2020 sucks, so let’s travel back to May 16, 2004. At the Staples Center in Los Angeles, California, WWE Judgement Day features John Cena as a young up-and-comer, the Undertaker as an aging diva, and Eddie Guerrero as world champion. The show, which runs just over two and a half hours long, is a mixed bag in terms of match and angle quality, but two things about it are undeniably great: the main event and how hard WWE goes with the aesthetic.
World Wrestling Entertainment Presents: Existential Questions
The Judgement Day PPV aesthetic is incredibly spooky, both in a Halloween decorations way and a “questions that run around in your brain while you stare at the ceiling at two a.m.” way. The match graphics feature the name of the show on fire and a cemetery background. The set includes giant crosses, a full moon, and gravestones everywhere, because sincerely, few things get people more hyped to watch wrestling than the implication bodies are buried thirty feet from the ring.
The show’s intro video also features a movie trailer voice guy asking scary questions like “How will be judged when it’s over? On the way we lived our lives? With passion? With malice? Did we protect the innocent or exploit the vulnerable?” Then the video gets legitimately jarring in a moment its producers couldn’t have imagined when over a shot of Eddie Guerrero looking upwards we hear “Is there actually life after death?” and over a shot of him among the fans, the narrator continues, “Or are the memories we create here the only true afterlife?”
The experience of watching Judgement Day 2004’s hype video weirdly mirrors the experience of re-watching this show sixteen years after it originally aired. It’s all campy and dramatic, and largely hit-or-miss, but when we get to the WWE Championship match it becomes a more sincere emotional rollercoaster, now with even more weight than it had at the time.
Rey Mysterio and Rob Van Dam vs. The Dudley Boyz
The show kicks off with the team of Rob Van Dam and local-ish hero Rey Mysterio taking on The Dudley Boyz in a match that works well in itself and fits perfectly as a the PPV opener. It features cool moves, fun tag teamwork, and a story that’s fairly low stakes and easy to invest in. The Dudleyz as heels are some of the least appealing people on the entire planet, and the match has just the right ratio of heel offense to babyface offense to make the crowd root harder for Rey and RVD as it goes on. The only thing to complain about is that Bubba Ray doesn’t do a great job with Mysterio’s lucha libre moves and their one-on-one parts of the match look more awkward than the rest. But it doesn’t hurt the match much overall, and the heroes’ win leaves the crowd happy and energized to watch the rest of the show.
Welcome To Kurt Angle’s Twisted Mind
The machinations of Smackdown GM Kurt Angle are to blame for JBL and René Duprée getting their title shots and this show, but his main target of his managerial wrath at Judgement Day is Torrie Wilson. After WrestleMania the previous month, Angle was so horrifically injured by the Big Show throwing him off a balcony that he may never wrestle again (in real life, he’s dealing with neck issues.) He blames this on Wilson because she was there when it happened, so after cutting an extremely harsh promo on the city of Los Angeles, he calls her out to the arena and says because she ended his career, she must literally fight for hers TONIGHT.
Torrie Wilson vs. Dawn Marie
Torrie Wilson vs. Dawn Marie (with Torrie’s carrer on the line!) displays both the mundanely bad side and the creepy worse side of what WWE women’s wrestling was like for about ten years. The mundane part is that WWE didn’t care about the wrestling ability of most women they hired or women’s wrestling in general, so a lot of their women’s matches would be actively bad or just too short to get really good. Torrie Wilson and Dawn Marie both got into wrestling as professionally good-looking people, then learned to wrestle, and it shows: their match would be fine in a class at a wrestling school, but it’s a lot weaker than the others on the card.
That doesn’t really matter though, because the point of it isn’t any of the wrestling; it’s when Torrie rips the back of Dawn Marie’s pants off during a rollup attempt and it looks like she’s not wearing underwear (you can see later she’s wearing a thong that’s the same color as her skin.) Wilson hits a backslide on the distracted Marie to win the match and save her career, but the match’s real payoff is a woman being publicly exposed without her consent. There’s a strong humiliation fetish vibe, which all of WWE’s many forced-stripping moments had. The way WWE used to treat women wasn’t just horny and sleazy; it was usually degrading and dehumanizing. This stuff sucks to watch now and it sucked a lot more to watch as a kid starting to learn the implications of having a female body.
Something that lasted for a much shorter time than overt misogyny in WWE was Mordecai, a man who I somehow managed to completely forget despite him looking like the Italian B-movie version of post-resurrection Gandalf. His staff and cloak say wizard, his logo and vignettes say crusader, and his see-through white shirt says gay club go-go dancer who had to rush to cover for someone on the floor before he had time to get all the way changed. He enters for his debut match with Scotty 2 Hotty and sucks instantly in a way that is very entertaining to watch sixteen years later but also very much got him released from WWE a few months later.
WWE Tag Team Championship: Charlie Haas and Rico (c) (with Miss Jackie) vs. Billy Gunn and Hardcore Holly
The WWE Tag Team Championship (the tag titles created for the Smackdown brand in 2002, which are now weirdly the Raw Tag Team Championship because of the 2016 brand split) was in a weird place in the spring of ’04. The champions, Charlie Haas and Rico, are an odd couple of two guys both stranded from earlier, more memorable gimmicks (Team Angle/World’s Greatest Tag Team for Haas, Billy and Chuck’s hairdresser for Rico.) Haas is the straight man and Rico is the very not straight man of the team. He’s essentially an exotico and the crowd LOVES it; he’s them most over guy in this match Their challengers here are Billy Gunn and Hardore Holly, who are very much the Kushida and Chris Sabin over the post-Attitude-Era WWE, completing the Tri-Force with The Smoking Gunns and The New Midnight Express.
This odd combination of guys puts on a capable but largely unremarkable match with a really cool, unexpected finish. Hollys gets ready to Alabama Slam Haas, but Rico intervenes by kicking Holly, which allows Haas to transition the move into a pin. The champs don’t really have a finisher of their own, so they figured out a counter for their opponents’ well-established ones, and it’s the sleeper highlight of the Judgement Day undercard.
WWE Cruiserweight Championship: Chavo Guerrero (with Chavo Classic) vs. Jacqueline (c)
Jacqueline’s WWE career is defined by putting other people over. Most notably, herr experience helped the much greener Sable rise to become WWE’s first big female star of the Attitude Era who wasn’t Chyna. In 2004, Chavo Guerrero clearly isn’t remotely in Sable’s boat, but Jacqueline’s run as the only woman to hold the WWE Cruiserweight Championship is as much about putting over her rival here as her first WWF Women’s Championship feud.
Jacqueline won the Cruiserweight title from Chavo in a match with a low blow, battle of the sexes hijinks ensued, and now for the rematch, Chavo has to fight her with one hand tied behind his back. WWE wasn’t afraid to use domestic violence vibes to get heat for heels at this time (see: the Torrie Wilson vs. René Duprée match that was part of the build to the next match on this card), but the best thing you can say about Chavo vs. Jacquline is that that’s not the type of bad. Instead, the match’s setup is so goofy and execution so dumb that it leaves the viewer not so much offended as feeling like they just wasted fifteen minutes. Chavo wins with the help of several distractions from his dad, Chavo Classic, and getting his hand untied out of sight of the ref. Boo this man!
WWE United States Championship: John Cena (c) vs. René Duprée
John Cena is in the midcard champion section of his road to becoming the next top guy (he wins his first world championship at WrestleMania ’05) and it’s time for him to defend his title and America against one half of the current GHC Tag Team Champions, René Duprée. Duprée is probably this show’s third most villainous villain, which is still very villainous: he drew the ire of our hero by insulting, then trying to fight Torrie Wilson, and things escalated from there in a very Freedom Fries way.
I was thrilled by the French flag filter over this match’s hype video, but not so much by most of the actual match. It starts out really strong with plenty of amped-up aggression and Cena talking a crazy dive through the ropes to bump on the ground for almost no reason. But there’s also a really long bear hug spot, and there’s a reason that move is barely used anymore. It almost always kills a match’s momentum and it’s lame to watch.
The match does pick up when it moves on to more dramatic moves and kickouts, but it never regains the special, murdery energy of its beginning. The crowd is still delighted by the champ’s F.U. win and at this point, the rise of John Cena is going smoothly. There’s no “Cena sucks” contingent in the Staples Center at Judgement Day, just fans happy Cena to get closer to him as he ventures into the crowd to give away a classic Lakers jersey, “Word Life” blasting over the sound system.
The Undertaker (with Paul Bearer) vs. Booker T
May 2004 is near the beginning of the post-American Badass, Deadman nostalgia ear of The Undertaker. Michael Cole calls this match “a special appearance by The Undertaker” several times before it begins, and that’s what it feels like – a match kind of in its own world, separate from the rest of the PPV, that exists to give the people what they want for nostalgia-feuled reasons.
Unlike later special appearances by The Undertaker, this match doesn’t make you worry about anyone’s surgically replaced hips, but it also doesn’t do much else. Its feud is basically a diva fight with a supernatural twist: Booker T has been saying he’s the biggest star on Smackdown and The Undertaker has taken offense to that. Booker got some kind of talisman from a witch to counter the Deadman’s Deadmanliness in this match but turns out just be very non-spooky powder that he blows into his Taker’s eyes and Taker no-sells it. The bigger star wins the match by doing his signature moves, which the crowd is happy to see, and that’s about it.
- The Best Way to Watch WWE is Through Fan-Made Music Videos
- The Owen Hart Police Report Is a Chilling Reminder of WWE’s History with Worker Safety
- An Unbearable Descent Into Hell: WWE As An Essential Business
WWE Championship match: Eddie Guerrero (c) vs. John “Bradshaw” Layfield
Eddie Guerrero vs. John “Bradshaw” Layfield for the WWE Championship at Judgement Day is their first of two title matches, both of which JBL wins. It’s most famous for Guerrero losing such a terrifying quantity of blood due to a blade job gone wrong that he had to spend the night at the hospital, but that’s not the only thing it has going on. It’s a great match put on by two great wrestlers at character work highs, playing out a drama that connects with their audience on a human level.
Eddie Guerrero has three really memorable feuds surrounding his WWE Championship reign – with Brock Lesnar going into No Way Out, with Kurt Angle going into WrestleMania, and this one with JBL – and all three include Guerrero’s rival taking issue with him not being the right kind of champion. They all bring up his kayfabe history of cheating (and lying and stealing) in matches, but these conflicts aren’t just a heel poo-pooing a fan-favorite part of a babyface’s act. Guerrero’s opponents also have problems with his history of drug addiction and his Mexican heritage (to different degrees depending on the feud), and this, combined with Guerrero’s incredible skill and charisma as a wrestler and the audience’s years of watching his journey from midcard title guy to top guy, produces a deeper level of investment in the character’s success.
The Guerrero vs. JBL feud is partly about a working-class guy vs. an evil millionaire, but it’s much more about racism, and it’s about racism with all the subtlety of early 2000s WWE writing. In the build to their title match, Layfield calls the Guerrero family illegal immigrants. He shakes Guerrero’s elderly mother and causes her to have a heart attack, then when Eddie tries to fight him about it, calls for him to be deported. Eddie being manipulated into reacting angrily is not only evidence that he’s an undeserving WWE Champion, but, according to JBL, that Mexican people are deserving of all negative stereotypes about Mexicans.
As if all this wasn’t enough – and this was a lot! – JBL stokes the audience’s ire even further at Judgement Day right before his match, with most of his remarks directed specifically at the Hispanic members of the audience in the Staples Center. In a promo backstage, he says that he’s winning the WWE Championship tonight for JBL’s America, which is “a meritocracy where you get a head by working hard and playing within the rules. In John ‘Bradshaw’ Layfield’s America, everybody speaks English.” (There’s no transitional line missing from that quote!) He’s even more overtly racist in an in-ring promo right before the match, telling the Los Angeles crowd, “I know a lot of you swam a long way and climbed a lot of fences to get here,” and that they should save a spot for Eddie Guerrero on the raft back to Mexico – oh, and don’t worry about his ailing mother, JBL will kindly take her on as a maid. When Eddie’s music hits and he drives into the arena in a low rider, he couldn’t be received more like the people’s champion.
The build for the match has been incredibly effective, and just kind of incredible when considered in its historical context. Any wrestling fan could get invested Eddie Guerrero and his title matches and feuds, but his WWE Championship matches in California are like peaks into an alternate universe in which WWE’s default, first-priority audience member is Hispanic.
The match begins with all the intensity it needs to have. Eddie is more concerned with beating up JBL than anything else, and the crowd is completely fine with that to the degree that allows Guerrero to get babyface reactions for choking his opponent with a cable and stepping on his face. The same context that means the audience is cool with whatever violence their champion can dish out means they’re distressed by JBL when eventually takes control of the match – and they aren’t completely depleted of energy by the night’s second of two long bear hug spots.
The bear hug and the match moving into the ring and to more straight wrestling than brawling also makes the size difference between Guerrero and Layfield way more apparent. It’s not primarily a David vs. Goliath match, but the fact that JBL is convincingly billed as ten inches taller than Eddie makes his offense look more damaging, adding another layer of tension.
The most infamous part of this match comes after Guerrero finally gets in some offense and sends Layfield back out of the ring after one of his rare, truly accidental ref bumps. Guerrero eats a scary-fast chair shot to the head from JBL, then we cut to him slumped on the ground, gushing blood from his forehead. The quantity and speed of the blood adds some concerning realism to Guerrero woozily staggering away from his opponent and injects a more primal feeling of danger into the rest of the already-tense match.
Now that Eddie’s face is completely red and no one could blame him for just passing out, every nearfall is more stressful and every move more compelling. There’s enough referee screwy-ness from this point on that it could kill another match, but there are enough other things to care about and focus on here that stuff like “overbooking” is an afterthought. When Guerrero gets a boost of energy going into the match’s final stretch, it’s a much more intense, exciting version of a big match convention that wrestling fans have seen many times. You could describe the moment as “and then Eddie Hulks Up” and it’s technically true, but a man covered in that much blood shimmying and then punching a guy who’s about a foot taller than him is too crazy to sum up with a trope.
The match’s most unabashedly violent section comes after it’s over. Guerrero loses the match by disqualification after hitting Layfield with the title belt (after Layfield attempted to hit him first, before the ref was looking), and once he’s free from the restrictions of a wrestling match, he quickly pivots to assault. The crowd supports him every step of the way. They boo Layfield for winning via DQ because screw this guy winning in any way; they cheer Eddie punching him on the ground and hitting him with a chair and a frog splash; they boo the refs for removing JBL from the ring; they pop when Eddie gives chase and attacks him on the ramp. The only possibly satisfactory ending to the beatdown might have been JBL leaving the Staples Center on a stretcher. When Guerrero finally poses in the ring with the title over his shoulder he’s not technically their triumphant champion, but spiritually, he’s the match’s victor.
Along with great wrestling and drama, the main event of this PPV is an example of the part of Eddie Guerrero’s legacy that’s the most difficult to document or explain. There were obvious factors that led to this being, at age 37, his career’s only world championship reign. He was short for a wrestler, his career was derailed at times by injury and substance abuse, and he was labeled as an outsider in every country he ever wrestled. He was only a true top guy for under five months out of his nineteen-year career, but he clearly had the undeniable, intangible quality that puts him up there with the best. When Eddie Guerrero wrestled and when Eddie Guerrero was WWE Champion, it meant something to people in a way you can’t say about most wrestlers’ careers, and that was on display at Judgement Day 2004.