The Fan Behind The Plan
Table of Contents
I: Wrestling Ken Patera, or How Steve Austin Fears My Dad
II: My Love Affair with the Royal Rumble
III: The Matches that Made Me
IV: My Favourite Matches
V: From Hitfan to Markitect
VI: The Best Is Yet To Come
VII: Realising a Dream
My Favourite Matches
Such is the nature of professional wrestling and of being a professional wrestling fan that a list of personal favourite matches should, more than likely, shift continuously. Our tastes change and our ideas evolve and with that we may find ourselves falling in love with matches we previously hated or discovering impatience with compositions we previously had all the time in the world for. While I can today write about a handful – and it is only a handful – of my personal favourites, I cannot tell you with confidence they will remain my favourites in a year, a month or even so much as a week.
Some choices will no doubt be fairly obvious to you. When compiling a list of bouts I wanted to bring up in this chapter it will come as no surprise to you that Hart and Rollins both featured heavily. There is, after all, a reason why they are my two all time favourites. Do not expect to see any of these picks listed here though; what an obvious column that would be! As the contents list betrays, my love for those two particular WWE stars will be covered in more detail next week. Perhaps more importantly, it becomes easy among those of us within this community to pigeon-hole our contemporaries according to their favourite performers. My tastes are not quite so limited.
Some of my favourite matches heavily feature talent I have been far from enamoured with over the years in fact. One such individual is John Cena; an occurrence that (perhaps wrongly) surprised me. I think I know why though. It is not because I have discovered some subconscious fandom for WWE’s number one but because, more than anything else, the key to a great match is chemistry. Some pairings have chemistry when one would not expect to see it. So too do some pairings prove to have anything but, leading to bouts wrestled by some of the best of their day stinking up the show. One thing John Cena deserves credit for is having a natural disposition to be able to work with a whole slew of differing performers, from smaller work horses like Punk and Bryan, to big men beasts like Umaga through to character driven performers like Bray Wyatt. In fact, his matches with those latter two men I would have to rank highly among my all time best.
John Cena vs. Bray Wyatt was not a feud I dug at the time it occurred. Like many others, I considered it messy, haphazard and misguided. As my understanding of my own interpretation of Wyatt’s character has grown over the last year though, coupled with a revelatory moment when listening to Eminem’s Legacy, I have found myself falling utterly in love with all three of their bouts in 2014 to a point where they stand right alongside the Tetralogy for me as an all time favourite piece of performance art. The Wrestlemania match is laden with subtext, their Last Man Standing encounter at Payback a true clash of titans and even their maligned Steel Cage Match at Extreme Rules is a masterfully metaphoric tale of the power of belief, in both its negative and positive aspects. Theirs was a story of gods and men; while my performance art interpretation of their work was clearly not what was intended, it transforms the feud’s murky creative direction into a master work. I shall avoid going into too much detail here though; my next ‘Planthology will cover their story at a later date and in far greater depth than I am afforded today.
Instead, let me talk about the Samoan Bulldozer’s encounter with the leader of the Chain Gang. When I returned to WWE in 2007 with that year’s Rumble it meant that the very first WWE Championship match I watched in two years was John Cena vs. Umaga in a Last Man Standing Match. Returning from a hiatus intrigued at the prospect of an old favourite winning an old favourite, to be confronted by something so new, fresh and character-driven left a lasting impression. I recall being shocked at the apparent brutality of a number of the spots, with Cena smashing Umaga’s head through a monitor, the steel steps being launched through the air like a missle and Umaga’s charging dive through the announce tables all standing out. The eventual finish that saw Umaga get back up even after being choked out with a ring rope was a phenomenal twist that, in my limited exposure to the genre, I could not have possibly hoped to predict. Seeing Umaga scream his way to brutalising this hero and appearing as inhumanly tough as he did bears a great many striking similarities to my childhood exposure to Yokozuna; two monstrous gimmicks presented as distant, mysterious and nigh indomitable. No wonder Umaga would go on to cement a permanent place in my heart after such a memorable showing, and continue to this day to vie for a spot as an all time favourite performer too.
The same could also be said of The Undertaker. The very reason I came back to WWE in the first place was to witness his winning the Rumble at the same event as the aforementioned WWE title bout. What kept me around, however, was his work with Batista that year. Above all things, I am a fan that treasures story-telling. Even my vehement loathing of ladder matches can be offset by an affecting story. That is what I found in the five match series between the Phenom and the Animal. In retrospect, there is something operatic for me on a personal level about the tug of war contested between the man whose rise to prominence drove me from WWE and the man whose resurgence to World Championship prominence brought me right back. Though their Wrestlemania encounter was a modulating sprint, the following two rematches bloodied brawls and the climactic Hell in a Cell overshadowed by the growing issue of Edge, it was Batista defending against Undertaker at Cyber Sunday that cemented itself as my pick of the five. If anything, it proved more competitive than their dance on the Grandest Stage and the nature of Batista’s win, though unfairly unnoticed, was rather quite monumental; his was not a narrow victory eked out by the skin of his teeth but an impassioned, aggressive, dominating one. For the first time since my return, I felt I had witnessed an historic result on the back of a fierce contest. In retrospect, rather ironically, it was their reliance on the false finish I have since come to dislike that perhaps made it so brilliant to me then. Even though I can recognise that now, nostalgia ensures my love for their quiet classic remains intact.
Undertaker would go on to wrestle a great many other favourites of mine in the years that followed, most notably against Triple H at Wrestlemania XXVII and XXVIII. Like Umaga, he was vitally important in ensuring my return to WWE was more than a fleeting one. I could not say he was a favourite performer of mine though; truthfully, outside of Hart and Rollins it would be disingenuous for me to begin listing more favourites. I have come to grow cynical towards the prospect of a “third favourite” or “fourth favourite.” The idea seems oddly contradictory to me. Nevertheless, the Dead Man is one half of my all time favourite pairing of talent that had an incredible degree of chemistry which always resulted in nothing short of a classic: The Undertaker and Kurt Angle.
Undertaker vs. Angle at No Way Out 2006 came in with a high ranking in my famous series from years past and, though it was listed for more analytical reasons, I cannot deny a degree of partiality in its placing. Theirs was an exhausting grind of an encounter, creating the kind of match the quality of which I always forget the true extent of; at least, until I sit down and watch it again. The pre-match hype video excites still, with Angle’s line “When that bell rings, I don’t have a soul either!” never failing to give me goose bumps. It was this characterisation of Angle as a Wrestling Machine as soulless as the other-worldly Dead Man that intrigued me, and the sense of athletic one-upmanship that the Phenom was allowed to engage in was a breath of fresh air from his usually restricted character work. As the years have passed and I have revisited this piece time and again, my angst over their denial of a Wrestlemania headlining encounter has grown in conjunction with my love for this pre-‘Mania showdown. If I had been watching then, knowing now what Angle would eventually go on to be given come Wrestlemania 22, I wonder how upset I may have been in the moment. Thankfully I was not watching in 2006, as by now you fully well know. So how did I come across what may be my all time favourite match outside of the careers of Hart and Rollins?
Some years ago I set out to add to my growing WWE DVD collection the best stand-alone pay-per-view of each year available, outside of the Big Four; for 2006, I picked No Way Out. The undercard showcased similarly strong wrestling, with the hefty content and palpably affecting nature of the ‘Taker / Angle opus the event’s crowning achievement, so on paper it seemed like a show that would appeal. A large part of that appeal was seeing those two names listed together my memory of another personal favourite created by them that had occurred when I had been watching the product religiously.
It was Kurt Angle defending the WWE Championship against Undertaker from Smackdown in September of 2003 that planted the seed for my adoration of their collaborations. I was still impressionable back then, still fairly ignorant of how the industry functioned. I expected little from a tandem I had seen wrestle to little return during my younger years in the Attitude Era – like their Fully Loaded 2000 bout for instance – so when I tuned into Sky One that Saturday morning and witnessed a Wrestlemania worthy encounter on television I was stunned. The fluidity of their story sees the run time rush by while keeping you on the edge of the seat and threatening, during its highest points, to drag you from it entirely. Seeing Undertaker withstand minutes in the Ankle Lock engrossed a young ‘Plan those many moons ago, and though others find the story-telling trick wearisome, it always succeeds in drawing emotion from yours truly perhaps because of this very composition. The match is currently available on the WWE Network amidst the archived Smackdown shows I do believe, and I strongly recommend it; though I was narked when Brock Lesnar interfered and denied this emotional rollercoaster of a match a clean finish, it is still a piece of work of a high enough quality to be included among the extras of one of The Undertaker’s many DVD sets; truly indicative of the superior quality of the blue brand during the early years of the Brand Draft Era. It was the kind of event television wrestling in WWE we seem to now get only very rarely indeed.
It should be clear to you, as it has become clear to me, that in listing some of my all time favourite matches I gravitate toward a specific group of talent. My guess would be that it is the same for most of us, and I would be very interested to know your own lists in your feedback. I should inform you, however, that there is no shortage of what one might term to be “one hit wonders” among a list that continues to grow and change the more I watch.
Ultimate Warrior vs. Ravishing Rick Rude for the Intercontinental Championship at Summerslam 1989 is perhaps the most recent addition. Having discovered their Wrestlemania encounter as a rather lukewarm affair, when I sat down to watch their sequel I never anticipated it would transform into a magnificence equal to that of Warrior and Savage at Wrestlemania VII; to those less predisposed to the high drama of the latter, this Intercontinental Championship contest may even prove to be superior. Eschewing fantastical melodrama for escalatory hysteria, it is a piece worthy of greater adulation. As is Chris Benoit vs. Triple H vs. Shawn Michaels from Backlash 2004; perhaps a slightly more controversial choice of mine. Even were it not for the mitigating circumstances dogging any Benoit match, it would no doubt languish in the shadow of its genre-defining predecessor the month prior anyway. It is this rare case of a superior sequel, though, that I am more readily interested in revisiting. Tag wrestling is not exempt either. The Shield and The Real Americans vs. The Usos, The Brotherhood and Mysterio at Survivor Series 2013 has a special place for me, as does Team Austin vs. Team Bischoff from a decade before. If I were to go all hipster on you, so too might I throw The Headshrinkers vs. The Steiner Brothers at Wrestlemania IX and The British Bulldogs vs. The Fabulous Rougeau Brothers from Summerslam 1988 out there as well.
In truth, I find myself having to cut this chapter short. I could ramble on for thousands and thousands of words about a whole list of compositions I have not mentioned, nor even remembered in some cases. The Rumble matches from 1993, 1994, 1998 and 2009 would all be covered if I had the room. Ultimately, this chapter presents but a handful; that handful is always changing. In every case though, it is character (of performer, of match or of both) and chemistry between performers that I seem to prioritise as qualities in professional wrestling. Two men, conspicuous by their absence this week, provide these things in their library of work more than any other talent in WWE history for my money.
‘Planthology presents: The Fan Behind The Plan V – From Hitfan to Markitect will be landing shortly. In the meantime, what are your thoughts on the matches I’ve mentioned today? Please share with me some of your personal favourite matches of all time too! Does it present the same group of talents as mine seems to?