WrestleMania 23 is a Forgotten Classic
Given that wrestling fans love debating, it should come as no surprise that each year, as WrestleMania approaches, fans begin discussing which edition was the greatest. There are frequent front-runners in this debate:
X-Seven, a stacked card that ended the Attitude Era with a bang; III, which features a match considered by many to be the greatest of all time (Ricky Steamboat vs Randy Savage) and a moment considered by many to be biggest in professional wrestling history (Hulk Hogan slamming Andre the Giant); and XIX, which had mat classics including Kurt Angle battling Brock Lesnar, and Shawn Michaels (in his WrestleMania return) facing Chris Jericho.
WrestleMania 23, however, is seldom seen on fans’ “best-ever” lists, and in my view, such an omission borders on tragic. The 23rd edition of the “Showcase of the Immortals” is a tremendous pay-per-view, and deserves to be included in conversations concerning the greatest WrestleManias
WrestleMania 23's World Heavyweight Championship bout between champion, Batista, and his challenger, the Undertaker, was criminally low on the show's card. And, if you believe the rumor and innuendo, the Animal and the Phenom, offended by the match placement, set out to steal the show, and illustrate why they should have been the main event. While we may never know with 100% certainty if this story is true, the effort put forth by both men in their epic battle certainly seems indicative of two men with something to prove.
In the weeks leading up to the match, the Undertaker used some tactics that were definitely “heel-ish” in nature, but the Ford Field crowd made it clear at the very beginning of the contest: they were pro-undertaker. Batista, himself a top babyface, was showered with loud boos each time he went on the offence.
By going an ideal time of roughly fifteen minutes, Taker and Batista were able to have a fast-paced, power match with minimal down-time. The near falls in this bout, which were not overdone, were bought hook, line, and sinker from the fans, who were nothing short of ecstatic when, for the first time in ten years, the Undertaker captured gold at WrestleMania.
Though Undertaker and Batista made a compelling case that they should have closed out WrestleMania 23, the show’s actual finale, which saw John Cena defend the WWE Championship against Shawn Michaels, was nonetheless a phenomenal main event.
Though the buildup to this encounter featured the overused trope of future opponents becoming reluctant tag team partners, the behind-the-scenes reason for the match was an injury to Triple H, who was penciled in to face Cena in a rematch of the prior year’s WrestleMania main event.
Triple H’s misfortune provided the “Showstopper” one more opportunity to shine under the lights of pro wrestling’s biggest stage--an opportunity he took full advantage of.
By 2007, John Cena, though WWE champion for 20 of the prior 24 months and marketed as a pure-as-the-driven-snow babyface, was getting decisively mixed reactions from fans. A “Fast and the Furious” inspired entrance at ‘Mania 23, which culminated with Cena entering the arena by crashing a Ford Mustang through a glass wall, did nothing to quell the boo birds.
Comparatively, HBK’s entrance, which was simply a giant glowing “X” raised high above the entrance ramp, was rather lackluster, and in retrospect may have foreshadowed the match's outcome.
While the entrances may not have delivered, the in-ring product most definitely did. The psychology was sound, and the match flowed extremely well. From bell to bell, Cena and Micaels kept the crowd invested and engaged, which, given the match went a hair short of a half hour, speaks volumes to both men's ability.
The two competitors pulled out all the stops, including plenty of stiff shots, a piledriver on the steel steps, a springboard moonsault to the announcer's table, and blood. Though Cena’s eventual submission victory somewhat deflated the crowd, by that point, they had already received more than their money’s worth.
By itself, a Bobby Lashley vs Umaga match at WrestleMania in 2007 was unlikely to set the world on fire. As the proxy for WrestleMania 23's tremendously entertaining “Battle of the Billionaires”, however, the two competitors (Umaga as Vince McMahon’s representative, and Lashley as Trump’s) were able to become part of something very special, and something that, especially given how world events turned out, has historic implications far beyond the wrestling ring.
Though no doubt polarizing, Trump knows how to be an entertainer. As such, he was right at home in the WWE. He looked like a sports-entertainment natural at WrestleMania 23, making an over-the-top ring entrance which included: the accompaniment of a former Miss USA, a money-themed intro song, and hundred dollar bills falling from the ceiling.
Though Umaga was beginning to come into is own in WWE by this point, Lashley was still somewhat green. And because the pair weren’t likely to provide a Lou Thesz/Karl Gotch mat classic, plenty of smoke and mirrors were used to ensure the fans were still treated to an entertaining confrontation.
Besides the presence of Vince and the Donald at ringside, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, the perennial thorn in McMahon’s side, was the special guest referee, and Vince’s son Shane made a surprise return to run interference and temporarily assume officiating duties.
Besides being the Battle of the Billionaires, the match also had a hair vs hair stipulation for the two business magnates ,and the prospect of Donald Trump potentially losing his much-discussed, enigmatic locks generated considerable mainstream press for the bout.
As is his MO, Vince put 100% into his reaction to losing the match and getting a haircut, whining and pouting with the kind of over-the-top facial expressions only McMahon can deliver.
Lashley and Umaga performed competently inside the ropes, delivering a number of high-impact moves to one another. Even Trump got physically involved, tackling and punching McMahon at ringside, and, post-match during a trademark Austin beer bash, taking a Stone Cold Stunner.
While neither physical altercation looked terribly great, they showed Trump was fully invested in making the match a memorable one, and the investment paid dividends, WrestleMania 23 would be, at the time, the most purchased pay per view in WWE history, and, with the pay per view era of WWE essentially over, looks to have a lock on the number 2 all-time buyrate spot.
Other highlights on the card included a thrilling Money in the Bank opener, which featured some big names, and some innovative spots, as well as a technically sound U.S. Title match between Chris Benoit and MVP. Only one match was particularly bad, and the stuff that wasn't going to reach "great" status was kept short.
Besides featuring some excellent matches, WrestleMania 23 was made even greater by having an absolutely awesome atmosphere, including a great set and a well-shot, impressive-sized crowd.
Given that the show marked 20 years since the legendary WrestleMania III, WWE paid homage to the iconic show by hosting ‘Mania 23 in the same area, Detroit, and by inviting back the “Queen of Soul”, Aretha Franklin to sing America the Beautiful, just as she had done in the Pontiac Silverdome.
WrestleMania 23 has somehow, despite its quality, slipped through the cracks of wrestling fandom. I encourage everyone to give it a re-watch, and, if you enjoy it as much as I think you will, advocate for it the next time the WrestleMania debate comes around.