For 40 years, the Intercontinental Championship has been the workhorse title of the WWE.
In that time it has been held by some of the greatest wrestlers ever to lace up a pair of boots. It has also been contested for in some of the most fondly remembered, well-received matches in history.
So too has it been fought for in its fair share of forgotten classics. Not every match can live on forever in the collective memories of fans the way that Savage vs. Steamboat from WrestleMania III has. The following five matches may not be the most talked-about by they are all worth watching again to remember how valuable the Intercontinental Championship can be when everyone involved puts in the work to make it so.
#5. Triple H vs. Jeff Hardy – SmackDown, 12/04/01
Kicking things off is a gem of a match from a not so great era of WWE history. The early portion of 2001, particularly just after WrestleMania, was fairly poorly booked. The Austin heel turn had taken the wind out of fan’s sails and there was a quiet period before the horrible Invasion angle started.
During this time The Two Man Power Trip were ruling the roost as Stone Cold and Triple H found themselves as World and Intercontinental Champions respectively. They abused their immense power every week and one such example was when they laid into Matt Hardy. This prompted Jeff to retaliate by laying out the two stars with a steel chair before hitting a Twist of Fate on Stephanie McMahon, setting up a title match later that same evening.
The match itself is a perfect example of a plucky but out of his depth babyface taking on an overpowered heel adversary. Triple H dominates much of the match but Hardy gets his hope spots in to pop the crowd and keep them invested. It’s a contest where you don’t see the result coming just because of how unlikely it is. It marks Jeff’s first reign with the IC gold and the first clear indication that perhaps management saw him as being more than a tag team guy.
4. Bad News Barrett vs. Cesaro vs. Rob Van Dam – SmackDown, 06/06/14
Believe it or not there once was a time where Wade Barrett, then working as Bad News Barrett, was being pushed in something approaching a meaningful manner by WWE. He was looking strong as the IC Champ and having a fair few excellent matches to cement his status as a rising star once more. This match is the best of the bunch.
The credit does not solely belong to Barrett, of course, as both of his opponents put in a lot of work to make this as good as it was.
Cesaro was gaining momentum as a Paul Heyman Guy and looked as though he was about to be pushed to the moon (how naïve we were). Rob Van Dam was still moving at full speed and producing magic with just about everyone he faced, unlike his more recent Impact offerings.
The combination of these three made for a fast paced, unpredictable, and exciting contest that got the crowd invested immediately. Paul Heyman was superb at the announce desk, as you’d imagine, and nobody felt like a weak link. RVD took the fall but still remained strong in defeat and Cesaro avoided losing any momentum despite not taking the title home.
3. Billy Gunn vs. Chris Benoit – Armageddon 10/12/00
Armageddon 2000 is an underrated PPV in and of itself but on that card there lies an IC Title clash that nobody ever mentions.
Billy Gunn and Chris Benoit were both relatively hot commodities in the new millennium and so, as you would expect, they produced the goods when matched up with one another. The match is fairly short, something that’s indicative of this time period, but both men pack a lot of action into that small window.
Benoit is like a house of fire. He’s intense and impactful with every move he hits. He genuinely looks rabid as he pursues the champion. Gunn is more cautious, using his superior size to his advantage as he tries to overpower his technically savvy foe. It’s a match that tells a story and it is one that deserves a little more appreciation. That being said, there is one pretty glaring botch on a Tilt-a-Whirl Backbreaker attempt by Gunn, not that that is enough to take away from what is overall a very enjoyable showing.
2. Mr Perfect vs. Tito Santana – Saturday Night’s Main Event, 28/07/90
Amazingly to modern fans there actually was a time when Main Event produced some brilliant wrestling action. It wasn’t a throw away show full of undercard workers but was instead an enjoyable bit of television that occasionally produced gems such as this.
This match was the treat of the research process for this article. It is one that most will not have heard of or seen but it is a perfect representation of both Hennig and Santana as performers.
Santana is the fiery hero wowing the crowd with, for the time, explosive offense. He’s diving about the ring and generating a lot of love from his fans. You can believe that he sees this as a golden opportunity and is throwing everything he can at Hennig with the hope of walking out as the new champion.
Hennig is the conniving villain. He’s slower, more methodical in his approach and looks to ground his energetic foe. It’s storytelling 101 but it works to great effect here.
This is also one of the rare occasions that a ref bump doesn’t seem totally ridiculous. Earl Hebner makes it work and whilst the injury slows him down, he doesn’t lie in an unconscious state for the rest of the match like most refs do.
1. John Morrison vs. Rey Mysterio – Smack
Another SmackDown match finds its way onto the list. It’s no surprise really since the brand has long since had the reputation for being more wrestling focused and producing exciting matches at a greater rate than Raw.
Here Rey Mysterio entered as the incumbent champion against a fired-up John Morrison. With two such athletic Superstars in the ring it was always going to be a barn burner but they went beyond what was expected and the result was a classic.
Morrison took to the skies when he had the advantage but for the most part he employed the smarter strategy of using his superior size to ground Mysterio and wear him down. It created a wonderful ebb and flow to proceedings and allowed them to tell a story as they went. Towards the end Morrison was pulling out more risky moves in order to put down his resilient foe.
Mysterio played his part wonderfully too, using his speed and ring savvy to his advantage as he tried to force Morrison to wrestle him at his pace.
The result is a contest with a little bit of everything. Both combatants look strong as they kick out of and reverse each other’s big moves. It’s a bout that shows what the IC Title division is capable of if given a chance and it is something we need to see more of on SmackDown going forwards.
Every fan of good wrestling should take the time to check out these five contests, but so too should they look at the history of the IC Title as a whole. It has been fought for in so many amazing battles that it would be impossible to list them all. The title may be in a slump at the moment as so little importance is being placed upon it and its holder but that doesn’t mean that a return to prominence couldn’t happen if just a few matches as good as these were booked. The talent is there and the fans are eager to see them show what they can do.
You can find me on Twitter @Impers0nalJesus. Thanks for reading.