Professional wrestling is built on feuds. It’s the lifeblood of an industry whose entire premise is built on Good Guy (the babyface) vs. Bad Guy (the heel). Ideally, feuds are built in such a way that fans want to pay to see the payoff. You know, when the babyface eventually conquers and the heel gets his comeuppance. That’s the entire game, folks. If there’s one tried and true way to book a pro wrestling feud, that’s it. Have the bad guy do bad guy shit (over and over), leaving the crowd frothing at the mouth, furious that their good guy is being screwed. Then, finally and at long last, you give the crowd what they want.
Sounds simple, but it rarely is. In the right circumstances, a good feud can increase the stardom of each guy involved and create a boom period for the entire business. The following four feuds did just that. At integral points in pro wrestling history, these feuds catapulted both the participants and the whole industry. If that’s the criteria, then the following rivalries are the clear and rightful holders of a spot on the Mount Rushmore of Pro Wrestling Feuds.
Ric Flair vs. Sting
This rivalry might not hold the historical significance for some that it does for me, but allow me to make my case. Growing up in the late 80s to early 90s, this was the feud outside of the WWF. Flair and Sting were the faces of the NWA/WCW, largely because of their initial meeting. At the very 1st Clash of the Champions in 1988, Ric Flair guided Sting through a star-making match for the young former bodybuilder. Flair, as champ, called a hell of a match, with the end result being a 45 minute time-limit draw. That match made Sting “the franchise.”
Additionally, in a rare display of WCW competency, Sting vs. Flair matches headlined both the first and last Monday Nitro. They were, through and through, WCW.
Bret Hart vs. Shawn Michaels
In the mid-90s, there was no hotter feud than Bret Hart vs. Shawn Michaels. Sandwiched between the steroid era and the Attitude Era, Hart and Michaels were the first wrestlers in the modern era to bring a “worked-shoot” aspect to their rivalry. After their now legendary “Iron Man Match” at WrestleMania XII in 1996, the feud went to another level. Notoriously chilly towards one another backstage, these two brought their real-life disagreements to their in-ring work and their promos. The result? Bret ripping on Shawn for his lack of family values and sophomoric take on life, and Shawn ripping on Bret for taking himself, the business, and his family too seriously.
For the fans, it was a constant game of “what’s real and what’s fake,” lending an unprecedented sense of realism to the feud. Of course, this epic rivalry finally came to a head in the infamous “Montreal Screwjob” match at Survivor Series 1997. With Bret headed to WCW, Vince McMahon asked him to drop the title to Shawn. Bret agreed, but wanted to vacate it at Raw the next night following a DQ finish at Survivor Series. McMahon took matters into his own hands and called for the bell during a submission, thus giving Michaels the belt.
This nuanced feud is one of the biggest in the history of wrestling and is unlikely to ever be dethroned on the Mt. Rushmore of Pro Wrestling Rivalries.
Steve Austin vs. Vince McMahon
In a roundabout way, the Michaels-Hart rivalry contributed to another gigantic feud: Stone Cold vs. Mr. McMahon. With Vince McMahon screwing Bret Hart, he became the evil corporate overlord, hell bent on destroying disobedient employees. Cue the most disobedient employee ever: the beer drinking, hell raiser himself “Stone Cold” Steve Austin.
Without a doubt, this is the most important storyline of the Attitude Era. After Austin won the WWF Championship from Shawn Michaels, McMahon pressured Austin to be a more “corporate” champion. Of course, Austin promptly delivered a Stone Cold Stunner and would continue to do so for the forseable future every time McMahon bothered him with such nonsense. It was simple but effective. When McMahon and Austin finally faced off in the ring on an April 13, 1998 episode of Raw, the WWF scored their first ratings win over WCW since June of 1996.
Austin went on to become one of the best money making draws in the history of wrestling, and Vince rode the strength of the feud into the 21st century.
Kenny Omega vs. Kazuchika Okada
OK, OK. I can hear the detractors now. Yes, this rivalry is extremely recent. No, it did not take place in the WWF/E or WCW. However, this is without a doubt one of the greatest in-ring rivalries in the history of professional wrestling. No hyperbole and no recency bias here.
When Kenny Omega won the G1 tournament in August of 2016, he earned himself a title shot at New Japan’s Wrestle Kingdom 11 against Okada. That match became an instant classic, with Okada winning in 46 minutes. It was clear from the first bell that these two had amazing chemistry, but few expected that match to be as amazing as it was. It was praised by people like Mick Foley, Steve Austin, and Daniel Bryan as one of the best matches they’d ever seen.
Then, in June of 2017, the rematch happened. While expectations were high, not many thought Omega and Okada would top their previous match. Then, inexplicably, they did. In a one hour time-limit draw, not a single man registered a pin. And yet, it worked so incredibly well. Wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer gave the match 6.25 stars, his highest rating for a match ever in his 30+years of covering wrestling.
Omega finally earned a win against Okada in August of 2017. That match, however, was a non-title match given that it was during a round-robin tournament (the G1 Climax).
Finally, Omega would face Okada a fourth time, just weeks ago at New Japan Pro Wrestling’s Dominion show. At this point, Okada had held the heavyweight title for an astounding 720 days. In an exhilarating 2/3 falls match, Kenny Omega finally defeated his nemesis Okada in a match that went almost 70 minutes. In a match called by many the best pro wrestling match ever, Omega and Okada topped their three previous meetings. Meltzer awarded the match 7 stars, thus setting an almost ridiculous standard for the rest of today’s pro wrestlers to live up to. That, for my money, puts these two firmly on the Mt. Rushmore of Pro Wrestling Rivalries.