Planet Kayfabe: Rose-Tinted Aggression Submitted by Kayfabe Candyass on 11/03/2017 at 11:24 PM
Planet Kayfabe: Rose-Tinted Aggression
By: 'KCA' Paul Matthews | @PlanetKayfabe
Hello and welcome to Planet Kayfabe. I hope you enjoyed your Halloween and after a fun piece on horror themed WWE Superstars, I'm back with a piece that might piss off anyone who started watching around 2002-2005-ish, but hopefully you hear me out. Understand I come in peace and you're getting my untapped honest opinion.
Have you ever heard someone older talk about a cartoon or movie from your childhood in a negative way and wonder how they could have such a different opinion than how you remember it? In this edition of PK, I'm digging into the Ruthless Aggression Era. Oh boy. First, let me be clear and if you read this and get angry because you think I'm shitting on your childhood... This is just my opinion and my take on the current skewed memory people seem to have of this period and the myths that have risen over the last decade. I'm not writing this to get a rise out of people. I'm writing this because it seems like while there's been endless DVD's and shirts and confetti blown in honor of the Attitude Era, some people are annoyed and are sick of hearing about it to the point where they point out all the silly things of the Attitude Era, ignore all the great things and call it "overrated" and move on.
While the pendulum of public opinion has swung against the Attitude Era because everyone is so tired of hearing about it and having it shoved down their throats, the Ruthless Aggression Era (roughly between mid-2002 to 2008) is often given given a free pass. While fans seem to want to focus on Mark Henry fathering a finger and "I choppy-choppy you pee-pee" as all the Attitude Era had to offer while the Ruthless Aggression era had the "Smackdown Six" and great wrestling on a regular basis, I'm here to pull you back down to Earth and give you my fair and honest opinion on this period in WWE. The good, the bad and why I still say the Attitude Era is far superior.
Raw live from Cleveland, Ohio. June 24, 2002. The show opens with a shot of Raw wrestlers waiting in the ring. Once "Across The Nation" by The Union Underground (my favorite Raw theme, by the way) stopped, the entrance music of Mr. McMahon hit. The ring apron surrounded by various talent, Vince addresses the group starting off by putting over his success and how he's always asked, "what's your secret to success".
"More than any one quality that makes me the successful man that I am... I would have to say that one quality is 'ruthless aggression'."
Vince then proceeds, in full heel mode, to put over how he put every wrestling promoter out of business all the while being drowned out by "asshole" chants. Which with all the stupid shit today's fans chant, you think they'd be smart enough to bring back that old favorite, but whatever.
During this 7 minute promo, Vince referenced the phrase "ruthless aggression" eleven times, so if it hadn't dawned on you that this was their new marketing campaign the first 10 times, he did one more for good measure. Halfway through this promo Vince seemingly morphed from his heel persona to his actual self in giving the midcarders in the ring and the entire WWE roster a pep talk, looking for the next big superstar in a day and age where it was clear that WWE would be losing two of their biggest ever in "Stone Cold" Steve Austin and The Rock. In fact, this episode where the words "ruthless aggression" were made famous, was one week after Vince McMahon had addressed the fans about Steve Austin's real-life sudden exit from WWE.
This is a more public example of Vince's "reach for the brass ring" speech. The biggest star to emerge after this speech wasn't even in the ring. That would be John Cena who made his Smackdown! debut a few days later on June 27, 2002 after accepting an open challenge from Kurt Angle.
"What's the ONE QUALITY YOU POSSESS that makes you think you can get in the ring with the best in the business?" asked Kurt who offered the layup response from the young Cena... "RUTHLESS... AGGRESSION!" and a smack started what would be a match still referred to today as a debut star marking performance. The two had a competitive 6 minute TV match which saw Kurt go over. Coming back from the break Cena was put over by a few of the guys in the back by congratulating him for his effort until in frame came the then WWE Undisputed Champion and well-known locker room leader, The Undertaker. The American Badass took off his shades, shook Cena's hand and capped it off with a "nice job" as Cena looked at his hand like a 13 year old boy who's crush accidentally bumped hands with him in the hallway between classes.
Perhaps less memorable on this episode of Smackdown is the in-ring debut of maybe the 2nd biggest star of this era, Batista, who pinned a young Randy Orton before their days in Evolution.
After the death of WCW and the Invasion story was done, the WWE tried to find a new identity in the post-Attitude age and with Stone Cold on the way out and The Rock eyeing a future in Hollywood, they didn't have much of a choice. The day before Vince's pep talk, a star already chosen and won WWE's King of the Ring tournament of 2002 was Brock Lesnar. You may consider Brock a bigger star than Batista now and maybe even bigger than John Cena, but Brock's original WWE run would end at WrestleMania XX in 2004, just 2 years into his run. Brock was pushed hard from the moment he arrived. In those 2 years he accomplished more than most do in their entire careers becoming King of the Ring, a Royal Rumble winner, WWE champion and main eventing a Wrestlemania. When Brock left, it was seen by some as a slight to the locker room and the company who did everything just to get him over and it wasn't until his UFC run, especially with UFC being much hotter than WWE, would Brock truly become a huge star and if that run with UFC flopped he would not have the sweet deal he does with WWE today.
Either way, Vince was looking for stars and during this period I just listed 4, all of whom would be top guys in WWE for years to come. It was also during this period in 2003 Smackdown would have in many fan's opinion its best year and would often be the breeding ground for getting new talent over (like Cena, Edge as a singles star, Eddie, Rey, etc...) before they were "called up" to Raw so to speak since despite WWE's "brand extension" was designed to create equal competition, we all know that Smackdown routinely got the shaft and still does today in this re-newed brand split, which I've already written enough about in past columns.
So, what's not to like? Often cited pro's of this period are the great matches, and yes, there were great matches. There were also great matches in the Attitude Era, too. However over time fan perception has morphed into "Attitude Era was all about sex and foul language and Ruthless Aggression era was all about wrestling".
Post-Attitude ratings continued to fall, it seemed like in the new age of Ruthless Aggression that the WWE tried to over-compensate and what was once edgy came off as juvenile over-reaching. One prime example fairly early on in this era was in October of 2002. I'm talking about the Katie Vick angle. All too often when I see people talk about bad Attitude Era moments I see Katie Vick brought up. No, no, no kids... That clip that you have seen on YouTube isn't from the Attitude Era. That's right in the thick of ruthless aggression and what's more ruthless than making love to a dead person, huh?
As great as you may think Smackdown was in 2003, I feel Raw during this period was equally as bad. 2002 was one of my least favorite years as a fan. That's where we got to see the nWo come to a burning end and new WCW talent continue to be booked as inferior losers. The brand split introduced us to problems we still see today. A once flourishing and deep tag-team division towards the end of the Attitude Era had now been split up. My, how history repeats itself as WWE had the makings of a good tag-division on the rise until the brand split came last year and cut its potential in half. Many would also say that the tag-division hasn't been nearly as good as it was in late 1999 through 2001 and that would largely be due to the brand split, but also because Vince McMahon himself is hot-and-cold on his feelings on building a tag division.
More desperate Ruthless Aggression era attempts at gaining back Attitude-esque ratings was "Hot Lesbian Action" or "HLA". In this era that many of you claim was all about quality wrestling, there was a time where Raw was promoted around the possibility that two women might have sex on television. The concept was introduced by Raw General Manager Eric Bischoff and it didn't take a fan as smart as NoDQ Wrestling Trivia champion Good ol' J.M. to see that this was nothing more than a shameless attempt at getting ratings and anyone who thought that there was the slightest possibility that the WWE was going to show two women or two people in general have sex live on television are fools. Say what you want about the Attitude Era's most raunchy moments, the WWE never came off as sleazy and desperate as they did here.
The angle post-Attitude Era that really made me question if I still wanted to be a fan is the since forgotten and rarely mentioned affair angle where The Undertaker was accused by a woman named Tracy of having a 3 month affair while Undertaker's wife was pregnant. This was a cheap and unnecessary attempt to add fuel to the Undertaker/Lesnar feud. What were they thinking? Brock was their monster pushed golden boy and The Undertaker is The Undertaker and this is what they decided the feud needed? At the time I remember talking with a friend of mine who was a big fan as well and often wrote about WWE and had his own E-Fed when those were a thing. He never said a bad word about WWE and I thought expressing how disgusting this affair angle was would start an argument. Instead I just remember him saying "I agree." The Undertaker was an established bad ass and Lesnar was a bad ass monster on the rise. It's a hot feud just at the mention of those two names and the reputation they carry. Instead of watching two monsters battle, I have to watch some bitch come out and accuse Undertaker of an affair and even call him "Mark" because OOOOH! ITS REAL IF SHE USES HIS REAL NAME!
Following HLA and hokey pregnancy angles I see some still refer to the Ruthless Aggression period as when WWE started to have an appreciation for women again. Despite there being more cat-fights, evening gown/ bra & panties matches and brawls in pools of pudding and gravy than before. People often credit Attitude Era favorites Trish Stratus and Lita for the rise of the division. During the period the WWE was even more focused on sex appeal and were very pleased with their partnership with Playboy. For what some seem to remember as WWE's new found appreciation for women's wrestling, I remember an influx of non-wrestling Divas that were all hired to look hot and sell magazines and posters. Once Lita was paired with Edge she was mainly a valet and while ladies like Gail Kim and Jacqueline were released and Molly Holly exiting WWE the actual working end of the Diva's division was very thin. Again, outside of Trish and Lita main eventing the December 6, 2004 episode of Raw I'd be shocked if you can list more wrestling related moments for the women during the Ruthless Aggression era to fill up one hand. It seemed like more than even WWE was interested in promoting their sex appeal and I'm sure most of your memories of women in WWE during this period were the ones working angles as Mr. McMahon's mistress of the month.
Speaking of Trish and Lita being Attitude favorites, the men's side wasn't much different. When people cite the "great WORRRRK RAAAAATE" of Ruthless Aggression most of the time they're talking about great matches with 90's and Attitude Era established stars like Shawn Michaels, Kurt Angle, Eddie Guerrero, Chris Benoit, Edge, Chris Jericho. None of these were new names that made their name and honed their skills in this era. I mean f***, look at that list. Some of the best workers in history. I hope they had some good matches. However the new guys during this period didn't cut it for the most part. While guys like John Cena got over nicely during a great time for Smackdown and Randy Orton and Batista were well groomed for greatness in evolution, you had to watch guys like Shelton Benjamin and Christian be perpetual midcarders and even a guy like Chris Jericho spin his tires for a couple years before he took some time off after his contract expired in the summer of 2005. Instead you got witness guys like Great Khali, Chris Masters and Heidenrich get healthy spots and it seemed like every few months there was a new bulky body guy getting a push despite having no personality.
Continuing with this era's pursuit at recapturing some "Attitude" was the reunion of D-Generation X in 2006, nine years after their original formation. I won't be overly critical since much of DX was in good fun regardless of the segments ranging from big hit to terrible miss. Some of the comedy was fine but the actual feuds with the Spirit Squad and the McMahon's were pretty bad. The reunion of 40 year-old "degenerates" with wives and children marked the end of heel Triple H's monster run through the entire Raw roster as a singles world champion. Again, as great as Smackdown was at times, unless you were the world's biggest Triple H fan, you probably hated Raw from 2002-2006. Forget being Hunter's biggest fan, unless you were Hunter himself or Stephanie I don't see how anyone could enjoy Raw's main event scene during those years. The one thing they got right was the babyface turn of Batista which was perfectly done and one of WWE's best stories in a few years. In the summer of 2005 Batista moved to Smackdown and John Cena moved to Raw. The Raw main event scene would finally become interesting again when John Cena and Edge engaged in a series a matches.
After all of that you're probably wondering if there's anything I like about this period more than the Attitude Era that came before it and yes there is. Actually it's nothing small either. That would be Wrestlemania. While WrestleMania 17 (the last of the Attitude Era) is perhaps my favorite, I don't think there's any denying that Ruthless Aggression gave us the best WrestleManias of any one era in WWE history. The Wrestlemania events from 17 to 24 commonly rank highly among the fan's favorites. Attitude Era Wrestlemanias were mostly average events with a few memorable matches. The Wrestlemania brand itself got even bigger during this period and became a stadium event. We were also given the Money in the Bank and Elimination Chamber match concepts during this period as well. Both of which were successful and remain fan favorites.
Ruthless Aggression to me just feels like an age where Attitude jumped the shark. The top stars were gone. What once felt edgy now came off as forced and embarrassing. With the Monday night ratings war over and a stack of former WCW talent for Vince to have his way with booking started a sharp decline along with the quality of storylines. Just a year and half prior to Vince's plea for "ruthless aggression" from his superstars, it seemed like he had the Midas touch and could do no wrong. Throughout 2001 the wheels started to fall off perhaps starting in October of 2000 when fan favorite Rikishi was revealed as the man who ran over "Stone Cold" Steve Austin. The first big Attitude Era angle that truly flopped. Then in April of 2001 you had the heel turn of Steve Austin which began a sharp decline in ratings. Then the 'Invasion'. They had to establish a new identity and this was it -- Ruthless Aggression. Unfortunately despite a few new faces, a lot of it just felt like a regurgitated version of the Attitude Era with less star power, worse booking, shittier storylines.
There's my thoughts on the Ruthless Aggression era. Over the years I think with people being beaten over the head about the success of the Attitude Era it caused them to turn, label it "overrated" because that's what people on the internet call everything that's popular and then talk about how the Ruthless Aggression era was superior.
It is fine if you like that era more. I'm not here to tell you what you should and shouldn't like, it's just that if you're going to tell me Ruthless Aggression was better due to "more mature storytelling" and women's wrestling being taken seriously again I suggest you take off the rose tinted nostalgia goggles and give those Ruthless Aggression shows another watch. While sex and raunchy angles may have been the calling card of the Attitude Era, while fans tuned out Ruthless Aggression slid under the radar and today in 2017 that period seems to get a free pass despite being every bit as raunchy and sexually explicit as the Attitude Era was on this time more desperate and much less fresh and entertaining.
Thanks again for joining me. If you're in your early to mid 20's and hate me now, I understand but I hope we can be friend again once you calm down. Hey, I was a fresh new fan during the 'New Generation' and I can't get mad every time someone says that era sucked.
If you have a question, comment or idea for a future column leave a comment below or follow me on Twitter @PlanetKayfabe
Also, if you have a favorite moment to share from this period or a terrible one that I didn't mention share that.
Until next time, for NoDQ.com I'm Paul Matthews. Take care.