Revisiting the WWE landscape the last time Brock Lesnar competed on SmackDown
For one, it’s about the biggest main event imaginable for the blue brand’s historic jump. For another, it might be the match that finally snaps Kingston’s dream run with the title. But it’s also notable for one reason in particular: Lesnar hasn’t competed on SmackDown in nearly 16 years. There will be people watching this match who weren’t alive the last time The Beast Incarnate had a match on Team Blue, back in the halcyon days of 2004. And if you told them what WWE was like when that happened, they probably wouldn’t even believe it.
For starters, Brock wasn’t even The Beast Incarnate back then. Technically, he was The Next Big Thing, though he’d basically dropped the “next” by the time he came to SmackDown as the WWE Undisputed Champion following five months on Raw in early 2002. He was still dominant, to be sure. He just wasn’t sponsored by Jimmy John’s yet. He was, however, still a harsh negotiator, and he could bend the business to his stubborn will. Lesnar’s refusal to compete on Raw is what created the World Heavyweight Championship — a title Lesnar would hold just once, as half of the WWE World Heavyweight Championship in 2014 before the current design of the title was unveiled.
But we’re digressing. SmackDown had just come into existence as an independent brand in 2002 when Lesnar first came over. He was still with Paul Heyman, but Stephanie McMahon was the General Manager at the time (Heyman succeeded her in 2003.) Among Lesnar’s rivals were the same Superstars he faced during his second WWE run in the 2010s — The Undertaker and Big Show (against whom Lesnar memorably broke the ring) come to mind first. His recent opponents were, to put it lightly, not on WWE’s radar: AJ Styles and Samoa Joe were on the indies. Daniel Bryan was too, though he’d show up on Velocity in the middle of Lesnar’s run. Finn Bálor and Seth Rollins were, respectively, 20 and 16 years old. Roman Reigns was still playing football in high school; Braun Strowman had just graduated and was probably uprooting his first tree somewhere.
One rival who was there at the time, however, is John Cena. The future 16-time World Champion — whom Lesnar would dismantle at SummerSlam 2014 to win his most recent WWE Title — only showed up with his ruthless aggression for the first time in June 2002, but he tussled with Lesnar shortly thereafter as The Doctor of Thuganomics. Then, as now, Lesnar more or less owned him, but Cena landed one good dis in a pre-match freestyle: “Me Brock Lesnar / here comes the pain / God make me strong / forget to give me brain.” (Sick.)
Lesnar was also a markedly different Superstar. The Beast is largely a lone wolf, pay-me-my-money type of guy these days, but back then, he was known to be far more friendly — even, dare we say, personable. Remember that milk-chugging contest with Kurt Angle? How about the time he held Rey Mysterio on his shoulders like his small adult son? It all happened.
As for Kofi Kingston, whom Lesnar will challenge on Oct. 4? Quite literally nowhere to be found as far as sports-entertainment is concerned. Seriously. While some quick math suggests he had just graduated Boston College at the time of Lesnar’s debut, he didn’t even sniff WWE’s developmental system until 2006, long after Lesnar had departed WWE for the redder pastures of the UFC. Nothing in the public record suggested he’d ever set foot in WWE … let alone become a Grand Slam Champion … let alone be set to defend the WWE Title in the main event of the biggest SmackDown ever.
If Kofi’s history is one of upward trajectory, however, Lesnar’s is one of sustained dominance. One last trend from his previous run suggests an ominous end for Kingston. The Beast held the WWE Championship for a good chunk of his tenure. The more things change, the more they could stay the same.