From The All-State Arena in Chicago, IL
April 2, 2006
A scant fourteen hours before he would have won the World Heavyweight Championship from Batista at a rare Sunday SmackDown taping, Eddie Guerrero was found dead in a Minnesota hotel room at the age of 38.
Despite beating the alcoholism that plagued much of his life four years ago, Guerrero’s weakened circulatory system, a body worn down by the rigors of the ring, and a life numbed by drugs, both prescription and elicit, all came back to haunt him at a time when his diligence and courage were heralded as one of wrestling’s greatest fairy tales.
Guerrero’s death was a blow to not only his family, friends, and fans across the globe, but to WWE itself. Guerrero’s rise to the main event scene in World Wrestling Entertainment wasn’t just a reward for cleaning up his life. Statistics showed that Smackdown’s TV ratings were ballooning, heavily so in Latin markets. With Guerrero, his nephew Chavo, and the dynamic Rey Mysterio, Smackdown was able to cater to the fastest growing ethic demographic in the United States.
It was Guerrero’s natural charisma, however, coupled with his silky-smooth in-ring performances that made him a standout to fans who couldn’t, in any faith, boo his “cheat to win” heel act. Instead, the gimmick was retooled to make him into a cunning and clever hero, outwitting villains left and right to remain on top.
With Guerrero’s death, the company was losing a considerable lifeline to a market that didn’t explode until “Latino Heat” helped WWE tap into it.
However, all was not lost.
Except for WWE’s sense of decency.
For the next six months or so, Guerrero’s name was used by Rey Mysterio in infinite tribute, while Mysterio’s opponents actually defamed Guerrero’s name just to further storylines.
Sadly, the Eddie Guerrero exploitation would grow more disturbing.
With “Eddie Guerrero” becoming a buzz phrase after the man’s demise, coupled with Mysterio’s constant evocation of his name, Mysterio dedicated his performance at the 2006 Royal Rumble to his deceased friend.
However, Orton goaded Mysterio into putting his contender’s spot on the line at No Way Out, getting Mysterio to agree by declaring that Eddie Guerrero was in Hell. Tasteless as it was, the match was signed, and Orton cheated to win. However, GM Teddy Long made a concession: since Orton had to use nefarious means, the match would now be a triple threat between Mysterio, Orton, and champion Kurt Angle.
Over on Raw, John Cena was WWE Champion, and not a popular one. Fans were either heavily divided on his goofy superhero schtick, or they outright booed him out of the arenas. After winning feuds with heels who were cheered over him (Angle, Chris Jericho, Edge), Cena was locked in to face Triple H, who won a tournament to earn the shot.
The Game, for reasons unclear, was allowed to declare Cena a bad champion due to a lack of wrestling ability, as well the unfavorable crowd reactions.
Oddly enough, none of this did anything to improve Cena’s cracked image.
In one of the more bizarre builds for a marquee match, Shawn Michaels had confronted Vince McMahon late in 2005, after McMahon attempted to publicly embarrass Bret Hart. Michaels, from whom Hart was estranged from after a litany of controversies, came to the ring and told Vince “move on”.
McMahon didn’t take the perceived insult lightly, and became hell-bent on ruining Michaels’ life. This included enlisting Shane McMahon to toss Michaels out of the Royal Rumble match after a distraction, and then later trying to force Michaels’ former partner Marty Jannetty to join his “Kiss My Ass” club in exchange for employment. Michaels intervened, and took a chair to the head from Shane. Then, while Shawn was out cold, Shane lifted Michaels and forced him to perform the kiss unwittingly.
McMahon and Michaels would then sign for a street fight, McMahon’s typical style, in which Michaels promised that it wasn’t going to be one of his five-star classics.
Speaking of brawls, Edge and Mick Foley had fallen into a skirmish. After Edge won the WWE title in January by cashing in his Money in the Bank chance on a wounded John Cena, Edge lost the belt three weeks later back to the man he’d felled. Foley refereed a rematch between the two and Cena won, prompting Edge to cry foul. He agreed to lock horns with Foley in a hardcore rules match to create his own WrestleMania moment.
Jim Ross and Jerry Lawler called Raw’s action, while Michael Cole and Tazz brought us Smackdown. Joey Styles filled in for Ross during the aforementioned hardcore match. Lillian Garcia sang “America the Beautiful” to kick off the show. As for the Hall of Fame, 2006 saw Bret Hart, Eddie Guerrero, Mean Gene Okerlund, Sensational Sherri, The Blackjacks, Verne Gagne, Tony Atlas, and William “Refrigerator” Perry inducted.
World Tag Team: Kane/Big Show def. Carlito/Chris Masters in 6:41
(Wasn’t expecting much out of it, but it turned out to be a decent opener, all things considered. Besides, it was Big Show’s first win in WrestleMania history. So there’s that)
Money in the Bank: Rob Van Dam def. Shelton Benjamin, Matt Hardy, Finlay, Ric Flair, and Bobby Lashley in 12:21
(Not up to the level of last year’s, but still featuring some craziness. Lashley and Flair seemed out of place, but everyone else was game. Shelton’s springboard onto one side of the ladder still amazes me to this day)
WWE United States: JBL def. Chris Benoit in 9:44 to win the title
(This would have been a fine enough match with a normal face/heel dynamic, but JBL had to mock Eddie Guerrero with his arm swivel taunt about fifteen times. Just not necessary)
Hardcore Rules: Edge def. Mick Foley in 14:37
(The earliest a “match of the night” has ever occurred at ‘Mania, I believe. Lita taking barbed wire to the mouth was crazy, but Edge spearing Mick Foley through the flaming table was beyond insane. Edge going into the flames makes me think he was telling Vince “Gimme the belt back, or I’ll kill myself on your show.” Looks to have worked)
Handicap Match: The Boogeyman def. Booker T/Sharmell in 3:52
(Much as I like both men for different reasons, the less said about this match, the better)
(It’s the best women’s match in WrestleMania history, and perhaps Mickie’s finest hour as a character. Sadly, the DVD release omits Mickie’s finest moment, but it’s burned into my brain forever anyway)
Casket Match: The Undertaker def. Mark Henry at 9:26
(That’s fourteen. That’s also Mark Henry’s second WrestleMania match in ten years with the company. Makes you think forces have conspired against him. Or maybe he’s just that bad?)
Street Fight: Shawn Michaels def. Vince McMahon in 18:28
(One of Vince’s most entertaining matches ever, and it’s fun to watch Shawn beat the hell out of him for about fifteen straight minutes. The highlight was Vince McMahon being stretchered out, giving Shawn the finger while near death and bloodied on the gurney. It’s worth watching for the belly laughs)
World Heavyweight Championship: Rey Mysterio def. Kurt Angle and Randy Orton in 9:18 to win the title
(All of that forced build with Guerrero’s exploitation for a nine minute match? And it didn’t even finish the show? Chavo and Vickie Guerrero coming out to celebrate with Rey just made a decent match muddled by a bad angle worse. I was just glad that the angle was finally over….sort of)
Playboy Pillow Fight: Torrie Wilson def. Candice Michelle in 3:54
(Much like the Booker/Sharmell/Boogeyman fiasco, the less said about this, the better)
WWE Heavyweight Championship: John Cena def. Triple H in 22:02
(Forget about the match, which was decent and enhanced by a virulently anti-Cena crowd. The highlight was Triple H making his entrance dressed as a Nordic barbarian, and Cena trying to suck up to Chicago with a fleet of faux gangsters while dressed like Al Capone. One of those gangsters was CM Punk, which begs the question: why would the straight-edge Punk associate with anti-prohibitionists?)
ITS PLACE IN HISTORY
Rey Mysterio, for his contributions to the business in terms of opening doors for smaller athletes to thrive on an international level, deserved very much to win a World Championship at an event the caliber of WrestleMania.
However, the ham-fisted, intelligence-insulting fashion in which WWE paved his road to said title will go down as perhaps the most jaw-droppingly insensitive booking that WWE has ever used to sell an event of WrestleMania’s standing.
I truly believe that, to this day, when WWE mentions Guerrero in reverent terms, or when they showcase him as part of a positive video package, it’s to deflect any negative thoughts one may have about the undignified manner in which Guerrero died, as well as to try and make fans forget about the horrible way in which WWE bungled the aftermath of his passing.
But Mysterio, Chavo, and Vickie to this day have more detractors than they’ve ever had, and much of it is kneejerk. Their direct involvement in a year (a YEAR) of exploitation is something that hasn’t washed off easily.
WrestleMania XXII was a decent show, one that is stained by feeling the need to tie in a real death to a fictional production.