Our brief foray into the “Ruthless Aggression” era comes to an end, albeit for the time being, as episode 5 focuses on the first incarnation of the WWE brand split.
Half Step Back
The show begins with archive footage of Vince McMahon speaking at some form of a corporate meeting. He states “Sometimes it’s important for business, and sometimes in life, to take half a step back.”.
As WrestleMania X8 delivered dream matches such as The Rock vs Hulk Hogan, WWE had become the destination for wrestling fans, yet without WCW existing, there was no competitive edge. Both Brian Gewirtz and Bruce Prichard highlight how WWE TV was on autopilot mode; retelling stories of what happened on previous shows with the use of the same talent. JBL comments on how they had “possibly the greatest roster of all time at that point” yet the influx of talent caused problems and a lack of opportunity.
Undoubtedly, the first Brand Extension Draft in March 2002 was a turning point in WWE history. As it’s been stated in past documentaries, the brand split opened up opportunities to talent that didn’t have it before. For the likes of Edge, Eddie Guerrero, Rey Mysterio, Jeff Hardy and Booker T, their hunger replaced the compliancy that had been riding on.
Brand vs Brand
By the summer of 2002, the arrival of Eric Bischoff as the on-screen General Manager on RAW had sparked fan interest. We’re shown how and why Bischoff was important, highlighting, and praising, his tenure in charge of WCW. Over on SmackDown, Stephanie McMahon takes over the GM role. Narrator Michael Rapaport states the introduction of GM’s breathed new life into WWE TV.
Behind the scenes, the brand rivalry intensified with Gewirtz questioning if the initial draft was imbalanced. While SmackDown head writer Paul Heyman says they figured it out as they went along. Both Gewirtz and Heyman, along with Prichard, comment on how they would have real-life negotiations in the writer’s room with the UnAmericans and Chris Jericho being traded to RAW with Eddie Guerrero heading to SmackDown. Heyman called it “the deal of the millennium”, and it’s hard not to argue with him.
Although the WWE Championship became exclusive to SmackDown with the World Heavyweight Championship getting introduced on RAW, there was an internal perception that the shows were unequal with SmackDown being seen as the “B-Show”. “He’ll deny it until he’s blue in the face, but Vince McMahon’s focus was on RAW,” says Brian Gewirtz with Heyman stating “SmackDown was RAW’s bitch”. As SmackDown head writer, Heyman wanted to reverse that perception.
Identities Developed & Roles Reversed
Heyman’s SmackDown would be moulded into “the wrestling show,” becoming known for delivering great matches weekly – a questionable statement when you delve deep into some of the angles on SmackDown during that time. While RAW was “the entertainment show” with “larger-than-life” characters such as HHH, Shawn Michaels, Kane, Jericho and Booker T. We’re told about how Heyman encouraged Michael Cole and Taz to take “pot shots” at RAW on commentary. It’s no surprise Heyman wanted to stir the pot.
By early 2003, SmackDown began beating RAW in the ratings as it’s praised for being a better and consistent show. While it’s rival as being “sometimes off the chart bad” states McMahon on archive Byte This footage.
RAW‘s revival would be attempted by Stone Cold Steve Austin returning and a debuting Goldberg. Nevertheless, both shows were treated as being on par – business was thriving with live event, merchandising and overseas touring opportunities rising. This was complemented by brand-exclusive pay-per-views, furthermore expanding the number of opportunities.
For the momentum to continue, new stars were needed. It’s here where Eddie Guerrero is highlighted. As a well-respected and loved member of the roster, both backstage and to fans, it made sense for Guerrero to rise to the main event.
It’s been documented enough in the past SmackDown was “the land of opportunity”. Along with Guerrero, John “Bradshaw” Layfield would emerge as a main eventer following a character change to a rich, intelligent and loudmouth Texan that fans love to hate.
Over on the red brand, there was the rise of Batista and Randy Orton complementing the entertainment factor of RAW – highlighted by a clip of Ric Flair and others playing musical chairs.
As the timeline accelerates into 2005 and beyond, we’re reminded of John Cena’s emergence and the time Lita and Trish Stratus were in the main event on RAW – an event that WWE have continuously called back to in the “women’s evolution”. We see the likes of King Booker and Rey Mysterio being highlighted with Edge saying the “brand split made it easier for talent to breakthrough”.
2 Brands. 1 Goal.
As new stars were embraced by WWE fans, we’re reminded that despite the competitive nature of the brand split, that they shared a common goal – to make WWE a success. Complimented by backstage footage of unity, Batista comments on how the Ruthless Aggression era was a fun period; talented roster and great entertainment. Heyman wonders what WWE would have been like without the split yet ultimately the company benefited from it for years.
So after 5 episodes, we’ve learned how the Ruthless Aggression era was a period of transition for WWE. It had its ups and downs but ultimately succeeded by creating competition within itself and creating new stars. As a short series, it’s a satisfying watch even though it’s occasionally painted over with WWE’s revisionist brush. But I still feel they could have covered so much more. Oh wait…
The end of the season shows us a teaser of what to expect from season 2 of “Ruthless Aggression”. From the creation of the Elimination Chamber and Money In The Bank to events such as Tough Enough and the Divas Search, it seems we’re only just getting started with delving into the RA era. In addition, we’re thankfully going to get an extended look at Ohio Valley Wrestling, and interestingly how the Undertaker was the locker room leader at that time. And of course, there’s going to be even more new superstars; Bobby Lashley, Mickie James, Beth Pheonix, The Miz and MNM are shown in the preview. Season 2 is expected to drop on the WWE Network in the Autumn/Fall.
All pics and videos courtesy of WWE.