Many fans consider either Brock Lesnar or The Undertaker to be the best wrestler in modern times.
Both of them have long lists of accomplishments. Both are revered the world over by legions of fans. Both are some of the rare examples of someone making a comfortable living out of wrestling.
But how good were their matches? When you take away all the hype, all the marketing, and all the atmosphere, did these two actually deliver in the ring, or were the matches between these two more examples of something being praised in the moment and not holding up to time? Read on to find out.
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.
One month earlier, Lesnar faced Undertaker in a straight singles match and it ended in a double-DQ. At the time, WWE’s brand split/extension was in full effect and the company stuck to that concept HARD. Because of how the roster was divided, SmackDown featured more rising stars than it did established main-eventers, which meant that SmackDown didn’t have enough people ready to main-event opposite Lesnar. Thus, to extend the feud and to give it more of a personal edge, the Unforgiven match featured a screwy finish and a rematch was made for No Mercy.
That would’ve been enough for most people to buy tickets (Lesnar + Undertaker + HIAC = $$$), but no, WWE had to add more complexity to everything because this was the period that the company was obsessed with adding soap opera-style drama to everything. In this case, Lesnar and his manager Paul Heyman used a two-pronged strategy to weaken Undertaker ahead of No Mercy. First, they weakened his body by smashing his hand with a propane tank. Second, they thought to weaken his mind by bringing out a random woman and having her publicly accuse ‘Taker of cheating on his pregnant wife with her. They thought the distraction would make Undertaker shift his focus elsewhere; they were wrong. Seeing their potential advantage slipping away, they begged then-GM Stephanie McMahon to prevent Undertaker from using his cast in the match but she said no.
And so, Lesnar and Heyman, out of options to weasel their way out of this predicament or give them more advantages, found themselves entering the HIAC match on an almost even playing field. Undertaker was weakened, yes, but he was also the king of HIAC matches. But for all of Lesnar’s cheap-shots and underhandedness at his manager’s direction, Lesnar still had youth, power, and amateur skill as his advantages. So even though ‘Taker was in his wheelhouse, he was disadvantaged by his opponent’s strengths as much as his own weakness.
This is for Lesnar’s WWE Championship. Lesnar dodges a few charges and then takes Undertaker down with an amateur wrestling move. Undertaker elbows out of a rear waistlock but Lesnar counters an Irish whip and lands a powerslam for a two-count. Lesnar lands some corner shoulder thrusts and sends Undertaker into the opposite corner but ‘Taker dodges another charge and hits a clothesline. Lesnar bails and tries to escape the cell but Heyman can’t break the lock (some things never change). Undertaker stalks Lesnar around the ring but Lesnar cheap-shots him by hitting his broken/cast-covered hand. Lesnar follows with some stiff back clubs and then starts working over the broken hand. Undertaker yells in pain but then fights through it and hits some punches and a clothesline with said injured hand.
Blood pours from Lesnar’s forehead as Undertaker throws him into any metal object he can find, whether part of the ring or part of the cell. Lesnar gets bounced off the cell wall and Undertaker clotheslines him for a two-count. ‘Taker attacks Lesnar’s open wound some more with either his cast or the cell wall and then hits both an apron leg drop and a diving knee from the top rope for another two-count. Paul Heyman tries interfering by reaching his arm through an opening in the cell but ‘Taker knocks him down. Then ‘Taker knocks Lesnar around some more and then pulls Heyman by his tie to drive him into the cell wall some more until he too is bleeding. Undertaker charges at Lesnar…but Lesnar counters with a flapjack and sends ‘Taker face-first into the cell wall.
Lesnar smashes Undertaker’s back into the cell and a ringpost. Heyman gives him his belt and Lesnar uses it to tie ‘Taker up, which turns this into a two-on-one handicap match for all intents and purposes. ‘Taker tries freeing himself but Heyman holds on which allows Lesnar to whack ‘Taker with a chair. Lesnar unleashes a flurry of chair-shots to Undertakers ~BROKEN~ hand and tries ripping the cast and bandages off but ‘Taker fights back and punches with both hands, because, why not.
Lesnar succeeds in ripping Undertaker’s bandages off and goes back to working the bad hand. Lesnar uses the cell ceiling to hold himself up as he boots Undertaker’s face while ‘Taker’s perched on a top turnbuckle, but that gives ‘Taker the chance to hit a low blow and toss Lesnar down. ‘Taker hits a top-rope elbow drop with the bad arm and covers for a two-count.
Lesnar counters a follow-up with a hotshot on the top rope. ‘Taker hits back with a big boot and a suicide dive to the floor. Undertaker goes to pick up some steel steps but his hand gives out so Lesnar drops him with a clothesline and then hits him with the steps. Undertaker blades very deeply and within seconds his forehead is completely crimson. Lesnar hits him with the steps again and when the camera focuses on ‘Taker you can see blood shooting out like a leaky fountain 0.9 Muta for that bladejob.
Back in the ring, both men brawl until Lesnar hits a counter spinebuster for a two-count. Lesnar hits more stiff shots but then ‘Taker hits back with more broken hand punches. You have a completely healthy left hand, why not punch with that? Anyways, ‘Taker clotheslines Lesnar with the bad arm and then stomps on Lesnar’s hand for a bit of revenge. ‘Taker goes for Old School but Lesnar throws him to the mat. Lesnar goes for the F-5 but ‘Taker counters with a (bad-arm) chokeslam for another two-count.
Lesnar teases a Last Ride but Undertaker counters and hits a running DDT for yet another two-count. ‘Taker tries The Last Ride but Lesnar powers him into a corner and hits more shoulder checks and then the second-rope corner punches. Undertaker counters with a successful Last Ride. One, two, and – Lesnar gets a ropebreak. What? I thought there were no ropebreaks and no rules inside a cell. Michael Cole said so when the match started. Undertaker signals for and attempts a Tombstone. Lesnar counters into an F-5. One, two, and three! Lesnar retains!
Winner and STILL WWE Champion after 27:15: Brock Lesnar
I don’t think there’s much for me to add about this match that hasn’t already been said. This was a slow but carnage-filled bloodbath of a HIAC match. It lived up to expectations in terms of delivering the violence that was promised and it had some interesting moments, but by and large it was a letdown. It wasn’t all that different from the plethora of brawls that defined WWE’s main-event scene for decades. You could swap Lesnar and Undertaker for more or less anyone else in WWE and you’d get the same match just with a slightly different coat of paint. For a match that is still hailed as one of the best HIAC matches, it definitely doesn’t hold up that well two decades later.
I think many people look back at this match with nostalgia for how bloody it was. Again, this comes from the false notion that blood automatically improves a match and it really didn’t here. Yes, ‘Taker bled like crazy to the point that it was literally squirting out of his forehead as if he had severed an artery. It was hard to suspend disbelief and actually think that Lesnar hit Undertaker that hard with the steps. ‘Taker’s copious bleeding was almost instantaneous; based on how he got hit no person could watch this match and think that this was anything less than a blade job. Sure, it added drama to the match and helped make the Undertaker look vulnerable, but the source of this weakness wasn’t from a move but from something Undertaker did to himself. It’s the same principle of a wrestler selling a leg injury not due to their wrestler’s offense but due to their own injuries or something pre-existing in that limb.
Speaking of which, that was the most glaring problem with this match: Undertaker’s inconsistent use of his “broken” hand. One minute he covered it up and did everything to protect that weakness, and the next he was swinging his cast, punching, and hitting a chokeslam with his right hand as if said injury didn’t exist at all. I’m sure WWE tried to justify this with some paper-thin justification like “he’s fighting on adrenaline alone” or that he was still somewhat superhuman despite his American Badass trapping. But even with the commentators’ best efforts, this was a ridiculous example of no-selling making a match worse. As such, it was a hard sell making people believe Undertaker was actually fighting through serious pain and not just selling only when he wanted to.
I’ve seen this happen in many matches and it has never made sense to me: if you’re a wrestler and you have an obviously injured limb, why would you still use that as a weapon? Why would you risk hurting yourself more when your other limb is completely healthy and thus fully usable? I know it might not look aesthetically correct or fit training given that most WWE wrestlers do things from a certain side, but sticking to pattern like this leads to the kind of plot holes and gaps that make people mock wrestling for being blatantly and almost insultingly phony.
Final Rating: ***1/4
This could’ve been so much better if the wrestlers involved went in a different direction. Brock Lesnar was and is a once-in-a-lifetime grappler with an almost superhuman mix of strength and speed. Yet instead of him doing what he excels at he was shoehorned into wrestling someone else’s style of match.
The result was a plodding and somewhat lackadaisical match that only gets feint praise from modern fans because of its excessive bleeding. And as we’ve seen many times before, blood only improves a match if people really believe that it resulted from the wrestling action. That wasn’t the case since most everyone watching this believed that ‘Taker’s action was from a bladejob.
It’s unfortunate, but if you want to see a top tier HIAC match, it looks like the only one really worth watching is the first one.