March 4, 2005
World Heavyweight Championship: Triple H (c) vs. Shawn Michaels vs. Chris Benoit
March 14, 2004
Madison Square Garden
My family is Catholic but from the age of 10 my religion has been wrestling. Week after week, month after month, and year after year I studied the matches and history of the greatest sport on earth. Stars came and went during that time. Personal favorites of mine Davey Boy Smith, Curt Hennig, and Owen Hart passed away. My passion remained. A new wave of talent like Shelton Benjamin, Batista, and John Cena appeared on the scene. My passion remained. In 2004, it was my passion that finally brought me to the Vatican of the WWE – Madison Square Garden.
It was one of those rare occasions where things just happened to fall into place. While watching WrestleMania XIX on pay-per-view, I paid close attention to the promo which ran for the following year’s event. New York City. Madison Square Garden. March 14, 2004. I had been hoping to plan a visit to NYC for the summer of 04 but surely wouldn’t mind pushing that up a few months, if my college schedule allowed. Surprisingly enough, it did. March 14th happened to be the first Sunday of my spring break.
In September 03 I purchased my tickets, spending just over $200 apiece for the floor seats. From that date forward, the buildup to Mania had already begun in my mind. But the anticipation only grew as the weeks and months passed.
It grew as singles pushes for Chris Benoit, John Cena, and Eddie Guerrero began on Smackdown. It grew as Benoit took Brock Lesnar to the limit. It grew as Benoit earned a spot in the Royal Rumble. It grew as he broke all records and outlasted the remaining 29 men to win the Rumble and earn the world title shot at Mania. It grew as Eddie Guerrero upset Brock Lesnar for the WWE Championship.
There were many reasons to go to WrestleMania. It had a loaded card. It was a historic night. But for me, the only match I was truly invested in was Benoit’s quest for the title. Everything else paled in comparison.
I became a loyal Chris Benoit fan the moment he returned to WCW in 1995 and had closely followed the rollercoaster ride of a career which followed. Although respected by the fans, he never had the chance to run as the top guy. I feared he never would.
As WrestleMania XX grew nearer, there was much talk about which of the high profile matches would close the show. Would it be the controversial Brock Lesnar / Bill Goldberg bout? Would it be the return of the Undertaker as he faced Kane? Or would it be, as tradition dictated, the WWE Championship match pitting Eddie Guerrero against Kurt Angle?
There was also much talk about Chris Benoit’s push to the championship title scene. Would this be his time or would his sudden jump to Raw end up burying him beneath Triple H? Obviously the Rumble was centered around Benoit but it was not certain that he would be able to break through and capitalize on his championship opportunity. I, of course, hoped he would but I was not in the majority. “Wishful thinking” was often the response when I vocalized my anticipation of Benoit leaving MSG with the title, especially considering he would have to go through both Triple H and Shawn Michaels to get the job done.
So I sat there in the world’s most famous arena and watched. I had chills during the opening video package. I was privileged to see – in-person – the inductees to the 2004 Hall of Fame. I watched and enjoyed each and every match, if not for the matches themselves then at least for the fact that I was finally inside Madison Square Garden, the arena that witnessed the rise of Bruno Sammartino, Superstar Billy Graham, Hulk Hogan, Bret Hart, and Steve Austin.
It became clear mid-way through the show that the triple threat match for the Raw World Title would end the event. Knowing this, I became psyched like I had not been since my early days as a fan – since Flair upset Vader at Starrcade or since Bret upset Yokozuna in the very same arena I was now inside.
Immediately following the Undertaker’s victorious return, the logo for the triple threat match appeared on the big screen and my attention could not be diverted. During the buildup video, when Shawn Michaels told Benoit on Raw during the contract signing, “I know this is a huge, huge moment for you”, I felt he was talking directly to me as I stood there in the Garden and looked on. The video for “Step Up” soon followed and my anticipation was at a fever pitch, anticipation to see whether or not Vince McMahon had enough faith in Benoit to endorse him on such a grand stage.
With the entrances out of the way, the crowd begins a chant of “Let’s go, Benoit”, showing early on where their favoritism lay.
The match underway, Benoit and HBK argue over who goes after Triple H, with both men throwing down the other to get to the champion. Benoit chops Michaels against the ropes and an Irish whip sends HBK into the champion, knocking Triple H to the floor.
Benoit quickly attempts the Crippler Crossface but Michaels reverses into a cradle for a 2-count. Benoit connects with a northern lights suplex for another 2-count. A clothesline drops Benoit to the mat and Triple H drops Michaels in similar fashion immediately thereafter. The champion attempts to regain control of the match and Benoit ends up flying over the top and to the floor following an Irish whip from HHH and an assist from Michaels.
A brief “You screwed Bret” chant can be heard directed at referee Earl Hebner as HHH drops Michaels on the inside. Outside the ring, the champion rams Benoit against the edge of the apron, with Michaels connecting with a baseball slide that sends the other two men to the concrete. Seconds later, HBK flies off the top with reckless abandon and flattens his opposition with a moonsault to the floor.
Michaels drags HHH back inside the ring but it’s the champion that gains the upper hand as he connects with a knee to the face. The champion attempts a Pedigree but Benoit makes a quick return, dropping Hunter and taking control of Michaels.
A series of chops redden the chest of the champion but Hunter soon regroups, sending Benoit into the corner and hanging him upside down. The champion continues his offense by throwing Michaels into the trapped Benoit. A 2-count on Michaels follows. Michaels attempts the same moments later but Benoit is able to free a leg and kick HHH in the face as he runs into the corner.
With Benoit finally free, Michaels lands the flying forearm on the champion and nips up with intent of hitting the superkick on Hunter. Benoit, almost instantaneously, sends Shawn to the floor with a clothesline and drops the champion with three German suplexes before signaling for the diving headbutt. However, it’s Michaels who forces Benoit to crotch himself on the top. Michaels attempts the superkick on a dazed Triple H but the champion ducks and drops the challenger with a DDT that sends him rolling to the floor.
Hunter follows Benoit up top and eventually beats him down enough to hit a superplex. The champion attempts the Pedigree only for Benoit to reverse it into the deadly Crippler Crossface. However, Michaels slides back inside the ring to prevent the match from ending too soon.
Michaels hits a German on Benoit and attempts another but Benoit is able to reverse and land three of his own, to the crowd’s delight. Benoit again heads up top and finally lands his trademark headbutt, scoring two 2-counts in the process. A flying forearm from Michaels soon sends Benoit to the floor.
Michaels nips up and drops the champion with a series of clotheslines. A slam follows and the challenger climbs to the top and connects with the flying elbow. The challenger parades around the ring and tunes up the band for the Sweet Chin Music as many in attendance boo and protest. Michaels kicks HHH right in the jaw but Benoit is able to pull the champion out to the floor at the 2-count to prevent Michaels from walking out with the belt.
With HBK and Benoit alone in the ring, Benoit fights to apply the Sharpshooter but ends up having to catapult Michaels into the ring post instead, busting Michaels’ head open. The Crippler eventually fights Michaels to the mat where he locks on the Crossface. A bloody Michaels raises his hand but it’s Triple H who grabs it before it hits the mat.
Hunter pulls Benoit out to the floor but it’s Benoit who is able to slam the champion’s head into the steel steps. The native of Edmonton continues his assault on the floor but ends up being thrown back-first into the ring post. Inside the ring, Michaels is prone on the mat, his face wearing the infamous crimson mask.
Benoit puts the champion on the Spanish announce table and goes up with him with intent of landing a German suplex but HHH fights out of it and signals for the Pedigree onto the table. Benoit again fights back but Michaels joins the fray, with he and HHH eventually hitting a double suplex from the Spanish table through the adjacent Smackdown announce table.
Michaels returns to the ring and calls out Triple H to settle their differences once and for all. The champion, with a face of determination, agrees and the two begin trading blows in the center of the ring. HBK soon sends HHH to the corner and over the top, where a cameraman is taken out in the process.
With Benoit still motionless laying among the ruminants of the announce table, HBK rams the champion’s head into the steel ring post. A brief “HBK” chant breaks out in the crowd as Triple H’s face begins bleeding as well.
Michaels gets a second wind back inside the ring but falls victim to the Pedigree. Triple H slowly rolls on top of the challenger but before Hebner’s hand can hit the mat for a third time, Benoit comes out of nowhere to break the count.
Hunter, on his knees, begins wheezing for air as the blood continues to pour down his face. The champion attempts the Pedigree on Benoit but it’s quickly reversed into the Sharpshooter to bring the crowd to their feet. Hunter sells the hold like death itself. The champion touches the ring ropes but Benoit is able to pull him into the center of the ring. However, before the certain submission can occur, Michaels lands a deadly superkick to the jaw of Benoit. Michaels crawls over and makes a cover on Benoit but the Crippler kicks out at 2.
Michaels once again tunes up the band for the superkick, this time on Benoit, but Benoit sees it coming, lowers his head, and dumps HBK over the top and to the floor. After throwing a verbal barrage in Michaels’ direction, Benoit turns around and is immediately set up for the Pedigree by the champion. However, in mid-jump, the move is reversed into the Crippler Crossface.
Hunter crawls his way to the ropes but can’t quite reach them. In a last ditched effort, the champion rolls over and tries to get Benoit in a pinning predicament. However, Benoit rolls through, putting HHH even more in the center of the ring. With no choice, Triple H is forced to slap his hand to the mat in submission.
Howard Finkel announces Benoit as the new champion as the title holder lays on the mat, visibly emotional. Hebner hands him the big gold. “Whatever” by Our Lady Peace blares throughout the arena. The newly crowned champion proudly holds his title high as Eddie Guerrero enters the ring and hugs his longtime friend. With both men embracing, confetti falls from the rafters.
For many, WrestleMania XX was a historic night full of historic battles. John Cena’s first taste of WWE gold. A heel turn by Trish Stratus. Perhaps the Rock’s last match in the WWE. A return to the ring by Mick Foley. The train wreck that was Goldberg / Lesnar. A mat classic in Angle / Guerrero.
For me, WrestleMania XX was about being witness to a dream coming true. Years from now, I’ll be able to say I was there to see Chris Benoit win the world heavyweight title in perhaps the finest WrestleMania bout of all time. And I’ll even have a handful of confetti to prove it.