At Clash Of Champions we were treated to not only one of the matches of the year, but also a truly star making performance. The story between Roman Reigns and Jey Uso had been built expertly over the previous few weeks. But no one could have expected the match that the pair delivered in the main event.
It was a match short on flips and technical wrestling, but in terms of pure, old fashioned storytelling it was a match of the highest quality. In new gear, and with a new attitude, Reigns walked in as champion and victory was never in doubt. His adversary Jey Uso walked in as a successful tag team wrestler, but by the time his brother Jimmy threw in the towel, he was a star. He took a beating, refused to quit, and looked every inch the main event star as he did so.
It was a performance which conjured up memories of some of the best breakout matches of years gone by. Matches which elevated at least one of its participants into wrestling’s rarefied air. Matches which changed careers, made history, and matches that made stars.
Jeff Hardy vs The Undertaker: WWE Raw 1/7/2002
Viewers tuning into Raw on 1st July 2002 knew they were getting a ladder match for the Undisputed Title, and they knew it would be good. After all, it’s Jeff Hardy in a ladder match. Two things that go together like a burger and fries. But what viewers didn’t realise, was that they were going to witness one of the greatest matches in Raw history.
While The Undertaker was terrorising the roster as Big Evil, Hardy was beginning to branch out from being a tag team specialist. He’d briefly flirted with singles action winning the Intercontinental Title, as well as the Hardcore and Light Heavyweight titles, but this was different. After losing a match the previous week Hardy challenged Taker to a match of his choosing, a ladder match.
The match didn’t have the usual ridiculous stunts we associate with the younger Hardy. (He still managed to cheat death a couple of times) This match was about one man taking the beating of a lifetime, and refusing to give up. After touching the gold on a couple of heart-stopping occasions, leading to the now legendary “Climb the ladder kid, make yourself famous!” line from JR, Undertaker finally got the better of his fearless foe. But neither the brutality of the match or a post-match Last Ride could finish off Hardy. He somehow pulled himself to his feet and called Taker back to the ring. But instead of continuing the assault, he raised Hardy’s hand as a sign of respect.
Jeff Hardy had been earmarked for bigger things but it was on this night he was a made man. It may have taken him a while to finally reach the top of the mountain, but this match proved that he was ready to start making the climb.
Ric Flair vs Sting: Clash of the Champions I
Back in 1988, long before Sting ever donned a long leather jacket and started descending from the rafters he was seen as a guy with unlimited potential. Clad in bright coloured tights and equally, eye-catching face paint, Sting was charismatic, athletic and he was over in a big way with the crowd. But he hadn’t quite hit the big time just yet. That top spot with Jim Crockett Promotions was occupied by one Ric Flair. Who even by the late ’80s, before the creation of WCW, before he ever appeared at a WrestleMania or won the Royal Rumble, was seen as a legend. But every legend needs a challenger, and that challenger was Sting.
Clash of the Champions I was aired directly opposite WrestleMania IV, as the competition between the two biggest wrestling companies in North America escalated. 6,000 people descended on the Greensboro Coliseum on that March night and the stage for Sting’s coronation was set. What followed was a match, that even 32 years later, people are still talking about. Flair and Sting wrestled to a 45-minute time limit draw, something that seems almost unthinkable today. While Flair retained the title, Sting looked every inch his equal. He had taken the Nature Boy to the absolute limit and very nearly toppled the all-time great in the process. It wouldn’t be until the next year that Sting would finally dethrone Flair and win the belt, but this match at the Clash showed that it was only going to be a matter of time.
Sasha Banks vs Bayley: NXT Takeover: Brooklyn
Unlike every other entry on this list, sometimes a match will take both participants to the next level.
The match between Sasha Banks and Bayley at Takeover: Brooklyn was the perfect storm. It was the climax of a 2 year story between the rivals. It was the first time NXT had moved away from Full Sail for a show, and the buzz behind women’s wrestling, at least in the WWE, was bigger than it had arguably ever been. The ‘Women’s Revolution’ was underway, and Banks was the cocky champion defending against the ultimate underdog in Bayley.
Often in wrestling, the simplest stories are the best, and that’s exactly the case here. Banks taunted, strutted and swaggered, while Bayley struggled, fought and clawed, as the pair produced a modern-day classic. The crowd bit for every near fall, and finally, after a scary-looking inverted frankensteiner and another Bayley to belly Bayley emerged victorious and good had triumphed over evil.
However, there was so much more to this moment and this match than that. The match itself was an instant classic, not in terms of women’s wrestling, but wrestling full top. It was better than anything on SummerSlam the following evening and elevated both combatants beyond just being big names in NXT.
The curtain call which came at the end of the match between Charlotte, Becky Lynch and Banks and Bayley, signified, not only a goodbye of sorts to NXT (all but Bayley moved up to the main roster) but what a huge moment that match was for women’s professional wrestling. And as we know, the story between Sasha Banks and Bayley is far from over.
Stone Cold Steve Austin vs Bret Hart: WrestleMania 13
Going into WrestleMania 13 Stone Cold was was a man on a mission. He’d won the King Of The Ring the previous summer, and been in the mix for the World Wrestling Federation title. Standing across the ring from him on that March night in Illinois was Bret Hart. A Superstar who needed little introduction. He’d competed in classic matches, headlined WrestleManias and held the WWF title on more than one occasion. While Austin was undoubtedly on the rise, he was the man who had it all to prove. And he was going to have to prove it in a submission match, against one of the greatest technical wrestlers of all time.
The match was an instant classic. Awarded 5 stars by Dave Meltzer of the Wrestling Observer, and voted match of the year by readers of the same publication. For a little over 20 minutes, the two hall of famers beat the hell out of one another. The pair battled all over the arena, going back and forth, with neither man taking a backward step. The match came to a conclusion with a bloodied Austin passing out in the sharpshooter, refusing to tap out and refusing to quit.
Not only had Austin gone toe to toe with a legend but the pair had accomplished the fabled ‘doubled turn’. With audiences now starting to get behind him, his rise was unstoppable from this point on. Within 12 months, he was the biggest star in the company and went on to win his first world championship at the following WrestleMania. The match is still revered to this day. It ushered in the attitude era and proved to be a launching pad for arguably the biggest star the industry has ever seen. A true star making performance.
Triple H vs Cactus Jack: Royal Rumble 2000
Throughout history, the supposed star making performance and turn is usually delivered by the challenger for a championship. But there are exceptions to every rule.
By the time the new millennium rolled around, the WWE (then WWF) was at something of a crossroads. Their biggest star Stone Cold was out of action, and so was established main eventer The Undertaker. So the company needed new stars, and someone to step up and fill the void at the top of the card. The Rock had started to really hit his stride towards the end of 1999, but he needed someone to face off against.
Going into the Royal Rumble Triple H held the world title but was still relatively new to the main event level. He had experienced success with DX, and as a single competitor, but headlining as the champion was a different challenge altogether. Step forward, Mick Foley. A feud which started out as Triple H against Mankind quickly saw Foley morph into Cactus Jack, and the stage was set for one of the greatest street fights in history. Triple H needed to prove himself, and Foley moved heaven and earth in the world’s most famous arena to make it happen.
There was blood, barbed wire, thumbtacks, handcuffs, the destruction of the announce table, and somehow Triple H survived. And not only did he survive, but he also emerged victorious. He had proved not only his toughness but that he belonged at the top table in the company. The Game would go on to have arguably the best year of his career after this match, taking his rivalry with The Rock to a whole new level. But it was in Madison Square Garden, against Cactus Jack where he really showed that he was going to be that damn good.
All matches on this list can be found on the WWE Network