In 1997, Eddie Guerrero and Rey Mysterio Jr. Wrestled A Perfect Match

Eddie Guerrero’s birthday was this week. He would have been 53. Wrestlers die young—it’s an unfortunate reality of an industry whose primary corporation lobbied away state athletic commission oversight, largely looked the other way on steroid usage and drug and alcohol abuse, and created a concussion-heavy product that only changed in the wake of one of the biggest tragedies to strike wrestling—but Eddie’s death at 38 years old, one year removed from one of the most emotional world championship victories in the history of North American wrestling, is one that still hurts to meditate on. Universally beloved, and often for wildly different periods of his career (that championship win, Los Guerreros, his relationship with Chyna, the Custody of Dominick Ladder Match, the LWO, his time as Black Tiger, his team with Art Barr, pick your poison), Eddie was a relatively young man with an absurdly great body of work behind him. Old fans, new fans, wrestlers, it doesn’t matter—when Eddie’s birthday and the anniversary of his death come around, it’s a bittersweet occasion—we have cause to celebrate one of the greatest wrestlers of all time, but have to acknowledge both the gigantic hole his death left in the fabric of the medium in which he excelled and the role that medium and its relentless demand for aesthetic physical perfection played in his passing.

I want to celebrate Guerrero this week. It’s an immensely difficult task, choosing how to do so, but as I’ve so often admitted in this space, I’ve been watching wrestling since I was four years old and I was a WCW kid during the Monday Night War, so the Eddie Guerrero I hold closest to my heart, the one who frankly changed my conception of what professional wrestling could be, is the heel Eddie Guerrero of 1997. When you narrow the scope to that year, that iteration of his character, there’s really only one thing you can talk about: The lucha de apuestas match he had against Rey Mysterio Jr. at Halloween Havoc 1997. Putting his WCW Cruiserweight Championship up against Mysterio’s mask, the 14 minute match wasn’t just revolutionary—it still stands, for me at least, as the best wrestling match ever put on pay-per-view.

More World Championship Wrestling

14 minutes. Consider that span of time. It’s a subject for another essay, one that’s metaphysically beyond me, but wrestling is an artform that is fundamentally intertwined with the passage of time. Every wrestling match has a time limit, title matches often stretching out to a hypothetical 60 minutes, and while that’s true in a kayfabe sense, wrestling is a tightly controlled, televised product that can be analyzed down to the quarter hour if you’re a dork, so the wrestler’s task is to take time—both the advertised amount told to the audience and the time given to them by the booker—and make something with it that’s simultaneously compact and infinite, fitting both the structure of a produced show and the idea that wrestlers are legitimate athletes prepared to fight for as long as it takes to finish the job. 14 minutes is not a lot of time, especially for two workhorses like Guerrero and Mysterio, two men who could—and frequently did—go much longer than that, often with results that nearly reached the zenith of Halloween Havoc 1997. That neither did is hardly to their detriment—nobody wrestling with the limitations commercialized wrestling in the United States places on its performers has.

Setting the Table

The first thing to know about this match is that Eddie Guerrero was born to be a heel. He was a great babyface, but he was a next level heel. This is important because Guerrero was still freshly turned in 1997, after two years as a hard working babyface who was a great wrestler but had no real character. This was fine in 1995, but wrestling changed significantly in 1996, the year that spawned the new World order and gave rise to Stone Cold Steve Austin, and the white meat babyface character he and others (most significantly Chris Jericho) had at the time felt like they belonged to ancient history as the Monday Night War progressed and every Tom, Dick, and Harry in wrestling suddenly had an edge to them. What’s weirder about Guerrero’s situation is that World Championship Wrestling wasn’t exactly in the dark about Guerrero’s duck-to-water ability as a heel. They had a working relationship with New Japan Pro Wrestling and broadcast AAA’s revolutionary When Worlds Collide PPV, which featured a two out of three falls lucha de apuestas match that saw Guerrero and Art Barr, one of the hottest heel acts in wrestling, lose their hair to Octagón and El Hijo del Santo, another match frequently cited as one of the best in the history of pay-per-view.

WCW had to know that they had in Guerrero, but it was company dominated by aging stars who couldn’t see the value in elevating the half dozen or so once-in-a-lifetime talents who floated around the Cruiserweight, Television, and United States championships, so watching him with the title from Chris Jericho at Fall Brawl and immediately become the best heel in the company, incredible as it is, is tinged with a kind of second hand embarrassment. This isn’t hindsight being 20/20—I was nine in 1997 and while I was stoked for the Diamond Dallas Page vs. Randy Savage Las Vegas Death Match on the Halloween Havoc card, I begged my mom to order that pay-per-view because of Guerrero and Mysterio, the former a wrestler so mean and bitter I ached for him to lose, the later a literal superhero, already up there with Savage and Bret Hart so far as my favorite wrestlers were concerned. I was not alone in this sentiment on the playground, either—nobody tried to take me down with a hurricanrana off the jungle gym because of Scott Steiner.

Despite its later reputation, WCW did a great job of building up the cruiserweights as more and more luchadors filled its ranks. WCW announcer Mike Tenay, who called the English language broadcast of When Worlds Collide, was a walking encyclopedia of Mexican and Japanese wrestling—when someone from one of those countries was wrestling, he was usually at the desk, giving vital context to the comings and goings of nWo Japan or the history between two wrestlers with history in AAA while correctly pronouncing the names of the moves the wrestlers used, which is still something some announcers struggle with. The company also produced video packages introducing various concepts and wrestlers from the lucha libre scene, narrated by Tenay, because the makeup of the division demanded an explanation. One of those videos went into what it meant to inherit the gimmick of a relative (as Mysterio did). Another went in-depth on masks—how they were made, what they meant to a wrestler’s identity, and the consequences of losing your mask when you put it on the line in a match. When Worlds Collide was in part a WCW production, but this was the first time somebody had put their mask on the line in WCW, and because of those videos and Tenay’s commentary, you knew exactly what the WCW Cruiserweight Championship meant to Mysterio, and you knew exactly how badly Guerrero wanted to ruin his challenger.

The feud began somewhat innocuously—the Cruiserweight Championship was defended frequently, so the number one contender was pretty much whoever was hottest after the last defense. After Fall Brawl 1997, that was Mysterio, who was getting over his mask by giving one out, Hitman style, to a fan at ringside. For his part, Guerrero was beating wrestlers by exploiting their injuries. On September 29, Mysterio wrestled a masked man named El Caliente. One look at Caliente and, ignoring his ridiculously cut physique, you could tell he was going to lose—old man trunks, saggy mask, no sweat. But while Mysterio was handing out his mask, Caliente attacked from behind, put Mysterio’s mask on over his, and wrestled to injure Rey Jr. Here’s how deeply people were into Guerrero at the time: The moment he hits his trademark slingshot senton, the fans start chanting his name. The announcers recognize it, too, obviously, but play it coy. Mysterio gains control, rips his mask off of Caliente’s head, and puts on a six minute banger. Halfway through this, Caliente tries to unmask Rey Jr., first by pulling at the strings on its back, then by simply ripping at it. Caliente thinks twice about going for the frog splash, and that hesitation ends up getting him pinned and his mask ripped off, revealing, to nobody’s surprise, Eddie Guerrero.

The maskplay here is what gives us our stipulation. The video about masks aired later on an episode of Nitro where Guerrero not only tried to steal Psychosis’ mask, but successfully stole Mysterio’s during a match against Dean Malenko. In covering the dog collar match between Brodie Lee and Cody Rhodes last week, I said that a month felt like a very short amount of time to build to something as personal as that stipulation needed circumstances to be (which I was ultimately wrong about)—a month is about what Rey and Eddie were given to establish a match where one man’s identity was on the line against the other man’s championship, in segments that were much more compact than you’d expect due to WCW’s obligation to promoting things like Hulk Hogan’s Assault on Devil’s Island. Like, the last Mysterio/Guerrero segment before Halloween Havoc was also used as a means of putting some extra heat on the match between the Disco Inferno and Jacquline. Ignoring that, however, that month was plotted out incredibly. Rey vs. Eddie was the third match on the card, but it may as well have been the main event.

The Match

Here’s where I struggle, y’all: What can you really say about a match you consider perfect? Everything here astonishes—the detail of Rey wearing a full bodysuit with his mask sewn on so Guerrero couldn’t remove it, the utter disgust with which Eddie walked to the ring. Eddie Guerrero always looked great, but I’ll submit that he never looked better, never looked more put together or ready for his moment than he did here. The way the two men approach each other, the idea of this fight, from their first exchange—I know I’m reading into this a little, I love this match too much not to, but it feels like their intent was to put on a classic, to make a statement about how good they were, how great their style of wrestling was, on a show that’s as famous for this match as it is for the miserable Roddy Piper/Hulk Hogan cage match that headlined it.

Rey goes for a springboard moonsault in the first thirty seconds of the match. He is so fast. Like, how do you describe how fast he’s wrestling? At one point Tenay mentions that Mysterio’s first gimmick was Colibri, the Hummingbird, and while Bobby Heenan and Dusty Rhodes laugh at the notion of a wrestler named after a tiny bird, watch how fast a hummingbird’s wings beat. Watch this match. That’s how fast Rey Mysterio Jr. was. When Mysterio makes a mistake that Guerrero takes advantage of, runs him into the stairs, and hits his senton, the match has laid out more story in 90 seconds than many matches do in ten minutes. Even though Guerrero’s role as the heel and as the more technical of the two is to slow Mysterio down, the pace is lightning fast, and he is relentless in laying Rey Jr. out. Unable to put him away, frustrated at having lost two matches to Mysterio already, Guerrero begins ripping at Rey’s mask. It’s genius, really. This is a match where if Eddie wins Rey has to take the mask off, effectively handing his identity over to Guerrero. But what the champion does here is hedge his bets. Even if he doesn’t wrestle like it, there’s doubt after those two losses. Guerrero wants to keep his championship, obviously, but his goal is the mask, and he’s a win at all costs wrestler. Mask ripping becomes a key part of his offense from this point forward, and we’re three minutes in.

Something else that’s worth noting is the crowd. This was before people from England started attending the Raw after WrestleMania and effectively ruined American wrestling crowds for good, so chanting was actually specific to wrestlers and their role in the match. With “holy shit” sequestered to the ECW Arena, Mysterio’s springboard moonsault DDT counter out of Guerrero’s arm control pin attempt gets a massive roar—in the background, you can see people pop up and throw their hands on their heads in disbelief. It’s important that this reaction is in the background, at least to me, given how this generation of wrestling production insists on cutting away to fan reactions instead of letting you exist in the afterglow—the angles are different, but it feels more like you’re there without the cut unnecessary shot of someone responding to what you’ve just seen, like you’re being trusted to respond to stimuli without being told. There is a lot of stimuli to respond to here—a match like this would be impossible to follow on WWE television in 2020, cutting away from impact, failing to anticipate dives, moving from one camera to the next because the people making the show don’t understand that the fights in superhero movies aren’t filmed in one take and aren’t edited for coherency’s sake. WCW’s production is not as praised as ECW or WWE’s from that era, but it’s a nice, comfortable medium between the guerrilla intensity of one and the soap operatic haze of the other. It’s nothing, but at around 5:30 Guerrero and Mysterio move towards one of the more iconic sequences of the match, and the way the long take allows you to follow the cameraman from the ringpost to his position near the aisle, how he ends up at the center of the ring for the Gory Special and stays there while Guerrero works Mysterio’s back so they can both breathe a little. It’s an entire lesson in how to film a wrestling match.

Eddie keeps ripping at the mask, tantalizing you with the prospect of seeing something you shouldn’t see. It’s subtle, but when the mask is half torn open, Mysterio fends off Guerrero’s punches in a way where he’s half protecting his head, half protecting the mask. If you didn’t notice before now, you can also see that, to further obscure his face, Rey’s gone with an outsized smoky-eye. He’s desperate, and the crowd senses it. Listen to them when Mysterio catches Guerrero in the hurricanrana, how they’re cut off when Eddie kicks out and does what every heel must after a foiled flash pin, lariating the challenger down. And then Mysterio hits it, the somersault headscissors from the outside to the floor.

You think that’d be the spot of the match, the most famous image to come out of this, but it’s hard to say, really. Over and over and over again the crowd and the commentary team react to what Mysterio is doing like they’ve never seen it before, even Tenay, who notes his 20-25 years of watching Mexican wrestling. If all you’d seen to that point in your fandom or professional career was American wrestling, that’s pretty much true. Every major spot in this match—every. single. one.—is insane to contemplate integrating into the landscape of professional wrestling as it stood in 1997, and it’s not as if Guerrero and Mysterio came to Halloween Havoc 1997 without a reputation. Bobby Heenan means it when he calls Guerrero the best wrestler in the sport. Rey Mysterio Jr.’s 1996 WCW debut was accompanied by an unprecedented amount of hype for a wrestler of his size and origin—the company said “This man will revolutionize professional wrestling” and actually let him do it for a few years. Poor Mike Tenay, leaned on by his peers for his knowledge of lucha libre, runs out of proper Spanish-language names for what Mysterio is doing and has to go “adjective adjective English move name” for much of the match because there’s no keeping up with it, all while his broadcast partners, leaning forward in their chairs, shout the same awed exclamations as the fans in the stands and at home.

We’re eleven minutes in now, the closing stretch. Mysterio is just tossing off moves like the corkscrew body block he hits Guerrero with once they’re back in the ring like it’s nothing, like someone pressing buttons in Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater and executing, with ease, moves that took their inventors years to accomplish for the first time, let alone master. Guerrero crushes Mysterio with a powerbomb, the one repeated spot from the Nitro match above. How many powerbombs have that kind of snap? How many pins off of that kind of powerbomb have that much torque? At this point, it’s becoming clear to Guerrero that he can’t beat Mysterio. The look on his face. The way he finally reacts to the “Eddie sucks” chant. It is difficult to pull off “knowingly doomed heel,” but Mysterio is beat up enough, his back trashed enough from Eddie’s focus on it, that he’s able to keep up the pressure. But doomed is doomed.

Minute thirteen, and this is it. Guerrero went for a clothesline and missed, so now Mysterio is going to go for his finish, the springboard hurricanrana, which Guerrero counters into a backbreaker. Mysterio avoids a frog splash—neither man’s usual finish will be enough to win the match—and Guerrero rolls through. Here it is. They’re both on the ropes in the corner, Rey on the turnbuckle and Eddie on the middle rope, trading punches. Guerrero gains the advantage, goes for a splash mountain off the second ropes, but Rey is able to reverse it into his rana, hook the leg, and win. The YouTube version of the match cuts off here, but you can hear the elation, feel the release. The bell rings and everybody knows that they’ve seen an absolute classic, that they’ve seen two men break boundaries that they didn’t know wrestling had until they were broken. It’s a perfect match. It is beyond stars and, despite the number of them I’ve put into this space, beyond words.

Fourteen minutes. I find myself obsessed with this number on this watch through because it seems impossible for something so great to be so short. Wrestling’s use of time encourages us to think of long matches as the epics of the medium, something given space and time to really tell a story—look at how WWE regards Bret Hart vs. Shawn Michaels as one of the greatest matches of all time, or how Dave Meltzer kept adding stars to Kenny Omega vs. Kazuchika Okada matches the longer they got when the two truly peaked in their G1 match that had a thirty minute time limit. The magic of this match is time. They didn’t get much of it, so they threw everything they could into what they had. In reality, both men are physically exhausted—everything they did was snug and done at a breakneck pace, and while I’m not a stopwatch guy, they couldn’t have gone more than a minute overall in rest holds. But in the realm of fiction, which is where wrestling thrives, Mysterio’s pin feels like happenstance, like an underdog snatching victory out of the jaws of defeat. It’s not hard to imagine Guerrero kicking out, the match continuing. I wouldn’t feel the same way about it, I think the match would have been lessened if allowed more time, but that’s the magic here. Working with the fictional constraint of the time limit, working against the real constraint of actual time on the clock, it’s possible and impossible for Eddie Guerrero and Rey Mysterio Jr. to fight forever. That’s why, when the bell rings for Mysterio’s victory, you start the match over again. There’s no way you caught everything that happened in those fourteen minutes, even if you did.