WWE’s Finest Hour: The First SmackDown After 9/11
Twenty years ago, The United States faced a paradigm-shifting historical event when terrorists attacked, using hijacked airplanes to make strikes on the Twin Towers in New York and the Pentagon in Washington DC. In the immediate aftermath of these unthinkable occurrences, it became difficult to imagine large groups of people congregating together for fear of being the targets of another attack. Nonetheless, two days after the tragedy WWE rallied to stage a live broadcast of SmackDown from Houston, TX—the first public assembly of close to its size or scope after 9/11.
WWE Was The First To Bring A Big Crowd Together Post-9/11
The first SmackDown after 9/11 drew together a full arena crowd. The show opened with Vince McMahon, in one of his finest hours. The Chairman stood in the ring while the the roster of the time stood by on the stage. McMahon cut an impassioned promo about the decision for the show to go on and what a privilege it was to entertain fans when they needed it. From there, Lillian Garcia delivered one of the most emotional renditions of the National Anthem fans had ever heard.
The decision to go on with SmackDown was a step toward normalcy in the least normal of times—not an entirely different sensation from when WWE returned to a stadium for WrestleMania 37 after COVID had disrupted so many aspects of ordinary life. It was a testament to the company’s identity and particularly, as McMahon explained it, a refusal to live in fear, when WWE carried forward.
The First SmackDown After 9/11 Was A Rare Episode Of WWE Television That Doesn’t Belong To “Canon”
One of the more unique elements of professional wrestling is that all of it contributes to an overarching canon or mythology—a continuous story that has transcended decades, at times even crossing lines between different promotions. It’s a part of why a figure like The Rock can drop in at WrestleMania 31 to resume hostilities with Triple H from a decade and a half prior, or why Brock Lesnar showing up at the close of SummerSlam 2021 fits into a much longer story between him, Roman Reigns, and Paul Heyman.
The September 13, 2001 episode of SmackDown was one of those rare occurences, alongside Raw episodes that paid tribute to the late Owen Hart and Eddie Guerrero after their passings, that only very loosely connected to ongoing storylines. Instead, at the heat of an uneven WWE vs. The Alliance angle, the company invited in lapsed fans, and invited a burgeoning body of Internet writers to set aside their more critical lenses, in favor of kicking back to enjoy two hours of professional wrestling entertainment in a vacuum. The wrestlers put on solid enough matches, not designed to necessarily protect or push much anyone but rather to simply entertain fans at face value.
An Epilogue: Kurt Angle Wins The WWE Championship
The main event of the first SmackDown after 9/11 saw Kurt Angle defeat Rhyno. This was largely an exhibition with a main event level face defeating an upper mid-card heel, in a match that loosely followed the lines of the WWE vs. The Alliance angle that had dominated storylines. It made sense for Angle to win as not only one of the top babyfaces of the day, but also for all of his Olympic Gold Medalist pride making him the very embodiment of the American spirit in that moment.
As an epilogue to the first SmackDown after 9/11, WWE demonstrated a further commitment to the mission statement they’d articulate years later—to put smiles on people’s faces. At Unforgiven 2001 on September 23—the first PPV after 9/11—Angle defeated top heel Stone Cold Steve Austin for the WWE Championship, making him submit in the process. The victory wouldn’t stick, as Austin won the title back on an episode of Raw two weeks later. Nonetheless, the fans had had their moment as Angle had one of his best matches and greatest victories as a babyface. WWE succeeded in providing the ultimate escapism and a symbolic victory for Americans when they needed it the most.
While there are quite understandably a number of criticisms levied against WWE for any number of reasons, from their business practices to their creative choices, the SmackDown after 9/11 showed the company at its best. When the US was in dire straits and sensations of uncertainty and sorrow hung over everyone’s heads, WWE offered an outlet and an escape. The episode and its immediate aftermath gave fans something to cheer for, which might be the most important goal pro wrestling could ever aspire to.