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On This Day in Pro Wrestling History... 10 Years Ago, Chris Benoit WWE's Royal Rumble 2004 Match - Good Move by WWE in Hindsight?
By Mr. Tito
Jan 25, 2014 - 2:28:52 PM
ON THIS DAY IN PRO WRESTLING HISTORY... 10 years ago to this day, the WWE held Royal Rumble 2004. To start 2004, major stars like the Rock and "Stone Cold" Steve Austin were no longer wrestling for the WWE. While both would appear for Wrestlemania 20, their time as active wrestlers on top of the WWE card was over. The Rock was becoming a Hollywood movie style and Steve Austin's neck injury impaired him from any in-ring comebacks he desired after his 2002 problems with the WWE. Thus, there were big shoes to fill and the WWE took a major step towards creating a new Main Event star at Royal Rumble. His name was Chris Benoit.
WWE knew that Austin and Rock's time as the top stars in the WWE was running out. Rock began to take increasing amount of times to complete movies and Austin actually walked out of the WWE twice during 2002. Meanwhile, the WWE created the Brand Extension in which the WWE roster would be divided into two separate rosters: the RAW brand and Smackdown brand. WWE held a draft lottery to dictate which wrestlers would appear on Mondays and which would appear on Thursdays. In order to accomplish this of having adequate wrestlers per each roster, the WWE unloaded their Ohio Valley Wrestling (OVW) developmental territory during the next few years. As managed by VP of Talent Jim Ross, trainer Danny Davis, and booker Jim Cornette, the Ohio Valley Wrestling territory was loaded well trained talent and that trio benefited from the WWE being so red hot during 1998-2001 to draw interest from guys like the NCAA Heavyweight Champion Brock Lesnar.
In addition to promoting many wrestlers like John Cena, Brock Lesnar, Batista, and Randy Orton (commonly referred to as Ohio Valley Wrestling "Class of 2002") to the main roster, the WWE attempted to sign or bring back veterans as well. World Championship Wrestling (WCW) and Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW) stocked the WWE with plenty of wrestlers to possibly promote to main event stars. WWE brought back Curt Hennig at the end of his career along with the "New World Order" in Hulk Hogan, Kevin Nash, and Scott Hall. Hulk Hogan did quite well in his nostalgia run although he was completely absent for the 20th anniversary of Wrestlemania during 2004. WWE would try several times to get Booker T, Bill Goldberg, and Scott Steiner over at the main event but it just didn't work out. Rob Van Dam was getting over and proved that he was more than just an ECW thing. Fans loved him and helped RVD become champion in later years. Eddie Guerrero returned to the WWE after a few personal problems returned while Rey Mysterio made a comeback. Both Guerrero and Mysterio became instant fan favorites and represented their communities well.
But there was one unexpected star that returned to the WWE that nobody could predict. Shawn Michaels was thought to have been retired from a back injury suffered at Royal Rumble 1998 when he was tossed over a coffin in a Casket Match with the Undertaker. The next few years were difficult for Shawn Michaels. Not only did he have to deal with the possible end to his wrestling recovery, but he had to battle a substance problem in addition to overcoming the back surgery to repair the damage. However, thanks to his lovely wife's support and the grace of God, Shawn Michaels overcame his demons and got healthy again. Michaels took a more active role in the Wrestling Academy he helped form and actually started working in the ring again. By 2002, he would be talked into a possible one-time match with his real life friend, Triple H, to help headline the stacked SummerSlam 2002 card. Michaels returned and WWE fans were legitimately scared about how he'd perform after more than 4 years of being away from wrestling in a WWE ring along with his back injury. Shawn defied the odds and put on a 5-star match with Triple H at SummerSlam 2002.
Once the WWE was able to convince Shawn Michaels to wrestle once for them, they were able to convince Shawn to return for other "one-time" matches. In fact, for 2002-2003, Shawn Michaels appeared to be the only wrestler getting an upper hand on the very dominant Triple H during that period of time. As 2003 wore on for Shawn Michaels, with many great matches to add to his already stacked resume, Shawn Michaels became a full-time wrestler again. Through late 2003, Michaels and Triple H feuded again and had a big match at Royal Rumble 2004, ON THIS DAY IN PRO WRESTLING HISTORY, with a fantastic "Last Man Standing" Match. The match resulted in a draw when both wrestlers were unable to answer the 10 count. This result was the beginning of the set-up for the incredible Triple Threat Match between Shawn Michaels, Triple H, and Chris Benoit at Wrestlemania 20 which earned "Match of the Year" by many publications.
To get that Wrestlemania 20 Main Event, Chris Benoit had to obviously win the Royal Rumble. That he did, ON THIS DAY IN PRO WRESTLING HISTORY, by being the #1 entrant and lasting over 1 hour in the ring. This was more than 3 years before Chris Benoit would murder his own family and himself during June 2007. WWE obviously didn't have a crystal ball to predict what he'd become. Through 2004, the WWE thought that they could turn Chris Benoit into their next Main Event star.
Chris Benoit was arguably one of the most talented in-ring performers that the business has ever seen. His style is influenced by his childhood favorite wrestler, the Dynamite Kid, who was a performer who overcame a short height (5'8") compared to other wrestlers with toughness and intensity. Benoit traveled the world as a performer and was seasoned by multiple styles. He was a big hit in Japan and first made a significant splash in the United States when he joined Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW). ECW was friendly to international performers and didn't discriminate on height and size as the World Wrestling Federation (now WWE) did back then. ECW had a major influx of unique talent that World Championship Wrestling (WCW) was so fond of that they raided it heavily during 1995-1996. Benoit would become a solid midcard performer as a member of the Four Horsemen and his matches helped keep WCW Thunder (or "Chunder") watchable.
Through late 1999, WCW began to seriously push Chris Benoit as a main event performer. It all came to a head at WCW Souled Out 2000 when Benoit won the WCW Championship against Sid Vicious. However, Benoit and his friends (Dean Malenko, Eddie Guerrero, and Perry Saturn - with 3 other wrestlers who opted to stay with WCW) wanted out of WCW because they disliked newly promoted head booker, Kevin Sullivan, after Russo was removed from that role. Chris Benoit stole Kevin Sullivan's wife in real life, Nancy Sullivan, whom Benoit would later marry and have one son together. In highly questionable move by WCW, the AOL/Time Warner management at that time let each of those 4 wrestlers go from their contracts and had zero no-compete clauses. They joined WWE immediately and helped stack the WWE's roster for arguably the best year in WWE's history during 2000. WWE's midcard and upper midcard was LOADED and helped support the Rock and Triple H who had huge years as the company's top stars. Guys like Chris Benoit, Chris Jericho, and Kurt Angle were given multiple opportunities to work with the top guys and just kept getting better and better with time.
Chris Benoit proved himself as an incredible performer and helped the top stars of the time obtain "Match of the Year" candidates. He was also instrumental in pushing Kurt Angle and Chris Jericho to their limits in the midcard. Angle is quoted several times on how Benoit taught him how to become a strong worker. The workrate by Benoit could not be denied and by mid-2001, the WWE had some aspirations on pushing both Chris Jericho and Chris Benoit as main event stars with a high profile feud with heels Triple H and Steve Austin after Wrestlemania 17. Austin and Triple H were to put Jericho/Benoit over during the famous Tag Title match on RAW during May 2001. Jericho and Benoit beat Triple H/Austin cleanly in that tag match and the thought was for them to go after both Austin and Triple for singles matches thereafter. However, Triple H was injured with a quad injury suffered in that tag match... Both Jericho and Benoit could only wrestle Steve Austin now.
With Triple H injured, the WWE needed Steve Austin to carry the WWE company until the WCW Invasion could begin. Thus, Chris Jericho and Chris Benoit were unable to defeat Steve Austin in any matches. However, that didn't mean that Benoit/Jericho were unable to have great matches with Austin. In fact, Chris Benoit's back-to-back RAW/Smackdown matches in Canada were among the "Match of the Year" candidates for 2001, particularly the Smackdown battle. These matches in particular gave Chris Benoit a ton of fan sympathy because despite the great effort he gave to beat Austin, he came up short and made fans believe that he could be a World Champion. Steve Austin has said that those singles matches with Benoit were some of his best career matches, which is quite a compliment considering Austin's great resume of matches. Before Benoit could capitalize on those matches, he needed the neck surgery that has been very common with wrestlers such as Austin or Edge. Chris Benoit would return during 2002 and eventually make his way to the Smackdown brand.
Benoit now had the sympathy of the fans from his battles with Steve Austin and requiring neck surgery to endure those battles... Now, he just had to grow on the Smackdown roster. That he did... Benoit joined a very talented Smackdown roster that was booked well by Paul Heyman during 2002-2003. Benoit was part of the "Smackdown 6" which included Kurt Angle, Edge, Rey Mysterio, Eddie Guerrero, and Chavo Guerrero along with Brock Lesnar and Undertaker as the top main eventers. The Smackdown 6 with Angle/Benoit, Guerreros, and Mysterio/Edge wrestled for the new Smackdown Tag Titles and had many "Match of the Year" candidates with some of the best Tag Matches ever seen. The workrate was off the charts and helped boost everybody's career. After flourishing in the tag division, most of the Smackdown 6 would move into singles wrestling.
Kurt Angle was WWE Champion by early 2003 and his opponent for Royal Rumble 2003 was Chris Benoit. In what appears to a recurring theme announced for Benoit, Angle and Benoit put on the "Match of the Year" for 2003 with that Rumble match. Benoit lost to Angle at Rumble 2003 but the more important moment came AFTER the match. Fans in attendance at Royal Rumble 2003 gave Chris Benoit a standing ovation for his incredible losing effort. It is believed that this moment gave the WWE Management some confidence in making Chris Benoit a world champion in the near future. In fact, one year later after Benoit had a solid 2003 against several big names (including Lesnar), Chris Benoit won the Royal Rumble match 10 years ago ON THIS DAY IN PRO WRESTLING HISTORY.
Chris Benoit was feuding with General Manager Paul Heyman during late 2003 and early 2004. When Benoit qualified for the Royal Rumble match at the 2004 show, Heyman forced Benoit to become the #1 entry. Benoit lasted an hour in the Rumble, eliminated 6 wrestlers himself, and tossed out Big Show to win the match. It was an incredible effort and fans bought into Benoit's chase. The Rumble match for 2004 is considered to be among the best of all time (with Rumble 1992 being considered the best off all time).
Benoit became the first Royal Rumble winner to choose between challenging for either the World Heavyweight Championship or the WWE Title at Wrestlemania. For the year before, Brock Lesnar won the Rumble and went after Kurt Angle, the then-WWE Champion at the time without much issue. Benoit, however, appeared on RAW and directly challenged World Heavyweight Champion Triple H. The Wrestlemania 20 main event was on and Shawn Michaels snuck into the match by delivering Sweet Chin Music to Benoit and HBK signed the Wrestlemania 20 contract himself. This set-up the great Triple Threat Match at Wrestlemania 20 which was off the charts. Chris Benoit won the match by making Triple H tap out to the Crippler Crossface and Benoit ended the huge Wrestlemania 20 night by celebrating in the ring at Madison Square Garden with his close friend and WWE Champion, Eddie Guerrero. It was a HUGE star making moment for the WWE, they thought...
Benoit then defended the World Heavyweight Title in a rematch of that Triple Threat match at Backlash 2004. Benoit retained by making Shawn Michaels submit to the Sharpshooter. HUGE clean wins over both Triple H and Shawn Michaels... Benoit was a made wrestler at the top, right? Well, the WWE began to get worried about the 2004 numbers after Wrestlemania 20. After all, they lost many stars after that show... The Rock, Steve Austin, Bill Goldberg, Brock Lesnar, and Mick Foley were all GONE from the WWE. Much of the blame for lower numbers after Wrestlemania 20 fell on Benoit for RAW and Eddie Guerrero for Smackdown, the current World Champions. Eddie Guerrero would soon lose his WWE Title to the newly rebranded John "Bradshaw" Layfield (JBL) while the WWE wanted to push new stars from the Ohio Valley Wrestling "Class of 2002" to the top. In particular, they wanted to push Randy Orton and possibly allow him to break Brock Lesnar's "youngest WWE World Champion" mark. At SummerSlam 2004, Randy Orton defeated Chris Benoit. With Orton struggling in the main event (soon lost the World Title to Triple H at the following Pay Per View), WWE set their sights on pushing Batista next through Wrestlemania 21 for 2005.
From there, Benoit would remain in the midcard to upper midcard. He was always there to keep the midcard solid but the WWE wasn't serious about Benoit as a World Champion until maybe he was drafted to the ECW brand during 2007 (if you count that as an official "world title"). Through June 2007, for whatever reason, Benoit snapped during a weekend and murdered his wife and son while killing himself as well. An incredible tragedy that embarrassed the WWE Corporation due to the weeks of negative media coverage that the murders created. Pro wrestling took multiple black eyes due to the possible effects of multiple concussions, drugs/alcohol, and performance enhancer use that may have caused Benoit to snap. Many former WWE employees came out of the woodwork to criticize the WWE and soon, the Feds began sniffing into the WWE. Several online pharmacy bust stories that named WWE wrestlers arrived after the Benoit murders and the WWE became very serious about its Wellness Policy.
The bigger moral of the story for Chris Benoit from Royal Rumble 2004 and later Wrestlemania 20 is that these big events don't make stars... Fans make stars. While Chris Benoit had great moments in the ring, he lacked the charisma and personality that draws in casual wresting fans to pro wrestling. Guys like Hulk Hogan, Macho Man Randy Savage, the Rock, Steve Austin, Triple H, and John Cena are complete wrestlers who can not only perform well in the ring (especially main events), but are wrestlers who have personalities and charisma that appeal to a wide variety fo fans who aren't just looking for great athletic feats in the ring. Size does matter, too, in pro wrestling. Benoit was billed at 5'11" but may have been a few inches shorter. Without the personality and charismatic traits that have made the top draws in the WWE at the main event level successful, Benoit couldn't do much as World Champion during 2004. Unfortunately for Benoit, Wrestlemania 20 was his peak and it was sadly a downhill ride from there.
There are always calls by WWE critics for certain wrestlers to win the Royal Rumble to help MAKE their careers. Be careful what you wish for... Benoit during 2004 proves that booking a wrestler to be incredibly strong at Royal Rumble and then at Wrestlemania doesn't make transform a wrestler into a top drawing main event star. It's those other intangibles like personality and charisma that draws in the casual fans that make a wrestler. There are many comparisons of Daniel Bryan to Chris Benoit in terms of being an undersized yet incredibly polished wrestler in the ring. Unfortunately for Bryan, the failures of making Benoit and Guerrero as the replacements for Rock/Austin/Lesnar during 2004 might have the WWE scared to push an undersized wrestler to the top via Royal Rumble 2014 and then Wrestlemania 30. They might prefer bigger wrestlers like the ones from the Ohio Valley Wrestling "Class of 2002" like Randy Orton, Brock Lesnar, and/or Batista instead.
But unlike Chris Benoit, Daniel Bryan has a personality, has charisma, and those "YES! YES! YES!" chants are pretty damn loud. Bryan has the complete package of a wrestler that Chris Benoit was lacking during 2004. Bryan is not only over with WWE fans, but he's getting mainstream attention with "YES!" chants at various sporting events. These loud chants still occur despite Bryan not receiving favorable booking by the WWE since SummerSlam 2013.
WWE hasn't learned from their past history, though... They attempted, in back-to-back years, to use the Royal Rumble to make stars. For Rumbles 2011 and 2012, they tried to use the show to push Alberto Del Rio and Sheamus as Rumble match winners. In fact with Sheamus, the WWE had go after Daniel Bryan as World Heavyweight Champion and had Sheamus beat Bryan in under 20 seconds at Wrestlemania 28. Fans overwhelmingly rejected this match result and may have set the course for fan sympathy to get Daniel Bryan over ever since.
Moral of the story is to use the Royal Rumble match-up for wrestlers who are legitimately over and could not only headline Wrestlemania well, but to draw for that event and remain a draw after Wrestlemania. Benoit was not despite his huge Wrestlemania 20 moment.
Should be interesting with the invention of the WWE Network on how the WWE addresses Chris Benoit for 2004's big events. They cannot ignore his HUGE Rumble win, nor can the WWE ignore Wrestlemania 20. All Pay Per Views are archived and available on demand for any fan to enjoy on WWE Network. How can the WWE omit major parts of these shows? They can't... WWE has to realize that during 2004, they were completely unable to predict what Benoit did 3 years later. Nobody could.
ON THIS DAY IN PRO WRESTLING HISTORY... The WWE tried to make Chris Benoit a main event star with a Royal Rumble win.
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