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Wrestling > Tape Reviews

WWF January-June 2001
Posted by Charles "Loss4Words" Williams on Jun 22, 2004, 21:18

“Look at me! Look at me when I’m talkin’ to you!” – “Stone Cold” Steve Austin

Get comfortable. Grab yourself a nice beverage and a snack. Hell, invite your friends over too, because this is probably worth sharing. It’s a little ditty about something that has been referred to, correctly or incorrectly, as everything from a carnival sideshow to sports entertainment to an art form. It’s been laughed at, mistreated, prostituted, smeared and even federally investigated. It’s racist, it’s homophobic, it’s misogynistic, it’s jingoistic and it panders to the lowest common denominator of society. It has few self-imposed limits, little tact or compassion and often times makes no sense.

In my twenty years as a wrestling fan, I’ve seen some horrible things. I’ve seen women crawl around on all fours and bark like a dog. I’ve seen a grown man literally kiss the ass of his employer on live television. I’ve seen a promoter fake a heart attack as part of a storyline and not tell his sons about it in advance because he wanted a “genuine” reaction. I’ve seen black wrestlers booked to be impervious to chairshots because they have such hard heads, according to the announcers. I’ve seen some of my favorites held back by the inner political workings of the business, all to instead push someone else who’s a proven failure. Most disturbingly, I’ve seen a great performer fall to his death on pay-per-view while doing a stunt to mock the competition.

One might wonder how we could possibly keep watching something so disgusting and morally reprehensible. After all, for these reasons and more, being a wrestling fan isn’t exactly something that’s prestigious or trendy. To the outsider who asks this question, I reply that wrestling fans are overwhelmingly positive and can endure just about anything. We’re often taken for granted, insulted by the monkey, despite being the feeding hand, and the whims of the promoters typically go ahead of what we’d like to see. There are a million types of wrestling fans and I’ve seen and participated in some awfully heated debates among us that prove this point decisively. However, the one tie that binds us all, even the most cynical of our nature, is hope.

We watch constantly, hoping that things will get better. We hope for a better product, for better wrestlers, for better announcers and for better booking. We give it until after the next pay-per-view, or the next batch of tapes, or the title changes hands or whatever other handy excuse we can find to keep watching something that we love because we love it. Sometimes, we feel the need to justify the fact that we still watch, and as a result, we throw out undeserved love to matches that don’t really deserve our praise. Soon, before you know it, quicker than you can say “Kurt Angle is the next Ric Flair” in fact, our standards are noticeably lower. It’s happened to me; I’m sure it’s happened to most of us.

Five-star matches are no longer all-time classics. They’re now simply the best matches in any promotion in any given year. There’s not often an explanation to accompany the snowflakes, with the mindset being that the snowflakes act as an explanation for themselves. It’s a way of thinking that has been ingrained into “the IWC” (God, I hate that term!) by Scott Keith, and it’s something that has turned poor into passable, and fair into fantastic.

Here’s where this article comes in. My goal is to take a year of programming from a given promotion and walk through all the matches that either look to be good on paper, received a high amount of praise or are often debated and review them all. When I say review, I don’t mean play-by-play with a vague sentence at the end declaring the match good or bad, I mean a fleshed out explanation of what worked and what didn’t and the reasons behind that. It’s time for we wrestling fans to stop accepting what’s thrown at us, to demand great and get it.

I’m starting with the WWF in 2001 for a few reasons. First of all, I figure it’s a year with which almost all of us are quite familiar. It was a year that saw major changes that shook up the business permanently, and it was a year where some of the best potential opportunities didn’t exactly take the route you’d expect. There are many matches in 2001 that have received high praise – some of them deserve it and some of them don’t. It’s time to go through them and separate the great from the good from the awful. You might ask why I don’t review full shows, and the reason is because I have so much ground to cover and I don’t think anyone cares what I or anyone else has to say about Chyna v Ivory at the Royal Rumble, for example. This is about being relevant and focusing on the so-called highest standard and seeing if it’s high enough.

Some of you will think many of these ratings are criminally low and some of you will think I’m insane for going so high on some of these matches. I’ll say now that there’s probably validity in both, which brings me to my next point. My next review will be a bit older and I plan to review all of this in chronological order from here forward. I was originally going to limit this to US promotions, but after more consideration, I don’t think I’m getting a complete picture of the standards of work if I close out any particular type of it. This is the first look at the WWF in 2001, but it’s definitely not the last. When this sure-to-be long and winding road returns me to the WWF in 2001, I’m going to re-do all of this and see if, after watching the other footage that preceded it, these viewpoints hold up. My theory is that they won’t, but I’ve been wrong before, even in my memory of some of the matches below before rewatching them. Perhaps the thrill of it all is in the unknown.

WWF JANUARY-JUNE 2001

Steve Austin v Kurt Angle – WWF RAW 01/08/01
WWF World title

The buildup to this match was almost ridiculous, as even some main events on pay-per-view later in the year wouldn’t get the same hype. This was the result of a single elimination tournament and this episode of RAW was frontloaded – and I do mean frontloaded – with video packages and interviews to celebrate and promote this match. This would all be fine and dandy if the same match hadn’t happened just a few weeks earlier on the same show with the same exact finish to boot! That encounter and this encounter were only different in the hype they received and the amount of time the workers were allotted. It was the similarities between the two matches that was most telling – Angle still had a lot to learn, Austin was better than he had been in years and HHH would always be the real winner in the end.

Both display limited offense, but Austin has a far better sense of timing and structure. As you’d expect, his most effective moves are Lou Thesz presses, clotheslines, stomps and vertical suplexes, but he brings a level of excitement and credibility to the match that Angle lacks. Angle is lost between moves, as he keeps returning to the well with the belly-to-belly suplex, and he doesn’t really pay attention to the crowd. When Angle is in control, the match starts to resemble a video game.

The most unfortunate part of this match is the finish. HHH returns and Angle is immediately thrust aside, showing the audience who Austin sees as more important, all the while burying both Angle and the WWF World title. Prior to the finish, Austin actually did a decent job of making Angle look like he deserved to be the champ, but any strength contained in the work is negated by overbooking. The last image of the match is one of HHH standing over Austin, and quite frankly, a match that received this much promotion needed a clean finish without the typical chicanery from the writers.

For all the matches they’ve had and all the time they’ve spent feuding, we still have yet to see Steve Austin versus Kurt Angle done right – Austin as the ask-no-quarter, give-no-quarter redneck, beer-swilling son of a bitch (who the fans have the nerve to cheer not in spite of his disposition, but because of his disposition) versus Kurt Angle, the noble and somewhat tragic character who is booed for promoting more conservative values and patriotism, playing the hero to an audience that wouldn’t piss on him if he was on fire. It resembles a certain other rivalry in many ways, but we never saw that really exploited to its fullest – it was instead a feud that relied on comedy and clichés and did little to make Angle a major player.

Chris Benoit v Chris Jericho – WWF Royal Rumble 2001
WWF Intercontinental title, Ladder match

A match should become better with repeated viewings, but the flaws in this match become more apparent over time. That’s not to say there aren’t some terrific moments, but this match seems unsure of its ultimate goal, and as a result, even the best moments appear to be in vain.

Benoit and Jericho were considered the can’t miss prospects of 2000, only they managed to miss … over and over again. The Chrisses had many things in common which would eventually unite them against common enemies. Both were Canadian, both trained in Stu Hart’s dungeon, both were considered a step above the rest of their peers and both were often the victims of the cutthroat, carny wrestling mentality, a mentality where the only successful headliners are immobile muscleheads who look good on magazine covers and who can be homogenized into dolls and mainstream stars. Jericho, too quick to oblige, adjusted his style to adhere to empty promises that were never fulfilled, while Benoit remained true to himself and ended up only slightly more successful over the long haul. Neither was a WWF creation and both suffered the consequences for having the audacity to be different. The paths they took upon entering the WWF, within months of each other, were very different from each other, although they showed very much the same fundamental problems in the company’s approach to wrestling and building stars.

Jericho entered this match having lost to Benoit on several occasions. He lost his Intercontinental title to him the year before and had a 2-6 record against Benoit on big shows in 2000 in terms of actual match decisions rendered. Benoit held two submission victories over Jericho and outsmarted him on the nights he was not good enough to defeat him cleanly. Benoit went on to push The Rock to the absolute limit, winning the WWF title twice, only to have the decision reversed by a biased commissioner, while Jericho lost to HHH and struggled for two months against both X-Pac and Kane. It was well established by this time that Jericho was not Benoit’s equal. A ladder match is usually a match to settle a score; however, in this match there was no score to settle. Benoit was clearly Jericho’s superior.

The match, to its credit, was more grounded and less spot-intensive than most ladder matches, which leaves the audience deflated since both the storytelling within the match and the storyline surrounding it were not strong enough to hold their interest. They avoid the baseball slides, big dives and see saw offense of Michaels/Ramon or Hardyz/Edge & Christian for the most part and instead focus on keeping the match looking brutal and realistic – the match is full of Irish whips into the ladder from both and Jericho uses the ladder as a battery ram many times, almost too many times in fact, but the point stands that most of the weapon shots are very basic. This unfortunately seems to go against the grain in terms of what the audience expects, as the loudest pops of the match are for dangerous spots as opposed to either man’s struggle to reach the belt -- the audience craved those death-defying moves more than they did a match in which they could become emotionally involved. It was, unfortunately, a mindset brought on by catering to short attention spans and fad-based pop culture, and most of those fans have since come and gone.

The highspots are outstanding, if isolated. Jericho pelted Benoit with a chairshot that is among the most potent I’ve ever seen and Jericho’s tarantula atop the ladder was an inventive move that Benoit sold as if he really was being snapped in half. The climbs to reach the belt are slow and give the match a contrived feel at times, and on the rare occasion that the audience does involve themselves in the story, the match seems to take another direction almost on cue. Benoit focuses on Jericho’s shoulder while Jericho focuses on Benoit’s back, but in both cases, the work is not building to anything specific and doesn’t play into the finish at all. Too many spots are repeated within the match by Jericho – his performance is passionate, but contrived.

Any finish besides Jericho going over would be ridiculous by this point; if Benoit was to win, there was no point in having the match. Over three years later, it’s hard to determine what either man gained from this match – Benoit did not become a headliner until this year while Jericho has had more false starts at a main event level than anyone in the company. The match is highly entertaining, but curiously shallow. This was not the anticipated blowoff to a heated feud, but rather a continued attempt from the promotion to keep the two spinning their wheels against each other instead of being elevated.

Kurt Angle v HHH – WWF Royal Rumble 2001
WWF World title

Terry Funk is on record saying that every match is a great match until it begins, but in this case, the match was a DUD before it got started, and then was able to make something out of a weird situation. The work here is fairly strong, and HHH dominates de facto babyface Kurt Angle, who shows a surprisingly strong ability to fight from underneath. Angle has since had babyface runs that haven’t worked, but here, he shows an ability to garner sympathy that we have yet to see from him elsewhere. HHH is terrific here in focusing on Angle’s leg building to a figure four – he’s obviously watched Bret/Owen not long before this match, since much of the offense is borrowed from the Wrestlemania X match. Some of the middle portion also resembles HHH’s Last Man Standing match with Jericho, only Angle’s selling wasn’t quite on that level and HHH wasn’t going to get nearly as much heat for beating up a fellow heel.

Like Austin/Angle from January, this match doesn’t do Angle any favors as champion. HHH controls the offense and Angle’s comebacks are all cut short. It’s not the lack of offense that undercuts him though, as his selling was strong enough to result in a decent match, but rather the finish, which again puts the focus on Austin/HHH and makes the champion seem insignificant. Austin runs in and costs HHH the title to pay him back for RAW, and again, Angle is portrayed as a lame duck champion. Trish and Stephanie’s brawl was also fun, but distracted from important things going on in the ring, notably Angle’s quick rollup, which no one bought as a false finish because the audience was preoccupied. It’s like HHH and Angle had the right idea about how to construct the match, but no one could possibly produce a good match in this context.

The Rock & Chris Jericho v Big Show & Chris Benoit – WWF RAW 01/22/01
You would think more would be said about this match, but it has been largely forgotten. This is unfortunate, as it’s one of the best TV matches of 2001 with everyone playing their roles to near perfection. There is the problem of the match being isolated from all incidents surrounding it – the wrestlers are feuding with each other at this point, but they’re not really feuding in this match. Jericho and Benoit show no ill effects of the brutal ladder match they had the night before, but they wrestle some really fun fast-paced sequences heavy on lariats and flying forearms and most of the other trademark moves of both men. Jericho is temporarily carted out after a Big Show ambush and Rock is left alone with Show and Benoit.

Rock and Benoit work the majority of the match against each other, and as usual, they have terrific chemistry, and together, they serve the meat and potatoes of this match. Rock has still not completely grasped the right way to sell the crossface; his facial expressions are spot on, but he’s just not flexible enough to be in the right position and he starts reaching for the ropes far too early and easily. Aside from that faux pas, the two play off of each other in fun ways. The fact that Chris Benoit could play a ruthless enough heel to bring sympathy on The Rock, all the while acting as a believable threat, is an accomplishment, and no small one at that. Big Show is slow and lumbering, but plays the fearsome monster as well as can be expected – he’s mostly on the apron, which is precisely where he should be; the fear and anticipation for him to enter the ring and kick ass will always and should always be greater than what he actually brings to the table once he interjects himself if he’s ever to become this generation’s Andre. Jericho makes a triumphant return, clenching his ribs and doubling over in pain. His facial expressions are tremendous and he is effective in garnering sympathy from the crowd, and together, Rock and Jericho now look like the underdogs, despite being the two biggest stars in the match. Rock ends up securing the victory for his team, which angers Show to a point that he chokeslams both of his opponents and his partner, but fortunately, they save the manic monster behavior for after the match instead of distracting from what the workers were doing bell-to-bell.

Jericho came out of this match more courageous, Rock more resilient and Big Show more fearsome. Benoit carried the match and made the other three look good, but was unfortunately sacrificed for the greater good. This is worth seeing, and how it managed to slip under the radar is beyond me.

***

Steve Austin v Chris Benoit – WWF Smackdown 02/01/01
This didn’t even really qualify as a glimpse of what these two were capable of producing, as they’d have better booking and more time on their side a few months later and would be able to put out something more memorable. The match acts as a sidebar to the Austin/HHH issue, as practically everything was at the time, and this match sees Austin dominant more often than not. Benoit was an afterthought, both in the booking and in getting in his own offense. It would have been nice to see Benoit get a few more openings – Austin starts strong and ends strong and HHH’s presence at ringside is the focus of the middle portion – but perhaps the writers didn’t see the potential this match had to make Austin the wrestler they wanted him to be at an important time in his career.

HHH v Chris Jericho – WWF Smackdown 02/08/01
For all the ballyhooed drama between HHH and Jericho, both on screen and in real life, Jericho has traditionally been HHH’s best opponent, and this match is yet another show of evidence to support that. HHH surprisingly does a good job of giving Jericho credibility through allowing him to remain on offense for most of the match, and even though Jericho loses, he is allowed to get his heat back with a Walls of Jericho after the encounter was over. This was about as good as a throwaway seven-minute match between these two could possibly be, which means it had little to offer in terms of long-term impact or memory, but was fun enough to not be a waste of time. The portion of the match where HHH is in control sees him pandering to the audience and stalling instead of focusing in on Jericho, while Jericho’s comeback was the same type of comeback he’d make against X-Pac, and he needed to show that he was reaching a little deeper here. There are flashes of that, specifically when he performs a beautiful top rope huracanrana, but we don’t see that consistently.

Admittedly, the booking leading into this one was very confusing. The planned main event was Jericho versus Billy Gunn. HHH attacked Gunn backstage, which led to him taking Jericho’s place. Strangely, Jericho was representing HHH in the match while Gunn was representing Austin, which means logically, when HHH replaced Gunn, he should have been representing Austin. The winning side would pick the stipulations for No Way Out, but HHH still got to choose the stipulations. It’s always interesting to notice how almost every facet of the booking is steered in a direction that keeps Hunter looking better than everyone else and smarter than everyone else at all times. Some things never change.

Chris Jericho v Chris Benoit v Eddy Guerrero v X-Pac – WWF No Way Out 2001
WWF Intercontinental title, Fatal Four Way

Three out of four ain’t bad, in terms of who’s involved. The match was appropriate at this point in time – Jericho had sidelined both Guerrero and X-Pac and both had come back looking for revenge, while Benoit had finally been defeated by Jericho on a big show the previous month. While it’s easy to find a better match than this, one might find more of a challenge tracking down one more fun. The match is a good display of the best offense from all of the wrestlers involved. Not surprisingly, it’s Benoit who looks best here in this category, as the lariats, backbreakers, forearms, stomps, suplexes and punches are snug and crisp at all times. Eddy brings more varied and risky offense to the table, the highlight of which is his snapping Benoit’s neck while he has Jericho in the crossface. He also catches Benoit with a picture perfect huracanrana at the point when the battle between the two supposed teammates reaches a fever pitch. The match starts with he and Benoit working together to eliminate everyone else before, predictably, self-preservation takes over. When Benoit and Guerrero do finally go at it, the exchange does get a roaring reaction from the crowd, showing that patience is a virtue, even in a spotfest. It’s doubtful that they would have achieved that reaction had they not provided so many teases in that direction. Sean Waltman is about as useful to this match as a block of ice would be in cooling a volcano; he spends the majority of the match lying around outside the ring and brings exactly one strong offensive move to this match – a spinning mule kick. When he’s in, he’s able to keep up, but he’s not able to raise the bar. Jericho suffers from this to a certain extent as well, but wrestles like he actually gives a damn about winning, which makes up for what he lacks in offense and execution. Justin Credible’s interference was totally unnecessary and only served to distract from the Jericho Versus All story they were trying to tell. Y2J already had three heels gunning after him; overcoming a fourth who had no real value anyway served no purpose.

The context of this match is almost too good for what it is, and this is the only case I can ever recall where a fatal four-way (or triple threat match, in some cases) is more appropriate as a blowoff than a one-on-one encounter. This probably should have ended Jericho’s run as the company’s most over midcarder and catapulted him to the main event level, but one could say the same for many of his matches, as even when he won, he seemed to lose. This match does suffer the consequences all fatal four-way matches suffer, which is that two wrestlers must remain idle for focus to remain in the right places. They do a better job of working within that limitation than many other three and four ways have though, and despite a few minor flaws, this is a fun outing.

***

Steve Austin v HHH – WWF No Way Out 2001
Best of Three Falls
Fall #1: “Straight Wrestling”
Fall #2: Street Fight
Fall #3: Cage match

With the buildup given to this match, almost anything they could do in the ring would be anti-climatic and nothing they could do could really make sense. We learned in the months prior to this match that it was HHH who hired a hitman to kill Austin and we saw Austin retaliate in November by destroying a car with HHH inside. A blood feud shouldn’t be so comical, and any hatred that showed up in the match, and it did appear to be there, seemed for show. The match doesn’t really have the proper build from a character motivation standpoint. Austin’s motive is clear and he wrestles with the intent of destroying HHH, but HHH has no reason to hate Austin. If anything, his hatred comes off as a defense mechanism. The key to making a heated grudge match work, as is the case with all matches actually, is the buildup and the context. The work can be amazing, but if we don’t know what they’re working from or toward, the efforts workers and the time invested by the viewers are both wasted.

The first fall is exactly what it needs to be to tone down the excess of the feud. HHH and Austin wrestle a “straight wrestling” match (their words, not mine), with both playing the roles they should be playing – Austin is the hero looking for revenge and HHH is a true heel’s heel. This is one of the few times when HHH wants to be Flair and actually succeeds – he spends most of the fall attacking Austin’s knee to build to a figure four and has no problem using the ropes for leverage once he gets Austin to that point. He also stooges at the right times and makes Austin’s comebacks mean something. Because Austin is so angry all the time, sometimes, matches where he really needs to crank it up come across as anti-climatic because he is always so pissed and full speed ahead, but the pre-match stipulation where they weren’t allowed to touch certainly helped his cause here. By this point, he was really hitting his stride though; 2001 would end up being his career year, and he gets the ball rolling in the right direction for the first fall. Austin’s offensive strength has always been in the energy he brings to a match and his timing more than his big moves and this match is no different in that regard. HHH bumps like a champ for the Thesz press, finds himself on the losing end of a slugfest and even makes the sloppiest punches look like hard right hooks. Had the match ended here, with Austin going over, HHH selling and bumping like a champ, little time wasted and smooth transitions, I would consider this a great match. Unfortunately, the match had another 20 minutes and two falls left.

The second fall is a street fight, yet it takes place in side of an arena. It’s a piece of wrestling vernacular that has never completely made sense, and HHH and Austin use the fall to brawl through the crowd and blade. There’s no real depth or purpose to the work here, and neither man gains a clear advantage or has a strategy that can be easily understood. HHH wins the second fall, but we don’t really know if it’s because he’s better or because he’s lucky - he looks like anything but the Cerebral Assassin. Ideally, brawling around the arena where cameras have trouble following you should create an atmosphere of chaos, but this was simply reflective of the cheap heat thinking in regards to working a match that often poisoned the promotion, and HHH’s cluelessness about the effectiveness of this tactic is obvious when he uses the same trick against the Undertaker the following month at Wrestlemania. There’s no sense of brutality or even suspense in this fall; much of the fall is meandering and clichéd thanks to overblown booking that rendered most of the work meaningless.

The third fall is a cage match and has a few bright spots, but is largely more of the pedestrian, even-Stephen style wrestled in the second fall. Excess rears its ugly head again when HHH lands a pedigree and Austin kicks out. Since HHH was going over anyway, the match should have ended at this point. Perhaps that’s what’s so frustrating about the work herein – Austin and HHH are supposed to be pros and the best in the company, but they’re taking shortcuts that are beneath them. If the only way to get a pop off of a nearfall is to kick out of a finisher, then the match is lacking something and the workers aren’t using all of their resources. HHH ends up collapsing on top of Austin for the win after a double TKO. Both sell the brutality of the match afterward by laying in the ring in excess of 10 minutes, which is somewhat laughable in a promotion where wrestlers can fall 15 feet off of a cage and continue a match and neither Austin nor HHH took that type of punishment. It’s a nice touch in some ways, but it’s too little too late, and it requires the audience to forget everything that ever happened before that moment, which is admittedly what they’re trained to do more often than not. The match could have been a classic, and it started off on the right foot, but it ran too long and tried to accomplish too much. Consider this recorded proof that often times, less is more.

Trish Stratus v Stephanie McMahon – WWF No Way Out 2001
How this match earned a reputation as the best women’s match in WWF history I’ll never understand. Even in terms of sports-entertainment matches filled with McMahon melodrama, most of Vince’s matches leave this one in the cold, and quite frankly, so do Shane’s. The Jumping Bomb Angels were doing far more advanced stuff 13 years prior and didn’t have typical “women’s” spots, like hairpulling and clothesripping, two factors that make this match anything but a “best” of anything. There are a few moments here that are entertaining, but there’s nothing to tie those moments together. As it stands, this is simply another piece of overbooked crap from the McMahon/Helmsley era, and the match is just an excuse to continue the ridiculous push of Stephanie McMahon as a television star.

Kurt Angle v The Rock – WWF No Way Out 2001
WWF World title

In terms of excitement and suspense of disbelief, this is one of the best matches of 2001. However, the reliance on cheap heat and overkill nearly destroys the match from within. The match starts with back-and-forth brawling that was typical of the WWF main event style at this point, and inexplicably, Big Show runs in and chokeslams both men and the referee about halfway through the match. Why this happened is beyond me, as neither Rock and Show nor Angle and Show had an upcoming feud; if such a feud was planned to be on the horizon, the issue could have been furthered some other time. Before the Show interruption, Rock falls to the floor and sells an ankle injury, which he sells consistently, with one notable exception when performing the People’s Elbow. Angle repeatedly goes for the anklelock when perhaps other wear-down moves would have been more effective and less repetitive and Kurt finally snapping on the anklelock would have gotten a tremendous pop. That same patience paid off in the four-way earlier in the evening, and it would have worked here. The match gets ugly after Angle kicks out of the People’s Elbow, as we see Angle also kick out of a Rock Bottom and Rock manages to raise a shoulder after the Angle Slam. This match certainly didn’t do the credibility of either guy’s finisher any favors, even if the crowd bought every pinfall attempt as the end of the match.

There’s no transition from feeling out to an escalated pace to a nearfall frenzy at the end, which, with what they were attempting to do, is the structure they should have used. Instead, we were left with transition from feeling out to a run-in negating everything before it to the final stretch of each man kicking out of the other’s finisher. However, this match, to its credit, did a better job than any match in 2001, with the exception of Austin v Rock at Wrestlemania, of creating its own strong setting, as the big match atmosphere almost makes some of the flaws forgivable, and makes every move and pinfall attempt larger than it really is. The match is exciting and very fun to watch, but is also severely flawed.

***

Steve Austin v Kurt Angle – WWF Smackdown 03/01/01
Holy shit, this is one of the best matches Austin and Angle have ever had, and it’s gone largely ignored. Angle was a wrestler possessed in the weeks following his loss to The Rock, and that aggression is here in spades. Angle is so effective in this role that it makes everything else he does look pale by comparison. The brawling nature of this match makes for a more fun outing, and this just may be the closest to Austin Versus Angle Done Right that we’ve ever seen. There are all sorts of nifty little advances on the clichés of their typical matches that we don’t normally get to see, the most notable of which is Angle actually connecting with the moonsault for a change. Angle comes out of this even angrier, which is a good thing, even if it wasn’t followed with anything else, while Austin goes over another good worker in the build to Wrestlemania. Yes, there are some of the usual annoying tactics and yes, the match needed more time to develop, but as a short TV match, it doesn’t get much more fun than this.

***

Eddy Guerrero v Chris Benoit – WWF RAW 03/12/01
Normally, Eddy and Benoit getting 8 minutes on RAW would result in a good match, and admittedly, there are bright spots here. However, the booking handicapped the workers before the match even started. The company is attempting to turn Benoit babyface by having him leave the Radicals, but attacking the other members of the group unprovoked for weeks leading into this match doesn’t exactly endear him to the audience or make him sympathetic. The work within the match is good, as one would expect. Eddy Guerrero wasn’t as top notch as he had been in the past – the highspots and execution are there in spades, but the transitions and selling leave something to be desired. Benoit can be counted on to be Benoit – he’s consistently great, even if watching this match after watching a Benoit match as new as even 1999 exposes how dumbed down his style has become. The same can be said for Guerrero, actually. The match is a collection of good moments without anything to tie it all together – we see sparks of greatness from two wrestlers who are known for being the standard bearers of excellence, but they jump from spot to spot and the match feels very rushed as a result.

The Rock v Kurt Angle – WWF RAW 03/12/01
WWF World title

Rock and Angle were on the verge of something special the second time around. The match is tighter and more coherent than the No Way Out match in many ways – it’s obvious the two learned from a few of the mistakes of that outing and worked to improve themselves here. Rock does a better job than even Austin did in January of giving Angle openings to make him look good, as the build to the anklelock is much more solid here and Angle looks like far less of a chump. Even the ending caters more to him than Rock, as he has the champ defeated when Debra’s interference turns the tide. The match does fall victim to the normal limitations of television, as they could have easily expanded another 10-15 minutes on what they were doing. The match has a rushed feel when they would have been far better served with more time. The work that is here is quite impressive though, especially for a 13-minute match, and the disqualification ending isn’t even worth criticism, as Rock needed to keep the belt heading into Mania and Angle came out looking strong. They needed more time to make this work though, and this match would have worked better at No Way Out, while that match would have worked better here. It’s almost as if the feud was booked in reverse.

***

Chris Benoit v Kurt Angle – WWF Wrestlemania X-7
The first five minutes of this one certainly seemed special. The matwork was as good as any mat wrestling I’ve ever seen and it appeared to be the only non-formulaic match on the card up until that point. It was nicely established that Benoit had a slight advantage, which is puzzling, considering that Angle was pushed hard on the platform of being an Olympic gold medalist. Benoit was referred to as the best technical wrestler in the company, but that reference came mostly from Benoit himself and was rarely validated by the announcers or the promotional machine. For this reason, Benoit gaining the moral victory did more to make Angle look weak than it did make Benoit look strong.

This match would possibly be considered very good had it happened verbatim between Regal and Jericho earlier in the night, but for Benoit and Angle, the match was incredibly out of place and was less than they should have been able to achieve at this point. Angle could only gain the advantage when he turned the match into a brawl, and it’s at that point that the match falls apart – any sense of wrestling, wear down tactics or strategy is thrown out the window in favor of back-and-forth brawling outside the ring. The finish is needlessly cheap and out of context with the program - why would Angle accept a victory under those circumstances when it was so obvious early on that he had something to prove?

The entire feud did neither wrestler any favors. Angle became a midcarder and occasional main eventer after being cast as an undeserving world champion while Benoit worked with Austin after the feud ended, but because of this program, he entered that storyline as a loser. On the strength of the work alone, especially in the early stages, this match is quite good. In terms of context and internal logic, the match is too much of a contradiction of itself, and it shows.

***

Edge & Christian v Hardy Boyz v Dudley Boyz – Wrestlemania X-7
WWF World tag team titles, Tables Ladders & Chairs II

As a stunt show, both this match and its predecessor are both tremendous with several cringe moments. As a match, there just isn’t much here. It’s easy to watch and enjoy, especially live. You know the insane asylum bumping and death-defying spots are only a few seconds away from each other, but as soon as the moves happen, they’re forgotten, only for you to be left to question what you just watched. A stunt show can be fun; this match is proof of that. However, can a total stunt show result in a good match? If the answer is yes, we haven’t seen the match that showed that to be true yet.

Edge and Christian are the only team who approach the match as a team – they make joint efforts to climb the ladder, they help each other out in times of need and they wrestle as if they actually have a strategy to win. All the wrestlers perform ridiculous moves, but only E & C’s moves seem to have a purpose within the match – Edge’s spear from the top of the ladder is to keep his opponent from securing the victory, for example. It was only fitting that they leave victorious. The Hardyz and Dudleyz divide themselves into singles pairings, and the match becomes a clusterfuck as a result. There is a lot of wasted time between spots, and nothing is done to transition from big move to big move. The moves themselves are exciting, even if there is far too much idle time between them all. The Dudz’ 3D from the ladder was impressive, as was Jeff Hardy’s senton bomb over the top of the ladder through tables at ringside. There are too many spots repeated from the Summerslam outing though, and as a result, this match isn’t really distinguished from the first TLC match. The outside interference is also unnecessary here. Lita, Spike Dudley and Rhyno all run in and do spots, but only Rhyno interferes with the goal of helping his team. There is a story peeping out from underneath the big spots, but it’s only rarely making itself heard, and only Edge and Christian seem to be coaxing it out of its hiding place.

Neither the strength of the performance, nor the result, did anything to catapult anyone involved. Edge and Christian won the tag titles for the seventh time here, and there was nothing left for them to accomplish as a team. They were so far above both the Hardyz and the Dudleyz that having more matches with them seemed futile after they had decisively won every encounter. The Hardyz were briefly elevated after this match, but quickly found themselves as midcard stuntmen again, with no hint of advancement, nor was any really deserved. The Dudleyz act soon became tired, possibly because of overexposure, and they had little, if anything, to do of interest after this match. This was an almost impossible act to follow, which may explain why the company didn’t even attempt to do so, opting for an old timer’s gimmick battle royal. The nature of such a match doesn’t lend itself to character development or elevation, as the participants are considered too good to be curtain jerking while being considered too flashy for main events. Such is life, I suppose.

HHH v The Undertaker – Wrestlemania X-7
To the untrained eye, this may seem like a passable match. Every trick in the book is used to make us think they’re working hard – the cameramen are working smarter than either HHH or ‘Taker. We think HHH is taking big bumps, but HHH is taking well-timed bumps where he’s favored by smoke and mirrors. A minor fall in the crowd looks like a major bump. The brawling in the crowd is impossible to follow and we’re left to think they’re tearing into each other. It’s almost as bad as the Rock/Mankind “Halftime Heat” match in 1999. When they finally do make it back to the ring, the final minutes seem a little flat. HHH attacks Undertaker with a sledgehammer, Undertaker kicks out, and he then rallies back to keep his Wrestlemania winning streak alive by pinning HHH after a Last Ride. The match is too long for the work being done and too manufactured for my tastes. Wrestling is an illusion, no doubt, but it shouldn’t be a farce.

The Rock v Steve Austin – Wrestlemania X-7
WWF World title, No disqualification

This match was everything it needed to be at this point in time. Austin was clearly the stronger of the two participants and held a victory over Rock two Wrestlemanias prior to this one. Whereas that match was a man representing Mr. McMahon’s corporate image against the ultimate antihero, this match was a tale of two men who only represented themselves, neither of whom could accept defeat. This match has several advantages over other top matches at the time in that Austin and Rock were the two most over stars in the company, if not in company history, and any screw-ups would be overlooked by most of the fans, although, to their credit, that license is largely unneeded.

Austin takes it to the Rock immediately and seems to have brought his best game for this event. There’s nothing particularly outstanding about his moveset, but everything he does is done well and the story contains some true depth. Austin reaches into his bag of tricks and pulls out the Million Dollar Dream. Like Bret Hart five years prior, Rock climbs the ropes and uses his momentum to fall back on Austin for the pinfall, but this time, Austin is not so tenacious that he refuses to release the hold. He’s smarter than he was then. This is brilliantly in context and was a fantastic spot to break out at such a big show because it shows, even declares, that Rock is familiar with his Austin’s past and also that Austin is familiar with his own past. Something has changed, though, and he’s gotten smarter (mellowed?) over time. Perhaps Austin is becoming hesitant, even paranoid. He doesn’t have the will to stick it to his opponent as aggressively as he once did, at least not under the same circumstances, and he seems to have a clearer idea of the risks he’s willing to take for the reward. Instead of proving that he can hang with the big dogs, he is now trying to prove that he hasn’t lost the ability to hang with the big dogs, which means he is a totally different character than he was in 1996.

Rock’s performance is less inspired, but still quite good. His blade job is so embarrassing, though, that one wonders why he even bothered, and it makes sense why the crowd would boo Rock after that, not that they weren’t before. Heaven forbid he mess up his movie star face in the biggest match of his career by actually blading instead of using a capsule, and Rock looks like even more of a wuss when his slightly red face is contrasted by a deep red crimson mask from his opponent. He takes it to Austin and seems to understand him and what it is he’s trying to achieve, but it’s not very clear that he knows what he himself wants to achieve.

The match is far too overbooked, featuring a run-in from Vince McMahon and a finish that defines excess. The turn was obviously a flop with the live crowd, as his post-match reaction was still roaring. While Austin seemed on top of the world here, this match was the beginning of his downfall. He had the best year of his career in 2001 from an aesthetic standpoint and one of the most disappointing from a box office standpoint.

This match is remembered as being great; however, while it’s not great, it is still very good. This is not Rock’s match, it’s all Austin’s, and the story totally surrounds him while Rock’s presence is incidental. It feels like a meeting of the top two stars of the era and it doesn’t feel like a letdown in any way. The match is a satisfying one.

None of Hogan’s Wrestlemania title matches were able to find this combination of strong work and atmosphere without being overshadowed by something in the undercard. Flair/Savage lacked the punch and long-term impact of this one, Shawn/Austin felt like it wasn’t everything it could have been, and Bret/Shawn was pretty much the antithesis of a Wrestlemania main event. No one in their right minds would even suggest any of the other World title matches as being in the same universe in this one. This match is easily the best World title match in Wrestlemania history.

****

Steve Austin v The Rock – WWF RAW 04/02/01
WWF World title, Cage match

After watching such an outstanding match the night before between the two, this is frustrating. Austin is already playing a totally different role, as he resembles Hollywood Hogan more than he does Stone Cold, when perhaps the transition needed to be slower and smoother to be believable. The match takes place in a cage, but the stipulation is meaningless, as it does nothing to keep neither Vince McMahon nor HHH from interfering. The end sees HHH and Austin team to sideline Rock, again putting the focus on HHH and uniting two wrestlers that were blood enemies just months later. This match started the ball rolling downward for one of the quickest freefalls in fan interest in recent memory.

Chris Jericho v HHH – WWF Smackdown 04/05/01
WWF Intercontinental title

With Rock sidelined and Austin’s issues with Undertaker and Kane old news, it would have only made sense to elevate Jericho and Chris Benoit, but sense meant little to the company at this point. Jericho does look strong against HHH and even kicks out after William Regal interferes and it appears that the match is over. However, the booking, as was par the course at this point, would negate any strengths the work could accomplish, and Jericho spent the next two months spinning his wheels in a revenge feud with Regal while HHH had absolutely no reason to win the Intercontinental title.

Raven v Rhyno – WWF Backlash 2001
WWF Hardcore title

The phrase “fun for what it is” was almost custom-built for matches like this. The match is chock full of fun weapon shots, and whether it was the intent or not, it’s a lousy serious match but a really fun comedy match. Nothing is really sold with any long-term impact, but there’s some neat internal story going, with Raven stealing Rhyno’s idea of leaping off the stairs at ringside. There are a few smart puns that may have worked even better – Rhyno suplexing Raven on the “keep off” sign instead of hitting Raven over the head with it might have been a little funnier and actually turned one of the weapons into a pun. The use of the shopping cart is inventive if nothing else and does manage to look seriously painful when Raven does the drop toehold into the cart. The best spot involving the cart was easily when Rhyno attempted the Gore and Raven moved out of the way, resulting in Rhyno being stuck in the shopping cart. It is a little frustrating though, that Rhyno suddenly bounces back and finishes off Raven for good after absorbing all of that punishment, but this is truly a match that isn’t worth too detailed of an analysis. That said, it’s not exactly worth being called great either.

Chris Benoit v Kurt Angle – WWF Backlash 2001
Ultimate Submissions match

Some of the work here is really interesting and Angle does show more variety in his moveset than he typically does, but doing seven submissions in just over 30 minutes is a little much. Some of the work tends to be out of order, as Angle gets the first submission to a legbar, only to do the wear-down work on the knee *after* he’s already gotten that submission. This would turn out to be a running theme in the match. Benoit’s response was to come back with a submission off of a cross armbreaker, but there was no build to that, and the move came out of nowhere. We now know that if Angle really wanted to put away Benoit, he could dispose of him in a relatively short match, and Benoit could probably do the same to him. So why have a long match in the first place?

Benoit, like Angle, stays on the shoulder after already getting a submission off of an armbreaker, but is sidetracked when Angle unnecessarily brings a chair into the match to get a 2-1 lead off of the anklelock. It would have made more sense, if the chair spot had to happen, for Angle to clip him with it instead of clocking him over the head, and reapplying the anklelock would have kept the focus on the right body part instead of getting a crossface to go 3-1, even if Benoit was knocked out. Angle does reapply the anklelock on the floor, but oddly goes back to the arm once re-entering the ring. He follows that with an abdominal stretch to further complicate the matter and is strangely caught in the sharpshooter when that move would have worked better for him to apply to Benoit based on the focus of his early offense, even if it was effective in popping the crowd in Benoit’s favor. Benoit does finally get a submission off of a SWANK half crab (with his knee on Angle’s face!), but again, when he was working Angle’s arm prior to this, switching gears made little sense.

Again, we see the lack of long-term selling, as Angle shouldn’t be able to run away from Benoit after having a sharpshooter and half crab applied, but he does anyway. Angle finally goes back on offense and works on the ankle briefly, before going back to his usual round of overhead belly-to-belly suplexes, which appears to mean “What should I do now?” in Angleese. In lieu of debuting a new submission, considering that the WWF killed the anklelock in record time, Angle again goes for the anklelock, only for Benoit to reverse and get the submission. I guess that means each has put away the other with the other’s finisher now, which pretty much strips either guy of bragging rights on that fact, thus rendering the whole thing meaningless. Benoit decides to work on the knee now, but we’re too close to the end of the match for that to make much sense and Angle reverses to his own anklelock (the third of this match) until time runs out. We go into overtime, where Benoit snaps on a crossface out of nowhere to secure the win.

This match might have been better had Angle stayed focused on Benoit’s knee, leg and ankle, while Benoit stayed focus on Angle’s arm and shoulder. Instead, they switched gears too many times, and the last thing they could afford in a match with these kinds of stipulations was a lack of long-term selling. As a collection of submission moves, I’ve seen more advanced work in NJPW, and the mat wrestling was probably better in their Wrestlemania match, so as much as I want to love them for trying new things in this match, I can’t in good conscience praise the match as anything better than a sometimes fun left-of-center watching experience.

Chris Benoit v Kurt Angle – WWF Judgment Day 2001
Best of Three Falls
Fall #1: Straight Wrestling
Fall #2: Submissions Only
Fall #3: Ladder Match

The first fall of this match was probably the most wasted, just because it was so quick, and that’s unfortunate, because for all the time Angle and Benoit spent feuding, it took them two years to get to a point where they were feuding over who was the best pro wrestler instead of who was the best amateur wrestler. They were supposed to be better than this, but they were relying on the same finisher-stealing style of every other big star in the company, resulting in Benoit winning the first fall in just over a minute.

The second fall is a strange one, although it’s the best of the bunch. Despite the submissions only rule, Angle actually attempts a pinfall. Wrestlers forgetting the rules of the match annoys me – it annoyed me when HHH did it with Jericho in the Last Man Standing match, it annoyed me when Jericho did it with Benoit at the Rumble and it annoys me here. I know the goal is to show that Angle could have pinned Benoit, but why not just have him win the fall and show that he can secure a victory, since that’s what he’s after anyway? There’s a little too much brawling in this fall to be submissions only, although the submissions they use at least provide a change of pace and aren’t nearly as repetitive as they were at Backlash – Angle pulls out a reverse Indian deathlock and Benoit takes back the Walls of Jericho that was stolen from him anyway, along with a figure four. What doesn’t make sense here is the finish of this fall. The only way Angle can find any sort of opening is to distance himself from Benoit, which is fine, but once he distances himself, he immediately goes for the anklelock instead of trying something to soften him up to build to the move first. So after Benoit works on Angle’s leg, even pulling out some of Flair’s old offense, for the entire fall, we find out at the end that we were building to a finish of Angle winning with the anklelock. Perhaps it would have made more sense for Benoit to be on the receiving end of the punishment he was giving out; the leg work might have accomplished something at that point.

The final fall is a far cry from some of the more famous ladder matches, and is even a step down from what Edge and Christian would do in October, much less what Benoit and Jericho did in January. Most of the fall is each guy taking turns pulling the other off of the ladder, although the one cool spot is Angle trying to climb the ladder in the corner to avoid being thrown into it, only for Benoit to dump the ladder back on him. Edge and Christian’s interference would normally bother me, but since he and Jericho would get their revenge later in the evening, it served a purpose, as Angle got his medals back and both were able to move on to other feuds. Unfortunately, the entire feud fell short of expectations and this wasn’t the most exciting blowoff. Perhaps more non-gimmicked one-on-one matches would have done more good than trying to create an epic every time out. Expectation is the creator of disappointment after all.

Steve Austin & HHH v Chris Benoit & Chris Jericho – WWF RAW 05/21/01
WWF World tag team titles

The setting for this match was perfect, even if it was totally by accident. Austin and HHH had been dominating the promotion for months (longer, actually) as the Two Man Power Trip. They sidelined Rock, held the top two singles titles and were tag team champions. HHH lost the Intercontinental title the night before to Kane, but Austin managed to hold off a challenge from the Undertaker. HHH was still a tag team champion and Austin was still a world heavyweight and tag team champion. Rock, Undertaker and Kane were the three most established babyfaces in the company at this point and the heels had managed to neutralize them all. There appeared to be no one that was capable of defeating them and no one gutsy enough to stand up to them.

Jericho finally settled a months-long program with William Regal just weeks before this match and did have some momentum. He and longtime enemy Chris Benoit had formed a partnership based on mutual respect and won a gauntlet match of sorts the night before that earned them the right to a shot at the tag titles. On the surface, each team seems just like the other. Both teams consisted of two members that were longtime rivals with their new partners. That’s where the similarities end. Benoit and Jericho formed a tag team out of mutual respect while Austin and HHH formed a tag team out of fear and paranoia. Benoit and Jericho were decided underdogs while Austin and HHH were clearly the top stars in the promotion.

The work building to the hot tag was tremendous, and it was magnified because the audience cared so much about all the participants. HHH attacked Benoit with a chair five minutes in, and Benoit kicked out at two, which the audience completely bought as a finish. Because they had been conditioned to five-minute main events at this point, it would have been conceivable that the match end here. The use of the chair was also effective in establishing that the champions had to cheat to maintain an advantage, and that theme is continued when HHH can only keep Benoit in the abdominal stretch with Austin’s help. Benoit managed to hiptoss his way out of the move and shoulderblock his way to the corner to tag in Jericho, but the referee did not see the tag, which angered the crowd immensely and further built anticipation for Y2J to save the day. Jericho responded by attacking Austin outside the ring and dropkicking HHH from the top rope before going back to his corner and waiting for the tag. Jericho was perfect in his role as the team’s cheerleader, charismatic enough to really get the crowd into the match, and his promo earlier in the night was strong enough to make them believe, even slightly, in the team’s chances of winning. Jericho would finally be tagged in and would do a few energetic exchanges with Austin. HHH broke up a Walls of Jericho on Austin, which is where he tore his quad. Jericho again shows his determination by following HHH outside the ring and putting a Walls of Jericho on him on top of the announce table.

The next sequence was so illogical that it could have ruined the match had the work preceding it not been so strong. Austin gave Benoit a stunner and covered him for the pin, which the referee counted. Jericho then pulled the ref out of the ring to break the count. Benoit was not the legal man and the referee should not have counted the fall. This nearly sabotaged the final stretch of the match. Jericho’s move, pulling the referee out of the ring, can be taken two ways. Some see it as a heelish move that babyfaces should not be doing, which I can’t say I don’t see. I saw it more as a babyface evening the odds by using a heel’s own tactics against him. Either way, a sequence so ambiguous had no place in a match that up until that point had been so straightforward.

Jericho got the best of Austin in yet another fast-paced and fun exchange. He missed his first attempt at the Lionsault, but successfully landed the second attempt. HHH entered the ring with a sledgehammer, which infuriated the crowd because again, they had been conditioned to seeing Austin and HHH victorious, but Benoit tackled him to the ground after he accidentally hit Austin and Jericho covered Austin for the three count.

This should have been the launching pad that permanently entrenched Benoit and Jericho in the main event scene, but it was not to be, as all the injuries forced panic to set in and the plug was pulled on the push midstream. This match was successful in blowing off the heel run of Austin and HHH as a tag team, but unfortunately, because of HHH’s injury, they were unable to fully capitalize on the momentum this match created. I’d consider this match excellent until the final few minutes, while also calling it a match that should have made a permanent difference in the company’s upper tier but was only a short-lived and false sign of hope. Unlike most classic matches, the sum of the parts is far greater than the whole.

****

Chris Benoit & Chris Jericho v Edge & Christian v Hardy Boyz v Dudley Boyz – WWF Smackdown 05/24/01
WWF World tag team titles, Tables Ladder & Chairs III

Where all of the other TLC matches are almost completely lacking in flow or build, this one is a little different. It’s sure to be taxing to create any emotion or pulse out of a ridiculously amplified gimmick match named after three inanimate objects, but the presence of Benoit and Jericho makes all the difference in the world between this and the other matches.

Benoit and Jericho are confident, yet still not totally taken seriously. They’re coming fresh off of a tag title victory over the two biggest stars in the company and they’re desperate to prove that the victory wasn’t a fluke. Each is infectious as the underdog – both are down, but not out on many occasions and this match continues the theme of defying the odds and shocking the world that the tag title victory started the night before. The Hardyz and the Dudleyz are still their spottacular selves here. Of the four, only Matt wrestles a little more aggressively as he and Jericho have a fun brawl on the floor at one point. Jeff is peculiar in his choices of when to fight and when to lay low – he seems to only enter the ring at times that the others are destroying each other and is selling things that have already been forgotten the rest of the time. His highspots are terrific, as one would expect, but the timing of those spots sometimes distracts from other, more fun things going on in the match.

A major accomplishment this match can boast is that the moves are crisp and the selling is excellent. Most of this can be attributed to Benoit. When he attempts a diving headbutt and ends up missing his target and going through a ringside table, he sells it as if he’s dying, which is the appropriate way to sell something so drastic. He clenches his ribs and is escorted to the dressing room, leaving Jericho to fight for his team alone. The commercial break is well-timed here, which is often a problem with longer TV matches. Another fun sequence sees Jericho enter the ring and attempt to lay everyone out with chairshots. He ends up getting the worst blow of all in return from Christian and almost costs his team the victory as a result. The underlying theme that the babyface tries to beat the heel at his own game and loses is one that is rarely explored, but is interesting nonetheless because it’s a role reversal of sorts. The most fun sequences are collections of rehashes, but fun rehashes nonetheless. Jericho again applies his tarantula on Christian across the top of the ladder and later in the match finds himself on the receiving end of an Edge spear that nearly decimates him. Benoit makes a triumphant return while brilliantly selling a rib injury. At one point, Edge and Christian attempt a conchairto and Benoit instinctively protects his head, leading to both chairs hitting his ribs. Just as in the previous TLC matches, Edge and Christian are the only team to stick together throughout the match and think collectively. Benoit is finally the one to secure the victory for his team and the visual of he and Jericho standing on each side of the ladder proudly displaying the tag titles is one that, like the championship win the night before, should be an oft-remembered part of WWF folklore, but instead is remembered more as a promise than a fulfillment.

***1/2

Steve Austin v Chris Benoit – WWF RAW 05/28/01
WWF World title

While the rematch a few days later was given more time and a cleaner finish, and as a result ended up as a better match, this match deserved to be the better one, as the work leading up to the ridiculous finish is much better than what we’d get three days later. Benoit and Austin seem to be natural opponents for each other, as each seems to know the other as well as any two opponents ever have. The match nicely establishes Benoit as Austin’s equal, something that isn’t exactly a hard sell to the Calgary crowd, and also nicely establishes that Benoit is good enough to beat Austin.

Like other matches from around the time, they build successfully to nearfalls that pop the crowd, but unlike other matches at this point, they are able to generate believable nearfalls without kicking out of trademark finishers or performing ridiculous stunts. Even Benoit’s transitional moves get the same reaction as his signature moves, and Austin is more despised here than he had been at any point since turning heel.

With ten more minutes and a clean finish, this match most likely would have been the US Match of the Year. However, instead of using the finish as something that would elevate or further develop the character of either guy, we get a tired Montreal reference, and the stink is strong enough to lessen the strong work preceding it. The match acts as an exercise in frustration – frustration over what the Austin/Benoit feud could have been with the right mindset and frustration with the writers for thinking their ideas will get wrestlers more over than wrestling.

***1/2

Steve Austin v Chris Benoit – WWF Smackdown 05/31/01
WWF World title

If this match was anything, it was a total necessity for both men at this point. Austin, despite his best efforts, was still getting cheered and was having trouble finding the angel that could turn him into the devil. Matches with the Undertaker and Kane weren’t doing the trick – they weren’t sympathetic or relatable, and crushing them only proved Austin’s toughness. Austin’s toughness wasn’t what was in question, though, but rather his principle. Chris Benoit is the hometown kid, the perennial underdog and a superbly talented underachiever. He had shown signs of breaking the company’s glass ceiling in the days preceding this match and was fighting valiantly, despite a rib injury. Even if victory eluded him, he needed a strong showing against a headliner and he needed to be perceived as the real deal.

This showdown had to happen. It was inevitable.

The chemistry here was strong, as Benoit refused to back down and Austin refused to show any humility. Both bring their best to this match in terms of offense. Benoit uses the sharpshooter for the first time since entering the company, along with his usual German suplexes and stiff lariats while Austin also uses the sharpshooter and brings a nice variety of suplexes. Austin is what Crazy Old Man Flair would be without the Old Man part and a little forethought. The total lack of remorse or reserve works beautifully here, as he suplexes Benoit on to the announce table numerous times and punishes his already-injured back and ribs.

Austin had a tendency to use his matches with Benoit as ways to send messages to the masses. The match they had the previous November showed that Austin was still capable of more than pedestrian brawling while this match showed that he could bump, as he takes ten German suplexes in a row from Benoit. The finish was ridiculous although the payoff leading to it was very satisfying. Benoit warned Vince McMahon before the match that if he interfered, he would kick his ass. Vince did interfere and Benoit beat him with a chair in much the same way Austin had attacked the Rock two months earlier at Wrestlemania. Austin does see that Benoit is distracted though, and uses the opportunity to gain a quick pinfall.

Yet again, the match is more of a promise than a fulfillment. However, without any indication of what would end up happening in the future, this match was perfectly in context and both wrestlers did an excellent job of grabbing the opportunity presented. Austin looks back on this as the best match of his heel run, as he very well should.

****

Steve Austin v Chris Jericho – WWF RAW 06/04/01
WWF World title

It was obvious watching this match that the company had lost faith in Benoit and Jericho as headliners. The promo earlier in the show to set up this match didn’t even feature Jericho, but managed to find a way to give face time to Jesse Ventura. Austin had already beaten Benoit the week before, and would now beat Jericho, and the two were expected to make chicken salad out of chicken droppings and draw money under these circumstances, which strangely, they still managed to do.

As is the theme with many matches from this time period, Austin makes Jericho look good, but the booking makes him look horrendous. Austin and Jericho have attempted to produce a good match on many occasions, but have rarely meshed well enough to make that happen. This match is no different. Foley’s involvement also makes Jericho look like a chump, as he accidentally nails Jericho with a chair and Jericho never goes after him or considers revenge. The finish is excessive, with Jericho kicking out after the chairshot, only to immediately go down after a stunner.

The match is depressing to watch, and is yet another exercise in frustration.

Chris Benoit v Kurt Angle – WWF RAW 06/11/01
Cage match

This match shows everything wrong with the company’s way of thinking at the time. Angle and Benoit are two of the better wrestlers in the company and are put in a situation where they’re expected to produce a stunt show. Unlike TLC, there’s no story of Benoit defying the odds – he has nothing to gain or lose from this match, as his issues with Angle have already been solved. The same could be argued for Angle, but unlike Benoit, he wasn’t expected to draw money in the main event slot of a pay-per-view later in the month, and for that reason, Angle going over was ridiculous.

The match served to put more spotlight on Austin than either of the workers, as he was at ringside doing commentary and used every opportunity to put himself over, and the announcers played into his hand rather than refocusing on the match. Angle and Benoit did take turns jumping off of the cage, and the spots were impressive, but that’s about all that can be said for this match.

The constant focus on using stunts to make an audience care instead of story would come back to haunt them no less than two weeks after this match, as they were left with almost no main event roster.

Kurt Angle v Shane McMahon – WWF King of the Ring 2001
Street Fight

This is a match that seems to polarize people, but the truth appears to be somewhere in the middle. This is certainly not a great match, nor is it throwaway crap. It has moments, and that may be all that it has, but it certainly has those moments.

If the opponent to Angle were anyone but Shane McMahon, some of the sequences in the first ten minutes would have been excellent. Angle repeatedly outwrestling Shane did more for his credibility than matches with Austin and Rock did earlier in the year, and that sequence in those matches would have been outstanding. Here, while he does look strong, it doesn’t mean as much as it could, because again, his opponent is Shane McMahon.

Another strong sequence sees Shane attempt to pin Angle, with Angle bridging out. Shane tries to counter that by splashing him and goes for another pin attempt, which still doesn’t work. Finally, Shane drops an elbow, which pops the crowd.

This is the point where the match falls apart. Shane should have attempted another pinfall after dropping the elbow, but instead, gave up on the issue entirely. The rest of the match works as a contest to see which of the two can do the most inhumane things to the other. The spots at the entrance are totally unnecessary and excessive, and the match falls apart as a result. Risking Angle with those stunts when they were already without Rock and HHH was incomprehensible, and unsurprisingly, Angle suffered a serious injury in this match.

Putting Shane in a position to look anywhere near as competent as Kurt Angle, whether as a wrestler or a brawler, is ridiculous. Shane is allowed to heal for weeks after dangerous stunts of this magnitude, while Angle is expected to be back on the road the next night, hawking the next pay-per-view and assuming a full house show schedule. Matches like this do nothing for his credibility or advancement, and the entire situation was a bad idea in the first place. If anything, it’s Shane who walks away from this match looking like the hero, for standing up to Big Bad Kurt Angle, for getting in his shots, and for taking bumps and risks that no other wrestler would ever dream of. He doesn’t deserve to be that strong. It doesn’t help the company at all, and serves to make even the best workers look second rate.

Angle defeated Shane, but it’s a rather dubious victory. Shane defeated Angle, and symbolically, everyone in the company, with this nonsense.

Steve Austin v Chris Benoit v Chris Jericho – WWF King of the Ring 2001
WWF World title, Triple Threat match

As is a running theme with matches in 2001, the booking handicaps the wrestlers. More than any match in 2001, the main event of King of the Ring exemplifies that problem to its fullest. Austin, a man who is struggling getting audiences to hate him, no matter how despicable he becomes, is placed in a position where the odds are stacked against him and he must overcome two babyfaces.

Jericho and Benoit look no better. Both have gained pinfall victories over Austin that can only be described as flukes, as Austin was able to come back and beat each of them under more convincing circumstances. They seem to relish the opportunity to double team Austin when perhaps they should be thinking more independently, and as a result, Austin looks sympathetic. Benoit is no longer selling the rib injury that was plaguing him earlier in the month and at no point in the match sells the ribs. This could have been a tool to place the focus back on at least one of the challengers instead of the obstacle the champion faces, but it was never exploited. Jericho seems like a third wheel throughout the match and at times brings the quality of the match down. His performance is sloppy and he doesn’t get anywhere near the heat he normally generated around that time.

In terms of working within the handicap of doing a triple threat match, all three did a very good job of staying busy and keeping things going, but so much of the offense is inconsequential because the pace is far too fast. Everyone attempts their finisher far too many times and without the appropriate build when it happens. If Austin were a babyface and Benoit and Jericho were heels, this match might have worked, especially when Booker T’s interference is factored into the equation. Benoit and Jericho manage to make Austin submit while both are applying their finishers at the same time, but the match continues because there’s no indication of which move made Austin tap. The spot was a nice touch to give the Chrisses an out, but it was never followed by anything that used it as a point of reference, neither in the rest of the match nor in the booking in the weeks following.

Austin does finish the match after getting injured at ringside and Benoit defeating himself is a nice touch, as he landed such a high impact move on Austin that he was unable to capitalize. This was an appropriate way to go, as Benoit would be sidelined until spring of 2002. Austin came out of this match sympathetic and heroic to a certain extent, which didn’t do his attempt to draw heel heat any wonders, while Jericho yet again failed to win the big one, a booking faux pas so obvious they had no choice but to exploit it later in the year. There are some bright spots in the match, but it’s a result of sheer will from the workers, as no one could possibly succeed and deliver to their fullest under these circumstances.

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