8 Great is our extremely original listicle series where we take a break from snark and negativity to focus on the positive, and list eight of our favorite examples of something great from pro wrestling. Matches, performers, shows – whatever is helping us enjoy wrestling in a particular week, that’s what this feature is all about.
This 8 Great is the first of a series that’s related to current events but isn’t about current wrestling. When a pandemic forces everyone inside and socially isolated, it highlights how valuable the ability of art – whether a free opera stream, the new Animal Crossing, or Orange Cassidy – to help people escape from reality for a while really is.
So while most of this site’s devoted art form, pro wrestling, is on hiatus or in a weird no-fans limbo, the With Spandex team is taking the time to appreciate the matches from the past we’re drawn to revisit the most, and always get something out of re-watching. Our comfort food wrestling, basically. We’ll explain why these matches stuck with us and what we like about them, but the eight matches on everyone’s lists were picked completely subjectively and reflect our different preferences and experiences as fans.
I think my list will probably end up being the most poorly curated because I somehow picked three matches from within a two-week period and somehow didn’t realize until after I was done writing, but everything on it was chosen out of sincere fan love. If you’ve read any of my UPROXX opinion pieces before, you might guess that means it includes a lot of women’s wrestling and dudes from New Japan. But first, here’s the WrestleMania match (remember when that show wasn’t at the PC?) I realized I’ve re-watched the most, one between two legendary men:
Kurt Angle vs. Eddie Guerrero, WWE WrestleMania XX
Out of all the great matches in the history of WrestleMania and these two wrestlers’ careers, I think I’ve revisited this one the most because of both what I initially appreciated about it and what I didn’t. Eddie Guerrero was my first favorite wrestler and his journey to becoming WWE Champion has stuck with me longer than any other wrestling angle. In contrast, I didn’t really appreciate Kurt Angle for a long time, partly because he was mostly a bad guy on TV when I was a kid and partly because I didn’t enjoy watching his style of wrestling as much as that of other people. Now that I can get into the way both Guerrero and Angle display their in-ring skills, when I re-watch it I can get into their match on that level along with a nostalgia level.
Sasha Banks vs. Bayley, WWE NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn
The first Sasha Banks vs. Bayley match was deemed a pretty much instant classic, and that designation holds up. It features so many of the best things about wrestling done right, with strong in-ring work, memorable characters, and a compelling rivalry that’s easy to get invested in. Banks is so fun to watch and easy to root against in Boss mode, the focus on Bayley’s injured hand is a well-done element that keeps the match just that much more interesting, and the aggression from both women is high. Though these performers have achieved other notable WWE accomplishments since this match, to me, this is still the number one career highlight for both of them. And as a bonus, it features probably my favorite Sasha Banks gear/hair/makeup combo ever.
Team B.A.D. vs. Team PCB vs. Team Bella, WWE SummerSlam 2015
SummerSlam 2015 weekend was a really strong pair of days for women’s wrestling in WWE. The women’s three-way tag team elimination match (Sasha Banks, Tamina, and Naomi vs. Paige, Charlotte Flair, and Becky Lynch vs. The Bella Twins and Alicia Fox) at SummerSlam 2015 was less of a classic match than that for the NXT Women’s Championship the night before, but everything I liked about it when I first saw it, I still enjoy now.
Aside from the level of involvement by Stephanie McMahon, this angle and this moment was really well-done in a way that holds up. Each of the teams has its own distinct personality and so do all of the wrestlers on them, especially Paige as our anti-establishment hero, Sasha still living in prime Boss Time, Becky and Charlotte as hard-working babyfaces with bright futures, and the pushup taunt era of Nikki Bella honestly my favorite WWE main roster heel run of the 2010s because of how well she worked as a gatekeeper for the women from NXT.
The quality of wrestling in the women’s division, especially if you counted NXT, was higher at this point than it had been in decades, and it was taking place in a creative landscape that treated women’s wrestling as… important? And worthy of better characters than the same tired Mean Girl tropes over and over?? This context combined with a well-structured elimination match makes B.A.D. vs. PCB vs. Bellas one of my favorite gimmick matches of the Women’s Revolution era, and the one I’ve revisited the most so far.
Aja Kong vs. Manami Toyota, AJW Big Egg Wrestling Universe, V*TOP Five Star Tournament
All Japan Women’s Pro Wrestling produced so many great matches, and Aja Kong vs. Manami Toyota from November 20, 1994, is both the first one I ever watched and the one I’ve watched the most.
I was introduced to AJW, like a lot of people outside of Japan, through the Wrestling Observer Newsletter. I’ve never subscribed to it, but when I was getting back into wrestling after going years without watching it, I stumbled across the concept of a “five-star match,” and thought it was interesting that there was the equivalent of a literary canon for wrestling, though oddly determined by writings of only one critic. Since my earlier fandom had been during a bad era for women’s wrestling, I was immediately interested in the women’s matches on this five-star list. For some reason, possibly drawn in by the phrase “Big Egg Wrestling Universe,” this Aja Kong vs. Manami Toyota match was the first one I watched.
I was hooked from the entrances. I still love how awkward Toyota’s walk down the long ramp looks, her waves to the crowd so organic and not what you expect from a professional performer at the top of her game. And Kong’s theme song, presence, look (and that it didn’t conform to conventional beauty standards) all seemed incredibly badass, and still do.
The match itself follows a classic, easy-to-follow pro wrestling dynamic – the smaller, valiant babyface vs. the monster heel – performed by two of the best ever to play these roles. Kong’s power is intimidating and Toyota’s flashier wrestling skills are top-notch. I love how urgently Toyota attacks Kong live out of the gate, and how little either woman plays to the audience, making their match feel more intense and like a competition, not like they’re seeking approval from anyone watching. Just about everything about this match gives it a timeless appeal.
Minoru Suzuki vs. Kazushi Sakuraba, NJPW Wrestle Kingdom 9
Suzuki vs. Sakuraba at Wrestle Kingdom 9 was the first time I saw a match with UWFi rules (meaning here someone can only win by knockout, submission, or ref stoppage.) Now having watched actual UWFi matches, the weirdness and hype of this match still hold up.
The original appeal of this match was the MMA-pro wrestling crossover factor. Kazushi Sakuraba is an extremely accomplished MMA fighter with pro wrestling experience, while Minoru Suzuki is a very accomplished pro wrestler who, as the co-founder of Pancrase, is historically important to mixed martial arts.
While a lot of matches that are meant to be shoot style or MMA-esque tend to keep things inside the ring, these two only briefly hint at their catch wrestling bonafides before fully embracing the theatricality and setting of a big show pro wrestling match as they just go crazy on each other. The fighting on the ramp, Sakuraba’s kicks, and the match’s unexpected finish still absolutely rule on repeat viewing.
Minoru Suzuki vs. Sanshiro Takagi, DDT Street Wrestling In Tokyo Dome
A match from 2017 seemed too recent to add to this list, but I really have re-watched the Minoru Suzuki-Sanshiro Takagi empty arena match so many times, including when it was made free on DDT Universe shortly after my arena began socially isolating. Though I enjoy a lot of comedy wrestling, I don’t really turn to it when I’m looking just looking for something to cheer me up – but this match proved itself to be the exception.
I think what makes the empty Tokyo Dome match so re-watchable is that along with its comedy spots and general weirdness, it has a clearer, more focused narrative than a lot of other DDT street wrestling, which makes it feel closer to watching an episode of a TV show or some other self-contained drama than most wrestling matches. It also feels more like a dream; as Suzuki and Takagi brawl, increasingly out of breath, throughout the stadium, they meet their friends and enemies doing the type of absurd things usually produced by the unconscious brain. It’s the surreal vibes that really make this match. Those, and the parts where they kick a guy down the stairs.
Shinsuke Nakamura vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi, NJPW G1 Climax Special 2011
As soon as I had to pick a Shinsuke Nakamura match or two for this article, I fell down a re-watch rabbit hole and wished I had just pitched an “8 Great Shinsuke Nakamura NJPW Matches” instead. And when I realized I should probably pick just one Nakamura-Tanahashi match when this rivalry has become some of my ultimate comfort food wrestling? Basically impossible. But I picked their match for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship from September 2011, aka The One Where Shinsuke Kicks Tana’s Tooth Out.
Hiroshi Tanahashi, our defending champion, goes into this match at the height of his rock star babyface powers, while Nakamura is only recently the King of Strong Style, still looking more rockabilly than MJ, fresh off his excursion to Mexico (in NJPW, going to Mexico always makes someone cooler, weirder, and more powerful) and a G1 win. The immediately post-tooth part of this match is one of my favorite examples of Nakamura just going beast mode, and I will never get tired of watching him throw kicks and knee strikes he does in this match.
Shinsuke Nakamura vs. Kazuchika Okada, NJPW G1 Climax 25
Shinsuke Nakamura and Kazuchika Okada have only ever had two matches against each other, and while they’re both pretty awesome (and their G1 Climax 24 final gets style points for taking place in an arena where you can see the sky), I’ve definitely watched their G1 25 match way more because of its shorter length, and the way Nakamura wins.
Okada and Nakamura aren’t feuding here, but they play out a tension here that comes from the stakes of their match (the winner goes to the G1 final) and what it means for their relationship triangle that also includes Tanahashi, who has already made the final. Nakamura was Tanahashi’s first great rival, Okada was his second, while Nakamura is a mentor figure to Okada, the Rainmaker has arguably surpassed him at this point, having beaten him to win the previous year’s G1. Okada’s character work that plays on this tension, disrespecting his mentor during the match and being obnoxious about it to the crowd, who are more pro-Nakamura, is fun to watch and makes it even more satisfying when Shinsuke starts to make a comeback.
It doesn’t feel like a given which man is going to win this match until right at the end when it looks like Okada’s really going to hit his finisher and the crowd’s volume increases exponentially. But Nakamura turns out to have a surprise counter, which leads to a match finish that has now been elevated from exciting to legend status; almost five years later, it’s still the last time anyone submitted Okada.