Triple H, October 2011:

“When I grew up, I hated Hogan. I thought he was terrible and didn’t like to watch him. I was like Punk in a way. I liked the Steamboats and Flairs and the ones that could go. Would I be right in saying that Hogan was the wrong guy to go with, and they should’ve changed directions and gone with Steamboat because he was the better wrestler? Ludicrous.” - Triple H. October, 2011.

Road to Wrestlemania XXIII - Part 4

Monday, February 18, 2008

Part 3 is here.

Road to Wrestlemania XXIII – Part 4

Final look at Wrestlemanias past before we gear up and throw down at Wrestlemania XXIII in Detroit.

XVI saw JR and Lawler as a Mania team for the first time and a return to Anaheim, only 4 years after XII. Hunter extended his unbeaten Mania streak to 5 when he and Waltman won the Opening Tag over the Hollys. Perry Saturn made his Mania debut going over Al Snow, and his stablemate and fellow invader Dean Malenko went over Taka. The Rock got the win over former tag partner DLo, and Kurt Angle made his in ring Mania debut, defeating Taz, also working his first Mania.

Not bad. And All of that before we started wrestling for belts. XVI brought it, kids.

The tag title match was the first ever TLC match, with the Hardys winning their second straps over Edge and Christian and the Dudley Boys.

7 years later, Matt will meet Edge in the Cell in the Main Event at WM XXIII.

The Intercontinental Championship saw the Mania debut of Chris Jericho, the IC Champ – losing to his old NWA rival, Eddy Guerrero, making his Mania debut, as the workrate just kept topping itself in each match.

And then the main event – Cactus Jack’s second straight main event, he dropped the WWF Championship to Crippler Chris Benoit – the Alliance of Benoit, Eddy, Perry, and Dean going 4-0 at Wrestlemania – the iconic image is of the 4 of them ripping up a Wrestlemania sign, destroying it in the middle of the ring and hitting the buckles as the show closed – the invaders, the Alliance, straight out of the NWA and into the top of the WWF at Wrestlemania XVI – arguably the greatest Wrestlemania ever.

6 years ago was the big show in Houston, Wrestlemania XVII, JR and Cornette together again, this time with Bobby Heenan thrown in for good measure. XVI saw the original formation of Dead Men Walking, Undertaker/PAUL/Kane, formed during the Opening tag match where Vince met Skip McMahon. The Rock won the Legends Match, once again keeping the ‘Taker from that 5th legends win – and then he was stomped out by DMW, until saved by a returning Cactus Jack – the Rock and Foley starting their comedy run. Hunter went to 6-0 in his Mania career – winning another cage match, this time over Waltman, as Hunter was turning face in this stretch. Jericho and Eddy met again, a Wrestlemania rematch a year later – this time it was the Lionheart, not only going over but gaining a kiss from his valet/girlfriend/hottest woman ever to appear in a wrestling arena, Stacy Keibler.

The tag titles also were contested in a rematch – Hardys/Dudleys/Edge and Christian – except with the tag champs thrown in: Raven and Taz. This time it was the Dudleys, now babyfaces, going over – they and their manager, Stevie Richards, celebrating in mid ring – Matt and Edge, brawling on the outside at match’s close, one notes, at XVII – the year before, at XVI – Matt and Edge in the TLC for the tag straps – the year before, Matt winning the tag straps and having his friend Edge turn on him.. 3 straight Manias – Matt v. Edge – and here we are again, Wrestlemania XXIII – Matt v. Edge: Hell in a Cell.

The IC was a wild, all over the stadium Falls Count Anywhere brawl, with Austin going over Regal – and the main event, the unbeaten Olympic gold medalist, pure whitemeat babyface Kurt Angle defeated the infidel, the Wolverine, the Crippler Chris Benoit to capture the WWF Title in an all time match – Kurt Angle lifted high in the air by the entire WWF locker room to celebrate taking the WWF title from the outsider Benoit.

In 2002 we saw Wrestlemania XVIII, Mania returning to Toronto after 12 years – JR calling his 8th Wrestlemania, this time alongside Paul Heyman.

This was the Legends Come Home Mania: The Opening Tag was star studded – Edge and Christian, as half of the Clique, defeating Hunter (his first loss, but as he’ll note, he didn’t take the fall) and a returning Razor Ramon, with Diesel in their corner. Shawn Michaels, gone four years, made his return in a blackout for a face save for Hunter – the original Clique, Michaels, Razor, and Diesel reunited, cycling through their finishers and leaving E and C laid out.

The Legends Match saw the Undertaker looking for his 5th win against the returning Hulk Hogan looking for his 5th win against the Nature Boy Ric Flair – in a Legends Match overflowing with starpower. It was Flair, with his newest protégée, Leviathan, in his corner, going over for his first Legends Win. At XXIII Flair’s in an even more high profile match, against Fit Finlay for the vacant NWA Championship. A loss may well mean retirement for the Nature Boy.

Making his Mania debut – the man who 5 years later is the IC Champion – Sugar Shane Helms, back at XVIII he went over Al Snow. Also making his Mania debut – Booker T – back in 2002 he beat Diamond Dallas Page, in Page’s last WWF match – and in 2007 Book will wrestle The Executioner Lashley for the vacant WWF Championship – one of those men to become the first ever African-American WWF Champion.

The Rock got another Mania win, this one over Steve Regal.

The tags were now the Unified Tag Titles, the ECW/NWA/WWF belts all joined together for the first time at Mania – and XVIII had a TLC match with usual suspects the Hardys and Dudleys (except with Spike replacing DVon) both losing to the Canadian team of Jericho and Lance Storm.

The IC was now joined with the US Title from the NWA and the ECW TV title to become the Worldwide titles – and Rob Van Dam, making his Mania debut, going over Steve Austin.

The main event fit the Legends Come Home theme perfectly – get it, perfectly? – Curt Hennig, who main evented as the WWF Champion in VI (in Toronto) and VII returned to the WWF and gamely took on the undefeated Double Champion (as the ECW Title had joined the WWF Title) Kurt Angle. Kurt kept, the image of Mr Perfect tapping out in the ankle lock, Kurt Angle maintaining the WWF title, enduring throughout the years.

4 years ago it was 2003 and Seattle for Wrestlemania XIX. JR working his 9th Mania, this time alongside Taz. This was the first Mania under the stewardship of the TitanTrust: Arn Anderson, Dean Malenko, and Fit Finlay – and they opened the show in the ring. 4 years later – all 3 men are back with the NWA, Dean is Fit’s manager, and Fit is facing Ric Flair, Arn’s best friend, for the vacant title at XXIII.

The Opening Tag was also a Legends Match – Hogan and the Undertaker meeting in a tag match – it was the Dead Man getting the fall on the Hulkster and becoming the first man ever to win 5 Legends Matches. The singles Legends Match was Austin v. Rock – the Rock getting the clean Rock Bottom fall for the win to send Austin into retirement.

Matt Hardy, who is just weeks away from meeting Edge in the main event in XXIII – was starting a singles program with RVD at XIX – Matt managed by Eric Bischoff against Van Dam managed by Paul E – the two men driven to higher and higher daredevil feats, as puppets, really, of their managers, whose hatred for each other drove the feud. Matt beat Van Dam at XIX – 4 years later, Matt’s in the Main Event – 4 years later, we’ll soon find out what high, high profile match RVD will take place in at XXIII.

Chris Jericho and Lance Storm had a Loser Leaves Town at XIX – Jericho battering his former tag partner in the feud over Stacy. Eddy Guerrero, now a member of the Four Horsemen, met Chris Benoit, now a babyface, in a singles match – Eddy went over. Eddy’s chairshot of Benoit while Flair and Leviathan held him up one of the enduring images of XIX. The tag titles saw the Mania debut of Haas and Benjamin – then called Team Lesnar – now called Strong Style and managed by Arn. They came into Mania with the straps – but dropped to the Clique – Michaels, in his first Mania match since losing to Owen at XIV, and Hunter winning the straps with Diesel in their corner.

The IC saw Rey Mysterio make his Mania debut – keeping hit title over Chavo, despite Horseman interference. And the main event of XIX, Kurt Angle remained undefeated, going over his former protégée turned rival Brock Lesnar in a replica of the match they actually did at XIX, right down to Brock’s botched Shooting Star Press – except it was Angle getting the fall. Angle with his broken neck cradling his 3 belts (the title was now undisputed, the NWA belt added to the ECW and WWF belts – those belts exploded apart 4 years later after CM Punk threw down the WWF and NWA straps at Survivor Series ’06) as he’s carried out of the ring the enduring image of XIX.

If XVI wasn’t the best ever Mania….then it was Wrestlemania XX from Madison Square Garden, Where It All Began Again.

JR celebrated his 10th Mania, second straight with Taz sitting next to him. And the first match they called was the Legends Match Opening Tag – The Rock and Cactus Jack, teaming together to defeat Brock Lesnar and Bill Goldberg – Steve Austin serving as the referee as the ring filled up with egos. Rock got his 3rd Legends Win here, the Rock and Sock Connection sending Goldberg and Lesnar out of the WWF. After feuding for a full year, RVD and Matt buried their program in a Tables Match – RVD going over, Matt, who teetered on a heel turn throughout the program, getting some face reaction when he put Bischoff through a table postmatch, ending Eric’s WWF run. The second ever Hell in a Cell match (first one was Cactus beating Shamrock) occurred 3 years ago at XX – Jericho and Christian’s feud had been nearly as long as Hardy’s with RVD – Jericho went over here and turned, with Trish leaving Christian, as she had been with E and C since that original turn in ’99 to align with Jericho. Christian took the Foley bump here, obviously one of the classic Mania images.

In a workrate matchup that adds tremendous value to XX – Mysterio defeated Tajiri and Ultimo Dragon, both making their Mania debuts, in a 3 way.

Then came the formation of the New Clique and the beginning of Edge’s current push. In a Falls Count Anywhere, Shawn handed Hunter his first ever singles loss at Wrestlemania – Hunter and Shawn had been tag champs a year earlier, but Hunter’s jealousy over newcomer Michaels trainees London and Kendrick manifested in his breaking Kendrick’s arm with his sledgehammer. He appeared to be about to do the same thing here – London attempted to save – but Hunter fought him off – that led to the return of Edge, gone a year and a half since the TLC blowoff that saw 5 of the 6 men, E/C, the Duds, and Jeff – everyone but Matt – stretchered from the building – but Edge was then kicked away by Jericho, jumpstarting their feud – and leading to the dramatic emergence of Christian, almost crawling his way from the back – dramatically leading the babyface comeback – all four men holding up the Clique sign – Michaels, London, Edge, and Christian forming what, to date, was the final configuration of the Clique.

For the second straight Mania, Haas and Benjamin came in as champs but left without their belts – this time dropping to Flair and Leviathan. And 10 years after the original ladder match – the IC was against contested in a ladder match – this one between Eddy and Chavo Guerrero – it’s a best 2 of 3 belt ladder match – Eddy, now a babyface, fighting off the Horsemen to take the straps from his nephew.

Kurt Angle had never been pinned as he walked into the ring the Undisputed Heavyweight Champion of the World – it was Kurt’s 4th straight Mania main event, his first as a heel – and in a rematch from XVII, he dropped the strap to Chris Benoit, the Crippler regaining the WWF Championship for the first time in 3 years.

The close of XX is the same as the close of real XX, and the greatest scene in wrestling history – Eddy and Benoit, babyfaces, longtime friends, with title belts in their hands, standing together as the confetti falls and the Madison Square Garden crowd roars.

2 years ago – Wrestlemania XXI from Los Angeles – Paul E returned to the announce here, joining Taz and JR. Bradshaw, as GHB, made his Mania debut at XXI, tagging with Morley to go over Tajiri and Jimmy Yang. 2 years later, Bradshaw and JR will be on the announce together, calling the Flair/Fit NWA Title match at XXIII. The Legends Match was a 3 way, Mysterio going over the Taker and PAUL – postmatch saw a Hulk Hogan heel turn, as he put the boots to the Dead Man. Shawn Michaels won again at Mania – he beat Chris Jericho, who was full on now into his debauched Lizard King persona, bearded, fat, whiskey bottle in hand along side strung out coke whore emaciated Trish Stratus – an inadvertent superkick ended Trish’s run here – HBK going over in this one.

XXI was the first Mania where Ricky Steamboat returned as GM – The Dragon, of course, was in the main event of the first 4 Wrestlemanias – and he decreed that, for the first time ever – Rey Mysterio would wrestle twice at Mania – he did, not only winning that Legends Match, but avenging a Royal Rumble defeat by beating Paul London.

Over the year following XX – Team Angle (Kurt, Regal, Haas, Benjamin) had been in a year long feud with the Clique – and they matched up here, with Angle going over Christian. The tag titles were decided in a 3 way – Helms and Rhyno, as the Spreekillers, came in with the straps and put them on the line against Haas and Benjamin, now Mania staples as tag champs – and the upstart team of Orton and Cena. In one of the bigger upsets in Mania history – it was Orton and Cena who took those straps – that led to the immediate Code Red on Haas, Angle ordering that Benjamin take him out, which sent Haas out of the WWF, broke up Team Angle, and resulted in Benjamin being held under Angle’s thumb.

With Team Angle in tatters, it was no surprise that Regal, the enforcer of the group, had to go it alone in his IC attempt against Edge – the Cliquester kept, Edge walking out of Mania with the title. 2 years later…well, you know who Edge faces.

The main event was an iron man match – Chris Benoit in his 4th Mania main event defending the title against Eddy Guerrero, with Dean Malenko as the guest referee and Steamboat, Austin, and Flair as the guest judges.

Eddy was in the only Mania main event he’d ever get – and he won his second WWF Title, beating Benoit in their second ever Mania matchup – Eddy, Benoit, with Dean in the middle, holding up both men’s arms after a 60+ minute match, running just longer than Shawn/Bret, making it the longest match in the history of WWF PPV – the iconic image (buy the poster) in Eddy’s last ever Mania.

Last year – one year ago – as our recap concludes, was Wrestlemania XXII – Taz called his 4th Mania, now with a new partner, the new voice of the World Wrestling Federation, Joey Styles. Mania returned to Chicago for the 3rd time for XXII – and in Chicago, hometown boy CM Punk, working dark because he refused to be on WWF TV, cut a promo to open the show. The Legends Match was to establish the Hardcore Legend – Cactus Jack, now a heel, returned here to win his 2nd Legends Match, going over RVD when he DDT’d Van Dam through a flaming table, the postmatch saw the WWF debut of Sabu, wielding a glass light tube.

One year ago was the end, to this date, of the WWF career of Kurt Angle – he came in as the whitemeat Olympic hero – but a year ago in Chicago, the crazed, jacked up, maniacal Angle lost clean and in the middle to Shelton Benjamin. Benjamin then reunited with his former partner Charlie Haas – who hopped from the crowd to kick the heck out of Angle – an asskicking that was then joined in by virtually the entire WWF locker room – Angle getting buried under an onslaught from the boys – until he was saved in a housecleaning spot by Michaels and Benoit.

A bittersweet image to be sure, Angle and Benoit, carrying Angle from the ring – until he breaks free – staggering under his own power – to flip the arena off and disappear from the WWF.

Edge beat Shawn Michaels at XXII.

The Clique busted up in the summer of ’05 after it was found out that Edge slept with Matt’s girlfriend Lita and then lied about it, his stablemates vouched for him – Shawn and Christian saying they trusted Edge and stood with him as the rest of the locker room shunned him. But at Summer Slam ’05, when Edge went over Matt in the Unsanctioned match as Lita turned heel, revealing the relationship with Edge – it was clear that Edge had swerved his stable.

That led to the bustup of the Clique, Christian losing the Loser Leaves Town match to his brother, and started the feud between Edge and Michaels that resulted in their matchup. Edge went over – and then Matt Hardy beat Ric Flair.

Flair now was heel commissioner – he and Hunter seizing power in the WWF – Flair had been keeping Hardy from returning to full contracted status in the WWF – but when Matt went over here, that allowed Steamboat to make the match that is only weeks away.

One year ago – Edge and Matt stood in the ring, Steamboat in between them – Steamboat with the contract that made the main event for XXIII – at the time, a year away – it was still XXII – it was still halfway through XXII – but Steamboat made the main event for XXIII – Edge and Matt signed on the dotted line, Matt promising not to touch Edge for a year – he has kept that promise – a promise Edge had reciprocated – up until the Royal Rumble 07 – when Edge speared Matt to prevent him from beating CM Punk for the ECW title – Edge has lost his WWF tournament matchup to Booker – and consumed with jealousy – unwilling to see Matt Hardy succeed where he had failed – even if it mean that he would be giving up the chance at wrestling for the ECW belt at Mania – Edge attacked Matt.

And now – the feud that started at Wrestlemania XV – the feud that started when Edge joined the Clique, turning on Matt in 1999 – culminates 8 years later at Wrestlemania XXIII – Edge. Matt. Hell. Cell.

The tag champs coming into Mania were Bradshaw and Booker – but they lost a 3 way a year ago against the LWO (at that time made up of Crazy and Psychosys, with Carlito as their second – a year later made up of Carlito and Chavo, with Crazy as the second) and Dead Men Walking – Kane and PAUL with the Taker on the outside – it was the giant team – now babyfaces – DMW coming out of Mania with the tag straps.

For the first time, we had an unannounced title match at Mania a year ago – Fit Finlay came into Mania as the Worldwide Champ, and survived an all out war over Steve Regal to keep those belts – but then HHH, using the power he had as part of the 51% Solution – demanded a title shot – he got it – and went over Finlay, Triple H walking out of Wrestlemania the IC Champion a year ago.

Rey Mysterio wrestled in his first ever Mania main event in 2002 – keeping the WWF Championship in a babyface matchup against Benoit. It was Benoit’s 5th Mania Main Event, passing both Angle and Steamboat, placing him only behind Bret Hart. It was also the last match of his career – the show ended with Lashley sending Benoit through a table with a Dominator – Flair/Arn/Hunter/Lashley, the 51% Solution, triumphant in the ring as Benoit and Rey each lie broken while Shawn Michaels tried to tend to them. We would never see Benoit again.

22 years of Wrestlemania.

Wrestlemania XXIII is coming soon.  The road continues.

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