The opening segment is a blur, anime brought to life as a masked marvel matched wits and skill against a sneering villain straight out of the movies, a man with a bodyfat percentage as impossible as his perfectly coiffed mullet.
Today, more than two decades later, Rey Misterio Jr. versus Eddie Guerrero just looks like wrestling. So much of both men’s DNA is part of the modern business that their iconic work is a very comfortable, nostalgic even. But back in October of 1997, it was a shot of adrenaline to the sport’s withered heart, like something brought back from a distant future, an art form’s potential packed into 14 perfect minutes.
Such was the power of this match and these men—they grabbed a hold of an entire industry and dragged it kicking and screaming into a bold new world. It was a brutal ballet of violence, blindingly fast and breathtakingly beautiful, two wrestlers on a mission to share their spectacular vision with the world.
In 1996, state-of-the-art on the American wrestling scene was Shawn Michael’s relatively clunky moonsault bodyblock off the top rope. That itself was revelatory in a time when Hulk Hogan and his plodding leg drop were still the standard bearers of the sport.
But if Shawn was just starting to walk forward on the path leading into a great, big, beautiful tomorrow, Rey and Guerrero were at a full sprint, lapping everyone else who dared step onto the track and racing towards immortality.
The match itself is a study in perfection, a collection of highspots executed without hesitation, the timing and flow separating it from a million copycat matches to follow. At the tender age of 22, Misterio was an athletic marvel. The older and more experienced Guerrero was the steady hand, not just holding the match together but encouraging the young protege to push limits and boundaries.
“He’d mention an idea backstage,” Rey wrote in his book Rey Mysterio: Behind the Mask:
“And you’d say ‘Eddie, are you sure we can do it?’
‘Sure, I’ll base you for it.’
‘Don’t worry. Just do it.’ Sure enough, we’d pull it off.”Rey Mysterio: Behind the Mask by Jeremy Roberts
The hair-versus-title match has brought thousands of fans joy over the years, widely celebrated as one of the greatest bouts of the Nitro Era. Thirty minutes before the match, however, things looked grim and the tension was thick.
Behind the Scenes
WCW President Eric Bischoff had ordered Misterio to lose both the bout and his mask, believing it was holding him back from further mainstream success. On WCW television, announcer Mike Tenay made the long journey to Mexico City for a series of videos explaining the Mexican wrestling culture and the importance of the mask.
“I kind of get nervous thinking about it. Thinking about losing it,” Misterio told Tenay on an episode of Nitro. “I wish it would never happen in my career but they could beat you and this thing comes off…That could be the end of my career.”
The vignettes were designed to educate the viewers and make the loss of the mask a real moment, albeit one just filling time in between various idle speculation about the NWO.
Misterio was furiously opposed to the idea, thinking it too soon to even contemplate something most Mexican wrestlers generally only considered after a long, fruitful life in wrestling.
“Eric didn’t care,” Guerrero wrote in his book Cheating Death, Stealing Life:
He didn’t give a shit about the heritage of the mask. He just wanted to do what he wanted to do. It was almost as if he was doing it just to show his power, like, “You’re going to lose your mask because I say you’re going to lose your mask.”Cheating Death, Stealing Life
Misterio’s options got more and more desperate as the event date approached. He talked with Kevin Nash, who encouraged him to fake an injury and just stay home. But that was a temporary solution to a problem that wasn’t going away so easily.
He an Guerrero contemplated a double cross, with Eddie putting his young friend over despite his marching orders, making a dual stand to defend the heart and soul of their culture. Both, however had young families. In fact, Misterio’s son Dominik had been born just six months earlier—throwing away his six-figure job simply wasn’t an option.
Misterio and the boss met the night of the show as Bischoff finalized his plans for Halloween Havoc. Misterio conceded he would eventually lose the mask like Bischoff wanted—with the proper build. Having won the battle of wills, Bischoff magnanimously allowed Misterio to win the match that night. Just a half hour before the show began, Arn Anderson told Misterio he would be the new champion.
The mask, for the moment, would stay right where it was.
Although relieved, the two now faced a new challenge—coming up with a different finish as the clock ticked. There wasn’t a lot of shared experience to lean on. They had met in singles competition only twice before, both in the month leading into the bout.
The first match went off the rails quickly, with both men botching spots they’d never really attempted before. The second was built around Guerrero trying to hide his identity under a mask of his own as the hooded “El Caliente.” Neither was anything close to the masterpiece they ended up creating, a bout constructed almost entirely around Misterio’s almost impossible-to-believe high octane offense.
“This was as good as modern pro wrestling can get with innovative moves, flawless execution and incredible psychology, drama and very good announcing all wrapped up into one package,” Dave Meltzer wrote in the Wrestling Observer, calling the match the best thing WCW had presented since a War Games contest all the way back in 1991.
Even Guerrero, notorious for picking his own classics to pieces later, couldn’t help but be impressed with what they’d done—though he’d note none of the WCW brass congratulated them on the performance or even bothered to acknowledge their existence.
“We made a point of trying out innovative new moves, things we’d never even thought of before that match,” he wrote. “Sometimes that can screw you up, but that night was special. Everything flowed. Everything fell right into place.
“I’m usually pretty critical of my own work—but whenever I watch that one, I just think, Shit, that was good.”