WrestleMania has been the jewel in the crown of the wrestling calendar for almost four decades. So powerful is its gravitational pull that it has managed to pull a whole host of other events into its orbit, both promoted by WWE and by various other companies.
One annual WrestleMania tradition that has taken on a life of its own is the fabled Raw after WrestleMania. Over the years, this show has been the scene of huge returns, shocking turns, historic debuts and heartbreaking farewells. In recent years it has also been the scene of a certain section of fans hijacking the show and getting themselves over with a beachball and a spot of Fandangoing.
Keeping the focus where it deserves to be, in the ring, we have ranked the best moments from the night after WrestleMania reaching back over two decades.
“Every Man’s Heart One Day Beats Its Final Beat” – 2014
Let’s get one thing clear. For a lot of his life in the public eye, The Ultimate Warrior was not a good person. To sweep that under the carpet would just open us up to accusations of hypocrisy that would not be without justification.
That said, everyone should always be offered a chance at redemption and it doesn’t get more powerful than the imagery at play in this moment.
Like everything else Warrior seemingly did in his career, his induction into the WWE Hall Of Fame seemed to transcend the normal realities of wrestling. After being so far out of good graces with WWE for almost 20 years, he was welcomed back into the fold ahead of WrestleMania 30 to take his place in the Hall of Fame class of 2014.
After the ceremony itself and the customary appearance at WrestleMania, Warrior was granted a final audience with the WWE fans, seemingly to will everyone to forgive him his past sins and embrace the new, apparently contrite Warrior. Appearing on Raw the night after ‘Mania, Warrior donned a mask to mimic his iconic face paint and proceeded to cut a short promo that mere hours after it was delivered, became one of the most poignant speeches in WWE history.
No WWE talent becomes a legend on their own. Every man’s heart one day beats its final beat. His lungs breathe a final breath. And if what that man did in his life makes the blood pulse through the body of others and makes them bleed deeper and something larger than life, then his essence, his spirit, will be immortalised.
Less than a day after delivering these worlds live to the world on television, The Ultimate Warrior passed away after suffering a heart attack whilst walking to his car.
Whilst the cold, hard truth is that the chain of events was no more than a coincidence, it felt incredibly solemn that after years and years on the black list The Ultimate Warrior finally got to make peace with his legacy and feel the adulation of the crowd one last time before his passing.
Whether or not you believe in a power beyond human comprehension, the last few days of The Ultimate Warrior’s life felt like it was written by an unseen hand that makes this moment stand above all others in wrestling history in terms of life, and death, blending so seamlessly with art.
The Next Big Thing Arrives – 2002
Whilst many knowledgeable fans knew they were lurking ready to make their mark, only the select few had laid eyes on what would go on to become the legendary OVW class of 2002. John Cena, Randy Orton and Batista would all debut before the end of 2002 and leave their undeniable mark on wrestling history, but one man led the charge from Louisville to the world stage the night after WrestleMania 18.
During a routine Hardcore Title match between Maven and Al Snow on Raw in Montreal, Brock Lesnar charged the ring completely unannounced with the former ringleader of ECW, Paul Heyman, lurking approvingly by his side. Lesnar hit the ring and laid waste to both men with a ferociousness never really seen before in WWE. Before leaving the ring he turned his attention to Spike Dudley who received a thunderous triple powerbomb to put an exclamation point on Lesnar’s nights work.
It was a truly breathtaking way to debut a new talent and announce him as the new force in wrestling. Lesnar, for his part, never looked back and more than lived up to the billing afforded him on his destructive debut.
The Next Big Thing arrived on March 18th 2002. And he was absolutely incredible.
The Beast Returns! – 2012
It’s fair to say that the ten years since his WWE debut had been somewhat eventful for Brock Lesnar.
His initial two-year run in WWE saw him set new standards for what a rookie could achieve in the company. Within five months of his debut he was the youngest WWE Champion of all time with clean wins over The Rock and Hulk Hogan. Within a year he was victorious in a WrestleMania main event. A year after that, he was gone.
The rigours of travel and backstage politics led Lesnar to quit wrestling, firstly to unfathomably try out for the Minnesota Vikings NFL team. After coming within a sliver of making their team, Lesnar instead embarked on an MMA career and again, almost unfathomably, won the UFC Heavyweight Championship, at the time the most prized belt in the sport, in only his fourth ever bout. Just drink that in for a second.
After realising his MMA career was effectively over in late 2011 after suffering from a crippling digestive system illness, Lesnar secretly re-signed with WWE. Their messy and protracted divorce in 2004 led most fans to believe a Lesnar return to WWE was impossible. Not so much.
After his loss to The Rock in the main event of WrestleMania 28, John Cena closed Monday Night Raw with what seemed like a standard ‘I lost but I’ll never stop fighting’ Cena promo, a familiar but long buried theme riff blared over the arena speakers and The Beast strode back into WWE for the first time in eight years.
The reception was incredible from a fanbase delighted to see Lesnar back to pick up where he left off all those years prior. The truth is, the news of his return had been widely leaked on the day of the show, but it did nothing to mute the response Lesnar was given that night. A handshake and an F-5 later and a whole new chapter in Lesnar’s incredible career was underway.
The Longest Pop In History, Brother – 2002
Whatcha gonna do, when Hulk Hogan marches into WrestleMania as a hated heel and is cheered to the heavens by the Toronto crowd to the point where you have to book a face turn (apparently) on the fly? Well if you are The Rock, you just go with it like an absolute pro and help create arguably the WrestleMania moment of all time.
And how do you follow that up, brother?
How about having Hulk Hogan appear on Raw for his first babyface entrance in WWE in nine years to receive a reception from the audience so thunderous and so prolonged that it threatens to hijack the show, and clearly floors one of the greatest crowd manipulators in wrestling.
It was an incredible moment that WWE brass surely could not have anticipated when they cautiously re-signed Hogan in the January of that year to come in as part of the heel NWO faction with Scott Hall and Kevin Nash.
To this day it’s an iconic moment that makes the hairs on the back of one’s hands stand on end even all these years later.
A Faction Reborn – 1998
The night after WrestleMania 14 in 1998 is truly the day the ‘Raw After ‘Mania’ mythology began.
The night prior ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin ascended to his rightful place atop the WWF by defeating Shawn Michaels for the WWF Championship with the help of Mike Tyson. A red hot Austin then marched into Raw to inform WWF Chairman Vince (not yet Mr.) McMahon that he would be doing things ‘The Hard Way’, thus kicking off a legendary rivalry that took the company to new heights.
One man that didn’t march into Raw was his opponent, Michaels. After picking up a severe back injury at the Royal Rumble months prior, Michaels struggled through his WrestleMania bout in order to ensure Austin had the kick-off to his title reign that he needed. This injury would keep Michaels out of a WWE ring for over four years and therefore left Triple H and Chyna the sole survivors of their emerging faction, D-Generation X.
But they weren’t alone for long.
Early on that night’s Raw, Triple H took to the ring and declared himself the new leader of a reborn DX faction with the first new member being his old Kliq buddy, Sean Waltman.
The man formerly known as The 1-2-3 Kid had left for WCW in 1996 and was renamed Syxx as he joined the NWO. After being let go by Eric Bischoff, apparently to send a message to Scott Hall and Kevin Nash, Waltman found himself unemployed, but not for long.
Hitting the ring to the unexpected joy of the crowd, the newly crowned X-Pac dropped a hyper-venomised promo laced with attacks on his previous employers and pulling back the curtain on kayfabe even further than it had already been at the time. It was utterly explosive stuff and set the stage both for this new incarnation of the faction and also ‘Raw After Mania’ being A Thing.
Later in the night, The New Age Outlaws joined Triple H and X-Pac to complete the faction and provide another shocking moment on a night full of them.
The Nature Boy Takes His Final Bow – 2008
At WrestleMania 24 in 2008, one of professional wrestling’s most enduring icons, Ric Flair, faced Shawn Michaels in a match with the stipulation in place that he would have to retire if he lost. Taking place the night after he became the first active wrestler to be inducted into the WWE Hall Of Fame, every single person in that stadium knew what the outcome would be. They were just there to see how these two legends would make it play out.
“I’m sorry. I love you.”
The night after Sweet Chin Music drew a tear-filled close to Flair’s incredible career (let’s forget that TNA stint and the Hogan matches in Australia, shall we?), Monday Night Raw was dedicated to paying homage to The Nature Boy.
The last third of the show was given over to an almost ‘This Is Your Life’ style celebration that included fabled Flair opponents and allies such as Arn Anderson and Ricky Steamboat appearing to show their respects to an emotional ‘Naitch. It was a segment unlike any other in WWE history, with Flair being given the reverence and spotlight his accomplishments in the ring deserved. Fans and superstars alike cried tears of joys and cheered one of the greatest of all time out of the ring one final time.
One Giant Leap For Mankind – 1996
Mick Foley signed with the WWF in early 1996, with many fans excited to see his long-time Cactus Jack persona let loose on a company that was very much in need of a shot of ‘Attitude’.
That would have to wait a year or so though, as the vignettes that trailed Foley’s debut pegged him as what seemed like another cartoon character, albeit a deeply unsettling one, in Vince McMahon’s comic book mid-90s landscape. The leather mask wearing, rat stroking, basement dwelling Mankind just wanted us all to ‘Have A Nice Day’ but seemed to be drawn straight from the general playbook of cartoon villainy.
He debuted on Monday Night Raw with a win over Bob Holly in the opening match. Whilst far from a flat debut, the most intriguing thing was the contrast between his foreboding music he walked to the ring with and the soothing piano music that was played to him as he rocked peacefully after picking up a quick submission victory.
The main event saw The Undertaker pick up a routine win over a young Justin ‘Hawk’ Bradshaw and right then “business picked up”, as a certain other cowboy hat sporting Texan might have said.
After ‘Taker picked up his win, Mankind made an unexpected return and laid a brutal, animalistic beatdown on The Deadman that signalled the start of the first truly classic rivalry since he joined the WWF in 1991. The sheer viciousness of the Mankind beatdown made Foley’s new character a true player instantly.
This horrific monster would go on to test The Undertaker like nobody else had to that point, and ultimately become one of the most beloved figures in WWE history. But it was this night that set the tone for all of that and let the young-skewing audience of the time know that they needed to ready themselves for something altogether more unsettling than The Godwinns against The Bodydonnas from here on in.
Who’s First? – 2003
Having ceased to exist two years prior, there really was not much of WCW left to mine for a WWE that was looking for a spark to help ignite an exciting new talent roster that was ready to leave the shadow of the Attitude Era and show fans what Ruthless Aggression was all about.
At the PPV itself, WWE ran a vignette to announce that WCW’s biggest homegrown star of The Monday Night Wars was about to land in WWE. Goldberg was here.
As Raw drew to a close The Rock, firmly in the midst of his amazing ‘Hollywood’ heel run, was gloating about his victory the night before over ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin in what would ultimately go down as the last match of Austin’s career. As Rock continued to bask in his own glory you could sense the fans start to bubble up and, sure enough, a familiar drum beat began to ring out in the arena as Goldberg emerged on the stage in his trademark hail of pyro and smoke.
The fans came unglued as the former WCW Champion hit the ring and speared The Rock out of his boots as Rocky sold it like he he was Wile E. Coyote being hit in the face by a flying ACME anvil. It was a truly epic moment as the absolute essence of WCW finally arrived in WWE and set up a bonafide dream match for Backlash later that month.
OK, so the 2003-04 Goldberg run was ultimately almost a complete bust. That doesn’t diminish the awesomeness of this moment in time.
Shawn Michaels Has Left The Building – 2010
Sometimes, all you need is a man and a microphone. After losing to The Undertaker at WrestleMania 26, Shawn Michaels pledged to retire, just two years after he cast the very same fate on Ric Flair. Unlike Flair’s majestic, star-filled retirement ceremony, HBK elected to go out like the man that he had become in his personal life – humble, thoughtful and grateful.
Michaels took to the microphone to give thanks for his wonderful career, as well as those that helped him most along the way. Most notably, he thanked his best friend Triple H for sticking with him whilst he was the most obnoxious man alive in the 1990s. He also thanked Vince McMahon for similarly sticking by him and giving him a myriad of opportunities despite his attitude being beyond abysmal in his younger days.
Finally, and perhaps most poignantly for fans, he expressed his gratitude for being able to finally mend fences with his old rival Bret ‘Hitman’ Hart, and allowing them to move on after wrestling as friends rather than bitter enemies.
A truly classy moment from a man who had become a shining example to his peers after years of being anything but.
He’s Here To Show The World – 2013
In 2013, Alberto Del Rio was in the midst of a babyface run that threatened to be incredibly successful but ended up fizzling out completely. At WrestleMania 29 he successfully defended his World Heavyweight Championship against Jack Swagger, who was in full on ‘Don’t Tread On Me’ mode.
The following night saw a rematch between the two that ended with a similar result. During that match, Del Rio suffered an injury that left him prone to a shock Money In The Bank cash in by Dolph Ziggler, resulting in ‘The Show Off’ defeating Deo Rio and winning his first and only world title.
On paper, that sounds relatively unremarkable. In the flesh, it was one of the most remarkable moments in Raw history.
Ziggler was a midcard heel at the time, albeit one that fans believed should be pushed harder than he was at the time. Even with that undercurrent of backing, the pop that greeted his entrance and title win was nothing short of staggering. Genuinely one of the biggest reactions in WWE history.
If you didn’t know better, you would have thought that this was the biggest star of all time returning from a multi-year absence rather than a well thought of heel workhorse.
Truly the epitome of ‘Bizarro world’ but one where the crowd going rogue was responsible for creating a moment almost out of nothing.