Editors’ Choice: Which Superstar defined the Ruthless Aggression Era?
WWE’s Golden Era had Hulk Hogan, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper and “Macho Man” Randy Savage. The New Generation fell on the shoulders of giants like Bret “Hit Man” Hart, Shawn Michaels and Diesel. The Rock, Mankind and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, along with era-bridging stalwarts like The Undertaker and Triple H, were the driving forces behind the Attitude Era.
But who was the standard-bearer of WWE’s next, undeniably ruthless, era?
Ahead of this Sunday’s premiere of WWE Ruthless Aggression, the newest docuseries from the award-winning WWE Network, see which Superstars the editors of WWE.com argue defined the era best.
If the Ruthless Aggression Era was all about reinventing WWE’s television product, there were few Superstars who transformed themselves during the period quite like John “Bradshaw” Layfield. Going from rough-and-tumble fan-favorite as part of The APA during the Attitude Era to stock market-savvy egotist was no easy feat, but JBL wore his antagonistic role as comfortably as his now-signature 10-gallon (and $10,000) hats.
He rode his custom bull-horned limousine into battle with the likes of Eddie Guerrero, John Cena and Big Show, and although the self-proclaimed “Wrestling God” was hardly a fan-favorite, he gave the WWE Universe a villain to root against each and every week on SmackDown. But those cheering for his downfall were often disappointed, especially when JBL held the WWE Championship on the blue brand for an astounding 280 days, a record that remained unbroken until 2018. – JAMES WORTMAN
Whether he was the eccentric underdog throwing every piece of his mind, body and soul at Brock Lesnar in a bid to win the WWE Championship or the unhinged madman hellbent on seizing custody of Dominik Mysterio, Eddie Guerrero made the Ruthless Aggression Era his own.
The WWE Universe typically despises Superstars who break rules and take shortcuts, but Guerrero somehow found a way to lie, cheat, steal and still come off as the most likable guy in the arena when he wanted to.
Yet, Latino Heat also had a mean streak, as evidenced by his unsettling rivalry with Rey Mysterio. The fact that Guerrero could go from eerily calm to frighteningly enraged in the blink of an eye made him one of the most captivating antagonists of the era. Hero or villain, Guerrero had you hook, line and sinker every time he stepped into the ring. – JON CHIK
Long before Randy Orton solidified himself as The Apex Predator of WWE, he spent the Ruthless Aggression Era blossoming as Evolution’s blue chipper, transforming into The Legend Killer and becoming the youngest World Heavyweight Champion in history.
From waging unforgettable wars with Mick Foley and The Undertaker, to forming Rated-RKO and later defeating both John Cena and Triple H in the same match on The Grandest Stage of Them All, Orton played a key role in many of the period’s most indelible moments.
Was any Superstar willing to go further to achieve what he wanted? The Viper spat in the face of Triple H, brutalized countless WWE Hall of Famers and even assaulted John Cena’s father — all undoubtedly detestable acts, but also unquestionably ruthless.
While most of his contemporaries from the era no longer grace the ring, Orton is still here, and still living up to Mr. McMahon’s iconic edict. Just ask Edge, who should know better than anyone. – JORDAN GARRETSON
On the night Mr. McMahon made the call for his Superstars to be more ruthlessly aggressive than ever, Trish Stratus was just 24 hours removed from losing her second WWE Women’s Championship — but that didn’t stop her from leading her division boldly into a brand-new era. In the years that followed, Stratus ventured into previously uncharted territory for women by competing in Hardcore Matches, Street Fights and even the main event of Raw against her all-time best frenemy, Lita.
She also managed to rack up more championship gold than any woman before her (with a broken freakin' nose noless) up until she stopped competing full time at Unforgiven 2006. Simply put: You can't have the Women's Evolution of today without the Ruthless Aggression Era, because that's when the WWE Universe got its biggest and baddest dose of Stratusfaction. – STEVE BARILE
“He is, without question, the most gifted all-around performer we have ever had step into a ring. There will never be another like him.”
I’m tempted to let John Cena’s quote from WWE 24: WrestleMania 28 make the entire case for me, but even that remarkable praise wouldn’t do full justice to Kurt Angle’s incredible accomplishments. The Olympic Hero compiled accolades one championship at a time, becoming only the fifth Grand Slam winner ever and authoring a set of legendary title runs.
Angle was involved in two of the most iconic moments of the period, as the WWE Hall of Famer bested John Cena in Cena’s debut match that ushered in the era and went toe-to-toe with Brock Lesnar in an epic showdown at WrestleMania XIX. There were plenty of phenomenal Superstars who could top the list, but Kurt Angle is undeniably the best of The Ruthless Aggression Era. It’s true. It’s damn true. – BRAD ZAK
Mr. McMahon may have been the creator of the Ruthless Aggression Era, but his muse without a shadow of a doubt was Brock Lesnar. In fact, as The Chairman berated the entire Raw locker room that memorable June night in 2002, he named only one man who had that single ingredient, and that was The Next Big Thing—the Superstar who had won the King of the Ring tournament the night before.
From there, Lesnar conquered legends like Ric Flair and Hulk Hogan, captured the WWE Title from The Rock, defeated The Undertaker inside Hell in a Cell, tossed Big Show around like a Cruiserweight, won the Royal Rumble Match and regained the WWE Championship in the main event of WrestleMania. You might be able to take The Beast out of the era, but Lesnar’s domination over the Superstars of today proves you can’t take the era out of The Beast. – MATT ZIMMER
Two of the first words out of John Cena’s mouth on WWE television were “ruthless aggression.”
He, of course, followed that up with a demonstration of that mindset by decking Kurt Angle. Though he did not defeat the Olympic gold medalist in his WWE debut, Cena went on to define the Ruthless Aggression era.
Whether it was with his in-your-face freestyle raps or his never-say-die attitude inside the ring, no one embodied ruthless aggression more than Cena. He went on to become a world champion, topple giants, stand on equal ground with legends of the squared circle and lay the groundwork to become a legend himself. And it all started with two words: ruthless aggression. – BOBBY MELOK
The Ruthless Aggression Era was a period of near-constant upheaval and creative risks, and nobody capitalized on the sea changes of the time — the brand split and the Money in the Bank contract, to name two easy examples — quite like Edge did. By the end of the era, he had emerged as one of the faces of SmackDown, a raving foil to Cena’s stoic superman, and (somehow) a raunchy provocateur who could boost the ratings at the drop of a hat.
Crucially, he also provided one of the few bridges from the previous era to the next. At WrestleMania 22, he sent the Attitude Era down in a blaze of glory by torching Mick Foley; his match with The Undertaker at WrestleMania XXIV gave the event its second most enduring image after the defeat of Ric Flair. It was almost fitting that Edge retired right as the “Reality Era” began to tentatively peel back the curtain: The business was catching up to where he’d been years earlier, and he had simply run out of worlds to conquer. – ANTHONY BENIGNO
One might consider John Cena as the Superstar who defined the Ruthless Aggression Era because he famously co-opted the phrase in his WWE debut. That opinion, however, is sorely mistaken; the title belongs to Batista.
First appearing before the WWE Universe as Deacon Batista — the sleeveless sports-coat-wearing ally of Reverend D-Von — The Animal had the physique, size and unbridled intensity to land on the radars of Triple H and Ric Flair, who soon recruited him into Evolution, the most dominant faction of the early 21st century.
As Batista continued his own personal growth, he won the 2005 Royal Rumble Match before defeating Triple H for the World Heavyweight Championship at WrestleMania 21. His rise was meteoric, greater than that of any other Superstar of the era, and he went on to become a six-time World Champion. If ruthless aggression was all about changing the landscape of WWE and Superstars proving their way to the top, then Batista is the very personification of that idea. – KEVIN POWERS
Mr. McMahon looked at the Raw roster and demanded someone show “ruthless aggression,” but only one Superstar had the guts to snatch the mic from The Chairman and demand an opportunity. Booker T ran with it.
An underrated five-time World Champion when he came to WWE, Booker established himself as one of the most hard-hitting and charismatic Superstars of the Ruthless Aggression Era. The funny backstage moments with Goldust or the Spinaroonies were deceiving because when the bell rang, the Grand Slam Champion brought more bruises than laughs.
In 2006, Booker won King of the Ring and parlayed that success to capture his sixth World Championship. The totally transformed King Booker (Booka!) brought class to WWE while ruling over his kingdom with a pinky pointed to the sky. When the Ruthless Aggression Era started, Booker T was great. By the time it ended, he was destined for the WWE Hall of Fame. – JEFF LABOON
Other Superstars on this list won more titles and headlined more pay-per-views than Umaga. Nobody, however, channeled the true merciless spirit of WWE’s Ruthless Aggression Era better than The Samoan Bulldozer.
Anytime Umaga appeared on screen, you couldn’t shake the feeling that something terrible was about to happen, even dating to his debut when his manager, Armando Estrada, sicced him on Ric Flair. Taking down The Nature Boy was only the beginning of Umaga’s domination: The mauler spent his first nine months undefeated, adding icons like John Cena, Triple H and Shawn Michaels to his initial list of victims — victories that few others can claim, let alone over the span of a few weeks.
Most of The Samoan Bulldozer’s wins were secured via the Samoan Spike, which involved Umaga plunging his thumb into his opponent’s gullet. It wasn’t pretty or particularly great fodder for highlight reels, but much like the Ruthless Aggression Era, Umaga favored ferocity over pageantry. – JOHN CLAPP