WrestleWatch: Wrestlemania 21
Back with another WrestleWatch review! The year is 2005, and the show is one of my favourite Wrestlemanias of all time, Wrestlemania 21! I've mentioned in previous posts how much I love what is known as the "Ruthless Aggression Era", a bridge between the famed Attitude Era and PG WWE. We had the stories, character and edginess of the late 90s product- albeit a little more toned down- and the wrestling was stepping up in terms of "workrate", going towards the style we know today, more athletic and innovative. I think Ruthless Aggression was the perfect middle ground for pro wrestling, and I think that 2019 WWE, when they move a bit towards the edge in their content, is much more compelling and enjoyable. A bit of character, a bit of story, a bit of edge to go along with the awesome action bell-to-bell.
So, Wrestlemania 21. One of the best shows of the Ruthless Aggression in my opinion. As the poster on the side there shows, the roster was chock full of talent. We had major stars that had worked through the 90s and early 2000s, and we had the emergence of a young John Cena and Batista on the scene. This would be their coming out party. As I've mentioned previously, I've worked through every Raw and Smackdown leading up to this event on the WWE Network, so it's time for a little context!
Wrestlemania goes Hollywood this year, as Wrestlemania 21 emanated from the Staples Center in Los Angeles, California. Yes, this is a few years before every Mania was a massive stadium show. Anyway, because Wrestlemania was going Hollywood, it was promoted with a series of parody trailers of Hollywood movies, starring WWE Superstars. Most of them were fantastic and hilarious, one of my favourites being "When Harry Met Sally", with Kurt Angle and Christy Hemme playing Harry and Sally. Go to YouTube. Watch it. I'll wait.
Alright, the feuds. The matches. Right. The main event of Wrestlemania 21 was Batista vs. Triple H for the World Heavyweight Championship, and it was one of the best long-term storylines WWE has ever done. Batista was the enforcer of Triple H's stable Evolution. His role was to protect Triple H and help him keep the World Heavyweight Championship. But as Batista's career began an upward trajectory, tensions started to form within the group. We were starting to see Batista become his own man, realising that he could become the man. Triple H began to recognise the threat Batista posed, and this went into overdrive when Batista won the 2005 Royal Rumble. The Animal could choose either Raw's world champion, Triple H, or the WWE Champion on Smackdown, JBL. The Game, along with Ric Flair, tried to persuade him to go to Smackdown, saying that Evolution could hold all the gold in WWE. When that didn't work, they orchestrated a hit-and-run using JBL's limo. Batista found out, and in one of the most memorable segments in Raw history, chose Raw and Triple H for Mania, turning on Evolution and powerbombing the champ through a table. Game on.
On the Smackdown side, John Cena won a tournament for the right to challenge JBL for the WWE Championship. Cena had gained massive popularity over the last couple of years as "the Doctor of Thuganomics", tearing down his opponents on the mic with freestyle raps, and showing amazing power in his matches. JBL, formerly known as Bradshaw of the APA, had undergone a complete metamorphosis over the previous year. He embraced his real-life background as a financial analyst, wearing nice suits and entering the arena in limos- the polar opposite character to John Cena. JBL disparaged Cena and his working class background, calling him "nothing but a street thug". Cena responded by saying he fights for the people. Cena vs. JBL. WWE Championship. Hollywood. Wrestlemania.
We were a couple of years into the original brand split at this point, where Raw and Smackdown first became separate brands with their individual rosters and championships. The only time the worlds could collide one-on-one was Wrestlemania, and the 21st instalment played host to a couple of major Raw vs. Smackdown matches. The first was Kurt Angle vs. Shawn Michaels. The issue seemingly began in the 2005 Rumble match. Michaels eliminated Angle, and an irate Kurt re-entered the match illegally to take revenge, eliminating HBK then leaving him a bloody mess. Angle later explained that he had issues with Michaels going back to 1996. That was the year he won a gold medal (with a broken freaking neck), but all anyone was talking about was this guy Shawn Michaels, who came down from the rafters at Wrestlemania and put on a wrestling clinic (WM12 Ironman Match vs. Bret Hart). Kurt vowed to prove he was the better man on the grandest stage. In the weeks leading up to WM21, Angle would replicate HBK's accomplishments, beating Marty Jannetty, winning a ladder match (against a jobber) and even singing "Sexy Kurt" with Sensational Sherri.
The other major Raw vs. Smackdown match was Randy Orton, embracing his Legend Killer gimmick after a failed face run, looking to make a name for himself challenging the Undertaker. The story building to this match was much more basic. Orton solidified his return to villainous ways by RKOing his girlfriend Stacy Keibler, when she questioned if he could end the Streak of the Deadman. Orton claimed to not fear the Undertaker, slapping him in the face during their contract signing.
Keeping with the Hollywood theme, the PPV starts with a Gladiator parody, starring Stone Cold Steve Austin. "The master of the middle finger." "Beer drinker among beer drinkers". Absolute gold.
The set is decorated to suit the Hollywood theme as well, a glitzy stage with a "Now Showing" cinema-esque screen which listed each match as it happened. No lazy generic stages here- (glares pointedly at modern WWE). Okay, WWE still put in some effort for Mania stages- WM33 was especially cool- but I love how committed WWE were to the Hollywood theme in every aspect. Made the show feel so much bigger, even though there was only a crowd of around 20,000 compared the 70,000+ we see for big Mania shows these days.
Match 1: Eddie Guerrero vs. Rey Mysterio
These two men were the perfect choice to kick the show off, revving up the crowd with the high octane lucha style. At this time, both men were Smackdown Tag Team Champions, joining up after Rey's original partner, Rob Van Dam, suffered a knee injury. But Mysterio beat Eddie several times on Smackdown before the partnership, leading Eddie's nephew Chavo to question the friendship- "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em", Chavo taunted. So Eddie asked Rey to face him at Mania in the spirit of friendly competition.
As you might expect, they worked a fast pace, first with rapid fire chain wrestling, then with the crazy highflying. Mysterio hits a beautiful corkscrew plancha early on. Eddie gains control by using his power game on the smaller Rey, working on the back of the masked man. He hits the 3 Amigos and goes for the Frog Splash, but Rey moves at the very last possible second. Incredible timing. Guerrero keeps up the pressure with submissions and backbreakers. He goes for a big tilt-a-whirl backbreaker, but Mysterio counters beautifully with a hurricanrana for the sudden 3 count!
Winner: Rey Mysterio at 12:00. (***) This wasn't at the level of their Halloween Havoc 1997 classic, but still an excellent way to open the show. They were a tad shorter than you might expect for time, but they still made the most of what they had.
Match 2: Money In The Bank Ladder Match: Chris Jericho vs. Shelton Benjamin vs. Chris Benoit vs. Edge vs. Christian vs. Kane
The hits keep coming, and this is historic- this was actually the first ever MITB ladder match! It's a staple of current WWE, and it all started way back at this event. They waste little time bringing ladders into the fray as weapons, and Edge & Christian briefly re-unite to take out the opposition with a Con-Chair-To... except using ladders. The high risk starts early as wrestlers start taking dives to the floor. Shelton was most impressive with a flip dive that clears the ropes with ease, and even Kane takes to the air with a flying clothesline to the outside. As ladders begin to be used for their intended purpose of climbing, Shelton stops Edge's ascent by giving him a T-Bone Suplex from the top of the ladder. Later, as Jericho attempts to grab the briefcase, Shelton runs up another ladder propped up like a ramp and knocks him off the top of the ladder to the outside with a flying clothesline. Shelton Benjamin was truly the MVP of this match. In other action, Kane takes a ladder and uses it almost like a guillotine of sorts, except he was targeting the arm of Benoit, smashing it multiple times, causing some serious agony. Benoit fights back and manages to deliver a flying headbutt to Kane from the top of a ladder! In a great visual, Benoit sports a crimson mask upon impact, as he came into the match with stitches from his match on Raw last week. With a bloody face and a busted arm, Benoit scales the ladder to reach the briefcase. Suddenly, Edge enters and blasts him with a steel chair, and he falls to the mat, selling it like he was shot. Edge claims the briefcase! He's the first Mr. Money In The Bank!
Winner: Edge at 15:00 (****1/2). The original and still maybe the best Money In The Bank ladder match. Even watching this show back, after I've seen it many times and knowing full well who was winning, I found myself sucked in and in awe of the action I was watching.
Eugene comes out to the ring. In either a production fuck up or a clever nod to his character, he's halfway down the entrance ramp before his music starts playing. For those who aren't aware, Eugene was a "mentally challenged" wrestler and the storyline nephew of Eric Bischoff. He's been out of action since a knee injury at January's New Year's Revolution PPV. He grabs a mic and says how excited he is to be at Mania, and recalls King Kong Bundy (RIP) beating up a bunch of midgets at an early Wrestlemania. He is quickly interrupted by Muhammed Hassan and Khosrow Daivari. Hassan laments his exclusion from the Mania card, and declares that he will make a Wrestlemania Moment for himself. They attack Eugene, and Hulk Hogan makes the save! Real American blares through the speakers as Hogan, decked out in full red and yellow gear, beats up the Arab American duo. It's a feel good moment... well, if you're a fan of Hulk. I absolutely can't stand his red and yellow American superhero gimmick. I started watching when it was Austin and Rock on top, and I find Hogan's act cheesy and lame as hell.
Match 3: Undertaker vs. Randy Orton
Orton plays the cat and mouse game early with Taker. Eventually, he gets caught and the Deadman takes control. Big leg drop across the apron. Commentators Cole and Tazz give Orton credit for how he's bringing the fight to the Undertaker. Taker goes MMA style with an armbar but Orton fights out with some solid punches. Orton delivers a big time powerslam for a good 2 count. We get a ref bump and the fight continues without an official. Cowboy Bob Orton, who was inducted into the HOF the night before, makes a run in and hits Taker with his infamous cast. Taker kicks out after the groggy ref gets a long 2 count. Cowboy gets back on the apron to hit Taker with the cast, but Taker hits him first with a big boot. Undertaker goes for a chokeslam on Randy, but he counters mid-air with the RKO in an amazing spot. Taker kicks out at 2.99, and Orton is in shock. He decided to steal Taker's Tombstone, but Undertaker reverses into a Tombstone for the win. 13-0!
Winner: Undertaker at 14:00 (***1/2). Like Eddie vs. Rey, this match was a bit shorter than you might expect given the stars involved, but I think it worked to their advantage in this case, because there was never a lull in the action like there typically would be in a longer Undertaker match. I can't state enough how cool the chokeslam into the RKO was. I remember watching at the time thinking that it was going to be Streak over, and Orton was going to be a made man off this match. Orton came out looking good either way, and it was one of Undertaker's better Wrestlemania matches until the likes of Batista and Edge came along.
Match 4: WWE Women's Championship: Trish Stratus (c) vs. Christy Hemme w/ Lita
Christy was the 2004 Raw Diva Search winner. She wasn't a fantastic athlete, but she had a lot of charisma and energy. I was going to say "spunk", but... yeah. To compensate for Christy's lack of wrestling experience, the story was that Trish's long time rival, Lita, trained her. Lita, like Eugene earlier, also was out of action after suffering a knee injury at New Year's Revolution. That was a rough event. Trish toys with Christy in the beginning of this match, and Christy fights back with some nice kicks to the legs. A Twist of Fate gets Christy a good near fall. Christy rolls Trish up, and technically gets the 3- Trish was late in kicking out. The ref lets the match continue, and Trish quickly nails Christy with a Chick Kick and retains the gold.
Winner: Trish at 5:00 (*) It was at the upper end of what Trish could do with a non-wrestler. Christy played her role well. Of note, Lita didn't get a great reaction as Christy's manager- the real life drama of Lita cheating on Matt Hardy with Edge had started to hit the dirt sheets around this time.
Match 5: Shawn Michaels vs. Kurt Angle
JR and King on the call for this Raw vs. Smackdown match. Some strategy talk early, as HBK slaps Angle and uses the ensuing frustration against him to actually get the better of some chain wrestling exchanges on the mat. Bit of a slow, yet technical start, clearly pacing themselves for a longer-form match. Early Ankle Lock attempt, Michaels counters, and both men spill to the outside. Angle takes advantage of his environment, essentially Angle Slamming HBK into the ring post. Michaels would rally shortly after with a big cross body dive. Angle tried to German Suplex him off the apron (in a move that would surely kill him if it connected). HBK fights out, kicks Angle onto the announce table and crashes onto the Olympian with a twisting cross body. The table does not break. Action returns to the ring, Michaels goes for Sweet Chin Music, Angle counters with the Ankle Lock. HBK fights out, goes for the super kick again, this time Angle hits the Angle Slam. Near fall. The intensity is really cranked up in this one. Angle "takes a page out of Michaels' playbook" and goes for a moonsault, but misses and lands hard on the mat. HBK looks to fly but Kurt hits him with a suplex from the top. Angle trash talks the resilient Michaels but takes a sudden Sweet Chin Music. Another near fall. As an exhausted Michaels gets slowly to his feet, Angle picks his ankle from a prone position and locks in the Ankle Lock! The crowd goes crazy, HBK does everything possible to roll, counter, kick out, but Angle is tenacious. Michaels reaches the ropes but Angle pulls him away. JR is losing his mind on commentary. Eventually, Angle grapevines the leg, emotion and intensity pouring out of him, as Michaels is equally as emotive showing the agony he was in. After minutes of torture, MIchaels is unable to move, and left with no choice but to tap out.
Winner: Kurt Angle at 27:00 (*****). Pro wrestling perfection. I know Meltzer doesn't like to give out 5 stars when the wrestlers aren't indy stars or working in the Tokyo Dome, but this was a superb, flawless performance from two of the best to ever do it. They made you believe every move and moment in that match. It was outstanding, not just one of the best matches in Wrestlemania history, but one of the best matches ever, period.
Roddy Piper came out for Piper's Pit. He speaks to the LA crowd, asking who the biggest rebel in WWE is. When fans answer, "Austin", Piper responds with "bullshit!" You'd never hear that on a WWE microphone these days. Piper proceeds to introduce his guest, the Texas Rattlesnake, Stone Cold Steve Austin! The Staples Center roof almost blows off with Austin's arrival. Piper says. "Welcome to Piper's Pit" and slaps Stone Cold! "Thanks for having me, you son of a bitch" and Austin returns the slap in kind. Piper has some fun with the "What" chants. Austin questions if he is supposed to be intimidated, then they are interrupted by the music of Carlito. Carlito had returned to action from a shoulder injury the week before on Smackdown. Carlito calls Austin and Piper old and not cool, claiming that no one paid to see them. Piper takes Carlito's apple and spits it back in his face. Austin and Piper both beat up Carlito. Beer bash commences, and of course Piper takes a Stunner. A lot of fun, and the perfect come down after the intensity of Angle vs. HBK.
Match 6: Sumo Match: Big Show vs. Akebono
The ropes are taken down and we are taken through all the formalities of a sumo match. The first wrestler to throw the other to the floor wins. Both men are wearing traditional sumo gear, which shows us more of Big Show's ass than I ever wanted to see. Akebono, the sumo champion wins in a couple of minutes. Show lifts Akebono, who is about 20 pounds heavier than him, in a waistlock. Akebono spins and uses the momentum to throw Big Show to the floor. A lot of build up and a lot of changes made to the ring and overall set-up... bit of a waste of time. Wasn't really interesting to watch, just a lot of slapping and pushing. They show respect to each other afterwards.
Winner: Akebono at 3:00 (DUD). Not much to say. Sumo wrestling doesn't really work in a pro wrestling setting. Hopefully it did something positive for WWE's presence in Japan, because no entertainment value was really gained here.
Match 7: WWE Championship: JBL (c) vs. John Cena
Cena comes out to his new "My Time Is Now" song. Basic stuff early as they trade shoulder blocks. JBL takes over with a couple of strong neckbreakers. Cena comes back with a big powerslam, followed by the trademark spinning side slam and the Five Knuckle Shuffle. JBL attempts the Clothesline from Hell, Cena ducks and hits the FU for the 3 count. We have a new WWE Champion!
Winner: John Cena at 11:00. (*1/2) Really average match. For such a long title reign by Bradshaw, it really ended with a whimper. Cena winning clean was the right move. it was just so paint-by-numbers that it might as well have been a house show match. This was the coronation of Cena as a main eventer, and it's a shame that it wasn't a better match. They do make good on it... review of that show coming soon hopefully.
Match 8: World Heavyweight Championship: Triple H (c) w/ Ric Flair vs. Batista
Triple H got the big superstar entrance with Motorhead performing his theme song live as he stormed to the ring with a great deal of intensity. Batista has a standard entrance and they begin simple enough with a lock up, which allows Batista to show that he has a power advantage over The Game. Big gorilla press slam by Batista on Triple H. Man-to-man, Batista seems to have the number of Triple H. As the match progresses, Flair gets involved behind the referee's back to help Hunter gain the advantage, and Jim Ross draws attention on commentary to "the Flair factor". Big power moves on both sides as the bout plays out, and Triple H gets busted open with a catapult into the ring post, adding to the drama. Triple H tries to use a chair, which fails, but is able to hit Batista with the title belt undetected by the referee. Near fall. Triple H goes for the Pedigree, but Batista is just too big and powerful, he uses brute strength to turn the Pedigree attempt into something like a White Noise. He follows up with the thumbs down and the Batista Bomb to end the reign of terror for Triple H!
Winner: Batista at 21:00 (***1/4). Effective match in showing Batista as a dominating force- as great as Triple H has been, he was unable to sustain any physical advantage over Batista without the help of Flair. This made Batista look like an absolute monsters. Big time fireworks go off to add to the visual of Batista's win.
Overall Score: 8.5/10. We didn't get stellar matches in the crowning of new world champions, but what we did get was a clear changing of the guard, which was historically significant. Particularly looking back at this event in retrospect, we know that Cena and Batista became major superstars for WWE, and this is where it all began. Add the Angle vs. Michaels classic, the first ever MITB, and some really strong action in matches like Eddie vs. Rey and Taker vs. Orton, and it was an excellent Wrestlemania event!
Until next time, take care,