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On This Day in Pro Wrestling History... Wrestlemania 20 - The Day that the WWE Changed Forever
By Mr. Tito
Mar 14, 2013 - 12:01:00 AM
ON THIS DAY IN PRO WRESTLING HISTORY... The World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) held its earliest Wrestlemania during a calendar year on March 14th, 2004. It wasn't just a normal Wrestlemania, however, it was Wrestlemania 20. The WWE went bold with this anniversary show and actually held it in New York City at the Madison Square Garden where both Wrestlemania 1 and Wrestlemania 10 were held. In addition, the WWE extended the show by 1 hour to further enhance this Wrestlemania as possibly being the biggest show of all time.
The unique thing about Wrestlemania 20 is that the show is a major transition for the WWE. The show marked the last big show for many big WWE superstars such as Brock Lesnar, Bill Goldberg, the Rock, and Steve Austin and created a major starpower void that challenged the WWE in the following years. However, it also allowed for wrestlers like Bradshaw, John Cena, Randy Orton, and Batista to step up. The Undertaker switched back fulltime to babyface with the return of the "Deadman" gimmick and eventually allowed the Undertaker to merge the in-ring development from the early 2000's with the babyface gimmick that many fans enjoyed from the 1990's. And lastly, the WWE used this show in attempts to make Main Eventers out of journeymen Eddie Guerrero and Chris Benoit, who both walked out of Wrestlemania 20 as Champions of the RAW/Smackdown Brands. Guerrero successfully defended his title against Kurt Angle while Chris Benoit won the World Heavyweight Championship against Triple H and Shawn Michaels in the Main Event.
In recent times, the Rock has returned to the WWE after many years in Hollywood with a successful movie career. He began flirting with Hollywood during the early 2000's and once the demand was there for him to become a movie star, his appearances became fewer in the WWE through 2003 and made one last major appearance at Wrestlemania 20 by teaming up with Mick Foley (who left soon himself, too) against 3 remaining non-Triple H members of Evolution: Randy Orton, Batista, Ric Flair. A few special appearances here and there, but the Rock was mostly gone until he returned to announce that he was the "host" of Wrestlemania 27.
Also returning recently to the WWE was Brock Lesnar. Reportedly during 2003, Brock Lesnar became burnt out as a wrestler thanks to the excessive WWE road schedule. While Brock had to work the houseshow circuit and promotional appearances in addition to television and Pay Per View shows, he observed former WCW wrestlers like Hulk Hogan, Kevin Nash, Scott Hall, and Bill Goldberg who were given nice paying contracts but limited dates to just television and Pay Per Views. Lesnar, in due time, became vocal about the special treatment given to some wrestlers but not given to him as the Smackdown roster's top wrestler. This schism that he had with the WWE opened his eyes that his opportunities should not be limited to being just a professional wrestler. He had visions of trying other sports such as the National Football League (NFL) and eventually Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). However, Lesnar was stuck in his WWE contract as an active wrestler and that contract was written in iron clad language crafted from lessons learned of the 1990's when wrestlers could jump to World Championship Wrestling (WCW), the WWE's competitor, for work. Lesnar opted to quit the WWE and had to work with the WWE on his contracts obligations in attempts to make the Minnesota Vikings football team during preseason. A no-compete clause held strong for other types of entertainment, such as MMA and other wrestling promotions.
Lesnar was leaving the WWE abruptly and he was leaving the Smackdown roster in the dust. After dropping the title to Eddie Guerrero during the previous Pay Per View, the booking of his match against the also departing former WCW wrestler Bill Goldberg, whose 1 year contract was expiring, flipped in favor of Goldberg winning instead. Bill Goldberg first appeared with the WWE on the RAW following Wrestlemania 19. The Rock, after defeating Steve Austin at Wrestlemania 19, bragged that he had nothing left to accomplish and then Goldberg arrived. Goldberg defeated the Rock at the next Pay Per View but spent the year unable to recapture the magic Goldberg had in 1998 as a new WCW Superstar. Goldberg just wasn't the right fit with the current WWE environment and the WWE let his 1 year deal expire with the last show being Wrestlemania 20. WWE had been teasing fans with Brock vs. Goldberg at other Pay Per Views and thus probably had plans for Brock Lesnar to defeat Goldberg at Wrestlemania 20 in a huge match. However, Lesnar quit the WWE and the booking reportedly changed to spite him. Nice win for Bill Goldberg to cap his 1 year WWE career.
The sad thing about Bill Goldberg being in the WWE for 1 year is that he couldn't wrestle "Stone Cold" Steve Austin during 2003-2004, a dream match from the late 1990's. Bill Goldberg debuted with the WWE on the following night after Steve Austin wrestled his last legitimate match with the WWE at Wrestlemania 19 against the Rock. Just missed him... Steve Austin during 2003-2004, was reduced to a non-wrestling role and was put in a General Manager battle with Eric Bischoff. Austin suffered a serious neck injury during 1997 that he painfully worked through for the next 2 years. Then during 1999, Austin had neck fusion surgery to eventually return during 2000. Possibly wrestling some of the his best matches of his career during 2001 against the likes of Triple H, the Rock, Kurt Angle, Chris Jericho, and the Rock, Steve Austin may have reinjured that neck by late 2001. The neck injury bothered Austin and made the pro wrestling industry depressing for Austin heading into 2002. Austin appeared to have issue with the hiring of Hulk Hogan during 2002 and was against a proposed Austin vs. Hogan match for Wrestlemania 18. Instead, Steve Austin was given Scott Hall and the Rock was the one who got to enjoy the headline match against Hogan that everybody remembers.
2002 just got worse and worse for Steve Austin. Austin was the WWE's biggest star from 1997-1999 but returned to a changed WWE during 2000. The Rock's star power grew and Triple H was promoted to a main eventer. In addition with Triple H, he was getting close with new lead WWE writer, Stephanie McMahon. Much of the Creative Staff that Steve Austin enjoyed between 1997-1999 was gone and the backstage had an obvious power shift. Austin has admitted to issues with Triple H during 2002, the same year he walked out of the WWE twice... Austin had serious personal problems during 2002. Dealing with the neck injury forced Austin to make some choices on how to deal with that pain. Things were eroding personally with Austin's marriage to Debra (also Debra McMichael in WCW). Austin left her bruised and bloodied during June 2002. With the WWE, Austin first walked out of the company following Wrestlemania 18, citing "exhaustion". However, he returned... The WWE sought to use Austin's starpower to put over new WWE superstar, Brock Lesnar. The new WWE creative team was eager to have Lesnar defeat Austin and were pushing for it to actually happen on a random episode of Monday Night RAW as an unannounced match. Austin would have none of it and refused the RAW match idea, citing "time and place" such as a well hyped Pay Per View instead for the Lesnar match. Why give the match away for free and without hype?
Austin wouldn't return until 2003 when he ironed out his problems with WWE and gave an honest interview about his 2002 issues with WWE Magazine. Even if Austin's WWE problems were temporarily fixed, he was still in physical and personal shambles. If you watch the accompanying documentary on Wrestlemania 19, you'll see that Steve Austin struggled personally on the night before his match with the Rock. It would ultimately be Austin's last legitimate wrestling match, as he'd resume the rest of his WWE tenure through Wrestlemania 20 in a non-wrestling capacity. He was a competing authority figure with former WCW boss, Eric Bischoff and then became the "Special Guest Referee" for Brock Lesnar vs. Bill Goldberg on this day in pro wrestling history at Wrestlemania 20. Shortly thereafter, WWE.com would announce that the WWE released Steve Austin. Austin has appeared here and there with the WWE since, trying his hand in Hollywood though not with the same movie budgets as the Rock. Austin has suggested that his neck has healed up with time, although a recent knee injury would hinder any comeback attempts.
Austin, Goldberg, the Rock, and Lesnar... All GONE after Wrestlemania 20 for the WWE. At the very least, Austin and Rock weren't full time performers any longer. Bill Goldberg's contract was known to be coming up. However, Brock Lesnar WAS the major star of the Smackdown roster. His departure cripped that brand extension and forced the WWE's hand to try and push other stars fast. Needing a top heel, the WWE quickly repackaged tag team wrestler Bradshaw, into a revamped character named John Bradshaw Layfield or JBL. Not giving much of a title reign to Eddie Guerrero, the WWE Title was shifted to JBL where he'd hold the title for 9 months. JBL became a great heel champion, with time, and served himself up to John Cena at Wrestlemania 21. The final death nail for the Smackdown roster, however, was when John Cena was soon moved to the RAW roster as WWE Champion with Smackdown getting little in return. Lesnar's exit from the WWE put the wheels in motion to diminish the Smackdown brand as a whole and Smackdown was regularly defeating RAW in total viewership from 2002-2004.
Meanwhile on RAW, the WWE tried to run with Chris Benoit as Champion but soon wasn't impressed with him as the top guy (especially when side Triple H feuds were featured more prominently on RAW instead) that it opened the door for the WWE to push a very green Randy Orton to the World Championship instead at SummerSlam 2004. Orton became the youngest World Champion in WWE history, beating Brock Lesnar's previous record on youngest age. But Orton's run to the World Title wasn't as strong on timing and execution as Batista. Post-Wrestlemania 20 was kinder to Batista as he had a better build up to the World Title and sustained star power during the mid-2000's because of it.
The winner of the Wrestlemania 20 Main Event and NEW World Heavyweight Champion, Chris Benoit, didn't do so well after Wrestlemania 20. Sadly, Wrestlemania 20 and then the Triple Threat rematch against Shawn Michaels/Triple H were his peak and it was all downhill after that. Wrestlemania 20 was the crowning achievement of Chris Benoit's long 20+ year career. Benoit scratched and clawed his way up to the top of the pro wrestling business from Stu Hart's dungeon, Stampede Wrestling in Canada, Japan, Mexico, Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW), World Championship Wrestling (WCW), and then the WWE before he sadly murdered his family during June 2007. Benoit waited for his turn until late 1999 when Vince Russo began to push him legitimately as a World Title contender in WCW. However, Russo's layoff by WCW during early 2000 and the promotion of Benoit's wife's ex-husband, Kevin Sullivan, as head booker. Benoit, along with his close friends Eddie Guerrero, Perry Saturn, and Dean Malenko, demanded their WCW releases during early 2000 and were granted them by AOL/Time Warner management. The would soon join the WWE as "the Radicalz".
Benoit was the standout of the Radicalz early on, provided his late success in WCW. He received a considerable upper midcard push and always gave the Steve Austin, the Rock, and Triple H incredible match-ups. He taught Kurt Angle the physical in-ring style that Angle would perfect on his own. In return, Angle used his rising star to help Benoit elevate to the top. Their Royal Rumble 2003 match is of great importance to Benoit because in spite of losing to Angle in the match, Angle helped sell the strong "losing effort" by Benoit. After their Royal Rumble 2003 match, fans gave Chris Benoit a standing ovation. This may have tipped the WWE off that Benoit was ready to be Champion. Royal Rumble 2004 occurred and Benoit walked out of the Rumble match as #1 contender. Benoit opted to go after RAW's World Heavyweight Championship, which Triple H currently held... Eventually, Shawn Michaels was also added to the match to make arguably the greatest Triple Threat match of all time at Wrestlemania 20.
For the WWE's biggest annual event AND the 20th anniversary show, the WWE ended the show with Chris Benoit ending the show as World Heavyweight Champion. Provided his horrific events from June 2007 when Benoit snapped and killed his wife and son, also committing suicide, the ending to Wrestlemania 20 is now an embarrassment to the WWE Corporation. Furthermore, Eddie Guerrero came out to join Chris Benoit in the celebration after Eddie successfully defended the WWE Title against Kurt Angle. While the WWE celebrated the passing of Eddie Guerrero, Eddie's passing in late 2005 helped implement the WWE Wellness Policy during 2006 due to rising wrestler deaths before the age of 45. Moving forward, this "Wrestlemania Moment" will only be contained within Wrestlemania DVD sets and won't be featured elsewhere. Chris Benoit during June 2007 was a PR disaster for the WWE and the WWE ramped up its Wellness Policy and concussion testing to avoid another disaster like Benoit's lost weekend.
And finally... Wrestlemania 20 featured the return of the "Deadman" gimmick for the Undertaker. The Undertaker ran with the "Deadman" gimmick from his WWE debut during 1990 through 1998 and took a demonic twist with the character during the "Ministry of Darkness" angle during 1999. The Undertaker suffered a torn groin during late 1999 and was out for a short while. He returned with a new gimmick... Ditching the "Deadman" look, we were treated to an Undertaker that looked like a Hell's Angel instead... Dubbed by fans as the "Bikertaker" and replacing his Tombstone Piledriver with the "Last Ride" Powerbomb, the Undertaker took on a more real gimmick than the cartoonish character he was forced to portray during the 1990's. Worse yet about the 1990's Deadman gimmick, the Undertaker was forced to wrestle a very limited style as a performer and was fed wrestlers like Kama, Mabel, Yokozuna, Giant Gonzalez, and other thick or tall wrestlers. It wasn't until the likes of Bret Hart, Mankind (Mick Foley), Shawn Michaels, and Steve Austin fought the Undertaker that it was realized that the Undertaker had some actual in-ring ability. Problem wasn't the wrestler, but it was the dance partners fed to the Undertaker for most of the 1990's decade.
When the Undertaker returned during 2000, gone were the excessive Tall & Thick wrestler feuds shoved down his throat and in were great opponents. Many wrestling fans took notice of the Undertaker after his impressive bout with Triple H at Wrestlemania 17 but the Undertaker's workrate improved when he went to the Smackdown roster and was pushed by Brock Lesnar as a legitimate opponent. The Undertaker stepped up his game by studying Mixed Martial Arts and began incorporating submissions and striking into his matches and actually improved as an in-ring performer as a result. By 2004, Vince McMahon and possibly the Undertaker himself wanted the return of the "Deadman" gimmick. During late 2003, the Undertaker was actually feuding with Vince McMahon and the two had a "Buried Alive" match at Survivor Series 2003. With the help of Kane interfering, Vince defeated the Undertaker in a Buried Alive match in which the Undertaker was pronounced dead... This match result enabled the Undertaker to take time off and have a rebirth at Wrestlemania 20 as the "Deadman" gimmick again.
At Wrestlemania 20, on this day in pro wrestling history, the Undertaker defeated Kane with the return of the "Deadman" gimmick. The match at Wrestlemania 20 was mostly rated as being OK, but the return of the "Deadman" is the important part. The gimmick that many older WWE fans loved was merged with the "Bikertaker" that became a stronger in-ring performer. Since 2004, the Undertaker's Wrestlemania matches have increased in seriousness and excellence. In addition to being fed great opponents, the Undertaker brought his A-game as well. The WWE began to market the Deadman gimmick as being invincible at Wrestlemania and the streak has become a legitimate draw for the annual Wrestlemania match. His match against Shawn Michaels at Wrestlemania 25, in particular, is considered a masterpiece and one of the greatest matches of all time. The "sense of urgency" over the streak keeps increasing by the year and the addition of Triple H to the streak for back-to-back years put the streak over the top.
Wrestlemania 20 changed EVERYTHING for the WWE. 4 big wrestlers left the WWE after Wrestlemania 20 in Steve Austin, Rock, Brock Lesnar, and Bill Goldberg. The WWE tried to push Chris Benoit and Eddie Guerrero as their new stop stars but the World Titles were soon shifted to newly pushed wrestlers instead in Randy Orton and JBL. JBL, of course, was the one to put over John Cena for his first WWE Title at the following Wrestlemania. Lastly, the Undertaker was repackaged with a familiar gimmick that he could now unleashed as a good in-ring performer. On this day in pro wrestling history, the WWE intended to present the greatest wrestling show on earth... What they got was a permanently changed WWE instead.
Just chill till the next history lesson...
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