Can’t Knock The Hustle: The Matches That Made Me (Part 3 – The 2000’s)
We’re into the third part of this series, so there’s no need to have a long intro here. However, for those who have clicked on this link without reading the first two parts, what I’m doing here is simple. I’m going back through every year of my wrestling fandom and talking about my favorite match to take place in that year. “Favorite” is the word you want to pay attention to. The matches I pick may or may not be anything great, but something about it has helped to mold me into the wrestling fan I am today. Then, at the end, just for the sake of completion, I will also list the matches I feel were the best in each particular year.
Now that we’re all caught up, let’s keep it moving. We’ve moved into the 2000’s now.
Cactus Jack, The Rock, Rikishi & Too Cool vs Triple H, X-Pac & The Radicalz (Monday Night Raw – February 7th, 2000): One of my favorite things in wrestling are the matches that come out of nowhere to surprise you. Either you weren’t expecting a match to be good and it was, or it’s just a random match on a random episode of television with no weekly build to it. This falls into the latter category. Three of the WWF’s newest signees (Chris Benoit, Dean Malenko, and Perry Saturn) teaming up with DX to face off against The Rock, Cactus Jack, Rikishi, Grandmaster Sexay, and Scotty 2 Hotty? Sounds more like a homeless person’s fever dream than an actual match that was put together.
If you’re just judging this match by the in-ring quality, we probably wouldn’t be talking about it right now. It was pretty much your run-of-the-mill WWF television match from that era, just with some major star power in it. What helped set it apart is the crowd in Dallas, Texas that night. They were r-e-d h-o-t for every little thing that took place here. Every move, even the rest holds, was met with loud noise from the fans. When the match came to an end, and an all-out brawl broke out involving all ten men, plus Billy Gunn and Road Dogg running out to give the heels the numbers advantage, the fans got even louder for the arrival of Kane, who was feuding with DX at the time.
If you’ve never seen the match, it’s worth going to check out. Ten minutes of entertainment with a super hot crowd that only got hotter for the post-match shenaniganery.
Shane McMahon vs Vince McMahon (WrestleMania X-7 – April 1st, 2001): In doing some research this entry, I discovered that Vince McMahon has wrestled in 55 official matches through the years. For some reason, I thought the number would be way, way lower than that. Just a fun fact I thought I’d throw in here.
This match is, perhaps, one of the most wildly “overbooked” bouts in WrestleMania history. The thing is… I don’t say that in a negative way. Two non-wrestlers facing with each other, with Mick Foley as a Special Guest Referee. Stephanie McMahon interferes in the match. Trish Stratus interferes in the match. Linda McMahon interferes in the match… to one of the biggest pops ever. Foley was attacked by Vince, but would end up attacking Vince later on to get his revenge. A kendo stick, television monitors, steel chairs, an announce table, and a garbage can were all used as weapons during the match. Linda kicked Vince in the Little Vinces. It was pure, unadulterated clusterfuckery on every level.
But it worked.
You know you’re not going to be witness to a technical marvel of a match here, so your expectations are on a different level. The match was over-the-top, full of grandeur and spectacle. It was everything a WrestleMania match should be. Yes, the five-star classics are fantastic and are necessary, but it is matches like this one that the casual fans are talking about the next day, whether some of you would like to admit it or not.
Edge & Rey Mysterio vs Kurt Angle & Chris Benoit (No Mercy – October 20th, 2002): If you weren’t around for the “Smackdown Six” era, you really missed out on a lot.
For the uninitiated, Paul Heyman was put in charge of the creative direction of Smackdown in 2002. After the brand split, separating Raw and Smackdown into completely different rosters, Heyman was looking to have his show stand out as being different than the company’s “flagship” show on Monday nights. He put a group of wrestlers together… the Smackdown Six… that could basically be interchanged into different feuds and different matches, all while showcasing that Smackdown would be a show that was leaning heavily to the in-ring side of pro wrestling.
Kurt Angle. Chris Benoit. Edge. Rey Mysterio. Eddie Guerrero. Chavo Guerrero. Six of the best workers in the entire world. Heyman had the luxury of being able to put these guys in matches with each other or against each other. You want a singles match? Heyman could make that happen multiple times in one episode. Tag team match? He could do that. Six-man tag? Heyman’s got your back.
All four men in this match wrestled like they had something to prove. At this point in time, Angle was the only one who had been a World Champion in the company, so there was a lot of hunger all around. Adding to that hunger is the fact that this match was to crown the first WWE Tag Team Champions after the World Tag Team Titles became a Raw exclusive in the split. In approximately 22 minutes of action, there was everything you could want in a tag team match. Reversals? Sure. Counters? Yup. Innovative double-team offense? Got it. Balls-to-the-wall pacing? Indeed. This may very well be the best straight up (no cage, no ladder, no table, etc.) tag match in WWE history.
Kurt Angle vs Brock Lesnar (Smackdown – September 18th, 2003): When people talk about the greatest match trilogies in wrestling history, I don’t think the one Kurt Angle and Brock Lesnar had in 2003 gets enough credit. They had a very good match at WrestleMania 19, but it gets overshadowed by the end, when Lesnar nearly killed himself on a Shooting Star Press attempt. Five months later, they would have an even better match at SummerSlam. Lesnar won at WrestleMania, and Angle won at SummerSlam, so a third match was needed.
Three weeks after SummerSlam, we got that third match on Smackdown, in the form of a 60-Minute Ironman Match.
Look… I get that a 60-minute match isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, no matter who is involved in it. This one was so much fun, though. As expected, with who was involved, this was heavy on the technical wrestling and suplex throwing. The falls got underway with a great idea by Lesnar that you don’t see often enough in these types of matches. He got himself disqualified on purpose by attacking Angle with a chair, but the attack weakened Angle enough that Lesnar was able to gain the next two falls pretty quickly. That’s some stuff that I would do when I would have Ironman Matches in video games. Take a weapon, wear your opponent out until they’re barely able to function, and then rack up the falls against an opponent that can’t defend themselves anymore.
It was highly enjoyable for me, but it certainly wasn’t perfect. For one, lengthy matches on television are often hurt by having multiple commercial breaks splitting the action up. You can watch a 20-some minute match and see multiple breaks, so you can imagine what a 60-minute match saw. On top of that, I’m not a fan of Ironman Matches that feature a ton of falls. There were nine falls in this match. Their WrestleMania and SummerSlam matches combined to last 42:21, and obviously only had two total falls. I’ve said before how things like that are a pet peeve of mine. Same for Survivor Series and other elimination-style matches seeing people get pinned by the simplest of moves that you would never, ever, ever see them lose to in a “normal” bout.
Samoa Joe vs CM Punk (Ring Of Honor’s Joe vs Punk 2 – October 16th, 2004): Hey, speaking of match trilogies… this one was pretty epic.
Joe and Punk started their series of matches in 2004 at RoH’s World Title Classic event on June 12th. It would end in a 60-minute time limit draw, and it would catch everyone completely off guard. Joe and Punk were great in-ring performers, even back then, but Punk came into this without having a singles victory in four months, so it was expected that he would be Joe’s ninth consecutive singles win. It was clear, pretty much right off the bat, that things weren’t going to go as plan. Punk and Joe had the crowd in Dayton, Ohio in the palms of their hands, selling them on every near fall.
With the second match, fan expectations were entirely different. Even if the fans in Chicago Ridge, Illinois still assumed Joe would be retaining the RoH World Title, they also assumed that Punk was fully in the mix as a legitimate contender. Punk and Joe themselves had concerns about this match going in. Originally, this was supposed to be Joe defending the title against Steve Corino, but Japanese promotion ZERO-ONE pulled Corino at almost the last minute, leaving RoH scrambling to make a new match. The planned rematch between Joe and Punk was moved up here, but it meant that both men weren’t going to be as “ready” for the match as they could’ve been.
You couldn’t tell.
As evidenced by where this match took place, Punk was easily the crowd favorite. They were red hot for him the entire match. The story in the first match was that Punk had Joe reeling, and that if the time limit would’ve been 61 or 62 minutes, there would’ve been a new champion. The end of this match saw things switched a bit, with Joe having Punk reeling. For the second time, though, the time limit would expire. Joe “survived” again. With everything that went into this one, it’s my favorite of their entire trilogy. Their backs were against the wall, but they were able to pull off something special, and the story was logical, both creating something new but also building on what happened at World Title Classic.
A third match would be set up for December 4th, with the only logical match stipulation after what happened in the first two matches… No Time Limit.
Christopher Daniels vs Samoa Joe vs AJ Styles (TNA’s Unbreakable – September 11th, 2005): Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but the X-Division has been something special from the very beginning. It was a style that WWE wasn’t really using on a regular basis, and the division helped to make a bunch of stars that might not have gotten a chance to otherwise.
Joe was still relatively new to TNA, with his debut match for the company coming a little less than three months earlier. He looked unstoppable, earning a 9-0 record in singles competition. Styles and Daniels were already well established within the division, with Styles holding the X-Division Title four times prior to this event, and with Daniels coming in with a then-record 182-day title reign. Even with that said, it seemed almost inevitable that this was going to be Samoa Joe’s day.
TNA must have known this was going to be good, as they made it the main event. It was the first X-Division match to main event a monthly pay-per-view after TNA’s switch from weekly pay-per-view events. Raven defended the NWA World Heavyweight Title against Rhino in the previous match.
These three went to war for nearly 25 minutes. They each played a different role in this match. Joe, of course, was the monster. AJ was the daredevil that was willing to go to great lengths to win. Daniels was the intelligent veteran that had to use his head to counter his opponents. It’s great to have clearly defined roles in matches, and all three of them played those roles to perfection.
Triple Threat Matches are always going to fall victim to the “Wrestler A gets knocked out of the ring, allowing Wrestler B and Wrestler C to fight for a while until Wrestler A returns and knocks Wrestler B out of the ring, allowing Wrestler A and Wrestler C to fight for a while, etc.” formula. The better ones avoid it as much as possible, and this was an example of that. There’s a ton of stretches where all three men are involved, with lots of innovative offense and counter spots. Sixteen years later, this remains my favorite match from NWA-TNA, TNA Wrestling, Global Force Wrestling, Impact Wrestling, or any other name they’ve gone by.
Bryan Danielson vs KENTA (RoH’s Glory By Honor 5, Night 2 – September 16th, 2006): Throughout all my years of watching wrestling, one of my favorite stretches that any promotion has put on is Ring Of Honor from 2005 to 2008. My introduction to so many fantastic performers, and some of my all-time favorite matches and angles, took place in those years. If I were forced to choose, this would be my favorite RoH match, from any year.
I had already grown into a massive Bryan Danielson fan, but I was quickly becoming a fan of KENTA, too, from his brief time in Ring Of Honor. This would be his ninth match for the promotion, and I loved everything I had seen.
A common theme you’ll see from a lot of my favorite matches is a hot crowd. Ring Of Honor was known for their super hot crowds in those years, but on this night, the Manhattan Center in New York was crazy loud. They were excited for everything, from the first match (Jack Evans vs Davey Richards) to this match as the main event. Danielson using Europe’s “The Final Countdown” as his entrance music was so awesome to watch, with him timing his walk to the ring so that the crowds could bang on the metal guardrails and yell out “IT’S THE FIIIIINALLLLL COUNTDOWWWWWNNNNN” as he climbed the turnbuckles and raised his hand in the air. God, I miss that.
The story going into this match was twofold. The first story was that KENTA seemed to have Danielson’s number. He pinned Danielson in a tag team match (Danielson & Samoa Joe vs KENTA & Naomichi Marufuji) at RoH’s Best In The World event in March 2006, and then again during a Triple Threat (including Samoa Joe) at In Your Face in June 2006. The other, more important, story is the health of Danielson. As the RoH World Champion, he was defending the title left and right, in epic match after epic match. This was his 23rd title defense in 2006, and his 31st overall title defense since he won the title 364 days before this show. Three weeks before this show, in a title defense against Colt Cabana, Danielson would separate his shoulder, tearing two tendons in said shoulder in the process, and tearing another tendon in his chest. He spent most of that 60-minute match fighting through that injury. By the way, that match with Cabana came a night after another 60-minute match, that time against Nigel McGuinness. Two weeks earlier, Danielson had two matches on the same card, putting in a total of 32 minutes of in-ring work. The night before that, he had a brutal 26-minute war with Nigel McGuinness. A week before that, he had a 60-minute match with Samoa Joe. You get the point. The man was worn down, fatigued, and seriously injured. No matter who you were rooting for here, a title change was fully expected.
Remember the injuries I said Danielson had? A badly separated shoulder, two torn tendons in the shoulder, and a torn tendon in his chest? Well, imagine dealing with all that, and then imagine a complete psychopath like KENTA kicking the ever loving fuck out of your shoulder and chest on a repeated basis. KENTA’s kicks are painful looking to begin with, but when you know what Danielson was dealing with, you cringe each and every time. With each passing minute, the champion has to dig himself out of a hole that seems to get bigger and deeper, and he is forced to really fight to try and keep his title. A fantastic match in front of a rabid New York crowd.
John Cena vs Umaga (Royal Rumble – January 28th, 2007): Sgt. Slaughter in 1991. Razor Ramon in 1993. Chris Benoit (WWE Title) and Scott Steiner (World Heavyweight Title) in 2003. Hardcore Holly in 2004. Mark Henry in 2006. Test (ECW Title), Mr. Kennedy (World Heavyweight Title), and Umaga (WWE Title) in 2007. Jeff Hardy in 2008. Dolph Ziggler in 2011. Seth Rollins in 2015. Sami Zayn in 2018. The Royal Rumble event has a long history of seeing World Titles defended against people who have either never been in the main event scene in WWE or have just never competed for any World Title there.
John Cena, the seemingly unstoppable WWE Champion. Umaga, the seemingly unstoppable challenger. A Last Man Standing stipulation. If you’ve never seen this match, that is just about all of the description that you need to read. This was a really fun, physical brawl, complete with a creative ending that was very well done. It really helped open the eyes of many people to what a unique in-ring talent Umaga was. He was billed at 6’4″ and 350 pounds, and had the strength to match, but he also had the speed and athleticism of a much smaller man.
In this era, Cena was receiving a lot of “you can’t wrestle” criticism from fans all over the world. It didn’t matter how many good-to-great matches he was a part of. While this match didn’t change that narrative completely, it went a long way to get people to really think about it. In those good-to-great matches Cena was having prior to this, his opponents were people like The Undertaker, Kurt Angle, Triple H, Chris Jericho, Christian, Edge, Rob Van Dam, and people that were always known for being able to have quality matches. Umaga wasn’t exactly on the level of names like that, so Cena being in this match that was received so well said a ton.
The Briscoes vs Jimmy Jacobs & Tyler Black (RoH’s Supercard Of Honor 3 – March 29th, 2008): Right back to Ring Of Honor in that era I loved so much.
This was extra special to me. After a few years of major fandom in Ring Of Honor, I was finally able to see RoH shows in person. This was during WrestleMania 24 weekend in Orlando, Florida. My first RoH show was Dragon Gate Challenge 2 the night before, but this show… my goodness… to this day, Supercard Of Honor 3 might still be the best wrestling show, top to bottom, that I’ve ever seen. It’s not just because I was there. Hell, the show is actually better when I watch it on DVD, simply because I’m not missing anything. Of the eight matches on the card, the final five could’ve all been included here. If you’re looking at star ratings, my lowest-rated match in that five-match stretch was Nigel McGuinness vs Austin Aries, which I still give four stars to. Of the three matches that started the show, the first two were comedy matches that did their job (Go Shiozaki vs Delirious and then Bushwhacker Luke, Dingo & Alex Payne vs Kenny King, Sal Rinauro & Chasyn Rance) and a pretty good tag match (Davey Richards & Rocky Romero vs Jigsaw & Ruckus).
The reason I chose this match is just the wild atmosphere. There was a crazy brawl into the crowd, fighting into the bleachers mere feet from me and my friends, as well as a balcony dive from Mark Briscoe. The ending saw the Briscoes attempt a Springboard Doomsday Device, only for Jimmy Jacobs to reverse it in mid-air, locking Mark Briscoe in his End Time (Guillotine Choke) finisher to get the win. It was such a smooth reversal that most people in our section didn’t even notice it at first. My guy Joe Crack saw it, yelled out what was going on, and everybody went nuts.
After being a wrestling fan for so long, I loved that I was still able to mark out over something as I watched it happen live.
The Undertaker vs Shawn Michaels (WrestleMania 25 – April 5th, 2009): While we’re on the subject of marking out over something as I watched it, that brings us to the first WrestleMania match between Shawn Michaels and The Undertaker.
I remember watching this on pay-per-view as if it were yesterday. Who I watched it with, what I was eating, what I was drinking, exactly where on the couch I was sitting… all of it is still very vividly emblazoned in my mind. I was already enjoying the match, caught up in what I thought was the best chance that anybody had of ending The Undertaker’s undefeated streak at WrestleMania, which stood at 16-0 at the time.
Then… it happened.
As Michaels was attempting to “skin the cat” and flip his way back into the ring over the top rope, as he often did, Taker caught him and drove him into the mat with a Tombstone Piledriver. It was all over. Taker goes in for the count…
Shawn Michaels had kicked out of the Tombstone, which was one of the most lethal and effective finishing moves in pro wrestling history. Reliant Stadium in Houston, Texas nearly lost its roof when it happened. My friend and I jumped up off the couch, and we went crazy just like the fans in attendance did. Kicking out of a patented Undertaker Chokeslam was one thing, and kicking out of a Last Ride was another thing, but kicking out of a Tombstone? Let’s just say the list of people who have done that isn’t exactly a long one.
As I said, I loved being able to just lose myself in the art and be able to mark out over something again.
As always, to show the other side of the “Favorite/Best” coin, here are my choices for the BEST matches to take place in the decade:
- 2000: Edge & Christian vs The Dudley Boyz vs The Hardy Boyz (TLC Match at WWF’s SummerSlam on August 27th)
- 2001: Steve Austin vs Triple H (3 Stages Of Hell at WWF’s No Way Out on February 25th)
- 2002: The match I chose as my favorite
- 2003: Chris Benoit vs Kurt Angle (WWF’s Royal Rumble on January 19th)
- 2004: The match I chose as my favorite
- 2005: The match I chose as my favorite
- 2006: The match I chose as my favorite
- 2007: Takeshi Morishima vs Bryan Danielson (RoH’s Manhattan Mayhem 2 on August 25th)
- 2008: Shingo & BxB Hulk vs Kevin Steen & El Generico (RoH’s Supercard Of Honor 3 on March 29th)
- 2009: Bryan Danielson vs Naruki Doi (Dragon Gate USA’s Untouchable on September 6th)
If you’ve got anything to say about pro wrestling in the 2000’s, now is your chance. As always, hit me up in the comments section below or on Twitter (@HustleTheSavage) if you have anything on your mind.
Weekly Power Rankings
- The Hype For AEW Grand Slam: In their relatively brief period of existence, AEW has done a tremendous job of loading their television shows up to almost be like pay-per-view events all by themselves. Grand Slam is going to be the latest example of that. Take 20,000 fans and throw them into the great looking Arthur Ashe Stadium in Queens, New York. Give them Bryan Danielson’s in-ring debut for the company, and have it be against AEW World Champion, Kenny Omega, in their first match against each other since April 2009. Also give them Britt Baker defending the AEW Women’s Title against Ruby Soho. How about Cody Rhodes returning to the ring to try and get his revenge on Malakai Black? Brian Pillman Jr. and MJF squaring off in a newly-formed blood feud? Sting and Darby Allin taking on FTR? That’s a loaded show, and that’s only Dynamite. Rampage is also taking place at Arthur Ashe Stadium. On that show, we’re getting Christian Cage teaming up with Jurassic Express to take on Adam Cole and The Young Bucks. CM Punk takes on Powerhouse Hobbs. Jon Moxley and Eddie Kingston taking on Minoru Suzuki and Lance Archer in a Lights Out Match. It’s another loaded show. It makes for must-see television. I’m beyond excited to tune in and watch.
- Big E vs Roman Reigns vs Bobby Lashley: In the current WWE landscape, there aren’t many bigger matches, especially of the first-time variety, that the company can give us than this. The brand new WWE Champion, the long-reigning Universal Champion, and the man fresh off of an epic WWE Title reign… all together in a meaty men slappin’ meat contest. When the match was announced, I didn’t think there was any way it would really happen. Maybe we’d get a couple minutes, but then outside interference would throw it all out. The fact that we got 20+ minutes blows my mind. WWE knows how to put a Triple Threat Match together, and this was no different. A huge match with a big fight feel that keeps feuds going for the future and gives us more potential matches down the road.
- Ruby Soho & Britt Baker’s Promo Battle: A heated, personal back-and-forth promo battle. Both women looked like stars here. I know a lot of people are thinking that it’s “too soon” for Ruby to win the title. Her title match is going to be her fourth overall match in AEW, and only her second singles bout. That is pretty early, but I don’t know if “too soon” is the right term to use. This might be one of those fun times in wrestling where there’s no right or wrong option. If Britt retains the title, it’s a good thing, as she has earned the right to have a memorable, lengthy reign. On the other hand, if Ruby wins the title, it’s a good thing, because she has a ton of momentum behind her right now. Either way, this was a good setup for the match.
- Roderick Strong: It’s a damn shame that the match was so short, but Roderick Strong is the new NXT Cruiserweight Champion. Kushida got five months with the title, but this change makes sense. It’s a new “version” of Roddy, and it looks like The Diamond Mine is going to be a major part of NXT 2.0 moving forward.
- New Day vs The Bloodline: The “lesser” of the two major crossover matches on Raw, but this one was still fun. You know it’s going to be high quality when The Usos and The New Day face each other, so it’s icing on the cake when you add Roman Reigns and Big E to the mix.
- Bron Breakker: Well, it seems pretty clear that this man is going to be a star on the NXT 2.0 brand. Two weeks in, and not only is he undefeated, but he’s working alongside the NXT Champion, all while keeping his eyes on the title for the inevitable shot. In NXT 1.5, it seemed like Ridge Holland was going to be a future star, but in NXT 2.0, Holland does the job to the man who really, really should be called Rex Steiner.
- Big E & Finn Balor vs The Usos: Quite the week for Big E and The Usos, eh?
- MJF: Another week, another promo from MJF where he, a habitual line stepper, tries to incite a riot. He’s really amping the heel work up recently, and it’s working for him. Just for my own selfish entertainment, I want to see one of these “IT’S STILL REAL TO ME, DAMNIT” fans take a swing at him one day, just to watch what happens next.
- Randy Orton vs AJ Styles: We’ve seen these two face each other a bunch, but they have good in-ring chemistry together. I love that they continue to try and find new ways to showcase the battle between the RKO and the Phenomenal Forearm.
- Rhea Ripley & Nikki ASH: New WWE Women’s Tag Team Champions, so… hooray? Natalya and Tamina won the titles on May 14th. In the four months that they were champions, they successfully defended the titles three times in the first two weeks of their reign… and then they had a grand total of zero defenses until they lost the belts this week. They also went 0-4 in non-title tag matches in that span, were on the losing end of a six-woman tag, were both unsuccessful in winning Money In The Bank, and lost a total of four singles matches (two each). I mean… the bar is super low, but it probably only gets better for the new champions, right? Right?!?