If a real road was constructed every time the WWE said the phrase “Road to WrestleMania,” all of planet Earth, even the oceans, would be covered in yellow lines, traffic lights, and giddy police dolphins happily waiting to tag your speeding ass. Or the city of Detroit would finally be drivable.
Point is, the WWE loves to use and abuse the term “Road to WrestleMania” to hype up the roughly two months between the Royal Rumble and WrestleMania. While the build for the Show of Shows is something that we all look forward to every year, can we say the same thing for matches and PPVs along the way? The likes of No Way Out, Fastlane, and Elimination Chamber in recent years rarely ever gets anybody revved up and often the stakes placed on certain contests wind up being inconsequential because the Road to WrestleMania is a one-way street that no man can derail; the event itself being bigger than most of the stories involved. I mean, Triple H retired Foley and he came back, what, three weeks later? Rey Mysterio lost his title shot in horrid fashion and was just given it back that next Friday? Outside of the Daniel Bryan hijacking a few years ago, this seemed to be the norm.
This goes even double when championships are not on the line. Sure, undercard titles can change hands all the time in the build-up to Mania, but hardly are they key dominoes anymore. The world title changing hands is a big one still, but after seeing who wins the Rumble, figuring out who would walk into Mania with the big gold can be insanely predictable. So if title matches rarely stand out, just how lost in the grime are some other matches? I’m here to attempt to shed some light on some that get lost on the Road to RoadMania. A quick note that I am counting things between the Royal Rumble and WrestleMania, but not anything from the Rumble event itself. I’m also not counting actual Elimination Chamber matches because then this list would probably be nothing but them.
1. Roman Reigns vs. Dean Ambrose vs. Brock Lesnar | Fastlane 2016
I could have easily gone with Reigns/Bryan from 2015, but more people know about that one. The results of this match produced two of the most disappointing third acts in WrestleMania history, but it’s important to look at contests like this in the moment they happened. What was on the line in this one was an opportunity to face WWE World Heavyweight Champion Triple H at WrestleMania 32. Of course, Roman wins and was always going to win, but the journey to get there produced maybe one of the best matches Suplex City-era Brock Lesnar has had.
The story of the match was Roman and Dean putting aside their friendship for a shot at WrestleMania, but that they also had to team up and take out The Beast if they had any hope whatsoever of getting here. The addition of a third party into the normal one-on-one Lesnar contest goes a great way to humanizing The Beast and allowed more action between Brock’s never-ending suplexfests. Roman and Dean do everything, including two Shield Powerbombs through both announce tables and burying him underneath the rubble and it still isn’t enough to keep Lesnar down. The best moments, though, may be between Ambrose taking every single blow Lesnar threw at him and getting up for more like the madman he is.
The “please sir, may I have another” chemistry the two showed was so good, it set up the money Mania match between the two of them a month later. But the less said about that contest, the better.
2. John Cena vs. Kevin Owens, Champion vs. Champion | Elimination Chamber 2015
Let me take you back to a mythical time when John Cena performed full-time and Kevin Owens was the hottest “prospect” on WWE’s NXT brand and maybe the best heel in the entire company. With John Cena having his US Championship open challenges, NXT Champion and prizefighter Kevin Owens showed up to answer the call one week proclaiming himself better than the perpetual main eventer. He ambushed and beat the tar out of Cena in the weeks leading to this contest.
What made this match’s magic was the fact that this was a bombastic introduction to Kevin Owens. NXT had recently been put on the map with its TakeOvers, but it hadn’t taken the world by storm just yet. Owens was a household name on the indie scene as Kevin Steen, but wasn’t a mainstream name in the slightest to a WWE audience. If you didn’t watch the not-even-a-year-old WWE Network, you may not have known anything about the dude. Even in NXT, most Owens matches were less wrestling and more a calculated mauling as he outmaneuvered and overpowered his foes both physically and psychologically. He hadn’t taken on anyone who had given him much trouble – and then he decided to call his shot against Big Match John himself.
The match is a haymaker bout in the sense that the match just kept swinging back and forth with both guys just taking their biggest and best shots, heavy blow for heavy blow, all the while re-solidifying Cena as a workrate workhorse and displaying the heel tenacity of the brash Owens. In the end, it was that tenacity and a great deal of brutality that got indie darling Owens the pinfall victory over the face of the company a month away from the Showcase of the Immortals, making it possibly the most shocking Road to WrestleMania win ever.
3. Triple H vs. Stone Cold Steve Austin, 3 Stages of Hell | No Way Out 2001
How else could you settle a WrestleMania-level feud blow-off but have two men who hate each other’s guts go at it not once, not twice, but three times in the very same night? The climax of the “Who ran down Austin” storyline from Survivor Series 1999, Austin had to go through Rikishi before Triple H revealed himself to be the true mastermind behind it all, leading to this brutal slugfest.
Actually, scratch that. I think ‘brutal’ is a bit of an understatement for what these two men wanted to do to each other. They practically destroyed each other and bled all over the place with busted tables and sledgehammers galore to the point that neither man actually earned the definitive fall. Austin smashed his way to the first fall and Trips used that trusty hammer to pick up the second fall, but the third, decided inside a steel cage, only ended when they destroyed each other so much that they fell at the same time, but Austin fell first and Trips atop him. It is forty minutes of balls-to-the-wall hatred induced violence.
The biggest point of this match is that it is often discussed as one of the greatest matches in wrestling history to show someone who has never seen wrestling. It is an excellent display of both of the intensity and brutality wrestling can contain while simultaneously showcasing the sheer storytelling ability the entire artform entails. And all this without ‘technical’ wrestling or even being for Austin’s WrestleMania title shot he earned for winning the Rumble for a third time. Personally, it’s weird for me. Maybe my favorite match of all time is TLC II and that’s the match I always show to people outside of wrestling to get them to maybe understand it a bit. This match is crazy, but it’s also crazy long, which can make it drag at points. It’s an easily overlooked flaw, though, and one can’t deny its place as a fantastic match that probably should’ve actually taken place at WrestleMania.
4. The Shield vs. The Wyatt Family | Elimination Chamber 2014
This match. Good lord, this match. Not unlike the previous entry full of chaos, this contest is mostly the same thing but replace the chairs, sledgehammers, and barbed wire bats with four equally destructive human beings and you have an instant classic that ticks all my boxes.
Going into 2014, The Shield and the Wyatts were the legit hottest acts in the company not named Daniel Bryan and undoubtedly the best heel acts. All we needed was an excuse to get them in the same ring at the same time to have these dynamic trios go off. When the Wyatts costing Dean Ambrose an Elimination Chamber qualifying match and the course was set, EC 2014 would have the two most dominant factions of the time bash each other’s brains in.
Before the contest officially began, “This is awesome” and dueling “Let’s go Wyatts/Let’s go Shield” chants set the stage for what was just a big cool vs. awesome affair. The outcome of the match was entirely inconsequential and unlike many PPV matches on the Road, no one cared. People just wanted these fellas to fight. And they did, with brilliant and continuous tag team tit for tat action with very little breathing room for anyone involved. The never-ending chaos would accumulate with the Wyatts picking off the Shield one-by one before Bray hit Sister Abigail on Roman effing Reigns for the clean as a whistle pin and win. The only real downside to this match is that it left the Shield with no real WrestleMania opponents when they clearly deserved the world.
5. CM Punk vs. John Cena | RAW Feb 25th, 2013
Maybe I am biased to the ring work in recent years or maybe it’s a testament that match quality has actually gone up in the last decade. Either way, I make no apologies that this list is made of mostly compiled of things from a few years ago and this is the cherry on top.
Most of you know the story by now. In the summer of 2011, CM Punk lit the entire wrestling world on fire and two of the men he directed a lot of those flames at were John Cena and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. At the legendary MITB ‘11 event, Punk would shock the world by beating Cena for the gold and change the WWE landscape overnight, setting the stage for he and Cena to be the Batman and Superman of the WWE for the next few years. After a 434 day WWE Championship reign from November 2011 to January 2013 was unceremoniously ended by The Rock and set up Rock v. Cena for the second year in a row, the rightfully pissed Punk would challenge Cena for his WrestleMania title shot.
The big story heading into the match was the fact that from 2011 forward, Cena had never defeated Punk in big time matches and he had to do so to get through his greatest rival of the past two years to get his redemption against Rocky. If you’ve seen the five-star classic from MITB, many of the same spots are revisited and alluded to, as well as other big moments from their other main event matches together. What really set this one apart, though, is what both men were willing to do to their foe who knew them so well. Just what could they pull out of the bag that their rival hadn’t seen or countered?
Punk, for one, nailed Cena with a piledriver, a move that had been long forbidden in the WWE since WCW was closed down and received the same impact and reaction as if he’d put Cena through a table. How does the heavyweight battle finish? Cena pulling a goddamn hurricanrana out of his ass on Punk before an AA finishes it all. The last three matches on this list were all contests that belonged at WrestleMania and none more than this one; the climax of a two-year feud that was possibly the greatest WWE rivalry of this decade.
Honorable Mention: Kurt Angle vs. Chris Benoit, Smackdown February 6th, 2003. It seems a bit unfair to officially include it on the list given how this is a fifteen minute rehash of their legendary title bout from a few weeks earlier minus the WWE Championship on the line. Bloody fantastic and has pacing that could outrun an ambulance with sirens blaring.
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