Setting the tone: Opening matches at WrestleMania that changed the game

AJ Styles and Shane McMahon turned expectations for their WrestleMania 33 match on their head with an all-out, intensely physical contest to open the show in Orlando. Courtesy of WWE

WrestleMania is the one event on the WWE calendar where four, five or even six different matches on the card could qualify as a headlining match on any show it appeared on. Even though the WWE doesn't always see it that way, the main event of WrestleMania is most commonly perceived to be the match that goes on last.

Throughout the weeks leading up to WrestleMania every year, fans debate which match is most deserving of that main event slot, and some always go home disappointed. No matter who goes on last, though, the honor of performing in the WrestleMania main event also comes with being in the most pressurized situation of the year in WWE. Or does it?

It's true -- the WrestleMania memories that stick out in the minds of the most fans come from a "main event" match, like the WrestleMania III main event when Hulk Hogan scooped up and slammed Andre the Giant. Who could forget the classic showdown between Intercontinental Champion, the Ultimate Warrior and WWE champion Hogan at WrestleMania VI culminated, or Shawn Michaels' final match in the epic WrestleMania XXVI main event? The list goes on.

But if there's a match that most commonly comes in second in terms of pressure and prestige, and serves just as important a role on a lot of WrestleMania cards, it's the opening match. Imagine being tasked with kick-starting the biggest show of the year with enough electricity to pump up the audience for what's become a four- or five- hour show in recent years.

Sure, there's a kickoff show with three or four matches these days, with a match or two that really belongs on the proper WrestleMania card. But there's a strong line of demarcation, as during those two hours of lead-up, fans are still getting to their seats as the pre-WrestleMania festivities play out on broadcast TV and numerous other platforms for free in the lead-up to the official start to the show.

The kickoff is also not quite WrestleMania, in part, because of how much of a jump up there is in energy and excitement in the crowd for the first match that comes after "America the Beautiful" ends.

That kind of pressure has helped the opening match to become a badge of honor to some, and a reason to carry a chip on their shoulder and prove something to others.

These five matches stand the test of time, and then some -- proving that it pays to be in your seat when that opening bell rings.

WrestleMania X

Owen Hart vs. Bret Hart (Watch)

There were some forgettable opening matches at WrestleMania in its early years, as well as some solid efforts; Shawn Michaels appeared in three straight opening match between WrestleMania VI and WrestleMania IX. But the battle between Owen Hart and Bret Hart that opened WrestleMania X at Madison Square Garden set the gold standard for what a WrestleMania opener could be.

This match is not one of the best opening matches in WrestleMania history, but one of the best WrestleMania matches in the event's 33-year history. Owen and Bret put on a wrestling clinic that served as a major peak in a family rivalry that began at the Survivor Series four months earlier. The chemistry and the comfort level in the ring was off the charts, and they told the tale of Owen, the overlooked younger brother, trying to prove he was better than big brother Bret.

It hit a perfect pace right out of the gate, as Bret and Owen delivered a technically sound masterpiece that lasted over 20 minutes -- the longest match on the entire WrestleMania X card, in fact. Not only did they kick off the show with a match that still holds up today in terms of quality, but the story told in the ring was just as impressive. Owen countered a victory roll attempt by Bret, and trapped his brother's shoulders to the mat for a three-count.

Bret went on to win the WWE championship later that night against Yokozuna in the main event, but that opening match and its outcome served as essential elements in an outstanding Owen Hart heel run throughout 1994. Three months after the WrestleMania win over his brother Bret, Owen became the 1994 King of the Ring and referred to himself as the "King of Harts". That summer, their lengthy rivalry culminated in a WWF championship steel cage match for the ages at SummerSlam.

WrestleMania 21

Rey Mysterio vs. Eddie Guerrero (Watch)

Eddie Guerrero's final WrestleMania match came against an opponent in Rey Mysterio who had been an in-ring rival and friend for eight years. With all of their history, and their complimentary styles, this match did not disappoint -- and it served as a fitting milestone in each of their careers to their story. In their first ever pay-per-view match in October 1997, at WCW's "Halloween Havoc", Guerrero and Mysterio dazzled the Las Vegas crowd with the cruiserweight championship on the line in a match that still stands as one of the best televised matches of all-time.

Nearly eight years later, they fired up Hollywood with one of the best opening matches in WrestleMania history. This chapter of their historic feud was the first of four pay-per-view matches between them in 2005. Heading into this match, Guerrero and Mysterio were actually tag team champions together, but this supposedly friendly rivalry match marked the start of the decay to their partnership. Before long, Guerrero became a full-fledged villain on SmackDown.

The match was the perfect way to get fans excited for everything else to come at WrestleMania 21, with the ending calling back to that first major match as Mysterio hit a hurricanrana to secure a pinfall victory. Mysterio went on to win all four of their pay-per-view matches in 2005, with some great matches along the way, but the less we talk about adoption papers and ladder matches, the better.

WrestleMania 27

Edge vs. Alberto Del Rio (Watch)

For the first time in history, WrestleMania 27 began with a world championship match as Edge defended his World Heavyweight Championship against Alberto Del Rio -- further driving home the importance of the opening match in setting the tone. Moreover, the match was superior to the main event that night between John Cena and The Miz for the WWE championship in just about every way, though that could be attributed, in part, to The Rock's involvement and the story at hand.

To go along with a wonderfully worked match was the significance it carried, though no one including Edge knew it at the moment. It was Edge's final WrestleMania match and, outside of a 10-man tag team dark match the following Friday after a SmackDown TV taping, this match would mark the end of his in-ring career. Edge took part in some excellent WrestleMania matches, ranging from classic tag team efforts like TLC II at WrestleMania 17, to his main event championship match against The Undertaker at WrestleMania 24. His final WrestleMania match with Alberto Del Rio was arguably his most underrated performance on that stage.

WrestleMania 30

Daniel Bryan vs. Triple H (Watch)

The longest opening match in WrestleMania history (at 25 minutes, 58 seconds) was also one of the best -- and it was only half Daniel Bryan's WrestleMania journey in New Orleans. Bryan's extended crusade against The Authority, headed by Triple H, was as compelling a storyline as there ever was heading into a WrestleMania. The result was an all-time great opening match with a fitting conclusion.

The winner of the match would join then-WWE champion Randy Orton and the 2014 Royal Rumble winner, Batista, in a triple threat main event match at the end of the night. The stakes couldn't be higher and the entire event would be dictated by the outcome of this ever-important opening match.

The match was spectacular and told as pure of an underdog story as there could be, with the "undersized" Bryan besting the Authority despite the odds being stacked against him. After catching Triple H with a knee for the victory, Bryan went on to perform in a comparably gripping main event where he ultimately became WWE champion.

Bryan's WrestleMania performance was historic, as he joined Bret Hart as the only superstars to have performed in the opening and main event matches on the same WrestleMania card. While both men walked away as WWE champion in the end, Bryan became the only superstar win both such matches in a single night.

WrestleMania 33

AJ Styles vs. Shane McMahon (Watch)

The WrestleMania 33 card was stacked. The Hardy Boyz made their triumphant surprise return as part of a memorable tag team ladder match, Brock Lesnar and Goldberg had one of the best short matches ever, Triple H and Seth Rollins told a magnificent in-ring story and the women's revolution continued with an excellent Fatal 4-Way Raw women's championship match. However, there's a strong argument to be made that the very first match on the main WrestleMania card stole the show before anyone else had a chance to get out there.

Despite cries from some that Styles was being "wasted" in a match against the 47-year-old McMahon, they went out there and absolutely tore it up. Styles' athletic gifts blended nicely with McMahon's daredevil style. As the last few stragglers found their seats, Styles and McMahon through caution to the wind with Leaps of Faith, Coast-to-Coasts, 450 splashes and destroyed announcers tables. Styles and McMahon pulled out all of their acrobatic tricks en route to a thrilling opening gem of a match, with Styles getting the last laugh by pulling out the Phenomenal Forearm to earn the pinfall.

Stats courtesy of Joey Koontz. Graphics courtesy of Matt Wills.