This October WWE Smackdown moves to the FOX network. New cameras, new set, a whole new attitude is nigh for the WWE’s second longest weekly episodic program. The show officially debuted on August 26, 1999 to great excitement, great fanfare, great publicity and in my neck of the woods great crickets.
The Monday Night Wars were nearly over. The Big Show and Chris Jericho had jumped to WWE from WCW. Steve Austin, the Rock, Mankind, and this young up and comer named Triple H were all helping WWE Monday Night Raw take back the crown. WCW’s bloated roster was given the opportunity for even more exposure – a second show on their sister station. WCW Thunder premeired on Thursday January 8, 1998.
While an equally exciting show at first, Thunder became a casualty of guaranteed contracts. None of the top stars wanted to work Tuesdays (when Thunder was taped). The ratings started to decline, and as WWE was taking back Monday Nights a chance to doubly defeat their nefarious enemy was hatched.
The brand new network, UPN (United Paramount Network) was struggling worse than WCW. Their biggest hit was Star Trek Voyager, which wasn’t reaching the levels of success other shows in the franchise had. Meanwhile, Vince McMahon and the WWE have always wanted the respect of being on network TV instead of cable. Saturday Night’s Main Event on NBC was long over. WWE was stuck on USA and various syndicated shows. Even though UPN was a new upstart network that couldn’t be seen in all markets, it was still considered a network. Smackdown debuted on UPN during the height of Attitude Era popularity and immediately became UPN’s biggest show. Wrestling was credited with saving the fledgling network.
In the summer of 1999, UPN fell into a perfect time in WWE programming. There were many great memorable WWE stories happening at the time. Adding a second night to the stories gave everyone more exposure and brought a new audience discovering wrestling on UPN over to USA on Mondays. Chris Jericho had Howard Finkel as his lackey. Jeff Jarrett and Chyna were feuding, which would lead to Chyna being the first woman to hold the Intercontinental title. The Undertaker was teaching the horribly green giant, the Big Show, how to be a monster. Al Snow and the Big Boss Man fought over a chihuahua named Pepper. The virginal innocent Stephanie McMahon accepting Test’s marriage proposal. But by far the most memorable, and to me the most upsetting part of it all, was Triple H.
Earlier in the week, Triple H had a WWE world title match at the SummerSlam pay per view. Hunter one on one with the champion, Stone Cold Steve Austin. Until it wasn’t. At the last moment, Mick Foley aka Mankind was added to the match. Furthermore, he won the match. In what the wrestling world assumed was the inevitable coronation of Triple H, another man won the title. Rumors swirled at the time and still today that Austin made the call he wasn’t going to lose to Hunter Hearst Helmsley. The decision was made to put the title on Mankind at SummerSlam, and then have Foley lose to Hunter the next night on Raw.
It was Triple H with his longtime girlfriend Chyna against Mankind. Yes, Foley was the good guy. But the fans were on their feet for it. The same man who lost his push and was booked to look like a fool for over a year because he gave his friends a hug goodbye. That internet darling who was kept down by the man. Was finally going to get his chance in the spotlight. The referee is knocked down. A heel Shane McMahon runs down and makes the count. Triple H is the new champion in his first reign. And he celebrates with… Shane McMahon. Not a moment with Chyna who bled, sweat, and was broken alongside him for years.
On the debut SmackDown though Triple H would have his moment. He walks out as the champion and cuts an overly long but deserved promo about his struggles. It took him forever to get here but now that he is, he’s staying on top. Nothing can knock him down.
If you smell what the Rock is cooking.
The Rock comes out and challenges Triple H for later in the evening. The Rock. Alongside Steve Austin, the most popular wrestler of the time. The 1 and 2 spot would change from night to night. But Austin was winding down and the Rock was rising. Mankind just lost the title in one day. It didn’t appear that Triple H had the support of the company. Then Shawn Michaels shows up.
This was during Shawn’s retirement era. He left, Triple H formed a new DeGeneration X. Now Hunter is mostly on his own, chasing the title. Meanwhile, Michaels comes back as the Commissioner of WWE. The on camera boss who makes matches and decides the fates of the talent. Historically, this position works best and leads to more interesting stories if a heel is in charge. But HBK was different. He supported the good guys, gave them multiple chances to balance the scales of good and evil. His former best friend was the new bad guy champion. All looked lost for Triple H. Especially when Shawn Michaels named himself the special referee.
A classic Rock vs HHH match takes place. Pay per view level quality on the very first SmackDown. Hunter is down and fans accept they are about to see the latest in a long line of transitional champions. Hunter is doomed to be an after thought alongside Wildfire Tommy Rich. The Rock poses to start the People’s Elbow. Bounced off one side of the ring. Off the opposite ropes. And right into a Shawn Michaels superkick!
Triple H gets the win. His best friend has turned heel in order to save his newborn title reign. The two celebrate along with… Shane McMahon.
Twenty years later and this still bothers me. It’s the rare wrestler that has a partner, a friend, any bond that is so close fans know it to be real and true. New Day embracing Kofi Kingston. Zack Ryder’s dad jumping over the barricade to hug his son. Hunter with either Chyna or Shawn. Not Shane.
It’s ironic in hindsight to see the next twenty years of wrestling, and at least twenty after that set up on this episode. Test falling for Stephanie was a beautiful innocent story. He had to win the approval of the McMahon family. Stephanie seemed like just a wide eyed kid at the time. Doe eyed and in love. The story took a turn when it was revealed Triple H had drugged and married Stephanie. The two spent so much time together in stories they fell in love, got married, and are now heir apparent to the entire WWE empire. Soon to be on network TV once again.
There were so many great matches and stories that took place in these early years and I got to see none of them. Fun side story. In my hometown a local businessman bought up a bunch of TV equipment then got the station letters and franchise license to be the UPN affiliate for the area. Problem is, he tried to start a competing cable service years earlier. The cable company refused to carry his station. Unofficially out of spite, but officially under a variety of reasons just to keep it tied up in courts. The only way to actually watch SmackDown was to hook up rabbit ears antenna and cross your fingers. Which was also near impossible to record on the VCR. There are many times where I knew what was going to happen on SmackDown thanks to it being taped on Tuesday and would plan out my Thursday night in order to be in front of the antenna from 8-10 PM.