(Almost) 5-Star Match Reviews: Kurt Angle vs. Chris Benoit - WWE Royal Rumble 2003, by Alex Podgorski

(Almost) 5-Star Match Reviews: Kurt Angle vs. Chris Benoit - WWE Royal Rumble 2003, by Alex Podgorski

Kurt Angle and Chris Benoit. There was a time when these two wrestlers were considered true heroes to wrestling fans everywhere. One was quite possibly the best pro wrestler in WWE history, given how quickly he went from rookie to champion and learned so much so quickly. The other was a walking example of hard work paying off, as he performed at such a high standard for so many years yet often went underappreciated.

Yet time has not been too kind to either man. Angle’s wrestling career was mired by constant injuries and personal struggles, and his wrestling career ended with a whimper. As for Chris Benoit…well, enough has been written and said about him to not warrant repetition here.

Instead, what we’re looking at is something much more positive. It’s one of the best matches in WWE history, one that, unfortunately, isn’t likely to be given any attention by WWE themselves for obvious reasons. So I took it upon myself to revisit what many call an instant classic (even Michael Cole thought so while he was calling the action) that features two amazing in-ring performers.

Today we look at the famous WWE Title match between Kurt Angle and Chris Benoit from the 2003 Royal Rumble Pay-Per-View.

As a reminder, I am reviewing Five Star and almost-Five Star wrestling matches as rated by Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. It goes back to the 1980s and I’m going to pick different matches from different eras to see how they look today. Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here.

The story

SmackDown in 2002 and 2003 had some of the best wrestling in WWE history. Thanks to the creative genius of Paul Heyman, that show featured different rivalries existing alongside one another and crossing from time to time. At the time, Angle and Benoit were embroiled in a bitter professional rivalry. It was a constant game of one-upmanship between them. They couldn’t stand each other, yet managed to become inaugural WWE Tag Team Champions. They lost those belts and continued to war with each other.

Then Angle beat The Big Show at Armageddon 2002 to become WWE Champion. Yet despite that major career milestone, something still irked him. He just couldn’t beat Chris Benoit in a singles match. This bothered him to the point that he had to resort to nefarious tactics. He started using Shelton Benjamin and Charlie Haas as his ‘insurance policy’ to gang up on Benoit whenever possible. Yet Benoit persevered and eventually became #1 contender for the WWE Championship.

Thus the stage was set for these two bitter rivals to achieve their respective dreams. Would Benoit finally achieve his lifelong dream and become WWE Champion after all his hard work, or would Angle out-wrestle him and finally prove that the Olympian was better than the Canadian Crippler?

The match

This match originally took place on January 19th, 2003 and is for the WWE Championship. It was rated 4.75-stars out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. In John Canton’s review of Royal Rumble 2003, he rated this match five stars out of five.

Angle has a (supposedly) injured right knee which has a brace on it. Benoit gets to the ring and immediately starts tussling with Haas and Benjamin, so they get ejected from ringside, ending Angle’s ‘insurance policy’ for this match.

Benoit takes Angle down with a shoulder tackle and goes for the Sharpshooter but Angle escapes to outside the ring. He returns and they lock up again. Angle whips Benoit and tries to grab the ankle, but Benoit kicks Angle away. Angle reverses an Irish whip into a sleeper but Benoit counters with an arm drag. Dragon screw by Benoit followed by a leglock on Angle’s injured right knee. Angle’s quick to reach the ropes then drives Benoit shoulder-first into the ringpost. A vertical suplex gets Angle a two-count.

Angle tries chopping Benoit, but Benoit fires back with chops of his own that are much stronger (and louder).  Benoit blocks a corner charge from Angle and clubs him in the back of the neck. A knee lift to the gut gets Benoit a two-count, so he fires away with more chops to Angle. He whips Angle so hard into the corner that Angle does the Bret Hart bump. Yet Angle manages to reverse a whip from Benoit into a suplex that drops Benoit stomach-first on the top rope.

Benoit catches Angle off guard by pushing him into the rope throat-first. Neither man’s backing down as they brawl on the apron. Then Benoit gets the advantage with a huge DDT on the apron. Wow, that looked painful. Benoit gets a 2.5-count, then goes for the diving headbutt. But Angle rolls out of the way.

Both men are dazed. Angle Slam gets reversed into a Sharpshooter from Benoit. Angle struggles hard but makes it to the ropes, so Benoit drops him with a back suplex for another two-count. Angle reverses a whip into a perfect overhead belly-to-belly suplex on Benoit. He tosses Benoit out of the ring then smashes Benoit face-first on the top of the ring barricade. A short-range clothesline gets Angle another two-count, which he followed with a rear chinlock with bodyscissors.

After about a minute in the hold, Benoit escapes via an arm drag but walks into another belly-to-belly suplex. Another back suplex gets Angle another two-count. It’s back to the chinlock for Angle and once again Benoit starts fighting out of it. Angle whips Benoit, Benoit ducks a clothesline and lands a neckbreaker drop sending both men down.

Both men get up at the count of nine and Benoit’s comeback begins. He tackles Angle down with shoulders and a back body drop. German suplex by Benoit, followed by a second. He goes for the third one, Angle switches and lands a German of his own. Now Benoit switches and lands another German on Angle. Benoit signals the end and climbs the top rope…but Angle cuts him off. Avalanche Belly-to-Belly suplex. The referee counts one, two, no, Benoit kicks out. Angle Slam, no, it’s reversed into a Crossface! A Crossface in the middle of the ring. Angle reaches the ropes with his free hand.

Then Benoit pulls a trick out of Angle’s playbook with an Ankle Lock on Angle. But Angle counters into an Ankle Lock of his own. Wait, no, it’s countered into a Crossface. Angle counters into a pin. Benoit escapes at two. Benoit reverses a clothesline into another Crossface. Angle refuses to tap. Even as he raises his arm, he won’t tap. Angle rolls through to try and escape, but Benoit maintains the hold. Angle Slam! What a fantastic counter by Angle. He pins, but Benoit kicks out at 2.9! What a great near-fall.

Angle gets up first. The straps come down. Ankle lock once again. Benoit rolls through and goes for a German. Angle switches and tries his own. Benoit counters into a victory roll. Angle kicks out at 2.8. Benoit lands one German suplex, Angle switches and lands one of his own. Then Benoit reverses and lands an enormous German suplex of his own. Angle got flipped onto his stomach. That was crazy.

Benoit climbs the top rope. He flies ¾ across the ring with the diving head-butt. You can hear fans chanting ‘holy shit’.

Benoit pins, but Angle kicks out at the last possible moment. Benoit goes for another crossface, but Angle escapes. He picks Benoit up for a powerbomb, but falls backward and drops Benoit face-first in the top turnbuckle. Angle Slam! Benoit kicks out again!

Benoit reverses into a Crossface yet again. In the middle of the ring this time. The fans are on their feet. But Angle rolls through and reverses into an Ankle Lock. Benoit tries to fight out by twisting like a snake. He kicks Angle off, but Angle reapplies it right away. Benoit keeps trying to kick Benoit off like a bucking bronco, but Angle won’t let go.  Benoit crawls to the rope. He’s fingertips away. NO, Angle pulls him away. He grapevines the leg. Benoit can’t move. He has no choice but to tap out. There’s the match.

Winner and STILL WWE Champion after 19:48: Kurt Angle

Review

I have to say that I was disappointed in this match. I never saw this match live and had to re-watch it years later. So when I watched this match I went into it with the highest of expectations. I was sure that it was going to be a chain grappling masterpiece with lots of amateur matwork, lightning-quick transitions and smart psychology.

So imagine my surprise when these two men wrestled for the most prestigious title in WWE and…put on a great performance.

Great, but not amazing.

As much as I want to call this a historically-epic match worthy of the mythical 5-star treatment, I can’t. This match…was almost there. It had virtually all the pieces needed to be a perfect match. Amazing wrestling, spectacular counters, crazy near-falls, and a fairly strong degree of unpredictability. But this match lacked something very notable: inner story.

Despite being a fantastic display of wall-to-wall grappling, there was nothing to really get viewers truly invested in. Yes, it was meant to be a serious athletic contest instead of an over-the-top piece of vaudevillian theatre. That made it stand out back then and is what has allowed it to age so well that it’s still a great match by today’s standards.  But just landing move after move just for the sake of doing so hurt this match. It wasn’t until the closing submission sequences that there was any real emotional struggle here, which is why the fans barely reacted to anything in the first half.

In watching this match, I couldn’t help but compare it to a similar match from Japan: Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Minoru Suzuki from NJPW King of Pro-Wrestling 2012. That match has so many similarities to this one it’s staggering. Two incredibly-talented grapplers with legitimate wrestling experience. Both are known submission experts and work in a highly technical style. Both are out to prove which is better than the other in a serious, athletic contest.

And what that match demonstrates is what this match lacks.

That match had two men, each with their own strategy, trying to destroy each other’s chosen limb with brutal efficiency and laser focus. What started off as a scientific grappling match became an incredible endurance contest and battle of survival. Both Tanahashi and Suzuki had done so much damage to each other that the audience respected both men equally as athletes, despite the fact that Suzuki was the obvious villain.

And I had hoped to see something like that applied here, but it never came. Angle didn’t do anything to weaken Benoit’s legs, nor did Benoit target any real body part of Angle’s to weaken him for his finishers. Yes, the Ankle Lock/Crossface switches were amazing. But it was hard if not impossible to believe that they would lead to victory right away since neither wrestler had done any major work to them before that sequence began. And that’s because the opening half of the match felt very by-the-numbers. Very little, if anything, before the big apron DDT really meant anything and it looked like they were just trading generic, low-impact moves without really telling much of a story.

I’ve also come to expect certain things when it comes to these big matches, especially regarding injuries, real or scripted. Angle had an obvious brace on his knee that the smart Benoit should’ve targeted. After all, he and Angle are both smart wrestlers (one of Angle’s three I’s is ‘Intelligence’, after all) and logic would dictate that an obviously-marked limb is a weakness that should be exploited. Doing so would’ve added a much-needed extra layer of storytelling to this match. Angle could’ve spent some time protecting that leg so Benoit couldn’t exploit it, and Benoit could’ve made an entire offensive strategy around attacking that limb.

Sure, it would’ve betrayed the story of ‘two guys on equal terms looking to beat the other fair and square’. But using it as a storytelling device would’ve made Angle’s fight to survive more exciting and Benoit’s credibility as a gifted wrestler more believable. In the end, however, that knee brace played zero part in the story, not even when Benoit had the ankle lock on Angle (on the wrong leg, by the way). Talk about a missed opportunity for Benoit.

Final Rating: ****3/4

Don’t get me wrong; this is a very fun match to watch. Its shorter length, quicker pace and fantastic second half make it a little gem of a match. Angle was a machine when he was ‘on’ and Benoit was, well, Benoit. They were great in this match and put on some of the best WWE matches ever together.

And yet in comparison with the legendary mindblowing epics we’ve reviewed in this series so far, this match fails to reach the upper pinnacle. They did a phenomenal job of making this a serious athletic contest, yet it felt emotionally empty.

If we compare this to yet another great match, Angle vs. HBK from WrestleMania 21, this match’s shortcomings, though relatively minor, become more apparent. The Angle vs. HBK match had great wrestling and an emotional story that developed as the moves progressed. This contest had more of the former and very little of the latter.

Honestly, if they forewent the relatively bland opening five minutes and replaced it with some kind of character-driven story, early limb targeting, or even some kind of amateur sequence to set the tone, that would’ve changed the entire complexity of the match, and in a good way.

In the end, this match feels like an incomplete 500-piece puzzle. All the most crucial parts are there and you do your best to ignore that one corner that’s still not done. And while the central image is done perfectly, you can see the missing piece when you step back and look at the larger picture. And even though what’s already there is great, the incomplete image renders the finished piece almost, but still not completely, perfect.

Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here. Thanks for reading.