Following the purchase of WCW, the WWE had an over-abundance of wrestlers on its card.
Over four hours of main show programming, with the same wrestlers appearing consistently? Something had to give. In April 2002, the first draft between Raw and Smackdown was held. Not only did this lead to more TV time for the talent, but also signalled the end of the Attitude Era and ushered in the era known as Ruthless Aggression. We all know of the likes of John Cena, Brock Lesnar and Eddie Guerrero as names who broke into the main event picture. Even old favourites such as The Undertaker and HHH continued to flourish amongst the changes in their surroundings.
What about those who flew underneath the radar? Some that many liked but just couldn’t seem to break through that theoretical glass ceiling? Here are five wrestlers that were underrated during their time during the Ruthless Aggression era.
It seems fitting that during a time where MVP has made a return to our screens that we start off our list with him. When he joined the Smackdown roster in 2006, MVP was presented as a big deal. Lavish promo videos entertained the audience while his opening (and successful) feud with Kane helped him to get off on the right foot.
Moving through this career, he would capture gold in the form of a US Title run, winning the belt from Chris Benoit at Judgement Day, holding the title for a then record of 343 days. Following this, however, he was given the kiss of death with a fabled losing streak gimmick. MVP would never recover from this and eventually in 2010 he would leave the WWE.
If you were going to build the perfect blue-print of what a professional wrestler would look like (apart from Randy Orton) then Chris Masters would be it. With the physique of a Greek god, a natural persona and a fantastic gimmick, it was hard to see where things could go wrong. As a teenager during this period, the Masterlock Challenge would be a segment I regularly looked forward to. Starting with audience members and building up to roster members, everyone bowed to The Masterpiece. Lower and mid-card wrestlers failed the challenge – even the likes of Rey Mysterio and Shawn Michaels fell.
When this was finally broken though (by Bobby Lashley), suddenly the aura around Masters started to fade. Although he would challenge John Cena for the WWE Championship on two occasions, a leave of absence due to a drug problem would spell disaster. Upon returning, it was quite obvious that he had dropped weight and he would disappear from our screens in 2007 following numerous Wellness Policy violations. If these problems hadn’t been an issue, it would have been easy to see Masters as a champion around this time. He completely fitted the heel persona bestowed on him, gaining a magnitude of heat.
Just because a wrestler is underrated doesn’t mean that they can’t be successful. Coming off a great run in Ring Of Honor, Paul London signed for WWE in 2003. After being a victim of the all-conquering Brock Lesnar, he would have brief Tag Team and Cruiserweight title runs. This didn’t equal main event status though, and he languished in the shadows. Enter Brian Kendrick. The two men would become the talk of the Tag Team division and would go on to hold the titles for a SmackDown record of 331 days. Over with the fans, the pair were lighting up our screens and were hot as well. The WWE decided to move the team to Raw; this is where the problems would start. Apart from a brief, three day title run, the team would never hit the same highs as they did on the Blue Brand. They would be split the following year with Kendrick moving back to SmackDown. London would soon disappear from TV and be released in November 2018.
One of the most athletic wrestlers of his generation, with good promo ability and put on good to great matches on a regular basis, as a singles and a tag team wrestler, Shelton Benjamin seemed to be on a path to greatness. From his excellent tag team partnership with Charlie Haas (ANOTHER underrated wrestler himself) to his regular standout performances in the Money in the Bank matches, plus THAT gold rush tournament match with Shawn Michaels, the main event scene seemed where Shelton was destined to end up. Yet, somehow, his became a story that became embodied with the perception that the WWE has a glass ceiling.
No matter the matches he put on or how over he would be with the fans, he never received that main-event push. There are rumours that he was disrespectful to a WWE legend, which caused any momentum to stop in its tracks and push him down the card. Then came the fabled ‘Mama’s Boy’ gimmick. As a teenager at the time, I failed to recognise how big of a step down this was. I even started off the chant at a WWE Raw House Show in Cardiff back in the mid 00’s. Shelton was soon let out from the company and left many fans thinking ‘what if?’
One thing that William Regal was always known as was a tough SOB. The Man’s Man was a great technical wrestler and a grizzled veteran at this point of his career. For one reason or another though, he was never given the ball to run with during the Ruthless Aggression era. Be it stuck in storylines such as babysitting Eugene (who was underrated himself in my eyes) or being the hype man for King Booker. He did have numerous title reigns with secondary and tag team titles, although if you wanted to name these off the top of your head then you would have a difficult job! The one time he was given the limelight was with his run as Raw General Manager and King of The Ring win.
If it wasn’t for an untimely Wellness Policy violation, all signs pointed to a world title run, but this never came into fruition. If it wasn’t for this, we could be talking about one of the most memorable ‘boss is the champion’ runs in the history of the company, but instead we are left wondering what could have been.
The ‘Ruthless Aggression’ era has divided opinions, but you cannot argue that it was a place full of top-notch talent that may have not been given a fair shake. If one of these or any others been given a shot, the eras that followed could have been very, very different.
You can find me on Twitter @TDWalton. Thanks for reading.