The Attitude Era is often held up as the best part of WWE history with the rise of Steve Austin and The Rock and colorful moments. But from 2002 to 2008, the company embarked on what was called the Ruthless Aggression era. It came from a speech by Vince McMahon to try and push guys more as WWE needed a new direction following the death of WCW and ECW. True, some stuff in this time was bad: Billy & Chuck, Triple H dominating too much and more but the era also provided some great stuff. There were new stars rising, new pushes made and stuff that helped shift the entire company majorly. In many ways, this era was just as important to the company as the Attitude era had ever been.
The fantastic workers and matches were a highlight, featuring amazing feuds that elevated WWE majorly. WrestleMania really became a huge deal with new match types and so many great stars got their push for ultra-fame. It’s unique to look back and see how much was transformed in this time, both for WWE and the industry itself. It may have come to an end for the more “family friendly” WWE we know today but these six years provided some amazing stuff that changed the company forever. Here are 15 things that made the Ruthless Aggression Era so notable for fans and show why WWE should always be grateful for it.
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15 15 The Edge/Matt/Lita Triangle
It was one of the biggest moments in WWE history. A fantastic mix of real life and on-camera antics that blurred the lines and made major stars out of all three figures. For years, Matt Hardy and Amy “Lita” Dumas had been a great couple both on and off screen. With Matt out due to injury, Dumas began hanging out with Adam “Edge” Copeland and they were soon having an affair. When Matt found out, he erupted online with tirades on both of them. Realizing how hated they were, Edge and Lita embraced it, becoming an on-screen couple who basked in the fans’ boos.
Fired, Matt would return to attack them and a feud with Edge where clearly there was plenty of true emotion amid the fake action. Edge won the feud and it helped finally make him a main eventer while making Matt a sympathetic figure as well. It was fascinating to watch, making WWE must-see TV and still one of the best mixes of real life and kayfabe the business has ever seen.
14 The OVW Influence
Long before NXT came around, Ohio Valley Wrestling was the place WWE had their workers trained. First under Jim Cornette then Paul Heyman, OVW was known for fantastic old-school wrestling booking, not the glitz and glamour of WWE but basic stuff fans loved. What’s notable is how this place was the start of so many future superstars. The 2001 class alone provided Brock Lesnar, John Cena, Batista and Randy Orton. There was also Shelton Benjamin, Santino Marella, Zack Ryder, Kofi Kingston, Ryback and others. OVW also gave major boost to women in serious bouts with Beth Phoenix becoming a star en route to WWE and the first female ladder matches.
WWE ended their involvement in 2008 but this showcased how the training ground of wrestlers was a great thing for the company, something they would take to the next level with NXT and without OVW, so many stars that made the Ruthless Aggression Era special wouldn’t have come to be.
13 Money in the Bank
This may well be the greatest contribution Chris Jericho has made to wrestling. Originally, it was just a way to get guys on WrestleMania at once with some great action. The first one was absolutely amazing with Shelton Benjamin stealing the show by running up a ladder to nail Jericho and other stunning spots. Fans loved it but the true genius came with the MITB briefcase itself. The idea that at any time, a guy could “cash it in” to get an immediate title shot was very intriguing and first winner Edge used it to push himself up more. His first cash in on John Cena was amazing, the fans loving it as he took advantage to win the title.
Since then, MITB has become one of the best parts of WWE, both in the actual match and who gets the briefcase. Waiting to see it get cashed in is a major highlight and thus Jericho should be credited with one of the best things in WWE today.
12 The Streak Grows
While The Undertaker at WrestleMania had been made into a big deal before, it was in 2002 that it began to sink in to fans that he’d never lost. At WrestleMania X-8, he and Ric Flair had a fantastic battle with 'Taker winning. Afterward, he held up all 10 fingers and counted them down to note his 10 Mania victories. In that moment, The Streak finally became something major. It was after that that The Undertaker’s 'Mania matches became mixed with the “will the Streak be broken” talk.
That was a focus of his Mania 21 battle with Randy Orton which was a terrific match and Taker’s victory was seen as a bigger deal because of it. It also added to when he beat Edge for the World title in 2007. It’s been broken since but the RA Era is when The Streak became part of the mystique that would turn The Undertaker from merely a superstar to an icon of the business and a backbone for WWE.
Even WWE has acknowledged that the Cruiserweight division was the best part of WCW. Most thought that would end with WCW as WWE is well known as a “big man” company. But in 2002, they decided to revive the Cruiserweight title for SmackDown and impressed by doing well with it. Matt Hardy really helped make it great with his “Matt Version 1” gimmick and impressed in amazing battles. Rey Mysterio naturally elevated it more as he and Chavo Guerrero also helped in making the belt mean something.
It was great to have the smaller guys get a focus and providing Smack Down with some fast and exciting matches. It came to a bad end when Hornswoggle was given the belt in 2007 and it was deactivated not long afterward. But its legacy lives today with WWE bringing the division back.
10 Cena’s Rise
He may be mocked a lot today but make no mistake; the rise of John Cena was a key part of this time. He started off as the “Prototype” in OVW, a muscleman with some good promo skills. Coming to WWE, he had a rough start, was a bit bland and wasn't really pushed well. But then came the Halloween SmackDown where he played Vanilla Ice and suddenly found his gimmick. His street rapper persona soon had him rising as a heel but then fans responded to his rapping promos and improving ring skills. By the time he won the US title in 2004, Cena was one of the hottest guys on SmackDown and it just increased through the year.
So having him beat JBL for the WWE title at WrestleMania just made sense as he was clearly a mega-star on the rise. This was the era Cena became a star and for all his faults, has done his best carrying WWE on his shoulders and showed from the start that fame was in his future.
9 One Night Stand
Yes, the ECW revival was a bad idea. But the original One Night Stand remains a top-notch show. The fact that WWE was willing to let Paul Heyman run it in the first place was something impressive as Vince doesn’t like to give credit to stuff he didn’t come up with. While a lot of WWE guys took part, a lot of ECW alumni were given the chance to shine well. The matches were good like Mike Awesome vs Masato Tanaka and Chris Benoit vs Eddie Guerrero. There were also tributes to ECW’s past, a great RVD promo and funny stuff like Joel Gertner asking for a job.
Having WWE guys “invading” was good and the epic main event of Tommy Dreamer and Sandman against the Dudley Boyz was fantastic. It was the send-off ECW long deserved and how, for one night, the glorious energy of that promotion was alive and well despite how WWE would cause it to suffer later.
8 Return of The Deadman
The Undertaker’s longevity is thanks to how he’s been smart to adapt to the times. He showed that in 2000 when he totally redid his gimmick to “the American Badass,” a biker character. It was a major turn that helped keep 'Taker alive for major battles against Brock Lesnar and many others. But fans wanted a return to the classic Phenom and after he was taken out in late 2003, The Undertaker decided to give it to them. After months of teasing, he returned to face Kane at WrestleMania XX back in his old gear. He still had some new dimensions but The Deadman was the aspect of The Undertaker fans loved. It seemed to invigorate him for more epic feuds and reminded fans once more of why Taker is one of WWE’s greatest icons in any form.
7 Elimination Chamber
Some were unsure of this when it was announced, thinking it might be better for WWE to bring back something like War Games. However, the Chamber turned out to be a pretty good idea, mixing up elements of past gimmick matches. It was an awesome sight with the huge domed cage and glass chambers and it added to the fun of the battle. WWE had other nice touches like a RAW show where guys tried to “beat the clock” to see who would enter the Chamber last which was a clever bit.
It ended up with some epic battles and major title changes like Shawn Michaels winning the title and cool sights like Goldberg spearing Jericho through the glass. WWE is smart to keep it only once a year and help it be more special so this era gave one of the best gimmick matches out there.
6 HBK’s Return
When he retired due to a back injury in 1998, most thought that was it for Shawn Michaels. He had issues afterward but made noises of a return in 2002, clashing with Hunter who set Michaels up and then attacked him. Most thought the SummerSlam match would be a slow affair and just a one-off battle. Instead, Michaels astounded everyone, not only coming back, but better than ever before. Instead of just a one-off battle, he was pushed hard, including a World title run but seemed more interested in putting over others.
His backstage attitude was better, not as big a jerk as before and he was willing to make amends. It helped that Shawn went all out in battles with Triple H, Randy Orton, Kurt Angle and others and doing his best to steal every show. It was one of the greatest comebacks wrestling has ever seen and redeemed Shawn’s legacy, as the Heartbreak Kid became one of the greatest icons the business has ever seen.
5 The Rock as a Hollywood Heel
For years, The Rock had been the most popular guy in WWE, cheered by fans and his promos were gold. But many were upset when Rock left WWE in 2002 for movies and his return in 2003 not as well received. The Rock decided to use that by “going Hollywood,” coming out with an arrogant attitude, running down the fans and boosting himself up more. This actually made him hotter than ever with moments like his famous “concert” and his WrestleMania battle with Steve Austin a highlight of the show.
He kept it up with feuds with Goldberg and The Hurricane. The Rock seemed to love being the bad guy yet fans kept on cheering for him a bit. It didn’t last long as in late 2003, The Rock came back to help Mick Foley and was cheered once more. But it was a great twist to the character that showed the talent The Rock would bring to his Hollywood stardom.
4 Brock vs Angle
Throughout 2002, Brock Lesnar had risen amazingly as WWE champion, dominating over all competition and wowing fans with his work. Kurt Angle had been busy in a tag team with Chris Benoit but earned the title himself in late 2002. This set up a fantastic feud between them in 2003 as Lesnar won the belt off of Angle at WrestleMania in a match famous for Brock nearly breaking his neck with a botched shooting star press. Angle was expected out for months because of a neck injury but amazed everyone by coming back fast. Angle regained the title in a triple threat match, he and Brock seemingly being allies but then Brock turned heel on Angle for a major SummerSlam battle. This set up the Match of the Year, a 60 minute Iron Man battle on “SmackDown” that was a masterpiece of brawling and technical work where Brock won the belt.
While they drifted on to new feuds, 2003 had the duo making SmackDown the must-watch show as the two masters wowed fans with a fantastic program.
The Divas had already been well known for their hot stuff thanks to Sable, Sunny and others. But this was a time when they started to get a bit more respect as workers. Leading the way was Trish Stratus who turned from eye candy to one of the best female workers ever. She and Lita would clash for some nice encounters but they weren’t alone. There was Victoria, Jazz, Molly Holly and others who made for some great matches. Yes, you had ones just for beauty like Stacy Keibler and Torrie Wilson but some surprised like Candice Michelle turning into a good worker herself.
Fans could enjoy the wild costume stuff but still got great matches too as this was the time when the Divas really rose up and set the foundation for the great women’s division of today, while fans were still able to enjoy the more risque stuff.
2 SmackDown Six
Having Paul Heyman run SmackDown was a genius move. Heyman is known for his brilliance in booking and having him on a leash actually helps a bit more. Of course, what really boosted things was “The SmackDown Six.” Edge, Rey Mysterio, Chris Benoit, Eddie and Chavo Guerrero and Kurt Angle. They went at it in several mixed feuds for the tag titles that helped make those belts a hot commodity in late 2002. Better was how it led to some great feuds as Benoit and Angle had fantastic clashes for the WWE title in 2003 and then Benoit and Guerrero went at it for the US belt.
Mysterio rose well with the Cruiserweights while Benoit would make the jump to RAW as World Champion while Eddie rose to the top as WWE Champion. Edge would be hampered by a neck injury and move to RAW but his time on SmackDown still elevated him up as a singles star. Thanks to these six and Heyman’s direction, SmackDown often was seen as the better show by fans.
1 The Brand Split
Some derided it at the time but splitting up RAW and Smack Down turned out to be a great move. Each show had their own unique vibe. It felt like a big deal when one star jumped from one brand to another and helped liven up the Survivor Series with “brand vs brand” clashes. The split helped each show have its own identity and fans could enjoy arguing as to which was better on a given week. Plus, having separate brands helped some stars rise better. Cena, for example, excelled on SmackDown nicely, proving he could do the same on the bigger stage of RAW.
Even as bad as ECW could be, having a third brand added a new energy to things It felt like something was lost when the brands merged in the 2010s and it's no surprise WWE has gone back to a split today. Something about having two brands in WWE just helps the company shine a bit better.
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