by Frank Lucci
Welcome to Spaceman Frank’s Top 10 WrestleMania moments! Rather than just create another generic Top 10 list, I will be discussing the greatest moments from WWE’s biggest show of the year and explaining why I consider them the cream of the crop. This is based on in-ring quality, storyline quality, meta quality, as well as my own unique bias. Be prepared to read about triumph, heartbreak, and above all else, some truly unique moments in this unique form of entertainment.
The Moment: Shawn Michaels Retires Ric Flair, WrestleMania XXIV
Ric Flair is one of the greatest wrestlers of all time. Flair is most likely the best heel in the history of the business, and has the distinct honor of being the only man besides my grandfather that my grandmother ever swore at. His promos throughout his career are some of the most iconic, and despite not being a technical powerhouse, he was able to put so much emotion into his matches that they are some of the easiest to re-watch for newer wrestling fans. While many of contemporaries wrestled a style that could generously be described as watching two behemoths angrily hug in slow motion, Flair was a cartoon character who flew around the ring and begged for his life every night for decades.
In 2008, Flair was in better shape than most men in their 50’s, but he still looked like a hot dog with a thumbnail stuck on the top. It was time for him to hang up the boots, but this was Ric Flair. He still had enough magic to pull out one big match, and why not go out at WrestleMania against another guy who is arguably one of the greats in Shawn Michaels? The video package before this match makes it abundantly clear who’s walking out with the win, which is why despite all the emotion this is at number nine. Everyone knew this was the last dance for the Nature Boy, so the big question was “how good of a match was Naitch capable of having?”
The video package shows Michaels announcing Flair going into the WWE Hall of Fame and a montage of Flair moments, which is kind of weird that they act like he is a beloved figure when much of the package shows him low blowing people, making out with multiple women, and bleeding everywhere. Flair ends up calling out HBK, who has reservations, but almost immediately changes his tune and tells Flair he is going to shoot him behind a woodshed like Old Yeller (Is this how normal friends talk to each other?). Considering HBK will declare his love for his buddy towards the end of the evening, it makes for an awkward package if it’s not the first time you’re watching it.
Despite threatening to euthanize an old man, Michaels gets cheered when he makes his entrance. When Flair enters the crowd gives him the ovation he deserves, and we get a pretty heartbreaking scene of his children. The first crazy meta moment of the match sees the future Women’s Champion Charlotte alongside her late brother Reid. Charlotte has said this night was part of the genesis of her wrestling career, and seeing the late brother who gave her the final push to become a wrestler before his untimely passing adds a weird mix of morbidness and hope to the entrance of their father.
While this is the biggest OMG moment of the early portion of this match there are several subtle ones that make this stand out even further. Charles Robinson (a.k.a. Lil’ Naitch) is appropriately the referee, and he pulls the middle rope down as a sign of respect for his idol. A massive amount of O’s circle the ring as chains of fans make “Woo” signs that stretch across entire sections of the stadium. Flair even manages to look regal in his robe before he reverts to his tights and terrifying “grandpa at a pool” look. Flair hasn’t shown more life in the ring since WCW closed its doors. He starts off by doing some impressive chain wrestling, but Michaels slaps him so hard he starts bleeding from the mouth in a sign of what’s to come.
This beginning of the match does not truly heat up until the second big moment when Shawn takes the sickening moonsault bump onto the side of the table. The table does not collapse, and it looks as though Michaels has broken several ribs five minutes into the match. If you want a moment to show non-wrestling fans of how painful wrestling can be (without resorting to hardcore wrestling), this is the bump to show them. Most critically to the drama of this match, this particular spot makes it seem like Flair may just get lucky and hold off retirement for just a little longer.
Once it’s clear HBK is not going to cough up blood, the match admittedly gets slightly boring. Flair’s offense looks as tired as he does, and besides the signature chops nothing screams that he’s walking away with his arm raised. Despite commentators Jim Ross and Jerry “The King” Lawler doing their best to make it sound incredible, Space Mountain looks every bit the Old Yeller Michaels called him. The match eventually boils down to a Ric Flair highlight package, but this is not necessarily bad. Sometimes wrestling is great because things work out the way we want, and I think fans would rather have had Flair go out in a stadium full of people rather than say, bleeding everywhere in a TV studio in Orlando for a paycheck (cough, TNA, cough).
Finally, we get to the third and most poignant moment of the match. In the end Flair really does have it in him to compete with another legendary wrestler, and defeat is written all over his face. Michaels, having diverted from his slightly heelish persona earlier in the match, says the immortal words that will follow both men for eternity.
“I’m sorry. I Love You.”
No real sport has moments like this. The nature of competition means we don’t get two athletes from different eras facing off and allowing this kind of respect. That’s why this match is in such a high regard for many. While seeing Flair’s family is both tragic yet inspiring, and HBK’s horrifying table bump gives you that suspension of disbelief, this real moment between two men who respect the hell out of each other is something you just cannot fake, even in the world of wrestling. We may get players and coaches shaking hands and hugging, but we don’t get Tom Brady apologizing to opponents as he wins a SuperBowl and ends their careers. Flair ends up taking three Sweet Chin Musics like he’s Brock Lesnar, but in the end he goes out better than anyone could have expected. On this historic day, these two men took something incredibly predictable and yet made it both unexpected and timeless.