(Almost) 5-Star Match Reviews: Chris Benoit vs. Triple H vs. Shawn Michaels - WrestleMania XX (2004), by Alex Podgorski

(Almost) 5-Star Match Reviews: Chris Benoit vs. Triple H vs. Shawn Michaels - WrestleMania XX (2004), by Alex Podgorski

This is one of the most historically-significant wrestling matches of the last twenty years. It marked a symbolic change in attitudes in WWE. This match main-evented WWE’s biggest show of the year and ended with an unlikely person winning. Unlikely, because that person was not a ‘WWE superstar’ in the conventional sense. The man that won this match was small, lacked a bodybuilder’s physique, wasn’t that good of a talker and didn’t go out of his way to be a showman. Instead, he was a pure technical wrestler, and one that had been praised by people around the world for almost twenty years. And while there have been others like him to main-event and win at WrestleMania (Bret Hart, for example), there had yet to be someone to main-event and win at WrestleMania like Chris Benoit.

Now, Benoit’s legacy has since been brought into question and for very good reason. But the purpose of this article and this series isn’t to pass judgment on wrestlers’ actions outside the ring. Instead, we look back at famously-praised matches to see if the praise they got (and still get) is still deserved. To that end, today we revisit a match that many call the best triple-threat match in pro wrestling history. Let’s see if that’s still true.

This is the WrestleMania XX Triple Threat match between Triple H, Chris Benoit, and Shawn Michaels for the World Heavyweight Title on the Raw brand.

As a reminder, I am reviewing Five Star and almost-Five Star wrestling matches as rated by Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. It goes back to the 1980s and I’m going to pick different matches from different eras to see how they look today. Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here.

The story

This is a match involving three wrestlers at different stages of their respective careers. Triple H was the reigning, defending World Heavyweight Champion. He was the top star on RAW and had been since 2002. He was in the midst of his third reign as WHC, and was the most hated man in WWE. Not just by his fellow wrestlers, but by fans. There were many fans that genuinely despised Triple H for a number of reasons, with the biggest reason being his perceived politicking backstage in WWE. Speculation ran wild at the time with people claiming that HHH manipulated RAW’s main-event scene to benefit himself at the expense of other wrestlers. One need only look at his list of opponents (read: victims): Booker T, Rob Van Dam, Kane, Scott Steiner, Goldberg, the list goes on. The only wrestler that didn’t have a bad match with HHH during this period was one of his two opponents in this match.

Shawn Michaels was in the midst of his second WWE run. What was supposed to be a mild return with only part-time appearances turned into an entire second wind to his career. Michaels ended up having a whole career renaissance, having great matches all over the place against different people. And throughout 2003 and into 2004, he kept reigniting his seemingly-endless feud with Triple H. The two of them last faced off at the 2004 Royal Rumble event, in a WHC match that ended in a draw. But that show also included a big win for this match’s third participant.

Chris Benoit, then a SmackDown wrestler, won the 2004 Royal Rumble match. He entered at #1 and won the whole match. He earned the right to a world title shot, and showed up on RAW instead of challenging for SmackDown’s WWE Championship. But Michaels decided to rain on his parade instead, cheap-shotted him, and signed the contract instead of Benoit. Thus, a triple threat match was announced.

With that, each man entered the match with the potential to win. Triple H was the devious, villainous champion that would do whatever it took to win. Shawn Michaels was the wrestling legend of WWE that was more than capable of out-performing either of his opponents. And Chris Benoit was the wrestling workhorse that had never been seen as a ‘superstar’ but as a guy whose in-ring skill was better than almost anyone else’s. So which man would come out on top?

The match

This is for the World Heavyweight Championship. This match originally took place at WrestleMania XX on March 14th, 2004 and was rated ****3/4 stars by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. It was also rated ****3/4 out of five by TJRWrestling’s John Canton as well. Let’s see if that rating was deserved, or if this match’s quality has changed given the passing of time.

The bell rings and the fans are already chanting for Benoit. Chaos ensues from the beginning with all three men punching and shoving each other. Michaels goes to punch Benoit, but he counters into a Crippler Crossface early, only for Michaels to roll through. They trade chops and Michaels goes to whip Benoit, but Benoit reverses the whip sending Michaels careening into HHH, who gets knocked out of the ring. The remaining two wrestlers have a nice technical exchange with takeovers, bridges, headlocks, a backslide attempt, an escapes Crossface, and a small package by Michaels for a two-count.

Michaels fights out of a German suplex but can’t avoid a bridging Northern Lights suplex, which gets Benoit a two-count. Michaels clotheslines Benoit and a returning Triple H clotheslines Michaels. Triple H whips Michaels out of the ring and goes to brawl with Benoit., but Michaels skins the cat and tosses a running Benoit out of the ring. Michaels lands a back body drop on HHH and chop him in the corner. Triple H reverses Michaels’ Irish whip and ducks a clothesline, but walks into a jumping knee. Triple H pins but Michaels kicks out at two. On the apron, Benoit drives his shoulder into HHH’s gut but on the third one HHH gets his knee up, sending Benoit back down. Ringside, HHH rams Benoit lower-back first into the apron and holds him there as Michaels baseball slide kicks Benoit. I’m not sure if that was opportunistic or an intentional double-team move, but it worked.

Both Triple H and Benoit are down. Moonsault by Michaels. From the top turnbuckle to the floor. Great move. He tosses Triple H back into the ring and gets a two-count. He whips HHH and goes for a back body drop but HHH counters into a knee facebuster. HHH goes for the Pedigree but Benoit interferes. Benoit goes for a German suplex on Michaels but Michaels resists, so Benoit hits some hard strikes and tosses Michaels shoulder-first into the steel ringpost.

Benoit’s in control as he snap suplexes Triple H and chops him in the corner. He goes to whip HHH but HHH counters, and Benoit does the Bret Hart bump and goes chest-first into the corner. HHH carries Benoit over to another corner and ties him in the tree of woe, despite Benoit’s resistance. Then he whips Michaels into that same corner, sending Michaels injured-shoulder-first into Benoit’s midsection. Man, that looked painful. HHH pins Michaels but he kicks out.

Triple H goes to whip Michaels again but Michaels reverses and Benoit gets a boot up to boot HHH in the face. Michaels schoolboy pins HHH, but he kicks out as well. Michaels reverses another HHH Irish whip and lands his flying forearm smash. He kips up, but Benoit charges and clotheslines him out of the ring. German suplex by Benoit on HHH. HHH tries to fight out but Benoit maintains control and lands the second. And he lands a third. Benoit ascends the top turnbuckle. He’s going for the diving head-butt, but Michaels knocks him down. Michaels goes for Sweet Chin Music. HHH ducks and hits a DDT. Then he lands a superplex on Benoit for three consecutive two-counts.

The crowd chants for Benoit as he brawls with Triple H. Benoit whips HHH but he counters into a Pedigree, which Benoit counters into a Crossface. Triple H tries to fight out but can’t. Crossface is locked in. But Michaels breaks it up after only a few seconds.

Michaels and Benoit get up and Michaels lands a German suplex on Benoit, which gets boos. He goes for a second, but Benoit counters into a German of his own, which gets cheers. Followed by two more. Diving Head-butt by Benoit. Michaels kicks out, twice in quick succession.

Michaels knocks Benoit out of the ring with a flying forearm smash, kips up, and starts making a comeback on Triple H. Michaels lands an atomic drop and a scoop slam, followed by his diving elbow. But instead of cheers, Michaels gets showered by boos. This crowd really wants to see Benoit win. Sweet Chin Music connects. Michaels goes for the pin. One, two – Benoit pulls HHH out of the ring. Smart move.

Michaels and Benoit get back in the ring. Benoit reverses an Irish whip and throws Michaels hard into the corner. Benoit goes for the sharpshooter but Michaels resists, so Benoit slingshots him. Michaels goes face-first into the steel ringpost. He’s busted open. Crossface! Benoit has the Crossface on Michaels. Triple H comes in. He grabs Michaels’s free arm to stop him from tapping. Awesome idea. Triple H punches Benoit to break up the hold.

Benoit and Triple H brawl ringside and Benoit blocks HHH and smashes him face-first into the steel steps. They brawl around the ring some more, and HHH manages to reverse Benoit’s Irish whip, sending Benoit shoulder-first into another set of ring steps. Triple H starts dismantling the Spanish announce table and Benoit catches up to him and smashes him into another table. Benoit goes for a German suplex off the announce table but Triple H fights out.  HHH goes for a pedigree through the table but Benoit resists, until Shawn Michaels comes into the picture. The long-haired duo double team Benoit. Double suplex through the announce table. Benoit goes down in a heap.

HHH and Michaels go back to the ring to have their own match as Benoit is now out of commission. But their impromptu singles encounter gets no reaction from the crowd. Some people still go ‘wooo’ when Michaels lands chops, but that’s basically a Pavlovian response at this point. Michaels whips HHH, then turns around, sending HHH over the rope and to the floor. He tosses HHH face-first into a steel ringpost. Now Triple H is also busted open.

Back in the ring, Michaels lands some punches, but HHH fires back with a Pedigree. Both men go down. The crowd chants for Benoit. HHH pins. Benoit makes the save. All three men are down. Benoit and HHH brawl, and Benoit takes control. Sharpshooter. Benoit with the Sharpshooter on HHH. The crowd’s going nuts, having been all but silent only moments ago. HHH is fingertips away from the ropes, but Benoit pulls him away. But here comes Michaels. Sweet Chin Music on Benoit. Michaels pins Benoit. Benoit kicks out at 2.8.

Michaels tunes up the band again as the crowd quickly goes from cheering to loud boos. Michaels charges, but Benoit ducks and sends Michaels out of the ring. HHH gets up. He goes for the Pedigree. No, Benoit counters into the Crossface. Benoit with the Crippler Crossface! HHH is fingertips away. The crowd’s going nuts HHH tries to fight back by rolling, but Benoit maintains the submission hold. Triple H taps. That’s it! Benoit has won!

Winner and NEW World Heavyweight Champion after 24:47: Chris Benoit

Jim Ross: “THIS SOLD-OUT CROWD AT MADISON SQUARE GARDEN HAS ERUPTED. CHRIS BENOIT’S 18-YEAR ODYSSEY HAS CULMINATED BY WINNING THE WORLD’S HEAVYWEIGHT TITLE AT WRESTLEMANIA XX. BENOIT, SO MANY TIMES, HAD BEEN SO CLOSE. YEAR AFTER YEAR, MILE AFTER MILE, CONTINENT AFTER CONTINENT. BUT BENOIT EVER…GAVE…UP. HE NEVER GAVE UP, AND NOW BENOIT HAS DONE IT. BENOIT IS LIVING HIS DREAM! FINALLY, FINALLY, MY GOD FINALLY CHRIS BENOIT HAS BECOME THE HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPION OF THIS WORLD.”

As Benoit turns, Eddy Guerrero joins him in the ring and the two men celebrate together. They celebrate together as confetti rains down from the ceiling.

Review

This match was a lot better than I initially thought. Going into it, I had the impression that, as a Triple H World Title match, it would feature some kind of unnecessary shenanigans: a ref bump, a visual three-count pin to remind everyone that Triple ‘won’ the match or some kind of screwy nonsense that would’ve made Triple H look good at the expense of Chris Benoit. Thankfully, none of that happened, as Triple H was the one to submit to Benoit’s Crossface.

As a match, this was put together incredibly well. It was filled with tense sequences and dramatic near-falls, with saves happening at the last possible moment. I especially liked when Benoit pulled Triple H out of the ring following Sweet Chin Music, and then Triple H grabbing Michaels’s hand to prevent him from tapping. Both were very clever at the time, and really added to the quality of the match. I also liked some of the clever double-teams that HHH and Michaels pulled off on Benoit, like the apron baseball slide and the announce table double suplex. Both moves showed that Benoit was, at the very least, an annoyance that both of them needed to deal with as soon as possible.

And yet, I can’t upgrade this match to 5-star, all-time classic status because it had some flaws in it that, while minor, couldn’t be ignored. Firstly, there was the structural issue of the match. The idea of the match was that Benoit was supposed to overcome two top-tier opponents in Triple H & Shawn Michaels. And yet, the match did not fit that narrative. Benoit was eliminated early and double-teamed frequently, and any one-on-one interactions he had with either one were blink-and-you’ll-miss-it. Instead, there was more emphasis on the Triple H/Shawn Michaels feud, which by that point was already played out and had nothing left to contribute (as demonstrated by the nonexistent crowd response to them duking it out in the ring).

If this match was about Benoit reaching ‘their level’, that wasn’t shown. Yes, he outwrestled Michaels a few times and made Triple H tap out. But he was never made to be the focal point of the match. If Triple H & Shawn Michaels were threatened by the idea of Benoit coming in and making himself at home on their turf, they didn’t treat him as the credible threat he was supposed to be. They were all wrapped up in their own feud, which made Benoit appear as less important.

What’s more, the match fell into the typical pitfalls of a three-way match that made a lot of stuff pointless. Benoit’s little technical wrestling exchange early on meant nothing, since it didn’t lead to anything later on. The match went into a typical brawl-style contest without much in the way of psychology or building things up. For example, there was no setup or build to the Sharpshooter. Triple H hadn’t been attacked much on his back or legs to build up the Sharpshooter as something that he could possibly tap out to. That, in turn, made that particular sequence come across as a waste of time only done to pop the crowd. I understand that submission holds themselves are supposed to hurt. But if you’re trying to end a match with a hold that targets a particular body part, at least target said body part a few times to make your job easier and more realistic once that hold is applied.

The match also suffered from gaps in logic that, if fixed, would’ve changed the entire complexion of the match. There were two that stood out for me. First, after Benoit got thrown through the announce table, nobody bothered to pin him. That just didn’t make sense. Either Triple H or Shawn Michaels could’ve carried Benoit into the ring and tried to pin him, and then they could’ve began their little brawl. Just ignoring a man that had taken the biggest bump in the match seemed like a glaring mistake to make, considering they allowed him to recover and then win the match.

And speaking of Benoit’s win, the Crossface sequence at the end really dragged on too much. Triple H was in the Crossface for sixty-nine seconds, which was way longer than necessary. Just before that, Michaels had been tossed out of the ring and seemingly forgotten about. It was an anticlimactic way to write him out of the match, and I watched the Crossface sequence expecting him to come back in. And all he had to do was crawl in. Even if he didn’t reach Benoit in time, giving him a closing crawl to try to break up the submission would’ve made it much more compelling. And Triple H also ignored a crucial piece of common sense here. Judging from the camera angle, he was very close to the ropes when Benoit first applied the Crossface. Because of that, why didn’t Triple H reach out to the ropes with his legs? He had MORE than enough room to reach.

There’s also one thing that has always bothered me about Michaels’ Sweet Chin Music finisher: the whole ‘tuning up the band’ thing. Michaels stomps as loud as he can before charging at his opponent. Even with all the deafening crowd noise, I’m sure any wrestler can hear the sound of Michaels’s foot-stomping on the mat. And if for some reason they can’t, they should be able to feel the vibration coming from that stomp. So for any wrestler to actually take the hit from that kick comes across as stupid instead of serious. Yes, I know, this is part of wrestling theatrics. But playing to the crowd like that was out of place in this match, given its unpredictable and chaotic nature as a triple-threat, and the fact that this particular crowd did not give a single shit about Shawn Michaels.

Final Rating: ****1/4

This match is more remembered for its historical significance and the extremely emotional post-match celebration than the match itself. Jim Ross losing it on commentary as Benoit lost it in the ring was outstanding. Yes, this is pro wrestling and the outcomes are predetermined. But hidden beneath the obvious performance theatre aspect of pro wrestling is the idea that hard work pays off. And few wrestlers held that belief more closely than Chris Benoit. He had spent two decades wrestling and had long been told he’d never make it beyond the midcard. Not in Japan, not in WCW, and not in WWE. But he persevered and kept going. And his story resonated so deeply with the audience in attendance and those watching at home. It was inspirational in its own way to see a guy break through the glass ceiling, even if it was but for a moment, to be crowned the best in the world.

Sadly, most people will ignore that because of what happened three years later. Mentioning Benoit’s name is still taboo in WWE and it’ll probably be that way forever. But we can’t ignore what he accomplished in the ring. Here, he and his two opponents put on a great match. It’s still widely regarded as one of the best triple threat matches of all time. And while it’s not the single-greatest three-man match (that honor belongs to this match), it’s pretty damn good on its own right. But with a slightly different structure and more focused logic, this would’ve been a much better match than it already is.

Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here. Thanks for reading.