Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Pro Wrestling: A Mark's History, part 26 (The John Cena Era Begins)

2005 was the year WWE finally found their next top guys.  After the abject failure of Randy Orton's babyface push (through no fault of Randy's, he was just booked 100% wrong), the focus shifted to Triple H's other Evolution protege, big Dave Batista.  Dave had been presented as the muscle of the group who didn't say much, but in late 2004 the fans started to prefer him over the weak protagonist Orton, and by early '05 it was very obvious who was winning the Royal Rumble and eventually dethroning Hunter.

At the end of 2004 Triple H lost a Triple Threat World Title match to Chris Benoit and Edge.  Both opponents had him locked in submission holds, and Hunter tapped, meaning he was no longer the Champion.  But since it couldn't be determined which hold he actually submitted to, neither Edge nor Benoit was the clear winner.  What would've made sense here would be a one-off Edge-Benoit match, given that Hunter tapped out.  But instead the Title was held up and would be decided in an Elimination Chamber match at a new PPV (way too many of these around this time) called New Year's Revolution.

The other three participants were Chris Jericho, Randy Orton, and Batista, and the Chamber match was quite a battle.  I'd call this arguably the best Chamber match of the bunch.  Predictably the bout whittled down to current and former Evolution members, and they booked it so Triple H kinda sorta screwed Batista over on his way to regaining the strap, thus planting dissension in the Evolution ranks.

The New WWE Generation.....wait....

Only three weeks later the Rumble took place, with all signs pointing to Batista takin' the whole thing down.  Dave's only real competition that year was WWE's other top new babyface, John Cena.  Cena had spent most of 2004 grappling over the US Title, but was clearly gaining enough traction and popularity to move up the card.  He still wasn't much of an in-ring talent, but the kids took right to him and he moved merch.  So I understood it even if I wasn't a fan.  After a very strong Rumble card where Triple H handily defeated Orton one last time to end Randy's babyface push, the excellent Rumble match boiled down to Batista vs. Cena.  But a miscue led to both guys falling over the ropes at the exact same time (Pretty incredible considering that was accidental).  WWE pulled an ad lib, with referees arguing over the real winner, a la the 1994 Rumble.  Vince angrily stormed to the ring and slid under the ropes, tearing both quads on the apron and hilariously yelling at the referees from a seated position.  Just an amazingly funny visual.  The match was restarted and Batista won.  But it was obvious both these guys would be walking out of WrestleMania 21 with gold.

2005 was the first year in a decade that I skipped most PPV events.  The product had simply not kept me engaged year-round and I couldn't justify spending $40 a month to watch the B-shows.  Also I realized that Netflix had started carrying WWE events on DVD only a month after they aired, and in most cases I could certainly wait and watch them basically for free.  Plus I'd just begun dating my future wife, who wasn't up for watching RAW on a regular basis, and I decided spending time with her was more appealing.  But I'd still be ordering WrestleMania.  Gotta keep that streak alive.

'Mania 21 would have a tough time living up to the standards set by the previous few installments, particularly with two unproven headliners challenging for the top belts.  But the company stacked the undercard with workhorses and included one of my all-time dream matches to boot.

The show opened with a solid if unspectacular Eddie Guerrero vs. Rey Mysterio bout before delivering what would become a decade-plus tradition.  In the weeks leading up to 'Mania the company had no real plans for several of the upper-tier stars, including the guy who headlined the previous year's show (Sounds familiar doesn't it?).  So they crammed six wrestlers and a ladder into one match and called it Money in the Bank, where the winner would be granted a contract for a WWE Title match, good anytime within a year.  Chris Jericho, Chris Benoit, Kane, Shelton Benjamin, Christian, and Edge put on a wild spotfest which Edge won, creating his new "ultimate opportunist" persona.  I was pretty excited to see Edge finally catching on as a top singles star.

After a strong Orton vs. Undertaker bout and a pitifully bad Trish Stratus vs. Christy Hemme match (Hemme had won the 2004 Diva Search, an ill-conceived contest wherein a dozen model-types engaged in stupid, unwatchable competitions that had nothing whatsoever to do with wrestling.  The winner would get $250,000 and a WWE contract.  Money well-spent.), the real centerpiece of the show was next.  Smackdown star Kurt Angle and RAW star Shawn Michaels would meet in the ring for the first time, and the result was spectacular.  To say Angle and Michaels stole the show would be underrating this match.  These two ring generals annihilated every other WWE match that year with a breathtaking instant classic.

Still one of the all-time great 'Mania bouts

Sadly the final third of the show was mediocre at best.  Big Show faced Akebono in a Sumo match for some reason (To what demographic was the visual of two bare-assed 500-pound men appealing?), John Cena's main event run got off to an underwhelming start when he and JBL failed to gel in their 12-minute WWE Title match, and Batista and Triple H delivered a passable main event to launch Batsy's World Title run.  So 'Mania 21 didn't win any PPV of the Year awards, but it was a solid outing with one truly great match in the undercard.

Batista's feud with Triple H understandably became the centerpiece of RAW, but I just wasn't emotionally invested.  So I more or less tuned out for a while except as a way to keep up with current events.  They wrestled twice more on PPV - the first was weak and the second was a pretty excellent Hell in a Cell which headlined an unexpectedly great Vengeance PPV (featuring an Angle-HBK rematch).  Triple H took a powder for a few months, releasing his death grip on RAW, and WWE held another Draft Lottery which shockingly led to Batista and Cena switching shows.  For the first time since the Titles were split, the WWE Championship would be on RAW and would be the top title again.

The big angle going into SummerSlam '05 though didn't involve either Champion.  Instead WWE would be trotting out Hulk Hogan once again for a "dream match" main event, this time against Shawn Michaels.  To set this up, Shawn randomly turned heel on Hogan, because behind the scenes Hulk insisted on a face vs. heel dynamic.  Originally the plan was for this program to run at least two months, with each guy winning a match.  Instead though Hogan disappeared from TV during the buildup, leaving Shawn with the full burden of hyping the bout.  The match itself was one of Hogan's better matches but not even in the pantheon of Shawn's greats.  Shawn bounced around like a ping-pong ball, selling Hogan's outmoded offense like a champ, before Hogan's inevitable, tired comeback.  Hogan of course won, contrary to the plan, and went home the next night.  On RAW, after getting in a few last-word digs at Hogan's expense, Shawn went right back to being a babyface.  And thus WWE set the template for the next decade of one-off WrestleMania matches centered around part-timers, that had zero meaning in the long-term context.  Oh joy.

Still one of the most pointless "dream matches" ever

WWE's product was so devoid of urgency for me I actively began seeking out other wrestling products.  The next-most readily available was TNA, who had just landed on Spike TV (WWE's former home).  TNA's new show Impact debuted in the fall, and I made it a point to start taping it religiously.  I was already familiar with many of their homegrown stars like AJ Styles and Christopher Daniels, as well as the WCW/WWE castoffs like Jeff Jarrett, Jeff Hardy, The Dudley Boyz (now Team 3-D), Rhyno, and new roster addition Christian (now with the last name Cage).  Christian had gained huge popularity in WWE but Vince never saw him as more than a midcarder, and thus refused to push him.  In TNA, Cage was treated like a big deal right away and inserted into the World Title picture.  While this practice of pushing ex-WWE stars over their homegrown talent would eventually become TNA's near-downfall, I was excited for Christian at the time.  Also joining TNA's mostly young roster was the impressive Samoa Joe, who was pushed as an absolute monster.

In October I ordered my first TNA PPV, Bound for Glory, which was presented as their flagship.  Looking back on this lineup now it's a pretty dreadful show (the excellent Styles-Daniels Iron Man match excepted), but at the time TNA's product felt urgent and cutting edge in a way WWE's didn't at all.  The X-Division was producing matches WWE couldn't touch, led by AJ, Daniels and Joe.  Bound for Glory was the only PPV I ordered at that point, but Comcast's Video-on-Demand service began including various TNA PPV matches, and I soaked in all the X-Division stuff I could find, including a Styles vs. Joe masterpiece at Genesis, which is still one of my favorite matches.  TNA's product in late 2005 was so much more exciting to me than WWE's and I actually thought they'd become serious competition.  Yeah, I was just a tad off the mark.  By 2006 TNA had already squandered most of their potential and I'd rarely take that degree of interest in their product again.

November 13, 2005 brought horribly tragic news.  The beloved Eddie Guerrero was found dead in his hotel room, evidently brought down by a heart attack.  Eddie'd had a history of drug abuse, and despite having been clean for four years, the effects had apparently caught up with him.  I couldn't fathom this.  Eddie was so full of life and energy.  The idea that this charismatic legend was gone didn't seem possible.  WWE aired a touching two-episode tribute to Eddie, much as they'd done for Owen Hart in 1999.  Of the sit-down reaction pieces they included on these episodes, the most upsetting belonged to Eddie's longtime friend Chris Benoit, who sobbed violently while remembering Eddie.  Roughly a year and a half later the extent of how hard the loss hit him would be discovered, making this a rather chilling video in retrospect.

Photo credit: ploopy22.deviantart.com

As 2005 drew to a close, my enthusiasm for the current wrestling product was as low as it had ever been, with little about WWE's programming to get me excited, and only TNA's X-Division really capturing my imagination (I hadn't reconnected with Ring of Honor yet).  However WWE's DVD library was rapidly increasing, and thanks to a 3-disc Bret Hart set (which marked the first WWE-Bret Hart collaboration in eight years), and a boxed set of every WrestleMania to date, I could still at least revisit the company's more exciting days and satisfy my wrestling jones.  WWE's past being more fun to watch than its present would sadly be a recurring theme from 2005 on....

Part 25

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