Monday, January 18, 2010

The Rise and Fall of WCW

As the January 4, 2010 episode of TNA Impact recently showed, people are still fascinated by World Championship Wrestling (WCW). The once thriving national promotion was the southern counterpart to Vince McMahon’s WWF/E, with roots dating back to the 1930’s. At one point, WCW was so successful that it looked to be on its way to not only dominating the wrestling industry but putting the WWF out of business. In a dramatic reversal of fortune, WCW would go down like the Hindenburg, with the WWE triumphing over its longtime rival. Ironically, the very company that WCW tried to bankrupt ended up purchasing it and now has a DVD profiling its legacy. The result is The Rise and Fall of WCW, a WWE Home Video production which tracks the history of one of wrestling's biggest promotions.

Once upon a time, promoter Jim Crockett provided hours of entertainment to fans in Virginia and the Carolinas under the umbrella of a company that would become known as Jim Crockett Promotions (JCP). The exact date of when Mr. Crockett began promoting wrestling is difficult to pin down. Although the company celebrated its in silver anniversary in 1985, some believe this was a kayfabe date. Regardless of its actual start, JCP went on to promote professional wrestling, musical and theatrical shows, as well as sporting events. Mr. Crockett’s wrestling territory was one of the first members of the National Wrestling Alliance, distinguishing itself both by its success as a promotion and by its focus on tag team wrestling. Following Mr. Crockett’s death in 1973, the promotion was eventually handed over to son Jim Crockett Jr. who expanded the promotion from a regional territory into a national promotion. Mr. Crockett’s promotion is fondly remembered by many fans as one of the greatest wrestling promotions of all time, launching the careers of numerous stars and building them in true superstars. Wrestlers like Ric Flair, Ricky Steamboat, and “Rowdy” Roddy Piper are just a few members of JCP's all-star alumni.

With the wrestling world changing in the 1980’s, Mr. Crockett decided to expand business. The company not only sold out shows at its Greensboro Coliseum but it caused shutdowns of the local highway system. Wisely, Mr. Crockett saw the future and he turned to closed circuit television in order to expand his audience. The result was 1983’s big event known as Starcade (eventually Starrcade), a show held live at the Greensboro Coliseum and broadcast in several other areas on closed circuit television. Despite a freak snowstorm, Starcade was a major success (eventually leading the way for the WWF’s Wrestlemania show).
The second component of Mr. Crockett’s expansion was bringing in Dusty Rhodes to book his product. Mr. Rhodes had helped make Championship Wrestling from Florida a success and he helped take JCP to greater heights, helping in the development of Starcade as well as several other successful promotional ventures.

As the 1980’s marched on, many of the territories were dying or already out of business. The National Wrestling Alliance no longer maintained the stranglehold it once held over wrestling and JCP rose to the position of standing up against the WWF. For a while, JCP more than held its own. While the WWF was winning mainstream audiences with its Rock and Wrestling style promoting, JCP maintained a strong base from traditional fans who held the WWF’s often cartoonish product in disdain. It also didn’t hurt that JCP’s roster included some of the sport’s most entertaining stars including Ric Flair, Dusty Rhodes, the Rock and Roll Express, and Magnum T.A. (to name but a few).

Sadly, bad business practices ended up killing JCP. Anyone familiar with JCP knows the story. JCP’s accountant entered Mr. Crockett’s office and told him the company was five million dollars in the hole. The company was hemorrhaging money. Could it be saved? No one was certain but David Crockett wanted to hold on. However he reversed his decision when he learned his mother’s pension was jeopardized by the company’s bleak prognosis.

The result was JCP being sold to Ted Turner’s organization and the company renamed World Championship Wrestling. With Ted Turner bankrolling the company (Mr. Turner was fiercely loyal to wrestling since it helped him build up Superstation TBS) the industry waited to see how the new company would compete against the WWF. What happened over the next few years was a fascinating study of the clash between a corporate mentality and the unorthodox world of professional wrestling. WCW went through a period of complete chaos as executives brought in to guide WCW to new heights flew the company in a seemingly endless holding pattern. No one seemed to know how to run the company and WCW suffered as a revolving door of bookers and executives came and went.

Enter Eric Bischoff, the former announcer for the American Wrestling Association. Mr. Bischoff entered WCW as an announcer but he quickly worked his way up to become WCW's executive producer. Mr. Bischoff had a vision for the failing company and he executed it with a take no prisoners attitude. Some of his ideas were radical such as his decision to dump house shows. With house shows drawing pitiful audiences, Mr. Bischoff scrapped them and moved TV tapings to Disney’s MGM Studio. The move was controversial, especially when WCW taped twenty six weeks of television over a short stretch. With the Internet beginning to spread, this meant that fans knew the company’s booking direction for the next six months. Some fans began to wonder if Eric Bischoff wasn't headed for failure like his predecessors.
Unfazed by criticism, Mr. Bischoff convinced Ted Turner that WCW needed to bring in new talent in order to establish itself as a true competitor to the WWF. The result was astonishing-longtime rival Hulk Hogan was now in WCW! Hogan’s presence shocked some of WCW’s traditional fan base but he also brought in a new audience. Mr. Hogan’s presence shook up the company, resulting in some top stars losing their place. However Mr. Bischoff had a direction in mind for the company and he stuck to it. Then, an off the cuff comment led to one of the most revolutionary moments in wrestling history.

According to Mr. Bischoff’s autobiography Controversy Creates Cash, Mr. Bischoff was meeting with Turner executives (including Mr. Turner himself) to discuss an overseas deal when Mr. Turner asked Mr. Bischoff what he needed to compete with the WWF. According to Mr. Bischoff, the question caught him off guard and he blurted out that he needed prime time television. To Mr. Bischoff’s surprise, the man nicknamed Captain Outrageous told him he had it. This led to Monday Night Nitro being commissioned, a TV show that would compete directly against the WWF’s flagship show Monday Night RAW.

When Nitro debuted in 1995, professional wrestling was not setting the world on fire. WCW and the WWF were struggling financially and creatively; the glory days of the 1980’s were well over. With RAW routinely drawing ratings in the 2.0’s, predictions that Nitro was going to either cannibalize RAW’s audience or flop were difficult to ignore. However Mr. Bischoff stuck to his guns and pressed on. Mr. Bischoff’s vision resulted in a wrestling blitz with the live Nitro drawing a 2.5 rating next to RAW’s 2.2. While both shows would trade wins over the next seven months, Eric Bischoff wasn’t satisfied with anything less than complete dominance.

WCW’s Monday night move not only caught the WWF off guard but it came at an opportune time for WCW. The 1990’s saw a slew of problems for the WWF including Vince McMahon’s federal indictment and subsequent trial, the failure of the World Bodybuilding Federation, the departure of Hulk Hogan, and sluggish ticket sales. With the WWF having to watch every dime it spent, WCW was able to hire WWF stars such as Scott Hall and Kevin Nash to the company. That alone might not have meant much but Mr. Bischoff had a bold direction in mind for them-a battle between the WWF and WCW. He booked an angle that made some fans wonder if the WWF was sending its stars to destroy WCW. The angle was a wild success, even when WWF legal action led to WCW making an on-air announcement that Messieurs Hall and Nash were not working for the WWF.

Wrestling is full of hyperbole but it’s no hyperbole to say that WCW destroyed the WWF for the next two years. The company crushed RAW in the ratings and soared to new heights every month with PPV buy rates. People began to wonder when the WWF was going to go under. Mr. Bischoff gloated over WCW’s success, even going so far as to challenge Vince McMahon to meet him in the ring on to duke it out, mano y mano. Mr. McMahon passed on Mr. Bischoff’s PPV invite but offered to meet him in a parking lot of their choosing. Mr. McMahon wasn’t going down without a tooth and claw fight to the finish.

For a while, it seemed as if WCW could do no wrong. Yet it did, running the nWo angle for too long, failing to build new stars, and hemorrhaging money in a way that made JCP’s money woes look like a badly played game of Monopoly by comparison. When the WWF became the next big thing, fans tuned out of WCW and the company entered a nosedive that resulted in the company’s destruction. WCW’s incredible reversal of fortune is still talked about and analyzed to this day which makes The Rise and Fall of WCW an important DVD.

When The Rise and Fall of WCW DVD was announced, fans couldn’t help but think back to the WWE’s The Monday Night War DVD, a product that took a very biased look at the aforementioned Monday Night War. While The Rise and Fall of WCW is the WWE’s take on things, it’s a lot more objective than The Monday Night War was. This documentary provides a fairly accurate overview of what WCW meant to the industry, its history as Jim Crockett Promotions, and the company’s ensuing struggles and success as WCW. Like The Monday Night War, fans who know of the WWF’s business practices during the 1980’s will chuckle when the WWF’s talking heads cry foul about WCW’s deep pockets being used to lure WWF stars and WCW’s breaking the rules (such as launching Nitro against RAW). Anyone familiar with WWE Home Video should know by now that the WWE isn’t going to paint itself in a bad light so this type of bias isn't surprising.

Other than the company’s usual WWE can do no wrong bias, the product is very good. There are interviews with many of the stars involved with JCP and WCW including Jim Crockett Jr., Ric Flair, Dusty Rhodes, Bill Watts, Ricky Steamboat, and Eric Bischoff (although Mr. Bischoff did not agree to be interviewed for this particular product, his comments on WCW from previous interviews provide all you need to know). In terms of historical accuracy, the DVD does a good job although there is one glaring mistake in which longtime JCP wrestler Paul Jones is connected to promoter Paul Jones (an entirely different person).

The WWE has gotten its DVD’s down to a science. Anyone looking for a quick survey of WCW history should enjoy this one (Fans looking for a deeper look at Jim Crockett Promotions should direct their attention to the Mid Atlantic Gateway, a fantastic site that includes interviews with JCP stars, year by year breakdowns of the promotion, photos, and much more). The features and matches are pretty good too although like most WWE DVD's, they don't go back before the mid 1980's (which is a downright shame as some of JCP's best angles happened before the promotion went national). One of WCW's best tag team matches from the 1990's is included on here (Steiner Brothers vs. Luger & Sting) along with the excellent Magnum T.A.’s $1,000.00 challenge angle.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

10 Biggest News Stories of 2000's/

Now that the first decade of the new millennium is over with, it's time to look back at the biggest news stories in the wrestling world. I rated these stories based on 1) impact on wrestling, 2) news coverage in the "mainstream media", and 3) how big the promotion is (if applicable). If a backyard wrestling promotion had a guillotine match where the loser is literally beheaded, it'd be a big story because of 1) and 2) but not 3). Also, keep in mind that my ethnocentric self tends to focus on wrestling in North America (mainly the U.S. and Canada) so while there were some huge news stories outside the U.S. and Canada, they aren't mentioned here.

10. Eddie Guerrero passes away-the death of one of wrestling's most beloved figures in and out of the ring startled the industry. Mr. Guerrero's tug at your heartstrings comeback tale of personal redemption warmed the hearts of wrestling fans as did his fantastic work in the ring. Sadly, the Eddie Guerrero story was cut short way too soon but it was a wakeup call of sorts for the industry. Mr. Guerrero’s passing would lay the foundation for what became the WWE Wellness Policy.

9. Ric Flair retires-Mr. Flair's retirement wasn't a question of "how long will this last?" but “how do we do this right to recognize THE MAN’s many achievements in the ring?” According to some stories, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin proposed a program in which “The Nature Boy” would shoot for one last world championship (culminating naturally, in a final match at Wrestlemania). In the end, the WWE went with a program that saw Flair marked for immediate retirement should he lose a match. The angle was masterfully done and it led to one of the most tearful moments in wrestling history. While Mr. Flair's future in the ring remains in limbo, his exit from the WWE was one of the biggest stories of the decade, a reflection largely due to his many contributions in the 70's, 80's, 90's, and 00's. As big as the send-off was, the news following Mr. Flair’s retirement was even bigger. Mr. Flair would leave a position as a WWE goodwill ambassador for lucrative gigs signing autographs, making shoot videos, and even appearing for Ring of Honor.

8. The XFL-in 2001, the WWF seemed as if it could do no wrong. The company's recent public offering was a smash success and it was on the verge of putting longtime rival WCW out of business. Now, Vince McMahon was about to show the world what he could do to football. Like previous attempts to utilize the McMahon magic on non-wrestling avenues (such as his Hulk Hogan vehicle No Holds Barred and the World Bodybuilding Federation), this one proved to be an epic fail. The WWE's efforts to offer fans football during the NFL's (or No Fun League as Mr. McMahon derided it) off-season flopped despite a successful first week. Despite having a two year commitment from co-owner NBC, the XFL was cancelled after one season (Mr. McMahon had the chance to air games on UPN but this would have required him to cut half an hour off of SmackDown!, a choice he refused to make). The XFL would become the butt of many jokes for the next decade but several of the league’s changes would be adopted by the NFL. Regardless of the XFL’s failure, you’ve got to give Mr. McMahon credit for trying such a bold venture.

7. WWF becomes WWE: if any one thing demonstrated the World Wrestling Federation’s arrogance, it was its handling of name rights with the World Wide Fund for Nature. After negotiating a deal with the animal rights organization over using the WWF initials for certain overseas business, Vince McMahon chose to do things his way. This led to a lengthy lawsuit which culminated in an English court barring the World Wrestling Federation from using its WWF Attitude logo and censoring past references to the WWF (please note this is a simplified version of a complicated decision). The result was that the World Wrestling Federation changed its name to World Wrestling Entertainment as well as its logo. Although the WWE tried a clever marketing campaign (“Get the F Out”) to both make light of the situation and to minimize damage, the company still struggles with public confusion over its new initials.

6. Brand Split: Like most businesses, the WWE seems to thrive when it has competitors breathing down its neck (Nothing illustrated this like its Monday Night War with World Championship Wrestling). So what to do when you’ve put all your competitors out of business? In the WWE’s case, they elected to compete with themselves by developing an internal rivalry. The result was the WWE taking its RAW and SmackDown! shows and making them into separate divisions complete with individual championships and rosters. Although the idea was that the wrestlers from each brand would never appear on each other’s shows, this rule was broken enough that it diluted the value of the brand split. Fans still debate whether or not the brand split helped the WWE or diluted each show but most would probably agree that the one good thing to come about has been the annual WWE Draft Lottery in which Superstars are shuffled among the various brands. Despite the protests of some fans, the WWE has stuck to its guns and continues to maintain the brand split.

5. Ring of Honor: If someone told you that a niche promotion with no weekly television and no major stars would have impacted the wrestling industry, they’d probably have laughed at you. No one was laughing though when Ring of Honor became a cult success. Although Ring of Honor remains a niche promotion, its impact on the industry cannot be denied. The promotion’s focus on in-ring work and its “code of honor” quickly captured the attention of some fans. ROH provided fans a true alternative to the WWE, giving them a product that focused on wrestling rather than glitz and glamour. With wrestling now out of favor with many television networks, ROH thrived despite a lack of weekly television to promote the shows. Instead, the promotion sold DVD’s of their live events for fans to follow the action. Despite its public access TV-like production values, ROH’s in-ring work blew away anything happening in the ring in North America. The promotion would develop major stars of its own including CM Punk, Bryan Danielson, Nigel McGuinness, and Samoa Joe. The company has taken a methodical wait and see attitude to growth, eventually having PPV’s and making the jump to TV. While the company’s future always seems in jeopardy, it remains a source of joy for its loyal fans.

4. WWE Wellness Policy: The death of wrestler Eddie Guerrero renewed discussion of the alarming number of wrestlers who died at a young age. With critics arguing that steroids and drug abuse were the cause of many of the deaths, it came as no surprise that the WWE began testing for steroid and drug abuse. Critics found fault with the program and a 2007 investigation that linked several prominent WWE stars to illegal pharmacies only added to questions about the program’s ultimate value. While the program remains a subject of intense debate among some, the WWE continues to fine-tune the program, giving it more and more credibility. The WWE’s generous offer of paying for substance abuse treatment for WWE stars both past and present gives support to the idea that the Wellness Policy is more than just a corporate move to garner good publicity. In any event, WWE Superstar Montel Vontavius Porter is undoubtedly thankful that the WWE Wellness Policy’s cardiovascular testing (an aspect of the policy that is often overlooked) led to his diagnosis of Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome, a cardiovascular condition.

3. Debut of TNA: It's said that nature abhors a vacuum so it's no surprise that following the demise of WCW and ECW, promoters quickly followed to fill the void left by their absence. While Andrew McMannus' World Wrestling All-Stars looked to be a possible successor to WCW, it eventually faded from sight as did several others. Then, legendary promoter Jerry Jarrett announced he was back in the game. The result was NWA-TNA, a promotion that wouldn't rely on weekly TV but instead, weekly PPV's. Despite a catastrophic beginning in which Mr. Jarrett was reportedly given overblown estimates on the show’s actual success, TNA has gone from weekly PPV’s to weekly television with monthly PPV’s. While TNA seems to have trouble establishing its own identity, the promotion continues to survive (thanks largely in part due to the financial backing of its current owner Panda Energy) and only the most iconoclastic of people would say the program wants for solid wrestling. TNA’s recent decision to sign Hulk Hogan and compete directly with the WWE has sparked some interest about where TNA is heading in the new decade. While TNA remains a distant second to the WWE, it’s a large enough company that it gives both wrestlers and their fans a chance to watch something besides the WWE.

2. Chris Benoit murders wife and son, commits suicide: Fans are still grappling with how this horrific crime happened. While we'll never know for sure, we are certain that this news story rocked the industry and exposed it to new criticism including misreporting by the mainstream media and self-proclaimed wrestling journalists. The firestorm of controversy eventually led to Congressional investigations not only of the WWE but of the industry in general. One of the sickest aspects of the news coverage of this story was by wrestling news sites and newsletters that exploited the story in order to sell their product. In the end, this exposed these peddlers of misinformation as journalist wannabes, both for their lack of journalistic integrity and for their inability to break any real news about the story.

1. WWF wins Monday Night War: As big as the Benoit story was, its impact on the industry paled in comparison to this story. After a century of major competition between various promoters, wrestling had one true kingpin in Vince McMahon. For many fans, it's still hard to imagine a world where there's only one wrestling show on Monday nights. Fans continue to debate why WWE won the Monday Night War but regardless of the reason(s), the WWE was the winner. In many respects, the WWE’s triumph would be a pyrrhic victory as their shows lost audience and the company continues to find a way to regain the buy rates and TV ratings of their peak.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

A Look at the new Monday Night War

Was last night's RAW or Impact a homerun? Interesting how sports analogies always creep their way whenever professional wrestling is discussed. Sports analogies are used all the time-Wrestlemania is the Superbowl of wrestling, last night's show was a grand slam, or Batista scored a hole in one last night with one of the Divas. These analogies are even more interesting when you think about the intricacies of a homerun. A homerun can be the result of a powerful hit that sends the ball out of the park or it can be a gutsy run around the bases while the other team scrambles for the ball that was just hit. So, was last night's RAW or Impact a homerun?
With the first Monday Night War battle in nearly ten years come and gone, it's time to play Monday morning, er Tuesday morning quarterback and look at last night's episodes of RAW and Impact. Do we have a new Monday Night War on our hands or more evidence that professional wrestling is headed for the abyss. After watching the first hour of Impact (and the last five minutes or so) and the entire episode of RAW, I think it's safe to say that 2010 is off to a good start. Whether each show hit a home run or not is another story.
Looking at all of the comments from fellow fans, it's no stretch to say that there were some great expectations by wrestling fans for both WWE and TNA's flagship shows last night. It's no stretch to say that fans were looking for something to grab their attention and keep them riveted. Looking at all the comments from fellow fans, it's no stretch to say that more than a couple of people were a bit disappointed. I think people were really expecting to be blown away by either RAW or Impact (or both) and while they may have been entertained, they weren't jumping out of their couches or Lazy-Boys shouting "That's why I'm a wrestling fan".
Let's start with Impact. One thing is clear, TNA did not apply the adage "less is more". This show was about surprising the fans with surprise appearance after surprise appearance. This wasn't Crash TV, this was Crash TV on crystal meth. If you blinked, you ran the risk of missing the surprise appearance of various WWE Superstars ranging from Jeff Hardy to Val Venis. At first, it was a lot of fun seeing people like Hardy and Ric Flair make surprise appearances. However after a while, it seemed like there was just too much going on to take it all in. That's not a problem per se until you consider TNA can't bring in new wrestlers every week unless Panda Energy just wrote TNA a blank check (although the number of former wrestlers that showed up last night has got to be encouraging news for the guys trying to make a living on the indie scene). Still, there comes a time when overkill sets in and I think TNA reached that point last night.
Looking at last night's Impact, you really had a good idea of what TNA is all about, both good and bad. The opening cage match (the Tweety Bird Cage as I like to call it) featured some very talented wrestlers but it also showcased TNA's flaws. The camera work was spotty (when the camera was in the ring, you got a good look at the wrestlers involved, when the camera was outside the ring, you couldn't follow a thing) and the finish confused a lot of people. Homicide going nuts was easy to follow thanks to commentary from Taz and Mike Tenay but fans accustomed to cage matches (which are typically no disqualification encounters by default) were not only scratching their heads in confusion but chanting "This is bullshit" in frustration. If that wasn't bad enough, Homicide's unsuccessful attempt to climb out of the cage was embarrassingly funny as the cameras seemed locked on him for an eternity (I haven't seen something this bad since Hulk Hogan tried to start the Undertaker's motorcycle and he spent several minutes stalled on the entrance ramp). For all the good stuff that happened in the cage, there was stuff that highlighted the fact that TNA still looks minor league next to the WWE (a point many fans felt was delivered all the more by the show being taped at the Impact Center).
Still, last night's Impact showed that there's still hope for TNA. The people who criticize TNA by saying "This isn't 1998" miss the point. 1998 is fondly remembered by a lot of fans and although TNA can't take us back to 1998, using the wrestling product of 1998 as a template isn't the worst idea in the world. TNA's biggest chance of success in following the 1998 product isn't by bringing in all the wrestlers from that time period and recreating the angles, it's by utilizing their current roster in ways that evoke the spirit of 1998 i.e. fast paced angles, good wrestling, and compelling storylines. As with all things TNA has tried, the key is sticking with a game plan. TNA has yet to demonstrate any kind of success in sticking to a game plan but the 1998 game plan isn't the worst one they could run with.
Last night's show ended on an interesting note. Eric Bischoff is always good as a villain and the intrigue between Hogan, Foley, and Bischoff has enough of a lure that I'm hooked for now. I'm really hoping that TNA doesn't bring in guys like the Nasty Boys, Sean Waltman, and Scott Hall to do nothing but beat up the current roster. Still, seeing the old Wolfpack together has its merits (at least until they step into the ring) and it's sure to bring in some fans who haven't switched on wrestling since the days of Nitro.
The first Impact of 2010 showed some promise. TNA did a good job pulling off a three hour show (which the WWE has proved repeatedly is not an easy thing to accomplish). It was certainly not a smashing success nor was it an unmitigated disaster. It was a start to something which hopefully will build into something that can jumpstart the company. TNA is obviously spending some money on this venture so let's hope they get what they pay for. Last night's Impact wasn't a home run but it did feature a lot of doubles and triples. The show was definitely worth checking out and it was good enough that I'll give TNA another swing at bat.
RAW in many respects, was the antithesis of Impact. RAW anchored itself with one big guest (Bret Hart for those of you who just returned from a cave in Afghanistan) and put the rest of the show on cruise control. The result was a refreshingly balanced show which featured some excellent wrestling (including a PPV worthy DX vs. JeriShow match as well as an outstanding Kofi Kingston vs. Randy Orton bout) and stayed away from the stupid skits which have marred the show for the last few years (although the WWE did find time to throw in a stupid bit with DX and Hornswaggle, it was somewhat bearable). The WWE did a great job with the exchanges between Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart (a truly emotional moment), Chris Jericho and Bret Hart, and of course, the finale between Vince McMahon and Bret Hart. Every one of them did what they were supposed to (get Michaels over as an ally for Hart, show Bret doesn't play favorites, and start the feud with Vince). While it would be wrong to label last night's RAW as a grand slam or a home run knocked out of the park, it was a home run earned through sustained effort. The WWE made a strong hit and covered all the bases throughout the night.
In the end, RAW was the better show but Impact held its own for the most part (Anyone who thought Impact was going to beat RAW probably thought Evan Bourne was going to pin Sheamus). In wrestling terms, last night wasn't a squash match. There's much to be learned from last night's battle. TNA needs to see what worked and what didn't work. They need to retune their game plan and stick with it. As for the WWE, they showed they can still put on a good show when they want to. Like TNA, they need to put on consistently good shows. Both TNA and the WWE have way too much talent to be putting on bad shows. It's time for both promotions to show the fans what they've got.