In 2002, WWE looked at the stacked roster of world-class talents they had assembled following the fall of WCW and ECW and correctly discovered that they had assembled perhaps the most impressive collection of wrestlers the business had ever seen. There was just one problem; there wasn’t nearly enough television time for all of them. So, in an effort to maximize the exposure of Raw and SmackDown as well as create a feeling of competition, WWE decided to have their first ever brand split. Following a draft, half of the roster would go to SmackDown and the other half to Raw.
Was it a success? That answer depends on who you ask. However, like most things in wrestling, the truth about this brand split is that it came with a little bit of good and a little bit of bad. This is especially true of each show’s storylines which sometimes benefited from not having to incorporate so many wrestlers by maximizing the potential of a select few superstars and sometimes revealed that a thinner roster can lead to some desperate attempts at entertainment. So as we embark on another brand split, let’s look back to 2002-2004 (between the first two drafts) and find the 8 greatest and 7 worst storylines of the original brand split.
15 Best: Team Angle
Sometimes, the wrestling gods just smile upon you. Such was the case for Paul Heyman late in 2002 when he realized that in order to properly set-up a Kurt Angle vs. Brock Lesnar main event for WrestleMania XIX, he needed to turn Kurt Angle into a way bigger heel. In order to do so, he wanted to make Kurt the leader of a new heel faction of incredibly gifted wrestlers called “Team Angle.” What was great about Team Angle was that they didn’t just resort to interference and other heel faction tactics (although they certainly weren’t above that), but rather drew heat by continuously proving themselves to be far superior wrestlers.
The other thing that was notable about Team Angle was the way that it wisely used the brand extension to give young wrestlers the spotlight. In another time, Charlie Hass and Shelton Benjamin may have been left to toil in mid-card obscurity. As part of Team Angle, however, they were main event players on SmackDown.
14 Worst: Vince McMahon vs. Stephanie McMahon
Even some otherwise quite intelligent wrestling fans have trouble separating the characters of the McMahons from their real-life personas. Maybe that’s because they do such a great acting job (or maybe it has something to do with those bizarre stories that float around about the McMahons), but some people just can’t appreciate the differences. One of the strangest aspects the Mr. McMahon character (or perhaps even the real Mr. McMahon) is his unhealthy on-screen obsession with his daughter. That creepiness was raised to another level during this feud which saw Vince physically manhandle Stephanie en route to a very awkward “I Quit” match between the two.
Even if it was all just a story, this angle crossed that uncanny valley of professional wrestling storytelling in that it was just way too close to a reality to be enjoyable (even if it wasn’t poorly written in the first place).
13 Best: Chris Jericho Doesn't Want To Be Shawn Michaels
It’s amazing how far wrestling bookers will go to find a reason for two competitors to be in the same ring. Wrestlers have fought over very bizarre things over the years despite the fact that most matches don’t need a build that goes beyond “I think I’m good, you think you’re good, let’s do this.” The Shawn Michaels/Chris Jericho feud of 2003 is, essentially, an evolved take on that concept. Shawn Michaels and Chris Jericho had spent a few weeks exchanging cheap shots due to their respective egos until Jericho finally confronted Michaels about the pride and resentment he felt every time he was compared to Shawn Michaels.
In Jericho’s words “I gave up on being the next Shawn Michaels and focused on becoming the first Chris Jericho.” It was an incredibly simple story made legendary by both the skills of the performers involved and the fact that it was just truthful enough to believe.
12 Worst: The Relationship Of Billy and Chuck
Who would have thought that WWE would handle a storyline involving homosexual wrestlers with all the class of an empty schoolhouse? Everyone is the answer to that question. It must be said that the Billy and Chuck storyline wasn’t always quite that bad. At first, WWE was actually quite subtle about whether or not Billy and Chuck were a gay tag team. That lasted about a week before Vince McMahon started attaching every homosexual stereotype to these two and someone deduced that this somehow automatically made them a heel team.
Watching them descend lower into an offensive gimmick was bad enough, but the whole thing became unforgivable when Billy and Chuck decided to get married on SmackDown. It was at this point that the two admitted that the whole thing was just a publicity stunt (which you have to believe is 100% true) and that they are both straight. What was the point of this again?
11 Best: The Rock Goes Hollywood
As great as it is to cheer for The Rock, it’s hard to deny that the man is one of the biggest natural born heels to ever step foot in a wrestling ring. The Rock took off as a cocky athlete that felt he was better than everyone else and, although he never really stopped being that guy, he just started to draw way too many cheers to be a proper heel during the height of his WWE run. Before The Rock’s full-time WWE career was over, though, WWE would find the chance to turn him heel once more in 2003.
By having The Rock insist that he was far too big of a movie star to possibly be a WWE wrestler anymore, WWE had crafted one of the finest heels of the era. The Rock spent the first few months of 2003 cutting vicious promos that drew major heat by hitting a bit too close to home for some fans. His run as "Hollywood" Rock wasn’t long, but it never suffered from a dull moment.
10 Worst: The Fall Of Zach Gowen
Zach Gowen was a young wrestler with a prosthetic leg that was actually a fairly capable worker despite his considerable handicap. Gowen was reportedly never against having his leg become a factor during storylines, which makes sense given that it could be used to turn him into a major babyface. At first, it appeared that’s what WWE was going to do with him as they paired him up with Mr. America (Hulk Hogan) and positioned him against Mr. McMahon. It’s there that everything started to go wrong. McMahon put Gowen through a number of verbal and physical beatdowns (the worst of which came at the hands of Brock Lesnar who decimated this kid) and never let him get a measure of revenge.
That’s right, despite setting up Gowen as the ultimate underdog, WWE never paid off this story by having him achieve any measure of success. They just continued to exploit his condition until he was released.
9 Best: Matt Hardy Version 1
One of the big selling points of the brand split has always been the way it, supposedly, allows new blood to get a chance at making a name for themselves. I say supposedly, of course, because more often than not it’s the same old stars doing the same old things. Given that the original brand split occurred at a time when the creative team was still open to accepting wrestlers' input on stories and character directions, however, some people did take advantage of their increased exposure and forged a new career path.
That’s especially true of Matt Hardy who in early 2003 decided to rechristen himself “Matt Hardy: Version 1” and try to lose weight in order to compete in the cruiserweight division. It was about as ridiculous as it sounds, but that was kind of the point. Kind of like Matt Hardy is doing in TNA now, he took a silly concept that nonetheless allowed him to stand out, and he grew it into a gimmick and storyline that often stole the show.
8 Worst: Eric Bischoff Teases HLA
There are times when you get the impression that Vince McMahon would put a gun to his head and threaten to shoot himself when Raw returns from a commercial break if it meant that rating would increase by a point. Actually, they kind of did just that with Stone Cold Steve Austin one time. Well, that just goes to prove the point that WWE will sometimes sink to incredible lows just to draw attention. Even still, Eric Bischoff’s promise of “hot lesbian action” on Raw has to one of the lowest moments in the history of the company. By promising that two young women were going to have sex live on Raw by the end of the evening, WWE hoped that people would tune in out of curiosity.
The few who did (and there weren’t many) were “rewarded” with some brief making out, the debut of the equally atrocious Three-Minute Warning and the knowledge that they had seen the bottom of the WWE creative barrel.
7 Best: Triple H And Shawn Michaels' Blood Feud
Nobody was quite sure what to expect from Shawn Michaels in 2002. Not only had he been away from actively wrestling matches for the last four years, but the last time anybody had seen him, he was dealing with some rather nasty personal issues that had turned him into a shell of his former in-ring self. Everyone was happy to see him back, but nobody knew how he would perform or what WWE had in store for him. Those questions were answered in rather short order when Triple H pedigreed Shawn Michaels and started a war between the former best friends.
While the matches these two would have in their first year feuding (which included that excellent No DQ bout at SummerSlam and the first Elimination Chamber) was a big reason this story was so great, it also had something to do with the almost genuine levels of hatred they displayed in their every promo. These two carried the Raw brand for much of 2002.
6 Worst: Dawn Marie and Torrie Wilson's Love Triangle
Sometimes, it’s okay if a wrestler has nothing to do. You don’t always need to give every performer a storyline if it means the storyline they are involved in is the kind of miserable soap opera dribble that your average person typically associates with the worst wrestling has to offer. Nobody is entirely sure why Dawn Marie and Torrie Wilson felt the need to engage in a long (as in several PPVs) storyline involving Dawn Marie seducing Torrie Wilson’s father.
Nobody is quite sure why said storyline involved a sex tape with impeccable production values or a “nude wedding.” Absolutely nobody has a clue how this truly awful storyline made it past Paul Heyman’s final say and onto SmackDown. The one thing everyone is quite sure of is that this represented the consequences of a brand split’s creative lows as well as any storyline ever has.
5 Best: The SmackDown Tag Tournament
When Paul Heyman was named head writer of the SmackDown brand in 2002, he must have felt like a kid at Christmas. Having spent an entire career trying to do more with less, he now had access to a roster of some of the best wrestlers in the world and a budget that would have dwarfed anything ECW had ever known. In many ways, this tag team tournament seemed less like a way to revitalize the tag division and more of an attempt by Heyman to show off his six favorite pieces of talent. Edge, Rey Mysterio, Eddie Guerrero, Chavo Guerrero, Kurt Angle and Chris Benoit would have some of their greatest matches under Heyman’s regime, many of which occurred during this tournament which Heyman also used to set up the next year's worth of stories. It was simply brilliant stuff and perhaps the most fruitful tournament WWE has ever held.
4 Worst: Booker T and Triple H’s Race War
Can you do a racial storyline in professional wrestling in this modern age without it being incredibly offensive? Perhaps, but if you do, you certainly don’t do it like this. First off, the problem here was that Booker T had failed to really get over with WWE’s audience on his own and probably shouldn’t have been in a WrestleMania title match at this point. To help get Booker T over, WWE decided to have Triple H spout off a tirade of thinly veiled racial remarks that did nothing to contribute to the feud they were having. Triple H denied that comments like “people like you don’t get to be a world champion” had anything to do with Booker’s race, but that certainly doesn’t explain why Hunter felt it necessary to comment on Booker’s “nappy hair” during one particularly awful promo.
Oh, and to top everything off, they had Triple H beat Booker T and seemingly prove his racist character right in the process. Just...wow.
3 Best: The Rise of Brock Lesnar
Look all you want, but you’ll struggle to find a wrestler that had a more impressive rookie year than Brock Lesnar. From the moment that he debuted on Raw and proceeded to tear apart men a third of his size with reckless abandonment, Lesnar gave the impression that he was something quite unlike WWE fans had ever seen. What’s truly remarkable about the rise Brock Lesnar, though, is that WWE did not drop the ball on him in his first year. They had him absolutely destroy a series of legends and top talents with the same ferocity that he displayed in his debut.
It was unheard of for WWE to give anyone so young such a quick ride to the top, and many found themselves tuning in week after week just to see if it would ever end. It’s tempting to make declarative statements like “This is how you book a young star,” but the truth of it is that there is only one Brock Lesnar and his initial dominating run will never be duplicated.
2 Worst: Katie Vick
At this point, there’s a good chance you’ve heard of the Katie Vick storyline. After all, it’s not often that there is a wrestling storyline that involves one wrestler accusing another wrestler of molesting a dead girl and then proceeds to act out that very scene in one of the worst segments wrestling fans have ever had to suffer through. Such a thing tends to stick to the ribs of wrestling history. The one thing that tends to get glossed over regarding this storyline, however, is how long it took to finally resolve the whole mess. This story stretched out for over a month and somehow continued to keep getting worse. The implication that Kane was a necrophiliac was bad enough, but the real misery here was that fans had to endure a multi-week feud between Triple H and Kane despite the fact that the two have zero chemistry together. In that respect, resorting to such an awful plot just to make people pay attention kind of makes sense.
1 Best: The Formation and Dominance of Evolution
It was hard to know what to think of Evolution when the group first formed. Some people still have trouble deciding what to make of the group’s legacy. Evolution’s initial criticism centered around the fact that it was a pretty pale imitation of the Four Horsemen that didn’t have a chance of equaling the legacy of that group as long as it featured guys like Randy Orton and Batista. That, combined with Triple H’s dominance of the World Heavyweight Championship scene, rubbed some people the wrong way.
In the end, though, you have to consider Evolution to be a massive success. Not only did it turn Orton and Batista into mega-stars, but the group’s antics ensured that the first incarnation of the Raw brand never ran low on high-profile matches with bolstered by the group’s genuine heat. Love them or hate them, Evolution’s dominance was the most significant story of the initial brand split.
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