When wrestling fans discuss who the GOAT is, Kurt Angle’s name comes up very often.
It isn’t hard to see why: the man is an exception rather than a rule when it comes to amateur wrestlers joining the professional wrestling industry. He had the technical skills to excel in the ring, but great amateur skills alone do not a WWE Hall of Famer make. Angle went above expectations by showing a wide variety of talents and personalities, from being serious to being a jokester. He was fantastic and achieved far more than being a simple mat technician.
But at the end of the day, people didn’t usually pay to see Angle hit people with chairs, bleed like Abdullah the Butcher, or fly like Rey Mysterio; they paid to see him wrestle. And few people were better suited to help Angle show off his skills than Chris Benoit.
We’ve already seen two of the top singles matches these two have had together, and both of those were longer than this one. This was considered a MOTYC back when it first took place, so let’s see if that reputation still holds up today.
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.
This feud started because of Rikishi’s ass. Yes, I’m serious.
During a tag match, Kurt Angle took a stinkface and Chris Benoit was laughing his ass off (as would anyone). Angle took exception to this and attacked Benoit several times, and at one point held Benoit’s arms back as Rikishi delivered the same stinkface to Benoit. Both men felt embarrassed by each other’s actions and kept attacking each other and locking in their respective submission finishers. Things escalated until then-GM Stephanie McMahon had no choice but to sanction a one-on-one match between them.
Needless to say, despite the bitter and personal nature of this rivalry, this was a dream match for many WWE fans. Angle and Benoit were widely hailed and respected as two of the best in-ring grapplers in the company, possibly even the world. They had an excellent match together at WrestleMania X-Seven, and now both of them were on equal footing.
It was anyone’s guess who would win: the Olympic Gold medalist or the closest thing to Bret Hart or Dynamite Kid active at the time. Angle versus Benoit, ankle lock versus crossface. On this night, who would be the better man?
This match originally took place on September 22, 2002. It was rated ****1/2 out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer.
They lock-up and jockey for control so intensely that they fall out of the ring still in a collar-and-elbow tie-up. Back in the ring, the two wrestlers have an outstanding technical chain grappling sequence that goes on until Benoit attempts a crossface but Angle gets a ropebreak. Angle single-legs Benoit but Benoit traps his arm. Angle maintains waist control and goes for an ankle lick but Benoit gets a ropebreak this time. They lock-up again and trade more holds. This time Angle goes for a hammerlock and Benoit attempts the tried-and-tested snapmare escape but Angle holds on and maintains the hammerlock all the way through. That was impressive. Another reversal chain ends in a running shoulderblock from Benoit. He blocks a shoulderblock from Angle and attempts the crossface again. Angle counters with a fireman’s carry. Benoit counters that with a sunset flip for a one-count. Back-and-forth they go countering and reversing covers and one-and-two-counts. This chain goes on until Benoit tries a backslide but Angle counters with a clothesline attempt. Angle escapes and tries a clothesline but Benoit tries the crossface yet again, only for Angle to bail to ringside and for the crowd to cheer and applaud both men loudly.
On the next lock-up Benoit goes for an armlock/crossface but Angle counters and dumps him ringside. Angle press drops him chest-first on the barricade and then once back in the ring he hits a rib breaker for another two-count. Angle locks in a bodyscissor but Benoit escapes by attacking Angle’s ankles. Benoit goes for an Irish whip but Angle reverses and lands a kneelift to the gut. He follows with some shots to the stomach in a corner and then sends Benoit into the opposite corner for a charge. Benoit dodges and Angle hits the ringpost shoulder-first. Benoit sends him shoulder-first into another ringpost and then hits a back suplex for a two-count. He hits some short-arm clotheslines and kneelifts of his own but then he goes for one clotheslines too many as Angle ducks it and goes for a German. Wait, no, Benoit wrestles around and hits more knees to block a belly-to-belly. Angle knees back and connects with an overhead suplex. Both men collapse.
Benoit hits two German suplexes in a row and goes for a third but Angle blocks and lands two of his own. Benoit blocks Angle’s third and lands his third German. Angle blocks another and connects with three more. Angle goes for the Angle Slam but Benoit counters and lands a huge German that flips Angle over onto his stomach. Benoit goes for a diving head-butt. Angle cuts him off with an avalanche belly-to-belly. One, two, Benoit kicks out. Angle goes to capitalize but Benoit lands a jackknife cover for another two-count. Angle wrestles into an ankle lock but Benoit kicks out.
The two trade scoop lifts until Benoit lands a Tombstone-style shoulderbreaker followed by a diving head-butt. Benoit folds Angle up for a cover but only gets two. Crippler crossface! Angle counters with an ankle lock! Benoit counters back into the crossface! Angle counters back but Benoit gets a ropebreak. Angle answers with his own crossface. Benoit reaches out with his hand. Angle puts his foot on the bottom rope to push it out of reach. Benoit goes for a cover but Angle counters the counter. Benoit counters that with a roll-up and gets his feet on the ropes. One, two, and three! Benoit steals a victory from Angle!
Winner after 13:58: Chris Benoit
This was amazing. It was one of the most action-packed matches and exciting short matches in modern times. It was the technical equivalent to Shibata vs. Ishii or Shibata vs Goto from 2013. Instead of being a hard-hitting war it was a short but intense game of one-upmanship between two of the most technically-gifted wrestlers in WWE history. There was no need for high risk, going longer, or doing anything excessive. It was simple but to the point. It felt like an old school classic style wrestling match but sped up and with some modern stylistic elements sprinkled in as well. This was a much-needed return to a more traditional approach to wrestling, especially with the generic brawl-heavy matches that had defined WWE’s product for the better part of 3-4 years.
This wasn’t just a blank, mechanical, or emotionless exchange of holds; there was a clear story and tensions were running high from bell to bell. Mixed among the smart wrestling and the MMA-and-amateur-style grappling was a personal edge that made this into an entertaining competition. Angle and Benoit kept trying to go for their respective submission hold finishers given that they had embarrassed each other with those moves. Control shifted from the simplest and most logical of moves. There was as much excitement from the crowd during the pin exchanges and constant switches as there was during the back-and-forth German suplex sequence. Most of the moves had a purpose; for Angle it was trying to wear down Benoit’s ribs and torso to take the wind out of him and for Benoit it was trying to take out one of Angle’s shoulders.
And while there wasn’t that much deep or extensive selling, it had enough to make this match feel closer to a real grappling competition. Had these two taken the time to extend sell sequences then it would’ve added to the drama for sure, but this match didn’t really need that. The point here was to make audiences believe that the match could end at any moment in any way, and that was exemplified with the finish. It wasn’t done with a finishing move or with a predictable comeback sequence, or even with a clear chain showing one wrestler was clearly about to win at any moment. Instead, it was another sudden counter that turned the direction of the match on its head. It was a cheap finish with Benoit getting his feet on the ropes, but it was one that made sense given Angle’s attempt to keep Benoit away from the ropes seconds earlier. It wasn’t a decisive finish but it was all Benoit needed as far as the record books went. Needless to say how it ended necessitated a rematch, which we would get a few months away at the 2003 Royal Rumble.
Additionally, this match benefitted from proper commentary. Since Tazz was a former wrestler that had wrestled both men and knew their styles, he gave fantastic explanation into what things meant and how they impacted the match. He was the opposite of an emotion-driven commentator like Jim Ross or Jerry Lawler in that he focused on giving things a realistic explanation and helping the audience by giving personal insight into how things really feel. Sometimes a match is helped with crazy, passionate, storytelling-driven commentary to give a match a big fight atmosphere. Here, Tazz’s realism and Michael Cole breaking it down to its simplest form made the match easy to digest and understand.
Final Rating: ****3/4
This was an example of letting two wrestlers do things their way without management interference or injection of stylistic preferences. Kurt Angle and Chris Benoit were capable of doing other stuff – brawling and comedy, for example – when needed. But in a story to determine who the better man was, it made sense for them to be given the freedom to wrestle as they pleased. And while there’s plenty to argue about giving wrestlers complete freedom given how the so-called “modern style” has divided and in some cases polarized fans, in this case that freedom led to a spectacular match.
Even if Benoit and Angle weren’t the biggest fans of their matches together, this was one of the best short matches in the past two decades. There was so much action and intensity packed into such a fluid match that had so much going for it. It was one of the most realistic wrestling matches ever promoted under the WWE banner and I can honestly say it’s an absolute must-watch.