Struggle and Redemption: On Eddie Guerrero’s 2004 WWE Championship Victory

This week marked the 17th anniversary of Eddie Guerrero’s WWE Championship victory over Brock Lesnar at No Way Out 2004, and yes, I am in my feelings about Latino Heat again.

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I am not the kind of person who measures a wrestler’s career by the number of major championships they’ve won. I refer to wrestling as a sport so often that this may seem strange, but it’s a sport that intersects with collaborative art and the various apparatuses of capitalism, and a big part of putting up with the last third of that equation is knowing that wrestling will rarely look the way I want it to look. In companies like WWE, that often means remembering things like Shinsuke Nakamura’s Royal Rumble win and forgetting things like the entirety of Shinsuke Nakamura’s subsequent feud with AJ Styles over the championship. Most of my favorite wrestlers aren’t going to win the big one, and that’s just wrestling.

But sometimes they do win the championship, and everything I find hard to describe—all of the idiosyncrasies of taste, sense of history, and emotional attachment that make up a my fandom—align with a wrestling promotion’s ever-shifting perception of what fans want and what they’re willing to give. Moments like this hold an incredible power over me as a wrestling fan. I don’t have a particular fondness for WWE, but it’s WWE Championship victories that make me cry just thinking of them. One of those, obviously, is Eddie Guerrero’s.

The Underdog as Champion

Another is Mick Foley’s first WWE Championship win in January 1999. I think it’s important to start here because that match opened the door to the true underdog as WWE Champion, someone whose personal and professional journey, whose gimmick, and whose look made it hard to imagine their making real a lifelong dream that eludes the vast majority of their peers.

The facts of Foley’s life until 1999 are well-documented: He hitchhiked to see Jimmy Snuka vs. Don Muraco in a steel cage. Snuka’s suicide leap from the cage inspired him to create his Dude Love persona and take a similar dive from the roof of his friend’s garage. He began training, sleeping in freezing temperatures in his beat up old Ford, subsisting on a peanut butter diet. He became famous for wild bumps on concrete and his inimitable promo style. He signed a deal with WCW, adding an edge to their product and bringing the best out of wrestlers like Sting and Vader, taking powerbombs on concrete and losing most of one of his ears during a match in Germany, disfiguring him beyond a wrestler’s normal cauliflower ear. When he left WCW, he split his time between ECW and Japan, helping to push ECW’s hardcore style forward while wrestling in barbed wire, thumbtacks, glass, fire, and the occasional weak explosion.

To say that he was not your prototypical WWE Champion is an understatement. By the time he won the title, this was part of the story. He’d been duped by Vince McMahon to assume various personae in an attempt to unseat Steve Austin as champion, and finally, at Survivor Series 1998, it seemed like he was finally going to do it. Wrestling as Mankind, who wore a tuxedo to appear more businesslike, he made it through a series of relatively easy matches until the finals, where he was screwed by McMahon in a call back to the Montreal Screwjob, awarding the championship to The Rock.

Despite how much the wrestling industry had changed to focus on antiheroes like Austin, putting a hot heel up against a sympathetic babyface is always going to work—that’s the mechanic that drives matches like Guerrero vs. Lesnar, Daniel Bryan vs. the whole of Evolution, and Kofi Kingston vs. Bryan. It was easy to identify with Foley that night. A lifelong fan, an underappreciated laborer, someone who actually had been told he couldn’t do it. When his character was bitter, it was earned. When his character was resilient, that resolve was beyond question. He beat The Rock in a title match in December by knockout, but because Foley said he’d win by submission, Rock kept the title. When he lost a later I Quit match, it was because his saying “I Quit” in a pre-match promo was recorded and played on the PA. The whole world was against him.

So his win—boy, his win. Forget the state of the industry, butts in seats, Finger Poke of Doom stuff. Forget, for a moment, that this was Steve Austin’s insertion into the title picture in time for WrestleMania XV. What you have in this match is the hope that someone like Mick Foley can achieve his dream against the expectation that he will be kept from it. All of the evidence that night, any night, points either to a Rock win or Foley losing the championship on a technicality, on Foley being tough enough, good enough to win the title, but not good enough to overcome the preferences of his boss. You surround the ring with examples of the boss’ preference and with those whose presence on his show repulses him, you throw out the rulebook, and you make the tension an issue of whether or not Foley can get it done before the inevitable clash between The Corporation and DX.

With the DX/Corporation fight happening on the other side of the ring, Austin waltzed in, blasted Rock with a chair, and Mick Foley was the new champion. I have to believe that the pop for Steve Austin’s music—one of the loudest you will ever hear—was as much for Stone Cold as it was for the fact that his arrival meant a new champion. The ovation for Foley never dies down—before he dedicates the match to his children, Triple H actually signals for them to go quiet for a moment like a quarterback asking the arena to let him call an audible. Michael Cole gives the call of his career about the adversity Foley faced to get there, McMahon gives one of his all-time performances, his “That makes me wanna puke” one of his best single lines in an on-screen career rife with them. It’s an ugly match with an ugly finish, but it’s perfect. You watch a man who struggled for 15 years win the championship, tell his kids “Big Daddy-O did it!” and run around the ring in legitimate, palpable elation and try not to cry.

Lie, Cheat, Steal

With a template that good, you can do pretty much anything. It’s the opposite of the Montreal Screwjob, essentially, in that instead of picking at a scab to exploit real pain for heat, you’re turning legitimate struggle into real success, establishing a journey and seeing it through to the end. Eddie Guerrero’s struggle and Mick Foley’s couldn’t have been more different, but both were used to create the perception that both would be one step away from the championship in perpetuity, forever clutching for the brass ring but never grabbing it, to use Vince McMahon’s favorite metaphor.

Eddie Guerrero is arguably the most famous member of the Guerrero wrestling family, and certainly is to American wrestling fans. The youngest son of lucha libre pioneer Gory Guerrero (Chavo, Hector, and Héctor being the others), Eddie had wrestling in his blood, excelled at it from the start, and never truly declined over the course of a 19-year career. His break in the United States came in ECW, where he, Chris Benoit, and Dean Malenko set the standard for the more technical aspect of the company’s programming. When WCW launched Nitro, he, Benoit, and Malenko were scooped up and largely utilized as good hands.

Being a good hand is a dead end once you’re in a promotion like WCW or WWE. Think about the build to WrestleMania XXX, where Triple H (and seemingly everybody on the roster) kept referring to Daniel Bryan as a “B+ player.” That wasn’t in deference to his skill. It meant that he wasn’t championship material despite that skill. This is the perception that followed Guerrero and others in WCW, largely due to the fact that they weren’t the same size as established main eventers like Hulk Hogan, and a run of killer matches in Japan or ECW wasn’t exactly on the same level as multiple championship reigns in other promotions. They were wrong, obviously. Dead wrong. Guerrero’s heel turn, his blistering work against Rey Mysterio, the zeal with which he established the Latino World Order as a statement against the unfair treatment of the luchadors who’d been holding down the company’s midcard while the main events put everyone to sleep? WCW launched a main event wrestler, someone who defined a generation, and just couldn’t see it.

WWE

So you go into No Mercy 2004 with that injustice in one hand. In the other, you have this: In 2001, a year and 11 months after signing with the WWE, he was released from his contract due to a drunk driving arrest. In 1999, Guerrero was involved in a car accident and developed an addiction to pain killers as a result. In May 2001, he was written out of storylines and sent to rehab. I don’t know how to characterize WWE’s drug-and-alcohol related releases from that era, but the stranger bits of Guerrero’s resume, his working the debut Ring of Honor show and wrestling CM Punk and Rey Mysterio for the IWA-MS Championship, had its origins in real pain. Watch that triple threat against Punk and Mysterio—it’s a good match, wild for the fact that three future WrestleMania main eventers worked a high school gym, but it’s also tinged with a certain sadness that’s hard to pin down. He’s so much bigger than IWA Mid-South. So was Mysterio, but Rey hadn’t fallen, and Eddie had.

Guerrero was resigned in 2002, but I’m going to skip over the SmackDown 6/Los Guerreros stuff except to say that it reestablished Eddie as one of the most charismatic wrestlers in the world, on top of his obvious skill in the ring. In 2004, the momentum from that run culminated in him winning a mini Royal Rumble for the right to challenge Brock Lesnar for the WWE Championship on the last pay per view before WrestleMania. WWE was building to a main event match between Lesnar and Goldberg, and there were no storyline indications that WrestleMania XX was it for either man, so here it was: An unstoppable champion, everything a corporate entity wants in a champion, against a long-tenured veteran with obvious skill to whom just the title shot was an answer to years of prayer. Place your bets.

Hitting Bottom

WWE would never be accused of subtlety, but the mid-2000s were particularly brutal. In the quick build to Guerrero’s shot against Lesnar, his history of addiction was the focus. Lesnar picked at it endlessly. Michael Cole and Tazz discussed it openly. Chavo Guerrero Sr. and Chavo Guerrero Jr. cut promos about how Eddie was a loser because of it. Eddie’s own promos acknowledged it. “Relentless” would be a kind way of putting it—every time someone other than Eddie mentioned it, I could almost feel every second of my own sobriety. But this is the Mankind/Rock template—you can’t pick on Eddie’s size or how he didn’t break through WCW’s glass ceiling because he’s too talented and all of that’s in the past, but the way he failed himself, the way he proved unreliable? You establish the journey—the long road back from hitting bottom (which isn’t what I’d call it, but let’s go with the broad cultural narrative of what sobriety looks like for the sake of wrestling storytelling)—and you see it through to its conclusion.

In handing all of this to Eddie Guerrero and Brock Lesnar and asking them to make something with it, you end up with an underdog scenario where the challenger is not just trying to beat the champion, but where a man who has struggled with addiction is trying to slay one last demon before he finds solace. Lesnar is fantastic in this role. Lesnar is one of the best heel wrestlers of the past two decades, actually, but his part-time schedule and the effortlessness with which he performs a job he doesn’t particularly care for has obfuscated a lot of that. He’s a real freak in this match, throwing rugged suplexes and jumping high knees, taking seriously gnarly bumps when he needs to.

As a wrestling match, it’s great. Lesnar is a man with no apparent weakness. It’s arguable that he’s a match for Guerrero in terms of speed and stamina, so where does he find purchase? He works the leg, striking when he can until Lesnar makes a mistake in going for a jumping knee in the corner. The longer the match goes, the more obvious it is that Eddie Guerrero has no quit, that he will not do as Lesnar repeatedly asks him to and die. As Lesnar’s leg continues to weaken—there’s a bit where he gives Guerrero a vertical suplex while hopping on his uninjured leg to keep him up—Guerrero is able to add more and more offense to his attack. When he hits Lesnar with his Three Amigos series of vertical suplexes, it’s proof that he is big enough to hang, not just with Lesnar, but with everybody he’d ever been kept from.

The finish of the match? Lifted straight from the Foley/Rock match in this article. Instead of a brawl on the outside of the ring, the distraction here is that Eddie’s foot clips the referee on an F5. Lesnar uses this as an opportunity to grab his championship, to smash Eddie with it, but instead Goldberg comes out and spears Lesnar, just like Austin hit the Rock with a chair. The pop for this? Massive. If time froze in that moment you’d assume that Goldberg/Lesnar was the most anticipated match in WWE history, a banger in the making. Fortunately, time did not freeze, as Guerrero ultimately won the title on his own power, reversing an F5 into a DDT, hitting the frog splash, and winning the belt.

There’s so much I love about this match. An extremely small thing is that Eddie still has the Los Guerreros theme song—he’s such an afterthought in the blinding light of the Brock Lesnar era that he didn’t get new theme music. It blares as Eddie hops the barricade into the fans, as he is pulled back by security. The roar of that crowd, y’all. No Way Out took place in the San Francisco Bay area, at somewhat of a remove from the Guerreros’ old stomping grounds of Los Angeles, but it feels like a homecoming. Eddie’s joy, his brother’s joy, his mother’s joy—all of it is enough to forgive the fact that Michael Cole is repeating his Mankind/Rock call, only instead of Mick Foley going by Dude Love, Cactus Jack, and Mankind, a man once known as an addict will forever be known as champion.

It’s one of the best title changes in WWE history, a moment when everything was just right, when it looked and felt like wrestling actually was as good, as ecstatically good, as I want it to be. It’s easy to criticize the company’s longform narrative storytelling, and it’s earned. But when they come up with a format that works, it works. This is the one though, at least for me. The rarest, the hardest to pull off, and the most rewarding. And No Way Out 2004 was that format executed to perfection, a great match with a great finish, a celebration of a wrestler who deserved to be celebrated. If the match is a triumph, it is because Eddie Guerrero triumphed. If the match is a tragedy, it’s because this was it, the peak, instead of the first of many. That’s probably why these anniversaries matter so much to me, but it’s not the bitterness of his passing that makes me cry. It’s his joy, obvious and hard won, that I return to again and again and again. I won’t be stopping anytime soon.

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Colette Arrand

Colette Arrand is a minor transsexual poet and nu-metal enthusiast.

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