Retro Wrestle Respawn – Mike’s Top 10 Matches of 2002

Back again with another list article, as I run through my Top 10 Matches of 2002. 2002 featured a lot of great wrestling, both on the independent scene and in WWE, owing to WWE hoovering up a lot of the best talent in the world and matching them up against one another. The general quality of WWE’s product wasn’t great due to some head scratching storytelling, but the company was at least delivering in the ring most of the time. Elsewhere, companies like NWA:TNA and ROH were delivering their fair share of great matches, whilst groups like the FWA and NOAH were also throwing out some great wrestling outside of North America.

As always, feel free to share your own picks!

Number 10
Christopher Daniels Vs Spanky Vs Doug Williams Vs Low Ki – Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (27th July 2002)

2002 was the first year that Ring of Honour entered into the wrestling fray, with its appeal being that it was a “Super Indy” whose roster was a who’s who of all the best independent talents that were currently on the scene. ROH was created not to challenge WWE, but rather present an alternative for fans who wanted a more wrestling based promotion that prioritised what happened in the ring above all else. ROH was tailored very much towards a niche audience, but fans of that niche found plenty to enjoy in ROH’s first year, with this contest being one of my personal favourites.

This match, on the appropriately named Crowning A Champion event, was to decide the first ever ROH Champion, with the four wrestlers having to win two matches on a previous event in order to qualify for the Title contest. The bout would be contested under Iron Man rules, which meant the wrestler with the most falls/points at the end of an hour would be declared the winner and inaugural ROH Champion. The Iron Man stipulation had usually been reserved for singles matches only, so to see a four corners match have the stipulation was an eye opening subversion of usual wrestling procedure and created considerable intrigue amongst ROH’s fan base.

Not only is the wrestling great here, with each of the four men bringing something different to the table when it comes to their in-ring style, but all four men wrestle at a high level despite the oppressive heat in the Murphy Rec Centre where the show is taking place. As you can imagine, a relatively small building with little in the way of ventilation during the middle of summer can get pretty warm, and all four wrestlers are soon drenched in sweat. Despite the harsh conditions though, all four men fight on bravely and the resulting bout is a wonderful mix of great wrestling and storytelling, as well as being a fantastic way for ROH to crown their first Champion.

Number 9
Jonny Storm Vs AJ Styles – London, England (13th October 2002)

The Frontier Wrestling Alliance was making some noise between 2001-2004 and was one of the premier wrestling companies in all of Europe. Two reasons for this were that they not only imported some of the best independent international talent for their big shows, but they also presented an in-ring product that was far more in-line with what the North American indie companies were doing, which set them apart from the more old school influenced top groups in the UK. Chances are if you went to a UK show in 2002 you’d either watch family friendly fare like All-Star Wrestling with a lot of the stars of yesteryear or a show featuring guys dressing up as popular American wrestlers like The Undertaker and Goldust in “tribute” shows (Although WWE were starting to crack down on that stuff by this stage).

At an FWA show though you not only got to see a far more contemporary product, featuring exciting high-flying, smooth technical wrestling and punishing brawls, but you could also catch a glimpse of guys like Christopher Daniels, CM Punk and AJ Styles. Styles had wrestled in WCW towards the tail end of its existence, but he’d really started to get noticed on the independent scene in late 2001/early 2002 when he started working for places such as ROH and NWA:TNA. Bringing Styles over for a big event in London was a shrewd move by the FWA, and matching him up against Jonny Storm was an equally smart move as Storm wrestled the sort of high impact fast paced style that meshed well with what Styles was producing over the pond.

The end result was a thrilling battle, chockful of flashy moves and cool counters that left the FWA crowd in raptures when all was said and done. Styles deserves a lot of credit for coming over to England and really giving the local star the rub as well. Too often back then big foreign stars would come over to the UK and stick it firmly in neutral, doing the bare minimum and focusing on what worked for them as opposed to what would help out the local talent. Styles does the exact opposite in this contest, as he treats Storm as an equal throughout and it leads to the match being far better than it would have been if he’d come in with the attitude of just looking out for himself at the expense of the quality of the bout.

Number 8
Eddy Guerrero Vs Edge – San Diego, California (24th September 2002)

Eddy and Edge both had very good 2002’s, with both of them being part of the famed “Smackdown Six” along with Kurt Angle, Chavo Guerrero Jr, Chris Benoit and Rey Mysterio Jr. All six ended up on the Smackdown show together in the summer, leading to fans usually being guaranteed at least one great match every week due to head writer Paul Heyman’s propensity for having good wrestling on the shows he booked when the opportunity presented itself. I was an avid watcher of Smackdown at the time as a friend of mine would regularly tape the Sky One Saturday showing for me every week (leading to me discovering stock footage such as “guy with camera in Kane mask” whenever they would have to censor any of the more violent parts of the show to make it suitable for Saturday morning viewing) so I saw this match the week it happened and it’s stayed with me all these years.

Eddy and Edge had been feuding for a couple of months leading up to this one, with them splitting pay per view victories when Edge won a SummerSlam and Eddy won at Unforgiven. This bout was to be the climactic final battle, with the match itself having no rules, meaning that weapons such as ladders could be used liberally. Indeed, some still accidentally think this contest was a ladder match, which is understandable because a ladder does play a key role in the action. This is not only a great intense brawl but it also features heaps of big moves and the crowd is enthralled by the action. Even in chopped up Saturday morning form this bout was still some absolute top notch feud ending action, and to get it on free TV was a real treat.

Number 7
Low Ki Vs Christopher Daniels Vs American Dragon – Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (23rd February 2002)

As mentioned back at Number 10, ROH debuted in early 2002 and quickly stamped it’s authority as THE destination for wrestling fans who wanted to see some of the most up to date and exciting in-ring action that could be found on the continent. That statement could not have been clearer than in this Main Event clash from the inaugural ROH show The Era of Honour Begins. Ki, Daniels and Dragon had all made a name for themselves on the independent circuit prior to this bout, with Daniels having perhaps the biggest reputation of the three owing to his many years toiling on the indies and the fact he had briefly wrestled for both ECW and WCW.

However, ROH showed early doors that the company would not just be Daniels’ personal playground. Yes, he would be a featured player, but this match also set up both Ki and Dragon as competitors who were on his level, with all three men having a fantastic hard-hitting contest that sent the crowd in the Murphy Rec Centre into raptures. What I like about this match is that it isn’t just a great wrestling match but it also has some interesting story elements due to Daniels having such a different character from his two opponents. Ki and Dragon are all business, whilst Daniels plays up his role of the villain, leading to a funny moment where he demands the other two stop kicking him, which of course ends in both men kicking him down simultaneously.

What is also so good about this match is that it manages to be both a fantastic Main Event whilst also still leaving plenty on the table for further matches and storyline advancement. ROH’s whole mantra at the time was that it was going to be a company built around respect for wrestling and your fellow wrestlers, which would require wrestlers to shake hands before and after matches. Daniels wants no part of that though and storms off once the bout is over, laying the groundwork for quite literally years of storytelling as a result. Not bad for the debut show of the promotion eh?

Number 6
Brock Lesnar Vs The Undertaker – Little Rock, Arkansas (20th October 2002)

Brock Lesnar had one heck of a debut year on WWE’s main roster, winning not only the King of the Ring and Royal Rumble, but also defeating The Rock for the WWE Title at SummerSlam in August. That match is actually great and almost made this list as well, which should highlight just how shockingly good Brock was despite being so young and still not fully developed (although the folks over in WWE’s developmental league OVW had certainly done a solid job preparing him). Brock’s first big feud following his vanquishing of The Rock was for him to take on long-time Main Event Superstar The Undertaker, with the idea being that sharing the ring with “The Phenom” would raise Brock’s stock even higher.

The two had received a pretty negative response to their flat Main Event at the September pay per view event, so they needed to bounce back at the No Mercy spectacular with something memorable, which they succeeded in doing in this intense bloody brawl inside the dreaded Hell in a Cell cage. Following this match, WWE would try to limit the Hell in a Cell to a yearly appearance as they didn’t want to risk burning the fans out on the stipulation, which was a wise move because following this brutal fight the fans probably needed a break for a few months just to get their collective breath back.

Not only do Lesnar and Undertaker wear the crimson mask here, but Brock’s manager Paul Heyman also gets into the act when Undertaker pulls him face first into the unforgiving mesh surrounding the ring. Even during an age where bloody brawls were hardly uncommon in WWE, this one crossed a threshold and almost bordered to being uncomfortable after a certain point. The blood isn’t the sole reason this match is so memorable though, as both men tell a good story in the match itself and there is real intensity to the contest that you don’t always find in big matches like this. Lesnar and Undertaker could sometimes be hit or miss inside the ring, but when it hit they could have genuine classics, and this match was a straight up hit!

Number 5
Chris Jericho Vs The Rock – Atlanta, Georgia (20th January 2002)

Chris Jericho had ended 2001 as the first ever WWF Undisputed Champion, defeating both The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin in the same night to claim the prestigious honour. However, though Jericho was now the Champion he was rarely treated like one by the company, with him usually being placed in positions that made him look weak or silly. The most egregious example of this would be when he was essentially turned into Stephanie McMahon’s dog walking lackey during the build to WrestleMania X-8 (18), making him the third banana in a feud between Stephanie and Triple H, even though it was Jericho who was supposed to be the top wrestler in the promotion.

One person who never had any trouble making Jericho look good though was The Rock. The two had a positive relationship behind the scenes, meaning that Rock had no desire to make Jericho look bad, and Rock was also so beloved by the WWF audience that he was practically invincible when it came to winning or losing matches because the fans were going to buy into him as a top star regardless. This meant that Rock was happy to do whatever he could to make Jericho look like a deserving World Champ in their matches, and it gave Jericho a chance to show that he belonged in the Main Event scene by going toe-to-toe with possibly the top guy in the whole industry.

Jericho does of course cheat like the good villain he is in this contest, but it’s presented as him being an intelligent and shrewd tactician as opposed to him being a useless lump who can’t hold his own. This was sadly something that wouldn’t be the case in most of Jericho’s matches during this period, as normally it would presented that Jericho was lucky instead of being devious. The Atlanta crowd loves the contest and both men play their respective rolls well, with the finish being a good example of how effective Jericho could have been in the role of top bad guy if the WWF had just regularly presented him in this fashion.

Number 4
Kurt Angle Vs Edge – Nashville, Tennessee (19th May 2002)

Kurt Angle and Edge had originally been aligned, along with Edge’s storyline brother Christian, in a fun three man group who had produced much hilarity in 2000-01 (Their performance as a jug band was particularly entertaining). By 2002 though Edge had moved over to the light side of the force and was making a name for himself as one of WWE’s hottest up and coming singles stars. Knowing that Edge could do with a strong feud to help him continue his climb up the company ladder, WWE decided to put him in there with Angle, seeing as Angle was one of the very best in-ring performers that the company had.

The two had competed in a superlative contest back at the April pay per view event, with Angle getting the win, so a rematch was set between the two with the added stipulation that the loser would be shaved bald live on pay per view. Edge was renowned for his strapping good lucks and long flowing hair, which made him a big hit with the female contingent of the fan base. As a result, the women in the building had their hearts in their throats every time it looked like Edge might lose and have his lovely locks removed, which added an extra element of drama to proceedings, especially when it looked like Angle might get his hand raised.

Edge was actually my favourite wrestler during this period in time, so I was really hoping that he wouldn’t lose here and face the humiliation of having his long longs cut. Looking back with the benefit of hindsight though, Edge going bald would have probably given him a much meaner look and could have led to him giving off a tougher more dangerous demeanour, but ultimately I think having Angle lose was the right decision, as his receding hairline was getting dangerously close to 1998 era Paul Gascoigne by the time this match came along and going bald ended up being a good look for him, so much so that he kept it for the rest of his career.

Just like in April, Angle and Edge tear the house down in this one and the resulting contest is one of the best ones that WWE put on all year, which is especially impressive when you consider just how good a year the promotion had between the ropes for the most part. Some of the storytelling might have been terrible in 2002 (Katie Vick anyone?) but WWE certainly nailed the in-ring aspect with some cracking matches, with this contest deserving its place on the pantheon with the other great battles of the year.

Number 3
Hollywood Hogan Vs The Rock – Toronto, Ontario (17th March 2002)

I can see this pick perhaps being a bit controversial in some circles, as the quality of the actual wrestling in this match doesn’t really stack up when compared to the other contests listed here. However, this list isn’t supposed to be an objective collection of what I believe the “best” matches of 2002 were but rather a list of what my personal favourites were. I can watch this match and accept that some of the wrestling doesn’t look great, with some of it even bordering on looking hokey and cartoonish at points, but I can look beyond that because of the electric Toronto crowd and the undeniable charisma of both participants.

Above all else, this match is a testament to how, whether you love him or loathe him, Hulk Hogan is one of best of all time when it comes to connecting with a live crowd. And it’s that connection that makes this match so memorable, as the Toronto crowd decides to flip the script and cheer the supposed bad guy Hogan against The Rock, as Rock gets booed for the second WrestleMania in a row when he was supposed to be the good guy. Looking into it, it came to my attention that Hogan had always been a big favourite of the city of Toronto, dating back to his days as WWF Champion in the 80’s, so in some ways it shouldn’t have been that much of a surprise that the audience decided to get behind him in this contest.

I also love the post-match angle of Hogan and Rock finding respect for one another and fighting off the attacking Kevin Nash and Scott Hall, leading to Hogan doing his traditional posing routine. I think noted wrestling writer Scott Keith got it right when he said that the moment needed Hogan’s classic Real American entrance tune playing over it though. I’m sure this selection will get the most criticism down in the comments section, and I understand why. Some people really can’t look past the disparity in the quality of the actual wrestling when compared to other great matches from 2002, but sometimes a match is about more than the crispness of the wrestling. Sometimes a good story and a great crowd can overcome some dodgy grappling, and this is one of those occasions. I like Hogan’s battle with Andre The Giant at WrestleMania III in 1987 for the same reason.

Rock also deserves a special mention for working so hard to make Hogan look good here. It would have been so easy for Rock to be more protective of his own standing and not want to let the returning legend steal his thunder. However, Rock is an absolute pro here and it absolutely makes the match better as a result. Rock knew he was pretty much invincible in these sorts of situations anyway, but he still threw himself into making this match as good as he possibly could, and the end result was something he can be proud of for the rest of his career in showbiz.

Number 2
Triple H Vs Shawn Michaels – Uniondale, New York (25th August 2002)

Shawn Michaels had seemingly been forced to retire from professional wrestling in 1998 following a serious back injury and had ended up on the outs with WWE as a result of turning up for televised events in 2001 whilst in no condition to perform. However, Michaels managed to get his life back on track thanks to finding religion and was able to not only avoid joining the ever growing list of wrestling tragedies but also make an improbable comeback to the ring, with this contest in 2002 being his first official match back in WWE since his original injury (I believe he had wrestled one previous match for his own training school wrestling company in 2000).

The backstory to this match was that Triple H had brutally assaulted his former friend and thrown him through a car window, meaning that WWE refused to sanction this match so that there would be no risk of lawsuits if the two tore one another apart. Thus the stage was set for a dramatic brawl between the two men, with no disqualifications or count outs holding them back from unleashing all kinds of pain on one another. Michaels was forced to wrestle a slightly slower style than what he was known for doing prior to his back injury, but this almost made him an even better wrestler than before as he instead focused on things like selling and storytelling to make up for it and his matches remained as rich and enjoyable as ever.

Triple H is excellent here as the bigger bully, especially when the match hits the section where Triple H tries to destroy Michaels’ back once again, dropping it on chairs and using moves like back breakers in an attempt to put Michaels out of the wrestling game once and for all. Both men play their respective roles perfectly, with Triple H being a truly despicable villain whilst Michaels is fantastic as the brave underdog fighting from underneath. Jim Ross has a great night on commentary as well, really helping get the story and drama across to the viewing audience.

When it comes time for Michaels to up a gear and finally make his comeback the match goes from being great to an outright classic, as Michaels shows that even with 4 years out of the profession he still has it in him to steal the show. Michaels was probably already a Hall of Fame candidate before his enforced 4 year exile from the ring, but his run post-injury cemented it for anyone who wasn’t yet sure, as he would go on to give WWE fans another 8 years of great matches and feuds before finally hanging the boots up in 2010 (outside of a misjudged appearance in Saudi Arabia in 2018). This match was the moment that kick-started that second run, and it remains a classic to this day.

Number 1
Kurt Angle and Chris Benoit Vs Edge and Rey Mysterio Jr – Little Rock, Arkansas (20th October 2002)

This match’s inclusion will probably be far less controversial than some of the others, as it cleaned up in the Match of the Year awards back in the day. I couldn’t agree more with the people that voted for this match back in 2002, as I think it’s utterly stupendous and another great example of just how on fire the Smackdown Six were back in 2002. This match actually came about because Smackdown decided to have a tournament to crown their first Tag Team Champions. Angle and Benoit were fierce rivals in storyline but were forced to team together by General Manager Stephanie McMahon, who believed the two teaming up would be in the best interests of the show.

In reality, Paul Heyman was the head writer on Smackdown at the time and he’s always loved the storyline of “tag partners who hate one another but are still inexplicably successful despite it all”, as any avid viewer of ECW would be aware of. Indeed, two of the longest reigning Tag Team Title duos in ECW were made up of Chris Candido and Lance Storm, and Tommy Dreamer and Raven, whose characters utterly detested one another in storyline but they still managed to hold the belts for a long period between them. By comparison to Angle and Benoit, Edge and Rey were friends in storyline and thus happily on the same page throughout the tournament, giving the Final at the No Mercy pay per view event an interesting dynamic.

This match is a perfect example of how good tag team wrestling can be when you allowed skilled wrestlers to get in there and work to the traditional tag team formula. The match is chocked to the brim with exciting action, near tags and nail biting close calls that leave the crowd in raptures. What also makes the match so good is that it has a clean finish, where the winners are clear for all to see. However, because the match itself is so good then defeat for the losing tandem doesn’t dent their standing either, as they give everything they have and only just come up short. This is one of those matches where I don’t think you could really improve it in anyway, and that’s extraordinarily rare.

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