WWE’s Class Of 2002: Two Decades of Dominance, Inside and Outside the Ring

It’s hard to look past the Ohio Valley Wrestling Class of 2002 as one of WWE’s greatest ever achievements
08:55, 05 Jun 2022

In 2002, just over a year removed from the ‘Monday Night Wars’ between his World Wrestling Federation and the Ted Turner backed World Championship Wrestling, Vincent Kennedy McMahon was left with arguably more than he had ever had at his disposal.

The Rock was back from Hollywood, Steve Austin’s disastrous heel turn had thankfully been reversed, Triple H could finally boast a freshly-repaired quad after seven months between surgeon’s tables and rehab while Chris Jericho shined his newly acquired Undisputed World Heavyweight Title belts, Kurt Angle continued to evolve into a generational talent and Edge, Jeff Hardy and Rob Van Dam felt primed for breakout years en route to what would surely be regular main event features. Oh, and the New World Order (OG lineup of Hulk Hogan, Kevin Nash and the late Scott Hall), one of the most wildly popular, money making factions in professional wrestling history, had just re-signed with the company.

Yet the atmosphere emanating from the old New York territory was stale and tinged with frustration and misery. The NWO reunion, albeit briefer than Bushwhacker Luke in the Royal Rumble, alienated a once unified dressing room and did nothing to restore flagging ratings. The Rock was only a few months away from finishing up his final full time schedule for a career in Hollywood, Jericho’s title reign ended abruptly and his main event moment evaporated, along with the prospects of the aforementioned Edge, Hardy and Van Dam, who were sidelined by a combination of injury, release and alleged backstage politics. In June, Austin walked out on the company.

Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson

‘Stone Cold’s’ would-be opponent the night of his disappearance was a 25-year-old Brock Lesnar. Heralded as ‘The Next Big Thing’, Lesnar had debuted a couple of months previously under the management of Paul Heyman and was equipped with the proverbial rocket strapped to his back, aimed squarely at the newly rebranded WWE Title. The idea had been for Lesnar to dispatch The Texas Rattlesnake in swift fashion in a King of The Ring qualifier on Monday Night Raw. Given that there was no build up or fanfare attached to what should have been a pay-per-view main event dream match, Austin, already severely disillusioned with the company’s creative, bailed and wasn’t seen again until February 2003.

Twenty years later and both he and Lesnar respectively headlined each night of this year’s WrestleMania in Dallas, Texas. Austin in a historic comeback bout against Kevin Owens and Lesnar in a losing effort to Roman Reigns in a World Title unification match. Austin has been in the  WWE Hall of Fame for 13 years while Lesnar is a shoo-in for such an honour at some point in the not-too-distant future. As are three other superstars who debuted alongside him in 2002.

As the Attitude Era was replaced with ‘Ruthless Aggression’ so were many of the faces we were accustomed to seeing every week on Raw and SmackDown. A couple of weeks after Lesnar tornado’d his way through Monday Night Raw for the first time, a third generation talent with the face, physique and cocksure expression of the villainous jock in an American High School drama, upset peroxide haired veteran Hardcore Holly on an episode of SmackDown. Two months later, a red trunked prototype with a damp buzzcut almost upstaged Kurt Angle during one of the Olympic Gold medalist’s open challenges. Randy Orton and John Cena had arrived.

Among the big reveals of what the McMahon family hoped would be their franchise players for years to come came the premiere appearance of an altogether more interesting character by the moniker of ‘Deacon Batista’. Armed with a collection box and a questionable sleeveless suit jacket, this Leviathan was the muscle for the newly rechristened Reverend D-Von Dudley. Whereas Lesnar, Orton and Cena were flung into positions of prominence from a young age, the 33-year-old Dave Bautista, it’s safe to say, was not.

Dave Batista
Dave Batista

To appreciate the impact this quartet have had on not just the wrestling industry, but pop culture and combat sport as a whole, is to sit down, exhale and allow your mind to be boggled for the next 20 years. When all four men graduated from former WWE developmental territory Ohio Valley Wrestling in 2002, no one was expecting future Bond villain roles, rap albums, record shattering UFC pay-per-view buyrates and title reigns, Marvel and DC Universe franchises, viral memes and Academy Award nominated work. Yet here we are, with Suicide Squad’s Peacemaker sitting alongside Drax The Destroyer from Guardians of the Galaxy as former WWE Champions, both coronated on the same night - April 3rd, 2005, at WrestleMania 21. They would contest the WWE Title against each other five years later, with Cena dethroning his Marvel favouring foe via submission.

Yet that fateful night in 2005 was also further proof that, really, we should never have ended up here. Cena, after all, was days away from being released at the tail end of 2002, his initial push dissipating and trajectory headed south until an impromptu tour bus freestyle was eavesdropped by Stephanie McMahon and the rest is history. Orton, meanwhile, came up short in a losing effort against The Undertaker on that night in Los Angeles, before requiring time off for shoulder surgery. The man who had usurped Lesnar as the youngest World Champion in WWE history just eight months previously was proving himself not only to be unfortunately injury prone (having undergone similar layoffs in 2002 and 2003) but also prone to self destruction, constantly running afoul of WWE’s upper management and landing himself suspensions and creative rewrites where once promising pushes were scaled back until more maturity could come to the fore.

While Orton’s reported backstage behaviours threatened to plateau his promise, Lesnar was already long gone by 2005. A year had passed since ‘The Next Big Thing’ was booed out of Madison Square Garden at WrestleMania 20. Done with the toil of pro wrestling and pissed off at everyone involved with it, Lesnar instead left the company who he had once favoured over potential Olympic glory as a dominant NCAA wrestling champion and headed for the NFL. Yet a career in the gridiron never materialised, with the Minnesota Vikings cutting the future ‘Beast’ from their roster before the season began. A handful of legally problematic appearances in New Japan Pro Wrestling saw Lesnar further distance himself from a potential comeback after talks over just that happening in 2005 broke down. Instead, the squared circle was traded for the octagon and, within 11 months of signing with the UFC, Lesnar was their heavyweight champion, pummelling the legendary Randy Couture over two brutal, victorious rounds.

Brock Lesnar
Brock Lesnar

Four years, three more victories, two losses and a debilitating bout of diverticulitis later and Lesnar was going head-to-head with Cena, himself now staring down the barrel of a part time schedule after a buyrate breaking WrestleMania main event against The Rock. A couple of years later and Ohio Valley’s most famous graduates would all be serving as the elder statesmen for WrestleMania 30, cementing themselves further into history in a myriad of ways.

A returning Batista was roundly booed by a disapproving WWE audience, pre-Guardians of The Galaxy success, who saw him as a part-time interloper doing nothing other than further derailing the WWE World Heavyweight Title push of the beloved Daniel Bryan. Both ‘The Animal’ and Orton main evented, alongside Bryan, in New Orleans that night, but it was further down the card, where a certain Streak came to an earth shattering end, that the real headlines were made.

But before Lesnar and Heyman had laughed their way out of the Big Easy, leaving a stunned, silent crowd to observe a prone, defeated Undertaker, Cena had assumed his place as main event gatekeeper, going over Bray Wyatt in one of the most highly publicised matches on the card. And while the former ‘Doctor of Thuganomics’ who could once count himself lucky merely to be dropping a pre-show freestyle at WrestleMania 19, wasn’t particularly popular for pinning Wyatt’s shoulders to the mat that night, there was now a much grander appreciation of his talents than there had been when he first became the face of the company almost a decade previously.

The next night, Batista and Orton would turn the clock back 10 years and reform Evolution, the faction that brought them so much superstardom and much needed experience and exposure, with Triple H. This full circle moment may not have lasted long, but when the pair once again stood side-by-side, four years later during another reunion on the 1000th episode of SmackDown, it was clear how important their respective legacies were. 

Orton may not have enjoyed the extra-curricular success that Batista - with his Guardians of the Galaxy superstardom - has, but while his former running buddy was plying his trade in Oscar nominated works such as Blade Runner 2049 and Dune, Orton was building an almost unsurpassed legacy inside the ring, stacking up World Title reigns and working with the next generation so when the day comes that he finally does drop his final RKO, outta nowhere, he can rest assured that his former workplace is in capable hands. And he’s still got the mania of his finishing move becoming an almost decade long meme to point to if anyone dares debate his appeal outside of the ring. And let us not forget his outrageous Twitter beef with Soulja Boy, last summer. If you’re still wondering, yes, that really did happen.

Randy Orton
Randy Orton

Cena’s comeback for a programme against Undisputed Universal Champion and current main roster overlord Roman Reigns ended in a perfectly suitable manner after he came up short against the Tribal Chief at SummerSlam, last August. A victorious Reigns was confronted by a returning Lesnar, all vested up, top knotted and ready to scrap.

The champ and future challenger would avoid coming to blows that night, which instead saw The Beast turn his attention to the downed Cena, his longtime rival and opponent for several of his greatest, most memorable outings. Lesnar tossed Cena around the ring with a plethora of German suplexes and F5s. As the crowd roared their approval, you could almost imagine Cena grinning to himself, telling Brock ‘go on, just one more for old time sake. Let’s play the hits, big man’. The pair’s chemistry showed no signs of ageing, 18 years after their first encounter, when Lesnar successfully defended his newly won WWE Title against a then heel Cena, at Backlash 2003.

With over 40 world title reigns between the four of them, multiple motion pictures, TV series’, internet vitality and decorations in other combat sports that were not matched until Conor McGregor arrived on the scene (just have yourself a look at Lesnar’s UFC PPV buyrate record), it’s hard to look past the Ohio Valley Wrestling Class of 2002 as one of WWE’s greatest, and most important, ever achievements. Twenty years on from their respective debuts, they still feel as relevant as ever. Here’s to another 20…

You can enjoy all of the Class of 2002's work exclusively on the WWE Network

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