Friday 24 January 2014

The Class of 2002

In 2002 WWE was reeling. The Attitude Era was over. It was an approach that had served them well since 1997 or so and finding a new presentation style wasn’t easy. The number of top names was also decreasing. ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin walked out in the summer of 2002 and was forced to retire shortly after he returned in 2003. The Rock was yet to take his great hiatus but he was not the regular fixture he had been years before. Shawn Michaels was years away from a full-time return and Mick Foley was too banged up to do anything more than make sporadic in-ring appearances.

The names they did have were being split between the newly established RAW and SmackDown rosters. Halving the roster was something WWE felt they had to do (and for a while it was the right move) but it didn’t do them any favours when giving people reasons to tune in. So the obvious decision to try creating some fresh stars was made, before there were no big names left to help establish new ones.

The reason I bring this up is that the four most prominent men introduced during this era appeared on their first WWE show together in years on the January 20th RAW. They are of course John Cena, Brock Lesnar, Randy Orton and Batista. All worked alongside one another in Ohio Valley Wrestling in the early part of the millennium and all got spots on either RAW or SmackDown in 2002.

Of the four it was Lesnar who was expected to be the biggest name. He was not only promoted first, debuting on RAW the night after WrestleMania X8, but he was given the strongest push. He won the 2002 King of the Ring tournament (the last time the tourney was a pay-per-view), captured the WWE championship from The Rock in a great main event at SummerSlam, and went undefeated for months. It was one of the greatest star-building exercises ever. By the end of his debut year ‘The Next Big Thing’ was a legitimate main event star.

Batista, Orton and Cena had less glamorous beginnings. Orton started out as a bland babyface on SmackDown and seemed utterly unremarkable. A switch over to RAW was perhaps supposed to be the beginning of something more meaningful but wasn’t: Orton continued being exactly as bland as he had been on the blue brand. It wasn’t until he suffered an injury and was kept on TV via his conceited Randy News Networks updates that he begun to develop a character and show signs that he might have something.

Batista also debuted on SmackDown. But he wasn’t a babyface, bland or otherwise. He was the assistant to the corrupt Reverend Devon, named Deacon Batista. They teamed together for a while (including a feud against Randy Orton and various babyface partners) but ultimately split up, with Batista turning face on his boss.

Following that he too was moved to RAW where he and Orton joined forces with Ric Flair and Triple H to form the Four Horsemen inspired group Evolution. That was when the newcomers really clicked. Batista became the group’s heavy, setting him up for a successful face turn on Triple H in 2004 (basically a rerun of his turn on Devon but on a far grander scale). Orton was presented as the future of the business and went into his ‘Legend Killer’ phase.

Who's this young buck?
Finally there was John Cena. His debut came when he answered an open challenge issued by Kurt Angle. The match was good, not that that was surprising when one of the men was Kurt Angle. In fairness Cena played his part as well as could be expected. As a complete unknown he had no established rapport to fall back on but he successfully played the underdog and encouraged the crowd to rally behind him.

His rise since then should be known to everyone. After turning heel (on Billy Kidman of all people) he spent months wrestling as a generic bad guy before dressing as Vanilla Ice for a Halloween episode of SmackDown. That led to him taking on the bad boy rapper gimmick full time and gaining popularity with fans, mainly because there were very few other acts to latch onto. Eventually he claims he went to Vince McMahon and told him that he was ready to be ‘The Man’. The rest, as they say, is history.

I find it interesting that these four men have become as big as they have and yet nobody else from that period did much of significance. I can’t think of a single other training league to turn out several top level wrestlers but nothing else. I think it shows that the four men had something about them that meant they would succeed no matter what, otherwise there would be at least some other success stories to point to from that OVW era.

No, Rico doesn’t count.

In a way it’s nice that the key figures of what was an important training league will be a part of WrestleMania XXX. It turns ‘Mania into a sort of celebration of the last decade plus of wrestling in general. The four biggest men to be trained primarily in OVW will join Attitude Era stars Triple H and Undertaker, ROH standouts CM Punk and Daniel Bryan, more recent indy darlings Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins, and the longest serving member of the roster. The class of 2002: the future is finally here.

No comments:

Post a Comment