Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Pro Wrestling: A Mark's History, part 24 (Vince Screwed Goldberg)

After four pretty wretched months of television (which included a galactically stupid Hulk Hogan run as the masked Mr. America - oh and he feuded with Roddy Piper.  In 2003.), Kurt Angle returned from neck surgery in July 2003 and seemingly hadn't missed a beat.  He immediately set his sights on Brock Lesnar, who had dethroned him at WrestleMania.  Initially their renewed rivalry was one of mutual respect, as both guys were babyfaces.  Angle would challenge for the WWE Title in a Triple Threat at Vengeance.  A month earlier WWE split the B-PPVs into brand-exclusive shows; June's Bad Blood was RAW-only (and not good, but what can you expect with a Triple H vs. Kevin Nash main event?), and Vengeance was the first-ever Smackdown-only PPV.  Unlike its counterpart however, Vengeance was a very solid show, boasting four (and a half - Cena vs. Taker had moments but was too one-sided) good matches.

Yup, this headlined a PPV in 2003.

The show opened with a tournament final for the resurrected US Title - Chris Benoit vs. Eddie Guerrero.  After a strong 22 minutes Eddie scored the upset win to become the first holder of the WWE-version US Title.  The main event saw Angle defeat Lesnar and Big Show to regain the WWE Title, but the show-stealer was a WWE Tag Title match between Haas & Benjamin and Rey Mysterio & Billy Kidman.  This was a blazingly awesome 15-minute bout and should really have led to a prolonged feud.  But of course at that point WWE wasn't interested in giving the fans more of a good thing.  Vengeance also included TWO matches involving McMahons; the 2003 calendar had way too many of these and it got old immediately.

The stage was set for Summerslam to be headlined by a WrestleMania rematch.  Angle would grant Lesnar a shot at his newly-won Championship, and it would be a purely scientific contest.  Not so fast though - only weeks before the PPV Brock turned heel again and aligned himself with Vince (I'm not sure why every top heel had to be affiliated directly with the boss - what issue did Vince have with Kurt Angle?).  So now the roles would be reversed and the monster heel would be challenging the consummate veteran.  No matter, it would still be an excellent match.

But around this time WWE really pushed hard to make RAW's World Title the top belt in the company (since His Almightiness Triple H was the owner of said Title), and it was time for another installment of Elimination Chamber.  A Chamber match didn't make much sense for SummerSlam though, since Bill Goldberg was clearly being groomed as Hunter's next challenger, and Goldberg vs. Triple H was a big dream match (particularly given their real-life animosity).  Cramming four other guys into this match seemed artificial, and just a convoluted way to get more RAW names on the card (Nevermind that two SummerSlam slots were being wasted on yet another Dudley Boyz vs. La Resistance Tag Title match and a Shane McMahon vs. Eric Bischoff fiasco).  WWE was in full "RAW is better" mode, and the 2003 SummerSlam card reeks of brand favoritism (Again Vince, you OWN both shows, you know this, yes?).

The closest I've ever come to being a Goldberg fan and they effed it up.

So Angle vs. Lesnar was given slot #5 out of 7 (not even the semi-main event), and while not as good as the first meeting, was still a fine WWE Title match.  The Chamber of course went last, and while I wasn't at all excited about it (I was less-than-impressed with the inaugural Chamber), it ended up being a very compelling match.  Despite not being a big Goldberg fan, the booking made him look like a wrecking ball, and my friends and I were stoked to see him plow through almost the entire field on his way to capturing the World Title.  But then he didn't.  Just as he was about to finish off Triple H, Ric Flair slid Hunter a sledgehammer, which was then used to knock out Goldie, allowing Hunter to retain.  So WWE took this awesome killing machine, booked him to run through four guys, and then had him come up short due to the perfectly legal use of a weapon (Remember this was no DQ).  And then Hunter and his Evolution pals beat the bejeezus out of Goldie to close the show.  This was a pretty flagrant act of sabotage.  A character like Goldberg doesn't choke when it counts.  The only way to book that type of wrestler is for him to annihilate everything in sight and walk out with the Title.  Without that level of dominance Goldberg doesn't work.  So what'd Vince even sign him for?  Oh right, so his favorite homegrown star could beat him in a feud.

Thus Unforgiven would showcase the first one-on-one meeting between Hunter and Bill.  But now the excitement was missing.  Goldberg had already lost for the first time in WWE, and just like in WCW, he was never the same after his undefeated streak was taken away.  Goldberg winning the Title on his second try wasn't nearly as exciting as it would've been on his first, and the match just kinda felt like they were going through the motions.  I was also pissed September was a RAW PPV month, because on Smackdown they gave away a Kurt Angle-Brock Lesnar Iron Man match for free, when it really should've headlined Unforgiven.

Don't get me wrong, Angle-Lesnar III was incredible and bested the first two installments handily.  Lesnar attacked Angle with a chair early, drawing a DQ but giving himself a huge advantage so he could take a commanding lead.  At one point the match was 5-2 Lesnar, but Angle fought gallantly to close the gap.  In the closing moments, with the score 5-4, Angle slapped on the Anklelock, but Lesnar held on until time expired, making him the new WWE Champion.  This match was amazing, but since it was on the taped Smackdown and the viewers knew it would go the full hour, the ratings weren't very good.  Iron Man matches should always be saved for PPVs since their format inherently encourages casual fans to change the channel until late in the bout.

Goddamn this match was great.

October was a pretty dull month for both brands.  On RAW Triple H offered a bounty on Goldberg's head which led to him briefly feuding with Mark Henry of all people, and eventually paid off in Batista's return to TV.  Batista would join Triple H's new stable Evolution (Think Four Horsemen but less fun), and along with Hunter, Randy Orton and Ric Flair, would put a stranglehold on RAW for most of the next year.  Triple H was pretty obviously trying to emulate Flair's 80s persona, wearing suits, flying on jets, and fluffing his hair.  The whole thing felt very forced, and the one crucial piece of the puzzle he missed was making his opponents look strong, even when beating them.  Where Flair had been a master of helping young challengers get over, feuding against Triple H had the opposite effect.  Everyone who crossed his path ended up weaker than they'd been before.  World Champion Goldberg would be no exception.

On Smackdown Brock Lesnar moved on from Kurt Angle to face The Undertaker once again, and this time their rivalry culminated in a Biker Chain Match (??) at No Mercy.  It was a banal, sleep-inducing brawl and I failed to understand why Lesnar wasn't given some new blood to work with.  Vince cost Taker the match, leading to a feud between the two (for the love of Christ).  Meanwhile the underused Chris Benoit was saddled with trying to get Albert (repackaged as "A-Train," one of the stupidest ring names ever) over because Vince was still certain the latter had main event potential, and US Champ Eddie Guerrero was more or less fed to The Big Show (who won the title and hardly ever defended it).

Neither side of the product was very exciting at this point, and it showed at the 2003 Survivor Series.  The show actually looked somewhat promising on paper, as each brand was given a heavily featured 5-on-5 elimination match.

The RAW match pitted Shawn Michaels, Booker T, Rob Van Dam and The Dudleyz (helluva team), handpicked by co-GM Steve Austin, to face the other co-GM Eric Bischoff's team of Randy Orton, Chris Jericho, Christian, Mark Henry, and Scott Steiner.  Austin and Bischoff had been involved in a silly, less-than-entertaining power struggle for months, and at stake in this match was full control of RAW.  While I had literally no emotional connection to this angle other than its climaxing in a traditional Survivor Series match (for which I must confess a weakness), the match itself was fantastic.  Full of drama, great action, and buckets of blood - Shawn got busted open and fought in vain to overcome a 3-on-1 disadvantage at the end.

This match was also great.  Chioda's frosted tips however were not.

Now for the Smackdown match.  WWE Champ Brock Lesnar teamed with US Champ The Big Show, A-Train, Matt Morgan and Nathan Jones against Kurt Angle, Chris Benoit, John Cena, Bob Holly, and Bradshaw.  Going into the PPV I was super excited about this one and anticipated a pretty epic main event.  And then it went first.  Yeah, the elimination match featuring the WWE and US Champions got the opening slot, and was over in twelve minutes.  Un-fucking-real.

The rest of the show consisted mostly of turds, including TWO McMahon matches again.  Shane lost to Kane in an Ambulance Match, while Vince got destroyed by Taker only to end up beating him with Kane's help.  And of course Triple H challenged Goldberg in a paint-by-numbers rematch from Unforgiven.  Absolute drivel.

The WWE product had fully become tone-deaf as far as I was concerned.  Vince was pushing his own family members over most of the talent (earlier in the year Vince beat Zach Gowan on a PPV, and a few months later Matt Hardy LOST to the very same Zach Gowan), and was obsessed with large men, no matter how inept they were between the ropes.  OVW grads John Cena, Randy Orton and Batista were being groomed as future stars, which I appreciated but wasn't terribly excited about.  The only bright spot was it seemed they were setting up a Lesnar vs. Benoit feud for the WWE Title, which I figured would come to a head at the Royal Rumble.

Armageddon put the 2003 calendar out of its misery, as Triple H regained the World Title, thus reducing Goldberg to a lame duck WWE star.  Also Randy Orton beat Rob Van Dam in a good match for the I-C Title, and Batista & Flair won a Tag Team Turmoil match to capture the Tag belts.  Super, so Evolution had all the belts, not unlike a previous Ric Flair-led group from the 80s.  Who was that again?

The year closed on a rare high note, as Shawn Michaels renewed his rivalry with Hunter by challenging him for the World Title on the 12/29/03 episode of RAW.  The match was a violent battle that ended in a double-pin, and was ruled a draw.  While I wasn't at all interested in another Hunter-Shawn feud, at least it would yield some decent matches, and since Hunter had killed all the other babyfaces what other credible challengers were there??  I'd get an answer to that question a month later.....

Part 23                                                                                                                                            Part 25

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