Doc’s Greatest Matches and Rivalries of the WrestleMania Era is now available on Audible and iTunes as an audiobook. To order/download, click here
Mav: Welcome back, ladies and gentlemen. Last winter, The Doc suggested to me that we should work together on a collaborative series, and I knew right away what we should do. Anyone who has read my work on this website for the past four and a half years (and even longer if you were with me down in the Columns Forum), or listened to The Right Side Of The Pond knows that my number one passion in pro wrestling is not the “epic” main events but the midcard barn burners and forgotten classics of yore, those matches which either stole a show or enhanced a card through their intelligence and storytelling acumen. After much conferring, we finally came up with a list of the matches we felt represented the top 100 bouts of this type in WWF/E history. But we have rules and parameters! Let me pass you over the good Doctor to take you through them…
Doc: When I think about the term “mid-card,” I tend to think of a rather catch-all term applying to men’s singles matches that took place beyond the confines of the main-event scene, with respect to women’s and tag team matches which are specifically distinguished by their respective divisional labels. This thought process does indeed go against the grain of the literal definition of the term – a match that took place in the middle of the card – but there should naturally be a line drawn to help set apart from the mid-card situations in which the top championship of a brand is at stake earlier on in a show rather than the last match or when the clear and obvious lead feud on television does not get the main-event on a pay-per-view. The mid-card scene certainly has its obvious division-based distinctions too, specifically the mid-card singles championships (the United States and Intercontinental), and Mav and I also decided to perhaps controversially include the World Heavyweight Championship from 2012 until its retirement (to be explained in greater detail later), but the goal of the parameters set forth in the upcoming Top 100 was to encompass a broad spectrum of potential candidates (end date May 2018).
If you have any questions about rules and parameters, let us know, otherwise, let’s get back to it!
55. The Miz vs. Cesaro vs. Sami Zayn vs. Kevin Owens for the Intercontinental Championship at Extreme Rules 2016
Doc: 2016 strikes me as the year widely accepted as the beginning of the Intercontinental Title’s revival. As Mav mentioned in the final entry of our last post for this project, the 2000s were not kind to WWE’s all-time second most important championship, and that trend continued well into this decade, but the Owens vs. Ambrose feud that carried over from 2015 into Royal Rumble ‘16 hit the reset button yet again on the big white belt and The Miz would take over from there, most notably in the latter part of the year post-Talking Smack-down of Daniel Bryan. Lost in the shuffle of the IC Title renaissance’s story is this 4-Way. Generally, when the number of wrestlers increases beyond three, my interest wanes; however, this was just the sort of frantically paced, wildly unpredictable version of the gimmick that speaks directly to my tastes. It was never destined to change the perception of the title because I’m just not sure that 4-Way matches are readily capable of such a feat, but reflecting back to that period now that we have seen the best sustained run for the IC Title in twenty years develop over the past three years, the 4-Way should be regarded in my opinion as a nice feather in the cap of the championship’s resurgence at most and just a flat out barn-burner of a match at least.
Mav: I remember thinking at the time that I wanted the Owens vs Zayn rivalry that began in December 2013 in NXT to have its epic conclusion on the main roster when Zayn was finally healthy, and was baffled by the idea of sticking them in a four way with Miz and Cesaro, but if you take the questionable booking aside, this is a seriously fun fatal fourway in the modern style, with high impact moves at breakneck speed, and bodies flying everywhere, and with KO and Sami’s long standing antipathy at least providing some kind of narrative unity to the bout. I think the Intercontinental Championship has always attracted excellent multi-man matches, and as Doc suggests, this is one that contributed to a renaissance for the white belt.
54. The Miz vs. Dolph Ziggler for the Intercontinental Championship at Backlash 2016
Mav: Speaking of the renaissance of the Intercontinental Championship, here’s another prime example! On paper, the idea of a revival of The Miz vs Dolph Ziggler, two jaded veterans of the famously misbooked and mishandled midcard class of 2008, two poster boys for a lost generation, did not seem promising. What could they do together which they had not done already? However, in the safe environment of early brand extension Smackdown Live, they were given space to construct a compelling narrative surrounding The Miz’s career resurgence contrasted against Ziggler’s stagnation. The sheer real life frustration and desperation of The Show Off, combined with The Miz’s superb heel antagonist, led to a marquee feud and a superb, old school Intercontinental Championship match. I’d kill for something like this now, I have to say.
Doc: This bout contends with their Ladder Match from a few months later for the forgotten great match in their (I’ll say it) historically great feud for the IC Title. Everyone talks about the Career vs. Title match from No Mercy, and rightfully so, but I contend that this match was absolutely fantastic too and that all three of their pay-per-view matches from that Autumn form a dynamic trio that stacks up against the best of the best rivalries in IC Championship lore. A question I have fielded over the years has been, “What matches did you just never want to end?” This is one of them. When was the last feature-length IC Title bout before this that did not involve a Ladder or some other gimmick (like the 4-way above)? To my recollection, it had been forever and a day; and even if that doesn’t prove accurate when you fact check it, that is certainly the way that I felt. Those extra few minutes of standard, one fall to a finish PPV time – and, of course, the excellent use of the extended run-time – invested me at a level I had not reached for an IC Title match in a long time.
53. Edge vs. Eddie Guerrero in a No-Disqualification Match on the September 26, 2002 Edition of Smackdown
Doc: The classics just keep on coming, don’t they? Good Lord what a match this was. My best friend in college and I still talk about sitting in his dorm room watching this, and he always mislabels it a “Ladder Match” on account of the ladder’s use in the climax. I’ll let Mav break down its superlatives, but I would like to use this performance as one of the quintessential examples of how a quality wrestling show should be using its TV time. Edge and Eddie had a solidly unspectacular mid-card feud that included a pair of solidly unspectacular mid-card PPV bouts of roughly 10-minutes in length. We remember their feud as something greater because Smackdown, in the famous era of the “Six,” afforded them featured PPV length to payoff their rivalry. Take this match and, more importantly the opportunity to have it, off the table and Edge vs. Eddie gets buried in the annals of the WrestleMania Era instead of championed as a contender in mid-card lore that quite honestly would look as “at home” in the Top 25 as it does just outside the Top 50.
Mav: Edge is remembered as a Hall of Fame heel, so it’s no surprise, sadly, that his midcard babyface run is historically neglected, but as I’ve found from recently revisiting the InVasion angle, the Canadian probably did most of his best pure “wrestling” between 2001 and 2002 before his neck started to really restrict him, with the clean cut character giving him the opportunity to work a poppier move set. Meanwhile, Eddie had a chip on his shoulder and a tonne to prove in 2002, and he wrestled
every single match with a brooding intensity rarely bettered by anyone, if ever. Watching this one back – and honestly, I’d forgotten all about it until Doc jogged my memory – it uses the No DQ stipulation so very cleverly, not overdoing the violence, but instead using it strategically to enhance the drama at key times. I particularly enjoyed the narrative of the ladder being Edge’s signature weapon, but Eddie proving just as adept at employing it to inflict pain. One hell of a match, and if I could have a do over on the ratings, I’d put it higher!
52. CM Punk vs. Rey Mysterio in the Finals of the Intercontinental Championship #1 Contender Tournament at Armageddon 2008
Mav: I have long blown the trumpet for this match, a midcard barn burner wrestled at such a pace, and with such beautiful precision, that it reads to me as a spiritual successor to the kinds of matches Mysterio worked as part of the Smackdown Six. Although their 2010 rivalry is better remembered from a story point of view, they were never quite given the time to really nail a match to go alongside the genius of the Straight Edge Saviour picking on Mysterio. Here, with a title shot at stake, they were given ample time to work a babyface bout of incredible intensity, with some beautiful touches like the handshake at the beginning, and Punk checking on the fallen Rey after the winning Go To Sleep. I could really wax lyrical about it all day; in many ways, it was the match that really started me on my journey to critically analysing wrestling matches, so much did it obsess me. I used to watch it two or three times a week, and would genuinely put it up there with my favourite matches of all time. Babyface 2008 Punk is crazy underrated, by the way!
Doc: One of the things I like about projects like this is reading assessments like Mav’s of this match and what it meant to his wrestling fandom. CM Punk was someone who I often felt was overrated as a babyface because of all the people who hyped me up about him by talking of his heel work, but there was no denying the quality of his in-ring work as a babyface when he was afforded the opportunity to be himself. This match with Mysterio was just such an instance of Punk getting to be the best version of himself as a performer between the ropes. Babyface matches are often given the chance to maximize a more athletic kind of wrestling style, and this was no exception, but Punk in his physical prime was an underrated athlete capable of eye-popping offense; put that version of Punk against perhaps the greatest in-ring innovator in the history of the business, Mysterio, and it was no surprise that they were able to put together such a memorable mid-card match.
51. Rey Mysterio vs. Chavo Guerrero for the Cruiserweight Championship at No Way Out 2004
Doc: This is one of my favorite Cruiserweight Title matches in WWE history, and the one that I would confidently label as the Cruiserweight Title bout that I was so invested in at the time that I just wanted it to keep going and going. Clocking in at 17-minutes and change, Mysterio vs. Chavo felt in the moment like the rare chance for the cruiserweights to optimize their performance on the pay-per-view stage, so consistent as WWE had been with 11-minute show-enhancing bell-to-bell times for them in the past. When it went past that usual point, I remember getting really excited because it felt like there was a lot of potential left to be realized in the story they were telling that night. Looking back, Chavo had been built up so well in the months leading to his match with Eddie at the Rumble that year that he and Mysterio’s title bout the next month stands out as one of the most anticipated Cruiserweight Championship matches ever in WWE, so the time they were afforded was both well-earned and well utilized. I’d watch this fifty times before I watched Lesnar vs. Eddie again, with all due respect to the history made via the elder Guerrero’s title victory.
Mav: Chavo Guerrero was a very underrated talent for the perpetuity of his WWE run, mostly because of his uncle’s unbelievable talent and their close association with each other, but I always enjoyed his work a great deal and this match is no exception to that rule. Given that both men were soon to get the chance to break out of the confines of the Cruiserweight niche, this feels in retrospect like the climax of the first high profile Cruiserweight era in WWE, and there was not to be another until the Cruiserweight Classic 12 years later. I think the reason Chavo and Rey worked so well together was because they had that dynamic of the smaller, more agile lucha guy against the technical wizard with a penchant for rule breaking, and that combination absolutely always works. Really enjoyable to revisit this one!
QUESTION OF THE DAY: Who, in your opinion, was the top primarily mid-card act of this decade in WWE?