The year 2002 in WWE had a lot of good things going for it. The very first brand split, Eric Bischoff as Raw GM, the summer of Brock Lesnar, the return of Hulk Hogan and more.
However, it will forever be remembered for two words – Katie Vick.
2002 was meant to be a brand new beginning for the company, following the severely botched Invasion Angle which ultimately lost Vince McMahon millions of dollars and cheated the fans out of years of dream matches and rivalries. Unfortunately, 2002 wasn’t exactly the fresh start it promised to be…
The year began with Chris Jericho as the brand new Undisputed Champion. But he was simply there to carry the title to WrestleMania for Triple H, who returned following a career-threatening injury on the first episode of Raw in 2002 live from Madison Square Garden.
The promos leading up to the return were WWE at their best, showing The Game’s best moments set to the music of U2’s ‘Beautiful Day’. This was as good as it gets. “This is as loud as any sustained roar that I have ever heard in Madison Square Garden!” bellowed Jim Ross at ringside as The Game’s music hit and the Garden erupted. Judging by his gargantuan physique, Triple H had done more than recuperate his injured quad during his time away from the ring.
“I AM THE GAME AND YOU CAN BET YOUR ASS I’M BACK” roared Triple H before he was interrupted by Kurt Angle. Poor Kurt got a Pedigree for his troubles. Both men declared they would enter that month’s Royal Rumble which turned out to be one of WWE’s finest ever hours.
Everything from Undertaker’s early domination to Triple H’s eventual victory, this was perfect storytelling. The bout also featured several returns from The Godfather, Val Venis and Mr Perfect, who actually made it to the final four. Triple H winning was predictable, but obviously the right call. He would go on to headline WrestleMania and dethrone Chris Jericho of the Undisputed Championship in a disappointing outing.
“The WWF has cancer… because of Ric Flair. And the kind of cancer Flair gave the WWF, is the slow-eating kind of cancer. It’s not quick. I’m not gonna let Ric Flair kill what I created — me. The WWF is mine! I created it! I’m not gonna let Ric Flair kill what I created! Because I’m gonna kill what I created! I’m gonna kill it! I’m gonna kill my creation! I’m gonna inject the WWF with the lethal dose of poison!
If anybody is gonna kill my creation, I’m gonna do it! ME… and the nWo.”– Vince McMahon
With this promo by Mr McMahon, a poison was injected into the World Wrestling Federation with the arrival of Scott Hall, Kevin Nash, and Hollywood Hulk Hogan at the 2002 No Way Out PPV.
The original idea for the nWo to arrive in WWE looked very different to what we actually saw. Apparently, Vince McMahon wanted to keep Hulk Hogan away from the group and have him return home to WWE with Hulkamania, while having Shawn Michaels take his place as the leader of the nWo along with Kevin Nash and Scott Hall.
This would set in motion a year-long rivalry between the faction and babyface Triple H, who would turn down their offer to side with them. Another unique way of promoting WWE’s version of the trio was to have them compete on all brands with the belief being that they don’t work for the company. Unfortunately, none of that happened and the entire nWo angle ended up being a total washout.
One good thing that came out of the nWo invasion was the incredible ‘Icon vs Icon’ Match between The Rock and Hulk Hogan which tore the house down in the Toronto Skydome at WrestleMania.
The Rock had fast become the most popular name in the business, thanks in large part to his efforts during the Attitude Era. On the other side of the coin, Hulk Hogan was the reason why WrestleMania and WWE became such a global success. This was the clash of two generations that the world wanted to see.
“I loved it. Immediately I saw the marquee, I saw the build-up, I saw the promotion and I just saw the intrigue from the fans because this is a match you never thought you would see. It’s like Tyson vs Ali, you never thought you would see that.”– The Rock
During the match, the crowd made a seismic turn to support the returning Hogan.
“In that moment I had to listen to my gut, and I thought ‘I’m going to work as a heel now’ and give the people, 68,000 people, give them the opportunity to not be conflicted.
“Cheer him, you can boo me, because the only thing that matters is we have a great match.”
Raw and Smackdown were split into two separate brands following WrestleMania for a number of reasons. One being the rosters were too bloated for the younger talent to get over. And another being the lack of competition, with Vince McMahon attempting to create his own. It didn’t exactly go well, with Stephanie McMahon even going on record years later to claim that the extension never achieved what they thought or hoped it would.
Ric Flair and Vince McMahon were originally put in charge of Raw and Smackdown respectively before ratings tanked and McMahon went for Plan B… Bischoff. That’s right, with Raw’s viewership dwindling, Vince opted to bring in former WCW Chief Eric Bischoff to kayfabe run Monday Night Raw as an on-air General Manager. The ploy worked as ratings went up, and Bischoff was a delight in his role, revelling in being the hated authority figure. If Mr McMahon is the greatest villainous boss character in wrestling history, then Eric Bischoff is 1-A.
Stephanie McMahon would take charge of Smackdown, but in reality, it was Paul Heyman with creative control, and he helped create the famed “Smackdown Six”. Heyman was heralded for his style of sports entertainment, which he is attempting to duplicate with Raw today.
As good as Raw was in 2002, minus a few notable misses including the God-awful HLA (hot lesbian action, yes they really went there), Smackdown was certainly the more entertaining show, and arguably more star-studded roster featuring Brock Lesnar, Kurt Angle, Eddie Guerrero, Edge, Undertaker, Rey Mysterio, The Big Show and more. While Raw was simply the Triple H show.
Another major thing – on May 6th, the World Wrestling Federation was forced to change their name to World Wrestling Entertainment due to a long legal battle with the World Wildlife Fund.
As monumental as that change was, it arguably wasn’t the biggest development of the year. The WWE’s biggest box office draw of all time, Stone Cold Steve Austin decided to walk out on the company, citing rubbish storylines and being asked to lose to Brock Lesnar in an unadvertised match on Raw as his reasons.
Some have called him selfish and unprofessional for his conduct, and I’d have to agree with them. There is nothing wrong with quitting, but there is a right way and a wrong way to go about it. This was definitely the wrong way, and Austin himself as admitted that.
“When I look back, I was running so hard and the level of intensity was so hot and I was just white-hot in the business and I made a knee-jerk reaction to, they wanted me to do a job in Atlanta [Georgia] in a really non-publicized match with Brock and I thought that was real piss-poor business and it was.
I’ve always been willing to do business, when it was time to do business, but that wasn’t business. When you have a guy, and I never blow smoke up my own ass, but when you have a guy like me that draws big money, you don’t just job him out on a bulls–t Monday night TV, so I got to jazz up the language because that was something I was very passionate about and it really comes from my heart and my guts.
That being said, I should’ve got on an aeroplane and taken my ball and went home as they said. But hindsight being 20/20, yeah, I should’ve [gone] to the arena. I should’ve talked to Vince and said, ‘I’m not doing it,’ but just stayed with the company. I would have handled the situation much differently today and it would’ve been great had I handled it differently back then. I lost a lot of money. They lost a lot of momentum. We all lost a lot of money and the crowd lost a part of the product that they loved to watch.”
With Stone Cold out of the picture, the top of the card was suddenly free and one man looked to claim it as his own. That man was The Next Big Thing Brock Lesnar. The Beast, led brilliantly by Paul Heyman, ran rampant over the WWE roster, winning the King of the Ring tournament and becoming the youngest WWE Champion in history by toppling The Rock at SummerSlam.
After that, Lesnar went from strength-to-strength, ending Hulkamania, and battering The Undertaker in a brutal Hell In A Cell encounter at No Mercy. Unfortunately, all of that momentum was quickly deemed meaningless when WWE booked The Big Show to flatten Lesnar in less than five minutes at the Survivor Series due to a screwjob from Heyman. This just didn’t work. Brock was never the same without Heyman.
Over on Raw, the show was void of a Heavyweight Champion after WWE Champion Brock Lesnar became the sole property of Smackdown. Eric Bischoff decided to bring back the WCW Championship and rebrand it as the World Heavyweight Championship. However, rather than set up a prestigious tournament to crown a new title-holder, Bischoff simply awarded the gold to Triple H.
I get they were trying to get as much heat on The Game as possible, but this was the wrong way to go about it. It instantly devalued the Championship right out of the gate, and reminded everyone what a poor history the title had.
Oh, and things got worse when Kane got involved in the title siltation. You know when they say “sex sells”? Well, what about necrophilia? Apparently, Vince McMahon thought this was gold in 2002. To sum up, Kane had murdered a past girlfriend called Katie Vick, and Triple H went onto claim that Kane went on-to have sex with Katie once she was dead.
How WWE survived this is a mystery. It got even worse, though. A video segment was aired which featured Triple H impersonating Kane at a funeral home and proceeded to have sex with a mannequin in a cheerleading outfit. I smell an Emmy.
Shawn Michaels returned to in-ring action following a four-year lay off due to a severe back injury to defeat long-time friend Triple H in an epic at SummerSlam. Their subsequent matches would never top this one, or even come close.
The Heartbreak Kid’s sensational return got even better at the Survivor Series inside the very first Elimination Chamber by capturing the World Heavyweight Championship.
Genuinely one of the greatest moments in the history of WWE. Of course, Triple H won the title back just a month later. Apparently, Shawn didn’t want to appear on every house show which was the requirement for the World Champion. I’m assuming that rule changed in later years to accommodate Brock Lesnar.
Overall, 2002 was an unfortunate year in the history of WWE, but mostly for bad reasons. However, we did get the start of the Ruthless Aggression Era which ushered in the stars of tomorrow in Brock Lesnar, John Cena, Randy Orton and Batista.
If you ever find yourself complaining about the PG Era again, just remember Katie Vick and HLA.
No one wants a return to that.
You can find the author of this article on Twitter @JK_CFC3. Thanks for reading!