There’s a ton of big time wrestling going on this week, but nothing bigger than All Elite Wrestling’s All Out event in Hoffman Estates, Illinois. The Sears Centre Arena has become a wrestling hub, which shouldn’t come as a surprise since it’s located in a suburb of Chicago.
Chicago & its surrounding area has been a wrestling hotbed since before most of us can remember. As it turns out, most of those famed arenas that wrestling promotions like to bill as being in Chicago aren’t quite in the city limits. The Allstate Arena is in Rosemont. Ring of Honor held events in Chicago Ridge for years. The Odeum was in Villa Park. Honestly, it’s more convenient to get to these places if you’re a traveling wrestling company. Have you ever tried driving in downtown Chicago? Takes a while to get wherever you need to go whatever time of day it is.
In any event, we love Chicago, Chicagoland, and its scores of wrestling fans that have gotten to see many classic matches over the years. Today, we look at the seven most magnificent matches to grace the Chicagoland area.
7. WWE Championship Match: John Cena vs. Triple H (WrestleMania 22)
I wrote about this match back in 2015 as part of a 411 project, and here’s what I had to say back then…
John Cena vs. Triple H [****] I had a three-way tie for the best match of this show, as I rate Edge vs. Mick Foley & Shawn Michaels vs. Vince McMahon at the same level. Why did I go with Cena vs. Triple H as the best? The other two matches had a ton of help with booking, foreign objects, outside interference and general craziness. This match was just John Cena & Triple H, and the Chicago crowd went absolutely crazy for it. This match started the Yay/Boo thing that many other crowds have ripped off since, and the reaction for John Cena in particular was captivating television. The ridiculous entrances with Triple H dressed like Conan the Barbarian, CM Punk & others acting like Chicago gangsters & John Cena walking out wearing a trench coat and having his hands in his pants only added to the spectacle of the match. It was a well-worked match too, as Cena did a lot to disprove the storyline leading into the match that he couldn’t wrestle. Not that the fans recognized this.
Most fans would go with one of the other two matches as the WM22 representative on this list, but I’m sticking with Cena/H.
6. ROH Tag Team Championship Ladder War: Jay & Mark Briscoe vs. Kevin Steen & EL Generico (ROH Man Up)
Years before Kevin Owens & Sami Zayn were WWE Superstars, they were trying to make their way into Ring of Honor. Their first stint didn’t go well, then they got to come back for a random match with the Briscoes. That went well, and it led to a lengthy feud that culminated in ROH’s first Ladder War. This match was all four guys going balls out and using every vicious tactic they could think of. Was it overkill? Probably. Was it fun? Absolutely.
After the match you had the Age of the Fall making their debut by attacking the Briscoes. Jimmy Jacobs cut a great promo, Necro Butcher was there kicking ass, and there was some other guy named Tyler Black hanging about too. Wonder what happened to that guy.
5. ROH Championship Match: Samoa Joe vs. CM Punk (ROH Joe vs. Punk 2)
Believe it or not, there was a time when five star wrestling matches were tough to come by. Nowadays we see six star matches every other week so we tend to take these things for granted, but wrestling fans just weren’t as lucky back in 2004. Ring of Honor was just starting to get attention from the Internet crowd when Dave Meltzer gave this match five stars. As we all know, star ratings are the most important thing in pro wrestling, so these two unknown guys getting five stars got a ton of attention from hardcore wrestling fans looking for something to watch.
Does the match hold up? Well, to be honest, it doesn’t have the crazy moves that today’s New Japan five star matches have. The emotion is probably tough to get unless you were an ROH fan at the time. It is interesting that these two guys both went on to great fame later on in their careers, but never met in the ring after 2005. One wonders what they could have done in a bigger Chicago arena years afterward. They probably wouldn’t have gotten sixty minutes, but it still could have been fun.
4. WWF Championship Steel Cage Match: Bret Hart vs. Owen Hart (SummerSlam 1994)
Even though most WWE events in the Chicagoland area have taken place in the Rosemont Horizon, the company does have the distinction of having booked the very first event in the United Center. SummerSlam 1994 had two major happenings going for it: the long-awaited Undertaker vs. Underfaker match, and a steel cage match pitting brother against brother. Owen defeated Bret at WrestleMania and won the King of the Ring tournament, so him getting a title shot at SummerSlam only made sense.
You know how people these days complain about WWE having cage matches without blood? They claim that it’s impossible to have a good cage match unless somebody’s bleeding all over the place. Bret & Owen didn’t bleed here. They worked the gimmick without getting the blade out. It is possible to do such a thing, and people even did it back in the day. They even had a good angle afterwards with Jim Neidhart clotheslining Davey Boy Smith & Diana Hart over the guardrail and helping Owen beat Bret down in the locked cage. Big heat, and it would have been ok under a PG rating.
3. WWE Championship Match: John Cena vs. CM Punk (Money in the Bank 2011)
Chicago has always been all about people from Chicago. Or at least billed from Chicago, in the case of Hawk & Animal. Back in the 1980s, the Road Warriors were the focal point of a string of sellouts for Jim Crockett Promotions in the Chicagoland area. Their failure to win the tag straps at Starrcade 1987 is often cited as the downfall of the NWA in Chicago…which isn’t quite true if you look at the numbers, but it didn’t help things in the long run.
At this point in 2011, CM Punk was the right guy at the right time in the right place, that place being his hometown of Chicago. The emotion was in the air, and Cena & Punk were both guys who thrived off of hot crowds. It had the right finish, with Punk winning on his way “out of the company”. Things were really looking pretty awesome at this point in wrestling history.
2. NWA World Championship Match: Ric Flair vs. Ricky Steamboat (Chi-Town Rumble)
For many years, common smart wrestling fan wisdom held that the greatest in-ring feud of all time took place in early 1989 between Ric Flair & Ricky Steamboat. The three main matches of the feud were a holy trinity of wrestling workrate that weren’t allowed to be questioned. As time has passed, some matches have risen up to & above the level of Flair vs. Steamboat in the eyes of wrestling fans. Also, it bears pointing out that the feud didn’t really draw at the box office, though to be fair, nothing would have drawn at the box office for WCW at that point.
We can’t worry about what could have drawn business thirty years ago. All we can do is watch the matches. And from where I sit, Flair vs. Steamboat at the Chi-Town Rumble is one of the best. I used to like the 2 of 3 falls match at the Superdome the best, but these days I find myself liking this one the best. Maybe it’s because I love Ricky Steamboat. Or maybe the hot crowd & atmosphere puts it over the top for me. All I know is that I don’t buy the narrative that this was the “worst” of the three.
Honorable Mention: AWA & WCCW World Championship Match: Jerry Lawler vs. Kerry Von Erich (Super Clash III)
The Super Clash event itself was a financial disaster and led to the destruction of almost every company involved with it. However, it did have a pretty solid main event with an interesting story. 1988 pro wrestling was all about matches being stopped due to blood, and Kerry’s crimson face led to the referee stopping the match while Lawler was locked in the Iron Claw. People complained later on about the Dustyesque booking, but it led to plenty of rematches in Tennessee & Texas that did pretty good business.
1. Submission Match: Bret Hart vs. Stone Cold Steve Austin (WrestleMania 13)
WrestleMania 13 wasn’t exactly a hot show, but it produced one of the most well-remembered matches in the history of wrestling. It was the night that Steve Austin turned babyface & became the anti-hero that would turn the WWF’s business around, and when Bret Hart turned heel and set things in motion for what would be an incredible summer. We knew it was coming. Austin got more cheers than boos on his way out to the ring, and Hart got a pretty large number of boos during his entrance. Bret was starting to come off as a bit of a whiner, which would play into other things that happened in 1997.
As great as Hart & Austin were in the match, many observers have commented that the booking wouldn’t have worked as well in another location. Chicago fans were prone to cheer rough guys like Austin anyway, they were all about Crusher & Dick the Bruiser back in the day, not to mention the Road Warriors. They liked babyfaces that kicked ass and refused to quit, which Stone Cold Steve Austin fit to a tee. Austin didn’t win the match, but he won the hearts of Chicago & the world on that evening.