wrestling / Columns

The Cotentious Ten 01.14.13: Top 10 Breakthrough Performances

January 14, 2013 | Posted by Gavin Napier

For the last two weeks, I’ve delved into the realm of witchcraft and sorcery (also known as math) in order to determine the true greats of the Royal Rumble through the years. As promised, I’ve abandoned the dark arts this week for some more conversation inducing subjectivity. No Royal Rumbles, no “best matches”, nothing of the sort. Instead, something that’s a little harder to quantify. This week I’m going to be looking at the Top 10 Breakout Performances in wrestling history. You all know what I’m talking about – those moments that elevate guys from midcarders or unknowns to genuine superstars. There’s been plenty of them through the years, and I’m taking it upon myself to rank their significance. I look forward to hearing what I’m sure will be several dissenting opinions once the article goes live.

Criteria used to determine The Top 10 Breakout Performances:

-How big of a jump talent made
-Sustained success after breaking through
-Memorability of the moment

You’ll notice that the criteria is “performances” and not matches. That’s because sometimes a superstar’s biggest moments come from something other than a match. As an example of how hard it can be to determine what works best for certain stars, what was the bigger jump for Steve Austin’s career – the “Austin 3:16” promo after the King of the Ring or not tapping out against Bret Hart while blood streamed down his face or delivering a Stone Cold Stunner to Vince McMahon? Once guys break through, can they sustain the momentum? If not, they’re not on this list. See also: “The One” Billy Gunn. Memorability counts for something, too. For example, there’s no real “breakthrough” performance for Sheamus. Why? Because his was a gradual rise with no standout moment that made people think that he was ready to carry the torch for WWE. He just eventually got there as their (arguably) number two guy.

Performances that just missed the cut (and why): /1-2-3 Kid Beats Razor Ramon – More of a watershed moment for Raw than Waltman. Granted this got people to take notice of him, but the journey from Kid to X Pac was still going to be a long one.

Jake Roberts attacks The Undertaker on The Funeral Parlor – Always stuck out to me as the moment that they established Undertaker as truly indestructible. Dragging a casket while absorbing dozens of chair shots, he stalked Jake like a true horror movie villain…and got cheered for it.

AJ Styles wins the first X Division Title Match – This established that AJ was the standard bearer for the X Division and TNA, but wasn’t widely enough seen to truly make the wrestling world take notice. Again, a consistent evolution rather than a moment.

Randy Savage at Wrestlemania IV – A coronation more than a breakthrough. Turned in great performances, but we knew Macho was capable of those already. This was a long due reward for one of the best in the business.

Diesel (1994 Royal Rumble)size=6>

So well done that they named it after him.
-Eliminated 7 men in just under 18 minutes
The former Master Blaster, Oz, and Vinny Vegas had arrived in the World Wrestling Federation, and found himself as Shawn Michaels’ bodyguard. He was physically imposing, and it seemed like only a matter of time before he found himself as more than just a lackey for the Heartbreak Kid. Nash’s breakthrough came at the 1994 Royal Rumble, with a push so well done they named it after him. He didn’t win the match, but left a lasting impression to say the very least. He was a force of nature, eliminating 7 of the first 10 competitors before being eliminated by a crowd of competitors. Since then, there’s generally speculation about who’s going to get the “Diesel push” from year to year. Nash would turn this performance into a lengthy career at the main event level, much to the chagrin of the IWC at large.

Jeff Hardy vs. The Undertaker (7.1.02) size=6>
undertaker vs jeff hardy ladder match by wwemanic6000

-Ladder match for WWE Championship

Once upon a time, there was a veteran superstar that was a dominant WWE Champion. He took slights, real or imagined, and exacted a brutal brand of physical justice in response to them. Why? Because he wanted one thing – respect. And even better, The Undertaker didn’t beat up a bunch of Legends and non-wrestlers in the process. What he did do was take on Jeff Hardy in a ladder match for the WWE Championship. The match itself was very good, and was a stamp of approval on Jeff’s singles career after establishing himself as half of a popular duo with his brother Matt. It was also made clear that despite losing, Jeff had earned The Undertaker’s respect, something that was very important in kayfabe at the time. Since then, Jeff has been a popular singles competitor for both WWE and TNA, and become a multiple time world champion. The only thing that prevents him being higher on this list are the multiple personal isues that hve slowed him down from time to time.

Daniel Bryan (Wrestlemania 28)size=6>

Unique to say the least.
-Lost World Heayweight Title Match to Sheamus at Wrestlemania 28
The circumstances by which Daniel Bryan truly “broke out” are unique to say the least. Not very often will losing a match at Wrestlemania -and a world title match at that- be a kick start for a guy’s career, much less when that loss is under 20 seconds. What that match did, though, was create a backlash against WWE and in support of Daniel Bryan. In the Randy Orton vs. Kane match that followed, the loudest chants were for Daniel Bryan. He would soon be drawing some of the largest reactions in the company and nearly a year later finds himself in an enormously popular tag team with Kane. A match that could have been disastrous for Daniel Bryan’s career ended up being a kickstart and a half. There’s no indication that he’s going to be slowing down any time soon.

Goldberg vs. Hulk Hogan (7.6.98) size=6>

Nitro’s defining moment.
-Goldberg’s first world title win

At the time this match happened, I was convinced that Hogan was going to exert his political muscle and be the guy to end Goldberg’s undefeated streak. When the match started, I never dreamed that I’d actually witness what ended up being arguably Nitro’s defining moment. The match took place in The Georgia Dome, which was a hometown audience for Bill Goldberg. Hogan was at the height of his heel-dom with the nWo, and the crowd was rabid for the match. As with most big matches that he calls, Bobby Heenan’s commentary added to things considerably as he openly pulled against longtime nemesis Hulk Hogan. The reaction when Goldberg lifted Hogan for the Jackhammer, the crowd was as loud as any you’ll hear. Goldberg was already a star, but this made him a megastar. How big? Crowds still chant his name at Ryback.

Ultimate Warrior vs. Honky Tonk Man (Summerslam 1988)size=6>

Made Honky Tonk Man’s reign worth it.
-Won Intercontinental title in under a minute.
The Ultimate Warrior had been popular for a while, but hadn’t yet found himself in a major feud or in the spotlight at the top of the card. That would change after this match. Gone were the days of feuding with Dino Bravo, now it would be Rick Rude, Hulk Hogan, and Randy Savage. Warrior’s career can be divided by this moment. He went from popular midcarder to a guy that could potentially carry the promotion. Some would argue that his win against Hulk Hogan at Wrestlemania VI was his breakout, but that momentum started here. It didn’t hurt that this made Honky Tonk Man’s reign worth it. People hated Honky Tonk and were sick of him. Beating a heel like that would be a boon for almost any wrestler. As odd as he was and as many problems as he had, Warrior was immensely popular at the time and remains a legendary name in the business, for better or worse.

John Cena vs. Kurt Angle (6.27.02)size=6>

One of the best debuts ever.
-Cena’s WWE debut

John Cena came literally out of nowhere. Kurt Angle issued an open challenge and John Cena answered. He introduced himself to Kurt Angle by slapping him in the mouth and turning in a better match than anyone should in their debut match. This would end up being one of the best debuts ever in WWE, especially considering how unestablished Cena was at the time. Obviously, he’s never looked back. Ten years later, and Cena has gone from this to United States champion to multiple time WWE Champion to the face of the promotion. He’s one of the most important superstars in wrestling history, and it’s been a steady progression from day one. The difference in Cena and Edge is that even Cena’s debut match felt like something big as it was happening. There were no reboots or aborted character attempts. Well done by WWE and Cena alike.

Shawn Michaels vs. Razor Ramon (Wrestlemania X)size=6>
Shawn Michaels vs. Razor Ramon (Ladder Match) by wcwAttitude

For Shawn or the ladder?

I suppose the question here is whether or not it’s a breakout performance for Shawn or the ladder. Like Jeff Hardy above, Shawn was well established as an exciting tag team competitor before this. Once he and Marty Jannetty split, it seemed like he was destined for big things. This match went a long way towards proving what he was actually capable of. Michaels and Razor turned in one of the all time great ladder matches and elevated both men’s stocks. It was here that Shawn proved that he belonged with the best of the best. He would go on to become “Mr. Wrestlemania”, and given his performance at Wrestlemania X, it seems natural. His time as Intercontinental Champion would set the table for him to become the Showstopper that we all know and love. This match raised the bar not only for what we expected from HBK, but ladder matches in general.

Sting vs. Ric Flair (Clash of the Champions I)size=6>

One of the few superstars NWA/WCW to have a true “breakthrough”.
-NWA World Heavyweight Title match

It was late 1987. Ric Flair had feuded with Dusty Rhodes for years. He had survived challenges from Barry Windham, Ricky Morton, Road Warriors Hawk and Animal, and Magnum TA wasn’t ever going to wrestle again. NWA needed someone new to challenge Flair, and oddly enough Ronnie Garvin just didn’t captivate the wrestling world. Jim Crockett Promotions had just assimilated Bill Watts’ UWF,though, and had a host of new talent to work with. Of the wrestlers acquired, Sting had the most long term potential. He was still young and green, but had plenty to work with. He was the best parts of Hulk Hogan and The Road Warriors rolled into one package. He would be one of the few superstars in NWA/WCW to have a true “breakthrough” performance. So many of their talents were established from the territorial days or were known before coming there that there wasn’t a lot of room for guys to have that defining moment for their career. Sting would go from this match on Clash of the Champions I to a lengthy run as a credible singles wrestler, then a main eventer, and winding up as an icon of the sport and the greatest wrestler never to ge in the ring for Vince McMahon.

Austin 3:16 says…(King of the Ring 1996)size=6>

Like a match to gasoline.
-Significant career shift for Austin

Steve Austin had languished in the midcard in WCW for a while, despite having all of the necessary tools to be a successful main eventer. The problem was that the main event scene was extremely crowded and WCW wasn’t as adept at shuffling parts as WWE has become. Ric Flair, Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage, Sting, Lex Luger, Vader and others were mainstays and/or legends. That doesn’t excuse the glass ceiling, things just were what they were. Austin got a change of scenery but found himself as a protege of Ted DiBiase and was once again languishing in the midcard. Then, DiBiase was gone and Austin had to be something other than a Ringmaster. He settled on “Stone Cold.” Even that didn’t do the trick entirely, as Austin still came across as reserved and calculating. The promo after winning the King of the Ring tournament in 1996 signaled a significant career shift for Austin. He wasn’t cold and calculating. He was pissed off, passionate, and raw. It was like a match to gasoline. The result was arguably the biggest star in the history of wrestling (see below for the primary argument) and one of the key pieces to WWE’s return to power in the battle with WCW.

Hulk Hogan vs. The Iron Sheik (1.23.84)size=6>

Birth of an era.
-Hulk’s first WWF World Championship

This entry is sponsored by the word “transitional.” The Iron Sheik was the very definition of a transitional champion. The wrestling industry was shifting and the era of Bob Backlund was over. Hulkamania was ready to run wild. The problem was, an honest to goodness babyface vs. babyface match wasn’t kosher in those days. Sure, there would be instances where Backlund and Morales would go to a 60 minute draw like a soccer friendly, but there was no ill will. If a man takes your title, there’s going to be ill will. The solution to this problem was The Iron Sheik. He beat an ailing Backlund and held the title for a month before being bum rushed by Hogan for the WWF Championship. Hogan’s win was the birth of an era for professional wrestling. Rock n wrestling had arrived, and what would soon follow was one of the two biggest boom periods in the industries history. This wasn’t just a breakthrough performance for Hulk Hogan, it was a breakthrough for the entire industry.

That’s my list. What’s yours? Tell me what I got right, what I got wrong, and what I missed entirely. Give me your rankings in the comment section below and I’ll join the discussion at some point. Until next week, you can find me on Twitter @GavinNapier411 and check out my new podcast on iTunes by searching for The Casual Heroes, or go to www.thecasualheroes.com and I’ll be back here in 7..6..5..

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