From now until Wrestlemania, I will be counting down my five favorite Wrestlemania matches of all time, from how they came about to what impression they left on the show, the company, and the business. Today, the countdown begins with a dream match between two of the best to ever collide at Wrestlemania in their absolute primes.
Angle and Michaels had already established themselves as huge stars who put on great matches at Wrestlemania. Michaels came to Wrestlemania XXI off of a singles match with Chris Jericho and a main event World Heavyweight Title match with HHH and Chris Benoit the previous two years. Over the same stretch, Angle wrestled Brock Lesnar and Eddie Guerrero for the WWE Title.
This time, neither wrestler was in the main event. John Cena and Batista displaced them on their way to main event status. Instead, Angle and Michaels paired off, starting at the Royal Rumble. After Michaels was eliminated, Angle relentlessly attacked him outside the ring and held him in the Ankle Lock. On the path to the match, Angle brought in and attacked both Marty Jannetty and Sensational Sherri to humiliate Michaels.
To show he could go toe-to-toe with Angle, Michaels started the match on the mat. He held Angle in a simple side headlock that the grappling master could not escape. After a rope break, Angle went for a go-behind, but Michaels performed a standing switch and reengaged the headlock. Angle freed himself with a stiff elbow, and Michaels went old school with a short arm scissor. Finally, Angle lifted Michaels into the air to force him to break the hold and they traded pin attempts.
When Angle hit on a break in the corner, it gave him a chance to put Michaels in the Ankle Lock. Michaels quickly escape and clotheslined Angle to the floor, where the action became more impactful. Angle lifted Michaels into a fireman’s carry on the floor and slammed his back into the ring post. Angle continued to target the back as they reentered the ring with an overhead belly-to-belly suplex.
The methodical nature of the match got more intense with a series of slaps between the two. Angle tried for a belly-to-belly from the second rope. Michaels blocked it and went for an elbow drop, but Angle rolled out of the way. Michaels blocked an Angle Slam and used a back body drop to send Angle to the floor. He climbed to the top rope and hit a cross-body to the floor.
Both wrestlers climbed onto the apron and Michaels used a series of elbows and a low mule kick to block Angles attempt at a German Suplex to the floor. As Angle recovered on the announce table, Michaels delivered a 180 degree springboard splash from the ring to the table. The impact was so severe that it took a nine count for both wrestlers to get back in the ring.
Michaels kipped up from a flying forearm in spite of the punishment he had received. He climbed to the top turnbuckle and hit the elbow on his second attempt. He tuned up the band, but when he went for Sweet Chin Music, Angle caught his foot and turned it into the Ankle Lock. He finally reached the ropes. As soon as he did, Angle went for the Angle Slam, but Michaels rolled into a sunset flip, only for Angle to catch an ankle and nearly lock in his submission move once again.
They both made it back to their feet and Michaels tried for Sweet Chin Music again. This time, Angle blocked the kick and hit an Angle Slam for a very near fall. A frustrated Angle went to the top rope for a moonsault, which Michaels avoided. Michaels slowly made his way up the ropes and Angle sprung to his feet to hit an Angle slam off of the top rope for a long two count.
Angle pulled a limp Michaels to his feet and berated him. Michaels pulled himself away just long enough to hit Sweet Chin Music, but he lacked the energy to make a quick cover. Angle just barely got a shoulder up when Michaels finally made the cover, and stubbornly locked in the Ankle Lock again. Michaels flailed wildly to free himself until Angle grapevined the leg. After an excruciatingly long time in the hold, Michaels tapped out.
Neither wrestler immediately reentered his respective title picture. Instead, Michaels beat Angle at Vengeance in a rematch that was almost as good as the original. Shortly thereafter, Angle challenged Cena for the WWE Title, Michaels faced Hulk Hogan at SummerSlam, and both wrestlers were back on the title track after their tremendously successful Wrestlemania diversion.
Angle would wrestle only one more time at Wrestlemania- a great match with Randy Orton and Rey Mysterio that earned Mysterio the World Heavyweight Title. Michaels continued his outrageous run of Wrestlemania matches with classics against Vince McMahon, Ric Flair, and the Undertaker.
Why It Worked
Given his reputation as a high flyer, it was a masterstroke for Michaels to start the match by out-wrestling Angle the way he did. An arena full of fans sat in rapt attention as the tension built toward the first big spot.
The deliberate start impacted the psychology of the match in a couple of ways. First, the fans knew that Michaels would eventually accelerate the pace and take risks. Because it was delayed, it made the bigger spots and false finishes more exciting when they arrived. Additionally, because Michaels was able to frustrate Angle at his own style, it gave emotional credibility to the anger that Angle showed later in the match. The wrestlers created a believable emotional trajectory for the fans and themselves, which is a foundational element of a great match.
Both wrestlers are supremely athletic and masters of ring psychology. Even outside the main event, they managed to put together a show-stealing masterpiece. They tried to out-do one another in their areas of expertise. When they had withstood enough punishment, they fell back on their core skills. The deciding factor was that Angle was able to counter Michaels’s best offense and lock in his own Ankle Lock to win. It told the story that Angle’s best was better than Michaels’s best, at least on that night.