101 WWE Matches To See Before You Die ~ #50
101 WWE Matches To See Before You Die
Triple H vs. Shawn Michaels vs. Chris Benoit
Triple Threat Match
World Heavyweight Championship
April 18th, 2004
Tonight we shall witness the 1000th episode of Monday Night Raw. Did you know that such a feat makes Raw the longe…no, I won’t. But what I will do is mark the occasion by breaking through into the top fifty matches on my never-ending list.
When it came to choosing my initial one hundred and one bouts, it was an easy decision to include both iterations of this instantly classic line up. The ranking of them however was significantly more difficult. On the one hand, the poignancy and emotional depth of the first edition is undeniable, as is its historical significance, and certainly all that was far from replicated during the second go round and for that reason, at first, it was the higher ranked of the two. The change came when I thought a little more on it. I cannot deny the simple fact that, as a wrestling match, my preference is for the Backlash effort, the reasons for which will shortly become apparent I am sure, and ultimately this is a list of wrestling matches based partially on personal preference. That alone, though, was not the deciding factor. What was the deciding factor was that on deeper thought, there’s something more to this otherwise overlooked match; a rarity not just in the pro wrestling medium but in every medium of entertainment, be it literature, music, film or even column writing, that, in this particular instance, has an unprecedented amount of human relevancy.
First let me indulge myself in one of my over-extended analogies. This matching of names is representative of the Dark Knight Trilogy by Christopher Nolan, or the Toy Story Trilogy by Pixar, the two being, to my mind, the only two cases of a perfect film trilogy. It represents Shakespeare’s famous tetralogy, recently dramatised in amazing fashion by the BBC in The Hollow Crown. It represents HBO’s three seasons of Deadwood or John Le Carré’s Karla Trilogy. It is that perfectly rare example of a given something maintaining a startling degree of quality on a level plain throughout all editions, if not increasing said quality. On a more individualistic level, what we have here is the The Empire Strikes Back of professional wrestling. The sequel that bettered the original and for reasons because of that, in my mind, it immediately becomes the most must see of the two. More on that later.
Let us first to business and see just why I hold this match more fondly in my heart than its immediate predecessor and the various reasons as to why I rank it as superior.
Allow me to preface this review with the fact that I have only ever watched this match the once and it left an incredible impression on me and, as a result, I am very much looking forward to watching it again. The only thing that could rival watching an incredible live wrestling match unfold is rediscovering one that’s already happened.
This event took place in Alberta so first off it’s worth noting the crowd reaction to HBK, which is hostile to say the least and, to avert disaster, I will gladly avoid discussing why that reaction is as hostile as it is. The point is that immediately it is guaranteed that, despite the exact same set up as at Wrestlemania, the dynamic will have a completely different complexion. Just as noticeable is the much louder pop Benoit gets from his own home crowd. As emotional as Benoit’s initial win was, having his first defence in his home town to prove he was not just a one hit wonder seems just as equally emotional in its own way, if not more so. The first time it was to see if Benoit could do it but the second time, it feels, was Benoit seeking validation. Once again, we see how this bout is the same but oh so very different. To continue my established film analogies then, if the first match at ‘Mania was Ridley Scott’s Alien, then this one would be James Cameron’s Aliens.
Benoit holding that title aloft eye to eye with both his opponents is a nice touch and seeing HBK arguing with the fans as Benoit and Trips stare one another down is certainly more than enough to warrant a chuckle - the crowd is lively from the off and one wonders if HBK chose to wear tights not too dissimilar from the ones he wore at Survivor Series 1997 deliberately or not. The different dynamic continues as the action begins, with Shawn and Benoit initially double teaming Trips, directly contradicting the dissension over who gets to fight him at the start of the preceding match. It’s a wonderful countenance.
The crowd reaction is perhaps the most major difference between this and its predecessor though, as any move committed against Benoit is met with a deal of verbal hostility and whenever Shawn has centre stage, and the man has an uncharacteristically large amount of offence in this match, we get the inevitable Montreal fuelled chants of derision. The result of this extremely partisan crowd is that Benoit’s usual intensity and high impact moves, met as they are with notable pops every time, are twice as effective. Lawler at one point mentions a sense of uneasiness with Shawn and Earl in the ring at the same time as Benoit but I’d say uneasiness translates to the whole thing. There’s a tension, a heart-thumping sort of tension, that was absent at Wrestlemania.
HBK’s performance I touched on momentarily there and it’s interesting to see that late 90s sneer present on his face on more than one occasion; could Canada perhaps now bring the worst out in Shawn Michaels, allow him to tap into a part of his personality he has long since learned to overcome? I almost feel it superfluous for me to tell you Shawn does little to endear himself to the live fans and almost seems to feed off the more hostile reaction, arguing as I’ve noted with ringside fans during the intro and later locking Benoit in a Sharpshooter in a brilliantly constructed spot that sees Earl Hebner come charging down to the ring. To say that has the fans hot under the collar would be an underestimation, and given the unstated severely volatile statement such a spot makes, who could blame them? By the time we’re in the final third and Shawn hits a Sweet Chin Music on Benoit instead of the heel Triple H, it’s looking evident that Michaels is actually relishing the opportunity to provoke the ire of the fans for a change.
There’s also the fact that seeing a little more attitude from him on this occasion, alongside Trips’ usual vitriolic performance and Benoit’s intensity, adds a very tense intangible to the entire match. Add that to the tension I already noted emanating from the crowd and suddenly the bout feels like a volcano ready to erupt at any moment.
Benoit himself has the usual level of enthusiasm and commitment in his own efforts here and seems to eat up the reaction from his own home town fans. And Triple H? Well Trips is as Trips does and he provides a good solid anchor that perhaps stands as the only participant whose reaction from the crowd stems solely from his performance in the match and current standing in the moment, though even he gets tagged with his own chant of “You tapped out,” from the crowd, which inadvertently helps the match keep its focus on the present, lending a synthesis to everything that has come before it and how we got here in the first place.
There aren’t quite so many creative sequences in this one, though those that are there are sufficiently different enough to once again allow it to stand well apart from its predecessor. They do well to maintain that Triple Threat dynamic and to not fall too much into double teams or one on one scenarios, though again there are more then there were previously. There’s a lot of throwing one another from the ring, perhaps too much for my liking and I think that prevents it from quite reaching the same epic level of action we’d seen from the three only a month prior. That said there is a beautifully timed spot as Shawn goes to leap onto both Benoit and Trips, only for them to move and Shawn to crash and burn through the announce desk; again that countenance comes into play, with Benoit seemingly prepped to, as he did previously, go crashing through the announce desk only for his movement to instead allow Shawn to take that questionable honour, while at the same time ensuring the Heartbreak Kid misses a move he hit picture perfectly once before. Furthermore it shows Benoit and Trips learnt from their last experience when Shawn landed a moonsault on them both. It’s fantastic long range storytelling and as a matter of fact, that larger synthesis is evidenced on multiple occasions where the three men go to perform moves they did at ‘Mania, only to miss their mark where previously they had hit it. Again, couple that learning from mistakes with the clear comparisons to their Wrestlemania prequel, another example being HBK returning from his table bump by dramatically breaking Trips’ Pedigree count on Benoit in the same way Benoit had done when Trips hit HBK with the move at ‘Mania, makes this the latter half of a duology of unparalleled synthesis where, for once, both parts perfectly complement one another in every way possible.
What I do like is the increased sense of urgency this time round. At ‘Mania the three were happy to settle into a steady pace and only start breaking out the finisher attempts fairly late in the game. Here though they start from the first quarter with a nice wary moment between Shawn and Trips and later an awesome sequence in which Benoit has Trips locked into a Sharpshooter, followed quickly with Shawn in a Crossface. In fact those attempts at a finish come pretty frequently throughout and, in the case of submissions, never last long enough to feel overstated. The result, as I’ve half mentioned, is a greater sense of urgency, that all three have felt one another out a month prior, know how hard a fight it was last time and so are willing to risk nothing to earn the win this time round, instead looking to end it as quickly and comfortably as they can, particularly given the gladiatorial atmosphere. In turn, that urgency creates a more frantic pace which perfectly complements the uneasiness and the unsettled crowd.
The tone is further distanced from its predecessor by the fact we get more utilisation of the no disqualifications rule. Not only do we get a table bump as before, but Trips furthers the subtle longer term nuances by introducing his trademark sledgehammer and targeting the back that he knows constitutes Michaels’ Achilles heel, before introducing the steel steps which, alas, lead to his being catapulted into a ring post. The finish ensures sufficient difference too. In fact, the finish is very much a genius move by whoever came up with it, due to the number of levels upon which it works.
Three are identifiable; the first is that, as I have been saying all along, it does of course ensure that it remains different from the match that had come a year before. Had the two used the same finish I am sure the reaction, both popular and critical, would have undoubtedly been unfavourable. The second is that the validation of Benoit, very much the conceptual level behind this booking, becomes unquestionable due to him having not just won twice, but within those two wins beating both his opponents with two different submissions. And the third, a nice and tasty added bonus to a fan like me, is that a Canadian was able to retain a World title by making Shawn Michaels submit in a Sharpshooter in Canada.
A brilliant finish to a brilliant match that, like the one that came before it, was brilliantly executed at every turn and this time it had a crowd that provided such an incredible atmosphere one cannot help but feel one’s heart thumping away throughout, even now, eight years on. I remember now just why this match made such an impression on me. It’s one of those matches where everything comes together perfectly and reminds me of just why this industry is the greatest on the planet.
Now I can understand where the doubt lies in this one being ranked by myself as more must see than the previous. ‘Mania XX was given the status in part due to the poignant emotional issues that are now at stake when one decides to give that one a go-round; remembering the Benoit that in my eyes deserved to be remembered. Given the importance, be it for better or worse, that man’s life now carries, how can I by all rights rank this later effort as more must see simply because I consider it to be the better match? Because this isn’t just wrestling’s greatest sequel. It’s more than that.
If Wrestlemania XX was the life of Chris Benoit in need of remembering, this match is his legacy. It’s precisely why ‘Mania XX represents the Benoit we should remember because ‘Mania XX wasn’t just a one-shot deal. Whatever Benoit could do, Benoit could do better and this match, these two matches, lay as testament to that. Sure, it’s more than must see because it is that one time when they did it again and it happened to be better, a feat perhaps not attained until Undertaker’s own recent Wrestlemania tetralogy. And sure, we can call it required viewing because it’s simply that damn good, because it bettered what I labelled as the Triple Threat Match, but there are more things in heaven and on earth than are dreamt of in our philosophies and on the earth I dare say this is one such thing.
I referred previously to this match as representing, in the kayfabe world, the legitimisation, the validation of Chris Benoit as the World Heavyweight Champion. Now, after everything, it’s the validation of his life. I do not mean to deny the role played here by Shawn Michaels and Triple H but for a World Champion to main event consecutive pay per views with the exact same match and create a history of superlative, a duology that didn’t just maintain but bettered itself when we thought it could not be bettered, is unheard of, unprecedented and I dare say has not since been repeated. May never be repeated again. This match was the culmination of a larger story, the second part of a whole that overcame the usually indomitable aura of, “You can’t beat the original.” It is example of three men, of which Benoit was the centre piece, taking the genre defining Triple Threat Match of all time…and…well…doing it better.
Wrestlemania XX will be Chris Benoit’s most remembered hour, most celebrated hour but this was undoubtedly his finest, when must see was made preface and the greatest ever match of its kind reduced simply to Chapter 1.
And in turn that is the symbolism, the memory and the legacy of one of the greatest of all time.
I really liked this column - though, as I was reading it, I was secretly thinking that you would be unable to fully argue that this match was better than the original. By the last few paragraphs, you had me convinced.
Originally Posted by 'Plan
Do I not like that.
There's a few of them creeping in here and there - I suspect the cause, as much as anything, might well be enthusiasm. It's very easy to keep typing at 100mph when you're really feeling what you are typing.
Still pretty great, though.
I absolutely love that you brought up the link between Shawn's WrestleMania moonsault and his missed Backlash splash. A really rare moment of multi-match psychology that doubled as a beautiful spot. Great catch.
Not many can portray a match like you can, 'Plan. Another awesome column.
There are at least 2 main pages columns I'd like to see replaced by this engrossing series.
Double Murder Josh ~ Yeah, I can be pretty persuasive. I enjoy a good debate and I love writing to convince so perhaps that means I'm pretty decent at rising to the occasion so to speak. Nevertheless, glad you're still enjoying them and thanks for the read buddy.
Prime Time ~ My Yoda impression like, you do not? Heh. Indeed, typing at a fast rate can make that happen, but I'd argue there's nothing physically incorrect about it. It just doesn't read very nicely. Glad it didn't really detract though. Thanks for dropping by again my friend!
Skulduggery ~ You know, given it was only the second time I'd ever seen the match it really hit me quite how awesome a touch that spot is, and it's not alone. There's plenty of instances of that kind of multi-match psychology littered through the whole thing which is what makes it such a damn good sequel in my eyes. It's not just a rematch; it's an extension of the first. Thank you for that mighty compliment sir, I shall take it to the grave and I am glad that you're still enjoying this extraordinarily long series.
Sidgwick ~ Well unfortunately that shan't be happening. The series ends on day and I don't intend on setting out on anything quite as epic for some time. Plus I had my stint on the MP and it wasn't for me. Nevertheless I take that as a damn fine compliment and thank you for it. Thanks for the read friend.
I know I'm probably in a very small minority but I actually prefer this match to the WM 20 match.
I just think that the storyline and the crowd reaction was way better in this match than the match at Wrestlemania.
Heavens to Betsy, it's impossible for me to say which of these glorious matches I prefer. I probably would have leaned towards the 'Mania match previously, if only by a hair's breadth, but now you've got me second guessing myself. I've always felt that while Wrestlemania captured a superior moment, this was the better match. I think I may have to watch them both again.
I said I'd try to argue with you more, but there's no hope of that here. I never enjoy your work so much as when you're writing about something that you truly, deeply love. Where does Benoit rank on your all time list of favorites? Or, perhaps I should ask, where did he rank before 2007? At one time he was in serious contention for my favorite performer of all time. I can't quite put him at that level anymore, but it's still a testament to his fantastic in ring abilities.
Not even the best match on the card.
Agreed. Orton ad Foley tore the house down.
Originally Posted by T.O.