With the 1000th episode of RAW on the horizon, many fans are looking back and remembering their favourite moments from the shows history. There is nothing we like better on this blog than a bit of nostalgia, and the original plan was to adapt the Matches from History format to look at my favourite bout from over the years. The more I browsed YouTube though and tried to settle on just one, the harder I found it; there are far too many examples to pick just one, and it felt as futile as trying to select one classic album or one most beloved movie. Instead I decided to use this as an opportunity to revisit the period of RAW’s amazing run that I have the fondest memories of, and select three matches I feel represent it best.
Running from April 2nd 2001 until early July (the start of the Invasion, and the beginning of the end for me), every episode seemed bursting with an excitement and energy that has never been recaptured since. So let’s start at the top…
The Day After
As stated above, this illustrious era began on April 2nd 2001, the day after Wrestlemania X-Seven, a PPV still regarded by many as the greatest ever. Steve Austin turned heel in the main event, excepting help from long-time nemesis Vince McMahon in defeating The Rock for the WWF Championship. Although on the night you couldn’t really tell from the partisan Texas audience reaction to Austin, Stone Cold made plain his new allegiance with Vince was permanent and there would be no about turn (The Rattlesnake did cleverly tease one mind you). The Rock, incensed by the turn of events, demanded his rematch for the title, and was given it in a Cage match at the end of the show.
The first of my three bouts, it deserves special mention as is often forgotten in the Stone Cold Vs The Rock series. Like all their match-ups, it is intense from the get go, with both men brawling around the ring, and Stone Cold is busted open before they even enter the cage. Once they do, the already crazy crowd volume escalates. Austin takes charge briefly before Rocky manages to slap on the sharpshooter. Stone Cold taps but McMahon distracts the referee. The Rock then hits the Peoples Elbow and the pin, but Vince drags the ref out before the three count. When the ref re-enters, the Rock hits the Rock Bottom, but Vince again interjects and knocks out the ref, creating another electric near-fall. By this point, the crowd is absolutely nuts and solidly behind The Rock. Austin though regains the advantage with a low-blow, and he and Vince begin a two-on-one beat-down of The Great One. Just when the odds seem insurmountable, HHH’s music hits; The Game had teased dissension earlier in the show, seemingly pissed that his father in law had aligned himself with Hunter’s most hated enemy (HHH and Stone Colds epic feud had ended only about 6 weeks before at No Way Out). The crowd pops HUGE for Helmsley, but it is revealed as a swerve when he engages in a stare-down with Austin, before bashing The Rock with his sledgehammer, thus setting up the Two Man Power Trip tag team.
Overall, this was an edge-of-your-seat thriller, even with most people knowing Rocky was leaving to film a movie and couldn’t really win. The audience may never have been behind The Rock more, and I’m convinced that had he stayed around and continued his battles with Stone Cold, then the fans may have eventually accepted Austin as a heel, to The Rock’s super-over face. Without that definitive baby-face opposition, the fans never really took to heel Austin in the way WWE would have liked.
The Brothers of Destruction Vs Two Man Power Trip
With The Rock now out of the picture, and HHH, Stone Cold and Vince in cahoots, the three of them began throwing their weight and power about, brutally attacking wrestlers including the Hardy Boyz and even Lita. HHH also gained the Intercontinental Championship from Y2J due to interference, making the duo double champs (The Game also briefly lost it and regained it from Jeff Hardy, but the less said about that debacle, the better). Tag Team Champions Kane and The Undertaker were not prepared to stand for it and stood up to the Two Man Power, calling them out and challenging them to a bout at Backlash, where all the titles would be on the line.
To build heat for this encounter, on the RAW before Backlash 2001, Mick Foley as the departing commissioner booked an 8 man Tag Team match in the main event; pitting Stone Cold, HHH and Edge & Christian Vs Undertaker, Kane and the Hardy Boyz.
Viewed now, this battle seems relatively short but is very action packed. There is always something happening, in seemingly every part of the screen, and despite its brief length, they do manage to tell a decent story, with Kane being the target due to his injured arm. After the initially flurry, everyone moves to their corner, and the heel take the advantage by isolating Kane and working over his arm. It must said, the Big Red Machine does a great sell job, and these few months probably saw the big man at the peak of his abilities. After many attempts to get back to his side, with the crowd noise rising each time, Kane finally gets the tag to Matt Hardy. Soon after, all hell breaks loose again, and Undertaker manages to hit a choke-slam on HHH, looking to enable Matt to pick up the win. Taker is pulled out of the ring soon after by E & C though, and Austin sneaks in, delivers a Stunner to Hardy, and allows the Game to get the winning fall.
What probably stands out most to me about this battle, even after all these years, is how big and momentous the match seems. I can’t remember the last time I saw a RAW main event that had an atmosphere anything like this. The audience is going ape-shit from start to finish and every single participant is incredibly over. They all appear thoroughly energised as well, something that also seems lacking in the performers today.
The ultimate feel-good victory on RAW
Sadly, The Brothers of Destruction lost their gold at Backlash, but their rivalry with Austin and HHH continued. Kane regained some revenge for them after beating HHH for the Intercontinental Title in a Chain Match at Judgment Day 2001. Undertaker would also continue his battles with Austin, but was never able to relieve him of the WWE Championship. Also at the Judgment Day PPV, Chris Jericho and Chris Benoit, once bitter rivals, won a Tag Team Turmoil match to become the No. 1 contenders for the WWE tag titles. They immediately challenged Stone Cold and HHH the next night on RAW, and in doing so had one of the most absorbing and heated bouts in WWE history.
From the get go, the pace is pretty relentless; all four work incredibly hard to get the crowd into it. Y2J and Benoit take the advantage in the early going, seemingly one step ahead of the Two Man Power Trip, before Austin and Hunter manage to isolate Benoit. The Rabid Wolverine does his best to get to Jericho but keeps getting cut off, whilst the audience roots harder and harder for them. In one particularly tense moment, Y2J makes the tag, but the ref is distracted by the Game and does not see it, much to the crowds chagrin. Thanks to a well placed top rope drop-kick, Benoit finally does tag Jericho in and he proceeds to dominate both guys. He locks in the Wall of Jericho on Austin, at which point live audience practically has a mass embolism. HHH makes the save though, and tears his quad in the process. Ever the professional, Hunter continues the match and even lets Jericho put in him the Walls on the announce table as planned.
As that happens outside the ring, Benoit hits the diving head butt on Austin, but the ref is distracted by the commotion outside. As Benoit calls for the ref, Stone Cold recovers and hits the Stunner on Benoit. Just before the ref can count three, Jericho pulls him from the ring, in a fall so close, it possibly caused some hearts to stop. Y2J then hits the Lionsault on Austin, as the game appears in view with the sledgehammer. He goes to strike Jericho as he pins Stone Cold, but Jericho dodges and the Game bashes Austin instead. As Benoit takes HHH down, Jericho scores the insanely popular win. In this moment, the fans finally get to see HHH and Austin get their comeuppance after months of dominating the rest of the roster.
This match, from start to finish, had not just me but my whole family who were watching too, right on the edge of their seat; the eventual pin-fall and victory for the ultimate under-dogs had us pumping the air with joy and elation. In all my time watching RAW live on SKY, no single moment ever put a bigger smile on my face.
From here, RAW overall started to go down-hill for me; it remained mostly decent (if uneven) throughout the Invasion story-line, but once that was over, it never seemed to regain the same momentum and never really thrilled again in quite the same way. Within two years of the Tag Team Championship match, I’d stopped watching RAW regularly, and within three, I’d stopped altogether. As much as I still find WWE entertaining today, I’ve not been devoted to it in the same way, and it is my belief that in terms of pure entertainment, it will never reach the lofty peaks of early 2001 again.