In yesterday’s installment, I told the tale of how WCW took over the wrestling industry with their triad of successful ideas: the New World Order, the concept of a heel Hulk Hogan and the rise of Bill Goldberg. They ended up squandering all of this through a whole lot of hubris and ego. I can go on and on about the stupid mistakes WCW made, but you might as well just read the book Death of WCW by RD Reynolds and Brian Alvarez. WWF fell on its ass and got itself back up by finding its new identity and putting everything behind Steve Austin and the Rock. Their head writer Vince Russo, fed up with a lot of stuff, decided to take a hike and become WCW’s savior.
A lot of Russo’s success in WWF came from having a filter to take out some of his worse ideas or reshaping them into something better. With no filter and a bit of an ego trip, Russo’s time in WCW can best be described as a Dadaist dream that involved professional wrestling. Nothing made sense and stories would simply vanish completely with no explanation on a weekly basis. Worst of all, he had an obsession with trying to cater to fans who followed backstage goings on (like guys who write overly long history of wrestling blog posts), which was only a small fraction of the audience. He’d write the show so that everyone was just about admitting it was fake, except from whatever they were doing. Like during a match, Goldberg would leave and the commentator would scream about how he’s going off-script. Russo tried to add some kind of meta realism that instead came off as faker than the regular stuff. He ended up getting fired after the brass found some of his ideas too stupid for even them.
In the transition, wrestler Chris Benoit won the WCW Championship on a PPV. Benoit was a staple of sorts in WCW as a shorter guy who could wrestle an incredible match, but wasn’t so good at talking or showing charisma. Basically, he was the anti-Hogan and represented everything that original WCW fans loved. It’s just that with Russo out, the new head writer was Kevin Sullivan. Kevin Sullivan, a former WCW wrestler himself, was the head writer during Hogan’s initial WCW days (would it surprise you that Sullivan made himself the top villain against Hogan during that time? No?). Back when he was writing, Sullivan put his wife Nancy in a storyline with Benoit and decided that they needed to travel together and share hotel rooms on a regular basis to really drive home that on-air chemistry. Long story short, she left Sullivan and went on to become Nancy Benoit. Damn. Benoit and his friends were understandably afraid of what it would be like to have the scorned ex-husband writing the storylines, so they wanted out. Luckily for them, the guy who temporarily replaced Bischoff in terms of being in charge of WCW had no clue about the business and was fine with letting them go with no strings attached. Even though Benoit just won the title hours earlier! The four of them – Benoit, Eddie Guerrero, Perry Saturn and Dean Malenko – showed up on Raw very shortly after and each went on to shine in that company to different extents. Just like other misused talent in WCW like Chris Jericho and the Big Show. Little by little, WWF was siphoning away WCW’s potential.
WCW was also able to bring in an underutilized mid-card wrestler from the competition and push him to the top. When Russo made the jump to WCW, he brought his good friend Jeff Jarrett with him. Jarrett could never break into the upper echelon of the WWF’s names and he spent his days in WCW being shoved down everyone’s throats as a big deal, winning the championship multiple times with few caring. No matter what they tried, it still showed that WWF was right. He wasn’t a big deal. But on the subject of bad choices for world champion…
The company went through a handful of different head writers until bringing in the teaming of Eric Bischoff and Vince Russo, hoping that the two would be able to work together and allow their better ideas to reach fruition. Together, they created one of the worst ideas in wrestling history. A box office movie was made involving much of the WCW roster called Ready to Rumble. It made sense that the movie’s star, David Arquette, would make some television appearances and even appear in a match or two alongside current champion and all-around good guy Diamond Dallas Page. They were put in a tag match against Jarrett and Bischoff with the rules being that whoever scored the pin would be champion. Page helped Arquette pin Bischoff, making Arquette the champion. Let’s get past the idea that the champion would be in a good mood over these turn of events when that belt is supposed to be the most important thing to the point of universal selfishness. The fact is, David Arquette became WCW’s champion. Fictional or not, being the company’s champion is a huge deal that’s meant to give a sense of prestige, as your hard work and popularity is being rewarded by making you the top guy in the company. And it was a scrawny actor doing it as a way to hype up a movie relatively few people even saw. Arquette didn’t want to do it. Page didn’t want to do it. Nobody did except Russo, who felt that it would give them some media attention like the kind that’s been so good to McMahon before. It didn’t.
It got even worse sometime later when Russo booked himself as champion.
WCW was a gigantic mess and lost dozens of millions of dollars over the course of 2000. But stepping away from that, ECW was also in dire straits. Despite the quality of its shows and its cult following, ECW got hurt by being a third place company run by a guy who could occasionally pay his employees against two corporate giants with money to throw around. If someone caught fire and became popular in ECW, they would eventually be picked up by WWF or WCW, not to mention WWF’s Attitude Era was a hand-me-down of ECW’s general style. The most notable incident is when ECW’s champion Mike Awesome got sick of having his checks bounce and went to WCW for a whole lot of money. He showed up on Nitro while still ECW champion, then agreed to the terms of dropping the ECW title at the next show against whoever they chose. That ended up being Tazz, a former ECW name who went on to join the WWF, meaning that we got a WWF vs. WCW match for the ECW title. It still boggles my mind.
Despite getting a show on The Nashville Network, ECW’s bubble finally burst and Paul Heyman’s brainchild went bankrupt in the beginning of 2001. WCW followed shortly after, as Ted Turner was no longer in charge of his own company and the guy replacing him decided to pull the plug. All the while, WWF was having the best years of its existence, leading up to a huge Rock vs. Austin match at Wrestlemania 17. It was like the ultimate victory and McMahon bought up both companies for only a few million dollars. It was the big ending to both the Monday Night Wars and the Attitude Era.
The next step was obvious. WWF vs. WCW, the battle everyone had been dreaming of was finally going to become a reality. At first, McMahon wanted to give the WCW guys their own show, but due to different factors, the idea fell apart. They spent the next six months doing WWF vs. WCW/ECW in what ended up being the biggest wet fart of a storyline compared to the dreams of everyone who wanted it to be good. It went wrong due to three things:
1) McMahon only bought the contracts of the regular roster and not the big stars who had separate contracts, meaning that unless McMahon wanted to buy them out, they could just sit it out and get paid for doing nothing. So no Sting, Hogan, Nash, Hall, Flair, etc. The biggest names on the WCW side were Booker T and Diamond Dallas Page. Page decided to be released from his contract so he could be part of this historic storyline. Despite that, the whole thing came off as WWF taking on WCW’s scraps. Hardly the crossover everyone envisioned.
2) The storyline lost its emphasis on the wrestlers and became the McMahon Show. Vince and his wife Linda were in charge of WWF, his son Shane owned WCW in storyline and daughter Stephanie owned ECW. Even though they had Paul Heyman on the payroll, they decided to have Stephanie represent the fallen ECW with Heyman being a minor lackey. Similarly, so much emphasis had been lost on the crossover aspect that by the end of it, it was no longer even about WCW anymore. Guys like Steve Austin turned on McMahon and joined the WCW side for the sake of giving them a major antagonist leader. By the time they did their climactic five-on-five WWF vs. WCW/ECW match to settle it all, the heel side had only one ECW wrestler and one WCW wrestler.
3) It was so one-sided that it was virtually unwatchable at times. For instance, remember how Page gave up a ton of money to be part of this? He was rewarded by being in a feud with the Undertaker that depicted him as a creepy stalker. Not only did Undertaker annihilate him at every turn, but Undertaker’s wife even beat him! There’s no drama when the bad guys are too incompetent to be a threat. This dream storyline was just one big Roadrunner cartoon and fans just didn’t care.
Once the dust settled, they went back to their regular storylines with Austin suddenly being face again and Vince McMahon going back to being heel. Ric Flair was brought in as a businessman entity to feud with McMahon, being the first of many WCW mainstays who came into the WWF after the fact. The next couple years was a creatively bankrupt time for WWF, who ended up becoming World Wrestling Entertainment after a failed legal battle with the World Wildlife Fund. WWE spent much of the early 2000’s bringing in big names and setting up money matches. When you can just set up PPV matches of Rock vs. Hulk Hogan, Triple H vs. Scott Steiner, Rock vs. Bill Goldberg, etc. you can allow yourself to go on autopilot. Also, the company had no reason to really try anymore. WCW was dead. Their competition gone. No more challenge. No more need to be better. They won and because of that, we lost.
It’s worth noting that with all the WCW and ECW guys on the payroll, the roster was too big. Since they’d burn through the top stories too quickly due to having both Raw and Smackdown to broadcast, the company decided to split the roster in two. One half would stay on Raw and the other half on Smackdown, meaning that the bottom half of the card would get more of a chance to shine, while pairs of top wrestlers could go years without interacting, making their potential rivalries appear fresh. A lot of the time, they would keep the two rosters as separate as possible, but it’s been relaxed plenty over the years. It used to be that Raw and Smackdown would each get their own separate PPV while the major PPVs would feature both sides, but that was thrown out the window when the buyrates fell to the floor.
For the first time in a while, WWE needed to start building up new stars as they were running out of money-making matches from the guys they had under contract. They put a lot of resources in making a youngster named Brock Lesnar “the next big thing” to the point that it became his nickname. The fast-moving and super-strong behemoth rose to the top in record time, going through the likes of Hulk Hogan, the Rock and the Undertaker with minimal cheating. He was a beast. I should note that during these years, Hogan was really well-behaved. Though he became champ during this late stretch of his career, he appeared as more of a team player, showing no problems with being the loser against the up-and-comers who could really use a win over someone with his legendary status. On other side of this, Steve Austin actually walked out on WWE due to their decision to have an Austin vs. Lesnar match on free TV. He felt that it was a waste of money to do that and refused to show up on TV for months.
Lesnar stayed on top during his two years with the company and Wrestlemania 20 hyped up the final money match of the era: Brock Lesnar vs. Bill Goldberg, who Lesnar had been compared to by the fans since debuting. Goldberg had a one year contract and Wrestlemania was going to be his final match, so basic wrestling logic states that he would leave defeated. According to the most basic of rules, Lesnar would win and his character would be stronger for it. About a week and a half before the show, Lesnar told McMahon that he was fed up with the non-stop travel and couldn’t take it anymore. He wanted to quit WWE and try out for the NFL. McMahon shockingly granted this request as long as he agreed to do that Goldberg match. Because the show was at Madison Square Garden and New York fans tend to be in the know about these things, the fans completely booed the hell out of these two guys who were both serving their final day. What could have been an amazing wrestling match to watch was instead a slow, plodding mess out of spite for the crowd that had been jeering them. Goldberg ended up winning the match because he gave better notice that he was leaving. After the match, the referee Steve Austin (who had since come back from his self-imposed exile and then retired from in-ring action) laid out both men to the crowd’s delight.
WWE being on top led to a vacuum. There needed to be a new WCW and there needed to be an ECW. For the ECW replacement, the independents in general had a strong enough resurgence, thanks in a big part to the internet’s ability to spread the word far easier than ever before. While the 2000’s would see the rise of smaller federations like Pro Wrestling Guerrilla, CHIKARA and Combat Zone Wrestling, the biggest bee in the hive is definitely Ring of Honor. Started by former ECW employees Rob Feinstein and Gabe Sapolsky, the Philly-based ROH was built up as a haven for wrestlers who wanted to focus on the art of putting on great matches rather than play up silly gimmicks. For years, it’s been on the verge of exploding and imploding, but has held steady to this day while having its own television deal.
The ownership has changed a few times over the years, starting when Rob Feinstein got taken down in an internet pedo sting. Even then, he’s STILL a less shady indy promoter than Ian Rotten, the jackass who ran Independent Wrestling Association Mid-South, who is such a scummy guy that I wouldn’t even know where to start. Right now it’s owned by the Sinclair Broadcast Group and thrives on being the place where the cream of the indy crop perform.
As for the WCW replacement, that goes back to Jeff Jarrett. When he left WWF years back, they foolishly kept the Intercontinental Championship belt on him when his contract was running out and they needed him to drop it at the next PPV, which would take place after he was a free agent. He did the match, but held out for a lot of money, meaning that McMahon never forgave him and refused to bring him in when he acquired WCW. Jarrett and his father eventually came up with Total Non-Stop Action, a rather inspired concept for a wrestling organization. The show existed as an affordable set of PPV shows where the action would take place in a six-sided ring. From the beginning, TNA worked in conjunction with the National Wrestling Alliance, a company holding the oldest known world championship belt in wrestling history. They’ve dealt with all the major wrestling organizations over the past century in one way or another and allowed TNA to use their heavyweight championship.
A lot of the talent included top indy guys who the WWE had no interest in, such as AJ Styles, Samoa Joe and Christopher Daniels. Sting, the one WCW mainstay who outright refused to go to WWE after the Monday Night War, became a regular in the company, adding to its image. Occasionally, they’d bring in someone who WWE didn’t utilize well enough and increased their worth. On paper, the whole thing should have been a revolutionary step towards giving WWE some real competition.
Unfortunately, the company was plagued with some bad storylines, some unfortunate people on the roster and the usual problem that came from having a wrestler in charge. Namely that Jeff Jarrett had to be the #1 guy because he had the pen. Much like WCW with Ted Turner, despite the company losing money on a regular basis, they had someone backing them who would refuse to let it die. In this case, that would be Dixie Carter, daughter to the people who run the company Panda Energy. I should note that Vince Russo was brought in during the early days, thankfully not as a writer, but as an on-air character (not that it was a good thing, but it beats the alternative). He ended up leaving when there were talks of Hulk Hogan being brought into the company, but those talks then broke down. Russo only lasted a bit longer before leaving.
With WWE, while they lost Lesnar, they had at least been building up new stars in John Cena, Randy Orton and Dave Batista. Cena especially became a big name, going from overly-risqué white rapper to a never-say-die hero with a patriotic military style. Cena became a top name in the company about a year after becoming a face and backlash slowly began to take form. Now, without a doubt, John Cena is a hard worker and an amazing human being who does a lot of charity work. Unfortunately, as a character, he can be infuriating to watch. Despite being touted as an underdog in virtually every situation, Cena would rather easily win his matches. A lot of the time, he’d simply get beat up for 90% of the match and then decide he was okay and win it instantly. He would rarely ever take things seriously, which includes his opponents and his losses (especially championship losses), removing the drama.
While Hogan took part in the same kind of matches for the same stretch of time back in the 80’s, he at least carried it better. He was able to act concerned about what he was up against and when attacked as part of the story, he’d sell the damage by being off TV for weeks. Even in his matches, he’d at least come off as slightly exhausted in victory, as compared to Cena, who would show no ill effects. The main thing is that Hogan was treated as a special attraction who would rarely never wrestle on free TV and was only available at untelevised live events, PPVs and the occasional episode of NBC’s prime time special Saturday Night’s Main Event. His storylines were stretched out and given time to breathe. Compare that to Cena, who would appear on TV week after week due to the company being too afraid of the ways it would affect their ratings. It does show Cena as a pretty commendable dude for what has to be serious wear and tear for only taking time off when badly injured.
More on Cena next time.