Matches To See Before You Die: Eddie Guerrero vs. JBL (Judgment Day 2004)

We wrestling fans have a penchant for sharing our favorite moments of the sport with our fellow enthusiasts and non-enthusiasts (much to the collective chagrin of the latter group, I’m sure).  We have our own respective opinions about what constitutes a “great” match and we’re always happy to offer a dusty old VHS tape, a secondhand DVD collection or a YouTube link to back up our assertions.  Our more “scholarly” types can likely share a short dissertation about the more remarkable matches that literally changed the very history of pro wrestling – for better or for worse, even.  But there are some truly special matches, too.  For this category of wrestling match, simple kudos are just not enough.  These are the matches that exemplify pro wrestling as both sport and entertainment.  These are the matches that any and all fans must see at one time or another to gain a transcendent appreciation for the spectacle of pro wrestling.  These are the matches you have to see before you die.

Here’s one of those matches now…

Viva La Raza – The Legacy of Eddie Guerrero (2008)

Eddie Guerrero vs. John “Bradshaw” Layfield
Judgment Day – May 16, 2004

This match is presented in its entirety on Disc 3 WWE’s Viva La Raza: The Legacy of Eddie Guerrero DVD set.  In the setup for the match, JBL provides an overview of his 2004 feud with Guerrero, providing a good deal of perspective on what appeared to be one of the more bitter rivalries of the day.  As many folks know by now, the reality of the matter is that these men were very good friends behind the scenes and, in some ways, their relative familiarity with one another might have given them the ability to push the envelope now and again.

The feud between Guerrero and JBL consisted of high drama and epic battles.  Family members were insulted and threatened, honor was lost and regained many times over, and JBL cranked out anti-immigrant promos the likes of which would make an Arizona Minuteman blush.

The action and intrigue both came to a head at Judgment Day 2004 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.  Here’s how it starts:  JBL takes to the mic before the match, generating enough heat to rival a SoCal wildfire as he vows to take the WWE Heavyweight Championship away from Eddie once and for all.  And–to add insult to injury–he suggests that Guerrero’s mother could work at JBL’s estate as a maid to make ends meet once her son is stripped of his championship gold.   Every time I watch this, I am completely surprised that Bradshaw didn’t bring the arena down around him before this match even got moving.  Don’t skip through this segment because it is truly one of the most wicked heel promos you’ll ever see.

Redemption is on the horizon as Eddie’s music hits.  He makes his was to ringside in grand fashion, riding in a tricked-out custom low-rider.  But there’s not too much time for light-hearted fanfare because, as Marvel’s everlovinblue-eyed Thing might say: “It’s clobberin’ time!”

Here’s the thing:  The build up to the match is good.  The pre-match heat is great.  The anticipation before they lock up is terrific.  But this event is really two different matches.  There’s the first few minutes in which they bounce each other around the ringside area.  JBL hits a ring post or two and ends up flying on to the Spanish announce table (predictable, of course, but a little on the ironic side, too…) and actually tires to bail on the event altogether before Eddie chases him up the ramp and hauls him back to the ring.  JBL collects himself and gives it right back to Guerrero for a bit.    From there, it’s a decent enough back and forth match.  A flying cross-body move from Eddie, some more smashmouth stuff outside of the ring.  It’s on, all right.  And as they say on the infomercials: “Wait, there’s more!”

After about 13 minutes of out-and-out combat, the referee is accidentally KO’d by an over enthusiastic Eddie Guerrero.  Now, anarchy rules.  The action spills out into the ringside area once more and Eddie tosses JBL into the announce area again.  As Guerrero approaches the commentators’ table to mete out more punishment, Bradshaw rears up in a blinding flash and delivers a stunning blow with a folding chair, smashing Latino Heat squarely in the skull. The shot covers the area from crown of his head down to his forehead.  At this moment, everything witnessed in the first 14 ½ minutes of this match is simply academic.  It’s a new, different scene from here on out.

In his commentary on the DVD, JBL notes that he hit Guerrero with a chair shot that he describes as: “as hard as…any chair shot probably in the history of this business.”  Indeed.  I’ll be the first to admit that I am not a huge JBL fan but if I were doling out “best ever” awards for the sport of pro wrestling, this particular assault would surely garner the nod for “Best Chair Shot of All Time.”  In the course of my three decades as a wrestling fan, I think I can safely say that I have never seen a blow so powerful and so vicious (with the possible exception of pretty much every match involving New Jack, I suppose).

Eddie positively crumbles from the blow.  It’s understandable enough because it’s one hell of a shot.  But Eddie was a big, tough guy and it’s pretty unsettling to see him collapse like a house of cards , especially if you’ve grown up watching men like him take shot after shot and remain standing.

The crowd reaction to the resulting gore adds an uncanny dimension to the scene.  Eddie starts bleeding profusely mere seconds after impact and the 18,722 fans in attendance let out a tremendous gasp that captures horror and disbelief all at the same time.  Michael Cole comments: “Eddie Guerrero is bleeding like a sieve here!”  Well, I guess that makes sense if you were to take a sieve and pour a bunch of blood into it.  Whatever.

For his part, JBL–legendary for being something of a “bully” in the ring–seems to struggle just a little with how to continue.  He looks unsure of just what exactly he needs to do for a second or two.  Of course, he’s back to his old self soon enough, tossing a set of steel steps right into Eddie’s blood-soaked face.  I suppose one could call JBL a “consummate professional” but then again, it might have just been the MamaJuana kicking in.

Three minutes after the chair shot, Eddie has lost a significant amount of blood and most of it is covering his face, shoulders and chest.  Forget the proverbial “crimson mask”; Guerrero is sporting a crimson body suit at this point.  JBL delivers the “Clothesline from Hell” and goes for a cover as referee Charles “Little Naitch” Robinson enters the ring as a back-up ref to administer the count.  It’s a near-fall when Eddie kicks out.   JBL delivers the powerbomb and covers Eddie again. It’s another near-fall as Eddie kicks out.  Another cover, another kick out.  It’s fine and dandy to talk of wrestling as “sports entertainment,” but the fact that Guerrero has been bleeding so profusely (we’re six minutes post chair-shot by now) and he’s still on his feet and ready to fight some more…Well, that is some real showmanship and fortitude, people.  It’s “blood and guts” in every sense of the phrase.

Somewhere along the way, Charles Robinson is knocked out and the original ref (say, who is that guy, anyway?) regains his faculties and continues officiating the match.  By this point, Eddie is in full “comeback” mode and JBL is covered in his opponent’s blood.  Nasty.  There’s running, tossing, flying and crashing.  Almost 10 minutes after the chair shot, the men are still up and at it and the ring canvas looks kind of like the pavement in Frida Kahlo’s painting “The Suicide of Dorothy Hale.”  JBL brings a chair and the WWE title belt into the ring, determined to end it all with the use of one or both weapons.  As the ref wrests away the chair, Eddie gets a hold of the belt and clocks JBL with it in plain sight of the official.  So JBL gets the win by DQ, but not the belt.  It’s over, right?  Nah

Eddie Guerrero on the threshold of redemption

It’s all about vindication, now.  Eddie delivers a post-match beat down of epic proportions.  He busts JBL open with a couple more shots to the head with the belt and then delivers a crushing chair shot of his own to JBL’s skull.  It’s like a page out of Fangoria by this point.

The defining moment of this match is Eddie’s final climb up the turnbuckles.  Having missed a Five-Star Frog Splah earlier in the match, it’s clear to everyone watching that’s ready to put the explanation point on scream for vengeance.  Now 12 minutes after the chair shot, he has lost an incredible amount of blood and the evidence of this is everywhere.  JBL would later comment that Eddie nearly bled to death that night and if you check this one out, you’ll find this claim to be entirely plausible.  From the top rope, Eddie stands tall over JBL and beats his chest in triumph before delivering a Frog Slash on to his vanquished foe.  After a brief melee on the ramp, the battle is over and while JBL claims the “W,” Eddie is, for all intents and purposes, the winner of this match.

This match stands out for its ferocity and its physicality.  These guys put the audience through the full gamut of emotions, testing the limits of sanity and decency with an incredible spectacle.

If I have just one grievance with this match, it’s that Guerrero didn’t beat JBL with a clean pinfall.  It would have been great to see Eddie pick up a “legit” win despite Bradshaw’s chicanery, for sure.  But the truth of the matter is that the unresolved anger and resentment that festered after the match set up a number of other encounters in what proved to be a ferocious rivalry.

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When a wrestler passes on (and we all know we’ve seen a lot of that in recent years), there’s usually a temptation by fans and the wrestling media to shower all sorts of high praise and accolades upon the departed.  This is especially the case when the death is both untimely and tragic, as it was in the case of Eddie Guerrero.  I guess it makes us feel better at some level.  But Eddie really was one of the greats.  There are a lot of examples from virtually every phase in his career of his strength, expertise and charisma.  But if anything stands out as a testimonial to his dedication to the business and his commitment to wrestling fans, it should be this match.  It’s clear that Eddie was dedicated to the idea that “the show must go on” even in the face of personal risk, pain and suffering.  Indeed, the show did go on even after the wrestling world lost Eddie for good…but it was never quite the same. 

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