Tito Santana v Greg Valentine (MSG, 1/21/85)
Man, this was great. They start out real tentative like and Valentine seems almost Flair-esque in his begging off, stalling, etc. Tito of course gets more and more pissed and wants Valentine IN THE MIDDLE because he wants his damn belt back. Then Valentine works him into the corner with a collar-and-elbow tie-up and tries to sneak in a kick to the gut, but Tito catches his leg and punches him right in the nose. He's just all over him at the start, even beginning to set up the figure-four (which is a pretty big part of this feud by now), and Valentine has to bail, beg off and stall because he has no answer. Then I guess he remembers who he is and that he has a rep for being a tough motherfucker and sets about trying to cave Tito's ribs in. Greg's whole stretch on offence is choice and loaded with nasty little touches, stomping Tito just below the armpit like those Murdoch kneedrops to Butch Reed way back (actually I just realised this happened before Murdoch/Reed), digging his elbow into Santana's ribs while he's got him in an abdominal stretch, and straight up clubbing him right in the mush to cut him off. Valentine's big mistake comes when he winds up crotching himself on the middle rope, and at that stage I was expecting them to head towards the 80s WWF feud-progressing non-finish after a few minutes of a Tito fight back. Would've been a really good match, and I would've been happy I took the 15 minutes or so to watch it. But that's not what we actually get. We do get the Tito fight back, which is really spirited in its own right with plenty of GREAT face punching and such, and there's even some more teasing of the figure-four, but Valentine knows he's about to lose and does anything he can to get away from it. Not in the "heel takes a walk and is satisfied with a count out since he'll keep his title" sense, because Valentine has morphed from begging off stooge to surly motherfucker IN FRONT OF OUR VERY EYES, folks. Instead, he just seems to be trying to catch a little wind before unleashing another manly ass-stomping. And that's exactly what we get when Tito crashes and burns on a Dustin Rhodes style missed flying forearm, bouncing off the mat and flying out to the concrete. Valentine is seriously way too surly and nasty for words. Misanthropic, even. There's an especially awesome moment where he tosses Tito out to the floor, and Tito winds up almost hung up on the ropes as he tries to get back in, so Valentine just fish hooks him and lifts his head back so he can club him right in the throat. Last few minutes has Greg trying to put the figure-four on Tito only for that to be reversed each time, and that leads to Santana eventually connecting with a flying forearm. Unfortunately it knocks Greg out to the floor and this time we do get out 80s WWF feud-progressing finish, but holy shit everything beforehand was on point. This might be the best Valentine performance I've seen, actually. The '79 broadway with Backlund is a better match, and Valentine is really good in that as well, but nothing in that compares to the sheer brusque violence of this. Tito's a willing whipping boy and holds his end up splendidly, but pissed off Valentine is the kind of Valentine I can totally dig.
Butch Reed v Tito Santana (Prime Time Wrestling, 5/12/87)
I love Butch Reed. There's probably two guys at most I mark harder for and on some days there wouldn't even be two. He and Slick do some really great 'phantom foreign object' shtick in this, which I really wasn't expecting. They'll pass the "object" between each other while Santana gets the ref' to check him a few times because he's sure they're up to shady business. The ref' never finds anything, though, and Ventura on commentary thinks they're playing mind games. Then once he's satisfied that's Reed's clean, Santana backs him into the corner, and as the ref' goes to split them up, Reed takes the "object" out of his trunks, smacks Tito on the back of the head and tosses it back to Slick. Crowd was eating out of their hands the whole time. I'm also a sucker for Butch Reed working a headlock, because he looks like a guy that could pop your dome like a grape with those huge arms of his. He's got some nice little ways of putting a nasty spin on it as well. Santana's a dude that seemed to *always* be a consistently good mid-card guy that, if you give him time, will put on a good match with just about anyone. Sort of like Matt Hardy of '06-'07 or Christian of '09, except I've watched a shit load of 80s WWF mid-card stuff over the last year and he's managed to do it for about 7 years straight. Granted, the opportunities for Santana to get 20 minutes on TV (or working around the horn, eventually making it to TV) were greater than Hardy or Christian's, but still, the guy was pretty awesome. His flying forearm can be really beautiful sometimes, too. I thought the first five minutes of this were excellent, and while things cool off as it goes, I can't imagine there being more than five WWE matches this year which are given the same amount of time being better.
Bret Hart v Rick Martel (Prime Time Wrestling, 10/16/89)
I liked Martel a lot in this; totally came across as the kind of guy that'd brag about how he's got a yacht and all kinds of fancy shit that you don't to the point you'd want to haul off and break his chin. He's all cocky and cutesy at the beginning since he's practically outsmarting Bret at every turn, doing jumping jacks and cartwheels like a total rube because he thinks he's got this one in the bag. Then Bret wastes him with a clothesline and Ye Cocky Prince with the Sweater Vest and Tennis Shoes is actually a Cocky Pleb, just like the rest of us workin' folks with the pink and black singlets. The commercial break placement of this annoyed me a little because when we come back from the break Martel's back on offence again, and I'm the kind of dweeb that could be swayed from thinking something's really good to thinking it's actually great based on a nice transition spot. Needless to say, Martel's back to his jumping jack, cartwheely, pompous self once he has control again. There's this one spot where he's trying to turn Bret over for the Boston Crab, but Bret manages to swing himself all the way back and send Martel flying the opposite way he was hoping to be going. Then he tries it again, and we get the same results. Third attempt and Bret tries it again, but this time Martel's expecting it and manages to use Bret's momentum to just shift him over onto his belly to hook in the hold. We get another time limit draw here, but I was fairly sure that would be the case going into it, so I was more focused on how they'd fill the time. I thought they did that very well. I'd probably need to watch the Hennig matches again, even though I don't particularly care to, but right now I'd put this high on a list of Bret's best matches from his singles run around this time.
Mankind v The Rock (Royal Rumble, 1/24/99)
Really crazy, out of control brawl. In a post-Benoit world, I'm sure some people will think it has its share of unnecessary violence (ie. the chair shots -- although it could still be considered unnecessary violence even before 6/07), and... well, I can't really disagree with that. But I do think the Beyond The Mat documentary sort of gave it a life of its own in some respects, because outside of one chairshot to the back of Foley's head (which, granted, was real nasty), I never got the impression Rock was taking any liberties. Obviously Foley's hands are handcuffed behind his back and he can't defend himself, which I suppose is "taking liberties" in and of itself, and yeah, Rock lays a few of the shots in with a fair bit of force, but I still didn't see it as him doing anything that Foley himself would've vetoed. Foley's a fucking lunatic, shit like that isn't remotely foreign to that guy. Anyways, I thought Rock was awesome in this. This is probably his peak as this young, trash talking jock champion (or challenger in this case), at least as a heel. Whole bunch of great stuff he does here, like telling Hebnar to "get that piece a shit outta my face" when he's asked if he quits, and his constant verbal abuse of Foley, calling him a "fat piece of monkey trash", and at one point I think he tells him to go piss himself. The spot where he holds the bell up to Foley's ear and rings it is really goofy, but I love daft shit like that. Lawler on commentary does as well. Foley bumps like a mad man to the surprise of nobody. Most people will no doubt remember the one off the walkway where he goes flying into the electrical equipment, which was pretty insane, but I thought his knees-first bump into the steel steps was close to it on the 'what-the-fuck-is-wrong-with-him-o-meter'; he just careens into them and it's like his body goes limp as he flies about six feet over the top of them. It's always a brutal looking bump, but this time it looked even more so. Favourite part of the match might be the spot where a handcuffed Foley straight up drops a knee right flush on Rock's balls. Foley refusing to quit by saying "You'll have to kill me" after being blasted with several chairshots is a cool touch, in a somewhat morbid/disturbing kinda way.
Steve Austin v Chris Benoit (Smackdown!, 5/31/01)
I was always sort of "whatever" on this. Thought it was good, but not something I'd go to bat for as a top 30 match in company history. This time I changed my tune. Benoit's ribs are all taped up here and are a big focus throughout. Austin was more or less a complete maniac at this point, and while there's clear "rib work" in spells, Benoit's still doing everything he can to hang with the champ every step of the way. He goes for multiple Crossface attempts in the early stages, matches Austin in a duelling sharpshooter spot, and generally doesn't let Austin get the sort of advantage he needs. Then Austin says "Fuck it" and tries to break him in half by front suplexing him on the announce table. The first suplex looks ugly enough, but the second one is just horrendously nasty. Now Austin's in complete control and it's as if the more comfortable he becomes the more unhinged he becomes. He's dragging Benoit around the ringside area by the tape on his ribs and throwing him into barricades and steps with this crazed look on his face. At random moments it's like he'll leave Benoit alone for a few seconds while he goes looking for someone to punch, then when he doesn't find anyone - because nobody's stupid enough to go near him - he turns back to Benoit and dishes more punishment. Love the part where he's got Benoit where he wants him, so he starts taunting him with the World Title belt, rubbing it in his face and talking trash, and Benoit starts firing back only to run head first into a huge spinebuster. Guys throwing out stupid amounts of German suplexes is a spot I'm not much of a fan of anymore, but Benoit's German-times-11 spot in this feels like a huge moment, like one of his big weapons being used when it's needed most. The crowd completely lose their shit for it, too. Screwjob finish is a screwjob finish, but I get the feeling they might've been building to Benoit actually taking the belt at some point. That obviously never happened, though, because he was gone for a year less than a month later. Excellent match. Austin was on an absolute tear in '01 and this is definitely one of his best outings. Not sure what I was missing before.