In 2002, the WWE draft would have a major impact on WWE television. Gone were the days of competition from WCW. With the contracts of WCW talent being bought out by the WWE, it became apparent that all of these stars couldn’t possibly be given the chance to perform. With the entire roster working on all of the TV shows, there was little opportunity for lower-card talent to get an on-screen appearance on RAW or SmackDown! There was simply too big a roster to deal with. The WWE draft came up with a solution… split the roster down the middle creating two separate brands called RAW and SmackDown!
Another potential reason for the roster split was down to the ratings for RAW and SmackDown! taking a huge hit coming off the “Attitude Era”. According to Paul Heyman, who became the head writer of SmackDown! in 2002, SmackDown! was facing cancellation as the writing team was split up to serve both brands. Internally, all eyes were on RAW and Heyman’s job was to “take SmackDown! of their plate”. With the need to feature everybody and pressure on both WWE’s two flagship shows, the brand wars was on.
With all eyes on RAW, Paul Heyman was left with Stephanie McMahon to build up the stars that the “powers-that-be” didn’t see a lot of potential in. When the time was right, WWE could eventually pluck out these stars for their “flagship” show RAW. One of the first examples of this was when Chris Jericho was moved to RAW from SmackDown!, after finishing up a great rivalry with the up-and-comer Edge. Paul protested this move as Jericho was making Edge into a legitimate star on SmackDown! However, Heyman was offered a “compensation” for losing the main-event star Jericho. Heyman wanted Chris Benoit and Eddie Guerrero (who were, according to Heyman, the “nWo’s whipping boys” at the time on RAW) in exchange for losing Jericho. Heyman saw a lot of potential in Benoit and Guerrero, while the RAW writers didn’t. With the trade agreed and Benoit and Guerrero “stolen” by SmackDown! General Manager Stephanie McMahon, the table was set for Heyman to take these stars to the next level.
The funny thing about looking back at 2002 is the relaxed booking from Paul Heyman compared to the frankly desperate attempts for ratings on RAW. Heyman didn’t have to resort to featuring HLA or a storyline about necrophilia in order to grab ratings. All it took for Heyman was simple story-telling and build up which resulted in more eye balls watching SmackDown! to see the intensity of these stories build over time. And the reason that’s so funny is because NXT is trumping WWE’s flagship shows right now for the very simple reason. Why do you think the fans of Brooklyn went nuts for Bayley vs Sasha Banks at NXT TakeOver while they paid little attention to the Divas Revolution on Summerslam and RAW?
Heyman allowed the action in the ring to tell the stories for the viewers, and the viewers understood the story-telling very well. Michael Cole and Tazz didn’t need to talk about the storylines as much and could refocus the viewer’s attention to the match. That’s what made them such a great pairing.
Heyman’s most notable claim to fame as SmackDown! head writer was the introduction of the SmackDown! tag team division. RAW never really had a strong tag team division of it’s own at the time as it was mostly considered an after-thought by the writers. This was Heyman’s chance to seize the moment. With Guerrero and Benoit now apart of the roster and Rey Mysterio being brought into the company in July, Heyman could bring them together in a tag team environment in order to push them as singles stars. Rey Mysterio was teamed up with Edge, with the both of them being strong fan favourites and possessing a unique chemistry as a tag team. Eddie Guerrero was thrown into the mix too, with his nephew Chavo being promoted up to the main roster as well. These two tag teams naturally clicked together but what about Chris Benoit? Having just turned in face in mid-2002, who could Benoit team up with in this tag team division? Well, in a move that could benefit everyone, Paul decided to interject one of his main-eventers into that tag team scene to team with the “Rabid Wolverine”. That way, it would be more acceptable for all of these men to be featured in the main events on SmackDown! This main eventer… was Kurt Angle.
Chavo Guerrero vs Rey Mysterio in the main event of SmackDown! would have seemed a bit of a fantasy considering the stars like Brock Lesnar and Undertaker on the show. But Rey Mysterio vs KURT ANGLE would have worked as Kurt already had the star power to justify his position in the main event. Putting him up against Rey, Edge, Eddie or Chavo would also give them the main event spotlight too, resulting in the stock of all these men rising as individuals. That way, their rise to success as singles star moved along in a much faster rate in that tag team scenario.
It was truly masterful to see how Heyman used the tag team division as a means to get these six into the main events of SmackDown! From a business standpoint, the SmackDown! six delivered when it came to ratings and merchandise. There was heavy competition for SmackDown! at the time, including the final season of “Friends”. However, the ratings were holding and everybody in that tag team scenario benefited immensely. While RAW was up against the ropes, SmackDown! was pulling out all the punches.
The storyline itself was introduced when Stephanie McMahon announced a tag team tournament to crown the first ever WWE Tag Team Champions. Edge and Mysterio were partnered up and Eddie sided with Chavo. However, Stephanie McMahon also decreed that Chris Benoit and Kurt Angle would be a tag team in the tournament too. This wound up both men as they had been feuding at that point. Stephanie ruled that Kurt and Benoit would be suspended for a year without pay if there were any physicality between them. However, Benoit and Angle proved to be a formidable tag team. Despite their differences, they were able to make it to the final by defeating Los Guerreros. At No Mercy, Benoit and Angle defeated Edge and Mysterio in the final to become the first ever WWE Tag Team Champions.
Angle and Benoit would be presented with a trophy to commemorate their tournament win. However, things would break down after Angle and Benoit began arguing about who was the “captain” of the team. This would lead to Stephanie being accidentally smacked in the face with the trophy. Stephanie responded by slapping both men and booking a match for them to settle their differences “the old fashioned way”. However, Los Guerreros would get involved which led to further brawling later that night. Edge and Rey Mysterio were able to capitalize on Angle and Benoit’s troubles, winning a 2 out of 3 falls tag match on SmackDown! to win the tag titles. This led to a triple threat tag team match at Survivor Series between Edge and Mysterio, Benoit and Angle and Los Guerreros for the tag titles. The Guerreros finally got the job done, winning the match and the titles.
Each of these men would go on to establish themselves as singles stars and all of these men would end up winning world titles later on in their careers. Kurt Angle had already been a WWE Championship before the “SmackDown! Six” but did go on to win the WWE Championship again just a month later at Armageddon. Chris Benoit and Eddie Guerrero won world championships in 2004, with the two of them closing out Wrestlemania XX as World Heavyweight Champion and WWE Champion respectively. Edge and Rey Mysterio would win their first world titles in 2006 and Chavo Guerrero would win the ECW Championship in 2008.
It seems then that Heyman succeeded in elevating all six of these men as singles stars, after grouping them as tag teams first in the tag team division. This was one of those eras in wrestling when tag team wrestling was at its finest. True competition put together with a simple and logical storyline to help elevate the importance of the championship and the tag teams competing for the gold. Heyman’s had a lot of successes as a writer, but the “SmackDown! Six” era was Heyman’s finest hour…