was the ECW Championship Match I had against Christian back at Backlash. It was the first big-time match I had. I’d had a couple of good ones, but this was really good. The crowd was biting on everything, and I heard the big reactions for the first time. It was like, ‘Oh, we had ‘em.’ I always look back at that match as a stepping-off point like it was, ‘OK, now it’s time to run. Put the gas pedal down and let’s go.’” — JACK SWAGGER
Kofi Kingston vs. Carlito — United States Championship Match: Raw, Aug. 9, 2009
“For me, the match that changed my life was definitely when I got the opportunity to wrestle Carlito at a series of Live Events and also on TV a little bit. When I was coming up, I was confident, but I was still very nervous.
“Carlito was Caribbean Cool in the ring and also cool in the locker room. He was a very underrated ring leader and ring general. It wasn’t until after I got done wrestling him that I thought, ‘You know what, if things don’t go the way you want them to go, it’s completely fine. They’ll go somewhere else, and they’ll be great.’ That was when I started to be a lot more comfortable in the ring — when I wrestled Carlito.” — KOFI KINGSTON
Sheamus vs. Drew McIntyre — Last Man Standing IWW International Heavyweight Title Match: Irish Whip Wrestling, June 17, 2006
“The match that changed my life was a match I had against Drew McIntyre in Balbriggan for Irish Whip Wrestling, where I had been training for a while. I’d only been wrestling six or eight months, maybe. Drew McIntyre and I had been wrestling each other back and forth across Ireland and Scotland.
“We’d had this Last Man Standing Match with about 400 or 500 people in this bingo hall in Balbriggan in north county Dublin. The energy of the crowd never stopped the whole time. Everything we did had this incredible feeling where we’d go back and forth and the crowd was hanging on every pin and every move.
“That’s when I really felt it. Before, I was so nervous. That was the first time where I started to relax.” — SHEAMUS