If you’re like me, you love watching documentaries about wrestling. So I was delighted to hear the WWE Network would be releasing a new series focusing on the ‘Ruthless Aggression’ era. And as a new writer here at SteelChair, I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to get stuck in by recapping the series episode-by-episode.
For me, my memories of WWE circa 2002-2007 are pretty hazy. Like probably many teenagers who had obsessed over wrestling during the chaotic ‘Attitude’ era days, my fandom began to wane in early 2002. While I have gone back and revisited this time period, I still don’t think I have a full grasp of how WWE was. Hopefully ‘WWE Ruthless Aggression’ will be able to assist me in filling in the blanks, but then again this is a WWE-produced series, so perhaps not.
Episode One is titled ‘It’s Time to Shake Things Up’, a phrase that wouldn’t be used until around about 2004. Sure I’m being pedantic by picking up on this fact, but you’ll soon see how inconsistent the timeline can be. Nevertheless, the episode covers a lot in just over 40 minutes.
We get it! WWE Defeated WCW!
At first, it’s presented as a sequel to ‘The Monday Night War: WWE vs WCW’ series that debuted on the Network in 2014. And like most WWE-produced documentaries, we’re given the same old narrative of the rise and fall of WCW, citing a “rejuvenated” WWE as the catalyst for defeating billionaire Ted Turner’s “wrasslin'” company with breakout stars such as The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin. It’s a narrative that we’ve been told about over and over again.
Likewise, the 2001 portion of the episode is slightly more interesting. Series narrator Michael Rapaport (‘Friends’, ‘True Romance’, WWE 365, and 2011’s ‘Inside Out’ alongside Triple H) states WWE’s takeover of WCW as the “greatest victory in sports-entertainment history,” while footage of Vince McMahon being lifted up by The Corporation circa 1999 is jarringly shown. When it comes to discussing the ‘Invasion’ angle, former RAW head writer Brian Gewirtz makes the obvious comment that it was one of the most anticipated angles, citing fantasy matches such as Austin vs Goldberg, and The Outsiders vs The Undertaker and Kane. Current stars such as Becky Lynch, Ricochet, Kofi Kingston and Kevin Owens are on hand to give a fan-perspective view, backing up the excitement many fans felt at that time.
WWE admit it – the Invasion sucked
Yet, as we all know by now, the ‘Invasion’ angle sucked and WWE admit it here. Bruce Prichard, who alongside Gewirtz features predominantly throughout the episode, goes on to explain how and why it failed to live up to fan expectations. For starters, the contracts of major WCW stars such as Hulk Hogan, Kevin Nash, Scott Hall, Goldberg, Ric Flair and Scott Steiner (no mention of Sting here) weren’t part of the deal, they were part of AOL/Time Warner. The outside perception was that WWE owned all of the WCW talent, yet the reality was that they didn’t.
Although the likes of Booker T and Diamond Dallas Page were part of the WCW invasion, the documentary decides to put the blame, to an extent, on names such as Sean O’Haire, Mark Jindrak, Chuck Palumbo and Sean Stasiak as the reason why fans didn’t take to the angle. Jindrak himself pops up and accepts the fact that they were “years away from being ready” for such a role.
The episode comes off as honest when it gives the impression that WWE fans didn’t accept the WCW talent as a threat, and in hindsight it’s true. Bringing in unfamiliar names weren’t seen as a threat by fans. It highlights the disastrous segment when WCW took over Raw for a match between Buff Bagwell, a man Kevin Owens “didn’t care for”, and WCW Champion Booker T. With chants of “this match sucks” emphasised, Gewirtz mocks Arn Anderson’s line on commentary of WCW on RAW being “bigger than the moon landing”. While it might be a cheap dig at Anderson’s ridiculous comment, it pinpoints how flawed the invasion was from the get-go.
Behind the scenes, there was a threat of uncertainty amongst the WWE roster. TV time is limited and is considered as “currency” by Christian, and with the addition of WCW talent, there were fewer opportunities. We are also shown a view of Louisville, Kentucky with Jim Cornette popping up to talk about Ohio Valley Wrestling. Along with Prichard, they comment on the need to create new stars, highlighting John Cena, Brock Lesnar, Randy Orton, Batista, and to a lesser extent, Shelton Benjamin. Hopefully, this all-too-brief bit was a teaser for a detailed insight into the breakout stars of OVW further on in the series.
WWE in a State of Flux
By this point, our timeline is in late 2001/early 2002. The likes of Hogan, Nash, Hall and Flair have arrived, providing a “short team shot of adrenaline”. While the company is being carried by Triple H and the Undertaker, even though The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin are still around at this point… but not for long. Whereas Mick Foley says Kurt Angle “stepped up” at this time, even though he had been main eventing since 2000.
It’s here where our timeline becomes a bit messy. When Rapaport with his jarring New Yorker tongue goes on to say “as WWE entered into the new millennium, the WWE attitude born out of necessity was suddenly outdated and felt forced,” it’s complemented by “edgy” footage from beyond 2001; women’s mud wrestling, Stacy Kiebler talking about testicles, Mae Young kissing Jerry Lawler and Torrie Wilson and Dawn Marie fighting at Al Wilson’s funeral. Remember: WWE has the ability to mould their narrative anyway they want.
By the spring/summer of 2002, we’re given the impression that WWE is in a “state of flux”, as McMahon tells Kevin Kelly and Dr. Tom Prichard on WWE web series, ‘Byte This!’. The introduction of the brand split is treated as an ideal way to split a bloated roster (a bit like present-day WWE) and give more opportunities to emerging talent (not quite like present-day WWE). Although it was an ideal solution, they knew it was a risk albeit short term. Gewirtz explains that ratings would inevitably go down due yet a change was needed to avoid them from getting burned out.
For the talent involved, the brand split created anxiety as besides “one or two top talent”, no one had a clue which shows they would go on. To back this up, we’re shown the Dudley Boyz being split up on the initial WWE Draft in March 2001. Although they would be back together by the end of the year.
Bye Bye Rocky and Stone Cold
The period of transition is defined by the departure of two the company’s biggest stars – The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin. In the case of The Rock, Rapaport overdramatically describes his exit as the most “unthinkable” thing to happen, when the reality is that Dwayne had been transitioning into Hollywood for the best part of a year through his appearance in ‘The Mummy Returns’ and ‘The Scorpion King’.
As for Austin, we’re once again given the usual “he went home” story that has been covered plenty of times in the past. Even Austin’s comments here are lifted from his 2011 DVD documentary. However, we are shown footage of Austin appearing via telephone on ‘Byte This!’ stating “everything sucks. I ain’t happy with the direction of the whole company is going.” It’s here Gewirtz portrays as Austin as the saviour of WWE to the extent that without him, they’d all be working for WCW. Ok, Brian if that’s what you think…
Ultimately, Austin departure was caused by creative frustration, boiled over from a proposed ‘King of the Ring’ Qualifier against hot newcomer Brock Lesnar, unannounced on RAW. Described as a “bold creative decision” by Gewirtz, McMahon apparently agreed to the idea, replying with “by the time we do it 3 years later at a WrestleMania, and actually make money off it, nobody is going to remember this.” In some ways, I agree with Vince’s comment but the fact that Lesnar went on to win ‘King of the Ring’ in 2002 would remind people that he beat Austin along the way. And why was Austin even considered for KOTR in the first place?
As we know, Austin refused and “took his ball and went home”. While Vince went “beyond apoplectic” according to Gewirtz, the departure of both Austin and The Rock left fans impatient seemingly causing a decline in the live event business.
The ‘F’ is Gone
This period is poorly handled by the documentary. For example, the name change of WWF to WWE is treated as a “rebranding and reimagining”, ignoring the fact that it was the result of a legal dispute with the World Wildlife Fund. Instead, we’re shown “Get the ‘F’ out” vignettes to emphasise a new era in WWE. While it gives the impression that the transitional struggle was extensive, the reality was only a few months. Sure, there was an adjustment period for both Raw and SmackDown but this episode makes it seem WWE was struggling for quite some time.
The conclusion of episode one is treated as some sort of momentous change with McMahon’s “Ruthless Aggression” promo from the June 24th 2002 episode of RAW giving way to the debuting John Cena on SmackDown three days later. As revisionists, WWE are fortunate that these two incidents happened closely together but both moments are blown out of proportion. McMahon’s rallying call was in front of upper mid-card to low card RAW talent (apparently D’lo Brown was still with WWE in 2002?) with no main event stars insight. Whereas Cena’s responding to Angle’s open challenge is equally seen as a historic moment as Prichard concludes with “and the rest is history”.
Like I said, a lot of ground was covered in this opening episode of ‘WWE Ruthless Aggression’. Admittedly, some of it didn’t need to be covered as it has been done several times in the past, yet in the context of the series, it’s a good foundation to build on as it moves forward.
With four episodes remaining, covering the rise of Cena, Lesnar’s emergence, Evolution and the brand split, the series looks promising yet you can’t help but be concerned how much paint WWE will use with their revisionist brush.
All pics and videos courtesy of WWE