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
It’s that time of year again for our now traditional end of year awards. We know that every website, blog, podcast etc produces a list like this so hopefully annual awards fatigue isn’t setting in just yet.
One important point to note is that these awards cover WWE/NXT only, Whilst we try to catch wrestling from all over the place, we can only consistently watch WWE so it feels unfair to try to judge outside of these. The awards themselves are decided by the core Hooked On team and based on our opinion only. We hope that you guys will have differing opinions on most of these because after all, variety is the spice of wrestling life!
We also concentrate on the positive awards only. Not for us these ‘worst of’ awards. There has been PLENTY of bad this year (cough cough JINDER MAHAL: WWE CHAMPION cough cough) but we choose not to dwell on it. Let’s remember and discuss the good parts.
With that in mind, here we go...
Male Wrestler Of The Year - AJ Styles
Nobody is going to give us any points for originality on this one are they? For the second year in a row we are giving this award to The Phenomenal One. The only differences this year is that unlike in 2016, it isn’t even close.
For various reasons, it has not been easy to stand out on WWE’s roster in WWE year. The machine itself is less reliable on individuals than ever before and unless your name is Roman Reigns, it is very difficult to have the focus on you that you need to shine. However, Styles is the exception to this and has somehow got even better in his second year with the company. 2017 started with a bang for Styles as he posted a bonafide match of the year contender with John Cena at the Royal Rumble. More on that later. He transitioned that in to a feud with Shane McMahon leading to a WrestleMania showdown in the opening match. Whilst many observers scoffed at this pairing, there’s no doubting that a pairing with the younger McMahon man is seen as a badge of honour and a show of faith. Sure, it may have stopped Styles having the chance to steal the biggest show of the year but it spoke volumes for his position with the company and for that, his fans should have rejoiced. A good match at Mania led to a much clamoured for face turn and a feud with Kevin Owens that seemed like a match made in heaven. It’s impossible to deny that this feud failed to live up to expectations but we were still treated to a few damn good matches.
Then came Manchester. At the SmackDown Live taping in October, Styles became the first man to win the WWE Championship outside of North America by mercifully ending the reign of Jinder Mahal. A warmer ovation it is hard to remember outside of WrestleMania in recent years as fans were delighted to see AJ take the strap again.
The year ended with a pair of PPV matches against Brock Lesnar at Survivor Series (Excellent) and a rematch against Jinder Mahal (Much better than we could have hoped for).
Nobody has had consistently better mathes than AJ Styles this year. His in ring skill is beyond compare in WWE and in real rarified air across the globe. His amazing ability and newfound charisma with the microphone puts Styles on a pedestal far above his peers. In probably the easiest choice in this article, AJ Styles in the Hooked On Wrestling Male WWE Wrestler of the Year.
Honourable Mentions: Roman Reigns, Braun Strowman, Kevin Owens, John Cena
Female Wrestler Of The Year - Alexa Bliss
It’s been a strong year for women in WWE with some strong candidates for this award across WWE and NXT. Whilst many would have pegged Asuka for this award, we feel she did most of her best NXT work in 2016. Instead we are giving this award to a woman who understands and embodies her character like very few in wrestling do. Whilst she will never be known as the greatest female worker on the planet, few wrestlers of either sex can lay claim to bringing such energy to every story, match and segment she is in. Well, except Bayley This Is Your Life…
Bliss commands your attention whenever she is on screen not just with her storytelling in the ring, not just her verbal jabs (and she really is a wizard on the mic) but with the merest of looks. Bliss can convey with one raised eyebrow what it takes many wrestlers a whole promo to emote. Has anyone in WWE ever had such a command of body language? It’s hard to think of anyone….
Alexa Bliss is our female wrestler of the year.
Honourable Mentions: Charlotte Flair, Asuka, Kairi Sane
Tag Team Of The Year - The Usos
Sneakily, WWE has seen something of a tag team renaissance in 2017. Both Raw and SmackDown are blessed with a number of fantastic tag teams. It says something for the depth of the divisions when you can break up American Alpha and the division doesn’t miss a step.
There are a number of teams that could lay claim to this award but for us, one tag team stands head and shoulders above the rest. One tag team stands out in a sea of excellence to the point where they could be count themselves in the conversation amongst the greatest of all time. That team is Jimmy and Jey, The Usos.
Following a strong run as babyfaces, The Usos were starting to get seriously stale before a turn that moved them from fun loving island boys to a pair of nasty, arrogant hoods saw them move their already strong act to a completely new level. 2017 started with a strong series of matches with American Alpha. After a few quiet months, the run up to Money In The Bank saw the start of arguably the best WWE tag team feud in 15 years. The series of matches between Jimmy and Jey and The New Day were sublime. Matches at MITB, SummerSlam, Hell In A Cell and SmackDown started excellently and got better, somehow. This feudd came to an end with an Usos face turn and match with Raw Tag Team Champions Sheamus and Cesaro at Survivor Series which was also an incredible spectacle. Their opponents that night, by the way, can count themselves desperately unlucky not to win this award. They would have walked away with it in most years of the last decade.
Let’s see what 2018 has in store for the Usos (A move to Raw? Team up with cousin Roman Reigns? Feud with The Authors Of Pain?). Whatever it is, it is likely to be spectacular.
Honourable Mentions: The Bar, The New Day
Most Improved Wrestler Of The Year - Braun Strowman
It’s not rocket science is it? In fact, it used to be Booking 101. You take a guy, you hide his weaknesses and you showcase his positives. Sounds fairly straightforward doesn’t it? But how many times do we see this actually happen in modern wrestling? It’s rare. Really rare.
So it’s extremely gratifying to see the tactic work so well when WWE employ it. This time last year it was clear Strowman had something. He was being prepared for a top run and was rumoured as a potential Royal Rumble dark horse. However at that time it was clear he was still learning how to fulfil the role the company had earmarked for him. If he didn’t have the ability to portray the nasty giant then the push (That would have been shoved down our throats regardless) would have failed hard. Fortunately for all concerned, Braun Strowman is clearly a guy who understands his craft and is eager to work hard and improve. Clearly he’s never going to be a ‘worker’s worker’ and that doesn’t matter because he really doesn’t have to be. There is more than one way to put on an entertaining match and Strowman is well on his way to mastering his particular niche. This year has seen a plethora of entertaining brawls with Roman Reigns and a trio of Raw main events against The Big Show that were each far, far better than we expected them to be. It’s testament to Strowman’s work ethic and respect he garners that Show was willing to work so hard to give him the rub. Strowman was also clearly the MVP of a titanic SummerSlam main event and has an aura and a presence about him that is unmatched by the vast majority of big men in wrestling. And that’s the key point. Big men and giants have come and gone in WWE and only a few have been able to truly stand out as offering the full package. It’s not about just looking big and mean. It’s about using your natural skills and physical charisma to truly become a giant amongst men, if you readers will pardon the cliche. Strowman is well on track to be in the conversation with the very best giants in the sport. Andre, Big Show, Undertaker, Kane, Vader and a select few others set the standard. Will we be mentioning Strowman in the same breath in years to come? If his 2017 rate of improvement carries on then we most certainly will.
Honourable Mentions: The Usos, Alexa Bliss, Neville, Authors Of Pain, Velveteen Dream
Match Of The Year - AJ Styles Vs. John Cena @ WWE Royal Rumble
By far the closest award to decide in this entire article. To the point where we wrote two different paragraphs with two different winners. In the end we went for John Cena vs AJ Styles in the WWE Championship match at the Royal Rumble by a hair’s breadth over Pete Dunne vs Tyler Bate from NXT TakeOver: Chicago. Both of these matches were superb examples of their craft that absoluetly sucked you in to the moment. Both showcased a simple one on one match between a beloved face and a hated but respected heel. Both had coveted championships at stake and felt like the outcome truly mattered.
I guess the only reason we gave Cena/Styles the edge was because it was on a much bigger stage with tens of thousands of people screaming the place down in San Antonio. It is obviously harder to tell a story in a giant stadium than in front of a relatively smaller crowd so let’s give the nod to the veterans but we will say this….I wouldn’t argue with ANYONE that claimed Dunne/Bate was better. On a different day I might well agree. In closing I’ll say this….Although they didn’t get the nod this year, I’ll be gobsmacked if neither of these guys win this honour in years to come. Both men have massive futures.
Honourable Mentions: Pete Dunne vs. Tyler Bate @ NXT TakeOver: Chicago, Braun Strowman vs. Roman Reigns vs. Samoa Joe vs. Brock Lesnar @ SummerSlam, The New Day vs. The Usos @ Hell In A Cell
WWE Event Of The Year - SummerSlam
Let’s be honest. 2017 was not a vintage year for Pay Per Views. There is no one stand out show that you can point at as the clear event of the year. Much like WWE as a whole, it was a year of highs and lows with both often being showcased on one card.
With that said, we are going to give the nod to SummerSlam simply by virtue of it playing host to a strong number of good to very good matches. The highlight was the Universal title match between Brock Lesnar, Braun Strowman, Roman Reigns and Samoa Joe which was a low end match of the year contender. Two tag team matches also served as strong highlights with Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose against Sheamus and Cesaro shining on the main card whilst The New Day vs. The Usos took its place as hands down the greatest match ever to take place on a PPV pre-show (Utterly criminal positioning by the way). Solid efforts between Alexa Bliss and Sasha Banks and Aj Styles and Kevin Owens rounding out a very good card that still won’t be remembered that strongly in years to come. Imagine how good it could have been if Randy Orton vs. Rusev were given a real match and Shinsuke Nakamura given a real opponent!
Honourable Mentions: WrestleMania 33, Royal Rumble, Survivor Series
Most Memorable Moment - The Festival Of Friendship
From the moment that Kevin Owens and Chris Jericho began teaming, it was obvious that we would see a feud between the two sooner or later. After all, this is wrestling. It was also fairly clear that upon that feud commencing, Jericho would be the one to play the sympathetic babyface. Thirdly, it wasn’t terribly hard to predict that Jericho’s acceptance of Goldberg’s Universal Title challenge would the catalyst for that turn. What was not as obvious was the timing of this break up. Most would have assumed that it would take place after the aforementioned Goldberg vs Kevin Owens match. Therefore, come the February 13th Raw, not too many people were expecting the eventual outcome we got for the pre-announced Festival Of Friendship.
This segment took a lot of cues from the highest rated Raw segment of all time, Mankind’s This Is Your Life tribute to The Rock in the late 1990s. We had cameos from terrible magicians and of all people, Gillberg. We saw paintings and gifts galore bestowed by Jericho on his best friend Owens. It was cheesy, it was over the top and it was quite hilarious. All the time you could see Owens stewing. Little did we know what the impact gift would be. When Jericho opened his brand new list he was delighted. For a moment. The crushed look of disappointment on his face when he realised his name was on the list turned quickly to fear when he realised it wasn’t a new List Of Jericho at all. It was a List of KO. This was followed by a brutal and cold beating from KO to his now former best friend. What made this segment so incredibly special was the masterful way it was played by both men, especially Jericho. This relationship was given months to build and so when it finally came to an end, we the audience had invested big time in to it which made the pay off that much more special. Credit especially to Jericho who’s over the top ridiculousness for the majority of the skit, contrasted wonderfully with the understated sorrow that marked the closing moments. It was truly a masterclass and one of the very best Raw segments of all time. It would be hard to beat this as a segment in any year.
Honourable Mentions: The Hardy Boyz Return, Break up of #DIY, AJ Styles winning the WWE Championship in Manchester
Non-Wrestler Of The Year - Zelina Vega
Truth be told, it was difficult to see anyone that stood out on the main roster this year. Usually it’s very easy to slot Paul Heyman in here but there is a distinct feeling that we’ve seen his schtick one too many times nowadays. Has he really been as prominent, noticeable or interesting in recent years? If we were going with a member of the announcing team then Corey Graves and Nigel McGuinness would be the only two who remotely had a shot.
In the end, our choice was fairly simple. It isn’t often that a manager or valet can add as immensely to their charge’s act that they make a fundamental difference to their position on the roster and perception or response from the fans. Heyman did with Lesnar and more recently, the addition of Maryse was the catalyst for the total rehabilitation and resurrection of The Miz as a credible upper-midcard player.
It’s with that in mind that we are giving this award to Zelina Vega. The addition of her presence has fundamentally changed everything about Andre Cien Almas’ overall package to the point he has gone from mid-card afterthought to NXT Champion in a matter of months. Unlike Jinder Mahal on the main roster, that promotion has been as deserved as it was surprising. Vega’s positioning is as a business associate rather than romantic figure and that is what is key to making the pairing work. She is invested in making sure Almas succeeds and you immediately know her motivations for doing so. Her presence at ringside carries enough gravitas to give him an instant dose of extra credibility. Make no mistake, this pairing is a main roster act in the making and it won’t be too many months before we see just that.
Honourable Mentions: Corey Graves, Nigel McGuiness
The ‘Simon Malin’ Debut Of The Year Award - Samoa Joe
For years we clamoured for Joe to be part of WWE and we thought it would never come. When he finally arrived on NXT in 2015 we rejoiced. To a point. Because we all knew he was there to coach the younger guys and put them over on their way to the main roster. Right? Before long, Joe was the most over guy in NXT and not long after that, the brand’s champion. OK, clearly this guy was sticking around but still, NXT would be his ceiling. We all knew that for a fact, didn’t we? As much as we hoped otherwise, we were all pretty sure that Joe had reached his ceiling. It wasn’t until early 2017 that we felt change in the air and it became a possibility that Joe would be moved up to the main roster. Our thoughts then turned to how he would be introduced. Would he be a face or heel? What brand would he be on? Would he be aligned with anyone? What transpired, in hindsight, shouldn’t have shocked us at all. Joe debuted just prior to WrestleMania as an associate of HHH by attacking the former ally of the NXT head honcho, Seth Rollins. Not a bad spot to be put in eh? It was an exciting, unexpected debut that gave Joe a massive vote of confidence and air of menace from day one and he has parlayed that into a great first year on the roster. He has been featured in FOUR PPV main events (Who would ever have expected that?) including his biggest WWE win to date when he won a Fatal Five Way match for the right to face Brock Lesnar at Great Balls Of Fire. That the subsequent feud between them elicited such a great response can be traced back to WWE giving Joe the proverbial ball immediately and the veteran wrestler (now superstar?) carrying it in his iron grip, just as we all knew he would.
Honourable Mentions: The Hardy Boyz, Adam Cole, Asuka
The ‘Jimi Murphy’ Underrated Talent Of The Year Award - Rusev
Let’s end on one that is going to split opinion shall we? Before we even decide the winner we have got to decide on the definition of underrated. Do we mean someone that doesn’t get the love they deserve from the fans? Do we mean someone who’s skill in letting other stars shine goes unnoticed? Do we mean someone who despite an obvious ability to shine in a bigger spotlight is held back by booking and creative? We are going to go with the latter simply because it’s a little bit more mischievous.
And using that criteria, our award goes hands down to (probably) Bulgaria’s favourite son, Rusev. When he arrived in WWE he was clearly positioned extremely well. With a long undefeated streak, a feared finisher and a manager who was as hated as she was desired, the Bulgarian Brute was positioned as player on Raw from the word go. In fact, it wasn’t long before he snared the US Title and was booked with WWE’s biggest star, John Cena, on their biggest stage, WrestleMania. Surely he was a made man? Well, not quite. The match with Cena ended up as a pinnacle rather than a jumping off point for his career. A ham-fisted romantic storyline with Summer Rae and Dolph Ziggler was a mess and ended with the pointless split with Lana, to the detriment of his act. And really, that’s all they wrote on Rusev’s career to date. He’s been nothing of note since. A recent resurgence, partnership with Aiden English and the whole Rusev Day schtick is getting over like gangbusters to the point of Rusev being a defacto face for the first time in WWE. Maybe 2018 will be the year when Rusev is pushed in line with his real value as a performer. Here’s hoping.
So that’s it for our awards. Agree? Disagree? Let us know in the comments below.