Welcome back to another edition of Mania Main Thoughts, where we’re taking a look back at every Wrestlemania main event. Maybe I’ll finish these before Wrestlemania 34?
Today we’re going back to a big milestone year for the granddaddy of them all – Wrestlemania XX. To celebrate the occasion, WWE returned to the site of the original WM, Madison Square Garden in New York City. With WWE based in nearby Stamford, CT, New York has long been synonymous with the company. And no venue is held more sacred in wrestling and maybe all of sports and entertainment than MSG.
With the tagline of “Where it all begins, again”, WWE presented the show as a true turning point for the company. That was accurate in a lot of ways, but the biggest was likely unintentional. WMXX marked the Mania debut of a young John Cena, who defeated The Big Show for the US Title in the opening match and would go on to have what is arguably the greatest run in WWE history. But that’s another story.
WMXX also marked the return of The Undertaker to his “deadman” persona after spending several years as a biker. You had to be there for the whole thing, it kind of made sense.
However, the big “new beginning” was the possibility of a passing of the torch to a new group of hungry wrestlers. This theme reached all the way to the main event of the night, which featured World Heavyweight Champion Triple H defending against his old frenemy Shawn Michaels and Chris Benoit, who had spent the past 18 years of his life working to get to the biggest spotlight the business had to offer.
It would mark the first time that WM would be headlined by a triple threat match, but fans may have been a bit put off that it wasn’t a one-on-one match. Let’s look at how this thing got booked.
Shawn Michaels was on top of the wrestling world in 1998. He was the WWF Champion, without a doubt the most over guy in the company, and the leader of red hot faction d-Generation X. dX also included his real life friend Triple H and was the WWF’s answer to the nWo. It seemed like HBK had the world in the palm of his hand, but in reality it was on his shoulders. He was suffering from a debilitating back injury and the pressure of getting on top and staying on top (along with some choice substances) had left him more than burnt out. At WMXIV, Shawn passed the WWF title to Stone Cold Steve Austin and dX to Triple H, then rode off into the sunset. He wouldn’t return for four years.
In the meantime, Triple H cemented dX’s legacy as one of the greatest factions of all time, but more importantly, positioned himself as the most hated heel in the WWF. By the time Shawn returned, his best friend Hunter was without question THE man to beat. This led to a heated feud between the two that was off and on for years. As WMXX drew near, the feud was at its peak. Shawn and HHH looked to finally end their feud as they faced off in a Last Man Standing Match for the World Heavyweight Title at Royal Rumble 2004. The match (a hidden gem that is definitely worth searching out) ended in a bloody draw when neither man could answer a 10-count. HHH would once again hold on to his championship.
The big HHH/HBK Last Man Standing Match may be a hidden gem because it happened on the same card as the 2004 Royal Rumble Match, which was one of WWE’s most fulfilling and emotional moments to that point. In 2000, a new group of wrestlers named The Radicalz debuted in the WWF. Chris Benoit, Eddie Guerrero, Dean Malenko and Perry Saturn were all well-traveled, smaller build wrestlers who had been competing in amazing matches all around the world. The four ended up in WCW, where they would often carry the undercard but were never given the chance to shine in the main event, which were bogged down with big and established guys like Hollywood Hogan and Kevin Nash.
Like Chris Jericho just months before, the Radicalz ditched WCW and took the WWF by storm. One man in particular, Chris Benoit, would become a grass roots favorite through his physical style and intensity. Benoit had traveled the world as a wrestler, making a name for himself in Japan, ECW and WCW (where he briefly won the WCW Title). Benoit – dubbed The Canadian Crippler after he broke Sabu’s neck – would have a few brushes with the main event in WWF/E, but the company just didn’t view him as a true player. The fans saw differently, however, and by 2004, the fan support was too much for WWE to ignore. Benoit would enter #1 in the 2004 Royal Rumble match and outlast everyone else to become the winner and earn his shot at true greatness – a main event match at Wrestlemania.
In 2004, WWE was in the middle of the first brand split. Like today’s brand split, Raw and SmackDown! had separate champions. Triple H was the World Heavyweight Champion on Raw and Brock Lesnar was the WWE Champion on SmackDown. Rumble winner Chris Benoit was on the SmackDown! roster. The thought of a Lesnar/Benoit match is interesting, considering Benoit re-popularized the German suplex that Lesnar seems to use exclusively these days. Little did fans know at the time that Brock Lesnar would be leaving the WWE soon to try his hand at pro football. Lesnar would end up dropping the WWE title to Benoit’s Radicalz brother and real life friend Eddie Guerrero at No Way Out ’04 and go on to be booed out of the building in a match with an also-exiting Goldberg at WMXX. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
On the Raw after the Rumble, HBK and Triple H looked to settle their blood feud once and for all on the grandest stage of them all – Wrestlemania. Raw “sheriff” Stone Cold Steve Austin decided he’d spoil all that. Since Shawn didn’t get the job done at the Rumble, he would not be next in line for a World Heavyweight Title shot. Instead, Rumble winner Benoit had found a “loophole” in the contract, noting that it didn’t specify which champion he had to face at Mania. And Benoit wanted Triple H.
This incited HBK, who would end up crashing the HHH/Benoit contract signing (as if contract signings ever go well). Raw GM Eric Bischoff was left no choice but to have Triple H defend the title against both Benoit and Michaels in a triple threat match at WMXX.
I know that was a lot of verbiage to finally get us to the match, but I think it’s really important to understand the deep history behind this one to truly see its greatness. So many matches, even Wrestlemania main events, are thrown together hastily from a storyline perspective – but when you have a match that culminates over a decade of storytelling, that’s pretty amazing.
So that brings us to Madison Square Garden and WMXX. Definitely one of the better Manias, WMXX had more than its share of great moments. Undertaker’s big return with Paul Bearer in tow. John Cena’s Mania debut. Trish Stratus turning heel on Jericho. The Rock ‘n’ Sock Connection/Evolution match that was just pure fun. And Eddie Guerrero managing to lie, cheat and steal his way to a victory over Kurt Angle, holding on to the WWE Title in the process.
All of this paled to the main event, however, which just may be the greatest WM main event of all time. And, as was the trend at the time, it all kicked off with an amazing piece of production to get you pumped.
Shawn Michaels would enter the ring first to a good pop, but it would be the last time the crowd was on his side for the night. Benoit came out second and the crowd went crazy. A lot of people remember Benoit as an internet darling and, yes, NYC is a smart-heavy crowd, but EVERYBODY was behind the Rabid Wolverine going into WMXX.
The match started with HBK and Chris Benoit fighting over who would get to lay a beatdown on Triple H. No one won, but Triple H definitely lost, as Benoit and HBK lit him up with chops that would’ve had Ric Flair wincing.
Honestly, words don’t really do this match justice. It really is art, with the three men in the ring without question the top wrestlers in the world on that day. Triple threat matches tend to devolve into “throw one guy out while the other guys fight in the ring, repeat”, but these guys didn’t lean on that trope too much. I definitely loved when Triple H tied Benoit up in the corner, effectively taking him out of the match without taking him out of the ring. Bonus points for HHH using Benoit as a weapon against HBK.
The match eventually spilled outside, with HHH going down temporarily and HBK getting a nasty gash on his head after getting slammed into the ringpost. With the MSG crowd firmly behind Benoit, you could see Shawn’s whole visage change as he battled Benoit – if they wanted the heel, they got the heel. Benoit even teased putting Michaels in the Sharpshooter – a callback to the Montreal Screwjob and Benoit’s days in the Hart Dungeon. The fans were going nuts.
Another notable thing about this match is the lack of all three guys hitting finishers during the match. There were no pedigrees or sweet chin musics to be seen until the actual match finish, and HBK and HHH fought out of Benoit’s crippler crossface attempts like it could be the end of their very life. Kudos to the spot where Benoit had Shawn in the crossface and HHH reached in from outside to physically keep Shawn from tapping the mat. That may have been the first time that spot was ever used.
Late into the match, HHH had Benoit on the floor with HBK out in the ring. Hunter started tossing the monitors and teased a pedigree on the announce table, but Benoit fought out. Shawn then wakes up and joins them. With only a look, he and his old friend HHH take out Benoit with a massive double suplex through the SmackDown! announce table. With the Rabid Wolverine vanquished, HHH and HBK were finally free for the battle that they needed to have, to finally settle the score. The fans were on the edge of their seat for every second. HHH ultimately hit the pedigree on Shawn, but Benoit miraculously recovered to interrupt the 3-count.
Benoit and a bloody HHH were left to fight for the title. The finish came as Benoit locked HHH in the sharpshooter, but got nailed with an HBK superkick before Hunter could tap. HBK went for the cover, but Triple H kicked out. Shawn got up to hit the Sweet Chin Music, but Benoit was able to reverse that and toss HBK to the outside. HHH snuck up to put Benoit in a pedigree, but Benoit fought out and laid in his crippler crossface. It looked like Triple H would be able to reach the ropes, but Benoit rolled backwards to bring Hunter back into the middle of the ring. Face full of agony, the champ finally tapped and we had a new World Champion. The ref presented the belt to Benoit, who was literally covered in blood, sweat and tears. An 18 year quest to be the best had finally ended. Jim Ross’s call was on point – “Benoit has been so close so many times. Year after year, mile after mile, continent after continent, Benoit never gave up…finally, my God, FINALLY, Chris Benoit has become heavyweight champion of this world!”
As if that ending wasn’t emotional enough, Benoit’s longtime friend and WWE Champion Eddie Guerrero appeared in the ring for a hug as confetti fell and the crowd cheered in Madison Square Garden.
It was the realest moment WWE would see for the next 10 years. That same night, in Kyoto City Gymnasium, half the world away, a 22-year old Bryan Danielson would lace up his boots.
We all know what would happen in the aftermath of this match. Tragedy after tragedy. But at least on March 14th, 2004, one of the greatest Wrestlemania stories ever told unfolded. And I think that’s worth mentioning every once in a while.
Final Score: 10.0 (This Is Wrestling)