For my 23rd birthday this April, I only wanted one thing. As an avid gamer, it’s not too surprising that this particular item I lusted for was a video games console. However, it wasn’t the latest offerings from Microsoft or Sony, or that Nintendo thing that breaks apart and modifies like a knock-off Transformer from a Kinder Surprise. No, I wanted something different.
I asked for a PlayStation 2. Released in 2000, the technology and capabilities of the PS2 are, of course, lightyears behind what we can experience on the latest tech. But, as it was the console I owned when growing up, it has a certain level of charm and nostalgia about it that I’ve been yearning for. In fact, that post-millennium era in general is time that I wish I could experience at my current age. Baggy jeans were so in, nu-metal acts were dominating the charts, and World Wrestling Entertainment was a really, really big deal.
After the heralded Attitude Era and the plethora of talent acquired from the purchase of WCW and ECW, WWE had a monumental platform in the early 2000s to kick on from. A pair of unique rosters, a heightened level of mainstream attention and a general, post-Y2K feeling of cultural prosperity and profligacy allowed WWE to have two similar, yet unmistakably different weekly shows that raked in viewers and ratings numbers.
As a kid, I loved this era of WWE, boasting the balls-to-the-wall approach of the Attitude Era, with a refined level of presentation and a stunning roster of talent. So, with the WWE Network’s archive of content now including all the flagship shows and pay-per-views of that era, I’ve been watching them all back with brand new eyes and a more considered outlook.
Ruthless Aggression Revisited: The Premise
Each week for the Hooked on Blog, I’ll take you back in time, reviewing all the WWE action from a month of the Ruthless Aggression era in chronological order. From emerging talents to earth-shattering shocks, seductive soap-operas to silly gimmicks, I’ll break down the headline action, followed by some off-the-cuff analysis, highlights, low points and, like every good report, something a little eye-raising to finish on.
While you can decide for yourself when the Ruthless Aggression era actually started (some time just before some rookie called John had his debut , I’d say), we’ll pick things up on March 31, 2003 – the day after WrestleMania 19, in which Triple H retained the World title against Booker T, Chris Jericho and Shawn Michaels stole the show, and the match between The Rock and Steve Austin was only mildly overshadowed by the greatest match preview package of all time . After almost 55,000 people packed into SafeCo Field in Seattle, it was time to go again on Monday Night Raw the very next night…
WWE in April 2003: Roundup
…A night where, it could be argued, the concept of ‘#RAWAfterMania’ really began to take off. While The Rock dominated proceedings, it was the arrival of Goldberg at the end of the show (known about by some, booed by a handful) that made this show a big one, the Atlanta native spearing The Great One to set up a decent match at Backlash, which Goldberg wins. The Rock’s opponent the previous night, Steve Austin , saw himself ‘fired’ by RAW General Manager Eric Bischoff on medical grounds, using Austin’s real-life injury problems as the basis of his in-ring departure. Bischoff also looks to fire Jim Ross for his critical comments the following week, but JR quits before he gets the sack.
What about the titles? The extremely over tag team of Kane and Rob Van Dam won the Tag Team Titles, defeating various members of the ‘Bischoff Administration’, including Chief Morley and the Dudley Boyz . Trish Stratus holds the Womens Title, but Jazz is on the rise, managed by Theodore Long, and she eventually takes the title at Backlash. Kevin Nash returns to try and diffuse the hatred between fellow Kliq members Triple H and Shawn Michaels , failing miserably but putting himself at the front of the queue for a World Heavyweight Championship shot. As for the Intercontinental title? Still conspicuous by its absence.
Over on SmackDown, Brock Lesnar’s babyface WWE title run was under-way after a long chase to win the belt back. A number one contender’s tournament was put together and, despite the likes of Undertaker, Big Show and Chris Benoit featuring, it was a young John Cena who would win the tournament and face Lesnar at Backlash. Cena takes Lesnar further than many expected in a decent match, accompanied by chants of “Let’s Go Cena!”, but Lesnar unsurprisingly retains at the PPV.
SmackDown is understandably making a pretty big deal about Torrie Wilson being featured in a certain gentleman’s magazine, but it also marked the return of Sable and the beginning of a rather, erm, memorable feud between these two. Meanwhile, Mr McMahon appears to turn over a new leaf by shaking Hulk Hogan’s hand after their WrestleMania match, before forcing Hogan to leave SmackDown and “rot at home”. To back him up – and to work with rookie Sean O’Haire - Rowdy Roddy Piper returns, hosting some rather awkward editions of Piper’s Pit.
The miniscule, yet extremely talented Brian Kendrick (A.K.A ‘Spanky’) joins the Cruiserweight division, ruled by the distinctly un-Cruiserweight Matt Hardy . Rey Mysterio seems to be the only legitimate challenger for Hardy’s title, but he’s too busy picking on people three times his size, like Big Show. That leads to a match at Backlash and that stretcher spot .
WWE in April 2003: Analysis
- The Rock’s heel character around this time is, in my opinion, the best persona we’ve seen Dwayne Johnson put to use in WWE. His sense of utter entitlement and disbelief that everyone in attendance doesn’t adore him is superb. The Rock’s original return a few months previous was as a babyface, but the company used the boos he received for ‘selling out’, instead of battling against them. A very smart move.
- Nathan Jones, recently released from prison and flat-out crazy, debuts as a babyface. Welcome to 2003, everyone.
- SmackDown’s focus on “the spirit of competition” works – and it only works because of the emphasis placed upon it by the likes of Stephanie McMahon and Michael Cole, who regularly reference it. Tournaments, long matches, bouts between pairs of heels or babyfaces – it was all commonplace on SmackDown at this time. They don’t always make for a great show, but you knew what you were tuning into when SmackDown came on, meaning you bought into it.
- It may surprise those who have only seen him in his more recent WWE run, but Goldberg was actually a pretty good character during promos. His comedy segment with Goldust , for example, was an unexpected highlight. Test is better than I expected, too, transitioning from a slightly comedic, skirt-chasing guy, to a womanising bully that’s impossible to like.
- Possibly rewarding him for his excellent segments with The Rock before WrestleMania, The Hurricane received a serious push during March. Matches against top stars, lots of air-time – Helms was clearly seen as much more than a lightweight, comedy character. Temporarily, at least.
- Being a heel GM isn’t the most difficult of gigs, but Eric Bischoff is purpose-built for the role, going full mad-with-power mode at this point. It also helps, though, that he had Jim Ross to work against, who did an outstanding job of making you really feel like he hated Bischoff.
- Kevin Nash’s return got a couple of good pops to start with, but it tailed off pretty quickly. Nash’s work with the microphone was okay and his physical presence added to a few moments, but he was under par in the ring.
- On his way to winning the number one contender’s tournament, John Cena defeated Eddie Guerrero, Undertaker and Chris Benoit. Yup.
1) Jeff Hardy vs The Rock is a pretty great match. There are very few performers out there that are better than Jeff at playing the role of valiant underdog.
2) In RAW’s opening credits after Steve Austin’s firing, instead of taking out the short clip of Austin, a bid red ‘X’ is put through it instead. Just like putting Bischoff’s face at the end of the WWE opening video, subtle touches like that are brilliant showings of that all-in approach to the show that made it so entertaining.
3) Sean O’Haire’s teaser promos before his debut. No, seriously. I thought they were really good and outlined an intriguing character – making it all the more confusing that his run in WWE was basically a total flop.
1) Scott Steiner. Just… ugh.
2) Jerry Lawler’s heel comments on Booker T’s upbringing and criminal record. It’s obviously all in gest and meant to make you hate Lawler, but it goes a little too far at times, for me.
3) The SmackDown team putting a table cloth and some salt and pepper on a backstage table in catering, to try and signify some sort of mafia-esque meeting between the F.B.I. and Undertaker…
Gillberg vs Goldberg. We nearly got the dream match! As part of The Rock’s plan to goad Goldberg into the ring, Gillberg is on hand to poke fun at the man he parodies, before coming face to face with him for the first time. Goldberg throws him around briefly before Rocky sneaks up from behind. Such a shame. It was a close one between this and Josh Matthews’ face as he conducts a so-non-PG backstage interview with Sable.
Next week on Ruthless Aggression Revisited, we look at May 2003, including Judgement Day, beer-swigging and three-limbed wrestlers. Quite clearly, you don’t want to miss it. Have any memories or opinions on this period in WWE history? Let us know on Twitter or Facebook . Or both, if you feel like it!
Chris - @OTPChris