Often when people reminisce about classic bouts of wrestling yore, they usually focus on main event clashes. Be it Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant facing off in the epic conclusion of WrestleMania III or Ric Flair and Harley Race’s famous finale at the original Starrcade, it’s big main event contests that often find themselves being feted again and again.
However, though few would deny that the final match of the show is almost always the most important, most also consider the opening bout to be the second-most important match. Ideally, a wrestling company will bookend its shows with both a satisfying beginning and conclusion, which means which bout gets picked as the opening match is incredibly important.
Indeed, some of the greatest matches in wrestling history have been openers, and today’s list celebrates ten of my personal favourites. One important thing to consider with this list though is that I’m not just looking at pure match quality, but also how a match functions as an opener in its own right
In any wrestling show, the opening match has a very specific purpose, it sets the tone for the rest of the evening and gets the crowd jazzed for what’s to come. If an opening match tries to do too much, it can sometimes burn the crowd out and overexert them too early. The finish is also vital, an opener with a downer conclusion that sucks the air out of the crowd can kill a show’s momentum and massively undermine whatever comes next, no matter how good the actual wrestling is.
I’ll be considering this when picking my ten choices. Also, as this is a retro list, the show in question will have to be at least ten years old. In addition, the match has to be the opening bout on the main card, so matches in the pre-show don’t count.
So, without further ado, here are my Ten Favourite Opening Matches
Number Ten: Perry Saturn Vs Goldberg – WCW Spring Stampede 1998
Case in point, this match isn’t exactly a Five Star Classic, but it’s an energetic scuffle that really pumps up the crowd and is therefore a textbook example of a great opening match. The match also represents a very important watermark in Goldberg’s career, as this was by far the most punishment he had received up to this point.
Goldberg had previously been smashing most opponents in a couple of minutes with his devastating Spear and Jackhammer. However, with Saturn he had to work a relatively competitive eight-minute match and also had to spend part of the match on the defensive as Saturn worked him over.
Thus, Goldberg took another evolutionary step in his trail-blazing career, and in fact, took the momentum from this big win into his match with Saturn’s boss Raven the next night on Nitro. He defeated Raven and claimed the much vaunted WCW United States Championship, an important step on his road to greatness.
Credit must also be given to Saturn here, who did an excellent job in guiding his less experienced opponent through the match and believably had the previously invulnerable Goldberg on the ropes. Not everyone would have had the tough guy cred to pull that off.
Number Nine: Orlando Jordan Vs Chris Benoit – Summer Slam 2005
This might be a bit of a headscratcher for some, but to me, this opening match is almost perfect.
Orlando Jordan debuted in the WWE on a 2003 episode of SmackDown, where he lost a competitive match to the then brash John Cena, who was in the midst of a feud with The Undertaker. Despite losing, Undertaker rescued Jordan from a post-match Cena attack and showed him respect, so it looked like Orlando was on his way to a decent push.
However, Jordan didn’t really connect with the crowd, and his push dwindled. In the summer of 2004, WWE tried a different tack, attempting to rejuvenate Jordan’s character by turning him into a simpering lackey for the then WWE Champion John Bradshaw Layfield. Despite this association, the WWE audience remained indifferent to Jordan, with his dull in-ring performances a contributing factor.
For whatever reason, WWE refused to give up on Jordan, even making this “superstar” who inspired such apathy the United States Champion, but he continued to walk out to murmurs and weak booing. By this point, Jordan was such a flop that even a world-class ring general like Chris Benoit could barely get anything out of him, with their match at the 2005 Great American Bash a chore for everyone watching at home. Finally, WWE saw sense and had Benoit destroy Jordan in barely 30 seconds at that year’s SummerSlam, a cathartic beatdown that brought an abrupt end to both the OJ experiment and one of the most tedious title reigns in history.
Under normal circumstances, most crowds would be disappointed at such a short bout but in this case a brief annihilation of a joke of a champion was exactly what they wanted to see. They saw Jordan as little more than an afterthought, and that’s exactly how Benoit treated him, firing them up for the rest of the night’s action.
Number Eight: Triple X Vs America’s Most Wanted – TNA 25th June 2003
Formed in 2002, NWA:TNA was Jeff Jarrett’s baby, formed from the remnants of WCW and the failed World Wrestling All-Stars company that he previously ruled over as champion.
Based out of Nashville at the “TNA Asylum”, NWA:TNA’s business model was that instead of having a television show that built to one big PPV every month, they would instead hold weekly PPVs at a discounted price.
This strategy was a complete flop financially, but creatively the company quickly developed a very loyal and dedicated fanbase, who mainly watched to see NWA:TNA’s extremely talented roster strut their stuff. This was exemplified by the tag team champions, Christopher Daniels, Elix Skipper and Low Ki, collectively known as Triple X. These three triumphed using skill and strategy rather than pure power, employing the so-called “Freebird rule” to defend the championships and keep themselves securely at the top of the tag team mountain. Having beaten all-comers, Triple X needed a challenge: enter America’s Most Wanted.
America’s Most Wanted, or AMW, were the classic example of a team that was greater than the sum of its parts. “Cowboy” James Storm and “Wildcat” Chris Harris were talented wrestlers who weren’t really going anywhere in the singles ranks, but clicked as an excellent team that quickly set their sights on Triple X’s gold. From here, it was classic wrestling psychology, AMW fought with everything they had but were continually beaten by the underhand tactics of their foes, Triple X generally employing “the numbers game” to keep hold of their titles. To eliminate the champs’ numbers advantage and ensure a fair fight with no interference, NWA:TNA decided to stick both teams in a cage and the stage was set for a classic.
In some ways, this contest is overshadowed by the eventual rematch that took place in 2004, and that’s a real shame, as it was truly groundbreaking at the time and really put NWA:TNA on the map as a company you had to see. I certainly remember being blown away by it when I first watched it in 2003 through tape trading, and it still stands up today.
To be honest, this was a really a main event match that just happened to be the opener, NWA:TNA didn’t want to mess up the momentum of the show by having a big break while they set up the cage and so decided to kick off the show with it instead. However, as the match didn’t kill the crowd (largely because it was followed by another break while they took the cage down again), it still functioned as an extremely effective opener.
Number Seven: Jerry Lynn Vs Lance Storm – ECW Anarchy Rulz 1999
Anarchy Rulz was widely held to be one of ECW’s best ever PPVs, and kicked off with an excellent match between Jerry Lynn and Lance Storm.
It’s also an excellent riposte to anyone who states that ECW was just a violent hardcore company, with Lynn and Storm just two of a number of excellent technical wrestlers on its roster (Chris Jericho, Eddie Guerrero, and Chris Benoit all wrestled early matches for the promotion), and an impressive number of aerial daredevils also gracing the ECW Arena (this latter camp includes Rey Mysterio Jr, Psychosis, Rob Van Dam, Sabu and Super Crazy). Both Lynn and Storm could go Extreme when they needed to (even this matches involves a DDT onto a steel chair), but at heart both men were solid technicians who were both more at home on the mat than at the top of a ladder, as this match readily demonstrates.
In front of a white-hot Chicago crowd, Lynn and Storm go out there and have a great wrestling match which, in a beautiful bit of physical storytelling, eventually devolves into more of a scrap as the bout wears on. The bloodthirsty ECW fans stick with the two technical wizards throughout the wrestling portions, showing that they appreciated good wrestling as well as extreme violence, and the result is a well-received opener that sets the tone for the rest of the show.
P.S. The finish is also great, managing the neat trick of simultaneously coming out of nowhere and making complete sense.
Number Six: Brian Pillman Vs Johnny B Badd – WCW Fall Brawl 1995
Just an FYI for everyone, WCW is going to feature on this list quite a lot. For most of the 90s, Ted Turner’s wrestling behemoth had such a stacked roster that it could basically put on fantastic matches at will. The problem, of course, was that they would usually front-load big events with great matches, and then the match quality would begin to sharply dwindle as the main event drew near. This was A), a demonstration of just how much WCW was in thrall stars of yesteryear and B) extremely stupid as it meant the show generally finished on a downer. This was in stark contrast to the then WWF, which tended to put its better matches on later in the card and therefore generally left the audience feeling like they’d seen a great show, even if they sometimes hadn’t.
I went with this match over Pillman’s bout with Jushin Liger at SuperBrawl II because I personally think this match tells a better story, and the Liger match regularly gets its fair share of praise, whereas this one is a bit more of a forgotten gem and I wanted to show it some love. This match is also a testament to Pillman’s in-ring generalship, as he got a fantastic match out of Badd who, despite being a great athlete and a legit Golden Gloves Champion, wasn’t in the same league as Liger.
This is a hot opener and one of the rare matches that manages to build up both guys, the finish showing how equal the two were as they both go for the same move and it takes the cruel hand of fate to decide who lands on top. If you’ve not seen it, it’s well worth going out of your way for.
Number Five: Eddie Guerrero Vs Dean Malenko – WCW Uncensored 1997
Sticking with WCW, we go to the peak year of the company’s hot period, a time where WCW legitimately ruled the wrestling world, and it seemed like there was no stopping them.
Part of the reason why WCW was doing so well at the time was that their roster was leaps and bounds ahead of the WWF’s when it came to in-ring quality. Following a raid on ECW in 1995, WCW acquired the services of Dean Malenko and Eddie Guerrero, who had been tearing it up across Pennsylvania and Florida for the extreme outfit. One of their bouts was even named “The Malenko/Guerrero Classic”.
With this in mind, it was no surprise that the two would eventually reprise their rivalry in WCW. Both men were ostensibly good guys at the time of this match, but Guerrero had accidentally cost Malenko a match at the previous SuperBrawl VII Event, so Dean was none-too-pleased and determined to win.
I personally love how the match escalates the longer it goes on, with both men getting increasingly vicious as the intensity rises. It’s a truly brilliant opening contest, and it was also probably the peak of Malenko’s US career to boot.
Number Four: The Orient Express Vs The Rockers – WWF Royal Rumble 1991
The Rockers of Shawn Michaels and Marty Jannetty regularly battled with The Orient Express of Pat Tanaka and Akio Sato, managed by the always devious Mr. Fuji. However, Tanaka actually had much better tag-team chemistry with Paul Diamond, and the two had teamed in the AWA as “Badd Company”. Therefore, when the WWF reunited the team by putting Diamond under a mask and calling him “Kato”, the feud with The Rockers was able to reach the next level when it came to match quality.
This match was just one of many great bouts the two teams had, but with the Florida crowd jacked up to a xenophobic fervour due to the war in the Middle East, this was by far one of the most well received. It helps that the wrestling is excellent, with well-timed double teams and hot moves aplenty. In some ways, this is the perfect opening tag team match, with The Rockers getting a hefty chance to shine at the beginning before their “oriental” foes cheat to take back control.
I also love the finish, as it’s always great when a villain is hoist by their own petard.
Number Three: Blitzkrieg Vs Juventud Guerrera – WCW Spring Stampede 1999
I think you can make a genuine argument that Spring Stampede 1999 was possibly the best PPV that WCW ever put on. It quite simply had great matches up and down the card, including a classic tag team match between Malenko/Benoit and Raven/Saturn, Billy Kidman defending the Cruiserweight Title against Rey Mysterio, and Booker T taking on the ludicrously muscular Scott Steiner.
However, the match that stole most of the plaudits at the time was the opening contest between the masked Blitzkrieg and Juventud Guerrera. This match attained a near-legendary status amongst wrestling fans of the era, with Blitzkrieg in particular becoming an overnight sensation before almost disappearing off the face of the Earth. Jay Ross, the man under the mask, was both a gymnast and a Yoga instructor, so he was both athletic and flexible, meaning he was able to perform some outstanding moves.
What must be said though is how well Juventud does in this match. It’s quite clear that, as the more experienced grappler, he’s carrying things, and he does a good job doing so. It’s hard for me to describe this match, you just have to see it for yourselves, but it was one hell of a PPV debut for Blitzkrieg, it’s just a shame that things didn’t kick on for him after this.
Number Two: Psychosis Vs Rey Mysterio Jnr – WCW Bash at the Beach 1996
Bash at the Beach 1996 will always be most remembered for Hulk Hogan betraying WCW and forming the New World Order with Kevin Nash and Scott Hall, and rightly so, as that was a huge moment that changed the wrestling world forever. However, amongst keen mat aficionados, it will also be remembered for the outstanding opening bout between Psychosis and Rey Mysterio Jr.
Psychosis and Rey were perfectly suited to one another, with the bigger Psychosis able to bully the much smaller Rey in their matches. Thus, the matches always had a great dynamic of Rey fighting from underneath to wrestle control of the bout from his larger foe. It also helped that Psychosis was incredibly agile and was also an excellent post for all of Rey’s big moves. As a result, the two had amazing chemistry, and when they were given the time to tell a good story, as they were both here and in ECW, they invariably had a great bout.
In a lot of ways, it was this match that “made” Rey in the United States, as well as established Psychosis as a key member of his rogues gallery. The two would go on to have many more matches, both in WCW and elsewhere, but this one is my personal favourite. I prefer it to the ECW matches between the two as it employs less shortcuts, and it’s well worth a watch.
Number One: Bret Hart Vs Owen Hart – WrestleMania X
Of all the matches discussed here, this one had the strongest build as the rivalry between Bret Hart and his brother, Owen, had been simmering for close to 6 months by the time they finally locked horns at WrestleMania X. Angered at Bret accidentally causing him to be eliminated in a match at the 1993 Survivor Series, Owen challenged Bret to a fight in the closing days of 1993.
Not wanting to fight his brother, Bret refused and the two then managed to smooth things over during Christmas, with the goal of wining the Tag Team Titles from The Quebecers at the 1994 Royal Rumble. However, when they ultimately failed, Owen kicked Bret’s leg out from under him, and it was on like Donkey Kong!
This match is brilliant for so many reasons. Firstly, the entirely clean finish is a genuine surprise that elevates the winner and sets the table nicely for the rematch between the two at that year’s Summer Slam. Secondly, Owen is fantastic as a devious and conniving little heel. And thirdly, Bret continues to sell the injury he suffers here in another match he wrestles later that evening, thus making Owen’s offence seem effective and damaging.
Not only is this match possibly the best opening match ever, it’s also right up there as one of the best matches in WrestleMania history full stop. 2017 WWE Hall of Fame Inductee Beth Phoenix declared that this was the match that made her want to be a wrestler, and I can see why, it’s an absolute classic that still stands the test of time.
Thanks for reading.
Until next time;