In my quest to review as many historically-great matches possible, I’ve kept multiple records of the matches I’ve already looked at. As I write this in June 2021, I’ve looked at a calendar that shows 5-star and almost 5-star matches by year. I’ve gone as far back as 1981 and I’ve started looking at 2021 matches also. And in that calendar I’ve noticed something: between 1988 and 2021, there has been at least one match that was either at that 5-star level or incredibly close to it every single year. That is, except for 2008.
If the Observer is to be believed, there was nothing amazing in pro-wrestling in 2008. No match reached that higher echelon of greatness. Lots of matches were at A-level but nothing reached A+-level. Was that really the case? Did the whole wrestling world decide to take a collective break and phone it in over the course of an entire year? Or was it another case of bias from wrestling’s most (infamous) journalist and reviewer? Let’s find out.
Today I’m looking back at a match involving two of the best wrestlers in WWE history. They had faced off before and had stolen the show. But at that time, one of them was still a midcarder and not on the other’s level. But in 2008, that was no longer true. Both wrestlers were now equals, both proven stars and former champions. They spent most of 2008 at war with each other and they stole the show several times.
In fact, even though none of their matches reached 5-stars, together they won many awards that year anyway. One of them was voted Wrestler of the Year and Best on Interviews, their rivalry was voted Feud of the Year, and the match we’re looking at was voted by the fans as Match of the Year. So even though it wasn’t rated 5-stars, many fans praised it as the best thing that year. Looking back now, let’s see how good it is.
Today we look back at the ladder match between WWE’s World Heavyweight Champion Chris Jericho and Shawn Michaels from No Mercy 2008.
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.
Jericho and Michaels have a storied past. Jericho said that Michaels was one of his heroes and inspirations to become a wrestler. The two first feuded back in 2003 when Jericho sought to prove he was better than Michaels but failed to do so. In losing, Jericho was considered to be beneath Michaels, despite being younger and healthier. This irked Jericho, but it didn’t really come up again until 2008.
Earlier that year, Jericho became involved in Michaels’ feud with Batista, who was mad at Michaels for retiring Ric Flair. Jericho was the special guest referee in their singles match and Michaels faked an injury that Jericho fell for. That feigning was enough for Michaels to beat Batista, and after much prodding later on, Michaels eventually admitted that he faked the injury to win.
As the weeks went on, Jericho became upset that the fans still cheered Michaels despite Michaels’ blatant deceit. Meanwhile, Jericho tried to be as righteous and upstanding as the person Michaels was supposed to be and got booed for it. Eventually, this angered Jericho to the point that, during an edition of Jericho’s Highlight Reel, he smashed Michaels face-first into a large TV screen. In doing so, he injured Michaels’ eye so badly that Michaels soon announced that he was forced to retire.
Jericho didn’t believe Michaels’ injury, and then after Michaels told Jericho he’d never be better than him, Jericho went to suckerpunch Michaels, but hit his wife instead. That led to an Unsanctioned Match at Unforgiven that was ended by referee stoppage that Michaels won (technically). But Jericho had the last laugh when he entered the Championship Scramble match later that night and became World Heavyweight Champion.
That brings us to this contest. Jericho is defending his world title belt against Michaels, who is also out for some serious revenge. Jericho nearly ended his career and put his hands on Michaels’ wife. He hopes to tear Jericho apart in this match. Luckily for him, there are plenty of ladders for him to use as weapons. And if he chooses to add insult to injury, Michaels can take Jericho’s title from him as well.
This match originally took place on October 5th, 2008 and was voted the Wrestling Observer’s Match of the Year for 2008. It was originally rated ****1/2 out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. Let’s see how well this match holds up to time.
The match starts with some chain grappling and quick counters. Jericho dodges a Sweet Chin Music and then rushes Michaels as he goes for a ladder. Michaels whips Jericho into a corner but Jericho doges which causes Michaels to run shoulder-first into the ringpost. Jericho attacks Michaels’ back and goes for a German suplex but Michaels tries to fight out, only to eat a northern lights suplex instead. But instead of pinning, Michaels does his classic bridge into a backslide. But before Michaels can pin, Jericho fights out and clotheslines Michaels out of the ring. a springboard shoulder tackle sends Michaels to the floor.
Jericho whips Michaels into a huge ladder but Michaels climbs it and dives off it onto Jericho. Michaels Irish whips Jericho but Jericho counters and sends Michaels injured shoulder-first into the ringpost. Jericho grabs a ladder to use as a battering ram but Michaels counters with a drop toehold. Jericho falls face-first into his ladder. Michaels grabs a different ladder with the same intent, but Jericho stops him and puts him in the Walls of Jericho. Great job by Jericho for weakening Michaels’ legs and back to make it harder for him to climb the ladder.
Jericho grabs his (giant) ladder and brings it to the ring but Michaels cuts him off by launching it into his face. It hits him so hard that he actually loses part of his tooth, but he keeps wrestling because he’s Jericho. Michaels climbs the ladder but Jericho cuts him off. Jericho goes for a powerbomb but Michaels fights out into a sunset flip. But Jericho counters him and goes for a slingshot. But Michaels manages to land on the ladder and climbs back up. Michaels climbs quickly and touches the title belt. Jericho rushes and knocks the ladder over.
Jericho rams the ladder into Michaels’ stomach and back, further damaging his ribs. He places a second ladder in a corner and goes to whip Michaels into it but Michaels counters, only for Jericho to counter back and whip Michaels hard into a different corner. Jericho goes for a bulldog but Michaels counters (again) and sends Jericho flying into his own ladder. Jericho gets caught in the ladder and Michaels tosses it down, dropping the whole latter on Jericho’s knee. Now both men are hurt.
Michaels smashes Jericho’s knee into the ladder, then places the ladder in a corner and drops Jericho bad knee-first onto it with a lifting knee breaker. Great psychology by Michaels here. He follows that with a Figure-4 leglock. Jericho quickly rolls over to reverse the pressure. Michaels releases it, but Jericho kicks one end of the ladder in the corner, which sends the opposite end right into Michaels’s face, further damaging his injured eye. Man, this match has been full of ingenious moves thus far.
Jericho isn’t done as he slingshots Michaels face-first into the ladder. Still not done, he opens the ladder, puts Michaels’s head in it, and closes it onto his head with full force. Man, that looked absolutely brutal. Michaels writhes in pain and sells like only he can. Jericho climbs the ladder as the crowd chants ‘HBK’. He reaches the title like Shawn did earlier. Michaels knocks the ladder over. Jericho takes him down and places the ladder in a corner so that it juts out. Jericho goes to toss Michaels into the ladder. But Michaels counters and Jericho goes flying into it. The crowd erupts in cheers as Michaels collapses in the ring and Jericho falls out of it. Then Michaels gives Jericho an extra ‘f**K you’ by throwing that ladder onto Jericho at ringside.
Ringside, Michaels grabs a Franken-ladder and sets it up near Jericho. He grabs a different one and smashes it into Jericho’s ribs as revenge for earlier. The crowd gets even louder as Michaels places Jericho on the announce table and climbs the giant ladder. Suddenly, Jericho gets up. He stops Michaels from climbing further. He goes for a backdrop suplex from the ladder. Michaels fights back. Both men go flying off the ladder and through the announce table.
Michaels gets into the ring first and places a ladder in a corner as he climbs it from the opposite side. Jericho sees this and dropkicks the ladder, which crotches Michaels on the top turnbuckle. Jericho tries to superplex Michaels using the ladder but Michaels fights back and launches the ladder forward, sending Jericho plummeting to the canvas. Diving elbow drop by Michaels. He connects but hits the ladder as well, seriously hurting himself in the process. That’s how badly Michaels wants to win.
Michaels starts tuning up the band as the crowd cheers wildly. Michaels goes for Sweet Chin Music. Jericho answers with a ladder shot to the face. Jericho returns the favor and shows his will to win with a Lionsault onto the ladder onto Michaels. These buys are willing to hurt themselves so badly to win.
Jericho grabs another ladder and sets it up so that Michaels is pinned under it. Michaels tries to pull Jericho down but fails. Jericho reaches the top and his fingers touch the title belt, when suddenly Michaels lifts the ladder up. Michaels pushes the ladder up and up until Jericho flies out of the ring. Jericho lands badly and hurts his knee on his landing. Jericho sells like his knee has been torn to shreds.
The fans chant ‘HBK’ once again as Michaels sets up the ladder. He struggles to climb as Jericho claws his way back into the ring. Michaels starts undoing the title strap. He’s inches away from winning the belt. Jericho gets back into the ring and knocks the ladder over. Michaels lands badly against the ropes. Jericho climbs the ladder using only one leg. Michaels gets up and climbs from the other side. Jericho grabs the belt. Michaels hits some punches to stop him. Both men fall down the ladder but not off it. Jericho ends up hung upside down when suddenly, in comes his protégé Lance Cade. Cade grabs Shawn’s leg to stop him from reaching the belt. Michaels dives onto Cade and drops him with Sweet Chin Music. Jericho uses the distraction to climb higher up the ladder. The fans are screaming as Michaels starts climbing again. Michaels reaches Jericho at the top. Both men hit each other hard. Then both men grab the title. The belt is unhooked! Each man grabs one end of the belt! Both men hold onto the title belt for dear life! But only one of them can claim it! It’s a tug-of-war for the World Title! Jericho winds up and uses Shawn’s momentum to head-butt Michaels off the ladder. Jericho grabs the belt! The champion retains!
Winner and STILL World Heavyweight Champion after 22:20: Chris Jericho
That was a spectacular ladder match. Michaels and Jericho more than delivered. They were creative, brutal, intense, determined, and more. I fully understand why the Wrestling Observer Newsletter subscribers voted this the Match of the Year in 2008. Both wrestlers should be very proud of what they accomplished here.
The story was equal parts bringing up callbacks from previous chapters in their storied rivalry and equal parts killing each other with ladders. Both wrestlers tried to weaken each other’s limbs with brutal ladder shots. Jericho did a number on Michaels’ back, shoulder and eye while Michaels focused more on Jericho’s knee and ribs. By the end, both men had been weakened so badly that neither one of them had a clear path to victory. It really did come down to which one of them had more gas left in the tank, which left the match’s result up in the air until the very end.
And while a lot has already been said about both Jericho’s and Michaels’ sacrifices and commitment to wrestling, I want to focus on their creativity in this match. Simply put, they really showed their wrestling smarts here. Ladder matches are usually predictable as there’s a finite amount of things you can do with ladders. Knowing that, Jericho and Michaels went full speed ahead with the creative ladder-based sequences. They used ladders in ways that both felt fresh and made sense in the context of the match. They managed to both show their ingenuity and adaptability as wrestlers while also telling another chapter in an already-deep story. Those two things together created one of the best ladder matches of all time. They didn’t go down the easy route and turn this into a generic spot-fest. Instead of building a match centered on ladders, they structured their match around their intense rivalry and used the ladders as pieces to move that story forward. Those are two different storyline directions, and Jericho and Michaels chose the better path to traverse.
And yet, I don’t think this match reached that elite 5-star level. Don’t get me wrong, this match had virtually all the qualities of a historic, must-see match. It had an awesome story, nail-biting tension, a wild crowd, justifiable brutality, logical psychology, and terrific chemistry between the wrestlers involved. I just think the match lacked some ornate excitement to bring it to that next level. Even though everything in this match was pretty much excellent, the match itself just falls short in relation to actual 5-star matches. Sometimes that just happens. After putting everything together properly and perfectly, the end result is terrific but not historically so.
Final Rating: ****3/4
This was a match that showed exactly why both Shawn Michaels and Chris Jericho were praised so much. They brought their A-game here and put on an absolutely terrific and must-see match that, while not exactly 5-stars, is still worth re-watching. They brutalized each other here in truly creative ways. They did stuff that made perfect sense in the context of the match. And they came up with some of the most unique sequences I’ve ever seen. Back in 2008, no one had ever done the ‘both guys tug-of-war on the title belt atop the ladder’ spot before, so that finish here was fresh and exciting. And for the first time possibly ever, Jericho looked to be on Shawn Michaels’ level, if not above him. Sure, Jericho had some help from Lance Cade, but that interference was largely a non-issue as Michaels still had enough strength to fight Jericho atop the ladder to the bitter end.
This really is a worthwhile match to (re-)watch. These days, most ladder matches follow the generic car crash formula that turns said matches into mindless spot-fests that lack depth or inner story. This match could’ve fallen victim to that same way of thinking, but thankfully, cooler heads prevailed. This match was as creative and refreshing as it was intense and brutal. All in all, this was – and still is – a wonderful match that really deserved being named Match of the Year for 2008.
Thanks for reading. Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here.