The Matches That Inspired Wrestling’s Biggest Stars

Every wrestler has a moment when they realized their future was in the squared circle. A dozen of the biggest names in the business told us about theirs.
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Wrestling has gone through numerous changes over the years, but the importance of the action in the ring has never diminished. Many of the industry’s most prominent stars grew up watching wrestling, and their time as fans helped serve as an inspiration to step into the ring. Even decades later, they can remember the matches that made them realize their destiny was between the ropes. 

Steve Austin still vividly recalls his time sitting beside his mother in the Sam Houston Coliseum, forging an unforgettable memory as he watched in angst as his favorite wrestler was pummeled.

“Dusty Rhodes was bleeding, and he was bleeding bad,” Austin says. “There was a security guard right nearby, and I looked over at my mother, who was reading her Redbook magazine, and said, ‘Gawdang, why won’t the security guard help Dusty?’ I was so angry that no one would help him. I was only seven or eight years old, so it was a shoot to me. That was the defining moment for me; I said right then that’s what I was going to do.

“Later on, when I got a scholarship to North Texas State, I was only 30 miles from the Sportatorium. I’d go down there Friday nights and Saturday mornings, throw stuff at the heels, admire the Von Erichs and love the Freebirds. I eventually went to a seminar and joined the business, so the rest is history, but that night watching Dusty was the moment for me. I’ll never forget it.”

Illustrated graphic featuring WWE wrestlers

Each part of the world has its own unique style. Performers in Japan, Mexico, England and Germany all place a different spin on what transpires in between the ropes, but part of the beauty of wrestling is its universal language. And many wrestling luminaries, like New Japan superstar Kazuchika Okada, were inspired by wrestling from a different continent.

“The first match that made me realize how great wrestling is was Keiji Mutoh and Hiroshi Hase vs. Yuji Nagata and Jun Akiyama,” Okada says through a translator. “This was before NJPW World was around, so maybe non-Japanese fans aren’t so familiar with it, but it was a dream match and was fun to watch. There was one other match I used to watch a lot. It was on a DVD at my mentor Ultimo Dragon’s house, and that was Shawn Michaels vs. Chris Jericho at WrestleMania 19. I learned so much from that match.”

The Jericho-Michaels bout was the fifth match on the card at WrestleMania 19, and though it was not the main event and no championship was on the line, it remains one of the best matches in the history of the event due to incredible storytelling blended with outrageous athleticism. And Okada drawing inspiration from that match, which is now approaching 20 years old, means a great deal to Michaels.

“I’m so incredibly appreciative of that,” Michaels says. “I’ve always admired the style in Japan, and here’s a guy that admires my style. Someone once asked me how Okada would adjust if he were ever in the WWE, and I know the answer to that—he’d adjust fantastically, because he’s a fantastic talent. It’s like me. People would say, ‘Well, you only wrestled in the WWE,’ but I could have wrestled anywhere. When a guy is talented, he’s talented. So I’m thankful that Okada, this unbelievably talented young man, gained one or two things from my match.”

Though Michaels is known for his work in WWE, he constantly studied Japanese wrestling, especially earlier in his career.

“I had a collection of VHS tapes with matches from Japan,” Michaels says. “Those were some of my favorites. I couldn’t watch enough Tiger Mask. To me, he was so before his time.”

Michaels’s favorite match took place closer to home, featuring stars from Southwest Championship Wrestling, a territory based in San Antonio.

“It’s not a big, well-known match, but it’s always been the one for me,” Michaels says. “It was Southwest Championship Wrestling, and I know that Tully [Blanchard] and Wahoo [McDaniel] were there and they were great, but I loved when Eddie Mansfield came in and had an angle with Scott Casey. They ended up doing a hair vs. hair match when Eddie lost his hair, and that was a moment for me. I also loved when Gino Hernandez went after Terry Funk with a bull rope and dug it into his ear. It was the old Wild West, blood and guts stuff, and that’s what I was very influenced by early on.”

John Cena is another talent who grew up in a wrestling-obsessed household. A nine-year-old Cena was forever impacted while watching WrestleMania III as Hulk Hogan battled a seemingly unstoppable force in Andre the Giant.

“The biggest moment for me was the Hulk-Andre showcase at the Silverdome,” Cena says. “It just made this larger-than-life entity look larger than the universe. It was also an aha moment that reminded me how much I was into this.”

Cena has headlined five different times at WrestleMania, and those performances are memories that will always resonate with him. But he also will never forget the feeling he had watching pro wrestling with his father.

“My dad wasn’t a big sports fan, but he loved wrestling, so we kind of grew up with that as our sport,” Cena says. “Some families, it’s all about playing catch with your dad. We didn’t do that. We watched World Class Championship, we watched the NWA, WWF, GLOW, AWA—you name it, we watched it.

“My brothers and I had wrestling leagues in our basement, and that was the one time we were really allowed to beat the tar out of each other. Me and my brothers, we loved watching with our dad so much. There are pictures of me with old championship belts that I would make, and my father’s passion was something we all enjoyed.”

Whenever Hogan is mentioned, longtime adversary Ric Flair instantly comes to mind. The “Nature Boy” had a distinctly different style from Hogan, yet he also left many impressions upon today’s stars, including his own daughter.

“I loved Sting and his matches, but the one match that always stood out to me was Starrcade [’93] when my dad wrestled Vader,” Charlotte Flair says, recalling her father’s title vs. career match against WCW world heavyweight champion Vader.

There was considerable pomp and circumstance surrounding the match, especially with the legendary Harley Race ringside in Vader’s corner, and the moment was further heightened with the match taking place at Independence Arena in Charlotte, the heart and soul of Flair country.

There was pure emotion and angst over Flair putting his career on the line, and WCW capitalized on the moment by showing a tender moment at home between Flair and his children, including a seven-year-old Ashley Fliehr, while “Mean” Gene Okerlund added the perfect lyrics to an emotional wrestling soundtrack.

“I remember the camera crew coming and filming at the house,” Charlotte says. “My grandparents were there; my mom and dad were so dressed up—to me, they looked like the President and the First Lady. And the match was amazing, and I was so happy and proud of my dad.”

Flair helped influence an entire generation of performers, including NXT’s Timothy Thatcher.

“The first thing that ever really stood out to me was Ric Flair and Lord Steven Regal wrestling in WCW,” Thatcher says. “They did pretty much a European rules match, which they called ‘The Marquis of Queensbury Cup.’ It was one round a week, with five minutes of straightforward wrestling.”

The Flair-Regal series still stands as brilliant chain wrestling, and greatly contrasted Flair’s next program, which was with the newly arrived Hogan. Regal, who later became a massive influence on Thatcher, also starred in that five-round series, which was claimed in the tense, waning moments as Flair reversed a European uppercut into a backslide for the victory.

“That’s what first introduced to me that this could be different,” Thatcher says. “Maybe it was odd for an 11-year-old kid to pay attention to that type of wrestling, but that’s the moment I was first introduced to the idea that this could be more than I had ever imagined.”

Deonna Purrazzo is the reigning Impact Knockouts champion. She continues to further elevate the meaning of her championship with some spectacular matches, following through on her dream to one day operate within the same confines as the larger-than-life stars of pro wrestling.

“So many matches come to mind, but the one that was it for me was Shawn Michaels vs. Ric Flair at WrestleMania 24,” Purrazzo says. “I was in the crowd for it, which made it even more special. My mom had got tickets for my brother and me for Christmas, and I’ll never forget the feeling right before that match started. I was in tears after Shawn said, ‘I’m sorry, I love you,’ and ended Ric’s WWE career.”

Purrazzo was only 13 at the time, and the Flair-Michaels match captured a memory from adolescence where she was so deeply in love with pro wrestling, which still shows in her work over a decade later.

“I was so surprised to get those tickets,” Purrazzo says. “Every year our mom would do a scavenger hunt where we needed to follow clues and it would lead us to our gift. When we finally found this one, it was amazing—it was the WrestleMania tickets and WrestleMania shirts. It’s all I had ever wanted, so it was such a shock. I got to meet Chris Jericho at a signing, and that weekend was everything I dreamed it would be. At the time I thought that was going to be the best moment of my life.”

Watching two heavyweights square off is another integral piece of pro wrestling’s allure and witnessing two of the industry’s best square off for the WCW World Heavyweight Championship was a critical moment for Ring of Honor star Shane Taylor.

“The match that did it for me was Ron Simmons vs. Vader for the world title,” Taylor says, referring to the night in August 1992 when Simmons became the first African American to win WCW’s world title—a seminal moment in an industry that has often struggled with representation. “There were African American stars in wrestling, but it was hard for me to relate to some of the characters. I didn’t know anybody who talked like Slick. I didn’t know anyone with a parrot like Koko [B. Ware], and I didn’t know anyone like JYD [Junkyard Dog]. That’s no disrespect to any of their legacies, and they’re all legends, but I could relate to Ron Simmons.

“Watching Ron was different. I saw a piece of myself. He played football; I played football. I knew plenty of guys that were brought up hearing they couldn’t be something, or that they’d have to be the first in order to be what they wanted to be. So this meant a lot, because that was Ron for me.”

Simmons and Vader presented a hard-hitting, physical match. The moment felt important as soon as it aired, and later became a source of inspiration for Taylor as he fell in love with pro wrestling.

“Ron wasn’t a caricature of Black culture; he was himself,” Taylor says. “And he reached the top of the mountain against Vader, a monster of a human being and another one of my favorites. I loved how people of all different ethnicities were cheering for Ron, and I thought, that’s what I want to do.”

When thinking about his favorite match, Hiroshi Tanahashi drew back to his time watching wrestling as a teenager. The New Japan icon relished the chance to see heavyweights battle one another, and his memory still stirs when thinking about the matches pitting Kenta Kobashi against Steve Williams.

“I loved watching Kobashi vs. Williams,” Tanahashi says through a translator. “Williams was known for that ‘murderer’s backdrop.’ To see Kobashi take that move, and then stand up and fire back, that had me losing my mind.”

Emotion is also a fundamental element of pro wrestling. While it can be magical to see your favorite wrestler claim victory, it can also be harrowing when the opposite occurs. Amidst the tears, a young Rey Mysterio vowed to never forget the feeling when his favorite, uncle Rey Misterio, lost his mask.

“Back in the early ’80s, those ten years from ’80 to ’90, those were the moments I most enjoyed everything about wrestling,” Mysterio says. “I was a fan. I learned and absorbed everything, and I loved watching my uncle wrestle. For me the one match that really stands out the most was when my uncle lost his mask.”

Up until March 25, 1988, Misterio had dominated in Luchas de Apuestas matches, winning at least 16 different times when his mask was on the line. Mysterio was in the building that night to watch his uncle continue his streak, and he never once anticipated seeing him lose his mask.

“That auditorium in Tijuana was known as the spot where the most iconic masks would be lost, but I never thought my uncle was going to lose,” Mysterio says. “He had won so many hair matches and mask matches, so I expected him to win that night against Fishman. When I heard the one-two-three, that whole place went into awe. We couldn’t believe what had happened. That whole night, I cried like a baby. It was a very sad moment for Tijuana and all the Misterio fans. That’s the night I was determined to continue the legacy.”

Mysterio’s body of work has also served as a major influence, especially for emerging Impact star Rohit Raju.

“The one match that stands out above all the rest for me is Eddie Guerrero-Rey Mysterio from Halloween Havoc ’97,” Raju says. “It’s difficult to choose just one because I love professional wrestling so much. I loved Flair-Sting from Clash of Champions [in 1988]. The match was great, and the buildup was incredible, too. The Rock-Austin at WrestleMania meant so much, and you can’t forget about Randy Savage-The Ultimate Warrior at WrestleMania VII, or any of those [Kenta] Kobashi-[Mitsuharu] Misawa Triple Crown matches, but Eddie and Rey were different.

“It was a culmination of groundbreaking professional wrestling and deep storytelling. They had such a history, Rey’s mask was on the line, and the crowd was there for every single move. Rey pulled off that springboard backflip DDT, Eddie had half Rey’s mask ripped off, there was so much tension and drama. And these guys were my size, which changed my whole perspective on wrestling. All these years later that match still gives me those same feelings.”

In addition to great matches inside the ring, pristine memories of pro wrestling revolve around a certain presence from the performers.

AJ Styles has few peers in pro wrestling, just like his favorites, the iconic Road Warriors.

“As I got older, I became drawn to the athleticism, like when Sting would splash somebody in the corner or when Lance Storm would hit a dropkick,” Styles says. “But when I was younger, there was no one greater than The Road Warriors.”

During a time in his life when the week revolved around Georgia Championship Wrestling on Saturday nights, Styles became enamored with Road Warrior Hawk and Road Warrior Animal, who would bulldoze through opponents and cut tremendously gripping, to-the-point promos.

“I know I don’t wrestle anything like them, but man, I loved The Road Warriors,” Styles says. “Their scaffold match [against The Midnight Express from Starrcade ’86] meant everything to me.”

The Road Warriors won at Starrcade in a tense seven-minute bout, with Midnight Express manager Jim Cornette taking a brutal bump off the scaffold.

“It was so different, so unbelievable,” Styles says. “I’m sure, if that happened now, we’d say, ‘What is this?’ and criticize it, mainly because everyone is just so limited up on that scaffold. But back then, there was nothing like it. I remember renting it again and again at the video store.”

In a bygone era long before the internet seized control of the world, wrestling fans found pleasure and joy from trips to the video store in pursuit of a tape that contained their favorite match.

“I can still close my eyes and picture the video store,” Styles says. “I’d search on the back of all those covers for The Road Warriors. I’m absolutely nothing like those guys in the ring, but the influence they had on me at a young age, it was magic. That’s the beauty of pro wrestling, and I’m grateful that we can still make these memories today.”

Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.