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: The Undertaker vs. Triple H – Hell in a Cell (Special Guest Referee Shawn Michaels), WrestleMania XXVIII
WrestleMania 28 was the very first wrestling event I ever watched. The Bonesaw’s very own Chris Butera knew of a showing that was happening on campus at SUNY Oswego and told me to show up. I had zero context for what was happening, and I picked my favorites based on appearance and who had better entrance music. Sure, I knew who The Rock was and he’d be appearing, but beyond that I was going in blind. Most of the event was fairly unmemorable, and I honestly get this PPV confused with WrestleMania 27 frequently. However, one match stuck with me that I can still recall: Triple H vs The Undertaker in a Hell in a Cell match with Shawn Michaels as the special guest referee.
What I remember from watching this match live was several random details. The Hell in a Cell structure looks like something from a video game, there was licensed music during the entrances, which in today’s WWE is nearly impossible to get the company to spring for, and yet I remember thinking “The guy with the Motörhead theme song is cool, but this other guy got Johnny Cash so I’m not sure who to root for.” Hell, even the cell got a Metallica theme song!
Imagine how much more legitimate WWE Superstars would look if the company got a couple of popular bands to make up themes for them? Call up Snoop and have him make a theme for his cousin Sasha Banks, or get metalcore bands from Warped Tour to give Kevin Owens, Dean Ambrose, and Seth Rollins proper music instead of the generic dribble they get. Just a thought, but it would probably make all the difference in how the WWE Superstars are presented.
This was head and shoulders the best match on the card, even as somebody with no clue about the story behind it. Re-watching it now as a smarmy internet fan, it’s gotten better with age. Easily one of Undertaker’s and Triple H’s best ‘Mania matches, there is so much drama in the build and during the match itself it almost feels like a theater production rather than a wrestling match.
To start we get Jim Ross coming out to announce this match, because we cannot have Booker T ruining this moment (side note: RIP Jan Ross). This match is billed as the End of an Era, which has been diminished slightly due to the fact that neither man has retired nearly five years after this match. Shawn Michaels is then out in his referee shirt and actual pants, which is oddly disconcerting. I am so used to HBK dressing like a stripper who bought his sexy outfit at Dick’s Sporting Goods that seeing him in professional attire is strange. His best buddy Triple H is out next, being barfed out of a weird warrior’s mouth. Triple H has his scary dad bode out, but I wish he cut his hair short much earlier, as he looks older here than he does now. Undertaker has a pretty plain entrance that just has a bunch of pyro shooting out behind him. JR claims they are 50 feet tall, but that seems a little suspect, unless the man in front of them is a whopping 30 feet, which would mean the cell is at least 150 feet high and 75 feet wide (spoiler: they aren’t).
The announcers do a good job of highlighting the story of the match: Triple H lost last year, but he walked out and Taker did not, so here we are with the rematch. Triple H, being the bastard boss, makes his buddy and fellow streak victim Michaels the ref to ensure, in his mind, that he will be the one to give Undertaker his first loss at WrestleMania. Undertaker has short hair, a stubble goatee, and eyeliner on, making him look like an old crossdressing goth that just took off his wig.
The match starts and both men just start slugging it out, and Jim Ross calls Triple H’s punches “carcinogenic,” which is perhaps not the best word to use. The Hell in a Cell cage is closer to the ring here, but that leads to a bunch of cool shaky cam style close ups of the action as the cameraman tries to dodge the two behemoths. ‘Taker shoves Michaels out of his way, and we get the first sign that perhaps HBK might pull something shady out of his playbook for his friend later. I couldn’t understand it back then, but the spectre of Triple H, COO and glory hog looms large here. If anyone was going to end the streak, it was going to be the one who runs the place in real life (who’s been known to use his pull to get what he wants). Going into WrestleMania 30 I distinctly thought that since Hunter didn’t end the streak, nobody ever will (Oops…).
Undertaker moves at a pace that can generously be called glacial, but unlike more recent years he moves well when doing moves and throwing strikes. The match mostly takes place outside the ring, but things pick up soon. We get a cool back body drop off the steps, followed by Triple H giving Taker a sickening spinebuster on the steps. ‘Taker tries to counter with the Hell’s Gate, but Triple H hoofs up the massive man and slams him down. Everything here is downright painful looking, and that’s before Triple H just goes on the warpath and beats Undertaker with a chair for what seems like five minutes. Triple H wrestles like someone trying to win a match in a WWE video game, and it just adds to the high drama on display.
HBK starts panicking, and he begs his buddy to end it by covering The Undertaker. HBK does some great acting here as he’s torn between his friend and the man he respects for retiring him. Shawn literally pleads with ‘Taker to stay down, but The Dead Man speaks and simply says “do not stop.” We need more matches like this, and seeing Triple H bleeding from the head yelling that he will end Undertaker and almost squash his opponent’s head like a watermelon with the hammer is an arresting visual. I still jump when it happens, even though three seconds later I realize there is no way Triple H is going to murder someone on live television.
The amazing moments just keep happening. HBK gets put in the Hell’s Gate to prevent him from stopping the match, but Triple H uses the sledgehammer again when he is down. The Undertaker pays for his hubris when Triple H passes out, but Shawn is still knocked out from before. Finishers start flying as Undertaker hits R1 to Chokeslam Triple H and replacement ref Little Naitch, and when he tries to Tombstone Triple H HBK nails him with the Sweet Chin Music.
This is perhaps Shawn’s greatest piece of work in the world of wrestling. Everything comes together here so well it is re-watchable again and again. He nails the kick to Undertaker, who immediately gets hit with the Pedigree. Watching this five years later, I am convinced every time that the streak is done. The Pedigree is so well protected, and the combo between that and Shawn’s kick would take down an elephant under normal circumstances. HBK goes to count the pinfall, and when Undertaker kicks out Shawn completely breaks down. HBK let out the Shawn Michaels of old, the primadonna who held down and bullied people, and for just one second he let that bastard out to show ‘Taker that he is not someone to get pushed around. He then pulls a 180 and we return to Shawn Michaels the God fearing man, who huddles in the corner and cries knowing that his anger and pettiness almost destroyed one of the most hallowed institutions in WWE. He has changed so much since the days of his wild youth, but underneath the piousness he is just as dangerous and reckless as ever. ‘Taker brought that out before when they tussled at WrestleMania, and whatever leftover angst powered that kick after being disrespected repeatedly by Undertaker, the man he is only trying to look out for.
This is, in my mind, one of the best sixty seconds of wrestling I have ever seen, and one of the moments that drew me into the world of wrestling. The drama, the action, the crowd, the announcers, it all comes together in one perfect moment. I can watch this over and over again, constantly rewinding and hearing Michael Cole yell “Streak’s over! Streak’s over!” again and again and again.
But of course, this is not the end of the streak, and now Triple H is abusing his buddy for showing weakness. Big Daddy ‘Taker sits up and Hunter nearly pees his pants as he begins his rally. A Tombstone Piledriver is not enough to stop Triple H, but the real victim is Shawn. Repeatedly we see him crouched in the corner with tears running down his face as ‘Taker and Triple H slug it out despite being too tired to stand. This match is shortening both men’s lives physically, but HBK must take on the emotional toll for both men as he witnesses the two men he respects the most destroy each other like two massive stars caught in each other’s orbit. Finally, after an exhausting half an hour Undertaker proves he is tougher than The Game by beating him senseless as Shawn cannot even look at the carcass of his friend. Triple H manages to stand one last time and give a crotch chop, but it’s curtains for him. All three men truly have gone to hell and back, and they fittingly leave supporting each other up the ramp as the crowd gives them the standing ovation they deserve.
This match is half an hour long, but it both feels longer and shorter than this. It does not drag like many longer matches, but the journey you go on during this bout feels like the series finale of your favorite hour long drama. This is Undertaker’s best WrestleMania match, period; and most likely the best Triple H match at ‘Mania as well.
Usually when I try to get people to start watching wrestling, I either go for extreme violence (to show how tough and legitimate the wrestlers are), or pure comedy (to show how goofy wrestlers can be). This is the best match to show people how engrossing wrestling can be on an emotional level, and it takes three master craftsmen to show just how special an incredible wrestling match can be. Get a stadium full of crazy fans and plenty of atmosphere to boot and you have plenty of lasting images that sink their hooks into a potential fan’s brain, leading them down the path to becoming a lifelong mark. It worked on me, and I’m sure it worked on many other people as well.