Last time, I went from the dying days of WCW to the beginning of John Cena’s seemingly endless run as WWE’s top guy.
A big name I haven’t talked about in a while is Triple H. While Austin, Mick Foley/Mankind and Rock left the company in the early 2000’s, Triple H continued to rise to the top. A storyline marriage to Vince McMahon’s daughter Stephanie led to the two getting together and becoming married for real. Triple H spent most of these years as a heel and became rather unbearable as a top name. He was champion for most of the time, would drone on for about 20 minutes at the opening of every show and when tasked with feuding against rising faces who really needed the big win to make them superstars, Triple H instead used his backstage pull to stay on top and win the matches. The most notable is his match against Booker T at Wrestlemania 19, where the lead-up featured Triple H heavily insinuating that black people don’t get to become champion. Logic would dictate that Booker would HAVE to win in the end, but Triple H beat him rather decisively and Booker’s career never really recovered. Other people who have feuded with Triple H and had their careers hurt in one way or another include Chris Jericho, Kurt Angle, Rob Van Dam, Chris Benoit, Kane, Randy Orton and Sheamus. When confronted about this in interviews, Triple H would reflect on how much he was buried due to his Ultimate Warrior match and the year following the MSG Incident and still became a top guy despite not having to beat anyone major… willfully ignoring everything Mick Foley did for him. Triple H was sneaky like Hogan, but smart enough not to ever let it bite him on the ass, while also a far better performer. Hogan burned too many bridges while Triple H is set to run the WWE when McMahon steps down for good.
Speaking of Hogan burning bridges, I have to hit a tangent and mention one of his funnier moments. Hogan made the occasional appearance for a special feud now and again as he and McMahon were still under good terms from the post-WCW run. Shawn Michaels had returned from a lengthy back injury after four years and a story was set up where he begged Hogan to come out of retirement for one last match. They teamed up a couple times and Michaels attacked Hogan out of nowhere so set up Hogan vs. Michaels. The idea was that they’d have two matches as faces with Michaels winning one and Hogan winning the other. Once it was in motion, Hogan nixed the plans and used his political power to make it so that Michaels was the heel so that Hogan didn’t have to worry about a crowd that would either be split or even booing him. Then he finagled it so that there would only be one match, taking place at Summerslam 05, and he’d win before leaving for another year. The thing about Michaels during all that time he was injured is that he had found God and became a better man, working to undo the asshole he was during the 90’s. He’d eventually even make peace with Bret Hart over their mutual hatred and the Montreal Incident. That said, based on what a turdburglar Hogan was being, Michaels went back to his old ways when the match happened and in this case, two wrongs made a right. Sometimes a wrestler would mess with an opponent he outright hated by going off-script and acting unaffected by the offensive attacks. Michaels went the other direction, acting as if everything Hogan did to him was equal to being hit by a speeding truck. He flew all around the ring and flopped across the mat like a fish at every punch and kick, making Hogan look like a complete fool.
The John Cena backlash increased the more his endless title reign became unbearable, coming to a head when conniving heel Edge won the belt off of him through an unfair-yet-amusing way. The ratings suddenly spiked in reaction to this momentous shift, but it was quickly smacked back down. The company was insistent on setting up John Cena vs. Triple H at Wrestlemania 22, so they almost immediately had Cena win back the belt. Amusingly, Triple H was very critical of Kurt Angle, who feuded with Cena months earlier and couldn’t get the fans to boo him over Cena, even when he referred to himself as a Jesus-hating racist. Despite Triple H’s criticisms, he too ended up getting cheered like crazy at the show despite being the heel. With Edge no longer in the title picture, the ratings dropped back down to normal.
In the middle of the 2000’s, WWE released a DVD called the Rise and Fall of ECW, which chronicled the history of the company with a 3-hour documentary and a big collection of matches. The sales were immense and it inspired McMahon to put together a PPV called ECW One Night Stand, where they brought in a lot of the old ECW talent to have a series of matches at the Hammerstein Ballroom, one of the main hangouts of the late federation. It was a financial and critical success. So much that they did it again the following year and spun it off into a new ECW, a third show/roster to split up the guys on the payroll even further. While the PPV was a success, the ECW show was a mishmash of great and horrible. The show mixed old ECW mainstays, WWE veterans who needed a shot in the arm and up-and-coming new guys. Unfortunately, it had a lot working against it.
For one, WWE practically buried it by having Raw’s commentator Jerry Lawler constantly badmouth it by referring to it as “Extremely Crappy Wrestling”. This ultimately led to him getting beat up at One Night Stand, but he’s still a face and having him recite the diatribe again and again for weeks caused many fans to take his side. They tried to focus on Rob Van Dam, Sabu, Kurt Angle and the Big Show as the top guys on the show, but that fell apart. Rob Van Dam (the champion) and Sabu got pulled over while smoking marijuana and that crippled both their WWE careers. Big Show became champ and did the best he could as a dominating “extreme monster” who challenged guys from Raw and Smackdown on his ECW turf, but he was in dire need of time off due to a fatigued and hurting body, plus one of these challenges led to a major backfire from the crowd. They decided to have Big Show vs. Batista, who, like Cena, was an unbeatable top face that WWE practically factory-made from the ground-up and they decided to have this match at the Hammerstein Ballroom. The live crowd hated everything about the match and let loose with some creative chants, such as, “CHANGE THE CHANNEL!” Batista was apparently really mad about this and afterwards, WWE never did another show at Hammerstein ever again.
As for Kurt Angle, the Olympic gold medalist was easily one of the best all-around wrestlers in WWE at the time and perhaps ever. His problem was that he was getting a little too intense. He gave 110% every time and due to his neck issues, WWE officials were a little antsy about him becoming a liability. He refused to scale back his style and they ended up suspending him so that he could at least heal his body up a bit. When he came back, he continued doing what he was doing and they ended up firing him. Angle went immediately to TNA, which was probably their biggest acquisition and the only time they ever had a chance to really get their foot in the door as competition to WWE. They immediately set him up against Samoa Joe, the top name in the company who was champion, undefeated and simply a great wrestler to watch at the time. Sadly… in the same week, TNA also hired Vince Russo as head writer. Everything TNA had going for it became increasingly diluted and things became pretty unwatchable as a whole. Russo was brought in to help out their low ratings and he had zero effect on the situation.
As expected, Angle vs. Joe was a feud that started strong but soon became ridiculous dreck.
Back to ECW. The show was written by Paul Heyman, though with lots of interference from McMahon and others. Many argue that he was set up to fail, especially when it came to the next ECW-specific PPV, December to Dismember in 2006. The show took place a week after the far more mainstream WWE PPV Survivor Series, had very minimal advertising and only two matches were announced ahead of time. The main event title match, which featured a couple popular wrestlers, was won by Bobby Lashley, another WWE-created face that they were dead set on pushing to the top. The ECW fans were not especially happy with him, nor the PPV in general. Nobody was and McMahon made Heyman the fall guy, ultimately firing him.
ECW’s bad luck would continue into one of wrestling’s darkest and most infamous situations. There have been many wrestlers who have died young due to what the business has done to them, whether it be drugs, suicide or the occasional freak accident. Guys like Brian Pillman, Owen Hart, Louie Spicolli and Chris Candido have even passed away while on an active wrestling roster. None are more chilling than what happened with Chris Benoit in 2007. One of the matches for WWE Vengeance was set to be CM Punk vs. Chris Benoit for the vacated ECW championship. On the Friday beforehand, Benoit snapped at his home and killed his wife Nancy. A day later, he killed his son Daniel. After changing his ticket to a later flight (yes, he was still considering going to the PPV and competing like nothing happened!), he decided to take his own life. A couple friends got strange text messages about his dogs needing to be fed and the match was changed to CM Punk vs. Johnny Nitro with the only explanation being that Benoit had a sudden family emergency. The crowd, naturally, chanted that they wanted Benoit. After all, he did represent the concept of rising to the top by being a great wrestling performer first with looks and charisma being secondary. He was an idol to many.
The next night, the 3-hour edition of Raw featured McMahon in an empty arena, explaining to the people at home that the Benoits were found dead at their home. Without any details, they had sent the crowd home and instead played a mix of Benoit career highlights and eulogies from various WWE employees. As Chris Masters said in an interview years later, there was an underlying feeling in the locker room of what really happened, but nobody was able to speak up because if you’re wrong, you’re the biggest dirtbag ever. When William Regal said his words on Benoit, he seemed less saddened and more distant and disturbed, refusing to say more than that he was a great performer. As the show went on, more details came out and the hosts Jim Ross and Jerry Lawler appeared more and more distracted. On the following night’s ECW, McMahon started the show to apologize about doing that Raw having now known the truth, then promised that they’d never mention Benoit’s name again.
At least positive things came from the horror. While the media blamed steroid use for his mental breakdown, an autopsy showed that it was massive brain damage from years of performing and taking lots of hits to the head. Since then, WWE has been far more careful about head trauma, outright banning chairshots to the skull and moves like it. Benoit’s legacy is often debated by fans. Some can never bring themselves to sit through his matches in light of his final days while others are able to still enjoy them for what they were.
WWE’s incarnation of ECW went on to become a really enjoyable TV show, albeit with declining ratings due to its lack of importance when compared to Raw and Smackdown. Still, it gave a shot in the arm to wrestlers who needed a new coat of paint and introduced a lot of names who would go on to have success on WWE’s main roster. It ended up being cancelled and replaced with NXT, a staged reality show based on rookie wrestlers earning a spot on the roster. The fifth season, which had become online-only, mutated from being a contest to being just another show where the lower members of the roster could do their own thing and be weird because nobody’s watching anyway. At least, nobody in charge.
Back to Bobby Lashley, he left the company shortly after due to disagreements with WWE writer Michael Hayes, who has been speculated as having a racist streak. Lashley had been pushed from day one and even feuded directly with Vince McMahon at the end of his run, so McMahon was furious at him leaving. Between this and the Lesnar situation, McMahon punished the roster for years to come. Whenever a wrestler would start to pick up steam with the crowd, the writers would have him suddenly de-pushed for the sake of initiation. For instance, a wrestler Kaval got very popular because of his unique and crisp in-ring style. He started losing a lot and openly complained about his treatment on Twitter. He ended up being let go. This habit has cost the WWE in the longrun as they’ve had a hard time creating new stars and only succeeded in discrediting certain hopefuls.
One guy able to succeed in spite of all of this was CM Punk. Punk was a big name in the independent scene and #1 guy in ROH. As a heel, he took part in a final storyline in ROH where he publicly talked about signing with WWE and threatened to leave ROH with their title in his hands. Now, WWE had since taken up another bad habit of constantly changing wrestler names upon joining the company. That way, if the wrestler was to leave, they would have to go by a less-recognizable ring name when performing elsewhere. For instance, indy star Bryan Danielson (his real name) joined WWE and became Daniel Bryan. Back when he was still with the company, Paul Heyman pulled a lot of strings to make sure that CM Punk would get to keep his iconic name. Punk was never meant to go anywhere, mainly due to the company’s distaste for anyone who became a big name from the indies, much like Daniel Bryan and Kaval. And believe me, Punk had enough of a reputation as shown when making early WWE appearances in the Hammerstein Ballroom and the Wachovia Center, where knowledgeable ROH fans loudly chanted his name. Rather than capitalize on this popularity and acknowledge that a wrestler on their roster had a following for something that happened in another federation, the company chose to hold him down, leading to multiple reports that he was in “the doghouse” for years.
The reason he ended up succeeding, outside of straight-up hard work, is pretty funny. You see, Punk is straight edge, meaning he doesn’t do drugs or alcohol. It isn’t just a part of his act. There are a couple instances where he ended up winning some kind of championship because the guy originally meant to win ended up getting suspended for drug use and Punk got the victory out of default.
The best way to describe Punk’s ascent is to explain his professional relationship with one Jeff Hardy. Hardy was a popular star who got his start in WWF during the Attitude Era and garnered quite a following with his stick figure appearance and daredevil wrestling style. He left for a few years, went to TNA and then returned and slowly gained enough steam to be considered for a run as champion. Wrestlemania 24 featured a multi-man match where the winner would get a free title shot whenever they wanted (and they won every single time they’ve used this gimmick). Hardy was destined to win and become champion soon after, but he got suspended for drug use. Punk was given the winning role, went on to become champion and it was booked in a less than flattering story arc. Hardy fell into a deep depression, especially after his trailer home caught fire and his dog died, and made sure to stay drug-free. Hardy eventually gained the trust of management and they made him champion. Punk turned heel to feud with him for the title and turned his straight edge identity into a holier-than-thou gimmick, constantly claiming that Hardy would fall from grace yet again. Hardy’s contract was ending soon, so it was agreed that he’d lose the title and overall feud, take some time off for a while and eventually return to get his storyline revenge on Punk. Punk won the title and defeated Hardy a couple times over, sending him off into the sunset. No longer under contract, Hardy decided to do a lot of drugs and got caught by the authorities days later with a crazy laundry list of possession. Punk ended up looking like a million bucks because Hardy couldn’t keep himself together and even got an okay title reign out of it… until the the Undertaker got annoyed at Punk not wearing a suit whenever in public (he didn’t “dress like a champion” or some nonsense) and complained enough that he became champion soon after.
As for Hardy? Despite his gigantic legal troubles, TNA welcomed him with open arms. Because they’re that stupid. They also brought in Hulk Hogan and Eric Bischoff to join Vince Russo at the company’s helm, which only succeeded in making a bad show worse. The whole company became a haven for guys WWE no longer wanted anything to do with (see also: Mr. Kennedy/Mr. Anderson) while treating their homegrown talent like afterthoughts most of the time to the point that most of them lost their drive. Samoa Joe especially. They even got rid of the six-sided ring, chopping away at TNA’s unique identity.
TNA tried to compete with WWE directly by changing their show Impact from Thursday to Monday nights. Had they been able to put together a competent show, this may have made a slow-but-sure dent. That wasn’t the case and the ratings got even worse. After all, remember how in 1992, the dream match of Hogan vs. Flair was scrapped because their non-televised matches didn’t live up to the hype? Imagine the two guys fighting it out on TV nearly twenty years later when Hogan can barely move and Flair looks like a big ball of melted rubber. It didn’t take long for TNA to go back to Thursday night while citing fan demand as the reason. The fact that Hogan would do radio interviews and talk about himself so much while completely neglecting to even mention TNA once didn’t help.
The most sigh-worthy situation came from a PPV Victory Road where the main event was set as Sting vs. Jeff Hardy. Despite Sting’s age, there was a strong possibility of a good match in there. The problems weren’t on Sting’s side, though. Hardy came out, strung out of his mind and in absolutely no condition to perform. Bischoff came out and played himself up as a big, authoritative heel while slipping word that they were changing the match on the fly. Hardy stumbled around and played to the crowd until Sting pulled him in, hit his finisher and forcibly held him down for the pin in mere seconds. The crowd, who still had 30 minutes of advertised show left, chanted, “BULLSHIT!” to which Sting nodded, “I agree with you.”
Jeff Hardy is STILL part of TNA despite this. Yet in the end, he’s less of an embarrassment than his brother Matt, who TNA had actually fired at one point. You don’t get fired from TNA unless you go out of your way.
I’ll wrap up the rest tomorrow.