A Banner Year: WWE 2002 Retrospective Part 1

As a fan, what makes a great year in wrestling? For some it could be standout moments such a big title wins or great feuds. For others it could be a great roster and memorable debuts. Me personally, I like a mix of all those things but the overall watchability is what I really look for.

WWE in 2002 had all those things in my opinion. Recently I went back and watched every episode of Raw, Smackdown and every PPV  from that year. Well, technically I’m up to September now so I should be finished soon enough. It’s been a great trip down memory lane for me as 2002 was the first year when I was super invested in wrestling.

Usually when people go back to something they loved when they were younger they realize it wasn’t as good as they remembered. Those rose colored glasses can hide a lot of flaws. Don’t get me wrong, WWE in 2002 isn’t without it’s flaws but in my opinion there was very few. I’ve really enjoyed going back and reliving one of the best years of WWE programming so I thought I’d write about it. Who knows, maybe it will encourage people to go re-watch some of their favorite years in wrestling and see how they feel about it now.

Anyways, without further ado, I present the first part of my WWE 2002 retrospective. Enjoy!

Not So Humble Beginnings

I am titling part one of this retrospective as such because this year started off as far away from humble as you can get. Quite literally.

The first “Raw” of the new year was a banger let me tell you! Imagine opening a show with “Beautiful Day” by U2 playing over a Triple H promo package…Yes, that happened.  A red hot crowd in Madison Square Garden are treated to a pretty stacked show and who’s out first to ring in the new year? The chairman, Vince McMahon, of course.

Rightly so too, the man just plays that character of an arrogant egomaniac to a tee. He’s out to praise Ric Flair on the career he’s had and how he’s not the man any more. No, no, that moniker belongs to Vinny Mac now. He opens a present he has in the ring and in it is a platinum blonde wig and one of Flair’s robes. The blasphemy! Anyway, as expected, Flair hits the ring absolutely fuming. He says that’s the problem with Vince, he does something good by showing the highlights of Flair’s career only to follow it by doing something stupid by mocking him. Push comes to shove, Vince nails Flair with a lead pipe, wails on him and leaves him a bloody mess.

Now before you think to yourself, “This fella is just going to do a play-by-play of Raw”. Nope, I just wanted to touch on this storyline because I really enjoyed it. At the tail end of 2001, Flair returned to WWE TV and the whole “co-owner” angle started. When Flair said Shane and Stephanie sold their stock to a consortium and it ended up being himself, the reaction was deadly and it only grew from there. It was a classic power struggle story with Vince playing the egomaniac and Flair essentially pushing his buttons to the point where it got violent. It made great TV and it continued for a while into 2002 resulting in a brand split which I’ll go further into later on.

One Of The Most Complete Rosters

I won’t start going in depth about the rest of the show but my god I forgot how stacked the roster was and how good these guys were. I don’t just mean the big dogs like Rock, Austin, Taker, Angle, Triple H and Jericho. Everyone really pulled their weight.

The likes of Rob Van Dam, who’d have a great year. Edge would be another standout. Some of the guys I completely overlooked back in the day like William Regal, Test and Lance Storm all turn up and perform consistently. Another thing that sets a tone for the year on this show is the Dudley Boyz dropping the belts to Tazz and their ever-abused half brother, Spike Dudley. Again, four more great workers and a great start to the year with a title change like that.

2002 was also known for some pretty big debuts. Some homegrown stars that would end up becoming household names all took their first steps this year. Randy Orton, Batista, Brock Lesnar and John Cena would all get some TV time with Lesnar getting the main shine here. We also seen Victoria debut (not as one of Godfather’s ho this time) and make a big splash in the women’s division. Rey Mysterio was one of the key signings too. Already established but really stamped his claim as one of the GOATs with his work in WWE. We would also see the return of the beloved, Eddie Guerrero, who would have a very solid run too.

We also got a massive return of arguably the most popular faction in wrestling history, the New World Order. While the WWE iteration wasn’t as groundbreaking as the original WCW one, it was still crazy to see NWO in WWE. The fact they were brought in by Vince himself so early into the year made for some great television too, but we’ll get to that later on!

Main Event Players

I’m going to briefly touch on the main event scene now to fill out the field some might say.

Stone Cold Steve Austin, a megastar twice over at this stage, is knee deep into the “What?” catchphrase which, just like everything Austin does, is pure gold and the fans definitely agreed. Still getting crazy pops night after night and cutting some of the wackiest promos, including one just before the Royal Rumble where he tells a story of kicking people out of a bar and developing a beer belly to maintain a lower center of gravity to win the Rumble. Well worth a watch.

Kurt Angle, on the receiving end of the “What?” shtick most of the time, is still bossing every match he’s in. Whether it’s with his technical skill in the ring or just telling a story. He still has some of the most expressive facial expressions I’ve seen. Makes you want to slap him when he’s whining about a loss or feel for him when the man can’t catch a break.

The Rock was still over as ever and an integral part of the main event scene. Throughout this year we’d see flashes of Austin/Rock which would eventually headline next year’s Mania, as well as The Great One passing the torch to some of the up and coming stars of tomorrow, Brock Lesnar being the major name here. Rock’s 2002 run would be patchy at times though as he sought greener pastures in Hollywood.

Undertaker is one of those wrestlers who can sort of do no wrong in my eyes. While he didn’t show his best in-ring work in 2001 I was looking forward to see how his 2002 would pan out.  I was still pumped every time his music hit or when he was involved backstage. A consummate professional in every sense of the word and although he wouldn’t really be in the Undisputed Title picture for too long, Undertaker had a pretty good 2002 in the way of putting over some of the younger guys like Maven and Jeff Hardy and adding that new layer to his character with the Big Evil gimmick.

Chris Jericho, hot off the heels of becoming the first ever Undisputed Champ in the company’s history is finally getting the recognition he deserves. He’s provided countless classics against Benoit, Angle and The Rock and now it looks like he’s going to be the next big face of the company now that The Rock and Austin’s schedules are winding down right?

Wrong. Triple H’s music echoes through the hallowed halls of MSG (No not the U2 tune). The pop this man gets when he walks out after being on the shelf for over 8 months is insane. Still gives me goosebumps. The leathers, the denim vest, the textbook water spit and the sweet sound of Lemmy’s guttural laugh really is a game changer, pun wholeheartedly intended.

I’m a big Triple H fan. I love the in-ring work, which is as close as you can get to a perfect blend of old school rasslin’, a-la Ric Flair and Harley Race, and modern bastardry that only Triple H can pull off. His chemistry with any one of those other five main event guys is great too. Unfortunately for Jericho, his run as Undisputed Champion is on borrowed time already but realistically if you’re getting the reactions Triple H is getting then it’s probably the only logical move.

That concludes my opening to this year. As always, January weekly TV is just a consistent build to the Royal Rumble and 2002 was no different. I remember being super excited for the Rumble match every year and re-watching the 2002 shows brought that feeling right back. Next up is going to be my Royal Rumble 2002 review, I promise I’ll try to keep it short and sweet.

-Warren Garry

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