With Batista going into the Hall of Fame, John Cena now generally recognized as a good wrestler, and Edge back in the ring, it’s not surprising that WWE has decided to start capitalizing on nostalgia for the Ruthless Aggression era. The company is releasing a five-episode documentary series about its period between 2002 and 2008, from the company changing its name to the death of Chris Benoit, on the WWE Network. While there are plenty of interesting things to explore from this era, last night’s premiere makes it seem like WWE Ruthless Aggression will be just another attempt by WWE to mythologize part of its past, at the expense of creating a series that’s informative or entertaining.
Figuring out how to spin the Ruthless Aggression era was probably more difficult for WWE than deciding on an angle for the more lucrative Attitude Era of the late 1990s or the Rock ‘N’ Wrestling days of the 1980s. While 2002-2008 included some fantastic matches and storylines and a variety of performers doing great work, these years also included plenty of terrible angles and saw WWE’s ratings and cultural relevance decline drastically. And of course, the PG era didn’t start just because the company felt it needed a new creative direction; it was because WWE needed to do dramatic damage control after the double murder-suicide of Chris Benoit and the subsequent conversation about pro wrestling, steroids, and CTE.
As someone who was a mainly Smackdown-viewing kid during the Ruthless Aggression era, talking about this time period without Benoit, and therefore without really talking about Smackdown 6 or the full context of WrestleMania XX doesn’t ring true to me. The legacy of this era is as much about the successes and deaths of Benoit and Eddie Guerrero as it is the rises of Cena and Batista, but the illegitimate legacy WWE attempts to create in Ruthless Aggression just frames these years as the company trying to create competition within itself after it conquered its real competition, with no reference yet to why people aren’t still cutting promos about “ruthless aggression” (and definitely not “toothless aggression“) today. (There’s also a lot to unpack about the company’s treatment of women during this period, but so far it doesn’t seem like the Divas will be mentioned in this series aside from incidentally.)
With WWE refusing to acknowledge key aspects of this era or even why it ends when it does, Ruthless Aggression‘s first episode is full of holes and missing much new information or entertainment value. The most notable thing about this episode is just how many falsehoods WWE packs into forty-one minutes. This article doesn’t fact-check every statement in the series premiere, but it breaks down some of its most glaring misrepresentations of WWE history.
Late ’90s Attitude
The timeline of the first episode of Ruthless Aggression is all over the place, sometimes in ways that you can quickly disprove by looking up the easily available dates of when things happened and sometimes when discussing general trends. One example of this is when presenting the creative problem of how WWE’s edgy, late-nineties attitude started to feel “outdated and forced” soon after the turn of the century.
Two creative team members, Brian Gewirtz and Bruce Prichard, are frequent talking heads in this episode, and statements by the former usually seem much more legitimate than those from the latter. For example, Gewirtz, a former WWE writer who now works for The Rock’s Seven Bucks Productions, says WWE “went through a phase of trying to keep our edge as long as we possibly could,” but “it wasn’t, like, organically edgy.” This feels like it describes what actually happened in a pretty normal way. In contrast, Prichard, the current Executive Director of Smackdown sounds like he’s trying to minimize any fault on the WWE’s part whenever he talks in this documentary, including when he says the forced edginess “is what led to maybe a little bit more rapid decline in interest.” (I got really sick of Bruce Prichard about two-thirds of the way through this episode.) Ruthless Aggression seems to say that out-of-touch forced-edge was a problem for WWE specifically right after the Attitude Era, but the company has arguably never gotten back in touch.
Another, more obvious avoidance of addressing creative failure on WWE’s part is Ruthless Aggression’s presentation of the WWE vs. WCW invasion angle (there’s no mention of the role of ECW here at all.) The invasion angle didn’t work, according to this episode, because of a lack of star power. Many top WCW stars had contracts with AOL/Time Warner that WWE thought it would cost an “unreasonable” (Prichard’s word) amount of money to buy out. The implied blame here is on these contracts for existing. That WWE was unwilling to invest financially in making the invasion angle as exciting as they could is not presented one of the possible reasons it was a let-down.
The documentary’s point that many of the WCW wrestlers they acquired (because they weren’t willing to spend enough money to bring in top stars at the ideal moment) just weren’t credible as threats to WWE’s top stars is valid. However, it’s presented as if WWE’s booking played no role in the WCW guys looking like chumps. When The Rock dumped Shawn Stasiak over the top rope with almost no effort, this was not a shoot! And while legitimate stars like Booker T and DDP are shown, there’s no explanation that these guys were not chumps and that they eventually found some success in WWE. There’s also no talk of what happened when guys like Golberg and Scott Steiner did end up joining the company, though it’s possible that’s being saved for a later episode.
The issue of the lack of star power in WWE after the Attitude Era is a recurring one in this episode, and the narrative about it not cohesive, even putting the screwy stuff about the invasion angle aside. After a shot of Rock vs. Hogan at WrestleMania 18, the narration tells us that “the WCW legends [the NWO] provided a short-term shot of adrenaline, but it was a handful of WWE stars who actually carried the company forward.”
The people in that “handful” mentioned by name are Kurt Angle, the Undertaker, and Triple H, with no acknowledgment that Triple H’s initial run as a top guy basically proved that he wasn’t on the level of Rock or Austin. Even more notably, there’s no mention of another top star of this period, Chris Jericho. Triple H is shown becoming the undisputed WWE champion, but the viewer barely sees who he pins to win this title, and Ruthless Aggression never states that Jericho was the first Undisputed Champion. Gewirtz briefly mentions Jericho later, but his impact is mostly scrubbed. Along with Dean Ambrose not being shown on a recent graphic about Seth Rollins’ tag team championship wins, this is an example of WWE attempting to scrub wrestlers who went All Elite out of its history, with the removal of Jericho here the most glaring so far.
Another star-centric part of the episode, the section about Steve Austin walking out of WWE, feels like it gets closer to reality, and shows a glimpse of a documentary about the Ruthless Aggression era worth watching. Austin puts his own spin on his tales from his wrestling days, but he’s such a compelling storyteller that this is much easier to swallow coming from him than from narrator Michael Rappaport, who sounds like he doesn’t know what a “brand split” is the first time he has to talk about why it was a genius creative decision.
Austin claiming he only had a problem with the idea of Brock Lesnar beating him in King of the Ring because it had no build and didn’t make “business sense” to him doesn’t ring completely true, but the way Stone Cold talks about his frustrations with the WWE creative team and says he was “beat to shreds and drinking a lot… the train was about to go off the track” is a rare statement in this episode that seems fueled by raw human emotion. But as people watching wrestling at this time will likely recognize, Ruthless Aggression‘s story of Austin leaving WWE is far from unfiltered. Any good, in-depth documentary about this incident wouldn’t just stop following Austin’s story right after he no-showed and would mention his alleged domestic violence incident that took place days later.
Ultimately, WWE ends its Austin narrative with Pritchard explaining that McMahon was hurt that Austin never gave him the opportunity to solve their issues and a clip of McMahon saying Austin “took his ball and went home,” a phrase that reentered WWE fan discourse last year when it exposed that Seth Rollins was parroting Vince’s talking points while doing PR work; he used the same phrase about the former Dean Ambrose early in the tanking of his popularity as a babyface.
If the way this company scrubs the histories of wrestlers here (the kayfabe pasts of those WWE is not friendly with and the shoot ones of those it is) feels typical, the way they discuss the fans seems even more so. Austin leaving with his ball isn’t the end of the blame game. When discussing how attendance declined after the departures of Rock and Austin, Prichard says that WWE’s sponsors were more patient than the fans during this time. “They wanted their Austins, they wanted their Rocks, they wanted their big stars, and they weren’t as patient,” Prichard says in a tone that makes it sound like we’re supposed to think it was a moral failing of casual wrestling viewers to stop giving WWE as much of their money when it was no longer as entertaining to them.
Gewirtz presents the situation in a way that makes more sense to human beings who know that no one on earth has any obligation to be loyal to WWE or any TV show or entertainment: “It’s not easy on any television show, taking the two best characters and writing them off.” More of this attitude and less of companies and performers acting like victims when fans act even slightly different then they have been would make wrestling so much easier to engage with, probably make wrestling shows better, and maybe even make wrestling seem more like something that people are even allowed to interact with as casual fans.
Throughout the Ruthless Aggression premiere, there’s a recurring question of how WWE is going to get its lapsed fans back and how it’s going to get its business back to where it was and become as culturally relevant as it was in the Attitude Era. Maybe the series finale will have some kind of answer for this, but so far WWE has stopped short of acknowledging that it has yet to be as relevant or successful as it was in the late 1990s. Things like the first brand split and the company’s name change (more on that in a second) are presented like ingenious solutions to its problems, but it’s easy to see that many of the company’s problems mentioned in Ruthless Aggression – too many wrestlers on its roster and not enough opportunities, creative stagnation in the absence of real competition, inability to connect to more mainstream pop culture, a negative relationship with its fans – still exist today.
Get The F Out
The ballsiest and most unbelievable lie in this episode by far is about when the company changed its name from the World Wrestling Federation to World Wrestling Entertainment. The real-life explanation for this is pretty widely known, one of those pieces of wrestling trivia even some people who don’t watch wrestling know about because it was a huge news story at the time, and such a weird one.
The May 7, 2002, edition of The New York Times starts its story about the WWF becoming WWE with the sentence, “The Federation is dead, pinned in the legal ring by a conservation-minded panda.” The World Wildlife Fund for Nature successfully took the World Wrestling Federation to court for its use of the acronym “W.W.F.” and the McMahons decided to change the company name to WWE. They spun this as not just the result of a successful lawsuit, but the adoption of a more accurate name for the company, with Linda McMahon telling the Times that “The W.W.E. really says that we’re in a niche, with the wrestling, but the name reflects that we’re in the entertainment world, with our publishing, movies and other things.”
But despite the truth of how WWE began being very easy to find, the first episode of the Ruthless Aggression series does not mention the WWF (the one that still uses that acronym today). There’s also no mention of when the company changed its name, and it’s heavily implied that the name change took place as the company was trying to find a new direction after the departures of Rock and Austin when in reality, Austin walked out on WWE a month after it changed its name, in June 2002.
The new history of the Ruthless Aggression era that WWE is attempting to create introduces the company’s name change by showing Vince McMahon acknowledging that things are “in a state of flux” on an episode of Byte This, then Michael Rappaport declaring that “shortly thereafter, the company was reimagined and rebranded in typical McMahon fashion,” then clips of the “Get the F Out” commercials. Narration calls these videos “beginning the process of moving in a new direction,” with no acknowledgment that this new direction was prompted by the company being bodied in court by a conservation organization.
The way this WWE Network documentary spins the beginning of World Wrestling Entertainment might be the most blatant lie I’ve ever heard this company tell. There is no good excuse for it at all, especially when the truth is so widely known.
Overall, almost none of the first episode of Ruthless Aggression is worth watching for people looking to learn more about this time period. It’s most interesting when it feels less like a documentary and more like watching a pathological liar lie while under oath, somehow not knowing that everyone in the courtroom has seen concrete evidence that disproves what he’s saying. But it seems WWE must know the facts about this era are easily available, which makes this episode as much an insult as a lie. More than a legitimate documentary, Ruthless Aggression is an insult by WWE to its own history, its performers, and its fans.