Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Pro Wrestling: A Mark's History, part 25 (Year of The Crippler)

As 2004 opened it seemed Chris Benoit was being primed for a feud with Brock Lesnar.  The two had a pretty great Smackdown match in December, and after Benoit came up short, SD GM Paul Heyman informed him he wouldn't be granted another shot.  I figured he'd win the Royal Rumble and be automatically given a Title shot at WrestleMania XX.  I was right about most of it, just not about which Title he'd go after.

Backstage Triple H had apparently requested to have Benoit transferred over to RAW so he'd have a good technician to work with.  I guess he'd run through all his credible challengers (by "run through" I mean "chewed up and spat out") and realized he'd need some strong new babyfaces in 2004. 

So the story going into the Rumble was that Heyman would allow Benoit into the match but he'd be the #1 entry.  This clearly telegraphed a scenario where Benoit would run the table, but I couldn't have been more excited.  The Rumble card itself was pretty awful aside from the main event - a pointless Tables match, an abbreviated Cruiserweight match, a total letdown of an Eddie vs. Chavo blowoff (the two had split up after Chavo turned on Eddie), one of the least intriguing WWE Title matches ever in Brock Lesnar vs. Bob Holly (The backstory here was that Holly had faced Lesnar in 2002 and sandbagged the rookie, only to have Lesnar drop him on his head - nice goin' Bob.  WWE decided to use the real-life injury as fodder for a PPV Title match despite Holly's total and complete lack of credibility as a Title challenger.), and a tedious, overrated Triple H-Shawn Michaels rematch.  While Shawn and Hunter had closed 2003 with a fantastic RAW main event, their Last Man Standing rematch was a reptititous mess that mostly consisted of Big Move-Ref Count-Stand Up-Repeat. 

Great Rumble match.  I forget who won it though.

But the Rumble match itself overshadowed all the tripe on this show.  Benoit turned in a career performance, lasting 61 minutes and breaking the Rumble longevity record on his way to a gutsy Rumble victory.  This match also helped build the star of Randy Orton, who drew #2 and lasted about halfway till the end before being taken out by Mick Foley.  Finally it kicked off a feud that would build to a huge 'Mania dream match - Brock Lesnar vs. Goldberg.

So Benoit had won the Rumble and it was assumed he'd face Lesnar at WrestleMania until he showed up on RAW and challenged Triple H instead.  This was the first time WWE raised the idea of a Rumble winner being able to challenge for either belt.  So it would be Triple H vs. Benoit in the main event of WrestleMania.  Oh, plus Shawn Michaels.  I had very mixed feelings about this development since a) I wasn't much of a fan of Triple Threats at that point, b) with Shawn involved I feared Benoit would be an afterthought, and c) the setup for this involved an idiotic angle where Shawn superkicked Benoit before he could sign the contract, and then signed it himself.  In what universe would that be legally binding??

A couple weeks after the Rumble, the Smackdown crew had a mini-Rumble of their own to determine a #1 Contender for No Way Out, and in a pretty thrilling little match Eddie Guerrero got the duke.  The ensuing Lesnar-Guerrero WWE Title match was an unabashed classic that went thirty minutes, and Eddie's victory was a huge moment.  It was surreal seeing one of the former WCW talents who never got a fair shot finally winning the most prestigious Title in wrestling.  Even more exciting was Kurt Angle being named the #1 Contender for 'Mania.  So now we had two potential Match of the Year candidates at the biggest show of the year.

WrestleMania XX was held at Madison Square Garden, as 'Manias 1 and 10 had been, and this would be a four-plus-hour event featuring twelve matches.  Leading up to the show I had read disturbing rumors about WWE wanting Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage to wrestle on this card, and I may or may not have injured myself doing repeated facepalms.  Unreal stupid idea.  Fortunately it didn't come to fruition, and the show featured only current talent.

The show's length made it a bit exhausting, and there was a lot of filler to be sure, but the good matches were among the best in the event's history.  The four major standouts were a very good Chris Jericho vs. Christian match, a tremendously entertaining Rock n' Sock Connection vs. Evolution match, and the two aforementioned Title bouts.  Eddie vs. Angle was totally main event worthy and ended with a brilliant piece of Guerrero trickery (Loosening his boot so Kurt's anklelock would slide it off his foot), and the Triple Threat was an absolutely epic, near-perfect piece of wrestling.  Hunter, Shawn and Benoit all delivered  five-star performances and the match was full of drama and intricate timing.  It culminated in Benoit finally forcing Hunter to tap out, becoming the World Champion.  Eddie then joined him in the post-match celebration, and 'Mania went off the air with the two former WCW guys as the top beltholders in the company.  It was a truly amazing moment and an emotional postscript to one of the best matches I've ever seen.  Only three years later both of these remarkable athletes would be dead, and one of them would forever be remembered as a monster.

Amazing WrestleMania moment.  I forget who the guy on the left is though.

The one major disappointment at WrestleMania 20 was the Brock Lesnar-Goldberg match, which I had been anticipating as a real battle of titans.  But Goldberg's contract was up the next day and he wouldn't be renewing, and only two weeks before 'Mania it was announced that Brock Lesnar was also leaving WWE.  That put a real damper on the match, and it was clear neither guy was motivated.  So the match was pure shit.  Such a shame.

Lesnar's absence left a monster truck-sized hole in the Smackdown roster, and the company scrambled to even out the lineups and find a new top heel.  They held a new Draft Lottery, which saw Triple H drafted to Smackdown, only for RAW GM Eric Bischoff to trade Booker T and the Dudleyz to get him back.  It was a novel way to strengthen the paper-thin SD roster but it also made Booker and the Dudleyz look horribly weak.  One Hunter is worth all three of those guys?  Really?  On top of that very little was done with any of them (or the SD-drafted Rob Van Dam), so it was a moot trade.  And of course Vince's pick for the new top heel was perennial midcard tag team wrestler Bradshaw.  Repackaged as a Wall Street tycoon, JBL was quickly pushed into a feud with WWE Champ Eddie Guerrero, and won the belt that June.  At that point I stopped watching Smackdown.  The idea of JBL, who had beaten exactly nobody, instantly getting a WWE Title push as a way to replace Brock Lesnar was too much to swallow.  The rest of 2004 saw some pretty awful top Smackdown feuds.  It was such 180 from where the show had been under Paul Heyman's creative leadership, and Smackdown became such a B-show that it would never again be must-see viewing in my house.

I'm still baffled by this one.

On the RAW side of things, April through August saw some pretty great television, mostly centered around Chris Benoit and friends vs. Evolution.  Every single week there was at least one restaurant-quality match, and while the RAW PPVs were still hit-or-miss, I felt happily obligated to support the product as long as Benoit held the strap.  Unfortunately Hunter's feuds were still getting the most focus even though the Title wasn't involved, and then by late summer it was clear Randy Orton was the guy WWE wanted as a top babyface.

Orton was becoming the sorta cool heel even though character-wise he wasn't doing anything cool.  But the contrarian fans had taken to him and the company thought they had another Dwayne Johnson on their hands.  They booked him to challenge Benoit at SummerSlam 2004, and it was obvious he'd be winning the Title sooner rather than later.  I was bummed out by this but I understood why Orton was being pushed so hard.  He was an athlete with pedigree, he looked like a million bucks, and if executed correctly his eventual babyface push could be huge.  Unfortunately the phrase "executed correctly" wasn't in WWE's vocabulary.

SummerSlam was a solid if disappointing show - many of the bouts felt rushed, and aside from a superb Eddie vs. Angle rematch and the main event, most of the PPV was forgettable.  Benoit vs. Orton though was a damn fine match and it was nice to finally see a RAW main event without Triple H.  Benoit made Orton look great, and after a pretty anticlimactic finish (the RKO was such an unremarkable finisher in 2004) Orton became the youngest World Champ in WWE history (They sure wasted no time in eclipsing Brock's accomplishment two years earlier). 

So how would WWE follow up?  Would there be tension within Evolution after Orton succeeded where Triple H had failed?  Would Orton gradually decide he didn't need his pals' help anymore?  Would Orton make a power play and have Hunter ousted?  Nope.  Evolution turned on Orton the very next night.  This cocky young jerk heel was turned babyface exactly one day after becoming Champion, only because his jerk friends kicked him out of their jerk group.  This was supposed to make us all sympathize with him suddenly?  Orton spent the next four weeks generally getting punked out by his former buddies, and Hunter beat him at Unforgiven to resume his stranglehold on the World Title.  Orton's star faded quicker than a sonofabitch, and by October Batista was getting cheered more than Randy, telegraphing the direction WWE would be taking in 2005.  By the end of the year Orton had lost singles matches with all three of his former Evolution mates and was about as weak a top babyface as you can imagine.

Nice moment for Orton before The Great Sabotage

The Randy Orton Experiment had been an abysmal failure, but WWE still had two up-and-comers who would catch on big in 2005.

Part 24                                                                                                                                            Part 26

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