Courtesy of WWE Home Video, Matthew Roberts takes a look at their latest release Ruthless Aggression, a look back at a sometimes forgotten era of the WWE.
Of course the victors in any war are the ones who get to write the story. The WWE is no exception. It’s not a criticism, per se, to note that and acknowledge that in terms of the Attitude Era and the “killing off” of WCW the WWE have certainly got their money’s worth out of that period in their history
And yet there are many people out there, those who look beyond when something becomes “cool” on the international stage and don’t pay too much attention to the “numbers” on their own who would say that as popular as the Attitude Era was it wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be in terms of the in-ring action. There are those that will say that the “Ruthless Aggression” era that followed it generally out-performed what came just before it in terms of the, you know, wrestling.
This two DVD set compiles the five episodes of the Ruthless Aggression series. If simply because it’s taking a look at an era that is almost the forgotten step-son of the Attitude Era rather than going over well trodden ground there’s a freshness to what’s on show. Even if episode 1 starts with a mini re-cap of the Attitude Era. But, as writers Brian Gerwitz and Bruce Prichard admit here, if the AE helped to kill off WCW in March 2001 what do you do when you’ve won the war? What comes next?
Well what immediately came next was the WCW “invasion”. Some will tell you that this was the biggest bust of all time in terms of WWE throwing away a storyline. Gerwitz acknowledges in a roundabout way that the invasion didn’t bring us the “dream matches” we’d all long since salivated over whilst Prichard simply states that with many of WCW’s top stars on guaranteed contracts with AOL/Time Warner even though WCW was no longer a working entity it was unreasonable to expect WWE to pick up those contracts.
What that approach left us with was a lot of promising, but green, talent. Mark Jindrak admits he, and many others, weren’t “ready” for the WWE. Whether they were or they weren’t, the infamous “WCW” match on Raw between Buff Bagwell and Booker T gets the blame for putting the kibosh on the idea of WCW Raw becoming a thing. None of this is strictly “Ruthless Agression” stuff, but it does nicely set the scene of how/why Attitude became Aggression./
We get a look at Ohio Valley Wrestling, still arguably the most successful “development” deal the WWE ever had. Yes, even better than NXT when you consider that John Cena, Randy Orton, Batista and Brock Lesnar all came through there. We jump to Ric Flair returning to the WWE, the shocking sight of the nWo in the WWE and an acknowledgement of things the WWE got wrong around this time such as Torrie Wilson and Dawn Marie fighting at a funeral and the “I Love Testicles” debacle. We get a look at the first ever brand split/draft, the Rock and Austin saying goodbye and the reason why Austin temporarily did (after being asked to j-o-b to a then newly arrived Brock Lesnar on TV at short notice).
Then comes something which is off the charts even for WWE spin on a WWE release. Listening to the reasoning behind the “Get the F out” campaign given here you would be led to believe the WWF to WWE name change was a conscious decision to have a new look, a new attitude. Not because they were made to tap out by some panda’s. Even when you are accustomed to WWE spin, this is staggering stuff.
We finish with Vince uttering the words “ruthless aggression” in an in-ring programme to the Raw roster and the subsequent Smackdown where John Cena made his TV debut by confronting John Cena, Which segues us into episode 2, focussed on the Doctor of Thuganomics.
It starts weirdly with Cena, as the biggest pushed star of the last decade and a half and on a series dedicated to this particular era, saying that Ruthless Aggression was a failure for him. It begins to make sense as we go through but still seems odd. Cena admits he felt far behind the other crop of future stars he met at Ohio Valley Wrestling but many others put over the fact that he was the best mic man/promo of that class. He discusses the thought process of his debut match with Kurt Angle, we see how the Undertaker reacted backstage to that match and then the idea that when Brock Lesnar caught fire Cena became old hat.,
It was happenstance that things turned around for him, as popping the boys with some rapping caught the ear of one Stephanie McMahon. From there, the push starts and never really falters. What makes this episode, whether you like Cena or not, is his candid comments. Sometimes you get the impression of spin to tell a story, but you also get a good look into all the hard work that Cena put in. Love him or hate him, don’t make the mistake of thinking everything was handed to him.
Episode three takes a look at “Evolution”. That is, of course, the Triple H led faction not the women’s only PPV that still hasn’t been repeated. The fact that this was HHH’s version of the Four Horsemen is acknowledge although you may think there is more than a little bit of hindsight when Trips suggests the way he got Vince to agree to it was to tell him that him and Ric would use the faction to make two new guys into main event players. In fairness though, you can’t say it didn’t in the form of Randy Orton and Batista.
The episode is really a run through the highs and lows of the faction and the people in it. We get a look at the story behind Mark Jindrak being a part of the faction when injuries hit Batista. Who knows, if things were different it might have been Jindrak in Marvel movies and appearing as a Bond henchman. We get an interesting look at Orton’s disastrous babyface turn, with candid footage of Orton being used to suggest that he was far more suited to a heel role, but it never really goes deep enough into things for my liking. If so many people seemed to realise it wasn’t a role suited to Orton at the time, how did it make it to TV?
Of course in the end it was a happy accident. Batista became the man to watch and it’s fair to say that the slow building storyline to his turn on Triple H was one of the best things the WWE did in this era. And if you don’t believe me, check out that WrestleMania 21 buy rate. Evolution only really had less than one year together on-screen as a quartet, but their standing and success is beyond question. It’s an interesting hour looking at their rise.
Episode 4 focuses on Brock Lesnar. As Paul Heyman states right at the beginning, Lesnar’s original run only lasted two years but it certainly made a mark.
Of course the warning signs were there from the start. Despite being given the biggest ever “developmental” contact ever known (and let’s be honest, Brock had options so the WWE had to cough up to get him) he soon grew frustrated there. He wanted on the main roster and he wanted the main event money. Not that there is anything wrong with that.. Luckily he had Heyman to guide him and Heyman to point Vince in the right direction. From there, the push is on. Summerslam 2002 and The Rock made him a star, along with delivering a stunning defeat to Hulk Hogan on Smackdown. Already though, the schedule and routine of being a WWE main eventer was beginning to wear him down.
As we all know, Lesnar left in 2004. He tried his hand at the NFL before becoming a big box office attraction with UFC. Eight years after “walking out” on the WWE he would return. And as Mick Foley says towards the end of this episode, nobody makes the suspension of disbelief easier than Brock. As a potted history of Brock’s first WWE run this is fine, although it misses a lot of action out.
We end “series 1” with Civil War: Raw Vs Smackdown. The WWE still trots out this trope every year at Survivor Series and it never quite works. Still, back in 2002/04 it seemed more real. With a stacked talent roster after the collapse of WCW and ECW, there was ample reason to believe that “two rosters” could work. It certainly gave “lesser” lights more TV time and in the days when wrestlers stuck to their brand meant that fewer names were over exposed. The likes of Brian Gerwitz, Paul Heyman and Bruce Prichard give some good backstage insight into what things were really like and Heyman admits that Vince’s priority was Raw so he could introduce more “wrestling” to Smackdown. There’s a lot of back and forth and it’s an interesting look at the artificial war that placed the “Monday Night” one but it’s perhaps the least essential of this set.
Perhaps there are more in-depth pieces out there on some of the people who are the focus of this set, but as a whole this is a greatly entertaining series that takes a closer look at an era that often has to live in the shadow of it’s more popular, more celebrated sibling that is the Attitude Era. Extras wise, Vince’s Ruthless Agression promo is included, some Evolution bonus features and some series trailers.
8 out of 10
Photographs courtesy of Fetch and WWE
You can find me on Twitter @IWFICON