Since there are only a few more weeks until Kurt Angle is inducted into the Hall of Fame and HBK has been retired for 7 full years, it feels apropos to show homage to what many believe are the two finest WWE in-ring performers of all time by way of breaking down one of the greatest WrestleMania matches of all time: Kurt Angle vs. HBK WrestleMania 21.
As trite as the say may be, this match truly had a big fight feel to it. While the match was for nothing more than pride, it felt as though it was the biggest match on the card, and that is saying something since the two title matches were passing-of-the-torch moments to the up-and-coming poster childs of their respected brand.
The anticipation for this match was off-the-charts, as people knew they were in for something special. Kurt Angle was on top of his game at this time, producing at a high level in every single one of his outings, while HBK was aging like a fine wine in that he only kept getting better with age.
It could be argued that this match should have been for something more of importance, but nonetheless, this was an absolutely fantastic match, and sometimes two superlative wrestlers wanting to prove they are superior is all the story needs to be.
There was a ear-splitting buzz within the Staples Center before the bell even rang, as 20,000+ fans knew they were in for something special. The match started with HBK playing mind games by slapping Kurt Angle, trying to make Angle become a visceral wrestler rather than a calculating one. The strategy worked, as HBK knocked Angle off his game, allowing him to out-wrestle the former Olympian. The sheer fact that HBK was out-wrestling Angle only made Angle’s frustration grow, and kudos to Jerry Lawler for selling the magnitude of what people were seeing by pointing out how stunned he was by HBK beating Angle at his own game.
In addition to cunning mind games and in-ring psychology, both wrestlers got the crowd invested into the story they were narrating, putting them right into the palm of their hands, rather than having the crowd’s initial reactions determine how the match will go. The wrestlers wrestled a deliberate and methodical style – a chess match, if you will – although were smart enough to sprinkle in a number of memorable spots and moments so that the match did not become too mechanical.
The first big transition would later occur when Angle seized control of the match by hitting the first real true blow, ramming HBK into the ring post with an Angle Slam-like maneuver. This allowed Angle to weaken HBK’s wounded back, something that has given HBK problems throughout most of his wrestling career.
HBK tried fighting back on multiple occasions, but Angle was simply two steps ahead of him, largely due to HBK’s wounded back. He still was able to limit the damage enough to remain in the contest as well as await his opportunity to strike back, which is what he exactly did when an oh-so-very desperate HBK relied on daredevil tactics, throwing his body around like a rag doll to inflict damage on Kurt Angle.
It consequently became anyone’s match. Angle still remained on offense and delivered more impactful moves than HBK did and hit two Angle Slams and even locked into the Ankle Lock a number of times. However, HBK’s resilient and never-say-die attitude not only kept himself in the match; it also began to get on Angle’s nerves. This was evident when Angle decided to trash talk HBK instead of capitalize on him being hurt, allowing HBK to hit a Sweet Chin Music out of nowhere to deliver his first mighty blow to Angle.
Like a rabid dog, though, Angle kept hunting HBK’s ankle over and over again to the point where it was too much for HBK to overcome. He reached the ropes and countered it a few times before, but the lingering effects were still there in the ankle. It took a long time for HBK to finally tap out of the Ankle Lock, but he seemingly had no choice. Angle had him dead square in the middle of the ring with grapevine on to boot.
Kurt Angle was ultimately too much for HBK to handle in spite of HBK being on top of his game. This match did wonders for Kurt Angle. He was much more than your run-the-mill heel. He did not have to cheat or find shortcuts to win. He was just a better pound-for-pound wrestler than virtually anyone else and had no problem telling everyone about it.
This match was weird to watch, as it is so uncommon these days to see a match build itself up and have smart in-ring psychology and long-term selling. It felt as though both men wanted to win the match and tried a number of different things in order to do so, which is what a wrestling match should always be. However, there is so much more in this match that makes it a cut above the standard pro-wrestling match.
The overall pacing of the match is phenomenal, spacing it out in a manner in which every move is maximized and ergo more significant. The storytelling is also phenomenal, making every sequence, move, hold, counter, etc. mean something, as it could be a turning point, thus foreshadowing potential things to come. The selling is also phenomenal, making moves that aren’t all that dangerous seems as if they were the worst things to happen in the world, i.e. the Angle Slam into the ring-post and HBK’s cross bodies, in addition with them huffing and buffing, dragging themselves around, and using anything at their disposal to help themselves make it back to their feet to sell the injurious carnage; and, the whole general lay out of the match and how the pieces just properly fitting into place is not just phenomenal, but also, quite frankly, a work of art.
Without a doubt, HBK and Kurt Angle stole the show that night, unfairly putting the upcoming title matches in a spot where they had literally no chance of topping the match, by putting on an absolute classic of a match that will go down as one of the greatest WrestleMania matches of all time.