Between the Ropes
Wrestling's Greatest Triumphs and Failures
By Brian Fritz, Christoper Murray, Michael Holmes
ECW PRESS Copyright © 2006 Brian Fritz and Christopher Murray
All rights reserved.
In any industry with roots that can be traced back more than 100 years, it is virtually impossible to consider any one event as more important than any other. Pro wrestling has seen it all. From Frank Gotch and George Hackenschmidt, to Gorgeous George, to Hulkamania, to Austin 3:16, wrestling has constantly reinvented itself to adapt to the ever changing world around it.
Yet, the biggest industry transformation in recent times produced negative results for the business as a whole. It was early 2001, and the monstrosity known as professional wrestling was finally slowing down, after experiencing its greatest popularity surge in the United States. The world of "sports entertainment," Vince McMahon's favorite euphemism for avoiding the negative stigma associated with wrestling, had dominated cable television, network television, pay-per-view, the Internet, and even music and publishing. Pro wrestling had become firmly entrenched in the mainstream fabric of American society.
Three companies — the World Wrestling Federation, World Championship Wrestling, and Extreme Championship Wrestling — battled for their piece of the extra-large pie. But as the boom period waned, one company's slice grew larger at the expense of the others, until it ultimately controlled the entire pie. That company was the WWF, and just as it became comfortable leading this three-car race, the checkered flag came out. The competition was over.
Along the way, WCW and ECW offered some memorable moments. For a brief time, WCW dominated the business by rein-vigorating older stars and introducing fresh talent from around the world to a new audience. ECW, while never reaching the level of its resource-laden counterparts, made a profound impact with its more aggressive, more athletic brand of wrestling that was eventually copied on a larger scale by the "Big Two." Unfortunately, WCW and ECW, for all the good they gave their fans, also had their share of problems, both on and off camera. In just a matter of weeks in early 2001, two companies guilty of a laundry list of sins were finally sentenced to death, leaving one man, arguably the most sinful of them all, in charge of the only game in town.
Complicated. If there was one word to describe the legacy of World Championship Wrestling, that would be it. From the original purchase, to the final sale, to the thirteen years of ups and downs in between, WCW rarely traveled the simple road. To this day, former wrestlers, referees, and office workers alike recite identical tales of chaos and turmoil that permeated the WCW infrastructure. And with the only man who could save the company he'd already rescued once no longer in the picture, WCW's shoulders were finally pinned to the mat.
The common belief among wrestling fans is that Ted Turner created World Championship Wrestling out of the ashes of the National Wrestling Alliance. While there is a modicum of truth to that notion, the actual origin of WCW is, in a word, complicated.
Jim Crockett Promotions, the preeminent NWA territory thanks to hours of national programming on Turner's Superstation WTBS, attempted to challenge Vince McMahon's World Wrestling Federation empire in the late 1980s. Major attempts to promote on pay-per-view and run live events in traditional WWF markets failed miserably, in part because of underhanded McMahon sabotage.
By 1987, the WWF had transitioned to pay-per-view television for its major events and made a killing. WWF WrestleMania III garnered 400,000 pay-per-view buys, which represented an incredible eight percent of a market still in its formative years. Crockett was ready to put his annual year-end extravaganza, Starrcade, on payper-view on Thanksgiving night and reap the same rewards. Vince McMahon had other ideas. To ensure a calamity for Starrcade '87, McMahon scheduled his own pay-per-view, the Survivor Series. Using his leverage with the cable and pay-per-view communities after several profitable broadcasts, he issued an ultimatum. Any cable company carrying Starrcade could not air the Survivor Series and would not have access to the next Wrestle Mania. It was a dirty trick, but McMahon held all the cards. Nearly 200 cable companies sided with the WWF, leaving only five companies willing to air Starrcade. Instead of the millions he expected to rake in, Crockett drew only 15,000 buys on his biggest night.
Still fuming over McMahon's devious tactics, Crockett sought revenge. His next idea was to invade McMahon's home base, New York City. He couldn't book Madison Square Garden because of the McMahon family's exclusivity with the arena, so he chose Long Island's Nassau Coliseum instead. The Bunkhouse Stampede was scheduled for pay-per-view on January 24, 1988. McMahon had another trick up his sleeve. To counter the Crockett show, the WWF aired a free special the same night on the USA Network called The Royal Rumble, from Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. The show drew an 8.2 Nielsen rating, a record for a WWF show on USA that stands to this day, while the Bunkhouse Stampede fell flat with the pro-WWF New York audience and consumers at home.
With his balance sheets deep in the red, Crockett saw the handwriting on the wall and sought an exit from the wrestling business. With bankruptcy looming, Crockett made the decision to sell. He found a buyer in Ted Turner, who wanted to keep wrestling on his network. Months of negotiations ended on November 21, 1988 when Crockett sold the assets of his company to Turner's corporation for approximately $9 million and guaranteed employment in wrestling for members of his family. Turner renamed the company World Championship Wrestling Inc. and soon followed with a phone call to nemesis Vince McMahon to let him know, "I'm in the rasslin' business."
Turner's purchase of Jim Crockett Promotions was met with guarded optimism within the industry. Early on, the organization experienced little turnaround under the new regime. Over the next several years, Jim Herd, Kip Frye, and Bill Watts oversaw the WCW operation while George Scott, Ole Anderson, and Dusty Rhodes tried their hand at creative booking. None of the combinations bore fruit. Bill Shaw from TBS huddled with fellow members of the Turner hierarchy to choose a new leader for the wrestling division. Senior employees like Tony Schiavone, who had worked as a commentator dating back to the Crockett NWA days, and Keith Mitchell, head of WCW production, appeared to have the inside track. But Shaw and the Turner vice presidents shocked everyone by promoting C-level announcer Eric Bischoff to the top of WCW ladder. Bischoff, whose previous wrestling experience came as an advertising salesman, announcer, and then booker in the dying days of Verne Gagne's AWA, impressed Turner officials with his flashy presentations and forward thinking about invigorating a company that was averaging $6 to $7 million in losses per year. With his Ken-doll good looks, ambitious demeanor, and a corporate attitude, Bischoff assumed the newly created role of Executive Vice President of World Championship Wrestling in mid-1993.
One of Bischoff's early goals was to improve the look of the WCW television product. He despised the dark, dingy feel of the weekly shows, and set to drastically upgrade the entire production. To do so, he struck a deal with Disney to tape television at the MGM Studios. With the resources of a professional soundstage, and an enthusiastic crowd drawn from the theme park, the idea made plenty of sense. The decision also saved the company a bundle of cash because they could tape several months of programming over a one-week stretch in Orlando. But the fiscal savings came at a price. In taping television so far in advance, the promotion was locked into future storylines. Plus, fans in attendance and insider fans who learned the results of the tapings knew how storylines would develop and when titles would change hands.
One such instance came in October during a WCW tour of Western Europe. An argument between Sid Vicious and Arn Anderson, both of them drinking heavily, escalated into a violent situation when Vicious stabbed Anderson repeatedly with a pair of scissors. Both men survived the melee, but Bischoff, entrenched in his first crisis, fired Sid amidst international media attention, which ruined plans to switch the WCW World Title from Vader to Sid at that year's Starrcade. In fact, Sid had already been filmed wearing the belt at the Orlando tapings. Bischoff made the call to put Ric Flair back on top, and booked Flair, who promised to retire if he had lost as a storyline stipulation, over Vader in an emotional match in his hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina to capture the WCW Championship once again.
MGM Studios remained the home for the majority of WCW's television tapings, but also became the site for Eric Bischoff's biggest coup. As WCW taped on Soundstage B, a syndicated television series called Thunder in Paradise was shooting next door on Soundstage A. Along with Chris Lemmon and Carol Alt, the star of the show was none other than wrestling legend Hulk Hogan. The Hulkster had left the WWF in June 1993. He'd worked some big money wrestling dates in Japan, but now spent the majority of his time on the TV series, portraying R.J. "Hurricane" Spencer, an ex–Navy SEAL dishing out his own brand of vigilante justice to wrongdoers with the help of his partner (played by Lemmon) and a specially equipped speedboat called Thunder.
WCW's business was still floundering at the time with rumors that Turner was seriously considering shutting down the wrestling operation. But Bischoff had a plan, and saw Hogan as the man to put WCW on the mainstream map. With the help of Ric Flair, Bischoff met regularly with Hogan on the Thunder in Paradise set. Hogan hesitated over the idea of returning to wrestling, especially with the Vince McMahon steroid trial looming and his expected testimony for the prosecution. Bischoff arranged a face-to-face sit-down between Hogan and Ted Turner, where an unprecedented contract offer was put on the table: $2.1 million guaranteed through the end of the year, plus 25% of any increase in pay-per-view revenue from shows which Hogan worked. The enormous complexity of the deal marked a change in attitude in the Turner hierarchy toward WCW. The purse strings loosened, giving Bischoff a chance to compete with the WWF for new talent. In Bischoff's mind, the Hulkster was just the start.
Sting: I knew what I was dealing with. It was Hulk Hogan. He had gone beyond where I had ever been. It was one of those things where you have to accept it, because it's the truth. And sometimes the truth hurts. I was okay with it.
WCW announced the Hogan signing in a crawl on the June 4, 1994, edition of WCW Saturday Night. A mock press conference at Disney soon followed to commemorate the contract signing. The plan was for Hogan to work with Ric Flair for most of the year, the dream program not fully exploited by the WWF two years earlier. In Hogan's first WCW match, he pinned Flair at the inaugural Bash at the Beach pay-per-view in Orlando on July 17. NBA star Shaquille O'Neal stood by in Hogan's corner. The event drew a 1.02 buy rate, WCW's record high to that point. The rematch was scheduled for an August 28 Clash of the Champions TBS special, with Flair regaining the title to set up a third match. However, Hogan balked at losing the belt and hindering his momentum. The two instead wrestled to a countout, with Flair going over, but not winning the title. The third match took place at Halloween Havoc on pay-per-view from Detroit on October 23. A steel cage was added to the equation, along with Mr. T as guest referee and a stipulation that Flair would retire if he did not win the title. Hogan came away victorious, and Flair went home temporarily to give the champion the entire spotlight. The pay-per-view drew another strong 1.0 buy rate, a 100% improvement from 1993.
Business crept upward for the Hogan-led WCW. New faces, many of them Hogan's cronies from the WWF, popped up. The biggest acquisition came in November, when "Macho Man" Randy Savage surprised the wrestling world by leaving his commentary position with the WWF to return to the ring with WCW. The $400,000 per year WCW contract didn't hurt.
Randy Savage: It was a total change. I kind of knew what I was getting into, but I really didn't realize how much different until I got there. First of all, coming from the sticks, the minor leagues of wrestling, and then to the WWF, getting a break and being guaranteed an opportunity with Vince McMahon, who I'll be grateful to forever. It was a first-class organization. Then I got to WCW and you don't know who is in charge. A lot of different cliques. If you're a good soldier there, you die. If you're a good soldier with Vince, you'll do good. Nobody cares, and that's just the way it was down there. I'll guarantee when it comes to the history of WCW, that's not the way to have longevity in a territory and make it rock.
As Hogan worked with Vader in early 1995, Bischoff continued to conceive of ways to make things profitable for the first time and surpass the WWF as the dominant player in the industry. But even Bischoff himself could not forecast the events that would soon provide him with the elusive chances to challenge the leader.
Bischoff walked into a rare face-to-face meeting with Ted Turner at the CNN Center in July 1995, planning to discuss a satellite deal to broadcast WCW programming into China. During the meeting, Turner posed a surprising question to his wrestling vice president: "Eric, what do we have to do to compete with the WWF?" A stunned Bischoff blurted out, "Give me prime time." Up until that point, WCW's flagship show had aired late Saturday afternoons on TBS. Bischoff never believed he'd get his wish, but Turner turned to Scott Sassa, President of the Turner Entertainment Group, and pulled the trigger — "Scott, give Eric two hours every Monday night on TNT." WCW Monday Nitro was born.
Running head-to-head with the established WWF Monday Night Raw program on the USA Network sounded like a suicide mission. Most pundits espoused the theory that the two shows would split the wrestling audience. Bischoff didn't care. He wanted to show up Vince McMahon, and there was no better way than by invading the WWF's established wrestling night. The Monday night wrestling war kicked off on September 4, 1995. But on this night, only one side made it to the battlefield. With Raw preempted by U.S. Open tennis on USA, Bischoff wisely debuted WCW Monday Nitro unopposed, to potentially the entire wrestling viewing audience. Viewers who sampled Nitro from the Mall of America in Minneapolis, Minnesota, witnessed Brian Pillman pin Japan's Jushin "Thunder" Liger, Ric Flair defeat Sting via disqualification, and Hulk Hogan pin Big Bubba Rogers in the main event. The biggest surprise came in the form of the shocking WCW return of Lex Luger, who had appeared on a WWF house show the previous night. Luger's WWF contract had expired and he had verbally agreed to stay, but Bischoff seized the opportunity and stole Luger from under McMahon's nose with a big money offer that proved to be the opening salvo in what would become a bitter war.
Eric Bischoff: I was definitely trying to become number one, and I was doing it in a very, very aggressive way that probably, in some people's minds, bordered on being unethical because of the aggressiveness and unique nature of some of the things I was doing. But it wasn't because I was trying to put anyone out of business. I was just trying to firmly establish myself as number one, and that came at the expense of WWE. There's no question about that and it certainly didn't have anything to do with how I felt about Vince McMahon personally because I didn't know Vince McMahon. I had no reason to like him or hate him. It was really just me doing what I felt I had to do in a very unique business to become number one. So it wasn't emotional. There was no hatred involved.
Nitro drew a respec table 2.9 Nielsen rating for its maiden voyage. But how would the show fare against competition? On September 11, Nitro defeated Raw in the ratings by a 2.5 to 2.2 margin. The WWF returned the favor the following week with a 2.5 to 2.4 victory. The shows traded results for the remainder of the 1995, using tactics which included Bischoff's underhanded ploy of giving away results of taped editions of Raw during his live Nitro broadcast before the matches aired. It was admittedly a dirty maneuver, but this was war.
Randy Savage: It was a huge rivalry. In fact, a few times I was asked to go out there and knock Vince, but I said that wasn't the deal when I came in. You should have told me that, because that's the guys in the front office or the promoters or the guys who think they're in charge. That's their job if they want to go in that direction. I've seen that happen a lot of times before where that backfires. A couple of times over a few adult beverages after a good Nitro, it was predicted that Vince would be out of business in six months. And I'm thinking to myself, "I don't think these guys know Vince McMahon." He's a street fighter. You measure a guy when they're down, not when they're up.
The first several months of 1996 remained even. Airing against one another from 9pm to 10pm eastern, neither Nitro nor Raw could take the upper hand for any length of time. Bischoff refocused on the creative direction of company, and found his next great inspiration on the opposite side of the globe. As part of a business relationship and talent exchange with New Japan Pro Wrestling, Bischoff attended one of the promotion's big Tokyo Dome events. New Japan's business had been on fire thanks to an interpromotional angle between New Japan and the UWFI, a pro wrestling promotion utilizing a "shoot," or stiff, style of action. The success of the storyline motivated Bischoff to try to duplicate the issue in the United States. Of course, the WWF would have no part of doing business with WCW. But Bischoff didn't need the WWF initials, just the talent. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Between the Ropes by Brian Fritz, Christoper Murray, Michael Holmes. Copyright © 2006 Brian Fritz and Christopher Murray. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
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