Professional wrestling has been an industry cultivated by change. In WWE—and for 13 years, in the competing World Championship Wrestling—wrestling has adapted to the times.
The Monday Night Wars—starting in 1995 when WCW got a competitive time slot against WWE's weekly show, Raw, and concluding January 2001—are revered as the peak of pro wrestling's popularity. Ratings ascended to record highs, placing a pop culture lens over what Vince McMahon and Eric Bischoff were doing at the time.
This era transformed the business in a way industry experts and fans couldn't have imagined prior. The Monday Night Wars forced wrestling into more of a reality-centric direction and helped turn superstars into global commodities, as WCW and WWE duked it out for supremacy. This type of competitive atmosphere bred loyal fanbases.
When the bottom fell out from WCW, and WWE purchased the company in March 2001, the wars were over. McMahon had won.
Buried under all the media attention handed to the Monday Night Wars was a Philadelphia-based promotion, dubbed Extreme Championship Wrestling. Led by longtime industry disruptor Paul Heyman, ECW refused to be ignored, despite a constant battle against two billionaires with massive television deals.
Heyman and his roster fought tooth and nail for a slice of the MTV generation's attention. ECW management featured violence and organically built-up, compelling characters, gave future superstars a chance and produced high-quality matches, all on a budget that paled in comparison to that of WWE and WCW.
This recipe birthed a cult following of rabid fans who lived and breathed all things Extreme. It also in many ways inspired WWE's Attitude Era—the formula that helped put WCW out of commission. Financial challenges led to ECW's filing for bankruptcy in April 2001. McMahon, understanding its eternal value, gobbled up trademarks and assets—the most valuable asset being Heyman himself.
Lost in the celebratory bubbles of champagne was a sustainable direction for WWE and a way to bring longtime WCW and ECW fans into this newly formed and mighty large tent. After a failed invasion angle didn't register with fans, WWE became desperate for change.
Faced with a dilemma, McMahon splintered off his two signature shows—SmackDown and Raw—into stand-alone brands in March 2002. The original brand-extension draft took place March 25 of that year and shortly after, Heyman was handed the keys to guide SmackDown's creative team.
This is the oral history of Heyman's SmackDown Six. An era represented by Chris Benoit, Edge, Eddie Guerrero, Kurt Angle, Chavo Guerrero, Rey Mysterio and countless other stars.
Paul Heyman: Current WWE talent and former SmackDown lead writer, 2002–03.
David Lagana: Former WWE SmackDown writer, 2002–2003. SmackDown lead writer, 2003–06.
Bruce Prichard: Former WWE producer, director and SmackDown writer.
Taz: Former ECW/WWE superstar and SmackDown commentator. Current host of The Taz Show.
Dreams of a Brand Extension
Vince McMahon hurled a thick porterhouse on the grill, decanted a bottle of merlot and invited left-in-the-cold wrestling fans over to his Greenwich, Connecticut, mansion after Ted Turner's promotion closed up shop. The invite-only dinner party was presented by WWE's creative team in the form of an invasion angle, unfolding on screen in March 2001.
The concept was based on an infiltration from WCW and ECW stars into WWE's turf, turning the longtime Monday Night Wars into a workable, on-screen storyline. Backstage, there was even a plan to build two separate programming schedules. One for WWE and one for WCW.
Bruce Prichard: We had talked about the brand split going back to the WCW purchase. The idea was to have WCW be on Mondays and WWE on Thursdays.
The proverbial steak dinner offered up by McMahon didn't go according to plan. What was supposed to be a gesture of hospitality instead garnered a negative reaction.
David Lagana: 2002 was probably the most tumultuous year in the history of the company. It was also the most talented time period. When WCW closed, it really hurt audience size. People were loyal. Like drinking Coke or Pepsi. What ran them off was the invasion. It didn't have the people they wanted. The goal of splitting the brand was to try and create that.
Prichard: People identified with real stars. [Hulk] Hogan, [Kevin] Nash, [Ric] Flair, Sting, Goldberg. None of those guys came because they had big-money deals with Time Warner.
Heyman: The heyday of the Monday Night Wars talent didn't come in all at once. Hulk Hogan, NWO, Sting, Ric Flair, Scott Steiner, Goldberg and Eric Bischoff himself. Without the top-branded stars en masse, and without Bischoff being presented as management, the public just wasn't buying it.
WWE's inability to secure working contracts with WCW's biggest stars rendered the invasion and a long-term concept of having two companies obsolete. Rather than ditch the idea, McMahon and Co. went back into the kitchen and shifted their focus to rebranding from within.
The Brand Extension Begins: February 2002
Heyman: You have to understand the mindset of the chairman, who made the decision. The word "split" was not allowed. That's not just a "drink the Kool-Aid situation." That was Vince's fervent belief: This was a brand extension, a brand expansion.
Prichard: We actually were planning on doing a split when SmackDown first started. The thought that we could have two shows. We had a lot of young talent that was on the verge of breaking through at the time.
Lagana: I remember reading Wade Keller or someone writing about a draft possibly happening at a double Madison Square Garden show in January 2002. When Hunter—Triple H—came back. Vince first brought up the brand extension at No Way Out 2002. My first day working for WWE.
Taz: I believe it was around 2002. I don't remember the timeframe exactly. So many shows and meetings then, but I probably heard it a few weeks before—No Way Out—at a production meeting at Raw.
Prichard: The thing was, in order for the shows to be different, and also, this is something you can go back to the original pitch on WCW vs. WWE. The idea was we would have completely different creative teams, marketing teams and everything. They wouldn't mingle or share ideas. It would truly be competitive.
Heyman: The decision to go with Raw vs. SmackDown was made when we got past WrestleMania in 2002. There was no competition, and Vince was of the belief that competition brings out the best in everybody. It certainly does in him. With the lack of upward mobility in new talent, he decided to pull the trigger that Raw and SmackDown would be two distinct, unique brands.
March 25, 2002: WWE's Brand-Extension Draft
In the world of kayfabe, the brand extension went down because of Mr. McMahon and Flair each owning 50 percent of WWE. Therefore, the "board" decided it was best to divvy up the roster by having a lottery-style draft take place on March 25, 2002. McMahon would be awarded SmackDown while Flair gained control of Raw. The decision shook up the way WWE had done business.
Lagana: Heyman and I actually produced a piece of content with Linda McMahon announcing the draft. It was shot in an office in the Toronto SkyDome before WrestleMania X8.
Taz: The wrestlers that I spoke with in the locker room at that time felt like it was a great opportunity to not be fighting for a "push" or TV time. Basically, it was another opportunity and more airtime for everyone.
Lagana: Top guys always knew where they were going in the draft beforehand. They were always taken care of.
Prichard: Some guys knew and some guys didn't. Vince wanted a genuine reaction. "Don't let them know." But there were people who knew.
WWE's brand extension wasn't simply about forming competing shows. It was done because of mounting pressure from UPN—the network that hosted SmackDown since its inception in April 1999.
Heyman: SmackDown was in serious trouble. It was relegated to being the B show, even by internal WWE standards. Dean Valentine at UPN was strongly considering not renewing the show. SD was in peril. If not a cancellation, a non-renewal. Something had to be done to save that brand.
SmackDown Gets Serious: May 2002
Despite the unfolding of the draft on television in late March, WWE didn't officially break apart the writing teams until early May 2002.
Lagana: We had a conference call on Easter Sunday. It ran from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. about Raw. SmackDown wasn't getting any real attention paid to it. That's what led to the writing teams being split.
Heyman: I know that Stephanie was very concerned because the writing team was catching heat from the UPN network regarding SmackDown. Stephanie was accountable to Vince for the writing team. So, when Vince would offer criticism regarding the lack of attention given to SmackDown, Stephanie brought up the fact we had just spent eight hours on Raw and possibly 30 to 40 minutes on SmackDown. We're not giving this brand any attention.
Lagana: Stephanie and Vince made the final decision. SmackDown was Heyman, Michael Hayes and myself. Paul was the lead writer of the show. Vince was in charge of everything.
Prichard: Paul was put in that position to be the man.
With multiple weekly television programs to produce and constant travel days, finding time to write and pitch the boss wasn't easy. This became an obstacle for SmackDown's writing team.
Lagana: SmackDown was being written Tuesday mornings. We would go to Vince's hotel room at 8 a.m. the day of and then write the show. Literally from scratch.
Prichard: SmackDown meetings would be scheduled for Friday. The writing and creative teams were always the last ones to see and pitch Vince. Vince's focus was always, "What's next in front of me?"
Oftentimes those meetings wouldn't happen or they would be delayed. With McMahon's attention drifting toward Raw, SmackDown's crew would have to present a framework of the show on Fridays, then fill in the blanks once the boss was ready to go Tuesday mornings. It was grueling, but as anyone would tell you, this was business as usual in the WWE.
Prichard: The perception was Tuesday was the first time Vince ever looked at the shows.
Lagana: All the writers still had to be at both shows, regardless of the writing teams in order to produce content. Paul, Michael and I would work on different segments for SmackDown during the week.
Within all of the chaos, Heyman's version of SmackDown had started to materialize on screen. However, circumstances suddenly changed, forcing Vince McMahon to alter the entire brand-extension storyline.
Everything Changes When Stone Cold Walks Out
The story of Stone Cold Steve Austin's walking out on the company has been discussed since it happened. Part of the conflict began when Raw lead writer Brian Gerwitz pitched a script to McMahon on a Sunday conference call. McMahon was beside himself about the proposed show and demanded a new approach.
Gerwitz came up with the concept of having Brock Lesnar go over Austin—defeating him. McMahon agreed and the plan was set in motion. This was crucial at the time, because not only was Gerwitz pitching a finish, he was tethering his brand to Lesnar, and by association, Heyman.
After countless attempts to try to reach Austin, Jim Ross, who was head of talent relations at the time, received word Austin wasn't coming to work. To pitch a concept having the company's biggest star lose, without getting his input, was enough to rattle the industry.
Austin went home, and McMahon was forced to spend his time addressing the Raw brand—WWE's flagship program. This gave Heyman and his team the creative freedom they were looking for. An opening to do business in a new way.
Lagana: The day Austin walked out, we had to replace the main event on Raw. Vince knew something needed to be done. The decision was made to do him versus Flair. It was off-the-cuff. There was no long-term planning in that discussion.
Prichard: It was probably out of frustration. Steve walking out forced Vince's hand. But he always has these ideas of what he wants to do. Sometimes it takes an incident to push him over the edge.
McMahon decided to address the audience directly, explaining WWE's side of the story on a June 17, 2002, edition of Raw.
Heyman: When Austin walked out, WWE made the move to not only put out their side of the story, but also try to discredit whatever Austin's version was going to be. Vince McMahon's mantra is "be proactive, not reactive."
The SmackDown Six Is Born
With Austin gone, McMahon and the writing teams had to adjust. McMahon awarded former WCW head honcho Eric Bischoff kayfabe control of Raw, while McMahon's daughter Stephanie ran SmackDown. Along with a change in general managers, WWE also introduced an open contract period, allowing talent to forgo the draft. In kayfabe terms, this meant superstars could sign with any brand they wanted, creating a war between Bischoff's Raw and McMahon's SmackDown. Backstage, the idea of talent swapping turned into the perfect formula for Heyman to field his dream roster.
Lagana: The writing teams—Raw and SmackDown—discussed who wanted who. I wished we had filmed it. It was the closest thing to real sports at the time.
Prichard: Paul was very high on Chris Benoit and wanted him bad. Brian had a great relationship with [Chris] Jericho and the UnAmericans: Christian, Test and Lance Storm. Paul used Brian's relationship with Jericho and Christian to get Benoit. He manipulated the situation to get what he wanted.
Lagana: While giving up Jericho was hard, Paul saw the potential with Benoit and Eddie [Guerrero].
Heyman: Edge was going to be our first SmackDown-branded singles superstar. He was going to emerge from the pack. We needed people who could work with Edge. We needed people to work with John Cena, who was my first draft pick from OVW, and obviously, we needed people who we could ultimately match up against Brock Lesnar. We also needed Eddie Guerrero. He was being used a raw meat for the NWO on Raw, but SmackDown was gaining traction with the Latino audience. We had [Rey] Mysterio and needed more for that demographic. Eddie was a major key to our strategy. We needed Eddie. Even if it cost us Jericho.
Prichard: Paul was a unique talent that could accentuate positives. That was shown during his ECW days.
The plot to build a proper SmackDown roster didn't end with the arrival of Benoit and Guerrero. It was also important to create young superstars. Athletes fans could connect with. Ohio Valley Wrestling, WWE's minor league system at the time, facilitated this. McMahon gave his writers a chance to acquire talent. He allowed Raw and SmackDown to raid the OVW rosters in the form of a backstage draft. The stakes were high.
Heyman: Cena was my first draft pick from OVW. Raw had the first pick. I was apoplectic about it because I thought for sure they were going to pick Cena. If I remember this right, Lagana and I went out to lunch and I threw the biggest D-bag hissy fit you can imagine because I was sure Brian was going to draft John.
He didn't. Cena debuted against Kurt Angle on a June 27 edition of SmackDown during an open-challenge segment. He gained traction with the crowd and almost escaped with a win.
Lagana: The open-challenge idea was pitched for John. We originally asked: What if John went over Angle? It was better, looking back, that John didn't go over.
Heyman: It turned Vince against Cena. We came out of the box so fast with him. Vince felt we were pushing him too fast, to where Cena was on the chopping block.
Eventually, McMahon became enamored with Cena, and the now-16-time WWE champion became a staple of Heyman's SmackDown.
Taz: Let me put it this way: I'm speaking politically. There were some people that were not in John's corner, but Vince believed in him. I realized right away how much charisma John had and his ability on the microphone.
Lagana: I think everybody when they saw Cena, they saw a young Sting. Untapped potential, could talk and looked great.
Prichard: What I saw in John Cena from day one was a desire to be the best. He was so tickled to be a part of the roster.
SmackDown's Glory Days
Crowds across the country fell in love with these new stars. One of the guys who took advantage of this was Mysterio. He signed with WWE in June 2002 after a lengthy tenure with WCW, where his character was generally relegated to the cruiserweight scene.
Lagana: Rey wasn't supposed to be that successful. He was supposed to be a cruiserweight.
Prichard: It was initially looked at as having a great attraction. I don't think anyone saw that Rey would be as big as he became.
Taz: Rey's arrival was huge! It was built up and pushed with vignettes. And yes, I personally believed he was going to be a big star.
Prichard: You can't keep talent down. Rey came in and took over. There was never a thought before he came that he would go on to become WWE champion.
With Benoit, both Guerreros—Eddie and Chavo—Mysterio, Angle, Cena and Edge carrying Team Blue, SmackDown was able to consistently unload quality programming onto a national stage. Adding another layer to this core was Randy Orton and Batista: two future WWE megastars, both fighting to reach the top.
Heyman: We drafted Randy. It's not like we lucked into Randy. This was an intentional draft pick. I think everyone knew right away that Randy was going to be a top-line WrestleMania main eventer for many years to come.
Lagana: Orton had the legacy. He was Bob Orton's kid. But no one knew he was going to become the legend killer.
Taz: Randy had the business in his bloodstream; he was destined to be a star. Just focused, driven and very hungry. There was no doubt in my mind he would be successful.
Prichard: First time I saw him in the ring I was like "OK he's going to be a star." That was a money printer right there.
Batista wasn't as fortunate. His path was more complicated due to the timing of his arrival on the main roster.
Heyman: Batista was given one of the worst gimmicks to overcome that anyone could imagine. He was on our draft list, and Vince was of the mindset, "get him up here right now." We didn't have any palatable ideas for him. Someone had come up with the Deacon idea before we could even come up with something other than how was presented in OVW.
Prichard: Batista had a very unique charisma and a great look. The initial intro as the Deacon—I knew he would get past it. I remember telling him to just go with it and trust me, "you'll break out of it."
Lagana: Hunter took a liking to Batista. When he created Evolution, he picked Orton and Batista. Hunter saw what he wanted. He helped.
Heyman: It's a great testament to Dave. That could have been his Gobbledy Gooker or Red Rooster moment.
Each member of the SmackDown Six roster pushed one another. As a collective, they turned Thursday nights in must-see TV. With talent thriving, Heyman and Lagana understood this was a special time.
Lagana: We took a lot of pride that our talents were built right and you wanted to see them fight.
Heyman: It's the age-old adage of "they'll never see it coming," but Vince greenlit a pitch that ended up changing everything when he allowed me the unprecedented access of directing Michael Cole and Taz in post-production on Wednesday nights and taking heavy shots at Raw. This caused a major uproar within the company, and Vince defended the action. When multiple sides went to Vince complaining, and Vince defended the action and told me "turn the heat up as hot as you want," I knew right then and there SmackDown had a chance to do something historic.
Taz: Paul was well aware of my style as a commentator, and he knew how to utilize me to assist on air in getting over the characters and storylines, being that Paul and I always work well together. It was a layup.
Heyman's vision had come to life in late 2002. The only problem was McMahon and Heyman began to clash.
Heyman Leaves SmackDown: February 2003
Lagana: Bruce and I were told Paul was not going to be in charge of SmackDown anymore before No Way Out 2003, but he was still going to be a talent.
Prichard: Paul has very strong opinions. Sometimes he can be very dogmatic in his approach, and that wore thin with Vince.
Lagana: Vince and Paul have always had a contemptuous relationship. Paul has had one with a lot of people because he's very smart and he has his ways.
After Heyman was dismissed from his post, Lagana and Prichard were tasked with leading the SmackDown Six era into 2003 and got all of the pressures that came along with it.
Lagana: We were put in charge of a show that everyone really loved. There was a lot of pressure that came with it.
Prichard: Here we are. We have to keep it going. We had the talent. I don't know if I felt any more pressure than any other of time. You have to deliver stuff people are going to like.
Lagana became lead writer for SmackDown from 2003 until 2006, when he switched over to WWE's reincarnation of ECW. Prichard remained a producer, director and writer with the program until he left the company in December 2008.
Remembering the SmackDown Six
Heyman's SmackDown Six mastered competition and the art of building new stars. His unrelenting passion for giving fans a product they could relate to drove SmackDown away from the B-show label it had been given.
Lagana: It was the execution and growth of talent.
Heyman: It's a very basic formula. You move new talent into the main event mix to feed your legacy superstars. A select few, in time, become your new legacy superstars, in need of new talent to be moved up to work with them. Brock Lesnar, John Cena, Randy Orton were among the new talent we moved up to work with the legacy superstars we had like The Undertaker, The Rock, Hulk Hogan. And now, today, Brock, Cena and Orton are WWE's legacy superstars. The same process is happening right now, right before everyone's eyes. Because tomorrow's new main eventers will be the legacy superstars of the future, and you can see this talent from their inception in NXT.
All of this culminated with Eddie Guerrero winning the WWE undisputed title at No Way Out 2004. This was the pinnacle of Heyman's vision for the SmackDown Six roster.
Lagana: That moment is one of my favorites. That to me was the peak to me of my time with SmackDown. It was a match people universally loved.
All quotes obtained firsthand, unless noted otherwise. WWE stats and information courtesy of WWE.com, unless noted otherwise.