Madison Square Garden is indelibly linked with the history of WWE. It’s essentially home for the promotion, as so many classic moments were made with the WWE at MSG.
MSG has been the birthplace of careers and, indeed, eras. And yet it’s been 10 years since WWE last held a TV event at the world’s most famous arena.
That changes tonight, as WWE Monday Night Raw will emanate from New York City. Live from what some consider its true birthplace. The promotion has stacked the show with big matches and even an appearance from its biggest star ever, ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin.
The long drought between the WWE Raw‘s appearances at Madison Square Garden has us reflective (as we are wont to be). Here’s our look at the biggest WWE at MSG moments.
6. WrestleMania XX – Goldberg Vs. Lesnar
WWE promoted WrestleMania XX as “where it all begins again.”
I’m still not sure what that means, but it was the last time a show with WWE at MSG truly felt important. There was an electricity at the 2004 edition of WrestleMania that just wasn’t matched in the promotion’s subsequent returns to the arena.
Consider the matches that headlined the show. Chris Benoit and Shawn Michaels challenged Triple H for the World Heavyweight Championship. Eddie Guerrero defended the WWE title against Kurt Angle. And John Cena got his first big-stage win, defending the US title against the Big Show.
But the moment most fans remember best was the match between Goldberg and Brock Lesnar. And ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin was the referee.
Bear in mind, it isn’t memorable because it’s a mat classic. It isn’t. At all. By anybody’s metric.
It’s memorable because the fans at MSG were smart to the fact that both Goldberg and Lesnar were leaving WWE. It didn’t matter which one was the heel and which was the babyface (if we’re being honest, I don’t even remember). The crowd booed their every move. Even the presence of the legendary Austin wasn’t enough to make the crowd forget that they hated both guys for leaving.
That is until the end of the match. Goldberg got the victory via the Jackhammer, but that didn’t spare either him or Lesnar from getting a Stone Cold Stunner from the referee Austin.
5. SummerSlam 1988 – The Mega Powers Vs. The Mega Bucks
We’ve covered SummerSlam 1988 as a whole in our retrospectives.
Being the first-ever SummerSlam event is historic in and of itself. But the fact that it was a WWE at MSG show made it all the more special. It was only three-and-a-half years after the inaugural WrestleMania was held at the arena (we’ll get there). So it only made sense that the first SummerSlam would be there, too.
There was palpable excitement, as WWE was on a high it had never been on before.
The ongoing angle with Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage teaming up as the Mega Powers was at the absolute peak of its popularity. But it’s important to note that this show was also the one that began to sow the seeds for the Mega Powers’ collision at WrestleMania V the following spring.
At the time, though all anybody knew was that WWE’s two biggest superheroes were teaming together. And when they defeated the Million Dollar Man and Andre the Giant, the eruption of the crowd at MSG was astounding. The Mega Powers celebrated in the ring with Miss Elizabeth, and all was right with the world.
4. Raw Is War, January 7, 2002 – The Game Resumes
In the spring of 2001, Triple H tore his quadriceps muscle in a tag team match on Raw. The injury put him out of action for eight months and disturbed some pretty important booking plans as a result.
Triple H was set to feature prominently in his “two-man power trip” angle with a newly-minted heel Steve Austin. After the injury, though, Triple H was forced to sit out the entirety of the Invasion angle (good for him) and wouldn’t be cleared to return to action until January 2002.
As McMahon’s promotion was building to the 2002 Royal Rumble pay-per-view, the January 7 edition of Raw Is War placed the WWE at MSG. And when Triple H stepped through the curtain, the roar from the New York crowd was – well, it was something else.
Jim Ross can always be counted on for hyperbole. But when he described Triple H’s entrance as “as loud a sustained roar” he had ever heard, that’s no joke.
Of course, eventually Triple H would embark on what fans refer to as the “reign of terror” for the next four years. He ran roughshod over anyone and everyone, even when all of the most basic logic said he shouldn’t. But for this point in time, with the WWE at MSG, Triple H sent chills up the spines of wrestling fans the world over.
In fact, it still gives me goosebumps today.
3. WrestleMania – The Grand Spectacle
No story about classic moments of the WWE at MSG is complete without the first WrestleMania.
It’s easy to take for granted today, but Vince McMahon bet the house on WrestleMania. If the first event in 1985 didn’t work, the WWE was finished.
And if McMahon was going to go for it, then he was going to go big for it. He pulled out all the stops. The main event of Hulk Hogan and Mr. T facing off against Roddy Piper and Paul Orndorf was big enough. But if WrestleMania was going to make an impression, it had to be bigger. Muhammad Ali was the special guest referee, Liberace (look it up) was the guest time keeper, and former Yankees Manager Billy Martin was the guest ring announcer.
For all the risks, though, there had to be something safe. And there is nothing more safe for WWE than the confines of Madison Square Garden. The fans were always there for the WWE at MSG. It was essentially WWE’s home court.
And the Madison Square Garden faithful didn’t disappoint.
2. Raw Is War, September 23, 1997 – Austin Stuns The Boss
The anticipation for the September 23, 1997 edition of Raw, which once again saw WWE at MSG, was palpable. And the stakes were high.
The Monday Night War was in full swing, and WWE was slowly but surely fighting its way back in the battle against WCW. Again, the WWE looked to work with its aforementioned home court advantage.
There were a number of big events. Among the more memorable was the WWE debut of Cactus Jack, the third face of Foley to compete in the promotion. But the one that set this show apart was an interview segment between Vince McMahon and ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin.
Austin had been on the warpath following his SummerSlam injury at the hands of Owen Hart. Unable to compete, Austin was kept strong on TV by running in on matches and segments and stunning whoever happened to be in his path.
On this night, McMahon – who was mainly known to the audience at large as an announcer – confronted Austin. As they did years later at WrestleMania XX, though, the MSG faithful knew better. And McMahon took advantage of that fact to blur the lines. He laid out the case that WWE was just looking out for Austin’s health and his well-being.
In return, Austin thanked Vince McMahon before delivering the Stunner. Vince’s job of selling the move was bad, at best. But it was the moment that mattered. Austin subliminally sent a message that no one – not even the King of Wrestling himself – was off limits to the Rattlesnake.
And the fans of WWE at MSG ate it up.
1. November 16, 1984 – Hulkamania Is Born
Whether you love him or hate him, Hulk Hogan is the most important star in wrestling history.
In 1984, the momentum for the Hulkster was reaching a fevered pitch. Hogan’s fans who followed him from his days in the AWA had waited for him to win “the big one” for years.
There was no better time to begin one of the most prosperous eras in the company’s history than with the WWE at MSG. Of course, finding the right opponent for Hogan was something of a struggle.
Bob Backlund was WWE Champion for two years, and when the edict came down from McMahon that Hogan would claim the belt, the champ balked. Backlund was a shooter, a guy with a legitimate amateur background. He scoffed at the idea of putting over a “showman.” So earlier in the year, WWE hotshotted the title from Backlund to the Iron Shiek.
And in November, with the WWE at MSG, the Hulkster got his big moment, challenging the Shiek for the WWE title. In front of a sold-out MSG crowd, Hogan dropped the leg and claimed his first WWE title. Hulkamania was born. As his Twitter feed shows, the Shiek was humble in his defeat. Sarcasm is fun.
Hogan would be the WWE Champion for the next four years and take the company to national and international renown. And it all began with a show at Madison Square Garden.
What’s special about the WWE at MSG is that there any number of moments that could have been number one.
I bandied the order of this list around a number of times before I got it right. Heck, I had to squeeze a sixth one in just so I’ll be able to sleep tonight.
When WWE comes back to Madison Square Garden, it comes home. The company has proved numerous times through the years that you can go home again.
And it pays to have a ticket to see it when it does.
All images courtesy of WWE.