Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Pro Wrestling: A Mark's History, part 21 (Get the 'F Out)

The first major event in 2002 was the long-awaited return of Triple H, who had finally recovered from his cringeworthy quad tear in May of '01.  The vignettes they'd been playing were clearly designed to get Hunter over as a returning hero, and I anticipated a mega-babyface push for him heading into WrestleMania season.  Remember, before he left I was a big Triple H fan, so the idea of a probable Triple H-Chris Jericho WrestleMania main event was electrifying to me.  Sadly it wouldn't exactly play out like I'd hoped.

Jericho, who had defeated both The Rock and Steve Austin at Vengeance 2001 to become the Undisputed Champ, was almost immediately treated as a transitional belt-holder, routinely booked in the opening segment on RAW against lower-card opponents like Maven and Tazz.  Not only that but these weren't exactly squash matches.  Jericho had trouble beating seemingly anyone, and it looked as though he was being deliberately portrayed as an undeserving fluke Champion.  Heading into the new year all signs pointed to a nice little Jericho vs. Rob Van Dam feud, culminating in a WWF Title match at the Royal Rumble.  But inexplicably their blowoff match took place on an episode of Smackdown, and Jericho was once again paired against The Rock for the PPV.  This seemed like a totally wasted opportunity to a) deliver a really great semi-main event at the Rumble, b) solidify Rob Van Dam as a new main event star after his surprising Hardcore Title loss to The Undertaker (who had pretty nonsensically turned heel in December), and c) stack the Rumble match itself with as many top-tier stars as possible.  What we got on that PPV was a third Jericho vs. Rock go-round that wasn't nearly as captivating as the first two, a Rumble match with a very obvious winner and only three other potential candidates, and Rob Van Dam relegated to a two-minute cameo at the end of the match (He should consider himself lucky, the other former Alliance star Booker T only got 33 seconds).

Hunter?  Why are your shoulder so big?

This was the first time I became acutely aware of petty backstage politics creating blatantly counterproductive booking, at least in the WWF (Christ, in WCW it was practically announced every week on Nitro).  While in hindsight there was obviously a lot of this stuff going on for years, even during the excellent 2000/early 2001 era, either I hadn't been as wise to the product or the company had done enough things right that I didn't notice so much.  That all changed post-Invasion.

Essentially the only long-term positives to come out of the Invasion Angle were the roster additions of Booker T, who'd proved himself a very entertaining heel, and Rob Van Dam, who took the WWF by storm from July to December of 2001.  Literally, there wasn't a more over star than RVD in the entire company during those six months.  Only a complete bozo would book this guy in 2002 as anything less than a major attraction.  That is unless there was an ulterior motive to get Van Dam out of the way in favor of someone else.  Look, I'm not one for conspiracy theories, but it already seemed painfully obvious given the timing that those in power wanted to clear a very wide swath for Triple H to be the company's next megastar.  Back to this topic in a few.

February 17th, 2002 marked the day Vince McMahon really seemed to have lost his mind.  At No Way Out, the nWo debuted in the WWF.  Yeah that's right, the three aging wrestlers whose out-of-control egos/creative control significantly contributed to the downfall of the WWF's only-ever rival company were now working there again.  I really didn't understand this move at all.  During the Monday Night War, the WWF had become a cutting-edge wrestling show featuring young, exciting characters consistently capable of delivering a tremendously exciting in-ring product.  Signing the nWo at this point made absolutely no sense to me.  At the time I likened it to assembling all the midcard talent in the middle of the ring and taking a giant dump on them in front of the world (I said as much in my WrestleView.com column Random Chair Shots, which ran from 2001-2004).  I legit didn't understand what Vince hoped to get out of these dinosaur prima donnas in 2002.  The WWF surged in popularity for years without them, so why were they needed now?

Yeah you're about a year too late, fellas.

Elsewhere on the No Way Out card, Chris Jericho beat Austin again to retain the WWF Title, making it all but official that WrestleMania X8's main event would pit him against Triple H.  I was quite enthusiastic about this, as their previous PPV match at Fully Loaded 2000 was a classic.  Aaaaand then the buildup happened.  I like to try and imagine the conversations in the booking meetings where ideas were pitched like "Let's have the first-ever Undisputed Champion in WWF history fetch purses and hand cream for his WrestleMania opponent's estranged wife," or "Let's have the man who beat Rock and Austin on the same night clean up Vince's daughter's dog's poop."  Yup, both those things happened.  Chris Jericho, slated to headline the biggest show of the year as the company's top Champion, was essentially relegated to a third wheel in a domestic spat between the #1 contender and his wife.  It was bad enough that Triple H's 'Mania Title win was so completely assured as to strip away any iota of suspense, but when the World Champion is booked as a submissive sidekick to the boss's daughter on top of that?  Is there any wonder the live crowd at 'Mania gave less than a crap about this match?  Again, you can't tell me this systematic interment wasn't at least partially a conscious effort.  The company that was firing on all cylinders a year earlier couldn't possibly be this incompetent.

WrestleMania's other headlining match, and the main draw for the show, was of course the first-ever meeting between The Rock and Hulk Hogan.  The night after No Way Out, Hogan and his nWo pals beat the crap out of Mr. Maivia, necessitating his being carted away in an ambulance.  Then they attacked the ambulance and Hogan crashed into it with a semi rig.  I've said it before, but I've never been a fan of things like attempted vehicular homicide in pro wrestling.  It's waaaay over the top and negates the significance of two men in a squared circle engaged in combat.  But at least the nWo were booked as really horrible people right out of the gate.  Of course this whole angle was rendered pointless when The Rock showed up the next week on RAW with barely a scratch and didn't miss any ring time whatsoever.  Yeah, perhaps this ambulance-smashing bit should've been saved as a way to write Rocky off TV after 'Mania, since he was leaving to shoot another movie.

'Mania 18 turned out to be a very entertaining show, well above my expectations.  It contained several fun little matches like Rob Van Dam's I-C Title win over William Regal, Edge vs. Booker T, and Kurt Angle vs. Kane.  Of the three top-billed matches, two shocked me by how good they were, and the third was a pretty big letdown.  The Undertaker faced Ric Flair early on the card, and given Flair's advanced age I had little hope for this.  But amazingly the combatants meshed quite well and put together a bloody, intense brawl that nearly stole the show.  The letdown match was the main event; Triple H and Chris Jericho's WWF Title program had been irreparably damaged by the putrescent buildup, resulting in a pretty phoned-in match in front of an anemic crowd.  The reason for the Toronto Skydome's exhaustion by the end of the night?  The Rock-Hogan match.  There have been few matches for which my expectations going in have been lower, but this dream match ended up being loads of fun and the nuclear live crowd added another layer of intrigue by rooting almost unanimously for the heel Hogan.  This was one of the first times I was totally aware of how significant the audience reaction is in improving or killing the entertainment value of a wrestling match.  Had this exact bout taken place in front of the Triple H-Jericho reaction we might be including it among the weakest 'Mania matches in history.  But the Skydome ate up every second of this thing and helped create one of the more memorable entries in the series.  I'm not sure if Vince called an audible due to the crowd reaction or if this was planned all along, but Kevin Nash and Scott Hall turned on Hogan after this bout, which seemed very premature.  Thus the WWF incarnation of the nWo was for all intents and purposes dead after only four weeks (Yeah I know it lasted another two months but let's be real).

Okay to be fair, this was pretty epic.

Two major events took place the night after 'Mania: the debut of brand new star Brock Lesnar, and the announcement of the first-ever Brand Extension, wherein the RAW and Smackdown shows would now have separate rosters, to be determined by a draft.  Co-owners Vince McMahon and Ric Flair would each have control over one show and select their respective rosters the following week.  I was actually pretty excited about this considering how many big stars were currently in the company, plus it potentially offered some of the smaller stars more air time and ostensibly allowed the WWF to present two distinct shows.  I'd hoped for one show to be more storyline-driven and the other to emphasize the in-ring product.  To a certain extent that's what eventually happened.

The debuting Brock Lesnar, flanked by Paul Heyman, started a feud with the Hardy Boyz and was pushed as an unstoppable monster right off the bat.  I was immediately impressed by his natural presence, and while his moveset was initially pretty rudimentary, he obviously grew very quickly.  It was refreshing to see a new star built up so thoroughly in such a short time, and Lesnar became one of the more compelling characters on the show.

The draft itself was a fun show to watch.  Ric Flair took over RAW and Vince took Smackdown.  The roster picks left the shows very unevenly balanced, which surprised me.  Seemed like Vince got most of the good talent and Flair's show would end up sucking (which it kinda did for a while).  The WWF Champion (Triple H) and the Women's Champion (Trish Stratus) would defend their titles on both shows, the I-C and Tag Titles were RAW-exclusive, and the European was SD-exclusive (I'm not sure why all Champions couldn't have appeared on both shows, but whatever).  Flair ended up with Steve Austin, Undertaker, Rob Van Dam, and Big Show as his top names, while Vince got Rock, Hogan, Angle, the soon-to-be-returning Chris Benoit, Jericho, and Edge.  It was pretty clear right away which show was gonna be superior.  The first several RAW episodes were quite dull and even the return of Steve Austin (who had walked away for two weeks following 'Mania due to burnout and  serious issues with WWF Creative) couldn't spruce up the proceedings.  Smackdown on the other hand was still engaging and would only get better over the summer (which wasn't surprising given that Paul Heyman was booking it).

Business is about to pick up

One of the stupidest booking decisions since WrestleMania IX took place at Backlash 2002.  Based solely on the typically unconventional live crowd reaction in Toronto for Rock vs. Hogan, Vince jumped the gun completely, booking the 48-year-old Hulk Hogan (who was 0-1 in singles matches since returning) to defeat brand new Undisputed Champion and superhuman world beater Triple H for the Title (I think Hogan's still the oldest WWF Champion of all time).  Upon seeing this I immediately threw my remote control down and said, "That's it, I'm done watching this shit until they fix this."  I didn't actually boycott (not yet anyway), but Backlash 2002 was the first time in my history as a wrestling fan that such an impulse ever took hold of me.  I'd been disappointed, upset, even angered by many events and decisions in wrestling, but the idea of putting your top championship on a 48-year-old who spent the better part of a decade helping his boss try to kill your company made absolutely zero sense to me.  Not to mention, this was one of the worst in-ring workers to ever become a main eventer, and it was 2002!  This wasn't 1988 when the mainstream audience didn't care about good wrestling matches.  The fans were too smart for shit like this now.  I just couldn't imagine a more inane title change, and it undermined the importance of Triple H reascending the mountain at WrestleMania (Despite his diminished mobility due to his now-oversized physique I was still on the Triple H bandwagon at this point).  Fortunately Hogan dropped the belt to The Undertaker the following month, but #1 I wasn't much of a Taker fan in 2002 either, and #2 it resulted in one of the worst PPV main events in a decade, after literally years of good-to-excellent World Title matches on a very consistent basis.  Vince had gone on record in 1999 as saying that putting the top belt on older stars would hurt its credibility, yet here he was doing exactly that.  I was beginning to think the whole "youth movement" philosphy that defined the Attitude Era was only adopted out of necessity since Vince couldn't compete with Ted Turner financially.

Another major change was announced on May 5th, 2002: the World Wrestling Federation was no more.  In its place was a company called World Wrestling Entertainment, or WWE.  In 1994 Vince's WWF had lost a legal battle with the World Wildlife Fund, over the WWF initials.  Vince was ordered to stop using that name but ignored the injunction as long as he could.  Finally in 2002 the jig was up.  Not only did the company name have to change, but he could no longer show any WWF logo designed after 1994, thus any archival footage would contain blurred WWF "scratch" logos.  I absolutely hated the new name.  World Wrestling Federation sounded official, like a concrete, tangible organization.  World Wrestling Entertainment sounded feeble, soft, and nebulous, like the subsidiary of a real company.  I refused to call them WWE for months.  Eventually I got over it.  Whatever.  The name still sucks.  Vince attempted to maintain a defiant attitude about this whole thing by launching the "Get the 'F out" campaign.  And that's just what fans started doing, in droves.  Are the two events related?  I dunno.

This is what's known as sour grapes.  "We didn't like the letter F anyway."

The return of Eddie Guerrero helped boost my interest in RAW for a little while (Eddie had been fired in 2001 for drug issues, which were now behind him), as he had a pretty good series of I-C Title matches with Rob Van Dam, and was also handpicked by Steve Austin as one of his primary opponents for the summer months.  Despite taking a short hiatus after 'Mania, Austin was still very dissatisfied with how he was being used and felt the company was intentionally throwing roadblocks in his path.  I couldn't wait to see Austin vs. Guerrero at the 2002 King of the Ring, but then it all fell apart.  Austin had been informed that at a pre-KOTR RAW he would be facing Brock Lesnar.  On free TV.  In a tournament qualifying match.  With zero buildup.  Again, I'm not into conspiracy theories, but a company as successful as WWE should (and does, let's be honest) fucking know better than to give away a match between the biggest star of the last decade and the "Next Big Thing" on free television with no buildup.  Clearly they were attempting to either damage Austin as a top guy or get him out of the way.  Austin chose the latter option, refusing to appear on RAW and staying home for eight months.

The King of the Ring PPV came and went, and other than Brock Lesnar winning the tournament and earning a WWE Title shot at SummerSlam (which at the time seemed a tad hasty to me), little of significance happened.  The best match was a semi-final between RVD and Chris Jericho, but even that was disappointing compared to their 2001 bout (Jericho went ballistic on the internet after a host of fans disparaged their effort).  The WWE product was quickly plummeting in quality.  A year earlier they were hard-pressed to put on a bad PPV, even in the midst of the awful Invasion Angle, but in the first half of 2002 almost every PPV was mediocre or worse (only WrestleMania got an overall Pass from me).

It occurred to me at this point that it might be time for a changing of the guard in the main event spots.  Austin's unceremonious exit, coupled with The Rock's inevitable transition to Hollywood, meant the top two Attitude Era stars would be missing from the roster for good, leaving only #3 and 4, Triple H and Undertaker.  But by this point neither Taker nor Hunter was putting on matches worthy of their respective highlight reels and I personally thought it was time to focus on a host of new stars - Lesnar, Angle, Benoit, Jericho, Guerrero, Edge, Rob Van Dam, etc.  One of the two brands would do exactly that in the coming months, leading to one of the best fall seasons in wrestling history.  The other, sadly, didn't.

But the second half of 2002 brought a slew of returning names plus a few new ones to the fold, and things were about to get exciting again.  For a little while anyway.....

Part 20                                                                                                                                            Part 22

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