wrestling / Columns

The Magnificent Seven: The Most Important WWE Matches from Each of the Last 7 Years

November 7, 2018 | Posted by Mike Chin
CM Punk vs. John Cena, Money in the Bank WWE

This week’s column takes a departure from the typical format of ranking the best or worst of something, and shifts instead to looking at the single most important WWE match from each of the last seven years.

While match quality had some bearing, the foci for this ranking were much more so on influence, implications, and memorability—how the match impacted WWE’s big picture, the degree to which it represented WWE in its time, and how much the match stands out (or looks like it will stand out) in the historical record. To be clear, though plenty in the comments section will surely not understand this point, the seven items below are not ranked against one another, but rather are placed in chronological order, with only one selection per calendar year. As always, my personal opinion weighs heavily.

#7. 2011: CM Punk vs. John Cena, Money in the Bank

It’s rare for WWE to truly capture the imagination of a cynical, Internet-informed audience in this day and age. CM Punk vs. John Cena did the unlikely in 2011, though, as WWE borrowed heavily from ROH’s Summer of Punk angle to tell the tale of Punk getting one last world title shot on the way out the door as his contract expired. Stage this showdown between the indie darling (who happened to be from Chicago) and the company man in front of a rabid Chi-town crowd, and you had the recipe for something special.

Eliminate the surrounding intrigue, and take away the positively electric crowd, and this was a good match with a screwy finish. We can’t ignore the context in which this match happened, though, as Punk ascended to folk hero status. The fans in Chicago bit on every moment of this match. And sure, the finish was a bit of schmozz with Vince McMahon and John Laurinaitis sticking their noses into the proceedings and the tease of a Money in the Bank cash-in. However, all of these factors not only justified Cena absorbing the loss at a time when the company still felt the need to protect him from a totally clean pin, but more importantly fed into a sense of chaos that fit beautifully for the scene of Punk triumphing in front of his hometown crowd.

#6. 2012: John Cena vs. Brock Lesnar, Extreme Rules

This selection was a close call for me, as I almost went with the more heavily hyped WrestleMania main event of John Cena vs. The Rock. I wouldn’t begrudge anyone for making that selection, but in the end, I felt Brock Lesnar’s comeback match couldn’t be denied.

Not only was this match historically important for the return of the Beast Incarnate, but it was also a great match. There’s a real argument that Lesnar’s work from this encounter up to WrestleMania 30 was the best of his career, as he had a brutal style and the credibility of his MMA career, while still working a relatively conventional pro wrestling style, unlike his Suplex City incarnation that more realistically, but less entertainingly repeats the same offense over and over. This match with Cena felt like a fight, with Cena bleeding, and the feeling that he might really get hurt.

I’ll agree with the consensus that this match was undermined by Cena going over—that even though he needed to punch out Lesnar with a chain, Lesnar still really ought to have gone over. Just the same, Lesnar looked phenomenal in defeat, and we had the groundwork in place for Lesnar to squash Cena two years later.

#5. 2013: Daniel Bryan vs. John Cena, SummerSlam

There’s a way in which we can easily forget the importance of Daniel Bryan vs. John Cena at SummerSlam 2013. In the aftermath of the match, Triple H and Randy Orton would turn heel on Bryan, take the title off him, and completely change the creative direction of the company.

But let’s review the facts. Bryan—an undersized star out of the indies—pinned Cena—the face of the company for nearly a decade—cleanly at the end of a four-star-plus stunner of a match at one of the biggest shows of the year.

Cena has put over talents like Alberto Del Rio, Kevin Owens, AJ Styles, and The Undertaker quite cleanly in the years to follow, but when this match went down, he was going in widely protected. So, it felt like not only a big win for Bryan, but a genuine paradigm shift when when he KOed Cena. Yes, this was a huge moment in the push of a lifetime for Bryan, but it was also the moment when Cena transitioned out of the main event spotlight. Yes, he’d return to the world title picture, even winning the top title more than once, but he was never as sure-footed on top again, and never positioned as such for more than a few months at a stretch since.

#4. 2014: The Undertaker vs. Brock Lesnar, WrestleMania 30

No, The Undertaker vs. Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania 30 was not a great match. I’d go so far as to say, out of their numerous encounters, it was the worst match they had, born out of lazy build, The Dead Man suffering a concussion during the match, and a finish that felt, above all else, disappointing when it happened.

However, the fact that Lesnar ended the Phenom’s undefeated streak at WrestleMania was a huge deal, ending a two-decade-plus tradition and positively stunning fans, but all the more so elevating Lesnar to a whole new level of monster heel.

I’m in the camp that, to this day, rides the fence on whether the streak ever should have ended and whether the ends justified the means. Nonetheless, this match set up Lesnar to do the similarly shocking when he all but squashed John Cena at SummerSlam and became the company’s first long-term, part-time champion. In so doing, Lesnar and WWE established a new paradigm that they’d only compound upon from WrestleMania 33 onward.

#3. 2015: The Royal Rumble

It’s debatable whether the 2015 Royal Rumble was the worst ever iteration of the match, but there’s little question that it was the most disappointing edition. Roman Reigns was the consensus favorite going in, but in Daniel Bryan returning to action, there was a glimmer of hope that he might win. And if Bryan didn’t win, surely he’d go out in dramatic fashion, and WWE would do something to get Reigns as over as the company so clearly wanted for him to be.

None of that was in the cards, as a blah, largely directionless Rumble played out, and included Bryan suffering an early and uneventful elimination at the hands of Bray Wyatt. From there, the late stretches of the match saw The Big Show and Kane boringly dominate the field, before the predictable outcome of Reigns overcoming the odds to eliminate them both. A surprise reappearance by Rusev in the closing moments, and The Rock backing Reigns weren’t enough to keep the live crowd in Philly and the world of social media from dumping on this match.

The Royal Rumble is a traditional crowd favorite, with even the more lackluster iterations boasting fun spots and meaningful finishes. This was WWE not only screwing the pooch, but having done so two years in a row after their Batista miscalculation in a match that seemed to encapsulate so much of what was wrong with WWE creative at the time, and crystallize hardcore fan hatred toward Reigns.

#2. 2016: Sasha Banks vs. Charlotte, Hell in a Cell

While Sasha Banks vs. Charlotte Flair wasn’t the all time classic WWE so clearly wanted for it to be, and I get the pushback against WWE being so vocal about women in the Cell and women main eventing being so history-making, there’s a simple, undeniable caveat—women getting a PPV main event, particularly in the Cell was history-making. And while even the most generous critic couldn’t rate the match higher than four stars, it was still good and at worst middle of the pack when we look at WWE PPV main events on the whole.

This match gets the nod for reinforcing WWE’s willingness to put it women’s roster in the spotlight in more clearcut, tangible ways, and the fact that Banks and Flair were at the forefront of female athletes on the WWE roster who actually deserved that level of respect and attention. This match was a gateway to the first women’s Royal Rumble, the Evolution PPV, and many more milestones that have happened since, and will surely continue to follow.

#1. 2017: The Shield vs. The Miz, The Bar, Braun Strowman, and Kane

When WWE originally announced this match, it felt like it had a lot of potential to become a cluster. Just the same, the combination of nostalgia, and the fact that The Shield had a substantial history of putting on great matches made this one feel special, and like it would be a fun diversion.

When Roman Reigns was deemed unable to perform and Kurt Angle took his place? Things went to next level.

No, this wasn’t a great match. It was too long, a bit incoherent, and saw many contrived spots. It was, nonetheless, delightfully chaotic and enjoyable for the thrill of Kurt Angle getting back into a WWE ring suddenly, unexpectedly, and in a featured role.

The Shield were back. Angle was back. As if that wren’t enough, we got the first real flicker of Braun Strowman turning face thrown into this match. On top of all of that, the surge of interest associated with Angle’s impromptu substitution seemed to remind WWE of how much a big return and a little (perceived or real) mayhem could energize an audience and the social media atmosphere. It feels like little coincidence that Survivor Series the next month saw its own share of shuffling the deck, including last minute additions of Triple H and John Cena to the main event match. There’s reason to believe we haven’t seen the last of WWE trying to recapture the unexpected magic surrounding this match, regardless of the problems with the execution of the match itself.

Which matches would you pick? Let us know what you think in the comments.

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The Magnificent Seven, WWE, Mike Chin