Another year down and what a trip it was. It was truly a random and weird year that had so many new and unique elements from the past year, good and bad, and definitely was a worthwhile direction after the disastrous year that 2001 was. From countless new superstar debuts that would could continue to define the company to this day, to the brand split, returns, high-concept matches and Triple H having sex with a corpse. It was quite the year to say the least. Let’s get into it…
The year starts off with the return of Triple H, someone who I thought was still months away from returning, and of course this is all leading to his MIRACULOUS recovery and OVERCOMING THE ODDS to take the belt off Jericho, oh yeah, he’s still somehow the champion. I always keep coming back to how things would’ve been different possibly in with the invasion if people like Triple H, Benoit and Guerrero were healthy and how if any things would be different. Anyways, Triple H is back, and as demonstrated by the constant video packages of him getting stronger and fighting to get back, he was going to be shot to the moon when he got back. As a face, nonetheless, which is often weird to see him play.
It’s nice that they actually made the Royal Rumble match a storyline. This is like the first time since I’ve started watching in 1997 that they’ve actually had super stars really talking about entering and winning it. In the past the lead up to it has been non-existent. It helps to easily give guys storylines. And it’s big important guys, too, like HHH, Taker, Angle, Show, Kane. Really provides some heft to it and makes the Rumble match that much more interesting.
Vince McMahon and Ric Flair have a little feud going on how they’re basically co-owners of the company now, with Flair getting Raw and McMahon Smackdown. It does help to elevate Smackdown as a more equal brand, especially since this is before the eventual brand split, and provides Vince something to do, which would be his last major on-air thing for the year.
Goldust and Val Venis are back, one of many of the random superstars that just disappear and you go “oh, yeah, they were gone.” Bringing back some Attitude Era nostalgia. Billy and Chuck are also a thing now, with Billy Gunn trying his best to stay relevant however he can, and this one works surprisingly well for a bit, and they actually get over for a small while.
Anyways, on to the Rumble that Triple H wins, of course, because he’s just gotta win the title at Mania. Jericho beats Rock to retain the title through about 3346 different ways of cheating. Jericho is just a transitional champ, basically. Feels so unimportant, especially with Rock, Austin, Angle, HHH, Taker, they all seems so much better and main event than Jericho who still kinda feels like he doesn’t belong and too early. It seemed like a big deal when Jericho won to became the first undisputed champ, and he got a rub, but especially being a heel it didn’t really give him the push to the next level of top-tier talents like I’m sure they wanted to. Especially when he was just destined to lose to one of them very soon, ie. Triple H.
Triple H is face, of course for now, he turns on Stephanie after she was lied about having a baby. Sets up a no. 1 contender’s match at No Way Out that Angle wins to get the chance at the tile, but, nah… of course Triple H just wins his opportunity back at the next Raw. Because it’s Triple H, and of course he’s going over.
The Rock and Undertaker have a pretty fine match, which is really just a stop gap for them until their WrestleMania feuds get kicked off. Also, oh yeah, Stone Cold Steve Austin is still a thing, remember that guy? The most popular and over star in the company’s history or something? I can’t remember. Anyways, Austin is pretty much lost at sea in any storyline, due basically to his unhappiness with the company at the time and not really wanting to work. It’s crazy how his in-ring tenure just begins to disappear like this and how he hardly becomes a thought, just a few short years after he was carrying the company on his back.
So, finally a few months into 2002, Vince gets some of the top WCW stars that he so desperately needed during the invasion angle to make them seem relevant in Hulk Hogan, Kevin Nash and Scott Hall as NWO. It’s unfortunate it turned out as it did, but there’s few things I’ve been looking forward to more than the Rock/Hogan Mania match. Even though this iteration of NWO looks so boring and not harmful when it’s just three old dudes trying to remain relevant and badass.
Undertaker and Flair spar on their way to their Mania feud in so many different ways. This was actually one of my favourite builds of the year as both men seemingly held nothing back and everything descended into very personal attacks, like with Taker targeting David, Ric’s son. Flair cut some amazing promos, too, which really played off how emotional he gets and they felt painfully real.
The WrestleMania X8 card itself seemed pretty lackluster with a ton of filler matches. Matches like RVD vs. Regal, DDP vs. Christian, Angle vs. Kane, Edge Vs. Booker T (well, besides this one, because Edge and Booker were fighting over a Japanese shampoo commercial, yep.) and so on had very little build and were obviously just there to fill out the card and give some people something to do.
Stone Cold vs. Scott Hall seemed like it might have some potential, but it actuality it was short, boring and didn’t really seem to accomplish much with neither man seeming that into things. Triple H vs. Jericho was fine, but so uneventful and really containing nothing memorable of it in and of itself, besides the unofficial begin of Triple H being THE top guy without the likes of better guys like Rock and Stone Cold blocking his way. The build up with comedy bits between Stephanie and Jericho did nothing to lend credence to the feud and neither did the HHH/Stephanie split.
Of course, the biggest match, which somehow didn’t main event, although in nowadays booking totally would, the Rock/Hogan match didn’t disappoint. The crowd was nuclear and you could just feel the electricity radiating out of that ring. It’s almost surreal to think about these two top stars of their own begone generations facing off in one of the biggest contests of all time and thankfully Hogan didn’t go over.
Post-Mania dealings are all about the brand split and subsequent draft, which might be one of my favourite WWE things of all time, as well as the brand split which desperately needed to make something of Smackdown and which eventually exceeds amazingly well.
The draft was hilarious because it varies so much, as WWE often does, in strictness of rules and regulations when it comes to superstars being drafted and later traded or whatever. Like, Flair was somehow allowed to draft NWO, a group of three, with one pic. In the coming months they’d make a big deal of orchestrating a trade between the two brands, but then superstars would just defect to the other brand, with no repercussions, so it’s like it didn’t really matter where you got drafted, there was no actual checks and balance system, just whatever they felt like at the time. Like, later Batista and Randy Orton would go to Raw and the commentators were like “oh, yeah, they’re on Raw now, for no particular reason.” I mean, I know this is fake, scripted wrestling and the WWE rarely has concise continuity, but it’s just hilarious how little any of it really matters.
Also, a little someone who would become the dominant force of the year and would have an impact that few probably thought it would be as big throughout the years, Brock Lesnar debuted, and in the most Brock Lesnar way. He would literally just show up during random matches and just own everybody with F5’s and then leave. When he actually settled down and became a part of the actual roster he feuded with the Hardyz to start off with, which I guess was kind of a nice way to introduce him with a team he could go over and destroy.
So, Backlash happens which is pretty uneventful minus a great no. 1 contender’s match between Undertaker and Stone Cold that Taker cheats to win and the whole main event picture. So, it’s Hulk Hogan vs. Triple H for his newly won title and I really just assumed that Triple H would continue to keep getting the major rubs as the guy on top, go over the old Hogan and continue his ways. But, nope, Hogan won the title off Triple H who didn’t even survive a pay-per-view with it. It makes sense, though, Vince probably wanted that big shock and have Hogan carry around the Undisputed belt for a bit with the whole nostalgia factor until he gave it up shortly after to an actual worthy competitor, as he eventually did.
This also feels like when Undertaker finally got a true hold of who and what his American Bad Ass character really is. Where he just became this ruthless, asshole heel who was someone you didn’t want to mess with, and really encapsulated the bad ass biker look.
Randy Orton debuts and it’s so funny to see him all shaggy haired and wet behind the ears as a rookie compared with how we know him now. He’d pop up in random tag matches and have a mini-feud with Hardcore Holly. Later in the year he was put on Raw where he was subsequently injured, but they kept him relevant with this curious bit where he would pop up as this breaking news video where he heeled it up as a smug, smartass thanking the people for wishing him well during his recovery (which no one was doing) and they obviously had big plans for him if they wanted his face on TV every week or so, even though he was injured.
Batista debuts, too, in more bizarre terms than Randy (later Evolution mates), becoming a disciple of newly gimmicked D-Von’s preacher role as basically his muscle and a new dude for him to tag with. It didn’t last long, Batista would eventually end up on Raw where he would be groomed by Ric Flair, sowing the seeds for Evolution.
They had some really good momentum going into Judgment Day with the Underaker/Hogan feud that would eventually take the belt off Hogan at the PPV, which included Hogan doing literally the worst sell job to the chokeslam ever. The continued Triple H/Jericho feud was becoming a bore to me, but putting the match in Hell in a Cell at least provided some spark, although the match itself was pretty unmemorable, hmmm, sensing a theme in their matches. Most importantly, though, we had the Edge vs. Kurt Angle hair vs. hair match, in the culmination of an awesome feud that was based around comedy that both men do so well. I had never actually known how Angle went from hair to bald, and for some reason never assumed storyline reasons.
It’s funny because I’ll often forget about the brand split and be like “wow, Angle wasn’t even on this episode of Raw… wait, oh right, there’s an entirely different show.” It’s so crazy to think of the depth of talent they have to fully stock two relatively equal shows, in their own ways, of course. They each would have their own strengths, with Raw having some of the more traditional big names, but Smackdown would become the show to watch WRESTLING with the likes of Benoit, Angle, Guerrero, Mysterio and so forth. It’s just kinda crazy to think they were literally running two shows, that would only become more separate and were both very WWE, but created and re-ienforced their own identity.
Continuing with the randomness of the year, Shawn Michaels returns after, like four and a half years to seemingly little fanfare and joins with the NWO with him just doing random poses and stuff. It was a very weird position to bring him back as, but likely things would later get better with him, and he’d actually be wrestling, again.
Chris Benoit returns after his long injury, and of course they bring him back in his hometown of Edmonton and of course Vince being Vince they turn him heel in his hometown, which is sorta fun. Eddie Guerrero returns, too, and everything for the eventual rise of Smackdown in the latter part of the year is starting to fall in place, even though they were still on Raw.
Booker T is so funny, like, he can get to Kurt Angle levels of comedy, he’s so good. His partnership and schtick with Goldust is so perfect and they’re the perfect combination of randomness to put together.
Brock Lesnar continues to own and absolutely demolished the King Of The Ring tournament to take the crown. They do a smart thing this time around, which makes a lot of sense, giving the King Of The Ring winner a championship match.
The Rock, apparently, gets down promoting The Scorpion King or whatever Hollywood thing he was doing and comes back, obviously in prep to face Lesnar at SummerSlam. The past two years really The Rock is basically just a part-time player, doing his Hollywood stuff and only popping up at a few of the big events to have a big match, then he literally disappears again without WWF mentioning a word, and then repeat.
The Raw right after Vengeance Vince literally calls this time period “Ruthless Aggression,” so I don’t think there’s much of a doubt this is very much the first year of that era and nowhere near the Atittude Era. And then just like clockwork, who appears? John Cena, of course. On the following Smackdown Cena debuts with his infamous match against Angle. I’ll never get tired of seeing early Cena with his nerdy looking hair and plain appearance. The company was obviously super high on him at the time, as he featured in a ton of matches on following Smackdowns, including main-eventing some of them, and even had a mini-feud against Chris Jericho that would lead into Vengeance that he’d win.
The Undertaker vs. Jeff Hardy ladder match was just as epic as it was hyped to be. And in the loss totally made a star out of Hardy as a single competitor and one who could believably compete on his own. What a coming out party. I love the storyline that preceded Hardy taking on Taker. Where he was basically just bored living this easy, comfortable life of flying city to city wrestling and repeating. So, he needs a spark in his life something that matters, so he challenges the big dog, and eventually gets beaten down, but gains the respect of Undertaker and Flair and sets the roots of his singles career.
The Hardyz along with Edge & Christian actually managed to split them up from their tag teams and work them pretty successfully as single stars. Jeff was great, and would only get better, as that high-flying, risk-taking star, Matt had the V1 gimmick, which I’m not sure what the general consensus was, but I loved it for some reason, especially how technologically dependent and wringed in dry humour it was. Edge only gets better as a singles star and is a focal point of the Smackdown rise, while Christian enjoys some fun as part of The Un-Americans with Lance Storm and eventually Test, who just get constant rise out of all the Americans. I can’t believe I never heard of this tag-team/stable before, because it was a perfect gimmick for all of them, with guaranteed heat that they were all so good at getting, even when it wasn’t this easy. On the other hand, the Dudleyz split was pretty unsuccessful, Bubba was, uh, just his crazy self still, but hanging around with a girl occasionally, and D’Von’s preacher gimmick fizzled out fast. It’s no surprise they put them back together at Survivor Series, as it’s obviously how they work best.
Eric Bischoff comes in as general manager of Raw and I couldn’t be happier to see him. When I first started watching wrestling, a few years after this, he was GM and I absolutely love his smarmy asshole-ness and he fits perfectly as the authority figure. I’m too young to have experienced WCW, so I literally knew of Bischoff as Raw general manager before I knew anything about him and WCW, so I’m in a weird place. I can’t imagine how weird it must’ve been for people back in 2002 to see Bischoff randomly appear like this on WWE programming and become a focal authority point for it.
Stephanie McMahon is a great choice for Smackdown GM as well, she provides a nice foil to Bischoff, someone who’s like a thorn who constantly gets stuck in his side when she steals superstars to her show. She shifts back-and-forth between face and heel mannerisms, but it’s refreshing to see her out of the constant Triple H storylines, for the time being.
So, yeah, The Rock takes the title at Vengeance because it makes sense putting the belt on him being a grade A talent, his popularity as a movie star, heading into the number 2 show of the year, and the prospect of putting him against a Brock Lesnar character who seems unbeatable.
The only thing that could be bigger than that, though, is the wrestling return of Shawn Michaels. I’ve been waiting for his SummerSlam match with Triple H ever since he left all those years ago (months in my real life time, but still). Man, it’s almost surreal having HBK back, I know I’ve watched all these years in just a few months, but it really does seem like forever. It’s crazy to think that he literally went out right before/as the Attitude Era was commencing and is now coming back after it ends. Like he missed a whole era of wrestling. I can’t even imagine how things would be different with throughout the whole thing.
Triple H as a face, or psuedo-face wasn’t meant to last, of course, so he eventually turns on HBK during Michaels’ recruitment of HHH into NWO, which makes so little sense, especially since they were former DX members, but anyways. I mean, honestly, it doesn’t take much to build this feud with them, with all the shared history, but they do a good job, especially with HHH getting to turn back into his sadistic side.
This SummerSlam PPV gets hyped up a lot as being one of the best the company has put on, it’s really good, but I don’t think it’s anything fully amazing or anything, though. Rey Mysterio joins the Smackdown fold, finally, and puts on a classic with Kurt Angle to kick off SummerSlam. It’s literally not in Angle’s DNA to put on bad matches. Ric Flair faced off against Chris Jericho, another of Flair’s random feuds of the year as a wrestler, and one of Jericho’s, too. Chris Jericho had kind of a down year here, especially coming off his monumental one of last year, and never really got to be in the main event picture, but was just stuck in small, random feuds and the tag-team scene. Undertaker also feuded with Test for some reason, just to give him something to do, I guess, which he easily won.
The Shawn Michaels/Triple H street fight was a lot of fun and lived up to the years of hype surrounding the return of HBK. They went long, and even though I was sure Michaels was going over, it still told a pretty good story and had many spots where it seemed like Triple H would believably go over.
The Brock coronation begins when he defeats The Rock in a relatively one-sided affair and one that was a lot more shorter and succinct than I expected and just like that Brock Lesnar is the Undisputed champion of the company and The Rock disappears without a word.
Oh, my god, l I never really fully understood the “Triple H didn’t want to work Tuesdays things” and so they legit just brought back the Heavyweight title and just gave it to HHH because he didn’t want to work Smackdown and fight for the supposed one Undisputed title. I mean, I guess it makes sense to have two separate titles with the brand split, but it’s listed as the UNDISPUTED title and it hardly had any time to breath, and they just gave it to HHH. Amazing. Like, Bischoff just gave Triple H a world championship, no tournament or anything, and now all of a sudden each brand has a world title, which I like, but it’s hilarious how randomly and low-key they do it.
Unforgiven was a pretty boring placeholder PPV with Triple H easily defending his title against RVD, of all people. At the very least, it was used as a way for Ric Flair to turn and align with Triple H, which at the time is kinda fun, giving Triple H someone to bounce things off, and also gives Flair some direction, which he desperately needed these past few months ever since being ousted as GM. The Lesnar/Undertaker feud is a lot of good work, though, especially when Brock and Heyman use Sara against Taker, makes them even more slimy.
Finally, the HHH/Kane/Katie Vick storyline. This was actually a ton of fun and random and so not what they’ve done recently and was a such an Attitude outlier of a storyline. It was actually so nice to have someone feud with Kane and he actually got to be a part of the meaty story and had a backstory and not just some silent, grunt who beats people up for no reason, except for being a DEMON FROM HELL. HHH prodding him was the best and so slimy and dickish of him. At least it wasn’t your same old title match, where it’s the ol “I’m better than you, no I’m better than YOU.” Their title match at No Mercy was pretty boring and didn’t match the build-up, and obviously HHH won. I don’t fully understand why they used it to get rid of the Intercontinental title, making it title for title was cool, but just completely getting rid of the mid-card title seemed weird.
Smackdown needed their own tag belts, so they had a tournament that concluded at No Mercy with Benoit and Angle winning the title. It was pretty clear they were winning ever since the storyline started with them being begrudgen partners, but they’re fantastic wrestling and in a storyline together, so it works all the way around. Especially, with the calibre of tag teams like Los Guerreros and Edge and Rey Mysterio, my god. The Smackdown 6, what a time to be alive.
If that wasn’t enough, No Mercy was capped with a brutal, epic Hell In A Cell match between Brock Lesnar and Undertaker that completely lives up to its hype. This was another of several matches this year that I couldn’t wait to get to, and it delivered and more. Such an even bigger rub for Lesnar to take out Undertaker in the match that made him famous.
Hey, you remember the Big Show who literally has done nothing of note and has been in no storyline at all in, like, two years? Yeah, well, he literally complains about this basically to Bischoff, Bischoff does nothing, so Show defects to Smackdown and gets a title match with Lesnar at Survivor Series. Huh? It’s hilarious how they do this because Big Show has literally not been a factor in anything in sooo long and they just plug him into this feud with Lesnar from 0-100. I guess they probably wanted someone who looked imposing towards the insane mass of Lesnar and Show definitely fits the bill. So, of course, after all of building Lesnar up from destroying everyone in his path, winning King Of The Ring, taking the title off The Rock at SummerSlam, defeating Undertaker in Hell in a Cell, after all of that, at Survivor Series Lesnar owns Big Show, but Paul Heyman turns on Lesnar and Big Show gets the win and the title thanks to a little steel chair action. It’s kinda dumb, I would’ve liked to have seen Lesnar keep being built up as a monster, but springing him on his own and having him be a sort of babyface to take revenge on Heyman and Big Show works decently enough.
The Raw part of Survivor Series was, oh, just the introduction of a little match called the Elimination Chamber. I completely forgot it debuted this year and was so excited when I found out. It’s crazy to see Bischoff hype it now with us looking back, but it must have seemed crazy and out of this world at the time. The match itself more than lived up to the hype and must have been a relief since it very much have devolved into a cluster with the newness of it and all the people. Rob Van Dam was the star of the show, creating amazing moves and just generally being a rag doll, even though he was the first one out. I couldn’t remember if HBK or HHH won or not, but Michaels going over works, gives him his moment with the title and allows the feud to be stretched on, as it would to the next PPV.
Leading into Vengeance, Angle won the no. 1 contendership for the title against Big Show, as Brock couldn’t get his rematch and was eventually later suspended. This led to a weird thing where instead of just a Lesnar retaliation of Big Show, Angle was injected into this feud, with Lesnar helping Angle win the title of Big Show at the PPV. But, Angle would eventually become an adversary of Lesnar’s when he teamed with Heyman, so now Heyman had Big Show and Heyman. It’s a little convoluted, but I guess they just want to stack the deck as much as possible against Lesnar, so his overcoming of those two and regaining of the title will be that much greater.
The Triple H/HBK feud concludes, I believe, for now in another great match and just another top-tier effort following their other big matches at SummerSlam and Survivor Series. I knew they faced off in this epic Three Stages of Hell match, but I had no clue it was so soon, and didn’t think they’d put it on maybe their weakest PPV generally, the one in December. Anyways, it was an enjoyable match, even if the first street fight stage went on wayyy too long and subsequently the last stage with the ladder match was vastly under-used and was a letdown. It’s actually kind of crazy, too, the amount of bumps HBK took in this match, the SummerSlam match, and the Elimination Chamber match, especially due to the hardcore nature of all of them, given his situation with his back. Like, he went all out and didn’t seem concerned at all about an injury that put him out for over four years, it almost makes me cringe seeing him put all that pressure on his back, but I guess things worked out relatively well in the end.
So, that’s basically it, at least with storylines that are largely contained to this year. All in all I had a ton of fun with this year and it was so needed and the perfect antidote to the staleness and sub-par 2001. There was just sooo much jam packed into this year from returns, debuts, epic stipulation matches, the breadth of the draft and brand split, fun storylines (I didn’t even talk about the whole Dawn Marie, Torrie Wilson, Al Wilson storyline, although, I wouldn’t really classify it as fun), and really just the start of a whole new fresh direction that was divorced from the Attitude Era and bred out of the ashes of the invasion angle of the last year.
Through all this I’m really looking forward to 2003, especially because it’s one of my biggest blind spots of WWE. I’m aware of broad things that happen from the Rumble to WrestleMania 19. But, don’t really know or recall much that happens from then into 2004, so I’m really looking forward to it and hoping it remains fresh to me. I first really got into wrestling right after WrestleMania 20 and subsequently know everything about the next couple years after that, so I’m going to relish in this next year being somewhat in the dark and hope that the fun of 2002 only continues.