Monday, November 30, 2015

Pro Wrestling: A Mark's History, part 22 (Eric vs. Stephanie)

2002 was the first year in which WWF/E ran unopposed as a major wrestling company, but in the wake of WCW's and ECW's respective demises, two new companies formed. 

The first, Ring of Honor, was founded by Rob Feinstein and booked by Paul Heyman protege Gabe Sopolsky.  Like ECW it was a gritty, no-frills indie promotion with an emphasis on the in-ring product.  But unlike ECW the wrestling was technically-based instead of hardcore.  Veterans like Christopher Daniels, Low-Ki, and newcomer Bryan Danielson were showcased, and the company would bring in several international stars from time to time to give the product some flavor.  In lieu of a weekly TV show, very card would be available on VHS and later DVD, via RF Video.  Though it would take several years, ROH would come to be a major influence on the wrestling industry, just as ECW had done previously.  But we'll get to that.

The other new company was owned by Jeff and Jerry Jarrett, and was to be an NWA affiliate.  For some reason they called it Total Nonstop Action, or TNA (get it?), and the NWA gave them permission to use the sanctioned NWA World Championship as it's top belt.  The product was without a weekly cable timeslot, so instead they ran weekly two-hour PPVs from a venue in Nashville, which was a helluva financial commitment for anyone wanting to follow along.  For the most part TNA felt like a continuation of 2000 WCW; the top stars were either WWE castoffs or former WCW stars, and the product was needlessly raunchy.  The one innovation though was the newly created X-Division, which was similar to WCW's Cruiserweights, except there was no weight restriction.  The division was initially built around Jerry Lynn and hot new indie star AJ Styles, who would prove to be TNA's franchise player for the next decade.  While TNA wasn't exactly classic stuff, it did at least provide an alternative to an increasingly frustrating WWE product.

AJ's reign of awesome began in 2002.

After King of the Ring 2002 it was clear WWE was casting their lot with the prodigious Brock Lesnar.  He'd won the annual tournament and would be facing the Undisputed Champion at SummerSlam.  I had some reservations about his ability to deliver a PPV main event so early in his career but was excited for the company's focus on a young star.

The RAW-Smackdown roster split took on an entirely new life when, after a Ric Flair-Vince McMahon match with sole control of WWE on the line, Vince once again became the lone authority figure.  His first order of business was to appoint General Managers for each show.  The first was announced on a live episode of RAW, and it was none other than his former WCW rival Eric Bischoff!  This was just fuuuuuckin' weird.  Eric Bischoff, the man who tried to run Vince out of business, the man who challenged Vince to a fight live on PPV, the man who Vince would've gladly beaten to a pulp four years earlier, was now working for WWE.  While in hindsight this was a total waste of what could've been a HUGE Vince vs. Bischoff angle, it was oddly exhilarating to see the slimy Bischoff character as a GM.  The Smackdown GM was announced three days later (or one day later in actuality), and once again Vince went to the family well, appointing Stephanie as head of the blue brand.  I failed to mention earlier that in April of 2002 Triple H had defeated Jericho and Stephanie in a handicap match, where if Hunter won, Steph would be out of the company forever.  Well sir, in this case "forever" meant three months.  Unbelievable.  So Steph was now in charge of Smackdown and the RAW vs. SD feud was officially underway.

Usually I hate these "power struggle" angles, but they made it work.
Also, YOWZA, Steph....

This kicked off a month-long barrage of roster defections which, while it made for interesting television for a little while, didn't make a ton of sense.  The idea was that everyone's contract was now up in the air and they had to decide which show they wanted to be on, even though the Draft back in April should've settled all this.  I guess those in power realized how thin the RAW roster was and they decided to balance things out.  RAW acquired the services of Chris Jericho, Kane, Christian, and eventually Triple H.  Smackdown got the debuting Rey Mysterio (who was treated as a pretty big deal which was awesome), Big Show, Undertaker, Eddie Guerrero, and the returning Chris Benoit (Oh man, was I excited he was back). 

The July PPV Vengeance featured a Triple Threat for the WWE Title in which The Undertaker dropped the belt to The Rock (back from hiatus temporarily).  So it would be Rock vs. Brock at SummerSlam, which I found a pretty unusual pairing.  But I was sold when they began airing training montages and framed this as a legitimate athletic showdown, something I wish they'd get back to when hyping present-day matches.  The other big story from Vengeance was Triple H's decision to sign with RAW, after being convinced by Shawn Michaels (who had returned to be part of the ill-conceived WWE version of the nWo, which then disbanded) to reform DX.  But the next night Hunter turned on Shawn and smashed his face into a car windshield (I have no idea if he then took Shawn's mother, Mrs. Hickenbottom out for a nice seafood dinner and never called her again).  So the other main event for the annual August spectacular would be Triple H facing the long-missed Shawn Michaels, returning to action after a four-plus-year hiatus.  Holy. Fucking. Shit.  I'd been absolutely crushed when Shawn retired in 1998, and by 2000 had given up hope that he'd ever wrestle again.  Now it was finally happening!

Oh, side note, one of the undercard matches at Vengeance involved the former (and first-ever) Undisputed Champion, the guy who'd just headlined WrestleMania and had defeated Austin and The Rock on the same night, Chris Jericho, losing clean in just over six minutes, to a brand new rookie by the name of John Cena.  Oh how the mighty had fallen.  Jericho's position in the company took such a nosedive in 2002 it was mindboggling.  I recently learned that losing to Cena was Jericho's idea because he saw something in the young West Newbury, MA native and wanted to be the first guy to put him over.  Very unselfish, but it didn't do Jericho any real favors.   

I believe Cena was 14 years old here.

Anyway the SummerSlam card was shaping up to be pretty great, and in a 2002 rarity I was not at all disappointed (except in the Benoit-RVD match which was much too methodical and one-sided).  SummerSlam 2002 stands as the greatest-ever edition of WWE's summer classic.  From the blazing Angle-Mysterio opener, to the excellent Edge-Eddie Guerrero showdown, to the epic Triple H-Shawn street fight, to the incredibly athletic Rock vs. Brock Title match, this show featured nary a bad bout and was boosted by a nuclear crowd.  The Rock once again met the wrath of the audience, as the Nassau Coliseum was solidly behind the new monster sensation Lesnar.  I couldn't have been more excited when Brock won the Championship and anticipated WWE finally getting back on track with a focus on young stars and fresh matchups.  Well, that didn't entirely pan out.

The next night Stephanie McMahon announced that Brock had signed an exclusive deal with Smackdown and was taking the Undisputed Title with him.  This left RAW without a top Champion, so the genius solution was for Eric Bischoff to simply hand the resurrected Big Gold Belt to Triple H.  Triple H who just lost at SummerSlam.  Makes sense.  Wouldn't want a tournament to determine a new Champ, would we?  Backstage bullshit rears its ugly head again.  It seemed to me that someone didn't have full faith in the young Lesnar to carry both brands as the Champion, so his accomplishment was diluted somewhat. 

Triple H was now the face of RAW and became such an overwhelmingly dominant heel Champ it was depressing to even watch that show.  The only RAW stars I was excited about in the fall of '02 were Jericho, Van Dam and Booker T.  Jericho was horribly damaged goods by this point (and as a fellow heel was now competing for Triple H's spot, which was a losing proposition), Booker had never recovered from his non-start feud with Steve Austin after the Invasion Angle, and Van Dam got duped by Ric Flair at Unforgiven, losing his first World Title shot in a year.  The RAW creative team booked exactly zero strong contenders for Hunter's championship, so there was nothing to root for.  Intercontinental Champion Kane then stepped up and not only lost the I-C belt to Hunter (who then assimilated it into his own Title), but was the subject (victim?) of one of the worst angles in wrestling history, the Katie Vick debacle.

One of the many times I've asked aloud,
"What demographic are you targeting with this shit?"

Story goes like this - in the weeks leading up to No Mercy 2002, Hunter aired some of Kane's dirty laundry by claiming Kane had fallen in love with a girl in high school, took her to a party, agreed to drive her home, and accidentally crashed the car, killing her.  He then implied Kane had sex with her corpse.  Yup.  A necrophilia angle.  It's been thirteen years since this idiocy made the air, and I'm still waiting for Vince to explain who was supposed to benefit from this shit.  Kane?  Was the audience expected to sympathize with a guy who may or may not have accidentally killed a teenage girl and then humped her remains?  They even went so far as to film a skit where Triple H, wearing a Kane mask, simulated sex with a mannequin representing Katie.  Are ya fuckin' kiddin' me guys?  The RAW brand was being driven off a cliff by Stephanie's BF, and I more or less tuned out.

The Smackdown brand on the other hand was being run by Paul Heyman, and to no one's surprise it was a rousing success almost every single week.  The various combinations of Kurt Angle, Chris Benoit, Los Guerreros, Edge, Rey Mysterio (collectively called The Smackdown Six), plus Brock Lesnar made for absolutely compelling television that the fiasco known as RAW couldn't fucking touch.  Understandably Smackdown began destroying RAW in the ratings, and bafflingly Vince would eventually do everything he could to undermine Smackdown and restore RAW as the flagship show (I need an explanation for this too - why the flyin' hell would you sabotage your second-favorite show just because your ideas weren't responsible for its success?  They're both still your shows, you idiot).

The incontrovertible superiority of Smackdown was felt at No Mercy 2002, when not only did Brock Lesnar cleanly defeat The Undertaker in a brutally gory Hell in a Cell, but the finals of the WWE Tag Team Championship tournament were decided between Kurt Angle & Chris Benoit and Edge & Rey Mysterio.  The latter was unequivocally the Match of the Year, and is still one of the best tag matches I've ever seen.  To compete with that, RAW supplied Hunter vs. Kane in a snoozer, and an underwhelming RVD-Flair match.


So to make up for RAW being a laughingstock, WWE attempted to stack the crap out of the RAW main event at Survivor Series, introducing the first-ever Elimination Chamber for the World Title.  Triple H would defend against Chris Jericho, Booker T, Kane, Rob Van Dam, and returning for the first time since SummerSlam, Shawn Michaels.  It was quite obvious which two stars this match would be centered around, but I was still hoping for the company to show some good sense and put the belt on Van Dam or Booker to build one or both of them up.  After all, they desperately needed some strong full-time babyfaces on RAW to help carry that brand; there was only so far they could get with the top heel vs. a part-time good guy.  But no, the Chamber match was all about Hunter vs. Shawn while the rest were presented as afterthoughts.  They put the World Title on the guy who just came back from a four-year absence and wasn't working house shows, while the rest of the RAW roster languished without even a secondary belt to chase.  On top of that, the first Chamber match wasn't even that good.  It was awkward, sloppy, and overly long.  And the result made no sense.

Worse, the Smackdown brand was temporarily ruined on this show as well.  Having fended off the challenge of The Undertaker, Brock Lesnar was now transitioning into a monster babyface character.  His first heel challenger would be perennial RAW midcarder The Big Show.  Yeah, the guy who hadn't been presented as a credible contender since early 2000 was suddenly supposed to be taken as a threat to the 25-year-old freak of nature who'd bested Hogan, Flair, Rock, Taker, and RVD.  And even worse, Lesnar's manager Paul Heyman turned on him during the five-minute WWE Title match, despite Lesnar having the match won.  Was Vince on crack during this period?

Needless to say I wasn't at all a fan of Survivor Series 2002.  Aside from the WWE Tag Title match, the show consisted of mediocre-or-worse matches and some of the stupidest booking I'd ever seen.  That feeling of "maybe I need to walk away" was creeping up again.

Fortunately the December PPV Armageddon left the company in a slightly more promising state to close out the year.  Kurt Angle dethroned Big Show for the WWE Title, thus setting up a potential instant classic main event for WrestleMania 19 (Also Angle introduced his new pals Shelton Benjamin and Charlie Haas), Chris Benoit and Eddie Guerrero had a helluva battle, and Triple H won back the World Title, and could resume defending it against current full-timers.  Would Van Dam get another crack at the Title?  Would Jericho turn babyface and try to regain the gold?  Would Booker T be elevated as a new heroic figure?  Nope.  Scott Steiner.  Oh for fuck's sake....

Part 21                                                                                                                                            Part 23

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