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Fixing the WWF in April 2002

Liam O'Rourke

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So for this week's podcast we are returning to our booking committee format for a discussion re-booking the WWF from April 2002, a very interesting time that of course saw that dawn of the brand extension. With the WWF coming off a number of failed hotshots, WrestleMania 18 and needing a new direction, we're looking to get some feedback on what you think needed to be done to make this new venture, and the company itself, succeed during a period where ratings and popularity fell.

On the premise that you HAVE to do the brand extension, what are some of the key things you would have booked to make it turn out better than it did? What do you do with Raw and Smackdown? Who do you push and how? What do you do with the titles? Et cetera.

As always, we'll be reading the best feedback/ideas on the show and crediting you accordingly. So what would you have done?


EDIT - The show discussing "Fixing The WWF in April 2002" is now online and available to listen to at the following link: http://squaredcirclegazette.podbean.com/mf/web/qy4u6m/SCGRadio57-FixingTheWWFinApril2002.mp3

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I will always argue that Reverend Devon could have gone further than it did. They  played it too safe and comical. If they have gone down the extremist Christian route they could have had a really good mid-carder with him. Have him baptising a few of the Jewish wrestlers on the show, have him condemning the sinful Diva's more than he did and even go with him praising the likes of Vince McMahon as a savour and perfect role model for the Christian community. It may have hit a nerve and could have been close to the bone, but controversy creates $$$.


Certainly not a game changer, but something that could have added a bit of fuel to the Smackdown mid-card.

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I think the biggest issue was always that Raw didn't have any identity. There was no attempt to move with the times, even though they'd split the roster. Smackdown became the workrate show, for lack of a better term, but Raw just meandered no matter how much shit they threw at it. Bischoff, Austin, Steiner, Goldberg, Nash, Michaels, HLA, Katie Vick, etc. Never made any difference because it had no goal. What where they trying to do with Raw then apart from turn around falling ratings?


I'd have gone for the two World Champions from the off and crowned Raw's champ in a major tournament. I'd have the first hour built around good action and the second around stars and stories with the first hour used to really build anticpation for appearances and main events. I'd have banned anything anyone proposed as "shocking". There'd be no single brand PPVs either.


As an aside, I always liked the brand split. Still do. They just stopped trying with it. There are no fresh matches left now. the brand split always kept something back for later. I like that.

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During that time, I only really remember SD! Taker, Lesnar, Guerrero, Angle etc. To me that was WWE at the time, I vaguely recall HHH, HBK, (was that La Resistance then too)? I think 2002 set the tone to the issues we see now (for RAW anyway); a frustrating time that could have been so much more with the talent available instead of a repetitive, mundane product which, after over a decade, we are still in witness of.


In my opinion, we need to look back further as it is a result of the disastrous invasion angle in 2001 that killed any momentum which could have been generated and let every wrestling fans fantasy booking dreams come to fruition. Not only did it cut short an endless supply of creative directions, but it also made many fans bitter. If it wasn't for SD!, this would have been a particularly dark point in WWE history. This makes it all the more annoying because of the "what could have been" which still grinds many-a-wrestling fan's gears so many years on.


Simply put, WWE could have easily got a good 12 months at least from the buyout of WCW which could have given them a good foundation to go on from. Creatively, I can't really say who should have done what and how but the WWE vs. WCW, done properly, could have been one of the very best angles, period. Completely wasted potential.


There is an argument for having them run as two separate companies. It seems to work now with NXT, but who knows maybe with a different crowd back then and not being used to the same thing week in and week out at that point perhaps didn't lead to the cry out for something different like we did during NXT's start up in more recent times, but absolutely anything could have been better than RAW in 2002. It was so disappointing and again it is all just simply down to "what could have been".


EDIT 1: Oh, one thing... Jericho. He was still awesome then and being denied a proper run as the Undisputed Champion was an absolute travesty given who he beat to get the only to lose to Triple H at Mania, it was an absolute joke. He could have been a tremendous champion given a good run with it instead of just a footnote, in the anthology of history, about being the first champion.


EDIT 2: I will concede however that at the time, the brand split was exciting to watch :)

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Really interesting question, this. I wonder whether it’s less a case of fixing WWF than it is of saving Raw, because from my admittedly rose-tinted perspective, SmackDown was absolutely fine.


SmackDown in 2002 was really interesting. Of course once you got into the summer after Stephanie became GM, it did become the ‘workrate brand’, with Benoit, Guerrero and Mysterio either moving over or debuting, Matt Hardy reinventing himself, Lesnar becoming SmackDown-exclusive, and so on. But even before that, I think SmackDown was carving an identity for itself, whereas Raw just couldn’t find one. Raw was one-foot stuck in the Attitude Era, one-foot trying to be its own brand, and a third-foot just floundering.


I remember when the draft first happened, it was SmackDown where I wanted all my favourites to end up, because I didn’t have Sky Sports, so if any of my faves went to Raw, chances were I’d rarely see them wrestle again. (I did watch Bottom Line with Coach to see what happened on Raw, but more often I’d catch Heat, which gave you the main Raw happenings without most of the guff, and which I remember being distinctly better than Raw for a lot of 2002-2003, but I digress). I vividly recall doing up a list of who was on each brand in a Word document (two columns, snazzy new show logos at the head of each column) and keeping track of which wrestlers moved brand as and when they happened. Fuck, I probably kept that up until about 2005. It was really interesting to me for some reason, and you definitely started to notice a pattern. Almost every time, SmackDown would reinvent or reenergise a wrestler, he’d start to get really over, then Raw would nab them. I think Funaki was the only person who was an original SmackDown guy and never moved to Raw.


Anyway, I found very little I didn’t like about SmackDown in 2002. It FELT like a different kind of show, it felt fresh, it felt like it had become its own thing. New music, new logo… I really, really liked it, now I think about it. You had Vince in charge, which was fine by me. Torrie and Stacy were the resident ladies at first. Angle was the big star, but you got the rise of Edge, Jericho was there, you had the beginnings of the Cruiserweight division with Kidman, Hurricane, Chavo and Tajiri, the debuts of Orton, then Batista, and then Cena… even Mark Henry doing feats of strength backstage and Val Venis deciding to rename himself The Big Valbowski was decent enough! So yeah, even before Steph came along as GM, SmackDown was where my heart was.


As for Raw… well, thank goodness for Booker T and Goldust. They kept that show watchable through 2002. That and a few great matches. I don’t truly know what you could do to save it or make it better. Stone Cold walking out in June was probably a blessing in disguise, and I wonder whether having him around in those crucial first few months was actually more of a hindrance than a help. It felt on the draft that when Raw got Austin, Undertaker, the nWo, etc, they got ALL the big names, but they all felt purposeless. nWo were supposed to be Vince’s Poison, but that doesn’t exactly work when you’re only appearing on half the programming, plus one of your main guys has just turned babyface, plus your supposed benefactor’s on the other show. They did bring X-Pac back though, so it wasn’t all bad. And of course it ultimately resulted in Shawn Michaels’ comeback, so…


The more I think about it, the more I wonder whether Austin might have been the problem. Lesnar had just debuted and was a Raw pick, but didn’t really get to mix with big names or main eventers til he started appearing on SmackDown in the lead-up to Summerslam – on Raw, he was a Hardy Boyz/Spike Dudley/RVD kind of guy but never got much chance to go higher (and RVD couldn’t really get out of his Intercontinental rut until Michaels won the title at Survivor Series). Likewise, at the beginning you had that first attempt at turning Bradshaw into a singles star (cowboy hat and bullwhip and matches with Scott Hall if I remember correctly), but that too didn’t quite go anywhere. I’m hesitant to blame Austin for all this, but I do wonder whether still trying to maintain him as a focus of the show, and trying to keep him on the level he was previously, was causing a bit of stagnation. I wouldn’t say SmackDown flourished without him, but it was a lot freer – and once he left, Raw did have moments of doing okay (Undertaker/Jeff) – but then there was also a sense of panic in response and you started to try and recapture Attitude in other ways, which just weren’t working anymore (HLA, Katie Vick, etc).


Like I say, Raw was trying to be different things at the same time, and ended up without a focus or a purpose. Lesnar felt like a real representative of a new generation, and Jeff Hardy was gaining momentum as a singles guy, but at the same time you still had 24/7 Hardcore matches going on and the nWo and Austin threatening to piss on Arn Anderson (did that happen? I remember this happening but I may have made it up). Strange as it may have been to say it at the time, Raw becoming the Triple H show at the end of 2002 going into 2003 was probably a good thing, because it gave the show a direction, it gave it a slightly different feel about it, and it did feel like it was developing (although to my mind it still wasn’t very good a lot of the time, Redneck Triathlon and Test-icles and so on). I think it’s telling how many times Raw nicked SmackDown guys rather than the other way round – it was The Flagship Show and The Flagship Show’s supposed to be where all the effort is put, and Raw kind of suffered from that whereas SmackDown just felt a bit freer to do what it did without as much pressure.


To conclude, since I’ve rattled on for over a thousand words at this point, it was only half of WWF that could have really done with being fixed. If you only had Sky One, it wasn’t too bad at all.

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Good question, all really interesting answers so far. Better than I can think of so I'll keep it short. I'd have made Smackdown a live show. Sure, it would've cost more initially but it'd have paid off in the long run. Agree with Rick, it's a shame they lost interest with the brand split in the end.


Smackdown could've been the show aimed more towards the families and international markets, perhaps. Raw the more 'adult' show. Again agreeing with Rick, I wouldn't have had separate-brand PPV's; maybe the odd one here and there as special one-offs.


Knowing what I know about NXT now, I'd have had NXT creating the next... actually as I'm typing this I just realised something, didn't Cena, Batista and Lesnar come through OVW? Maybe I'd have kept OVW then. 

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I loved the brand split and the draft shows as it felt like a really big thing, but the double champions took away the whole prestige of being the world champion to me and when looking back I couldn't even tell you who was champ at what time as its all too much. 


Also I think it reached a point where Smackdown was the better show but Raw needed the better numbers and in a sense was meant to be the prime show, to me I saw Raw as the TV show with more storylines and promos and Smackdown as just pure fun wrestling, the single brand PPV's to me were way over the top as well.


I think overall the draft was a good idea and still could be but not with any more titles, I don't even watch Smackdown these days as nothing of any importance happens on the show.


Also Eric Bischoff was a brilliant GM for Raw and made the draft special and other raws like the Roulette Wheels, kept things fun from time to time. 

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...the double champions took away the whole prestige of being the world champion to me and when looking back I couldn't even tell you who was champ at what time as its all too much. 


They should'be scrapped the IC and US titles, had Smackdown and Raw titles, and a World belt that got traded between the two brands IMO. A standard tag title on Raw and a 3-man tag title on SD could've worked too.

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Initially I really liked the idea of the champion appearing on both brands, though in practice it was quickly apparent that it was a bit of a nightmare to book. What does the champion do from week-to-week on the brand that doesn't have a PPV that month?


That said, I thought that having a belt that - aside from the draft - was the only gateway between the two shows could have led to all kinds of interesting scenarios. I was picturing stuff like Matt Hardy turning heel on Jeff immediately before being drafted to SmackDown, thereby compelling Jeff to go for the World title as a means of getting to Matt and having his revenge. Or Kevin Nash going for the World title so that he could infect both brands with the nWo poison - therefore making the defending champ the only thing standing between the WWF and total annihilation (bah gawd). A little imagination would have gone a long way.


However nothing like that ever materialized and they bailed on the Undisputed title within a few months, leading to the regrettable decade of two World titles which saw bores like Edge and Randy Orton end up with 10 and 12 title reigns respectively. I read the other day that Rock became the first ever 6-time WWF Champion when he beat Angle at No Way Out 2001. It's obscene that just a few years later there were three or four lads on the roster who had equalled or bettered him.

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Hmmm thats a tough one... I would have started the year completely differently



In terms of the Undisputed Title I would have done the following: 


WrestleMania 18 - Jericho wins the title from a heel Triple H - Stephanie McMahon is on her husband's arm NOT Jericho's. Jericho (the face) wins leading to the feel good moment of the year. I would have had him come close to winning the title at Vengeance only to come up with the loss. 


Judgement Day - Triple H beats Jericho (HIAC)


King of the Ring - Rock vs Undertaker vs Angle being a number one contenders (I loved that match!) - keep the title as a main attraction it doesn't need to be defended every PPV


Vengeance - Triple H defending against and beating Angle


SummerSlam  - Triple H loses the title to Lesnar - giving the big guy a huge rub and making him look like a megastar. 


THEN have the brand extension/split post SummerSlam with the view to keeping Triple H away from Lesnar for at least a year to build for the rematch. 




There is merit in Pinc's point about some imaginative ways to utilise the Undisputed Title. 


In fact I would have gone so far as to have Smackdown adopt a whole new look with different camera angles than the RAW crew and go down the 'legitimate competition' route - similar to how NXT is presented nowadays with more 'real life character' work thrown in there. I would have changed the way they did interview/backstage segments, brought back the old school style podium for interviews and really change it up. 


There could be a case to have the Intercontinental and United States titles (not that gaudy looking thing they have for a U.S title today but go old school with a classy looking belt) being the centre pieces of the rosters, building them up as a big deal and having main events for those titles. At least that way if they had to have the champion go between rosters then at least the roster without the world champion wouldn't have nothing to work for. 


I don't know what the ins and outs of Hall and Nash were but they should have been utilised a lot more effectively. Hogan returning, turning face and becoming the champion was a huge mistake. They made Hogan likeable, rather than he bastard heel that told fans where to stick it. Sure all three were washed up by this point but Vince bringing in the NWO (of all people) was a stupid idea. Had the NWO stormed Summerslam, attacking  Austin and Co - that would have been a 'wow' moment (if it weren't to leak to the internet). In fact I would have bought them in under the guidance of Eric Bischoff. With the NWO dominating for a period of time this could well have led to The Rock's heroic return for the epic Hogan vs Rock at WrestleMania 19. Austin and Michaels could have had Austin's final match and Jericho could then have faced Mysterio as a heel. 


Just some ideas plucked out of nowhere. Not fantastic but all the nonsense around that time needed to be scrapped. 

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I think the biggest problem in 2002 with regards to the brand split was the perception that Smackdown is a lesser brand and that there was much more "brand" loyalty to Raw. The main thing I would do to improve how Smackdown was viewed is to put Vinnie Mac as the on screen GM. Having him on the show would get him 100% on board with the shows behind the scenes.


I would defo have a world title on each show and feature Jericho as a champ on Smackdown, he would fit the worker show much better and was over like rover at the time.


I would focus the Tag belts alot more and keep it as a Raw only division. It would help differentiate between the 2 shows.


Finally I would pull the trigger on RVD , he would chase the belt for a couple of shows taking the belt Triple H late in the year. Fans where massively behind RVD at the time and he deserved a chance.


I would build Brock a little slower but would keep him on Smackdown looking to build to him getting the title at the next year's Mania.

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I always felt the decision to keep the nWo as one entity was a bit of a waste. There's so much storyline potential with them split across both brands, both in terms of them ignoring the split and invading shows to help their friends, and then forming new alliances on their different brands and the jealously and mistrust that would brew out of that. Although that's long term and given what happened to Nash and what was always going to happen with Hall it wouldn't have paid off anyway.


You're not really as free with this starting point as you might think, that's the issue. People are disillusioned after the Invasion but you can't change that, the Attitude era is tired as all hell and you've run out of ways to push it (but the fans probably wouldn't accept that yet, there's still segments that struggle with that notion now), Austin is a character that dominates shows but has very little new ground to tread and has devolved if anything, there's a lot of stuff that you're stuck with. There's also this vague notion that they wanted to create competition between the brands but you sure as hell don't want to create brand loyalty where fans watch one show and not the other. Really your ideal, to me at least, would be to create two very different shows so that people want to watch both because they feel so different, but you've split your work force in two and asking them to create two fresh different shows which isn't going to be easy.


On RAW I'd focus my initial efforts on killing Austin off as a character but the performer would never buy it. But that'd be my first arc. He's not a rebel anymore, he's a legend, everybody wants to finish him off, he's the everyman who became something of a super hero but he knows he wasn't good enough to beat The Rock and he knows he's losing it. He shifts into what The Undertaker has since become, an old cowboy who shows up rarely and fights. Brock is the one who puts him into semi retirement. Then you've got to decide who to build up as the face of RAW. Few people spring to mind really.


That's what you really notice in this period. Austin finishes soon, he's damaged goods as a blue eyes after his heel turn anyway, The Rock is gone after the summer and fans are railing against him anyway and Hogan is nostalgia pops. But who's replacing them? And if it's no one immediately, which it wasn't, then things are gonna end up looking bad. Rob Van Dam is over with live audiences but god is he a limited performer. Jericho had been shit since he won the title, a lot of that is to do with the booking, but he's still really damaged goods at that point. They've got Rock, Hogan and Austin who are easy to book at that point, and then guys who are over but aren't as easy to book and they've also got a brand extension to get over. It's a big ask really.


I also don't know whether you go big and colourful and freaks (which is what I tend to think you should do with wrestling) or a little bit more complex and political, how do you respond to being on a brand isolated from your friends, who do you trust, do you want to be on this brand, can you get a trade, who do you help, etc. Maybe one show is one and the other show is the other. But I'm not sure anyone involved has the patience for the latter at that point.


Basically the brand split is where you want to throw a lot of tired crap out and reboot the company but you can't really. And then they go from a roster full of stars and talent to real dregs in such a short space of time that they absolutely weren't ready for. They have time to create Brock Lesnar and that's it by the time things suddenly go to pot. And when RAW finally finds an identity its to the detriment of both Steiner and Goldberg.

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In regards to the NWO, I always thought they missed a trick by not holding off on bringing a load of Alliance wrestlers back as part of the group.  They must've known in late December that the original 3 NWO members were coming back in so they could've held off on bringing loads of the WCW lot back and had them come back gradually as new members, it makes sense from a storyline point of view and it would've meant that Hall and Nash could have just been mouthpieces for the members who could go in the ring without getting injured all the time and with the bonus they could still have Hogan turn face at Mania, just without it killing the group like it pretty much did

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