If you are like me and in your mid-20’s, your first dabble with professional wrestling would’ve come in the early 2000’s, the Ruthless Aggression Era.
Beginning in 2002, after the end of the Invasion, Vince McMahon rallied his troops and used that phrase to see who was going to lead the company into the new millennium, now that the company had lost both Stone Cold and The Rock. It would bring us new talent that would carry the company for years to come, some rising to become the faces of the company in the likes of John Cena and Edge. The Ruthless Aggression Era, according to the internet, spanned six years between 2002 and 2008, a period bringing us many incredible matches and moments. So here are five of the best you can see. And I’ve tried to not include more than one of each show-type to make it nice and varied.
This was the first WWE PPV I ever owned, on VHS. Yes, they existed at one time. 10-year-old me would watch this on repeat and I recently went back and watched it. I realised how brilliant of a show this was for the time we were in. There was a pre-show battle royal, the pre-cursor to the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal, won by Booker T. The opener of the main show, the WWE Tag Team Champions going one on one, something we hadn’t really seen in WWE until this point but they gave the story that Rey Mysterio could not beat Eddie Guerrero. Well, guess what? He did at Mania in a massively underrated opener.
After this opener, we got to see the first-ever Money in the Bank ladder match with the field being a who’s who of WWE talent in 2005; Edge, Chris Jericho, Chris Benoit, Kane and Christian, the latter accompanied by the ever-forgotten Tyson Tomko. This match gave us two things, the birth of one of the best match stipulations turned PPV and it gave us the beginning of the Rated R Superstar. Edge won the briefcase, becoming the Ultimate Opportunist and giving us the amazing visual months later when he cashed in at New Year’s Revolution.
This show also gave us the coming-out parties for two men who would carry WWE for the following decade; John Cena and Batista. Both men would go on to win the respective World Titles against JBL and Triple H respectively. A couple of months earlier, they were the final two in the Royal Rumble and now they leave The Staples Centre as the faces of each brand. We got brilliant entrances from both losers in these matches, JBL was given a police escort, fitting with his views of Cena who he called a hoodlum, and we also got Triple H played to the ring by Motorhead. Randy Orton continued to excel in his early career as his feud with The Undertaker continued through California but he did lose, but what a showing he had in this losing effort. He had assistance from his dad, Bob Orton, but still couldn’t put The Deadman down.
We did get a Women’s Championship match but it’s 2005 and the women weren’t treated brilliantly at this time, Trish Stratus defeating Christy Hemme in 4:11. The best match of the evening is a match I can easily watch on repeat and that is an Interbrand match between Kurt Angle and Shawn Michaels. This is wrestling personified, two men who had been through the Attitude Era showing that they are still two of the very best in the business. Mid 2000’s Kurt Angle is one of my all-time favourite wrestlers and the chemistry he had here with Michael’s was fluid and absolutely delightful. All in all, one of the best Mania’s for me, slightly biased due to the sentimentality I do hold to it but every single bit of action in this match is lightyears ahead of its time and fully worth a watch.
Survivor Series 2002
Another PPV with a first time ever match stipulation, this time giving us the spectacle that is the Elimination Chamber match. Another brilliant opening match as The Dudley Boyz, represented by Bubba and Spike, teaming with Jeff Hardy to take on 3-Minute Warning in an elimination tables match. An interesting team on the babyface side made because of the brand split after Bubba and Devon were separated and Matt Hardy’s heel turn and move to Smackdown earlier in the year gave us the combination of Jeff, Bubba and Spike. We got a brief Team 3D reunion as Devon came out to aid Bubba and deliver a 3D to Rico for the win. Billy Kidman would defeat Jamie Noble for the Cruiserweight Championship in a time where it was one of the hottest things on the show, to be followed by a women’s hardcore match as Victoria would defeat Trish Stratus for the Women’s Championship. We got some blood in this match which was unbelievably rare after Victoria’s nose got busted.
The screwjob of the century happened as Paul Heyman turned on Brock Lesnar to aid Big Show in winning the WWE Championship in an utter squash match. The final two matches we got made this show, a triple threat tag match for the WWE Tag Team Championships between the Smackdown Six; Los Guerreros (Eddie & Chavo), Edge & Rey Mysterio and Chris Benoit & Kurt Angle. These six men carried the Smackdown tag division for a very long time and any match they were involved in was an absolute masterclass. The main event was the first-ever Chamber match, something WWE described as a combination of the Royal Rumble, Survivor Series and War Games. Triple H went into the match as the reigning WWE World Heavyweight Champion, defending against Shawn Michaels, Booker T, Chris Jericho, Kane and Rob Van Dam. Obviously, it being the first it was never expected to be the best but this match was utterly fantastic.
It was new and fresh for the fans to watch; we had seen similar but nothing quite like this. We also got to see Shawn Michaels extremely memorable brown tights, looking back on it now, not the best choice. But he did win, his first WWE Championship since he lost the WWE Championship to ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin at Wrestlemania XIV. An extremely frenzied and enjoyable PPV to watch with some matches, the main event in particular, that were ahead of its time.
Royal Rumble 2008
One of the greatest returns in WWE history headlined this PPV and gave us the reason to watch, a man who was always booed by the fans get one of the biggest pops to date. The opening match was one of the ‘career-threatening’ matches Ric Flair was going through because Vince McMahon was being himself and trying to force him to retire. Ric defeated MVP with Little Naich, Charles Robinson, ringing the bell after MVP submitted to the Figure-Four Leglock. JBL defeating Chris Jericho by DQ followed, a pretty brutal match for what was billed as a singles match. Jericho got his revenge on JBL, who strangled Jericho with the tech wires on RAW, Jericho did that back to JBL at the Rumble after the bell had rung.
There was blood in this as well but from Jericho who was thrown into the ring post causing him to see red. Edge vs Rey Mysterio followed for the World Heavyweight Championship and no matter what the situation is, a match that involve these two men is always absolutely brilliant. At the time, Edge was in the height of his career as the boyfriend/husband of Smackdown General Manager, Vickie Guerrero, and he would use her position to get whatever he wanted. Edge won the bout, retaining his championship after Vickie sacrificed herself, protecting Edge during a 619 attempt by Mysterio. He would attempt a springboard only to be caught by the Spear by Edge for the three. The penultimate match of the show was one of my favourite matches to watch, partly due to the hype package WWE made and the song they chose. Jeff Hardy, one of the most popular WWE superstars in history looked to be getting what we all wanted him to get, a WWE Championship run. Standing in his way was the utterly brilliant and unstable Randy Orton, who was in the midst of his run as WWE’s resident psychopath champion.
Ultimately, we’d have to wait a little longer for that scene of Jeff Hardy lifting a World Title above his head as Orton would counter the Twist of Fate into an RKO. We get to the Rumble match which is introduced by the legendary Michael Buffer in MSG and starting off with the final two of the previous year’s Rumble, The Undertaker and Shawn Michaels. We get various great moments including a square-off between WWE Hall of Famers, ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper and ‘Superfly’ Jimmy Snuka and the big moment at the end of the show. John Cena making a return, after tearing his pectoral muscle in October, an injury that has a return time of seven months to a year. He is literally Superman, three months to heal from a torn pectoral. He has a showdown with Triple H who together clear out most of the field before being in the final three alongside Batista.
Triple H eliminates Batista before succumbing to the power of ‘Super Cena’ who hits the FU on Triple H out of the ring and wins the match from number 30. This PPV is more well known for the last two matches but the whole show is very good and an extremely enjoyable watch.
The Next Big Thing is officially here. Brock Lesnar, who was propelled to the top of WWE, proved why, as he defeated The Rock for the WWE Championship in the main event of the show. Considering it’s 2002 and the shows are normally five or six matches long, Summerslam weighed in at a whopping nine matches plus a dark match that was aired on heat; Spike Dudley defeating Stevie Richards in 2:35. The opener to the show is still classed as one of the best show openers to this date; Kurt Angle vs Rey Mysterio. It’s also classed as one of the best matches under ten minutes, with Angle coming out on top, winning by submission. There are a couple of lesser talked about matches on the show as well, Ric Flair defeating Chris Jericho and Edge defeating Eddie Guerrero. Following these two bouts, we had a couple of championship matches starting with the Un-Americans, represented by Christian and Lance Storm, taking on the comedy duo of Booker T and Goldust.
One of the most popular tag teams in the early 2000s couldn’t get the job done unfortunately as the Canadian duo came out on top. Rob Van Dam defeated Chris Benoit for the Intercontinental Championship in a brilliant battle of styles. The final match before the two barn burners this show had for us was The Undertaker, during his American Badass gimmick, defeating Test for the good of America. In his first match back in four years, we got the unsanctioned match between Shawn Michaels and Triple H. A brutal, emotionally driven masterpiece between two of the best wrestlers to ever grace a ring makes this show worth the watch alone. But there is another match for us to enjoy and that is the passing of the torch from The Rock to Brock Lesnar.
Lesnar was only 25 years old at this point and he had impressed so many people in such a short time, debuting on the main roster in March 2002, five months prior to Summerslam. This show is heavily reliant on the opener and final two matches but the six matches in between are still very good and gives this show a worthy place on this list.
Emanating from the Air Canada Centre in Toronto and one half of the main event being from Toronto just felt perfect, it felt even more perfect considering that man was The Rated R Superstar, Edge. A heel, a massive heel but a heel who got cheered because Toronto knew they need to support their hometown boy. Looking at this card and realising that Shelton Benjamin was on the dark match is shocking, even more shocking is that he lost against Super Crazy. The opener on the main card was one of the better feuds in the mid-card during 2006 between Johnny Nitro and Jeff Hardy over the Intercontinental Championship, as they would exchange the title between themselves after Nitro was separated from tag partner, Joey Mercury. Nitro came out on top in this specific match, retaining his strap.
Kane and Umaga, two big men, battled to a double count-out which made sense because their feud was pretty physical and they both would just go and batter each other. Additionally, they both needed to keep momentum and this is a good way to keep it. A forgotten tag team in WWE, The Highlanders challenged The Spirit Squad for the World Tag Team Championships, yes that is right, those pesky male cheerleaders. Those pesky male cheerleaders did bring us Dolph Ziggler so it wasn’t so bad. They did come out on top, with Kenny and Mikey representing the team and retaining the championships. Another underrated banger coming your way in the form of D-Generation X, of course represented by Shawn Michaels and Triple H, competing against Big Show, Mr McMahon and Shane McMahon in a Hell in a Cell match. The feud between the McMahon’s and DX was absolutely class, it brought us the reformation of DX and it gave us classic after classic match, this one is no exception.
Another classic rivalry we’ll never get tired of watching is Lita and Trish Stratus, two of the best, if not the best, women’s wrestlers to ever grace a WWE ring. Every match they had was class and this one was no exception with a happy ending resulting in the Canadian, Trish Stratus, winning in her home country and winning the Women’s Championship. What made this even better was this was Trish’s retirement match, which we got confirmation of on the September 4th episode of RAW.
Before we get to the main event, we have a random match between Randy Orton and Carlito which Orton won hitting an RKO outta nowhere. It felt kind of poetic looking at the result of the main event, you had the heel champion in his hometown and in the match, he helped innovate, TLC, going against the face of the company who had to move brands if he were to lose. John Cena vs Edge, one of the greatest feuds of all time, the two men hated each other and it was clear to see after Edge put that clause into this match that if Cena lost, he’d have to join Smackdown. Super Cena would come out on top, meaning he won the title and stayed on Monday Night RAW despite interference from Edge’s girlfriend, Lita.
A fantastic final spot as Cena would FU Edge through two tables from the top of the ladder. Unforgiven is a criminally underrated show, often forgotten about but the matches all added up to make an extremely entertaining show.
For me, the Ruthless Aggression Era is the greatest era in WWE history because I grew up in it. You had the main stars and the rising stars who would intertwine and make fantastic moments and wonderfully captivating matches. We will never see an era like it again, so use the WWE Network to rewatch these five shows and some other classic events.
You can find the author of this article on Twitter @George_Geal_. Thanks for reading!