You may have heard that this week’s edition of Monday Night Raw featured the longest match in WWE history, a seven-man gauntlet match that lasted roughly two hours and took up the first two-thirds of the show. There was little logic behind the bout being made in-canon, especially just six days before all seven men were scheduled to compete in a grueling Elimination Chamber match, but it didn’t really matter. Raw has been on a hot streak of quality shows, and this sudden change of pace was still the most compelling that it has been in a long time. Buoyed in large part by the effort of Seth Rollins, who went over an hour to start the match in what may have been his career performance, the Monday night marathon was unlike anything WWE has ever produced.
Long matches are nothing new, but they have fallen by the wayside over the years. Case in point: The previous record holder for longest match in company history was a Bruno Sammartino vs. Waldo Von Erich bout from 1964 that allegedly went on for 81 minutes. The Raw gauntlet was most likely the longest match in the history of American television, if not all TV wrestling, and is one of the lengthiest in the modern era of pro wrestling, period. Nowadays, probably thanks to a fatigue from a renaissance of hour-plus matches in the aughts, this sort of thing doesn’t happen very often, which means that long matches have started standing out in a positive way again, as with the hour-long Kazuchika Okada vs. Kenny Omega match from New Japan Pro Wrestling last year.
Before pro wrestling truly went national in the mid-1980s, 60 minute draws were fairly common, as they were the most beneficial way to use the touring NWA World Heavyweight Champion. That champion would head to a given territorial promotion for a week, and the best way for the champion to make the local hero look good was to let the upstart take him to the limit. Numerous classic matches resulted from this courtesy, and the ones that made it to videotape are particularly iconic—think Dory Funk Jr. vs. Antonio Inoki from Japan in 1969 or Ric Flair vs. Kerry Von Erich in Hawaii in 1985. Flair’s propensity for longer matches, many of which are available because he was the NWA Champion at a time when VCRs became commonplace, earned him the “60 minute man” nickname even if he didn’t necessarily do more long matches than his predecessors. When he would defend his title on television, it was an event, and as such, his biggest ’80s television matches are some of the best-remembered matches from the decades-long run of the NWA title.
Flair’s most famous long match comes from the inaugural Clash of the Champions on Superstation TBS in 1988. Flair’s home promotion, Jim Crockett Promotions, had gone national in 1985 and had twice attempted to run pay-per-view events, only to be blocked by WWE both times with competing shows. This time, Crockett went on the offensive, opposing WrestleMania IV with a free show that is widely considered one of the best “super cards” of all time. Going into the main event, the wild undercard brawl between the Midnight Express and The Fantastics was seen as a clear consensus best match. It was unlike anything previously seen on national TV, with liberal use of tables as weapons before that became commonplace. The main event, though, would be something entirely different, and something that was new to a big national TV audience: a long NWA title match in Flair’s style. Sting, then a rising star who had recently been a foil of Flair’s, would be the opponent. There were no major plans for him, which was a major miscalculation: Sting taking Flair to the time limit and trapping him in his signature hold as time expired had the same effect it would have in a non-televised match years earlier, and made that impact on millions of people. Suddenly, the guy that Crockett had no plans for was the hottest rising star in wrestling.
In grand scheme things, Sting would not have become nearly as big a star without that match. But it didn’t happen overnight. He was, in all honesty, not really ready yet, which makes it hard to get a feel for when the trigger would have been pulled if he didn’t happen to be feuding with Flair at the time of the first Clash special. But when the special drew a huge audience and the match became the most watched in cable history up to that point—big enough that it hurt WrestleMania buys—Sting went from being a prospect to the guy to watch. He would improve significantly over the next year and a half, both in the ring and as a personality, to the point that, once TBS bought Jim Crockett Promotions and it became WCW, Sting was on the fast track to get the title. That would not have happened without the time limit draw against Flair.
In the 1990s, long matches went out of style. When they happened, usually in All Japan Pro Wrestling, they were a big deal, especially since that promotion’s main eventers were the four best wrestlers in the world at the time. WWE headlined 1996’s WrestleMania with Bret Hart facing Shawn Michaels in a 60-minute iron man match (most falls in the hour), but it was widely considered a disappointment at the time. It has grown in legend since, but more because it’s BRET HART AND SHAWN MICHAELS FOR AN HOUR than on its own merits. The most celebrated hour-long match of the decade was from the All Japan Women promotion (no relation to AJPW), in which Manami Toyota went to a draw with longtime rival Kyoko Inoue in 1995. It was unlike anything that came before or after, as instead of featuring the usual storytelling of an hour long match that built and built to a big conclusion, the pair sprinted the whole time. As an athletic exhibition of pro wrestling, it’s untouchable. As a structured pro wrestling match, there are plenty better.
The last great reemergence of long matches came in the following decade, thanks in large part to two wrestlers: CM Punk and Chris Hero, the latter of whom is better known these days as NXT’s Kassius Ohno. While huge at 6’4” and anywhere from 240 to 275 pounds depending on the time, Hero could do just about anything in the ring and had a limitless gas tank, which he showed off in matches with both Punk and Indiana mainstay Cash Flo that each went over 50 minutes. The Punk match was especially impressive because it was a “tables and ladders” match full of wild stunts, including balcony dives. It helped put both on the map as indie wrestlers to watch, and as time went on, the idea that they needed to go long followed them. Several months later, Punk and Hero closed out 2002 with a 60-minute draw in which both showcased the techniques they learned at a camp with William Regal, Fit Finlay, and Dave Taylor a few weeks earlier. That one was just setting the table for what was about to come, though: A 2/3 falls match with a 90 minute time limit.
That match, which ended up going 93 minutes thanks to an overtime period, may not hold up as a great match, but it’s still an impressive achievement given how hard both guys pushed themselves. There was backlash at the time—some of which was deserved, most notably for the contrived double-pin ending the regulation period right as time expired—but it would be wrong to say that it did anything other than help both wrestlers’ careers. Punk would go on to be a 60-minute man in Ring of Honor by way of two matches with Samoa Joe that elevated both participants even further, while Hero continued to make long matches a trademark throughout his career. That peaked in 2015, when he wrestled a three-hour gauntlet match as part of a benefit for an ALS charity at a wrestling school in Canada.
In the meantime, though, there were signs that this was all going too far. The most unmistakable of these came in 2004, in Ring of Honor. Daniel Bryan, then using his real name, Bryan Danielson, had been feuding with Austin Aries, and they were set to wrestle a 2/3 falls match in which each fall had a one hour time limit. The original plan, per Danielson’s autobiography, was for the match to go almost three hours before Aries won the third fall when everyone would expect a draw. Fans in the building were specifically told before the match started to be aware that since the show could run very late, the wrestlers would not be offended if anyone had to leave before or during their match. As the match got going, though, Danielson realized the crowd wasn’t into the match the way they should have been and called an audible to go home after about 76 minutes. From that point on, ROH would still do longer matches from time to time, but they began to die off as a frequent feature in indie wrestling.
Extra-long matches became scarce elsewhere, too. WWE ran an hour-long Triple H vs. Chris Benoit match on Raw that year, but it was the next-to-last 60-minute iron match in the company; the last would be John Cena vs. Randy Orton in 2009. While a Cena vs. Shawn Michaels Raw match from 2007 has long been hyped as going over 50 minutes, it actually went less than 40 live and was elongated on a tape-delayed broadcast by the insertion of commercial breaks. Until Monday, WWE matches usually topped out at 35 minutes or thereabouts over the last decade.
Monday’s Raw is probably not a sign of a new trend in the business, for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it was a gauntlet match that could be argued as being multiple different matches. And that’s a good thing, honestly, because with so many promotions fighting for fans’ time and money, that kind of time investment can be off-putting unless it’s something truly special like Omega-Okada was last year. And consider this: The consensus best match at last year’s WrestleMania was not some grandiose Undertaker-style epic that sprawled over half an hour with a ton of near falls. It was Goldberg and Brock Lesnar having a superhero fight for five minutes.
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, NY who co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday atBetweenTheSheetsPod.com and everywhere else that podcasts are available. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix