Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Pro Wrestling: A Mark's History, part 19 (Vince Buys WCW)

2001 might be the most significant year in the history of pretend fighting.  After decades of the North American wrestling landscape being dominated by two or three major promotions, the year 2001 saw one company survive the Monday Night War by absorbing the other.  On March 26th, the unthinkable happened, as Vince McMahon bought WCW and assimilated it into his own company.  The final Nitro featured a simulcast segment where Vince announced to the world that he had bought the company, only for Shane McMahon to appear and drop the bombshell that HE had in fact purchased WCW out from under Vince.  This set the stage for the biggest wrestling angle of all time, the Invasion.

But before we get to that, let's rewind to January.

The 2001 PPV calendar was probably even better than the 2000 one, as four of the five Big PPVs were absolutely spectacular, and a few of the B shows were excellent too.  The Royal Rumble kicked things off perfectly, with a stacked Rumble match that entertained all the way through and culminated in Steve Austin's reascension, a worthy semi-main event in the Kurt Angle-Triple H WWF Title match (despite the lack of a babyface to root for), and the two Chrises, Benoit and Jericho, stealing the show with an amazing Ladder Match for the I-C Title.

The Chrises had a helluva six-month stretch in 2001

It was obvious the planned main event of WrestleMania 17 (dubbed X-Seven for some reason) was The Rock vs. Steve Austin.  I was less than pumped for this I must confess, as we had seen it two years prior and I had hoped for someone new to be elevated to that level.  Plus it was a face vs. face match and I just didn't feel much heat from it.  Turned out I had little to worry about, but we'll get to that in a bit.

At the 'Mania 17 press conference, Vince announced "This won't be the biggest WrestleMania ever, but it will be the best."  I'll never forget that line, as #1 it was 100% true, and #2 WWE in recent years seems to have forgotten that philosophy when putting together WrestleMania shows.  In trying to make each one as big as it can be, they've forgotten about making it better than the others.

The Austin-Triple H rivalry reached its pinnacle at No Way Out, when the two faced off in the first-ever Three Stages of Hell match.  I love this gimmick and WWE needs to use it more often rather than falling back on the Last Man Standing match every six months.  Anywho, the first fall would be a traditional singles match, the second a Street Fight, and the third a Steel Cage match.  It was a fantastic climax to the feud and completely stole the show from the Rock-Kurt Angle WWF Title rematch (in which The Rock predictably regained the belt).  After 39 minutes Hunter fell on top of Austin for the clean win, about which I was awestruck.  At this time I was still a huge Triple H fan (pre-quad tear Hunter was pretty boss), so his essentially winning a feud over Steve Austin was a pretty huge deal.

So yeah, about that RAW-Nitro simulcast.  The sight of Vince and Shane appearing on an episode of the show that almost broke their company was beyond surreal.  As a WWF loyalist it felt like Germany surrendering to The Allies (Yeah I know that's hyperbole, but I took the Monday Night War pretty personally, as did a lot of people).  It was one of those moments where you can't help thinking, "I can't believe I get to be alive to witness this."  For a whole generation of wrestling fans, March 26th, 2001 will forever be one of those "Where were you when _____ happened?" moments.

One of the strangest moments in wrestling history

The plan was for the WWF to relaunch WCW as a separate brand on Friday nights and build the show around a few of the young WCW talents plus a few WWF guys (sorta like what they did in 2006 with ECW - yeesh).  But there were a few things wrong with that strategy.  First, all of WCW's top names were still under contract to Turner for another year and Vince didn't want to buy them out (He should have - the ratings and buyrates would've easily offset the costs).  Second, TNN had zero faith in the WCW brand being able to carry the desired weekly ratings on its own.  Third, the inaugural WCW match under WWF management, between Booker T and Buff Bagwell, was an abysmal effort that killed fan interest in Vince's interpretation of WCW.

It was obvious almost right from the beginning that Vince was going about this whole Invasion all wrong.  First, Shane should never have been the one in charge of WCW after the buyout.  Vince should've hired Eric Bischoff to represent them, as the heat between Vince and Eric would've been atomic.  Second, Shane invited all the WCW midcard talent (none of whom had any real name recognition) to one of the luxury boxes at WrestleMania, and during the show they cut away to that group sitting quietly, not disturbing anyone.  Ooooh, now I'm on the edge of my seat.  What's this polite squad of obscure midcarders gonna do next, order a soda?  It wasn't until two months later that any sort of Invasion even occured, as Lance Storm and Mike Awesome, among others, started randomly attacking WWF midcard guys on RAW, to little fanfare.  If you're gonna stage an invasion, it needs to start with a bang.  Ya know, like WCW did five years earlier when Scott Hall showed up and hijacked Nitro.  I mean the template was right there for them to follow.

Before I get too far into the Invasion angle, there's a WrestleMania to reminisce about.

WrestleMania X-Seven was the first in nine years to emanate from a stadium, and I had forgotten what a profound sense of splendor such a huge crowd adds to a wrestling show.  Just seeing an ocean of rabid fans in the background made the show feel so much larger than life.  The card itself had an amazing array of talent in such varied match types, it reminded me what it was like to watch WrestleMania III for the first time.  For almost fifteen years I had been waiting for a PPV to equal that level of grandeur, and here it was, with a whole new generation of hugely over stars, in their prime.  It was at the same time old-school and state-of-the-art.  Early bouts like Chris Jericho vs. William Regal, Eddie Guerrero vs. Test, and APA & Tazz vs. Right to Censor recalled fun little undercard matches from the early WrestleManias, while the unreasonably entertaining Raven-Kane-Big Show Hardcore Title match and the delightfully overbooked Vince vs. Shane car wreck were undeniably Attitude Era.  The wonderfully technical Kurt Angle vs. Chris Benoit felt almost like a Savage-Steamboat throwback, while the impossibly violent Edge & Christian-Hardyz-Dudleyz TLC spotfest was about as modern as it got.  The show was capped off by two huge main events between the era's four biggest stars.  Triple H vs. Undertaker was a wild brawl ranging all over the stadium, and of course The Rock vs. Steve Austin turned out to be one of the best matches either guy ever wrestled.  For 28 minutes they left no stop unpulled, and it built to the most shocking heel turn in years as Austin sold out to Vince McMahon.  Going into this match I decided it would only work for me if one of them turned heel, and I hoped it would be Austin, whose babyface shtick had grown tired as far as I was concerned.  The heel turn would of course prove to be a terrible decision from a financial standpoint, and Austin's home state crowd had zero interest in booing him.  But the execution was great, and it led to probably my favorite period of Austin's career.

Speaking of strange moments....

WrestleMania X-Seven was like a celebration of everything that made the WWF the lone survivor of the Monday Night War - homegrown top stars, innovative tag teams, imported workhorse talent, the bold, edgy tone.  The show is widely considered the climax of the Attitude Era, and for me it was finally the one PPV that truly overshadowed 'Mania 3 and became the new yardstick.

With Austin now a refreshed, evil version of his old self and the prospect of WCW stars beginning to show up on WWF TV, the product was incredibly exciting.  Creative had a hard sell to get the fans to turn on their former anti-hero, but right away they had him align with Triple H to form the Two-Man Power Trip.  I was ecstatic about this pairing, and it got even cooler when Hunter won the Intercontinental Title and then both guys won the Tag belts.  I was hoping this superteam would last several months, but as we'll soon see, shit happens.

The 2001 Backlash and Judgment Day PPVs each featured a continuation of the Angle-Benoit feud, which was my favorite part of the whole product at that point.  The technical skill on display was fantastic and totally unlike anything else on WWF TV.  I also remember thinking how great it was that the live crowds seemed to really appreciate this type of airtight mat wrestling.  The common WWF school of thought always seemed to be that mainstream audiences prefer punch-kick over actual grappling, so the fact that the Angle-Benoit feud was so over was very encouraging.

The most noteworthy incident on the Judgment Day card though was Chris Jericho appearing in a Tag Team Turmoil match with a mystery partner.  At the start of the match that partner was revealed to be none other than Benoit, and the two Chrises ran through the tag roster to earn a Title shot.  My aforementioned friend Dan and I were over the moon at our respective favorites teaming up.

The next night Chris & Chris challenged Austin & Triple H, and the resulting match was (and still is) one of the best free TV matches of all time.  These four tore the house down in front of a nuclear crowd, and when it was all over Jericho and Benoit were the Tag Team Champions.  It wasn't until the next day that I learned Triple H had torn his quad off the bone and somehow managed to finish the bout, even enduring the Walls of Jericho on the announcers' table.  Say what you will about Paul Levesque - he's more of a man than I will ever be.  What followed was one of the best months of WWF television I'd ever seen, as Benoit and Jericho became Austin's top two babyface challengers, not to mention the following Smackdown featured a four-way TLC match between Jericho & Benoit and the three TLC veteran teams.  We were later treated to multiple Austin-Benoit matches, an Austin-Jericho match, and the capper, a breathtaking Angle-Benoit cage match, which stands for me as the best traditional cage match in history.

What was he thinking doin' this shit?

This all built to the 2001 King of the Ring PPV where Austin would defend the WWF Title against both Chrises, Kurt Angle would battle Shane McMahon in a Street Fight, and four friends, Angle, Edge, Christian and Rhyno, had cornered the KOTR semifinals.  The show was as good a King of the Ring as WM17 was a 'Mania PPV.  Kurt Angle pulled triple duty, beating Christian in the semis but losing to Edge in the finals, and finally facing Shane McMahon in one of the most violent matches I've ever seen.  These two delivered 25 minutes of innovative, bloody, death-defying action that included Shane being thrown through two panes of glass before a match-ending Angle Slam off the top rope.  I consider this the best match of 2001 and a testament to the toughness of the boss's son, who might just as easily be watching the show from a luxury box.  The Triple Threat main event was a very good match that saw Booker T make his surprise debut, attacking Austin at ringside.  After about 27 minutes Austin capitalized on a Benoit superplex to pin the exhausted Wolverine and retain the Title.  This was Benoit's final match before missing a year for spinal fusion surgery.

King of the Ring 2001 was a monumental achievement and marked the end of probably the best 18-month stretch in company history, before the Invasion angle fully kicked off and things went into a creative tailspin.  I didn't know it at the time but I was about to be as cosmically disappointed as I'd ever been as a wrestling fan.

Part 18                                                                                                                                            Part 20

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