We’re back again with another Retro Wrestling list, as I take a look at my own personal Top 10 Matches of 2001. This list was relatively easy to collate as there was a lot of great wrestling both in North America and Japan in the year 2001, with the likes of Keiji Muto, Chris Benoit, Chris Jericho, The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin all having strong years inside the ropes. As always, please feel free to share your own picks in the comments section.
Elix Skipper and Kid Romeo Vs Billy Kidman and Rey Mysterio Jr – Jacksonville, Florida (18th March 2001)
WCW went out of business in 2001, but they at least went out with one last great match with this contest on their final pay per view event WCW Greed. WCW were trying to make a bit of an effort to re-brand the Cruiserweight division after years of making the wrestlers within the division look like bit-part players who didn’t deserve much in the way of recognition. As a result they created Tag Team Titles for the division, with this match being the Final of an 8 team tournament to crown the inaugural belt holders.
Skipper and Romeo were kind of a makeshift team who were put together specifically for the tournament, but their cocky characters meshed well and they ended up having good chemistry together as partners, whilst Kidman and Rey had previously held the Heavyweight version of the Tag Titles so they would have been the favourites going into this bout. WCW’s product was generally a lot better in the final months of the company’s existence, but sadly by that point a lot of the damage had been done in regards to ticket sales and ratings, making it easy for Jamie Kellner to justify kicking WCW off the air and essentially killing off the company in the process.
This match has some fantastic high-flying action mixed in with some solid tag team psychology, with the two factors combining to make the bout a really enjoyable contest. All four men even fight over by the entrance way at one stage, leading to Kidman and Rey diving off the stage onto their opponents in an impressive display of guile. The closing stages feature all four men taking to the sky, with the crowd wowed by the impressive moves on display. As far as introductions to a new belt go, the four men in this match couldn’t have done a better job at getting the fans into the idea of the exciting new division with this match. It’s just a shame the company didn’t live long enough for us to see what the division might have eventually evolved into.
Jeff Hardy Vs Rob Van Dam – Cleveland, Ohio (22nd July 2001)
The WCW and ECW “Invasion” of the WWF in the summer of 2001 is one of wrestling’s most notable flops, as the WWF did a terrible job of making the invaders look like they were on the level of the home team and it quickly led to fans losing interest in what should have been an epic inter-promotional storyline. One man did at least manage to come out of the failed invasion stronger than when he came in though, with Rob Van Dam entering the company in July of 2001 and quickly becoming a star amongst the WWF fan base due to his exciting in-ring performances and cool character that he portrayed outside of the ring.
Jeff Hardy does an incredible job in getting RVD over in this match, as RVD takes a big chunk of the match and Hardy presents him as an equal throughout the contest because his main focus is having a good match that the crowd will get into rather than making the invader look inferior to him. If certain other members of the WWF roster had taken the same approach then the Invasion storyline might have been far more successful. Not only is this match a textbook example in how to make a new star, but it’s also a thrilling battle between two guys who liked to combine high-flying action with hardcore antics. It wouldn’t have been remotely out of place on an ECW pay per view event, and that helped make it stand out in the more sanitised WWF.
Keiji Muto Vs Tatsumi Fujinami – Osaka, Japan (11th December 2001)
Whilst the year 2000 was all about Triple H, 2001 was all about two men, Keiji Muto and Stone Cold Steve Austin. Both Muto and Austin had been struggling with injuries prior to 2001, with Muto having a litany of issues with his knees whilst Austin was continually troubled by his neck. However, both men managed to bounce back in 2001 and have a great year, with both of them being neck and neck all year when it came to match quality. They both took different approaches as well, with Muto changing his in-ring style so as to offset the fact that his knee wasn’t healthy enough to wrestle the sort of style he used to wrestle in the 80’s and 90’s, whilst Austin had neck surgery and then started pushing his body to its limits. Muto ended up wrestling a pretty regular schedule for years after, whilst Austin was done by 2003, so I’ll leave it up to you to decide which approach was better.
Muto’s whole style change was based around switching from a more faster paced high-flying approach to a more mat based one. Muto was one of the better mat wrestlers of his era, so he fitted that style like a glove, and his main match strategy became based around working over his opponents legs so that he could either submit them in his dreaded Figure Four hold or knock them clean out with his Shining Wizard knee strike once their vertical base had been removed. Fujinami was in many ways the perfect opponent for the “new” Muto, as his style was mostly mat based as well, which had allowed him to continue wrestling at a mostly decent standard even though his peak years had been in the 70’s and 80’s.
One thing I will say about this match, and indeed a lot of Muto’s output in 2001, is that it is a bit of an acquired taste because so much of it is based around technical wrestling, which probably isn’t going to be what every fan is in to. Austin definitely had a more varied list of matches in 2001, whereas Muto mostly stuck to working holds and gradually building matches up. I could see some thinking this match with Fujinami was a bit on the slow side for instance, with it definitely having vibes of the 70’s about it. I personally really enjoy that style of wrestling though, so this match rates very highly for me as a result. It helps that the crowd is really into it and likes the idea of elder statesman Fujinami getting in there and giving the younger Muto a fright at stages.
Royal Rumble Match – New Orleans, Louisiana (21st January 2001)
As previously mentioned, 2001 was very much the year of Keiji Muto and Stone Cold Steve Austin, as they seemingly had a tug of war all 12 months for the Wrestler of the Year and Match of the Year awards. I don’t know if a single year was every dominated by two wrestlers as strongly as 2001 was by Muto and Austin. What got Austin rolling was the Royal Rumble pay per view event at the start of the year, where he entered the Rumble match itself and managed to survive to earn his way to WrestleMania, even with him being beaten bloody by his rival Triple H before he was even able to enter the contest.
Stone Cold’s story is but one part of the overall narrative of the 2001 Rumble match though, as there are many other tales being told in the contest. Kane gets an early number and lasts all the way to the final two in the contest, breaking the elimination record of the contest at that time in the process. Hardcore division members such as Al Snow, Raven, Steve Blackman and Perry Saturn introduce a swathe of weaponry to the battle at one stage, leading to things like road signs and metal rubbish bins getting flung around.
Comedian Drew Carey even gets to make a cameo in the contest at one stage, with a jealous Vince McMahon entering him into the contest when Drew puts the moves on Trish Stratus, who was Vince’s bit on the side when the event took place. Even wrestling legend The Honky Tonk Man makes an appearance at one stage before getting wellied by Kane courtesy of a big shot with a guitar. This Rumble match tells a really enjoyable story from start to finish and I would go as far to call it one of the all-time best Rumble matches.
The Rock Vs Stone Cold Steve Austin – Houston, Texas (1st April 2001)
WrestleMania X-Seven (A fancy way of saying 17) remains one of the best Mania events of all-time, and regularly finishes near the top in most people’s “best pay per view ever” lists. It makes sense then that the Main Event of such a great pay per view spectacular should be here on my list of Top 10 Favourite Matches of 2001. The build-up for this match focused on Rock and Austin being the top two wrestlers in the WWF, with both of them needing to hold the WWF Title. Though the likes of Vince Russo might refer to Title belts as “props”, which does a disservice to the general idea of what a Title belt constitutes.
In the storyline world of professional wrestling, being the Champion is what every wrestler is striving to achieve, so if the belt they are chasing after is meaningless then so to becomes their very existence. If the World Title is presented as an important thing that everyone is desperate to attain, then it not only makes matches for it seem more important but it also enriches every storyline where wrestlers fight to be Champion as they are fighting to achieve something that matters. This was always something that both Rock and Austin understood which is why their battles for the Title are still remembered to this day.
Austin even said in the build-up that he needed to win the match more than Rock could ever imagine, which not only made his pursuit of the Title seem like an important quest but it also foreshadowed the events that transpired in the bout itself. Rock and Austin had incredible chemistry together as opponents, and this match taking place in a big stadium setting just made it feel all the more epic and impressive. Being that Austin is a native Texan, the crowd is well behind him here, to the point that Rock gets actively booed, even when Austin does the unthinkable and allies with long-time foe Vince McMahon in order to pick up the win.
Sadly this was the moment the much vaunted Attitude Era came to an end, as the last thing WWF fans wanted to see was Stone Cold as a villain aligned with Vince McMahon. As previously mentioned, Austin was an excellent bad guy, but fans weren’t interested in paying money to watch him fighting from the dark side of the force and it played a big role in the WWF’s popularity decreasing throughout the year. That doesn’t take away from the quality of this bout though, with it being great not just from a wrestling perspective but also a dramatic and storytelling one, as both men are on top form. The near falls at the end are majestically executed and the crowd is with the contest from start to finish. It really is an all-time classic.
Stone Cold Steve Austin Vs Kurt Angle – San Jose, California (19th August 2001)
Angle had been able to become a very effective good guy during the Invasion thanks to him being one of the leaders of the WWF against the invading forces. This juxtaposed him with Austin, who actually betrayed the WWF in order to side with the invaders, thus making him public enemy #1 amongst the WWF’s fan base. This all led to a match between the two at the SummerSlam event in San Jose, with Angle trying to bring the WWF Title back home to the WWF from the duplicitous Benedict Arnold Rattlesnake.
This match has fantastic intensity to it, with Austin bloodying Angle up by flinging him multiple times into the ring post at ringside, leading to Angle having to overcome the blood loss in order to keep fighting back. It’s a great gutsy performance from angle, with him really embracing his new heroic role and doing an excellent job at being a sympathetic figure whilst also still being a convincing tough guy at the same time. Austin’s run as a bad guy was not a success from a commercial aspect, but creatively he was fantastic in the role, with his mannerisms and general demeanour fitting his new villainous role perfectly.
The only real downside to this match is that it has a pretty unsatisfying disqualification finish, which leaves most viewers feeling flat when all is said and done. It’s a shame because if this match had a pin fall or submission finish then it could have legitimately been in with a shout of finishing #1 in the list here due to just how good it is up to that point. It really has everything you would want. Good wrestling, intensity between the two competitors and an invested crowd. All it’s missing is a good ending, which we sadly don’t get. It’s still a great bout though, and one of Austin’s best from possibly his greatest ever year as in-ring competitor.
Genichiro Tenryu Vs Keiji Muto – Tokyo, Japan (8th June 2001)
One of the big news stories of 2000/01 saw the two rival New Japan and All Japan companies working together. This had rarely happened in the past due to the two companies having a very bitter promotional war in the 70’s and 80’s, leaving deep wounds between both sides. However, when most of All Japan’s roster left to form the NOAH promotion in 2000, All Japan was left in a very vulnerable position and reached out to New Japan for a working agreement, which New Japan agreed to. New Japan even allowed one of All Japan’s top stars, Toshiaki Kawada, to come in and defeat one of their top stars, Kensuke Sasaki, at a Tokyo Dome event. Keiji Muto was one of the main beneficiaries of the working agreement, as he not only worked with All Japan quite a lot but he ended up jumping over to the company full-time in order to become the match maker.
Tenryu had been a big star in All Japan in the 80’s before leaving in order to try starting up his own company. By 2000 though he came back during All Japan’s lowest ebb in order to win their Triple Crown Title (A combination of three other World Titles that were combined together into one) and he had some good matches in the process. Bringing in Muto led to some real interest from the ticket buying public, thus setting the stage for this match with Muto coming after the three belts. The result was a fantastic match that was high on most people’s ballots when it came to deciding the best match of the year.
Muto has Tenryu on the back foot straight from the off in this one, with Tenryu on the defensive early doors and trying to find a foothold in the bout. This is not unusual in Title bouts, as usually wrestlers will try and establish early on that the challenger is in the same league as the Champion in order to make the fans think that the Title can change hands. It’s a classic way to build a World Title bout, and the crowd responds to it, reacting to Muto’s offence, especially when Muto defies the laws of science by diving out onto Tenryu with a plancha at one stage, bad knees and all. Eventually though Tenryu is able to catch Muto with a suplex out to the floor and that buys him some time after spending most of the match fighting from underneath.
Muto’s penchant of destroying the leg of his opponent so as to set up his Figure Four or Shining Wizard is on full display here, as he gets back into control of the contest by kicking away at the legs of Tenryu in a vicious manner, which opens the door for Tenryu to bravely and dramatically fight back, with him surviving the Figure Four at one stage in a great display of intestinal fortitude. Tenryu ends up turning the tables by going after Muto’s legs in an act of revenge, which leads things into the closing stretch. Two guys with injured legs limping around shouldn’t be this entertaining, but what can I say, Muto and Tenryu were very good at this pro wrestling lark and they made it work. This is definitely a match worth going out of your way to watch, especially as it isn’t that difficult to find if you know where to look.
The Rock Vs Chris Jericho – St. Louis, Missouri (21st October 2001)
The big story coming into this match was that Chris Jericho had never been able to win a World Title, with this failure being an albatross around his neck. WCW Champion Rock and Jericho were both members of team WWF, but tension had gradually been building between them leading up to the bout, with it being stoked further by Jericho’s nemesis Stephanie McMahon. This all led to the No Mercy pay per view event in Cleveland, where Jericho would try to finally get the chip off his shoulder and win a World Title for the first time.
What followed was a tremendous contest, filled with excellent wrestling and great storytelling as Rock and Jericho go toe to toe in a quest to claim the belt. Stephanie McMahon even makes her presence felt again, although things don’t end up going the way she would like. As someone who considered Jericho to be my favourite wrestler at the time, I was emotionally hooked by the story being told in this bout and it remains one of my favourite clashes to this day. The crowd in Cleveland gets into it as well and it definitely holds up as a match all these years later.
Stone Cold Steve Austin and Triple H Vs Chris Benoit and Chris Jericho (21st May 2001)
Austin and Triple H formed an alliance following WrestleMania and were a dangerous duo that tore their way through the WWF, winning not just the two main singles belts but also the Tag Team Titles at the same time. It was all supposed to build to the two men eventually falling out with one another and then feuding in the build-up to SummerSlam in August. However, in the match that was supposed to start their break up, Triple H ended up tearing his quad and was out for 7 months as a result. Horrible as Triple H’s injury was, the match in question was one of the better matches to happen all year in the WWF.
Triple H is genuinely gutsy here, as he still finishes the match despite being in a lot of pain. Benoit and Jericho work excellently as two good guys looking to take a step up in the WWF standings but opposing the two bullying bad guys, and the match itself has great wrestling along with an invested crowd. Jim Ross and Paul Heyman do a fantastic job on commentary as well, with the match ending up being one of Monday Night Raw’s best Main Event battles. I remember getting the tape of this show from my friend Jim and I watched it regularly, especially when I was ill and needed something to pick me up. The Main Event is brilliant and Triple H deserves all due credit for fighting on despite suffering an injury that would floor most normal people.
Keiji Muto Vs Yuji Nagata – Tokyo, Japan (12th August 2001)
This was in some ways the climax of Muto’s incredible 2001, although he would still go on to have some great matches for the rest of the year. This was the Final of the G1 Climax Tournament, a Tournament that New Japan has every summer where things start out in a league format until the best guys from each bracket advance to the Final to decide the tournament winner. It’s usually the time of year where New Japan has it’s best matches due to most of the top guys all entering the competition, leading to numerous examples of big matches that you wouldn’t always get to see during the rest of the year. Muto was having his career renaissance around the same time that Nagata was really coming into his own as one of the top guys in the promotion, so both men advancing to the Final was a big deal and there was great anticipation to see what they would deliver in the big match setting against one another.
This is another match where I can see some having trouble getting into it because it’s worked at a very deliberate pace as both men fight on the mat for holds in an effort to give the bout a realistic feel. I’m not sure I’d want to watch an entire show made up of matches like this, but when done correctly it can be an engrossing style of wrestling to witness, which is definitely the case here. It helps that the crowd is so into the action as well, with both men being incredibly popular with the crowd to the point that basic holds and counters get the sort of reactions usually resolved for much bigger moves. It’s just a textbook attempt of how to gradually build a match, as they start at 1mph and then gradually apply pressure to the throttle until they are blasting down the highway at 100mph whilst the crowd is losing their minds.
What also impresses me here is that it’s clearly incredibly warm in the building, which is obvious by how both men are utterly drenched in sweat before they’ve even really done that much. It could be that the slow start was almost a case of necessity as they knew they would be required to put in a decent chunk of time in an absolute cauldron, which is just an example of both men designing their match to fit the conditions upon which they have to wrestle it in, which is usually the sign of a good wrestler. The match also tells a good story as well, with the younger Nagata getting the better of Muto more than once in the opening exchanges to show that he’s on the top guys level before Muto fights back to show that there is still plenty of fight in the veteran star yet.
The crowd are as big a star as the wrestlers in this one though, as their reactions really add to the atmosphere and it makes an already great match all the more entertaining to watch. I think it also highlights how good a job Muto had done at integrating his new style of wrestling by this stage, as the crowd totally understands everything he’s going for and reacts big whenever he does his now trademark leg targeted offence on Nagata. Both wrestlers subvert the expectations of the crowd as well, with Nagata being smart enough to know that some of Muto’s holds and attacks are coming, such as when he is able to counter a Figure Four into an alternative submission hold at one stage, which is a great bit of storytelling on both men’s part.
Nagata also does an excellent job selling Muto’s offence when Muto finally manages to get it to work as well, which just adds to the drama. They say wrestling is a human game of chess, and that really does feel the case with this match, as it not only has great wrestling but it also has a fun story of two men trying to tactically out wrestle the other. Add in the engrossed crowd and this match is an absolute treat that I always enjoy coming back to and worthy #1 in this humble scribes opinion.