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Bray Wyatt's WWE Championship win in February 2017 at Talking Stick Resort Arena.
Bray Wyatt's WWE Championship win in February 2017 at Talking Stick Resort Arena.
Courtesy of WWE

WWE Will Rock You: Wrestling's 10 Biggest Moments in Phoenix

On a chilly night in Phoenix in February 2017, Bray Wyatt surprised the professional wrestling world. The enigmatic wrestler and bearded hooligan pulled out an unlikely win during a match at Talking Stick Resort Arena and claimed the WWE Championship in the process.

It happened inside the Elimination Chamber — a 26-foot-high structure that’s built from steel, wrapped in chains, and designed to punish — which was set up inside the downtown Phoenix arena and contained Wyatt and five other WWE superstars beating the crap out of each other in pursuit of wrestling glory.

Four others (including John Cena) had already been eliminated, and the match had come down to just Wyatt and AJ Styles. Out of nowhere, Wyatt grabbed his opponent’s head out of the air, wrenched it into a headlock, and then flipped him over onto the mat. (The move is called “Sister Abigail” and it looks pretty devastating.)

Wyatt goes for the pin, and the sold-out crowd inside Talking Stick Resort Arena chants along with the count: “1 ... 2 ... 3.” And then everyone went wild.

Wyatt’s victory was one of the bigger surprises in the WWE’s long history in Phoenix, and shocked many fans. Teek Hall was one of them and loved every second of the match. The local rapper, wrestling fan, and Wyatt devotee was sitting in the second row at the arena that night and had an up-close view of the action.

“We didn’t think that was going to happen, but the fact that it did was dope,” he says. “It was a big surprise. I remember we jumped up, shocked, and was like, ‘What the fuck? This shit was crazy.’ We were just flipping out, like, we couldn’t believe Bray Wyatt won this shit and won it here in Phoenix.”

Moments like that are the reason Hall and others have been so excited that the WWE is bringing one of its biggest pay-per-view events, the Royal Rumble, to Chase Field in downtown Phoenix on Sunday, January 27, surrounded by five days of wrestling mania. The extravaganza was announced more than a year ago.

“It being in my own backyard, I couldn’t wait,” Hall says.

Hall has a major passion for professional wrestling. It permeates his life, in fact. The 34-year-old hosts a wrestling podcast, Mat Mania, along with fellow rapper Mega Ran. His closet is filled with wrestling shirts, and his discography contains a few mixtapes inspired by famed wrestlers like Mick Foley and the late Big Van Vader. He also travels to cities around the U.S. several times a year to attend WWE events, including WrestleMania.

“And, yes, I know it’s scripted,” he adds. “It’s like an action-packed miniseries or soap opera. … It’s the characters that make you love or hate it — the theatrics, the theme songs, the athleticism.”

Wrestling itself might be considered to be fake (since its winners are predetermined and whatnot), but its appeal to its legions of Phoenix fans like Hall is anything but.

“Phoenix, or the Southwest in general, has become a hub for wrestling,” Hall says. “We got the WWE coming through here each year and all these indie promotions happening in town.”

According to the billion-dollar company, the Valley is considered one of its major markets. WWE stages events here every year — ranging from untelevised live events to major cards like Royal Rumble.

WWE fans showing some love for Randy Orton and Roman Reigns.EXPAND
WWE fans showing some love for Randy Orton and Roman Reigns.
Benjamin Leatherman

Phoenix has been in love with the WWE for decades, and the affair officially began on July 29, 1984, when Vince McMahon first began bringing his one-ring circus to town. On that sultry summer’s night, wrestling fans crowded into the Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum for their first taste of action from the WWE (then known as the World Wrestling Federation), including an appearance by the late Andre the Giant.

Over the past 20 years, the Phoenix area has hosted countless episodes of weekly television shows like Raw and SmackDown, as well as eight different pay-per-view events, including a WrestleMania. Royal Rumble 2019 will be the ninth. (The festivities will include several ancillary events over five days, including episodes of Raw and SmackDown.)

“Phoenix has always been a great market for us,” McMahon told Phoenix New Times in 2009. “We always feel welcome here.”

While many wrestling pundits may not consider Phoenix to be one of the great pro wrestling cities (heck, it isn’t even in their top 10), the fact remains that it’s immensely popular and the WWE keeps coming back to the Valley. A portion of wrestling history has happened here, including 11 title changes and tons of memorable matches and moments.

Will the Royal Rumble this weekend offer some similarly big moments? Only time will tell.

Here is a selection of some of the biggest WWE moments that have happened in Phoenix:

William Regal versus Spike Dudley
Raw
April 8, 2002
America West Arena (now Talking Stick Resort Arena)

Some WWE title matches last upward of 30 minutes or longer. Not so with this lightning-quick contest in 2002 for the now-defunct European title that happened in as much time as it took for you to read this sentence.

The defending champ was dastardly, British-born cad William Regal, who (like all good British villains) cheated to win. And his weapon of choice was a pair of brass knuckles, usually hidden somewhere in the ring or on his person, which he used to K.O. his opponents. On this night, however, pint-sized lovable loser Spike Dudley, all 5 feet, 8 inches of him, dashed to the ring, found the brass knucks, walloped Regal before the match officially started, and went for the pin.

A couple of heartbeats later, pretty much long enough for the ref to ring the bell and make a three-count, it was over — the wrestling equivalent of a drive-by. Bell to bell, it lasted approximately four seconds. Regal didn’t even have time to take off the title. As far as we know, it’s still the quickest title change in WWE history.

WWE legend King Kong Bundy.
WWE legend King Kong Bundy.
Courtesy of WWE

King Kong Bundy attacks Hulk Hogan
Saturday Night’s Main Event
February 15, 1986
Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum

Long before shows like Raw or SmackDown were even a glint in Vince McMahon’s eye, many WWE storylines unfolded on television via Saturday Night’s Main Event. The program, which aired on NBC several times a year from the mid-’80s to the early-’90s, featured matches that helped advance whatever grudges and plots that the WWE had going on at the moment. In early 1986, the show set up the main event of that year’s WrestleMania during an episode taped at Veterans Memorial Coliseum.

Let’s set the scene: Then-WWE champion Hulk Hogan had just beaten “The Magnificent” Don Muraco in a title match and was fending off a post-match attack from his opponent. Then, the hulking villain known as King Kong Bundy (basically, a human version of The Blob) waddled down to the ring and began beating the crap out of the Hulkster. The two heels supposedly broke his ribs (in the storyline, at least) and left the champ laying. Revenge in wrestling is best served inside a steel cage, which is where Hogan got his payback during the biggest bout at WrestleMania 2 a month or so later.

Chris Jericho versus Bautista
Cyber Sunday 2008
October 26, 2008
US Airways Center (now Talking Stick Resort Arena)

Chris Jericho’s legendary stint as a heel from 2008 to 2011 is among the best ever villains in the biz. He committed all manner of egregious acts, including decking other men’s wives and cheating his way to the World Heavyweight Championship, all while justifying his actions as a “self-righteous honest man” with deadly calm. Oh, and by the way, we were the ones who were all hypocrites and liars, Jericho informed us repeatedly.

Frankly, he needed a major-league comeuppance, which Dave “The Animal” Bautista (who performed in the WWE as just Batista) delivered in spectacular fashion during the Cyber Sunday pay-per-view that took place here in October 2008. After manhandling Jericho for the better part of 15 minutes, the future Guardian of the Galaxy dispatched his foe with his signature “Bautista bomb” and claimed his World Heavyweight Championship.

Daniel Bryan and CM Punk square off at Money in the Bank 2012.EXPAND
Daniel Bryan and CM Punk square off at Money in the Bank 2012.
Benjamin Leatherman

Daniel Bryan versus CM Punk
Money in the Bank 2012
July 15, 2012
US Airways Center (now Talking Stick Resort Arena)

Whenever Daniel Bryan and CM Punk stepped into a ring, it was pure gold. Pure. Gold. Doesn’t matter if it was in the indies, Ring of Honor, or the WWE, the two phenomenally talented wrestlers always produced high-caliber matches thanks to their ample ring skills and undeniable chemistry. And at the Money in the Bank pay-per-view in 2012, they had what would become their final televised singles match. (Punk had an infamous falling out with WWE in 2014 and will probably never return. Bryan, however, is still with the company.)

Bryan and Punk had spent most of 2012 feuding on and off, putting on some absolute classics in the process. This particular contest was a no-disqualification match, which meant anything goes. In the hands of lesser wrestlers, it would probably be a garbage-filled debacle laden with steel chairs and ugly spots. In the hands of two expert hands like Bryan and Punk, it was a near-masterpiece, boasting brutal action and carefully built drama. It earned plenty of praise from wrestling fans and critics alike, as well as big cheers from the sold-out crowd inside what’s now called Talking Stick Resort Arena.

Naomi wins the SmackDown Women’s Championship
Elimination Chamber 2017
February 12, 2017
Talking Stick Resort Arena

When Naomi pinned Alexa Bliss for the SmackDown Women’s Championship in early 2017 inside Talking Stick Resort Arena, it was a significant moment, not just for her but also the WWE in general. It was the first title win for Naomi, who started in the company as an anonymous background dancer five years prior. More importantly, it was the first time an African-American had won the SmackDown’s version of the Women’s Championship.

Local rapper and longtime wrestling geek Mega Ran, who attended the event, appreciated the significance of Naomi’s win. “I savor any victory for people of color, and to see Naomi come such a long way was really emotional for me,” he says. “That place went crazy, because we were truly happy to know that hard work can pay off, even in a predetermined business. I’m glad I got to see that live.”

John Cena after winning the Royal Rumble in 2013.EXPAND
John Cena after winning the Royal Rumble in 2013.
Benjamin Leatherman

John Cena’s big victories
Money in the Bank 2012
July 15, 2012
Royal Rumble 2013
January 27, 2013

US Airways Center (now Talking Stick Resort Arena)

The Valley has been a lucky place for John Cena. In 2010, he beat Bautista to claim his seventh WWE championship at what’s now State Farm Stadium in Glendale during WrestleMania 26. Fast-forward a few years, and his lucky streak continued as he triumphed over hordes of wrestlers to claim two of WWE’s biggest prizes within the span of six months.

At the Money in the Bank 2012 pay-per-view, he fended off foes like The Big Show, Kane, and The Miz long enough to climb a ladder and claim a briefcase which (in the context of the WWE) scored him a title shot. Six months later, “Super Cena” was victorious (yet again) when he outlasted 29 other superstars to win the 2013 Royal Rumble.

We’re sure it left some WWE fans invoking the infamous “Cena wins LOL” meme. Because, um, he used to win every single match. Every. Single. Match.

Bray Wyatt wins the WWE Title
Elimination Chamber 2017
February 12, 2017
Talking Stick Resort Arena

Bray Wyatt’s career in the WWE could best be described as tumultuous and uneven. When he made his debut in 2013, he was unlike any character seen on WWE programming, before or since. A mix of Jim Jones, Charles Manson, and Max Cady from Cape Fear (with a bit of Swamp People thrown in there), Wyatt was a Southern-fried enigma, messianic figure, and cult leader who may or may not have supernatural powers.

After losing several prominent feuds with John Cena, The Undertaker, Dean Ambrose, and Roman Reigns, however, Wyatt’s star dimmed considerably and he became just another wrestler on the WWE roster. Needless to say, die-hard Wyatt fans were frustrated by the stagnation of the character that had shown so much promise at one time.

All of this frustration made Wyatt’s victory in the Elimination Chamber match during the pay-per-view of the same name all the more awesome. Taking place inside an enormous and enclosed steel cage, the contest saw Wyatt beat out five others (including The Miz, Baron Corbin, and AJ Styles) for the title.

“It was an amazing match,” Teek Hall says. “It started getting exciting once it got down to the last couple people and Wyatt was still in there. I was like, 'What the fuck are they going to do?' It was great.”

Bret Hart’s first match in a decade
WrestleMania XXVI
March 28, 2010
University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale (now State Farm Stadium)

Despite being scripted and choreographed, professional wrestling occasionally gets real. Case in point: Bret “The Hitman” Hart’s exit from the WWE in 1997, which is the stuff of wrestling infamy. The legendary grappler was (more or less) pushed out of the company by owner Vince McMahon, but not before losing the WWE Championship in humiliating fashion when things got real in the ring.

At McMahon’s behest, Hart was “defeated” for the title in Montreal after a screwy, unscripted finish was executed without his knowledge and made it look like he tapped out. The incident became known as the “Montreal Screwjob,” caused a major grudge between Hart and McMahon, and basically changed wrestling forever.

The WWE parlayed the real-life incident (and McMahon’s villainy) into storylines that propelled it to the peak of the wrestling world. Meanwhile, Hart squandered the remainder of his career with a rival company, World Championship Wrestling, and retired in 2000 after suffering several concussions.

When Hart returned to WWE programming in 2010 after making nice with McMahon, a showdown between their characters was an inevitable (and lucrative) prospect. Hence their No Holds Barred match at WrestleMania XXVI in Glendale, which was Hart’s first bout in a decade. It was an entertaining train wreck and one-sided ass-kicking (essentially designed to work around Hart’s injuries) that saw The Hitman bludgeon Mr. McMahon with a crowbar, steel chair, and his fists. And it was a satisfying conclusion to their longstanding grudge.

The Rock poses before his match at Royal Rumble 2013.EXPAND
The Rock poses before his match at Royal Rumble 2013.
Benjamin Leatherman

The Rock wins his first WWE title in a decade
Royal Rumble 2013
January 27, 2013
US Airways Center (now Talking Stick Resort Arena)

From 2011 to 2013, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson took a few breaks from Hollywood and returned to the WWE, better known as the place where he made his name as a superstar. Over the course of two years, the “Most Electrifying Man in Sports Entertainment” made sporadic appearances on WWE shows and pay-per-view events, including engaging in feuds with cats like John Cena, The Miz, and CM. Punk.

The Rock’s return to wrestling in January 2013 when he beat CM Punk for the WWE championship inside what was then US Airways Center during the main event of that year’s Royal Rumble. Punk had held the title for an epic 434 days and was arguably the biggest heel in the WWE at that point. Conversely, The Rock was still as popular as ever and got a thunderous response from the sold-out crowd that night. Adding to the drama was the fact he hadn’t held the WWE Championship for at least a decade, which made his victory over Punk even sweeter.

Shawn Michaels versus The Undertaker
WrestleMania XXVI
March 28, 2010
University of Phoenix Stadium (now State Farm Stadium)

Shawn Michaels and The Undertaker had a habit of putting on amazing matches at WrestleMania, both individually and especially when they faced off against each other. And during the main event of Mania 26 in Glendale, the two WWE legends gave the sellout crowd of 72,219 people a near-masterpiece of a match that was steeped in drama, athleticism, and spectacle.

Adding to the drama were the stakes involved. The story behind the match had been building since the previous WrestleMania, where The Undertaker, who (at the time) was undefeated at WrestleMania, had beaten “The Heartbreak Kid” in one of the greatest bouts in WWE history. Michaels had been hounding ’Taker for a rematch for months, only to be denied at every turn. Undertaker — a shaman-like character dressed in black who is more or less undead — finally relented, albeit after a suitably Faustian bargain: If Michaels lost, he’d have to retire.

In truth, Michaels wanted to hang up his boots and call it a career after 26 years in the ring, but not before going out in a blaze of glory. And he did just that after putting on a wrestling clinic with ’Taker in what was nearly 24 minutes of nonstop action and intense drama.

WWE superstar Drew McIntyre competed at that WrestleMania and recalls watching Taker and Michael’s battle along with other wrestlers backstage
.
“I was watching with my jaw open, especially as the match went on. You know the match the year before, it was the greatest matches of all time. And to watch two of the greatest of all time was phenomenal,” McIntyre says. “They were on in years, but you’d never know it when they got out there. As soon as they walked out and it’s cameras on, they just turn it on like nobody else. Their storytelling and matches were unbelievable.”

Like with most wrestlers leaving the business, Michaels went out on his back, getting pinned by The Undertaker after a tombstone piledriver. (Finishing his career in the Valley was a nice bit of synchronicity for Michaels, who was born in Chandler in 1965.)

Afterward, The Heartbreak Kid received a standing ovation from the crowd, who showered him with applause as he walked to the locker room with tears in his eyes. It was a fitting send-off for one of the WWE’s biggest legends. (For simplicity’s sake, we’re ignoring his one-off return to the ring for a tag team match with Triple H against The Undertaker and Kane late last year.)

Royal Rumble 2019. 4 p.m. Sunday, January 25, at Chase Field, 401 East Jefferson Street, 602-514-8400. Tickets are $36.50 to $1,506.50 via Ticketmaster.

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