Ringside Shadows #154: The Resurrection of an Empire
Wrestling works in cycles, as does everything else when examined to a certain degree. What's happened before will happen again under different circumstances. Though the ancient proverb is correct in stating "those who do not learn from their history are doomed to repeat it," very few are willing to complete the amount of work necessary to actually avoid such a fate. That's why it wouldn't surprise me to see the WWF once again toppled from their comfortable position atop the wrestling world within the next handful of years.
The ratings war is over, of that there is little doubt. Checking the ratings on a whim this afternoon, I felt my heart skip a beat when a typo listed Nitro's cumulative rating at 5.0, while Raw's lay at an uncharacteristically low 2.4. The Wednesday afternoon release of these overemphasized numbers is predictable, dull, even "boring." But was it really only four years ago that the ball was playing exclusively over in the other court? Eric Bischoff once made the observation, during WCW's 82 weeks of viewership domination, that the race was "no longer interesting." It just wasn't fun anymore, the ratings war of 1996 was "boring." Over on the other side of the fence, however, Vince McMahon knew better. The best time to strike your opponent is when you've been underestimated. McMahon knew the truth of this statement, and embraced it to tremendous success. If only the higher ups in WCW would take note of these similarities and use them to their advantage, we could be watching a whole new battle zone every Monday night, come mid-2002.
Even further down the halls, the similarities become a bit more obvious. The WWF of '94 had been the pinnacle of the industry for years, only to see themselves driven from their majestic perch by misplaced trust, poor decisions made at the wrong time and overpowering backstage politics. Sound familiar? Come 1998, WCW was in the same boat, having lost their substantial popularity due to causes identical to those of their rival not four years earlier. Hogan and friends had exploited their remaining clout for every penny it was worth, draining the company of the life that had radiated from within not two years earlier. Once the liberals, WCW had suddenly become the conservative while the WWF rediscovered their youth.
In some ways, WCW has already taken many of the same steps that helped Vince's boys reclaim the number one slot in early '98. One of McMahon's first actions during this movement was to almost completely clear out the locker room, eliminating many long standing problems and starting from a fresh, almost blank slate. Out of the picture were past and present main event players Bret Hart, Mabel, Ted Dibiase, Lex Luger, Jeff Jarrett and so on. Ready to take their place were fresh faces; Mick Foley, Brian Pillman, Rocky Maivia, Steve Austin and Vader. While some eliminations were questionable and several new recruits fell flat on their faces, McMahon learned to roll with the punches and emerged with a highly effective, young, strong roster. Likewise, WCW recently held a major league housecleaning with the apparent elimination of Hulk Hogan, Ric Flair, Lex Luger, Sid, Diamond Dallas Page and Randy Savage. Keeping with the trend, they followed these tough removals with heavy pushes for new players Booker T, Scott Steiner, Jeff Jarrett and Lance Storm.
Unfortunately, the lesson taught by their trouncing at the hands of the WWF has not yet been completely learned by WCW, as many of these old faces have begun popping up on their programming more and more often lately. While the WWF stood firm and supported their new players every step of the way, WCW has been shakier in their stance. When these fresh stars meet their first roadblocks and falter, the strength of WCW as a promotion isn't behind them. Instead, the powers that be look back to the problems they'd just eliminated, like a sort of failsafe. They're going through the motions, but aren't willing to take the risk necessary to effectively establish their next generation. And therein lies the problem.
When the WWF made their big move to overtake the threat of the Monday Nitro machine, they did so by risking everything. Had the fans not embraced them so passionately, Vince McMahon Incorporated would have been flat out broke. Out of the picture. When the first episode of the newly title "Raw is War" debuted with a brand new look, set, feel and set of morals, the results were not instantaneous. Crowds didn't flock to the changed product, they pretty much stayed right where they were. Ratings didn't change an iota. Still, McMahon had confidence in what he was trying and stuck with it. Fans eventually migrated to his set of trenches. When WCW launches something with equal potential to reap benefits, they yank it off their air if results aren't there within a couple weeks. Of all the stumbling blocks in WCW's path, this is probably the easiest to remove. It's a blow to the ego to back something that fails, but that's something you've got to risk in order to be number one.
Another problem in the WCW hierarchy that's easily repairable is their unwillingness to listen to a fanbase. Much like a combat situation, when it comes to booking for fan reaction everything that can go wrong will. When the WWF was still hatching their new round of faces, Bret Hart remained as one of the strongest players on the roster. A gracious face, Hart was content doing what he did best and the federation was content with letting him do it that way. As Hart made his big return from an extended absence, bookers did everything in their power to make fans hate Steve Austin and love the Hitman, but found the masses were aligning themselves with the Rattlesnake. Though Hart didn't like it, long term plans were changed and the notorious double switch went down at Wrestlemania 13, cementing Austin as the firm face and Hart his hated opponent. The WWF listened to their fans, and it paid off in spades.
In a similar situation over in WCW, however, a young Chris Benoit found himself the recipient of more and more vocal a section of that viewing audience. Despite tremendous feuds with Diamond Dallas Page, Raven and Booker T, as well as a successful run with the Horsemen, the bookers refused to acknowledge Benoit with any sort of memorable singles push. While crowds became more and more vocal about the Crippler after each match, WCW attempted to keep these cheers at a minimum, all the while pushing the tired Hulk Hogan-dominated main event they'd scripted months in advance. While Benoit did eventually achieve the alliance's highest honor, the WCW title, his view of the company had been jaded by so many years of burial and mistreatment. It truthfully poisoned what could have been one of the key moments in their comeback effort, the realization of a new savior.
Without question, the WWF could have never made the comeback they did without the aid of Steve Austin. He changed the landscape of wrestling, his brash personality striking a chord with audiences everywhere and directly attributable for the "Attitude" era of wrestling. Perhaps the most interesting part of this story, though, is that it was never supposed to happen. In the months leading up to King of the Ring '96, the event which catapulted Austin to national notoriety, booking plans called for HHH to win the tournament and move on to the spot Austin later filled at the top of their new roster. Fate, however, had a different song and dance in mind. When Scott Hall and Kevin Nash departed for the greener pastures of WCW, it wasn't without a slap to the face of their former employer. The two broke kayfabe, joining in with Shawn Michaels and Helmsley for a group hug, center ring, at their last scheduled appearance for the promotion. Since Hall and Nash were out of the promotion and Michaels was the residing champion, Helmsley felt the full brunt of the punishment for this show of unity against the system. The carpet was yanked out from under his feet, and his push was almost instantly disintegrated with Austin playing the part of his last second replacement. With nothing expected of him, Austin grabbed the ball and ran through the endzone with it. He believed in the company and jumped at the chance to make it competitive once again.
In WCW, though, Chris Benoit was the one placed by fate in a similar position. When an untimely injury forcing the current champion, Bret Hart, to abandon the World Title, (and later his career) Benoit found himself suddenly thrust into a position he was never meant to hold. With nothing expected of him, Benoit took the World Title in a match with Sid and knocked out a heartfelt speech afterwards that hinted at big things in the future and a near instant establishment as the be-all, end-all of pro wrestling excellence. Things seemed pretty similar to Austin's situation, with one glaring exception; the years of misuse had destroyed Benoit's faith in what the company could be. He'd become disenfranchised because of a silly past mistake on WCW's part, and left the promotion not one week after accepting its greatest honor. Though not through the same means as Austin, Benoit could have shaped the landscape of wrestling even further, re-igniting the actual sport of things through his superb grasp of technical wrestling and inspiring his peers to do the same. Instead, Benoit seems to have introduced that renaissance to the WWF and its workers, as evidenced by the shift in emphasis over these past couple weeks (specifically, the Benoit / Austin and Angle / Austin matches).
In many ways, the WWF of 1998 was thinking globally, shaping the future in their own image, while WCW remains a pale imitation of where the WWF's already been, what their competition has already done. Case in point: the creation of Degeneration X vs. the creation of the Misfits in Action. DX was a real life situation, employing the established heat of the backstage politics stirred up by the Clique and the obviously close personal relationship between HHH and HBK. Fans had for the most part seen right through Michaels' alleged knee injury that kept him out of action at Wrestlemania 13, and had begun to boo him as a result. The WWF heard this reaction, turned him heel, and thus was born DX. The MIA, in comparison, are a hollow attempt at the same sort of situation. No real emotions come forward during a Hugh Morrus speech, nor do crowds have any legitimate reason to love them or loathe them. While the MIA are a wrestling angle in soul, DX in its prime was a backstage situation that spilled over into the world before the cameras.
It was the same story with the "evil" Mr. McMahon and the "evil" Vince Russo. Fans absolutely hated McMahon for what he had done to Bret Hart, and the WWF amplified these boos by presenting him on television as the jackass promoter. I have vivid memories of my freshman year here at Ball State University (during which I was an adamant WCW junkie) of my neighbor in the dorms, Kieth, running into my room shouting "Why is Stone Cold gonna fight Vince McMahon?!?" The interest was unbelievable, and it's a huge part of why the WWF maintained their audience after the Montreal incident... which leads me to the next point on my checklist.
Nothing attracts a crowd faster than controversy. McMahon realized this with the Bret Hart conspiracy theory, as ratings on Raw jumped a full point the night after the '97 Survivor Series. They had the attention of the masses, and they rode that for all it was worth. The Montreal call brought in the viewers, but the ongoing superiority of the WWF storylines kept them tuned in to USA. WCW has also enjoyed a taste of this several times during their current slump. From the return of Ric Flair in late 1998 to the public expulsion of Hulk Hogan at this year's Bash at the Beach, it isn't the controversy side of things that WCW has yet to grasp: it's the consistent quality in their programming. Had Nitro showcased an absolutely stellar set of feuds and angles those nights, they'd be riding high today. Instead, they remain deep in a rut.
While building the legacy of "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, the WWF paid a tremendous price, losing Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart forever. After playing their cards at all the wrong times, who's left on the roster that WCW can afford to lose today? Though it's obvious that WCW is slowly beginning to grasp what cost them the lead in the wrestling industry all those years ago, I fear the lessons themselves are still a long way from being learned. For the sake of the viewers and the industry as a whole, I hope they learn them soon, quickly and concisely. Because it's never much fun to watch a blowout.
until next time, i remain