Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Pro Wrestling: A Mark's History, part 20 (The Invasion)

Ah, the Invasion Angle.  The most disappointing thing in wrestling history.  When Vince McMahon bought WCW I (like all wrestling fans everywhere) salivated at the thought of finally getting to see the top stars from both companies lock up in the ring.  Austin vs. Goldberg, Hogan vs. The Rock, Triple H vs. Sting (okay, two of those three did eventually happen, but stay with me here), and a host of other epic marquee matchups would now be possible.  Except they weren't.  Reason being, all of WCW's biggest names were still under contract to Time Warner for another year or more, and Vince didn't want to fork over the cash to buy them out.

Uh oh, the enemy is sitting politely in their seats.  What are we gonna do??

So instead the only "invaders" we got were the largely unproven midcard talent no one really cared about seeing in a WWF ring (Booker T excepted, he was the one real star Vince bought at this point).  The early stages of the Invasion consisted of random attacks by lower-echelon WCWers like Mike Awesome and Lance Storm (nothing against Lance at all, but he wasn't exactly a WCW cornerstone).  Finally at King of the Ring we saw Booker T for the first time as he attacked Steve Austin during his WWF Title match.  But since Austin won the match anyway this didn't make much of an impact.

The master plan for this Invasion was for Shane McMahon to lead the new WCW charge and split off into his own brand, slated for Friday nights on TNN.  The top four talents on whose shoulders WCW would be rebuilt were Booker T, Rob Van Dam, Test, and Buff Bagwell.  Wait, what??  Yup, someone in the WWF thought Buff Bagwell would be a top-flight WCW main eventer, and the first-ever WCW match broadcast on RAW pitted Buff against Booker T.  And then the match stunk up the joint.  Literally, the arena reeked of failure and self-loathing.  Coming off 18 solid months of WWF programming that was absolute gold 90 per cent of the time, I had very high hopes for a relaunched WCW under the McMahon banner.  When this Booker-Buff match flopped harder than an M. Night Shyamalan film, it stung.  The match was so bad it killed the relaunch dead before it even got out of the gate.  The network pulled the plug on the experiment, and Bagwell got his walkin' papers.

So Vince et al retooled the Invasion Angle by teasing dissension between the WCW contingent and a new faction of former ECW talent (ECW had by this time also folded and Vince more or less bought them out too) including Rhyno, The Dudley Boyz, Tommy Dreamer, Taz(z), and the debuting Rob Van Dam.  The main event of that episode of RAW was scheduled to be a three-way war between five WCW guys, five ECW guys, and five WWF fellas.  But then the ECW squad pulled a massive swerve and joined forces with Team WCW to beat the tar out of the WWF stable, leading to the formation of The Alliance.  Shane McMahon and Paul Heyman touted their new creation, and I was all kinds of excited.  Leave it to Mr. Heyman to once again galvanize the wrestling industry.  And then they introduced the new owner of ECW (Umm, it's not Paul Heyman?  Well ok I guess.)......Stephanie McMahon (Wait, what the actual fuck is this shit???).  Yup, this whole Invasion Angle was now all about Vince vs. his two kids.  We were already screwed folks.  We just didn't know it yet.

Nothing says ECW like Stephanie in a leather dress.

July 2001 saw the first and only edition of the WWF Invasion PPV, which would consist of ten WWF vs. Alliance matches, culminating in a five-on-five main event: Booker T, Diamond Dallas Page, Rhyno and The Dudleys vs. Kurt Angle, Chris Jericho, Undertaker, Kane, and seemingly back to his old beer-swillin', ass-kickin' self, the WWF Champion Steve Austin.  I had mixed feelings about Austin already going back to his babyface persona, as I had really been enjoying his work as a heel.  He seemed sincerely energized by the character change and was the most enthusiastic he'd been since his original rise to stardom.  But I understood it; if this Invasion was gonna work the WWF would need a top guy the fans could rally around.  Clearly Vince wasn't any kinda hero to root for.

The Invasion PPV was a mixed bag, very overcrowded with unnecessary undercard bouts like Earl Hebner vs. Nick Patrick (Who gives a rat's ass about seeing two referees fight??), and Lita & Trish vs. Torrie Wilson & Stacy Kiebler (Look, I'd have married all four of these lovely women, but a Bra & Panties match kinda undermines an angle where the WWF's very existence is at stake).  The one really great match on the show pitted WWF Hardcore Champ Jeff Hardy vs. Rob Van Dam in a battle of aerial daredevils.  Beginning with this show stealer, RVD would take the company by storm and become the most popular guy in wrestling, despite working for the heel team.  As for the main event, it was a fun, chaotic brawl capped off by a fairly obvious re-swerve by Austin, as he screwed over his WWF brethren and joined the Alliance as their new leader.  In the short-term I was over the moon, as it meant Austin would still be playing the biggest asshole in wrestling.  But let's reeeeally think about this.

Steve Austin was the single wrestler most closely identified with the WWF brand, and had been since 1998.  WCW was the company that never gave him a fair shot and fired him while he was on the disabled list.  He came to McMahonLand and finally got the opportunity to shine, reinventing himself as a badass motherfucker who pounded beers and flipped off everyone in sight.  On the heels of his success, the WWF was able to turn its fortunes around and vanquish WCW three years later.  And we're supposed to believe he's willing to forsake the entire company and join the invading Alliance team hell-bent on destroying everything he helped build?  Not to mention that after feuding with Vince for three years he joined Vince's side at WrestleMania 17 and the two became best buds on camera.  But now he's gonna go back to screwing Vince over?  None of this made any sense.

So now Austin was the leader of the Alliance, and Vince's new savior would be longtime heel Kurt Angle, who was quickly repackaged as a straight-shooting, all-American babyface.  Things were just getting weird.  Austin was a heel, leading a heel faction against the WWF's heel boss, who now sponsored the newest top babyface.  Wait, who am I rooting for here?

To be fair though, the Austin-Angle feud was absolute gold due to the talent involved.  In an odd way it was like the company had come full-circle.  The top babyface was a clean-cut, patriotic super-athlete while the top heel was a foul-mouthed, bird-flipping bully.  Austin vs. Angle yielded an amazing, bloody SummerSlam 2001 match which ended in a disqualification.  The rematch at Unforgiven was held in Angle's hometown of Pittsburgh, and Angle finally tapped Austin out to regain the WWF Title.  While not as good as the SummerSlam bout, this was a great moment for Angle and seemed to cement him as a new tippy-top guy.  And then for no reason at all, Commissioner William Regal screwed Angle over in their third match on RAW, allowing Austin to win back the Title after only two weeks.  At this point it was obvious the company was booking week-to-week, and it started to resemble the Russo era.  Wrestlers were being turned heel on a whim just to pad the Alliance's roster, and there wasn't any logic behind it.

Now about that Alliance roster.  Since Vince hardly bothered to acquire any outside top stars for this Invasion, the sides were understandably very uneven.  So the solution was to turn a bunch of WWF talent against the company to make it seem like the WWF was actually in danger.  Nevermind that Austin, Christian, Test, Regal, Molly Holly, Jazz, and Ivory had no real reason to want the WWF put out of business, The Alliance needed star power.  The unfortunate side effect was that aside from Rob Van Dam and Booker T to a lesser extent, anyone not under WWF contract prior to the WCW buyout was portrayed as so far beneath the homegrown guys there was zero suspense about any of it.

Oh no he di'in't....

Much more intriguing than the Invasion circus was a new feud between the now-morally ambiguous Chris Jericho and the returning Rock.  The Rock, as you'll recall took a hiatus after WrestleMania 17 to shoot a movie, and returned at SummerSlam to face WCW Champion Booker T (one of the few genuine dream matches to come out of this fiasco).  Booker sadly wasn't made to look very strong, and Rocky made pretty short work of him in their two bouts together.  But then Chris Jericho developed a mean streak, born from his apparent failure to win when it counted most.  Jericho and Rock quickly developed a rivalry leading to a fantastic WCW Title match at No Mercy.  After 22 minutes of incredible action, Jericho nailed The Breakdown (his new full-nelson face slam later stolen by The Miz) on a chair to finally win a World Championship.  It was a great moment for Jericho and seemed to cement him as a new tippy-top guy.  And then for no reason at all, they gave the belt back to The Rock two weeks later on RAW.  So the WWF blew TWO chances to really elevate someone in favor of positioning the top two stars against each other again.

After four months of short-sighted, chaotic booking, the Invasion Angle would be mercifully brought to a close at Survivor Series, in a five-on-five elimination match.  The winning team would carry on, while the losers would all be fired from the company (except anyone who held an active championship - quick, make sure all the important guys have belts!).  At the time I remember thinking this was awfully soon to kill this storyline.  I was well aware how bad it was, but I think I was in denial and wasn't ready for the WWF to give up on it.  Three weeks before Survivor Series, the most nonsensical of defections took place, as Kurt Angle turned on Vince to join the Alliance.  My immediate reaction was, "Unless Angle's a mole and helps the WWF win at Survivor Series, this makes less than zero sense."  The teams were then announced: Steve Austin, Kurt Angle, Rob Van Dam, Booker T, and Shane McMahon (Ya couldn't find one more active wrestler to take that fifth spot guys?) vs. The Rock, Chris Jericho, Undertaker, Kane and Big Show (thankfully replacing Vince McMahon).

The PPV itself was a semi-decent affair.  A few of the undercard bouts were perfectly entertaining, like The Dudley Boyz vs. The Hardy Boyz in a cage, Edge vs. Test for the unified I-C/US Titles, and Trish Stratus winning her first Women's Title.  Alliance member Test also won an Immunity Battle Royal, thus telegraping what would happen in the main event.  Said main event was a pretty epic Survivor Series match that ran nearly 45 minutes and featured top-notch action.  The only problem was the order of elimination - each man got beaten based on his position in the company's hierarchy.  Big Show and Shane were first on their respective teams, followed by Kane & Taker, and Booker T & RVD, followed by Angle, followed by Jericho.  It predictably all came down to The Rock vs. Steve Austin, a rematch that had been stewing since April, and one for which the final RAW build had been a singing contest between the two.  Yup, the big hard-sell on RAW the week before the fate of the company was about to be decided featured the two team captains engaged in an awkward comedy sketch where both guys sang songs to each other.  It was pretty obvious by now that the company had just given up on this grand experiment and was waiting out the clock to reset everything.  So the Survivor Series Final Four, in a match between the WWF and the combined WCW/ECW teams, consisted of four full-time WWF roster members.  Brilliant.  Also at the end of the match Kurt Angle revealed his true allegiance by costing Austin and the Alliance the match.  Now I was okay with the idea of Angle being a mole (though since he had no reason whatsoever to betray the WWF in the first place you'd think the Alliance would've suspected the ruse), but why would he wait until he'd already been eliminated from the match to do something?  His elimination left Austin at a two-on-one disadvantage, so maybe he was just hoping Rock & Jericho could get it done without his help?  I dunno.  At any rate, Kurt Angle singlehandedly saved the WWF from extinction at the hands of turncoat Steve Austin.  Remember that sentence, because it came up the next night on RAW.

So on RAW, Stephanie and Shane were fired (Steph begged and pleaded with Vince to let her come back to the WWF but was rebuffed).  Test had immunity by winning the Battle Royal, The Dudleyz were Tag Champs, RVD was the Hardcore Champ, Christian was the European Champ, and Austin was the WWF Champ.  How Booker T was able to keep his job I'm not sure.  William Regal was let back in after agreeing to kiss Vince's bare buttcheek on live television.  That's right, ever the purveyor of good taste, Vince began a recurring angle called the Kiss My Ass Club, where he'd threaten to fire someone unless they were willing to literally kiss his butt.  Just super television.

What kinda sick douchebag books this??

The Austin-Angle situation eventually came to a head late in the show when Vince held Angle up as a hero for saving his company and was about to strip Austin of the WWF Title and award it to Angle.  He was then interrupted by one of the five big names he should've bought out back in March, Ric Flair.  Flair announced that when Shane and Stephanie bought WCW and ECW they had sold their WWF shares to him, making him 50% owner of the company.  It was fun to see Flair back on TV in an environment about which he was enthusiastic - his last several years in WCW made him visibly unhappy.  Flair blocked Vince from taking the WWF Title off Austin, thus swapping Austin and Angle back to their original roles as top babyface and upper-card heel, respectively.  Here's my issue with that.  Austin had just spent four months trying to kill the WWF.  He was the leader of the heel opposition.  Kurt Angle, not 24 hours earlier, had just thwarted Austin's attempt to destroy the WWF.  How in God's name does that make Angle the villain?  What, just because Vince likes him?  This situation, like the four months of angles preceding it, made no sense, and I more or less threw my arms up.  I'd become so attached to heel Austin that the idea of him reverting to a complacent babyface character struck me as terribliy boring.

2001 ended with a major event: the unification of the two World Championships.  Now that WCW was no more, it was time to merge their top title with the WWF's.  Vince announced a mini-tournament at Vengeance, where The Rock and Steve Austin would each defend their titles, with the winners facing each other in the finals to become the first Undisputed Wrestling Champion in a century.  Austin faced Angle one more time in a pretty superb little match, and Rock once again battled Chris Jericho in an even better one.  Austin retained, Rock didn't.  So the finals would pit Steve Austin against the man unquestionably positioned as the #4 seed, Jericho.  In a rather sloppy brawl, and largely due to Vince's help (which was understandable given that Austin just tried to sink his company), Chris Jericho walked out of Vengeance as the Undisputed Champion.  I was overjoyed for this, figuring the finals would very obviously be Austin vs. Rock.  Only thing was Jericho was booked as such a chump leading up to this, it seemed like he was being set up to fail as the top champion.  Spoiler alert: I wasn't wrong.  But we'll get to that.

My god, just look at him.  Look. At. Him.

2001 was almost certainly the most significant year in professional wrestling.  It was the year Vince McMahon's WWF became The Only Show in Town.  Sadly the negative ramifications of that event would be felt over the next decade and beyond, as creative decisions would now be motivated by ego rather than by the will of the audience.  The phrase "give the people what they want" would seemingly be missing from the WWF vernacular for a very long time, and even now, fourteen years later it's a philosophy the company only embraces when they absolutely have to.  2002 would bring some pretty terrible creative changes and the horribly-timed departure of one of the company's top stars.....

Part 19                                                                                                                                            Part 21

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