When WWE announced that Backlash 2004 was being held in my home town, it became the be-all-end-all event for me and my friends. It dominated every conversation we had for the majority of grade 9. How could it not? For three die-hard, lifelong fans, this was our first chance to experience a PPV live and in-person.
I remember everything about that night.
We still bug my one friend about the John Cena chain he bought. He says he's not a fan anymore, but we found it hidden away in his apartment a few years back. Nevertheless, the town was abuzz, with the mayor Bill Smith declaring April 18th, 2004 “Chris Benoit Day.” The local news even interviewed Benoit’s former teachers at the high school that we would attend just one year later. All of that footage was included on the Backlash DVD, along with Benoit entering the building to a standing ovation with T.J. Wilson and Harry Smith shown clapping, but that has all been removed from the Network version.
Up until this point in time, I had never re-watched the show. The man who played a big part in making that day so memorable did something so unthinkable that I could never stomach the idea of going back to it. For 13 years I turned my back on what was objectively one of the best days of my life. Everyone did. As I type this I feel conflicted about remembering that experience so fondly. My feelings toward Chris are not positive, but he's so synonymous with that day that it feels wrong. Maybe that’s crazy, but it’s how I feel. Regardless, with all the Backlash flashbacks flooding my timeline recently, I felt inclined to finally revisit that day in 2004 and review the card for you while remaining as objective as possible, knowing full well I might not be able to. There were a couple of all-time great matches on that night and it’s time they are spotlighted after being forgotten for so long.
Before getting into the opening match, I need to mention the awesome theme song, Eyes Wide Shut by Edgewater. That era of WWE always had music that made you feel the emotion of the feuds and this was no exception. Having it blaring through the speakers of Rexall Place as the crowd went wild and fireworks shot off really got my heart racing.
Match 1: Shelton Benjamin defeated Ric Flair
This was a pretty straightforward match, but a great way to open the show. Shelton was feuding with Evolution and had picked up a couple of wins over Triple H in the weeks leading up to Backlash. The crowd loved Flair and everything he did, even popping for an eye poke. I'm impressed that he could sustain that brisk of a pace at age 55. Watching him take a back body drop to the floor still makes me wince, though. That said, the thing I remember most, aside from Flair's face-plant sell after a slap, was the bronzer running off his body and staining the middle of the ring. It’s such a dumb thing, but we had a good laugh about it that night. The match eventually ends when Shelton foils Flair's attempt to use brass knuckles and pins him for the 3-count after hitting a flying clothesline from the top rope.
I love the structure of the match and the unpredictable finish. If only signature moves won matches then every other pin would be rendered meaningless. Sheldon left Backlash on a roll, and it’s a shame to look back and see how much potential they squandered with him.
Todd Grisham is interviewing Randy Orton who says that he is going to treat Mick Foley like an old dog and put him down. He exclaims that he is going to show everyone a side of himself that they will never forget. In my opinion, this match was the breakout moment of Randy’s career. It made me take him a lot more seriously than I ever did before.
Match 2: Jonathan Coachman defeated Tajiri
There were a few "bathroom break matches" on the card and this was one of them. There isn’t much of a backstory here other than that Tajiri spit green mist on Coach three weeks earlier. Watching it back I was impressed with Coach’s in-ring psychology and how he targeted the leg. Tajiri would eventually take control of the match with an incredibly stiff kick to the back of Coach’s head while he was tied up in the ropes. Garrison Cade, however, swung the tides when he came out and punched Tajiri, allowing Coach to roll him up for the win.
Certainly not a match you need to seek out, but if you’re watching the whole show I don’t think you’ll hate it.
Match 3: Chris Jericho defeated Christian and Trish Stratus
This was a strange feud, and from a psychology standpoint, one that didn't age particularly well. Regardless, the crowd was hot for this match and was firmly in Y2J’s corner. There were “Creepy Little Bastard” signs all over the arena.
Jericho dominated early on leaving Christian with nothing to do but weather the storm. Commentary had a funny line when they said “I think we’ll be sunburnt in Edmonton before Christian tags in Trish.” There was a cringe-worthy spot around the middle of the match when Jericho catches Trish and puts her over his leg for a spanking. She added a lot to the match, often goading Jericho into mistakes and getting more physically involved than I expected. The final few minutes are great and feature one of the best sells of a bulldog that I’ve ever seen. Christian's face is on the ground, but the rest of his body is almost entirely vertical. After catapulting Christian into Trish, Jericho wins the match with a step-up enziguri.
Again, I love the unpredictable finish. The crowd was into this match from start to finish. It was the perfect length of time too. This show was timed out incredibly well. Nothing overstayed its welcome.
Eugene is shown walking around reading a Diva’s magazine when he wanders into the Women’s locker room. No further details are necessary. This was bad then and it’s even worse now.
Match 4: WWE Women's Championship: Victoria (c) defeated Lita
This was an enjoyable match. I like it more now than I did at the time. You didn’t see too many babyface vs babyface matches then. Lita got a huge reaction, but it was Victoria who won the crowd over. She controlled the majority of the match hitting a standing moonsault, surfboard stretch, sidewalk slam, and another moonsault from the top rope where she landed scarily, face-first on Lita’s leg. Victoria would eventually win with an inside cradle. Gail Kim and Molly Holly attacked both women after the match.
Match 5: WWE Intercontinental Championship Hardcore Match: Randy Orton (c) defeated Cactus Jack
I don’t know what to say about this match other than that it’s an all-time classic. The build-up was great (in particular, Foley’s rocking chair promo about loving violence), and the result was far beyond what anyone expected. Mick has gone on to refer to this as the best match of his career.
This was 23-minutes of pure and utter carnage. Barbwire bats raked across Orton's forehead, trash cans and baking sheets bent around Foley's skull, and tacks piecing Orton's back are just the tip of the iceberg. At one point Foley tried to light a bat on fire, but Eric Bischoff had to come out and threaten to end the show if he did it. After all of this had already happened, the two fought to the top of the stage where Foley threw Orton off of the ramp and through a table. He didn't quit there, however. When the referee's tried to steer him backstage, he beat them up and dropped an elbow on the grounded Orton. These guys did it all. I vividly remember school the next day, being in the library during Language Arts and going on WWE’s website to see the close-up images of Randy’s back covered in tacks. After everything, it was an RKO onto a barbwire bat that won the match.
This is a must-watch!
Triple H is interviewed backstage and talks about losing at WrestleMania XX and how he's going to win the title back.
Match 6: The Hurricane and Rosey defeated La Résistance
This is bathroom break number two of the evening. The match is short and yet still somehow features a full minute of Eugene interrupting and running the ropes. The Hurricane wins the match with a neck breaker. Let’s move along.
Match 7: Edge defeated Kane
This was hands down the most disappointing match of the night. Six minutes of suck is how I'd describe it. Sixteen years later and I'm still bitter. Edge had just come back after being away with an injury, and this was his first match in over a year. Punches and rest-holds make up the majority of the match. The crowd was unbelievably dead. I don’t know if that played into their performance, but by this point, we were ready for the main event. Edge wins with a spear. It was quick and boring and you'd be forgiven for forgetting it even happened. Luckily, Edge would go on to have an incredible heel run just a short while later.
Main Event: World Heavyweight Championship Triple Threat Match: Chris Benoit (c) defeats Shawn Michaels and Triple H
I can’t help but feel like this match would be considered one of the all-time greats had history played out differently. At the very least, it would be talked about as one in my local circles, carrying a nostalgia rivalling an Edmonton Oilers or Eskimos championship season.
It's hard to describe the electricity that was flowing through the building during this triple threat. You have to remember, Benoit winning at WrestleMania XX brought back a lot of memories of Bret winning at WrestleMania X, and the crowd was not over the Montreal Screwjob yet. In a way, we weren’t just rooting for the hometown boy, but we were living vicariously through him to get revenge for what had happened 7 years earlier. Chris, much like Bret, had this blue-collar, sort of unassuming persona that wasn't flashy. At the time, he was your quintessential slice of workmanly Canadiana. Shawn on the other hand was loud and arrogant, which from a Canadian perspective, embodied the prevailing American stereotype. This match had as big of a big fight feel as I can ever remember watching. This was the 2000’s version of 1997's Canadian Stampede. I’m legitimately curious if anyone has had as much heat as Shawn had on April 18, 2004. My friend's cousin was sitting in the front row with radio personality Yukon Jack and when he shouted “You Screwed Bret,” Shawn looked at him and said, “I did it for the money.” You can even see him mouth the words on the broadcast.
The match starts aggressively and stays that way the entire time. Every chop looks more vicious than the next. These three laid into each other. Things got particularly tense when Shawn inadvertently knocked out the referee. Benoit got Triple H into the Sharpshooter and then HBK into the Crossface, but broke the hold when he saw no official. Shawn capitalized on a distracted Benoit and put him in the Sharpshooter. Lo and behold, Earl Hebner comes running to the ring and teases calling for the match. The “You Screwed Bret” chants are deafening. The choreography of this match is sublime. Triple H broke up the submission and took control of the match after Shawn missed a dive to the outside and smashed through the Spanish announce table. After this, we see the Pedigree, Sweet Chin Music, and a Sledgehammer. The match begins wrapping up when Triple H is catapulted into the post on the outside leaving Shawn and Benoit to duke it out. A Sweet Chin Music attempt is caught, Shawn is forcefully shoved to the ground and put in the Sharpshooter. The crowd is jumping. Shawn tries to fight out. Triple H is slowly making his way back into the ring. He is looking at Shawn and reaches for him, but it’s too little too late. Benoit retains via submission.
It had to be Shawn!
The celebration afterwards was emotional. I haven’t been emotional about wrestling since that day.
There was something real and visceral about that night. It’s hard to watch now and feel anything but dejected and angry when you see Chris’ family, but at that moment in time, the joy was real and cathartic and transcended the medium. Truthfully, writing this has felt like a therapy session. You lock something away for so long and then you’re not sure how you’re supposed to feel. I won’t lie, I got caught up in the moment again. It’s hard not to...
Naturally, your relationship to wrestling changes as you age, but wrestling will never be as pure for me as it was that spring night, in the wake of WrestleMania and at the doorstep of High School, cheering on the hometown hero with my friends, at Backlash 2004.