Retro Wrestle Respawn – Mike’s Top 10 Matches of 1998

I thought I’d do something a bit different this week and dive into the days of wrestling past to come up with my personal favourite 10 matches from a particular year. This week we’re going with 1998, seeing as it was the first year I really started following the goings on in the wrestling world on a week to week basis following the 1998 Royal Rumble. Some of these matches I saw after the fact when I got older and discovered things like Japanese Wrestling of course, but this still felt like the right year to start out with.

Obviously these choices are all subjective and some of them might not rate that highly if you go off things like star ratings from the likes of Dave Meltzer/Wade Keller/Scott Keith, but I’ve selected them because I personally enjoy them. Please feel free to list your own top ten if you disagree with the matches I’ve selected.

Number 10
Bam Bam Bigelow Vs Rob Van Dam – Buffalo, New York (4th April 1998)

We open up with a match from ECW, as Bam Bam Bigelow defends his newly won ECW World Television Title against Rob Van Dam. I’ve selected this match as it’s not only an exciting bout, but it also kicked off Van Dam’s near 2 year run as TV Champion, a run which saw him compete in many classic bouts with the likes of Jerry Lynn. So not only is the match really entertaining but it’s also historically significant to boot!

On paper you would think a battle between these two guys would be a bit of styles clash seeing as Bigelow was known more for being a burly brawler and power based wrestler whilst Van Dam was known more for high-flying and innovative flashy moves. However, the two gel really well together and the fact they wrestle differently enhances the contest rather than detract from it. The highlight of the match is assuredly Van Dam’s two wild dives into the crowd, which not only look good but also make sense as something you would do in order to take down a bigger opponent.

This one is well worth a watch if you’ve never seen it. I believe it ended up being broadcast on the 8th of April 1998 episode of ECW Television, which is available to view on the WWE Network.

Number 9
Raven Vs Saturn – Winston-Salem, North Carolina (13th September 1998)

This match represented the end of a long running storyline where Saturn had broken free from Raven’s “Flock” faction and gone out on his own, leading to the climactic battle between the two at the Fall Brawl pay per view event. This match had stipulations out the nostrils, with Raven having to disband The Flock if he lost, whilst Saturn would have to re-join were he to lose. On top of that, Raven’s ally, Kanyon (what was it with WCW and the abolition of forenames during this period?), had to be handcuffed outside the ring in order to prevent his interference (which of course eventually happened anyway).

Raven is probably one of wrestling’s better storytellers and that’s on full display here, as the match is full of twists and the turns, with the crowd getting really invested into the action. The match has more than one “false finish” or “near fall”, where the fans are led to believe the bout is over only for the wrestler being pinned to kick out at the very last moment for maximum drama. Fall Brawl 98 is universally regarded as one of the worst wrestling events of all-time due to the general miserable quality of the wrestling on offer, but this match is the notable exception and remains great fun all these years later.

Number 8
The Undertaker Vs Mankind – Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (28th June 1998)

Some of you may think I have rated this famous Hell in a Cell battle a bit too low on the list, which I can completely understand. I think the reason it’s not higher for me is that there were two other matches involving Mick Foley in 1998 that have made the list where he took far less punishment in the pursuit of having a classic encounter, so I think I can enjoy those more than this one and feel less guilty for knocking this one down the list a bit. Ultimately I really like and admire Mick Foley, so seeing him get destroyed in such a manner certainly saps away some of the fun from this one for me.

That all being said, this match is an exhilarating exhibition from two of wrestling’s all-time great performers. Foley’s two big falls (one off the side of the cage through a table and the other through the roof down to the mat) are what the bout is most remembered for, but Undertaker deserves his fair share of credit for getting a clearly out of it Foley through the rest of the bout. By the time Foley is Choke Slammed onto drawing pins you kind of just wish someone would wrap the poor chap in a blanket and offer him a cup of tea, but my word what an effort on both men’s part!

Number 7
Taz Vs Bam Bam Bigelow – Asbury Park, New Jersey (1st March 1998)

This is the match where Bigelow won the ECW World Television Title before going on to lose it to Rob Van Dam just a mere month later. Taz hardly ever lost during this period of his ECW career, so for him to be defeated on pay per view at the Living Dangerously event was a big deal. This match is not only a great brawl but it also features an electric crowd who are fully behind hometown guy Bigelow, even though he was technically a bad guy at the time the show took place.

I still return to this match pretty regularly because it really is an enjoyable watch, with both men working well together and the match building to one of the wildest moments in ECW history when both men end up crashing through the ring in one of the more inventive spots Paul Heyman would come up with during his time running the promotion. The reaction of the crowd, and even the referee, is absolutely priceless, as none of them see it coming and it feels like a suitably extreme to ending to such a marvellous fight.

Number 6
The Rock Vs Ken Shamrock Vs Mankind – Hamilton, Ontario (27th September 1998)

The Rock was already on his way to becoming one of the biggest stars in all of Pro Wrestling when this WWF pay per view event took place, but the reaction he receives from the Canadian crowd for this match is something to behold. Rock, Shamrock and Mankind were all squabbling with one another over who would be the next challenger for the WWF Title, so the WWF stuck them in a cage with one another and just let them knock seven bells out of each other.

The result is a very entertaining match, made all the more enjoyable thanks to the crowd being so into The Rock. Seriously, Rock could have just stood in the middle of the cage and picked his nose and it would have probably gotten the biggest reaction on the entire show. The wrestling itself is good action as well, with Mankind coming off the cage with an elbow drop whilst Shamrock gets to swing a chair like an absolute mad man.

The absolute zenith of the bout however is when Rock delivers The People’s Elbow to both of his opponents at the same time, causing a crowd reaction that would probably be on par to Pele coming out of retirement and winning the World Cup Final at the Maracanã stadium with an outrageous bicycle kick.

Number 5
Masato Tanaka Vs Mike Awesome – Dayton, Ohio (2nd August 1998)

This match from ECW’s Heatwave pay per view event is both terrifying and exhilarating in equal measure due to Tanaka taking a number of brutal unprotected chair attacks to the head. I honestly don’t know how Tanaka has managed to wrestle all the way into the 2020’s when you consider all the horrific punishment he used to receive on a regular basis. If it turned out he actually had Vibranium bones then I honestly wouldn’t be surprised. It’s borderline disgusting watching some of the punishment he receives in this un-apologetically violent outing, but I can’t deny that it isn’t also mightily impressive to see him get clobbered like this and keep going.

Highlights of this bout include Tanaka running down the ramp way to deliver a big chair to Awesome’s bonce, the huge 6 foot plus Awesome diving around in a manner that a man his size just shouldn’t seem capable of doing, and Tanaka flinging Awesome from inside the ring through a table at ringside. It’s all-action and the ECW crowd is breathless when the contest is over due to how frantic and exciting the bout has been. This is not a match I’m particularly proud about enjoying sometimes, but I certainly do enjoy it.

Number 4
Shinya Hashimoto Vs Genichiro Tenryu – Tokyo, Japan (1st August 1998)

This is New Japan’s lone appearance on the list, mainly because I didn’t really get into Japanese wrestling until the early 00’s and thus I am naturally draw more towards the American based wrestling from this period instead. New Japan did have lots of great wrestling on show in 1998 though and their New Japan World streaming site has quite a lot of it uploaded if you feel like dipping in once and a while. Hashimoto and Tenryu were both heavy-hitters during their day who liked to swing for the fences with big chops and kicks, so putting them together seemed like a natural recipe for a good old fashioned slugfest, and that’s indeed what we got in this one.

The selling from both men is great here, with Tenryu especially reacting to Hashimoto’s chops brilliantly, with his body jolting like it’s be shot full of electricity. They don’t even do a single hold in the early going, it’s all kicks, chops and punches, and the crowd loves it, with them quickly getting invested in the carnival of violence developing before them. Tenryu’s punches in particular look great, and in a place like Japan where the no closed fist rule is often enforced they do a great job of riling up the crowd and referee, which adds fantastic atmosphere to the contest.

Once we hit the closing stretch, both men have utterly clobbered one another and the crowd has witnessed one heck of a fight! This match probably won’t be for everyone, but if seeing two tough burly blokes beating the cheese and onion out of one another sounds like something you would enjoy, then this bout is required viewing.

Number 3
The Rock Vs Triple H – Madison Square Garden, New York (30th August 1998)

Some matches are pivotal in a wrestlers career, be it for positive or negative reasons. Sometimes a wrestler will have such a great performance that it becomes a launching pad for them to kick on and really grab the industry by the scruff of the neck. On rare occasions a match can be pivotal in a positive way for both combatants, which was certainly the case with this classic contest between The Rock and Triple H at SummerSlam 1998.

Rock and Triple H had been feuding with one another all summer, with this match being the climactic bout that would decide which of the two would hold the WWF’s coveted Intercontinental Title. The belt was hung above the ring and it was left up to both men to grab a ladder and climb up to claim it, opening the door for all kinds of violence as both men used the ladder not just as a climbing apparatus but also as an instrument of pain upon which to destroy their opponent.

Two things combined to make this match so entertaining. Firstly, The Rock’s star power is on another level here, with his mannerisms and general charisma making him come across as the biggest up and coming star in the whole industry. Secondly, Triple H does a fantastic job selling an injured body part, with his gutsy and defiant display despite a serious leg injury making him come across all the tougher for hanging in there, even as Rock dismantles the appendage with a slew of weaponry.

This battle remains one of the most enduring contests of the 90’s, not only for its quality but also for the long ranging effect it had on the industry due to it representing the moment that both Rock and Triple H broke out from the pack to assert their status as two of the hottest properties in the industry.

Number 2
Stone Cold Steve Austin Vs Dude Love – Milwaukee, Wisconsin (31st May 1998)

This would probably be my favourite example of the WWF Attitude Era “Main Event Style”, as Austin and Dude Love engage in a gripping soap opera that mixes in ring action with brawling, villainous antics and just general chicanery in order to create a thrilling narrative. The story of the match is that Vince McMahon is a biased referee who wants Dude to win, so he does everything he can to try and stack the deck against Austin, including changing the rules on the fly and just outright refusing to count at one stage when Austin has it won.

This infuriates the Milwaukee crowd and successfully causes them to root for Austin to overcome the unfair situation he finds himself in, giving what would already be a hot match even more excitement. Austin has at least one ally however, as Undertaker comes down to ringside in order to force McMahon to at least not go completely over the top with his antics, an angle which is eventually paid off when Taker destroys McMahon stooges Pat Patterson and Gerald Briscoe when they try to thwart Austin to a huge ovation from the crowd.

Dude Love takes his trademark big bumps here as well, as everything is done to make Austin look like the conquering hero as he valiantly battles the odds to retain his Title. Watching this match, where they do everything remotely possible to make their top star look strong, makes this match feel like something from a bygone age when you consider just how often the current WWE makes its top stars look like chumps. Thankfully they seem to be at least making a genuine effort with Ronda Rousey right now, but this match should be required viewing for the WWE writing team so that they can see how a top babyface should be presented.

Number 1
Toshiaki Kawada Vs Kenta Kobashi – Tokyo, Japan (12th June 1998)

This is some classic hard hitting All Japan action, as both men quite literally cause sweat to fly due to how hard they are kicking, chopping and slapping one another. I like many things about Kenta Kobashi, but what I like the most is his incredible ability to sell a beating. Everything from his body language to his perfect facial expressions get across all kinds of emotions, be it pain, anger or defiance. Heck, sometimes he can convey all three at the same time! Therefore it always made perfect sense to match him up with Toshiaki Kawada, in some ways a man who was his total opposite.

Kawada’s gruff and almost sadistic approach to the grapple game offset Kobashi’s toughness and bravery perfectly, which often led to matches where Kawada would do everything he could to be as disagreeable as possible whilst Kobashi bravely fought from underneath in order to get a foothold in the bout. When he finally does mount his comeback here he finally gives Kawada the shellacking that he had always promised to deliver over the years but just hadn’t been able to do. The closing segment of Kobashi just wearing Kawada down before finally putting him down following multiple lariats is pretty much the All Japan “Kings Road” style in a nutshell.

What I always remember about this match is just how invested in it I was. I had pretty much already taken Kobashi on as my favourite Japanese wrestler, and as a result I’d developed a dislike for Kawada, mainly because he spent most of the 90’s inflicting pain on my favourite wrestler. As a result I was firmly behind Kobashi in his quest to win here and was delighted when he finally did. Even my dad, someone who is by no means a wrestling fan, ended up gripped by the contest due to the incredible punishment both men were dealing out to one another. This match is an all-time classic in my eyes and I love it.

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