Category Archives: World Wrestling Federation
The first and last word in the wrasslin’ business, Vincent Kennedy McMahon. (Image courtesy of Twitter@VinceMcMahon)
On Monday night, March 26, 2001. Vincent Kennedy McMahon the be-all and end-all of professional wrestling. 17 years after nearly monopolizing the industry, he had actually done it. In 1984, he had replaced the longtime National Wrestling Alliance wrestling show on Ted Turner’s WTBS with World Wrestling Federation broadcasts. But the deal was rife with contractual and fan contention.
His quasi-monopoly lasted about eight months, from July 14, 1984 until the night before the first WrestleMania aired (March 30, 1985). But now, thanks in no small part to the implosion of World Championship Wrestling, the company Turner started from the remnants of the bankrupt Jim Crockett Promotions, he now owned the entire wrestling industry.
WCW was in business for nearly six years before they ever actually turned a profit. When they finally struck paydirt, it was because they had Hulk Hogan, the longtime WWF Champion as its front man. Hogan joining WCW gave the company the mainstream focus it had long lacked, and Time-Warner would give him whatever he wanted… as long as Turner was running things.
With the presence of top former WWF stars, WCW actually broke Vince’s chokehold on the business. In 1995, Turner requested WCW EVP Eric Bischoff present a show to go against WWF’s flagship Monday Night Raw. By 1996, WCW Monday Nitro was actually beating the WWF in every major statistic, from TV ratings to ad sales to live event attendance.
Initially, the Nitro introduction was seen as an attempt to splinter a dwindling wrestling audience. Ironically, it had the exact opposite effect; the audience actually grew. Both WCW and the WWF had something different to offer fans. In other words, the wrestling audience had variety to choose from, which made both companies work harder to compete for ratings and revenue.
While conflict between companies is good for fans, such a thing within a company is not. With the increasing margin of victory for WCW, egos began to rise. Many wrestlers also picked and chose when they’d win and lose, leaving the creative process in the air often just until airtime. And even then, matches began to end without a decisive or satisfactory ending. Bischoff completely lost control.
In addition, the establishes stars also refused to help promote the younger talent, despite fans’ interest. With the exception of former NFL player Bill Goldberg, nobody emerged from WCW as a fresh face, even as the old faces kept getting older. The WWF, on the other hand, was constantly giving new stars a chance to shine. After all, their new top stars were one new faces, too.
By the end of 1999, WCW was on its last legs. America Online was about to merge with Time-Warner, and neither company wanted anything to do with WCW, which had went from profiting $35M in 1998 to losing $12M in 1999. By hiring longtime WWF creative head Vince Russo, and putting the WCW belt on comedian David Arquette, the boat just continued to sink.
In 2000, Ted Turner, WCW’s greatest advocate, was forced from his Chairman position due to the Time-Warner/AOL merger. WCW was immediately put up for sale. Vince made an offer in October, but having just signing a TV deal with the National Network (later Spike TV), he couldn’t have two shows on two companies. Then in 2001, Turner TV Chief Jamie Keller refused to air WCW shows.
And so, on Monday, March 26, 2001, Vincent Kennedy McMahon made his coronation speech. It aired on both live broadcasts of Monday Night Raw and the final Monday Nitro. Three days prior, he bought 24 WCW wrestler contracts, and WCW’s 30-year video library, for a mere $3M, a price many wrestlers could actually afford.
WCW is not necessarily remembered for its classic matches. In truth, even during the supersexual “Attitude Era, the WWF had better , if only because of comparison between the two companies. But at its peak, WCW gave the wrestling audience variety, and kept both companies on point through competition. At worst, fans wanted WCW to return to greatness, not implode.
But implosion is often how one-party rule sets in. And more times than not, the winner loses a part of itself as well. And people start to move on or even rebel. Just look at the WWE ratings and buyrates in 2014 compared to 1999, and the growing UFC audience.
The very people who seem to want a monopoly in something are seldom happy if/when they actually get it. The challenges don’t end. They only begin at that point. And the challenges come internally, and externally.
The sight and sign fans thought they’d never see at WrestleMania… (Image Courtesy of 411mania.com)
At the 1990 Survivor Series pay-per-view, two major debuts occurred. One was the debut of the Gobbledy Gooker, a dancing guy in a turkey suit hatched out of a mysterious “egg” that the World Wrestling Federation had been promoting for months. The fans booed him, and Hector Guerrero, the guy who played him, out of the World Wrestling Federation in weeks.
The other debut was “Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase’s mystery tag team partner. It turned out to be Mean Mark Callous, a 6’9″ 300-lb., former World Championship mid-carder. He was renamed Kane, the Undertaker. Later he was just called Undertaker, or ‘Taker.
The Undertaker was introduced as an invulnerable zombie that looked like a literal Grim Reaper. He also walked across the top ring rope and flew around the ring like a cruiserweight. He finished off foes with a tombstone piledriver. And with his new, even more macabre manager called Paul Bearer, he defeated “Superfly” Jimmy Snuka in under two minutes at WrestleMania VII.
At the time, no one could have guessed that to be the start of the longest annual pay-per-view winning streak, and the longest headlining tenure, in wrestling history. When one looks back throughout WWF/E history after 1993, there have been only two consistent entities: WWF Chairman Vince McMahon, and the man whose real name is Mark Calloway.
During the Monday Night Wars, ‘Taker wished those leaving for WCW well, but also galvanized the remaining WWF stars to tough it out. In rare mainstream interviews, he admits as much. Fans toughed it out as well. The Undertaker persona has evolved from a morbid mortician, an emissary of Hell, a straight-up devil worshipper, and a bad-ass biker. And he actually made the sh*t plausible.
Granted, many guys did get career-altering victories over ‘Taker (Mr. Kennedy, Randy Orton, John Bradshaw Layfield). But ‘Taker wanted to help up-and-comers become the future of the business; his legacy in the industry was set early. The only concession he ever kept was the “The Streak” at WrestleMania. It was pretty much seen as a token of respect from Vince and his fellow wrestlers.
‘Taker’s been part-time since WrestleMania XXVI, where he “retired” the event’s other iconic performer, “The Heartbreak Kid” Shawn Michaels. Nonetheless, ‘Taker winning at his show has always been a given. Even more likely was his retirement from wrestling without ever losing at the WWE’s biggest event. At worse, he’d at least make it to 24 wins, and possibly lose match #25.
Going into WrestleMania XXX, he was an untouchable 21-0. Brock Lesnar made his WWE rep dominating ‘Taker when he burst on the scene in 2002. But there was no way he’d beat “The Dead Man” on his own playing field. Besides, Paul Bearer, who died just before WM XXIX, was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame the night before.
The crowd of 85K at New Orleans’ Superdome (and the Buffalo Wild Wings at Northgate Mall, where I was watching) was silent as Brock pummeled ‘Taker. He kicked out of two of Brock’s F-5 finishers, and kept the crowd into it. But then came the third. One…two…three. Complete silence. Gaping mouths. For many, it was the literal end of an institution that dated back to childhood.
The post-Mania Raw saw Brock Lesnar’s manager, Paul Heyman, tout his client as the “1 in 21-1” in one of the damnedest wrestling promos ever. Ultimate Warrior made his final, troubling televised appearance before dropping dead the next night. And ‘Taker, always on the post-Mania Raw, was nowhere to be seen. His absence just made the broadcast seem off kilter.
The decision to end “The Streak” was actually made hours before WrestleMania XXX was aired. ‘Taker was suffering from two decades of wear and tear. Both Vince and ‘Taker felt it best to begin the end. But nobody besides those involved in the match, not even those working in the blatantly scripted world of WWE, saw it coming. The response was legitimate, spontaneous shock.
Compare that to when so-and-so says or does this-or-that, and the media manufactures shock and outrage. Unless I pretended to be very naive, or really fake, a gay athlete, a third-world disease on American shores, an election win or loss every other November, or somebody drawing police attention to themselves with horrendous consequences can hardly qualify as shocking or controversial.
I was actually shocked more by that than anything else this year. The bulk of the brouhaha over most things, with the possible exception of international matters like ISIS, Kim Jong-Un, or Vladimir Putin, was far less spontaneous and more fabricated. But then again, when the focus is on self-affirmation, foreign aggression tends to rear its ugly head in times like that.
The key to wrestling’s longevity is that it combines numerous facets of all popular entertainment. The promos resemble TBN sermons. It has the glitz and glamor of a pop concert. It has some sex appeal for everybody. And pantomime as it is, it has the contact of sports. The most important part of wrestling, and all serial programs, is the predetermined story line. It’s the most socially adapted aspect of professional wrestling.
The civil unrest in America is due to everybody not keeping to the story line. People really do believe that others should act solely in accordance to what will please them. When people don’t comply, social media explodes. But story lines can only work if every single person involved “does their part”. With 300M people in the U.S., and an equal amount of possible conclusions, that “part” will never be officially defined.
Story lines only work in fiction, and sometimes not even then. I remember the most infamous meltdown in professional wrestling history. Ironically, it came from my all-time favorite wrestler. From Bret The Hit Man Hart, I learned to imitate his ring entrance and walk again. I learned how to celebrate a win, and survive a loss. Yet it was the one time he didn’t rebound from a loss that always stands out in my mind.
On November 9, 1997, the World Wrestling Federation held its annual Survivor Series pay-per-view. The show aired from Montreal’s Molson Centre. Unbeknownst to fans, the main event had no official finish until the show even started. The end of the match began a decade of turmoil.
WWF Chairman Vince McMahon wanted Bret to lose the WWF Championship belt to The Heartbreak Kid Shawn Michaels. The title change would segue into the new, adult-oriented direction Vince wanted the WWF to go. In protest, Bret refused to lose to Shawn. Both agreed that Bret should leave the WWF, and he signed onto Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling.
Bret’s publicized imminent departure made losing to Shawn a foregone conclusion to fans. Citing a creative control clause in his contract, and his iconic status in his native Canada, Bret still refused to lose. Two hours before the actual match, Vince told Bret he could go to a draw with Shawn, and forfeit the belt in a farewell speech later. Bret Hart just knew he had forced his employer, and by extrapolation, Shawn Michaels, to give him the sendoff he wanted.
Vince soon admitted he had already planned the night before the match to ensure that Bret lost the belt. He and Shawn told the match’s referee, Earl Hebner, the plan right as the match began. Bret wound up losing when Shawn got him in his own Sharpshooter leg lock, and Hebner (and Vince at ringside and off-camera) called for the bell. At first, people sympathized with Bret. Most people can relate to being humiliated on the job.
As the details of what led up to the now-infamous Montreal Screw Job emerged, public opinion changed. Hulk Hogan lost the WWF Title to Yokozuna before he went to WCW. In addition, it was the fans that showed, through the Nielsen ratings, that they enjoyed the new direction. He had been a moralistic hero at a time when fans wanted to cheer unrepentant guys like the cussing Stone Cold Steve Austin.
Shawn Michaels went on to lose the WWF Title to Austin at WrestleMania XIV on March 29, 1998. He retired from wrestling right after the match. Vince McMahon took the real-life hatred fans and even WWF wrestlers felt for him and created a new antagonist for Austin: Vince himself. Their outrageous on-screen feud would lead the WWF to Wall Street and eventually to Vince buying WCW for a mere $3M in 2001.
Bret Hart was already retired when Vince bought the company. Between horrible creative decisions on the part of WCW, the accidental death of his brother Owen at a WWF pay-per-view, and the success of the Vince/Austin story line based on Montreal, he, perhaps rightfully, became very bitter. In 2002, the same year Shawn returned to the now WWE, Bret suffered a stroke. Only when Vince called him in the hospital did the healing process begin.
In 2010, Shawn and Bret finally made peace. At WrestleMania XXVI, Bret beat Vince in one match, and Shawn retired in another. Shawn wanted to go out with a loss to the Undertaker, and did. At last, it seemed to be all over.
Bret Hart’s Hit Man persona was built around rising up from the pain of defeat over and again. To build such a legend, Bret had to lose. Yet the one time he confused fact with fiction, all hell broke loose. The entire wrestling industry changed when a departing wrestler thought others should follow his script. Reality, as usual, threw a wrench in things. And it took years to make peace with it.
Story lines only work in fiction, and sometimes not even then.