365 matches in 365 days, each from that specific date on the calendar? Challenge accepted. Welcome to 365 Wrestling.
Underrated and unappreciated.
These are just a few of the words I would choose to describe how Shelton Benjamin has been used — or not used — in WWE.
Shelton caught my eye in a dark match before watching RAW in Knoxville in the spring of 2001. His legitimate wrestling background combined with some freakish feats of athleticism always made him stand out to me. We all have our personal favorites, and he’s one of mine.
He’s also in action in this, the 37th installment of 365 Wrestling, pairing with Charlie Haas in the still-new-to-WWE Team Angle gimmick against Los Guerreros with the WWE Tag Titles on the line.
Now that the WWE Network has migrated to Peacock, where, at the time of this writing, only the last three years of SmackDown are available, fret not. You still can find this match on Dailymotion, or embedded below:
Benjamin and Haas spent the bulk of their time in WWE’s developmental system working in tag teams, but not with each other. They started teaming together in the fall of 2002 in dark matches, then made their televised debut on the 12/27/02 episode of SmackDown as backup for Kurt Angle, playing off their legitimate athletic credentials. Both wrestled in college–Haas at Seton Hall and Benjamin at Minnesota, where he was a two-time All-American. New to the main roster, Haas and Benjamin made a quick rise in the tag division, getting this title shot after defeating Edge and Chris Benoit the preceding week thanks to some help from Angle himself.
Eddy Guerrero and Chavo Guerrero, Jr., are the reigning champs, winning the titles in an excellent three-way match at Survivor Series the prior November. They’ve made four televised defenses heading into this match.
This match serves as a classic example of how to establish a new act as an immediate, credible presence in a promotion. Haas and Benjamin are the rookies (or, presented that way, even though Haas started wrestling professionally back in 1996) but they have instant credibility due to their amateur backgrounds, which Michael Cole and Tazz take great pains to tout on commentary. Cole goes the standard route with resume-reading, while Tazz points out specific things the challengers are doing and techniques they are displaying that make them a threat to the Guerreros.
In a traditional match layout in American wrestling, the fan favorites outwrestle the heels, who have to take shortcuts to seize the advantage. This match flips the script. Despite their experience edge, the champs are unable to outwrestle their pesky young challengers. Instead, it’s Eddy and Chavo using the dirty tricks and pulling out all the stops to take control — after all, “lie, cheat, and steal” was the Guerrero credo at this point.
We watched another tag title match on SmackDown in the January portion of the project, and this match exceeds that one in almost every aspect. The work is superior: with more athleticism and more intensity. The early mat wrestling occurs with a purpose, unlike many instances in the last 20 years where such exchanges come off like a feeling-out process or — my pet peeve — a cooperative affair where one wrestler has a hold but is then waiting, or even assisting, in what becomes a showcase of reversals.
The titles seem like more of a prize here, as well. Both sides go for pin attempts early and often with frequent tags by each team. Overall, a greater sense of urgency is created that adds significantly to the overall presentation.
These four wrestlers aren’t trying to reinvent the wheel. The true heat segment begins after a collision between Shelton and the referee knocks the official into Chavo, launching him into the commentary table at ringside. When Eddy makes the inevitable hot tag, he never leaves his feet during the initial comeback, still cleaning house on the challengers, flinging Shelton out of the ring and even taking a kick at Paul Heyman, who is in Team Angle’s corner.
The match builds to its biggest moves at the end. Superplexes from the top rope. Frog splashes. Dives, or falls, from the top rope to the floor. The drama heightens, with a couple of very credible false finishes along the way, but after all the big moves, some confusion by the champions about who the legal man is leaves Eddy prey to a rolling cradle by Haas that ends the match and Los Guerreros’ title reign.
–Team Angle spent most of their time in WWE developmental in tag divisions, but not with one another. In Ohio Valley Wrestling, Benjamin paired with Brock Lesnar, followed by a team with Redd Dogg (better known as Rodney Mack, after Lesnar got called up to the main roster. Meanwhile, in WWE’s other developmental territory, Heartland Wrestling Alliance, Haas was teaming with his brother, Russ Haas, until Russ’ untimely death in 2001.
–Is that a Burberry scarf that Heyman is rocking at ringside? Perhaps this gave early inspiration to MJF, who was 6 years old at the time of this match, by the way.
–Speaking of Heyman, at one point he starts screaming bloody murder as Shelton gets choked with the tag rope in the corner by the Guerreros. It adds to the moment.
Final Rating: 6.7
This is an all-action tag match with real stakes, a creative finish, and it’s historically significant as it marks the start of the first title reign for Benjamin and Haas. Any booker could take a lesson from the way Team Angle gets presented, and built up quickly as contenders, then champions, but without having them shoved down the throats of the audience.
An exciting take on a longstanding narrative trope: the young up-and-comer looking to make a name against an established veteran.