Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Pro Wrestling: A Mark's History, part 18 (Steve Austin Returns!)

Fully Loaded 2000 still stands as one of my Top 20 all-time PPVs.  Aside from a few weak spots, this show was absolutely stacked and featured two four-plus-star main events.  The show was billed as a Triple Main Event, with each of the three established headliners facing one of the rising top newcomers.  The Undertaker was paired against Kurt Angle, Triple H against Chris Jericho, and in the match that got me all revved up, The Rock would defend the WWF Title against Chris Benoit.  Also on the card, T&A teamed with Trish Stratus against The Hardyz and Lita in a high-energy opener, Rikishi faced Intercontinental Champion Val Venis in a memorable Steel Cage bout, and Eddie Guerrero wrestled Perry Saturn for the European Title.

Jericho and Triple H had crossed paths three months earlier on an episode of RAW, when Jericho challenged then-Champion Hunter for the Title.  After about twelve minutes of what I figured was sure to be a clean Triple H win, suddenly Jericho hit the Lionsault and covered Hunter, with angry referee Earl Hebner (whom Triple H had bullied for weeks prior) making a fast-count and awarding the Championship to Jericho.  The arena crowd became unglued in a way you simply don't see on WWE television anymore.  If there were any doubt how over Jericho was, this removed it in a big hurry.  My friend Dan (a supreme Jericho-holic) called me up immediately, giddy with excitement - "HOLY FUCKIN' SHIT DUDE!  THEY GAVE HIM THE BELT!!"  Sadly our joy would be short-lived, as Triple H later threatened Hebner's job if he didn't reverse his decision.  Thus Jericho's 2000 WWF Title win was erased from history books.  Dammit.  Their match at Fully Loaded was a Last Man Standing match, and both guys beat the tar out of each other in a wild, bloody bout ranging all around ringside.  Even in defeat Jericho proved with this match that he belonged in there with the top guys.


The main event was The Rock vs. Chris Benoit, which was pretty surreal to me.  I had been a Benoit fan for several years and had watched WCW underuse and underappreciate him (and others) while a host of 80s WWF stars ran roughshod over the company.  When he and the other Radicalz jumped to the WWF I knew right away they'd get a better shot at stardom, but it was this match that truly rewarded my faith and anticipation.  Benoit was presented as completely on the same level as The Rock from an in-ring perspective, and their match was an instant classic, overshadowing even the Triple H-Jericho battle.  I was treated to another teased Title change toward the end when Benoit appeared to have defeated The Rock, only for WWF Commissioner Mick Foley to throw out the decision and restart the match.  I was fine with The Rock retaining, as a) he had just won the Title back and I figured he'd keep it for a while, and b) Benoit was presented as a deserving full-time main eventer.

Fully Loaded ended up being in my opinion the best PPV of 2000 and helped elevate both Jericho and Benoit to the big kids' table, despite both of them taking a loss.  Kurt Angle was unfortunately jobbed out to Taker in very short order, which I found baffling given how hard they had pushed him leading up to this show.

The build toward SummerSlam was largely focused on the unusual new rivalry between Angle and Triple H, and the love triangle involving Stephanie McMahon.  Angle asked Steph to be his manager and the sexual tension ratcheted up from there.  This led to teased dissension with Hunter, compounded by Hunter's apparent attraction to Trish Stratus.  All of this seemed very soap opera, but it was executed very well and therefore became one of the most intriguing storylines of the summer.

Given the amount of time spent on Triple H vs. Angle I figured they'd get a one-on-one match at SummerSlam while Benoit and Jericho both challenged The Rock for the WWF Title.  To my chagrin thw WWF went the other way and put Hunter and Angle in the Title mix while Benoit vs. Jericho was relegated to an upper midcard bout.  Don't get me wrong, I was excited either way, but that lineup wasn't my first choice.  Also added to the SummerSlam card was a rematch from 'Mania 2000, Edge & Christian vs. The Dudleyz vs. The Hardyz in the first-ever Tables, Ladders & Chairs match (read: same rules as their Triangle Ladder match but with a fancier name).  I was obviously uber-excited about this as well.  Unfortunately beyond those top three matches the SS2000 show was overcrowded with throwaways, including an Undertaker vs. Kane rematch tossed together for no on-air reason.  Originally they were setting up Taker & Kane vs. Big Show & Shane McMahon, but Big Show apparently was becoming impossible to deal with backstage, and had put on more weight than the company wanted.  So Show got sent down to OVW and Kane was turned heel with basically no explanation.  The Taker-Kane rematch went six minutes and ended in a no-contest after Taker pulled Kane's mask off.  As for the top three matches, TLC was a more streamlined version of the 'Mania match, Benoit-Jericho was very good but not long enough for a 2/3 Falls bout, and Rock-Hunter-Angle was a shockingly good Triple Threat in which a table Pedigree spot went awry, leading to Angle taking a face-first bump at ringside and missing much of the match.  Overall SummerSlam was a bit of a disappointment due to there simply being too many matches for the three-hour running time, but there was enough good stuff to make it a slight Thumbs Up show.

Oh, that's not gonna end well....

The autumn months tend to bring the weakest part of the WWF/E calendar year, and 2000 was sadly no exception.  While a couple of the fall PPVs that year were still quite good, from a Creative perspective it felt like a bout of writer's block, in spite of Steve Austin's monumental return to TV (now on TNN instead of USA).  I honestly had mixed feelings about Austin's comeback, as the first eight months of the year without him had provided so much consistently good television.  It was like Austin's absence shocked the rest of the roster and Vince himself into proving the company could get along fine independently of the Stone Cold phenomenon.  Also Austin seemed very complacent before he left, like his usual shtick had even worn thin for him and he was just going through the motions.  I also worried about the new crop of top guys getting lost in the shuffle with Austin back in the mix.  It didn't help that his first match back was a brief, one-sided mauling of Eddie Guerrero.  He would soon defeat Benoit in similar fashion.

Since Austin was back on TV it was time to revisit the "Who Ran Over Steve?" storyline from 1999.  They set it up as a whodunit, with Mick Foley vowing to reveal the vehicular assailant.  The big clue was that the driver of the car had blond hair, and after eliminating the obvious choice, Triple H, and all the midcard guys, it seemed like all signs were pointing to a Shawn Michaels comeback.  Holy jeez I was excited about this.  Then the rug was yanked out when the culprit was revealed as Rikishi.  Yup, fun-loving, dancing Rikishi, who had first appeared on WWF TV as that character only three days before Survivor Series 1999, was the guy who ran over Steve Austin.  And why?  Because he wanted to help his cousin The Rock, whom he believed was being held back (Ya know, other than winning the WWF Title three times).  This was so monumentally disappointing on so many levels.  The Rock was livid at Rikishi's presumption, but that was nothing compared to Austin's wrath.  Austin challenged Rikishi to a fight at No Mercy, which went less than ten minutes and was thrown out.  Super.  Later in the night though, Rikishi inadvertently cost The Rock the WWF Title against Kurt Angle, and now The Rock wanted ol' 'Kish's head on a stick.  This whole Rikishi heel turn felt incredibly forced and the audience didn't buy it because he wasn't someone they wanted to boo.  Rikishi was a very popular, fun, upper-midcard guy you could comfortably stick in a comedy match or a serious one.  But turning him heel did irreparable harm to his career, and only a few months later he was a midcard babyface again but without the massive crowd support he once had.

Rikishi's heel turn flopped so hard the writers needed to retcon the Austin storyline, so now Rikishi was working with someone else the whole time.  Back to that in a bit.

By September the Triple H-Kurt Angle feud seemed to be building to a Triple H face turn, as Stephanie was favoring Angle more and more.  Their match at Unforgiven was quite good, but the logical conclusion of Stephanie dumping Hunter for Angle didn't happen.  Instead Hunter grabbed Steph at one point and kissed her hard (in such a way that just came off as uncomfortable and awkward), and demanded that she choose a side.  Steph gave Angle a low blow, allowing Hunter to win.  From then on Hunter's face turn appeared to be inevitable - Hunter had a brief but compelling feud with Chris Benoit which resulted in a superb match at No Mercy.  But the next night on RAW it was revealed that Hunter was in fact behind the Austin hit-and-run, having paid Rikishi to get Austin out of the way a year earlier.  So in the end this entire "mystery" boiled down to the most obvious suspect.  That's some pretty shitty storytelling, and a prime example of why detective stories really don't work in pro wrestling.

This all set up another "Triple Main Event" PPV at Survivor Series, where Austin would seek revenge on Triple H for having him run over, The Rock would seek revenge on Rikishi for costing him the WWF Title, and Kurt Angle would try to prove he wasn't a fluke Champion against The Undertaker.  At this point I was really not sold on Angle as a top guy.  It seemed like Vince was pushing him too fast, especially given that Benoit and Jericho were both better and more experienced at this point (I think Angle would probably agree), and Angle had lost every PPV match after winning King of the ring but suddenly got a Title shot against The Rock.  Putting the Title on him felt rushed and unconvincing, and while you want a heel Champion to be somewhat vulnerable so every babyface challenger could concievably dethrone him, Angle was presented as legitimately undeserving, which is never a good move.  That said though, Angle vs. Taker was by far the best of the three top Survivor Series matches and boasted an extremely clever ending, with Kurt's brother Eric taking a false pin before Angle rolled Taker up to retain the belt.  Rock vs. Rikishi on the other hand was terribly underwhelming, while Austin vs. Hunter was overly long, chaotic, and ended with Austin trying to murder Triple H by dropping his car from a crane.  So yeah Survivor Series 2000 was not my favorite show of the year.

Yeah, he'd be dead after this.

To close out the year 2000, the WWF put six top guys in a Hell in a Cell match for the Title - Angle, Austin, Rock, Triple H, Undertaker, and Rikishi.  The result was an enjoyable and frenzied brawl that saw nearly every participant blade, and Rikishi take a crazy fall from the top of the cell onto a flatbed truck.  Angle squeaked by with a win (which also won me 25 bucks in our HIAC pool), and lived to defend another day while Austin and Triple H resumed their blood feud.

Despite the whimper with which it ended, the year 2000 stands as probably the best creative year in WWF/E history in my opinion (The company enjoyed great financial success as well).  From the deluge of new roster arrivals to the elevation of the tag division, to the renewed focus on match quality and simpler, more logical storylines (for the most part), everything seemed to fall into place that year.

But while the WWF was surging in 2000, WCW was falling off a cliff.  The company was hemorraging money, no new stars were catching on despite a fair amount of solid young talent now populating the roster, and a merger with Time Warner threatened to upend Ted Turner's pet project.  Early 2001 would bring probably the biggest news story in the history of the business....

Part 17                                                                                                                                            Part 19

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