For a long time, the WWF/WWE Intercontinental Championship was known as the workhorse title, the belt that was held and fought over by the real high-quality in-ring performers within the company. Whilst WrestleMania has generally seen the main event as its major focus, even more so than other events, with the focus on big characters and big emotional pay-offs, some of the most respected, well-loved, and best-performed matches at WrestleMania have been contested over the Intercontinental title.
The consistency in the title’s appearance at WrestleMania sadly reflects how its importance has dwindled in the WWE over the passing years. Having been defended at every WrestleMania between 1985 and 2002, except WrestleMania 12, in the following decade it was only defended twice, at WrestleMania 25 in 2009 and WrestleMania 28 in 2012. Once the real jewel on WWE’s crown, it somehow wasn’t good enough anymore to be defended at the biggest show of the year.
Thankfully for the workhorse title, it has seen a resurgence of popularity at the big show. Except for WrestleMania 30, the Intercontinental title has been defended at every Mania since WrestleMania 29. With Big E. getting a major push behind the title currently, hopefully, the title will return to its former prominence of being the workhorse title, the belt that elevates talented mid-carders to main event superstars.
Here are my top five Intercontinental title defenses at WrestleMania:
Ricky Steamboat vs. ‘Macho Man’ Randy Savage (WrestleMania 3, March 29th, 1987)
Perhaps one of the most celebrated matches in WrestleMania history is this early classic between two of the most popular wrestlers of all time.
Famously planned and rehearsed to the last detail on Savage’s insistence (something Ric Flair seemed to take annoyance within his book when thinking about his matches with Steamboat), the pair put on a masterclass in high-energy. Considering it was 1987, the speed and pace of the action are something to behold. The number of pinfall attempts for the time is noticeably high and yet, due to the crispness of execution and the conviction both men bring to what they do, the near-falls never feel anything less than believable.
Steamboat, of course, was always the definition of the pure babyface and here he plays the wronged hero seeking justice beautifully. Having been put out of action by Savage when the Macho Man famously nailed the Dragon with an ax handle (and later the ring bell) whilst his throat was resting on the guard rail, Steamboat wanted revenge. But he couldn’t do it by injuring Savage in return—that wouldn’t have been the pure babyface thing to do. But what he could do was hurt Savage’s pride and honor by taking the Intercontinental title from him, hence the fast pace and many pinfall attempts.
Savage’s attempt to use the ring bell from the top rope, only to be disarmed by George ‘The Animal’ Steele, adds a nice little touch of pathos to things and brings the story full-circle. The place erupts when Steamboat wins the title with a roll-up, quite rightly too. It’s still one of the great WrestleMania moments all these many years later.
The Ultimate Warrior vs. ‘Ravishing’ Rick Rude (WrestleMania 5, April 2nd, 1989)
Now, it might seem slightly strange to be bringing up the Ultimate Warrior when discussing the workhorse Intercontinental title, but this match and this feud were perhaps the pinnacles of the Warrior’s career, even more so than his World Heavyweight title run.
The man to thank? The always-incredible Rick Rude is a man who will always be at the top of my list of wrestlers who should have been a heavyweight champion. One of the keys to Rude’s success as a heel was that he was always able to make his opponent look good. He would bump and sell like an absolute pro, making the face look like an absolute force of nature. Meanwhile, when on the offense, he could make up for any deficiencies in his opponent’s grappling by showing them how it’s done and riling the crowd up into the bargain.
This is what makes Rude’s match with the Warrior here so satisfying. Rude bounces around like he’s been hit by a car, making the Warrior look like not only a great character but a great wrestler. He sells perfectly when the Warrior physically forces his way out of the Rude Awakening. On the flip side, everything Rude does is crisp, clean, and on the money. No one had a better piledriver than Rude and he looks like he crushes the Warrior when he nails it here.
The ending is superb: Warrior goes to suplex Rude back in the ring from the apron, only for Bobby Heenan to pull Warrior down by the leg causing Rude to land on top and get the pinfall whilst Heenan held the legs so that Warrior couldn’t kick out. Your new Intercontinental champion: Rick Rude! The Warrior looks like a beast who could only be beaten by cheating, Rude gets a load of heat and the fans are invested in a rematch. Booking 101.
Roddy Piper vs. Bret ‘The Hitman’ Hart (WrestleMania 8, April 5th, 1992)
There are three reasons for me that this is such a great match. One, it tells an excellent story. Two, it’s a rare example of a babyface vs. babyface match in this period of WWF action and aids the story tremendously. And three, Hart and Piper work the ring, and the crowd masterfully.
The story leading into this title bout was that Hart had been the Intercontinental champion but had vacated it due to illness. The new champion, The Mountie, had subsequently lost the title to Piper at the Royal Rumble in 1992. Now Hart was back to full health and was looking to get his title back.
The pre-match interview here said it all: Piper tried to rib Hart about how long they had known each other. It was playful but with an edge to it. Hart took exception to it and said the only thing he cared about was getting his title back. As the tension increased, Hart put his finger in Hart’s face before Piper swatted it away. This was not going to be a friendly encounter.
So it was proven early on. Hart sent Piper out of the ring and then pushed him when Piper complained. Piper spat on Hart in return. Later, Piper would lose his temper once again and slap Bret in the face. Hart was not making any considerations of friendship. He was purely focused on the title and this infuriated Piper.
Part of the way in, Piper hit a cheap shot, allowing Hart to blade. This was a strictly no-go area at the time, with Hogan perhaps being the only exception, as the WWF was pushing to be a blood-free, family-friendly zone. As Hart later explained in his autobiography, he convinced Vince McMahon afterward that the cut had been accidental and so couldn’t be helping, avoiding any heat from the Federation boss (unlike Ric Flair later that same night). It was a genius move on Hart’s part. The cut looks quite legitimate as far as wrestling blood goes, and as the match progresses and Hart begins to look exhausted from the beating Piper is giving him, the blood gives events an added sense of drama.
After the ref gets accidentally knocked down, Piper faces a moral dilemma. With Hart in a mess on the mat, Piper brings in the ring bell and holds it up to hold the coup de grace. The way Piper sells his indecision is masterful, as he looks around at the crowd, indicating that the crowd is swaying him as his moral guide; of course, the crowd was cheering for Hart so Piper put the bell down. It turned out to be a mistake as Hart countered a sleeper by pushing off the top buckle with his feet and rolled on top of Piper to get the three count and to reclaim his title.
But by doing the right thing, Piper was the honorable man. He was beaten by the better man and he fastened the belt around Hart in recognition of this before hugging him. Perfect storytelling.
Ladder Match: Shawn Michaels vs. Razor Ramon (WrestleMania 10, March 20th, 1994)
This wasn’t the first ladder match in wrestling history; it wasn’t even the first in the WWF (Bret and Shawn having given the gimmick a test run the year before). But it is perhaps amongst the most important ladder matches ever undertaken. This was the match that proved the concept could be attractive to a mainstream audience, and it certainly helped that it featured two great talents to put the concept over.
While the match may seem a little tame and slow by The Young Bucks and Penta & Rey Fenix’s recent standards, the slower pace benefits the match more in a way. By no means am I against fast-paced wrestling when done well, but gaps between ladder spots here actually give the spots themselves more impact and emphasis and so they do have a bigger impact on the viewer. When Michaels baseball slides the ladder into Ramon early in the match, it looks genuinely painful. Likewise, Michaels is knocked off the ladder and crouching himself on the top rope.
Michaels might be the MVP of this match. Ramon does a great job of being HBK’s foil and taking a pounding with the ladder. But Michaels in turn makes Ramon look like a million dollars by selling his ass off throughout the match. Michaels’ bouncy, exaggerated selling works in a match as dangerous as this and gives extra emphasis to the damage being done by the ladder. In particular, I like the spot where Michaels is whipped into the ladder in the corner and, instead of being thrown backward back onto the mat, is thrown by the velocity of the collision over the top rope to the floor. Beautiful.
The ending is cool too; Michaels is tangled up in the ropes by his foot as Razor ascends the ladder. Michaels frees himself and goes to stop Ramon but it’s too late. Razor is your champion! An iconic moment, not just for the Intercontinental title, not just for ladder matches, but for American wrestling as a whole.
Ladder Match: Bad News Barrett vs. R-Truth vs. Dean Ambrose vs. Luke Harper vs. Dolph Ziggler vs. Daniel Bryan vs. Stardust (WrestleMania 31, March 29th, 2015)
That there’s a gap of 21 years between my last entry and this entry shows a shocking disregard that the WWE has had for the Intercontinental title in the intervening years. But finally, in 2015, Mania was able to once again present us with a classic battle for the workhorse title.
It’s amazing to think of the journeys the six men in this match have been in the six short years since this match. Wade Barrett has been to World of Sport Wrestling and the NWA as a commentator, before joining NXT on commentary duties; Cody is of course the Executive Vice President of a major wrestling company; Jon Moxley is one of the biggest stars in Cody’s company and has been a Heavyweight champion; Brodie Lee won many hearts before sadly passing away this year; Daniel Bryan turned heel and had a run with the Heavyweight title before becoming a reliable person to put others over and make them look good; R-Truth has been good fun as a multiple-time 24/7 champion; and Dolph Ziggler has been…well, Dolph Ziggler. The times they are-a-changing.
This was a spot-fest, plain and simple, but my, what an insanely fun match. You could tell everyone was out there having fun…well, as much fun as you can have beating the living hell out of each other! Some of the standout moments include: Luke Harper being caught in a tree of woe on a ladder whilst Bryan kicked ten shades out of him; Ambrose jumping off a ladder at ringside and nailing everyone with a big elbow; Barrett breaking Stardust’s special glittery ladder and beating him with one of the rungs; Luke Harper power bombing Ambrose onto a ladder balanced between the barrier and ring apron in an insane spot; Barrett bull hammering everyone in sight and Harper spinning round with the ladder around his neck before being dropped face-first onto said object.
One year after having claimed the Heavyweight title, Bryan was victorious again, returning from injury to claim the Intercontinental gold. WWE still had faith in him, and it’s a shame that Bryan would find himself injured once again. But two years in a row, Bryan had his big Mania moment and no one can take that away from him.
What do you think? Did I miss any classic Mania Intercontinental title matches? What are your favorites? Let me know in the comments!