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The origins of the ladder match can actually be traced back to Canada. It’s believed Dan Kroffat, booker of the Calgary Stampede, came up with the idea. He certainly won the first edition of the match. The first known video of a ladder match features a young Bret Hart (in 1983). This wasn’t a ladder match like today – the ladder was the kind of ladder you’d prop up against the wall, and it needed a man to hold it up. It's not even especially clear from the video (available on the WWE Ladder Match Anthology DVD), what the concept is even about.
Nine years later, Bret bought the concept with him for an Intercontinental Title match with Shawn Michaels. A big event, you’d think, but it was a slightly odd choice for the main event of an episode of WWF Prime Time. This at least debuted the kind of ladder you’re used to today – although crucially only one ladder. If you were looking back, you’d probably call this a match with a ladder, rather than a ladder match. You got your usual corner spots, and people climbing and being pulled down, but nothing like the carnage that would follow in future editions, nor the comedically slow climbing that would become a feature years down the line (Gorilla Monsoon at one stage said: “he’s got to go up one more rung, why doesn’t he realise that?”). It should come as no surprise, however, that Bret and Shawn still pulled off a very exciting match.
In 1994 the ladder match was about to get its big break. Intercontinental Title holder Razor Ramon was in a program with the then heel Shawn Michaels and his bodyguard Diesel. At Wrestlemania X they were slated to face each other in a ladder match. The match went eighteen minutes in the co-main event, and took the style to heights it never saw before. Michaels was the star, flipping and flopping his way through an epic – although it would be a little unfair to endorse the claim of Jim Cornette (and others) that Michaels wrestled a ladder that night, Razor more than held his own.
The match earned one of Dave Meltzer’s fabled five star ratings. It gave us the first glimpses of a ladder being used as a weapon, rather than an object or a piece of furniture. It also gave the famous splash from Michaels, the slo-mo that you will have seen many, many times since. In attempting more than one major spot from the ladder it bent and warped, mercifully not breaking. The company didn’t have a spare ladder – they never left that to chance in the future. Crisis averted (barely).
To the company’s credit, perhaps, they didn’t rush the second edition, as may have been tempting. I think we were still at the stage where it was seen as a match that only certain guys competed in (the first four ladder matches in the company were all for the intercontinental title). There was also, perhaps, a sense that the two set the bar so high with both the entertainment value and the danger value that it wasn’t for main eventers. NWA did a ladder match in 1987 – but the concept didn’t return to Atlanta until 1997 (Eddie Guerrero and Syxx – aka Xpac). The third edition of the ladder match in WCW took place in 1999, featuring Scott Hall, Goldberg… oh, and a taser.
The Shawn Michaels / Razor Ramon rematch took place at surprisingly short notice. At the beginning of August 1995, Shawn Michaels (as a now babyface Intercontinental Champion, having just wrestled a splendid match with Jeff Jarrett) was set to face Sid at Summerslam. The company looked at the card, and were concerned that the potential for good matches on the show was low – following a horrid King Of The Ring this was a genuine concern. Interim President Gorilla Monsoon switched the match to Shawn vs Razor, and made it a ladder stipulation. It may have made little sense, it may have made for a hastily assembled rivalry on Raw – but it also made for a potentially great match with the card. Except there was one problem… they weren’t allowed to use the ladder as a weapon.
Despite the ungainly ruling from Vince, the pair managed to put on a match that to the untrained eye was no less violent than the previous. The ruling specifically said the ladder couldn’t be used “as a weapon” – so they didn’t. Razor “dropped” the ladder on Michael’s ankle, Michaels “just happened” to hit Razor with the ladder while he picked it up.
The match instead focused around Razor playing a not-so-subtle heel. After a suplex to the outside which saw Michaels crack his ankle on the guardrail, Razor took the advantage and viciously attacked it. It was only at this stage that the ladder was first introduced. Shawn hit a moonsault, but missed the top of the ladder splash – Razor had learned from the first match.
The match crescendoed to the finish. Michaels flung himself at the belt from the ladder, missing it and falling to the mat. Improvising, Razor setup for the Razor’s Edge, but Michaels dumped him to the outside. Shawn climbed the ladder, but he had misplaced it. This time he fell off the ladder reaching for the belt. Michaels had messed up the finish… twice. Irate at this stage he stroppily put the ladder in position, ascended it pretty quickly, and won the match.
It perhaps wasn’t quite as good as the first – following on is rarely easy. But this match with Shawn as a babyface and Razor playing the defacto heel played out a lot more organically than Shawn trying to remain a heel, as he was in 1994. The match also had ten minutes more to play with, and the two made the most of it. Not quite 1, but 1a.
Despite all that, even the second ladder match didn’t make it a common place in the company. In fact, having waited over a year between Wrestlemania X and Summerslam 1995, the company went until 1998 before having a third. It was only really the tag team ladder matches than introduced 1. Numerous ladders and 2. Numerous opportunity for multi person spots that really gave the ladder match some legs. Then, in 2005, the Money In The Bank Ladder match became a thing. But it all wouldn’t have been possible without Razor Ramon and Shawn Michaels (well, and Bret Hart!).