PEPPERIDGE FARM REMEMBERS THIS TOO
(THE ONE WITH THE SHOOTING STAR HEADBUTT)
The year was 2002. On the night after WrestleMania 18, Brock Lesnar debuted on WWF television, with Paul Heyman by his side. After a short feud with the Hardy Boyz -- mostly designed to sell his power and ferocity -- Lesnar entered the King of the Ring tournament (those were the days) and ran roughshod through the competition. He beat RVD in the finals and then faced him again at the July pay-per-view (PPV) event (losing by DQ).
In the main event of SummerSlam, he faced off against, and decidedly beat, The Rock to win the undisputed championship. Despite being dressed only in plain black trunks and boots, with a buzz cut and little mic work to his name, Brock Lesnar oozed charisma. He had -- and still does -- this intangible "it factor" that gave him a presence in the ring unlike few others.
He was ripped to shreds, but not clumsy like other meatheads. He was big, but not slow and plodding. He was very new to the pro game, but quickly developed an arsenal of moves. He was fast and reckless, and worked like a man half his size yet had the strength to pick up heavyweights with ease. He was the near-total package. Drafted to SmackDown, Brock plowed through Undertaker, beating him in arguably the second most decisive Hell in a Cell victory ever (after Undertaker's own brutal win over Mankind in 1998). He looked like a champion being booked to have a long, establishing run with the title. It looked as though "the next big thing" would plow his way to AT LEAST WrestleMania, and possibly beyond.
Back during Lesnar's pre-title rampage, he had a SmackDown match with red-and-yellow clad "Hollywood" Hulk Hogan. Now, if you've seen one "Hogan vs. Monster" match you've seen them all. Late in the contest, Hogan gets put in a bear hug, weakens, arm goes up...falls once; Arm goes up...falls twice; Arm goes up...finger in the air, nuh uh, he wags it to the screaming crowd...elbow elbow elbow, hold is broken, knock down, hulk up, cruise to victory.
On this occasion, Hogan was trapped in a Lesnar bear hug. Arm goes up; falls. Arm goes up; falls. Arm goes up (fans start to cheer); falls. Ring the bell.
It was the biggest statement win on Lesnar's resume to that point. Remember that Stone Cold Steve Austin walked out because Vince McMahon wanted to hot shot a loss to Lesnar on free TV. I get Austin's point (do it on PPV and make it matter), but in what bizarro world is this where Hogan walks out there and does a straight up JOB on SmackDown? Good for Hogan for being the company guy for once. Good for Hogan for putting over the hot young talen--
Welp, here comes the
Apparently (per Dave Meltzer and co.), Hogan and Lesnar were supposed to rematch at Survivor Series, at Madison Square Garden, inside a steel cage. Now tell me that wouldn't be an iconic match. Unfortunately, Hogan thought it would be better if he went over the rookie sensation. It was TOO iconic for Hogan not to win, as it were. The whole thing fell apart and plans for Brock totally changed. It's a shame too, because that would have been a great old school match. Just an aside: But why not have Vince screw Hogan out of the win? That would set up their eventual WrestleMania 19 match.
Instead, Brock was pitted against Big Show, and Paul Heyman turned on "The Next Big Thing" and helped Show win the title. Brock's dominate heel run ended three months after it began as the champ tasted his first pinfall loss (to flippin' Big Show) and lost the title (to flippin' Big Show). Lesnar turned babyface on that night and began a chase to regain the belt.
If you weren't watching the program back then and only know Brock by way of his current part-time shtick, let me tell you to go back and watch whatever you can of his old work on the WWE Network. He was incredible. Unforuntately, he wasn't ready to be a good guy. It was too soon. He wasn't well enough developed as a character, nor had he been around long enough to build a rapport with the fans to make the babyface run really work. Whatever plans they initially had forWrestleMania 19 (and it probably featured a babyface Angle unsuccessfully challenging for the title) were stunted a bit by the face turn.
The belt moved from Brock to Big Show and eventually found its way onto Kurt Angle in December of 2002. On account of Lesnar's incredible ring skill, fresh character, and the headwind of the year's push behind him, the former champ did not lose steam as the top babyface of SmackDown. He won the Royal Rumble and challenged champion Angle for the title atWrestleMania.
Angle, however, was a medical catastrophe waiting to happen as his neck was all sorts of damaged. As WrestleManiaapproached a lot of people in the know wondered if the match would even take place. In fact, a few weeks before the big dance, Kurt was informed by doctors that he had a broken (freaking) neck and would not be able to compete, and if he did, he risked paralysis.
The man won an Olympic gold medal with a broken (freaking) neck. Do you think another broken neck is going to stop him from defending the WWE championship?!? I don't think so.
Angle competed. Oh, it's true.
Oh, what a match. Their SummerSlam encounter might be a shade better, but that's only because both guys were healthy and Angle the babyface beat Brock the heel, making for a more natural feud. Nevertheless, considering the champ's condition going in, it's a near-miracle they even had a "passable" match. Instead they had one of the best-worked main event bouts in WrestleMania history. I love how the contest is basically three very distinct matches. There's opening "amateur" sequence that ends as soon as punches start being thrown. That starts the second "technical wrestling" portion. Then the match kicks into overdrive en route to the finish (more on that in a bit).
Let's take a minute, however, and notice a couple other things working against this main event. WrestleMania 19 is, to date, the most star-studded WrestleMania ever. Other than a disappointing Undertaker match-up, the card is nearly perfect. The final marathon of upper card bouts is relentless in the best way. Not only that but other than the aforementioned Undertaker match, there's not a bad match on the show. If you haven't seen it (and only about half a million bought the show in 2003) go watch it right now! The awesomeness (apart from the final 30 seconds of Triple H vs. Booker T) just keeps coming and it doesn't stop until the show goes off the air.
With so much greatness leading up to the main event, there was a lot stacked onto the shoulders of a second-tier main-eventer/draw like Kurt Angle (with a broken freaking neck) and first timer on any WrestleMania stage like Brock Lesnar. Not to mention this was the B-show title. Yes, SmackDown was light years better than Raw (even with Chris Jericho, Shawn Michaels, The Rock and Steve Austin all over the place), but it was still taped on Tuesday and airing on Thursday. It was still the show stuck in the shadow of the Monday night big brother. No matter how good it was, its ratings were always at least a million fewer than Raw every week.
Can you believe this match went on last? Looking back it was the right call. What else would have? Michaels vs. Jericho didn't have the stakes. Triple H vs. Booker didn't have the finish. Austin vs. Rock and Vince vs. Hogan (rumored to have been the main event until the last minute) had the drama and star power, but it was good that Vince let his two best wrestlers fight for his company's namesake wrestling championship in the true headliner. For all his bluster about "we're in the entertainment business, not the wrestling business" he is still a wrestling promoter at heart.
There's one last thing that could have worked against this match and the overall main event: the infamous botched Shooting Star Press leading into the finish. You've seen it. Likely you've seen the grainy YouTube videos of Brock hitting the move perfectly. What a moment and a finish that would have been? It's funny, when you think about it, there's really very few BIG TIME botches in WWE history. I mean, when ALL the eyes are on it and you can't screw up, usually it's the case that things go as well as they can go (for better or worse).
This could have been bad. It could have been very bad. Imagine if the story coming out of the show had been "Angle came in with a broken neck and Lesnar left with one." Yeesh. Instead, commentary kept their cool and underplayed the botch (I miss Tazz and SmackDown Cole. That was a great team.). Angle the vet talked the obviously concussed Lesnar into an improvised finish and embraced the new champion amidst a well-deserved standing ovation from the (tired) Seattle crowd.
For all that was working against it, this main event endured, and continues to endure. It's maybe my personal favoriteWrestleMania main event as it features my absolute #1 favorite, Kurt Angle, and my second favorite (for 2003 at least), Brock Lesnar. It's a technical showcase in a list that features very few of them. While the story wasn't very strong thanks to Lesnar's rushed face turn, it certainly had some good moments and the real life drama more than made up for it.
I have no problem calling this the seventh best main event in WrestleMania history. It's not as "epic" or as "iconic" as some of the ones still upcoming, but I think it's certainly worthy of its spot on the countdown. Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.
SHOVE..TOMORROW'S MAIN EVENT..INTO A NOSE DIVE, KAY'SIDERS!
See you then!
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