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2003 OO YEAR IN REVIEW: THE CIRCA EDITION
Some Love for Kurt....
But Even More for Lesnar!
December 26, 2003

by Denny Burkholder
Exclusive to OnlineOnslaught.com, Courtesy of NCAASports.com

 

When Rick Scaia sent out the invites for the OnlineOnslaught.com VERY BEST OF 2003 awards, I jumped at the chance to participate. I'm sure The Rick appreciates it, too, since I've dicked him over on fresh Circa content for about the past year and a half. Hey Rick, if you're reading this, I've got a new one on the way next week.

HAR! Yeah, right - like editors ever read the slop their writers send them.

2003 has been a tumultuous year for this lifelong wrestling fan, including such events as a return to journalism full-time (www.NCAAsports.com - *thumbs up!*), my engagement to a great girl, and a return to South Florida from upstate New York (have fun shoveling, a-holes!). But I still found time to follow "THE BIZ," as us IWC SUPERSTARS call it. Here are the damages:

THE VERY BEST OF 2003

BEST WRESTLER OF THE YEAR: Brock Lesnar
1st Runner-Up: Kurt Angle
2nd Runner-Up: Shawn Michaels

Comments: Brock Lesnar became the total package in 2003. Lesnar has the technical skill to exchange holds with Angle and Benoit, the power to toss Big Show through the air repeatedly, the versatility to play a convincing heel OR babyface, and improved acting and speaking skills. Lesnar main-evented all year and avoided serious injury, despite some very close calls. He was in the middle of at least a few genuine "holy shit" moments. And best of all, he's still improving. Brock Lesnar gets the nod for 2003's best wrestler, overall.

Kurt Angle was also stellar in 2003. Where Angle really improved over previous years was in getting fans to believe him as not just a world-class athlete or a main event level wise guy, but both, in equally potent does. And as improbable as it might have sounded three years ago, Shawn Michaels supplied some of 2003's best performances in the ring, despite age and health concerns. HBK proved he's still worthy of occupying the upper card, and outperformed a lot of WWE's young talent.

BEST TAG TEAM OF THE YEAR: Charlie Haas & Shelton Benjamin
1st Runner-Up: Los Guerreros
2nd Runner-Up: The Dudley Boys

Comments: "The World's Greatest Tag Team" has been a pleasure to watch in 2003. Haas and Benjamin are credible as technical wrestlers, which is a big plus. Also, they look the part of a tag team, and not just a couple of guys thrown together for lack of a better idea (see Hurricane and Rosey). They went hold for hold with Los Guerreros and held up their end of the match each time. Both Haas and Benjamin ought to be valuable to WWE for years to come, as a tag team or otherwise.

Eddie and Chavo Guerrero were fantastic in 2003. I give TWGTT the edge in this category because Eddie Guerrero was established as a singles superstar before "Los Guerreros," while Haas and Bejamin have established themselves in WWE exclusively as a great tag team, with no WWE backstory prior to Team Angle. The Dudley Boys undeniably have lots of fans, and have made the best of a nearly flatlined RAW tag team scene. They spent the bulk of 2003 feuding with teams the fans don't care about, and still remained popular.

BEST FEMALE PERFORMER OF THE YEAR: Molly Holly
1st Runner-Up: Trish Stratus
2nd Runner-Up: Victoria

Comments: It's no secret that Molly Holly is more talented than WWE lets on. She is the best pure wrestler of the WWE "Divas" - a group that has become more ring savvy over the years. She plays a great heel. She's pretty without being impossibly Barbie-girl gorgeous. Now that the Divas roster includes Victoria, Jazz, and a much-improved Trish Stratus, we're finally seeing how good Molly can be.

Trish Stratus began in WWE as one of those impossibly Barbie-girl gorgeous Divas mentioned above. She rarely stepped into the ring, and stunk it up when she did. My, how times have changed. Now, Trish can work a solid match, and finally has interesting heel Divas to work against. And she's STILL impossibly gorgeous, despite wrestling full-time and taking frequent bumps. Victoria may have the best character of all the Divas, and she certainly backs it up with ring presence. If not for Victoria being hampered by injuries and booking, she might have taken the top spot.

BEST FEUD OF THE YEAR: Kurt Angle vs. Brock Lesnar
1st Runner-Up: Chris Jericho vs. Shawn Michaels
2nd Runner-Up: Eddie Guerrero vs. John Cena

Comments: Angle vs. Lesnar at WrestleMania was everything it was hyped up to be, despite Angle's neck injury. The year began with the buildup to that match, and ever since, Brock Lesnar and Kurt Angle have been the staples of the Smackdown upper card. They even switched places as heel/babyface after a brief storyline friendship. Angle/Lesnar was the birth of another classic rivalry that will hopefully continue for years.

HBK and Jericho brought out the best in each other, and their WrestleMania XIX bout was one of the first non-HHH matches where Michaels proved he still had plenty of great wrestling left in him. It was a dream feud for many, and between the intense promos and the ring work, the feud was a lot of fun to watch. John Cena's feud with Eddie Guerrero featured Cena's most entertaining microphone work to that point, and provided Cena the platform on which he started to really get over.

BEST MATCH OF THE YEAR: Kurt Angle vs. Chris Benoit, Royal Rumble
1st Runner-Up: Kurt Angle vs. Brock Lesnar, Wrestlemania XIX
2nd Runner-Up: Eddie Guerrero vs. Chris Benoit, Vengeance

Comments: Angle vs. Benoit was a classic exhibition of pure pro wrestling. It featured some of the most inventive reversals in recent memory from two tremendous athletes. Why don't I own this on DVD yet?

I went over Angle vs. Lesnar at length above, but here, I will say it was a fantastic climax to their feud. Lesnar's botched shooting star press almost ended an excellent match on a tragic note. But then again, had Brock nailed the shooting star perfectly, we'd all be saying what a great finish it was, so I guess you take the good with the bad. Eddie Guerrero vs. Benoit at Vengeance was vintage ring work from these two, with the added kick of Eddie's reinvigorated "Cheat to Win" persona to spice things up.

MOST FAVORITE PERFORMER OF THE YEAR: Kurt Angle
1st Runner-Up: John Cena
2nd Runner-Up: Ric Flair

Comments: I distance this category from "Wrestler of the Year" by giving myself permission to mark out for anything – a great move, a clever joke, or anything else that entertains me. That's how I rationalize Kurt Angle getting the nod and Brock Lesnar not even placing. For every time Brock Lesnar wrestled a great match, Kurt Angle wrestled a great match AND cut a great promo. My bottom line is this: I am more likely to drop what I'm doing to watch Kurt Angle than any other performer this year.

As for John Cena, I enjoy watching a wrestler on his way to big things, and right now, that's Cena. We witnessed a superstar in the making in 2003. He found a distinct voice as a character and held his own in the ring. And as an old school aficionado, it is always a treat to watch Ric Flair, even at an advanced age.


THE OTHER BEST OF 2003

BEST TECHNICAL WRESTLER: Kurt Angle
1st Runner-Up: Eddie Guerrero
2nd Runner-Up: Chris Benoit

Comments: Angle edges out the extremely capable Benoit/Guerrero duo, mostly for his ability to modify his attack, which probably comes from his accomplished amateur background. Eddie Guerrero and Chris Benoit get bogged down into the same moves (rolling Germans/rolling verts) slightly more often than Angle does. Still, all three are brilliant in the ring.

BEST HIGH FLYER: Rey Mysterio
1st Runner-Up: Paul London
2nd Runner-Up: Sonjay Dutt

Comments: Rey Rey has yet to duplicate his most impressive WCW work, and perhaps never will in WWE. But Rey Mysterio at 80 percent of his capabilities can still fly with the best of them. Paul London should be headed for big things if he can remain injury-free and get some booking behind him. Sonjay Dutt was very impressive the first time I saw him in MLW, and he's been increasing his stock steadily this year.

BEST BRAWLER/POWER WRESTLER: Brock Lesnar
1st Runner-Up: The Undertaker
2nd Runner-Up: The Big Show

Comments: If we separated this category into Best Brawler and Best Power Wrestler, I'd probably split the awards between The Undertaker and Brock Lesnar, respectively. But as for which guy combines the two most effectively, the nod has to go to Brock Lesnar. When I think of "power," I think of Brock tossing The Big Show around like nobody else ever has. When I think of brawling – in 2003 WWE, at least – I think of a guy who can make the best of a gimmick match like Hell in a Cell or the Elimination Chamber, and work the most entertaining club-the-hell-out-of-my-opponent match. Both Brock and the Dead Man achieved that this year. Big Show's matches against Lesnar are some of the only Big Show matches I've every enjoyed.

BEST INTERVIEWS: Ric Flair
1st Runner-Up: John Cena
2nd Runner-Up: Chris Jericho

Comments: "The Nature Boy" just knows how to cut a great promo. Thankfully, WWE gave him plenty of opportunities to do that this year, and the RAW product was much better with Flair having a mic in his hand. John Cena's "freestyles" were at times very funny and brash, and helped Cena become one of Smackdown's must-watch talents. Jericho, like Flair, is a natural, and the Highlight Reel segment on RAW only proved that further, giving Y2J a chance to advance not just his own storylines, but those of other wrestlers, simply by being a great speaker.

BEST HEEL: Brock Lesnar
1st Runner-Up: Chris Jericho
2nd Runner-Up: Kane

Comments: A great heel needs to have a vicious streak, chemistry with the top babyfaces, and an air of being unstoppable, if not unbeatable (there is a difference). Brock Lesnar showed all three, working smooth matches with nearly every major babyface on the Smackdown roster, while bullying Zach Gowen and Paul London, and returning for more victims even after losing in the ring to Angle or Benoit. Chris Jericho's supreme "dick move" of attacking HBK after their WrestleMania XIX match alone gets him on this list, while Kane, poor booking/workrate or not, certainly accomplished the transition back from babyface to monster heel.

BEST BABYFACE: Kurt Angle
1st Runner-Up: Rey Mysterio
2nd Runner-Up: Undertaker

Comments: As far as doing the best job winning – and keeping – the approval of the fans on the highest possible level, I have to give Kurt Angle the award this year. Admittedly, this was a weak year for top-draw babyfaces, as guys like Goldberg fell short of their expected popularity, while the old standbys weren't connecting with fans any more than usual. Rey Mysterio's merchandising alone indicates that he's got plenty of paying fans. As for The Undertaker, his enduring popularity is most visible at a live show. The Dead Man still pops the crowd, and that's the most basic – and telling – measure of a babyface's success.

BEST CHARACTER/GIMMICK: John Cena
1st Runner-Up: Matt Hardy v. 1.0
2nd Runner-Up: Evolution

Comments: John Cena's gimmick is the only example in 2003 of a guy being elevated almost entirely on the strength of a gimmick that brought out his personality. Matt Hardy has definitely come along well with "VEE ONE-AHH!" and if only the bookers would get behind him, he could take it to the next level in 2004. Evolution, even if it is formulaic and derivative, has served its purpose well, and has given RAW more top-level heels to keep track of than just Triple H. Without the Evolution stable, it's hard to imagine Randy Orton being in as good a position as he is, or Ric Flair being as productive a performer on a weekly basis.

MOST IMPROVED WRESTLER: John Cena
1st Runner-Up: Randy Orton
2nd Runner-Up: Charlie Haas

Comments: John Cena's "World Life" gimmick stole the show for Cena this year, but in all the fuss, it was easy to overlook that Cena has evolved in the ring as well. He's not a technical wizard, but Cena has become well-rounded enough to warrant his position on the roster. Randy Orton has worked hard at living up to the push he's been given, and the "Legend Killer" looks fine against some of RAW's better workers. Perhaps most important of all, Orton now carries himself as a main eventer, which goes far in helping fans believe that he belongs in a top spot. Charlie Haas has benefited greatly from working closely with Shelton Benjamin, Kurt Angle, Eddie Guerrero, and other skilled wrestlers this year.

MOST UNDERRATED WRESTLER: Matt Hardy
1st Runner-Up: Rico
2nd Runner-Up: Spanky

Comments: Hardy might have spent a little too long in the tag team doledrums with Jeff, but he's broken out as a solid, watchable singles star. He's become an entertaining heel. He makes his opponents look good. So why the lack of interest in Hardy from the WWE bookers? This guy could be a solid main eventer with the right planning. Rico has innovative moves, a natural flair for entertaining an audience, and is a fine athlete. At this point, I have to think it's his age or his oddball gimmick (neither of which are his fault) that keeps bookers and fans alike from thinking more highly of him. Spanky is an amazing cruiserweight talent that has proven he can be funny and likeable in promos and vignettes, and could be a big asset if WWE found something for him to do.

BEST SECOND: Ric Flair
1st Runner-Up: Stacy Keibler
2nd Runner-Up: Shaniqua

Comments: Ric Flair has been a full-time wrestler, more or less, on RAW. But his key function in Evolution is as a mentor figure and a foil outside the ring to help his team win matches, and he was excellent in both aspects this year. Stacy Keibler was about as productive as a WWE Diva can be without knowing how to wrestle. Shaniqua has found herself a gimmick and a voice this year, both of which ought to give her more staying power while the Tough Enough champ keeps working on her wrestling ability.

BEST TELEVISION PERSONALITY: Mick Foley
1st Runner-Up: Eric Bischoff
2nd Runner-Up:
Paul Heyman

Comments: He was only back for a small part of 2003, but Mrs. Foley's baby boy was the same old Mick on RAW, and that was a very good thing. You can't teach someone to have the kind of personality Mick Foley has, and for that reason, he will always be a one-of-a-kind performer. Bischoff continues to entertain as a heel GM, even under the worst booking circumstances. Paul Heyman's involvement was limited in 2003, but like Foley, his personality is unique, and his presence makes WWE TV more enjoyable.

"HOLY SHIT" MOMENT OF THE YEAR: Brock Lesnar and Big Show break the ring on Smackdown!
1st Runner-Up: Brock Lesnar nearly snaps his own neck attempting a shooting star press at WrestleMania XIX
2nd Runner-Up: Roddy Piper attacks Hulk Hogan at WrestleMania XIX

Comments: For all three of these incidents, I think I actually spoke the words, "HOLY SHIT." Pretty simple criteria, huh? Big Show and Brock Lesnar collapsing the ring was dramatic from the second they began climbing the turnbuckles, and ought to remain a favorite on the WWE highlight reel for years to come. Add that to Lesnar's headfirst spike into the mat during his first WrestleMania appearance, and BROCK LESNAR+TOP ROPE MOVES=BAD. And Roddy Piper's attack on Hulk Hogan at the PPV they helped put on the map was definitely unexpected, and for old school value, a pleasant surprise.

FUNNIEST MOMENT OF THE YEAR: Kurt Angle/Brian Hebner rap against John Cena
1st Runner-Up: Rock and Hurricane exchange words on RAW
2nd Runner-Up: Eddie Guerrero cheats to win

Comments: The hip hop stylings of John Cena were funny, but who knew that referee Brian Hebner could beat box? On the other hand, EVERYONE knew Kurt Angle was game for a little song-and-dance buffoonery, and the three of them made for a hilarious segment on Smackdown. The Rock was golden in his series of backstage vignettes with The Hurricane, in which the pair argued about the merits of a Scorpion King vs. Hurricane Super-Showdown. Creativity was key for Eddie Guerrero's cheating antics, which focused more on outsmarting or embarrassing the opponent or referee, often without laying a finger on either man.

BEST WRESTLING SHOW: SmackDown!
1st Runner-Up: RAW
2nd Runner-Up: Confidential

Comments: Smackdown was much more consistent with great wrestling matches, laugh-out-loud moments (although thanks to The Rock, Mick Foley, and Stone Cold Steve Austin, RAW competes well in that category), and entertainment from the top of the card to the bottom. RAW seemed to suffer in the tag team ranks, and with some lethargic talent getting TV time (Mark Henry). Confidential put out some very watchable shows this year, and gave me a reason to check the TV listings – and set the recorder – on Saturday night.

BEST MAJOR EVENT: WWE WrestleMania XIX
1st Runner-Up: WWE Vengeance
2nd Runner-Up: WWE Survivor Series

Comments: WrestleMania has a head start on other PPVs by virtue of getting the flagship event treatment, with bigger hype, more pyro, and an overall feel of a huge event. Add on some surprises, some great wrestling, and all the big names you can handle, and WrestleMania XIX got the job done. Vengeance was the best of the rest, featuring some of the greatest pure wrestling on PPV all year. Survivor Series rounds out the top three on the strength of a couple of great performances and some relatively smart booking.

BREAK-OUT PERFORMER OF THE YEAR: John Cena
1st Runner-Up: Randy Orton
2nd Runner-Up: Chavo Guerrero

Comments: If you're looking for the one guy who sealed his chance at stardom in 2003, it's John Cena. Randy Orton climbed the ladder as well, but spent the year slowly positioning himself for a big 2004. Cena dabbled in main events on the strength of his own character, whereas Orton had a lot of help from his association with HHH to get his name into the upper card. Chavo Guerrero, with help from Uncle Eddie, showed more character and had greater involvement than at any other point during his WWE stay.

BREAK-OUT PERFORMER OF NEXT YEAR: Randy Orton
1st Runner-Up: Matt Hardy
2nd Runner-Up: Paul London

Comments: For reasons explained above, I think Randy Orton's stock will continue to rise in 2004, if he can remain injury-free. I continue to hold out hope that WWE will finally give Matt Hardy a bigger singles push, although I should know better at this point. Paul London is my sleeper choice, on the off-chance that WWE gives him a little bit of a chance to shine. I'm betting London would make good on it.

BEST "REAL WORLD" NEWS OF THE YEAR: WWE financials in good shape
1st Runner-Up: The Rock's star rises in Hollywood
2nd Runner-Up: Ric Flair DVD set sells briskly

Comments: As a wrestling fan, it's refreshing to see hard evidence that WWE knows how to manage its financials, even with the wrestling business in a lull. The health of the business relies directly on WWE's stability, more than ever. The Rock became a legit Hollywood star in good standing in 2003, and although that keeps him off the active WWE roster, he's still a great ambassador for pro wrestling. The Rock always has good things to say about the business and genuinely respects it, and that comes across in his mainstream interviews. The unexpected popularity of the Ultimate Ric Flair Collection DVD set was great in that it encourages WWE to put out more such releases, and shows them that respecting the past (even with other organizations) is worth their while. Any time demand outweighs supply, that's great news.


THE bOOby PRIZES

WORST WRESTLER(S) OF THE YEAR: Mark Henry
1st Runner-Up: Nathan Jones
2nd Runner-Up: Kevin Nash

Comments: Mark Henry has been around since 1996. I didn't care about him then, and I don't care about him now. Yet, he's filling main event TV time? Nathan Jones couldn't be bothered to continue wrestling, so I won't bother wasting more breath on him. Either Kevin Nash is in terrible physical condition or he's using that as an excuse for a paid vacation (or both). It's time for Big Daddy Cool to take a pay cut and a non-active role… or no role at all.

WORST NON-WRESTLER OF THE YEAR: Al Wilson
1st Runner-Up: Theodore Long
2nd Runner-Up: Terri

Comments: Al Wilson was a bad actor in an even worse storyline, and was partially responsible for my declining interest in wrestling in 2003. There is a limit to the amount of bad TV I'll subject myself to. Through all the crap I have sat through since the early 1980s, Al Wilson, I believe, was the thing that finally made me change the channel away from wrestling this year (even if it was temporary). Theodore Long is a good person, but a dopey, insultingly stereotypical character. Terri is basically a statue at this point. She's no longer of use to WWE, but she's been around so long, they just let her stand there with a microphone.

WORST FEUD OF THE YEAR: Torrie Wilson vs. Dawn Marie
1st Runner-Up: Stephanie McMahon vs. Vince McMahon/Sable
2nd Runner-Up: Shane McMahon vs. Kane

Comments: Torrie vs. Dawn - A feud that dominated marquee TV time on Smackdown for months, involved characters nobody cared about beyond the occasional gratuitous bra and panties "match," centered on an over-the-hill man getting laid (Smell the ratings!), and then dying because of it (Hilarious!), and built up to the big payoff – a match between two Divas that can't even wrestle. Thanks, WWE. The various exploits of the McMahon family round out the top three, as Vince continued believing that viewers like watching him live out his sexual fantasies with every Diva he hires, and Shane stuck his nose into Kane's character rebirth just in time slowly kill fan's renewed interest in the Big Red Machine, when a feud with an actual WRESTLER might have helped him greatly.

MOST OVERRATED WRESTLER: Mark Henry
1st Runner-Up: Zach Gowen
2nd Runner-Up: Nathan Jones

Comments: He's just not entertaining or athletic (beyond his freakish power). You need at least one of those traits to be on my television. And yet, BANG, there he is! Every friggin' year! WWE simply refuses to admit that Mark Henry doesn't have what it takes to be a star. Zach Gowen, as much as I'm impressed by how capable he is with one leg, is just too much of a hindrance on my suspension of disbelief.

"GODDAMMIT" MOMENT OF THE YEAR: The Dawn Marie/Al Wilson romance
1st Runner-Up: The Redneck Triathlon
2nd Runner-Up: Rosey's "Super Hero In Training" vignettes

Comments: See above regarding Dawn Marie and Al Wilson. Easily the lowlight of the year. The Redneck Triathlon between Stone Cold Steve Austin and Eric Bischoff was dumb comedy skit made worse by Mae Young's disgusting romp with Bischoff. Rosey's "Super Hero In Training" character and vignettes were dumb enough to make me embarrassed to watch RAW.

WORST "REAL WORLD" NEWS OF THE YEAR: Roddy Piper fired by WWE
1st Runner-Up: Hulk Hogan vigorously pursued by NWA-TNA
2nd Runner-Up: MLW shake-up suspends operations (temporarily)

Comments: Roddy Piper getting fired by WWE wasn't disappointing in that Piper had a lot to offer WWE – clearly his time had passed, and he was being used poorly. Rather, Piper's firing was disappointing in what it said about WWE. They immediately cut him loose for speaking his mind about deaths in pro wrestling. Piper expressed genuine concern that he wouldn't live much longer. And rather than open dialogue with Piper about his comments, offer him help, or even counter attack verbally, they simply cut him loose. I'm not saying WWE is responsible for deaths in wrestling; but it sure was spooky the way the Piper situation was handled, and did nothing to advance wrestling's reputation to the mainstream.

NWA-TNA has done very well for itself thus far. That's why it was a bit disappointing to see the promotion go so far out of its way to accommodate Hulk Hogan. You have to wonder if Hogan DOES wind up appearing for TNA – and at this point, it's a very credible "if," as Hogan seems to be playing his cards close to his chest, coming up with excuses - will the benefits of Hogan's name value be worth TNA's trouble in the long run? Somehow, I doubt it. And while it seems nobody knows for sure what happened with Major League Wrestling's abrupt cease of business in the fall, only to return to the Northeast from South Florida – no, wait, back to South Florida! No, not South Florida, CENTRAL Florida! – the one thing we do know is that MLW confused the hell out of viewers, and stalled a promising indy just when it was gaining steam.

One last thing: I'd like to add my gratitude for all of the men and women serving in Iraq right now. One soldier in particular might ring a bell with the IWC community, as Jeremy Botter - who once shared cyberspace with myself, Rick, and the entire WrestleLine crew as a writer for that site, among many others - is currently serving in Iraq. Jeremy is doing great, and was even involved in the mission where our troops captured Saddam Hussein. You don't always hear Internet wrestling writers compliment each other, but Jeremy is one of the truly good guys I 've dealt with. And he's still writing, LIVE from Iraq. Check it out at www.JeremyBotter.com.

And that's about it from me. I thank you for reading, and I thank Rick for the chance to participate. Feedback is welcome as always, at dburk75@mail.com.  Hopefully, I will be back *someday* with Circa or some other feature, but given the way things have gone, there are no guarantees. Have a happy and safe holiday season.

E-MAIL DENNY
BROWSE THE CIRCA ARCHIVES


  
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