Thursday, May 5, 2011

Jabroni Companion #3

Okay, so now that we’ve looked at my favorite wrestler and the most famous card in professional wrestling, how about one of the most hotly disputed angles to ever develop? I’m talking

III. The Invasion

Incredibly, 2011 marks the ten-year anniversary of Vince McMahon buying WCW, thereby effectively ending one of the greatest rivalries wrestling has ever seen, WWE vs. WCW, headlined by the Monday Night War that gave us the nWo, the Attitude Era, and an endless series of wildly inappropriate Mae Young appearances.

There’s been plenty said about how WCW sabotaged itself during its last year of existence, from increasingly erratic booking to the dwindling impact of a formula that had, since its hottest days in 1996, lost the interest of the fans. The company attempted a number of ways to repackage existing stars, reposition them, and keep business going more or less as usual, but WWE, behind the cultural phenomenon of Steve Austin, had finally managed to completely eclipse its competition, and there was just no way WCW could maintain, much less regain, the kind of momentum it had enjoyed previously. For financial reasons, the prospect of new ownership made everything that much more unstable, and that allowed Vince to slip his way in, and bring WCW to a close, and in dramatic fashion, with a simulcast announcement occurring between Raw and the final edition of Nitro. The new boss couldn’t wait to rebrand his acquisition, quickly establishing the seeds to a whole new era, and the beginnings of the Invasion angle, by representing his son Shane as a usurper of this historic moment.

It was a slow build from there, and part of the reason was that WWE had an opportunity to rebuild itself around Austin, who had recently returned from career-threatening surgery, and that year’s WrestleMania kicked off a different angle entirely, the unexpected alliance between the “Texas Rattlesnake” and his former archrival, Vince McMahon. The story only became more complicated when Triple H, who only months earlier had been confirmed to be the culprit of the storyline that had explained Austin’s absence, and therefore the recipient of a violent blood feud with him upon his return, joined up, and together, this “Two-Man Power Trip” ran roughshod over the company. The Rock (Dwayne Johnson), meanwhile, was just getting started in his movie career, and so the biggest competition for this duo was the late Chris Jericho and the late Chris Benoit. Things hit a patch when “The Game” himself went out to injury.

And things only became further complicated from there. WCW stars, and then ECW stars, began the invasion in earnest. It probably bears noting how complicated the wrestling scene had been for the preceding year. ECW, a cult promotion known for its devoted fans (strong enough for WWE to later revive the idea for an entire brand, and then TNA to bring back its most visible stars once again), began suffering a major setback (as Ring of Honor in recent years can probably relate) when WWE and WCW raided its best talent to stock up their own rosters. WWE had names like the Dudley Boys and Tazz under contract by 2000, while WCW literally stole Mike Awesome during his ECW heavyweight championship run. About the only name that remained loyal was Rob Van Dam, but he had never been a world champion with the promotion, and the momentum ECW constantly strove to build never really came. The company was out of business by the time WCW was bought out.

By 2001, then, it wasn’t uncommon to find wrestlers who had been known as ECW competitors to be featured regularly on a WWE card, and that included Rhyno, who had become something of the ECW equivalent of WCW’s Goldberg, a monster of a wrestler who mauled opponents with the Gore, a version of the tackle that Goldberg and WWE’s Edge had made one of the modern era’s most feared maneuvers.

By the time of the invasion, fans were salivating at the prospects. WWE had the ECW and WCW rosters to pick from, which promised a war of epic proportions, a clash between all the biggest stars of the days, now free to mingle in the same ring. What seemed like a perfect dream, however, was apparently not what Vince McMahon himself had in mind. These are names that never factored into the invasion: Scott Steiner, Tommy Dreamer, the Sandman, Sting, Ric Flair, Kevin Nash, Scott Hall, Hulk Hogan, Sabu, Rey Mysterio, Goldberg, Jeff Jarrett. It’s not as if none of these men would ever be seen in a wrestling ring again. Many of them are still, in some way, ten years later, still very relevant to wrestling fans. Yet none of them graced a WWE ring in 2001, ever appeared with the WCW/ECW Alliance, even though they were and are undisputedly the biggest names from either promotion.

Fans who caught on to that fact were a little put off, to say the least. WWE used all the least relevant stars, in some ways. Sure, you had Booker T and RVD, both of whom became far bigger stars than they had been before as a result. But what was the point of this angle if Austin didn’t finally have that match with Goldberg, for instance, or any number of other blockbuster combinations?

Almost exactly from the start, WWE was using its existing stars to augment the ranks of the Alliance, those who had famously competed in those organizations, and even some surprises, such as Steve Austin’s turn at the Invasion PPV itself, when he turned his back on WWE. It was almost business as usual in some respects. What was the point?

Chris Jericho, in his recent book Undisputed offers one possible explanation, when he talks about his own rough transition from the style he had become used to wrestling to what Vince expected from him in WWE, and this is just one exceptionally gifted star. Imagine what kind of nightmare it would have been to try and develop two whole additional rosters of stars, when WWE itself already had a roster of talented individuals who shouldn’t be expected to give up their spots to relatively unproven talent. This I’m saying purely in the sense that there were now dozens of wrestlers WWE fans and the WWE system itself would now have to incorporate into a cohesive vision. When most fans think about wrestling, it’s easy in theory to juggle different promotions, and that was a lot of what sustained the Monday Night War, and what allowed ECW to stand out, with a style that stood out in stark contrast, until it was adopted and adapted to suit both WCW and WWE.

But that was when fans could pick and choose, when there were options, when there were different channels, and the ability to clearly delineate support between promotions. Vince quickly determined that he would have to very carefully calculate and modulate the conflicting affections his fans would now have to juggle all at once, and that it would best serve him, his stars, and yes, the fans, if he did so in a very deliberate manner. He put his own company first, and it was a damn smart move. I will actually be writing another column about who benefited the most from this decision, so I may seem to be skipping over some rather significant developments in this one, but suffice it to say, I intend to finally dispel the myth that the Invasion angle was a missed opportunity.

The Invasion, which quickly segued into the Alliance, was an angle that officially lasted from the Invasion PPV in July of 2001 until that November’s Survivor Series. As we all know, another huge story occurred at roughly the midpoint of all this, 9/11, one that was far bigger than any wrestling event, and something that is rarely referenced when fans talk about the failure of the angle, because it ended up being far shorter than most people seemed to hope.

That’s being all the more naïve, though, especially when you consider how many things happened after Survivor Series, when the Alliance appeared to have been completely neutralized. Ric Flair made his return to WWE soon after, and initiated an epic feud with Vince, and that in itself led to the comeback of the New World Order, with its original members Kevin Nash, Scott Hall, and Hulk Hogan, which itself led to perhaps the biggest match in WrestleMania history, Hogan vs. The Rock. This was quickly followed by the beginning of the brand era, when WWE split into Raw and Smackdown as separate promotions, thanks to the increased roster that was the direct result of the acquisition of WCW and ECW. Word had it that originally Vince hoped to split WCW off into its own brand within WWE (but then, WCW had the same hopes with the nWo), and while that very dream would one day be realized with ECW, this was a different era. Vince McMahon had won the professional wrestling war. He had no reason to immediately capitulate and grant his vanquished foes their own platform in his own company. His sole job was the satisfactory welfare of WWE, and the stars he himself had nurtured. I would venture to say that doing anything at all with a flood of WCW and ECW talent was more generous than anything. He gave the lesser-known talent an unbelievable opportunity (which fans might better appreciate today in the post-Nexus era), and then moved on to bigger and better things.

As I said, Booker T was a huge beneficiary of the Alliance angle. He had been WCW champion several times in its final year, but was one of the stars that failed to properly motivate fans to truly care (Jeff Jarrett and Scott Steiner were the others), and was even positioned as the final champion on the last Nitro, and so became the face of the promotion at the onset of the Invasion. Since he had developed several moves that resembled ones The Rock had made famous, it was only natural that he and The Rock would enter a program at some point, and that alone elevated Booker’s profile. That this feud helped Chris Jericho become a world champion for the first time is another huge development that the Invasion helped make possible. When the Alliance was defeated at Survivor Series, Booker was one of many stars who were supposed to disappear, but he never did, and in fact became a WWE staple, and by 2003, a scant year later, was competing in a WrestleMania main event.

RVD, meanwhile, became such a fan favorite that it became difficult to understand how he himself wasn’t immediately pushed into world champion status, even though his own ECW promotion had never done so. He was the true breakout star of the Invasion, and this would never have bee possible if all those other big names had been around. He would have been an afterthought. Instead, he eventually became the cornerstone, and champion of, the ECW revival in 2006, which in turn would give him the legitimacy to headline TNA years later.

This is to say nothing of how Steve Austin and Kurt Angle, for example, benefited, and that’s another hugely overlooked development of the Alliance angle, and one that will figure prominently in the follow-up column, to be sure.

The Invasion and the Alliance, however, were only one small element of Vince’s strategy. Where others sawed only a series of missed opportunities, he envisioned a series of prospects that only increased in time. He had two world champions during the whole angle, and these titles were routinely defended, separately. That opened the door to the unprecedented unification tournament at that December’s Vengeance, when the first-ever undisputed heavyweight champion would be crowned. Since Steve Austin and The Rock were both involved, it seemed natural that one of them would claim the honor, but Vince gave fans another huge swerve when he tapped Jericho instead, thereby paving the way for the return of Triple H in time for the 2002 WrestleMania.

He had the chance to launch the WWE careers of many famous WCW stars at his leisure as well. Rey Mysterio didn’t debut until the summer of 2002, a good year after the initial invasion. Imagine if Rey had been just another WCW star trying to make his mark. Vince instead had the vision to make him something special from the start, and reaped the benefits for years, finding an unlikely (WCW itself had never been able to make Mysterio quite so popular) fan favorite, and an even more unlikely world champion. Scott Steiner, who had closed his WCW career as a heel with one of the most hotly greeted fan reactions of the modern era, made his WWE return in the fall as a free agent greatly desired by both brands (and therefore accentuating not only his own presence by the still-novel concept of rival brands within WWE). No matter the controversies that would surround his matches with Triple H, or his increasingly undistinguished year back. “Big Poppa Pump” had already proven Vince’s point.

WWE gained new developmental talent, too, wrestlers WCW had been working on, such as Jimmy Yang, Nathan Jones, Oleg Prudius, which it was free to nurture at a different pace. Yang went through several incarnations before becoming something of an attraction as an unlikely redneck. Jones, who has since become a Hollywood favorite, but was first discovered by WCW, had a few opportunities to prove himself inside of a WWE ring, even at one point being slated to compete as the Undertaker’s partner at WrestleMania, which is far more than he ever got with the organization that found him. Prudius, meanwhile, was a Russian sensation whose general ungainliness for mass conception eventually gave WWE and Santino Marella the easy-going Vladimir Koslov.

Through all of this, WWE kept the spotlight on its own stars, and 2001 served as a significant transition year for not only Austin, Angle, Jericho, but also for Edge, Jeff Hardy, and William Regal, who finally found the perfect WWE role for himself, a persnickety authority figure whose personality fans could really get behind. 2002 was a significant year for developing new stars as well, from John Cena and Randy Orton to Brock Lesnar, who came about at a time when the company could use a fresh new face to dominate the main event scene, something fans hadn’t even thought about a year earlier. And after the return of Triple H, the comeback of Eddie Guerrero was probably the best feel-good development of the year, at least in terms of WWE stars. Did I mention that Hulk Hogan, after several years of lukewarm WCW reception, energized arenas for the first time since turning heel, by becoming a bona fide fan favorite again? It would never have been possible if he had simply been brought back as part of the invasion angle.

Looking back, Vince McMahon undertook perhaps his second greatest accomplishment, after the birth of WrestleMania, when he bought WCW, and executed the results the way he did. I’m not here to argue that everything went off without a hitch. Nothing is perfect, but the Invasion/Alliance angle was as near perfection as you can get in professional wrestling, satisfying every long-term goal Vince might have envisioned. The four months the Alliance actually existed did a lot more than fans realized or appreciated at the time, and during a difficult period of world history. I guess what I’m trying to say is, revisit this particular era for yourself. Surprise yourself. Try to remember what it was like, rather than what you might have been feeling. If you’re new to wrestling, 2001 is the year you have to thank for everything you enjoy today, so reward yourself with a look at what things were actually like ten years ago. Things were very different. But then, maybe they really weren’t.

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