When WWE acquired both ECW and WCW in the early 2000’s, they were flush with talent from all 3 of the major companies, though in some cases, “talent” is a word I use relatively loosely. As time went on, the invasion angle faded away and only a handful of stars from Atlanta or Philadelphia remained, having been fully incorporated into WWE storylines.
No Way Out 2003 was the table-setter leading up to Wrestlemania XIX, famous for McMahon vs. Hogan and infamous for the botched shooting star press from Brock Lesnar.
Rather than give you the traditional 5 lessons today, we will instead focus on a single one from this era, using No Way Out 2003 as an example.
To start, I will just give you a list of the superstars who wrestled on this single card, in order of appearance. Note: There are two competitors we will not discuss. One is Eric Bischoff, since he is not an actual wrestler. The other is Scott Steiner, since Big Poppa Pump deserves his own individual lesson. I’m waiting for a specific PPV moment to give it, and if you watched WWE in this era then you are well aware of which moment I’m referring to.
Chris Jericho. Jeff Hardy. Rob Van Dam. Kane. Lance Storm. William Regal. Billy Kidman. Matt Hardy. The Undertaker. Big Show. Charlie Haas and Shelton Benjamin. Kurt Angle. Brock Lesnar. Chris Benoit. Triple H. Stone Cold Steve Austin. The Rock. Hulk Hogan. Also featured on the card but not wrestling are Edge, Christian, Shawn Michaels, Ric Flair, Randy Orton and Batista.
Again, I must reiterate that those are the wrestlers from a single WWE PPV card. If you were to poll the average WWE fan and asked for the 10 best wrestlers of the last decade, likely the vast majority of those names would be on the list I just gave you.
Let me go further. If you asked the average fan for the 10 best wrestlers in history, I’d expect the vast majority of the names you received would be on the list I just gave you.
If we could fast forward to the year 2024, I’ll venture that at least 80% of the roster for No Way Out 2003 will be members of the WWE Hall of Fame. (The only ones likely not HoF bound are Kidman, Lance Storm, Haas and Benjamin and Chris Benoit, though if time causes us to separate the wrestler from the man, The Crippler would be in as well.)
Take a look at that list again. Look at the sheer wrestling talent that was on that card. You can count on a good-to-great match from just about anyone, and a show-stopping match from most. In our previous two lessons, we’ve dealt with The Colossal Kongs, The Equalizer and Butterbean. Nowhere to be seen on No Way Out.
So how did this happen?
Part of it is just sheer luck, of course. We were all blessed to witness such an amazing depth of talent performing at high levels at the same time. We must also thank the worst actual ‘wrestler’ on the No Way Out card not named Scott Steiner; Hulk Hogan. Had it not been for Hogan helping to make professional wrestling a world-wide phenomenon in the 80’s, the generation of superstars that were in their prime in 2003 may have chosen other athletic pursuits.
To get to the larger answers, however, we must use our historical eye. The first, of course, is ECW. Paul Heyman, as we all saw Monday night on RAW, is a creative genius. When he took over the former Eastern Championship Wrestling and decided to go Extreme in the early 90’s, he knew that he was going to have to find the best talent in the world in order to even have a shot at competing with the WWF and WCW. It was Heyman who introduced the luchadors to “major” American wrestling, and Paul also was the first to give guys like Benoit, Storm and Jericho a chance to shine.
With the birth of the Monday Night Wars in the middle of that decade, the “big two” promotions also needed to step up their game. Not only were they focused on pushing the envelope with “real” characters and the era of Attitude, which gave us Austin, The Rock as well as renewed interest in “Hollywood” Hogan, but they also needed to find the best wrestlers. (Though that often meant pulling out their wallets and luring ECW talent away from Philadelphia.)
When WWE won the war, taking over ECW and WCW, they were able to pick out the best of the best talent from ECW and WCW, adding them to the elite group of guys from WWE, and voila!: You have the greatest roster of wrestlers ever assembled. The Avengers of wrestling, if you will.
Well, first of all, if you’re a fan of wrestling history (which I would assume you are if you read Lessons from the Network), or if you just appreciate a good wrestling match, you should be chomping at the bit to see not only No Way Out, but as much programming as possible from this era. For example, if you have never seen a Chris Benoit / Kurt Angle match, consider that a mandatory homework assignment.
Second, we’ll likely never see a collection of talent like that again. Without the competition aspect, WWE has no reason to scour the globe or the independent scene looking for the best and the brightest, though they still do from time to time. Instead, they seem to be more interested in growing their own superstars from within. Don’t get me wrong; I applaud everything they are doing with their developmental system, but there’s no way NXT or an odd WWE international tour can replace the years of world-traveling experience many of the elite 2003 wrestlers had, wrestling for a variety of companies and learning myriad styles and techniques.
I don’t impart this lesson to cause you to lose hope. In fact, I actually think we might be on the cusp of something very special. We might not ever see a PPV filled with eventual Hall of Famers again, but we are seeing an influx of pure wrestling talent that we may not have seen since the beginning of this century.
Cesaro. Ambrose. Rollins. Ziggler. Del Rio. Brock Lesnar. Kofi. Rusev. Luke Harper. Even, dare I say it, Fandango. (Said it before on Twitter, but its worth repeating; we need to get #FreeJohnnyCurtis trending. )
Add to that guys like Sami Zayn, Adrian Neville and Kalisto from NXT, plus the signing of international stars like KENTA and Prince Devitt, and suddenly we’ve got over a dozen guys who can be counted on for an excellent wrestling match week after week, and that’s something to be excited about.
So go back and enjoy some of the best wrestling WWE has ever had to offer with PPV’s like No Way Out 2003. Don’t be surprised, however, if the superstars of 2014-2015 give them a run for their money.