The biggest story in all of wrestling during the second half of 2002 was Paul Heyman’s SmackDown. After the brand extension was finalized, WWE’s roster was split into two distinct, separate brands. RAW was considered the ‘entertainment’ brand (if you could call it that), while SmackDown was ‘the wrestling show’. The blue brand had all the rising stars and the athletes whose wrestling skills trumped their promo skills or charisma. Under Paul Heyman’s creative direction, a new philosophy was put in place. Wrestlers’ strengths would be promoted and emphasized while their weaknesses would be concealed wherever and whenever possible.
By October 2002, SmackDown had one of the deepest rosters ever. Included on that roster was a group that later became known as ‘the SmackDown Six’: Kurt Angle, Chris Benoit, Edge, Rey Mysterio, Eddy Guerrero and Chavo Guerrero. These six wrestlers would frequently wrestle each other in singles and tag team competition. And whenever they did, the results were some of SmackDown’s greatest matches.
In later years, all of them ended up achieving great success in WWE. All six would win at least one version of the World Championship, three won the Royal Rumble, two of them main-evented WrestleMania, and three of them are celebrated Hall of Famers at the time of this writing with Mysterio a lock to join one day. Only one of them has been all but forgotten, but that whole story has been discussed before and we won’t be getting into it today.
At the time of this match, SmackDown was looking to have its inaugural brand-exclusive WWE Tag Team Champions crowned. A tournament was held, and the finalists would face off at No Mercy to crown the first-ever champions. On one side, Edge and Mysterio were a team of babyfaces that worked very well together. On the other side, Angle and Benoit were feuding with each other, but then-General Manager Stephanie McMahon put them together as a tag team because she ‘wanted the best tag team division in the history of pro wrestling.’ (Wow, it feels weird hearing an on-screen authority figure in WWE trying to give a damn about actual wrestling for once). She put Angle and Benoit together and threatened both of them with one-year suspensions without pay if they failed to work together or attacked each other. But that didn’t stop the constant game of one-upsmanship that continued between the two legendary grapplers.
As a reminder, I am reviewing Five Star wrestling matches (or nearly five-star 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. Meltzer rated this match ****3/4 out of five.
This match took place on October 20, 2002 in Little Rock, Arkansas at the No Mercy 2002 Smackdown brand pay-per-view.
Benoit enters to a solid reaction. Angle gets a big reaction with lots of fans chanting ‘you suck’ at him. Rey gets a decent pop, but it wasn’t that loud, which makes sense given that he was still pretty new to the WWE fans at this point, having debuted back in June of 2002. Edge entered last and got a loud reaction from the crowd.
Angle and Mysterio start things off. They lock up and Angle gets a quick arm drag. Angle gets a quick takedown and starts slapping the back of Mysterio’s head mockingly and trash talks Edge. Angle tosses Mysterio effortlessly and yells at Edge to tag in, but Rey walks up to Angle, refusing to back down from the Olympic Gold Medalist. Angle locks in a rear waistlock and Rey stomps on his foot, which gets a sudden pop from the crowd. Mysterio follows up with a flurry of quick moves, but Angle reverses an Irish whip that sends Rey into a corner. Angle charges, but Mysterio boots him and hits a lightning-quick hurricanrana of sorts, followed by a drop toehold, and then slaps the back of Angle’s head as revenge for before.
Angle chases after Mysterio pissed off, but Rey quickly escapes out of the ring, and then tags in Edge as the crowd cheers. Edge hits a takedown of his own, but Angle out-grapples him into a hammerlock and then a standing headlock. It’s never a good idea to try and out-wrestle the Wrestling Machine. Angle hits a shoulder tackle but runs into a hip toss from Edge followed by an arm drag and a dropkick from the same as well. They have a brief standoff and Benoit tags in. We get a nice technical exchange between them until Edge locks in an armbar on Benoit. Benoit punches his way out of the hold and then locks in a grounded side headlock in the centre of the ring and gets a quick one-count. Edge pushes Benoit off but Benoit hits a huge running shoulder tackle, but then runs into a huge knee lift from Edge.
A standing gutbuster from Edge gets a two-count, as does a standing single-knee backbreaker. Edge stomps away at Benoit but Benoit chops the hell out of Edge’s chest. Edge reverses an Irish whip and hits a flapjack for two. This time it’s Benoit who reverses an Irish whip from Edge, and as Edge runs Angle kicks him in the back while standing on the apron. Edge really didn’t like that because he ducks a clothesline from Benoit and hits a spear on Angle, sending Angle down to ringside.
In the ring, Benoit attempts a German suplex but Edge reverses it into a roll-up attempt, but Benoit kicks out and his momentum sends Edge forward into Angle, who drapes him on the top rope. Benoit clotheslines Edge followed by a neckbreaker, and tags in Angle. Angle stomps away on Edge and the fans start chanting ‘Angle sucks’. Edge tries a comeback and whips Angle, but Angle hits a kneelift of his own for a two-count. Angle locks in a sleeper with bodyscissors as Rey tries to get the fans behind Edge. Edge eventually does get to his feet but Angle whips him into a corner, only to eat a boot from Edge. Sadly, Edge can’t capitalize on this because he eats an overhead belly-to-belly suplex from Angle, who continues to trash talk Rey and tags in Benoit.
Benoit beats Edge up and whips him into the corner and Edge does the Bret Hart forward turnbuckle bump. Benoit assaults Edge relentlessly with strikes before hitting his triple German suplexes and then knocks Mysterio off the apron. Benoit taunts and climbs the top rope, but Edge catches him before he can dive. Edge hits hard strikes to Benoit on the top rope, and then hits a huge superplex off the top rope. Both men are down in the centre of the ring as the audience is begging for Mysterio to get into the ring. Mysterio comes in like a house on fire, knocking Angle off the apron and hits a headscissor takedown on Benoit.
He trips Benoit into the corner and hits a running basement dropkick to Benoit and a standing dropkick to angle, sending angle back out of the ring. He places Benoit in the ropes and hits a springboard guillotine leg drop but Angle breaks the pin at two. Edge comes in and clotheslines Angle and himself out of the ring. Rey tries for his wheelbarrow bulldog, but Benoit blocks it sending Mysterio into the canvas face-first and locks in the Crossface in the centre of the ring.
The fans erupt as Edge breaks up the hold, but Angle drags him out of the ring. Rey dropkicks Benoit into the ropes and attempts the 619, but Benoit catches him and prepares to hit some move, but Edge hits a missile dropkick allowed Mysterio to pin Benoit, but Benoit kicks out at 2.5. Mysterio ascends the rope, but the ref was distracted with Edge, which allowed Angle to come out of nowhere and hit an avalanche belly-to-belly suplex on Mysterio, and then tackles Edge off the apron. Benoit crawls to Rey and pins, but Rey kicks out at 2.5.
Benoit whips Rey into his corner and he and Angle double-team Rey by attacking his back. Angle stomps away on Mysterio’s damaged torso and hits a rib breaker for another 2.5-count. A snap vertical suplex gets another 2.5-count for Angle, who then locks in a front headlock. The fans are cheering and whistling loudly for their hero Mysterio. With Mysterio’s head still locked in, Angle goes for a vertical suplex but Mysterio reverses it into one of his own, only to eat an overhead belly-to-belly for another two-count seconds later.
Angle tags in Benoit again and they double-team Mysterio, and Benoit then hits a huge back body drop for two, followed by a back suplex that also gets two. Benoit chops the hell out of Mysterio’s chest and whips him into the opposite corner. But as Benoit charges, Mysterio gets his feet up to block Benoit’s charge, and using his legs, tosses Benoit into the steel ringpost shoulder-first. Both men crawl to their respective corners and Angle and Edge get tagged in. Edge gets back in and starts his comeback sequence. Edge attacks both Benoit and Angle before back body dropping the latter and hitting a half-nelson facebuster on the former.
Edge hits an inverted mat slam for a two-count but Benoit breaks it up. Edge and Mysterio then double-team Benoit as revenge for before. Edge hits a spear into the corner to Benoit’s gut, followed by a bronco buster from Rey. Edge hits another spear to Angle in another corner and places angle on the top turnbuckle, and then he and Rey to an aided leapfrog hurricanrana onto angle from the top rope. Wow, that was amazing.
The crowd explodes as Edge goes for the pin, but as the referee starts counting, Benoit does hit diving headbutt from the opposite corner. But Edge has him scouted and moves, leading Benoit to head-butt Angle instead. Great ring awareness, there. Mysterio kicks Benoit out of the ring and Edge covers Angle, but Angle kicks out at 2.8 as the crowd erupts in cheers. Edge picks Angle up, but Angle hits a German suplex out of nowhere. But as Angle prepares to hit a move, Edge tosses a running Mysterio boot-first into Angle, sending Angle down. Edge prepares for the spear but Benoit appears and locks in the Crossface. Edge crawls to the bottom rope, but Benoit keeps it locked in. Then, out of nowhere, Rey hits the 619 onto Benoit’s head while the Crossface is still locked in. Amazing sequence.
Then Angle reappears and hits a huge Angle Slam onto Mysterio and locks in the Ankle Lock onto Edge, but Edge kicks out and tries a roll-up, yet Angle still manages to escape at 2.8. Wow, this is nuts. Edge hits a running spear and pins Angle but Benoit pulls Edge off. Mysterio appears and kicks Benoit out of the ring. Then Mysterio runs and flips himself onto Edge’s shoulders so that he’s in a powerbomb position, and Edge then catapults Mysterio onto Benoit who’s outside of the ring. Insane! Edge goes for the Edgecution but Angle reverses it into the Ankle Lock, but Edge reverses that into an Ankle Lock of his own, and Angle reverses again back into his own, and Edge taps out in the centre of the ring.
Winners and inaugural WWE Tag Team Champions after 22:03: Kurt Angle & Chris Benoit
What a fantastic match. That was one of the best tag team bouts WWE has ever produced, if not the best. In fact, there hasn’t been one single tag team match in WWE better than this one in over 17 years. Everything about this match was excellent: the pacing, the structure, the storytelling, the psychology, the reversals, the dramatic near-falls, all of it. Everyone looked great in this match, and all of them left the match better than how they came in. all four wrestlers looked like true main-eventers once it was over. This was Paul Heyman’s smart booking at its finest.
I loved how the rivalries were showcased in this match. Angle and Benoit tried to prove to each other who was the better man, and both Mysterio and Edge had good reasons to hate their opponents. That translated into excellent wrestling sequences, technical reversals and unbelievable drama.
What was also great was the twofold disadvantage the babyfaces had. Mysterio was the smallest man from a physical standpoint, so he had to compensate by using his agility and speed. There was also Edge who, despite being the largest man in the ring physically, was also the least-skilled relative to the other three participants (although he had been wrestling longer than Kurt Angle, Angle was simply on another level completely as a grappler). In other words, Edge and Mysterio had to fight from underneath against two of the best in-ring technicians WWE had to offer.
Final Rating: *****
It’s very rare that you find a wrestling match in which everything meshes together so perfectly. This match featured four outstanding wrestlers working incredibly well together, telling a phenomenal story featuring dramatic near-falls, which created a mesmerizing and unpredictable wrestling match, in front of a great crowd that loved every minute. It was the perfect tag team match. WWE should allow wrestlers to put on performances like this more often. If they did, they’d have one of the best tag team divisions in the entire industry.