Rey Mysterio’s first ever world title reign is inarguably one of the worst in WWE history.
The reign was built on the back of Eddie Guerrero’s sudden death at the age of 38 in late 2005 and WWE’s attempt to monetise this tragedy. Rey’s tributes to Eddie at first felt organic and sincere but quickly turned into something that veered between mawkish and ghoulish week by week. After dedicating his Royal Rumble win to Eddie, Rey went on to feud with Randy Orton over Orton’s infamous “Eddie’s in hell” promo. It was at this point that the use of Eddie Guerrero’s name became entirely uncomfortable to watch on WWE television, with both the disparaging comments and loving tributes feeling like nothing more than a way to hype Rey Mysterio matches.
The exploitation of Eddie Guerrero’s death is by far the worst thing about Rey’s title reign and one of the most unpleasant promoting strategies the WWE has ever tried.
That being said, Rey’s title reign was also incredibly poorly booked. After beating Kurt Angle and Randy Orton in a triple threat match at Wrestlemania 22 to win the title, Rey failed to win 8 of his next 11 televised matches. He was put in the ring with giants like Mark Henry, Kane & The Great Khali in an effort to make him an underdog champion but there is nothing special about an underdog who can’t buy a victory. During his 3 and a half month reign Rey defended the belt 4 times. Beating Randy Orton and JBL, going to a draw with Sabu in by far the best match of his entire reign and finally losing to King Booker at the Great American Bash. Which ended up being the arguable highlight of one of the most-maligned PPVs in wrestling history. Rey followed this disaster of a reign with an un-edifying programme with Chavo Guerrero where Eddie’s name was again used as a promotional device before being written off so he could receive some much-needed knee surgery.
So what did all this amount to? Did using Eddie Guerrero’s death to promote matches and having a weak-looking champion on Smackdown help WWE’s PPV numbers? Shockingly no.
Every single WWE Pay-Per-View that featured Rey Mysterio as World Heavyweight Champion drew less buys than the one from the previous year. Smackdown started the year with ratings between 2.6 and 3.0 and dipped after Wrestlemania to between 1.9 and 2.8. Ratings only began to recover towards the end of the year when Batista was challenging for and winning the title. These numbers were part of a general decline in WWE at the time but nothing about the sad débâcle of Rey’s title reign could have helped move them up.
The booking of Rey Mysterio during this period was bafflingly bad. Having witnessed it as it happened back in ’06 and looking back to write this piece I cannot explain why the people booking the show at the time thought having Rey consistently fail made him an exciting, engaging champion to watch. What I can explain is how I would have tried to make him an engaging and exciting champion to watch.
The general conceit of my plan for Rey is that we move entirely away from the Eddie “tribute.” Rey still wears the arm band but doesn’t reference Eddie or do his mannerisms or moves. The Three Amigos, Frog Splash, etc. are reserved for if and when Chavo uses them. Rey is best as the incorruptible “doin’ it for the kids” white meat babyface. We portray Rey as an intelligent athlete who can’t be bigger or stronger than his challengers so he has to be faster and smarter. He studies his opponents and adapts his style to theirs. He doesn’t refer to himself as an underdog because Rey believes in himself like all good babyfaces do. Oh and quite importantly we don’t have him LOSE ON TV THREE WEEKS IN A ROW.
Let’s assume that I am brought into the WWE Booking Office immediately after WM22, let’s also assume that in this fantasy scenario I am slightly older because in 2006 I was 14. I can’t change anything that has happened before and including ‘Mania. So, on the RAW after Wrestlemania Vince McMahon comes out to make two announcements. Firstly Vince announces that next week will be the WWE Draft Lottery, which often helps pop a rating and allows me to move some people around. Secondly PPVs are no longer brand exclusive except for one each every year (King of the Ring for Smackdown which is replacing Judgment Day and Unforgiven for RAW). Because the single-brand PPVs and their generally poor buy-rates were another factor working against poor Rey-Rey and everybody else at this time. Vince puts over how each show has to put it’s best and brightest on the PPVs “You only make it onto a WWE Pay-Per-View by being a champion, or a star.” The single show PPVs are huge opportunities for wrestlers on that show to prove themselves at the highest level.
On the 6th of April Smackdown we open the show with a Rey promo. Rey talks about how he achieved his dream at Wrestlemania and now he wants to thank the fans that supported him on his way to the championship by defending his title with everything he has. He says “You’re going to see a new and improved, tougher Rey Mysterio.” Big babyface stuff. Orton comes out to tear Mysterio down, calls him “the weakest champion of all time” talks about Rey having a target on his back, all your standard heel stuff. Angle enters and stares down Orton for a moment before giving him a big auld Angle Slam. Kurt is seemingly very calm about what went down last night and points out that while Rey was better than Orton at Wrestlemania he wasn’t better than him.
Our main event is Angle and Mysterio vs Orton and JBL which Angle wins by tapping out Orton. Afterwards Orton jumps Angle and Mysterio and knocks Rey out of the ring. Angle counters an RKO into an Ankle Lock, refuses to let go of the hold and ends up breaking Orton’s ankle while Mysterio watches on. Essentially we do an angle where Angle breaks Orton’s ankle. This is almost exactly the same way they wrote Orton off of TV back in 2006 so he could serve his suspension, a suspension he got by openly smoking a joint backstage. Matt Sydal would be proud.
At the draft lottery on the 10/04 RAW we keep things very simple. The only real big moves are Randy Orton going back to RAW (Which is where Randy returned anyway) and crucially for my purposes Shawn Michaels going to Smackdown.
Shawn begins the 13/04 Smackdown by talking about how this is a new opportunity for him and how that doesn’t happen a lot when you’ve been around as long as he has. He vows to start from the bottom on Smackdown so he can prove himself on a new show. We’ll come back to him when he gets to the top.
It’s announced that Rey’s first title defence will be against Kurt Angle at Backlash. Rey Mysterio does commentary over Kurt Angle beating Finlay and reveals that he’s doing a lot of preparation and scouting for his first defence. He also mentions that he’s training and sparring with Chavo.
I’m making an effort as we go along here to treat Rey like a champion, if he’s in a match on free TV it’s for a reason. It’s one of my firmly held beliefs that the top champion on your show shouldn’t wrestle every night, it’s important to make their matches seem like events and try and lend them some mystique. Or in this case Mysterique. Rey not wrestling every night also has the added bonus of putting less strain on his poor peanut cracknel knees.
On the next three Smackdown shows leading up to Backlash we show the following things:
1) We establish that Kurt is becoming more violent as he very nearly breaks the ankles of Psicosis and Chavo in tune-up matches for Rey.
2) Chavo has officially become Rey’s trainer, sparring partner and corner man possibly leading to him getting a sweet “Team Mysterio” hoodie down the line.
3) Rey has a match against Charlie Haas where we try to get across that Rey is figuring out counters to someone whose style is very similar to Angle’s.
4) We announce the first round of King of the Ring matches taking places on the Smackdown after Backlash, with the loser of Rey/Angle facing Booker T in the first round of the tournament. The semis and final will take place at the King of the Ring PPV and whoever becomes King of the Ring will be #1 contender to the World Heavyweight Title at Vengeance.
At Backlash Rey comes out accompanied by Chavo and wearing a new outfit similar to the one he would wear at One Night Stand, commentary explains that this is to avoid any baggy material that Angle can grab onto. He’ll continue wearing this gear from now on, because it’s so much cooler than his standard gear. The story of the match is that Rey cannot afford to be caught by Angle and dragged into an amateur match, he also can’t have his leg worked. Rey is going for a hit and run strategy and Angle spends the initial portion of the match frustrated because Rey seems to be too quick for him. When Angle does finally catch Rey it’s ugly. Lots of slams, suplexes and throws but he doesn’t work over the leg, he’s having too much fun asserting his massive strength advantage. He also cheap-shots Chavo at ringside which leads to Chavo going for Angle but being sent to the back by the referee. Every time Angle goes for the ankle lock Rey counters to a roll-up and our commentators explain that some of the leverage for Rey’s pin comes from Angle’s grip on Rey’s ankle, meaning Angle has to release. Eventually Angle counters the 619 into a grape-vined ankle lock Rey gets to the ropes and as Angle argues with the referee Rey crawls onto the apron and hits the surprise springboard hurricanrana for the win. Angle sits outside the ring completely stunned by his loss as Rey celebrates.
Our first Smackdown back on 04/05 Rey and Chavo come out to cut a promo and talk about how last night’s match taught Rey a lot about intensity and just how debilitating submission wrestling can be. Psicosis interrupts them and takes issue with Rey for being victimised by Kurt Angle a couple weeks a go. As he tries to blindside Rey for some retribution Rey side-steps hm and locks him in his new submission hold. It’s Low-Ki’s Dragon Clutch Sleeper but we reveal later in the show that Rey calls it the Apretón del Dragón which loosely translates to “grip of the dragon” or “dragon squeeze.” Matt Hardy, JBL and Bobby Lashley all advance in the KOTR as does Booker T when Kurt Angle, still upset about his loss to Rey and apparent lack of rematch gets himself intentionally DQ-ed by hitting Booker with a steel chair.
Our main event on the show is Mark Henry vs Chris Benoit for the #1 contendership which Angle interrupts leading to a huge three-way brawl. Teddy Long comes out to try and get them to “hold on a minute playa” but they won’t hold on a second playa! So Teddy snaps and announces that none of them are the #1 contender and there will be a battle royal next week to decide who is.
The 11/05 Smackdown is main-evented by an 18-man battle royal to decide the #1 contender to Rey’s World Heavyweight Title. Our participants are: Kurt Angle, Mark Henry, Chris Benoit, Matt Hardy, JBL, Chavo Guerrero, Bobby Lashley, Fit Finlay, William Regal, Joey Mercury, Johnny Nitro, Shawn Michaels, Mr. Kennedy, Booker T, Gregory Helms, Paul London, Brian Kendrick, and The Great Khali.
Rey’s on commentary for the match and is genuinely disappointed when Chavo gets eliminated. Khali is eliminated by an interfering Undertaker. The last 6 are Angle, Henry, Benoit, Matt Hardy, Michaels and Kennedy. Kennedy is eliminated by Michaels, and then he unfairly eliminates HBK from the outside. Benoit gets the headlock in on Henry and starts to drag him over the top rope like he did to the Big Sow at the ’04 Royal Rumble. Kurt Angle spots this and manages to eliminate Henry and Benoit at the same time. After Angle mouths off to Henry and Benoit at ringside, he turns around only to be clotheslined over the ropes by Matt Hardy. Matt wildly celebrates what is effectively the biggest win of his career at this point. The commentators put over the shock win and how Hardy is just one step away from achieving his dream and note the parallels with Rey’s Rumble win. Rey says he’s happy for him but thinks that he won’t be able to take that one step against Rey Mysterio. Angle, Henry and Benoit brawl again after the match, this rivalry is how we take Kurt out of the title picture of the time being.
I understand a lot of you must be thinking right now that Rey vs Matt Hardy in the main event of a PPV in 2006 is a weird move and it very much is. But before he was the picture of Broken brilliance he is today, before he was feuding with EC3, before he was on the indies getting drunk in waffle houses and making weird videos, before he burned Jeff’s dog down, Matt Hardy was an ever-present figure on Smackdown who always got a big reaction. No matter how small a role he was playing Matt Hardy was always over. At this time he wasn’t too far removed from the Edge feud that had turned him into one of the biggest babyfaces on the planet. Fans loved him and as I said before, the brand exclusive PPVs are now all about people getting a chance and at this time Matt definitely deserved one.
The intervening shows are all about hyping the first King of the Ring in 4 years and video packages dedicated to showing Matt Hardy as a man coming so far and finally getting what he deserves after years of struggle and putting his body on the line for the fans. It’s also announced that Booker T will be getting a bye to the KOTR Final because Teddy Long refuses to let Matt Hardy wrestle more than once on the show. Teddy won’t endanger his title match.
At the King of the Ring PPV Bobby Lashley defeats JBL to get to the finals where Booker T wins thanks to interference from William Regal and Sharmell. There was absolutely no chance I was going to live in a world, even a fantasy world where King BookAH never happened. The only change is that Finlay is not a member of the court.
Matt & Rey have a fast-paced back and forth match, pulling out everything they can. Rey trots out the Springboard Leg Drop, Matt gives Rey a massive Roman-Reigns-style Niagara Driver, if possible we go for the big top rope Super Hurricanrana. Rey kicks out of the Twist of Fate and Matt becomes the first person to reach the ropes before tapping out to the Apretón del Dragón. The finish comes when Matt sits Rey on the top rope and tries to give him a Twist of Fate out of the corner but Rey hangs on and slides down into the Apretón del Dragón to get the tap out win. Matt and Rey shake hands post match to close the show.
Now, this year we had the second ECW: One Night Stand leading to the new ECW (Which is for another time and another armchair). I think very little needs to be changed about the Rey and Sabu match from that show because it was undoubtedly the high point of Mysterio’s reign. So I’ve just applied some minor tweaks to make it fit in with the fantasy and to make sure Rey still looks like a capable, competent champion.
Paul Heyman shows up on the 25/05 Smackdown to challenge Rey to face Sabu in a dream match at One Night Stand, Rey agrees. Between then and O.N.S we show that Chavo is concerned about the Sabu match because Sabu is an unpredictable wild man and there’s no way to plan for him. Heyman stirs the pot, saying Rey left ECW because he was scared of Sabu, says he wanted to book this match 10 years ago but couldn’t because Rey’s a coward. Rey responds to this accusation by offering to put his World Heavyweight Title on the line. Heyman gladly accepts.
On the 29/05 RAW it’s announced that the main event of the WCW vs ECW special in 8 days will be the WWE champions (Rey Mysterio & John Cena) vs their ECW challengers (RVD & Sabu) in a tag team match. That match ends in a DQ when there is a gigantic, locker-room-emptying brawl between WWE and ECW wrestlers.
This leads to Sabu ambushing Rey and Chavo on the following Smackdown. Rey wins a tune-up no-DQ match against Super Crazy. Mid-celebration the lights go out and when they come back up Sabu lays out Rey and Chavo with a chair and does his pose with the World Heavyweight title.
(The idea of that visual makes me go all tingly)
The match at One Night Stand plays out exactly the same until the springboard DDT through the table. Sabu gets up first while the doctors are still trying to attend to both men, he then knocks the doctors out of the way before rolling Rey into the ring for an incredibly close near-fall. Sabu peppers Mysterio with chairs and springboards until Rey blocks Sabu’s Frankensteiner and jumps onto his shoulders into a victory roll for the somewhat fortunate victory. Rey never managed to get Sabu in the Apretón del Dragón.
The build to Rey vs King BookAH is based around WCW. Booker points out that he held that title on Rey’s shoulder 6 years ago, before he was a king. He’s always been better than Rey and always will be. Not to mention that Rey is still hurt after his encounter with “that scruffy peasant” Sabu. Rey points out that he has seen more of King Booker’s matches than he had done for any of his other challengers. Rey’s got Booker completely scouted, but Booker has his court. On the last Smackdown before Vengeance Rey and Chavo face Booker and Regal in a tag match with Sharmell at ringside. Thanks to shenanigans and Sharmell’s interference, the numbers game gets the better of Rey & Chavo and King Booker becomes the first man to pin Rey Mysterio since before Wrestlemania.
Sabu is seen on ECW TV during this time fuming about the fact that he didn’t beat Rey, beating up jobbers and forcing Mysterio masks on them. Joey Styles elaborates, saying Sabu is angry because he did all the damage to Rey but King Booker will pick up the scraps and win the World title.
At Vengeance Chavo does an interview where he reveals that he has something up his sleeve for tonight. King Booker vs Rey is interference heavy, Sharmell and Regal accompany Booker and Chavo and Chavo Classic (Both wearing sweet “Team Mysterio” hoodies) accompany Rey. That’s right I’m bringing back Chavo Guerrero Sr. and not just because The Mountain Goats told me to. We have Booker’s foot being put on the ropes by Sharmell, Rey’s foot being put on the ropes by Chavo Classic, Rey just managing to kick out from a Regal brass knuckle shot, Booker kicking out of a Frog Splash from Chavo. Our finish comes when Chavo Classic does a cross body to the outside onto Chavo Jr., Regal and Sharmell. (Classic’ll be fine he’s got his son and Regal to catch him and Sharmell doesn’t have to actually take much of a bump.) Booker, distracted by this sight winds up in the Apretón del Dragón and submits.
On the first Smackdown after Vengeance Sabu again lays out Rey, Chavo Jr. with a chair. Before injuring Chavo Classic by putting him in the camel clutch. The next week Chavo comes out on his own and calls out Sabu only to be met with Paul Heyman. Heyman, who is representing Sabu, says that Chavo will get his match but only if when Sabu wins he becomes #1 contender to Rey’s title. Rey gives Chavo his blessing and even says that if Chavo wins he’ll give him the title shot. The next week we have Sabu vs Chavo in an Extreme Rules match. Chavo, wearing jeans and cowboy boots puts up a decent fight but is eventually beaten by Sabu. Meaning we have Rey vs Sabu II at the Great American Bash. Sabu then jabs Chavo in the throat with a chair after the match, injuring him and we end the show with Rey chasing off Sabu and checking on Chavo.
During the final Smackdown before the Bash, Rey is furious and spends the whole night looking for Sabu and we end the night with Rey smacking Sabu in the back with a chair and staring him down as Sabu escapes into the crowd. We also reveal on the show that their match will be Falls Count Anywhere.
The Great American Bash has 2 major matches on it for Smackdown, Rey/Sabu II and Shawn Michaels vs Kurt Angle to determine the #1 contender for SummerSlam. Shawn Michaels wins what would’ve been another classic match and we allow Kurt Angle to either leave the WWE or give him some time off to recover from his nagging injuries.
Rey/Sabu 2 is even more brutal than the One Night Stand match. We still have all the hardcore/extreme elements from the first match but Rey is more heavily involved with the weaponry and violence because he’s fighting for Chavo and Chavo’s father. Rey’s mask gets torn by Sabu and Rey bleeds from the exposed part of his forehead. In the end Rey finally manages to lock the Apretón del Dragón on Sabu and even though Sabu manages to drag himself to the ropes and even out of the ring, Rey won’t let go and Sabu passes out in the hold. Rey wins by K.O.
Chavo returns on the following Smackdown and he and Rey begin scouting Shawn Michaels. It’s pointed out that these two men have only ever met twice with Shawn pinning Rey in a Survivor Series match and Rey beating Michaels one-on-one on a RAW. In the build up to SummerSlam Michaels gets under Rey’s skin by saying that while he respects Rey, Rey has gotten boring since he won the title. He spends too much time devising tactics and analysing opponents and not enough time entertaining the fans. Rey responds by saying that he’s more athletic than Michaels ever was and that he can do things in this ring that Michaels never could’ve done.
Come SummerSlam in a match that goes at least 20 minutes, Rey finally drops the title to Shawn Michaels. Rey goes a little more high-flying in this match and eventually after HBK breaks out of the Apretón del Dragón twice, he gives up trying to make Shawn tap out (Which Chavo advises against.) As Rey tries to hit Shawn with a springboard he’s caught with a surprise Sweet Chin Music and pinned. Shawn is the champ, Rey, Shawn and Chavo all shake hands afterwards.
So that is it for Rey’s first title reign. On the post SummerSlam Smackdown Chavo will attack Rey Mysterio to start their rivalry. But this time instead of being an extension of the exploitation of Eddie Guerrero, Chavo’s reasons are much more simple. He did all of the grunt work and put himself in danger for Rey, he and his father were hurt in the process and the only reason he ever helped Rey was to try and get him to give him a title shot. He could’ve given Chavo the opportunity anytime and because Rey didn’t listen to him, now Chavo’s lost his chance. Shawn will go on to lose the belt to Batista at Survivor Series (In a match we’ve only seen once and not for 3 years and never in a main event, for a title.), so Batista can have his programme with Undertaker and Shawn can have his with Cena. Also this way we still get the amazing end to ’07 Rumble with Taker and Shawn.
This reign does everything that Rey’s actual one failed to do. It ensures his status as a main-eventer, gives him some memorable matches and distances him from WWE’s grotesque use of Eddie Guerrero’s name. Rey is one of the most popular wrestlers WWE has had in the last 20 years and he was absolutely worth giving a title run at the time but he also warranted a run that didn’t make him look like a complete loser.
If nothing else a Rey Mysterio who overcomes odds, battles past rivals, put his career on the line in dangerous matches and only loses when he faces one of the most legendary figures in WWE history, will at the end, look like a champion.