We’re back again with another Retro Wrestling feature, as I go back to list my Top 10 Favourite Matches of 2003. This was a year where cutting the list down to 10 was pretty difficult as there was a lot of good wrestling in 2003, not just in WWE but also in places such as ROH, NWA:TNA and Pro Wrestling NOAH. I’m happy with my selections, and ultimately these aren’t supposed to be an objective list of the “best” matches in a year but rather a subjective list made up of the ones that I personally enjoyed the most for whatever reason.
Jeff Jarrett Vs Raven – Nashville, Tennessee (30th April 2003)
NWA:TNA opens up the list for 2003, with one of the most hyped matches the company had ever put on at the time when Raven challenged Jeff Jarrett for the NWA Heavyweight Title. Raven had entered TNA following a three year stint in WWE, where WWE hadn’t really done much with him, even though Raven had gone to great lengths to get in shape and overcome some of his personal demons. Once Raven stepped foot in TNA though he turned the company on its head, quickly becoming one of the groups’ premier competitors and earning himself a shot at the company’s main belt as a result.
TNA had to actually turn people away for this event in their usual “TNA Asylum” arena; such was the clamour to see Raven challenge for the Title. Raven was ostensibly the bad guy in his rivalry with Jarrett, but despite this there were plenty of fans who got behind him in his quest for the Title and the general consensus coming into the bout was that it would probably be a smart play from the TNA organisation to have Raven win the Title and take the story on from there. Jarrett had been mostly delivering in the ring as Champion, but he was starting to get stale on top and Raven was such a hot act that having him win seemed like a logical decision to make.
The much anticipated bout did not disappoint, with Raven playing his role of villain very well whilst Jarrett bravely fought against the odds like a good heroic figure, including numerous moments where Jarrett was forced to take on superior numbers due to Raven having help from his Gathering of Alexis and Julio as well as some invading former ECW wrestlers. Both Raven and Jarrett bled heavily in this one, with the blood really adding to the drama, as the match had plenty of brawling elements to it. Raven is one of wrestling’s better storytellers between the ropes, and this match had lots of exciting twists and turns on the way to its eventual conclusion.
IMPACT Wrestling (the company that rose from the ashes of the TNA promotion) owns the rights to this match and have been kind enough to upload it to their official YouTube channel, so I strongly suggest checking it out if you haven’t seen it before. It was one of TNA’s earliest success stories, as they hyped up a big bout really well and the eventual match delivered once both men got into the ring. TNA didn’t really make the best of building on the momentum this match created, but it was certainly one of the best Heavyweight bouts they had delivered up to this stage in their existence.
Bryan Danielson Vs Paul London – Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (12th April 2003)
ROH delivered some excellent wrestling in 2003, continuing the trend it started in 2002. This contest between Bryan Danielson and Paul London was one of the best matches that ROH presented in a stacked year, with the bout being an excellent mix of technical proficiency, exciting moves and great in-ring storytelling. This was bout went on for nearly 40 minutes, as both men traded momentum in a gripping two out of three falls contest. What made this match so good wasn’t just that the wrestling itself was to such a high standard, but also because both men really sold the effects of it, leading to the bout itself having great drama.
When you can combine high level in-ring action with strong storytelling then it really adds to a bout, especially when the crowd is as invested in the bout as the fans for this contest were. The way match was built was excellent as well, as the intensity gradually picked up as the bout went on. Things started out as a respectful trading of holds, but as both men got more wound up they started to throw slaps and kicks at one another until they were eventually holding nothing back in the pursuit of victory. The way the match’s story was told made the bigger moves at the end of the battle feel earned, as both men didn’t just jump right into them but instead they ended up being the natural conclusion of the gradual constant increases in the bouts intensity.
Jun Akiyama Vs Hiroyoshi Tenzan – Tokyo, Japan (17th August 2003)
Tenzan had usually been a “nearly man” in New Japan Pro Wrestling prior to this bout, with him seeing success in the tag team ranks but never really being able to master the singles ranks in the same manner. This match with Akiyama was the Final of New Japan’s G1 Climax tournament, a regular event they would hold every summer. The G1 usually started out with a league format, with the best performers in those brackets moving on to the knock out rounds, not unlike how things are done in the FIFA World Cup. Akiyama was an outsider from Pro Wrestling NOAH who was a guest entrant in the G1 in 2003, and he had actually defeated Tenzan in the group stages. Tenzan managed to eventually advance despite that result though, so the Final gave him a chance to avenge that earlier defeat.
Tenzan had reached the G1 Final once before prior to this, losing in 1997 to Kensuke Sasaki after being the MVP in the tournament up to that point. This match not only gave Tenzan a chance to get even with Akiyama for his earlier defeat, but it also gave him a chance to banish the spectre of his previous failures in order to finally win the big one. The combination of Akiyama being an outsider to New Japan, along with Tenzan’s quest to reach the top of the mountain, combined to make the Tokyo crowd get behind Tenzan in a manner not previously seen, thus turning the bout into even more of an “away game” for Akiyama. The wrestling was fantastic as well, with both men fighting for over half an hour in an effort to win the tournament.
New Japan had made a concerted effort to make a star of Tenzan prior to this G1 tournament, with Tenzan changing his look somewhat as well as going away to learn a devastating new submission move known as the Anaconda Vice, a move that CM Punk would go on to use in WWE. Unfortunately New Japan was not very well run at the time and they ended up wasting Tenzan’s newly gained momentum that he found from his superlative performance in the G1 tournament, but the tournament itself succeeded in making Tenzan one of my favourite New Japan wrestlers and I still retain a great fondness for him to this day. Akiyama was also fantastic here, playing his role of invading bad guy to perfection and wrestling to a really high standard.
The combination of the great wrestling, engrossing story being told and the highly invested crowd made this a really enjoyable bout to watch, with both men really delivering the goods on the big stage. The chances are that if you aren’t familiar with either man in this contest then you will have a newfound respect for them both when this bout is over.
Low Ki Vs AJ Styles Vs Paul London – Queens, New York (8th February 2003)
ROH makes another appearance here, with this match on their first anniversary show in New York. Low Ki, Styles and London had all faced ROH Champion Xavier and been cheated out of winning in one form or another, so this match was put together in order to decide which of them would go on to get another shot. What followed was an incredible in-ring effort from all three men, with inventive big moves and fantastic crowd reactions. This was the sort of state-of-the-art action that ROH was delivering on a regular basis at the time, which made it a necessary destination for any wrestling fan who wanted to see what was “hip” in regards to the in-ring aspect of the scene.
This is one of the most action-packed exhilarating contests I’ve ever seen, and it still holds up even to this day. One move that I still vividly remember is Low Ki giving Styles a rana from the top rope straight into a sit-out powerbomb from the waiting London, a move which caused the crowd to collectively lose their minds. This match really did blow my mind when I first saw it all those years ago and I would argue that it still holds up to this day. It’s not like the match was light on storytelling either, as it combined incredible action with strong psychology at the same time. It really was a thrilling outing and all three men earned due credit for the quality of the bout.
Christopher Daniels and Elix Skipper Vs Chris Harris and James Storm – Nashville, Tennessee (25th June 2003)
This bout from NWA:TNA was the first time that the TNA promotion had held a cage match, with the cage having a logical reason to be there. Daniels and Skipper had managed to get the better of Harris and Storm on numerous occasions due to their buddy Low Ki getting involved to help them. However, with the steel cage surrounding the ring, outside interference wouldn’t be an issue, meaning that Harris and Storm would finally have a fair crack at Daniels and Skipper’s NWA Tag Team Titles. It’s a good example of making match stipulations make sense, as it was perfectly easy to justify why both of these teams had been placed in a cage match setting like this due to previous chapters in the story up to this point.
The match itself was one of the best bouts TNA had ever put on, with both the Triple X tandem of Daniels and Skipper and the America’s Most Wanted duo of Harris and Storm being two of the best tag team’s in the entire promotion. Both teams had already competed in a number of great matches prior to this, so adding the element of the steel cage just gave them another venue upon which to display their talents. Harris and Storm really should have been the tag team of the 00’s due to how good they were at pretty much every element of tag team wrestling, but sadly TNA really felt that Harris had potential as a singles star and the team was eventually split by 2006 when they still had plenty to offer the tag ranks.
Skipper was probably the wrestler that made the most of the cage setting. A noted high-flyer, Skipper was happy to leap off the cage more than once in this bout, including a hugely impressive leaping moonsault and wild cross body block off the top of the cage onto both AMW members that sent the crowd into raptures. The TNA Asylum loved this match and it got the TNA promotion some substantial buzz due to how good the match was. I know that it personally put the company on my radar and I went out of my way to get a VHS tape (remember them?) of this match so that I could watch it as we didn’t get TNA shows in the UK yet, and I was suitably impressed.
This is another match that IMPACT Wrestling have been kind enough to upload to their YouTube channel, so I strongly suggest seeking it out if you’ve never seen it before because this match is one of the best matches from any promotion in 2003.
Mitsuharu Misawa Vs Kenta Kobashi – Tokyo, Japan (1st March 2003)
Kenta Kobashi had an excellent 2003. Despite being beaten up after years of wrestling the hard Japanese style found in places such as All Japan Pro Wrestling and NOAH, Kobashi still had it within him to deliver excellent matches. Kobashi was also still very popular with the NOAH fan base, so when he was able to defeat Misawa for NOAH’s main Heavyweight singles Title it led to NOAH doing great business in their Budokan Hall stronghold. Misawa and Kobashi had faced one another numerous times over the years, with Misawa enjoying his second reign as NOAH’s top singles Champ. This battle was strongly hinted at being the last big singles match the two would have, so it was greeted with great anticipation once it was announced.
The bout itself was one of the best matches from NOAH’s early years, as both men could still deliver the goods in the ring despite both of them being beat up after many gruelling bouts. Despite being so worn down after years to fighting such a tough style, both men did not hold back here, delivering the big moves you would expect them to do and wrestling for nearly 30 minutes in the pursuit of putting on the classic World Title bout that NOAH fans would expect in a big match setting like this. The match built excellently, with both men knowing just when to pull out the special moves at just the right time in order to gain the maximum response from the crowd.
Misawa and Kobashi would both still have some great matches in the tank following this, but in some ways this match still felt a bit like the end of an era. They would match up again in big tag team matches, but this really was the last big singles match the two would have at this level and they left it all in the ring. Kobashi would enjoy a long reign with the belt, but you always felt that his reign existed to ultimately prime someone new for the top spot. NOAH was actively trying to move away from Misawa Vs Kobashi as the top match and feud in the company, but this match existed to give the two veteran captains one last chance to wow Wembley in a big Cup Final, and they certainly delivered when the chips were down!
Charlie Haas & Shelton Benjamin Vs Billy Kidman and Rey Mysterio Jr – Denver, Colorado (27th July 2003)
Haas and Benjamin had originally debuted as back-up for Kurt Angle, wrestling under the name Team Angle for a bit before splitting on Angle and going out on their own. During this period they entered into a rivalry with Kidman and Mysterio, a tandem that had previously held the Tag Team Titles in WCW. Kidman and Rey were more like singles wrestlers who had come together to challenge for the belts, whilst Haas and Benjamin were more of a regular unit, and the feud between the two teams was intended to be a relatively brief one that would eventually lead to Kidman turning on Rey so that the two could feud with each other over Rey’s Cruiserweight belt.
However, the matches between the two teams were so good that the feud was actually kept going for longer and Kidman didn’t end up feuding with Rey after-all. When you watch this match you can understand why WWE wanted to keep things cooking between both of these tandems, as this bout had the Denver crowd near breathless, and it wasn’t due to the altitude! Haas and Benjamin were an excellent villainous tag unit, as they could mix in great wrestling with underhanded tactics really well in the mould of classic bad guy tandems such as The Brain Busters and The Midnight Express.
In some ways this match felt a bit like The Midnight Express’ legendary battles with the likes of The Rock ‘N’ Roll Express and The Fantastics, even down to both Kidman and Rey having to spend a period getting worked over in the wrong half of the ring in order to get the crowd excited when the downed member of the team was able to evade the bad guys in order to make a “hot” tag to the fresh man on the apron. Tag Team wrestling has not always been treated with much in the way of respect in WWE due to Vince McMahon’s aversion to the genre, but sometimes great teams like Haas and Benjamin can slip between the cracks and deliver excellent bouts like this until Vince eventually shuts things down.
Kurt Angle Vs Brock Lesnar – Seattle, Washington (30th March 2003)
Angle and Lesnar seemed destined to wrestle one another the moment Lesnar made his main roster WWE debut in 2002. Both men had strong amateur backgrounds and a feud between the two of them over which wrestler was the better seemed a natural fit. WWE had plans for the two to face-off with one another as well, with the eventual goal being to present their first bout with one another at 2003’s WrestleMania event at Safeco Field. The bout very nearly didn’t happen due to Angle suffering from a serious neck injury. A few weeks out of Mania, it was seriously discussed as to whether Angle should drop his WWE Title to Lesnar on the weekly televised Smackdown show and be replaced with Chris Benoit at WrestleMania in the Main Event.
Angle requested to still wrestle the match however and was eventually allowed to take part. Despite being severely injured and in a lot of pain, Angle still entered a superlative performance at the biggest show of the year, bravely gutting through his bad neck in order to have a great match with Lesnar. Lesnar almost injured himself in the bout as well, as he headed to the top rope for a big Shooting Star Press move but ended up landing badly. Thankfully Brock had such a strong head and neck that he got away with just a serious concussion and not a broken neck, but it was an added layer of drama to the overall story of the bout.
Overall though the match was to a very high standard, with both men focusing on wrestling a more amateur wrestling styled contest in the early going before moving into a more traditional pro wrestling style as the bout progressed. The result was not only a great match but also a match that felt genuinely different from the other matches on the card, especially when it came to the Main Event scene. WWE had focused on a more brawl based style in the Main Event scene since 1997, so having Angle and Lesnar doing amateur styled grappling in the biggest match of the year was genuinely refreshing and the bout really holds up outside of Lesnar’s bad landing.
Kurt Angle Vs Chris Benoit – Boston, Massachusetts (19th January 2003)
Some matches don’t need much of an introduction, and this technical wrestling battle is very much one of them. For those not acquainted, Kurt Angle and Chris Benoit were the two best technical wrestlers in all of WWE at the time of this match. Refreshingly, WWE decided to pit them against each other in a featured match at the Royal Rumble with no gimmicks or added stipulations. They would just be going out there to wrestle in a straight match for the WWE Title, with the winner being the man who was simply the better wrestler on the night. I’ll give you a few seconds to sit down and process that information, because to fans of only modern main roster WWE it probably sounds like a baffling scenario.
What I loved so much about this match was how invested the crowd was in it. They were with both men for every tight hold, slick reversal and punishing suplex. Both combatants were great storytellers as well as great wrestlers, so the match built gradually to a big crescendo. The more the match built, the more engrossed the fans got, with the majority of them willing Benoit on to be victorious and claim his first WWE Title. In the end it wasn’t to be for the Canadian Crippler, as Angle trapped him in the middle of the ring in his dreaded ankle lock, which lead to a clean submission victory. However, despite the fact his night ended in defeat, the crowd were so impressed with Benoit’s performance that they gave him a standing ovation as he limped to the back.
Not only was this a fantastic match that led to both men coming out of it stronger, but the WWE higher ups were actually listening for once and decided to take a chance on Chris Benoit the following year, which led to the extremely unlikely outcome of Benoit being crowned the World Champion at WrestleMania XX, defeating Triple of all people to do it! Prior to this match, it seemed inconceivable that the WWE would bestow such a moment on Benoit, but his performance here was so good and the crowd reaction so strong that it got his name into the conversation and they eventually decided to give him a shot. This really was a special match and well worth a watch if you haven’t seen it. You could put the same match on a big event today and it wouldn’t seem out of place at all.
Kenta Kobashi Vs Tamon Honda – Tokyo, Japan (13th April 2003)
This might be an interesting choice for many, and I expect that most will disagree with its placing in the #1 slot, but to me this match was not only super enjoyable to watch but it was also a testament to just how good a wrestler Kobashi was in his prime. Honda was a regular tag team partner of Kobashi and, even though he was a solid wrestler, it was next to impossible that NOAH would place their top Title on him due to his lack of charisma and physique. Kobashi Vs Honda came across as quite the miss-match as a result, but Kobashi was a consummate professional and eventually managed to get the fans to believe that Honda might just win the bout and the Title.
To me the ultimate skill of a World Champion is for them to be able to make their challenger look believable in the role without making themselves look weak as a result. Kobashi was an absolute master at this, with this match with Honda being a key example. Kobashi was able to make the fans believe that Honda could win, but at no point did Kobashi come across as a lesser Champion as a result. Instead Kobashi raised Honda up without lowering himself at the same time, and that reason more than anything else is why I love this match so much. The actual match itself was a great wrestling match with some wonderfully timed near falls, but the added element of Kobashi getting the crowd to believe in Honda pushed it over the line for me and made it my favourite match of 2003 as a result.