There are different theories about what makes a good opening match. Wrestling promotions have long struggled with nailing this down.  The “dark match” exists to get fans primed for wrestling (and let the late arrivals straggle in) so that when the camera goes on for the Pay-Per- View, the fans are already warmed up and excited. Lets discuss 5 excellent WrestleMania Opening Matches. This is not a ranking per se.  These are just 5 awesome matches, awesome for different reasons. Technical work-rate fans beware, nostalgia and clubbering do score some points with me. Clear?

    1. Owen Hart, The British Bulldog and Vader vs Jake the Snake Roberts, Yokozuna and Ahmed Johnson
    WrestleMania Opening Matches – WrestleMania XII

    Lets start our WrestleMania Opening Matches here, with Jake Roberts. There’s no pop like a Wrestlemania pop for Jake Roberts’ DDT.  Go back and watch.  Every Wrestlemania match the Snake is in, there’s always a couple of chants or anticipatory gasps for the DDT from the crowd, and they always go ‘effin nuts if and when Jake hits it.

    This is Jake’s return Wrestlemania after bolting for WCW and a rough go of it four years earlier.  And the crowd still loves him (he’s a face here which was always an odd role for Jake to me, but the crowd here is thirsting to cheer him).  The bonus here is Jake is into it too.  Knowing the depths his in-ring abilities would sink due to drug and alcohol abuse in the late 90s, this is one of the last glimpses at Jake really working the crowd.  That’s no gift to shake a stick at it.

    At one point in this hard hitting match even Vince McMahon on the call gets in on the anticipation yelling “Jake is looking to give the DDT to the legal man!” as soon as big Yoko rolls over and tags Jake in (he does go for it here but Bulldog breaks it up after Jake gives the kick in the gut to bend Owen Hart over).  When the ring clears and Jake does hit Owen with the DDT the flashbulbs pop and the crowd goes nuts.  Unfortunately the ref is distracted and Jake doesn’t get the pinfall here. 

    The crowd was up for this whole match really.  Early on when Yokozuna goes nuts on Vader in the corner the building erupts.  And oh yea, it’s the freaking Wrestlemania debut of Vader!  Owen gets a big pop for one of the hardest top rope dropkicks you’ll ever see.  When Vader hits the Vader bomb on Jake and wins the match, the crowd goes nuts (only Randy Savage rivals Jake’s ability to play totally beaten and battered-really puts Big Van Vader over as a monster here). 

    It’s rare that you can just throw a bunch of superstars (and Ahmed Johnson) together for the sake of it and get a good match, but it worked here.  Without a major storyline to play otherwise, these five upper tier guys (plus Ahmed Johnson) get the yearly Wrestlemania time they deserve, and the fans eat it up as they beat the crap out of each other.

    2. WWE Intercontinental Title: Chris Jericho (C) vs William Regal – WrestleMania Opening Matches – WrestleMania X-Seven

    Regal double-underhook suplexes Jericho from the top rope. 

    In terms of WrestleMania Opening Matches, this one is up there with the best matches on this Legendary show. People call X-Seven the Best Mania Ever, after all.

    These are two of the best in-ring performers in the last quarter century.  They both always generate tons of heat, and they have distinct in-ring styles without being overly repetitive. 

    Regal has had a surprisingly long run, first as Steven Regal in WCW, and now in the WWE given the simplicity of his gimmick.  He is a throwback to Harley Race, with simple trunks and the forearm tattoo, a tough and stiff hitter that can do the technical stuff as good as anyone.  Because he is British, all promotions have simply gimmicked him as British, but he makes it work.

    Regal probably became one of my favorite wrestlers ever when he shot on Goldberg (deservedly so) but still did the job.  I never bought Goldberg, never wanted him (though to be fair I think by the time Goldberg came a long I had jumped ship from being WCW-loyal to predominantly following the WWF).  I love that Regal saw what the smart fans saw.  This was a guy being shoved down our throat, and not particularly talented or interesting in the ring.  What balls to hang it out there for the Nitro audience to see.

    Jericho became one of my favorite wrestlers when he read off eighteen different versions an armbar on both sides of a commercial break on Nitro to taunt Dean Malenko.  Even more so when he put up Chris Benoit in a boat ahead of their epic, epic ladder match for the belt he defends here. 

    Like Regal, Jericho always seemed brilliant about the business too.  He knew when not to pull the trigger (he was, after all, offered the heel roll of the hockey stick wielding Goon by Vince years before), and when to make the move (the first in a line of WCW “cruiserweights” to jump to the WWF in the late 90s).

    If the redness of Regal’s chest after Jericho opened a steak and chophouse on him in this match is any indication, these two put on the best Wrestlemania opener for the Intercontinental Title on the books (though Rob van Dam and Regal the following year and the 7-man Ladder Match to open ‘Mania 31 certainly give it a run for its money).

    3. Owen Hart vs Bret Hart
    WrestleMania Opening Matches – WrestleMania X

    I have a confession: Bret Hart matches that aren’t against Stone Cold Steve Austin don’t really jazz me.  I don’t know, but for a guy that calls Ric Flair out for using the same moves in every match, I’ve sure seen Bret take the same chest-first turnbuckle bump, give the same damned bulldog, and throw guys through the ropes off a waist lock over and over. 

    But I can forgive a signature style, and I’m certainly not a Bret basher.  He puts on good matches, and I’d put his match with Roddy Rowdy Piper at ‘Mania VII and the match with Stone Cold at 13 on the the all time great ‘Mania Matches list, no question.  I’m not writing that article though.

    This match makes the list at number three because it’s good in-ring, it has great storyline buildup, the surprise ending was genuinely shocking, and it feeds a fantastic ending to the pay-per-view. Think about that last one: has the opening match ever mattered to the final match when it wasn’t a tournament? 

    Here we have a match borne of necessity.  There’s a three way struggle for the WWF title.  Lex Luger has been pushed to the moon on the Lex Express after slamming Yokozuna on the big battleship, and the fans have mostly pushed him back.  Enter Bret Hart to once again give a face the fans want. 

    So as not to edge Luger out altogether, two matches on this card would determine the title holder at the end of the night.  Reigning champion Yokozuna would battle the winner of a coin toss between Bret and Luger first, then the winner of that match would face the loser of the coin toss.  Luger won the toss, so Bret needed a second match to even the odds (as opposed to getting to wrestle the winner of Luger and Yokozuna fresh). Enter jealous brother Owen in the opener.

    The Bret and Owen rivalry was really one of the first to play with the line between kayfabe and real life in a sustained way.  Wrestlers before had occasionally called out to real life and temporarily broken kayfabe on the stick, but the Hart sibling rivalry has got to be one of the first ongoing featured storylines that referenced real family lines as base for its plot I can recall. 

    The match is of course brilliant.  Owen’s kicks are clean, the wrestling is stiff.  They both earned degrees from ITT Tech as their mat skills are so sharp. The end comes when Bret goes for a roll up to be reversed and pinned clean by Owen.  That WWF booking gave this win to Owen is kind of shocking. The commentators play up the huge upset. 

    What makes it all the better is that after Luger is defeated, and Bret then beats Yoko for the world belt at the end of the night, Owen is there in the entrance way glowering at the celebration of brother Bret in the ring, knowing he was the better man this night, which makes him the best man.  And the fans know it too, they saw it just a couple of hours before.  Ironically, Bret’s title win becomes Owen’s greatest Wrestlemania moment. 

    The layers of psychology this adds create something far more interesting than what would have been an otherwise blasé Bret Hart title win.

    4. Daniel Bryan vs Triple H
    WrestleMania Opening Matches – WrestleMania 30

    How brilliant was the Yes! Movement storyline?  In one of the rare instances of WWE creative feeding off the clear desires of the crowd and being meta in a fairly clever way, Daniel Bryan took on the Authority for a right to a shot at the belt the fans wanted him to have.

    In some ways, it evokes that sweet ECW 90s feel where fans and their reaction were so, so central to the atmosphere and matches.  The gravitation toward ECW then by many fans was because of the idea that ECW put over the guys fans saw as the best, not just the faces sold as the best.

    For years the notion that certain body types and guys didn’t get put over as “the guy” was pervasive.  Hulk Hogan famously allegedly refused to job to Bret Hart after the shenanigans of Wrestlemania IX because Bret didn’t have the right body.  Kevin Nash did all he could to diminish guys like Rey Mysterio and other small guys from anything beyond Cruiserweight status as a wrestler and booker at WCW.  Triple H himself initially lobbied against a Kurt Angle title run because of Angle’s short stature until Pat Patterson told H to shoot fight Angle to prove Angle sucked or shut the hell up.

    This matchup plays to that heat and so much more.  That Triple H himself, future owner of the WWE, was involved as the Authority trying to keep the little guy down gave it that meta turn.  Then, when Bryan played to the Occupy Movement by bringing the fans to Raw to stand and demand his shot at Triple H for a shot at the title, this storyline did that magical thing where it hit the right nerve with fans at the right time, had enough meta, real-life angle to it to turn its heat into fire, and spoke to real-world events.  We couldn’t make the 1% pay with Occupy, but we could damn sure get Daniel Bryan the hell over.

    This kind of reflexively critical storytelling has become all too rare in the no-compete, total control environment of the current monolithic WWE era.  Just look at how much they keep trying to jam Roman Reigns down our throats.

    The match kicks ass too, by the way.  Triple H is so good at the feuds, so good at going all-out, knock-down with whoever he is cast into a heated storyline with, be it The Rock or Mankind or Bryan.  Bryan shows up in his Bruiser Brody boots all shoulder-bandaged and wild-bearded, ready to fight for his rights.  I freaking loved this version of Daniel Bryan.  He was old school enough to appeal to the lapsed and nostalgic fans like me, and good enough in-ring to satisfy today’s elevated work-rate.

    In this one, he takes such a beating, sells his ragged broken body like he’s freaking Randy Savage, and still kicks out of the Pedigree.  He comes back for the win.  The match sells his resiliency so well we aren’t turned off as fans later when he crawls off of the stretcher in the main event Triple Threat to beat Batista and Randy Orton for the belt—we’re fired up to see more.  I’d wager only Stone Cold Steve Austin or Mankind could pull that off otherwise. Bryan seized his moment and performs all out.  And the fans were with every single move.  Yesslemania!

    1. Rey Mysterio vs Eddie Guerrero
    WrestleMania Opening Matches – WrestleMania 21

    Talk about a turning point.  Exactly a year earlier Eddie was at the height of his career, defending the world title belt at Wrestlemania.  Exactly a year later, Mysterio would win the world title after his recording breaking Rumble performance.  You could see this as a torch passing.  A central moment in time.

    In that regard, this one has so, so much more context than their first highly anticipated match at WCW’s Halloween Havoc 1997.  Don’t get me wrong, that one is great, and that the Cruiserweight Title was on the line does add intrigue.  Mysterio beat champion Guerrero in a title versus mask match.

    This is Latino Heat’s last Wrestlemania, as he would pass away in November 2005, just seven months later.  And honestly, it shows.  You can see his face is red, bloated, strained and tired.  If you’ve ever been around someone due for a heart attack, it’s a familiar look.  It’s hard to tell at times if he is playing a character tempted to turn back to his old heel ways, thus shying from the crowd, or if he is simply too tired to play to the fans.

    The storyline here is subtle leading into the match.  Eddie is on a singles losing streak, especially to good friend Rey Mysterio.  However, together they hold the Tag Team Championship.  Not since Luger and Sting have Tag Team Champions played out such a subtle tension.  After (spoiler alert!) Eddie loses this match, the storyline would follow a more blatant path, with Eddie heeling out and revealing himself to be the biological father of Rey’s son. In the end, the story devolved into cheap heat (pardon the pun), though the wrestling was still awesome when Eddie finally beat Rey in a steel cage match on SmackDown in October after Mysterio beat Eddie again at Judgment Day and again on SmackDown and again at Great American Bash and again when they met in a Ladder Match at SummerSlam throughout the summer of 2005.

    Aside from all that, this match is a face melter.  When they both fall on their backs, pin each other, then bridge up simultaneously in the first few minutes I damn sure jumped up with their shoulders.  Every aspect of this match is chemistry and magic in motion.  It’s hypnotic. 

    The arm drags are whip-quick and powerful.  The jumps take extra elevation.  Watch when Eddie flips Rey over his shoulder to the ring apron.  Rey’s flip up and over is so smooth, so perfect he seems to stop in mid-air with his feet at a perfect pitch toward the sky.  Eddie levels him with a right hand when he lands.  Then Eddie launches over the top to splash Rey after hanging in the air for at least 48 seconds, smooth as a bird.

    Back to the power moves:  Rey looks like he’s going to snap in half when Eddie hits the backbreaker.  Everything is so stiff, so hard.  How can guys that fly like that hit like that?  Gawd these two showcase why they are absolutely two of the best ever.

    Eddie hits three vertical suplexes in a row but misses the frog splash.  They reverse cradles on each other.  Rey flips out of power bomb, drop toe-holds Eddie into the ropes and hits the 619, smack on the side of Eddie’s face.

    Mysterio goes for the Frankensteiner but Eddie holds and delivers a massive powerbomb.  No one powerbombs like a former WCW cruiserweight.  But it’s not enough—Mysterio kicks out.  Eddie charges in, but Rey gets the elbow up.  Rey runs at Eddie, leaps, hits the Frankensteiner and flips under, grabbing one leg for the cradle pin.  One, two, three.

    Mysterio rolls out of the ring as Eddie sulks, but quickly Rey is back in the ring, offering his hand.  They shake hands.  Eddie has a cut on his forehead and Rey bleeds at the mouth.  Each man is put over, and Eddie’s music, not Rey’s, hits as Rey exits and Eddie is the one left in the ring to admiring applause—bewildered by his loss but loved by us.

    Some Honorable WrestleMania Opening Matches:

    • Seven Man Ladder Match for the Intercontinental Title – WrestleMania 31
    • Money In The Bank Ladder Match – WrestleMania 25
    • WWE Intercontinental Title: William Regal (C) vs Rob Van Dam – WrestleMania X8
    • World Heavyweight Title: Edge (C) vs Alberto Del Rio – WrestleMania 27