Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Pro Wrestling: A Mark's History, part 23 (The Austin Era Ends)

2003 was a year of extremes for WWE.  That particular calendar year included one of the best PPVs of all time, several of my favorite-ever matches, and multiple amazing performances by certain talent.  2003 also brought some of the worst wrestling television and creative decisions in the history of our sport (whassup Schiavone!).

In January the pieces were being moved into place for WrestleMania, as Kurt Angle had won the WWE Title from The Big Show while Brock Lesnar waited in the wings for the rematch he never got.  In the meantime though Angle would have to turn back the challenge of Chris Benoit at the '03 Royal Rumble.  I was in attendance for this PPV, and while a verrry uneven show, the Angle-Benoit semi-main event is still the best match I've ever seen live.  It started slow and methodical, and built over 19 minutes into a submission and mat wrestling clinic.  Angle retained the Championship and split, leaving Benoit alone in the ring to a FleetCenter standing ovation.  The events of June 2007 tainted this memory for me to a certain extent, but on that day being part of that roar of crowd approval for my (at the time) favorite wrestler was magical.

Amazing bout this one.

The other Title match at the Rumble pitted Lord God King Hunter against one of the least ready-for-prime-time challengers I'd ever seen, Scott Steiner.  Steiner had just finished sitting out the remainder of his WCW contract and healing from nagging injuries, and Vince scooped him right up.  Apparently though Vince hadn't bothered watching any of Steiner's recent matches, because the man who was once half of the legendary Steiner Brothers was now a freakishly musclebound stiff, who could scarcely bend any of his limbs, and who seemingly got winded getting dressed in the morning.  The match began with most of the live crowd behind Hunter, but quickly got old as the two men lumbered through the plodding contest (Steiner at one point fell on his ass executing a suplex, and generally seemed out of shape).  By the end Boston was booing both wrestlers, and the DQ finish didn't help matters.  So of the two World Title matches at the '03 Rumble, one got a standing ovation for the LOSER while the other was booed out of the building.  Which one got a Part 2 at No Way Out?  Yup, the Steiner match.  Fuckin' hell.

Brock Lesnar of course won the Rumble match itself, which meant the Angle-Lesnar dream match was happening at 'Mania.  This was quite an exciting proposition, and would be the first PPV main event since December 1997 to not feature Austin, Rock, Triple H or Undertaker.  To help build to this magnificent showdown, WWE booked a six-man tag at No Way Out - Brock Lesnar, Chris Benoit & Edge vs. Team Angle.  Sadly just before the PPV, Edge discovered he'd need spinal fusion surgery and would miss a year of action.  So it would instead be a 3-on-2 handicap match.  A real bummer, but it was still a fine contest, and one of very few highlights on this awful show.

No Way Out was primarily built around a totally unnecessary Rock vs. Hogan rematch from WrestleMania X8.  After getting destroyed in the ring by Brock Lesnar the previous summer, Hogan was back, and wanted to avenge his loss to The Rock.  The match was a phoned-in shadow of its predecessor, and it was clear no one was all that excited to see it happen again.  The Rock, now a heel, won again with the help of a corrupt referee.

Aside from the aforementioned Triple H-Steiner rematch which was even worse than the first bout, the other major event at No Way Out was the long-awaited return of Steve Austin.  You'll recall Austin walked out in the summer of '02 due to creative issues, and now he was finally ready to resume his career.  Austin's first match would be against Eric

But while No Way Out was nigh unwatchable and certainly superfluous, and despite a pretty terrible build, WrestleMania XIX ended up being one of the best wrestling shows I've ever seen.  That the company was able to execute such a spectacular show amid such horrible Creative is nothing short of astonishing.  TV leading up to WM19 was overwhelmingly centered around the Vince McMahon vs. Hulk Hogan match.  Why WWE thought that in 2003 a match between a 58-year-old non-wrestler and a semi-retired 50-year-old who peaked in 1987 would be the biggest draw I dunno (Wait, yes I do - EGO).  Then there was the World Title match between Triple H and Booker T, built around very thinly-veiled racism that was really uncomfortable to watch ("You people don't win Championships."  "What do you mean 'you people?'"  "Oh, uh...entertainers.  Entertainers don't win Championships.  Yeah that's it....").  I figured Booker had to win the belt because there wasn't anyone left on RAW to challenge him after that (and at the time there really wasn't).  Add a third 'Mania meeting between The Rock and Steve Austin, and I wasn't terribly excited about this show.  At least I had the impending Shawn Michaels-Chris Jericho dream match and the Angle-Lesnar main event.

Not so fast though.  Just a few weeks prior to the PPV, Kurt Angle revealed he too needed spinal surgery and might have to miss the show.  Fuck, this was awful news.  Angle had become the company MVP over the past year and his absence would leave very few reasons to watch.  I'm not sure the company ever decided on a backup plan though, because Angle found a less invasive procedure that would only keep him out a few months.  Plus he was gonna tough it out and wrestle at 'Mania beforehand.  This was honestly a pretty nerve wracking scenario; one false move and Angle could be crippled.

Holy f*ckin' shit

But the match took place as scheduled, and was an instant classic.  Angle and Lesnar traded grappling, suplexes, and finishers, and after 20 minutes Lesnar ascended the turnbuckles for his Shooting Star Press, a move he'd performed countless times in Developmental.  Unfortunately this time Angle was a little too far away and Lesnar hesitated momentarily, failing to get the necessary rotation.  Lesnar just barely avoided landing on his head, and after a long, frightening moment of grogginess, managed to finish the match and regain the WWE Title.  That botched move remains one of the scariest moments in wrestling history.  My friends and I were all sure the man had killed himself.

As for the rest of the card, it ended up being a brilliant night of wrestling (Sure there were some time management issues and a Tag Title match got bumped in favor of the Miller Lite Girls, but the good more than made up for the bad).  Michaels vs. Jericho was the runner-up for Match of the Night; the two masters delivered an unforgettable duel.  While the wrong man won in my opinion (the "present" should almost always defeat "the past"), Jericho made up for his loss by kneeing Shawn right in the sweets.  Triple H vs. Booker T overcame its horrid build and was actually a very well-worked, underrated Title match.  My only gripe was the finish, when Hunter nailed the Pedigree and waited like 15 seconds before covering Booker.  Way to make the guy look like a loser, Paul.  Even Hogan vs. Vince was much more entertaining than it had any right to be, and goddamn there was a lotta blood.  As for Rock-Austin III, it didn't equal their bout from WM17 (How could it?), but it was a fine semi-main event, and The Rock finally got a 'Mania win over his longtime rival.  WrestleMania XIX is still my favorite of the entire series (just by a hair over 17) and an all-time top 3.  The first third was solid if unspectacular, but each of the last five bouts could easily qualify as a main event on a lesser show.  At this point I realized that no matter how bad the overall product was, WWE could basically always throw together a good WrestleMania.  With very few exceptions that's been the case since 2002.

The night after 'Mania two major events took place on RAW.

The first was the WWE debut of Goldberg.  Yes, the one major star created in Eric Bischoff's WCW was finally coming to WWE.  I had mixed-at-best feelings about this.  I was honestly never a Goldberg fan, per se, but he did always have a certain mystique and presence that made him fascinating to watch as an onscreen persona.  Unfortunately I suspected right away WWE wouldn't know how to use him properly.  The nature of his character was in direct contrast to WWE's ego-driven booking style - a rather one-dimensional, invincible wrecking machine created by Vince's Monday Night War rival.  Given how poorly WWE had utilized all the other former WCW talent post-buyout there was no way they'd let Bill run roughshod over the whole WWE roster.  And without that sort of dominance the character of Goldberg doesn't work.  Plus WWE already had their own answer to Goldberg in Brock Lesnar, an athlete just as dominant and compelling, who could also carry his end of a classic main event.  Anyway, Goldie showed up and challenged The Rock to a match at Backlash.  I was a little bummed he didn't go after Austin instead, as that was the big dream match from 1998.

Coulda been great.  But it wasn't.

Alas the other big news that night would prevent said dream match from ever taking place.  Steve Austin as it turns out had spent the night before 'Mania in the hospital due to complications from his longtime neck issues, and was forced into retirement at 38 years old.  This was pretty devastating news.  While he was no longer my favorite and I'd gotten used to his absence during his self-imposed 2002 sabbatical, I was still a huge fan of The Rattlesnake and wasn't ready for him to hang up the boots just yet.  This was truly the end of an era.

Post-Mania season 2003 was a pretty dreadful time.  WWE delivered three stinker PPVs in a row, and with Kurt Angle on the shelf, Steve Austin gone, and apparently no desire to push any credible challengers for either top Champion, the product was as uninteresting as it had been in a decade.  Brock Lesnar went from stealing the show with Kurt Angle to facing a totally green John Cena, to feuding with Big Show again, while Triple H, fresh out of worthy challengers, brought his ol' pal Kevin Nash in for a quick payday.  Only problem was, not only did Nash not deserve a main event feud in 2003, but the fans didn't want to see him at all.  It's never a good sign when the all-powerful heel Champion gets cheered over his babyface challenger, but this era being all about ego, the Triple H-Nash feud lasted three agonizing months.  Meanwhile Chris Benoit, one half of the best match so far that year, was given exactly nothing to do during this time, Chris Jericho was fed to Goldberg (and carried Bill to his best WWE match), and Booker T was relegated to the resurrected Intercontinental division.  Also the Rock-Goldberg dream match was a huge disappointment; over roughly 13 minutes the two executed maybe a dozen moves total, and Goldberg did way too much selling.  It seemed my suspicions were confirmed - Goldberg was not a good fit for WWE.

Two things kept me going as a wrestling fan through all this schlock: Attending my first two Ring of Honor shows, and along with three of my friends, running a virtual wrestling company on the Smackdown: Shut Your Mouth Playstation 2 game.

The two ROH shows I went to in 2003 were Expect the Unexpected and Night of the Grudges (with fellow writers Jim and Travis).  Both were in retrospect pretty uneven shows, but there was a freshness and urgency to the product that WWE was sorely lacking at this point.  One of my new faves AJ Styles was featured heavily on both cards, and for the first time I got to see two very significant future stars - a straight-edge, foul-mouthed jerk named CM Punk (one of the most compelling characters in years), and a rather rotund up-and-comer with a goofy name called Samoa Joe.  My first response when Joe walked out was, "Who's this chump, and why's his name so silly?"  Then I watched him beat the living shit out of three other guys to become the #1 Contender, and I said, "Damn, this guy's got something..."  Punk and Joe would become two of my absolute favorite wrestlers over the next five-plus years, and by 2007 ROH would have a profound impact on me as a wrestling fan.

ROH Night of the Grudges:
CM Punk & Colt Cabana vs. Raven & BJ Whitmer

Now, about that stupid video game.  Smackdown: Shut Your Mouth had such a robust engine and Create-A-Wrestler mode that my friends and I populated an entire wrestling promotion with our made-up characters.  My top guy was J. Bastard, a consummate ring technician who looked like me except jacked.  My associates Dan and Dave Moore were part of the proceedings as well; Dan was the best player in the group and therefore his top guy Damage was usually the Champion (I still attribute this to cheat codes.  Cheat codes, Dan.).  Our storylines were much simpler and more entertaining than the tripe WWE was churning out, and eventually we looked forward to our own pretend Federation more than the weekly RAW and Smackdown shows.  We'd convene every Thursday evening for BattleZone, and then every two months we'd present a PPV (Our flagship event was called Collision).  Generally these videogaming sessions involved beer, free-flowing curse words, and copious name-calling.  But goddamn it was a blast.

With the return of Kurt Angle in July, the Smackdown product at least picked up a bit, but the same issues plaguing WWE for the last 18 months would continue and intensify into the second half of the year....

Part 22                                                                                                                                            Part 24

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