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(Almost) 5-Star Match Reviews: Kurt Angle vs. Shawn Michaels – WWE WrestleMania 21, by Alex Podgorski

This is what a wrestling dream match looks like.

Kurt Angle and Shawn Michaels. Two of the best in-ring wrestlers facing off on the biggest show of the year. The build-up was simple: two phenomenal grapplers with different backgrounds trying to prove which of them was the best of the best. There was plenty of evidence to suggest either man could be called the best, especially since they had never faced off in singles competition before. Thankfully, the stars aligned perfectly for WrestleMania 21, and we got to see these two great grapplers fight for the first time ever.

As a reminder, I am reviewing Five Star wrestling matches (or nearly five-star 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. Meltzer rated this match ****3/4 while TJRWrestling’s John Canton rated this match ***** out of five.

This match originally took place at WrestleMania 21 on April 3, 2005. Today we will revisit this amazing contest to see if that rating was warranted.

The match

A long staredown occurs and Michaels slaps Angle to get things started. Angle responds with an amateur takedown which transitions into a lengthy technical wrestling exchange. Michaels reaches the ropes and Angle is forced to let go. There’s another long staredown as a few fans chant ‘you screwed Bret’ at Michaels. Michaels puts on a headlock and throws Angle to the mat. Both Angle and Michaels try for quick pins but neither gets more than two. Angle tries to escape the headlock as the fans chant his name, but Michaels keeps it locked in.

Angle hits a back suplex, but Michaels keeps the headlock cinched in. He throws Michaels to the ropes but Michaels answers with a shoulder block and goes back to the headlock. Angle tries for a pin but Michaels avoids it, and then Angle again tries to whip Michaels off of him but Michaels holds on. Angle finally manages to push Michaels into the corner and gets a clean break. Michaels goes for yet another side headlock takedown, and this time Angle pulls the hair to escape the hold. Still yet another headlock from Michaels leads to a shoulder takedown, this time from Angle.

Angle charges but runs into a hiptoss from Michaels, who then locks in a short arm scissors hold. This leads to a great sequence where they keep rolling each other into pinning predicaments, with neither man scoring more than a two-count. Michaels tries to keep the scissor hold locked in, but Angle shows Brock Lesnar-like crazy strength and lifts Michaels up while Michaels still has the hold cinched in, but Michaels rolls into a sunset flip pin for two. Wow, that was great. Then Michaels goes for a backslide but that also gets two. Michaels goes back to the side headlock on the mat. Angle gets to his feet and pushes Michaels into the turnbuckle, and the two start trading punches in the corner. They have a lengthy struggle in the corner until Angle shows Michaels away.

Angle goes for the Ankle Lock, which gets a huge reaction from the fans despite him supposedly being the villain in this match. But Michaels is too crafty and rolls out of it. Michaels hits a cactus clothesline and both of them are sent out of the ring. Michaels begins destroying one of the announcer’s tables before rolling back into the ring to break the referee’s ring count. But Angle has had enough time to recover and hammers Michaels with several European uppercuts. Angle tries for a vertical suplex into the announcer’s table, but Michaels escapes. Michaels chops angle a few times and charges him, but Angle reverses and Angle Slams Michaels into the steel ringpost. Wow, what a clever move.

Angle leaves the ring and clobbers Michaels’ back in the spot he just destroyed with the Angle Slam. Back in the ring, Angle hits a vertical suplex that surely must hurt much more than usual and pins Michaels for a two-count twice in quick succession. Angle continues with a bodyscissors targeting the torso of angle. Michaels fights his way up and chops angle in the corner. He tries an Irish whip, but Angle reverses it, sending Michaels to the top of the opposite corner, which is followed by an overhead belly-to-belly suplex from Angle. The crowd is cheering for Angle quite a lot in this match. Angle hits another suplex but gets a two-count, so he locks in a submission hold and pushes his knee into the small of Michaels’ back while wrenching Michaels’ chin with his hands. They both get to their feet and have a striking match, and Michaels wins by slapping angle in the face again. Angle gets pissed and hits a hard clothesline for two.

Angle tries to hit an avalanche suplex but Michaels fights his way out and Angle lands on the mat. Michaels thinks this is the opening he needs and goes for the diving elbow drop, but Angle rolls out of the way at the last second. Angle lowers the straps on his singlet, shit is about to get real. Angle taunts a supine Michaels and tries the Angle Slam, but Michaels counters into an arm drag. Angle rushes Michaels, but Michaels back body drops him over the rope and out of the ring. As angle gets up, Michaels ascends the top rope and hits a diving crossbody off the top rope onto Angle ringside. In doing so, Michaels’ knee hits Angle in the face, which makes the move look extra brutal.

Michaels gets on the ring apron, but Angle gets behind him and tries to hit a German suplex from the apron. Shawn holds on for dear life as Angle tries to throw Michaels. They’re fighting with all the strength they could find. Desperate, Michaels elbows Angle in the face several times, and distracts the referee so that he can hit a low blow to Angle without the ref seeing him. Angle falls to the ringside as the fans boo Michaels.

Angle gets up and Michaels kicks him onto the announcer’s table. Then Michaels shows his lunacy and hits a springboard crossbody onto Angle, and both of them go crashing down, even though the table didn’t break. Then Jim Ross and Jerry Lawler mention that the table was reinforced with metal, which makes it harder to break and more painful to go through. As Angle’s getting up, you can see blood on his lips. The referee does his ring count and both men make it in at the count of nine. They crawl to each other and struggle to get to their feet.

A back-and-forth brawl ensues, and Michaels chops away on Angle. Flying forearm by Michaels followed by his trademark kip-up. Michaels begins his comeback with punches and a reverse atomic drop and a clothesline. Michaels hits a scoop slam and hits a perfect elbow drop. And then he begins tuning up the band. The crowd is getting louder with each passing second. Shawn goes for Sweet Chin Music but Angle reverses that into the Ankle Lock in the middle of the ring. The crowd is going nuts.

Shawn fights like crazy to escape but angle has it locked in. Michaels is fingertips away and after a long struggle, he reaches the ropes as the crowd boos. Angle goes for the Angle Slam again, but Michaels reverses into another sunset flip, only for that to be reversed into the Ankle Lock yet again. But this one doesn’t last long as Michaels reverses that into a roll-up for a 2.5-count. Angle tries for a clothesline but Michaels ducks that and tries the Sweet Chin Music again, but Angle catches Michaels’ foot again, but this time reverses that into a perfect Angle Slam. Wow, what a sequence. The match is definitely over as the referee counts one…two…thr- NO! Michaels kicks out. The match continues.

Angle’s looking frustrated as the fans chant HBK. Angle then climbs the rope and attempts the moonsault, but Michaels rolls out of the way and Angle lands hard. Both men are down as the fans are applauding for the match they’re witnessing. I agree with them. This is incredible. Michaels slowly climbs the turnbuckle but Angle gets a sudden burst of energy and hits an Angle Slam off the top rope. Holy shit, what a move. Ok, now the match is over. The referee counts one…two…thr-No, Michaels kicks out AGAIN! Where does he get this strength? This is insane. Angle grabs an exhausted Michaels by the hair and starts trash-talking him, yelling at him to ‘tap out’, but Michaels answers that with a HUGE Sweet Chin Music to Angle. Both men are down once again as the fans are making tons of noise. Michaels crawls to angle and pins, but Angle gets his shoulder up at 2.9. Wow, what a close call.

Shawn keeps moving about seemingly out of it as the fans chant ‘let’s go Angle’. Then, out of nowhere, Angle wraps his arm around Michaels’ ankle and cinches the Ankle Lock in once again. The fans are going NUTS! Michaels is writhing in pain, and almost reaches the ropes but Angle pulls him back to the centre of the ring. He tries to kick Angle off more than once, but each time he does, Angle keeps the Ankle Lock cinched in! He just won’t let go. He wants to win no matter what! Michaels almost reaches another rope but again Angle pulls him back. Michaels is writhing about like a wounded animal, desperate to stay alive!

Then Angle grapevines the leg in the centre of the ring. The crowd is getting even louder. Michaels is wailing in pain, refusing to tap all the while. He raises his arm as if he’s going to tap, which makes the already vocal crowd cheer even louder. His whole body is twitching as he fights as hard as he can to not give up. Then, after two full, excruciating minutes, Michaels taps in the centre of the ring.

Winner by submission after 27:25: Kurt Angle

Review

Here’s what John Canton said when he reviewed this fantastic contest:

OH HELL YEAH! Wow. This was amazing. This did live up to the hype. This did meet all expectations. This did deliver the goods the way we all hoped it would. My God. The amount of counter holds seen in this match were unreal. It was wrestling at its absolute best. Amazing stuff here. I can’t say it enough. The drama in this match was unreal. You didn’t know when it was going to end. There was incredible spot after incredible spot here. Finishers kicked out of, drama at the end, and everything you want in a match. The match time was great, the pacing was really good because it built up to the end and the last ten minutes were as good a finish to a match that you can have. Thank you Shawn. Thank you Kurt. That was an epic match.”

No arguments here. This was a spectacular contest, truly deserving of the title ‘dream match’. This was one for the ages, a match that many fans will describe to their children. It was the perfect clash of two opposing forces: Shawn ‘the born sports entertainer’ Michaels versus Kurt ‘the Olympic wrestling machine’ Angle. They had perfect chemistry. Their wrestling styles meshed together so well, which translated into a seamless, perfectly-woven match.

This match had a level of unpredictability that you don’t see very often in WWE. The way WWE matches are often structured they have this sense of ‘I-can-see-the-next-move-coming-a-mile-a-way-and-they’re-not-even-trying-to-make-it-harder-to-telegraph-ness’ about them. This match had multiple stretches during which you never knew what was going to happen. Reversals and pinfall attempts kept coming out of nowhere, and they became more believable as time wore on. Fans were on the edge of their seats because of this, which made it that much more exciting.

My only real gripe about this match was that the opening minutes featured an elongated headlock sequence that didn’t lead to anything. Michaels kept going back to the headlock and it didn’t feel like that accomplished much aside from annoying Angle. It felt almost completely forgotten as it didn’t really connect to anything towards the match’s conclusion. However, this negative is completely negated by an outstanding closing sequence that more than makes up for it.

Final Rating: *****

I have no idea why this match wasn’t originally rated 5 stars when it first took place. It was an absolute clinic in professional wrestling and should be on every wrestling fan’s watch list. Not only that, this match should be on every piece of instructional material for aspiring professional wrestlers everywhere.

I could go on forever about how this is the best singles match in a decade in WWE. Few WWE matches, if any, even come close to this masterpiece. It was perfect in every sense of the word: no mistimed spots (and one supposed botch on Shawn’s outside dive actually benefitted the match because it made Angle look even tougher), no lulls in action, and most importantly, phenomenal grappling. This match is the standard to which every WWE match should try to reach.