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So… That Happened: Right to Censor

The Attitude Era was and is known as the time that the WWF dared to push the envelope in every possible way at every given moment. Language, violence, sexual content… nothing seemed off limits. They say all news is good news but during the late 90’s and early 00’s, McMahon and his million dollar company came under fire from various concerned parents and school boards. “Won’t someone think of the children?”, Vince heard them cry. He gazed inwards upon himself and did what he always did in these trying times. He made fun of them on national TV.

On the June 26th 2000 episode of Monday Night Raw [WATCH: Raw 370, June 26 2000, on the WWE Network], Jerry Lawler defeated WWF Light Heavyweight Champion Dean Malenko in the first and, unsurprisingly last, “Over the Top Rope, Off With the Top” match where each man represented the honour of one of the company’s female stars. With Malenko out of the ring three times, Terri Runnels (rather than The Kat) was forced to remove her bra for the paying customers and elated teenage boys at home when Stevie Richards came out from Gorilla position; covering her with a “Censored” sign and leading her to the back.

The following Thursday, The Godfather and Bull Buchanan were set for competition when Richards  appeared (complete with pompous, abrasive sirens instead of theme music) to explain his actions [WATCH: SmackDown 45, June 29 2000, on the WWE Network]. Specifically referring to himself as “Steven” Richards, he told the audience that he had the morals to do what the network and WWF didn’t by censoring Terri’s exposure and warned the Godfather to stop parading scantily clad women around on TV. Over the next few weeks, Richards would appear in matches to disrupt the non-PG nature of the era, such as by robbing the Dudley Boyz of their precious tables and covering Trish’s body much in the same way as he did previously.

Eventually, Richards would confront The Godfather again [WATCH: Raw 373, July 17 2000, on the WWE Network] and berate him and the audience. Agitated, The Conductor of the Ho Train would approach Steven only to be attacked by Bull Buchanan, whom was dressed essentially the same as the Mormon-esque Richards. The next week [WATCH: Raw 374, July 24 2000, on the WWE Network] the two would clash in-ring again with the stipulation that should The Godfather lose, he would have to stop bringing his ladies to the ring and essentially cast off the pimp gimmick. The match is a solid Attitude Era bout with decent commentary (JR on the “save the hos” chant mentions bumper-stickers with 0800 numbers and a telethon) but worth a watch just for the heat. Godfather, the fun-loving midcarder, is more over than ever and Richards is booed incessantly and given chants of “asshole” upon arrival. This small feud was a perfect first step for Right to Censor and one that blurred the lines of reality and kayfabe, especially for fans who were aware of the reactions some of it’s more extreme moments were producing.

In the following weeks, the two were joined by The Godfather, now The Goodfather; a glasses-wearing convert of Richard’s moral teachings and their leader officially christened the group “Right to Censor”. The group made their PPV debut at SummerSlam [WATCH: WWF SummerSlam 2001, on the WWE Network] defeating Too Cool and beginning a streak of at least one match victory at every PPV they were a part of. Rather than moving into another long-term feud, the stable had a string of one-off matches as they found their footing and eventually another superstar joined their ranks. In September Goodfather and Buchanan lost a tag match with Road Dogg and Val Venis [WATCH: Raw 380, September 4 2000, on the WWE Network] but saved face by carrying the latter to a parked van outside and indoctrinating him into their little cult. The next month Right to Censor introduced their fifth and final member in Ivory [WATCH: Raw 387, October 23 2000, on the WWE Network], a perfect fit since she had been working a conservative gimmick earlier in the year.

Right to Censor found further in-ring success from this point as Ivory brought gold to the faction by defeating Jacqueline, Trish and WWF Women’s Champion Lita for the belt the next month [WATCH: SmackDown 63, September 2 2000, on the WWE Network] followed by The Goodfather and Bull Buchanan winning the WWF Tag Team Championship [WATCH: Raw 389, November 6 2000, on the WWE Network]. As if the group wasn’t hot enough for continually interrupting segments and neutering fun characteristics of midcard characters, they were now holding two titles hostage and they had won neither cleanly. Appearing as an invading force, fans felt united behind the WWF name against the stable.

Sadly, it wasn’t to last. The men of the group had the attention of many teams in the WWF facing off against The Dudleyz and the Hardyz as well as several solo performers too but continued to have no main storyline. Barely a month after earning the tag titles, they were hot potato’d away at WWF Armageddon [WATCH: WWF Armageddon 2000, on the WWE Network]. Ivory fared a little better at the top of the women’s card and in retrospect her feud with Chyna that began in December is more interesting than it appears at first glance. After shooting with Playboy in real life, The Ninth Wonder of the World caught the ire of Right to Censor [WATCH: RAW 394, December 11 2000, on the WWE Network] who would use the numbers game to overpower her and give Val Venis the opportunity to hit a Spike Piledriver.

A couple of weeks later on Smackdown, Ivory would mock a heartfelt promo from Chyna whom was injured and fearing for her career [WATCH: SmackDown 71, December 28 2000, on the WWE Network] in a slimy, scathing, underrated faux-interview segment. Chyna would challenge Ivory for the WWF Women’s Title at next month’s Royal Rumble PPV [WATCH: Royal Rumble 2001, on the WWE Network] in what would be a hard-hitting but brief match. In order to garner yet more fan support, of which she had plenty already, Chyna extended the injury angle by pretending to hurt her neck once more. Post-match Jerry Lawler ran to her aid, demanding the use of EMTs; furthering the blurring of the line that the RTC had previously played with.

Whilst waiting for Chyna’s return, WWF span it’s wheels with the stable by having an angle where Kat was forcefully placed into the group. At No Way Out 2001 [WATCH: No Way Out 2001, on the WWE Network] Jerry Lawler had a singles bout with Steven Richards for the “services” of The Kat. Had Jerry won she would’ve had to strip naked on TV but since he lost to Richards she was forced to join RTC. What a great choice for her. The following night on RAW she was shown as a part of Right to Censor, albeit begrudgingly [WATCH: Raw 405, February 26 2001]. However, the next day the WWF announced that Kat had quit and Lawler followed suit and so the storyline was scrapped. Rumour says it was due to the fact that the story pitched would involve her sleeping with every member of the stable to corrupt and take it down from the inside.

Regardless, WrestleMania X-7 finally rolled around [WATCH: WWF WrestleMania X-7, on the WWE Network] and with it came the finale to the Ivory/Chyna storyline. Often cited as one of the best pay-per-views of all time; this doesn’t take into account the women’s division match as, as usual, neither did the WWF. The fight lasts less than three minutes and is simply put a squash match. Chyna helps to break Right to Censor’s PPV streak and in the same moment wins the WWF Women’s Championship for the first and last time as she would leave the company later that year.

Right to Censor would officially disband a few weeks later as Val, Bull, Goodfather and Steven participated in a handicap match against The Undertaker [WATCH: SmackDown 88, April 26 2001, on the WWE Network]. The fight comes to a close with Richards’ followers beating down Big Evil as their leader cowered away, only coming to participate when he was sure Taker was out of commission. The others abandon him and he eats a Last Ride, marking the end of the stable not even a year since Richards first appeared in the necktie.

Some things occur to me immediately after watching all this back; it was not only a much shorter run than I remember but it was also very unfocused. After the Goodfather story, things start to feel a little scattershot with no long-term planning. Whilst rubbing shoulders with all the upper midcard at the time really helped them keep their heat, a lack of a strong feud ultimately made it very easy to throw the WWF Tag Team Championship on and off of the group.

More importantly, it was surprising to realise who the shining star of the faction was. Whilst Richards was a great pick to get the wheel turning (and you’d be hard-pressed to remember much else about his time in WWF specifically), it’s Ivory who comes out on top in retrospect by having the strongest storyline of the stable. The short run has made Right to Censor easy to forget which is sad because the gimmick worked very well at the time and they didn’t really have much in the way of a dud segment. The most memorable thing to the majority of fans, other than their blaring entrance noise, is probably the transformation of The Godfather into The Goodfather. I urge you to look back and reconsider. Not only did Ivory do a great job in her own role, she was the perfect foil at the time to a babyface Chyna.

So… That Happened: The Undertaker, First and Final

This April, one of the WWE’s most integral players and longest stalwarts seemed to finally step away from the Squared Circle. Perhaps it was a certain degree of inevitability, or the years of opinions that centred around “maybe it’s for the best” or simply that I watched it with a group of friends running on candy but all still burnt out by the end of the seven hour event, but the Undertaker’s swan-song didn’t quite have the impact it should’ve. That being said, now two weeks removed from it the feelings have begun to set in. He was easily one of my favourite superstars so in this instalment of “So… That Happened” I’ll be doing something a little different and celebrating his career by looking at both ends of it; the first and final appearances of the Deadman at each of WWE’s four marquee events.

And hey, can I suggest a little background music?

The First

The Undertaker famously debuted at Survivor Series ’90 [WATCH: Survivor Series 1990, on the WWE Network] as a surprise entrant to a traditional team-based match by aligning himself with Ted Dibiase. Skulking slowly to the ring, accompanied by the-manager Brother Love, the commentary put him over as a huge specimen and potentially not even human. Undertaker followed this by making very quick work of Koko B. Ware via Tombstone and the American Dream Dusty Rhodes himself (after a double axe handle from the top rope, of all things). After the latter left the ring, Brother Love began to kick him whilst he was down and Dream defended himself; causing the Undertaker to give chase down the aisle ending in a count-out elimination to keep the newcomer strong. He came, he saw, he kicked ass but he wasn’t given the keys to the kingdom immediately.

Still, reaction to the character was strong and thus in the WWF’s next pay-per-view Taker was given near fifteen minutes to strut his stuff at Royal Rumble ’91 [WATCH: Royal Rumble 1991, on the WWE Network]. Entering at #12, the Deadman staked his claim and showed the company’s belief in him by almost immediately eliminating crowd favourite Bret Hart before digging his heels in for the long haul. After two more eliminations (Texas Tornado and Bushwacker Bruce), Undertaker was finally tossed over the top-rope by both the Road Warriors, proving that it took two men to take on the Demon of Death Valley.

Continuing to WrestleMania VII [WATCH: WrestleMania VII, on the WWE Network], Undertaker was given another face like Bret to destroy at the Showcase of the Immortals in “Superfly” Jimmy Snuka. There are complaints these days about the number of matches on a WrestleMania card but WM7 had 14 matches on the main show compared to WM33’s 12 and two less hours to work with. Thus, to mark what would eventually become known as The Streak, Undertaker steamrolled his way through Snuka. Finally paired with iconic advocate Paul Bearer; not only is this Undertaker’s debut WrestleMania match but it’s also his first singles PPV match and the growth in his confidence was very visible. In the five minutes given, Taker pulled out his signature moves and walked away a decisive winner with the crowd steadily getting behind him.

Strangely, Undertaker was not booked for the main show of SummerSlam that year and so his first appearance on the final of the Big 4 shows was at SummerSlam 1992 [WATCH: SummerSlam 1992, on the WWE Network] where he was lined up to face the first and definitely not the last appearance of terrible racial profiling on “So… That Happened” in Kamala. The best thing about this match was Undertaker’s entrance where he walks out to a huge pop, after having officially turned babyface February that year. Sadly, we have to end this section of the article on a downer since this bout was a total cold fish. The two had very little chemistry and Kamala’s size made it difficult for Undertaker to get any of his traditional move-set in, limiting him even further (let’s face it, early ’90’s Undertaker was hardly his prime in terms of ring prowess). The scuffle ends in a flat 3:27 due to disqualification and Kamala continues a beat-down before Undertaker does his signature sit-up to scare him off. On the bright side, this feud would lead onto the first televised Coffin Match but it would also introduce the WWF to Giant Gonzalez and his matches with Calaway make this turd look gold-plated in comparison.

The Final

Appropriately, the first of the four pay-per-views we have to look at for the last run of Mean Mark Callous is the final one he tackled in his formative years. SummerSlam 2015 [WATCH: SummerSlam 2015, on the WWE Network] was essentially billed as Undertaker’s attempt at vengeance against Brock Lesnar who broke his undefeated WrestleMania streak 16 months or so earlier. The match itself was definitely stronger than their original (due to far fewer in-ring concussions) but closed with a total clusterfuck of a finish where the timekeeper believed he saw Undertaker tap, erroneously called the match as over and caused Lesnar to be distracted long enough for the Phenom to lock in Hell’s Gate and cause Brock to pass out rather than submit. Ironic that Undertaker’s first and last SummerSlam bouts both have questionable ends. The match sits in the middle of the feud in terms of chronology and quality; not quite the awkward mouse-fart that was the streak-ending Wrestlemania XXX bout but outdone by the successive and excellently brutal Hell in a Cell fight next month.

Summerslam 2015 was the Undertaker’s first PPV match outside of WrestleMania for five years but he soon followed it up with appearances at both Hell in a Cell and that November’s Survivor Series, which was marketed with the line “25 Years of The Undertaker” [WATCH: Survivor Series 2015, on the WWE Network]. Things were off to a shaky start to begin with as the Deadman was placed into a feud with the man he had overcome six months earlier with The Eater of Worlds. The upside was the idea that Wyatt and his spooky cronies had overcome ‘Taker and his brother Kane, somehow stealing their supernatural gifts and finally offered the possibility of a reign of terror. Until the Brothers of Destruction hobbled out on Raw a mere two weeks later. The two faced Bray and Luke Harper in a ten minute tag match that was fairly average despite the entertainment value of seeing Undertaker at what could be described as home turf taking out every member of The Wyatt Family alongside Kane for what would clearly be the last time. The real issue back then was the sloppy booking before and after the event and the WWE’s intent to incorrectly book Bray Wyatt well, but at least it stands up as a nice salute to ‘Taker in retrospect.

Fast forward over a year to early 2017, where Undertaker would make clear his intent to enter the Royal Rumble where he had “dug 29 holes for 29 souls” despite appearing in the match for a little over five minutes and making four eliminations [WATCH: Royal Rumble 2017, on the WWE Network]. Even with declining performance quality over the last half a decade or so, it was clear that Calaway was at the end of his rope; struggling, and obviously in pain, performing even the most basic manoeuvres. Despite the streak being over, a match with Undertaker itself would be an in-built feud for any superstar and it was really not the work of a brain surgeon to put Roman Reigns in that position by having him eliminate the Deadman and yelling something along the lines of “YARD WARS” as he did so.

With the Phenom on his way out, it made sense to put a newer star over as big as possible. With it being the incredibly protected Roman Reigns however, despite your opinion on the character, it was fairly evident that the Undertaker would be taking his second and in all likelihood final loss at WrestleMania [WATCH: WrestleMania 33, on the WWE Network]. The bout itself was arduous at the best of times and painful at others with Roman Reigns failing to reverse ‘Taker into a tombstone of his own and the final move being a Superman Punch powered by an extra rope-bounce. With the stench of inevitability all over it and the Undertaker’s decreased in-ring ability, the match was fairly disappointing. However, it was the generic story that really dampened Undertaker’s final showdown. The feud could’ve and should’ve had a little more added to it beyond  “I’m going to piss on your petunias, and that makes them mine”. Instead, the entire thing felt hot-shotted, rushed and, for a larger than life superstar like Mark Calaway, far too run of the mill like a lot of his formative feuds had been.

So despite having its moments, the overall last handful of years of Undertaker lead up to something rather sour that provided very little beyond a “well, that’s that” when he finally took off the hat and cloak. Which is a shame because the man has offered his life and body to the company for more than quarter of a century. For a good number of us, there has not been a time in wrestling when the Undertaker wasn’t there (at least every April) so it’s sad to see him start to fade in his final years. For everything he had done, for every great moment; he deserved better. Here’s to you, ‘Taker. Rest in peace.

So… That Happened: TLC 3

The era of the DVD is all but dead, especially for WWE fans. Want to relive any moment? It’s pretty much guaranteed to be on the WWE Network. Unfortunately when you’re living without an internet connection for a week, like I had to recently, you’re left with very few options left for entertainment. Thus, one morning I pulled out WWE’s “The Ladder Match” compilation released in 2007 and hosted by Todd Grisham. One match in particular caught my interest and I found myself thinking “that happened”? Trigger warning: this match contains Benoit and lots of it.

Think of an example of when a casual or former wrestling fan struck up a conversation with you about moments of the past. It’s easy to determine the viewing history of “former” fans; 90% of them seem to have been swept up in the WWF at the height of it’s dominance and then fallen off approaching the end of the Attitude Era. Thus, recounted moments are usually those on the extreme side; Mankind’s fall from the cell, Austin’s crimson-mask face turn and any number of Shane’s various antics. One thing that always seems to come up is the legendary TLC 2 from WrestleMania X-7 [WATCH: WrestleMania X-7, on the WWE Network].

Following the success of a match that more often than not makes it into lists of the best bouts of all time, two months later the WWE attempted to strike gold for a third time with TLC 3. The first wrinkle to this match, however, was that it would introduce another duo to the the WWE’s trio of tag team greats; the Dudleyz, the Hardy Boyz and Edge & Christian. This team, somewhat strangely in retrospect, is Chris Jericho and Chris Benoit. The pair had previously had a strange formation with Benoit losing a match against Angle at Judgement Day due to interference from Edge and Christian [WATCH: Judgement Day 2001, on the WWE Network]. This saw the Rabid Wolverine team up with Jericho in a Tag Team Turmoil match later that evening for revenge and, by coincidence, #1 Contendership. The next night they captured the WWF Tag Team Championship [WATCH: Monday Night Raw – May 21st 2001, on the WWE Network].

The second thing of particular interest is that TLC 3 was to take place on free TV on the May 24th 2001 episode of SmackDown of all things, just days later. The idea of such a match happening on broadcast television now is fairly laughable; sure, we get the occasional Steel Cage match (especially more likely since the draft extension) but it’s not like they’re busting out the Hell in a Cell for random TV tapings. Whilst Raw’s most recent TLC bout was January 2013, this remains the only time SmackDown has been graced with the gimmick.

The match doesn’t fool around and a series of ladder spots open the competition [WATCH: SmackDown – May 24th 2001, on the WWE Network]. The two Canadians are presented with a subtle layer of sympathy, facing off against three teams who have TLC experience (and a promo to open the episode from Vince who believes they have “run out of miracles”). Before too long, Benoit dives through a table on the outside and is stretchered out of the arena. After a few spots, including a savage suplex off the ladder from Bubba to Jeff, Benoit makes his way back to the ring clutching his ribs and intent on climbing towards the gold.

You may have noticed that one of the three namesake toys of the TLC match has been absent to this point but a two-on-one assault from Edge & Christian fixes that as they bring chairs into the fold to deliver a con-chair-to to Benoit’s ribs. From here, the latter delivers a brutal headshot to Jericho whom Tazz mentions in passing is recovering from a concussion. Grim. Kayfabe or not, whatever the case these things are much harder to see in hindsight. This probably won’t be the last time we revisit unprotected chair shots though, unfortunately.

Further spots in TLC 3 include the out of nowhere use of a TV monitor followed by Jeff impressively leapfrogging from one ladder, over another and down into the announce table, D’von sells a Twist of Fate like he just got electrocuted and finally Benoit ascends a ladder to retain the Tag Team Championship to a glowing babyface pop, despite not really being a part of the competition. This may have been for the best however, as it was revealed weeks later than Chris had sustained a neck injury during the match.

Following TLC 3, the winning duo strangely used their victory to secure world title shots from then-champion Stone Cold with Benoit challenging twice in the very next week. This alone is evidence that, at the time, the WWF knew that the unexpected would keep people tuning in. In retrospect, it seems incredibly scattershot. All in all, TLC 2 remains a good mile out from it’s successor but the third match of the series is still pretty fun, even with some very odd albeit interesting alterations to the formula. Hell, those interesting alterations are what these articles are all about. Jericho and Benoit teamed together in the fatal four-way TLC 3 on SmackDown. Weird, innit?

So… That Happened: Curtis Axel, Heyman Guy

When non-fans mockingly cry “it’s fake” at people like you and I they don’t realise that “its fake” is simultaneously the best and worst thing about wrestling. On the one hand, how frustrating is it to explain to people that it’s just like any other show on TV? But on the other… it’s a good thing that it isn’t real. Wrestling has the fortunate ability to backtrack or change gears at any given moment if things aren’t going as planned. “So… That Happened” is a column devised for looking back into the annals of history and bringing certain things to light. Sure, everybody knows about characters like Gilberg or the Gobbledegooker… what I’m talking about is the stuff that wrestling tries to walk away from whistling innocently and most often gets away with it.

First on our list is one of the strangest pushes of a character this decade…

Following Extreme Rules 2013, Brock Lesnar left the WWE stating that he had conquered everything in the company (hilarious considering what would transpire two years later at WrestleMania… not quite, Brock). This left his advocate Paul Heyman, at least the WWE felt, with some free time to use. Not content with him just managing CM Punk, everybody’s favourite manager was to introduce his new “Paul Heyman Guy” on the May 20th edition of Monday Night Raw.

Rewatching the segment, it seems as though if this was Curtis Axel’s true, blue debut there would’ve at least been intrigue. This is the most charismatic Axel has looked in his career; skulking down to the ring after Heyman’s introductory spiel with a cocky swagger and a maniacal laugh. His pedigree is highlighted, he has badass music, he sports a confident look about him and the commentators try to put him over big. Unfortunately, the crowd in the arena and everyone at home looks at him and only sees Nexus’ Michael McGuillicutty.

Unfortunately, things go downhill for Curtis Axel starting the night of his debut [WATCH: Monday Night RAW – May 20, 2013, on the WWE Network]. Triple H, who was Brock’s victim the previous night at Extreme Rules, comes to the squared circle to confront Heyman. He pays no mind to Heyman’s promised and prized competitor until he has to; knocking him to the ground in one, solitary bitchslap and then challenging him to what seems like a squash match later in the show. The match, when it arrives, is fairly standard outside of its totally absurd finish. Triple H loses due to a stoppage when he begins to kayfabe suffer concussion symptoms presumably brought on by his match with the Beast Incarnate that Sunday. Axel defeats the Cerebral Assassin on his first night in WWE… but by technicality. So is it a mega-push or not?

The next week things continue to be confusing when, at the behest of Heyman, then WWE World Heavyweight Champion John Cena agrees to face off with Curtis Axel [WATCH: Monday Night RAW – May 27, 2013, on the WWE Network]. Amazingly, “The Axe Man” would gain a victory over the champ but unfortunately, it would be achieved somewhat unceremoniously with Cena walking away due to an interruption by Ryback. Things get worse yet seven days later when Raw opened with Stephanie announcing Triple H would not be allowed to return to the ring (leaving that story strand unresolved) to compete against Axel who, in her words, is beneath him.

Later that night, Curtis is booked in a rematch against Big Match John and, to mix things up, it’s made a no-DQ bout [WATCH: Monday Night RAW – June 3, 2013, on the WWE Network]. At the finish of the match, Cena is preparing to throw Axel through a table when he instead decides to swing his fists at a begging Heyman. Chasing him around the ring, John runs into Ryback who proceeds to spear his Payback opponent through the table instead. Axel then wins by count-out, a rule that doesn’t even apply in no disqualification matches, and in three weeks of being rebranded has one win over Triple H and two over John Cena.

From here, Axel moves into the Intercontinental Championship picture and, as we all know, secures the belt for a number of months. His time at the top is over immediately and these storylines are never fully tied up. In November of 2013, he officially steps down as a “Heyman Guy” and disappears into obscurity (at least until Royal Rumble 2015).

It’s never been clear to me whether WWE was seriously pushing Curtis Axel or not. At the time it seemed it but looking back on it now, as a complete package, it seems like a pointlessly elaborate rib. He’s introduced in a fashion that is anything but impactful and yet is somehow cooled off further with several wins gained by pure circumstance rather than dominance. His time at the Intercontinental Championship level suffered because of it and it’s hard not to think that had he been introduced with a genuine mean streak and the goal of claiming his Father’s famous prize then he could’ve made a stable mid-carder with more potential. Throwing him in at the deep end then draining the pool on the same night is such a ridiculous booking decision that it leads me to believe they never, ever wanted Axel to get real heat.

But hey, it could be worse. The only memorable thing about Ryback’s time with Paul Heyman was getting kissed on the cheek.

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