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Saturday, January 30, 2016

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Retrospective: 2002-2004 Smackdown

To close out the Ruthless Aggression week on the site, we talk the pinnacle of Ruthless Aggression, the 2002-2004 era of Smackdown. We gathered two big fans of the era to talk about Smackdown. Let's get into it.

As Part of Ruthless Aggression week here on the site, I was asked to write something about a handful of topics, one of which is the topic that I have chosen to discuss and that is the Ruthless Aggression Era.  You had the New Generation Era, followed by the acclaimed Attitude Era (The one that I personally hate) and then after that you had the Ruthless Aggression Era.

The Ruthless Aggression Era was special for multiple reasons, one of those reasons was that it was the first of its kind to feature a brand split. After WWE bought WCW back in 2001, the roster became very bloated and they needed a way to feature more stars and give them more airtime, thus the brand split between RAW and Smackdown was born.

The way this all started was kind of complicated. Well, you see, during the Invasion Angle where the rejects of then WCW and ECW tried to overtake the WWE, (then WWF-World Wrestling Federation and it has nothing to do with Pandas, I swear to god) it was lead by Shane McMahon who was the "Owner" of WCW and his sister Stephanie who was the "Owner" of ECW. The Invasion came to a sad conclusion at the end of Survivor Series 2001 in a great match, but the angle was underwhelming to say the least. The next night on RAW, Ric Flair made his WWE debut (after leaving the company about a decade prior), revealing to Vince McMahon that he was a consortium that bought both Stephanie and Shane's respective halves of WWE, therefore him and Vince became 50/50 owners of the company. Eventually, Vince took over Smackdown and Flair took over RAW.

A lot of stuff took place between that time which eventually ended with Eric Bischoff becoming the first General Manager of RAW and Stephanie McMahon becoming the general manager of Smackdown. The story of the brand split was that it would have its own separate Tag Team titles, as Smackdown got the cruiserweight division while RAW got the Women's division. This led to both brands sharing the WWE Undisputed Champion, who at the time was Triple H. The early goings on of the Undisputed Title were very weird because Triple H held the belt for a month then he lost to Hogan, who dropped it to The Undertaker a month later. The title would eventually find its way to Brock Lesnar and then Stephanie McMahon would pull a fast one on Eric Bischoff by bringing Brock over to Smackdown exclusively, which also meant he would only defend the WWE Undisputed Title on Smackdown and at their PPVs.

Enter Eric Bischoff and the WWE World Heavyweight Title, otherwise known as WCW's Big Gold Belt. Since RAW no longer had a champion they needed to find one so on September 2, 2002, Eric Bischoff came out and revealed a new design of the belt and handed it to Triple H. Yes you read that right, Triple H didn't have to defend the belt at all, he just was handed the title although he did pay his dues in matches including, but not limited to almost dying in the first ever Elimination Chamber match at Survivor Series 2002 which crushed his trachea. Shawn Michaels would win the match and then lose it back to Triple H a month later at Armageddon 2002 in a three stages of hell match. So RAW sounds like garbaggio right? Well it was, but Smackdown was great.

Over on Smackdown, things were totally different, while RAW was extremely bland, Smackdown was as fresh as a daisy for the lack of a better term. The mastermind behind ECW, Paul Heyman was chosen to be both the onscreen figurehead and the head writer for WWE's B show and for the longest time, Smackdown was better than RAW and actually beat RAW in the ratings continuously because it was the better show. WWE hated this idea and fired Paul Heyman for making Smackdown a success and then it went back to status quo, but let's examine what Paul Heyman did while was there.

Paul Heyman when running Smackdown made it more centered on wrestling (imagine that would ya?). He took all of the talking that you saw on RAW and let the wrestlers actions speak louder than their words could ever do. One thing that changed how Smackdown was viewed was the cruiserweight division.
One approach that Paul Heyman took with it was that he treated it like its own separate entity.  I remember him saying something about the cruiserweight division on the Steve Austin show a while back that when it was in WCW, they did a great job with it up until a point, but then they completely dropped the ball with it and made it into a joke. WWE's version of the division, although it ended terribly (Hornswoggle was the final champion in that title's history), it was very fun while it lasted and Paul Heyman made sure to treat WWE's version of the Cruiserweight Title almost like the World Title, but just with a limited size range.

Another very important caveat leading to why Smackdown was better than RAW during this period of time was that Paul Heyman did whatever he could do to make it better, including listening in on RAW's conference calls that he wasn't supposed to do. WWE's philosophy at the time was that if RAW and Smackdown were to be treated as equals and as separate brands that they needed their own creative teams and they needed to have their own conference calls, so it was like there were two companies in one, so to speak.

Smackdown also introduced us to John Cena, which is something that can't be overlooked. He came in as a nobody and took Kurt Angle to the limit and although he lost it quickly, it established him and they were able to create a star almost instantly or close to it anyway.

Then there was the Smackdown Six, which is commonly referred to as one of the best times in Smackdown history and it was during this era that it happened. The six were Kurt Angle, Chris Benoit, Edge, Rey Mysterio, Chavo Guerrero and Eddie Guerrero. They were the glue behind Smackdown and they pretty much did whatever they could to hold the show together while providing new and fresh matchups each and every week. It was refreshing while at the same time RAW was doing the status quo. In fact, it's insane to think that RAW and Smackdown were produced by the same company at the time but they were.

The final piece to the puzzle, which I touched on earlier, was Brock Lesnar and his meteoric rise to superstardom.  He won the WWE Undisputed Title for the first time at Wrestlemania 19 and then as I said earlier, took the belt with him over to Smackdown where he had some of the best matches. Anyone they put Lesnar with would bring out the best in him and he would bring out the best in them.  Lesnar was only a rookie but he carried himself like a veteran around the time. He had a classic feud with Kurt Angle which would culminate in a one hour ironman match, which was the first of its kind for broadcast TV and it was one of the best matches of the era. If RAW and Smackdown weren't split into two separate brands than Brock would have been an afterthought under Triple H and it wouldn't have been as good as it was, but with him on Smackdown, it instantly made him credible and made people notice him because how could you not? The guy is/was a freak of nature, and did wonders for Smackdown and while Seth Rollins in the modern day was carrying the company on his back in the modern day as WWE World Champion before his unfortunate injury, Brock Lesnar was the focus of the brand then. He also had a great supporting cast and that is why it was truly memorable.

The Ruthless Aggression era is hands down my favorite era in all of WWE and it's not even close although the Attitude Era is a distant third behind the New Generation Era.

There was a period when out of nowhere I preferred Smackdown over Raw. It was a fresher show, there was more wrestling and less filler, fresher stars, better storyline... Everything. They made Eddie Guerrero a world Champion which was huge! I remember the drafts to "Shake things up" first overall pick I believe was The Rock. And was drafted to smackdown. You knew then it was going to be something special. What I didn't like was the splitting of tag teams and announcers. I get it, it was to catapult them into singles stars. Worked for some. No so much for others. What I did not know was that it was a Paul Heyman production. I found out years later that the period in which I enjoyed Smackdown was the era in which "Paul E." Wrote for them.

Paul Heyman took six superstars, Edge, Kurt Angle, Rey Mysterio, Chris Benoit, Eddie And Chavo and with any combination of them gave us numerous incredible matches. Imagine if he still wrote for them now.

What are your memories of Smackdown in the era? Post them below in the comments.



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