2003 was the only other year (1995 being the other one) that WWE didn’t actually draw a profit.
The reasons for which are endless, but here are the main ones…
Let’s start in January with the arrival of Scott Steiner, who was miscast as a babyface, and injured to boot. Rather than bring the former WCW badass in as a hell-raising heel, they had him challenge Triple H for the World Heavyweight Championship at the Royal Rumble. It was a ludicrous decision. What was worse was giving the pair almost 30 minutes to work with despite Steiner basically wrestling on one foot.
Maybe backstage politics had something to do with it, but whatever the case, this was just bad booking all around. The two would somewhat redeem themselves the following month at No Way Out in a much more condensed version of their Rumble horror show, with The Game unsurprisingly going over. WWE officials were said to be so disappointed with Big Poppa Pump’s performances that they cancelled their WrestleMania plans for him and left him off the card entirely.
Speaking of WrestleMania, it was arguably the most stacked card in history, yet drew a miserly buyrate that bamboozled all in charge. The headline bout saw Brock Lesnar reclaim the WWE Championship from Kurt Angle in a stellar outing sadly only remembered for Brock’s botched Shooting Star Press that almost saw him break his own neck.
Brock Lesnar and Kurt Angle would make network history later in the year when they competed in the first-ever sixty-minute Ironman Match to be featured on television. The bout lived up to the hype, with both men turning in another masterpiece which saw Lesnar win back the WWE Championship after Angle had returned from neck surgery in July to recapture the gold at the Vengeance PPV.
Elsewhere on the show, The Rock ultimately managed to defeat Stone Cold Steve Austin on the biggest stage of them all, completing their trilogy of WrestleMania classics in fitting style. This was to be Austin’s last match too, and he has yet to return to the squared circle, not even for all that Saudi money. Fair play to him.
The Texas Rattlesnake returned from his own sabbatical at the No Way Out PPV the following year to eviscerate Eric Bischoff in a tremendously fun bashing. It was a painful evening for the former WCW head honcho, but Austin didn’t take liberties like some expected for the way he was treated on his way out of the Atlanta based promotion. He was the consummate professional.
However, something looked off. Austin didn’t seem himself, and that’s because he was suffering from several health issues, including nagging problems with his surgically repaired neck. The clock was sadly ticking on Stone Cold’s career, but fortunately he got to cap it off with his greatest rival on the biggest stage possible.
Austin would return to WWE a couple of months later as the co-General Manager of Raw to make Bischoff’s life a living hell, and help boost ratings in the process. The latter was an impossible task. Fans had simply grown tired of WWE, no matter what they tried. Austin as GM was a blast, but it couldn’t last forever. It came to an end at the Survivor Series, fittingly in Dallas Texas, with a traditional five-on-five Elimination Match which saw Bischoff’s team defeat Austin’s to end Stone Cold’s career. It was nice to see Austin get the farewell he deserved.
That was Austin’s 2003, as for The Rock, Hollywood was calling. After getting booed out of the building at the previous year’s SummerSlam event, Rock leaned heavily into his Hollywood persona and played up to the fact that he didn’t need WWE anymore. This was a riot, and one of the best periods of Rock’s illustrious careers.
In a WrestleMania rematch at No Way Out, Rock once again bested Hulk Hogan in a much inferior contest which harked back to the tired Montreal Screwjob angle. This was old in 2003, but they’re still doing it to this day. After also vanquishing Steve Austin at The Showcase Of The Immortals, Rock’s last match of 2003 would come against the debuting Goldberg.
The biggest star in WCW, not named the nWo, Goldberg was incredible in his smash-mouth, take no prisoners style of performing. Spear, Jackhammer, 1-2-3. That was the formula that made Goldberg the single biggest draw in WCW during the Monday Night Wars. Unfortunately, WWE threw that template away and insisted Goldberg work the WWE style which involved a 13-minute slog against The Rock at Backlash where he was asked to sell for long durations of the bout. This has never been Goldberg’s forte, and the fans turned on him instantly. The last sure-fire money-making draw WWE had left, they just flushed down the toilet in one main event.
Things got worse for Goldberg throughout 2003 as he was made to look goofy and naive throughout his run. One significant moment saw Goldust put a wig on Goldberg’s head and be allowed to live to tell the tale. Goldberg should’ve Speared him right through the locker room door. His feud with Chris Jericho was also dire, involving an absurd hit and run story, and the burial of Lance Storm and Christian. The Vengeance bout with Jericho was also a shambles.
Surely things would get better once Goldberg set his sights on Triple H and the World Heavyweight Championship, right? Wrong. Although, for a brief moment inside the Elimination Chamber Match at SummerSlam, WWE got the Goldberg character spot-on as they had him run through and eliminate three of the five opponents in rapid succession, only to succumb to The Game’s sledgehammer, thus ending Goldberg’s little momentum in WWE.
Goldberg would win the World Title the following month at Unforgiven, but by then the fans had stopped caring. His run with the gold was poor, dropping the prize in a sluggish Triple Threat with The King of Kings and Kane at Armageddon. Goldberg would leave WWE following WrestleMania 20, which was a whole different level of embarrassment, but we will get to that at a later date.
Goldberg and Scott Steiner weren’t the only two former WCW talents to get buried by Triple H in the year of our lord 2003. The Game seemed on a mission to rid professional wrestling of anyone associated with WCW, even if they were friends of his. The Game’s reign of terror, as it has come to be known, was a huge reason as to why WWE lost so much money and so many fans during this period. Triple H is one of the greatest of all time, but in 2003, he had no right to be on top of the card. He was out of shape, injured for much of it, and was putting on weak performances. In my opinion, this was the only year of his career that being married to the boss’ daughter helped him stay on top. The rest of the time, he was there on merit.
After Steiner suffered a relegation from the title picture and relevance at the hands of Triple H, it was Booker T’s turn next. I won’t mention the distasteful angle leading up to the WrestleMania match, but if there’s ever a segment to be removed from the WWE Network, then this is it. Racism has no place in society, and should never be used to further an angle in wrestling. What made matters worse is that Booker didn’t even win the title in one of the most baffling booking decisions of all time.
Triple H’s good friend Kevin Nash returned from injury shortly afterwards to insert himself in the rivalry between The Game and Shawn Michaels. Nash and Triple H would compete in 3 straight PPV main events (4 if you count the UK exclusive Insurrection show) and all of them were hard to watch. The Hell In A Cell Match at Bad Blood was the pick of the bunch, but even that was a strange view. Both men bled buckets, but it came across more as a cartoon as opposed to real violence. They definitely went too far on a number of occasions – Triple H smashed Nash over the head with a hammer, and it wasn’t even the finish – and the severely low buy rate told the story. No one had interest in this.
Mr McMahon and Hulk Hogan blew everyone away with a crazy Street Fight that also involved the return of Roddy Piper at Mania. It was bloody, it was brutal, it was nasty, but you couldn’t take your eyes from it. Kudos to both men. The Hulkster went over, of course, which led to that whole Mr America story. Man, was that bad. Basically, McMahon fired Hogan after losing to him at WrestleMania, so Hulk returned wearing a mask under the guise of Mr America.
In fairness, some of the segments were a hoot, especially the lie detection of Mr McMahon. Well worth viewing. But on the whole, it was a complete mess. It was also diluted by the fact that Hogan left WWE due to a contract dispute before the story could play out fully, meaning it simply went away without much explanation.
Mr McMahon, meanwhile, continued to grow more disturbed by the week. His character was having a breakdown throughout the summer and winter months in WWE, throwing his weight around, bullying a one-legged wrestler, having sexual contact with Sable, beating up his own daughter to force her to quit as General Manager of Smackdown, and threatening to have The Undertaker’s family murdered. All in the name of light entertainment, of course.
McMahon would have his comeuppance at the Survivor Series event in a Buried Alive Match with The Phenom, who completely annihilated the tyrannical chairman throughout, but ultimately lost thanks to interference from an unmasked Kane. Oh, yes, that’s another newsworthy thing that happened in 2003.
Kane was struggling for momentum and direction for much of the year, before it was decided to reinvent his character and remove the mask, which happened inside Madison Square Garden in a World Heavyweight Championship Match with Triple H. The ripping off of the mask led to Kane’s maniacal heel turn, targeting former tag partner Rob Van Dam, Shane McMahon and even Linda McMahon. To think, if he Tombstoned Linda today, he would be cheered by everyone. How times change.
2003 was the year of change in WWE, and the biggest change saw the rise of Randy Orton and John Cena. With both men on Raw and Smackdown respectively, WWE strapped rockets to the pair and let them soar. Orton was a part of Evolution, being under the wing of Triple H and Ric Flair helped his cause no end, and he captured the prestigious Intercontinental Championship at the end of the year. Meanwhile, Cena was rising up the ranks fast as a freestyling rapper who showed no one any respect, not even The Undertaker, as the pair fought in a rare PPV outing together. Cena would turn face before the year was out, and has remained one ever since, unless you count the bizarre Firefly Funhouse Match from this year’s WrestleMania, which you shouldn’t.
While Cena’s star-making moment was undoubtedly against The Undertaker, Orton’s would come against Mick Foley in 2004, but the seeds were planted in the tail end of 2003. Foley returned to Raw as a General Manager, before Eric Bischoff forced him to put his job on the line by wrestling Randy. If Foley won, Bischoff would then quit. Many expected that to be the outcome, but surprisingly Foley walked out and allowed Orton to spit in his face. Obviously, all would be revealed in 2004, but that’s another story.
A major alteration WWE attempted in 2003 was the debut of brand-exclusive PPV events, which had varying amounts of success. While, on paper, it was good to have each roster showcase all their talent on a big stage, it meant having matches featuring Rob Conway and Charlie Haas, which no one wanted to see. Surprisingly, WWE kept these brand exclusive PPVs going until 2007, before going back to them in 2016. I wouldn’t be surprised to see another return one day, especially with them no longer relying on PPV numbers.
So, that’s 2003 wrapped up. Triple H destroyed every last fibre of WCW not named Sting…. He’d have to wait until 2015.
Mr McMahon finally went off the rails….. investing in the XFL was going to catch up with him sooner or later.
John Cena and Randy Orton were labelled the stars of the future…. And WWE’s ratings suddenly plummeted, coincidentally of course.
Finally, Stone Cold Steve Austin retired….. and actually stayed retired as of writing.
That Saudi money must be tempting.
You can find the author of this article on Twitter @JK_CFC3. Thanks for reading!