It’s been hard not to notice how small wrestling is lately. Pare away everything that makes wrestling feel important this year—relatively little of it having anything to do with matches or storylines in the first place—and you’re left with a jumbled mess of signs indicating that the industry is on the decline, and not necessarily due to COVID. For months, WWE and AEW were the only game in town for live, sports-like entertainment, and while AEW’s consistently hovering around 700-800K viewers is a good sign for a still-new wrestling company whose roster, with the exception of a contingent of ex-WWE talent, was largely unknown to the kind of audience that sustains a wrestling promotion on network cable, WWE’s viewership has been woeful on days where they’ve got no competition from anyone in a similar field, buoyed by hatewatching events like RAW Underground, one-off occasions like the debut of WWE Thunderdome and the annual WWE Draft, and naked plays to nostalgia like NXT’s Halloween Havoc.
More professional wrestling
I’m not a numbers person—how many people watch wrestling on any given week is the least exciting horserace I can think of, regardless of how important it is to the companies whose content it is my job to survey. I’m a narrative person, and coupled with odd stories like Sasha Banks getting her role on The Mandalorian due to an appearance on Hot Ones, a show where people eat chicken wings, and not years of weekly television exposure as a featured character in WWE, and the company’s continued push to make The Undertaker seem like a larger-than-wrestling megastar by creating collaborative merchandise with Snoop Dogg and making pancakes in the pages of People when there’s at least 50 members of their roster more primed for a mainstream breakthrough than a broken down piece of cop-loving meat, it’s hard not to think that we’re witnessing the death throes of an empire, a petite tragedy born, in part, by WWE’s decision to focus less on the individuals who create their product and more on the steadfast, inescapable presence of their brand.
That’s a subject for another time, though. This week, I found myself accidentally stumbling onto a question that seems like it has an obvious answer but doesn’t: What is the most famous WWE match of all time? I say that the answer seems obvious because in 1987, Hulk Hogan body slammed Andre the Giant in front of 93,173 screaming Hulkamaniacs in suburban Detroit, ending Andre’s 15 year undefeated streak, essentially giving birth to the WWE as we know it today, but I don’t think the answer is as cut and dry as the legend of that match makes it out to be. The thing is, the most famous wrestling match in WWE history is, by virtue of WWE being the biggest wrestling company in the history of such things, unquestionably the most famous wrestling match in the history of the United States of America. Maybe I just don’t want it to be Hogan vs. Andre, but I’ve come up with two contenders for the crown—King of the Ring 1998’s Hell In a Cell match between Mankind and the Undertaker, and WrestleMania X7’s Steve Austin vs The Rock—and will present my cases for and against all three below.
Selecting WWE’s Most Famous Matches
First, I should lay out my criteria. I ran a Twitter poll on this subject and was given a few suggestions for matches on par with these three that I don’t want to overlook. Those include WrestleMania III’s Randy Savage vs. Ricky Steamboat, WrestleMania X8’s Hulk Hogan vs. The Rock, the Montreal Screwjob, WrestleMania XXX’s Brock Lesnar vs. The Undertaker, and CM Punk vs. John Cena at Money In the Bank 2011.
Most of these I’m throwing out for one reason: wrestling had two periods of time when it was in the cultural zeitgeist in a way that meant EVERYBODY knew what was happening in WWE (or WCW). If it happened in the years 1985-1990 and 1997-2001, I think you can build a solid case for things like Savage/Steamboat or the Screwjob, but once you get past WrestleMania X7, you’re dealing with things that are important and known to wrestling fans, not people outside the culture. Something like The Rock vs. Hulk Hogan feels important to wrestling fans because it was a meeting of two legitimate icons in wrestling, but beyond the Icon vs. Icon t-shirt made for the event selling on eBay for between $80-120, I’m having a lot of trouble conjuring up a strawman who doesn’t care about wrestling pointing to WrestleMania X8 as a major cultural event. Matches that happened that took place in the past decade, beyond recency bias, don’t really qualify because, despite the dramatic increase in venues that cover wrestling, the popular culture we have today is one that’s extremely online and factional, our WrestleMania being someone else’s “Superb Owl” or whatever. Wrestling dominates my Twitter timeline, but guess what? I follow a ton of people who watch wrestling. Who do more people outside of the bubble know: CM Punk or Andre the Giant?
The “important to wrestling fans” thing is why I’ve nixed the Screwjob and Steamboat/Savage. They’re both unquestionably important moments in the history of wrestling, but the former happened in an era where labor issues in professional wrestling weren’t a mainstream concern, and the later happened on the same show as Hogan/Andre. I have thought long and hard about whether or not another match from WWE’s long history qualifies, especially since Austin/Rock was crushed by the competition, but I really think that’s it: The two biggest stadium matches in the history of the company, and a one-off freakshow that’s as famous for its violence as it is for the memes it has since spawned. Other matches—Hogan/Warrior, Hogan/Savage, Austin/Michaels with Mike Tyson at ringside—may occur to you—they just don’t feel as big as these three do to me. Feel free to argue with me in the comments or on Twitter!
WrestleMania III: Hulk Hogan def. Andre the Giant (WWF Championship)
- Pros: Those little ring carts they drove to the ring, the Silverdome biting on everything, Bobby Heenan, that shot of Hogan and Andre staring each other down, the bodyslam.
- Cons: Hulk Hogan, the continued existence of Hulk Hogan, the quality of the match, Andre the Giant’s body breaking down, Hulk Hogan, the possibility that this show invented the pastime of counting attendance figures.
In a lot of ways, this is the match. Yeah, this was the third WrestleMania, but the first and second iterations of the show felt like experiments. This was an event. This was a big deal. Hogan was already big in the cultural consciousness—he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated and hosted Saturday Night Live in 1985, the focus of the Rock ‘n Wrestling Connection between WWE and MTV, he’d been a pitchman for Honey Nut Cheerios, starred in Rocky III, and was about to be in a really weird music video with Dolly Parton. To most of the country, Hulk Hogan was wrestling, and WWE wasn’t exactly ashamed to agree, flying the flag of Hulkamania harder than it flew any of its own.
Opposite Hogan was Andre the Giant, whose 15 year undefeated streak was nonsense, but who cares? He’s big, he’s a globally recognized wrestler, and later in 1987 he’d be cemented into pop culture history via his role in The Princess Bride. I actually love the angle that went into this match, the beloved babyface Andre breaking bad because his hated rival-turned-eventual-manager Bobby Heenan kept pointing out how weird it was that Hogan wouldn’t give a title shot to his friend. Fueled by petty jealousy, put in front of a ludicrously large crowd regardless of what number you believe in, and promising to answer the question of whether or not Hogan could slam someone Andre’s size, the stage was set for something special.
I think you’d be hard pressed to find many images in wrestling history as famous as the staredown that starts the match. Pull that frame out of the match itself and put it in front of someone, and it’s immediately identifiable. There’s Andre the Giant. There’s Hulk Hogan. There’s the immovable object. There’s the unstoppable force. Watch the flashbulbs light up the hard camera, tens of thousands of people captured trying to take home a slice of time from this match. Dave Meltzer gave it -**** in the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, awarding it the “honor” of “Worst Worked Match of the Year,” but if anything that serves as proof that wrestling matches don’t need to be great to be Great.
King of the Ring 1998: The Undertaker def. Mankind (Hell In A Cell)
- Pros: Mick Foley surviving the match, Terry Funk getting chokeslammed out of his shoes, Jim Ross’ announcing, the origins of several memes, too many indelible images to list, and an unquestionably surreal, unique atmosphere from the moment Foley begins climbing the ring to the end of the match.
- Cons: That atmosphere is a consequence of Foley nearly dying at several junctures (to say nothing of those indelible images), The Undertaker leading a knocked out Foley through the match after his second fall, the general sense of unease the match creates, the way this match accelerated the “need” for successive gimmick matches to top their predecessors.
There’s a book to be written about the 1998 Hell In A Cell match between Mankind and The Undertaker, about how a throwaway gimmick match at the tail end of a dead feud wound up transcending the medium wholly unintentionally. What began as a means of creating a moment as incredible as Shawn Michaels’ 1997 bump off the side of the cell through a ringside table quickly became something else entirely, something etched in time, its images and sounds so distinct that they will outlive not only its participants, but the company that produced them.
All of that was made possible, for better or for worse, by Mick Foley, who just would not stay down. It’s harrowing, what he puts himself through, running on autopilot because the fall through the roof of the cell knocked him out—one of Foley’s anecdotes about this match is that, backstage, he asked whether or not he’d remembered to use the bag of thumbtacks he’d secreted into the cage, dozens of tacks sticking out of his back—you’d like to think that, if the match took place today, Jim Ross’ repeated cries to stop the match would have been heeded, but it’s hard to know. Sports culture has caught up somewhat with the effects of severe head injuries, but athletes play through pain all the time, stopping only when their bodies cannot continue. Mick Foley’s did, so not only do we get the image of him getting thrown off the cell, we get the image of him getting chokeslammed through it, the slow reveal where the cameraman goes around the ring post to find him “smiling,” tooth sticking through his nose. In reality, he’s sticking his tongue through a hole beneath his lip.
As legendary as the match is, as sick as the thrills it offers remain, what hinders Hell In A Cell is everything that happens between the chokeslam on top of the cell and the extreme close-up of thumbtacks hitting the canvas. It’s fine for a match to be famous because of a few disparate spots—I think Hogan/Andre is famous for the staredown, Gorilla Monsoon’s announcing, and the bodyslam/legdrop at the end—but it’s questionable as to whether or not someone with a casual interest in wrestling would know anything from the middle third of the match. Is that enough to knock Hell In A Cell down a peg? I’ll return to that when I declare a winner, but it was something that stuck out when I rewatched it for this exercise.
WrestleMania X7: Steve Austin def. The Rock (WWF Championship)
- Pros: Big ups to my boys Limp Bizkit, the staredown between Austin and The Rock, set the template for a generation of WWE main events, Ross and Heyman’s chemistry on the call, Rock’s ridiculous sell of the Stone Cold Stunner, Austin’s heel turn at the end being an audacious home run swing that’s kind of admirable in retrospect.
- Cons: Austin’s heel turn at the end of the match was the final nail in the coffin of wrestling being everywhere in culture, Vince McMahon’s involvement kinda undercut the fact that he got murdered during his match against Shane, the lack of a clean finish really cheapened what was an otherwise great match.
In my Twitter poll, Steve Austin vs. The Rock was the clear cut loser, akin to a third party candidate siphoning off votes for someone else. I will say this, though: WrestleMania X7 is probably WWE’s most famous show, a victory lap after winning the Monday Night War. It was WWE’s return to big stadium productions, their first PPV that attracted over 1M buys, and has remained, for 19 years, the WrestleMania every subsequent WrestleMania is measured against. I wonder if TLC II from this show would have been a better choice, if my bias against ladder matches and love of Limp Bizkit blinded me from some greater truth when it came to WrestleMania X7, but I’m going to stand by my choice: How many WWE matches in the company’s history have had the look and feel of a big time prizefight, something on par with boxing and MMA at their zenith? There aren’t many, and I think this one’s at the top.
Why? A lot of it is the atmosphere, the Houston, Texas crowd hanging on every punch, kick, and hold. Expecting that crowd to buy into a heel turn by a beloved Texan is as hubristic as Vince McMahon gets, as all they wanted was the feel good story of Steve Austin’s overcoming injury and doubt to regain the championship, even if a lot of Austin’s promos heading into the match signaled that he was willing to sell his soul if it meant winning the title. There’s no question that the turn was a bad decision, something that’s more infamous than famous, but they had the ambition to take that swing in the first place and lived with the consequences. That WWE kept swinging and kept missing in 2001 didn’t help, but the finish of this match wasn’t as critically damaging to the company as Goldberg/Nash or Hogan/Sting was for its competition, and there’s plenty to be said for the quality of Austin’s heel turn.
But that’s the thing: I’m mostly talking about things that happened as a consequence of this match, and not the match itself, dork stuff, not something of casual interest. This is the biggest match on the biggest show, but I’ve let the collective memory of WrestleMania X7 speak for that match when the reality is that it’s nowhere close to the level of its competition.
So which match is the most famous?
I’m going with Undertaker vs. Mankind by a hair. Why? There’s a touch of recency bias involved, as the 1990s are ultimately a friendlier period of time to revisit in terms of the quality of the wrestling itself. Time has also done no favors for the legacy of Hulk Hogan, who was already reviled by wrestling fans and rendered something of a cultural joke before he was booted out of and later reinstated into the WWE’s questionably meaningful Hall of Fame due to a racist conversation at the end of a publicly released sex tape. Does that diminish Andre/Hogan? Not exactly, but I do think that the match has faded with time. There are better Hogan WrestleMania main events. The standard those main events set was massive, but there’s a difference between a Hulk Hogan main event and a WWE main event, and there isn’t a lot of hunger for Hulk Hogan main events, or really much reason to revisit the match.
Hell In A Cell though. A few years ago, Jim Ross’ call of Mankind’s first fall from the cell, complete with audio of Foley crashing through the Spanish announce table, was clipped into nearly every big hit in football. We’re not talking viral images or videos here, we’re talking viral audio, clipped from a decades old wrestling match, as a style of meme. Similarly, the phrase “The Undertaker threw Mankind off Hell In A Cell” is popular copypasta on Facebook, Reddit, and elsewhere.
Yes, the Internet will someday be swept away and these memes will be forgotten, but Hell In A Cell is one of the most referenced matches in WWE history, from falls off and through the cell to the use of thumbtacks to small things like the spot where Undertaker rams Mankind into the cage with the use of the ring stairs. Shawn Michaels vs. The Undertaker was the great Hell In A Cell match, but this one was the legend. When Triple H beat Cactus Jack in a Hell In A Cell match in 2001, it became his match for awhile. When The Undertaker returned to Hell In A Cell, it was with the specter of the violence of this encounter hanging over it. Foley has refereed a Hell In A Cell match and featured heavily in an Edge/Undertaker feud that involved the match. Because Hell In A Cell is a concept that has become a yearly event, Mankind/Undertaker has been persistent in WWE’s memory of itself, something it can’t reproduce, but that it can recontextualize. Where Andre/Hogan and Rock/Austin are frozen in their particular moment, Mankind/Undertaker has managed to evolve, integrating itself into popular culture in a way no other wrestling match has.
I don’t think the middle third of the match matters in the grand scheme of things. How well a match holds together and tells a story is important in critical analysis, but we are talking about fame, not star ratings. Hogan/Andre got -**** from the medium’s preeminent critic, but nobody cares. It’s one of the biggest matches of all time, and there’s no point debating it. What’s more, nobody in the Pontiac Silverdome forgot what they saw that night, nor did anybody watching at home. What makes these matches famous isn’t the bell-to-bell action, but the images they created. The staredowns. The falls. A tooth jutting out of a man’s nose.
Mankind vs. The Undertaker is the most famous match in WWE history because of the sheer number of these moments, the way they exist collectively and apart. King of the Ring 1998 is an awful show, and neither The Undertaker nor Mankind are on the level of Steve Austin, The Rock, Hulk Hogan, or, arguably, Andre the Giant, but we keep revisiting this match, the sound the table makes when it collapses under Foley’s body, the extreme closeup shot of falling thumbtacks that’s so good it’s been replicated by AEW. Wrestling famous and real famous are two very different things, but this match is both and will continue to be both for a long time to come. And when it no longer is? When the world has moved on and John Cena vs. Kevin Federline is the most famous WWE match of all time? Some loser like me will remember that, in 1998, The Undertaker threw Mankind off Hell In A Cell, and the match will blow up again.