When a company has been around as long as WWE, there are going to be a lot of matches in the record books. Every year, the company produces live TV, premium live events, and house shows. When the company throws that many darts in a single year, sometimes they hit the bullseye. Sometimes they don’t even make the board. Naturally, with so many matches of up and down quality, there are times when the company produces great stuff, but—for one reason or another—it slips through the cracks.
So, here’s a list—not a countdown, just a list—of six WWE matches that deserve a little more love. This is not a definitive list. Not only is this a subjective list of matches I love, but I also encourage people to list some underloved WWE matches of their own. Personally, I’m focusing not just on hidden gems, but matches that feel like they should be big but have been written out by history.
Bret Hart vs. Bob Backlund - Survivor Series 1994
After months of classic matches with his brother Owen, Bret had to defend his WWF title against former world champion Bob Backlund. Backlund looked like Richie Cunningham, was in his mid-40s, and is best known for… just having a mind that’s not in mint condition. But Backlund was out to prove he had fuel in the tank. The guy who held the title for five years (and faced John Cena-level backlash over this) proved he could still go with the younger Hart. The two put on a technical clinic for 40 minutes. And it was submission only, which gave Owen Hart the chance to inject some drama into the match.
The final minutes are a nailbiter where Backlund has Hart in his chicken wing submission as Owen pleads with his mother to throw in the towel for Bret. For context, Owen was trying to screw Bret out of the title under the guise of care for his brother. I have to give credit to any match where someone maintains a hold for two minutes and keeps suspense. Maybe people forget this one because Backlund was more or less just cannon fodder for Diesel’s ill-advised title reign (In a five-second house show squash). Not to mention, the infamous rematch is remembered but for all the wrong reasons. You know, the match that’s all submissions, the match where Roddy Piper never shuts up, and takes Backlund yelling “Gaaaah” for “I Quit.” Yeah, watch the Survivor Series match instead.
Bret Hart vs. Stone Cold vs. Undertaker vs. Vader - Final Four: In Your House 1997
When I thought of underrated WWE matches, this was one of the first to come to mind. This match was the result of Steve Austin cheating to win his first Royal Rumble in 1997 and Shawn Michaels “losing his smile.” As the title suggests, the last four entrants of the Rumble (well, “Diesel” was one of them, but the company bent the rules for the better). The rules of the match combined traditional rules with Royal Rumble-style eliminations. I wouldn’t normally be a fan of that latter part, but they made it work.
One reason it worked was the murderer’s row of talent involved. And they did not disappoint: Vader juiced pretty badly. And while it’s normal for people to powder out during fatal four-ways, there was non-stop action from bell to bell, with something always going on—inside or outside the ring. Maybe people forget about this one because it was sandwiched between famous events like the aforementioned HBK abdication and the iconic “I Quit” match. Maybe it was because Bret Hart’s title run was short-lived to beget the questionable Undertaker-Sid main event.
Allegedly, Austin was supposed to win this, but he dinged his knee. Austin does continually interfere after his elimination, but the story also checks because Austin started wearing his trademark knee-brace soon after. Nowadays, fans will be upset if someone doesn’t win the title right away, but waiting with Austin paid off. As did this match, which deserves to be seen.
Shane McMahon vs. Steve Blackman - Summerslam 2000
Admittedly, most of this match is only okay. It’s standard McMahon fair—weapons shots, run-ins. But the part I’m surprised doesn’t get talked about is the ending: Shane takes an insane dive off the set. And Steve Blackman followed that up with a diving leg drop from the same height.
It’s a little surprising so few people talk about this spot. Maybe it’s been overshadowed by the many other insane bumps Shane O Mac has taken. Perhaps it was overshadowed by the first official TLC match (the better match honestly, but still). There also wasn’t much of a follow-up. Shane McMahon trying to frame Blackman for running over Austin was the last we saw of this feud. Shane went into exile until his feud with his pop. And Blackman never came close to the main event again.
Triple H vs. Chris Jericho, Hell in a Cell - Judgement Day 2002
I rediscovered this match when researching my article on 2002 PPVs, and I’m surprised no one really talks about it. Belaboring the point that Jericho and Hunter outdid their Wrestlemania match goes without saying. It was a Hell in a Cell—of course, they upped the ante. Most of the match was good, and unfortunately, referee Tim White suffered a legit injury that shortened his career. And one of the lasting legacies of this match was a series of tasteless skits where Tim White kept attempting suicide (made even more tasteless considering it was in the shadow of Eddie Guerrero’s passing).
Besides being an entertaining brawl, the match is noteworthy for ending ON the cell. The company had a few hit-and-miss results in trying to recreate Mankind’s iconic fall, but having the end of the match occur on the cell was novel. It’s harder to pinpoint why history has written this match. Maybe it’s guilt by association with those awful Tim White skits. Maybe it’s because this match is good, but not the game changer many cell matches were. Lesnar and Taker had a cell match later that year, which was not only better, but also had the visual of Taker bleeding buckets. Not to mention, as I wrote in my article, this time for the company, transitioning from WWF to WWE, was chaotic with many major shifts.
John Cena vs. Bobby Lashley - Great American Bash 2007
WWE sure tried to make this a historic match. And honestly, that feels like a big reason this match was not well-received by fans. Cena was at the height (or bottom?) of fans not liking him. And Lashley’s push was beginning to feel a little forced as well. When the company resorts to hustling the viewer and shoving the match’s importance down our throats after we bought the show, fans are going to protest. Not to mention, GAB ’07 was the first PPV following the Benoit tragedy, casting a long shadow over everything that summer.
But here’s the thing: The match itself is pretty good! Both men wrestled as babyfaces and had a pretty epic encounter that played to both men’s strengths. It was a back-and-forth affair, making it look like the new guy might overcome the longtime champion. Cena won, which probably only added to the vitriol. Since Lashley has more than proven his worth, I honestly believe this match would get a better reception if it happened today.
John Cena vs. Alberto Del Rio - Last Man Standing Match, Vengenace 2011
Remember at Summerslam when Brock Lesnar flipped the ring with a tractor? Of course, you do! That will likely go down as one of the great images of 2022 wrestling. More than a decade earlier, John Cena and Alberto Del Rio had a match with a broken ring from the beginning. For context, Big Show and Mark Henry “broke the ring” with a superplex, and (in kayfabe) the two decided the show must go on. Cena and Del Rio probably could have had a decent match with a last-man-standing stipulation. But the broken ring gave this bout a whole new dimension. Basic moves like Irish whips had new dangers. Plus, there was some backstage brawling.
It's slightly easier to see why this has been swept under the rug. Optically, it seems like people don’t want to talk about Del Rio. While the guy has proven to be awful in real life, I don’t remember a lot of love for this one even when people liked him. Maybe this one has been forgotten about because it was in the midst of WWE fumbling the ball with Summer of Punk. In fact, the same show had a bizarre match where Triple H and Punk actually teamed up in a losing effort against the Awesome Truth. But a combination of a wild, unique match and creative single-night storytelling make this one to check out.
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© 2022 Alex deCourville