WWE were firing on all cylinders following a triumphant edition of SummerSlam in August 2002. The Ruthless Aggression era was well and truly underway with Brock Lesnar going from ‘next’ to ‘the big thing’, the SmackDown six stealing the show on a weekly basis and fresh stars taking the main event scene by storm. As WWE approached their annual fourth big pay-per-view of the calendar in Survivor Series, the creative brains behind the scenes cooked up something special for their big return to the home of American sports-spectacles, Madison Square Garden.
Any wrestling event held in the whimsical holy land of MSG has that special vibe to it, with a guaranteed fired-up crowd in a relatively imitate arena set-up, Survivor Series 2002 had a build which got the world buzzing for a fantastic show. The major selling point of the night was the maiden voyage of the Elimination Chamber, a new celled-structure which was essentially WWE’s modern answer to WCW’s WarGames. Pitting six of RAW’s top stars and fan favourites in an elimination-style match for the World Heavyweight Championship was a guaranteed win of a headlining act and the main-event did not disappoint.
But before we got to the Chamber, fans were treated to a nice variety of everything that made 2002-2003 WWE one of the best times to be a fan. The show kicked-off with a tables elimination match pitting Jeff Hardy, Bubba Ray and Spike Dudley against the newly formed hoss team of 3-Minute Warning and Rico. This was a pretty run of the mill curtain jerker with some gnarly high spots and plenty of busted tables, it’s everything you could have wanted as a hot crowd in a jam-packed arena. You knew that having a Hardy and a Dudley in the same ring with some form of TLC stipulation, it was going to be a great time, and boy wasn’t it.
The hardcore antics didn’t stop after a brief pit-stop in the Cruiserweight title scene, as the slowly evolving Women’s division put together a first with Trish Stratus facing Victoria in a hardcore match for the Women’s title. Of course, WWE weren’t exactly hitting all the progressive notes with this match but it still was something of a fresh start for the ‘Divas’ of the time. It was rare to see any of the female wrestlers be given more than a five-ten minute slot on pay-per-view, let alone a stipulation match, let alone a match that actually got the fans invested beyond wanting to see as much flesh as possible. Genuinely, this was a match worth going back for, just maybe mute the commentary to avoid the occasional Lawler-induced trigger.
Moving onto the SmackDown side of things, the hardcore chaos provided by RAW was nicely balanced with some traditional ‘rasslin. The three headlining tag teams of Thursday nights put together a masterclass in tag-based wrestling. Edge, Rey Mysterio, Eddie, Chavo, Angle and Benoit absolutely killed it with this match, as you’d expect from them in what was the prime of their still-young careers. Alongside this, Brock Lesnar and Big Show held down the WWE title scene with one of the few swerves of the night, having Paul Heyman turn on his longtime client to side with the returning Big Show. The match itself wasn’t amazing but it’s a lot of fun regardless and the crowd ate up every moment.
Finally, you had the Chamber match, which lived up to every bit of hype going into it. There was blood, gore and spots that, by today’s standards wouldn’t get a rise out of an audience, but for 2002, was total cinema. It was the perfect end to a turning point pay-per-view, one which re-established WWE with an entirely new landscape and atmosphere. WWE succeeded in proving that once again they had their fingers on the pulse of what the fans wanted at the time, it’s just a shame that didn’t translate as the years went on.
The Elimination Chamber remains a staple of WWE programming but I could never put any over the first. The inaugural Chamber match gave all participants a moment and the fans plenty to look back on fondly. If you haven’t already, go back and watch this one, it was special from start to finish. Even the minimal effort with the stage and ramp felt like it added to the show and big up to Saliva who pumped little six year old me up for a pay-per-view that I’d never forget.
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