Since the reintroduction of the WWE’s brand split last summer, the single-branded PPVs have needed an adjustment period. As each show attempts to build up stars through character and storyline development or additions from NXT, it has taken the brands a year before they can safely put on what can be characterized as an “excellent” show on their own.
The event to be remembered is Great Balls of Fire. Despite WWE’s bizarre insistence on a 1950s throwback theme, the actual show itself was exhilarating. Don’t let the name distract you from the fact that the inaugural installment of Great Balls of Fire may have been the best single-brand PPV to ever hit the air.
Consider: Every match on the show had some considerable hype. That’s not to say there wasn’t a squash (Enzo versus Big Cass) or a match that failed to hit expectations (Alexa Bliss versus Sasha Banks), but there were four extremely solid matches elsewhere: Rollins-Wyatt, the Tag Titles Ironman Match, Reigns-Strowman, to Lesnar-Joe. It had a little bit of history with the Ironman stipulation on the tag match, and even more with Reigns committing attempted vehicular homicide by driving Strowman into a tractor trailer while in the back of an ambulance.
It sounds difficult to judge “best show ever,” but looking back, there weren’t many other “greats” to choose from. The ones I will mention below all had strong points, but also low points, since they were single-brand shows. No one is claiming any of these events could surpass a WrestleMania or SummerSlam, but for what they were, the company excelled.
The strongest challenge to the throne for Great Balls of Fire, truly the last strong installment of the Vengeance PPV series, featured a Match of the Year candidate between Shawn Michaels and Kurt Angle and a Hell in a Cell Match between Batista and Triple H for the World Heavyweight Championship.
The small card boosted the show, leaving out a lot of the extra matches that have been added over the years to fill time. Vengeance benefited from two 27-minute matches, both of which stole the show.
Even this stacked card featured John Cena defending his WWE Championship, having come from SmackDown just before the show. It won’t disqualify the event from best single-brand status, but it did have the added advantage of two main-event title matches.
No Way Out 2004
Known as the keystone moment in his WWE career, Eddie Guerrero put on a classic 30-minute match with Brock Lesnar for the WWE Championship, which earned Latino Heat the belt for the first time.
The idea of Lesnar wrestling 30 minutes in a single match anymore (compared with his sub-seven-minute match against Samoa Joe at Great Balls of Fire) is laughable, but it made the final show before WrestleMania XX one of the most memorable single-brand shows of all time.
Also on the card was a classic between Rey Mysterio and Chavo Guerrero for the Cruiserweight Title and a Triple Threat Match featuring Kurt Angle, John Cena, and Big Show, to determine the No. 1 contender for Guerrero’s belt at WrestleMania.
The undercard didn’t do the show any favors: Jaime Noble faced Nidia in a Blindfold Match. Hardcore Holly and Rhyno got 10 minutes in a regular singles match, and there was a six-minute tag match between the APA and the World’s Greatest Tag Team that was pure filler.
If No Way Out 2004 isn’t SmackDown’s all-time best PPV, Vengeance 2003 would be your winner.
Truly a bizarre show in terms of match selection, the event was headlined by a Triple Threat Match for the WWE Championship with Brock Lesnar, Kurt Angle, and Big Show, with John Cena making his singles PPV debut against The Undertaker. Eddie Guerrero and Chris Benoit wrestled an underrated classic for the United States Championship, as did the World’s Greatest Tag Team against Rey Mysterio and Billy Kidman for the WWE Tag Titles.
However, it cannot be ignored that Mr. McMahon and Zack Gowan (who had just one leg) got over 14 minutes on the card. This was not your child’s PG SmackDown after all. There was also a four-minute APA Bar Brawl and a match between Stephanie McMahon and Sable, so this was definitely not all good.
Hell in a Cell 2016
The only event from WWE’s New Era that can hold a candle to Great Balls of Fire, Hell in a Cell had the added benefit of… well… Hell in a Cell.
An event predicated on match type involved its use on three occasions, all of which helped the overall product. Roman Reigns and Rusev fought for the United States Title, Kevin Owens and Seth Rollins for the Universal Title, and for the first time ever, Charlotte and Sasha Banks clashed for the Women’s Title, giving the event a trifecta of strong matches to build around.
Yet, the shady ending to Owens-Rollins, the addition of Bayley against Dana Brooke to the card, and a disqualification finish in the Tag Title Match all left a less-than-thrilling taste when considering the best.
Made in the old mold of a “two-match PPV,” the two matches on this card set the world ablaze. Randy Orton and Cactus Jack in their Hardcore Match for the Intercontinental Championship virtually led to Orton becoming the youngest World Champion in history with his classic performance. The WrestleMania rematch involving Chris Benoit, Shawn Michaels, and Triple H for the World Championship was another Match of the Year contender.
Outside of that, there wasn’t a whole lot here. The Hurricane and Rosey won a regular tag match, Jonathan Coachman beat Tajiri, and Val Venis beat Matt Hardy on the pre-show, just to give you an idea of where the rest of the Raw roster was at that point.
The decision is subjective. Debating which show was the best is part of the fandom of wrestling and not a debate that will be squelched anytime soon.