From Madison Square Garden in New York, NY
March 14, 2004
Poor WWE. Despite being the most lucrative, proliferative, and memory-composing wrestling entity to ever be seen, it feels like that they sometimes can’t win.
On the one hand, fans criticize World Wrestling Entertainment for clinging to the past like rats to the hull of a sinking ship. In recent years, the likes of Hulk Hogan and Stone Cold Steve Austin have been “brought off the bench” to star in an occasional segment wherein they usually wind up destroying somebody who could use a victory to solidify himself.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, WWE also takes it in the shorts when things change TOO much. The company’s innovative experiments of the past decade, such as the brand extension, guest hosts on Raw, the Diva Search, having two world titles, and other concepts were met with flat-footed resistance.
See what I mean by “poor WWE”?
WrestleMania XX’s tagline was to be “Where it All Begins Again”. The slogan seemed somewhat vague as it wasn’t explained what “it” was. Would WWE begin relying on the past again? Would the company begin to churn out foreign concepts to a rigidly inflexible audience again?
Or would the company rekindle fan interest, both general and ardent, with a show that would set new standards in quality and story-telling?
Going into the event, WrestleMania XX put together a blend of developmental stars on the rise, cherished veterans in prominent roles, and beloved underdogs who were on the verge of greatness.
What would ‘begin’ at MSG on that night?
In a twist served to reward longtime fans for their dedicated fandom, Chris Benoit was the winner of the 2004 Royal Rumble. In story canon, Benoit believed he couldn’t get a fair break from biased Smackdown general manager Paul Heyman, which caused Benoit to leave the brand, jumping ship to Raw.
Chris Benoit’s title shot remained intact, and thus he would challenge World Heavyweight Champion Triple H at the big dance. Shawn Michaels, then Helmsley’s nemesis, had lobbied for a rematch after he and the champion fought to a double knockout in a last man standing match at the Royal Rumble.
At the would-be contract signing for the World Heavyweight Title match, a frenetically desperate Michaels pleaded with Benoit to give him the match with Triple H, as if his very life depended on settling this score. Benoit flatly turned Michaels down, since he fought for one hour to win the Royal Rumble. Michaels responded by blasting Benoit with Sweet Chin Music, and added his name to the contract before Benoit could sign. GM Eric Bischoff’s solution was to make the match a triple threat between Helmsley, Michaels, and Benoit.
On the Smackdown side, Eddie Guerrero provided wrestling with one of its truest comeback stories when he put behind his alcoholic past in February 2004, felling Brock Lesnar to become WWE Champion. Guerrero would then be challenged by #1 contender Kurt Angle, whose attitude soured on the bitterness of Guerrero reigning, due to his past troubles with substance abuse.
Angle, with the blessing of GM Paul Heyman, proceeded to rail against Guerrero’s demons, while proclaiming himself to be a better role model, and, thus, better champion. Angle even taped his fists and beat a defensless Guerrero bloody, all while Guerrero was handcuffed (Guerrero was to have faced Heyman, agreeing to handcuff himself as a handicap, making Angle’s attack easier).
While Benoit and Guerrero were being groomed for their unlikely ascents, a squad of Attitude-era heroes and villains would make up the remainder of the upper card.
The Undertaker was taken out at Survivor Series by Kane, buried alive under a mountain of gravel. As Kane cackled loud and often about driving his brother away for good, hints of The Undertaker’s presence between to surface. From Undertaker’s classic “gong” blaring through the arena, to Kane being fronted by a casket and an urn, it was clear that the Undertaker was due back, and no longer as his highway-carousing biker self.
Stone Cold Steve Austin would appear at WrestleMania XX to moderate a match between Goldberg and Brock Lesnar, while The Rock and Mick Foley ended their exiles to face Randy Orton, Batista, and Ric Flair of Evolution, after Orton and Foley had been a “legend killing” war. Chris Jericho would also settle a score with longtime cohort Christian, who had chastised Y2J for trying to romance Trish Stratus.
Jim Ross and Jerry Lawler would call the Raw action, while Michael Cole and Tazz covered SmackDown for this five hour event. The WWE brought back its WWE Hall of Fame for the weekend, inducting legends like Bobby Heenan, Jesse Ventura, Big John Studd, Junkyard Dog, Tito Santana, Greg Valentine, Harley Race, Sgt. Slaughter, Superstar Billy Graham, Don Muraco, and celebrity Pete Rose. The Harlem Boys Choir kicked off the show with “America the Beautiful”.
WWE United States: John Cena def. Big Show in 9:14 to win the title
(Once upon a time, John Cena was opening shows and warming up the crowd. Highlight was him mimicking Ultimate Warrior’s “questioning God” routine when he couldn’t put Show away)
World Tag Team: Rob Van Dam/Booker T def. The Dudley Boyz, La Resistance, and Garrison Cade/Mark Jindrak in 7:51
(Ahh, the classic “get everybody involved” match. Surprised nobody thought to name Van Dam and Booker “Tokin’ Black Guy”. Too offensive?)
Christian def. Chris Jericho in 14:52
(Christian’s prize for winning was to spend several months paired with a now-heel Trish Stratus, while Jericho’s reward was getting to feud with the both of them. I like all three, and this match was rather excellent, if underappreciated)
Randy Orton/Batista/Ric Flair def. The Rock/Mick Foley in 17:03
(An insanely fun match with Rock, Flair, and Foley running through their body of tricks, including Rock and Flair just going back and forth with humorous antics. The match served its purpose though, with Orton going over strong by RKOing Foley. Just fun)
Evening Gown Match: Sable/Torrie Wilson def. Stacy Keibler/Miss Jackie in 2:33
(Were you aware that Sable is undefeated at WrestleMania? She’s 3-0, which makes her the female Undertaker. Come to think of it, she is bony and corpse-like….)
WWE Cruiserweight: Chavo Guerrero won a Cruiserweight Open over Rey Mysterio, Tajiri, Akio, Billy Kidman, Jamie Noble, Nunzio, Funaki, Ultimo Dragon, and Shannon Moore in 10:28
(Eight falls (Akio was never actually eliminated) in just ten minutes, and the WWE couldn’t figure out why fans didn’t take the cruiserweights seriously. At least it was fast paced)
(See the earlier tag team title match for perspective. Highlight: Rikishi’s ass being so fat that he has to suck his gut out before giving Charlie Haas the stinkface. Time to lay off the butter sticks)
WWE Women’s vs. Hair: Victoria def. Molly Holly in 4:53
(And thus Molly Holly was shaved, giving us her best V for Vendetta tribute. I actually liked shorned Molly. Made me want to take her to a tanz-metal club)
WWE Heavyweight Championship: Eddie Guerrero def. Kurt Angle in 21:36
(Great, great back and forth match between two of the finest athletes in wrestling history. Eddie Guerrero was in his element as the clever babyface who finds ways to win that are outside the box. In this case, Guerrero untied his boot so to render Angle’s ankle lock useless, with an easy escape. How can anyone hate this match?)
The Undertaker def. Kane in 7:45
(Undertaker indeed returned to his “Dead Man” roots here, complete with Druids, Paul Bearer, and classic symphonic score for his music. A chill-inducing scene, even if the match wasn’t really any good)
World Heavyweight Championship: Chris Benoit def. Triple H and Shawn Michaels in 25:10 to win the title
(And there you have it: the last time a wrestling moment actually made me misty-eyed. Benoit making Triple H tap out to the Crossface was a dream come true, as was Benoit’s tearful celebration with Guerrero, as the ultimate “we made it” moment. Sadly, real life events have diminished this moment some, but I’ll never forget what it meant to have witnessed it live)
ITS PLACE IN HISTORY
A somewhat morbid joke sees wrestling fans talking about Undertaker and Kane as if it were the main event of WrestleMania XX. This is, of course, because of WWE’s policy of outright ignoring Chris Benoit in the wake of the double murder-suicide that claimed him and his family.
Is it unfair? Well, some fans still can’t bring themselves to like Chris Benoit for his past contributions due to the actions in the last two days of his life. Perhaps it’s best that WWE keep their safe distance from the “Canadian Crippler”.
But for those of us who watched WrestleMania XX, repeat viewings are unnecessary. If you watched Benoit ascend wrestling’s peak on that night, and share his accomplishment with the also-deceased Guerrero, with sweat and tears mixing on their faces, then you don’t need to see it again.
In my mind’s eye, as is the case with many other fans, having seen it live is a privilege. It’s one of the last few times that a moment in WWE required no caption, no more words to be said.
Parts of WrestleMania XX may be long since buried. But what happened that night is so special, our memories will keep it alive.