Pruett's Blog: I'm going to WrestleMania - The Royal Rumble Winners Series Part 3 - 2002-2005, Triple H, Brock Lesnar, Chris Benoit, and Batista
By Will Pruett
This is part three of five in The Royal Rumble Winners Series.
Click here to read Part One.
Click here to read Part Two.
The world is changing for WWE. For years the main goal was to stay ahead of the competition, to beat the competition, or to regain the lead in the competition against WCW. With WCW gone, WWE ventured on a new path, one where they were unopposed. For a moment this may seem magical, but it actually put WWE at risk. Without competition, how were they to judge themselves? How would they stay and become motivated? How would WWE balance their product with no one forcing them to?
These years tell a story of WWE attempting to become their own competition. It also relates the challenge of creating stars as a boom period fades away and a new style comes into existence.
2002 - Triple H
One year earlier, a star returned to WWE after a major injury to win the Royal Rumble and went on to WrestleMania to win the WWE Championship. That star was Steve Austin. He would then partner with Triple H to form the Two Man Powertrip. In the middle of their run on top, Triple H would get injured in a match with Chris Jericho and Chris Benoit. Triple H would not return until the beginning of 2002.
While Triple H left a villain, the world around him shifted. WCW came and went, leaving a creatively conflicted company in its wake. Chris Jericho would win the Undisputed WWE Championship at Vengeance in December and become the number one heel in WWE.
Triple H returned from injury to one of the loudest ovations of all time. The story of a possibly career ending quad tear was enough for fans to forget their once strong hatred of him and embrace him as a hero. Now was the time to strike with Triple H and strike is exactly what WWE did.
At the Royal Rumble, Triple H entered into competition for the first time since his return. He was a little slower and a little less agile than before, but in the confines of the Rumble, it was hidden. He won the match, last eliminating Kurt Angle (who he would also face at No Way Out 2002 with the title shot on the line).
The stars of this story should have been Triple H and Jericho, who had a long history to build upon. Their feud in 2000 and 2001 was compelling television with a heel Triple H holding down the babyface Chris Jericho. Now, with the roles reversed, they seemed poised to write another great chapter. Sadly, the stars of this feud turned out to be Stephanie McMahon and Triple H's dog, Lucy.
See, Triple H and Stephanie were going through some marital troubles and Stephanie pretended to be pregnant. They decided to renew their vows live on Raw (like all wrestling couples do). During this renewal, the truth came out about Stephanie's faux pregnancy, prompting Triple H to become angry and smash some things.
Stephanie would take Jericho's side in this story (an odd choice, given the multitude of unflattering things Jericho had said about Stephanie in the past few years). Together, they would run over Triple H's dog. What did all of this have to do with the WWE Championship? Nothing, really. It was all tacked on.
It seems that Triple H's quest to redeem himself, win the title, and show he was the best wasn't enough. The story of trying to prove himself after a big injury was enough for Steve Austin the previous year, who turned it into something truly compelling. For Triple H, more was required. Tacking on a divorce and a dog really hurt the overall story. It hurt all three parties involved. It also made me feel very sorry for the dog (who, I assume, was not actually harmed).
Triple H and Chris Jericho went on to have one of the flattest and least compelling main events in WrestleMania history. They tried. It seemed like a great match was planned. The entire story was set to come to a head in one moment. Maybe it was the lack of a quality story. Maybe it was a crowd burnt out from Hulk Hogan and The Rock putting on a legendary show. Maybe it was the predictability of the end. Whatever it was, Triple H and Jericho played to an almost silent 60,000 people in Toronto.
Triple H's story could have been the heroic side of what Austin had done while becoming a villain the previous year. There is an admirable quality to a man returning from injury and trying to be the best. It's a classic wrestling story. Instead, we saw extra elements cloud the picture. The Rumble story here would have been perfect. Tacking everything else on was far too much. Did the Rumble even need to happen if the divorce and dog were going to take precedence?
2003 - Brock Lesnar
Has any wrestler ever had the rookie year that Brock Lesnar did? In one year's time, he won the King of the Ring, defeated The Rock for the WWE Championship (becoming the last Undisputed Champion), defeated The Undertaker in an amazing Hell in a Cell match, turned babyface, won the Royal Rumble, and went on to main event WrestleMania. For most guys, this would be a list of career goals. For Brock, this was just year one.
Of course, we know how the Brock Lesnar story ends. For now, let’s focus on the Rumble to 'Mania XIX chapter. Brock Lesnar was an unbeatable monster as WWE Champion. He went through a brutal feud with Undertaker. He was clearly the top of the food chain. No one could beat him. This was actually a problem going into the fall.
WWE had their biggest asset with nothing to chase. He had already achieved it all. Now came the time for the turn. Lesnar had been a monster heel, but it was time to turn him into a powerhouse babyface. In order to do this, he had to be betrayed by his agent, Paul Heyman. Heyman would make said turn happen at Survivor Series 2002, when he cost Lesnar the title.
Just like with Steve Austin in 1999, the elements moved to set up the run. WWE's stories bent around the Royal Rumble instead of the Rumble seeming like a natural fit. In this case, it actually worked.
Brock Lesnar won the Rumble in dominant fashion, guaranteeing him a shot at new WWE Champion Kurt Angle (who had a classic match with Chris Benoit on the same night). He also had to deal with Angle's new protégés: Charlie Haas and Shelton Benjamin. Brock would have the odds stacked against him constantly on his Road to WrestleMania.
At one point, Lesnar had defeated Haas and Benjamin. It looked like he was going to face Kurt Angle later in the night. Angle switched places with his brother in the ring and was able to sneak attack Lesnar and injure his ribs. The odds were truly stacked against him.
Lesnar and Angle also had to deal with the pressure of expectation. Both of them were champion amateur wrestlers. Both of them were known for their technical prowess. Both of them had fans eager to see the first encounter between the two of them on wrestling's grandest stage.
The match delivered. Brock Lesnar fought hard against Angle and his own injury. This match did a great job of showing Lesnar's struggles and tribulations as he fought his way back to the WWE Championship. It ended with Lesnar missing a Shooting Star Press (a move he had hit before he debuted for WWE in dark matches) and landing almost directly on his head. He would recover, hit a quick F-5 and pin Angle.
Lesnar's story was a basic one. It was the babyface winning, but having the odds stacked against him. It was still a compelling story. People wanted to see Lesnar win. The evil was built up big enough for there to be reasonable doubt of Brock overcoming. Fans wanted to cheer him, and this gave them a reason.
2004 - Chris Benoit
Nothing came easy for Chris Benoit. Throughout his career, he was faced with challenges. He had to make the hard choice to leave WCW right as he became World Champion. He had to fade into obscurity at times in WWE as wrestlers with less talent, experience, ability, and charisma were pushed ahead of him. He had to forge a character from hard work instead of walking into a naturally compelling situation.
In a way, 2004's Royal Rumble and Road to WrestleMania told the story of Chris Benoit up to that point. He entered the match at number one and had to fight through 28 competitors until it was down to just Benoit and Big Show. Big Show is probably the last wrestler anyone wants to see in the final two of a Battle Royal with them. Benoit was able to overcome Show and win the Rumble.
This would not be the end of this challenging road. Benoit made the decision the jump to Raw and challenge for the World Heavyweight Championship. Benoit was the first wrestler to switch brands in order to challenge for a title after winning the Rumble and he established a story point that would become very important on every Road to WrestleMania that followed.
The challenge on the Raw brand? Triple H, the current World Heavyweight Champion, was embroiled in a major blood feud with his former and future best friend, Shawn Michaels. They had wrestled to a draw at the Royal Rumble when neither man could answer the count of ten in a Last Man Standing Match. Michaels felt he deserved a rematch for the title. Benoit had earned a title shot.
When the contract was to be signed for Triple H vs. Chris Benoit, Shawn Michaels interfered, Superkicked Benoit, and signed the contract himself. In the odd world of wrestling legalities, this gave Michaels the right to a title shot. Left without another real option, Raw General Manager Eric Bischoff decided all three men would compete in a Triple Threat Match for the World Heavyweight Championship at WrestleMania XX.
Nothing came easy for Chris Benoit. Instead of a one-on-one shot, he had to compete against two men with a longstanding history. Instead of the match he was supposed to have, he was thrust into a new, rule-free environment. The story of the challenge facing Benoit became much more compelling as he had to compete against two of the best wrestlers in the world.
The actual match was not easy, either. Triple H and Shawn Michaels brought brutality to a new level, inflicting damage on each other and Benoit. The challenge of a Triple Threat match was evident as none of the competitors could put both of their opponents down long enough to beat one. Even when Chris Benoit locked the Crossface onto Shawn Michaels, Triple H was there to hold Michaels' hand above the mat and not allow him to tap.
Finally, with Michaels and Triple H bloodied and battered, Benoit locked the Crossface onto Triple H, who made a desperate attempt to roll through it, but just ended up back in the hold. Triple H tapped, ending one of the greatest main events in WrestleMania history.
Nothing came easy for Chris Benoit, which made this victory that much sweeter.
2005 - Batista
What happens when a company focuses on building a star, then said star leaves to try and become a Viking (the Minnesota sort)? The time between WrestleMania XX and WrestleMania XXI happens. WWE was in trouble after Brock Lesnar became road weary and decided to go home.
Luckily, WWE also had two stars in the wings waiting: John Cena and Batista. These were the final two competitors in the 2005 Royal Rumble. Batista and Cena battled each other when something strange happened. Both men tumbled over the top rope in a replay of the 1994 Royal Rumble. This was not an intentional replay. Vince McMahon ran out (tearing both of his quads in the process) and restarted the Rumble, allowing Batista to eliminate John Cena.
At this point, Batista was a member of Evolution, who had already eliminated Randy Orton from their ranks. He was "The Animal" playing opposite Triple H and Ric Flair. He had spent his time developing from nothing but a dumb enforcer to a very subtle character. Batista was ready to break out; he just needed the right opportunity.
This was evident just weeks before the Rumble at New Year’s Revolution, when Batista was in the Elimination Chamber match. Batista received one of the loudest ovations in the match when it looked like he was about to turn on Triple H. The stage was set at that moment. The fans wanted it.
This was another variation of the classic Rumble story. All Batista needed was his reason and the Rumble provided it. Triple H believed Batista to be dumb, so he tried to convince him to go after WWE Champion John Bradshaw Layfield. Unfortunately for Triple H, Batista overheard Triple H speaking about how dumb Batista was. In a classic moment, Batista made his choice by giving Triple H the thumbs down (referencing the Evolution turn on Randy Orton) and Powerbombing Triple H through a table.
It was the student against the teacher at WrestleMania. Triple H pulled a great match out of the inexperienced Animal. Batista put on one of the best performances of his career, ultimately overcoming not only Triple H, but also Ric Flair.
This Rumble win was the first instance of the Rumble truly being used to make a wrestler a main eventer in many years. Batista was poised to take off, but he needed the right spark. The Rumble was expertly used to provide said spark. It was an effective storytelling tool and it created a great moment at WrestleMania.
When the biggest boom in wrestling history ends, something has to change. The formula couldn't remain the same. In these years, we see WWE trying to replace WCW and recapture what it offered to wrestling fans. They tried with one of WCW's least utilized, but most popular talents. They tried with creating an entirely different brand. They tried hard, but eventually realized they had to make their own way.
Batista was WWE forging ahead. In 2005, they finally began to forget what they had. They pushed past the ghost of WCW and made a couple real stars of their own.
This blog has been edited by the hyphen-loving Ryan Kester.
Let's do some good old fashioned talking about this blog, the Royal Rumble, and WrestleMania! Feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or to follow me on Twitter at twitter.com/itswilltime.
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