The Magnificent Seven: The Top 7 WrestleMania Opening Matches
There are few honors in professional wrestling held in more universally high regard than getting a main event spot and closing the show at WrestleMania. Earning this spot is one of the dividing lines between top guys and upper-card talents, main event mainstays and also-rans. Look back at the history of guys who have closed WrestleMania and you’ll notice distinct patterns—that they are legends; that they are already in the Hall of Fame or are surely Hall of Fame bound. Even less auspicious entries—The Miz, Lawrence Taylor, (given the aftermath) Chris Benoit—nonetheless make sense within their immediate context and are still not insignificant names.
But what of showing up on the opposite end of the show—opening WrestleMania? On one hand “curtain jerking” isn’t exactly glamorous, a spot traditionally reserved for the mid-card or lower. But as wrestling has evolved, and we no longer look at the first match as a point when people are still just finding their seats or tuning in on television, but rather the kick off to a three-to-five-hour spectacular, that spot does take on a sense of importance. Particularly over the last twenty years, the opening match has to hook the audience and set the tone.
This week, I’m looking back at seven WrestleMania matches that opened the show. Note, I am only including matches that appeared on the WWE Network/PPV/closed-circuit TV broadcast, not dark matches. In making this countdown, I was focused on stand-alone match quality, though its success as an opener that energized the audience, as well as the broader story arc surrounding the match were secondary considerations. As always, personal opinion weighs heavily on this list.
#7. Finlay vs. JBL at WrestleMania 24
What a long, convoluted road we took to arrive at Finlay vs. JBL in a Belfast Brawl at WrestleMania 24. It can be difficult to recall that this short program had its roots in ridiculous angle in which Hornswoggle turned out to be Vince McMahon’s son. This feud, and particularly this match offered what redemption that storyline would have—the lone bright spot in the whole mess.
But what a bright spot it was! WrestleMania 24 too often gets overlooked in conversations about the greatest WrestleManias of all time, but particularly from a purely in-ring perspective, it was a doozy, featuring Ric Flair’s WWE retirement match, an epic Undertaker-Edge showdown, one of the best Money in the Bank contests, a fun spectacle in Floyd Mayweather Jr. vs. The Big Show, and this raucous, hard-hitting opener.
Finlay and JBL are both tough, stiff veterans and this match gave them a reason to wail on each other, making use of every foreign object they could lay their hands on. This match may have also presented my favorite use of Hornswoggle in a single match—an impassioned sidekick for Finlay on his way to the ring, and terrific source of heat when JBL battered him mid-match.
Conventional logic suggested Finlay would win this blow-off and start the show on an upbeat note, but it was JBL who ended up securing the pin. It turned out WWE had bigger plans for the big Texan as he promptly returned to the main event scene after this show and would be challenging for the WWE Championship the following month.
#6. The Intercontinental Championship Ladder Match at WrestleMania 31
As this list will reveal, multi-man ladder matches have become something of a staple to open or appear toward the beginnings of WrestleManias. The dynamic makes sense—throwing a bunch of popular talents into the ring to incite the crowd, introducing ladders that all but guarantee high-altitude, violent, and innovative spots, and letting the workers tear the house down for ten minutes to half an hour.
While this match doesn’t have quite the over-arching star power or signature spots of ladder matches that appear higher on the list, it was a darn fine piece of work in its own right. The fun, meta-subtext for this match is that it was about more than the Intercontinental Championship, but rather guys like Daniel Bryan, Dean Ambrose, and Dolph Ziggler, each of whom had a legit claim to deserve a main event spot, battling to prove their worth—battling to grab the proverbial “brass ring.” Moreover, the supporting cast featured Stardust and Bad News Barrett who arguably just one step down the ladder (pun acknowledged), Luke Harper who had spent the preceding year proving himself as a worker whose talent transcended his gimmick, and R-Truth as a bit of a throwback and source of comic relief.
I may always remember WrestleMania 31 as card that looked totally underwhelming on paper, that overachieved at almost every turn. While this ladder match may have been one of the few spots that didn’t exceed expectations (it more or less delivered a solid, but not entirely memorable carwreck), it did its job in getting the crowd amped and ready to drink in a series of good-to-great bouts to follow.
All that, plus a strong ending—Bryan and Ziggler trading headbutts at the top of the ladder in a very literal battle of wills, capped by Bryan’s final WrestleMania moment.
#5. Edge vs. Alberto Del Rio at WrestleMania 27
I’ll concede that I am prone to overrating this match, on account of sentimental value—though none of us could know it at the time, it would Edge’s final match.
Putting that historical importance aside, this was one of just two instances of WrestleMania opening with a world title on the line, and it was what would turn out to be the blow-off match between two main event level talents. Edge was just getting comfortable in the role of legend who, despite being a more natural heel, more or less had to be a face based on the crowd’s respect for the man. Alberto Del Rio was the new main event heel on the block, capping a year that saw him debut by beating Rey Mysterio clean and go on to win the forty-man Royal Rumble.
The twosome assembled a solid twelve-minute match—fast-paced, while still largely technically focused, with Del Rio working the arm. There was a fun sub-plot of Brodus Clay backing Del Rio and Christian neutralizing him on behalf of Edge, culminating in Christian DDTing the big man outside the ring to set the wheels in motion for the finish, with Edge spearing Del Rio for the pin.
You have to assume that with another five-to-ten minutes to work with, this one probably could have broached four-star territory. You also have to assume that, had Edge’s career continued, this would have been just the first in a series of good-to-great matches between the two. Just the same, it was a solid opener, historically important, and lent some extra gravitas to the beginning of this ‘Mania given the novelty of a world title match kicking off the show.
#4. Money in the Bank at WrestleMania 25
While I understand that many-man spotfest matches are not for everyone, I’m a bit of a sucker for them, and will go on record as saying that I don’t think there has, to date, ever been a bad Money in the Bank Ladder Match. My only problems with the concept are that: 1) these big matches with so many performers are often an excuse for creative to be lazy and not book individuals into proper programs and 2) that there have been enough of them now that it’s difficult for any individual iteration to standout unless the guys pull off something particularly innovative.
The WrestleMania 25 MITB match was, in my estimation, one of the less memorable iterations of the gimmick, but did have its moments, including a big man power duel between Mark Henry and Kane that was more entertaining than it had any right to be, a terrific tandem spot when Henry picked up a ladder and Kofi Kingston jumped onto it, then climbed like a madman for the briefcase, Shelton Benjamin doing a senton from the top of a ladder, and CM Punk pulling off the surprise back-to-back Money in the Bank victory.
Again, one of the primary objectives for an opening bout at a modern ‘Mania is to the get the crowd invested. This match on this card, was the perfect pick to do just that.
#3. Money in the Bank at WrestleMania 23
Another year, another Money in the Bank opener. WrestleMania 23 was intriguing, in particular for the ripple effects of Triple H going down to injury and thus taking his presumptive main event spot opposite John Cena. My best guess is that, in that scenario, Shawn Michaels faces off with Randy Orton and/or Edge, and this Money in the Bank contest thus shrinks by one or two participants.
In this universe, however, Money in the Bank proceeded with eight performers and presented what was quite arguably the most star-studded roster for such a match of all time. Edge and Orton were each main eventers in their own rights by that point, and thus a bit odd fits for the match. Matt and Jeff Hardy were each super over, with Jeff coming closer and closer to kicking down the door of the main event. King Booker was wrapping up arguably his best year as a WWE performer, with the king gimmick that breathed life into his heel shtick. Rounding out the crew, you had CM Punk, still a rising star; Finlay, whose brand of stiff violence was an excellent match for the ladder-centric melee; and Mr. Kennedy, a superstar in the making who none of us could have guessed would actually reach the peak of his WWE career in this very match when he won the briefcase, before injuries and backstage politics caused his WWE hopes to implode.
While I would argue that the Money in the Bank matches at WrestleManias 21 and 24 were a bit stronger than this one, it was nonetheless quite good, and benefited from having twenty minutes to give just about everyone some key spots, including Edge going on a Spear-fest, Orton RKO-ing anything that moved, and two particularly entertaining Matt Hardy-centered spots—one when he goaded his brother into foregoing a shot at the briefcase in favor of jumping off one ladder to put Edge through another (the first time WWE used that spot, mind you) and later threatening to hit Sharmell with a Twist of Fate until Booker sacrificed his chance to win the match to defend his wife.
This match was an exciting piece of business with an outcome that was not shocking, but also wasn’t necessarily easy to call given that Kennedy was the first MITB winner who wasn’t really already on the cusp of the main event.
#2. Bret Hart vs. Owen Hart at WrestleMania 10
The top two entries in this countdown easily could have gone either way, and, as a Bret Hart mark, I won’t begrudge anyone who argues that this match should have been at the top of the list.
Bret vs. Owen was a beautifully built little program that spun directly out of the prolonged Jerry Lawler-Hart family rivalry, which saw Lawler taking verbal cheapshots at Stu and Helen Hart and physical ones against the Hart brothers, all set to culminate in a Survivor Series showdown between the Harts and Lawler and his masked knights. Though the intended blow-off to that program got derailed on account of Lawler’s personal problems (Shawn Michaels conspicuously took Lawler’s place) Bret-Owen went on with Owen suffering the lone elimination for his team, blaming Bret’s distraction and getting into a shoving match with his older brother afterward.
Tensions between Bret and Owen only escalated in their failed build at tag title glory at the Royal Rumble and gave way to a one-on-one bout at WrestleMania, which told a story of Bret having no desire to hurt his brother and refusing to brawl, and Owen revealing himself to be a simply magnificent obnoxious heel.
I would argue that there is no greater technically based opening match in WrestleMania history, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a better technically based match at any WrestleMania period. All of that grappling made the few moments of brawling all the more dramatic. The match was also accented by Bret not only showing technical proficiency, but accenting his work artfully with an air of hesitation about hurting his kin. Best of all, though, was the upset ending—Owen countering Bret’s victory roll into an inescapable pinning predicament. Thus, in the end, Owen didn’t make his brother submit or knock him out. Perhaps most unthinkable of all, he outwrestled him.
In retrospect, the outcome to this match makes total sense, and it’s difficult to imagine it playing out either way. Owen picked up the clean but not totally definitive win here. Bret won the world title later in the night. Thus Owen was instantly credible as the top contender to the title heading into the summer (a King of the Ring victory in between wouldn’t hurt his case, either). But at that point in time, and particularly remembering the event from my ten-year-old perspective, Owen proving completely competitive with Bret, let alone beating him was unthinkable. Thus, the WWF constructed one of its greatest upsets in a great match to provide the foundation for one of the great early WrestleManias. Not too shabby for an opening match.
#1. Daniel Bryan vs. Triple H at WrestleMania 30
As I wrote earlier, it’s more or less a toss-up whether entry number two or entry number one were truly the better match; additionally, I’ll admit that there’s some bias attached to this match’s relative recency and the sentimental value that I, like so many, attach to Daniel Bryan’s greatest night as a WWE performer.
There are some interesting parallels between Daniel Bryan-Triple H and Bret Hart-Owen Hart. Each match was a showdown between arguably the top face in the company and the man built as his arch-rival at the time. And though each of these matches would open its respective WrestleMania, the face from each bout would also go on to close the show, challenging larger rivals for the world title. Each of these opening bouts went over twenty minutes and cut a hellacious pace. Each belong in the conversation of top twenty-five WrestleMania matches of all time (and a real argument could be made for top ten).
There were differences, too, though. For while Bret Hart was reluctant to engage his brother, Daniel Bryan was all to eager kick the crap out of Triple H, denying a hand shake and getting right ot the action. It was appropriate, too, for this bout to feature so little feeling out and sportsmanship—this would turn out to be the blow off to a heated rivalry (all the more special because of how rare it is for a top-level program to get blown off in a single match in this era).
Everyone played their part to near-perfection here. Bryan indignant, angry, and never saying die. Triple H and Stephanie McMahon so sure of themselves in the beginning, and growing more and more incredulous for each time Bryan kicked out or survived a submission hold. Helmesley busted out the tiger suplex, and scored with a Pedigree that Bryan kicked out from—no BS hesitation or selling exhaustion in between the move and the pin. And then there was the finish.
After a series of slick reversals, Bryan positively KOed The Game with a running knee. No run ins. No small package lucky pin. Just a clean win via one of Bryan’s established finishing maneuvers.
Sure, a beat down from Triple H would follow, but it didn’t give way to the popular theory at the time that Triple H would try to take Bryan’s place in the main event. Instead. Bryan just became that much more of a wounded underdog for his match at the end of the night—very nearly as good as his match to open the show—to walk out victorious.
Bryan-Helmesely was a terrific counter-point to the Hogan-Austin-Rock promo that that preceded it, in establishing that WrestleMania 30 would have its elements of nostalgia, but would first and foremost be a wrestling show. The near-falls and clean finish electrified the crowd, readying them for an excellent ‘Mania to follow.
Which matches would you add to the list? Some of my top runers up included the WrestleMania 12 six-man, The Shield vs. Randy Orton, Sheamus and Big Sow at WrestleMania 29, Rey Mysterio-Matt Hardy at WrestleMania 19, and John Cena vs. The Big Show at WrestleMania 20. Let us know what you think in the comments section.
Read more from Mike Chin at his website and follow him on Twitter @miketchin.