One of the virtues of owning a sizable collection of wrestling videos – not to mention DVD’s and Blu-ray’s – is the opportunity to gaze back upon eras and moments either unfashionable or essentially forgotten. I had just such an opportunity earlier this week, when I happened to unearth a DVD copy of WWE Armageddon 2003. The show took place in the single-brand PPV era, so only the Raw Superstars participated in what was a perfectly acceptable card of action by the standards of the time. However, it wasn’t the match quality that caught my eye, it was something altogether more intriguing; especially when juxtaposed with the boredom of watching WWE television circa 2010…
In one word: Variety. Dynamism, if you prefer. Either term is appropriate. Even a middling, transitional WWE pay-per-view such as Armageddon 2003 possessed a vibrancy and relevance that separated it from any other edition of Raw or Smackdown. In the current WWE of 2010, the quality and type of wrestling on display is completely interchangeable. WWE management has aggressively encouraged a culture of so-called “storytelling” amongst its athletes. In truth, “storytelling” is a McMahon-inspired euphemism for “slow, dull and secure”, as the once peerless WWE main event style degenerated into a bloodless parade of mediocrity.
For those who can’t recall, Armageddon 2003 served as the official coronation of Evolution as the super-group of Raw (and WWE) The show played host to all four members of Evolution – Triple H, Ric Flair, Batista and Randy Orton – winning or regaining championship belts. This particular ruse was designed to rather indulgently pay homage to the Four Horsemen and erase the defending world champion (Bill Goldberg) from the Raw title scene. This was accomplished via a sturdy and always entertaining triple threat match that also featured a very trim (and recently unmasked) Kane. Once again, the actual match quality didn’t resonate as profoundly as the notion that both match and show were considered average at the time of airing.
Armageddon 2003 is correctly considered to be a plain and unspectacular show, yet it managed to entertain me far more readily than any modern WWE show (with the possible exception of Wrestlemania). This might be because the current pay-per-view structure is built around the notion of overwhelming fan stupidity. Vince McMahon has concluded that his fans are incapable of differentiating one crappy event from another, therefore the solution to such woe is to present shows based on a particular gimmick or stipulation, and present that match (with various performers) three or four times in one night. This so-called creative masterstroke has done next to nothing for the buy rates of non-megashow cards, and diluted the appeal of every single show in the process.
Naturally, the simplification of pay-per-views is all part of a specifically controlled process. WWE has deliberately pursued this route as a means of targeting the merchandise-loving children who routinely squeal at the sight and sound of John Cena. It is for their benefit that we get the same spoken lines, wrestling styles and the use of championship belts as, in Vince Russo’s words, “props”. The power of a championship resides within its being taken seriously. It cannot be the plaything of the unworthy nor the prize of the ill prepared. It must be pursued with vigour and the backing of a long, logical development process; otherwise the title can be damaged beyond repair. Cast your eyes over the once prestigious Intercontinental title and witness the results of seven uninterrupted years of gross negligence. In order for a champion to blaze, he and his title must first both shine.
Of all the matches featured on Armageddon 2003, none are perhaps quite so interesting as Randy Orton versus Rob Van Dam. These days, RVD offers little more than a colossal ego in very funky tights, but back in ’03 he was a legitimate drawing card, and his association with the IC title was a boon for its standing. Van Dam’s encounter with his youthful, preening opponent was a hard-hitting, lengthy and altogether enjoyable affair that marked the beginning of Orton’s meteoric rise to world championship status, as he cleanly pinned RVD for the belt in a match refereed by Mick Foley (with whom Orton would spend the next four months feuding). Wrestling a blinder and cradling his newly acquired trophy like a newborn baby, Orton was a credit to the business that night. Watching Ric Flair strapping the title around Orton’s waist was akin to watching the first official celebration of a newly minted Prince.
For the third time in this article, I have drawn your attention to this by-the-numbers show not for match quality, but for the purpose of a rather stark contrast. The apparently “inexperienced” Orton who wrestled against RVD had a fantastic, back-and-forth match with an often awkward opponent, worked the crowd like a seasoned pro and looked for all the world like the hottest new star on the planet. He seemed to be hugely enjoying the responsibility of being a major champion in a high-profile setting, and my goodness he looked the part. Compare that Orton with today’s version: a moody, sullen malcontent who seemingly hates everyone, and because of numerous injuries and idiotic booking, wrestles a slow, methodical and altogether uninspiring style that is as likely to induce sleep as it is enthral the viewing public.
For the record, I am a confirmed Randy Orton advocate. I think he possesses the skills, looks, and aura to reside precisely where he remains: at the top of the card. Furthermore, he resolutely speaks his mind and fears nobody in WWE (Triple H included). However, his demeanour and transformation bears all the hallmarks of a performer who has swallowed the idea of prostituting psychology in the name of avoiding injury. Though WWE deserves considerable credit for the manner in which it has promoted Orton’s arsenal, it is sad to see how the big-bumping daredevil of just a few years ago has been utterly forsaken.
Certain performers should frankly do less and think more (take a bow, Jeff Hardy), but Randy Orton should really look at videos of his older persona and consider whether or not the babyface version of his “Viper” character actually has any fangs. Whilst he’s doing that, maybe he should ask Vince McMahon the real reason why WWE wrestlers all wrestle the same tired, uninspired and identikit style. For the record, I’m sure it has something to do with all the hideous injuries that occur in the ring because of the preposterous work schedule the boys must endure without medical benefits… Couldn’t be, could it? Hey, here’s a thought! How about all the readers of Wrestleview.com put together a list of WWE-related questions they’d like Linda McMahon – in her capacity as an actively running Senate candidate – to answer in a full, public forum. If ever you desired a lesson in spin, obfuscation and outright bullshit as to make Enron seem timid, this would be the moment. Glorious.
Daniel R. Browne.